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 October, 1980 Prabuddha Bharata.
Meditation is the bridge that connects the lower mind with the higher mind. Through that the aspirant crosses over from the din and distractions of the sense-bound world to the world of stillness and silence, from the world of darkness to the world of everlasting light. All preliminary spiritual disciplines end in meditative awareness.
Preliminary spiritual struggles lead the aspirant to the boundaries of the discursive mind. There the aspirant encounters the thought barrier. Take the case of sound: It is nothing but air waves. Yet an ordinary airplane cannot go beyond the speed of sound. Only specially constructed planes with powerful engines can break the sound barrier. Similarly, though thoughts are apparently feeble, non-substantial things, one cannot easily go beyond thoughts. It is through meditation that the aspirant pierces the thought barrier and reaches the higher plane of intuition.
We have already seen [see Swami Bhajanananda’s earlier editorials archived on this site] that consciousness pulsates through the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep. Even during the waking state the mind does not always remain in the same condition. According to the commentators on the Yoga Sutra, the human mind may exist in any of five states: ksiptam (restless), mudham (dull), viksiptam (preoccupied), ekagram (concentrated) and niruddham (closed).1 Bhoja says that in every person one of these states of mind predominates, and this determines his or her behavior. Spiritual aspirants may find their minds going through the first four states repeatedly. This is a big problem especially during the early years of spiritual life, and those who want to lead a meditative life should have a clear understanding of the five states.
Ksiptam or the restless state of mind is one in which the mind is totally under the sway of the senses. It flits aimlessly like a butterfly. This is the predominant state of mind in children and those who lead a purely sense-bound life. It is a state in which rajas predominates. Restlessness of the mind can be controlled through disciplined work, deep studies, yoga exercises, etc.
In the state called mudham, the mind remains dull and inactive owing to a preponderance of tamas. It may be caused by physical factors like fatigue or disease. But more often it is caused by conflict of emotions. When the conflict between two opposing desires becomes too strong, the mind enters an impasse. The problem becomes worse when, owing to repression, the person is unable to detect the cause of the conflict. The blues, depression, spiritual dryness, etc. also come under this category, and their origin can usually be traced to the building up of tension in the unconscious.
The third state is viksiptam in which the mind remains active but not restless as in the first state. It becomes preoccupied with different ideas. This is the predominant state of mind in scientists, artists, philosophers, scholars, social workers and other cultured people. This condition is brought about by the prevalence of both rajas and sattva in more or less equal measure. This is a state in which concentration can be practiced, for concentration is impossible in the first two states. However, this concentration is only a sort of preoccupation with ideas or activities and is something quite different from true meditation, as has been pointed out elsewhere.2 Spiritual aspirants should learn to keep the mind at least in this state through work, studies and deep thinking.
We now come to the fourth state of mind known as ekagram in which alone higher spiritual experience becomes possible. In this state the mind remains calm, concentrated, and free from mental automatisms; the will is free from the hold of desires, and the buddhi or intuition is awake. It is a state in which sattva predominates. Whereas the first three states are natural to humanity, the fourth state has to be acquired through years of purification and discipline, especially continence or brahmacarya. Complete continence increases the spiritual force known as ojas as a result of which the brain becomes cool, a new power like an electric charge develops in it, and the whole subtle body becomes luminous. By ekagram is meant, not ordinary concentration, but a state of higher contemplation. This becomes a permanent attribute only when the psycho-physical system is made ready.
The fifth state of mind, known as niruddham, is a superconscious state. Whereas in the previous state the vrittis—waves of the mind—are only restrained, here the mind remains completely closed. No vritti, and hence no experience, arises in the mind; samskaras (latent impressions) alone remain in the unconscious depths. In this state the mind ceases to be mind, as Gaudapada puts it.3 Yogis call this state asamprajnata or nirbija, while Vedantins call it nirvikalpa. Only a person who is fully established in the fourth state can really attain this highest state. If others attempt to “close” their minds by suppressing all vrittis artificially (e.g. by certain exercises of Hatha Yoga), the usual result will only be a kind of hypnotic stupor or a state of suspended animation.
