The Power of the Mind


This talk is on the power of the mind. The mind is supposed to have limitations, but if we study history, as our teacher always recommended, we find that those limitations have been accepted in quite different places in very different ways over long periods. For instance, the great builders of the cathedrals in Europe, from Notre Dame, made each one a little bit higher than the last cathedral, up to Beauvais, which was so high that it fell down.

They were master builders but they couldn’t calculate more than five times five in their heads. That was thought to be quite impossible. Even accountants used to have on the walls of their offices, the tables above five times five, six times six, six times seven, six times eight, etc.. It all had to be written down. Nobody could be expected to remember that. Quite impossible. Well, sometimes they had to calculate when they were away from their tables and didn’t have a counting board with them.

How would you calculate then, nine times nine? Well, the accountants used to hold up their hands. Nine times nine. So, on one hand, nine is four above five, so we put down four figures. Now, on the other hand, nine is four more than five. So put down four fingers. Now, add the fingers that are down – four and four, that’s eight. Multiply the fingers that are up – one times one is one. So the answer to 9 times 9 is 81. Well, nobody could be expected to remember that, but they were experts at calculating and we know how widespread this was because there were references in the literature to the supple fingers of accountants. So they were constantly using these figures.

Now in the same way, to read silently was a great achievement. You had to be more or less a genius to read silently. It has been argued that nobody could.  We know that the astronomer, Ptolemy, writes that reading silently – not verbalising the words as you read, as everyone else did – to read silently, he said, “It’s a very good exercise in concentration.” But he was regarded as a genius. It was almost impossible to do it. But now, anybody can do these things.

On the other hand, they had faculties which we regard as impossible. For instance, memory. Even a century ago, people could remember. Thackeray, the author, when in a storm at sea, to take his mind off the danger, recited the whole of, ‘Paradise Lost,’ from memory.  We would think, “Oh, no. Nobody would do that.”  But people could. It was not so exceptional. So the frontiers of what is possible and what is impossible vary quite considerably.

Now, there are other faculties which we hear of.  For instance, some Tibetan monks practice, as a form of discipline, sitting meditating in the snow. Our teachers referred to this. They are able to do it and by practice, they have been able, by a special form of concentration, to raise the temperature of the body several degrees. Now, our teacher has referred to this and he said, “Well, one who has passed through these years of training, he can sit in the snow and meditate, but that’s all.”

The United States Army sent a medical team to test whether these claims were true and they found that they were. There is an interesting addition to this point. They asked one of the monks if he would come down to the plains and help them with some more elaborate tests and he said, “No, because apparently when I go down to a warm place and I sit in meditation, immediately the heat of the body goes up.” It now happened automatically to him – he couldn’t control it. So he had to meditate now in these very cold places. Our teacher said, “There is no advantage in such things.” However, they do exist and it is worth knowing that what are thought to be the frontiers of possibility are not so fixed as we can imagine.

Now the ordinary mind is a battle and I have represented it here [a diagram on the board]. There is something to be done and I want to do it. As we know, immediately that happens, then all sorts of other considerations come in:  “You can’t do it anyway for a bit. How is this going to affect our relations with ‘So and so’? They might not like it here.” Well, our normal method is, in this battle, to increase the force and say, “I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to.” Then the [objections] tend to increase too and there is a big battle. Then there is [another thought], “I’m not going to bother with these things. Why get all excited about it? It doesn’t matter.”

Well finally, there is a battle and sometimes one will win and rather slowly, rather ineffectively, something will happen and can be forced through. Now this is completely different to the yoga method of action. It is not a question of building up more and more force, more and more passion and fury in order to overcome this resistance, but to take away the simple reaction, which then takes place without friction, without a battle.  That means the ability to give up casual thoughts and passionate thoughts to make the mind empty, except for this [main] thought, this [main] desire. This is the yoga method. Well, what is the method? How are these things to be overcome and got rid of?

© Trevor Leggett

(Continued in ‘A fundamental practice of yoga’)

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: The Power of the Mind

Part 2: A fundamental practice of yoga

Part 3: Spirit is independent of the body

Part 4: One of the programmes of Yoga