Humble salutations to the Supreme Intelligence, the Advaita Guru ParamparA (lineage teaching non-duality / advaita vedAntA) and my own AchAryA (Preceptor) for the content that I put forth in this blog !
Can a man be fully dressed if he were wearing only his shirt or only his trouser? Sorry to begin on a silly note but I’m trying to drive home a very important point through a mundane example! So far we spoke about karma yogA which was a purificatory process to purify the mind of basic impurities and thereby purify our actions too. We now move on to the next important phase, dhyAna yogA / upAsana yogA / the practise of meditation, for calming and making quiet a mind which so far has been habituated to be noisy and cantankerous.
Every experience in life is in the form of a thought, teaches vedAntA. When we see a tree, a corresponding ‘tree thought’ in the mind is what makes the experience happen. Similarly for all objects, including the body and mind with all its emotional drama too. After all, what is joy or sorrow? Just thoughts! Mind is the continuous flow of thoughts. There is no mind without thought and without thought there is no experience (as seen in deep sleep)! Then shouldn’t we ensure that the mind is in ship shape for it is the mind which experiences life in totality? We take good care of our physical personalities but do we consider it important enough to equip the mind suitably, which really effects our whole life perspective?
In order that a man be considered fully dressed, he needs to wear both shirt and trouser. Similarly asserts the Scriptures, there is absolutely no choice for a serious spiritual aspirant with regards to which path to follow, whether karma yogA or dhyAna yogA. Both are absolutely essential disciplines taking care of different facets of the personality. There is a common misconception even among those in Vedic tradition that one can choose between several paths to reach the goal of a free, liberated life. NO insist the wise seers and preceptors of Vedic tradition. One may choose between practises within the discipline itself but a discipline itself cannot be eliminated in the name of choice! That is, one may make a choice between shirts of different colours and patterns and similarly different trousers but one can’t all together decide not to wear either!
DhyAna yogA / The practice of Meditation
Before getting into what meditation is all about, I would like to begin with…..
What meditation is NOT!
- Meditation is not about complete cessation of thoughts but a redirecting /channeling / regulation of thought. Instead of thinking of a 100 different things we now bring our focus to one thing and stay right there. Cessation or total annihilation of thoughts, if at all is prescribed, is not only impossible for the newbie but dangerous too, Can a burst water pipe be controlled by simply placing our hand over it and if at all for how long without causing further damage to the pipe itself or the hand?
- Meditation is not a means to any new knowledge! There is a common misconception is that “one may come to the Truth through meditation”, just like the Buddha did! VedAntic teachers teach again and again that no new knowledge can come in a state of meditation (unless previously acquired of course!). They don’t deny the rare exceptions who came to Truth thus but this also is explained by the karmic theory! Among the billions who walk the earth, prodigal exceptions in every field can be hand counted, spirituality being no exception. So argument on such ground should is simply a waste of time and precious human birth where alone the Truth can be known. If one is under the impression that meditation upon, “Who am I?”or “What is God?” can yield some definite answers just from doing so, it might come as a rude shock to note that this can at best only lead to a long lasting headaches, frustration and irritation.
- Meditation is not for the purpose of mystical experiences or powers. While there is no denying the possibility of any such occurrence, that is not the goal of vedAntic meditation. As serious spiritual aspirants wanting to know the Truth and the Truth alone, occurrence of even the most spectacular mystical experiences we learn to be indifferent to for it can itself become a distraction / bondage and deter us from our path of Truth.
- Meditation is not an effortless process! I can’t tell you how happy I was to learn of this fact when I did! I had just tried a technique where the insistence was upon “There is no trying in meditation. Give up all efforts, give up all trying. Just be!” There couldn’t have been 2 more frustrating words than that for me, a newbie meditator, “Just be!” Hmmmmm? How to ‘Just be’? When I tried to sit and ‘just be’, my mind was like a crazy bee buzzing all over the place with a million thoughts. Thank God for me, the VedAntA teacher and teachings came into the picture at this point to bail out a very frustrated Me. As with anything else in the world, there is no free lunch, even if in the field of meditation! How can we assume that we sit for meditation and ‘just be’ and then meditation will automatically happen? VedAntic meditation involves effort right from the start, right from willing to start meditating! There’s no denial that the “Just be” stage happens in the higher climbs of meditation, but that takes a lot of effort, persistence and practise. I will shortly elaborate the stages of meditation and this will become clearer.
