I was five years old when I began wearing eyeglasses to correct my vision, and the experience was a game changer. For the first time in my life objects that had previously appeared fuzzy and indistinguishable, now became sharp and identifiable. I could see individual leaves on the trees and recognize words written on the blackboard in school. It was not only a thrill, it was an enormous benefit to see the world so clearly.
After that first amazing experience of clarity, however, my glasses often got dirty. A common accumulation of grease, dust and debris easily rendered my glasses ineffective. Many times I didn’t even realize how compromised my glasses had become until I found myself unable to read some fine detail in a book. Once I cleaned the lenses, however, everything appeared in sharp focus again.
When I started practicing meditation years later, I again began to notice that my vision and associated decision-making abilities were compromised. But this time, I didn’t need eyeglasses. I had a perfectly good pair of clean glasses with an up-to-date prescription. Yet, in many situations I felt as though I were driving an automobile with a dirty windshield. It was hard to see clearly and rather unsettling to deal with the world from such an inaccurate and unreliable perspective.
As my meditation practice deepened, I began to contemplate what it is that obscures our vision. What are all those metaphoric dead bugs, pine needles, dust, dried leaves, bird droppings and road spray that cover the windshield of the human mind? Like you, I could cite karmas, parents, siblings, children, illness, work, habits, likes and dislikes, but all those seemed more like symptoms than causes.
Finally, through AMI MEDITATION and its allied disciplines, I discovered the culprits. It seems that a great number of undesirable concepts and attachments are hiding out in the dark recesses of our unconscious mind. And like some anonymous internet hacker half-way around the world, these mischievous evil-doers seem to revel in compromising our ability to see accurately, and to know what to do and what not to do. Of all the unconscious factors I examined, the most insidious force that I discovered blocking my view and skewing my perceptions was a sense of lack. A lifetime of false (but convincing) input from the senses, ego, unconscious mind and culture has most of us hypnotized into believing that “I” am a separate, individual—living in a vast universe of objects and relationships that have the power to bring “me” lasting happiness and security. And motivated by this popular, but erroneous perspective, we human beings scramble to fulfill as many of our desires as possible and thus become happy.
Unfortunately, when we act on this faulty philosophy, just the opposite occurs. Every time we fulfill a desire, we do experience a short-term gratification, but we also begin to fear that we might lose what we have. And if our desires are thwarted, we experience anger. If anger cannot fulfill our desires, we repress the anger and experience depression. The actual consequences of such a defective paradigm (based on the inherent limitations of the human brain and senses) are two-fold. First, we remain enslaved to the delusion that as an individual, “I” lack. Second, in the face of our failure to find unbounded happiness and security from desires fulfilled, we often try to compensate ourselves through imprudent lifestyle choices. We take a literal or imaginary vacation by having too much or too little food, sex, sleep or self preservation (in the form of fear or worry) that soon returns us to our familiar state of unhappiness and insecurity.
But through a consistent meditation practice, we can recognize that our sense of lack is birthed from our reliance on external objects and relationships that are subject to change. For example, let’s assume that one day, when feeling insecure, we decide to purchase securities. That makes us feel happy and secure when the stock market goes up, but when the market goes down and the stocks lose their value we again feel insecure and unhappy, and our sense of lack resurfaces.
The good news is that, as Yoga scientists, we learn to consider every relationship as a means for unbounded happiness and security. Therefore, an emotional roller coaster ride like the stock market can actually help us realize that what we lack is always variable. I lack a new iPhone. I lack grandchildren. I lack a swimming pool. I lack my boss’s respect. What we lack is always unique to us at a certain time and place in our life, and differs from person to person and culture to culture. And as long as we require a crutch to be happy and secure, a sense of lack and insecurity will always remain. Therefore, what “I” lack is not the problem. The real problem is that “I” believe that “I” lack. Our problem is not that we lack something; rather, it’s not knowing that we do not lack anything. As the ancient yogis would say, “We are the fullness, bliss and wisdom of pure consciousness having a human experience in time and space through a limited mind-body-sense complex.” And as we use this novel paradigm to experiment with Inner Wisdom, we can begin to see that the mind’s dirty windshield is actually the whole problem, and that a clean windshield is the solution. Just as Paul wrote in First Corinthians, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then [when we purify the windshield of the mind] we will see everything with perfect clarity.”
Armed with this new realization we can begin cleaning the dirty windshield of the mind. For that profoundly rewarding effort, the following five tools can be very helpful.
