I was arguing with my spiritual teacher, as usual. He had called me aside to discuss my meditation practice, and he clearly didn’t understand what I was saying. Swamiji was insisting that I focus my awareness at my heart center. Since I had recently graduated from a prestigious college at the top of my class, I was surprised that this yoga master from North India failed to recognize that, due to my towering intellect, obviously I should concentrate at my ajna chakra, the center in the brain behind the eyebrows.
Barely concealing his exasperation, Swamiji pointed to my head. “That,” he said emphatically, “is yours. This,” he pointed to my heart, “is mine.”
I would much rather read about meditation—about its numerous well-documented physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits—than actually do it.
I went home and reluctantly sat down on my meditation cushion. The truth was, I didn’t enjoy meditating. It was a tedious chore, one sure way to make 20 minutes drag on for what seemed like hours. I would much rather read about meditation—about its numerous well-documented physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits—than actually do it. It was boring.
Unenthusiastically, I tried to bring my awareness to my heart region. It was amazingly difficult. I was so completely entrenched in my head that redirecting my attention even as far downward as my neck required real effort. And when I did manage to concentrate on my heart, the feeling was extremely uncomfortable. Old angers and resentments continuously bubbled into my awareness. My heart felt like a clogged toilet, filled with all kinds of ugly material I didn't want to smell.
I struggled on for months, trying to follow my meditation schedule faithfully, resisting the temptation to keep glancing at my watch to see if it was finally time to get up. Even when I seemed to reach a space of quiet clarity, in a nanosecond a thought would arise and I’d lose myself in reverie before I even realized what had happened. Then I’d catch myself, force the image out of my mind, and return to the monotonous drone of my mantra.
One day one of my philosophy professors invited me to his home. As he spoke about the Supreme Being, his face began to glow. It surprised me to hear a brilliant intellectual speak of the Divine Mother with such devotion. But that evening as I sat down to meditate, I remembered how in my childhood I would pray every evening with innocent faith similar to his. And for the first time in years I inwardly turned to the Divine Being as if it were a living, caring reality rather than a divine abstraction. It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. My heart blew open and wave upon wave of ecstasy swept through my consciousness. I sat in bliss for hours, never wanting to get up.
After this my attitude toward meditation completely changed. Sitting became the highlight of my life. I could hardly wait for the twice-daily meditation sessions scheduled at the ashram where I lived, and would slip off whenever I could find a few free moments to enjoy the rapture of inner communion. I was humbled now to realize how insightful my spiritual teacher’s original analysis had been: that I needed to get out of my head, clear the debris out of my heart, and open myself to the stream of divine love.
“Overnight, for no reason I can tell, I’ve lost the ability to focus. I was having intense experiences of inner joy, and now they’re gone!”
At this point I honestly believed I had made it to “Easy Street,” that from here on all I needed to do was coast effortlessly toward enlightenment! Then one morning I sat down to meditate and, to my utter bewilderment, my inner attunement was gone. My heart felt dry as brick and my mind kept getting distracted. I struggled with this for several days, and then I went to a spiritual mentor and complained, “Overnight, for no reason I can tell, I’ve lost the ability to focus. I was having intense experiences of inner joy, and now they’re gone!”
His response surprised me. He explained that ananda (inner bliss) pulsates outward from the Higher Self in waves, and that sincere aspirants must stick with their daily practice during both the peaks and the troughs. He also suggested that perhaps I was becoming too attached to the sensation of bliss, that there are many far higher states, and that I needed to move on in my inner exploration. He advised me to continue cultivating devotion, but not to lose sight of important fundamental techniques, such as breath awareness, to quiet the mind.
Over the ensuing years, and through many more ups and downs of meditative experience, I have sought out advanced practitioners to ask what methods they use to get them through the dry periods. I also asked what techniques yoga masters use to inspire beginning students, who, after the initial burst of enthusiasm for practice wears off, sometimes find their meditation becoming lifeless. Fortunately, the yoga tradition offers many techniques for keeping interest high during that challenging period before our practice begins to bear fruit and we can actually see the concrete results of our inner efforts.
