An Interview with Swami Asokananda

A student of Swami Satchidananda since the age of 19, Swami Asokananda describes his understanding of Yoga as homespun, cultivated from years of practice, studying and living a yogic lifestyle. In this interview he shares his perspective on the nature of the mind and the applicability of Yoga as psychotherapy.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What is the mind?

Swami Asokananda (SA): According to the full scope of Yoga, there is only one thing called consciousness. It coalesces, or condenses into different levels. One of the subtle levels of this consciousness is called mind; at the gross level this consciousness manifests as prana or energy; at an even grosser level it is called the body. Yogis say these layers of our being [mind, energy and body], are not really different things at all. Therefore, if we work with the body it automatically impacts how we feel and what we think. Likewise, if we introduce new thoughts, it changes how we feel and our relationship to the body.

Swami Satchidananda talked a lot about the mind as a tool to comprehend who we are. It is a mirror that shows who we are. The first thing is to make sure that the mirror of the mind is reflecting accurately. Yogis talk about “chitta vritti nirodha,” or stopping the waves of the mind so that we can get an accurate image of what is going on.

The second thing is to not solely identify with the mind. We are so much more than our ideas, thoughts and beliefs. Part of Yoga is to pull our consciousness up, and to watch our thoughts without seeing them as our sole identity. We can begin asking ourselves, who watches the mind? Usually when we say we shouldn’t identify with the mind, we mean not to identify with the body-mind complex. One of the strongest thoughts in the mind is, “I am the body,” and this thought creates doubt about viewing ourselves as spiritual beings.

IYM: Is it possible to clearly see that you are not the mind, but the mind still has neuroses?

SA: I would think so. Dis-identifying with the mind is probably the best healer but when we are watching the mind, we can still have some pretty strange thought patterns. Non-identification with the thoughts is a great step toward health. A person who can dis-identify with their thoughts, has a much greater capacity to observe the mind. The unconscious can slowly become conscious—which is a common goal of psychotherapy and Yoga.

According to the psychologist Sigmund Freud: A healthy mind is one that is fit to have ordinary unhappiness as opposed to neurotic unhappiness. That is one level of health. There is a normal unhappiness in life, and you don’t have to add to that with your neurosis. That is a stage of health I would say.

IYM: You mean that you can be unhappy without complicating it?

SA: Right. We could say, “There is misery in life. I see that and I am not going to aggravate that with my reactions to it. I am going to be conscious of my reactions to this hostile environment that I have been dumped in.” Freud wanted individuals to be aware of their reactions; he didn’t want us to be unconscious of them. You are trapped in a negative experience and you are going through it consciously.

I think yogis would say a healthy mind is one that would see everything as neutral. Whereas some spiritual people might say no, no the universe is benevolent: “It is here supporting you every moment, it isn’t hostile. The environment is supportive.” That kind of relaxed cheerfulness does bring a lot of mental health benefits. How you perceive the world around you has a tremendous effect on your well-being.

Certainly one of the qualities of a person with a healthy mind is “awake-fullness,” being aware of what’s taking place. Someone should know what the mind is doing and be able to assess what is useful and beneficial for one’s growth and enjoyment of life. That person can gather the forces needed to go in the direction of that assessment, as opposed to being pulled by the old patterns that have been established that pull one away from that assessment.

The three qualities of mental health are: 1) an awareness 2) a capacity to choose the right direction and 3) the capacity to behave according to the direction you set.

IYM: How can we recognize a healthy mind?

Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2012 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.