Meditation is easy, right? Just close your eyes and slip into a still, calm, centered place within. Do it daily and your life will become more balanced and harmonious as you begin to feel a deeper sense of peace, joy, and love. In no time at all, you’ll be enlightened. That’s what I believed some 30 years ago when I was young and spiritually ambitious. Then my teacher gave me a mantra practice that knocked me to my knees.

Meditating with this new mantra brought me face-to-face with old unresolved issues that flooded my conscious awareness with painful images and feelings of deep sadness, rage, and despair. One day as an intense surge of grief welled up, I wondered what would happen if I surrendered to it consciously, riding the wave of emotion all the way to its end: Would I go insane or become enlightened? I was determined to sit through it and find out. Instead, the mind’s self-protective mechanism kicked in and I fell asleep. Day after day I tried but kept failing. In those days I slept a lot. My teacher, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, used to joke, “If you could reach enlightenment through sleeping, you would be enlightened.” Instead I was sleep-walking.

So why bother meditating? Isn’t it saner, more pleasant, to simply stay on life’s surface, rather than diving into the muck of the unconscious? I ponder this each time a strong negative feeling, thought, or image circles like a vulture when I go inward. That’s when I remember the beauty of meditation: It can be done in stages, at our own pace. We can be like spectators at a movie, watching our life unfold on our inner screen. If a memory or a feeling arises that is too painful to bear, we can simply stop the film by ending our meditation for the day—and go about our business until next time, when we can again try to witness our thoughts and emotions without getting so involved.

Drops in the Bucket

Unfortunately, I wasn’t always patient. A friend of mine who had found himself unprepared for the deeper stages of meditation cautioned me to take it slowly, to fully assimilate any disturbing images and feelings before intensifying my practice. Pointing to a bucket, he explained the process of meditation to me in this way: See the dirt at the bottom of this bucket? What happens when I add clear water to it? The water gets dirty. That’s what happens when we meditate. The clear water from our meditation mixes with the unclear thoughts, emotions, and desires in our mind, and for a while we feel unsettled, wondering why we’re meditating when it’s making us feel worse instead of better. When the water stops swirling, the dirt settles back to the bottom, and it seems like nothing has changed. But on a subtle level, it has. Now we know there is some dirt we need to clear away—and hopefully we feel a little calmer and more content from our sitting practice.

Next time we meditate, he continued, the dirt swirls up again. If we can handle being out of our comfort zone and continue meditating every day, then it is like adding more and more clear water to the bucket. (If we can’t handle the intensity, all we have to do is slow down for a while—perhaps sitting for shorter periods of time, or doing less japa, or mantra repetition.) The more fresh water we add, the less dirty the water in the bucket becomes, until finally the water is pristine. How long that takes depends on how much dirt there was at the bottom of the bucket to begin with, and how we behave between meditation sessions. Do we spend the rest of our time in a way that supports the clear water being poured into the bucket, or in a way that adds more dirt?

Sorting Mantras

The more impurities we remove, the more mental and emotional clarity, peace, and joy we experience.

Of course, there are layers upon layers of dirt (or, in the parlance of yoga, impurities) that are obscuring our essential nature, which is pure consciousness. The more impurities we remove, the more mental and emotional clarity, peace, and joy we experience. Panditji often uses the analogy of doing laundry to explain how different mantras can be used to wash away various types of impurities. At first, he says, we have to rinse our clothes in plain water, just to remove the thickest layer of dirt. We do this by starting with the universal mantra so’ham (pronounced “so hum”), which is the natural sound of the breath. Coordinate the mantra with the breath by mentally saying the word so on each inhalation, and hum on each exhalation.

After doing this for a few weeks (or even months) we may want to move to the next stage: putting the clothes in the washer with detergent. This is the role of a guru mantra (given by a teacher for our specific needs), which gives the mind a more personal focus, allowing us to delve deeper within. Then we begin to see the stubborn stains that detergent alone cannot remove. For these we need bleach or stain remover—a practice of the gayatri mantra, which begins cleansing the tendencies of our unconscious mind.

It was the gayatri mantra that had brought me to my knees. Old repressed memories began bubbling up during my meditation on a daily basis: Suddenly I was a child with immigrant parents who were struggling to survive in a foreign land and didn’t have the time or patience to help me with my problems. Now, as I said my mantra I felt the emotional pain all over again. I would have alternating desires to scream and smash windows or eat chocolate and cry—and, of course, sleep a lot. But the next day I would sit and say my mantra, because although it brought my impurities to the surface, it also gave me a glimmer of higher awareness: one that is free of fear, anger, and sadness—filled, instead, with peace, love, and joy.

The Spiraling Mind

I find that the deeper I delve into meditation, the more impurities I discover. At the same time, I experience more contentment as I become less of a participant and more of a witness—no longer identifying with the thoughts and feelings that arise from within, but simply observing and letting them go. At times, however, it seems unending and frustrating, and I find myself wondering: Will I ever get to the bottom? Is there a bottom? Am I making any progress or am I like a hamster on a wheel, running endlessly in place?

Meditation has made me stronger, more balanced, and kinder to both myself and others.

One day I decided to read through the journals I’ve kept over the past 30 years to see if I could find an answer. I came to an entry where I had had a profound realization—a definite breakthrough. But then, imagine my surprise, when, flipping through the next year, I came to another entry with the very same realization, as if it were the first time I’d had it. And the year after that, the same thing! That’s when it dawned on me that I was experiencing this realization at different levels. The first time was only at a surface level of my mind and heart; each time after, it was increasingly deeper.

So, now, while I’m meditating, I see the mind as an upward and downward-flowing spiral. When I climb the upward spiral in meditation, it gives me the strength—the clear water, the clear mind—to dive downward with new awareness, so that I can see my old unresolved issues in a new light. Sometimes, I can finally make peace with something that has been troubling me for a long time, so it loses its power—it becomes a faded image in the background of my mind, with no substance, no bite. Other times, when a deeply knotted, rooted fear or memory shakes me to my core, I have to take a break and try again.

Don’t Give Up

Meditation has made me stronger, more balanced, and kinder to both myself and others. I have found that no matter what surfaces, I need to sit daily. Whatever is lurking in the shadows will not go away until it is brought to light, and if I lose the fight one day, there is always the next. And yes, I was finally able to consciously ride those initial waves of anger and sadness to the end, where I experienced a great sense of peace, love, joy—and finally, release. Until another wave arose and I had to go through the process all over again. It made me understand that enlightenment can come in bits and pieces.

Each of us needs to find our own way inside. How long we sit and how much practice we do depends on what we want to accomplish. Meditation both stirs things up and clears them out. But if at any time in your practice it becomes overwhelming, witness yourself reacting and step back. Maybe journal about it or self-dialogue. Or tend to your regular business. Or go for a walk. Or eat some chocolate. Or take a nap. Whatever works for you. But next day, go back to your meditation. Even if it’s only for five minutes. Don’t give up. It is your path to freedom and self-realization.

About the Teacher

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Irene (Aradhana) Petryszak
Formerly a senior editor of Yoga International magazine, Irene Petryszak served as the Chairman of the... Read more