How to Conquer Your Mind
Overcoming Negative Thoughts and Understanding the Monkey Mind
It's a crazy place in there, I know.
What goes on in our head is something we often struggle to comprehend ourselves. One moment you're thinking about waffles with ice-cream, and the next moment you're in deep philosophical thought about the purpose of your life, and why you became a lawyer instead of an accountant.
Researchers estimate that we have between 35,000-60,000 thoughts running through our heads daily. No one knows for sure, and how would they? But, I think you get it. It’s a big number.
The mind is an amazing tool, but can also be the opposite too. That same mind will tell you that you are worthless and good for nothing, or it will tell you that the reason the person you had crush on stopped talking to you is simply because you're not enough. Ouch, it hurts right?
We don't really know where the mind is located in us (well, I don't for sure, so I won't lie), but to keep it simple, let's just say it's in our head (part of our brain). It's not, but this is easier for us to visualise.
Many philosophers and thinkers have shared profound insights into the mind.
Marcus Aurelius, probably one of the greatest Roman emperors to have lived, said:
You have power over your mind, not outside events.
Realise this, and you will find strength.
- Marcus Aurelius
Similarly, Shri Vasudev Krishna proclaims in the Bhagavad Gita:
The nature of the mind is flickering and unsteady.
But a self-realised yogi has to control the mind; the mind should not control him.
- Shri Vasudev Krishna (Bhagavad Gita 6.26)
I know this, you know this. We all want to control our minds, but we can't. We struggle so much to even understand the thoughts that arise in our minds. They come and go like the ocean waves crashing against the shore.
If you've read my book, or if you follow me on Instagram, you will have heard of my analogy. In that, I compare the mind to a monkey, driving a Tesla (the body), with the passenger (the ātmā - loosely translating to 'soul') accompanying it on this journey of life.
By using this analogy, let us understand how we can begin to tame this monkey, to learn to work with us as a friend, but not as an enemy or kidnapper.
Beliefs Are Everything
From my reading of all major religions, philosophers, and modern psychology and self-help, I have come to see one common pattern of thought when it comes to the mind:
You cannot control what you think, but you can always control how and what you think about what you think.
I know that probably sounds complicated, even if you read it again, but it's basically your judgements and responses. Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher, echoes this in simple terms, "It is not events that disturb us, but our opinions of them."
It isn't what the monkey mind presents to us that disturb us, but what we believe, opine, presume, or conclude about those contents.
Our beliefs not only run us, they run the world. The very fabric of all society, East or West, modern or ancient is beliefs. Beliefs run the world. And it is your core belief system that defines how you behave, as well as who you are. All of these beliefs have been shaped from early on in our life, so much so, we don't even realise how much of our beliefs came to be.
Judgements and responses are beliefs too. All of this determines our 'state of mind'. We can begin to understand our state of mind, and also learn to eliminate negative thoughts, and that is where we go to next.
The Three Modes of Nature
It was a cool evening on the day of English New Year of the year 1820, in a small serene village of Gujarat, India. Seated close to a grand temple, a number of monks and laymen had gathered to hear the talks of a profound and divine individual. The monks were singing devotional songs, with the laymen in chorus.
That individual was Bhagwan Shri Swaminarayan. He raised his hand and said, "Please begin a question-answer discussion."
Most of his talks began this way. Everyone had questions on their mind 200 years ago, everyone has questions on their mind today too. It was on this day that one individual, who could speak the whole Bhāgavatam by heart, by the name of Dinānath Bhatt asked the very question that we are talking about today. Dinānath Bhatt asked:
At times, thousands of thoughts arise, yet they do not leave a lasting impression in the mind. At other times, only an irrelevant thought (think of it as negative or one that doesn't serve us) arises, yet it leaves a strong impression in the mind. What is the reason for this? Also, by what means can one eliminate such disturbing thoughts?
Bhagwan Shri Swaminarayan acknowledged the question, and then goes on to expand on the mind and thoughts. We will look at excerpts that I find relevant for the time being, but you can read the whole discussion here. He answered:
The reason is the influence of the gunas ('qualities', or 'modes of nature'). Thoughts that arise when rajogun is prevalent do leave a lasting impression in the mind. Therefore, the reason some thoughts do leave a lasting impression in the mind and others do not is due to the prevalence of the various gunas.
So there you have it, it's the the modes of nature that determine the state of our mind and our thoughts. I know it sounds complicated, and this is probably something we will go into deeper detail about another time (I will definitely). But, Bhagwan Shri Swaminarayan presents a unique approach to conquering our thoughts:
If an intelligent person reflects and examines his thoughts whenever they arise, he will be able to recognise which guna is predominant in him at that particular time. However, subtle thoughts that arise repeatedly from moment to moment cannot be grasped by anyone.
So, is that it?
Can we never overcome the negative tendencies of the mind?
Are disturbing thoughts something we just have to live with?
Of course not. There is a solution to overcoming negative thoughts and tendencies of the mind. But (excuse the pun here), let's hold onto that thought for a while...