Please visit Amazon Author Page at

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What is Meditation? Part 2

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

In the previous essay, we defined meditation, looked at the goal of meditation and the steps leading up to the goal, obstacles to meditation and the only available way to control the mind. Now, we are ready for the next step of letting go of the mind, after controlling it and bringing it to a focus.

How do you let go of the mind? What are the steps? First, you have to withdraw your senses from the sense objects. In Uddhava Gita, (XXI 22) Lord Krishna says: Vishayendriya samyogaath manah kshubyathi naanyattha meaning that the mind is agitated by the contact of sense with its objects. It is obvious because adhrushtaath ashruthaath abhavaath na bhaava upajaayathe meaning a mental wave is never produced by anything that has not been seen or heard! What an insight!

What do you have to do to withdraw the mind from sense objects? You have to focus on something, something noble, something higher. The focus could be on an object outside, or it could be inwards.

But, how do you focus? Well, in order to focus, you have to first calm the mind.

Hmm…… How do you calm the mind? To calm the mind, you have to relax the body, first.

This is exactly where different methods of preparation of the body and mind come. And with them come the associated yogic schools.

Patanjali lists eight steps in preparation of an individual for meditation. In the exact words of the sage, Patanjali himself, it is yama niyama aasana praanaayama prathyahaara dhaarana dhyana samaadhayo ashtaavangaani. Therefore, Yoga Sastra is also called Ashtaanga yoga (ashta is eight, in Sanskrit). The first five are for controlling the body; the final three are for the control of the mind.

The first five steps of Ashtanga yoga are: yama (self control consisting of non-injury, truth-telling, non-stealing, celibacy, and non-possession), niyama (observances or practices consisting of purity, contentment, austerity, study and devotion), aasana (postures) , praanaayama (control of breath), and pratyaahara (withdrawal of senses).

Please note that aasana (postures) and praanaayama (breath control) are steps 3 and 4 respectively of this preparation of the body. As you can see, they help control the physical aspects of the initiate. These two steps set the stage for step 5, withdrawal of senses. The last three are dhaarana, dhyana and samaadhi. They are meant for preparation of the mind. We defined them earlier.

Aasanas and praanaayama are practiced to develop mental, physical and spiritual strength. This is where the various schools of meditation and yoga come in. They all concentrate on one or more of these steps and build elaborate systems of practice. Unfortunately, the meaning of the word Yoga itself has changed and is applied to the practice of physical postures. Each one of them becomes a school or tradition. You have heard about the Kundalini School, Iyengar School, etc.

This is true also of various schools which emphasize breath control or praanaayama. 'Praana' means the life-force and Ayama means to regulate. Praanaayama is the method by which you learn to control and regulate the breath. There are several schools based on this focus. Art of Living is one such school. Hatha yoga emphasizes praanaayama. Though the beginner's Praanaayama is relatively harmless, safely progressing to more advanced complicated practices requires the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher. One can get into trouble holding the breath or breathing fast for more than a few seconds.

In the far east and in the Buddhist system, there are other methods of preparation. For example, Tai chi is to help bring harmony between the body and the mind. Samatha School emphasizes several methods for slowing (samatha) the mind. Vipassana school focuses on deep looking or concentration. Then there is the Vignaanapti school of Zen Buddhism with focus on being in the present moment. There are several other schools such as those which emphasize compassion as the focus of meditation.

What next? You have relaxed the body and the mind. What methods can you use to steady the mind? Initially, the mind will wander; thoughts will appear. You just observe them, without judgment and without chasing them. As soon as you realize that the mind has wandered off, gently bring it back home.

Sogyal Rinpoche says how meditation is nothing but turning your mind inward and bringing the mind back to its natural home! Do not grasp at thoughts. Let them come and go. Just observe as they subside naturally, without fighting them.

In the Buddhist literature, the initial appearance of a thought is called vitarka. When that thought continues to occupy the mind, it is called vichara. (Interestingly one meaning of the word vichara is worry) The idea is to stop thoughts at the moment of vitarka and not let it go to the next stage of sustained attention.

