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Sunday, April 18, 2010

What is Meditation? Part 1

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana:

After teasing you for several months, I am ready to share with you what I know of meditation. Hopefully, you will get interested and start the practice. If you do, I can assure you that it will relax you physically and mentally. It will help calm your mind and therefore think deeply. It will help change your attitude to life’s stresses. Although the roots of meditation are related to spiritual growth,I am not qualified to speak or teach spirituality through meditation. I am still exploring the meaning of spirituality.

First, let me remove some of the myths about meditation. Meditation is not a religious practice. Anyone from any tradition can do it. You do not need initiation either, at least for the kind of meditation I am talking about. Do not believe those who tell you that you need a guru and that you have to practice some rituals before starting meditation. Although it may be true for those who want to renounce this world and become monks, it is not true for us, the novice practitioners. Also, those who emphasize elaborate breathing techniques, special physical postures and special mantras are over-emphasizing the methods, at the expense of the goals.

During meditation, Symbols do not matter; Substance does. Duration does not matter; intensity does. Rituals and postures do not matter; inner feeling (bhavana) does.


As someone who has practiced meditation for almost 40 years, and as one who has read the original texts on meditation in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions and as one who is also interested in the neurobiology of meditation, I believe that the four important requirements for meditation are: motivation, attitude, discipline and practice. This does not mean that the various rituals, positions and visualization techniques emphasized by several schools of meditation are all useless. They may be of help and indeed are of help to some people. However, it is important to remember that they are only preliminary steps to help you get ready for meditation.

What is meditation? Meditation is defined in an English dictionary as “thinking over, contemplation, mental reflection”. “Solemn reflection on sacred matters as a devotional act” is another definition. This last definition comes closest to what meditation is, as is commonly understood.

When you look at a Sanskrit dictionary, the closest word is dhyana which is defined as “meditation, reflection, thought and religious meditation”. When you go to the most original of all texts on meditation, namely Patanjali’s Yoga Sastra, the word dhyana is applied to one step in the process of meditation. Yoga is not dhyana. It is a component of yoga.

The book itself is called Yoga Sastra and not Dhyana sastra! That is because the verb root of the word yoga is yuj, to unite. (Please note the similarity to the English word, yoke). Since the goal of yoga is to unite the individual with the Divine, the book is called Yoga sastra. When you translate the word yoga to mean meditation, you are using the word for both the method and the goal.

Patanjali’s book starts with the following two statements: “1. Atha yogaanusaasanam – Now we begin the instruction of yoga. 2. Yogah chitthavritthinirodhaha – “Yoga is for blocking the extroverted activities of the mind”.

Line 2 defines the purpose of meditation namely, to control the mind. The book goes on to explain how to control the mind, make it focus and “abide in one’s own inner self”, which is the ultimate goal. Several passages later, Patanjali uses the terms dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (immersion) as the steps leading towards total silence of the mind and “abiding in the self”.

However, in modern usage, meditation is used as synonymous with yoga (union with the Absolute) and the word yoga is used mainly to refer to physical postures and breathing techniques which according to Patanjali’s writings are preliminary steps towards controlling the mind. More about these later.

In neurobiological terms, meditation is, rather meditation leads to an altered state of consciousness (ASC).

Steps in the ladder of meditation. The first step is Dhaarana and is defined by Patanjali as: deshaabandhachitthasya dhaarana (3:1) meaning “dharana is focusing of the mind on a given object”. As we shall see later, this can be on a sound (mantra), on an image (of your favorite God or Saint), on a body part (most often the middle of the eyebrow which is called aagna chakra and is supposed to be the location of a center of energy) or on one’s breath.

Dhyana is the next step and is defined as: Thathra pratyaya ekathaanatha dhyaanam (3:2) which means that dhyana is the steady, deepening abidance on one object (concentration on the object that was chosen to focus on). In strict translation, dhyana is meditation.

Samadhi, the final step, is defined as thadhevsartthamaathranirbhasam svaroopashunyamiva samadhih (3:3) meaning that samadhi is abidance in (merging with) Pure Consciousness which is beyond name and form. It is the merging of the individual soul (Atman) with the Universal Absolue (Brahman).

