Iyengar’s metaphor: smoothing the mound on the floor of the lake to calm the waters of the consciousness

In Light on Life, Iyengar has a metaphor comparing consciousness to a lake, and explaining that over time, repeated bad habits can cause mounds at the bottom of the lake that result in secondary ripples in the surface above the mound.  I have long been puzzled by the metaphor and felt like I didn’t really get it – what is the sand? And how can our actions create a mound on the bottom of a lake?
Later in the section he explains that “The practice of yoga is about reducing the size of the subliminal mounds and setting us free from these and other fluctuations or waves in our consciousness.”  So clearly this is important stuff!  Yoga citta vritti nirodha!
And he explains that the way to do this is with yoga: asana, pranayama, meditation.  But I have had trouble fitting these into the metaphor: how does one smooth amount of sand? What corresponds to asana or meditation in this metaphor?
But last week I had a kind of a revelation while sitting on a beach gazing at the water – the whole metaphor makes sense now and I can see why I thought about it so much – because it has so much potential to be helpful.  As I sat by the water there was a little ridge under the sand that, as in the metaphor, was disturbing each wave and causing extra waves and fluctuations, making the water more chaotic.  As I gazed at it I realized the action of the water was exactly like what I see in my mind when I am able to meditate and stop labeling thoughts with words: random movement caused by reactions to sounds, feelings, and other movements of the mind.  The consciousness, like the water, is reactive: a reflection of all the forces it encounters.  We have very little control over it, very few tools at our disposal to help smooth the fluctuations, but if we use those tools we can make tiny changes that, over time, can help smoothe the mounds in the sand.
Here is how I understand it – apologies to Iyengar if this is not exactly what he meant, but I find it helpful even if it’s a slight variation:
  • One tool we have is breath.  Breath is like the wind on the lake – if is is gusty, the water will have chaotic waves.  It it is fast, the waves will be higher.  But if we can smooth it and slow it, the waves will be smaller and more regular.  This does not directly smooth out mounds in the bottom, but it can stop them from growing by avoiding the repetitive beating of touch waves on the trench in the sand.
  • One tool is meditation.  Our day is full of thoughts.  Ideally our thoughts help us accomplish our goals, but often they are merely reflections of the reactive mind.  It’s like we are every day canoing around on the lake.  Maybe we have a goal to get to a certain place on the lake and we often paddle toward that place, but the waves on the lake are strong and we often find ourselves just paddling in the same pattern around the same part of the lake every day.  So our voyage in the canoe is like our thoughts — often the canoe is almost rudderless, simply moving in reaction to the currents below it.  And often we are paddlinf furiously but, again, solely in reaction to the current and not necessarily toward our goals.
  • Meditation is when we mindfully stop paddling and simply watch the water; observing the current and the movement of the canoe in the absence of any intentional direction.  
  • So when Iyengar says that our habitual thoughts often cause the mond on the floor of the lake to get bigger, it’s like if we are canoing past this spot every day, and every day we encounter the current caused by the mound, and every day we paddle furiously in response to the current – but our furious paddline is simply increasing the mound.
  • So meditation can do two things to help smooth over the mound on the bottom of the lake.  First, it at least stops us from building the mound higher with our furious paddling.  And second, by taking a step back and observing the lake and the current, we may be able to see another path toward our goal that does not require fighting the mound-created wave.