"Ooooooommm…Shanti…Shanti…Shanti." Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is just finishing a meditation at a public event. He is one of the foremost spiritual masters in the world today.
An interviewer is asking people after the event: "What are your thoughts on meditation?"
"Nah, I don't want to meditate, I'm fine!" "Can't imagine closing my eyes and sitting still for so long." "Yeah, I meditate but not regularly; guess I need to be more disciplined." "Oh, yes, of course I meditate, everyone should meditate!" "Why do people meditate?" "I want to, but don't know how." "What is meditation?"
Boy, there's a whole range of questions and opinions on meditation.
The most ironic thing in the world is that everyone wants peace of mind but doesn't have it when it's truly needed!
I am not a great meditator or anything. Spiritual masters are established in meditation, they don't need to sit with their eyes closed and meditate. They live in meditation.
I was taking a walk yesterday evening in my complex. Earphones on, playing my favorite devotional songs. I started off with my thoughts on the list of things I had to do on Monday. We live in complex that has lots of trees, on a hillside, with open green areas and kids playing. As I listened to a soothing devotional song, I started to enjoy the nature walk through the tall evergreens. The sun was going down, the sunlight getting softer, birds getting their evening meal, and there was a gentle breeze. All of nature was in its own rhythm. It was so calming to be in sync with the harmony in nature, I took a deep breath and smiled, soaking it all in. Well, that wasn't meditation, but it felt good!
I keep learning and experiencing, and I can also take a step back and observe my journey so far. So many wonderful realizations come through me, it's hard to write them all down. Recently I was thinking about the three phases of evolution of the the individual soul (Jiva). My thoughts were that the first phase in human evolution is the removal of impurities (Tamas) and that is through the Yoga of Action (Karma Yoga). Then we are brought to the second phase which is to go beyond restlessness (Rajas). For this we need to go through the Yoga of Practice (Upasana), i.e., Pranayama (Yoga of breath), meditation, Yoga, worship, devotion. This settles the restlessness. Finally, we are taken to purity and clarity (Sattva) that come through the Yoga of Knowledge (Jnan). It is the last phase of an individual soul's evolution (Vedanta) and this takes the seeker to the other shore. This unfolding doesn't take place in one lifetime, but over lifetimes.
What is amazing is that once a person has completed a phase, she is transported into the next phase. Nature creates a conducive environment, with events and situations that make it happen. I have just realized this as an aha! moment in my life. I went through a phase of restlessness and spiritual practices over many years and now I’ve been picked up and placed into an environment of purity and knowledge.
I feel that the Yoga of Action phase is also to settle the account of previous mistakes (Karma theory in Vedic wisdom). If we didn't fulfill the duties as a student in a previous life, we will come back in another life and be presented with the same situation in which we need to fulfill those duties. It's like we failed in fifth grade and now we need to repeat it. This is also linked to tendencies and patterns. Suppose you have a deeply ingrained tendency to be lazy. You will continue to be faced with problems related to laziness until you we overpower our tendency through the Yoga of Action. This is the transition from living with a mind driven by the wild horses of selfish desires and tendencies, to taming the mind with the wisdom and guidance of the scriptures (Vasana anusari to Shastra anusari). Hence the mind is purified through the Yoga of Action. Of course first one needs to be aware that most, almost 80 percent, of our mind and actions are driven by patterns and tendencies (Vasanas).
I have been meditating for many years, I started spontaneously when I was a teenager without any proper instruction. Much later, I was initiated by a teacher in the Art of Living Foundation and given a secret personal Mantra. Recently, I decided to revisit meditation from the perspective of the ancient Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. So I attended a workshop conducted by Swami-ji on meditation. Most ancient Vedic texts start with a seeker asking his Guru a question and then the teachings follow. Swamiji started with a list of questions most seekers have and that would be addressed during the seminar:
