Lectures And Discourses, from The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda-Volume 1
BREATHING, This article was recorded by Ida Ansell in shorthand. As, however, Swamiji’s speed was too great for her in her early days, dots are put in the articles to indicate the omissions, while the words within square brackets are added by way of linking up the disconnected parts.
(Delivered in San Francisco, March 28, 1900)
Breathing exercises have been very popular in India from the most ancient times, so much so [that] they form a part of their religion, just as going to church and repeating certain prayers…. I will try to bring those ideas before you.
I have told you how the Indian philosopher reduces the whole universe into two parts — Prâna and Âkâsha.
Prana means force — all that is manifesting itself as movement or possible movement, force, or attraction. … Electricity, magnetism, all the movements in the body, all [the movements] in the mind — all these are various manifestations of one thing called Prana. The best form of Prana, however, is in [the brain], manifesting itself as light [of understanding]. This light is under the guidance of thought.
The mind ought to control every bit of Prana that has been worked up in the body…. [The] mind should have entire control of the body. That is not [the case] with all. With most of us it is the other way. The mind should be able to control every part of [the body] just at will. That is reason, philosophy; but [when] we come to matters of fact, it is not so. For you, on the other hand, the cart is before the horse. It is the body mastering the mind. If my finger gets pinched, I become sorry. The body works upon the mind. If anything happens which I do not like to happen, I am worried; my mind [is] thrown off its balance. The body is master of the mind. We have become bodies. We are nothing else but bodies just now.
Here [comes] the philosopher to show us the way out, to teach us what we really are. You may reason it out and understand it intellectually, but there is a long way between intellectual understanding and the practical realisation of it. Between the plan of the building and the building itself there is quite a long distance. Therefore there must be various methods [to reach the goal of religion]. In the last course, we have been studying the method of philosophy, trying to bring everything under control, once more asserting the freedom of the soul. … “It is very difficult. This way is not for [every]body. The embodied mind tries it with great trouble” (Gita, XII. 5).
A little physical help will make the mind comfortable. What would be more rational than to have the mind itself accomplish the thing? But it cannot. The physical help is necessary for most of us. The system of Râja-Yoga is to utilise these physical helps, to make use of the powers and forces in the body to produce certain mental states, to make the mind stronger and stronger until it regains its lost empire. By sheer force of will if anyone can attain to that, so much the better. But most of us cannot, so we will use physical means, and help the will on its way.
… The whole universe is a tremendous case of unity in variety. There is only one mass of mind. Different [states] of that mind have different names. [They are] different little whirlpools in this ocean of mind. We are universal and individual at the same time. Thus is the play going on…. In reality this unity is never broken. [Matter, mind, spirit are all one.]
All these are but various names. There is but one fact in the universe, and we look at it from various standpoints. The same [fact] looked at from one standpoint becomes matter. The same one from another standpoint becomes mind. There are not two things. Mistaking the rope for the snake, fear came [to a man] and made him call somebody else to kill the snake. [His] nervous system began to shake; his heart began to beat…. All these manifestations [came] from fear, and he discovered it was a rope, and they all vanished. This is what we see in reality. What even the senses see — what we call matter — that [too] is the Real; only not as we have seen it. The mind [which] saw the rope [and] took it for a snake was not under a delusion. If it had been, it would not have seen anything. One thing is taken for another, not as something that does not exist. What we see here is body, and we take the Infinite as matter…. We are but seeking that Reality. We are never deluded. We always know truth, only our reading of truth is mistaken at times. You can perceive only one thing at a time. When I see the snake, the rope has vanished entirely. And when I see the rope, the snake has vanished. It must be one thing….
When we see the world, how can we see God? Think in your own mind. What is meant by the world is God as seen as all things [by] our senses. Here you see the snake; the rope is not. When you know the Spirit, everything else will vanish. When you see the Spirit itself, you see no matter, because that which you called matter is the very thing that is Spirit. All these variations are [superimposed] by our senses. The same sun, reflected by a thousand little wavelets, will represent to us thousands of little suns. If I am looking at the universe with my senses, I interpret it as matter and force. It is one and many at the same time. The manifold does not destroy the unity. The millions of waves do not destroy the unity of the ocean. It remains the same ocean. When you look at the universe, remember that we can reduce it to matter or to force. If we increase the velocity, the mass decreases. … On the other hand, we can increase the mass and decrease the velocity…. We may almost come to a point where all the mass will entirely disappear. …
Matter cannot be said to cause force nor [can] force [be] the cause of matter. Both are so [related] that one may disappear in the other. There must be a third [factor], and that third something is the mind. You cannot produce the universe from matter, neither from force. Mind is something [which is] neither force nor matter, yet begetting force and matter all the time. In the long run, mind is begetting all force, and that is what is meant by the universal mind, the sum total of all minds. Everyone is creating, and [in] the sum total of all these creations you have the universe — unity in diversity. It is one and it is many at the same time.
