SRI SWAMI SHIVAPREMANANDA
In the West, the word meditation means a concentrated state of mind in serious reflection. The Latin root of the word meditation, mederi, means “to heal.” It is an effort to heal afflictions of the mind, the hurt ego, by trying to understand the cause of the problem and finding a way to solve it, that is, by knowing what counter-measures to take. To meditate thus, is to deepen a state of understanding.
In the East, however, meditation does not mean thinking at all but fixing the mind in a spiritual ideal, to be one with it, or the thought-process dissolving in the consciousness of it. According to Zen, meditation does not involve any concept but is an awareness of inner silence. As per the Yoga of Patanjali, meditation is a combination of three steps: pratyahara or abstraction, or withdrawal of the mind from the sense-objects or attention to their memory; dharana or concentration; and dhyana or contemplation which, however, is not a thought-process but an absorption of the feeling of oneness with the ideal.
Awareness of an inner silence is not something easy to achieve. It can be confused with a state of dullness or being soporific, which is not the purpose of meditation. To meditate mean does not mean to have a good rest while sitting pretty, and silence is not productive without spiritual aspiration. On the other hand, few have the capacity to think clearly, and too much of mental exercise could lead to tension and confusion.
In Bhakti Yoga, meditation is visualization of the image of a chosen deity, together with mental repetition of a relevant mantra. For the Vedantin it is to contemplate on the meaning of selected verses from the Upanishads or similar scriptures. For the Catholics, it is saying the rosary, based on mantras like “Our Father which art in Heaven,” or “Hail Mary, full of grace.” For them meditation also consists in feeling close to Jesus after receiving communion and retiring into a quiet place.
St. Albert the Great, the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, observed that meditation for philosophers is a process of perfecting a thought, and for the devotees of their love of God. Prayers said in silence as a dedication of oneself to God can also be called meditation, because it means turning the mind inward to one’s spiritual source, leading to peace.
For, the Hindus, repetition of a mantra, with or without a rosary, but with a feeling of spiritual oneness, is meditation. A common Buddhist meditation consists in repeating the mantras: Buddham sharanam gachchhami, sangham sharanam gachchami (I proceed remembering the Buddha, the righteous path and the welfare of my community). The Tibetians base their meditation on the mantra Om mani padme hum (I am Om, the jewel in the lotus of my heart). For Muslims, meditation is called dhikr or repetition of selected names of God from the Quran, generally with a rosary. Feeling the breath, which is a technique in pratyahara, is an exercise in Zen meditation (the word Zen is derived from dhyana or meditation), as also counting from 1 to 20 or more, over and over again.
The two basic goals of meditation are : 1) Spiritual renewal, or the feeling of oneness with a higher source of life, no matter whether one calls it the infinite and eternal spirit, transcendent and yet immanent in everything, or a divine being called God, or supreme truth, from which flow peace, wisdom and strength. 2) The purpose of deep introversion, in a state of peace, is to search the basic truths of life, to separate reality from illusion itself, to acquire a clear understanding of reality rather than confusing it with a foggy, thoughtless state. The first is relatively easier through devotion and a sincere dedication. The second needs a long practice, to acquire philosophical maturity.
Peace of mind is a product of the first goal, which helps in the understanding of the problems one faces. An expanded state of consciousness enables one to loosen the psychological thightness of attachments and rise above petty reactions by the realization that there is more to life than snobbery caused by the insecure ego and resentment by wounded vanity. A sense of elevation and oneness with a spiritual source helps to sublimate gross passions and acquire emotional maturity. The identity of oneself with the essence of one’s being, strengthens the will to act according to what should and should not be done, after having made appropriate decisions.
Clarity of mind, which is a part of the second goal, helps to cultivate a sense of right and wrong, a basic purpose of education and a litmus test of any culture. The Greek root, charassein of the word character means “to engrave,” and its Sanskrit word, charita, means “to cultivate”. To engrave or to cultivate cherished ideals is what meditation is for, practiced in a state of peace and clarity of mind, instilling a love of truth, of what one wishes to be, by sowing the seeds of suggestion through an intense feeling, devotion and dedication.
