The purpose of yoga is to yoke the mind. Put simply, the goal is to lasso the beast and gain control over its nonsense. This requires focus, or concentration as a spiritual practice. That is yoga.
The Modifications of the Mind
Early in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes the five “modifications” of the mind. They are the ways in which the mind plays tricks on us—or tries to.
The first modification—right knowledge—may not sound tricky, but it can be. We’d want our knowledge to be right. But the struggle to discern right knowledge from wrong knowledge can be a challenge we can get carried away with! By seeking too much knowledge, we also risk being misinformed. We can be mistaken about many things, especially when we use the limitations of language in our attempt to know.
Things aren’t always as they seem. Patanjali warns us that our minds will often prove unable to discriminate one thing from another. Have you ever misinterpreted something someone said? Or perhaps you’ve witnessed an event and drawn the wrong conclusion about what you saw. When we practice concentration as a spiritual practice, we learn when to refrain from drawing conclusions.
The third modification of the mind Patanjali refers to is our ability to use and understand words. Verbal delusion is a distraction of the mind, because words can be misunderstood. It’s always good practice to be sure we have the facts before we let our minds dictate our emotions.
Patanjali lists sleep as one of the five modifications of the mind. I don’t know about you, but I find sleep refreshing and restorative. Why, then, does Patanjali consider it a trick of the mind? Well, if you’ve ever woken up in a panic from a nightmare or puzzled over the meaning of a dream, you have a clue. Dreams are great tools for unraveling psychological blocks, but when we have and remember many dreams, it may be a sign that our mind has more control over us than we do over it. So, it’s not sleep itself, but memories of dreams that is the challenge. Which brings us to the fifth modification of the mind.
Our memories can certainly play tricks on us. On the other hand, some of our memories are accurate. How can we know the difference? Even accurate memories can be a problem if they trigger unwanted emotions. Remember what that bully did to you in high school? Are you angry? Will that anger become chronic? Will you take it out on those you love, or use it to create a wall between yourself and others? When we use concentration as a spiritual practice, we learn to let memories go so they don’t affect us in the present moment.
Now that we’re aware of the many ways in which our minds can interfere with our ability to be peaceful, spiritual beings, we are ready to learn the techniques of yoga. That is, we can learn concentration as a spiritual practice and begin to overcome the distractions of the mind.