Wherever we teach, one of the first questions we are asked is, “How can I control restless thoughts?” This universal problem was even addressed over 2,000 years ago in the Bhagavad Gita, when Arjuna lamented, “Owing to my restlessness, I’ve achieved no lasting results in the attempts You’ve taught me to steady the mind. Verily the mind is restless, tumultuous, madly stubborn! O Krishna, I consider it to be as difficult to master as the wind.” (Chapter 6:33,34)
Krishna replies, “O mighty-armed Arjuna, the mind is undoubtedly fickle and unruly, but it can be controlled by yoga practice, and by the exercise of mental dispassion.”
Here Krishna is offering some keys to controlling the monkey-mind. Imagine that your thoughts are like a pile of feathers on a table. Above the table is a ceiling fan, whose spinning blades cause the feathers (our thoughts) to scatter. It does little good to chase down individual feathers and return them to the table. All meditators have experienced the frustration of trying to control individual thoughts. Feeling frustrated, guilty, and discouraged, many give up meditation altogether.
Here are three ways to influence the mind:
1) Yoga practice — Techniques usually give us an object (breath, light, sound) on which to concentrate, since the unfocused mind will roam willy-nilly. A reference point is needed so that each time the mind wanders it can be caught and brought back to its task. That is one reason why Paramhansa Yogananda said that “chanting is half the battle.”
2) Dispassion — If your emotions are like nonstick Teflon, those thoughts that do arise will subside quickly. If your emotions are turbulent, try at least to put them aside during your period of meditation. Psychologists have conducted experiments where a subject is asked to meditate and then purposely disturbed, for example by someone loudly opening and closing a door to the room. Longtime meditators quickly return to a concentrated state, while novices remain troubled for as long as ten to fifteen minutes.
3) Controlling the wind — The practice of pranayama, especially Kriya Yoga, controls the energy directly. The best way to keep the thought-feathers on the table is to cut the power to the fan. A great and central teaching of yoga is the three-way connection between breath, prana, and mind. Control any one of the three and you gain control over the others. Since the breath is the most observable, we start there.
When next you sit to meditate, try these three keys: focus, non-attachment, and pranayama. Then, Krishna tells us, “The yogi who has completely calmed his mind, whose passions (rajoguna) are at rest, and who is freed from every impurity truly attains oneness with the Spirit, and supreme blessedness.”