1. What is meditation? What meditation is not.
2. What to meditate upon. What is the purpose of meditation?
3. Who is the meditator?
4. How to meditate? The practice of meditation.
5. Obstacles in meditation.
6. Fruit of meditation.
5. Living in meditation. Description of a realized soul. How a wise one lives in the world. (This part I loved!)
The Bhagavad Gita’s first few chapters are on Karma Yoga. Swamiji explained the purpose of Karma Yoga and its importance for meditation. Can we truly settle the mind if the mind is not purified first through Yoga of Action? Yes, but the calm will be achieved only to the extent that the negativity has been removed. We will be peaceful while meditating and still have negativity later. I have seen many people, including myself, who have been meditating for years, some for more than twenty years, but they still have so much ego, anger, and other negativity in them. So the cup of the Knowledge (Jnan) can't be full until the cup of Practice (Upasana) is full, and the cup of Practice can't be full until the cup of Action (Karma) is full. But no one phase is more superior than the other; each one is supreme. All three need to be done-the previous ones can't be abandoned, although the quality changes. For example, one who has gained wisdom serves the world (Karma) as an expression of love, still meditates and worships the Lord.
Disturbed mind - Vikshepa
Once the muddy and turbulent water is purified through Yoga of Action, Swamiji said, the next step is to calm the waters through meditation. Even if you are a good person, your mind may not be in control. The restlessness and turbulence is on the surface. We have so many distractions, and so many agitations and restlessness; the end result is discomfort and sorrow. This is called "Vikshepa," or disturbance. The cause of disturbance, or sorrow, is that the mind is craving something; there are hidden tendencies (Vasanas). Different people adopt different methods to get rid of this. These methods can be "Tamasic" (impure): alcohol, drugs, medication, but the sorrow doesn't go permanently-there's only temporary relief, and these methods bring more long-term problems like addiction and other side effects. "Rajasic" (passion, lust, greed) methods to remove sorrow include turning toward different kinds of entertainment, becoming a workaholic, keeping busy to avoid thinking about sorrow, and disturbances in the mind.
Then there is a "Sattvic" (pure) method to get rid of misery. The pure means are devotion to God, prayer, Yoga, meditation, being in the company of wise people, and listening to spiritual teachings to gain peace of mind. Pure methods don’t produce new desires or have side effects.
We are told to eat a good diet and exercise to keep the body healthy. But what checks how much and what we eat, tells us to exercise, develops good habits, and has a say over the senses? A happy, healthy, strong, and disciplined mind. How can we tame the mind, bring it to rest at will, say 'No!' to the wrong thoughts, and teach it not to react? How do we manage the mind? So much happens in our mind: perceptions, beliefs, assumptions, expectations, feelings, and so on. Our goal is mind over body, but what directs the mind? Will power, awareness, intellect, wisdom, and conscience.
As a preventative measure, we can curb our desires internally by gaining wisdom and expanding our awareness, and externally through Karma Yoga. But if we still end up doing things driven by selfish cravings, attachment, and ego, then the consequence will be that we have residue in the form of negative emotions. The cure or purification of negative emotions can be done through Pranayama. Pranayama is a Yoga technique that uses rhythms in the breath to affect the mind, as body, breath, and mind are connected.
So we can purify our feelings and emotions through the breath. Also, when the 'Prana,' or life force, is high, we have a positive mind, and when the Prana is low, we have negativity. Yoga and Pranayamas have to be taught and checked by a Guru, a Yoga master.
Pranayamas and other Yoga methods are Tantra. What is Tantra? Tantra means technique. So the techniques in Kriya Yoga for examples fall under this category, as do other techniques that deal with 'life force' or 'energy.'
Pranayama, like other techniques, naturally leads the mind into meditation. Some people don't even realize that they are in a meditative state when this happens.
Body – If you have done Yoga or had a good work out and then you sit in the sauna, the mind is ripe for meditation.
Breath – Pranayama as mentioned.
Senses – You can have an intense experience through one of the senses that can take you into meditation. Imagine, for example, observing the vast expanse of the sea, or lie down and look up into the stars. In these situations, the mind expands, transcends.