What is the mind? It is difficult to find a right answer to this question. Air cannot be seen with the eyes; we can only feel its presence when it moves. Similarly, when the mind is perfectly still, its presence cannot be detected. The mind is known only by its functions.
We have already discussed several functions of the mind [see earlier editorials]. Before proceeding further it is necessary to restate these synoptically. According to Pancasikha, a very ancient authority on Yoga, the functions of the mind are of two types: those which are perceived (pari-drista) and those which are unperceived (apari-drista). Various vrittis, which produce names, forms and emotions, belong to the first type. The second type of functions, which cannot be directly perceived but can be inferred from their effects, has been divided into seven groups.4
The first of these, nirodha (suppression), is the capacity of the mind to be free from all vrittis. In fact, between every two thoughts the mind remains free of vrittis for a split second. This interval is normally so short that it is seldom noticed, but by practice it can be prolonged. The second and third functions are karma and samskara, which respectively mean karmasaya and vasana explained in the last editorial. The fourth function is parinama which means the various mental transformations to be discussed soon. The fifth function is jivanam, life-activities or the movements of prana, for it is the mind which controls and guides the movements of prana, which in turn animates the body. The sixth function, cesta, is the unseen action of the mind which makes the senses work. When the mind is elsewhere we will not see an object even if we are looking at it.
The seventh unseen function of the mind is sakti by which is meant the various mysterious psychic powers like clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-transference, psycho-kinesis, etc., which remain undeveloped in ordinary people. Patanjali calls these powers vibhutis and has dealt with them in detail in his Yoga Aphorisms. Swami Vivekananda in his lecture on “The Powers of the Mind” speaks about the miraculous powers of certain people which he personally tested and found to be true.5 It is commonplace to condemn these extraordinary powers as bad or dangerous. But it should be remembered that what is really harmful is not the powers themselves but the way they are used. Great saints and sages in all countries have used them with discrimination for the welfare of suffering humanity. Says Swami Vivekananda, “The powers acquired by the practice of Yoga are not obstacles for the yogi who is perfect, but are apt to be so for the beginner.”6
We should not look upon the mind as a source of sin, conflict and sorrow. The human mind is a storehouse of great powers. But owing to various obstacles and limitations, only a fraction of these is manifested in normal life. And it is with this small fraction that all the great discoveries of science and the achievements of art have been made. A yogi looks upon his or her mind as a source of power, peace and goodness. The Gita says that a properly cultivated and purified mind acts as one’s friend and an undisciplined mind acts as one’s enemy.7 Instead of looking upon oneself as a weak, miserable, worthless sinner, a spiritual aspirant should constantly remember the infinite possibilities that remain hidden in the mind waiting to be discovered and developed. This is the central point in Swami Vivekananda’s message to the modern world. Such a bracing yogic attitude is a necessary precondition for the practice of meditation.
All the powers and functions of the mind are really the powers of prakriti, its unmanifested cause. However, the powers of prakriti are not manifested in all beings in an equal degree. Knowledge, skill, talents, strength, emotions, virtue—all these vary very much from person to person. How does this variation come about?
The answer is given by Patanjali in two important aphorisms which, according to Swami Vivekananda, provide the whole rationale of evolution. These aphorisms are: “Evolution of species is caused by the filling in of prakriti” and “Individual effort is needed, not to produce changes, but to remove the obstacles to the manifestation of prakriti, as in the case of the farmer.”8 Explaining these aphorisms, Swami Vivekananda says, “The water for irrigation of fields is already in the canal, only shut in by gates. The farmer opens these gates, and the water flows in by itself by the law of gravitation. So all progress and power are already in every man, perfection is man’s nature, only it is barred in and prevented from taking its proper course. If anyone can take the bar off, in rushes nature.”9 Prakriti does all work. All the changes going on in the universe are the working of prakriti. Individual effort is needed only to remove the obstacles to the working of prakriti.
