Unit VII.  Early Veils: Mind and Senses, Learning


  1. Wisdom in Action
  2. Mental Development
  3. Conditioning
  4. Habits
  5. The Metaphoric Mind
Book needed:

The metaphoric Mind, 2nd ed. or later

Practices and Exercises:

Wisdom in action
Breaking habits
The metaphoric mind

"Yoga is mastery of mind" (Mishra, 1987a, p. xi)*

In the first chakra is a white elephant with its five trunks pointing down to the ground. This is an interesting importation from the east Indian culture. Elephants have great utilitarian value in India and are often used to do heavy work. But, because of their great size, they could be difficult to control. Therefore, baby elephants are staked with a reasonably short chain from the time they are very small. Later, when grown, they still believe they can't get away even though it would be nothing to them now to uproot the stake. They never test to find out if the restraint is still working - as is often true of most adult humans. When a person is leading an elephant down the road, it is important to give it just the right amount of leeway. If too much rope is given, the elephant gets out of control. If too little, it may rebel and still gets out of control.

All of these facts are also true of the mind which is symbolized by the elephant. It can do tremendous amounts of work but easily gets out of control. And, also like elephants, adult humans rarely test to see if early learning still applies. We can think of the chain as our social hypnosis.

The five trunks on the elephant in the chakra represent the five senses. In this chakra, they are all pointing down toward the earth indicating the materiality to which we are all addicted. By the fifth chakra, a few of them are pointing upward. Notice that the trunk on an elephant is its primary sensory organ. It smells and touches with it, and it is a useful tool for lifting things as well.

The elephant also symbolizes true strength and power blended with gentleness and humility (Easwaran, 1991). It has the unusual ability to forget itself in loving others as represented by the Hindu deity Ganesha, the elephant god. Easwaran says the elephant's presence in the forest makes it possible for many other species to exist which is why it is called the keystone species by biologists. If we put these qualities together with mind, we would have extremely powerful tools to use for good in the world.

Exercise: Wisdom in Action

Read chapter 4 in End of Sorrow. In several places in this chapter, Easwaran refers us to the New Testament. Make a list of these correspondences. In fact, it might be interesting to keep a running tab of the similarities between Yoga and Christianity. Under what conditions does the Lord manifest in a physical body as a divine incarnation? How is reincarnation like going to school? And what is the purpose of life? What is Dharma? What does detachment mean? What is the Divine Ground of existence? Can you identify with that? Why all the emphasis on desire? Of what is allergy symbolic, according to Easwaran? What is action in inaction? Inaction in action? What is the trouble with intellectual knowledge? Do you think this means we should give up using our minds? How can you find freedom? What is the use of sacrifice? How can we understand others? What is the criteria for immortality?

How would you know when you are liberated? What is the most important qualification to obtain divine wisdom or knowledge? How is wisdom different from information? What is the whole purpose of spiritual discipline? What are we asked to renounce? Make some notes for later use.

Now, let's look at how the mind develops in infancy. It parallels the development of identification as you might have suspected.

Mental Development

The most useful model of growth and development that I have found is that of a spiral. It fits with Piaget's observations that people go through cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium with each turn of the cycle bringing us at each turn to a higher level of development. It also fits with open systems theory that maintains, among other things, that there is a tendency toward increasing organization in patterns of life that is contrary to the apparent randomness often found in inanimate objects and the physics of the universe. You may have observed this in your work with your lifeline or even in the kitchen. If you peel an onion or a cabbage, you will see that their leaves overlap in a spiral pattern as do leaves on a tree very often. A conch shell is a magnificent example. The conch moves out from its center as it grows larger and more complex. So we can think about human development as a series of turns about the central axis of who we are. The first two years of life are critical to the development of this identity.

Piaget is famous for his work in outlining the stages of mental development in children. (Review Table I. Developmental Processes in Unit II). He details the behavior of children as they learn how to make the sensory motor connections in the brain that enable us to function in the world. There are separate sections in the cortex of the brain that govern sensation (how we receive information about the world through our senses) and motor activity (how to control our bodies). In order to be able to use feedback from our senses to adjust our behavior, as in recovering our balance if we nearly fall for example, we must make connections in the brain between the neurons of these two systems, hence sensorimotor development. Infants make these connections through trial and error experimentation beginning in the first weeks after birth.

Eventually, at the end of this period around age two years and as a result of extensive practice, children become able to create and hold a stable image of something in their minds thus becoming capable of what is called object constancy or object permanence. This is a major turning point because, up until this time, the only way they could represent something to themselves was by encoding it in the body (Bruner & Olver, 1966). This is why memories of very early experience are usually recovered more easily through bodywork than talking therapy. It is also why most people have no memories before around age two. After this time, memories are increasingly represented by images and even later, around age five, by words and language.


