Part 2: Understanding Stillness

Kishore Subramanian
14 min readMay 3, 2020

Summary of Part 1

In part 1 of the series titled The Happiness Equation, we looked at what gives us happiness in our day-to-day life. We systematically analyzed happiness and concluded that:

  1. The happiness that results (even temporarily) is not due to the external objects. External objects do not have the power to give us happiness.
  2. Our happiness (and unhappiness) is experienced in our own minds. Happiness seems to result from a fulfilled, pleased, and satisfied mind.
Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash


The stillness of the mind refers to the state of mind where the mind is steady, calm and the mental activities are streamlined. There is a predictable flow from one moment to the other. There is no turbulence. The mind is like the flame of a candle in a windless place. Every moment there is activity - more wax or oil is consumed and the fire burns. But there is no flickering. Yet another example is the steady, continuous, and streamlined flow of oil from a container. The flow is so steady that it seems like there is no flow but in reality, the oil is flowing every moment in a streamlined way.

Stillness is NOT:

  • Elimination of all thoughts
  • Suppression of thoughts

Before we dive deeper into the subject of this post, I like to add a quick note about meditation since it is often associated with calming the mind. We will discuss meditation in more detail in the next part (Part 3 — The Practice) but a quick note is useful.


We are often told to meditate to calm the mind. The popularity of apps such as Calm and Headspace is encouraging and it is a sign that meditation is slowly but steadily becoming mainstream. An ad for Calm features LeBron James sitting in meditation. We see LeBron perform magic for 30 minutes in a basketball game. But what we don’t see is the years of practice on the court, at the gym, and the discipline off the court to maintain his fitness levels.

Similarly, the quality of the time (say, 30 minutes) spent on the mat is largely dependent on what we do off the mat (the other 23.5 hours). How we do what we do off the mat depends largely on our personality traits, our habits, emotional patterns. Meditation is an advanced practice that is accessible to all of us. The quality of any practice (including meditation) is greatly improved when we understand the mechanics. This part of the series lays the groundwork for meditation and other practices (to be covered in Part 3).

We start with the following questions:

How does a still mind help find this happiness in ourselves?

Why is the mind not still? What is the nature of mental activities?

Please note that it is not my intention (nor am I qualified) to teach these concepts. It is my intention to share my understanding based on my learning and provide a high-level overview of the trail, a sneak peek. I hope to inspire you to go deeper into the subject, walk the trail, and discover yourself.

How does a still mind help find happiness in ourselves?

What is the source of happiness? We ruled out external objects as the cause of happiness. Is our body or mind responsible for giving us lasting happiness? If yes, we should always be happy as the body is always with us. We cannot claim that the mind is the source of happiness either. We experience happiness in the mind. But is mind the source of happiness? We find that we experience sorrow and unhappiness in the mind too. So it has to be something even beyond the body and mind.

Yoga and Vedanta claim that Happiness is our real nature.

Let’s take a couple of examples to understand what this means. The real nature of fire is heat and luminosity. Moisture is the real nature of water. You cannot disconnect heat from fire or moisture from water, isn’t it? Every object in the universe has a real and apparent nature. Apparent nature is what is usually visible to us and is temporary or acquired. Heat is not an apparent nature of water. Water may become hot when it comes in contact with heat. But the heat goes away over time leaving water in its intrinsic state. Fire does not need to search for heat anywhere outside. Neither does water need to search for moisture outside? These qualities are intrinsic to fire and water.

We search for happiness everywhere but in reality, it is within us. This is similar to how we may forget the car keys in our jacket pocket and search everywhere in the house for it. But once you feel your jacket pocket and realize that the keys were with you all the time, you realize the futility of the search. In other words, you discovered something you always had with you. Finding happiness in ourselves is exactly like this.

Yoga and Vedanta state that there is a consciousness principle beyond our body, mind, and intellect which is in the nature of Happiness. This principle is the real you, the Self/Purusha/Atman. (I also encourage you to read the section titled “The Theory” in Part 1 of this series)

What is our apparent nature?

The body-mind complex. Of course, at this point, it may sound very theoretical. This is where “walking the trail” part comes in but we will see what the trail looks like.