Purity of heart or freedom from resentment, hate, prejudice and negative thinking is another objective of meditation. Although it is said that repetition of a Mantra helps to cleanse and enlighten the mind, there is no evidence that the mental sound-form does so, but the faith in it and the sincerity to direct one’s life by the ideals behind it. Thus, it is wrong to say that Mantras are meaningless sound-forms. It is also advisable to discard the myth that no progress in meditation or spiritual life is possible without an initiation by a Guru, although a worthy teacher is a help. As the Buddha says :
“By oneself alone is one purified,
Purity and impurity depending on oneself,
As no one can purify another,
By oneself one must walk the path,
The teacher merely shows the way.”
WHAT IS REQUIRED TO MEDITATE ?
The injunction “let your whole life be an act of meditation,” is meaningless, first because it is impossible and, secondly because the value is diluted. Meditation, in order to be effective, should inspire a philosophy to guide one’s life. That is why Patanjali’s Raja Yoga begins with two sets of ethics and regulations, yama and niyama. Practical idealism is the first requirement in meditation, so as not to make it a hypocritical act but to support it by a philosophy guiding ones attitude, restraint, motivation, action and relationship.
The second requisite is a suitable place to meditate, clean and peaceful, wherein to create the right kind of atmosphere by keeping a symbol on a sort of an altar with flowers and when meditating, lighting a candle and mild incense, if desired.
The third is a kind of posture, whether sitting, cross-legged, if comfortable, or in a straight-back and firm chair, while keeping the neck, shoulders and back straight, without being rigid, so as to remain alert by breathing adequately (oxygen helps to maintain lucidity). For most of the people, even in India, the lotus posture (padmasana) is symbolic rather than practical, for one can meditate only when the mind is free from self-inflicted pain in the legs and hips, nor does it make any sense to let them go numb. The position of the arms should be relaxed by keeping the palms facing up in the lap, one over the other, or the hands should be on the knees with palm up or down but fingers loose and relaxed. If sitting in a chair, the feet should be together on the floor, with equal weight.
The fourth is cultivating a relaxed disposition before beginning the practice of meditation. There should be no fighting with thoughts or trying to stop the mind, as it were, or even a desire to achieve anything at all, for it is not an ego-trip or climbing the ladder of success, but an effortless feeling of a deep, inner poise and faith in, and love for, what one wishes to do, a quiet, absorbing predisposition to the ideal of the act.
With a relaxed mind one may begin with the awareness of an abiding, expanding relatedness to all that is around, to the whole universe, and then to the transcendent and immanent spiritual source, which is also the essence of ones inner being or soul. There should be a feeling of absorption and envelopment by a deep, inner peace. No doubt, thoughts will come and go, but not to be distracted by a thought means not identifying with it, because a thought is sustained by the selfs involvement with it. When a thought comes, one may gently tell oneself “I am not interested but detached and in peace.” To begin meditation, it is necessary to compose oneself in this way for a few minutes.
The fifth requisite is called techniques that constitute the main practice of meditation. They are of several kinds depending on religious or monastic or Ashram traditions. For example, in some Catholic monasteries there are little books of meditation consisting of a thought for each day of the year, gleaned from the scriptures, which is memorized beforehand and contemplated upon in solitude, while mentally repeating the phrases from time to time. In the chapel, meditation is done differently, when a monk reads aloud passages from sacred writings and his brethren sit with heads bent, eyes closed and fingers crossed, deeply concentrating on what is read.
It will, however, be appropriate here to give some basic steps in an integral form of meditation, combining some practice in prathyahara, dharana and dhyana. The suitability of techniques varies from person to person and the choice should be individual, from what is available in books. However, it should be remembered that, just as the mark of good journalism is accuracy and the evidence of a serious research, so also the mark of a good teaching is clarity and precision.
