Meditation and Concentration – Part 1

By Swami Bhajanananda

Swami Bhajanananda was the editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1979 through 1986, and has contributed many articles to various Vedanta journals. Swami Bhajanananda is an Assistant-Secretary and Trustee of the Ramakrishna Order. This article was published in the July, 1980 Prabuddha Bharata.

Today “meditation” is enjoying unprecedented popularity in the East and the West alike. A form of spiritual practice once restricted to a small number of fairly qualified aspirants is now being followed by large numbers of people and applied to a wide variety of human situations. To satisfy the spiritual needs of different types of aspirants, ancient techniques of meditation are being modified and new techniques are being evolved by spiritual directors. Indeed, so diverse has meditation become that it now stands for a generic term denoting several forms of concentration rather than a specific spiritual technique.

The various types of meditation now prevalent all over the world may be divided into two broad groups: secular and religious. To the former group belong all forms of concentration practiced for the sake of health. It has been scientifically proven that certain types of meditation relax the body, reduce blood pressure and mental tension, and cure psychosomatic disorders. They have thus become a boon to a large number of people living under conditions of stress, especially in the West. There is nothing wrong in practising meditation for its therapeutic effects, but one should not think this is all that meditation means or can do.

Here we are concerned only with the other group of meditations, called upasana in Vedantic literature, which aim at spiritual illumination. This again is of two types: anthropomorphic (sakara) and non–anthropomorphic (nirakara). In the first type, followed in the path of devotion, meditation is done on a form of the deity known as the aspirant’s Chosen Ideal of God, or Ista Devata. In the second type, followed in the path of knowledge, meditation is done on a non-anthropomorphic object like light or space or on some attribute of Qualified (saguna) Brahman.

This kind of spiritual meditation which requires a higher degree and quality of concentration, need not necessarily be a relaxing experience, especially for a beginner. The term used by Patanjali—the father of Hindu psychology—for meditation is dhyana, and according to him it forms only the seventh step in a graded scheme of yoga. With the exception of a few fortunate people born with natural calmness and purity of mind, most people find that the higher types of spiritual meditation entail effort, struggle and strain. Sri Aurobindo points out: “The road of yoga is long, every inch of ground has to be won against much resistance and no quality is more needed by the spiritual aspirant than patience and single-minded perseverance with a faith that remains firm through all difficulties, delays and apparent failures.” (Bases of Yoga, 1973)

There is at present a good deal of confusion about the true nature of meditation. This is mainly caused by the mistaken belief that meditation is nothing but a form of concentration. Everyone has the capacity to concentrate his or her mind on something or other, and it is with this confidence that most people attempt to meditate. But when they find that they do not succeed, they ask in surprise, “Why am I not able to meditate?” The truth is that meditation is not just an ordinary type of concentration. Spiritual aspirants must understand this. They should know the difference between ordinary concentration and meditation.

Ordinary Concentration and Meditation

In ordinary concentration the mind is focused on an external object or a mental idea. From childhood we have been practicing concentration on external objects as a part of the natural process of perception.

What is perception? According to the Samkhya, Yoga and Advaita-Vedanta schools of philosophy, the mind goes out through the eyes and takes the form of the object, and this is how we see it. According to Ramanuja and Madhva, it is the self that issues forth and directly perceives the object. Either way, concentration on external objects is a natural process. The Katha Upanisad says that the Lord, as it were, struck the sense organs and made them outgoing. (2.1.1) So we find no difficulty in concentrating on external objects.

Real meditation is a complete reversal of this process of perception. It means turning the mind or the self back upon its source. Sri Ramakrishna explains this by the parable of the police sergeant who goes about his rounds in the dark with a lantern (which has dark glass on three sides) in his hands. With that light he can see others but they cannot see him, unless he turns the lantern towards himself. (Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p.107)

In the same way, with the light of the self we can see external objects and movements of thoughts, but if we want to see God, we must focus this light inward. And this is what meditation means. To turn the habitually outgoing mind inward to its source is an admittedly difficult task.

This, then, is the first difference between meditation and ordinary concentration: meditation is the result of the focusing of consciousness on its true source or center. The Tantras speak of different centers of consciousness but the Upanisads point to the spiritual heart as the true center of one’s consciousness. Though the beginner can to some extent hold the mind in the region of the physical heart, he or she has usually no idea of what the spiritual heart—the true center of consciousness—means.

In most people this higher center remains dormant or veiled, but through continence and prayer it can be developed. Unless the aspirant discovers this spiritual center, his or her mind will wander during meditation.

