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 August, 1980 Prabuddha Bharata.
Dhyana or meditation is the conscious maintenance of a steady stream of the same thought about an object at a higher center of consciousness.1 What we call thinking is the manipulation of a series of thought-waves called vrittis.
The mind has two tendencies. Its natural tendency is to move constantly from one thought-wave to another. This tendency to grasp diverse objects is called sarvarthata—all-pointedness. But occasionally the mind holds on to a single object; this tendency is called ekagrata —one-pointedness. Dhyana or meditation is a special type of one-pointed activity of the mind.
The English word “concentration” is a general term which may mean either one-pointedness or the maintenance of a small number of thought-waves, as for instance takes place while playing chess. We have already shown how true meditation differs from ordinary forms of concentration. According to Patanjali, concentration must fulfil five conditions in order to become a means for liberation. The first of these is sraddha which means faith—faith in the supreme goal of life and the possibility of attaining it. This must be supported by virya which means energy or enthusiasm produced, not by the activity of instincts, but by the continuous exercise of willpower. The third condition is smriti or memory. This must supported by samadhi or one-pointed absorption and prajna or self-awareness.2
Of these the most important condition is memory. To maintain a steady stream of the same thought means to maintain a steady memory. However, meditation is not an ordinary process of remembering. Normally a person remembers many things, and some people have wonderful powers of memory. But to keep the memory steady by fixing the mind on a single idea is difficult, and this is what meditation means. Again, ordinary memory is recalling a past experience. To remember is to dwell in the past. A good deal of a normal person’s daily life is spent either in remembering the past or in expecting the future. The present is so momentary that, as soon as an experience comes, it rolls on into the past.
Meditation is not remembering the past but maintaining the memory of the present. It is not an attempt to call back to mind a past event, but an attempt to prevent the present from slipping into the past, into forgetfulness. True meditation is the fixing of the whole memory process at the present moment.
Very often spiritual aspirants forget the above point. What many of them do is this: they look at a picture of their Chosen Ideal of God then close their eyes and try to remember what they have seen. This holding on to a past event, regarded as a sacred act, does not essentially differ from other types of remembering past events. It makes meditation mechanical, repetitive. It tires the nerves. It opens the door to the past with the result that the aspirant finds a crowd of past memories rushing into his or her mind. Small wonder then, many people do not derive much benefit from this kind of meditation even after months and years of practice.
True meditation is directly encountering a living Image. When you see a person face to face, you live in the present. If meditation is to become something like this, you must be able to look into the unknown depths of your heart and directly “see” a living Image there. This becomes possible only when you succeed in focusing the light of your consciousness into the depths of your heart. Beginners find this difficult. That is why they are advised to practice prayer and worship. (Other methods of holding memory to the present are vipassana, the Zen technique of maintaining self-awareness in which the meditator constantly watches all movements and thoughts, nididhyasana, the Vedantic technique of enquiring into the nature of the Self, and the constant repetition of a mantra.)
Prayer and worship are acts which have meaning only in the present. Prayer cannot slide into the past without your notice. As soon as forgetfulness comes, prayer stops. Spiritual prayer is indeed an intense effort to hold the present moment. Prayer, even when addressed to an unknown Being, makes you live in the present. Worship makes that Being more real and enables you to hold on to the present longer still. When this encounter between the soul and the Image in the present is internalized and intensified, it becomes meditation.
True meditation is thus an act which works against the very tendency of the mind to dwell in the past. Meditation is the movement of a steady stream of consciousness from the “I” (the subject) to a mental image (the object). When this movement is steady, the object does not change; when it wavers, the object too changes. It is an impulse or movement that originates in the self that determines whether the image remains steady or changing. This self-impulse is the will. When we try to meditate, a number of memories crowd into the mind and we feel helpless. But it is we who allow the mind to wander in this way. We can fix the mind on any object if we really want to. By training the will we can keep the inner image steady. When this happens our memory gets restricted to the present. And that is meditation.
Meditation always means meditation on an object. There is a popular notion that meditation means making the mind blank by purging it of all images. This is not quite true, for there must always be an object in the mind during meditation. Meditation, as already pointed out, means the maintenance of a single thought and the suppression of all the others.
The complete suppression of all thoughts takes place in deep sleep and some higher forms of absorption (samadhi) when the mind becomes free from all objects, and the objectifying tendency of the mind itself is suppressed.
