How is the mind influenced in Yoga?17 min read

This is a question, not only of great interest theoretically, but also of great practical importance. The life of the whole of mankind is conditioned by the thought of mankind. In the modern world we have become increasingly conscious of the ways in which our minds are being influenced by interested parties. Politicians and newspapers are continually trying to mould public opinion. In the totalitarian states, like the Nazi regime and the communist dictatorship, we see the attempts to subjugate the mind of the population by the ruthless application of so-called conditioning techniques. And many of our Western liberal writers have foreseen the day when man’s mind will be entirely manipulable by the dictatorship of a few tyrants who control the scientific means of moulding our thoughts and opinions. Aldous Huxley foretold just this state of affairs in the 1930’s in his novel Brave New World; and more recently George Orwell painted perhaps an even more horrific picture in Animal Farm and 1984. There are a host of Western writers, like Kafka and others, who have dwelt on the same theme. But these are all phantasies and works of fiction. What we want to know is how far is the mind in- fluenceable here and now? How far are we the masters of our own instruments?

Yoga is very intimately concerned with the mind and it tells us how it is that the mind is influenced and how it is that we can gain control of the mind and turn it from a potential instrument of subjection into an instrument of freedom and peace. Many thousands of years ago the Yogis were already teaching in the Upanishads that the mind will make a slave of you unless you become its master.

What is it then that influences the mind? Just think for a minute of the meaning of the word ‘influence.’ It means ‘something flowing in.’ All through our life there is a continuous stream of impressions, sensations and suggestions flowing into the mind, and the mind, like a sponge, takes on the quality of those suggestions and is influenced by them. We are all intrigued by the phenomena of hypnosis, in which the hypnotist can suggest to the hypnotised subject, for instance, that there are people sitting in empty chairs or that they have suddenly become a baby again, or that they are playing a piano when there is no piano there, and the hypnotised subject will act exactly as if those suggestions were true, apparently accepting them as real and behaving in a way which suggests they are real.

One of the great Yogis of modern times, Swami Rama Tirtha, tells us that to a lesser extent we are all being hypnotised all the time, being hypnotised by the stream of suggestions and impressions which flow into the mind from the outer world, from what the papers say, from the appearance of things as we see them, from the interpretation that we put on those appearances. And he says that the main purpose of the practice of Yoga is to free the individual from the binding nature of those hypnotic influences. We are continually being made subject to wrong ideas and to illusions by the appearance of things, by the suggestions which the impressions give rise to in our mind. It is an inherent weakness of the unspiritualised mind that it is subjected in this way, and this weakness can only be overcome when we transform the mind into a reliable instrument.

In a South African university they divided a number of medical students into three groups and asked them if they would co-operate in testing some drugs. To the first group they gave sleeping tablets; to the second group they gave a tranquilliser, and to the third group they gave a pep pill. Well over half of the first group complained of the excessive sleepiness and sluggishness which they felt while they were on the drug, and they were very glad when they came off it at the end of the trial. The tranquillised group did not feel so sleepy but they felt flat and inactive; and many of the group on the pep pills found that they were overstimulated, just as one may be, for instance, when one has drunk too much coffee. It was only after the trial was over that they were told that they had all been receiving identical dummy tablets, none of which contained any drug at all.

Now the astonishing thing is the large numbers in each group who had the expected effect. But there was nothing unusual about this particular group of individuals. Similar ‘placebo effects’ (as they are called) have been repeatedly observed in the same sort of proportions of people in other drug trials elsewhere. In a recent drug trial in this country I remember one of the patients who was also on dummy tablets complaining bitterly that they were making her feel so ill that she had had to stop them. Such is the power of suggestion. These effects are not purely imaginary; they really do occur. The individual may indeed be sleepier or tranquillised or stimulated. But it is due not to any drug, but to the enormous power of suggestion on the human mind.

Dr. Shastri used to tell a story of two Indian youths who got into a fight. One had beaten the other and was on top of him with the second boy underneath him on the ground. The underdog asked the overdog: “Who are you ?” and discovered that he, a Brahmin youth, had been beaten by a Sudra, one of the lowest caste. He at once said: “It’s impossible,” threw the other boy over and in a short time was himself the victor. The only difference was the intervention of his supreme confidence in the superiority of his own caste, inculcated no doubt through long suggestion. We do not believe in the innate superiority of anyone by the simple accident of birth. But the fact remains that the power of the belief, inculcated by suggestion (not one suggestion but the whole milieu in which he lived), had this effect. This is only an illustration of influences which are very real and very active in all our lives. These few examples then demonstrate the immense importance of suggestion and the beliefs it engenders in the everyday life of our mind.