Where does this individual effort come from? It cannot be from prakriti itself, as the Samkhya philosophers hold, for then it will not explain the part played by the farmer. Nor can it be from the true Self or Atman which is of the nature of pure consciousness. The volitional impulse must therefore come from the empirical self, which is the reflection of the true Self on the buddhi. It is the agent-self (karta) whose chief characteristic is will. Consciousness and will are the higher and lower aspects of the self. Sri Ramanuja and other dualist thinkers do not accept the distinction between true (paramarthika) and empirical (vyavaharika) selves. According to them consciousness and will are the static and dynamic aspects respectively of the same self. The self as the knower is consciousness, the self as the doer is will. For our purpose it is enough to know that will is a product of consciousness, as pointed out by Swami Vivekananda.10 The self is endowed with both consciousness and power—power not to create but to remove obstacles, for prakriti does all creative work. It is significant that in ancient Yoga texts the Purusa is referred to as citi-sakti (consciousness-power), and Vyasa uses this term throughout his commentary on Patanjali’s aphorisms.
The mind can be controlled not by the mind but by something higher, namely the self. The self exercises this control through the will. But if the will is itself bound, the mind cannot be controlled. The more free the will is, the greater the mind-control. Only the yogis have free will. Says Swamiji, “Remember always that only the free have free will: all the rest are in bondage. . . . Will as will is bound.”11
Pure consciousness is ever free, bondage applies only to the will. It is the will that is bound, and so freedom applies only to the will. It is the will that is bound, and so freedom really means freedom of the will. It becomes free when it becomes one with the Atman. Swamiji says, “That which seems to be the will is really the Atman behind, it is really free.”12 In the vast majority of humanity the will is bound by desires, both good and bad. Freedom of will means freedom from both good and bad desires, freedom to remain as the pure Atman.
The popular notion of “free will” as the freedom to do anything one pleases is not true freedom. In fact, in the normal day-to-day life of the average person, free will rarely comes into operation. Most of our normal actions are controlled by good or bad desires. A good person’s will is as much controlled by good desires as a bad person’s will is controlled by bad desires. We understand how much bound our will is only when we try to meditate. The test of freedom of will is the ability to focus the mind on the Atman. This becomes possible only when the will is freed from bad as well as good desires and directed to its own source. One of the most pathetic things in spiritual life is the inability of even good people to turn to God freely.
How then does the will become free? Every person has a limited degree of freedom of will, somewhat like the freedom that a cow tied to a post has to move. It is by continually exercising this limited freedom that a person finally gets full freedom. Self-analysis and constant discrimination are great aids in this task. Another way is to pray to God intensely. What years of self-effort cannot achieve, grace accomplishes in a short time. It should also be noted that a good will is comparatively more free to turn towards God than a bad will. So one of the first tasks in spiritual life is to acquire a good will through good karma.
It is important to keep in mind the difference between will and desire. Will is the power of the self. Desire is produced by samskaras and is a power of mind. The will, being a spiritual faculty, does not directly act on the external world but does through the medium of the mind. When the will becomes connected to a desire, it becomes a samkalpa or intention. The actions of ordinary people are impelled by various samkalpas. The actions of a yogi are impelled by the pure will, detached from desires. When the will is directed inward towards the Atman, it becomes meditation.
The usual Sanskrit term for will is iccha, but this is also used to mean desire. The Gita uses a more accurate term for will: dhirti. It classifies dhriti into three types—sattvika, rajasika and tamasika—depending upon the degree of freedom of the will. “That will by which the activities of the mind, senses and prana are controlled through unflinching Yoga is sattvika. That will by which Dharma, wealth and pleasure are pursued and which demands immediate results is rajasika. That will by which the stupid man holds on to sleep, fear, sorrow, depression and lust is tamasika.”13
Yogic concentration passes through three stages: dharana, dhyana and samadhi, of which the second stage alone is called meditation. All the three stages together are termed samyama.
The normal mental life of the average person is dominated by mental automatisms and impulses resulting in the preoccupation with certain ideas and confused awareness. The main cause for this is unsteadiness of the will. For clear awareness, the will must first of all be detached from desires and then fixed at a particular center of consciousness within. This fixing of the will is called dharana. This becomes possible only when the center of consciousness is developed through purification of the mind, prayer, worship, etc. An easier method of dharana is to fix the mind on an external object by gazing at it, steadily. Books on Yoga, Buddhism and occultism teach this kind of concentration on a mandala, a crystal or a point. Progress is quicker by this method but, since this may lead to the development of psychic powers, spiritual aspirants are usually advised to practice inner concentration.