The result of the first two years of mental development is what, in Yoga, is called the sensory-motor mind or manas. It can be and is conditioned which means that habit patterns are learned that run themselves off automatically whenever a certain stimulus is presented. Simple conditioning is associated with rewards and punishments. Rewards strengthen the bond between stimulus and response (e.g., a dog in the kitchen salivating to dinner smells) while punishments associate the stimulus with fear (e.g., a parent with a switch becomes feared). To reverse conditioning, withholding the reward consistently usually works. This is called extinction. However, if the reward is inconsistent, the response or habit is strengthened. In infants the rewards for trial and error learning are probably a sense of increased competence in putting things together and understanding how they work. However, certain constellations are also formed around the feeding situation, contact of various sorts and cuddling. These are called attachment or bonding.

In modern psychology, there has been a tendency to try to reduce all learning to stimulus-response conditioning. This is obviously absurd, and if you have had a class in behavioral psychology, you probably reacted negatively to this reductionism. However, stimulus-response connections are the basis of sensory-motor learning, so they play an important role in early conditioning.

Learning as a broader category includes all forms of cognition or mental activity in which something new is assimilated into the mindbody. I think a good case could be made for a basic drive to learn for its own sake independent of rewards or punishments. For example, if you have come this far in the module, why have you done that? For what reward?

Conditioned learning can become a very complex string of stimulus and response patterns. But does this explain all learning? No, of course not. However, it is probably the primary form of learning in the infant and young child whose brain is not yet mature. We will see how other forms of learning develop in later modules. When the brain matures, some neural connections can no longer be made resulting in restrictions on learning such as becoming unable to acquire a new language without an accent or being unable to relearn language if critical brain cells are destroyed by accident. This fact reflects what is called the "critical period" for learning. For example, bonding occurs during a very limited critical period when the organism is primed by nature to become attached. There are compensations, however. A mature brain is capable of extremely complex machinations such as abstract thinking and being able to think about oneself thinking which a young child cannot do. It takes nearly twenty years for complete mental development. And it may well continue beyond the ages that scientists have elected to study.


Habits are automatic patterns of conditioned or learned behavior that are run off whenever certain stimuli are presented or are present. You probably have a whole series of habits that get you through the first few minutes after arising in the morning. How long is it since you paid attention to the details of cleaning your teeth? Do you ever drive on automatic pilot? Habits are essential to get through life. If we didn't have them, we'd have to learn everything anew every day, and would get nothing accomplished. Habits differ from instincts in that they are learned; instincts are programmed into the animal brain and are not subject to much change. Since habits are learned, they can be unlearned or extinguished. This is usually not very easy especially if they are habits of long standing that have been reinforced for years. But it can be done if the reinforcement is removed. For example, if I never give my dog the cream cheese wrapper to lick again, she will eventually stop salivating for it when she smells it. Addictions are a special form of habit formation which have an emotional component.

Habits are important to examine on this Journey because so many of them are no longer useful and can be dropped or transformed into something more functional. You may also want to form some new ones, such as meditation, and it helps to understand the underlying mechanics when you try to change yourself. That way success is more likely.

Exercise: Breaking Habits

1. For the first day, just watch yourself and notice how much of your behavior is habitual. See how many times you forget to watch because you slipped into doing something else automatically. Then develop a method of charting your habits that won't interfere too much with your daily activities, perhaps take short breaks to jot down reminders that can be expanded later when there is more time. Or you can limit the scope to the most important ones that you'd like to work with. For instance, you might ignore the ones that serve you well after noticing them initially.

2. See if you can come up with a list of your more frequently enacted "bad" or useless habits. Again it might help to catalog them. Next, pick one habit you'd like to break and begin to work with it. First, just try to stop. When that fails, if it fails, examine it more closely to see what the reward in it is. Then see if that insight is enough to turn the tide. If possible, remove the reward. If that doesn't work, try raw denial. What comes up for you then? Does that contain a kernel of insight about the purpose the habit serves? Does acknowledging that help?

In trying to break habits, it is often useful to move in small steps rather than tackling the whole thing at once especially if you are dealing with a strong habit of long standing. For example, in midlife I found myself still running away from people who got angry with me and then finding, only when I was at a safe distance or time later, that I was enraged at the treatment I'd had. In thinking about it, I realized that my timidity was a throwback to childhood when I'd been physically punished by angry parents. The time and distance gap between the stimulus (angry person) and my response (rage) kept me from getting hurt. So, to deal with it, I decided to try to shorten the time gap between what made me angry and my response to it. Gradually I was able to move my reaction back in time until now I can generally feel my anger and respond to it appropriately while the other person is still within range.

This gives us a valuable clue as to how to break habits. Research shows that the optimal time interval between a response and the consequences in order to strengthen conditioning is a half second. (You can test this out training your animals.) This is probably about the length of time it takes to make the association in the brain. So, what if we can lengthen this time span? In more complex behavior, it turns out that taking a minute, just a minute, between stimulus and response gives us time to register what is happening and to decide on another course of action if we want to change our reaction. For instance, let's say that someone insults me and my first impulse is to respond in kind. (This is a person who doesn't have my problem.) In that minute, I can say to myself, "Uh oh, here it is again. I'm not going to answer him with anger." Or I could take that minute to ask myself to look below the surface behavior to find out what is behind the other's anger. Then I can respond to that rather than to the anger itself which is most likely a manifestation of fear. It takes some reflection beforehand to identify the specific habit you want to break and to work out what you do want to do instead of the old pattern. Incidently, the time span for reinforcing food addictions may be shorter than you think. A tendency to "pig out" on sweets after dinner at night diminishes in about twenty minutes especially if you can get engaged in an interesting activity.

