What Is Chanchala?



Chanchala (flickering, unsteady)

Chanchala Definition

Chanchala, or Cañcala, is a Sanskrit adjective meaning: unsteady, flickering, quivering, vacillating, fickle, inconstant, restless.

It is also a nickname given to the Goddess Lakshmi, sometimes known as the restless one.

goddess lakshmi, representing chanchala, deficted on a lotus flower on a river

Chanchala Deep Dive

It’s a term used to describe the way our minds go from one thing to the next, and to the next, and to the next. It never seems to settle on something that satisfies.

If you’ve ever found yourself scrolling through videos, pictures, or posts in what is known as zombie scrolling, you’re already familiar with chanchala’s outward manifestation. No destination. No benefit. Just go, go, go.

Consider 6:26 of the Bhagavad Gita:

yato yato niścarati manaś cañcalam asthiram
tatas tato niyamyaitad ātmany eva vaśaṃ nayet

“Wherever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within; train it to rest in the self.”

Various translations render cañcala either restless or flickering, referring to a quality of the mind as it searches for satisfaction outside of itself.

It may be said to be a characteristic of cittavritti, the turning of thought or modifications of the mind mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Yoga is the ability to direct and focus mental activity and the ability to still the turning of thought. – Chapter 1, Verse 2

Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of prosperity, is sometimes called Chanchala due to her shifting allegiances. Some, however, say this is a pejorative term, because while she may appear fickle, she only goes where dharma goes, as represented by the half-opened lotus in her upper left hand. Wealth and good fortune, like the fluctuations of mind, come and go.

candles burning
The flickering nature of chanchala

Getting to know your monkey mind

The concept of chanchala is very similar to that of kapicitta, or monkey mind in Buddhism.

Kapicitta is a Sanskrit compound of kapi, meaning monkey or ape, and citta, meaning mind, consciousness, attention, or perception.

You may have encountered the term in popular culture.

“How to quiet your monkey mind!”

“10 ways to tame your monkey mind!”

“Master your monkey mind with these 3 tricks!”

While the Buddha himself seems to have never used the term, Buddhists often employ the concept to teach about the unsettled the nature of our minds.

With so many things demanding our attention, it seems like monkey mind is always on the go, jumping from one thing to the next. Even in moments of stillness you may notice your mind racing.

As Mingur Rinpoche explains, however, the monkey mind is neither bad not good. You just need to get to know it.

It turns out monkey mind is just looking for a job.

a monkey swinging through the green tree canopies
The monkey mind- constantly swinging from one thought to the next.

Chanchala (and monkey mind) In Your Life

You don’t want to make an enemy of your monkey mind by rejecting it. Nor do you want it running the show.

Ideally, you want to make friends with it and give it some important work to do.

During meditation in yoga class, you may have heard your yoga teacher ask you to “tune into your breath,” or “focus on your breath.”

Here’s where chanchala – or monkey mind – makes an entrance. Chores to do. Drama at work. Bills to pay. Foot is itchy.

Then you hear your yoga teacher say, “any thoughts that come, watch them go by, like clouds in the sky, and come back to your breath. Don’t judge them, just observe as they pass by…”

As you continue returning to your breath, monkey mind realizes you’ve given it a task.

Ooh, we’re doing THIS now.

And it gets easier the more you do it.

Mantras can have a similar effect. So can yoga asanas. And you may have experienced a similar effect of being in the zone while playing music, painting, playing sports, or (insert your favorite hobby here). Your mind stops chattering and you’re totally absorbed. In the moment.

The keys, according to the Yoga Sutras (Chapter 1, Verse 12) are: 1) abyhasa – practice, and 2) vairagya  – non-reaction.

Abyhasa. The more you use it, the more it works. This may surprise you, but monkey mind sort of enjoys training. If you keep giving it a job, it gets used to it. It sets an alarm to wake up and go to work for you.

Vairagya is the part where your yoga teacher asked you not to judge the thoughts that you observed floating by. But it’s more than that. It’s also your disidentification with those thoughts. You are not your thoughts. And don’t judge yourself either. For example, if you’re trying to meditate and continuously find your mind wandering off, that’s ok. See meditation as a success simply when you do it.

A suppressed monkey mind is like a perpetually compacted spring, or a permanently stretched elastic band. Loaded with energy, and no longer suited to its purpose.

Remember, chanchala – your monkey mind – isn’t a bad thing. Like Lakshmi, it goes where dharma goes. And on your yoga journey, it goes where your practice goes.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Hailing from the Yukon, Canada, David (B.A, M.A.) is a yoga teacher (200-hour therapeutic YTT) and long-time student and practitioner of various spiritual disciplines including vedanta and Islam.

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