If a person tries to remove all thoughts without acquiring purity and spiritual power, the usual results will be not samadhi but a kind of sleep or hypnotic stupor. “When persons without training and preparation try to make their minds vacant,” warns Swami Vivekananda, “they are likely to succeed only in covering themselves with tamas, the material of ignorance, which makes the mind dull and stupid, and leads them to think that they are making a vacuum of the mind.”3 It should be pointed out here that the word “meditation” is often used, especially in the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, to mean not only dhyana but also the next higher state of samadhi or absorption. This does not, however, mean that samadhi is only a prolongation of dhyana; there is a qualitative difference between the two, as we shall see later on.
It is possible to meditate on the subject, the “I”: this kind of meditation is called aham-graha upasana. But the subject in this case is not the pure Atman but only the empirical self, a reflection or image of the true Atman. The existence of the self is self-evident and does not need any proof, but its real nature as the Atman is not self-evident.
The pure Atman can never become the object of meditation. During higher samadhi, when all thought-waves are stilled, that pure Atman shines by itself. There is a method of penetrating straight into the pure self through inquiry, but this does not come under meditation. It is a direct path followed by those who practice jnana yoga.
Sometimes a person may spontaneously get into a state of consciousness in which the mind becomes calm and alert. The person feels a deep inner silence in which every movement is noticed and every thought appears fresh and meaningful. The mind does not hold a particular image but calmly witnesses thoughts coming and going—like clouds moving across the sky or travelers going through a silent countryside. The person then lives in the present. He or she observes the silent flow of life without being carried away by the stream. This is a state in which the self becomes aware of the whole mind itself, rather than an object or an image. It is like a fish suddenly becoming aware of the water in which formerly it had noticed only other fish, worms, etc. When this mood is consciously cultivated, the mind becomes fit for meditation.
In the path of bhakti this meditative awareness is attained through love. The devotee thinks of the Deity with so much love that his or her whole being vibrates with that single thought like a gong struck with a mallet. There is no room for any other thought in the mind which gets rooted in the living presence of the Deity and riveted to the present moment.
In true meditation the mind becomes like a violin string stretched between the self and the object, and vibrates in the present moment producing ever-renewing melodies in consciousness.
The human mind is perhaps the most wonderful thing in the whole universe. All the knowledge and mystery of the universe are hidden in its depths. Those who wish to practice meditation should know how their minds work. The mind is not a machine which we ourselves have built and can operate in any way we like. It has come to us ready-made, and it started influencing us long before we became conscious of its working. The individual mind does not work in isolation. Each is a part of the vast cosmic mind, works in accordance with certain universal principles, and is impelled by the same cosmic energy called prana. In his famous lecture on “The Powers of the Mind” Swami Vivekananda says, “All minds are the same, different parts of one mind. He who knows one lump of clay has known all the clay in the universe. He who knows and controls his own mind knows the secret of every mind and has power over every mind.”4
Just as physics and chemistry are based on precise laws of the physical world, the working of the mind is also based on certain universal laws. The credit for first discovering these is attributed to the sage Kapila. They were well known in India long before Buddha’s time. Later on Patanjali codified the principles of mental science into his system of yoga which is now gaining worldwide attention. Perhaps in the twenty-first century humanity’s main preoccupation will be not with science but with yoga.
In India itself, owing to the obsession of the people with metaphysical speculations for the past thousand years, much of the knowledge concerning yoga has been lost. Fortunately, however, enough of it has been incorporated into the system of Vedanta to survive as a living tradition to this day. Those who attempt meditation must have a clear understanding of five fundamental principles of yoga psychology which form the basis of Vedantic meditation.
The first principle is that consciousness belongs to the true self known variously as the Purusa, Atman, jiva, etc. It is its very nature. Everything else in the universe—the entire material universe and all individual minds—belongs to prakrti which is unconscious (jada). Prakriti is neither material nor mental stuff; it is the unmanifested primordial stuff of which mind and matter are only two different manifestations.
Prakriti is unconscious but is not dead or inert. It is an unconscious power animating the whole universe. It is not self-luminous. It is known only when the light of the Purusa falls on it. But the Purusa or Atman is self-luminous and does not need anything else to reveal it.
The distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness, one of the great discoveries made in ancient India, is an important point in spiritual life. Those who want to practice meditation must have the basic knowledge that the self alone is conscious and that, in the absence of self-awareness, all mental and physical activities go on unconsciously. The circulation of blood, digestion and assimilation of food, and other physiological activities go on without our being aware of them.
