What does consciousness mean? How on earth can we grasp a term like that?
Consciousness always seemed a formidable word to ‘get my head around’ (and also to spell), until I realized it was my head that was in the way! A teacher training in Bali with Dr. Ganesh Mohan earlier this year clarified a myriad of yoga techniques and tools, and introduced the practical sense the yoga sutras have as a psychology for daily living.
As the yoga sutras wisely say “When the mind is completely still, consciousness remains in its true nature” (Chapter 1, Verse 3).
Dr. Ganesh Mohan is a modern medicine and Ayurvedic doctor and son of A.G. and Indra Mohan. A.G Mohan learnt for 18 years with the ‘father of modern yoga’ Sri T. Krishnamacharya. The Mohan’s founded Svastha Yoga and Ayurveda and currently travel the world giving lectures, workshops and yoga therapy trainings. They have also just released a small compact book ‘Yoga Reminder’ which gives lighthearted and concise insights into the essence of yoga. Great to dip into with a cup of tea (rather than checking Facebook again!).
A key point (among many) I took from the teacher training with Ganesh is that yoga is ideally about going from unhappiness to stillness of the mind, and all the practices in between. ‘All the practices in between’ are on and off the mat, including the practice of kriya yoga (willpower, reflection/affirmations, and a practice of letting go of expectations) and all the 8 limbs of yoga.
This stillness of the mind I’ve begun to see in glimpses since I started practicing and teaching ie. when my body feels balanced and light from a good asana practice present with the breath, and my mind is relaxed and still from pranayama and meditation. We never stay in this state though (as we are not Buddha). This is because have three modes of mind – sattva (lightness, stillness), rajas (energy that causes thoughts to arise), tamas (energy that causes thoughts to subside). These modes of mind, or ‘gunas’ are intrinsic to the physiology of the mind. They are normal qualities of the mind but it is an imbalance of them that creates problems.
Although we may never have complete stillness of the mind, we can stay in this state for longer periods of time – through practice – gaining some stability of mind. This is key because it allows us to see whatever thoughts and feelings come up and be with them, rather than be reactionary (a rajas imbalance) or feel dull and overwhelmed (a tamas imbalance). We can then, ideally, choose to take action or not from a place of discernment in which our quality of awareness is clear. This is us in our true nature.
Lately I’ve been intrigued by the revival of Alan Watts on social media, a hero of relatives and friends who were seeking Eastern spirituality in the 1970s. Videos such as What if Money Was No Object went viral. The Dream of Life and Our Existence is Weird and Wonderful were also very popular. His words echo the yoga sutras: “The brain can only assume its proper behaviour when consciousness is doing what its designed for: not writhing and whirling to get out of present experience, but being effortlessly aware of it”.
I’ve found that once we’ve had a glimpse of stillness in the present moment we can start to observe our own behaviour and discriminate between this feeling of pure consciousness (when the mind is sattvic – peaceful, still) and when the mind is in a more agitated (rajas) or dull (tamasic) state. Ganesh reflected in the training that the mind is constantly in flux, and while it is hard to catch yourself before you act or speak, the yoga sutras are a tool we can use to make better choices. He also suggested taking a relaxed attitude to the mind, or keeping a light mind. I find this really helps, rather than being overzealous or overthinking anything. Now more relevant than ever it seems, in our plugged in busy lives.