The Mind: Magnificent and Mighty

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Some five hundred and ten years ago, after Sri Chaitanya had taken sannyasa and was intending to travel by foot from Bengal to Vrindavan, Sri Nrisimhananda Brahmacari decided to serve Sri Chaitanya by creating a broad road for Him to walk on. What Sri Nrisimhananda created was by no means an ordinary road. In his Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 1.156–159), Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami describes it:

He bedecked the road with jewels, upon which he then laid a bed of stemless flowers. He mentally decorated both sides of the road with bakula flower trees, and at intervals on both sides he placed lakes of a transcendental nature. These lakes had bathing places constructed with jewels, and they were filled with blossoming lotus flowers. There were various birds chirping, and the water was exactly like nectar. The entire road was surcharged with many cool breezes, which carried the fragrances from various flowers. He carried the construction of this road as far as Kanai Natashala.

The immense value and natural beauty of the road made it unique, but even more extraordinary was the fact that the road was not physically manifest but was created and existed solely in the mind of Sri Nrisimhananda Brahmacari. Yet Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu accepted it just as if it were a physical road that He could walk on.

Srila Prabhupada explains:

For a pure devotee, it is the same whether he materially constructs a path or constructs one within his mind. This is because the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Janardana, is bhava-grahi, or appreciative of the sentiment. For Him a path made with actual jewels and a path made of mental jewels are the same. Though subtle, mind is also matter, so any path – indeed, anything for the service of the Lord, whether in gross matter or in subtle matter – is accepted equally by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The Lord accepts the attitude of His devotee and sees how much he is prepared to serve Him. The devotee is at liberty to serve the Lord either in gross matter or in subtle matter. The important point is that the service be in relation with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. (Madhya 1.161, Purport)

So complete was Sri Nrisimhananda Brahmacari’s meditation that when he could not construct the road past Kanai Natashala (in eastern Bihar), although he was astonished and at first could not understand why the construction stopped, after some thought he confidently declared to the devotees that Sri Chaitanya would not go all the way to Vrindavan at that time. Sri Nrisimhananda said, “The Lord will go to Kanai Natashala and then will return. All of you will come to know of this later, but I now say this with great assurance.” (Madhya 1.162) And that, indeed, is what came to pass.

We may question this story and how it illustrates the mind’s power, but when looked at logically and philosophically, it’s not only reasonable but also soundly convincing.

In the Gita (7.4), Krishna explains that this world is composed of eight material elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and false ego. Krishna is ultimately the source of these elements (aham sarvasya prabhavah, Gita 10.8), and they and their combinations compose the entirety of what we can perceive with our senses. Krishna wants us to come closer to Him, and for that purpose He manifests Himself in the form of the deity. The deity, although made of material elements like wood or stone, is identical to Krishna Himself. And if Krishna so desires, He can also manifest in the mind of His devotee, as He did with Sri Nrisimhananda. “The Deity form of the Lord is said to appear in eight varieties – stone, wood, metal, earth, paint, sand, the mind or jewels.” (Bhagavatam 11.27.12) If Krishna wants to appear somewhere, who are we to say that He can’t or wouldn’t or shouldn’t?

Here’s how Srila Prabhupada expresses it:

Bhumir apo ‘nalo vayuh kham mano. So, mind is also another material thing. So if you think of Krishna’s form within the body, mind, it is as good as you worship the deity in the temples made of brass or wood or stone. Because both of them are Krishna’s energy. Whatever possible, He can accept. And that is Krishna, because it is Krishna’s energy. Therefore the energy is not different from Krishna. Krishna can accept your service in any of these material . . . , so-called material. Actually there are no material things. Material things means the desire for sense gratification. That is material. (Room Conversation, Sept. 19, 1973, Bombay)

We may not be expert enough to worship and serve the deity within our mind, but we can give credit to those who are expert enough and marvel at how Krishna reciprocates with them.

Srila Prabhupada writes (Bhagavatam 4.30.28, Purport):

There is a story about a brahmana who was offering sweet rice to the Lord within his mind. The brahmana had no money or any means of worshiping the Deity, but within his mind he arranged everything nicely. He had gold pots to bring water from the sacred rivers to wash the Deity, and he offered the Deity very sumptuous food, including sweet rice. Once, before he offered the sweet rice, he thought that it was too hot, and he thought, “Oh, let me test it. My, it is very hot.” When he put his finger in the sweet rice to test it, his finger was burned and his meditation broken. Although he was offering food to the Lord within his mind, the Lord accepted it nonetheless. Consequently, the Lord in Vaikuntha immediately sent a chariot to bring the brahmana back home, back to Godhead.

How Is This Relevant to Me?

