The Secret to a Fruitful Meditation Practice
We have come to the Magh Mela, the annual spiritual gathering on the bank of the Ganga in Allahabad. It is January 11, the day of the full moon, which marks the first auspicious day to take a dip in the holy river. The floodplain on either side of the river is buzzing with the voices of millions of Hindu, Jain, and Sikh pilgrims, many of whom will stay for the entire month-long festival.
While sipping chai at a crowded tea stall, my companions and I notice a man with a badly swollen foot sitting nearby. An angry purple infection is creeping up his leg and he is obviously in pain. When I ask him how it happened, he says, “It is the mantra.” I inquire further and he tells us he is a serious meditator and God’s committed devotee, explaining that his infected foot is part of his spirituality. When I ask how that is possible, he says he has angered a spiritually powerful village head, a skilled meditator who used his mantra power to bring on this infection in his foot. “How can someone give you an infected foot?” I ask. “And what is spiritual about hurting someone, even if it is done mantrically?” The injured man has no answer, but he goes on to tell us the Ganga is even more powerful than his village chief, and because he has taken a bath in the Ganga precisely at the auspicious hour, he will soon be cured of his mantric injury. We give him a plate of hot food and a cup of chai, and advise him to get medical attention at one of the free clinics on the mela grounds. But we can see that his belief in the spiritual cause and the spiritual cure for his malady is so unshakable that he is unlikely to go to a physician or a medic for help.
Quite often, sticking to what little we know and refusing to examine its validity is thought to be spirituality. In the same vein, the tools and means we employ to reinforce such ideas are thought to be spiritual practices. From such practices, we expect transformation, a lasting and enlightening change. When such practices fail to bring the expected result, we blame God, guru, karma, and (occasionally) ourselves.
In my 30 years of traveling and teaching yoga, meditation, spirituality, and holistic health in the United States and abroad, I have met scores of aspirants who are as confused about spirituality as the unfortunate man we met at the Magh Mela. These days a variety of practices—from silently remembering a mantra; chanting; gazing at a flame; fasting; resting on nails; crystal healing; Reiki; palm reading; reciting scriptures; going on a pilgrimage; worshiping deities, ghosts, and spirits; all the way to smoking marijuana and adopting an unkempt lifestyle—are dumped into the broad category of “spirituality.” As a result, most novice seekers are confused about what is a spiritual practice and what is not.
Meditation constitutes the core of spirituality. Without meditation, there is no spirituality, for meditation works directly on the mind, enabling it to become clear and one-pointed. A clear, one-pointed mind can accomplish anything it chooses to accomplish.
In the yoga tradition, there is no ambiguity: spirituality is the science pertaining to the understanding of our core being, and spiritual practices are the disciplines leading to the direct experience of this core being. According to yoga, the mind is the finest tool for discovering our core being. If this tool is faulty, our self-discovery is bound to be faulty. A clear mind brings clarity in every sphere of life, including the spiritual sphere.
Normally the mind vacillates from one thought to another, from one object to another. Sometimes the mind is infused with love and affection, other times with anger and hatred. Sometimes it is restless and other times it is sluggish. Sometimes it dwells in the world of imagination and other times it drowns in an ocean of hopelessness. The mind is always busy—sometimes with purpose and other times aimlessly. Although the range of the mind’s functions and activities is infinitely vast, for the sake of systematic analysis, the mind is understood to be in one of five states: disturbed, distracted, stupefied, one-pointed, and fully established within.
Yoga is a journey from the disturbed or distracted state of mind to a state of quietude. Spirituality begins with acquiring a clear, calm, and tranquil mind. With this clear, calm, and tranquil mind, we can see the cause of our disturbances and the source of our distractions. We can also understand what makes the mind heavy and stupefied. With such a mind, we can understand what makes the mind become one-pointed and what spontaneously pulls it inward.
In the yoga tradition, the method that helps us cultivate a clear, calm, and tranquil mind is called meditation. For all intents and purposes, meditation constitutes the core of spirituality. Without meditation, there is no spirituality, for meditation works directly on the mind, enabling it to become clear and one-pointed. A clear, one-pointed mind can accomplish anything it chooses to accomplish.
Meditation should not be confused with religious practices. In meditation, there is no room for dogma or superstition. As an aspiring meditator, you select an object and ask your mind to focus on that object. When distractions arise, you offer help to your mind to enable it to stay focused. For example, you may choose to assist your mind by using a mantra to overcome distractions. Because yoga originated in India, however, and because meditation is an integral part of yoga, you may have chosen an object of meditation that has a Hindu flavor. But this does not make it a Hindu meditation practice. Similarly, you may have chosen an object that has its roots in Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist soil, but that does not make meditation Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist. Meditation is meditation. Its first and foremost effect is to help us reclaim a mind that is clear, calm, and tranquil. It is only with such a mind that we can see a reflection of the truth, both within us and outside of us. This is called direct realization or enlightenment.