Photo by Md. Golam Murshed on Unsplash

Continuing with the fire example, just like fire is able to transfer heat (its real nature) to a metal container that is placed close to it, the Self, which is in the nature of happiness, is reflected on our mind thereby giving it an experience of happiness.

Yet another example is that of a lake. If the water in the lake is muddy and if there are waves on the surface of the lake, the reflection of the moon on the surface of the lake is distorted. However, if the water is pure and the surface of the lake is absolutely still, the full moon is reflected on the surface in all its glory. In the same way, a still mind (no waves on the surface) that is devoid of undesirable qualities (muddy water) is able to reflect the Happiness nature of the Self in all its glory.

Yoga and Vedanta explain Happiness thus and connect it to the stillness and purity of our mind.

Let’s apply this theory to daily life situations. When we experience happiness (temporarily) from external objects — people, place, thing, our mind is fulfilled at least for the time being. It is not seeking anything else. The waves on the mind have temporarily stalled. The mind, temporarily, becomes a better reflecting medium and reflects the happiness of the Self.

In other words, if our mind can be made a better reflecting medium than what it is now even without the external factors, we can make happiness last longer or even permanent.

The deep sleep state provides yet another validation of this concept. When the mind’s functions cease in deep sleep, we find that all troubles vanish.

All of us experience bliss every night in deep sleep.

Having established the need for a still and fulfilled mind, the next questions we must handle are:

Why is the mind not still? What is the nature of mental activities?

To answer these questions, it is important to understand the nature of our mind and its inner workings. Thankfully, this is addressed in the greatest detail in the teachings of Yoga, Vedanta, and the original teachings of The Buddha.

Why is the mind not still? What is the nature of mental activities?

How do we experience our mind? Through the process of thinking. Would you agree? Thoughts are the grossest expression of the mind. If thinking causes mental activities (thoughts), it is logical to regulate thoughts to still the mind. It is important to note that Yoga is not asking you to get rid of all thoughts. That is not possible — thinking is the nature of mind. But is it possible to regulate the thoughts at least for some time?

What types of thoughts do we get?

Note: I use “thoughts” to simplify our understanding of all mental activity.

In the spirit of inquiry, let’s start by observing the thoughts in our minds. To do this, I request you to set this article aside and try the following for 2–5 minutes.

  1. Sit comfortably wherever you are. Close your eyes and simply observe your mind. No need to do anything at this time. Simply be a witness and see what is going on in the mind.
  2. Stay with it for 2–5 minutes. If you get distracted, gently bring back the attention.

Did you observe the following?

  1. There is a lot of chatter in our minds.
  2. The mental chatter is mostly involuntary. We did not request these thoughts. It doesn’t seem like they can be directly controlled. There is no OFF switch! We can’t seem to regulate these thoughts.
  3. The thoughts seem to bubble up from the subconscious and just like bubbles in water, they stay for some time and disappear.
  4. Often, one thought leads to another and soon the thoughts are so strong that it covers our faculties of intellect — right judgment, discrimination, etc.
  5. It is hard to keep the attention and be a pure witness of the activities of the mind.

What types of thoughts did you notice?

Sensory inputs: a bird chirping, the sound of a car or bus, or the humming noise of a machine, feeling of warmth or cold on your skin.

Emotions, feelings*

Memory: playback of incidents from the past

Imagination: playing out “what if” scenarios, ideas

Decisions, reminders, ideas

  • Todo list: a reminder to do something
  • Did I turn off the heater?
  • A solution to a problem I was searching for at work

Upon closer observation, we find that the strongest thoughts are emotions and feelings:

  • Strong likes and dislikes
  • Fear, stress, anxiety
  • Anger, frustration
  • Selfishness
  • Ego
  • Lust
  • Regret

These qualities are deeply entrenched in our personality. They play an important part in shaping our actions, our decisions, who we relate to, what we do for a living, etc.

