The song in my head

I constantly go around with a song in my head. Luckily, it isn’t always the same song but don’t ask me how my mind decides to change it. It just happens. I don’t seem to have any control over it. You might have noticed that not only songs seem to appear in our minds uncontrollably. Many (if not most) of our thoughts are like that.

In February, I went to a ten day retreat with my Yoga teacher in Munnar, India to learn more about meditation. We practiced silence during two of the days during our stay, and what I noticed this time is that many thoughts kept coming back like a playlist on loop. Even thoughts about events in my life that I felt I was over with. I think this happened because my mind was desperately trying to find things to cling to. I sometimes suspect my mind for trying to torture me emotionally…

Luckily for me, I am have been practicing japa since I started studying Yoga five years ago and it helped me to calm my mind. Japa is the repetition of a mantra, and it is used as a technique in the Yoga tradition. We can read about it in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:

1.27-29 The word expressive of Isvara is the mystic sound OM. To repeat it with reflection upon its meaning is an aid. From this practice all the obstacles disappear and simultaneously dawns knowledge of the inner Self.

The mantra mentioned in the Yoga Sutras is the word OM which is known by many people. The beauty of it is that it is easy to remember, it is powerful and it is very soothing to repeat either aloud or in your head. I repeat OM as part of my meditation practice, but it can also be repeated mentally whenever and wherever.

In the Yoga tradition there are many mantras. Sri Swami Satchidananda mentions Japa Yoga in his commentary of these sutras, which I think is the repetition of mantras as a technique to calm the mind and come closer to the True Self.

It is also possible to have a personal mantra (preferably made with the help of a teacher) often repeated as some sort of antidote against limiting thoughts (i.e. ‘I am safe and secure’ if you know you are the anxious type, or ‘I am enough’ if you are constantly torturing yourself with thoughts of self-doubt, ‘I learn and I grow’ if you keep putting yourself down whenever you make a mistake). Usually, one has one mantra and sticks with it for a long period or even a lifetime. It is not advisable to change mantra as we change socks because for it to make a change in our mindset, it needs to be repeated constantly over a long period of time. That is called japa.

So, when, where and why do japa? Whenever and wherever! You can decide to start from the moment you open your eyes in the morning and continue whenever you remember. Most probably, your mind will keep taking over, but when you notice, you go back to your japa to still the busy mind. It is a very good ‘activity’ to have when waiting in line, or at the waiting room before an appointment, while sitting on the bus, while going for a walk, etc. Once repeating your mantra becomes a habit, it can be powerful tool when you are feeling mentally or emotionally distressed. I remember a friend of mine told me she used her mantra when she was lying on the operation table right before surgery, and it helped her feel safe. I use mine when I wake up in the middle of the night and notice my mind is all over the place. Most of the time, it helps me fall asleep again quite fast.

Note that Patanjali tells us that by doing our japa, ‘obstacles disappear’. The obstacles in question are our own mental obstacles. The practice of japa is to overcome our limiting thoughts. Either rumination, regret, worry or limiting thoughts about ourselves. The noice in our head that doesn’t help us.

Ask yourself, how is your self-talk? What do you usually think about yourself? Do you usually feed into your strengths and qualities or do you ruminate on your shortcomings. When you make a mistake, do you show self-compassion or do you drag yourself down through your critical inner voice? Unfortunately, most people have quite nasty self-talk. Whenever you catch yourself putting yourself down stop, take a deep breath, show yourself some understanding and either replace the thought with a positive one, or do your japa. It doesn’t need to be ‘relevant’. You are trying to train your brain to stop limiting yourself.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t spend time reflecting on what we can do better next time, but it means that we talk to ourselves as we would like a good friend would talk to us. You want to have constructive self-talk, not destructive.

Who will you spend the rest of your life with?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? What is the obvious answer?…You!

You might spend a lot of time and energy trying to make sense of your relationships with other people. You might invite people to your life and say good bye to others often connected to what they bring to your life, but how much time do you spend trying to figure out the person who will be with you until your last breath, namely you?

If I ask you how well do you know yourself? What would be your answer? Hopefully, you know your likes and dislikes, and you know your strengths and weaknesses. Often, however, our introspection stops there. We know how we think, how we feel and how we act in different situations, and we limit ourselves to believe that there is nothing we can do about it believing that that’s just how we are.

Yoga teaches us that there is more to ourselves than what we usually think, and taking the time to get to know ourselves better can help us:

  1. Accept ourselves better
  2. Gradually let go of the aspects of our mind that bring suffering to bring lasting peace of mind
  3. Cultivate the qualities that bring inner peace

Rude honesty, acceptance and refinement

The work of introspection starts with self-observation, honesty and acceptance. Observe your behaviour, thoughts and attitudes, and find what doesn’t help you cultivate inner peace, what creates distress, what hurts others and yourself. Honest reflection is required here but do this with the same kindness you would use to rise your own child. Do this with acceptance and without judgement, because if you don’t accept yourself, the work of refining your thoughts will be very difficult. Being judgemental towards yourself will mislead you and you will get stuck in the negative emotion created by your judgement missing the opportunity to go deeper.

Let us say that you have a tendency to get very angry and you don’t like how you behave when you do so. Every time you get very angry you end up doing and saying things that you know hurt others. After an outburst of anger, you then end up feeling frustrated and angry towards yourself regretting the whole situation for hours or even for days. Ruminating, blaming yourself for not being patient, blaming others for their behaviour, blaming the world for being as it is.

