Brain freeze with BKS Iyengar

Our new apartment is just round the corner from the famous ‘chocolate man’, a Gokulum institution of legendary proportions who has been meeting the international yoga community’s wild and wonderful dietary needs for years from his tardis-like corner shop. As well as all kinds of trendy health-foods such as almond milk, organic granola, quinoa etc, he also sells a range of divine home-made cookies, cakes and chocolate bars – it seems even yogis have their weak spots.

Well, this yogi definitely does, anyway. Living so close to the chocolate danger-zone has revealed to me my wilting will-power in the face of such sugary delights. I don’t know whether it’s the heat, the energy used up in the practice, or just a perverse desire to be naughty whilst in the virtuous bubble of Gokulum, but my addiction to the dark chocolate and hazelnut cookies is getting out of control.

I’ve still not finished reading Iyengar’s Light on Life – the pages seem to be multiplying as I’m reading and I never seem any closer to the end. However, I’m picking up all kinds of gems and, in there, is a rather brilliant and surprisingly humorous skit, which is currently helping me stem my daily cookie habit (kind of, ahem). If most of the book represents Iyengar’s severe and awe-inspiring eyebrows, this little skit is the cheeky twinkle in his eye, shining out from behind… 😉

The skit is in fact a ‘conversation’ between mind, ego (our sense of self) and intelligence, regarding whether to reach for a tub of ice-cream after a long day or not. Yoga philosophy separates mental activity into these three parts, and states that humans tend to let the mind and ego dominate, kind of like the ‘terrible twins’, such that intelligence doesn’t get much of a look-in, even though intelligence actually knows best. Anyway, rather than attempt to explain this further, I’m going to bow to Iyengar’s far superior gift of explanation and repeat the ‘conversation’ (almost) verbatim from his book below. I encourage you to read it as it will a) hopefully make you chuckle, b) ring painfully true, c) help you understand how your mind works a bit better and d) possibly help you put down the ice-cream tub/cookies/fag – or whatever it is plaguing you – next time temptation rises!

Here follows an extract from BKS Iyengar’s 2005 book, Light on Life (with a tiny amount of editing, for the purposes of brevity):

‘You have arrived home late and tired from work. On the way you stopped off for a pizza and so are no longer particularly hungry. Once in the kitchen, as if by magic, you find yourself opening the freezer door. Inside sits a tub of vanilla ice-cream. The following sequence of events takes place:

  1. Your eyes (sense organs) light on the ice-cream, read the label (vanilla) and carry the information back to mind for decoding and identification. 
  2. Mind (as it always does) relays this information to the egoic self.
  3. Quick as a flash, ego and mind go into a huddle, and memory, which is contained in mind, is brought into play. A question is automatically put to memory, ‘Does the act of eating vanilla ice-cream result in pleasure or pain?’
  4. Without hesitation memory replies, ‘Pleasure’.
  5. Ego says, ‘OK, give it to me’. And mind coordinates the hand movements necessary to take the tub of the shelf. The rest is history.

Let us now go back to stage 4 and see if any other outcome might have been possible and, if so, how.

  • Mind and ego are vaguely aware of a sort of static buzz in the background of consciousness, as if someone were trying to get their attention. This makes them uneasy so they turn round (away from the open fridge) and see intelligence jumping up and down. ‘May I ask memory a question?’ it asks.
  • Mind and self shuffle their feet, sensing trouble, but finally reply, ‘We’d rather you didn’t, but if you insist we cannot deny you a chance.’
  • ‘Thank you,’ says intelligence. ‘Memory, please tell me what happens when you eat ice-cream night after night? What are the consequences?’
  • Memory has a truthful nature though on occasion it can make mistakes. Memory replies, ‘You put on a lot of weight, can’t fit into your new trousers, have sinusitis, and your arthritis flares up.’ Left to itself, memory from past acquired taste will make the mistake of saying, ‘Go ahead – eat, enjoy.’ It is the intervention of intelligence that poses a more complex question, ‘Do we live to eat, or eat to live?’.
  • Intelligence continues to hold the floor. ‘Let me summarise our predicament,’ it says. ‘We all enjoy eating ice-cream, even in excess. We all hate secondary consequences of this, you especially, ego, being so vain about your figure. It seems to me we have a choice – to eat it or not to eat it. That must be clear to us all.’
  • Poor mind is utterly confused, as, in spite of its name, it does not really have a mind of its own. It will run in any direction, like a dog after a ball. Normally it lets ego give the orders, and ego is now very upset. ‘I always eat ice-cream when I’m tired after a long hard day. It’s a great comfort to me. I owe it to myself. It’s who I am.’
  • Intelligence (who is also annoyed about the trousers though in its case it is more about the stupid waste of money) speaks up for the last time. ‘For once I’m going to put my foot down. I’m fed up with the rut you two are in, always the same, day in, day out, and then whining about the consequences, or dreaming about how good things used to be or will be again one day. Nothing’s going to change unless we do. Mind, please tell hand to move away from the ice-cream and shut the freezer door.’ Which it does.
  • And the next day they all feel better for the way things had turned out. In fact ego was very smug and had quite persuaded itself that leaving the ice-cream had been its idea all along.’

So there you have it – an all too familiar scenario, although most of the time we’re probably holed up in the first version of the conversation. So next time I’m at the shop, I will try and hush mind and ego for a second, and see what intelligence has to say… ;

Important post-script: I just refused a biscuit even though Chris is munching them next to me and I can smell the buttery goodness. Ha, in your face, ego!

  Such a brilliant book, such a brilliant man…

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