The process for stilling the mind primarily boils down to regulating the thoughts related to strong emotions and feelings. But we seem to be helpless as we can’t seem to control these thoughts. One way or the other, we can get rid of external things. But how do we get rid of damaging thoughts in our minds? Sometimes, we “escape” by engaging in other activities, watching a movie, shopping, or meeting friends, etc.

Note: In extreme cases, these thoughts are so strong that we are unable to do anything else. To escape, we take to alcohol, other chemicals, and extreme measures to stop this barrage of thoughts and be at peace with our own minds.

But no matter what we do, it is only temporary relief and soon we are back to where we started.

We wish to still our minds. But our current state is far from stillness. The mental chatter in our head is more like a cacophony of deafening alarm bells.

Also, do you agree that most of the thoughts are not exactly Nobel-prize winning ideas? We seem to be spinning in mostly useless thoughts.

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

This is more relevant today given our addiction to devices leading to constant distraction. We are drinking from a firehose of information, Facebook status updates, Instagram images, YouTube & Netflix videos, gaming apps, news, etc most of our waking hours. The stillness of mind seems like a distant dream.

Now that we have observed and analyzed the types of thoughts in our minds, we arrive at the next set of questions.

How are thoughts produced? Where do they come from? Why do I get the thoughts I get?

The Yoga Sutras go into the greatest detail of the inner workings of the mind. It breaks down the mental activities in the mind to get to the root cause of our mental activities. In this section, I will summarize my understanding from the Yoga Sutras with respect to the inner workings of our minds.

Samskaras — Mental tendencies, emotional patterns, habits

We derive all inputs through our 5 sense organs. This is the only way we know anything about the external world. As we interact with the external world, the sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin) are constantly receiving signals. For example, our eyes receive light and convert this information into objects. This is called perception and this happens in the mind. Similarly, our ears receive sound and this is perceived in our mind as the sound of a bird chirping or a car on the road, etc.

Once our mind perceives the objects, it classifies the perceived object/situation as something it likes or dislikes. But it doesn’t stop here. The interaction leaves an imprint in the subconscious mind. These mental imprints are called Samskaras in Yoga.

Samskaras are habits, emotional patterns, mental addictions that define us.

Samskaras — mental imprints as a result of sensory input

These mental imprints are created in the deep subconscious mind by mind’s interactions with the external world. As we interact with the world, we repeat certain responses over and over again thereby forming habits. When habits are repeated over a period of time, the habits become part of our nature as a personality trait.

External World -> Perception -> Response -> Repetition -> Habit -> Time -> Personality trait /our nature

Yoga claims that every interaction with the external world results in samskaras or mental imprints in our minds. When these interactions are repeated, the samskaras cluster together to form personality traits, compulsions, patterns, strong likes, and dislikes. These clusters of samskaras define our personality and determine how we respond to situations. We ‘unconsciously’ react to situations because of our samskaras which in turn produce more samskaras thereby strengthening them and making them more potent. Samskaras bind us to an infinite cycle of action and response. It is therefore important to understand the mechanics so we can learn how to break this cycle.

Yoga and Vedanta claim that we are born with certain samskaras from our previous births. Of course, this requires you to believe in the theory of rebirth (and Karma). But even if you don’t, we can see how samskaras are created over the years and decades in the current birth itself.

These teachings in Yoga are from more than 3000+ years ago. Yoga is the science of the Universe (macro) and us as individuals (micro) and how we are connected to the universe we live in. In modern science, I can speculate that samskaras (personality traits) are somehow embedded in our DNA. Of course, this is speculation and I will leave it to the reader to read more on this topic.

What is the nature of samskaras?

Samskaras (mental imprints, mental tendencies, afflictions) are deeply embedded in our subconscious. We do not have direct access to them in the conscious mind.

Samskaras express themselves as thoughts in the conscious mind.

In other words, if we perform a root cause analysis,

Effect: a flood of thoughts in our minds

Cause: Samskaras (mental imprints leading to personality traits)

Since our aim is to still the mind (i.e reduce the mental fluctuations or thoughts) and the root cause is samskaras, it is important to understand how samskaras work.

Let’s see how this works by taking a couple of situations.

Situation #1: Someone says something rude to us.

