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Ayurveda And The Mind – An Overview

Ayurveda And The Mind - An Overview

Ayurveda is inherently a psychological as much as it is a physical system of medicine.  Its scope of practice includes both physical (sharirika) and mental (manasika) diseases. Therefore, we cannot really understand Ayurveda without looking at its view of the mind and consciousness.

The examination of the mind and psychological diseases in Ayurveda is potentially as complex as its examination of the body and physical diseases. It is not just  a sidelight to be looked at in passing. It requires its own expertise, attention and application, just as any other branch of Ayurveda and its therapeutic methods. While one doesn’t have to be a trained psychologist in order to deal with the psychological aspect of Ayurveda, any more than one has  to be a medical doctor to deal with its physical aspects, one does have to do  some study of the mind and how it works.

I have always tried to bring the psychological aspect of Ayurveda into my various books and course material, including the book Ayurveda and the Mind. We cannot do justice to Ayurveda without it. In this short article, I will try to provide an overview of the subject, to encourage the student to go deeper into this subject.

Traditional Ayurveda recognizes three main causes of disease:

1. Doshic imbalances, either by constitution or by external factors.
2. Excess of rajas and tamas in the mind.
3. Karmic factors or results of previous actions.

These three factors are generally related to some degree, though one is usually dominant. Doshic imbalances usually rest upon an excess of rajas or tamas, which in turn reflect deeper karmic disharmonies. Ayurvedic treatment is threefold in order to counter these.

1. Rational therapy to counter the doshas, as in the application of appropriate foods, herbs and clinical therapies of opposite energies to the doshic disharmonies.
2. Yoga therapy and sattvic therapy to counter rajas and tamas, as in the use of asana, pranayama, mantra and meditation.
3. Spiritual methods to reduce karma, as in the use of rituals, mantras and the use of deities.

These three treatment methods usually crossover and aspects of each may be used relative to the same client or condition. The mind as a factor and psychological/emotional  issues is present on all these levels.

The  doshas as they accumulate as toxins have negative emotional components like  Vata as fear, Pitta as anger and Kapha as attachment as all Ayurvedic students  are well aware of. Vata dosha in particular has strong psychological  ramifications because the mind is part of the sphere of Vata and also composed mainly  of the same air and ether elements. Vata problems usually include psychological  problems, starting with fear, insecurity and anxiety. Management of Vata always  must include a lot of psychology.

Pain of any type first imbalances Vata, so pain management of any type will involve  a strong component of anti-Vata considerations. Stress also tends to first  imbalance Vata; so much of stress relief is anti-Vata in scope and orientation.

Yet  the other two doshas have their own key psychological components and  considerations as well. Each patient will have a particularly psychological as  well as physical energetic that we must be able to understand in order to  arrive at an effective treatment plan.

The  three gunas are mainly psychological factors with rajas as ego-driven impulses and  tamas as deeper emotional blockages, insensitivity or addictions. These make  the doshas hard to deal with as they may create attitudes that resist the  treatment even on an outer level of diet and herbs.

Yet  doshas and gunas should always be cross-referenced and treated together. For  example, deep-seated doshic imbalances will always involve some degree of  tamas, which often translates as deep-seated trauma, pain or debility. A good  Ayurvedic practitioner should be able to discriminate the different conditions  of each dosha in its sattvic, rajasic and tamasic modes, such as I outlined in  my book Ayurvedic Healing. This is a good foundation on which to approach an  Ayurvedic psychology.

Negative  karma arises mainly from wrong judgment (Prajnaparadha or Buddhi dosha), which  includes the wrong use of the senses, prana, emotions and mind. It represents  the effect of long term doshic and gunic distortions as they become lodged in  the psyche. Such wrong judgment begins with rajas, as it involves a factor of  willfulness. Yet it also reflects tamas over time as it indicates tendencies  the person is unable to see, recognize or change. Ayurveda not just about  removing the doshas and increasing sattva guna but also eliminating the negative  karmas and karmic patterns (samskaras) which sustain them in our own behavior.  Vedic astrology is an important tool in helping us understand these karmas.

When  we think of Ayurvedic practice, therefore, we must recognize the psychology of  doshas, gunas and karmas. In this scheme, the mind has the main role, the body  is just the place where these imbalances get lodged, manifest or cause  diseases.