Let us be quite clear about it. Yoga does not say that everything is due to suggestion. Nor does suggestion always act in this direct way. It is quite clear, for instance, that a man can be affected for good or ill by drugs which he does not know that he is taking. It is equally clear, in spite of Mrs. Eddy, that no amount of daily recitation of Coue’s dictum “Every day in every way I am getting better and better,” will cure someone of a malignant growth of which they may be quite unconscious, though it may of course make their last days happier and more confident. But the effect of suggestion on our lives and on how we meet the inevitable circumstances of the environment is immense. Do not all of us envy people with positive, constructive and cheerful temperaments? And success in the world usually goes to those with springs of confidence within them. These are to a considerable extent the result of right suggestion. If we want to strengthen our character, to increase our resistance to the adverse influences which try to subject us and make us feel insignificant and helpless, we need to know how to use suggestions constructively and how to cultivate those influences which strengthen our inner resources.

In this process there are two very important factors according to the Yoga; first of all, strengthening the will through the practice of self-control and conscious living ancT through the meditation practices, and, secondly, examining carefully the quality of the material that we feed into our mind, and selecting the right kind of mental diet. One of the first teachings of Yoga is that we have to become conscious architects of our own personality.

Among Western psychologists William James is at one with the teachers of Yoga in holding that our character is largely determined by the store of mental associations or suggestions which we have laid up in our mind. “The ‘nature,’ the ‘character’ of an individual (he says) means really nothing but the habitual form of his (mental) associations. To break up bad associations or wrong ones, to build others in, to guide the associative tendencies into the most fruitful channels, is the educator’s principal task.” The Yoga would merely add that the principal responsibility for educating the mind rests with the individual himself.

Even an anti-religious thinker like Bertrand Russell believes in this principle of consciously stocking the mind with helpful thoughts. In this connection, a passage of his is worth quoting in extenso: “There has been a great deal of study by psychologists of the operation of the unconscious upon the conscious but much less of the operation of the conscious upon the unconscious. Yet the latter is of vast importance in the subject of mental hygiene and must be understood if rational convictions are ever to operate in the realm of the unconscious. My own belief is that a conscious thought can be planted into the unconscious if a sufficient amount of vigour and intensity is put into it.

Most of the unconscious consists of what were once highly emotional conscious thoughts which have now become buried. It is possible to do this process of burying deliberately, and in this way the unconscious can be led to do a lot of useful work. I have found for example that if I have had to write on some rather difficult topic, the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity, the greatest intensity of which I am capable—(here Russell is incidentally expounding one of the main principles of meditation, viz. concentration, or one- pointed focussing of the mind)—for a few hours or days and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done. Before I discovered this technique, I used to spend the intervening months worrying because I was making no progress. I arrived at the solution none the sooner for this worry and the intervening months were wasted whereas I can now devote them to other pursuits.”

In Yoga even greater importance is given to the daily period of meditation, which establishes within the mind a stream of spiritual thought and awareness, which then goes on behind the daily life.

On the question of the replenishment of the store of impressions in the mind, of how the suggestions influence the mind, Swami Rama Tirtha has something very interesting to tell us. He says that suggestions can act in two quite different ways which he calls ‘suggestion by conduction’ and ‘suggestion by induction,’ on the analogy of the way in which an electric current can pass from one body to another.

Suggestion by conduction
If the suggestion is accepted by the human will, then it passes into the mind directly by conduction, so to speak, as a belief corresponding to that suggestion. This is what happens in hypnosis, where the will is temporarily or partially surrendered to the hypnosist or at least identified with him. This is “suggestion by conduction.’

Suggestion by induction
But many suggestions that we receive in the course of the day we reject out of hand; indeed, more than that, we often react strongly against them and they inspire our opposition. They not only do not create the corresponding belief in our mind; they actually strengthen the contrary idea in us.
This is what Swami Rama Tirtha calls ‘suggestion by induction.’ Where there is no free passage of an electrical current from one conductor to another, as, for instance, between the primary and secondary winding of a transformer, we get the opposite current induced in the other conductor. You have only to read the letters of protest to the B.B.C. after a programme advocating some point of view, to appreciate the importance of suggestion by induction! Hearing a view with which we disagree, whether in the papers or on the wireless, can make us ten times more vociferous in denying it than we were beforehand; and give a new interest to something which we had scarcely thought about beforehand.

The yogic doctrine then is that the mind is a great store-house of suggestion. When influences flow into the mind, they pass from the conscious into the unconscious (called in Yoga the karana sharira) and from there they come forth at a later date in the form of beliefs or urges or impulses. They are, says Swami Rama Tirtha, like post-hypnotic suggestions. If you tell a hypnotised subject in the morning that he will take off his collar at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, he will have an urge at 4 o’clock to take off his collar. And he will not remember why he is doing it. He may even give you a completely reasonable explanation for his action, saying that he is feeling rather hot!

In the same way, all through life, we are subject to a stream of urges and impulses, coming from the unconscious mind which have just this character and which we may rationalise, although we do not always know the real reason for them.

