Attenuation of Mind Stream
When beginning a meditative practice, it is a universal experience to be bombarded with thoughts. Meditation can be said to involve stilling the mind, and this torrent of ideas and voices in our heads works directly at cross purposes to the meditative state. Stilling the mind, or reducing the flow of thoughts, is essential to success in meditation. This is called “attenuation of mind stream.”
It is frequently instructive to compare practices across spiritual traditions. When this is done, not only are bridges built between the traditions, but underlying principles can then be discerned. At first glance, some of the practices of the Eastern traditions seem totally different from those of the Western tradition. However, behind this outward dissimilarity, there is an underlying unity. Actually, this should not be surprising, since all peoples are much more alike than they are different.
With this in mind, I want to look at some of the techniques to still the mind across various traditions.
In the Ashtanga, the outline of eight practices which are known as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there is one called Pratyahara, “sense withdrawal,” which is midway down the list. “Pratya” means against, and “hara” means something that is taken in from outside. So, Pratyahara is the limitation or control of external input.
In this practice, attention is drawn away from the external world so that it may be directed to the inner world of the thoughts. It is necessary for this to occur before the more advanced practices of Patanjali can be experienced successfully. Once the attention is directed to the stream of thoughts flowing through the mind, it is possible to gain greater insight about what thoughts really are, and through this insight gain a true understanding of the nature of the mind. It is easier to do this, however, when the volume of thought is lessened.
An understanding of the nature of the mind is sometimes called Realization in the Eastern tradition and sometimes called Illumination in the Western tradition. In the magical lodges, it corresponds to the grade of Adepthood. Achieving this grade marks a significant turning point in the spiritual life of an aspirant.
Pratyahara has an external and an internal aspect, but as I will explain, both of these are closely related. External Pratyahara means to limit the amount of external stimuli reaching our sense organs. Internal Pratyahara means learning to disregard the stimuli that do get inside our heads. Our brains are receivers, and our sense organs are collectors of signals. Lying between the two is a sort of filtering system which is empowered by our vitality and strengthened by our will power.
In the physical brain this filter is located in a web of fibers and neurons called the Reticular Activating System. If this filter is strong, then fewer stimuli get inside. If the filters were strong enough, then it would not matter how much external stimuli was present. However, as most of us are a work in progress, our filters are not impervious. So if we can limit the amount of external stimuli, then the filter has less work to do. This is the reason people go on retreats, into monasteries, and into places of solitude: to reduce the amount of stimulation. The reason reducing the amount of stimulation is important is because many of our thoughts arise as a result of, or in reaction to, the stimuli we receive.
Monastic life is common to both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Placing ourselves in a protected environment reduces the amount of external stimuli, and this makes it easier to still the mind.
Meditation is another discipline that is common to both the East and the West. Meditation is very similar in principle to monastic practice, because while one is sitting in meditation, the external world is turned away. Meditation is a way to be a monk or a nun for an hour.
Our society today seems addicted to stimuli. Visit any shopping center and you will be bombarded by loud music and flashing signs. News shows often feature flashing and moving screens behind the commentators who are speaking. Musical performances have dancers behind the singers, flashing screens behind the dancers, and sometimes fire shooting out of the stage behind the screens. These events are a frenzy of stimulation. It is difficult to find a restaurant or bar without a half dozen televisions, usually showing different images. Huge numbers or people cannot stand, wait, or even walk without staring at their handheld computer screens, for they are addicted to the emotional stimulation of the latest message, joke, or bit of gossip. Everywhere we look today something is blinking, flashing, or moving.
This bombardment of stimulation works directly against our desire to withdraw the senses. This bombardment makes it nearly impossible to understand the nature of the mind. To practice Pratyahara would mean to withdraw ourselves from this type of environment. Doing so reduces the number and intensity of sensory stimuli, and this slows and reduces the flow of thoughts.
In Tibetan Buddhism there are exercises called “Preliminaries,” which precede the final practices leading to Realization. Among these preliminary practices are the repetition of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of mantras, often accompanied by bowing down, a practice called “prostration.”
The effect of saying thousands of mantras is that it “overwrites” the content of the mind. I am sure most of us have had the experience of spending a day doing mostly one activity, such as driving, or skiing, or hiking, and then later, when we close our eyes, images of the day’s activities arise unbidden. This is because the content of the mind has been flooded by that of the new activity. Our mind stream is reacting to the stimulation.
And so when we say mantras repetitively, we replace mental chatter with the mantra. The number of different bits of data in our mind stream is correspondingly reduced. It is not an accident that these disciplines are taught prior to the advanced work of studying the nature of the mind.
In many Western spiritual traditions, a different approach is found. Teaching is given about the nature of reality, a sort of spiritual cosmology. Examples include Kabbalah, the Seven Hermetic Principles, and the Doctrine of Signatures. If a spiritual aspirant practices seeing the objects in the world in terms of their signatures, for example, she moves toward a place of order and calmness. In many Western esoteric curricula, this type of study occurs at the grade of “Philosophus,” for what is being presented is a sort of philosophy. In classical terms, philosophy was not merely an intellectual discipline, but always resulted in a change of behavior or lifestyle. It is also not accidental that these practices are often taught in the Western lodges immediately prior to the grade of Adept.
Through studying philosophy, the student begins to view the world through an organizing filter. This framework causes thoughts to align, and hence, to simplify. The effect of this is to slow down the mind stream.
And so the goal of all these practices, such as meditation, monastic life, the preliminary practice of mantra, and the study of philosophy, though outwardly very dissimilar, is to reduce the amount of stimuli entering the brain, to slow down the reactive mind stream which results from these stimuli, and thus to allow the mind to detach from those thoughts. It is very difficult to detach from thoughts and watch them arise, live, and then die when there are so many of them and they come so fast.
We can compare this process to the playback of a video recording at a slow speed in order to see some object or detail that was unapparent. When there are special effects, playing a video at a slow speed can make it possible to see how the effect was created. Understanding the nature of the mind is very similar. This is what Pratyahara is all about.
In practical terms, we pursue sense withdrawal by removing the stimuli. We should endeavor to meditate more often and for longer. We should avail ourselves of the opportunity to go into retreat, or participate in monastic life. We should turn off the electronic devices and limit our exposure to sensory stimulation. If we must have sensory input, it should be conducive to the spiritual path. In this way the thoughts that arise will align with our spiritual goals. We should begin to use mantras, for even a few repetitions daily will begin to overwrite our thought patterns.
As much as possible, we should reorient our thinking to classical or spiritual philosophy and begin to view the world through that framework. When unwanted stimuli are present, rather than mentally pushing them away, we try to become permeable to them. We just let them pass through us without reaction. We do not fight them, but actually welcome them, which then allows them to be disregarded. If we stop empowering distractions, then they will diminish. Those thoughts which remain can then be more easily observed, and through this, realization will dawn.
~ Niysah Iyahu
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