Ayurveda and Counseling                                                                            
On  top of these general psychological considerations, Ayurveda, particularly in  the West today is largely a counseling based system of medicine. Much of its  work consists of educating the patient how to change their life-style to  prevent disease from arising and to optimize their health, as well as to treat  specific diseases. While this may center outwardly on dietary, herbal and  exercise recommendations, it requires an understanding of the psychology of  people. Otherwise we will not have the proper rapport with the patient to  ensure right communication and compliance with treatment recommendations.

ayurveda and mindHow we relate to a Vata person to calm their anxiety about such changes we suggest will  be different than how we deal with a Kapha person and their complacency or a  Pitta person with hidden anger issues. Their psychology will greatly color how  such recommendations are made and whether they will work, even if they are appropriate  begin with. It is not enough in Ayurveda that we as practitioners can arrive at  a correct diagnosis and treatment plan; we must have the counseling skills to  enable patients to effectively implement these. When Ayurvedic treatment fails,  it is usually owing to the inability of the practitioner to understand the  psychology of the patient well enough to get them to stick with their Ayurvedic  recommendations.

Physical and Psychological  Suffering
In  addition, the West today has a lot more psychological than physical suffering.  Modern medicine has been relatively effective in alleviating many acute  diseases, but emotional suffering has increased owing to various factors of our  modern life out of harmony with nature.

Mental-psychological  conditions like depression are almost epidemic today. Even children are  commonly suffering from conditions like Attention deficit disorder (ADD) or  hyperactivity. The current drug-based medicine is developing special designer medications  to treat these conditions, though such powerful drugs are also problematical  and involve many side affects. Ayurveda can provide a good alternative to this  treating of the mind and psychology mainly through drugs. This cultural  disturbed psychology requires that Ayurvedic practitioners have the  psychological tools to deal with it.

In  fact, any high Vata disturbed patient is likely to come away with a recommendation  of such drugs if they see the usual type of doctors today. The problem is such  drugs may only suppress Vata, not correct. So we have to be particularly  careful to protect Vata types from getting into the drug based medical system,  as they may never get out.

Many  of the patients who come to Ayurvedic practitioners today do so seeking some  spiritual or psychological relief. They are coming to Ayurveda as a mind-body  medicine with a spiritual basis. They will expect that the Ayurvedic  practitioner can handle emotional and spiritual issues and not just treat them  on a physical level. So Ayurveda’s role as a psychology is quite important in  the west today.

Relative  to psychology and Ayurveda, however, there is not easy information available.  Such topics are scattered throughout the Ayurvedic classics like Charaka and  Sushruta rather than organized in one place only. They also cross over with  spiritual concerns and teachings about Yoga.

So  one of the main needs of Ayurveda today is to present a better psychological  model that is useful in the present cultural context. Many Ayurvedic teachers  in the West have aided in this process. Most Ayurvedic practitioners have to  face the challenges involved.

Ayurvedic Psychology and  Yoga
Classical  Yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and in the Bhagavad Gita is a  means of working on the mind or calming the chitta, which is the basis for  removing suffering. Ayurveda’s psychological therapy of increasing sattva is mainly  a yoga therapy. Classical Yoga itself is mainly a psychology. This means that  Ayurvedic psychology must employ the tools and views of Yoga.
Some  Yoga teachers have tried to address the psychological application of Yoga and  create a new psychological model of Yoga. But they usually do so apart from  Ayurveda and sometimes apart from the greater Yoga tradition. That work may  have some value but will be more useful if integrated into a greater Ayurvedic  approach. Yoga psychology requires Ayurvedic psychology as well and neither is  like to flourish or develop properly without the other.

Models of the Mind                                                                          
Ayurveda  usually employs the Samkhya-Vedanta model of the mind, which is divided as the  fourfold internal instrument (antahkarana chatushtya).

1. Chitta – Conditioned consciousness
2. Buddhi – Intelligent judgment
3. Manas – Mind, capacity of imagination
4. Ahamkara – Ego

These  Sanskrit terms do not have exact English equivalents and have some variation in  their usage.

In  Yoga terminology, chitta is often a general term for the mind as a whole, with  manas standing for the sensory mind. In Vedantic terminology, manas more  commonly assume the role as meaning the mind as a whole, with chitta meaning  more the memory bank.

