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What is mind? Understanding the typical ways the mind works

Updated on December 23, 2011
C.V.Rajan profile image

C.V.Rajan is a retired Engineer and a spiritual seeker.With inquisitive observation of life, he writes on several human relationship issues.

What is mind?

Hindu philosophy gives lots of weightage to grasping what mind really is. At the pinnacle of its conclusion, the whole universe is nothing but a projection of mind. A man thinks he and the world around him exists because his mind makes him believe so. Where the mind ceases to exist, everything in the perceptible world ceases to exist. For ordinary mortals, the mind stops to function only during deep sleep state and at that state one forgets the existence of his body and the world around him.

In absolute reality, it is just the Atman that exists; Atman has two projections born out of maya in an individual soul: One is the mind and the other is prana, the life force (which is usually associated with breathing, whose existence is basic for the existence of the physical body ). Prana and mind are intricately interconnected.


It can be easily observed that when mind is agitated, breathing also becomes fast. When the mind is calm, breathing also slows down. When the mind stops, breathing also stops. Great yogis in deep Samadhi state totally calm their minds and during such periods their breathing also stops, though they continue to be alive.

The converse is also true. If one can control and slow down breathing, the thought flow in the mind also is controlled and the mind gets slowed down. This is the basis on which the practice of Pranayama was evolved by yogis as a means for practicing meditation.

What is mind? Mind is nothing but thought flow. Mind is like a river. A river exists only when there is a flow of water. Mind is frequently compared to a monkey. A monkey can hardly remain unperturbed even for a moment at one place. It keeps swinging and jumping from one branch of a tree to another. Likewise, the nature of mind is to keep swinging from one thought to another with seemingly no respite during waking state.

Here is an analysis of what sort of activities the human mind keeps engaging itself unceasingly and an attempt to put them into some typical categories, with examples, that most of the people can easily relate to.

  • Relishing and rewinding past sweet memories: Like the games you played with your street children / class mates and your winning a particular game in a spectacular way that made you a hero for an evening
  • Licking the pain by rewinding past bitter memories: Like your first girlfriend ditching you right royally and then flirting with your staunch enemy…
  • Regretting the past mistakes/ rewinding guilt : like the blatant lie you made knowingly about a friend of yours to his girlfriend that ended up in breaking their relationship and making your friend near mad afterwards.
  • Justifying your past mistakes and acts: You fumbled up in a decision making in your office and the repercussions were bad. You are asked to appear before the CEO for an explanation. You mind churns out excuses and justifications to justify your decision.
  • Rehearsing a talk: In the above case, you have formulated your justifications. Now you keep thinking on how you will word your explanations, how you will counter the accusations and how you will put the blame on others very smartly.
  • Thoughts of hate: Your boss insulted you publicly in a meeting. You keep on thinking about his act and you anger and hatred against him keeps on rewinding in your mind.
  • Scheming vengeance: It is the continuation of and aggregation of hatred. You start scheming as to how to insult or offend your boss in the next opportune moment to teach him a lesson…
  • Thoughts of love: “Oh! The first meeting I had with my girlfriend… In the cool breeze at the sea shore, when she came with a bright smile that seemed to light up the whole beach…”
  • Grieving: “I just can’t bear the death of Johnny, my little younger brother…”
  • Arguing in absentia: You picked up an argument with your friend about something and he cornered you; you could not defend your viewpoint at that time. Now your mind works overtime to get you points over points to counter his argument !
  • Extrapolated imagination: Your boss scolded you this morning about a serious lapse of you on your job. Your ego refuses to believe that the mistake was yours, though deep within you, you know it. Now you find your colleague walking with your boss in the corridor and both of them are laughing together. “Ah! It is this fellow who must have informed the boss about my lapse; I know he was always conspiring to corner me in some issue or other. See! Both of them are laughing together about me, for sure. Rascal! I know this useless fellow wants to snatch my promotion …”
  • Worrying about body/ health: “My face looks ugly; my body stinks; this dress does not suit me. This cold is going to lead me to fever and I am afraid I may become bed ridden. This back pain is unbearable…”
  • Day dreaming: “If I were to be the President of USA, I will …..”
  • Planning, Problem solving: Your computer broke down this evening. Tomorrow you have to prepare a spreadsheet present it in a meeting. How to rectify the computer yourself, how to find alternative means of preparing the spreadsheet, how to postpone the meeting ….
  • Creative thinking: Remembering a past incident and then trying create a short story out of it that you can write later. Seeing a movie and then thinking “If I were the director of the movie, I could have ended the story this way…”
  • Imagining/ planning for future: “If the appointment order comes from the company that interviewed me last week, I am sure they will agree to double my current salary; I will dispose my old car first and buy a new one…..”
  • Worrying about the future: “What if I don’t do well in the examinations? What if I don’t get a job? …”
  • Harping on the current anxiety: Your dearest mother is hospitalized. You are sitting beside her and nursing her. Her pain, her suffering, the worry about the possibility of her dying keep on nagging your mind.
  • Praying: “Oh God! Please give peace and quick recovery to my mother. Don’t take her life away now…..”
  • Worrying about the world: “What will happen if another great earthquake triggers a huge tsunami across several continents?”
  • Frustrating/ negative thoughts, feeling helpless: “Oh! My country is going to dogs. There is so much corruption, inefficiency, useless politicians, overpopulation, traffic problems on the roads, accidents, pollution,…..” “Right from childhood, I was not lucky. I was not the favorite child of the parents…”
  • Analyzing / criticizing others: “ K. is very greedy; B. is very moody; F. is too talkative……”
  • Self analysis: “For the past three days, I am able to get up promptly at 5:00 AM. I should strengthen this habit further; I eat too much sweet. This is one bad quality that I should get rid of”. “I thought it was a harmless joke, but my father-in-law was very visibly offended by it. I think I should not have said it….”
  • Understanding and absorbing: “This specific piece of advice I read in that book today is very apt for me to follow. However the author said something differently in another chapter that ….”
  • Feeling proud/ pampering the ego: “Ah! I felt so happy when my boss said in front of the CEO that I am the most valuable person in his team….” “My writing must be really impressive. See many appreciative posts have come from readers for my blog….” “ I predicted one year back that this government will fall within one year and it just happened! I seem to have the right political acumen…”

