Don’t identify with the mind – identify the mind
“To identify with the mind” means to accept its desires as our desires and unthinkingly act on them. “To identify the mind” means to recognize that the desires popping up inside us are the mind’s desires – “Aha! That’s the mind speaking” – and to intelligently evaluate whether to act on them or not.
“Don’t identify with the mind; identify the mind” – this can be a contemporary English rendition of the key call of the Bhagavad-gita (06.05): Elevate yourself with the mind; don’t degrade yourself. When we identify with the mind, we act according to its shortsighted, self-defeating desires, thereby degrading ourselves. When we identify the mind, we check its desires and choose to act only on those desires that are worthy, thereby elevating ourselves.
Redefining external and internal
Suppose we had a house with a large courtyard that had a fence with the main security gate. Suppose we found someone inside the fence. Just because they were inside our premises, we wouldn’t assume that they belonged, that they were related with us. We would investigate who they were and then decide how to interact with them.
We need to be similarly cautious when we find some unexpected desires popping up inside us. We often think of physical objects as external and desires as internal. This external-internal classification is based on our thinking of ourselves as our body. However, the fundamental teaching of the Bhagavad-gita (02.13) is that we are souls. The mind is made of matter, although of a kind subtler than the physical matter we are accustomed to. Being material, the mind is an external covering on the soul. So, from the perspective of our real identity as souls, the mind is external to us, as are the desires in it.
But we usually think of the desires inside us as our desires. Some of our desires can be like intruders who have slipped through the main security gate and entered into the premises. Just as those residing in the house are especially vulnerable to such intruders, we too are especially vulnerable to the inimical desires that have penetrated into our mind. We misidentify with such desires and act on them. For example, we may have resolved to diet for health. But then a desire to eat something fatty pops up within us. If we mistake that desire to be our desire, we end up bingeing. If we can recognize that desire as an unwanted trespasser, we can strive to resist it.
How can we identify the mind instead of identifying with the mind?
Here are four strategies:
When we interact with people regularly, we gradually form labels for them: “He’s lazy,” “She’s fussy,” “He’s rash”, “She’s vain.” This labeling tendency can mislead. People are a complex blend of strengths and shortcomings, but labeling reduces them to just one of their traits.
Still, labels, if used carefully, can serve as helpful functional guides. People are what they are, and aren’t likely to change overnight. Once we understand their nature, we can adapt to them. For example, some people are grumpy when they wake up in the morning. If we have to live with them, then a label can remind us to not take their morning mood too seriously.
Labels can help us identifying the mind instead of identifying with it. When we find ourselves in a grumpy mood, we can label the mind, “Today, my mind is grumpy.” Many devotional songs employ this strategy of labeling the mind. The philosopher-saint, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, in his song Dushta Mana, labels the mind as wicked while reflecting on how it misleads and how it can be led back on the right path.
The purpose of labeling is to contextualize the behavior, not perpetuate it. By observing ourselves, we can note phases when our mind is, say, grumpy and label it accordingly. But we don’t want the mind to stay grumpy. So, rather than labeling it as grumpy, we can label as grumpy the phase it is going through. The label can help us lower our expectation, thereby preventing a mismatch between our expectations of the mind and its amenability. We steel ourselves internally to not take its mood too seriously and learn to work around it.
Additionally, while tolerating people’s grumpiness, we also try to improve their mood. Similarly, while tolerating the mind’s moods, we can also try to improve its mood. Changing the mind is, in fact, the thrust of the remaining strategies.
There are few things we give as freely as advise. And when it comes to behavior, we often give advice quite expertly. When others tell us their problems, we frequently counsel them to act in ways that we ourselves would do well to remember and apply.
We can use our advising propensity to advise our mind. Our advising others won’t benefit us as much as our advising our own mind. Devotional songs use this strategy of advising the mind. For example, the saint-poet Govinda das in his song bhajahu re mana urges his mind to stay fixed in Krishna, assuring it that such focus will grant sublime peace.
Does the mind listen to good advise? Maybe not immediately, but over time, it does listen. The mind is stubborn, but not incorrigible; it is reformable. Vital for reforming is reformulating. We need to reformulate the mind’s conceptions in the light of spiritual knowledge.
