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Washing the Mind

September 20, 2010

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.

  1. Thanks Kelly 🙂 I guess what I’m scared of right now is not so much responsibility but the possibility of losing it. I think you’re right though, even if I don’t have as much control over my life as I want, I can at least control how I react to it. Great post!

    • Thanks Tania–you really did inspire this post.

      The possibility of losing responsibility? Is that what you mean?


      • Kinda, yeah- I’ve always really had to fight for my independence and to be able to make my own decisions about my life, so the thought of losing any of that is really depressing, is that makes sense at all…

  2. Radhachandran permalink

    Hi Kelly,long time….true that we are responsible for everything even though we are left alone without the outward situations taking us in hand.Isn’t it our karma that churns within & makes us experience the different feelings.There lies the responsibility of washing our karmas, the cause for the mind.

    • Hi, Radha,

      It is nice to hear from you! Thank you for your message. Yes. I agree that we are responsible for washing our karmas–but when we continue to assign responsibility to an outside source I believe that we create new karma. What do you think?

  3. This is beautifully written. In fact, it is exactly what I needed to hear right now! How serendipitous.

    I am going through a period of realising some of my longstanding issues with low self esteem/confidence/worth, and the most frustrating thing recently has been having the awareness of these issues, yet the constant negative chatter in my brain reinforcing it, and feeling powerless against it all. So, I now feel a little mroe able to take on my inner issues and overcome them. Thank you for the inspiration!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Please forgive my delay in responding; somehow your comment got filtered as spam. Best of luck to you in your Practice.


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