Mental health and intellect (part 3) – Yoga for the intellect: some important practices


This is the final part on the mental health and intellect series. I have selected some important yoga practices that can be easily incorporated into our daily life for the development and refinement of the intellect.

The intellect aids the mind in the process of healing and restoring the equilibrium of thought and emotion through right understanding. Right understanding can only arise from proper functioning of the intellect in perception (right observation) and reasoning (right thinking). As highlighted in the previous articles (part 1 & part 2), to function properly the intellect needs to be trained and developed through the right means.

The Hindu spiritual practice of Jnana Yoga is a unique system of yoga that lays special emphasis on the science of right thinking, non-judgemental awareness and refinement of the intellect. Therein we find many practices with a methodical approach to develop the intellect and mind holistically. I have selected a few practices for the intellect that are particularly important for mental and emotional well-being.

Have the right attitude to listening – The art of right listening in Jnana Yoga is called sravanam. It has been a tradition for spiritual seekers to approach Vedantic teachers to learn subjects about human nature, mind, ego, consciousness, reality and spiritual transformation through listening to the discourses on Vedanta. The practice requires the listener to cultivate a certain attitude towards listening. One of the vital qualities of a good listener is a sincere desire to listen the speaker completely. The same attitude should be applied in our daily life, whomever we are listening to. The impatient mind rushes ahead with conclusions and reactions even while listening. Many misunderstandings occur and wrong decisions are made in life due to incomplete and impatient listening. Some people hear everything silently but with no real intention to grasp it! When you are listening to someone, say to yourself, “I shall listen completely and carefully before I draw any conclusions.” It should become a habit so that we apply it in all circumstances. That should indeed be encouraged right from childhood.

Make a conscious effort to listen attentively – As we receive new inputs from our external perception, the mind tends to refer to other associated ideas and thoughts in the memory. It can be an associated emotion, experience or even opinion. These memories interfere with the present thought flow communicated by the speaker. It is as if there is a ‘second speaker’ who competes for your attention. Gradually your attention is drawn away from the present. When you are listening, make a conscious effort to follow the sequence of thoughts being communicated. This applies even while reading. Vedanta calls this capacity of the mind to follow a track of thought citta-ekagrata. You should make a resolution to follow through the trail of thoughts from the beginning to the end so that you see things as a whole. Attention can be developed when you train the intellect to watch your own thoughts with a detached attitude. This quality is called vairagya in Vedanta. Detachment is the key quality in watching the thoughts. The attitude of being detached is not without sensitivity and compassion because there is sincerity to understand the present reality wholly. You notice them but you remain unaffected. Every time you find yourself floating in random thoughts, take time out to sit and observe the thoughts with a sense of detachment until the random thoughts settles.

Listen without judging and commenting – This is done by simply putting aside the interpretations and arguments of your mind while listening. The ego seeks to assert its own viewpoint, accepting anything that agrees and rejecting anything that seems to not agree, because the ego is only a manifestation of our attachment to a limited idea, belief, opinion, taste and emotion. You lose the context while judging a subject according to your attachment. Where there is no clarity, the mind will interpret as per your judgements rather than enquire to understand the matter. Some people are so focused on getting their own message out that they completely fail to listen.Do not try to rationalise something while listening. Simply listen receptively. You can practice listening both attentively and non-judgementally in meditation. Close your eyes and start by being aware of the sounds and movements in the environment. Do not label them. Just notice everything. Gradually extend your awareness to your bodily sensations, breath and thoughts. Finally abide in the stillness of your heart while allowing an unconditional awareness of everything. This trains the intellect to listen to your own thoughts and speech in conversation. A watchful awareness of your mental space allows you to maintain an objective presence of mind.

Understand the subject from the speaker’s standpoint – You will not lose anything by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes when you are trying to understand a subject. Regardless of whether the other person’s view is true or false, you need to have the magnanimity to try to understand why things are as they are from where they are. You will discover that it is not always about being right and wrong; instead it is about understanding the context. People refuse to understand things differently because they fear that their viewpoint might change. That shows there is no sincerity in understanding the truth and no motivation to learn and improve. Opening up to different views benefits you by expanding your perspective, deepening your appreciation for differences and providing your mind the space for reconciliation and acceptance. This is the quality that makes you a sympathetic listener. This quality is equally essential to resolve conflicting mental urges and thought patterns and to finding inner peace. When there is mental conflict and agitation, there is not something to do, there is something to understand.

Develop the ‘witness consciousness’ in all perception and thought – Being in a witness consciousness (witness attitude) refers to taking the position of a detached and non-judgemental observer in the perception of both the world and mind. It is called sakshi bhava in the Advaita Vedanta tradition. It is the ability to witness what we are thinking, feeling or saying without judging and labelling it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It also means having our attention abiding in the awareness of the present moment. Opposed to it, is to be identified with the ideas and emotions of our mind, memory and ego and losing our awareness in the thoughts of the past or future. The intellect needs to be trained to take the witness position. The practice of stepping out from the ego and thought flow and to remain a witness is fundamental to support all the practices mentioned above and even more so to develop non-judgemental perception. The meditation practice mentioned earlier is very helpful here too. You can also do breath-observation (prana vikshana) for 10-15 minutes while taking breaks during the day. Develop your sakshi bhava by incorporating attention and presence of mind on your food and taste while eating, on the touch of water while showering, on the movement of your body while walking and in many other daily activities.

