Washing the Mind
I once met a traveler in India, who told me about a powerful experience he had while trekking in Nepal. He was walking and walking and walking for days. The environment was gorgeous, peaceful, and welcoming. However, he noticed–after several days walking along like this on his own–that despite the fact that there was no-one else around to ruffle him, and although the environment itself was serene and inviting, his mind continued to bounce among various moods, orientations, and so on. At one hour he would feel at peace, calm, and focused. At another hour he would feel absolutely wound up–panicked even. He recognized the fluctuations and started reflecting on them, wondering, what is there to disturb my mood? I’m alone in this beautiful place.
He then realized that he was in the habit of assigning shifts in his inner life—moods, musings, thoughts—to events taking place outside of himself. What then, does it mean, if this round and round continues to unfold when those outside influences have been reduced?
I’m reminded of three things at once: Iyengar’s teaching “Why do you think of the violence of the world? Why don’t you think of the violence in you?” (Tree of Yoga); Vivekananda’s insight that responsibility is the key to freedom, “nothing” he says “makes us work so well, at our best and highest, as when all the responsibility is thrown upon ourselves” (“The Freedom of the Soul in Jnana Yoga, p. 120); and, it reminds me of pratyahara—sense withdrawal.
Yes, our environment can shape and influence us. We know this to be true. What is less often recognized or focused on is the fact that we can passively accept external pressures and allow them to dictate our moods, our thoughts, our minds—and our bodily health as well—or we can assume responsibility and work as a gatekeeper observing what is and choosing what we internalize, where we put ourselves, and most importantly how we respond to our environment.
Right, it’s not my intention to give the impression that I’ve achieved this! Though, I will say this: Just last week I was finally able to unpack my suitcases—after a four-month period of being in-between places during which my husband and I moved from our house in Japan, to a hotel in Japan, to my parents house in New Jersey for a visit, to a campground in Maine where I attended a retreat with the Boston Ramakrishna Vedanta Society, back to New Jersey for another week with my parents, and finally to a new flat in St. Louis.
Once we arrived in St. Louis and all the rushing about slowed considerably, I found myself standing at the sink washing dishes and watching my thoughts. There, I found a restlessness and a deep feeling of alienation, psychic pain, and anxiety. Suddenly, I am in the United States—my home country—yet I feel like a foreigner. Now, I panicked, there is no reason to not achieve this, that, this other thing, this of course and don’t forget that…and on and on went the loop until—like a flash of brilliant luck—I remembered the lessons from Iyengar-ji, Vivekananda-ji—and that traveler I had met in India: I am responsible for my own life, my own happiness, my own mind. And a peace came over me and I continued quietly—inside—washing the remaining dishes.
This post is dedicated to Tania.