Q&A: Sustaining Your Appetite for Meditation
I value my meditation practice but I like to have fun too. I go out to dinner and the movies several times a week and often stay up late partying with my friends. When I don’t do these things, I miss them although I know they tire me out and disrupt my meditation practice. What shall I do?
The craving for sense pleasures is one of the strongest urges there is. Driven by these cravings, we continually change or postpone our spiritual practices, although at some level we know that a self-indulgent lifestyle is the breeding ground for sloth, inertia, fatigue, and procrastination. The problem lies in failing to understand the subtle line between enjoying sense pleasures and becoming victims of our sense cravings. It is the failure to recognize this borderline that causes us to adopt a lifestyle that leaves us feeling tired, dull, and undernourished and compels us to repeat these activities again and again.
To overcome this problem, we must contemplate on the fact that in living this way we are working for our senses rather than disciplining our senses to work for us. Our eyes, ears, nostrils, tongue, and generative organs are given to us as tools to nourish ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When properly employed, the senses gather data from the external world and when coordinated with a properly trained mind they are a means of gaining knowledge and attaining victory over the primitive conditions of nature. The senses are also instruments through which we can express the infinite creative force that lies within us. However, when we lose the ability to distinguish between enjoyment and indulgence, the forces of our senses make our lives chaotic, pulling us in this direction and that every time a craving arises. This is a source of misery and all our energy goes into coping with these self-created miseries. Constant awareness of the highest goal of life and proper understanding of sense pleasure are the keys to obtaining freedom from this obstacle.
Yogis advise us to enjoy the objects of the world in a manner that does not involve us in suppression and repression, but to refrain from indulging ourselves to the point where our energy is drained from our bodies and minds. If we adopt a balanced approach, there will be no conflict between spiritual practice and enjoyment of the world’s pleasures.
The key is to be vigilant in keeping track of our subtle urges toward sense pleasures. Only a trained mind and purified heart can tell us whether we are enjoying these pleasures within the limits of our natural urges or whether we are harming ourselves. How we feel afterward is what tells us whether we truly enjoyed a sensual experience or were being consumed by it. Once we have developed the ability to make this distinction, the next step is contemplation. Whenever we find that we have allowed ourselves to be ordered around by our senses, we should take time to contemplate on what we are doing to deplete our energy and undermine our ability to attend to our spiritual practices. Doing this will help prevent the memories and subtle impressions of those pleasures from dragging us back to the realm where we are at the mercy of our senses. This practice is called pratyahara (sense withdrawal) in the yogic tradition. In Vedanta, it is called vichara (contemplation).
I meditate regularly. From time to time I feel like I’ve reached an expanded level of awareness. The problem is that I can’t sustain it. I don’t know how to reach firm ground so I won’t be continually hampered by these setbacks.
It is frustrating to practice without seeming to reach the goal and it’s even more frustrating to lose ground. When we take this problem to a teacher, he or she usually tells us to continue practicing or to have patience—things will work out. These directives might inspire us once or twice, but if the problem keeps recurring, then such advice loses its power.
Overcoming this problem requires understanding the law of karma. This is the simple law of action and reaction—as you sow, so shall you reap. If we do something, there is bound to be a result. The law that every action bears fruit also applies to spiritual practice. If we do not see a result, it is because the time is not yet ripe. The fruit is not yet manifest, although it may already exist in its subtle form. We need a sophisticated and sensitive instrument to perceive it—the powerful microscope of the inner eyes. If we don’t have inner eyes of our own, then we have to rely on those of an experienced teacher in whom we have faith. Such a person can tell us what is happening, although this is like borrowing a microscope that is too sophisticated for us to operate on our own and to which we don’t have continual access. The other option is to develop our own inner eyes: intuitive understanding. Intuition unfolds gradually as we continue meditating.
However, this does not answer the question of how to gain firm ground and progress from there. We are motivated to continue our meditation practice in spite of this experience of slipping backward only if we are fully convinced that we are moving in the right direction. We can discover whether or not we are moving in the right direction if we have knowledge of the theory that supports our practice. It is this knowledge that engenders interest in the practice.
The more we know of the philosophical and spiritual doctrines that stand behind the practice, the more we will be inspired to renew our efforts each time we slip from the summit. Knowing the philosophical and spiritual doctrines will not give us direct experience, but it acts as an antidote to discouragement, frustration, and waning motivation. That is why yoga texts and experienced teachers advise aspirants to incorporate svadhyaya (the study of genuine scriptures) into their daily practice. These include the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Bhakti Sutras, as well as books by saints and sages such as Autobiography of a Yogi, Living with the Himalayan Masters, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, and In Woods of God-Realization. In this way we will be inspired to continue to make efforts in our practice; this is the only way to solidify our attainment.
There are so many obstacles on the spiritual path that it seems like overcoming them one at a time will take forever. Is there an all-purpose remedy?
Yes—the grace of God. We receive and retain this grace by Ishvara pranidhana, remembering the name of God and surrendering ourselves to it. From the practical standpoint, all great traditions of the world place a greater emphasis on the name of God than on God itself. Unless we know the profound metaphysics of the Divine Word, it is hard to understand how the name of God can cure our diseases, remove doubts, solve problems related to laziness and procrastination, and help us gain and maintain solid ground in our practice. But it works! This is not just an experience of one or two yogis or saints, but of everyone who has completed the spiritual journey. That is why prominent scriptures, such as the Yoga Sutras, clearly state that if someone takes this remedy wholeheartedly, then no other practice is needed. It is not merely a remedy, but a compassionate and omniscient vehicle that knows its own destination. You simply get into this vehicle—the name of God—and it will take you to the goal and help you remain there.
Because our minds are distracted and our hearts are polluted, we have a hard time comprehending and holding on to the name of God—the mantra—one-pointedly. That is why we do not see dramatic progress even when we do lots of japa. The scriptures tell us to have patience and assure us that success is certain if we continue our practices for an uninterrupted period of time.
Even more important than sustaining an unbroken practice is doing the practice with love and reverence. Do not allow the repetition of the mantra to become mechanical. Let it flow from the depths of your heart. Meditating successfully on the name of God requires a one-pointed mind and a pure heart. Try to understand what causes your mind to become disturbed and your heart to become filled with impurities. If you look carefully, you will see that the causes are anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, and attachment. A person filled with these pollutants is like a temple filled with trash; the altar is obscured and the shrine buried. Clean the temple of your body and mind; let the altar of your heart be illumined with love and knowledge and you will find the Divinity shining within. Thereafter, no obstacle will be able to stand against the brilliant, sweet smile of the indwelling Divinity.