If we study our mental life we find that a major part of it goes on automatically. We talk, read, eat, walk and play, hardly being aware that we are doing these activities. When we sit for meditation the same automatism continues within us. Having spent a major part of the day more or less unconsciously, we find we have very little control over the mind during meditation.
The more we hold on to the self, the more conscious we become. And the more conscious we become, the greater becomes our control over our thoughts and actions. This kind of self-awareness, popularly known as alertness, is essential not only for those who follow the path of jnana but also for those who follow the path of bhakti.
The self is the abode of consciousness. Spiritual aspirants must learn to open its doors and allow consciousness to flow into their mental activities more and more. It is desires and other impurities of mind that obscure the self and drive us through unconsciousness. As the mind becomes purer, the light of the self manifests itself more, giving us greater self-awareness and self-control.
The second basic principle of yoga psychology is that knowing is the result of a mental modification. In order to know an object the mind must take the form of that object. This modification of the mind is called a vritti.
Cognition or knowledge is the relation between the self and the object. The pure self or Atman cannot directly know an object. Between the self and the object must intervene the mind. Even this is not enough; the mind must take the form of the object. When the light of the Atman falls upon this vritti or thought-wave, knowledge results.
Vrittis are of different types. When you look at a tree, the mind goes out and takes the form of the tree. That is how you know the tree. When you close your eyes, the mind reproduces the image of the tree, and that is how you remember.
What we call life or existence consists of worlds within worlds. Just as there is an external physical universe, so also there are subtle inner worlds peopled by gods, goddesses, spirits and disembodied beings. When the mind is projected towards those beings we come to know about them. All these modifications of the mind are vrittis.
There can be no knowledge without vrittis. In deep sleep, the mind being overpowered by tamas does not produce any vritti. So in deep sleep we know nothing, and upon waking say, “I did not know anything.” But according to Patanjali and some Advaitins, during deep sleep a particular kind of vritti called nidra vritti exists. In the highest superconscious state called nirvikalpa samadhi, the mind gets absorbed in the Self and the Atman alone exists. It is not a state of “knowledge” but one of pure existence. Except this non-dual experience, every form of knowledge—from the feeling of emotions to the highest spiritual vision—is the result of vritti or thought-waves.
True knowledge is called prama, wrong knowledge is called bhrama. A thought-wave which produces true knowledge is known as pramana and one which produces wrong knowledge, viparyaya. According to Patanjali, attachment, hatred, fear and other emotions are all viparyaya-vrittis. There is also another kind of knowledge, which is neither true nor false. Abstract ideas like goodness, beauty, infinity, etc., do not have an objective content. Nevertheless, they are not wrong but serve a practical purpose. A thought-wave which produces this kind of knowledge is called vikalpa.5
When you sit for meditation and try to visualize your Chosen Ideal, your knowledge is not true because you do not actually see him or her. At the same time, it is not false either because your imagination is not about something which does not exist. Strictly speaking, most of our meditations should be classed under vikalpa, though they depend on memory. When through prolonged meditation you get a direct vision of the Deity, the vikalpa changes into a pramana, true knowledge. This true knowledge of supersensuous Reality is called saksatkara or yogi-pratyaksa, and to attain it is the goal of meditation.
The mind has different levels or layers and each of these has its own vrittis. The vrittis that occur in the outer layers are gross and are concerned with external objects. Poetic intuition and philosophic insight have their origin in higher layers. In the deeper layers of the mind exist subtle vrittis through which one knows supersensuous truths of the spiritual world. Most people are aware of only gross forms of thought. When, through purification and meditation, the spiritual aspirant learns to go deep into the mind, he or she becomes aware of subtle thought-waves.
We have seen that what is called knowledge is the reflection of the light of the Purusa or Atman on the vrittis. Gross vrittis reflect very little light and there is little self-awareness associated with them. Subtle vrittis reflect more light. The images they produce are brighter and there is greater self-awareness associated with them. As the aspirant goes deeper into the mind, he or she gets closer to the Atman and sees more and more of its light.
The Atman is the same in all people. The difference between one person and another lies in the types of vritti that dominate their minds. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, each soul is potentially divine but the degree of manifestation of this divinity varies from person to person. Those who are pure and spiritual have pure vrittis in their minds and reflect more of the inner light. The Sanskrit word for “god” is deva which literally means “the shining one.” Gods are those beings whose subtle bodies are so pure and transparent that in them the light of the Atman shines in all its dazzling brilliance. Through purification and meditation every person can attain to that state.