It should be understood that trying to drive the mind inward, as a shepherd drives sheep into the pen, is not meditation. True meditation is the result of the natural inwardness or interiority (pratyak pravanata) of the mind caused by an inward pull. This inward “pull” comes from one’s higher center of consciousness. And the higher center will exert this pull only when it is open and active. Then the mind comes to rest in its own source, as a bird comes to roost in its own nest. This resting or fixing of the mind is called dharana, without which meditation is difficult.

Secondly, in most forms of ordinary concentration the sense organs are active and contact with the external world is not cut off. But during meditation, which needs a higher degree of concentration, the mind alone is active and contact with the external world is cut off. The yogis call this state ekendriya—the state in which one indriya or sense organ (namely the manas, or mind, which the yogis regard as the sixth sense organ) alone is active. According to Patanjali, before one attempts dhyana (meditation), one should gain proficiency in dharana (fixing the mind) and pratyahara (withdrawing the mind from external objects). This withdrawal is defined by Patanjali as a state in which the senses, detached from external objects, become one with the manas or mind. (Yoga-Sutra, 2.54) When this is practiced for a long time, the mind alone remains active—the ekendriya state. Only then is true meditation possible.

We now come to the third difference between ordinary concentration and meditation. What we call thought is only a wave-like movement of the mind which is called vritti. Vrittis are produced either by external stimuli or by the sprouting of samskaras (latent impressions of past experiences). When we are absorbed in a book or a job, several names and forms occupy the field of consciousness and the mind moves in a circle. Whereas in meditation the mind is, as it were, fixed on a point and there is only a single vritti in it. Then only a single name (mantra) and form (usually the form of the Chosen Ideal) will occupy the field of consciousness. All other names and forms are consciously suppressed. This is, however, difficult as the samskaras are continuously sprouting into waves. Unless at least the major desires and impulses are eliminated, the practice of meditation will become an inner battle.

This takes us to the fourth difference. Ordinary concentration is the result of attachment to various external objects, whereas meditation is the result of detachment. To get absorbed in an undertaking which one likes because it satisfies one’s desires is easy. But to get absorbed in something through detachment is difficult. This becomes possible only when detachment is supported by intense aspiration.

Meditation is not an exercise in passive withdrawal, an escape from reality. It is an intense seeking of Truth in the only place where Truth ought to be sought. It is an eager search for God in the unknown depths of the heart. Just as a man in darkness gropes about by stretching out his hands, so does the meditator seek God within by stretching her or his intuitive faculty, the pure buddhi. Though meditation is usually practiced on an image, true aspirants know that the image upon which they meditate is not the true Reality. Their meditation is in fact a search for that Reality of which the image is only a symbol. To seek an intangible unknown Reality in the unknown depths of the soul becomes possible only if there is intense aspiration and faith.

Then there is the fifth difference. The human mind has two powers: to experience and to create. Most of our normal thinking is a creative process—we are always trying to create something: new objects, new relationships, new meanings, new ideas, etc. If we cannot create anything real, we create unreal things and try to live in a dream world. All the great achievements of science, technology and art are the result of people’s stupendous efforts in creative concentration. But creation of this type gives rise to diversity and conflict.

Meditation is an attempt to make the mind stop creating by seeking the source of experience. Though experience is also a function of the mind, its real source (consciousness) is in the Atman or the self. Meditation is an attempt to isolate the self and discover the Uncreated or the Absolute, which is what humanity is trying to seek through creative activity. Meditation is a movement towards unity and peace.

Another difference, related to the above, is that ordinary concentration is a movement in time. Meditation is an attempt to remain in timelessness. The more we think, the more we move with time and get caught in the ever-flowing stream of life.

There are two types of time. One is external time, determined by the movements of the earth with reference to the sun. The second is internal time, determined by the movement of thoughts. In very small children these two times remain distinct; as they grow up they learn to correlate the two. But this correlation is lost during deep sleep and dreaming when we live in an entirely different world of time. In the normal waking state a certain co-ordination between inner time and outer time is maintained as a kind of ratio. This ratio varies from person to person: for some people time flies, for others time hangs heavy.

To live constantly in time, to be under the tyranny of time, to “run with the hare and hunt with the hound” all the time causes great strain on the nerves. People want to escape from this oppressive time awareness. So they go on vacation and try to forget themselves by getting absorbed in books or movies. But they find that this does not work all right, for time haunts them like a ghost wherever they go or whatever they do. Meditation is an attempt to free humanity from the tyranny of time by first slowing down the inner clock and then lifting the mind to a timeless dimension.