Emotions – If you are listening to a devotional song, and go into bliss, it leads to meditation.
Intellect – If you have heard some deep knowledge and you sit and reflect on it, you can go into meditation.
Meditation happens in the transition between thoughts. Actually meditation happens, you can’t do it. You can only create a congenial atmosphere for it to do so.
But there is a procedure for meditation. Sit comfortably with the spine erect and head straight. Close the eyes and relax the body, take a deep breath in…and let go…Drop the world, observe the body, let the mind be…sink into the substratum...
First, the chain of thoughts that make the mind flow outward need to make a U-turn and become focused. Worshiping a form of the Lord helps; repeating the name of the Lord (Japa), sometimes on a necklace of beads, helps merge the thoughts with love on the divine. But meditation is not concentration, and this is elaborated upon in one of the greatest texts on Yoga philosophy, the Yoga Sutras by Sage Patanjali. It describes the eight steps of Yoga that lead to Samadhi, or oneness, and this takes us to the final goal of liberation called Kaivalya. The text goes into the details of Yoga and meditation.
The way to succeed in the world is with effort, and the way to succeed at meditation is through letting go, making it effortless, being natural. It is just Being. In the Upanishads and Gita it says that I should sit in meditation with the attitude of renunciation, Sanyaas. No matter what is happening in my life, no matter what I'm thinking. Who cares? Leave it, let me repose in myself.
Panch Kosha - the five sheaths of our existence
Meditation is like peeling away the layers of an onion, moving from the outside, in. Starting from the environment around us and being at peace with it, dispassionate about everything happening around us. The sounds, the smells, everything. The eyes are closed. Then being aware of the whole body, having reverence for the body, relaxing the body. Then becoming aware of the inflow and outflow of the breath. Strange as it may seem, we are not aware of the breath, even though we are always breathing! The breath is always in the present moment. When the mind is in the present moment it becomes calm and crystal clear. Then becoming aware of the mind, aware of the thoughts, witnessing the thoughts coming and going, like watching a river flowing by. Being aware of each thought. The mind settles, thoughts decrease. Then there is a feeling of peace, harmony, joy, love, expansion.
Sometimes when I meditate it feels really sweet, and that is very addictive. However, that is not the final stage of meditation. I still "feel"; it is still the mind enjoying the nectar of the innermost layer. I want to see my soul, I am determined, steady…steady… Finally, silence. The final state is that of no-mind and absolute bliss. You are now completely your true, natural Self. Going beyond all the layers and returning to the core takes practice, patience, steadfastness, and dispassion.
As stated before, we are all looking for this bliss in many ways. We want to return to our original state. Alcohol can make you happy, but then you have submitted your mind to it; those chemicals rule your mind, making you a slave, and then the effect finally goes away, and you feel down. In meditation you rule the mind, and that bliss is always available to you. It never leaves, never diminishes, never changes. Just being in the bliss that we are is meditation. This is why we should meditate. In our everyday lives we are removed from our state of natural bliss, but saints are always established in this bliss. They function from this state. In meditation, it permeates us, it is in every cell, like water in a sponge. Actually, even the sponge is solidified consciousness..
Mantra - the sacred-secret sound.
There is an ancient tradition in which a spiritual Guru initiates a student by whispering a sacred Mantra for meditation. I was initiated by a teacher in the Art of Living Foundation. A suitable mantra is chosen for the student based on the vibration in the sound of the mantra, and the meaning is not the important part. There is a vibration that resonates with each of the seven Chakras, the energy centers in our body. This sacred sound of the mantra is like a seed that is placed within and that then grows as it resonates. It is repeated mentally during meditation. The vibrations of the sound rise up and then expand like ripples on a pond. When there are thoughts, the vibrations of the mantra consolidates them into a single sound, like ripples bring synchronicity to scattered disturbances on the surface of water. The vibrations settle, and the mind dives into deeper and deeper layers of consciousness, like sinking into the ocean under the waves of thoughts. If thoughts come, repeating the mantra brings oneness to the mind, and the vibration of the mantra dissolves the thoughts. When the vibration settles there is absolute silence, stillness, and deep rest. The mind dissolves into the vast expanse of consciousness.
