Restraining the Mind (Śama)

In our ongoing study of the Four Practices (sādhana catuṣṭaya), we now come to the third practice, namely, developing the “six treasures” (ṣaṭ-sampatti). The “six treasures” are really six practices, not one, so why have they been clubbed together? There is a reason for that, but we’ll get to that later. For the present, let us begin with the first of the six treasures—namely, restraining the mind (śama).

The mind is an important part of our personality. While the body has been ours only since the time we were born, the mind—the same mind that we have now—has been with us life after life. In every life we get a new body, we don’t get a new mind. So it makes sense to take greater care of the mind than of anything else. The mind, we are told, is a part of the problem—and, oddly enough, it is also a part of the solution. Listen to this seemingly enigmatic statement from the Amṛtabindu Upaniṣad:

मन एव मनुष्याणां कारणं बन्धमोक्षयो: ।

Mana eva manuṣyāṇāṁ kāraṇaṁ bandha-mokṣayoḥ.

“For human beings the mind alone is the cause of both bondage and freedom.”

What is this mind that binds us but can also free us? To put it simply, the mind is a subtle part of our personality. It is so subtle that no surgeon can find it when the body is cut open. If the body is the visible outer instrument, the mind is the invisible inner instrument (antaḥ=inner, karaṇa=instrument). When this inner instrument weighs the pros and cons of things, it is called mind (manas). When it takes decisions, it is called intellect (buddhi). Often it is viewed as a repository (citta) that stores feelings, emotions, memories, and thoughts. Since it provides the sense of “I,” it is also called ego (ahaṁkāra). These different names merely point to the different functions of the inner instrument. Because it coordinates the information collected by the five senses (of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste), it is sometimes called the “sixth sense.” While “inner instrument” is a more accurate way to describe it, it is popularly called “mind.”

Sometimes we confuse the mind with the brain. That is a mistake. The brain is a part of the body, the mind is not. Since the changes in the mind are sometimes reflected in the brain, it is possible to say that the mind and the brain are “connected” in some way, but the two are not identical. When the brain is damaged, it doesn’t automatically imply a damaged mind, and vice versa. The changes in the brain can be objectively measured, while the changes in the mind can only be subjectively experienced. Being a part of the body, the brain dies upon the body’s death, not so the mind. When a new body is acquired—that is what “rebirth” means—the new brain becomes, so to speak, the physiological counterpart of the existing mind.

Discernment (viveka) separates the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, the real from the illusory—and detachment (vairāgya) takes us away from the bad, the wrong and the illusory. It should have been easy then to embrace the good, the right and the real. But that is not how life necessarily unfolds. The mind plays a major role here. Both discernment and detachment occur in the mind. Their visible results may manifest later through action, but the process starts in the mind. The quality of discernment depends on the quality of the mind. The power of detachment depends on the power of the mind. The mind becomes refined and powerful only when it is disciplined.

Even the process of implementing the results of discernment and detachment starts in in the mind. A mind is generally good at this. But there are times when it doesn’t play by the rule. It gets swayed, it hesitates, it wobbles, at times it adamantly chooses to be recalcitrant. What it needs is discipline. It needs to be held in check when it tries to do what it is not supposed to. The disciplining of the mind, restraining it when needed, is the first of the “six treasures.” In Sanskrit, it is called śama.

What makes it difficult to discipline the mind? It is the powerful presence of mental impressions (saṁskāra). Every action that we do and every thought we think leaves a subtle impression on the mind, a kind of “seed” that has the power to sprout as desire to replay the thought or repeat the action. The mental impressions cannot force us into doing anything, but they sure do influence our decision-making and try to nudge us in the direction of saying yes to desires. Which desires are acted upon and which desire are left alone is decided by the will, which is generally guided by the discernment that precedes it and the detachment that powers it. If the mind is disciplined, it discerns well, its detachment is strong, and the will makes a wise and responsible choice. If the mind is erratic, its discernment lacks focus, its detachment is feeble, and the will becomes wayward.

A life devoted to dharma (derived from Sanskrit dhṛ=to hold, to support) is what makes the mind disciplined. Dharma is a generic term which stands for everything that is right and good. Dharma is what supports and holds together an individual or a group. Living according to dharma means upholding truth through the way we think, the way we speak, and the way we work—and doing this everywhere and at all times. Sri Ramakrishna said that


“truthfulness alone constitutes the spiritual discipline of the Kaliyuga. If a man clings tenaciously to truth he ultimately realizes God. Without this regard for truth, one gradually loses everything.” (Gospel, 312)


Putting this into practice involves not only living honestly and truthfully, but also being kind and considerate while doing one’s duties selflessly. In other words, moral and ethical values should guide our lives. This is spelt out beautifully in the list of moral “restraints” (yama) and “observances” (niyama) found in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (2.30, 32).

The “restraints,” which are qualities essential for moral living, include the following:

  1. “Nonviolence” (ahiṁsa) means we should abstain from injuring any being at any time in any manner. This implies absence of hatred, malice and jealousy expressed through thought, word or action.

  2. “Truthfulness” (satya) means our words and thoughts should be in harmony between what has been seen, heard or inferred.

  3. “Non-stealing” (asteya) means not appropriating—actually or mentally—what we are not entitled to.

  4. “Chastity” (brahmacarya) means sexual responsibility.