However, the most important difference between ordinary concentration and meditation is that the former is an unconscious process involving self-forgetfulness, while the latter is a conscious and self-directed process. What we generally call conscious activity is mostly unconscious or automatic. Freud discovered the unconscious and showed how it caused mental disorders. Jung showed that even normal healthy thinking and activity were mostly controlled by the unconscious. We talk, eat, work and walk without being simultaneously aware that we are doing all these. As Jung has pointed out, there is a world of difference between the two statements: “I am doing work” and “I am aware that I am doing work.” We are rarely in touch with our own self, hence there is very little self-awareness in our normal day-to-day life.

This truth was discovered in India some three thousand years ago. Kapila, the founder of the Samkhya school, showed that everything in the universe, including the mind, is unconscious and that the Purusa (or the Atman, as the Vedantins call it) alone is truly conscious.

The mind is continuously breaking into waves and this makes the reflection of the self discontinuous. As a result we lose contact with our own center of consciousness. Meditation stops all the waves except one, which makes the reflection of the self uniform and restores our contact with our true center of consciousness. This is affected by exercising the will. Just as the cart driver controls the horses by holding the reins tight, so does a meditator control his or her mind through the will. This is what Buddha calls right mindfulness.

Meditation is thus a fully self-directed process. It is a struggle against mental automatisms, it is an attempt to prevent mental waves from submerging the rock of self-awareness. This point distinguishes it from brooding, introversion and daydreaming.

In ordinary concentration the mind is swayed by the object. If you are reading a book, it is the book that determines your concentration; if you are working, it is the work that controls your mind. In meditation the object usually plays only a passive part and control of the mind is effected by the self. The mind can be controlled, not by the mind, but by a faculty which is higher than it. This higher faculty is the buddhi or dhi, which is both a faculty of intuition and will. It is an impulse originating in the buddhi that controls the mental waves and directs the stream of consciousness towards the object during meditation. Unless this buddhi is to some extent developed and made active, meditation is difficult.

Yet another difference, eighth in order, is that meditation is not just looking at an object but is an attempt to enter into a living relationship with it. This is especially true in the path of bhakti where the devotee looks upon meditation only as a means of forging an intimate, everlasting relationship of love with his or her Chosen Ideal. One of the chief reasons why many people do not succeed in meditation is that they forget this important point and regard it as a passive act like looking at a picture or a flower.

A loving relationship can be established only when there is a certain degree of similarity of nature between the subject and the object. Vedanta holds that every human being is potentially divine: that is, his or her true self is a part of the Supreme Self. Spiritual life is the discovery of this eternal relationship. To discover this relationship spiritual aspirants must first of all discover their true self, the true divine center within themselves, where alone they can feel the touch of the Supreme Spirit. It is only when the mental waves are stilled that the light of the self reveals itself. That is why calmness of mind is so important.

But meditation is not mere inner silence, it is the conversion of this silence into a means of uniting the individual self with the Supreme Self. That is why meditation of some kind or the other is enjoined in all Hindu scriptures. The Bible also says: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalms. 46.10)

Lastly, it should be remembered that ordinary concentration and meditation lead to quite different results. Proficiency in meditation makes it easy to do any work with concentration, but the reverse is not always true. Though doing secular work with concentration gives a good training to the mind—and is therefore better than idling about or working sloppily—it does not ipso facto enable the aspirant to do deep meditation. Ordinary activities, if not accompanied by discrimination, detachment, devotion and a certain degree of meditative awareness, will only take us more and more away from the divine center in us. Such concentration will only get us involved more and more in the unconscious stream of life. Meditation, on the contrary, takes us towards Reality directly.

Prayer, Worship, Meditation

From the above discussion it is clear that true meditation is not as easy as it is popularly supposed to be. In the path of bhakti meditation forms only the third step, for it should be preceded by prayer and worship. Those who have practiced prayer and worship for some time find meditation easy and natural. How do prayer and worship help the aspirant in the practice of meditation?

In the first place, as we have shown, meditation is concentration of mind on a higher center of consciousness and, unless that center is to some extent awakened or made active, meditation is difficult. Prayer, when done with intensity, quickly awakens the heart center. Says Swami Vivekananda, “By prayer one’s subtle powers are easily roused, and if consciously done all desires may be fulfilled by it.” (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 5: 325)

Concentration is not the main problem in spiritual life. What is really difficult is to give a higher direction to the concentrated energies. A beginner cannot do this through meditation alone. Prayer and worship open the higher centers and direct the mind upward.