The breath is the physical manifestation of the mind. Although we cannot will the mind to calm down, we can establish a serene, contented and creative mind through conscious regulation of the breath. When the breath is full and even, without jerks, pauses or sounds, the mind becomes an asset to daily living rather than a liability.
The breath and the mind are inextricably linked—like two sides of the same coin. Through your own personal experience you may already know that your respiration always reflects the state of your mind. The rhythm, rate and capacity of your breathing changes instantly in reaction to your thoughts, desires and emotions. When emotional shock or strain is experienced in life, you can immediately observe its effects on the breathing process. When you are tense or surprised, you may hold your breath. When you are stressed, the breath may become rapid or shallow. When the breath begins to flow freely, smoothly and silently through the nostrils without any jerks, pauses or sounds, the mind experiences a state of joyful and calm stillness and creative confidence. This mental stillness allows the mind the clarity of vision to know what is to be done and what is not to be done.
The goal of the science of breath is to re-establish the body’s natural respiratory pattern—not by shallow breathing from the upper chest, which reflects an abundance of unaddressed stress, but rather, by consciously employing the diaphragm, one of the body’s strongest muscles, in your breathing process. A full and smooth diaphragmatic breath is composed of three distinct, yet seamlessly integrated phases of inhalation: abdominal, thoracic and clavicular through the use of the belly, rib cage and collarbones.
To feel the first phase of proper diaphragmatic breathing, imagine a balloon positioned just behind your navel. When you inhale, the balloon inflates and your belly gently swells outward. When you exhale, the imaginary balloon deflates and the belly contracts gently. Physiologically, the diaphragm, in its resting state, resembles the dome of an open parachute. The abdominal phase of proper inhalation begins when the diaphragm contracts downward flattening into a disk, thereby expanding the thoracic cavity and causing the belly to protrude slightly. Exhalation then follows more or less automatically when the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its resting dome shape in exhalation, compressing the lungs.
A complete yogic breath, however, is more than the mere use of the abdomen and diaphragm. As the inhalation continues in its second (thoracic) phase, the belly expands outward and the lower ribs expand upward and forward, enlarging the thoracic cavity further and increasing the circumference of the chest. The lungs fill this increased space, permitting oxygenation of blood in the lower lungs. In the final phase of the inhalation the clavicles (collar bones) rise slightly, allowing oxygen into the upper portions of the lungs.
When all three phases of diaphragmatic breathing are integrated into one continuous motion, the diaphragm muscle gently massages the vagus nerve. This stimulation diminishes the survival instinct of fight, flight or freeze orchestrated by the brain’s amygdala and hypothalamus. In effect, diaphragmatic breathing reduces the call for adrenaline throughout the body, and instead of repeatedly reacting in a heightened state of alert and stress, the mind experiences a relaxation that enables us to act calmly and creatively. When you establish a full, smooth and quiet diaphragmatic breath through the nostrils as your default breath, the windshield of the mind is automatically, but temporarily, cleaned of its problematic debris.
In any new endeavor we need a guide to help direct our energies toward the attainment of our chosen goal or desire. In the transformative science of Yoga, the mantra is our leader.
For every action there is an equal reaction. When we continually give our attention to the mantra, there will be an effect. We may not be aware of the mantra’s effect immediately, but its subtle power is continuously stored in the potential state––available to us when it is most needed. When listened to regularly throughout the day (japa) and in seated, silent meditation, the mantra reduces stress, anxiety and pain; strengthens will power; facilitates the freedom to become an instrument of love, forgiveness and compassion (even in the face of our own fear, anger and self-willed desire); and slowly cleans the obstructing dirt from the windshield of the mind.
A mantra may be a single word or a series of words, usually including the name of the Divine Reality. As a result of giving our attention to the mantra, love, fearlessness and strength are stored in the unconscious mind to help us fulfill the purpose of life. An understanding of the word mantra can be found in its etymology. The word mantra joins the Sanskrit words man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” When used regularly and earnestly, the mantra can help us cross over the turbulence of the mind to the sea of peace and bliss. The mantra is also an instrument that purifies and calms the mind by altering its conditioning. Mantras are most effective when heard mentally from within rather than spoken or perceived through the external auditory sense. Every sound has a form. An oscilloscope is a scientific instrument that visually depicts the shape and design of sound waves. The mantra is considered a subtle seed that will grow into a concrete form through our continued, one-pointed attention. Remember, the mantra represents a perfect harmonic or vibration. In subtle terms, the mantra represents our clarity of vision in an as yet unmanifest form. As we give our full one-pointed attention to the syllables of the mantra, it eventually washes dirt and debris off the windshield.