Be open to learning something new and to unknown possibilities – While knowledge is infinite, to acknowledge that our individual knowledge is always conditioned to limited time and memory is wisdom. Maintain the attitude of the seeker of Truth, the sadhaka – who is always willing to learn something new about life and is always seeking to understand life deeper from any person, even from a child. The possibilities in life that we can think of are limited to our memory yet the universe is an infinite field of possibilities. Drop the notion that “I know all that needs to be known.” Have a childlike wonderment while observing. Say to yourself, “Regardless of who I am and what I know, I shall empty my mind now so that I can receive more from the universe.”

Dedicate yourself to lifelong self-study – Just as we need food to nourish the body every day so too we need good thought-food to nourish the intellect every day. Self-study here refers to a special Hindu practice called svadhyaya. It is not merely reading any subject, although reading is always a healthy habit. Svadhyaya is the systematic personal study of one’s own self to which one should allocate time daily, at least 15 minutes. It is about dedicating yourself to being better every single day. Jnana yogis would study the Vedic scriptures and Vedantic texts that discuss subjects about the mind, human nature, action, life, yoga, consciousness and reality. You read a little, perhaps just one verse, of a text and go on reflecting upon the significance throughout the day whenever possible. The best work for the study of one’s own self and life is undoubtedly the Bhagavad Gita. A good commentary is always helpful. You can also study of the works of Vedantic teachers like Swami Vivekananda, Swami Chinmayananda, Ramesh Balsekar, Ramana Maharishi and many others, including from other wisdom traditions like those of the Buddha, Lao Tzu and so on. Books on self-improvement and personal development can also be a great exercise for the intellect. Do not just read and be quick to reject or accept anything. Reflect on the essence of what you have read with sound reasoning and objectivity until you have clarity. Observe, explore and experience what you have understood within yourself and in your life. This is the way to make the knowledge yours. This is the way to practice svadhyaya.

Question your ideas and thoughts – In these modern times, we live in a society that questions the sense and validity of almost everything; be it science, politics, religion, etc. To have doubts is healthy but it is only meaningful and helpful to you if you are willing to pursue those doubts till you dispel them with clarity, otherwise it is only a game of the ego. Enquiry is the function of the intellect. Enquiry is the greatest tool by which mankind has achieved great understanding in all fields of knowledge, whether philosophy, science, logics, art and so forth. Having said that, Vedanta asks us to also direct our enquiry into our own minds and self. This is called vichara. When you question your ideas, beliefs, attachments and even pride with an intention to understand and validate its truth, you then truly embark on an intellectual and spiritual transformation. This alone makes someone truly spiritual.

Embrace change – Change is the only condition for evolution. Some old ideas may have served you at one time but when they outlive their purpose, you will have to be bold enough to take on new ideas. Clinging to the old thinking patterns will eventually harm you. Be open to everything and be attached to nothing. This is the attitude that creates a flexible mind that is capable of change. Mind is nothing but thoughts and thoughts can be changed! Swami Vivekananda says “You must remember that humanity travels not from error to truth, but from truth to truth; it may be, if you like it better, from lower truth to higher truth, but never from error to truth.”

Promote mental tranquillity – The Bhagavad Gita says ‘samatvam yoga ucyate’ – yoga is equanimity of the mind. A tranquil mind is a mind that is available for you. It is available for you to apply the intellect in studying, listening, creating, visualising, reasoning, reflecting and contemplating. It is available for decision making and problem solving. The intellect can only function effectively if the mind is available. A disturbed mind will obstruct right thinking. Do not draw conclusions and take actions while your mind is agitated. Allow the mind to settle down before thinking about any matter. Allocate a few minutes several times daily to withdraw the mind from activities and to settle down within. You can achieve mental withdrawal and calmness by observing the sky, the flow of your breath or the flow of the river or ocean waves. For some, chanting mantras helps.

Reason independently – Right thinking is independent thinking. It means applying that which you have heard or read to proper reasoning and reflection, which are independent of the judgements and biases of your individual beliefs, attachments and ego until you have clear understanding. The mind will attempt to colour the context in its favour but if you practice all the above mentioned, you will have awareness of the pertinent thoughts apart from the gurgling of the ego, emotion and biases. This process of reflection is called mananam in Jnana Yoga. Vedantic seekers are required to reflect deeply into the subjects that they had listened to and read and even to question one’s own understanding until all doubts are cleared and firm clarity is established. Apply the same principle to all matters you encounter in life. Some people are so attached to ideas they have held from childhood that they choose to not let them go even though they may realise that those are not reasonable any more. If you sincerely enquiry into the worth, benefit and negative effects of the justification of your biases and conditionings, you will discover the nonexistence of its value. That will empower you with the courage to let go of unwanted things.

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