Secondly, meditation being a conscious and self-directed process can be successfully practiced only when it is supported by the will. Pure will and pure consciousness are the dynamic and static aspects of the higher self. Through self-analysis and introspection it is possible to understand the true nature of the will and its workings. But a wayward will enslaved by emotions and instincts cannot be brought under control by self-analysis alone. That is the reason why meditation very often depends on the aspirant’s moods. If we want to be independent of our moods, we must be able to direct our will Godward whenever we want. Prayer and worship gradually bring the will under control.

Further, it is seen that in many aspirants meditation affects only a small—the conscious—part of the personality. The other parts of the personality, especially the unconscious part of the mind, which is a magazine of psychic energy, go on in their old ways. This kind of meditation lacks power. Prayer and worship rouse the unconscious, energize every part of the personality and gear them all to meditative effort. It is only when meditation is charged with power that it will act like a power drill and pierce the veil of maya.

We have also seen that meditation becomes meaningful only when there exists a living relationship between the soul and God. Some people are born with an inner sensitivity of the soul for the unseen, intangible Reality and feel a spontaneous love for God. For the others the only way is to cultivate devotion through long practice of prayer and worship.

Prayer and worship are of help in yet another way. They provide support to the mind even when one does not or cannot meditate. It so happens that on certain days aspirants find it difficult to meditate. When this happens many of them think, “Instead of wasting my time trying to meditate, let me do some work.” But a true devotee does not think that way: he or she just switches to intense prayer and worship. True devotees are not discouraged by dryness of mind or other obstacles; in their case meditation is only an extension, a subtler expression, of prayer or worship.

There are, of course, other aids to meditation, but here we are concerned mainly with the path of devotion where prayer and worship play an important role.

Meditation During the Early Stages

If meditation is so difficult, does it mean that we should take it up only after attaining proficiency in prayer and worship? Indeed, if the aspirant could devote a few months or even years exclusively to prayer and worship, she or he would quickly advance and would find meditation easy and spontaneous. But today few people have the faith and patience to wait for such a long time. Nor is it necessary even for the beginner to abandon meditation. The practice of meditation along with prayer and worship can be taken up even in the beginning of spiritual life. For meditation, even when not perfectly done, helps the aspirant in several ways.

It helps the aspirant to understand the working of his or her own mind. Meditation in the early stages may appear like waging an inner battle but the time spent in it is not wasted. Through that the aspirant gains understanding about his or her subtle desires and tendencies. Meditation of this kind “acts as a rudder in a boat,” points out the Holy Mother. “When a person sits in the evening for prayer, he can reflect on the good and bad things he did in the course of the day. Then he should compare the mental state of that day with that of the previous day. . . Unless you practice meditation in the morning and evening side by side with your work, how can you know whether you are doing the desirable or the undesirable thing?” (Swami Tapasyananda and Swami Nikhilananda, Sri Sarada Devi: The Holy Mother, p. 408)

The practice of meditation during the early stages is important for a second reason: it gives the mind a good training in inwardness (pratyak pravanatha) and introduces a sense of interiority into the life of the aspirant. These effects may not be immediately noticeable, but after a few months or years the aspirant finds that the mind is turning inward without much difficulty. Even if the mind wanders, sitting motionless in a particular posture itself disciplines the body and the nervous system. Later on, when the aspirant becomes an adept in meditation, she or he will find this early training a great asset.

Furthermore, the practice of meditation helps the aspirant to integrate his or her personality. It provides a common inner focus for the will, intellect and emotions. Even when the aspirant does not succeed in having perfect meditation, the presence of a central focus within gives a sense of unity and integrity to his or her whole personality. And this helps the aspirant to remain unaffected by the changes and troubles of the external world.

These are the advantages of practicing meditation during the early stages of one’s spiritual life. However, when the aspirant gains proficiency in it, meditation becomes a direct means for spiritual experience.

True meditation is a knocking at the door of the shrine within the heart. This higher meditation, intensely and persistently practiced, will at last open the inner door to the world of divine light, knowledge and bliss.

We shall next discuss this higher meditation—its different techniques and the various mental processes involved in it.

Read Part 2.

The Art of Building Shrines: A Lesson in Karma Yoga
November 1, 1999
Meditation and Concentration – Part 2
January 1, 2000
Show all

Meditation and Concentration – Part 1