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What causes fluctuations of the mind? – the Five Vrittis

"How hard it is to control the mind! Well, it has been compared to the maddened monkey. There was a monkey, restless by his own nature, as all monkeys are. As if that were not enough some one made him drink freely of wine, so that he became still more restless. Then a scorpion stung him. When a man is stung by a scorpion, he jumps about for a whole day; so the poor monkey found his condition worse than ever. To complete his misery a demon entered into him. What language can describe the uncontrollable restlessness of that monkey? The human mind is like that monkey, incessantly active by its own nature; then it becomes drunk with the wine of desire, thus increasing its turbulence. After desire takes possession comes the sting of the scorpion of jealousy at the success of others, and last of all the demon of pride enters the mind, making it think itself of all importance. How hard to control such a mind!" – Swami Vivekananda

This famous quote from Swami Vivekananda sums up the state of our mind – incessantly restless! There is constantly something or the other happening in the mind – thoughts, worries, anxieties, likes, dislikes, variety of emotions, negative feelings, positive feelings, planning, scheming …. and the list can go on. The change in the mind is continuous. This constant change or fluctuation is what has been termed a "vritti" by sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.

If you recall, the definition of yoga according to Patanjali is Yogash-chitta-vritti-nirodhah or "the ability to calm the fluctuations of the mind is defined as yoga".

Patanjali has put all these fluctuations under five broad categories:

वृत्तयः पञ्चतय्यः क्लिष्टाक्लिष्टाः॥५॥

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vRuttayaH pa~jchataiyaH kliShtaaklishtaaH (sutra 1.5)

"There are five kinds of mental modifications which are either painful or painless."


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pramANaviparyayavikalpanidrasmRutayaH (sutra 1.6)

"They are right knowledge, misconception, verbal delusion, sleep and memory."

The five vrittis defined in this sutra are:

  1. Pramana (right perception)
  2. Viparyaya (wrong perception)
  3. Vikalpa (imaginary perception)
  4. Nidra (deep, dreamless sleep)
  5. Smriti (memory)

These vrittis are the five ways we can have our mind disturbed. These vrittis can be either "painful (klishta)" or "not painful (aklishta)’, as given in sutra 1.5. Painful vrittis are caused by ‘kleshas (afflictions) (sutras 2.3-2.9)’ and cause further ‘kleshas’ thus leading to accumulation of Karma and continuous bondage . Unafflicted or non-painful vrittis are driven by ‘sattva’ guna and help cleanse the mind of past impressions (sanskaras). Impressions (samskaras) are the intangible and inactive state of vrittis which are hidden at the sub-conscious level. Vrittis, on the other hand, are tangible and active outcome of samskaras.

Pramana (right perception)

Right perception is based on direct perception, valid inference or verbal testimony (sutra 1.7).

Direct perception (pratyaksha)

In direct perception (pratyaksha), the vritti is produced in the mind when an object is perceived through the five senses . This perception determines the ‘specific’. All the senses must experience the object the same way at all times. For example, if I’m looking at Scott, I know I’m looking with my open eyes and I can recognize his face, due to memory. I go into my memory and try to create a match between his facial image and all the millions of other images I have in my mind. It’s a very fast super computer which is doing a pattern matching. Then when I do the pattern matching, and there is a match there, I start reading the labels around that match, and that’s where the label says it’s Scott’s image. There may be other pieces of information associated with this memory. All that relates to direct perception.

inference (anumana)

Through inference (anumana) one cognizes the generic nature of objects perceived previously through other means. An example of inference would be that I am looking out the door and I see light on the ground. I cannot see the sky. But through inference based on my previous knowledge I know that the sun is shining in the sky. I cannot see the sun from here, but I can infer that knowledge. That’s called anumana, or inference.

Verbal testimony (agamaH)

Verbal testimony (agamaH) is the vritti of acquiring the knowledge through words spoken by an accomplished, trustworthy person who is known to have seen or inferred the subject matter . It includes knowledge revealed through scriptures – like the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras etc.

Misconception (viparyaya)

Misconception (viparyaya) is illusory knowledge based upon what is other than itself (sutra 1.8). It is misconception because it can be refuted, contradicted and annulled by correct cognition . For example, someone with double vision may see two moons. However, this can easily be refuted by the sight of a single moon by others who have good vision. This perception is caused by ignorance about the true reality of the object being perceived. An example that is usually given in the spiritual literature is the “snake in a rope” – you are walking on the street in late evening when there is almost no light. You see something on the ground which looks like a snake to you and you start running away in fear. Now, another person who happens to have a flashlight walks by. When the object is seen in this light, it turns out to be a rope and not a snake.

When applied to the mind, it is the darkness of ignorance due to which we fail to understand true reality. Only when the light of wisdom (pranja) shines through do we begin to distinguish real from unreal.

Fantasy (imaginary perception)

Fantasy (imaginary perception), empty of substance, is caused by mere words and concepts (sutra 1.9). This vritti is not a result of correct cognition or Inference. It is only driven by words without an actual object being associated with them. For example, the word ‘time’ is not an object but creates a vritti – concept of time, when heard . Most abstract nouns – love, hatred, compassion etc. belong to this category. Each one of these words when heard creates a vritti based on our samskaras (impressions) in the mind.

Deep sleep (nidra)

Deep, dreamless sleep is the modification engendered by the absence of mental contents (sutra 1.10) . Sleep is a vritti because you can look back and say, “I slept well” etc. No other vrittis are present during deep sleep (dream may be thought of as ‘imaginary cognition’) . Sometimes during meditation, there is a tendency to fall asleep. We need to avoid this tendency so we can deepen the meditation experience. Sleep is dominated by the guna ‘tamas’ (dullness). Consciousness, however, remains active and alert even during sleep . Thus deep sleep is also another form of disturbance in the mind. Even though we might think, “deep sleep – how can it cause disturbance”? Yes, sleep is also an experience as it gets embedded in your memory as an experience. That experience will have a label: “slept well”, “did not sleep well”, “had a disturbed sleep”, “had a peaceful sleep” etc. Even though it’s a minute disturbance, it is a disturbance. We need to keep in mind that this is beyond the dream state.

Memory (smriti)

Finally, memory (smriti) is the not letting go of an object or image of subjective experience (sutra 1.11) . Memories are a result of all the five vrittis . Like other vrittis, memory of any experience could result in pleasure or pain . Every cognition creates an impression (samskara) in the mind’s storehouse which manifests as memory in the mind . Every new experience acts as a trigger that can pull out an appropriate memory from this storehouse and create further vrittis. Depending upon whether the memory was painful or pleasurable, we can either become happy or miserable.

As per the definition of yoga given above, the objective of the practice of yoga is to diminish the influence of these five vrittis so that the mind can attain a calm and peaceful state. It is further stated in the sutras that when the mind has attained this level of calmness, only then can we recognize our true identity of being nothing but pure consciousness. Without this awareness we are constantly identified with the body, mind, intellect complex which keeps us driven by the ego (ahamkara) and thus in a perpetual state of suffering (kleshas).

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