Once the mind settles down, and is able to keep one image or thought or mantra for any length of time, try to become a witness. You are not the judge. You are not the jury. You are not the lawyer. Just a witness! That means, you do not chase the idea or make judgments. You stay neutral as the mind keeps flirting and finally settles down. It will.

As I mentioned earlier, discipline and consistent practice are the most important requirements. You have to set up a routine and stick to it.

Ideally, early morning hours, before telephones start ringing, is the best time. You have to spend at least 20 minutes. Even that is not adequate most of the time.

A comfortable sitting posture is necessary. To my mind, special aasana positions are not necessary. It is even acceptable for older folks to sit on a chair or use thin cushion. Ideally, you want the body erect with a straight spine. You do not want a position in which it is easy to fall asleep. If you do fall asleep, that is OK too! You want a posture in which the chest wall and the abdominal wall can move freely to their maximum during each breath.

Most systems teach you to close the eyes. Some schools ask you to keep the eyes open. Some ask you to keep them half-open.

As I learnt from experience, relaxing the body will slow the breathing down. I also noticed that when your breathing slows down, your thoughts will slow down and vice versa. This was known to our ancestors.

I prefer less emphasis on rigorous methods of body-control and breath-control. They tend to distract from the main focus. Any simple relaxation exercises (including Tai chi) will do. There are several audio tapes available to guide you through relaxation. Indeed, there are some physicians specializing in sleep disorders who have produced sound tracks to help with relaxation. I found one left on my pillow in one of the motels!

Once the body is relaxed using one of several simple methods, the next step is slow and rhythmic breathing. Thich Naht Hanh’s mindfulness meditation teaches simple, natural breathing. Sogyal Rinpoche also favors this simple natural breathing technique. It is easy to learn and to use. In this simple method, you breathe normally, but become more aware of it. You focus on your breath going in and going out. As you are breathing in, you can say to yourself “Breathing in, I am aware of breathing in” or you can visualize breathing in strength, courage and all the positive things. While breathing out, you can say to yourself “I am aware of breathing out” or visualize getting rid of your negative energies. Keep this focus for as long as possible at every sitting. It may take several weeks to months to stay focus on the present moment and the breath.

Slowly eliminate the words (even the thoughts of the words) and focus on breathing only. You will notice the mind slowing down.

You have to spend at least 20 minutes at a time for you to keep the mind still for a few seconds! Eventually, the mind will slow down and you will be visualizing or chanting your chosen image or mantra most of the time during meditation.

As stated several times, the aim is to silence the mind and reach a state of thoughtlessness. After relaxing the body and focusing on the breath, you may be able to observe the mind calming down. You then reach a state of being a witness to yourself. If this not possible, and if thoughts keep running like a tape-recorder in your brain, you can slowly tame the mind.

For some of us, thoughts will not go away, particularly in the beginning. They will keep coming back. When this happens, accord those thoughts a “polite indifference of a gentleman” as suggested by a Buddhist monk. This may not work always. If this happens, you will have to reflect on those thoughts with mindfulness and see why they are persistent (deep looking and mindfulness meditation). You may need help. You may wish to attend a meditation camp where you can get appropriate help. But, most of the time, the mind will settle down.

If not, this is the time to focus on something or some thought so that the mind will be fixed on one object. This can be a sound, an image, a body part or breath. For example, concentrate on a divine symbol (Om or the Cross or the Crescent Moon) or a form (Lord Ganesha, Jesus Christ or St Francis of Assissi or the Prophet). Another is to repeat a Mantra with or without a rosary. Or you can focus on your in-breath and out-breath. The other method is concentrating on energy centers of the body as suggested in the tantric systems. The idea is to focus on the breathing or keep visualizing the chosen form or repeat the chosen mantra in a continuous, unbroken stream. Whenever the mind wanders away, you just acknowledge it without anger or judgment and bring it back gently to the visualized image or the mantra sound or the breath.