The practice of meditation begins with the understanding that we are not body alone nor mind alone. We are a combination of both body and mind. Between the body and the mind lies another key element—the breath. The power of the breath holds, sustains, and nurtures both body and mind. The health of the body and the clarity of the mind depend to a great extent on how we breathe. The breath is the connecting link between body and mind—when the thread of breath is broken, we are dead.
Together, correct breathing and correct posture prepare your body to be in service to your mind. Then the mind is free to attend its main task—focusing on the object of concentration—with no distractions.
Breathing correctly is a prerequisite to meditation. When you are breathing correctly, there are no noises or jerks in your breath. Your breath is not shallow but deep and smooth. There are no pauses—inhalation and exhalation follow each other without interruption. Correct breathing also means breathing diaphragmatically. Chest breathing makes your breath shallow and is the breeding ground for distractions. A shallow breath destroys the mind’s ability to collect itself and move inward.
A correct sitting posture is as essential to meditation as correct breathing. In fact, a correct sitting posture is the foundation for correct breathing. In a correct sitting posture, your head, neck, and trunk are in a straight line and the weight of your body is distributed equally on both buttocks. Your upper and lower extremities are arranged so that sitting causes no discomfort. Together, correct breathing and correct posture prepare your body to be in service to your mind. Then the mind is free to attend its main task—focusing on the object of concentration—with no distractions.
The formal practice of meditation begins with withdrawing the mind from the external world. The mind has formed a habit of running from one object to another, so you must summon your willpower and gently command the mind to slow down. Because the mind does not know how to be with itself instead of being dependent on various objects, the first step in the formal practice of meditation is to give the mind a focal point. This focal point becomes the object of meditation. This initial stage of meditation involves two consecutive processes: (1) withdrawing the mind from the external world; and (2) focusing it on a single object. In the yoga tradition, the first step is called pratyahara (withdrawing the mind and senses) and the second is called dharana (holding the mind in a defined space).
Consciously choose a focal point and systematically withdraw the mind from the external world and ask it to stay on this chosen object. You will discover that the mind is not in the habit of staying in one place for an extended period but is accustomed to vacillating from one object to another. In the long journey of life, the mind has lost much of its innate ability to concentrate. An essential part of meditation, therefore, involves retraining the mind to concentrate, and through continuous practice, extending the duration of your concentration. This must be done in a skillful manner.
If you force your mind to concentrate on one object for too long, it will get bored and rebel. Before it rebels and abruptly drops the object of concentration to wander off, you must provide it with another object or series of objects to focus on if you are to succeed in training it to concentrate. Let’s say, for example, that you have withdrawn the mind from the outside world and focused it at the center between the eyebrows. It may stay there for a minute or two, then out of habit it is likely to run to the stock exchange or to your recent vacation in Florida. Before this happens, provide it with another object. Instead of forcing the mind to stay at the eyebrow center, you could ask it to move first to the space at the hollow of the throat, then to the heart center, and then to the navel center.
The key here is to make a conscious decision about how long the mind should stay focused at each of these centers. In making this decision, you must make a realistic assessment of your current capacity for concentration. Those with a greater power of concentration can exercise their willpower and ask the mind to concentrate a little longer, whereas those with relatively undeveloped powers of concentration will focus on one object for a relatively short period before moving on to the next. Whatever your current capacity for concentration, you can expand it through consistent practice and by employing your willpower. Eventually your mind will gain the ability to stay focused on one object for a long period of time. In yoga, this prolonged concentration is called meditation. Meditation enables those who practice diligently to acquire a stable mind.
You may have chosen to begin learning to meditate by focusing the mind on a mantra, on the cross, or on an image of a deity, to cite only a few possibilities. But no matter which object you have chosen, sooner or later your mind will begin to wander. Anticipating this and purposely and systematically providing it with another object of concentration is a friendly and skillful way of training the mind to expand its powers of concentration. At some point, it will become steady and focus on the object of meditation effortlessly for a prolonged period.
Only with a perfectly still mind can we get a clear picture of the reality hidden deep in the cave of our heart. What we see through this perfectly still mind requires no further validation. This is called revelation.
The mind is like a camera. With this camera, we are trying to take a picture of the shrine hidden deep in a dark chamber of a temple. Because the laws governing this sanctum sanctorum prohibit the use of any external light, we have to keep the shutter of the camera open for a prolonged period. Thus the camera must remain absolutely still or the photo will be distorted. Meditation makes the camera of your mind absolutely still. Only with a perfectly still mind can we get a clear picture of the reality hidden deep in the cave of our heart. What we see through this perfectly still mind requires no further validation. This is called revelation.
Revelation is granted only to an absolutely still mind. Yoga calls this state of stillness samadhi. Buddhists call it nirvana. In this state, the truth is known to us in its fullness. There is no ambiguity. In this state, we know who we are. We clearly understand our relationship with ourselves and others, and we fully experience our relationship with the all-pervading, eternal reality. This realization removes all doubt regarding life here and hereafter. We are no longer subject to anxiety about the world around us. We are no longer fearful of losing our possessions or our loved ones, nor are we afraid of dying. This is the state of ultimate freedom. The scriptures call it moksha, or liberation.