  5. “Non-receiving” (aparigraha) means not accepting things if they take away our freedom.


The “observances,” which define moral conduct, include the following:

  1. “Cleanliness” (śauca), both physical (daily bath, healthy food) and mental (freeing the mind from arrogance and greed).

  2. “Contentment” (santoṣa) means being happy with what we have and free from hankering for what is not ours.

  3. “Austerity” (tapas) is the ability to endure hardships and not get upset by physical discomfort.

  4. “Self-study” (svādhyāya) includes both study of spiritual texts and repetition (japa) of mantra.

  5. “Worship of God” (īśvara-praṇidhāna) includes ritual worship and mental worship, as also prayer and meditation.


Striving to follow these moral rules of living and conduct earnestly, day after day, year after year, is the best method of disciplining the mind. One helpful way to do this is to make a set of vows every morning, as a form of self-reminder, and try to live up to them:

  1. Aware of suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to prevent injury to others.

  2. Aware of harm caused by falsehood, I vow to abide by the practice of truthfulness in thought, word and deed.

  3. Aware of pain caused by exploitation, stealing and oppression, I vow to respect the property of others and protect my own as well as others’ freedom.

  4. Aware of damage caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of others.

  5. Aware of weakness caused by greed, I vow to limit my needs to what is essential for a healthy, wholesome life.


We can also affirm our determination every morning to abide by the rules of moral conduct:

  1. I am determined to maintain physical and mental cleanliness.

  2. I am determined to be content with my environment and my situation in life.

  3. I am determined to practice forbearance without complaint and anxiety, and learn to be in control of myself.

  4. I am determined to learn the truth through study and prayer.

  5. I am determined to reach out to the Supreme Being, whose existence defines mine.


Such reminders and affirmations create a strong incentive to live according to dharma. Creating a schedule for the daily chores also helps. The mind is a creature of habit. When we train the mind to do things in a systematic way, it instills discipline and enhances efficiency. Our workspace tends to become neat and tidy when the mind is free from clutter and confusion. A disorderly workplace often betrays a disorderly mind. That’s true with our living spaces as well. When we consciously strive to be disciplined in every aspect of life, it naturally rubs off on the mind.

The first task in spiritual life is to bring the mind under control. There is no magic formula to do this other than persistent practice. Resolutely remaining focused on the ideal and keeping ourselves away from everything that distracts the mind is the practice. The best way to do this is to keep the mind busy doing the things that need doing! For spiritual seekers, that includes their daily prayer, worship, japa and meditation. What could be better than doing all of these at fixed hours with faith and devotion, with regularity and sincerity? What could be better than trying to carry out all of our duties and responsibilities in the spirit of karma yoga? What could be better than trying to be mindful of every thought we think and every work we do?

None of this is easy—ah well, life isn’t easy!—but if we strive earnestly, it is possible to control the mind. The problem is that, if we fail to control the mind, it is the mind who will control us—and we know what that means, for that’s how our life has been, and will be, until we learn the art of taming the mind. A trained and obedient mind is an absolute delight. An indisciplined mind is an invitation to chaos and suffering.

The seemingly impossible task of taming the mind is what baffled Arjuna. He asks Krishna in the Gita (6. 34):

चञ्चलं हि मन: कृष्ण प्रमाथि बलवद्‌दृढम् । तस्याहं निग्रहं मन्ये वायोरिव सुदुष्करम् ॥

Cañcalaṁ hi manaḥ Kṛṣṇa pramāthi balavad-dhṛḍhaṁ

Tasya-ahaṁ nigrahaṁ manye vayor-iva suduṣkaram.


“O Krishna, the mind is indeed restless, turbulent, strong, unyielding. I feel that it is, like the wind, very difficult to control.”


We can easily identify with Arjuna’s experience. Every spiritual seeker knows what struggle with the mind feels like. Krishna acknowledges the difficulty, but also shows us how it is possible to restrain the mind (6. 35):

असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलम् । अभ्यासेन तु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते ॥

Asaṁśayaṁ mahābāho mano durnigrahaṁ calaṁ

Abhyāsena tu Kaunteya vairāgyeṇa ca gṛhyate.


“O Son of Kunti, there is no doubt that the mind is restless and difficult to control. But it can be restrained, O mighty-armed, through practice (abhyāsa) and detachment (vairāgya).”


The way to discipline the mind is clear. It is to (1) live a moral and ethical life, and (2) let go of everything that takes us away from the spiritual ideal. When the mind is thus disciplined, it can be restrained at will. The ultimate truth is beyond the reach of an uncontrolled, indisciplined mind (see Kena Upaniṣad, 1.3). But when the mind is restrained, it becomes a useful instrument, so powerful that it can lead us to the ultimate truth (see Kaṭha Upaniṣad, 2.1.11).

There is symbiosis between the practices of discernment, detachment and restraining the mind. On one hand, discernment leads to detachment and, together, they prepare us for the practice of restraining the mind. On the other hand, a mind that is disciplined deepens discernment and strengthens detachment. These practices depend on one another and each fulfills the others. This holds true for all the Four Practices (sādhana-catuṣṭaya) that we are presently studying.

The next among the “six treasures” is the practice of restraining the senses (dama)—and we will turn to that next time.

from Vedanta Blog - Vedanta Society

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