In every society, people are educated in the skills they need to survive and function in their culture: how to talk, think, work, and investigate the objects and experiences of the external world. We learn sciences such as biology, ecology, and chemistry in order to understand the world we live in, but we are not taught to understand or attend to our own inner dimensions. We learn to assimilate the goals, fashions, and values of our society without first knowing ourselves within and without. This leaves us ignorant of ourselves and dependent on the advice and suggestions of others.
This is why meditation is so important. Meditation is a subtle and precise technique for learning how to pay attention to and understand the various levels of ourselves—the body, the breath, and the mind. Meditation is not religion. It is a practical, scientific, and systematic technique for knowing ourselves on all levels. Meditation does not belong to any culture but is a simple method of exploring the inner dimensions of life and finally establishing ourselves in our own essential nature.
Meditation is not religion. It is a practical, scientific, and systematic technique for knowing ourselves on all levels.
The science of meditation was developed systematically in ancient India during the Upanishadic period, more than 3,000 years ago. It was elaborated upon later by the seer Patanjali, and the practices which were developed spread far and wide. For example, a school of meditation was established by Indian monks in Egypt around the third or fourth century AD and in China around 525 AD. Later, the teachings traveled to Japan. In fact, the word zen is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana which means “meditation.” In the Christian tradition, a school of meditation was established by Saint Anthony, and the methods of meditation were known to saints such as Saint Francis. But because of fear that it would become the object of religious persecution, the art of meditation remained secretly hidden in the sacred bosoms of a few wise saints.
Over the centuries, yogis have developed meditation into a highly evolved and systematic science for expanding consciousness, for in yoga, blind faith is always discouraged. Certain practices are described, as are the results that can be achieved through their use, and the aspirant is expected to convince himself of their validity experientially. With this empirical approach, therefore, a person’s firsthand experience of a state of consciousness is the proof of its existence. No other proof can be given; no other proof is necessary.
The Healing Power of Meditation
Meditation is therapeutic from the beginning. It helps relax the autonomic nervous system and thus provides freedom from muscular tension as well as mental stress. A person of meditation gradually attains a tranquil mind, and this helps the immune system by limiting its reaction to stress and strain. You will find that even a few weeks’ sincere effort will help you control your appetites to a certain degree, and even your emotional reactions, such as anger.
In the modern world, scientists have begun to recognize that most diseases can be classified to some degree as psychosomatic, as having their origin in thoughts and emotions—or at least being influenced by them. And if disease originates in your mind and your emotional reactions, how can an external therapy alone restore your health? You will become dependent on a therapist or physician for help if you do not seek to understand your own mind and emotions. In contrast, meditation makes you self-reliant and helps you attain the inner strength you need for dealing with all of life’s problems.
Meditation will decrease your need for sleep and energize your body and mind; it is a systematic means for enhancing your innate talents. I have observed this result with students from all walks of life. As time progresses, you may find that you enjoy the positive results of meditation—increased joyfulness, clarity, and awareness—as much as you enjoy the relief you experience from releasing the physical, nervous, and mental symptoms of stress. You will also find that you are more able to remain centered and undisturbed in any situation, whether you judge it to be bad or good.
Beginning Your Inner Exploration
The Latin root of the word meditation is similar to the root for medical or medicate and implies the sense of “attending to” or “paying attention to” something. In meditation, you pay attention to your own deepest, innermost levels—dimensions of yourself that are seldom known. These deeper levels are more profound than the processes of thinking, analyzing, daydreaming, or experiencing emotions or memories. Meditation involves a type of inner attention that is quiet, concentrated, and at the same time, relaxed. There is nothing difficult or strenuous about creating this inner attention; in fact, you will find that the process of meditation is restful for the mind. In the beginning, however, the greatest difficulty is that the mind has not been trained to create this inner attention.