Being regular in your meditation practice is tremendously helpful. At the ashram where I lived, we all meditated together at 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. every day without fail. For the first few weeks I would sit down and consciously regulate my breath. But as the rhythm of regular meditation became a deeply ingrained habit, I found that the moment I sat on my cushion, my breath spontaneously became subtle and my mind stilled. I no longer had to work at entering a meditative state—my body automatically entered that state at the appropriate time. It was as if I had two daily appointments with the Divine Mother. I would walk into the meditation room and she would be waiting for me and sweep me into her arms. I didn’t have to make any effort at all.
For centuries, many yogis and yoginis in India have turned to asana, or hatha yoga postures, to prepare themselves for meditation. This helps keep the body healthy, the muscles supple, and the back strong and steady so that one can sit in meditation for extended periods of time. But asanas also have a powerful effect on our mental state, fostering the clear and relaxed frame of mind so conducive to meditation. While aerobic exercises strongly energize the body and mind, giving you the heart-pumping sense that you’re ready to tackle the world, yoga postures energize in a more subtle way, leaving you feeling calm but alert.
The first time I experienced this was after a particularly excellent hatha class. I felt so wonderful that I was practically unable to leave the yoga center. It seemed to me that if I stepped outdoors I’d float up to heaven before reaching the parking lot; in fact, it felt a lot like being in heaven already. Then I noticed that, as a result of having performed a series of yoga postures and the concluding relaxation exercise with full attention and in a tranquil and balanced fashion, both my nostrils were flowing freely. I was breathing exactly as my spiritual teacher recommended students breathe before meditation: slowly, evenly, diaphragmatically, without any jerks or pauses in the breath. He called the state where both nostrils flow freely, quietly, and smoothly “sushumna awakening,” meaning the subtle energy channels in the region of the spine are activated in a spiritually charged manner, creating a state he called “joyous mind.” When I got home I sat down and meditated for half an hour, taking advantage of the extraordinary sense of clarity and serenity I was experiencing. Meditators who are drawn to physical practices often find that performing a balanced series of yoga postures automatically puts them in a meditative state.
As he launched into yet another lecture on alternate nostril breathing, I would impatiently wonder when he was finally going to give us the real yoga techniques.
When I was first learning to meditate, my spiritual teacher constantly emphasized the importance of breath control (pranayama), much to my disgust. As he launched into yet another lecture on alternate nostril breathing, I would impatiently wonder when he was finally going to give us the real yoga techniques. It took me years to realize that practices like this, as well as diaphragmatic breathing and breath awareness, are the real techniques. In the beginning I never bothered to practice them conscientiously because they were so simple. I just couldn’t believe they would have much effect. But when I finally sat down and began working with my breath, I was astounded by what a profound impact these exercises had on my awareness. As my spiritual teacher often repeated, “breath is the flywheel of life,” giving us direct access to departments of our nervous system usually beyond our conscious control.
The late Kashmiri Shaivite master Swami Lakshmanjoo strongly emphasized the importance of maintaining sandhi, “the center between two breaths.” He also said that when the breath becomes extremely refined, flowing equally through both nostrils rather than predominantly through one or the other, mental equipoise is attained. And when this is held with “continuously refreshed awareness (anusandhana) . . . which is achieved through devotion to the Lord,” he continued, one attains real spiritual experience. But “this state of concentration can be achieved only after you have freed your mind of all worldly cares, completed your daily routine activities, and have had your full amount of sleep. . . . Your mind must be serene, free from the forced obligation to meditate, determined with devotion to discover God consciousness.”
The Kashmiri master also sternly warned, “If you undergo these practices for one thousand centuries without full awareness and concentration, you will have wasted all one thousand of those centuries. The movement of breath has to be filled with full awareness and concentration.” Smooth, even, diaphragmatic breathing, without jerks or pauses, is the gentle wind that propels the sailboat of our minds into the calm lake of meditation.
The one universally acclaimed method of keeping our spiritual practice enlivened is satsang, which means literally “keeping the company."
