Bharat and Milind were the best of friends right from early childhood, through teenage years and adulthood. Everyone called them buddies for life. Hand-in-hand they would walk, keeping pace with each other, and just imagine how one of them would feel instantly the other’s moments of pleasure and pain. Their laughter melting into tears of joy would take the two simultaneously into a state of up-swinging emotion, in contrast to the spells of despair that they also experienced together. Unquestionably, the lives of these best friends were interwoven to the extent of being inseparable by any means.
Well, have you ever seen such a faithful partnership anywhere? Hard to find, indeed! But just a moment! Take a look inside yourself and you will witness the bonds of such intimacy between your ‘breath’ and ‘mind’ – the duo dancing to each other’s tune – in a beautiful relationship of inseparability till the last breath is taken. Ponder a little more on how it is so.
The Connection between Breath and Mind
The moment a child is born and it takes the first breath, the saga of mind-breath friendship begins, and all through life it maintains the bonds of interdependence. However, in this materialistic world, the five senses take over the reigns of the mind, clouding it with unending desires and attachments, making one ride, endlessly, the waves of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, health and disease and many such opposing dualities.
Getting signals from the five senses, the mind naturally has the upper hand over the breath, as all thoughts arise in the mind. Thus, the pace and quality of breath going in and out of the body is dependent on the state of the sense-driven mind at any given point of time. A disturbed, ruffled mind laden with negative thoughts may, for example, manifest outwardly in the form of anger, which in turn, makes the heart beat faster and therefore, the breath is short and fast. Too much labored breath is experienced when, again, the mind is not calm but anxious and over-burdened with racing thoughts. Restlessness of the mind is a common experience for most people and, undoubtedly, as the breath follows the mind, afflictions of the body related to poor oxygen supply; heart problems and depression, among several other illnesses, are also common. On the other hand, it is also a common experience that, when we think positively, we feel calmer and our breath is correspondingly slow and deep.
Does this mean that, for most of us, the uncontrolled mind dictates the pace of breath? Yes. Sadly, it is so. Paramhansa Yogananda said that “Breath is the cord that ties the soul to the body and breathlessness is the way to God.” In this state of breathlessness, the mind is completely still and relaxed, which is the altar of God. But as the mind vacillates due to a sense-driven outward flow of energy, it cannot perceive the all-pervading God consciousness.
Now, how to still the ever restless mind? The solution lies in tricking the mind into entering a state of stillness by conscious control of the in-going and out-going breath, by pranayama. That is why Yogananda said that, to know God, you must practice pranayama. This means that instead of breath following the mind, the mind could be made to follow the breath if conscious effort is made on our part to control the it— the only trick to control the monkey mind!
Techniques for Spiritual Development with the Breath
Kriya yoga meditation is the highest pranayama technique. The outcome is wondrous. By its continual practice, the breath slows down and, in deeper states of meditation, breathlessness occurs. As the mind follows the breath, like a faithful friend, it now becomes absolutely still and merges with Divine consciousness. A beautiful story in Bhagavad Gita illustrates this point. One day, as the Gopis were visiting Lord Krishna, they decided to take some offerings for Him. Now, what could they offer the Lord when He already had everything? They began to contemplate and finally decided to offer their restless minds, which the Lord did not have. Thus offering their restless minds to Him, through breath control in meditation, they achieved absolute stillness and, in return, what the Lord gave them was the experience of His soul-satisfying omnipresence! In this way we experience one or more of His eight attributes: light, sound, joy, love, peace, calmness, wisdom and power, as the outcome of deep meditation.
What most of us have experienced is that even taking a few deep, long breaths at times of emotional upsurge, when the mind is too restless, can instantly calm it. The Hong Sau technique given by Yoganandaji is a simple, yet powerful way to bring to rest the wandering mind by centering its energy in one direction. Yoganandaji said, “By the practice of the Hong Sau technique you develop such power of concentration that when you attempt to draw your mind within, it obeys you.” As we sit in meditation posture, mentally chanting the mantra ‘Hong’ with every inhalation and ‘Sau’ with the exhalation, the breath becomes slower and slower, with increasing length of pauses between two cycles. With this calm breath and heart, the bodily sensations disappear and the mind’s energy is directed upwards as the inner gaze, at this moment, is focused at the point between the eyebrows— the Kutastha Chaitanya or the Christ center, which is the seat of Higher consciousness. Here, the mind experiences the presence of God which is commonly perceived as peace.
The Battle of Delusion – The Need of Self-Effort and Devotion
The battle is, therefore, between the satanic force of delusion that pulls the mind in the sense-driven materialistic world and the power of our self-effort to pull back the restless mind inward, directing its energy into the spine. If delusion succeeds in driving our mind into worldly activities, the breath then follows the restless mind. The reverse happens if our self-effort for doing meditation or pranayama is strong enough to thwart the worldly desires in favor of controlling the breath: miraculously, the mind is calmed. In other words, whether making a determined effort to tame the mind through breath control; or allowing the ever-restless mind, engrossed in material world, to play havoc with the flow of our breath, is purely our choice! Mostly, people realize the folly of riding the waves of delusion only after experiencing tremendous emotional turmoil and unbearable suffering. This sufferance is because the breath follows such uncontrolled mind, full of desires and attachments, while in a spiritually inclined person, the opposite becomes true and the mind is tamed by breath control.
Self-discipline is indeed pertinent to disciplining the mind. Patanjali’s eight fold path of yoga is a structured, step-by-step way to free the mind from restless thoughts and the constant distractions of sensations. For this, there are first five attitudes to avoid called ‘Yamas’ (Non-harmfulness, Non-deceit, Non-covetousness, Non-sensuality/Continence, Non-attachment); second, the five attitudes to cultivate, called ‘Niyamas’ (Cleanliness/Purity, Contentment, Austerity, Self-study/Introspection, Worship/Devotion to God); the next is ‘Asana’, the ability to have a relaxed meditation pose with the spine straight; the fourth stage is ‘Pranayama’ or control of breath and energy; followed by the fifth state of ‘Pratyahara’ where the interiorization of mind occurs; then comes ‘Dharana’ or calm inner awareness or concentration, one-pointed focus; leading to ‘Dhyana’ or meditation or absorption, and finally reaching the eighth state that is ‘Samadhi’ or the highest awareness where the soul becomes one with Spirit.
Devoting one’s life to the Divine search with steadfastness is important, as a brief meditation done now and then without singularity of purpose to find God keeps the breath following the restless mind. We do not know for how many incarnations our breath has been ceaselessly following the mind, but solace comes from the words of Swami Sri Yukteshwarji who said that “Everything in future will improve if we make the spiritual effort now.” This reassurance is for all spiritual aspirants to make concerted effort to do pranayama regularly so that the restless mind reverses its direction inward and learns to follow the breath, for in it lies the victory of re-establishing in us the joy of soul consciousness, the happiness that we are all searching for!
Our self-effort is, however, not enough to push the tremendous force of delusion that pulls the mind towards the senses again and again. The essential key, coupled with our self-effort to control the breath through pranayama, is to draw the Guru’s grace through attunement by our heart’s devotion and love for the Guru, for this combination alone can help us remain unshaken amidst worldly pressures as we then remain even-minded, come what may. That is the state we are all striving to achieve. Ironically, what a tug of war as to who follows whom between, breath and mind, the two best friends!
Dr. P. Cheena Chawla