After a few minutes of relaxation as described in how to cultivate a predisposition, gradually absorb the mind in the breath, that is, be aware of the coolness of the inflowing prana deep inside the head, in the nerve cells, and the warmth of the outgoing prana (exhalation) inside the lower nostrils, while breathing spontaneously. There is no need to breathe deliberately slowly, for the concentration in feeling the breath will automatically make it slow and find its own rhythm. From time to time, repeat mentally “peace” (shanti) when inhaling and “liberation” (mukti) when exhaling, but the important thing is a sense of being filled with peace and feeling free from all tension and bondage like a free soul. The practice may be continued for, say, 10 minutes.
The purpose of this form of pratyahara is a conscious experience of the prana, the external form of which is the breath and the internal, the spirit or the soul. The Latin root, spirare, of the word respiration means “to breathe,” and is related to the word spiritus, the spiritual essence that gives life to the body through the vital principle, prana. By experiencing the breath through its coolness and warmth, one becomes aware of the source within by a sense of immense peace and freedom, the two psychological forms of expression of the spirit within.
After a month of practice, the first stage can be prolonged by continuing to feel the coolness deep inside the head even when exhaling, and ignoring the warmth of the outgoing prana, but renewing the cool feeling with the help of each inward breath. The psychological experience of this exercise is a state of fullness which can be guided by the repetition of the word paripurnam or its English form “spiritual fullness,” from time to time. This may be done for five minutes or more, depending on the ability to maintain attention.
Any practice in a prolonged state, especially in the beginning, loses its depth. Thus, after 10 or 15 minutes, detach the mind from the breath, keep the eyes closed and feel restful for a minute or two. One may also loosen up the shoulders, neck and legs, if there is tension.
The second part of meditation, which is an aspect of internal dharana (concentration), consists of japa or repetition of a Mantra, and can be combined with dhyana (contemplation). A Mantra is a sound-form representing a basic spiritual ideal, such as the immanence of the infinite spirit (Om), or transcendental truth, knowledge, infinity (satyam, jnanam ,anantam), or a personal deity like Shiva or Vishnu or Christ. A Mantra can also be an affirmation of an ideal such as Soham (I am one with the spirit of God) or Hari Om Tat Sat (the Lord is the infinite spirit, that is the truth).
A Mantra should not be considered a magic formula, for there is no magic formula in Yoga. Continuous repetition of a sound-form helps to tap mental energy and focus it into the subconscious in order to plant and stimulate a spiritual ideal therein. This is the basic purpose of japa. To call it a transcendental exercise is to indulge in hyperbole. There are various kinds of Mantra but for japa its shorter forms are recommended, such as Om or Soham, or slightly larger form as Hari Om or Hari Om Tat Sat.
The mind is a field of energy. Energy pulsates through a principle structure of movement. The mind moves by the pulsation of memory, latching on to one and then to another. Thus, the energy of the mind is dispersed. The purpose of repeating a sound-form continuously is to make the mind move in a tight circle, thus tapping its energy. Simultaneously, or alternately, the sentiment for a spiritual ideal should be focused deeper within its exercise. This is a combined form of dharana and dhyana.
One may begin the second part of meditation by refocusing the mind in the breath, trying to be absorbed in it, as before, for a minute or two. Then start the mental intonation of the Mantra Om, slowly and concentrating deeply, along with the inflowing breath, feeling its coolness, and again with exhalation, feeling the warmth. The process should be continuous for several minutes. Then have a short pause, detaching the mind and experiencing an inner silence, and after which repeat the practice. Continue for a total of 10 minutes in the first month and then extend by another five minutes or so.
The psychological counterpart of this exercise consists in feeling a subtle, sacred presence within: in the body giving it health or physical well-being, in the mind enlightening it with understanding and wiping out the shadows of negativity, in the heart or the soul awakening spiritual aspiration. The last means loving “God with all your heart and with all your soul” in the words of Jesus. These guiding sentiments are relative to the repetition of Om, which can be directed at the same time or in between japa.