For example, the mind may have its pet conceptions about which worldly things will bring happiness. But such things usually provide just a little happiness in the beginning followed by a long tail of misery (Gita 18.38). To advice the mind where it can find real happiness, we need to reformulate our understanding of life and its purpose. The best way to such reformulation is the regular study of scripture. Scriptural study helps us understand that real happiness is found in higher spiritual reality: in loving remembrance of Krishna and in purposeful devotional service to him.
We need to not just study scripture, but study it regularly because the mind is outstandingly forgetful. It forgets both how worldly pleasures are so superficial and short-lived, and how devotional fulfillment is so substantial and sublime. Recognizing that the mind is a slow learner, we need to keep advising it repeatedly by regular scriptural study.
Improving the mind requires not just education but also purification. That brings us to the next strategy.
The mind is a creature of habit. It acts according to its habitual patterns, even when we want to act differently. For referring to our innate pattern of thinking and acting, a commonly used word is inclination. This is a particularly apt word; its other meaning serves as a good metaphor for the way the mind functions. Inclination also refers to the tilt of a physical structure such as a floor. If the floor is inclined southwards, whatever water falls on it will naturally flow south. If we want the water to flow north, just our intention to make it flow that way won’t be enough; we need to couple that intention with reconstruction. Only when we make the floor inclined northwards will water naturally flow that way.
Inclination determines flow – this principle applies to our inner world too. Our desires naturally flow according to our mind’s inclination. For example, as people get addicted to alcohol, their mind becomes increasingly inclined towards it. Even if they resolve to become sober, their desires keep going towards alcohol because their mind is still inclined that way. Just their resolution to abstain doesn’t change their mind’s inclination. They need to couple their resolution with mental reconstruction. Such reconstruction is brought about through purification.
To better appreciate the necessity of purification, let’s re-consider the point of changing our conceptions of happiness. Whereas education changes our conscious conceptions, purification goes deeper, changing our subconscious definitions of happiness.
Bhakti-yoga is the most potent process for purifying ourselves because it brings us in contact with God, Krishna, who is all-pure and all-purifying. The more we connect with Krishna in a mood of devotional service, the more we access spiritual happiness that makes worldly pleasures seem pale and stale. And the more we relish higher happiness and realize how it is far preferable to mundane indulgences, the more our mental flooring gets reshaped. When our mind becomes naturally inclined towards Krishna instead of worldly things, our inner struggle ceases. The Gita (06.27) points to this state while outlining how purification brings pacification of the mind and satisfaction of the soul.
For the mind to change its ways takes time. During the interim period, we need to be persistent in our devotional practices. The Gita (06.26) characterizes the mind as restless. Restlessness typifies children too. When a mother tells her little girl to study, she factors in the restlessness natural to childhood. Accordingly, when her child gets distracted, she doesn’t get irritated – she gets her girl back to studies, gently but firmly.
We need to become like a mature mother for dealing with the child-like mind. Instead of getting exasperated when it gets distracted, as it inevitably will, we need to expect its distractibility and prepare for it. The same Gita verse (06.26) recommends that whenever the mind wanders, we re-focus it, calmly and consistently.
As the child grows up, she understands the importance of studying and herself chooses to focus on studies. Similarly, when we persist in the practice of bhakti-yoga, the mind grows up and understands what is truly important. Thereafter, it naturally focuses on important things and ultimately the most important thing: our eternal relationship of service with Krishna.
Additionally and far more consequentially, our persistence in practicing bhakti-yoga pleases Krishna. He appreciates our intention, even if we can’t always translate it into action. By his omnipotent grace, he progressively empowers us to first rein in the mind and then reform it.
Ultimately, to identify the mind instead of identifying with it, we need to identify with Krishna, as his eternal parts. When we become situated and satisfied in serving him, the mind becomes our friend and we swiftly and joyfully progress towards success and happiness, both in this life and the next.
 One must deliver himself with the help of his mind, and not degrade himself. The mind is the friend of the conditioned soul, and his enemy as well.
 As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.
 That happiness which is derived from contact of the senses with their objects and which appears like nectar at first but poison at the end is said to be of the nature of passion.
 The yogi whose mind is fixed on Me verily attains the highest perfection of transcendental happiness. He is beyond the mode of passion, he realizes his qualitative identity with the Supreme, and thus he is freed from all reactions to past deeds.
 The mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate and very strong, O Krishna, and to subdue it, I think, is more difficult than controlling the wind.