Yoga of the Mind: A Key to unlocking the grip of prejudice


As a husband, father, and teacher I find myself in the position of judgment often, either by default or choice.  I can be critical of my partner in the ways that she treats me or our son.  I can be judgie regarding the progress or lack of progress my son makes in his developmental stages as a toddler.  In the classroom setting I must judge by the fact that I need to assign a letter grade to my students.   

The problem of being in the judge’s seat is not the judgment itself as much as a crude lack of awareness of our innate prejudices.  Prejudice is a preconceived opinion that is not based in reality.  Judgment is part of human nature.  Judging correctly has served to keep us alive.  We make choices based on earlier knowledge.   

Prejudice, while not based in clear seeing, gets confused as clarity when the seer is not self-reflective.  In other words, without some kind of a meditation practice, we think that how we are seeing our corner of the universe is based in reality.  In the Yoga Sutras, misconception, or prejudice is recognized as one of the 5 modifications of our True Self.  “Misconception occurs when knowledge of something is not based in its true form” (Yoga Sutras, 1.8).   

In our culture, being called prejudice is like being told you are a worthless dirtball.  Racism is based in the assumption that people of color are less deserving of human dignity than white people.  Most liberal whites are quick to condemn biased actions or words, yet still do not escape benefiting from a system that condones and feeds from a racist based economy.   

Moreover, even those with the best of intentions cannot help but have entrenched prejudices.  Prejudice is a label nobody wants to own.  If I say, “You’re being prejudice,” chances are you will resist my judgment, and counter judge me.   

The Yoga Sutras, I think, can give us some insight into prejudice and how to work with it.  First, the Sutras says, “Restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga” (Yoga Sutras, 1.2).  Then the seer abides in her or his own nature” (YS 1.3).  So, first we need to recognize the need to understand the way our mind works.  Our True Self or our True Nature only comes forward when we understand how to see through the “modifications” or fluctuations of the mind.   

The Yoga Sutras say there are five basic fluctuations. Two that clearly result in prejudice are “misconception” and “verbal delusion.”  Misconception is “knowledge of something… not based in its true form” (YS 1.8).  Verbal delusion refers to, “An image that arises on hearing mere words without any reality as its basis” (YS 1.9).  These two modifications of the mind are particularly active when prejudice is present in the mind. 

Prejudice, perhaps, can be considered a sub-modification of misconception and verbal delusion and it results in obscuring our True Self.  Seeing our prejudice requires knowledge of how the mind works as well as deep honesty on our part.  The end of prejudice comes not from denying the mental modifications of misconception and verbal delusion that we are all subject to but from owning up to them fully.   

When we own our misconceptions, then we have something to work with.  The Yoga Sutras tell us how to work with these mental fluctuations: “These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment” (Yoga Sutras, 1.12).  It goes on to further define practice as, “effort toward steadiness of mind” (YS, 1.13).  How do we keep our mind steady?  Steadiness is achieved when practice is, “attended to for a long time, without a break, and in all earnestness” (YS 1.14). 

In other words, we need to be deeply sincere about our practice and we need to do it regularly.  A prejudice mind is one that is experiencing fluctuations.  It is the opposite of steady.  When our mind is not steady, we know we are not seeing reality as it is.  But this insight into our fluctuating mind only comes if we have a practice well established.  Otherwise, we filter what we perceive through our confused senses as reality.  We think what we are seeing is real, when in fact we are mistaking a distortion for reality.  

Fear is the result of an unsteady mind.   

Fear is an unsteady mind.  Fear is the result of not seeing our self as related to everyone.  Prejudice is based in this unclear seeing of our self in relation to the world.   

Practice, then, is about first noticing when the mind is disturbed and then making efforts to calm it down.  When it is calm, then we see our true nature.  Just as when there is no wind over a lake, we can investigate the water and see our own reflection clearly.  But as soon as there is a ripple, what we see gets disturbed, and we mistake the rippled surface for reality. 

