Parikarmas and the Monkey Mind

Yoga often compares the mind to a monkey. My monkey encounters in India gave new meaning to this analogy. An example: Seth and I were celebrating our fourth wedding anniversary in Matheran, a lovely mountain town a few hours from Mumbai. Less lovely was getting mugged by audacious bands of marauding monkeys. First, we were surrounded when Seth purchased a roasted corn on the cob. He wisely surrendered the corn without a fight. Second, as we enjoyed tea and cookies on the hotel veranda, another monkey gang made off with our sugar bowl and chased us away from our chairs. After carefully inspecting our empty tea cups and crumpled cookie wrappers, they were incensed that they’d missed the party and proceeded to smash our tea cups. We had our tea inside after that.

Our minds are less like cute monkeys swinging on ropes in the zoo and more like the wild monkeys of Matheran in voracious pursuit of their next snack. Yet, humans are unique in the animal kingdom because we possess the potential for self-realization. I recently listened in to Yogarupa Rod Stryker’s Enlightened Life series and was reminded that enlightenment is possible. We can purify the mind so it reflects the light of the true self. We can concentrate deeply and gain knowledge of the absolute. By stilling and focusing the monkey mind, we can glimpse and eventually connect with our true nature, the abiding serenity and radiance that lies within each of us.

The parikarmas outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I:33 are among the many yoga practices designed to take us in this direction. B.K.S. Iyengar’s translation of Sutra I:33 reads: “Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favorably disposed, serene and benevolent.”[1]

I find the parikarmas very practical, something I can work on minute by minute on an average day. Maitri: cultivating feelings of friendliness toward those I see walking down the street with a smile. Karuna: seeking empathy and compassion within (rather than guilt, aversion or fear) when faced with poverty and other forms of suffering. Mudita: teaching myself to feel joy rather than envy when others achieve success. Upeksha: finding calm by gently distancing myself from negativity or bad intentions.

Sutra I:33 is in the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras, which outlines practices for the most advanced students, i.e. those with minds that are already peaceful and focused. At The Yoga Institute in India, students are taught that parikarmas are “embellishments” of the mind, tools to fine-tune an already refined mind, as well as techniques to purify the mind. My training also emphasized that parikarmas should be practiced internally, rather than through actions. Maitri isn’t about hugging everyone we meet. Karuna isn’t about giving money to anyone who asks for it. Rather, we aim to develop these qualities at the level of our thoughts and emotions and then act using common sense.

Sutra I:33 also reminds us that we are responsible for our own happiness. That we can’t let other people or external circumstances disrupt our peace of mind. The parikarmas can help us move toward true and lasting contentment within, to manage our monkey minds and reach our highest human potential.

[1] Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Harper Collins, 1993.