Sri Krishna gives Arjun guidance on meditation and describes its results in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. Nowhere else in the entire extent of the voluminous spiritual literature that we have in the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita (the three are known as the Prasthana Traya), can we find such a wealth of details, explaining not only the technique of meditation so vividly but also the possible pitfalls and how to avoid them successfully. It talks about the discipline of "Yoga", to control ones senses and desires, before getting into the practice of meditation.
Sri Krishna talks about the right attitude for meditation. You should mentally prostate to your spiritual teacher or Guru (if you don't have one, then the God you believe in). Next, think about God (Allah, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, or whoever is your God), single-mindedly. Consider the Self as the supreme goal of life when you sit in meditation. Withdraw the mind from the world with dispassion, and eliminate all distractions of the mind, slowly and patiently. Then draw the mind to the Self with determination. Contemplate on the nature of the Self, pure existence, consciousness, and bliss. The great gravitational force of the Self will pull the mind to Itself like a magnet. The mind, then, will dissolve into the Self like salt in the ocean.
Meditation is effortlessly abiding in the awareness of one's own true nature. It is about experiencing the source, tracing back to see where the "I" comes from. One morning during retreat, as I meditated, I asked myself, "Who am I?"…"Who is meditating?"…"Oh, who just asked this question?"…"This thought— where did it come from?" "Who is the meditator?" Observing each thought come and go. Reposing in the silence between the thoughts. Being aware of the subtlest of thoughts. The response to these questions is a great experience.
Our soul is in the gap between the thoughts. Even a moment of no-mind without a trace of thought is like a deep dive into eternity, through a black hole where there is no time or space. Everything becomes one: the world vanishes, and there is no mind, only consciousness. When you come back, it feels like only a fraction of a second has passed, and when you observe things outside, you realize how much time has passed—you may have been “gone” over an hour! Great yogis can be in this state as long as they want. During meditation some people blink into this timelessness and think they went to sleep. If you are not drowsy, it can't be sleep—it’s deep meditation.
First stage of practice is listening to knowledge on the nature of the Self. Then comes consolidating the knowledge, removing doubts, reflecting. The last stage is making it an experiential reality. In the Upanishads the term for meditation is Nididhyasa, which means the yearning for deep thinking. It is about turning the mind inward to the Subject - the Self, the Atman.
The experiences in meditation are hard to express, but here they are beautifully described in the words of Sri Krishna:
When the mind, restrained by the practice of Yoga, attains quietude and when seeing the Self by the self, he is satisfied in his own Self; (Gita, 6.20)
When he (the Yogi ) feels that Infinite bliss --- which can be grasped by the (pure) intellect and which transcends the senses --- wherein established he never moves from the Reality; (Gita, 6.21)
Which, having obtained, he thinks there is no other gain superior to it; wherein established, he is not moved even by heavy sorrow. (Gita, 6.22)
Let it be known: the severance from the union-with-pain is Yoga. This Yoga should be practiced with determination and with a mind steady and un-despairing. (Gita, 6.23)
Supreme Bliss verily comes to this Yogi, whose mind is quite peaceful, whose passion is quieted, who is free from sin, and who has become Brahman. (Gita, 6.27)
The Yogi engaging the mind thus (in the practice of Yoga ) , freed from sins, easily enjoys the Infinite Bliss of 'Brahman-contact. (Gita, 6.28)
With the mind harmonized by Yoga he sees the Self abiding in all beings, and all beings in the Self; he sees the same everywhere. (Gita, 6.29)
This is the Unity Consciousness state as described by some. The description of a realized one, established in the Self, is so beautiful and mesmerizing.
I like these two for meditation. It's good to know the meaning so the meditation is even deeper.