Recently I attended a weekend training in Vancouver, BC with Judith Lasater, an internationally known yoga instructor. She asked us to take a few minutes at home the next day to jot down the five most common thoughts we had throughout the day. Sadly, my repetitive thoughts were not profound or enlightened or even remotely inspirational.
“What’s for dinner?” came to mind repeatedly throughout the day until I finally decided what to make and gathered the ingredients to begin. “What should I blog about?”, “Where is my phone?” and “Where are the dogs?” were also in the running.
My Mom, who has Alzheimer’s, has lost her ability to filter her repetitive thoughts and says them out loud over and over again but the quality of her ponderings are surprisingly similar to mine. I know I have grown irritated in the past after the thirtieth time (in an hour) she has wondered aloud, “where are the dogs?” but now I wonder if my irritation came from her beating me to the question? The most heart-wrenching statement that she repeats regularly is, “I don’t know what I am doing….” Alternated with “What should I be doing?”
This past weekend, we launched our 4th year of Three Trees Yoga Teacher Training. During the philosophy class, Karen taught that the “turnings of the mind” are called vritti (sort of rhymes with pretty and literally means waves or whirlpool) in Sanskrit, and added that once you know this word, it tends to sneak into your everyday vocabulary. We will often comment to each other, “I have vritti about (fill in the blank with the kids, our husbands, our parents, or any random irritation that has crept into our minds.)” Some of the students in the program suggested that “rumination” (the compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress) and “perseveration” (The recurrence of a tune or thought in the mind) might be the closest words we have to vritti in English.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an ancient philosophical text, vritti appears in the second sutra or aphorism, and helps illuminate a definition of yoga: “yoga chitta vritti nirodha.” Though there are many variations on how this statement is translated from Sanskrit, one common interpretation is “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” In other words, we do yoga in order to achieve a stillness and clarity of mind.
Unlike with ruminations, vritti are not necessarily negative, just repetitive. However, the repetition of the thought, the conversation, or the musing can distract us from being present or in other words, from being aware of what is happening right in front of us. If the vritti is a story we have been telling ourselves repeatedly or a conversation we have been chewing on, there is a tendency to identify the thought as truth and not just the idle distractions of a busy, stressed-out mind. Think, “My thighs are so fat.” “Why is he mad at me?” “I should have told her to _______________.” Or “What if such and such happens?”
Sometimes my Mom will sit motionless and stare into space for long periods of time. Seeing her like this is usually disconcerting and causes me to worry and even sometimes begin to act like a human-size vritti, peppering her with questions designed to get her moving. “Mom, you want to take a walk or play Scrabble…maybe watch TV?”
Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe Mom has finally achieved a state of calm, where the fluctuations of her mind have quieted and she has entered a state of meditation rather than catatonia. Perhaps I should be celebrating that, for once, she is not obsessed with the location of the dogs or wondering what she should be doing. Her countenance is as quiet and still as a lake… no waves…no vritti. After all, when babies stare over our shoulder seemingly at nothing, we say with a smile that they are “talking to the angels.” Maybe this is a full circle moment where my Mom is also re-visiting her celestial guides and instead of worrying, I should just smile? By shifting my perspective on her need to be still, I have allowed my own vritti about her well-being to quiet a bit as well.
Unfortunately, that has done nothing to help free me from the daily self-inquiry of “What’s for dinner?” And by the way, in case you were wondering, the dogs are under my desk, lying on my feet.
* Jeni Martinez is a yoga lifer. In order to have time to blog, she has had to give up flossing her teeth. (Please do not mention this to her dentist.) She lives in Twin Lakes with her twin teenage boys, her husband, her mother and her two dogs. She credits yoga with keeping her sane; her husband’s cooking with keeping her healthy; her boys for keeping her awake and her Mom for teaching her early on how to make the best brownies.