Generally, chitta is the general field of mental disturbances (vrittis or kleshas of Yoga)  that need to be calmed or removed. Buddhi is the higher discriminating  intelligence that we must develop in order to remove these disturbances and  gain such peace of mind. Manas is the outer mental and sensory activity that  keeps these disturbances in motion and needs to be controlled. Ahamkara is the  factor of ego or self-will which keeps this process in motion.

This  means that ways of calming the chitta, developing the buddhi, controlling the  manas and reducing ahamkara are essential to any Ayurvedic approach to the mind.

We  can also discriminate how each of the doshas and each of the gunas affects each  level of the mind. For example, Vata in the chitta would be a fairly deep  seated anxiety disturbance. If it is tamasic, it will be involved with a lot of  self-negativity and possibly suicidal tendencies.

Ayurveda  is concerned with the elimination of the pranic doshas of Vata, Pitta and Kapha  and the mental doshas or rajas and tamas from the mental field and from each of  these four levels of the mind. Increasing the buddhi or higher intelligence of  the client through study and meditation is a key to this process. Of course  there is always the key issue of translating these terms and insights into  common language for the patient and using them to develop workable strategies  of life-style improvement.

Yet  Ayurveda presents an integral and practical psychology. It does not isolate the  mind from the body but shows how the body, prana and senses not only impact the  mind and psychology but can be used to treat them.

Mind and Prana
Ayurveda  and Yoga look at the mind and prana as like the two wings of a bird. The mind  is the power of knowledge (jnana-shakti) and the prana is the power of action  (prana-shakti). The mind is a deeper level of awareness than the outer pranas  operative in the sense and motor organs. Yet the original prana is a deeper  level of awareness than the thinking mind. It is into that deeper prana that we  return to in the state of deep sleep for renewal of both body and mind.

We  cannot treat the mind without treating prana, which requires yogic practices of  pranayama and pratyahara. And we cannot treat prana without considering the  doshas of Vata, Pitta and Kapha, which are mainly pranic doshas or pranic  imbalances. This means correcting the diet, adding helpful herbs and other  Ayurvedic massage and cleansing methods like Pancha Karma.

ayurveda and mindMantra  is the main healing tool specific to the mind, though it has strong impacts on  the prana as well. The use of mantra and pranayama together is a good way to do  this.

Mind and Self
Ayurveda  follows a Samkhya-Vedantic view in which the mind is just an instrument of  consciousness, the real Self, Atman or Purusha. This view is different than  most other schools of thought in which mind and consciousness are usually  identified or regarded as the same. In treating the mind, we must remember this  greater Vedic view that our true being and awareness transcends both body and  mind. The purpose of Yoga and Ayurveda is not just mental harmony but bringing  the mind to a tranquil condition so that the light of the higher Self can come  through the mind.

Ayurvedic  psychology takes us to self-examination and Self-realization. It doesn’t end in  the mind. In this regard, it warns us not to get too caught in the mind. The  best way to harmonize the mind is to return to the Self behind the mind and its  stream of thoughts.

Modern  Ayurveda in India,  with its joint Ayurveda-allopathic training, has reduced both the yogic and  psychological components of traditional Ayurveda. Western   Ayurveda, with its yogic and naturalistic background, as well as  its application in the western context of psychological unhappiness, has a  greater interest and need for this psychological aspect of Ayurveda. A revival  of Ayurvedic psychological is an important consideration, if not prime trend,  for the new global Ayurveda.

Yet  whether it is the application of diet, herbs, massage, Pancha Karma, life-style  changes, mantra or meditation, the psychological component of Ayurveda is  always important and should be thoroughly grasped by the serious student.  Ayurvedic psychology can also be a good field of specialization as well.

I  would also like to direct the reader to the works of British/German  psychologist Reinhard Kowalski who has done much work in this area, as in his  book ‘The Only Way Out is in’. He is a good example of a psychologist, in his  case working in the British Health Care System, who has been able to integrate  Ayurveda into his practice.

The author Dr David  Frawley (Pt Vamadeva Shastri) is an accomplished and highly respected scholar  on Indic studies. He is the founder of The American Institute of Vedic Studies.  To know more about his work visit VedaNet.