Vedanta and the Four Aspects of the Mind
Most of us that are familiar with Yoga are also slightly familiar with Vedanta, the ancient philosophy of the Vedas.
Conforming the backbone of all the main yogic disciplines for right living, right eating, right thinking, and right action, the word Vedanta itself clarifies its own meaning: to the Sanskrit word 'Veda' which stands for 'knowledge or science,' one adds the ending 'anta' meaning 'essence' or 'end.' Vedanta, then, is the irreducible essence of all yogic and Vedic knowledge or the comprised teachings of the Vedas –the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. As such, Vedanta outlines everything a yogi must understand in order to realize Oneness; or, put differently, to finally become self-aware of actual union of our individual soul with universal consciousness.
Now, the science of Vedanta, which is so important for an advanced practice of Yoga or Ayurveda, for example, is as complex as it is detailed, reaching a particularly high level of detail when it comes to speaking of the mind. Because our minds are, in many ways, a most crucial liminal zone: the area of encounter between that which pertains to our individual consciousness and body, and that which transcends any notion of individuality. This is one of the reasons why advanced Yoga practice puts so much emphasis on tools like mantra and meditation; they are key for us to detach from all the background noise of earthly life and learn to listen to the whispers of the silence inside.
Minding the Gap
Indeed, from the perspective of Vedanta, the mind belongs at once to the subtle body and to the causal sharira, acting as a go-between or bridge between body and soul. It is in this regard that it is a most fundamental tool and doorway, particularly when it comes to reaching self-realization –since the mind is at once the main cause of bondage and suffering, and our greatest 'opening' for moksha or liberation.
The scriptures, in this sense, are quite clear: only a mind aimed in the right direction –meaning inwards– can attain Yoga or self-realization. And yes, you read it right; in the scriptures Yoga is self-realization and not your usual timely change from one asana to the next. However, in an age and time where inward-looking is neither taught, nor encouraged, correcting the extroverted habit of our minds without conscious action is almost impossible. Which is where incorporating sattvic routines such as contemplation and meditation can come in handy, as mentioned in many of our previous entries. The whole point of Vedanta (and Yoga) is for us to understand that our mind must learn to turn away from distractions and break the hold of often disruptive thought patterns, so it may become the agent of its own transformation!
The Four Aspects of 'Mind'
According to Vedanta, our mind possesses four different aspects or capacities that work together to bring about the correct functioning of our mind. These are our manas, our ahamkara, our Buddhi, and our chitta. You can think of them as the different sections or elements in a medieval walled city housing a royal palace or tower in its center.
The Manas part corresponds to the level of the outer mind or the outer wall: the part of our mind taking care of the most mechanic and mundane of functions, which is receiving all types of thoughts and information. Picture it as a membrane. Indeed, manas is connected to our outward-going senses, and precisely because of this it is bombarded by a plethora of input second after second, making it very liable to constant movement, a great deal of noise and loudness, and, of course, change.
The Ahamkara, often translated as the 'ego' part of our mind, is the aspect of the mind that attaches a sense of identity or "I-ness' to all that is seen or perceived. It is the level of the mind where the actual division between self and other, subject and object, or inside the wall/outside the wall actually takes places. As such, it serves a key purpose: it protects the integrity of the individual vessel of our soul (our body and all of its functions and components) in a world filled with dangers, so as to ensure its survival.
The Buddhi part or the quality of inner knowing is our great wise counselor, the one living in close proximity to the main 'palace' or 'tower' in the walled city, or, if you prefer it, to our soul. As such, it is the part of our mind that, armed with raw power in the form of supreme intelligence, helps us make highly informed decisions. Indeed, our Buddhi is a more refined sense of knowing, one existing in such close proximity to our main source or inner self that it can almost know reality exactly as it is. Yet, our ability to access or hear our Buddhi is rather weak; and so its wise advice is often muffled by the loud chit-chatter of our extroverted manas.
Finally, chitta, or the memory bank part of our mind, helps us store all memories from past and current lives. In this regard, chitta is the part of the mind that we access when we recall something, and is also subject to the thorough conditionings of our different existences in particular cultures and times. This essentially explains why chitta is the part of the mind that is most uniquely 'ours,' changing in uniquely oriented ways depending on the environment our souls inhabit during a given lifetime.
Vedanta, the Mind, and the Role of Meditation
You can think of the entire process like this if you want: at any one point, our manas receives and transmits input from the world around us to the deeper part of our mind; our ahamkara gives such input (and ourselves) a specific individual identity different from that of other entities. The Buddhi assesses the relevance and value of particular pieces of information in order to make decisions; and the chitta part allows us to remember what's most important from our life experiences, in order to recall particular sensations and learnings, and thus affect future judgement.
The whole reason why the science of Vedanta puts so much emphasis on first acknowledging the nature of our mind and then controlling the mind is precisely this: for us to emphasize its higher aspects and qualities and lessen the redundant parts. This is also the reason why both Vedanta and Yoga recommend for us to practice more introspection and meditation. These are the tools that will enable us to progressively quieten the loud chatter of our manas, in order to be better able to listen clearly to the wise counsel of our Buddhi mind. This is also partly the reason why, as our practice of Yoga deepens and develops, so does our need to devote more time to focused mantra and meditation practice and less to asana and pranayama, for example. What we want is to turn our manas into a subtle whisper, while amping the volume and clarity of the deeper discernment and judgement characteristic of our Buddhi side.