Uncovering the Unconscious
Thoughts are bound to bubble up during meditation. The key to working with the unconscious mind lies in two simple practices outlined in the scriptures.
By Rolf Sovik
From a yogic point of view, the mind is a sophisticated implement of awareness. It links us to the outer world, provides for an enormous spectrum of inner experience, and serves as a bridge to pure consciousness itself. Understanding the general landscape of your mind can help you navigate both meditation and daily life with greater ease.
Yoga divides the functioning of the mind into four components: manas (the lower or sensory mind), buddhi (the inner witness), chitta (the bed of memory), and ahamkara (self-identity). The first two, manas and buddhi, were the focus of this column in the last issue. Here’s a brief recap.
During meditation, the conscious mind, manas, is quieted and focused. The senses (the gateways between manas and the outer world) relinquish their contact with sense objects. Imagination is relaxed and a restful concentration is established, bringing ordinary awareness into the present moment. Thus, during meditation, everyday activities of mental life are gathered and integrated.
These transformations in manas are complemented by changes in buddhi. Buddhi is the aspect of mind identified with our moral sense and our capacity to acquire self-awareness. As manas is calmed, buddhi awakens. This is experienced as a silent blossoming of awareness. As buddhi awakens, consciousness shines more clearly. A subtle distance is created between awareness and the contents of the mind. Thus a meditator becomes the quiet witness of his or her inner experience.
Chitta is the mind’s capacity to retain experience in memory. It is a vast reservoir of stored impressions, habit patterns, and desires. In this unconscious repository, seeds of the future are planted by our experience in the present.
We might envision chitta as a lake, a body of water into which various streams of experience are constantly flowing. Some of these streams arise from our encounters with the world around us. We see it, hear it, taste it, smell it, and rub against it. But chitta also records encounters with processes occurring within the mind itself. Each time we remember the words to a favorite song, we anchor them more deeply in chitta.
The information we gather from all these encounters remains dormant in the unconscious. But memories surface from this lake to contribute to fresh experience. Thus, that favorite song might pop into your head while you’re in the shower.
But if we define the contents stored in the unconscious too narrowly, we’ll misunderstand the real significance of chitta. The mind does not simply store facts as sterile information. Experience is more complex than this. It is emotional.
The peach I eat pleases me. The pear, for some reason, does not. The shirt I see at the store entices me, but its price is dismaying. I attach emotions to experience, and then deposit the combination of fact and emotion in the mind.
Pleasure and pain are the sources of emotion. They lead to likes, dislikes, wants, wishes, hatreds, cravings, aversions, and aspirations. Each of us pursues happiness and avoids pain. Thus the seeds of experience stored in chitta are not placed there randomly, but carry with them, appropriately or not, our desires for the future.
A Working Mind
During meditation the mind’s conscious activities, largely the province of manas and buddhi, are brought to awareness and gradually mastered. This is the central purpose of meditation. But as we have seen, the mind also stores impressions in the unconscious. These impressions, called samskaras, remain latent until triggered into activity. Meditation must also address these latent impressions in some manner. Only then can meditation perform its deep-seated work of healing and integrating the disparate elements of the mind.
Swami Rama portrayed the beginnings of meditation in a memorable way. Suppose, he would say, someone were to grasp your big toe. You might be amused at first and pretend that it had little effect on you. As time passed, however, you would wiggle your toe a bit to see if the person’s grasping could be easily dislodged. If this failed, you would shake your foot with even more energy, until, if nothing else was successful, you might kick the annoying toe-holder and rid your-self of the aggravation once and for all.
The struggle we put up in meditation, he said, is quite similar. The act of giving the mind a focus is like grasping your mind by its toe. At first the mind plays along, only occasionally wiggling to see if you are serious. But over time, forces within the mind demand the freedom to play themselves out. The mind becomes more and more agitated until it finally kicks at the process of meditation and shakes free from the effort to concentrate.
As we saw in the previous column, part of the solution to this kind of mental reactivity is to train the manas to rest in its focus—a process that evolves naturally when we strengthen our concentration. The buddhi’s natural function as inner witness also calms mental agitation.
But the mind’s agitation is largely the result of forces in the unconscious mind—samskaras that press upward toward awareness. Every meditator knows the experience of being distracted by such thoughts. In a moment, I can be transported from “here” to some far away “there,” from a one-pointed focus to I-shouldn’t-have-said-that-to-my-friend. Distracting impressions are a part of the very nature of chitta. They seize their opportunity to arise during the relative quiet of meditation.
Some of these impressions are duties and current affairs needing attention; some are hopes and designs for the future; others are reflections of the news, weather, and entertainment mill; and still others are fancies long abandoned. For better or worse, the emotion naturally fused with these impressions brings them to awareness, like a bubble seeking the surface of a body of water.
The effect of these impressions on meditation depends upon how much attention is given to them. Some thoughts are important, and require contemplation. Other thoughts are driven by worry or desire, and have little place in the meditative process. As meditation deepens, even constructive thinking is set aside in order to clear the way for restful concentration.
Transforming the Unconscious
We cannot go directly into the unconscious mind to alter or wipe away the collection of impressions there. But meditation influences the unconscious nonetheless. The question is how?
Recall the function of chitta. It is a storehouse of experience, a reservoir of latent impressions. We deposit both joyful and unpleasant experiences there, and later we are influenced by these same impressions. Thus the mind is colored by countless experiences of greatly varying qualities and intensities.
Meditation itself is an experience—one that is deposited in chitta. Meditative experience, like all other experiences, transforms the color of chitta. In the same way other experiences are deposited in memory, meditation reaches deeply into the mind and leaves its subtle impression. But meditation is not simply a new color added to the mix. Meditation is a transformation of color. It transforms the unconscious mind, like a smile transforms a somber face.
Focus and Let Go
Two methods are used in meditation to transform the chitta, each complementing the other. The first is restful concentration. The second is a cultivated detachment from distracting and disturbing thoughts. These are the classical meditative techniques, given in both the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (1.12) and in the Bhagavad Gita (6.35).
During meditation, we learn to gradually shift attention toward a meditative focus. We concentrate on the work of centering the mind. The outcome of this patient inner work is profound. While it may seem that meditation is unproductive and even boring, quite the opposite is true. With each passing moment, impressions of relaxed concentration are deposited in chitta. These impressions incline the mind toward clarity and tranquility; they calm the mind and give it a meditative quality.
But what about efforts at cultivating detachment? Non-attachment in meditation calls for a paradoxical approach. We must initially learn to accept the distracting thoughts appearing in us rather than pushing them away. It doesn’t help to fight with ourselves. The very thoughts arising in meditation—our wants, wishes, fantasies, and fears—are part of who we are, at least in the present moment. So even when such thoughts are distracting or painful, accepting them remains a necessity. Only then can we see them as they are, with all their subtlety and motivating power.
But these distractions must not become the primary focus of our attention. We can watch these passing thoughts and observe their hungry nature without feeding them new energy. By fully accepting what appears on the surface of the mind, yet seeing it with detachment, we purify chitta, lessen the momentum of distracting thoughts, and strengthen the mind’s ability to focus.
Focus and let go. This is the way of deep meditation. It plants seeds of patience and self-acceptance. It reveals underlying motivations, and reinforces unselfish intentions. It creates a dialogue between the conscious and unconscious elements of ourselves, and in transforming chitta, it opens the way to a more lasting happiness within.
Learn more about manas and buddhi.
Rolf Sovik, PsyD, is the author of Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation. He is the president of the Himalayan Institute, and serves as the director of the Institute’s branch center in Buffalo, New York.
Photo by Jim Filipski / Guy Cali Assoc.