The one universally acclaimed method of keeping our spiritual practice enlivened is satsang, which means literally “keeping the company of truth.” The easiest and most effective way to do this is to spend as much time as possible in the presence of our spiritual teachers or other saints. But for those of us in America, where saints sometimes seem to be in short supply, this isn’t always practical. Therefore, here in the West satsang has more often come to mean spending time with our fellow aspirants, so that working together or meditating together or even simply socializing, we can support each other spiritually and keep one another inspired.
Even when they’re not physically present, however, there are two ways to keep company with the saints themselves. The first is to keep pictures of our spiritual teacher and the other masters of his or her tradition on our altar or in our hearts. According to the yogis the lineage of teachers is actually a living energy field, and we can contact that transmission of enlightening force when we still our minds and focus on the spiritual teacher within. When we sincerely surrender to the living voice of our yogic lineage, it provides continual guidance and inspiration both in our practice and in the ordinary affairs of our daily lives.
The second way to keep the company of saints is to read about their lives and study their teachings. The example of how they lived and the wisdom they shared with those around them constitute their enduring legacy. Reading about great spiritual masters is no substitute for actually having a living teacher or other spiritual elders in our lives, but it will keep the flames of faith and spiritual determination burning when the spiritual teacher is absent.
An extremely popular way of keeping the level of inspiration high in India is kirtan, singing beautiful bhajans (religious songs) which elevate the spirit. From the haunting Bengali bhajans translated into English by Paramahansa Yogananda and sung at many of his U.S. centers, to the popular recordings of the musicians at Mount Madonna Center near Santa Cruz, to the exquisite chants favored at Siddha Yoga centers, devotional singing has caught on with many Western yoga groups, and is often used as a prelude to meditation.
Singing opens the heart and focuses the mind; the mantras and sacred names of God incorporated in many bhajans prepare the soul for going inward. Singing, playing spiritually charged music, or listening to it can dramatically alter our mood and create a sacred atmosphere highly conducive to spiritual practice. Beautiful melodies and meaningful lyrics transport us almost effortlessly into a meditative state.
Too often, beginning yoga students have the sense that when they’re sitting in meditation, they’re doing their spiritual work, but when they get up and resume their external responsibilities, they’re now engaged in “mere” worldly activities. This is not the yogic perspective. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna strongly emphasizes the importance of karma yoga, or yoga in action. “Fix your mind on the Higher Self rather than the lower ego, and dedicate all your actions to God,” he says. “This will free you from the bondage of karma.”
Meditation is not something “other” than life, but something that should be carried over into life.
If sitting in meditation represents our inner study, then getting up and dealing with our relatives, our boss, and the entire menagerie of people around us is our practicum. Here is where we are able to see if our practice has “taken,” and to “apply” the sense of serenity and objectivity meditation has given us. Meditation becomes more interesting when we begin recognizing its effects in our daily lives, and using the clarity it brings us in practical situations. Meditation is not something “other” than life, but something that should be carried over into life, helping us maintain a comparatively stress-free state through all the normally stressful events of the day.
An aspect of meditation practice strongly emphasized in Buddhist forms of yoga is the cultivation of bodhicitta, loving-kindness, and Hindus, too, often conclude their meditations with chants such as Loka samastha sukhino bhavantu (“May all beings in all worlds be well”). When we meditate, we’re not merely inching toward enlightenment; much more is happening on subtle levels. Every time we create a space of peaceful clarity in ourselves, we are helping to purify the polluted psychic atmosphere of the planet. When a student asked why the great yoga masters in the Himalayas don’t come down out of the mountains to help humanity, my spiritual teacher insisted that the yogis sitting in their cave monasteries were doing more to protect and regenerate the world than hundreds of activists put together.
For students who find it difficult to motivate themselves to sit for meditation consistently, it may be helpful to recognize that their practice not only benefits themselves but is also a form of service to the world. By cultivating stillness and clarity in meditation, and by sending out good wishes to all other creatures in the universe, meditation becomes a selfless gift, our offering for world peace.