One of the corollaries of this view is that what a man holds to be his own opinions are based to a very large extent on the opinions of those that he has lived with, the qualities, in other words, of the suggestions that he has received.

Only relatively few people, like William Blake, are rebels against the thought of their time. And even their opinions are often induced in reverse by this process of suggestion by induction.

But the great thing that we have to remember is that we are very largely free to choose our mental environment, because it is not conditioned to the same extent as our physical environment is. We may not be able to choose which house we live in, or whether to live in the town or in the country. But we can choose what we attend to with our mind. We can select exactly what we want to think about in our own time of leisure. We can choose the friends that we want to cultivate; we can choose the books that we want to read, and we can choose the kinds of programmes that we want to watch or listen to. Dr. Shastri used to say that, alas, we all too often choose very unwisely and fill our minds with desires, many of which are pernicious and bring nothing but evil. And in books and programmes we all too often follow the crowd and find ourselves immersed in the second-rate taste or the momentary fashion.

Russell says somewhere: “It has become the thing in America for ladies to read or to seem to read certain books every month. Some read them; some read the first chapter; some read the reviews, but all have these books on their tables. They do not, however, read any masterpieces. There has never been a month when ‘Hamlet’ or ‘King Lear’ has been selected by the Book Club. There has never been a month when it has been necessary to know something about Dante. Consequently the reading that is done is entirely of mediocre modern books and never of masterpieces.”

A masterpiece is a work of refined sensibility and refined feeling which deepens our understanding of human nature and widens our vision.

To read the spiritual classics and try and enter into the thoughts and realisation of the saints and Mahatmas widens that vision still further into an entirely new dimension. Because the spiritual teaching goes much further than enlightened common-sense, much further than the aesthetic vision of art and literature. And it tells us something far wiser and far more radical about human nature. It tells us that the most powerful form of hypnotic suggestion which the human mind suffers from is the habit of thinking that the empirical world is the ultimate reality, and that the passing is the eternal.

This hypnotic suggestion implanted in man’s mind by sense perception in the first place and by the instinctual part of his mind, which is a residue from his animal past in evolution, tries to persuade him that pleasure, power and wealth are the be-all and end-all in this life, and that he himself is nothing more than the physical body.

But this is a state of delusion, a state called nescience or avidya by the Yogis, and it does not correspond to the facts. It can only be removed by spiritual knowledge, by clear vision, and this is not something acquired in a moment because the wrong suggestions are deep-seated in man’s psyche and can only be eradicated by careful efforts over a long period.

As a fly cleans its legs from the honey in which it has got entangled, so must a man acquire self-knowledge by eliminating the effects of avidya in his mind, we are told. This is the process of the Yoga.

In the Persian classic, the Masnavi, Rumi says ‘Man thrives on fancy if his fancies are beautiful and if his fancies show anything unlovely he melts away as wax is melted by a fire.’

Our weal and woe depend much more than we realise on what we believe, rather than on the circumstances of our life.

You will remember the story told by Homer of the ship of Theseus returning from his voyage to Crete where he had slain the Minotaur. The king had made him promise before he went that, if he had been successful, he would replace the black sails of the ship with white sails. Theseus was successful but as he came home, he forgot to change the sails, and King Aegeus, looking out from the rock of the Acropolis in Athens, saw the ship in the distance coming over the horizon with the black sails. He thought that Theseus had been slain and he threw himself from the rock.

A parallel to this story is used in one of the yogic classics— Panchadashi, to illustrate that what really causes the sufferings of an individual is often what he believes rather than what is actually the case, and it gives the instance of the man, like King Aegeus, whose son is really alive but who believes him to be dead. Such a man suffers all the grief that he would suffer if his son had really died. Whereas the man whose son has died but who does not know it, does not suffer so long as he remains ignorant of it.

In the words of Milton “the mind is its own place and of itself can make a hell of heaven and heaven of hell.”

This is not to say that we can alter the circumstances by imagining better ones; or that we can imagine things to be rosy when they are desperate. But our attitude towards the circumstances, and the way we meet the difficulties in life is what determines our weal and woe, and determines the quality of our life and whether it is successful or unsuccessful, whether it is a satisfying life or not; and this depends to a great extent on what we have made of our mind, on what as architects we created as a personality.

Rumi says “If amidst snakes and scorpions God keeps you with the fancies that are spiritually fair, the snakes and scorpions will be friendly to you because that fancy is the elixir which transmutes your copper into gold. Patience is sweetened by fair fancy since the fancies of relief from pain have come before the mind. That relief comes into the heart from faith; weakness of faith is despair and torment.”

In this way, the Yogis tell us, the secret of turning the mind into a friend converts the world also into a source of delight, and no longer something which subjects man and makes him a slave.