- Meditation isn’t about, “Just be aware of thoughts that come and go.” Human mind is a monkey and loves jumping about from thought to thought for no particular reason at all. I attended a meditation class where after an initial calming down process, the teacher instructed us to be in an alert, aware condition and catch every thought that came into the mind and diligently guide it out immediately. As soon as the instruction was meted out, I suddenly found myself to be in a state comparable exactly to the time you play whack-a-mole with the kids. It’s fun all right, but there is a thrilling anxiety for we have to always be ready and alert to whack the next mole on its head, with a mallet, when it pops up. I sat there with my awareness as a mallet to catch every thought that came up. Only problem, in the game, the moles come up one by one. But the crazy mind follows no such rules that I missed whacking so many thoughts as they came and soon I had not just a headful of thoughts but an added disappointment of having failed the meditation miserably too. VedAntA doesn’t prescribe such unspecific meditation for it understands the monkey like nature of the mind. VedAntA hence prescribes very specific instructions to the mind. It instructs to give up many thoughts to hold on to one that appeals to us the most. In order to get some precious curio pieces which are in the hands of a naughty toddler, the best way is to entice him with a an exchange that involves his favourite book or toy. Mind won’t hold onto just anything if it didn’t have a value or appreciation for it so picking an appealing exchange thought is key.
Now that we have quite a clear picture of what meditation is not about, let’s get into the details of what meditation is.…
Stages of meditation
There are 4 distinct stages in any meditation process.
- Withdrawal / PratyAhArA : As with any secular activity which deserves its own time and space, meditation requires us to withdraw from the world around, both physically and mentally. Physically we withdraw by choosing a quiet place where there is not much sense stimuli in the form of sounds, smell, etc. Mental withdrawal is in the form of a temporary withdrawal from all thoughts except the one that we are about to focus on. Example : A child is having too much fun playing in the mud. We have to bring him into the house to apply his mind to “higher pursuits”, like doing some math maybe. Applying this to us who are having too much fun in the sensory world outside! —–> Effort involved
- Focus / DhAranA : Having withdrawn at best from many objects, we apply our complete focus and attention on a particular object. There is no focussing other than entertaining thoughts pertaining to that object and that object alone. We are teaching the mind to pay attention to one thing intently here. Example: Having brought the child in, we turn his attention to the math worksheets. ——–> Effort involved
- Retained focus / DhyAnA : Having now brought focus onto one particular object, we instruct the mind to retain flow of the same thought. To put it simply, we are learning to increase attention span here. At this point, the mind still gets distracted and runs here and there once in a while. But we promptly bring it back to the object of focus every single time. Example : In the middle of his math work, the child suddenly thinks of ice cream, then soccer, then tv. But everytime, we diligently help him stay focussed on math. ————> Effort certainly involved
- Absorption / SamAdhi : Phewww, finally, having struggled through the first 3 stages with consistent, deliberate, diligent effort, there comes a time when the mind completely gives up all distractions and becomes effortlessly absorbed and involved in the object of focus that it leads to a subject object difference itself apparently vanishing. The person loses himself completely and becomes one with the object / thought. I would be kidding if I gave the example of a child absorbed in homework here !! A more relevant example would be someone lost in book reading or tv watching or gardening or the likes. In such absorption one might become completely oblivious to other sights, sounds and even the environment having become one with the object. ————? Effortless (finally!)
Types of Meditations
VedhIc Scripture recognises that man and his mind is so varied so one prescription will not fit all. Thus, like a loving Mother, vedhA offers a variety of meditations from which we can pick based on what appeals most to our mental climate. A sample among many different types is given:
#1 Relaxation Meditation
We live in an ultra fast world where time for niceties, love, appreciation and friendship is slowly diminishing. For over worked, over stressed people with fast lifestyles, relaxation meditation certainly is the way to go. This will calm and quieten the mind and through time such calm will influence change in the personality.