3. If and when you are successful in breaking the habit, pick another one and work onit. Do include in your experiment at least one habit related to your interactions with people. Do you interrupt, for instance? Or talk excessively? Which is easier to break, a habit with people or one with objects or comforts? What do you think isthe reason for this observation?

4. Write a short summary paper on what you learned about your habits and journal your insights.

The Metaphoric Mind

The metaphoric mind is Bob Samples' (1993) name for the functioning of the right hemisphere of the brain. In our culture, we are just beginning to acknowledge that there might be something about mind that we don't know. And the information we need is coming from eastern traditions of thought. Whereas in the west we have focused on the intellect, in the east they have been developing intuition. Intuition is the language of the metaphoric mind. And symbols are like the words of the language of intuition. The metaphoric mind thinks in images and metaphors rather than words and ideas. The right hemisphere of the brain operates holistically rather than in a linear fashion. It perceives simultaneously rather than in discrete, sequential bits. It is capable of tuning in to other realities and levels of consciousness. So it is this mind that may serve as the vehicle to take us Home, to help us recover our memories of Being.

The primary process described in The Magical Child (Pearce, 1989) book is part of the metaphoric mind. Because, in our culture, we have wished to focus on and develop the intellect, the primary process has been relegated to obscurity. Because its functioning was perceived as useless in our society, it was labeled primitive, and we set about training our children to repress it and all of its potential input to our experience. For instance, young children perceive auras with regularity. But, if they tell a parent that they see light around Aunt Mary's head, they are usually told that is not so. It is just their imagination. With continual lack of acknowledgement (reinforcement) and perhaps some disapproval, children learn first not to mention it, then not to see it. This is a prime example of a cognitive filter that screens out perceptions that do not fit the cultural norm.

The primary process was "discovered" by Freud who associated it with wish-fulfillment and immature needs for gratification. It was seen as due to lack of discrimination (read "separation from Being or the whole" in this case), and the ego was seen as the part of personality with the responsibility to keep it repressed. You can see how this fits in with the development of ego that we examined earlier. The ego's work was called the "Reality Principle," and the primary process was called the "Pleasure Principle" which had to be restrained for the sake of order. The primary process thus became unconscious through repression by the ego. So now the separation from Being is complete. We have lost our Home and been set adrift in the world without support or love. No wonder we feel empty.

Exercises: The Metaphoric Mind

1. Read The Metaphoric Mind. How do you think your education would have differed if these concepts had been implemented in your schools (I'm assuming they haven't been yet)? What would happen to the structure of our society if right and left hemispheres were given equal time in educating children? If you are a parent, how can you counteract the prevailing tendency to promote intellect rather than intuition in schools? (And, if you think they don't, consult the school budget or the book lists or the required lesson plans.) Think about this one carefully as those in authority, to say nothing of peers, tend to punish children who differ from the norm, most often with isolation, rejection or teasing. Do you think the left hand, which is connected to the right hemisphere of the brain, being regarded as "sinister" is relevant to this discussion? How do people who are right hemisphere dominant, and more often than not left handed, differ in their behaviors, their talents and in school performance? How else does our society repress the metaphoric mind? Have you been able to keep in touch with yours? If not, when and under what circumstances, did you lose touch with it? How would you go about reclaiming it?

2. Rent a videotape of (Captain) Hook and watch it. Make notes about how metaphors are used in this film and what they are specifically? What does Peter Pan represent? Wendy? Hook? the Boys? For what in our society is the action in the video a metaphor? Are any solutions offered and, if so, what?

3. Write a paper on your experience with your metaphoric mind during your life time. As part of it, compare how well developed intellect and intuition are in you and to what extent they are balanced in their functioning. Do they communicate with each other? What kinds of cognition are enhanced by the presence of the metaphoric mind? What competencies, skills and talents are related to it? If you are left handed, did you have an emotional response to this material? If so, why is that significant to you?


Bruner, J. S., Oliver, R. R. & Greenfield, P. M. Studies in cognitive growth. NY: Wiley, 1966.

Easwaran, Eknath. "In Gentleness Lies Strength," In Blue Mountain Center News, July, 1991, p. 2.

* Mishra, R. S. Fundamentals of Yoga: A handbook of theory, practice and application. NY: Julian, 1987a. Permission to quote is pending.

Pearce, Joseph C. Magical child. NY: Bantam, 1989.

Samples, Bob. The Metaphoric mind, 2nd ed. Rolling Hills Estates, CA: Jalmar Press, 1993.

Unit 8. Symbolic Veils: Representation and Memory deals with symbolic representation, both verbal and imaginal. We start with the body and how it codes information as memory. Then we'll take up speech and communication, which includes silence, the naming process, meaning, music and religion. You'll have exercises to release holding in the body, to create a ritual of connection and to look again at the meaning of your life. There's an opportunity to learn to chant as well.

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