In the forest-tract of the sense-pleasures there prowls a huge tiger called the mind. Let good people who have a longing for liberation never go there.
Vivekacūḍāmaṇi v. 176
In vedanta there are said to be ten senses, the senses as we know them; sight, hearing, smell, taste & touch and they opposing sense actions - those of elimination, procreation, moving, grasping & speaking.
These senses all feed into the part of our mind that is the 'worker bee' as it were - the manas. This is what some texts describe as our 'lower mind'.
So the process goes; something happens, we sense it, the information travels to our brain, we make a decision as to what to do next.
Sensory processing is fast. Which is, of course, vitally important because if, for example, we touched something hot, we really don't want to be standing around pondering a potential deep inner meaning while our skin burns.
But, we can also easily get overwhelmed by our sensory input and even more so about how we react to it.
Through our yoga practice (which demands consitency, discipline, steadiness of mind & scrutiny of our Self in the context of the spiritual texts) we come to learn that outside of the realm of necessary instant reaction to sensory input lies another realm - that of our higher mind, our buddhi.
Buddhi, our ‘higher mind’, it the part of our minds that offers the ability to reason, it is our intelligence, our intellect and it performs our discriminative thinking.
When information comes at us through our senses we engage the buddhi to ensure that the actions we take and decisions we make help us to reach our highest potential.
So what is the passage quoted at the top of this piece telling us?
In comparing our mind to a predatory tiger prowling the forest, looking for prey, stalking, hunting…it is reminding us that our minds often do the same; they look for constant stimulation, sensory pleasure, quick fixes. It is saying that left unchecked our minds are beasts! Hunting constantly for bigger, better, faster, more.
The antidote? Yoga.
Yoga is a higher minded pursuit.
It acknowledges that yes, we are human animals living a multisensory experience of life, but that it doesn’t stop there and that we are also individual Souls with agency. Yoga instructs us to take control of our senses….like we might try to control a wild horse, which is the metaphor used to explain this time and time again (not just in yoga but in other classical thought) - the Parable of the Chariot:
Know that the Atman (the inner Self/Soul) is the rider in the chariot, and the body is the chariot, Know that the Buddhi (intelligence, ability to reason) is the charioteer, and Manas (mind) is the reins. The senses are called the horses, the objects of the senses are their paths, Formed out of the union of the Atman, the senses and the mind, him they call the "enjoyer".
— Katha Upanishad, 1.3.3-1.3.4
When we allow our senses to run riot we lead a life of chaos, pulled in multitude directions, unable to step back and take stock, we lack focus and subsequently can feel very unsteady.
In contrast, when we engage in yoga disciplines we learn to pay attention. We are attentive to our sensory processing in a way that enables us to become master of them rather that the other way round. We use our senses to uplift ourselves, to bring joy and serenity, we learn that it can take time to make solid informed choices and we cultivate the patience to wait for clarity when things seem muddy. Taking control over our senses offers us the grounding that is fertile soil for future growth.
…I don’t want to end this piece of writing with some pie in the sky idealistic paragraph about what life should be…sure it would be great of if a yoga practice put us on an upwards trajectory towards emancipation but we all know that is not the way things play out.
Our yoga practice is, among other things, a maintenance tool for our minds and our bodies - but even a well maintained human being comes without a guarantee.
We get tired, we over commit, we are living in a pandemic, we have rough patches (…years…decades), we get run down, we suffer traumas and life experiences that leave us raw and exposed. We have times when our senses are so fired up that they overwhelm us and it seems like no amount of good work will stem the tide.
It’s not easy to be alive, even less so to be alive and attentive to living.
And yet, we keep on keeping on…and we keep trying to tame those wild horses.