The Personal God is only the sum total of all, and yet it is an individual by itself, just as you are the individual body of which each cell is an individual part itself.
Everything that has motion is included in Prana or force. [It is] this Prana which is moving the stars, sun, moon; Prana is gravitation. …
All forces of nature, therefore, must be created by the universal mind. And we, as little bits of mind, [are] taking out that Prana from nature, working it out again in our own nature, moving our bodies and manufacturing our thought. If [you think] thought cannot be manufactured, stop eating for twenty days and see how you feel. Begin today and count. … Even thought is manufactured by food. There is no doubt about it.
Control of this Prana that is working everything, control of this Prana in the body, is called Prânâyâma. We see with our common sense that it is the breath [that] is setting everything in motion. If I stop breathing, I stop. If the breath begins, [the body] begins to move. What we want to get at is not the breath itself; it is something finer behind the breath.
[There was once a minister to a great king. The] king, displeased with the minister, ordered him to be confined in the top of [a very high tower. This was done, and the minister was left there to perish. His wife came to the tower at night and called to her husband.] The minister said to her, “No use weeping.” He told her to take a little honey, [a beetle], a pack of fine thread, a ball of twine, and a rope. She tied the fine thread to one of the legs of the beetle and put honey on the top of its head and let it go [with its head up]. [The beetle slowly crept onwards, in the hope of reaching the honey, until at last it reached the top of the tower, when the minister grasped the beetle, and got possession of the silken thread, then the pack thread, then the stout twine, and lastly of the rope. The minister descended from the tower by means of the rope, and made his escape. In this body of ours the breath motion is the “silken thread”; by laying hold of it we grasp the pack thread of the nerve currents, and from these the stout twine of our thoughts, and lastly the rope of Prana, controlling which we reach freedom.
By the help of things on the material plane, we have to come to finer and finer [perceptions]. The universe is one, whatever point you touch. All the points are but variations of that one point. Throughout the universe is a unity (at bottom)…. Even through such a gross thing as breath I can get hold of the Spirit itself.
By the exercise of breathing we begin to feel all the movements of the body that we [now] do not feel. As soon as we begin to feel them, we begin to master them. Thoughts in the germ will open to us, and we will be able to get hold of them. Of course, not all of us have the opportunity nor the will nor the patience nor the faith to pursue such a thing; but there is the common sense idea that is of some benefit to everyone.
The first benefit is health. Ninety-nine per cent of us do not at all breathe properly. We do not inflate the lungs enough…. Regularity [of breath] will purify the body. It quiets the mind…. When you are peaceful, your breath is going on peacefully, [it is] rhythmic. If the breath is rhythmic, you must be peaceful. When the mind is disturbed, the breath is broken. If you can bring the breath into rhythm forcibly by practice, why can you not become peaceful? When you are disturbed, go into the room and close the door. Do not try to control the mind, but go on with rhythmic breathing for ten minutes. The heart will become peaceful. These are common sense benefits that come to everyone. The others belong to the Yogi….
Deep-breathing exercises [are only the first step]. There are about eighty-four [postures for] various exercises. Some [people] have taken up this breathing as the whole [pursuit] of life. They do not do anything without consulting the breath. They are all the time [observing] in which nostril there is more breath. When it is the right, [they] will do certain things, and when [it is] the left, they do other things. When [the breath is] flowing equally through both nostrils, they will worship.
When the breath is coming rhythmically through both nostrils, that is the time to control your mind. By means of the breath you can make the currents of the body move through any part of the body, just [at] will. Whenever [any] part of the body is ill, send the Prana to that part, all by the breath.
Various other things are done. There are sects who are trying not to breathe at all. They would not do anything that would make them breathe hard. They go into a sort of trance…. Scarcely any part of the body [functions]. The heart almost ceases [to beat]…. Most of these exercises are very dangerous; the higher methods [are] for acquiring higher powers. There are whole sects trying to [lighten] the whole body by withdrawal of breath and then they will rise up in the air. I have never seen anyone rise…. I have never seen anyone fly through the air, but the books say so. I do not pretend to know everything. All the time I am seeing most wonderful things…. [Once I observed a] man bringing out fruits and flowers, etc. [out of nowhere].
… The Yogi, when he becomes perfect, can make his body so small it will pass through this wall — this very body. He can become so heavy, two hundred persons cannot lift him. He will be able to fly through the air if he likes. [But] nobody can be as powerful as God Himself. If they could, and one created, another would destroy….
This is in the books. I can [hardly] believe them, nor do I disbelieve them. What I have seen I take….
If the study [improvement?] of things in this world is possible, it is not by competition, it is by regulating the mind. Western people say, “That is our nature; we cannot help it.” Studying your social problems, [I conclude] you cannot solve them either. In some things you are worse off than we are, … and all these things do not bring the world anywhere at all…
The strong take everything; the weak go to the wall. The poor are waiting…. The man who can take, will take everything. The poor hate that man. Why? Because they are waiting their turn. All the systems they invent, they all teach the same thing. The problem can only be solved in the mind of man…. No law will ever make him do what he does not want to do. … It is only if [man] wills to be good that he will be good. All the law and juries … cannot make him good. The almighty man says, “I do not care.” … The only solution is if we all want to be good. How can that be done?