Do you see how much time and energy is invested in a pile of emotions that are not helping you? What we learn through the study and practice of yoga is to first and foremost accept that you experience anger but you are not anger. Anger is an emotion that comes to you as some sort of messenger, and you are invited to listen to this emotion, figure out why you get angry. The tough part is that you need to look inside yourself to find the answer instead of pointing your finger toward other people, or the circumstances that make you angry.

In yoga psychology, we learn that anger is often connected to our expectations or to fear. If we manage to recognise the source of the emotion, we then are able to do the work by asking ourselves if we can change or let go of the expectation or if our fear is unfounded. This kind of process requires patience, time and a lot of practice. Awareness is the first step, acceptance is the next one and then we can start the work of refining our perception in order to change the behaviour.

That is where the regular practice of meditation comes in handy. When we sit in silence with ourselves, we learn breathing techniques that help us slow down and relax. We learn to observe our thoughts as if they were some sort of movie playing on the screen of our mind. When we sit in meditation we do not act. We just observe. With practice, we can bring some of the elements of meditation to our everyday life. When I notice that I am angry, I can take some deep breaths to calm myself and create some space between the emotion and the reaction. I can observe my thoughts and allow them to stay as thoughts and not as actions. I can then remind myself where this emotion comes from, and choose the best way to deal with the situation without hurting myself or others in the process.

Another useful practice is to start noticing your self-talk as you go about throughout the day. Whenever you catch yourself being nasty towards yourself, stop, and try to change it to constructive self-talk. It is okey to be critical, to want to improve, but it is not okey if you are constantly putting yourself down.

Cultivate qualities that bring inner peace

The work of introspection is not easy, and it can leave us feeling vulnerable. It is not easy to see with full honesty into the limiting ideas we have about ourselves and those around us. It can be tough at times. That is why, we need to see ourselves as our most important ally in life. We need to accept, love and show compassion towards the aspect of ourselves that we do not like, and keep cultivating the aspects of ourselves that we know bring peace to our mind.

Both in the Bhagavad Gita and in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we are encouraged to replace limiting thoughts that bring pain to ourselves and others with thoughts, attitudes and actions that bring inner peace and by consequence peace around us.

There are several ways to do this, but I want to highlight three:

  1. Decide which values you want to live up to, write them down somewhere. They shouldn’t be more than five. You can maybe range them from your topmost important. Every morning, read your values, and either choose to live consciously by applying them every moment of the day, or choose one for a period of time. Whenever you are in a situation where you need to make a choice on how to behave, go back to your value and reflect how you are applying it in the situation. It might happen that you sometimes go back to acting in a reactive way without reflecting, and realise that you went the completely opposite direction than the one shown by the chosen value. This is completely okay. Practice is one of the main principles in the yoga tradition, and it is not by chance. Every deep change needs practice. So, forgive yourself, learn the lesson, and keep trying.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we find some guidance if we were unsure on what to choose, in Chapter 2, sutras 29-32, he talks about the Yamas or great vows, and Niyamas or observances. The Yamas are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-greed, and the Niyamas are purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study of spiritual books, and self-surrender or worship to God (the Divine).

Furthermore, in chapter 1, Sutra 33, he gives practical advice on what kind of attitudes we can cultivate towards other people in order to cultivate inner peace:

‘By cultivating attitudes of friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.’

In the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 16 verses 1-3, we find many uplifting values and attitudes that can help us:

‘(1) Fearlessness, purity of heart, perseverance in acquiring wisdom and in practicing yoga, charity, subjugation of the senses, performance of holy rites, study of the scriptures, self-discipline, straightforwardness;

(2) Noninjury, truthfulness, freedom from wrath, renunciation, peacefulness, nonslanderousness, compassion for all creatures, absence of greed, gentleness, modesty, lack of restlessness;

(3) Radiance of character, forgiveness, patience, cleanness, freedom from hate, absence of conceit—these qualities are the wealth of a divinely inclined person, O Descendant of Bharata.’

2. Whenever you catch yourself having thoughts that limit yourself. Thoughts that bring distress, stress and/or pain, acknowledge them, accept them, and remind yourself what you want to replace them with. Let’s say I want to live in Trust instead of Fear. Whenever I am worried about an uncertain situation in the near or far future, I can remind myself to trust I will be able to deal with it, and that I will get through whatever life brings.

‘When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana.’ Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras translated by Swami Satchidananda

3. Create yourself an affirmation. If you know in which area of your life you struggle the most, for example, having a feeling of unworthiness, or feeling a lack of love, or feeling unsafe, create an affirmation for yourself: ‘I am enough’, ‘I am loved and protected’… During the day, whenever you remember, repeat your affirmation in your head, and especially in moments of distress.

You are much more than what you believe

Lastly, in the yoga tradition, we are constantly reminded that our body and our mind are only the vehicle through which we experience life, but we are much more than that. Every sentient being is at their core what in Sanskrit is called Atma. My favourite translation to English is Pure Potential. We all are this Pure Potential which is source of infinite love, creativity and happiness. That is why we keep seeking love and happiness throughout our lives! The challenge is that throughout our life (and lives, if you can accept the idea of reincarnation), our mind has been shaped by experiences, and this Pure Potential is covered with layares and layers of limiting ideas that do not allow us to see our real nature.

Our job is then to peel off the layers of limited thoughts to come closer to our core. We start by replacing our thoughts and behaviours that cause pain with what doesn’t cause pain, and little by little we are able to let go of everything that limits us to finally see the infinite goodness in ourselves and others.

Whether you believe in this or not, you should at least know that we all are capable of much more than we limit ourselves to believe. We all have the ability to change our mindset. It is not easy, it won’t happen in a day or two, but with practice and perseverance, you will notice the gradual changes.