Coping With Moods: The Challenge of the Turbulent Mind
Are we stuck with our changing moods?
Posted Mar 12, 2019
Many of us can probably well remember periods in our adolescence or early youth when we were utterly taken over by our moods. They swept in like an inexorable wave over which we seemed to have no control. This process would see us almost wallowing in our states of infatuation, anger, resentment, outrage, etc. These moods seemed to have an intrinsic power that was outside our control.
Generally, with maturity and the demands of adult life, a complete sense of overwhelm became less and less frequent. However, this process doesn’t happen completely naturally. It is interesting to see that various states of mental and emotional distress are referred to as “mood disorders”. This signals a recognition that moods may continue to bedevil us into adulthood.
The idea that we can work with mental states and shift them is commonly found in many of the world’s Wisdom Traditions. Patanjali, the compiler of the Yoga Sutras, taught that an uncultivated mind will always be prey to moods and impulses. That it is, in fact, the nature of the human mind prior to being refined and cultivated. It is not simply that it is our temperament and that we are stuck with the status quo.
One of the most common metaphors of the mind drawn from the Upanishads is of the senses as the wild horses that pull the person out of their center and into unskillful and fluctuating states of mind. This image of the mind while emerging from Hindu scripture is actually a useful model regardless of one’s cultural background. From this point of view, the mind is composed of different ‘mental players’. Some of these players are driven by our outward going senses and unexamined emotions. This is understood as being true for all human beings- it is just that some of us are better able to “hold our horses”!
This outward facing and largely uncontrolled mind is generally the normal state of our consciousness if it is not developed. Other parts of the mind are associated with reflection, intuition, perspective and the innermost reaches of wisdom. These layers are not so readily accessible without exposure to self-reflective practice and inner dialogue.
Such awareness practices are essentially techniques that allow for the experience of direct contact with the inner Self, and to overcome the many veils standing in the way. Especially if we are to avoid being swept up in a whirlwind of changeable moods when life is not going the way we expected, or we are experiencing high levels of stress. Contemplative traditions, including the tradition of Yoga, regard such attention training and self- inquiry as essential for mental resilience, character formation, and mood-regulation.
The problem is that these more ‘meta-cognitive’ functions can remain dormant and undeveloped unless we can expand and develop a healthy dialogue with our more instinctual and emotional nature. The ways that we can draw on their power depends on myriad factors such as mental attention training, meditation, sadhana (spiritual practice) and other modes of mindfulness training. The truth is that the mind needs something to hold on to. Without support or direction, the mind easily goes in circles and is likely to fall into negative states and moods. It drifts with every experience we have, like a ship without a rudder. Yoga and meditative practice, on the other hand, steadies the mind so that it falls into alignment with the deeper parts of the Self.
The result is an increased ability to self-regulate and self-soothe when needed. As life continues to evolve and test our mettle, we are offered countless choices every day and countless opportunities to grow into a more mature version of our selves. In many ways, it is a life that evokes our character, and the multitude of contemplative practices can help us in this process. In fact, it often only in states of pressure and stress that the fruits of various practices show themselves. We are able (at least some times) not to snap at the people around us, to give in to irritation over small frustrations, and to be present for others when necessary and put our own minor issues aside.
We can choose to ping pong between our very changeable moods and emotional states, or we can seek an anchor deep within. This is not at all to say that we become numb or emotionless, but rather that we are not swept away by the ever-shifting nature of our experience. One of the differences between a trained yogi or meditator and someone who has not worked with the mind is that the yogi was trained to move beyond conventional stages of mind and impulse rather than treating them as a stopping place. Also, they were taught to pause and reflect before they acted from emotional states and moods. Moods were seen to belong to the mind which readily creates our problems and reacts to life. In contrast, the inner mind accessed through meditation, reflection and awareness was viewed as the mind that offers perspective, calms our moods, and seek conscious action in life. This mind was termed buddhi coming from the Sanskrit root budh which means to wake up and become conscious.
Researchers now recognize these post-conventional states of cognition, that the Yogic scriptures described some 3000 years ago can still inspire us today (Corsini and Wedding, 2007). These levels of consciousness were considered an expression of the finest states of mental alignment bringing us inwards towards the Self. This process over time shifts us out of the fluctuations and turbulence of the lower mind and moves us towards a more spacious, less reactive and present way of being.
Raymond J. Corsini and Danny Wedding (eds). 2008. Current Psychotherapies, Belmont, CA: Thomas Brooks/Cole.