In order to meditate, you will need to learn:
How to relax the body
How to sit in a comfortable, steady position for meditation
How to make your breathing process serene
How to calmly witness the objects traveling in the train of your mind
How to inspect the quality of your thoughts and learn to promote those which are positive and helpful to your growth
After accomplishing stillness with the help of the meditative posture, you will become aware of obstacles arising from muscle twitching, tremors occurring in various parts of the body, shaking, and itching. These obstacles arise because the body has never been trained to be still. We are trained to move in the external world faster and faster, but nobody trains us to remain still. To learn this stillness, you should form a regular habit, and to form this habit you should learn to be regular and punctual, practicing the same posture at the same time and at the same place every day, until the body stops rebelling against the discipline given to it. This step, though basic, is important and should not be ignored. Otherwise, you will not be able to reap the fruits of meditation and your efforts will be wasted.
Finding a Focus
In meditation, we try to let go of the many mental distractions, preoccupations, and fleeting thoughts and associations common to our normal waking experience, and to replace that mental activity with a quiet, effortless, one-pointed focus of attention and awareness. We do this not by trying to make the mind empty (which is impossible anyway) but by allowing the mind to focus on one subtle element or object. This leads the attention further inward. By giving ourselves a single internal focus of attention, we help the mind stop other stressful mental processes such as worrying, planning, thinking, and reasoning.
Students of meditation may use a sound (mantra) or a visual image (yantra) to help concentrate the mind. A mantra may be a word, a phrase, a set of sounds, or simply a syllable. Concentrating on it helps students to let go of useless, distracting mental processes and allows them to go deeper within themselves. All great spiritual traditions, both ancient and modern, have some system of pronouncing such a syllable, sound, or set of words which acts like a mantra. Om, Amen, and Shalom are examples. Mantras have powerful effects on the mental level, and those who are competent in this great and profound inner science can lead students on the path. The preliminaries are simple and easy and can be practiced without the guidance of a teacher, but when an aspirant begins to deal with the mind itself, an appropriate mantra will be necessary. Teachers choose a mantra according to the students’ state of mind and the extent of their burning desire to uncover the innermost truth.
Using a mantra given by a teacher adept in the meditative tradition can produce powerful and effective results. Meditation texts and scriptures speak extensively on this subject. Patanjali, the codifier of yoga science, says that a mantra is the representative of the innermost source of consciousness, and therefore it becomes a bridge between the mortal and immortal parts of life. When the body, breath, and conscious mind separate from the unconscious mind and individual soul at the time of death, the mantra that the meditator has been consciously remembering continues to create impressions in the unconscious mind. These are powerful motivators which help the aspirant during this period of transition. With the help of the mantra, it becomes easier to make the unknown voyage.
Just as there are many different paths to the top of a mountain, so also are there many seemingly different meditation techniques. Yet all have the same goal—achieving a state of inner concentration, calmness, and serenity. Any practice that helps you achieve this is beneficial. Many valid meditative techniques exist, so there is really no difference between one type of authentic meditation and another, as long as they have the goal of helping you attain inner stillness and focus.
But sometimes people get caught up in comparing meditation methods or arguing about which tradition or teacher is “best.” Good meditation teachers recognize and respect the universality of meditation and do not foster self-serving or cultish distinctions about their own techniques. Meditation is a beneficial and fruitful way of fathoming all levels of life systematically. It is positive and valuable as long as teachers do not become egotistical and try to claim a style of meditation as their own or insist that their technique is superior to others.
To progress in meditation, first understand clearly what meditation is. Then select a practice that is comfortable for you and do it consistently for some time—every day if possible, and at the same time every day. You will definitely experience progress if you meditate regularly—it is not possible for you to fail to progress if you do the practice. How fortunate are those who become aware of this fact and begin to meditate. Even more fortunate are those who continue to meditate. The most fortunate are those few who have determined that meditation is the top priority in their life and practice it regularly.
Source: Adapted fromYoga International magazine