How can we control the mind when it pushes us towards harmful actions?
Answer summary: By training it through restraining and relearning.
Answer: The great devotional classic, the Srimad Bhagavatam (5.11.4), compares the mind to a wild uncontrolled animal. Srila Prabhupada uses this analogy in the context of a circus. Just as ferocious animals can be controlled by training, so can the mind.
Interestingly, in this kind of inner training, we are in a sense both the trainer and the trainee. Objectively, we are eternal transcendental souls who are covered by the gross body and the subtle body. The subtle body includes the mind and the intelligence. The mind is the subtle inner entity that usually prods us towards short-term pleasures, whereas the intelligence is the subtle inner entity that normally guides us towards our long-term interests. Extending the mind-animal analogy, we can say that the intelligence is like the trainer. As we identify ourselves sometimes with the intelligence and sometimes with the mind, we are in that subjective sense both the trainer and the trainee.
Significantly, the intelligence is not the sole trainer of the mind. Our spiritual master is the chief trainer and is assisted by our other spiritual teachers who are like assistant trainers. And all these trainers are the representatives of Krishna, who is the universal spiritual master, the ultimate trainer. Krishna, through all these trainers and through his message in the scriptures, gives us the broad action plan for training the wild mind. To the extent our intelligence understands, accepts and applies this guidance, to that extent it can train the mind effectively. Because on a practical, moment-to-moment basis, it is the intelligence that has to deal with the mind, so it is the hands-on trainer. The Bhagavad-gita points to such a trainer role of the intelligence when it recommends (03.43) that we use our intelligence to control the mind and situate ourselves on the spiritual platform.
If we are to thus train the mind with the intelligence, we must align ourselves with the intelligence, not with the mind. For this, we need to be convinced about the foundational truth that we are not our mind, that its impulses and cravings are not our true desires. We don’t have to accept this truth on faith alone. All of us can think of many occasions when something within us pushed us to act against our best interests. Gita wisdom enables us to identify this mysterious malevolent force: the animal-like mind.
With this background philosophical understanding, let’s now look at the two steps for training the mind: restraining and relearning.
Restraining: Animals are usually trained through controlling their food quota. They are placed in cages that prevent them from acquiring food in their normal predatory ways. The mind’s food is, in a sense, pleasure. So the mind’s training involves controlling its pleasure quota. The mind is placed in the metaphorical cage of the four regulative principles, no meat-eating, no gambling, no intoxication and no illicit sex. This cage prevents the mind from seeking material pleasures in immoral ways. The Bhagavad-gita (06.26) recommends such restraint of the mind by urging us bring the mind under control whenever and wherever it wanders due to its unsteady nature.
We need to beware of a danger in this restraining stage. When an animal is starved, it demands food by growling more and more ferociously. A perceptive trainer knows that though the roars of the animal may be becoming louder, it is actually becoming weaker. Knowing this, the trainer doesn’t stop the restraining due to the animal’s threats.
Similarly, when we don’t give the mind immoral material enjoyment, it demands that enjoyment more and more fiercely. If we are regularly empowering our intelligence by studying Krishna’s words, that is, if the hands-on trainer is seeking guidance from the master-trainer, then our perceptive intelligence will be able to see through the threats of the mind. It won’t be cowered into believing that the enjoying mentality is too strong to be restrained and so won’t give in to the mind. Instead, knowing that though the mind may be shouting louder, it is becoming weaker, the intelligence will patiently continue the restraining process.
Relearning: When the caged animals cooperate with the training, they are provided food. Over time, this training leads to such dramatic relearning that instead of pouncing on human beings, the animals learn to perform for the pleasure of human beings. Of course, this relearning doesn’t happen overnight; it requires planning, patience and perseverance on the part of the trainer.
Similarly, within the cage of scripturally-recommended regulation, we train the mind to engage in the activities of devotional service and thereby focus on Krishna. As Krishna is the reservoir of supreme spiritual happiness, connecting with him internally through our thoughts and externally through our services enables us to relish higher happiness. Thus when the mind cooperates with the devotional training, it gets its food of pleasure in the form of spiritual fulfillment. Over time, this training leads to such a dramatic relearning that instead of wanting to grab worldly objects for getting material enjoyment, the mind starts desiring to use them for serving Krishna and thereby attaining devotional enrichment. Of course, this relearning doesn’t happen overnight; it requires planning, patience and perseverance on the part of the intelligence.
There’s a caveat in this relearning stage too. If we merely go through the motions of devotional activities without striving to connect with Krishna, then we don’t experience any substantial spiritual happiness. At such times too, the mind becomes like an animal maddened by starvation and starts howling for material enjoyment because it mistakenly equates enjoyment with material enjoyment. Again, if our intelligence is attuned with Krishna’s wisdom, then it will arrive at the right solution. It won’t give in to the mind’s demands for material enjoyment, for doing that will only undo the relearning of the mind. Instead, it will encourage us to increase our remembrance of Krishna while doing our devotional activities, for that will take ahead the relearning of the mind. How will this promote the relearning? Through the conscious intensification of our Krishna consciousness and the resulting experience of spiritual happiness, the mind will learn that spiritual happiness is real and accessible if one just goes deep in one’s relationship with Krishna.
There is a heartening difference between the training of animals and the training of the mind. For the animals, to be deprived of their forest habitat and to be made to perform in a circus is unnatural. But for us as spiritual beings, to seek material enjoyment is unnatural, even if it seems natural due to the past habits of the mind. As souls who are eternally parts of Krishna, to delight in his devotional service is natural for us; in fact, that is our eternal spiritual nature.
That’s why we need to persevere in training the mind in spite of its objections. During the course of the training, the mind learns through experience that spiritual happiness is far more pacifying and gratifying than material enjoyment. As this lesson sinks in, the mind starts cooperating with the training. Thereafter, we return to our spiritual nature of seeking happiness only and fully in loving Krishna.
Thus, by the twofold training involving restraining the default tendency to seek material enjoyment and by relearning the dormant nature to seek spiritual fulfillment, we can control the mind.