Yoga literally means “to connect.” A bhakti-yogi seeks to connect to Krishna, the personal aspect of the Absolute Truth, through a variety of devotional practices. These include chanting Krishna’s names congregationally (kirtana) and serving the Lord in various ways according to the yogi’s capacity. However, the foundation of all a bhakti-yogi’s attempts to connect is his or her daily japa session. Bhakti-yogis chant a prescribed number of rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra on their chanting beads while trying to focus their minds on remembering Krishna. But although the Vedic scriptures recommend mantra meditation as the best way to achieve this remembrance, chanters face a formidable challenge: the wandering, restless mind.
No sooner do chanters begin their meditation session than the mind becomes restless, digging into past memories, running again and again over present worries, and exploring the future. Much of this mental life is fantasizing about all the ways we can enjoy and all the ways we can suffer-reliving experiences, painful or pleasant,and planning endlessly. Anything but being present while we’re chanting. We have to wonder why chanting makes the mind so defiant.
To answer that question takes us to the crux of our identity: we are pure spirit souls who originally served God in the spiritual world with love and devotion. When we left His shelter and decided to enjoy independently of Him, we began to face the endless complexities of this world. Complexity is almost synonymous with struggle when you’re dealing with matter.
The mind is a part of our subtle make-up, and it accompanies us throughout our sojourn in this world. Our refusal to be reunited with God, Krishna, is expressed through the protesting mind, which spends its time conjuring plans to enjoy separately from Him.The mind’s non-devotional movements during the japa session are an example of this rebellion.For those who want to practice bhakti-yoga,the mind must be diligently pulledback to Krishna.
We can bring the mind under control by following a few simple but effective principles. The first principle is not to become discouraged; continue chanting the maha-mantra daily. The word mantra is derived from the Sanskrit words mana, “mind,” and trayate, “to deliver.” Mantra meditation, particularly in the form of chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, thus helps us deliver the mind from its material conceptions and increases our remembrance of God.
A moment of candid admission to Krishna about our fallen condition is a major victory on our spiritual journey. srila Prabhupada, the founder-acarya of ISKCON, was a pure chanter of the holy names, yet he humbly prayed to Krishna to protect him from falling into maya, illusion. Therefore, while continuing to chant daily, we need to be humble about our fragile condition and turn to God for protection. Humility attracts Krishna’s grace. A bhakti-yogi does not work so hard to restrain his mind for the sake of control; rather, he does it to attract grace.
The third principle is listening to the holy names. srila Prabhupada gave us a simple strategy to control the mind: when you chant, listen carefully to the words Hare, Krishna, and Rama. As the mind drags us repeatedly from the present into the past or future, gently but firmly pull it back to listening to the holy names. Despite the mind’s unwillingness to cooperate,
if we listen to the syllables of the maha-mantra, the mind and heart will unite with Krishna. Listening helps us push the protesting mind toward submission; our chanting can then actually connect us to God rather than pulling us away from Him.
I remember a particularly stressful period in my life when I heard disturbing rumors about a person I loved; my relationships with people I knew closely soured. Although I’d been chanting for over a decade and should have been better able to control my mind, I was engulfed by strong negative emotions and was miserable. A friend advised me to “just hear” the syllables of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra as I chanted my daily japa. The method worked wonders. Although my problems persisted for a few more years, chanting pacified my anxious heart. I felt instant relief, and over time learned to depend more on Krishna. Now I look back at that time gratefully, for the crisis bought me closer to Krishna.
Listening to the holy names is hard work, but it’s rewarding. Last year, one early morning while I was traveling into the interior villages of India, I discovered that our car driver hadn’t slept the previous night. Seated next to him I chanted nervously, eyeing him constantly to make sure he wasn’t nodding off as we raced over the narrow, bumpy roads. The driver was reckless and there was no comfort to be found in the state of the roads. Neither could I seem to take comfort in the idea that I was in control of the situation. Deep down I knew I couldn’t do anything if within a split second the driver crashed into the mango groves on the roadside or one of the vehicles speeding toward us from the opposite direction. One stressful hour later, I gave up my anxious monitoring and inattentive chanting, my mental steering of the car, and gave up control. Instead I decided to focus on the holy names. Initially it was difficult to continuously pull my mind back to the sound of the mantra, but soon my hard work paid off and I felt only relief as chanted. I realized I couldn’t do anything except depend on the Lord’s mercy. The chanting nourished me, and in relinquishing the reins of my life to Krishna, I felt as if I was standing under a cooling rain shower on a hot day.
Another tangible benefit of trying to listen to the holy names is it sharpens the intelligence and increases awareness of the mind’s restless nature; that is, it helps us see ourselves as separate from the mind. Later, as we engage in other activities during the day, we will be quicker to catch the wandering mind and pull it back to the job at hand. A devotee thus feels confident and empowered by the tool of intelligence.
The Katha Upanishad(1.3.3–4) compares the human body to a chariot and the senses to the horses driving the chariot. The mind is the reins and the intelligence the driver maneuvering the chariot. The chariot’s passenger is the soul, the body’s real occupant. For the chariot to be driven smoothly to its destination, the driver, guided by the passenger, must control the horses by an effective use of the reins. Similarly, if yogis wish to optimally use their body to attain perfection in bhakti-yoga, they need to empower their intelligence-the body’s driver-by giving it spiritual knowledge. With strong, spiritually-directed intelligence, developed by prayer and scriptural contemplation, we can develop enough expertise and willpower to properly rein in the betraying mind.
In the beginning of our bhakti practice we accept the Hare Krishna mantra as a medicine to cure us from our material conditioning. When we are purified, chanting Krishna ’s holy names becomes a spontaneous expression of the soul’s love for God. Advanced practitioners recognize the holy names as non different from the Lord and therefore pray to chant Hare Krishna purely. Someone once asked srila Prabhupada what he ultimately expected from chanting Hare Krishna. He happily replied that the goal of chanting is to chant forever-with every breath, every heart beat, to have our consciousness absorbed in glorification of Krishna’s holy names.
Sixteenth-century Vaishnava poet and scholar srila Rupa Gosvami, in his joyful glorification of the holy names, said, “I do not know how much nectar the two syllables krs and na have produced. When the holy name of Krishna is chanted, it appears to dance within the mouth. I then desire many, many mouths. When that name enters the holes of the ears, I desire many millions of ears. And when the holy name dances in the courtyard of the heart, it conquers the activities of the mind, and therefore all the senses become inert.”(Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya, 1.99)
A devotee endeavors to reach the stage of offering his mind, senses, and heart for the pleasure of Krishna. They are less worried that they have managed to perfectly control the mind and are more interested in knowing whether they are aspiring to please the Lord by their thoughts, words, and actions.
As we begin chanting we are immediately connected to Krishna and become happy. However, when we aspire to love and serve Krishna purely, our chanting makes Krishna happy, and that takes our chanting to a completely different level where it becomes an exchange of pure love between the soul and Krishna.The mind no longer matters.