The funny way of working of the mind is that it may not cling to any one stream of thought for long. If you are in a despondent mood, your mind may start with a current anxiety, then switch to a worry about future, then go back to thoughts of hate on somebody, and then start worrying about the world next. In moments of despondency, your mind will refuse to entertain any positive thoughts or joyful thoughts. Likewise, when your mind is particularly upbeat, it will refuse to entertain negative and depressing thoughts at that juncture.

If the mind is just allowed to go on and on with the thought flow day and night, one will end up a lunatic. That’s why nature has provided sleep to give a forced rest to the mind.

However, for a person to evolve spiritually, resting the mind only through the normal process of sleep is just not adequate. The mind has to be stilled when it is awake. Only in a stilled mind, the reflection of the Atman can be seen. Meditation is the way for it.


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    • OTEE profile image

      OTEE 5 years ago from India

      Good analysis of kinds of thought. I agree that despondent thoughts attract similar thoughts and happy thoughts attract positive thoughts. This what author Rhonda Byrne wrote in her book "The Secret" and is making millions. :)

      Interesting observation you made, "The mind has to be stilled when it is awake. Only in a stilled mind, the reflection of the Atman can be seen. Meditation is the way for it."

      I have not tried meditation; I would like to know your personal experiences in meditation, stilling the mind and how it feels. Would you oblige?

    • profile image

      Srikala 5 years ago

      Very simply worded and interesting article on the workings of the mind.Deep knowledge of

      The mind is evident. The mind also appreciates as when hearing a good music concert, as when you see a fine painting,when you read such well written articles as this. Mind also

      Thinks thoughts of gratitude for all that one tends to take for granted like our dear ones and all

      The comforts that we enjoy. Mind salutes fellow men whose inventions and discoveries

      Makes life what it is today.

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Beautifully said. I have frequently thought of this 'Monkey chatter' of the mind that so many people engage in. I have experienced it myself in my early days of meditation. Now, I try to teach my nephew to 'slow down and breathe' when he gets excited...which is quite frequently. Thank you for sharing this useful information.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

      Thank you for an interesting and well laid out hub.

    • profile image

      Deepika 6 years ago

      All those different categories were too apt, but I would have loved more "Indianized"/"cv ish" examples for them!

    • C.V.Rajan profile image

      Disillusioned 6 years ago from Kerala, India

      Hi Vickram,

      There is a Tamil saying "IRumbu pidichcha kaiyum, SoRi pidichcha kaiyyum summa irukkaathu". Should I add, keyboard pidichcha kaiyyum...?! (As usual seek your mother's help to decipher the above saying!)


    • profile image

      vickram 6 years ago

      Seems like u r back to writing again??