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How does the mind function?

In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali has defined yoga as "control of the fluctuations of the mind-field" (योगश्चित्त-वृत्ति-निरोधः)sutra 1.2. In order to learn how to control the mind-field, it will be helpful to understand what this mind-field is and how the mind functions. In our ancient literature, especially the Vedantic texts, this mind-field is given the name "Antahakarana" (the inner instrument). For ease of understanding, this ‘antahakarana’ is considered to be composed of these four components:

  1. Cognitive mind (manas – मनस्): this is the thinking aspect of the mind; it carries out perception and cognition through the five senses; it does the willing, wishing, desiring; it has the emotions etc. The manas interacts with the intellect and the outside world through the five senses.
  2. Intellect (buddhi – बुद्धि): This is the decision-making element in the mind-field. It discriminates between all the dualities – good/bad, hot/cold, honor/dishonor etc. and helps us make ‘intelligent’ decisions. It interacts with the ego and the chitta.
  3. Ego (ahamkara – अहंकार): Ego or ahamkara, literally the I-maker, is the one that identifies the Self with the mind-body complex and gives me the notion of my individuality. It puts labels on everything that we perceive, whether through the five senses, or something pulled from the memory – labels like good/bad, ugly/handsome, father, mother, rich, poor etc. It is the ego which has all the likes and dislikes. It interacts with the chitta and the intellect.
  4. Storehouse of memories and past impressions (chitta – चित्त): This is where all the memories, past impressions, hidden desires etc are stored. Every action that we do, every thought that occurs in the mind, creates an impression which gets stored in the chitta. These impressions lay in the sub-conscious until a suitable trigger pulls them out and brings them as active content of the mind, called ‘pratyaya’ by Patanjali.

How does it all function together?

Let us take an example which will help us understand how the mind functions. Picture this scenario:

You walk into the kitchen and perceive a smell. The smell leads you to the refrigerator. You open the refrigerator and notice that the smell is coming from a piece of cake. The mind, at this point, is receiving input from the sense of smell, the sense of sight; you touch the cake to find its texture. You even take a small sample and put it in your mouth to get a taste of it. Here is how the decision-making process proceeds.

The mind feeds all this sensual information to the intellect. The intellect has to make a decision what to do with this information. The most obvious choice it has to make is whether to eat the cake or not. The intellect is unable to make an independent decision as it is conditioned to always consult with the ego before making any decision. So it approaches the ego for advise. The ego digs into the memory and pulls out all the information related to this cake from a previous experience. It determines that in the past the experience of eating this cake was a most pleasurable one – the taste, smell, the texture etc – all was just heavenly! So, the ego advises the intellect to go ahead and order the mind to take necessary actions to eat the cake. The intellect puts the final decision on hold for a moment and decides to make some independent investigation of its own. It goes and digs into a different section of the memory and finds more information that needs looking into. It finds out that just a couple of days ago, during a visit to the family doctor, the recent blood work showed high levels of cholesterol in the system. The doctor’s strong advise was to avoid all foods rich in sugar and fat. Now the intellect is in a dilemma as to what the appropriate decision should be since it believes that based on doctor’s advise this cake needs to be avoided. It, however, again goes back to the ego with this new information for more advise. The ego has already labeled this cake as the ‘best thing in the world’. It counter-argues with the intellect saying that one piece of cake cannot kill anyone; after all it is just one piece. Just go ahead and eat it. Poor intellect, being deeply conditioned to follow the advise of the ego, does as commanded.

This was one single instance where the intellect was completely subdued by the ego. Similar situations happen every single day and every day it is the same advise coming from the ego- one piece of this junk food or that junk food cannot harm anyone. We all know the result of this type of behavior. This is the behavior that eventually causes physical ailments like heart problems, diabetes and hypertension etc and even all the mental stresses and strains which manifest as further physical and emotional ailments – depression, anxiety, negative emotions like anger, greed, jealousy etc.

Identifying the problem

Once we study this scenario in detail, we realize that the main problem is the fact that the intellect is completely bound to the ego and is unable to make independent decisions. So, somehow we have to learn how to disengage the intellect from the ego. This is where we turn to Patanjali who has provided us with all the tools that we need to use so that the intellect becomes sharp as a razor’s edge, pure as a pure crystal/gem. These tools are given in the form of the eight limbs of yoga, called Ashtanga Yoga. It is by a regular and dedicated practice of these eight limbs that we can develop a sharp intellect and free ourselves from the clutches of the ego. Once we can do that, then we have a better chance of understanding our true reality which is to recognize that we are in fact nothing but pure consciousness and have no real connection with the entire material aspect of our being which includes this mind-body complex.

After you study the above scenario, try to relate it to various situations in your daily life and see if you can identify the involvement of ego in your day-to-day actions. This will slowly develop a better awareness of the functioning of the mind and then you can take adequate measures to avoid similar involvement of the ego in future situations.

I would love to hear your feedback. Please provide your comments in the comment box below.

1 comment to How does the mind function?

  • mohammed mahmood alfadhly

    A mind (pron.: /ˈmaɪnd/) is the complex of cognitive faculties that enables consciousness, thinking, reasoning, perception, and judgement—a characteristic of human beings, but which also may apply to other life forms.