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In this article, I describe the effect of the mind and its emotions on our health from an Ayurvedic perspective, with a focus on the koshas (which translates from Sanskrit as “sheaths”). (1) The koshas are described in the Vedic tradition as the layers of human consciousness that exist around the self – think lampshades around a light bulb. When they are all balanced, optimal health is the result. (1, 2)
In The Beginning…
After we are born, we spend the first two years of our lives communicating heart-to-heart with our parents and loved ones. No words are said, but the communication is direct. As infants, we live in a heart-centered world, where we are safe, full, complete, and content. The heart is the home of the “bliss sheath” (anandamaya), which lies closest to our core self. (1)
Then, one day in preschool, we get our feelings hurt. Someone takes our seat or makes fun of us on the playground, and we are crushed. We quickly realize that this is not a safe world and that we have to protect our feelings. So we begin to employ our minds, the manomaya kosha, to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, the mind does too good a job of protecting us, and over time, it creates a seemingly impenetrable barrier, doing everything it can to keep all invaders and stressors out of our delicate heart space, including the mind itself. Thus begins the ultimate mind-body disconnect. (1, 2)
From an innocent and natural desire to create protection, the mind and its emotions cut us off from who we really are. Simply put, moodiness and sadness occur when a person loses access to the joyful self we started with as infants. This is also why the body begins to break down.
Fatigue is often the first physiological response when the mind has driven the body into a state of exhaustion related to the need for self-protection and control. Worry is a result of this exhaustion because the body and mind need energy to calm down, stabilize moods, and deliver deep sleep. As the mind continues to drive emotional protection, exhaustion persists, leaving the body unable to handle stress and vulnerable to a host of potential health imbalances.
Who’s In Charge Here?
Once the mind has taken over, it strives to distract us so that we will never notice we have lost access to our true joyful selves. It diverts attention with powerful emotions like anger, shame, and jealously. It seduces through the sensory worlds, drawing attention outward, away from the self, toward the worlds of money, achievement, fame, food, and sex. And when all else fails, it calls on fear to seal shut the doors to our innermost being.
The mind does a great job of maintaining this ironclad protective shield, building and adjusting a personality to mask our vulnerability. This personality becomes a projected illusion we create to protect the delicate feelings of the heart. Safely hidden within, we respond not to our own true nature, but to the needs and whims of mom and dad, siblings, employers and friends. Soon we spend most of our time juggling responsibilities to make everyone else happy and okay with us, disconnected from our own happiness. We become prisoners, sentenced to illusion and guarded by fear, allured by the imbalanced use of the senses. (2)
In time we become actors playing the same role over and over again, as though in a bad movie, required to stick to the lines of the script we created as children. As adults, we do not need or want this kind of protection. We yearn to have access once again to our true selves, to rediscover our passion and who we really are as adults. This is the process of truly “coming to our senses.”
Distracted by our senses, we base our happiness on the outcome of a World Series game or newly released movie, and yet the heart longs for more. Ideally, instead of the mind driving the chariot, the heart begins to employ the senses as avenues of consciousness that transport awareness from the mind to the heart, opening the gates of perception and letting out a glimpse of joy, love, and optimal health.
Reclaiming the Director’s Chair
When your mind has the reins, you will be more concerned with what people think of your personal movie than the story your soul is trying to tell. When the mind passes the reins of control back to the heart, you become the director of your own movie and you can change the script. When your heart has the reins, the movie becomes about joy, freedom, love and the true expression of your soul’s message, your purpose.
Seated in the director’s chair, when we see ourselves running the same behavioral patterns again and again, we can decide to create change. From the heart’s more complete perspective, we can more easily identify the cause of a particular stress, character trait, or pattern of behavior. We can even rewrite the lines or delete entire scenes. (1)
The Subtle Energies
In addition to affecting us psychoemotionally, the patterns of the mind impact us spiritually as well as physically. Just outside the mental sheath is the energy sheath (pranamaya kosha) where prana, or life force, moves. If the mind holds the reins, the flow of prana can be affected. And when prana does not flow freely, the entire energy flow of the subtle body system comes to a halt. The 72,000 subtle energy channels (called nadis) remain dormant. Without energy flowing through the nadis and subtle energy channels, spiritual progress comes to a grinding halt.
The energy sheath is also the support system for the body sheath (annamaya kosha) and optimal health. In order for the body to function properly, prana must be flowing freely. Ayurvedically speaking, this free flow of prana allows the doshas (vata, pitta and kapha) to balance, the seven dhatus (tissues) to develop, and the gross channels (srotas) of circulation, like blood and lymph, to move. It is here at the physical level that we see how these very subtle mental and emotional imbalances can affect the health of the entire body. (3)
All Natural, Inside and Out
From an Ayurvedic perspective, we are at our core healthy, whole, happy, joyful and loving by nature. It is important, then, to engage in habits and practices that support the emergence of this essential nature that bring balance to mind, body, and spirit. Ayurvedic medicine may prescribe yoga, breathing, meditation and other lifestyle techniques, in addition to using herbal remedies to maintain and restore balance.
A lifestyle in harmony with nature and the natural cycles of life allows the body to de-stress and heal, inspires optimal health, and creates an environment in which the mind can become still. In this stillness comes a natural state of self-awareness from which we can change the constructs of the mind. As you begin to live in harmony with your environment, you will naturally become more self-aware, and the obstacles, fears, and imbalances keeping you a prisoner of the mind become the focus of your attention. Once positive actions are taken as a result of this awareness, both the mind and its emotions, along with the body, can heal. (2)
The only roadblocks that potentially derail positive action steps in the healing process are our fears. Our fears are the last stronghold of illusion employed by the mind. Once you confront a fear, being willing to do the things you are most afraid of doing, you can move through its illusory barriers. (1)
Think about Batman. He was afraid of bats. In order for him to become a superhero, he had to face and embrace his fears. So he moved into a bat cave and replaced his fear of bats with a love for bats.
We can each take on our fears. One at a time, with baby steps, tackling the small ones first, we can chip away until we find ourselves fearless and free. And then, through the fear, we gain access to our joyful self that has been waiting patiently deep in the heart.
The key, however, is action – or according to Ayurveda, your karma. Karma simply means ‘action.’ There is an old Vedic saying that goes, “To the extent that something affects you is to the extent it is your karma.” What this means is that if something, someone, or some fear is affecting you, then the move, the action, the karma is yours. Negative feelings are nothing more than an opportunity to take action; to replace the negative with a positive, loving response. Remember, we are by nature loving – so replacing negative emotions with positive actions is the path to freedom which, in time, translates to optimal health. (1, 2)
Let your mind, guided by your heart, heal your body!