If the Mantra is Soham, the sound so should be mentally intoned with the inflowing breath and ham with the outflowing, in the same way as with Om. The sentiment or the contemplative part may be based on the affirmation: “I am one with the eternal spirit within and around. The self in me is of the spiritual nature of my soul, rather than a product of physical instincts and personality traits. The ego in me is purified by this communion with my soul, the essence of which is the same as the infinite, transcendental spirit of God, or the Self.”
The idea of sticking to one Mantra only is to accustom the mind to its sound pattern, in order to engrave its grooves in the subconscious, as it were. The choice may be made by oneself, such as in this case between Om and Soham. Experience alone will tell you, given enough time, if a Mantra is suitable to ones psychological make-up through a sense of harmony with it, or not. There is no rule that a Mantra cannot be changed if the mind resists it.
The preference of receiving initiation from a Guru is personal but there is no dogma that to repeat a Mantra one has to be initiated into it. Sensible teachers try to find out the psychological inclination of the student before giving a Mantra, rather than perfunctorily superimpose one with a dubious understanding that the former can know what is appropriate for the latter just by sensing the vibrations. Gurudev Swami Sivananda, never urged anyone to receive Mantra-initiation from him but, if someone came to him for it, he generally enquired about the preference.
Whereas a Mantra should not be treated frivolously by revealing it to just anybody, to make a top-secret of it is rather silly. All Mantras can be found in books. Some Christians have even made a Yogic combination by deciding on “Om Jesus” as a Mantra.
After the practice of the second part a short pause is advisable, keeping the eyes closed and feeling detached and restful. If there is tension, move the shoulders and the head a little. Breathe freely for a minute or two and then refocus the mind in the breath to begin the third part of this integral meditation, all of it being a combination of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. This last part is a process of seeding the subconscious with some basic affirmations, relative to their opposite traits which are common to human nature.
The mind is a complex organism susceptible to influence. No one is born like a blank page on which the parents and others write what is good or bad. We are all born with innate propensities of character, even though in a rudimentary state, but each as a distinct individual. Then the first few years are highly impressionable, marking the subconscious indelibly. Afterwards, in adolescence and later years, we keep on marking the formative mind by positive endeavour and falling into bad habits, as well as being susceptible to wholesome and negative influence of individuals we come into contact with and by the kind of society we live in.
The purpose of this part of meditation is self-educative, as to what should be our nature and should not be, the reality being what we really need for our security and happiness. One may make a list of affirmations as per individual preference and necessity, and memorize them. However, they should be few and short. The following six affirmations are recommended.
While inhaling and feeling the breath, mentally repeat slowly and with a deep conviction “peace is my real nature” and while exhaling (also feeling the breath) “not conflict.” Repeat the phrase three or four times, then try to absorb the meaning in silence for about a minute, breathing spontaneously. Then continue with “love is my real nature,” “not resentment”; “truth is my real nature,” “not untruth”; “happiness is my real nature,” “not unhappiness”; “strength is my real nature,” “not weakness”; “freedom is my real nature,” “not bondage.”
Then give a short pause, breathing freely and feeling detached. Begin again, fixing the mind in the breath, and repeat three or four times each, inhaling “peace” and exhaling “only peace”; “love,” “spiritual love”; “truth,” “only truth”; “happiness,” “inner fullness”; “strength,” “mental strength” “freedom,” “spiritual freedom.” Then conclude with a short pause, breathing freely.
The best time to meditate is in the early morning, but only if one wakes up fresh. Otherwise, an appropriate hour should be chosen, but not immediately after a meal. This session of meditation will take from 35 to 45 minutes. In the beginning one may shorten it to 20 to 30 minutes and, after sufficient practice, prolong up to 45 minutes or a bit longer. For most people a long meditation is not useful and may even build up tension. The quality is more important than the length of it.
An inner poise, a truthful, open, compassionate and unselfish nature, free from pretension, snobbery, prejudice and dogmatism, are the qualities one encounters in those who have progressed in meditation.