Every aspect of life requires action. Even inaction is an action. As long as we are alive, we cannot avoid taking actions, and every action has a consequence. Even monks who renounce worldly possessions and relationships to live in a remote monastery must continue to make decisions concerning their own body, breath, senses, thoughts, desires and emotions.
Since there is no escape from performing action, why not choose those actions that cause the least amount of friction in our lives—the least amount of dirt on our mental windshield? A regular meditation practice provides us three essential tools to clean away unwanted debris that causes pain, misery and bondage. The first tool is detachment. Every time we sit for meditation we train the mind to withdraw or detach our attention from the unhealthy habits and concepts that currently render our windshield unserviceable. The second tool is discrimination. Once our mind learns how to detach itself from the litter it has accumulated, meditation trains the mind how to redirect its attention toward its discriminative faculty (buddhi)—to learn which actions can lead us to happiness, health and security. The third tool is will power. The practice of meditation does not eliminate all thoughts from the mind. Meditation simply teaches the mind how to strengthen and employ the muscles of will power to serve our discriminative wisdom rather than the attractive debris presently covering the windshield.
Contemplation: “Who am I?”
The great value of this human life is that it provides both the capacity and the means to end our suffering. Beginning today, and for the rest of your life, contemplate the question “Who am I?” If you are earnest in your effort—allowing consciousness to observe consciousness—the answer will appear, and as it does, your vision will become clarified. Slowly, slowly, you will become a seer—one who sees things as they are and not merely as they appear from behind a clouded windshield.
Whenever there is any form of consternation in the mind, we are reacting to relationships from a limited perspective. It’s a clear indication that the ego—not the real You—is driving the bus. When thoughts, desires and emotions arise in your awareness, do not automatically pursue them with your attention, but rather, inquire: “To whom did this thought arise?” It doesn’t matter how many thoughts arise. As each thought arises, inquire with diligence: “To whom has this thought arisen?” The answer that will emerge is: “To me.” If you earnestly inquire “Who am I?” at this point, the mind goes deeper to consider its Source, and the thought that arose will become less seductive. Seeking the answer to the question “Who am I?” will eventually give rise to the realization that within you—at your core—dwells fullness and bliss, not lack and insecurity.
This dialogue requires attentive introspection. Be sensitive and patient as you consider your feelings and thoughts. Be gentle with yourself, as you would with any good friend. Don’t be judgmental with yourself, and don’t entertain regrets or guilt. When we begin to trust our inner Self, we soon realize that a constantly faithful companion and guide resides within to lead us through all the currents and cross-currents life has to offer.
Buddhi is the name given to the function of the mind that has the power to reflect unerring, inner intuitive wisdom from the superconscious portion of the mind. Buddhi is also known as the conscience, and as the Holy Spirit. When supported by the desires for self-discipline and Self-realization, the buddhi awakens us to a higher state of consciousness that skillfully guides us beyond the unconscious conditioning that litters our mental windshield and prompts our unskillful actions.
When we consult the buddhi within before we act in the world, our discriminating thoughts, words and actions effectively transform the debilitating and contractive power of fear, anger, self-willed desires and unexamined concepts into expansive, positive reserves of energy, will power and creativity. The daily practice of using the buddhi lengthens the space between stimulus and response, teaches us how to discriminate between passing pleasure and perennial joy, and helps diminish our expectations, worries and judgments in every relationship. It clears our mental windshield, focuses the energy of the mind, and motivates us increasingly to utilize our human, rather than our animal resources. As a consequence, we experience a peace of mind that expresses itself as contentment, tranquility, happiness and creativity.
Here’s the take-home message for all of us. It’s not necessary to drive through life and its many challenging relationships with a dirty windshield. That hindrance is not only annoying, it can be terribly dangerous as well. The science, philosophy and practices of Yoga can do something that nothing else can: it provides us access to our own inner, intuitive GPS—global positioning system. When we come to know our Essential Nature as wholeness rather than separateness, the road tar of ignorance that has blinded our vision and impaired our ability to make skillful decisions can be dissolved. When we are no longer dependent on outside sources for direction, our sense of lack simply evaporates, and in its place arise the clarity of vision, imperishable comfort and brilliance of confidence that come only from purified insight.