The next step is to bring silence between one moment of chanting or visualization and the next. If you are using your own normal breath for this concentration, you can focus on the interval between one breath and the next and keep it silent, without allowing any thought. Eventually, you can focus on the silence and not on the breath or the mantra or the beads of the rosary.

Remember, if you are telling yourself that you do not want any thought, it is also a thought. You are looking for total silence!

Once you can notice this silent interval between two breaths or between two thoughts or between repetitions of the mantra, try and stretch that period of silence. This state is compared to deep sleep, except in deep sleep you are not aware and all sensory inputs are in abeyance. In this meditative state, you are fully aware. You are at a “supra conscious” level. All sensory modalities are intense, according to those who have reached this stage.

Ramana gives you another idea. Have you experienced the body stir from deep sleep when you wake up in the morning? Have you experienced a vague sense of being alive and going under the spell of sleep at night? At these moments you will feel that you are alive, without any other details. You may not even know who you are or where you are. Ramana calls it the transient “I”. Grab hold of that feeling of the “transient I” and hold on to it throughout the day or as long as it is possible.

It is possible for some of us to silence the mind and reach a peaceful state. For some, this may not be possible. Do not force it. In fact, Carl Rogers mentions a stage in his clients growth from being at a stage of denial of his/her own feelings to a stage of being in touch with the feelings. This is similar to the stages of meditation in the Buddhist traditions in which one becomes aware of one's feelings, perceptions and mental formations and own them before trying to change.

What is even more interesting is the description of this process by Carl Rogers: "The self at this moment IS the feeling. This is a being in the moment, with little self-conscious awareness, but with primarily a reflexive awareness". Being in the moment is exactly the words used in Buddhist literature. Self-conscious awareness and  reflexive awareness are akin to the big "I" and the "transient I" of Ramana.

Some will probably find this silence very frightening. If you are in this group, silence is not for you, at least for now.

Some may get strange visions. Some may acquire or claim to possess unusual powers and out-of-body experiences. This is the biggest danger to spiritual aspirants. More about these intermediate, incomplete mystic stages in the next essay.

The ultimate state is an experience of cosmic consciousness, a state of oneness with the Absolute, the Godhead, the Brahman. A select few are fortunate to experience the cosmic consciousness. They are the mystics. They came from all traditions all through the ages. Some of the mystics have documented their experience. However, all the documentations from the east and the west, describe this state in a negative language! Words cannot describe this experience, they say.

These experiences changed the life of historic figures such as Buddha, St.Francis of Assissi, Meher Baba, St.Thomas Aquinas, St. Paul and Ramana. How can you recognize these mystics and saints? How do you differentiate them from the mentally ill and the cult figures? You can identify them by the fact that they were transformed in their relationship to the world around them and by their behavior. Universal love, simplicity in life, non-attachment to worldly possessions, equanimity, and unselfish service to others characterize these saints. That is why I believe the words of these saints and accept mystic experience as a possibility for those who look inwards with intensity.

Finally, why do people take up meditation? Actually this should be the first question. Are you just curious? Or is it because, it is the fashionable thing to do? Is it because someone else you love and respect influenced you? Is it for religious reasons such as special merit, going to heaven, gaining a special position in rebirth etc? Are you seeking a mystic experience? Or are you just interested in gaining insight and deeper understanding of life and of this universe? Or do you wish to use meditation to reduce stress? Are you sure you are not falling into a cult or mixing up bodily postures for meditation? You have to answer these questions for yourself.

I will describe what I do during meditation in the next essay.

In the fourth essay on meditation, I will tell you some surprising things about meditation as an altered state of consciousness, which it is.


Ramesh said...

Excellent primer on the how. You've touched on such a wide swathe of schools.

But its oh so difficult to truly practice.

Balu said...

Thanks Ramesh. The only reason for including the names of the various schools, sages, writers and books is so that the children can go to the original source, if they have the inclination and can make the time to do so.