Why should we know all these details about vrittis? The fundamental problem in meditation is to produce and maintain the right type of vritti. If you want to realize or “see” your Chosen Ideal, you must produce the pure vritti that will reveal his or her true nature. The purpose of meditation is to produce that particular vritti. Until you succeed in doing it your meditation is only a form of imagination. As soon as you succeed in producing the right vritti, meditation terminates and direct experience begins.
Here a question naturally arises: Why is it so difficult to produce the right type of supersensuous vritti? This question leads us to two important concepts (which form the third and fourth basic principles of yoga psychology with which we are dealing here).
One concept is that there is an invariable relationship between word and knowledge. You cannot think without words. Suppose you suddenly wake up from deep sleep: you at first notice “somebody” standing before you. Then you understand that it is your mother. Your first experience is cognition; it is just sense-perception. Your second experience is recognition: it is the result of thinking. And thinking needs the use of words: recognition of mother comes from the word “mother.” Similarly, when you hear or utter within yourself the word “mother,” the image of your mother rises in your mind. From childhood we have learned to associate objects or forms (rupa) with names (nama) so much so that we cannot think without words.
The exact relationship between names and forms is a matter of controversy among Indian philosophers. According to some, this relationship is artificial, being based on convention. But according to ancient Sanskrit grammarians (like Bhartrhari), Mimamsakas and Tantric philosophers, the relationship between names and forms (nama-rupa) is eternal. They believe that the basic structure of the human mind is verbal. Knowledge is the result of an inner formulation in words. When you look at (or try to remember) an object, you know it by formulating the words corresponding to that object.
In meditation special words called mantras are usually used. Mantras differ from ordinary words in an important respect. If you hear the word “rhinoceros,” but have never seen that animal (or at least its picture), it makes very little sense to you. In that case, even if you go on repeating that word all through your life, you are not going to know that animal. When you sit for meditation and repeat a divine name or mantra, it brings to your mind only an image of the real Deity, for that is all that you had experienced. But—and this is where the mantra differs from ordinary words—if the mantra is repeated with faith and purity, it will gradually awaken the subtle, pure vritti which will directly reveal the reality which it symbolizes.
Here it is enough to understand that our normal thinking is impossible without both forms and names. What is called vritti consists of two parts: the form of the object and its name. Meditation is the maintenance of a single vritti, which means the maintenance of a single name and form and the exclusion of all other names and forms.
We now come to the fourth principle of yoga psychology: every experience leaves behind an impression called a samskara which has the power to produce that vritti again. The unconscious cellars of the mind are the storehouse of countless samskaras. These latent impressions are continuously sprouting into desires, emotions, memories and ideas which go on disturbing the mind all the time. That is why it is difficult to maintain the right type of single vritti during meditation. Considering the important role that samskaras play in the life of a spiritual aspirant, we shall discuss this topic in greater detail later on.
What we need to note at present is that vrittis produce samskaras, and samskaras produce vrittis. This cycle can be broken only by destroying samskaras. Samskaras can be destroyed only by the light of higher spiritual illumination. But their power can be reduced and kept under check through purificatory disciplines. Without purification of the mind true meditation is difficult.
The fifth fundamental postulate of yoga psychology is that the mind is continuously changing and can never be stopped completely. According to all schools of Hindu thought, everything in the universe except the self is always in a state of flux. Vrittis are continuously appearing and disappearing in the mind. When the mind is distracted different vrittis appear and disappear, but when the mind is concentrated, one and the same vritti appears and disappears continuously. In deep meditation the image of the Chosen Ideal appears to be stationary, but this is because the same vritti is continuously reappearing in the mind with uniform frequency. Meditation is not the stopping of all the vrittis but the maintenance of the steady rise and fall of the same vritti over a long period of time.
It is only in some of the highest forms of samadhi that all vrittis are stopped. But even then the mind does not stop. According to Patanjali, even when all the vrittis are stopped, the samskaras go on changing in the unconscious depths of the mind. If this change of samskaras also is stopped, if the whole mind is stopped, the mind will not last long as mind. It will get resolved back into its cause, which is prakriti. But this happens only at the time of final liberation.
A proper understanding of the above mentioned five principles of yoga psychology will enable spiritual aspirants to understand the workings of their minds and make meditation a fruitful spiritual practice.
1.“The flow of one and the same thought-wave there (i.e., at a particular center of consciousness) is meditation.” Patanjali Yoga Sutra. 3.2.
2. Yoga Sutra, 1.20.
3. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1977) I: 212.
4. Complete Works (1976), 2:17.
5 Cf. Yoga Sutra, 1.6-11.