How Samskaras trigger thoughts in a given situation
  1. We receive the input (sound) through the process of hearing.
  2. The input is perceived in the mind — XYZ said something. Perhaps XYZ is someone we have developed a particular dislike for.
  3. The situation activates some samskaras in our subconscious mind. In this case, it activates the Dislike samskaras.
  4. The activated samskaras generate thoughts in the conscious mind. These thoughts are of the nature of “I don’t like what he/she said”.
  5. Our mind then engages with this thought. “Yes, how can he/she say that”, “What a rude thing to say”.
  6. When we engage with the thought, it reinforces the samskaras thereby giving it more potency.
  7. The thoughts in the mind grow in potency with this tight loop. Thoughts snowball into something bigger. We experience anger in the mind.
  8. If the anger is strong, our body responds to this by generating certain hormones. We shake with anger. More on this later.
  9. We make a decision to hurl and insult back at the person or worse, we do something to hurt.
  10. The action produces more samskaras.

Situation #2: Addiction to smoking/social media

In the above situation, the person encounters a situation that triggers a strong urge to smoke. You may replace ‘smoke’ with ‘social media/Facebook/Instagram’ or any other addiction and it plays out the same way.

  1. As described in the previous case, this situation activates a group of samskaras and triggers a flood of thoughts that evoke a strong urge to smoke (or check social media).
  2. Action = Smoke (or dive into social media)
  3. Every action will have an outcome or result. Again, our samskaras activate upon receiving this result and we like the feeling.
  4. We continue smoking (or spending more time on social media).
  5. This reinforces the samskaras and the cluster of samskaras become more potent.

As you can see from the above, this process binds us completely. It is an infinite cycle of action, reaction, and re-reaction.

Putting it all together

Now, we can connect samskaras (mental imprints/tendencies/personality traits) to happiness.

Happiness -> (comes from) Still, calm mind

Still mind -> (is a) Mind without mental fluctuations (thoughts)

Thoughts -> (caused by) Samskaras

To achieve a still mind, we must break the cycle of action/reaction/re-reaction cycle that plays out in our minds.

So the next question we must handle is:

How do I break the cycle of samskaras and reduce mental fluctuations?

Summary and what’s next

We started this part by understanding how stillness is related to happiness we experience. We saw the link between our stillness and the undesirable qualities of the mind. We saw how samskaras express themselves as thoughts.

In the next part, Part 3 — The Practice, we will address the remaining question:

How do I break out of the regenerative cycle of the samskaras and achieve stillness of the mind?

We will discuss practices performed on the mat (Yoga, breathing, meditation) and outside the mat (Karma Yoga, Yamas, Niyamas).


I am a student and practitioner of Yoga and Vedanta. I learn The Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the scriptures by listening to the audio classes conducted by Swami Paramarthananda, Swami Guruparananda, and Swami Sarvapriyananda. I owe what little I understand to these great teachers. Any mistake in the analysis is the result of my limited understanding. While I am not eligible to teach, I can point people in the general direction, show a trail map based on my own experience. Ultimately, you need to be a seeker, learn from a teacher, and walk the trail yourself.

I also pay my deepest respect to the lineage of gurus and commentators like Adi Shankaracharya. It is through their commentaries that we have been able to unlock the teachings from the Upanishads, Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and many other spiritual texts.


The Bhagavad Gita — lectures by Swami Paramarthananda and Swami Guruparananda

Yoga Sutras — Swami Guruparananda

The teaching of the Bhagavad Gita — Swami Dayananda Saraswati

Brahmavidya Abhyasa — Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali — Dr. Edwin Bryant

Power of Now — Eckart Tolle

Vedanta Talks — Swami Sarvapriyananda

Shanti Mantra

asato mā sadgamaya,

tamaso mā jyotirgamaya,

mṛtyor mā’mṛtaṃ gamaya,

Om shanti shanti shanti hi.

— —

From falsehood lead me to truth,

From darkness lead me to the light,

From death lead me to immortality.

Om peace, peace, peace



Kishore Subramanian

Spiritual seeker, student, and practitioner of Yoga and Vedanta. Vice-President, Engineering at Propel. Ex-Googler.