The second stage is dhyana or meditation. It should be noted here that all the so-called meditation techniques are really techniques of dharana. Meditation is not a technique but a stage in concentration. When by following a particular technique of dharana a single stream of thought is maintained, it becomes meditation. The door (i.e. dharana) to meditation may vary, the object of meditation may also vary, but meditation as a mental process does not vary in its basic nature. Indeed, meditation or meditative awareness may be regarded as a common highway shared, at least for a short distance, by all the different religious paths. It is therefore, important to know the mental processes involved in meditation.
Dharana is an attempt to reduce the number of thoughts. In dhyana, by the use of will-power, distracting thoughts have been eliminated and, like the wire in a one-stringed musical instrument, the mind remains stretched between the subject and the object. Owing to self-direction there is some tension in the mind, but this is not like the tension produced by stress and conflicts in ordinary life.
Meditation is the maintenance of a single meaningful thought. The mental process which produces a meaningful thought is called a pratyaya. It is the mental counterpart of a sentence. In fact, a sentence is only the verbal expression of a pratyaya. Just as words go to make a sentence, vrittis go to make a pratyaya.
The single pratyaya or meaningful thought that is maintained in meditation can be divided into three parts: artha (the object), sabda (its sound symbol) and jnana (knowledge). Cognition becomes complete only when all the three are combined in the mind. When you suddenly see an animal, your mind at first registers only its external form (artha). But when you hear (or mentally utter) the word (sabda) “cow”, you will gain the knowledge “I know this animal.” The sound symbol strikes, as it were, the self and produces the fire of knowledge. This connection of “I”–consciousness with the object produces what is called meaning. Thus the function of a word or sound symbol is to convey the meaning of an object to the self. Without words it is impossible to have meaningful thinking.
Actually the three—the object, the word and the knowledge—are distinct vrittis and are produced by different causes. In normal thinking these become united to form one pratyaya. Meditation is the maintenance of a single pratyaya in the mind.
In order to maintain the same pratyaya in the mind, you may have to repeat the corresponding word continuously; otherwise, another thought may arise in the mind. That is why in meditation, when you visualize the form of your ista-devata (Chosen Deity), you are also advised to repeat the related mantra continuously. If after repeating the mantra for some time you suddenly stop it, you may still be able to visualize the form for a short while, but—especially in the case of beginners—the chances are that other words will produce other images in the mind. When the mantra is stopped and you are able visualize the form some time, it does not mean that the mantra has disappeared. It has only merged in the form, leaving its meaning behind. The vritti produced by the mantra has merged in the total pratyaya or thought about the Deity.
We now come to the third stage in concentration known as samadhi. This word has different meanings in different systems. We follow the simple but precise definition given by Patanjali, which is comprehensive enough to include the meanings given to it in other systems as well.
When a purified mind undergoes a high degree of concentration, the higher self emerges to the surface and its light illumines the object which alone now shines in the mind (arthamatra nirbhasa). It is now no longer necessary to produce and listen to the word (sabda) which merges in the object. As a result, the memory becomes clear of verbal confusion (smriti parisuddhi). The will has now merged in the awakened Atman. As a result, self-direction, the effort to hold the object constantly in the field of consciousness, becomes unnecessary. And so the awareness “I am meditating” is lost (svarupa-sunyam iva). Though the “I”–consciousness persists in lower samadhi, it becomes so identified with the object that its separate existence is not very obvious.14
Even if one does not attain this experience, it is good to keep in mind the difference between dhyana and samadhi. The former is a self-directed (i.e. needing continuous exercise of will) state in which the object, the word and the knowledge together exist in the mind as a single pratyaya. Samadhi is a spontaneous state in which the object alone shines in the field of consciousness.
The type of samadhi described above in which the object alone shines in consciousness is called samprajnata. If the object also is dropped and if all the vrittis of the mind are stopped, the mind remains in a closed state and its presence cannot be detected. Then the Atman alone abides. This samadhi is called asamprajnata.