All knowledge is within [the] mind. Who saw knowledge in the stone, or astronomy in the star? It is all in the human being.
Let us realise [that] we are the infinite power. Who put a limit to the power of mind? Let us realise we are all mind. Every drop has the whole of the ocean in it. That is the mind of man. The Indian mind reflects upon these [powers and potentialities] and wants to bring [them] all out. For himself he doesn’t care what happens. It will take a great length of time [to reach perfection]. If it takes fifty thousand years, what of that! …
The very foundation of society, the formation of it, makes the defect. [Perfection] is only possible if the mind of man is changed, if he, of his own sweet will, changes his mind; and the great difficulty is, neither can he force his own mind.
You may not believe in all the claims of this Raja-Yoga. It is absolutely necessary that every individual can become divine. That is only [possible] when every individual has absolute mastery over his own thoughts…. [The thoughts, the senses] should be all my servants, not my masters. Then only is it possible that evils will vanish….
Education is not filling the mind with a lot of facts. Perfecting the instrument and getting complete mastery of my own mind [is the ideal of education]. If I want to concentrate my mind upon a point, it goes there, and the moment I call, it is free [again]….
That is the great difficulty. By great struggle we get a certain power of concentration, the power of attachment of the mind to certain things. But then there is not the power of detachment. I would give half my life to take my mind off that object! I cannot. It is the power of concentration and attachment as well as the power of detachment [that we must develop]. [If] the man [is] equally powerful in both — that man has attained manhood. You cannot make him miserable even if the whole universe tumbles about his ears. What books can teach you that? You may read any amount of books…. Crowd into the child fifty thousand words a moment, teach him all the theories and philosophies…. There is only one science that will teach him facts, and that is psychology…. And the work begins with control of the breath.
Slowly and gradually you get into the chambers of the mind and gradually get control of the mind. It is a long, [hard struggle]. It must not be taken up as something curious. When one wants to do something, he has a plan. [Raja-Yoga] proposes no faith, no belief, no God. If you believe in two thousand gods, you can try that. Why not? … [But in Raja-Yoga] it is impersonal principles.
The greatest difficulty is what? We talk and theorise The vast majority of mankind must deal with things that are concrete. For the dull people cannot see all the highest philosophy. Thus it ends. You may be graduates [in] all sciences in the world, … but if you have not realised, you must become a baby and learn.
… If you give them things in the abstract and infinite, they get lost. Give them things [to do,] a little at a time [Tell them,] “You take [in] so many breaths, you do this.” They go on, [they] understand it, and find pleasure in it. These are the kindergartens of religion. That is why breathing exercises will be so beneficial. I beg you all not to be merely curious. Practise a few days, and if you do not find any benefit, then come and curse me….
The whole universe is a mass of energy, and it is present at every point. One grain is enough for all of us, if we know how to get what there is….
This having to do is the poison that is killing us…. [Duty is] what pleases slaves…. [But] I am free! What I do is my play. [I am not a slave. I am] having a little fun — that is all….
The departed spirits — they are weak, are trying to get vitality from us….
Spiritual vitality can be given from one mind to another. The man who gives is the Guru. The man who receives is the disciple. That is the only way spiritual truth is brought into the world.
[At death] all the senses go into the [mind] and the mind goes into Prana, vitality. The soul goes out and carries part of the mind out with him. He carries a certain part of the vitality, and he carries a certain amount of very fine material also, as the germ of the spiritual body. The Prana cannot exist without some sort of [vehicle]…. It gets lodgement in the thoughts, and it will come out again. So you manufacture this new body and new brain. Through that it will manifest….
[Departed spirits] cannot manufacture a body; and those that are very weak do not remember that they are dead…. They try to get more enjoyment from this [spirit] life by getting into the bodies of others, and any person who opens his body to them runs a terrible risk. They seek his vitality….
In this world nothing is permanent except God…. Salvation means knowing the truth. We do not become anything; we are what we are. Salvation [comes] by faith and not by work. It is a question of knowledge! You must know what you are, and it is done. The dream vanishes. This you [and others] are dreaming here. When they die, they go to [the] heaven [of their dream]. They live in that dream, and [when it ends], they take a nice body [here], and they are good people….
[The wise man says,] “All these [desires] have vanished from me. This time I will not go through all this paraphernalia.” He tries to get knowledge and struggles hard, and he sees what a dream, what a nightmare this is – [this dreaming], and working up heavens and worlds and worse. He laughs at it.
[According to SWAMI VIVEKANANDA HIS SECOND VISIT TO THE WEST (P. 461), this address was delivered on 29 March 1900 under the title “The Science of Breathing”. — Ed.]