In the early 1970s an influx of influential yogis from India inspired an entire generation to explore yoga. Most of these yogis took great pains to emphasize the scientific nature of yoga, teaching that one did not need to adopt the deities of Hinduism in order to practice meditation. In taking care to respect the religious sensibilities of Westerners, however, the deeply devotional aspects of yoga as it is actually practiced in India were de-emphasized. Some of us launched into yoga without appreciating how important bhakti truly is on the spiritual path. Others of us may even have projected onto our spiritual teachers a level of devotion that might more appropriately have been directed toward God. My own spiritual teacher used to get fed up when would-be disciples fawned before him, and often shouted, “Don’t worship me! Worship God!”
According to the tantric tradition, the Divine Being loves us so much that he/she assumes any form we imagine God to be in, and comes to us in that form. Yogis feel that the Divine Being works through the form of Jesus as well as Krishna or Buddha or the Divine Mother, and for this reason they are not interested in converting anyone. In India, however, spiritual teachers often assign an ishta devata, or personal deity, to their disciples, based on the disciple’s history and inclinations. If you are a Westerner, this might be Jesus, Yahweh, Mary, or even Allah. The disciple then cultivates a deep personal relationship with God or the Goddess, in the form of their ishta devata, and regularly engages in prayer and worship. In this way the spiritual path ceases to be an abstract quest for an intangible absolute, and becomes a form of joyous communion with the Higher Self of all beings.
Ammachi, a contemporary saint from South India, says that spiritual practice without devotion is “like eating stones,” and many other saints claim that developing a loving relationship with the Divine is the quickest of all spiritual paths. In meditation those who practice bhakti still their minds so they can feel the living presence of the beloved deity beside and inside them.
For most of my life there was scarcely anything more deadly dull to me than rituals.
For most of my life there was scarcely anything more deadly dull to me than rituals. As a child, I had sat through too many utterly lifeless (to me, anyway) religious ceremonies to ever want anything to do with this type of worship again. I couldn’t fathom how the swami at our local Kali temple could be so enthusiastic about pujas—rituals in which flowers, incense, grains, and other objects are offered to the Divine Mother. (Yes, there is a real temple to the warrior goddess Kali in my neighborhood. I live in California.)
But one day the swami persuaded me to join in a puja with him, and the experience turned out to be remarkable. This particular puja was quite elaborate, involving chanting a long litany of mantras while making offerings to a sacred fire. I discovered that chanting mantras aloud automatically regulated my breath, while focusing on the unfamiliar Sanskrit words concentrated my mind sharply. There was instant feedback: if my concentration slipped I would mispronounce a mantra, and by the end of the ritual my mind was so one-pointed, I was already in meditation.
Less elaborate pujas, too, are a valuable way to create a powerful meditative atmosphere. Place a photo or statue of the deity you love, of saints you feel attracted to, or of the teachers in your spiritual teacher lineage on your meditation altar. A symbolic picture of the Divine, such as the crucifix, Sri Yantra, or the word “Om,” will do if you feel uncomfortable with anthropomorphic images. Create a sacred space around the altar by inviting your mind to accept that the Divine Being really is present in the image you’ve selected. Then offer flowers, bits of food, or incense to the living presence of the Divine you feel in the image. You may wish to wave a lighted candle in a circle before the picture or statue, as yogis sometimes do in a ceremony called arati. Finally, sincerely offer the reverence in your heart to the Divine. Then, having established a sense of sacred communion, sit quietly and begin your meditation. In India, orthodox families offer a portion of their meals to the images on their meditation altars before eating. This is said to sanctify the food.
Fall in Love with Your Practice
Swami Lakshmanjoo used to remind his students never to think of meditation as a chore. “When you are about to meditate you must feel excitement and be thankful to God that you have received this opportunity. . . . Unless you fall in love with meditation and approach it with total enthusiasm . . . you cannot enter the (deeper realms) of awareness.”
If you are bored, you are not meditating.
There is one important point every meditator must understand: if you are bored, you are not meditating. Meditation cannot be boring because meditation is, by definition, intense mental absorption, and intense concentration obliterates not only boredom but even the sense of time and space. Meditation is not only helpful in unlocking creativity and overcoming stress, but it is the key to the inner dimensions of our spirit. By persevering in our meditation practice with determination, devotion, and enthusiasm, we unlock the door to the highest and best part of ourselves, and consciously enter the living depths of our immortal being.