By Ramona M. Wis
Last week, we looked at the importance of “making space” if we want something new, presumably better, to enter our lives. By releasing pursuits, ideas, or habits that no longer serve us, we make space to move forward to new opportunities, insight, or energy. To some degree, this release requires detaching from the endless voices of Zoom meetings, webinars, Facetime calls, news alerts, and social media.
I am not suggesting we live with our heads in the sand or go it alone when strategizing for “what’s next.” Wisdom involves listening, researching, and recalibrating within the context of the world around us. What I am talking about today is the central yoga principle that can lead us to the inner wisdom we access when we still the mind chatter.
The primary source for yoga practice and philosophy is a collection of nearly 200 aphorisms or “threads” called the Yoga Sutras compiled by an Indian sage named Patanjali somewhere between 500 BCE and 400 CE (though there is debate about this exact time frame and whether Patanjali was one person or multiple people represented by one name).
The fundamental principle of yoga is found in Sutra I.2:
“Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.”
In our modern western culture, yoga is often viewed only as a physical practice. But the great gift of yoga is its ability to bring us to a greater level of awareness by stilling the mind to see more clearly, ultimately bringing the best version of ourselves to the world. That means the best version of ourselves to our ensembles, especially during unprecedented times. Let’s take a moment to see what this sutra has to offer us.
Citta (pronounced “chitta”) is consciousness or the conditioned heart-mind, existing between the external world and our internal, soul level, our “ inner light of awareness.” The citta is influenced by the outer world, by the quality of what we take in and focus on. Negative impressions or experiences, excessive sensory input, and competing voices cloud the mind and prevent us from functioning at our best. We are unable to stay with one idea or task because we are pulled in multiple directions by these voices, only to find we are no further along in our search for a solution to a problem or insight into a creative project.
Does this describe your reality right now as you plan for the new concert season or school year? Too many choices, too many “best ways,” no real sense of which way to go?
When our mind is still, it is disciplined (nirodhaḥ), uncontrolled by fluctuations (vr̥ttis) or the chatter that characterizes our daily life. With a focused mind, we select what is helpful from our external world and release what is not to find ourselves more efficient in our work and calmer in our approach to challenges. We seem to get answers “out of nowhere,” but these come from that place of clarity we can’t access fully when our mind is, as Pandit Rajmani Tigunait writes, roaming aimlessly.
“The goal of yoga is not to control, restrain, or confine the mind but to calm the vr̥ttis—the mind’s roving, revolving tendency. Gaining mastery over the mind entails overcoming the mind’s tendency to roam aimlessly from one object to another . . .”
Stilling the fluctuations of the mind does not mean avoiding the world but rather, requires building habits of mind that free us of competing energies so that we can determine our next best step. These include various forms of mindfulness and meditation, (see my earlier post, “What If I Can’t Meditate?”), prayer, “flow” activities that require our immersion, or anything that represents productive stillness. We can also:
Be more selective about what we ingest and how much. If we think of information like mental food we ingest, how is our “diet?” Are we overindulging? What is the quality of that food? Who is making the choices for us? What we ingest becomes our mind and directs our action.
Stay on mission while doing our deep work. Ping-ponging between alerts, news items, emails, and what Cal Newport calls our “deep work” allows the whole world to take over our mind and our time and creates an underlying anxiety. Our deep work becomes shallower and less efficient when we allow the mind fluctuations to take us away from what is more important. We need to unlearn self-distraction and the false sense of accomplishment we get from clearing email or searching endlessly down yet another rabbit hole.
Take a 10-minute vacation in nature. Breathe and allow the mind to settle. Listen to what we hear from that inner awareness—our insight, our truest self—when we are clear, unencumbered by so much that matters so little. Experience what it means to “be still and know” found in many contemplative traditions, such as in Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God”).
Learning to still the mind is a key component of our success as conductor-teacher-leaders and a skill we can teach our choirs for their own wellness and musical growth. The seeming irony?
We will hear better when we still the voices.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice.
For the quote above and more on Yoga Sutra I.2, see Pandit Rajmani Tigunait: https://yogainternational.com/article/view/yoga-sutra-1-2-translation-and-commentary
For more on the concept of “Deep Work,” see Dr. Cal Newport’s book by the same name: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1455586692/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_AdXhFbFBZEN4H
Or his TedX talk on Quitting Social Media: https://youtu.be/3E7hkPZ-HTk
For more on “inner light of awareness” and applying the Yoga Sutras, see Nicolai Bachman: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/path-of-the-yoga-sutras-nicolai-bachman/1100276200
For more on Psalm 46:10: https://www.inspiredtofaith.com/2019/03/15/be-still-doesnt-mean-what-you-think-it-does/