The image to the right is a photo of a poster I took with my cell phone, during my recent stay at Kripalu Yoga center. The poster was hung in a stairwell between my room and the dining hall, so I had a chance to look at it repeatedly as I walked from my room to meals. The question came into my mind again and again: Is yoga about ceasing the fluctuations in the mind?
While I have deep respect for both Kripalu and the Yoga Sutras, I can’t help but feel this translation of Yogas chitta vritti nirodha (Sutra 1.2) can be misconstrued to mean that in yoga one is trying to achieve a mind free of thoughts and emotions. This belief creates a lofty goal that it can not only set us up for
failure,but put our minds in a state of overwhelm and self doubt I have many students say to me “meditation is not for me, because my mind is too busy.”
The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, speaks to this:
“Many people believe that when you are calm, you should not have a thought, when you are tranquil you should not have a thought, when you are in peace you should not have any thoughts or emotions. This is wrong. This is a projection or desire based on ignorance. When one is calm, when one is tranquil, when one is in peace, the mind doesn’t stop producing thoughts. The mind doesn’t stop producing emotions. The thoughts are not the trouble. The emotions are not the trouble. (The trouble) is created by ones own confusions of not knowing how to relate to the thoughts or emotions themselves. When the mind becomes tranquil and clear (through meditation) thoughts can come as a visitor and leave as a visitor- a peaceful visitor- nothing other than a peaceful visitor”.
Perhaps our practice is about changing our relationship to our thoughts, rather than ceasing the thoughts all together. Our practice opens us to the possibility for thoughts and emotions to happen, without embodying them, resisting them, or ingnoring them. Below is a poem that I think helps animate the attitude we can take in our practice. The poem is called “The Little Duck” and it was published in 1947 in the New Yorker by Donald Babcock:
Now we are ready to look at something pretty special.
It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf.
No, it isn’t a gull.
A gull always has a raucous touch about him.
This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over.
There is a big heaving in the Atlantic,
And he is part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher.
He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is.
And neither do you.
But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you. He sits down in it.
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.
That is religion, and the duck has it.
He has made himself a part of the boundless, by easing himself into it just where it
I think our practice is less about stopping the fluctuations of the mind, and more about “riding the swells” of our mind and emotions the way the little duck does. Through inward drawn attention, we can see that it is the nature of mind to think, to have fears and worries- just as it is the nature of the Atlantic to swell. The very belief that our thoughts should cease during meditation and yoga can lead to a cycle of self judgment and trepidation around the practice. Instead, we can be the calm witness of our thoughts and emotions; bringing a warm, yet detached energy to our mind states as they fluctuate. As we become more able to ride the swells of our mind, so we will build the strength to ride the changing currents of our lives as well.