During all these stages the mind is continuously undergoing changes. Even in the highest samadhi when all the vrittis are stopped, the mind undergoes subliminal changes. The individual mind is only a part of the cosmic mind and oscillates with it. According to Samkhya and Vedanta, the whole phenomenal world is in a state of flux. Pancasikha says, “Every substance except the self is undergoing change every second.”15 The movements of the mind cannot be totally stopped but can be controlled.
These continuous changes of the mind are called parinama or transformation. These are of different types. Here we are interested in only those transformations which take place during concentration. According to Patanjali, these are of three types: samadhi parinama, ekagrata parinama and nirodha parinama.
In the normal state the mind exhibits two tendencies: one is to get scattered or distracted (sarvarthata), the other is get concentrated (ekagrata). When a person tries to practice dharana, he or she finds these two tendencies alternating in the mind. For a few seconds the mind gets concentrated, but again it gets scattered.
As concentration deepens, the scattering tendency of the mind becomes weak and the tendency for one-pointedness becomes strong. This is what happens during dhyana or meditation. This kind of mental transformation is called samadhi parinama, meaning a struggle for the attainment of samadhi.16
As meditation gains in intensity, the scattering tendency of the mind gets completely suppressed, and the mind retains only a single pratyaya or thought. If the aspirant is meditating on his or her Chosen Deity, the divine image now remains steady in the mind. It appears to be still and unchanging, but actually it is not so, for the mind is changing even in this state. What really happens is the same vritti, the same image, alternately rises and falls so quickly that it appears to be stationary. This succession of the same pratyaya in which its rise and fall are equal is called ekagrata parinama.17 Though this happens in the advanced stages of dhyana, it is the chief characteristic of samprajnata samadhi.
Between the fall of one pratyaya and the rise of another, there is a small gap. Between two thoughts the mind remains closed for a split second. In normal thinking this is usually not noticed. But in the advanced stages of samadhi when all vrittis disappear except that of “I”, this gap becomes noticeable. Then the yogi experiences pure self-existence as a broken series: “I . . . I . . . I . . .”18 The interval between two “I”–vrittis can now be prolonged. When this is done, a long time may elapse before the next vritti rises during which period the mind remains in a closed state. This is asamprajnata samadhi.
There are, however, samskaras in the depths of the mind which go on changing even when all the vrittis are stopped. This subliminal transformation is called nirodha parinama.19 In it the samskaras of suppression (nirodha samskara) are struggling with samskaras of emergence (vyutthana samskara). As long as the former gain the upper hand, the mind remains in a closed state, but when the latter gain the upper hand, samadhi breaks and the person comes down to outer consciousness.
A right understanding of these three mental transformations provides the key to a right understanding of Patanjali’s Yoga. It will also be of great help to sincere aspirants who are seriously practicing meditation with the hope of getting some spiritual experience. Meditation to become a vehicle of transcendence must be practised with yogic attitude and knowledge.
1. Compare the commentaries of Vyasa and Bhoja on Yoga Sutras 1.1 and 1.2 respectively.
2. See Concentration and Meditation—Part I, archived on this site.
3. Gaudapada, Mandukya Karika 3. 31, 32.
4. See Vyasa’s Commentary of Yoga-Sutra 3.15
5. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1976), vol. 2, pp. 10-12.
6. Complete Works (1972), vol. 7, p. 65.
7. Bhagavad-Gita 6. 5, 6.
8. See Patanjali, Yoga Sutra 4. 2, 3.
9. Complete Works (1977), vol. 1, pp. 291-92.
10. Swamiji has thereby refuted the view of Schopenhauer and the Voluntarists that the will is superior to consciousness and that Reality is nothing but will. See Complete Works (1977), vol. 8, pp. 362-63.
11. Complete Works, vol. 7, p. 99.
12. Ibid., p.77.
13. Bhagavad Gita 18. 33-35.
14. See Yoga Sutra 3. 3 Also cf. 1. 43.
15. Yogasudhakara on Yoga Sutra 3. 10.
16. Yoga Sutra 3. 11.
17. Yoga Sutra 3. 12.
18. See Swami Vivekananda’s poem “A Hymn of Samadhi” in the Complete Works (1978), vol. 4, p. 498.
19. Yoga Sutra 3. 9.