I see the story of Jesus calming the storms (Luke 8:22-25) when he is with his disciples out at sea as an allegory for how to tame our mind.  We sometimes feel like we are being tossed around by the waves of our mind with no anchor.  For many people, invoking the name of Jesus is a way to soothe the mind.  The Yoga Sutras say (among other things), that the mind can find peace by “concentrating on a great soul’s mind which is totally freed from attachment to sense objects.”  For some people, that is Jesus.  For others, Buddha.  Still others, Muhammed.  There are countless great souls.  Any one of them can be of aid to us in any instant.  We just need to focus on that person. 

One thing I am aware of in myself is how much my prejudices surface in relation to my own family.  Family is the easiest place for me to see my own prejudices because I am forced into a double bind:  Family is at the same time my source of unconditional love and simultaneously where serious disagreements manifest.  I am forced, in a way, to choose between tapping into their kindness or standing in my own truth (and tapping into the love that goes beyond family).   

How do I win?  Is there a middle ground?  What if instead of choosing one position or the other, the feeling of familial-love (love that I’m comfortable with) on the one hand, or stating my truth on the other hand, I simply noticed what was going on in my body before or underneath feelings of love or truth?  What if I chose not to choose anything?  What if I did nothing?  Even for a moment?  

Recently, I realized how critical I could be of certain behaviors in a family member.  If I speak my truth, I face the withdraw of love.  If I suppress the truth I remain in an intolerable status quo.  Neither is acceptable to me.   

Sometimes it takes everything I have to not have a strong verbal response.  Repression comes in the form of anger directed outward, sometimes toward my kin, or inwards, sometimes toward myself.  In these times I receive help from a combination of plainly talking out my feelings with a loved one as well as being by myself in silence.  Embracing this pain can only happen, though, when I am conscious of my own prejudices or judgments, and refrain from placing the blame of how I feel on to another. 

Being aware of prejudice is a most difficult quality to cultivate.  But the Yoga Sutras give us hints on how to notice our prejudice.  “… distress, despair, trembling of the body, and disturbed breathing” (YS 1.31) are all symptoms that we need to practice with greater sincerity.  It may also take a loved one pointing out to us our errors and cutting us a little slack to think about them.   

Jesus spoke of removing the wooden beam from one’s own eye before trying to remove the splinter from your brother’s.  My Zen teacher gave the analogy of spitting into the wind.  The spit just comes right back in your own face. 

If I can make it to the awareness stage of my own prejudices, then I sometimes am able to simply ask the question, “in what ways do I fall short as a father, husband, teacher or U.S. citizen?”  Rather than looking outward at my misperceived explanations of the problem, I begin to look inward.  This is always a humbling experience, but it also helps me to release my grip on judgment.  When judgment dissolves something magical happens. 

This magic is depicted in a Zen story of a samurai who wanted to know what hell and heaven were.  So, he went to Zen Master Hakuin to ask.  Hakuin was sought after by many for his wisdom.  Here is my own rendition of the dialogue that happened between them: 

Samurai:  What is hell and what is heaven?  I am daily confronted, as a warrior, with my own death.  I want to know what heaven and hell are like when it is time for me to depart this world. 

Hakuin:  Tell me, what do you do for a living. 

Samurai:  I am a general. 

At this statement Hakuin gave a hearty laugh that surprised the Samurai. 

Hakuin:  What kind of idiot made you a general? 

The samurai grew furious [notice the symptoms of prejudice that follow], his face bright red.  He drew his sword over his head, hands quivering ready to slice the Zen Master in two. 

Hakuin said calmly:  That’s hell. 

The samurai, realizing his own error, returned his sword to its sheath, bowed humbly, and said:  Please forgive me.  [Notice the shift here from external to internal on the part of the Samurai]. 

Hakuin said calmly:  That’s heaven. 

When we can relinquish our prejudices, we can enter heaven right here right now.  We do not need to wait until the end of our life or the end of time for the Day of Judgment.  “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” (Matt 3:2) Jesus reminds us.   

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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