What thoughts to entertain?
Here we try to entertain thoughts which induce, peace, calm and relaxation while avoiding “disturbing” thoughts (and not avoiding thoughts all together!)
- Thoughts of nature for nature (includes plants and animals too), left by itself, without man’s intervention, is in peaceful, calm, harmonious euphony with itself. As per this definition, even entertaining thoughts about your pet dog / cat or even favourite flower bush would qualify as relaxation meditation if required. The sunrise, the ocean, the sprawling countryside, a river flowing down the mountain, anything at all which might invokes peace in you!
- Another suggestion is entertaining thoughts of a person who stands as a beacon of peace and calm, eg. The Dalai Lama, The Buddha, The Christ, or ones own Preceptor.
#2 Concentration Meditation
While the previous meditation is more of a defocussing one, this one helps develop the focussing faculty of a busy mind. This meditation is the perfect fit for someone like me, a “busy bee”, busy in words, actions and thoughts. This meditation helps the mind focus and stay focussed in an area thus helping to increase attention span.
What thoughts to entertain?
Here, we give the mind a job and instruct it to remain there for a length of time, undistracted. If Religion has brought you to Spirituality, as it has for me, then associating the particular thought with the Lord helps elevate it from being just a secular exercise to a religious practise of purification.
- We can choose to chant a whole prayer repeatedly in the mind or go for short sound symbols (word chant) as found appealing to our mind. Mental chanting is thus turned into a meditation here.
#3 Mind Expansion Meditation
Today our lifestyles keep us confined to a limited ego centric personality vision of ourselves which includes ourselves, family and a few few friends at best. My Preceptor often says, “Preoccupied by a dot that we are in comparison to the gargantuan Creation out there and its “supposed” problems, we are missing the glory of the Totality.” A shame indeed! Such meditation helps with dilution of the ego (as in the ego centric personality and not in terms of pride and vanity) allowing for a “bigger vision” where the problems of the insignificant ego are reduced to nothing. In short, this is a meditation to set right our currently skewed perspective.
What thoughts to entertain?
- If you are an astronomy buff, this is for you! Visualise and entertain thoughts of the stars, galaxies, comets, the vast expanse of space dotted by the beautiful heavenly bodies.
- If you are very creative, visualise the whole Creation as a gigantic Cosmic Person whose eyes are the sun and moon, whose head is the skies, whose legs are the earth, whose mid portion is the enormous space, whose blood is the rivers and oceans of earth, whose body hairs are the plants and trees, etc. A person who is even capable of visualising thus, in my opinion, cannot cause harm to even a blade of grass!
Having read the contents of this blog, it might become immediately clear then that if meditation is about keeping thoughts focussed on one object, absolutely any activity can be turned into a meditation. The teachers have no qualms in accepting so. For example, while writing this blog, it is but fair to say that my thoughts were centred around meditation the whole time. So writing this blog itself turned into a meditation of sorts. Now while the teachers agree so, they insist that for a newbie meditator who still struggles to eliminate the multitude of thoughts to bring it down to one, it is absolutely essential to indulge in meditation as a controlled practice in a specific environment everyday. Once one has reached a fair amount of control thus, any activity including, jogging, gardening, Asana yogA, cooking, cycling, hiking, even cleaning the house can be turned into a meditation.
Meditation is a beautiful, powerful discipline that purifies, calms, quietens the mind thus influencing change in personality through time. But most importantly and what we are most concerned with is, it gets our minds suitably ready to receive the Highest Truths of life through the next discipline called GYAna yogA which we will take up in the following blog.
Unless we want to be ‘spiritually half-clad’, we can not stop at living a moral, prayerful life (karma yogA) and run away from meditation saying, “This just is not for me!”, “I can’t get my mind to meditate!”, “ Only some people are cut out for meditation!”, “Perhaps at a more convenient time in life!” Meditation is not a practise for a select few alone and there’s nothing as “convenient time”! So roll up those sleeves, make the most of time now and ‘Just be’ 😉😉!