On one hand, our mind limits our spiritual quest: “The mind cannot catch You [the Lord] by speculation, and words fail to describe You.” (Bhagavatam 8.5.26) Worse, the mind can be our archenemy: “Except for the uncontrolled and misguided mind, there is no enemy within this world.” (Bhagavatam 7.8.9)

Yet, as we’ve seen above, that very mind can bring us to Krishna and His abode. The mind is so powerful that our very destiny depends on how it’s situated: “Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Gita 8.6)

If we’re worshiping the deity in the temple and our mind is distracted, a mere show of worship will not be of any benefit. (Bhagavatam 5.8.14, Purport) But if our mind is focused on pleasing Krishna, then we can please Him whatever our material circumstances. Srila Prabhupada: “The whole yogic system is to convert the mind from matter to spirit. You can utilize the mind in both ways. When the mind is spiritually trained up, it is the best friend of the soul, and when the mind is materially polluted, it is the worst enemy.” (Letter, Sept. 28, 1975)

Personal Experience

In almost three quarters of a century in dealing with my own particular mind, I’ve found a few tools that help me befriend it. One is to recognize and respect its overarching power. Sometimes everything can be fine externally but my disturbed mind doesn’t allow me to appreciate anything. In fact, everything seems terrible. And the opposite occurs as well. The holocaust survivor Victor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Such a choice takes mind control.

I must remember that my mind is not me but something covering me, the atma, or spiritual being, and not take the mind so seriously. Rather, I can acknowledge its condition, become detached from it, and neglect it. Srila Prabhupada writes, “There is one easy weapon with which the mind can be conquered – disobedience. The mind is always telling us to do this or that; therefore we should be very expert in disobeying the mind’s orders. Gradually the mind should be trained to obey the orders of the soul. It is not that one should obey the orders of the mind.” (Bhagavatam 5.11.17, Purport)

Boundaries also help keep the mind friendly. From the beginning of establishing the Hare Krishna movement, Srila Prabhupada requested all his initiated disciples to chant Hare Krishna and follow four regulations. These are firm activities and boundaries that, when followed with the intent of advancing spiritually, do wonders to control and calm the mind. “A person free from all attachment and aversion and able to control his senses through regulative principles of freedom can obtain the complete mercy of the Lord.” (Gita 2.64) Krishna helps the sincere practitioner.

Another tool that I’ve found helpful for keeping the mind in check is a regular daily schedule. Srila Prabhupada writes of the detriment of irregular habits. “Overeating, over–sense gratification, overdependence on another’s mercy, and artificial standards of living sap the very vitality of human energy.” (Bhagavatam 1.1.10, Purport) Srila Prabhupada’s awareness of Krishna was always fresh and vibrant, never hackneyed or stereotyped, and at the same time he generally followed a predictable pattern in his days, rising early to translate, take a morning walk, lecture, have breakfast, and so forth (although he was flexible for special occasions). We can follow this in spirit and establish a regular routine for sleeping, rising, and performing our daily activities, for this helps train the mind to function even if it’s disturbed.

Bhagavad-gita tells us that if one is too austere or too sensuous one cannot control the mind. This is confirmed in Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.20.21):

An expert horseman, desiring to tame a headstrong horse, first lets the horse have his way for a moment and then, pulling the reins, gradually places the horse on the desired path. Similarly, the supreme yoga process is that by which one carefully observes the movements and desires of the mind and gradually brings them under full control.

Purport: Just as an expert rider intimately knows the propensities of an untamed horse and gradually brings the horse under control, an expert yogi allows the mind to reveal its materialistic propensities and then controls them through superior intelligence. A learned transcendentalist withholds and supplies sense objects so that the mind and senses remain fully controlled, just as the horseman sometimes pulls sharply on the reins and sometimes allows the horse to run freely. The rider never forgets his actual goal or destination, and eventually places the horse on the right path. Similarly, a learned transcendentalist, even though sometimes allowing the senses to act, never forgets the goal of self-realization, nor does he allow the senses to engage in sinful activity. Excessive austerity or restriction may result in great mental disturbance, just as pulling excessively on the reins of a horse may cause the horse to rear up against the rider. The path of self-realization depends upon clear intelligence, and the easiest way to acquire such expertise is surrender to Lord Krishna. The Lord says in Bhagavad-gita (10.10):

tesham satata-yuktanam
bhajatam priti-purvakam
dadami buddhi-yogam tam
yena mam upayanti te

One may not be a great scholar or spiritual intellect, but if one is sincerely engaged in loving service to the Lord without personal envy or personal motivation the Lord will reveal from within the heart the methodology required to control the mind. Expertly riding the waves of mental desire, a Krishna conscious person does not fall from the saddle, and he eventually rides all the way back home, back to Godhead.

So we befriend our mighty mind through knowledge (“I am a spiritual being”), detachment (“I am not my mind”), purity (chanting Hare Krishna), regulation, and especially through our correct intention. That intention is to come closer to Krishna, and we do that by serving Him with devotion. “Please try to conquer this mind by the weapon of service to the lotus feet of the spiritual master and of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Do this with great care.” (Bhagavatam 5.11.17)

Ultimately our success will be when we relish and rejoice in all aspects of spiritual life. At that time we will be naturally absorbed in Krishna, His devotees, and His service, and will serve Him however we’re able, including within our mind, just as Sri Nrisimhananda Brahmacari did.

Srila Prabhupada writes (Bhagavatam 5.11.8, Purport), “The mind is the cause of material existence and liberation also. Everyone is suffering in this material world because of the mind; it is therefore proper to train the mind or to cleanse the mind from material attachment and engage it fully in the Lord’s service. This is called spiritual engagement.”