What is the goal of meditation? “When the five senses together with the mind come to rest, and the intellect also does not deal with its objects (thoughts), that is the highest state” of meditation says Kathopanishad (II:iii; 10 and 11)

Ribhu Gita (Chapter 28: Slokas 11 – 15) says that you are to go beyond memories and thoughts and reach a state of silence. Then you “leave the “state of silence” and the world imagined by the mind“, and become a witness to the thought. Finally, you meditate on “Aham brahmasmi” ( I am Brahman) and become one with the Essence.

Patanjali lists the final stages to be reached through the practice of Yoga (meditation, as we use the word) as follows: first, savikalpa Samadhi, a stage at which you are merged with the chosen object of meditation but still aware of duality, your separateness. Then comes Nirvikalpa Samadhi in which the duality disappears. This stage is also called rutambhara gnana, which transcends all other forms of knowledge and characterized by an intuitive experience and understanding of oneness with the Ultimate Reality, the Ground of all beings, the Godhead within man, The Absolute, the Supreme Being. Christian mystics such as St.Thomas Aquinas called it the “beatific vision”.

A stage higher than this is also possible for the true saints like Ramana and Ramakrishna. That is called the Nirbija Samadhi, the “seedless” state of Union with the One Reality. At this stage “you are no longer yourself. You are one with Brahman”. Very few of us can reach this stage.

In other words, the way I understand the Upanishad and Patanjali, the goal of meditation is to control one’s thoughts and attain a state in which we are aware of only the Unity of the Individual with the Universal. A higher state of meditation (yoga) is when you go beyond this stage, are not aware of duality and experience oneness with the Godhead, Paramapurusha. This state of tranquility, oneness with the Primary Force or Cosmic Consciousness, the state of ecstasy (root word ex stare, meaning to stand outside of oneself)is well-documented by mystics from all traditions – east and west, Christianity and Islam, Hindu and Buddhists. We will discuss these in the next essay.

I do have a word of caution, however. It is better not to get into those special ecstatic states without guidance because one can get into trouble with confused mental states. The Vedic teaching cautions us about this danger and says that if your goal is spiritual enlightenment, you should not get stuck at this stage.

What are the obstacles to meditation? We all know how our mind runs like crazy. As I have mentioned in my essays on Symbols and Substance, the disc (chakra, Sudharsana) in Vishnu’s hand represents the human mind in constant motion.In the Buddhist literature, there is a parable of a man riding on a horse which is running fast. A passerby asks: “Hi, where are you going?” The rider replies: “I do not know; ask the horse”. That is the state of the mind, most of the time!

References to the fast moving nature of the mind can be seen in the writings of all cultures and traditions. The mind is compared to a monkey jumping from one tree to another. Some passages I have read are:
mano bhavathi bhuthathma tharanga iva vaariney (Yoga vasishta 3:1;7) meaning that the mind is tossed about like waves in the ocean.
Also, “ithasthathascha suvyagram oyartthameva abhidhavathi” meaning that the mind keeps jumping from one place to another for no purpose (Yoga Vasishta 1:2; 35).

If the restlessness of the mind is the problem which interferes with focusing on the Divine, how can one control the mind?

In the Bhagavat Gita, Arjuna asks exactly that question: chanchalam hi manah Krishna thasyaaham nigraham naye?” – “the mind is confused; how do I control it?”. Lord Krishna replies: “ abhyaasena kaunteya vairagyena cha gruyathe” meaning “get hold of your mind by determination and practice”. Gita also says: Uddhareth aathmanam aathmanah which means “pull yourself by yourself”. That about says it all!

One famous passage in Yoga vasishta says: manascheva mans cchindhi which means “control the mind with the mind”! Is there any other way?

In another area, Vasishta says: Yena thyajasi thath thyaja, which means “let go of the mind by which you are trying to let go”. In other words, let go of the mind.

Yoga vasisthta says ahambhaavamayi cchitva meaning “let go of the idea of I”. Ramana asks us to reflect on this “I”. Who or what is this I? “Keep tracking that thought to its root. It will take you to the Source” says Ramana.

To be continued…….