Q: Meditation is said to be the most effective means of bringing about a profound inner and outer transformation. I don’t understand how sitting and focusing your mind on an object—a mantra, a yantra, or an image, for example—can generate a meaningful and lasting transformation.

A: Meditation is a more methodical and complete mental and spiritual discipline than we normally imagine. Patanjali, the father of yoga science and philosophy, devotes an entire text—the Yoga Sutra—to meditation. When you read this text, you realize that the study and practice of meditation involves more than simply concentrating on an object. It is a complete science, both of understanding the mind and its relationship with the body and breath, and of understanding our relationship with the external world. As part of meditation, we learn how to become the master of our own thought processes; how to avoid brooding; how to channel all the forces of the mind in a meaningful direction; how to set a goal and remove obstacles to reaching that goal; how to discover the boundless joy that lies dormant in the depths of our own mind; how to infuse all aspects of life with that inner joy; and ultimately, how to live a peaceful and happy life.

Meditation introduces you to yourself. Through meditation you come to know yourself at all levels: body, breath, and mind. Meditation enables you to see your strengths and weaknesses clearly. When you know who you are, what you are, what you are made of, and what dynamic forces govern your thought processes, you will gain a clear understanding of yourself. That understanding will allow you to see the outer world the way it is, and when you do, your prejudices and preoccupations regarding others fall away. Further, this self-understanding frees you from the opinions of others—you become self-reliant and self-confident. As this self-understanding crystallizes further, you attain freedom from all doubts and fears. This is the foundation for true transformation.

As a meditator, you are at the center of meditation. The better you understand yourself, the firmer your grasp will be on the object of meditation. Without self-understanding, you will not have a good reason to commit yourself to meditation, nor will you be able to see the difference between a meditative technique leading to complete freedom and guided imagery leading to the experience of pseudotranquility. Self-understanding enables you to attain mastery over your moods. Without it you will not be able to detect the causes of your emotional turmoil and so will remain embroiled in unpleasant thoughts and feelings.

That is why before committing yourself to meditation, you must first assess yourself. Take an inventory of your current physical capacity, emotional maturity, intellectual grasp, and religious and cultural background. Gain a good understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Study the condition of your mind and watch how easily it gets sucked into an emotional whirlpool; see how easily you fall into the trap of anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, ego, and attachment. Assess the level of your willpower and determination. How long does it take you to make a decision and start working toward your goal? How long does it take you to mentally disconnect from the world and turn your attention inward? How long can you keep your mind focused on an internal object? Which type of thought or emotion disrupts your inner equilibrium? How hard is it for you to let go of your past?

Respect will cause you to look forward to meditating.

Finding the answers to these and similar questions will lead to self-understanding. Self-understanding will help you decide why you are trying to meditate, what your immediate and long-term goals are, and how to remain focused on those goals. This will help you cultivate respect for meditation, and this respect, grounded in right understanding, will cause you to look forward to meditating.

Finally, it is important to understand that meditation is a methodical process and there are prerequisites. To prepare for meditation, you need to bring regularity to your life—for example, form a habit of going to bed on time, waking up on time, and eating on time. Adopt healthy dietary habits—eat fresh, wholesome food and avoid processed food and food loaded with sugar and fat. Exercise regularly, focusing on exercises that increase your flexibility and stamina, energize your nervous system, strengthen your spine, and help you cultivate a comfortable, stable sitting posture.

Learn to sit with your head, neck, and trunk in a straight line, so your diaphragm moves freely and your shoulders are relaxed. Be aware of your breathing and cultivate a smooth, effortless, and silent breath. You may sit cross-legged on the floor or sit on a chair. The important thing is that your spine is straight, your breath is smooth, even, and silent, and you have arranged your upper and lower extremities in a way that does not distract your mind.

Only when these prerequisites have been met does the actual process of meditation—the inward journey—begin. From this kind of meditation you can expect a meaningful and lasting transformation.

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