Weekly Work-In: Week 6 - Getting Past the Ego
One of my teachers, Swami Satyananda, says Rene Descartes got it all wrong when he posited, "I think, therefore I am." This cannot be true in itself, according to Satyananda, because the only way I know "I think" is because some underlying consciousness can observe this process.
It is possible to go through life never being aware of this witness, but if you keep coming back to your yoga mat, a teacher will likely introduce you to this part of yourself sooner or later. In yoga, this layer of the self is known as vijnanamaya kosha, or the wisdom sheath.
What Is the Unconscious Mind and Why Does it Matter?
Vijnanamaya kosha is more fundamental than the mind itself. It is the unconscious mind. This layer is the unconscious mind. Here lies your accumulated wisdom in the form of memories, intelligence, and discernment. Here also is where you can watch your mind thinking. It's a funny and often esoteric concept to watch yourself think, but, if you try it, you will realize it is absolutely possible.
The exercise of watching yourself think is undoubtedly interesting, but does it hold any value? Yogis believe it does. All of our thoughts are colored by our collective past experiences. Yogis have a word for this: samskara. A samskara is a pattern that exists in our mind because of something we have experienced in the past. For example, if the beautiful girls at school were mean to me, I may automatically carry anxiety around beautiful women in my life today. When I meet a beautiful woman, I may immediately start to think, "She must be cruel. She will not accept me." This is a benign example, and some samskaras can run into much deeper and more troubling territory.
The stories of our past can make up our present existence. But, if we get past the mind and into the witnessing consciousness, we can locate the root of these patterns. I can say, "Ah, I see a beautiful woman and my mind automatically goes on the defensive. Why is that?" Then, I can get past this egocentric part of the mind, into the wisdom, and realize I am acting based on a past experience. I can question whether that experience has value in the present situation. If not, I can choose to shut down that part of my unconscious mind and act on better information.
Similarly, I can catch judgments I may have of my physical body or expectations of my performance. Then, I can locate the root of these judgments and expectations. If they do not serve me, I can choose to remove them. Quirky signs on yoga studio doors often say things like, "Please leave your shoes and egos outside." Wouldn't it be great to use this expression - and practice - at all fitness facilities?
Exercises to Get Past the Ego
Here are some suggestions to get beyond the thinking brain and into the witnessing intellect:
- Do something you can't quite wrap your head around. Chant, practice pranayama, or go to a class on a topic you are completely unfamiliar with. Essentially, challenge your mind to enter a new experience. This will get you beyond the samskaras of old experiences and into a new part of your brain. If you're new to these practices, here is a simple one: repeat the word “om” 27 times every single day. Om is the sound of the universe, and it holds no religious meaning. It is a great place to start for those who aren't quite comfortable with chanting. Doing this for a few minutes a day is better for you than sitting for one long session each week.
- Create an image in your mind of your wise self. Perhaps this is an older version of you who has the benefit of omniscience. I picture my wisdom self sitting on a throne high up in the back of my mind with golden light surrounding her body. If you have a hard time cultivating this image of yourself, perhaps see a teacher or guide sitting within you. Throughout your day, when you have trouble controlling the mind, bring your thoughts to this witness. See things from his or her perspective, and notice what changes. You may all of a sudden realize you've had the answer all along.
- Write down the names of every person whom you simply cannot stand. These are your greatest teachers. Realize they are people just like you, but their samskaras and mental codes are likely the exact opposite of your own. Flock to them. We often try to spend time only with those people who we find pleasant and agreeable, reinforcing our mental conditioning. By spending time with people you specifically do not like, you will learn more about yourself.1
- Keep meditating. Sit every day and practice the meditation for mental strength from last week. As you meditate, your mind will become so strong nothing can disturb it. Then, you will naturally begin to dwell in your wisdom self.
If Descartes was wrong, then what is it that allows us to know we exist? Swami Satyananda believes it would be best said, "I am, therefore I am." Not quite as easy to wrap the mind around, but what a beautiful concept.
1. Swami Satyananda Saraswati, "A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya," Yoga Publications Trust, 2004.
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