By Swami Swahananda
This article is taken from the November/December 2005 issue of Vedanta magazine, published by the Vedanta Centre, United Kingdom. Swami Swahananda is the spiritual head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.
In the spiritual view of life the purpose of our existence is to realise our spiritual nature, to realise God. The scriptures, saints, mystics, and wise men of all religions support this. They have prescribed four major methods, called yogas, for achieving this realisation. The four yogas correspond to four tendencies of the mind: jhana yoga, the way of knowledge, directs the reasoning faculty of the mind to distinguish the ultimate Reality from the transitory phenomena through philosophical analysis; bhakti yoga, the way of love, employs the power of strong feeling to direct the mind and personality to absorption in an ideal; karma yoga, the way of action, harnesses man’s driving compulsion to act, leading him to freedom from action through non-attachment and desirelessness; and raja yoga, the way of concentration and meditation, utilizes the mind’s ability to reflect upon and affect itself to gain the power to direct the mind and fix its attention wherever desired. By making the mind one-pointed or functionless, one can reach the Highest. Although meditation is the speciality of raja yoga, it is practised in some form in every yoga. “The greatest help to spiritual life is meditation,” said Swami Vivekananda. “In meditation we divest ourselves of all material considerations and feel our divine nature.”
Various scriptures stress the importance of meditation for spiritual realisation. The Chandogya Upanishad exhorts us, “Being tranquil, meditate.” (3.14) The same Upanishad describes meditation as the key to success. (7.6) Sri Krishna, in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, describes the process of meditation in detail, instructing his disciple to become a man of meditation (a yogi) because the yogi excels all. (6.46) The Mahanirvana Tantra gives second place only to meditation to being absorbed in the Absolute, Brahman. (MT 14.122) The Vedas and Puranas stress the efficacy of austerity in achieving success in any endeavour (aikagryam paramam tapah). All point to concentration, control of the mind, as the highest austerity. The Bhagavata says that the devotee becomes one with the Lord through one-pointed love. (Bh. 10.29.15; 11.15.27) In the Bible, Jesus alluded to one-pointedness of mind when he said: “If thine eye be single, thy whole body will be filled with light.” (Matthew 6.22)
What is meditation? Patanjali, the original teacher of Yoga, said, “Meditation is uninterrupted thinking of one thought.” (Yoga Sutras 3.2) It is like pouring oil from one vessel to another. Swami Vivekananda said, “Meditation is the focusing of the mind on some object. If the mind acquires concentration on one object, it can concentrate on any object whatsoever.” Raja-yoga describes two processes for achieving concentration. The first process is withdrawing the mind from sense objects. This “turning the mind around” is called pratyahara. The second process, called dharana, is focusing the mind on some object. The combined practice of withdrawing the mind and focusing the attention leads gradually to dhyana, the state of true meditation, when we are able to hold the mind on one chosen thought. Although the terms “concentration” and “meditation” are used interchangeably, concentration means focusing the mind on any given object, and meditation means concentration on spiritual truth.
Yogis, practitioners of raja yoga, describe five states of mind. The same person may experience these five states at various times. In the restless or maddened state, the mind cannot be concentrated on anything. A person in this state turns from one activity to another in an exhausting flurry of unconcentrated and unproductive activity. The five senses, like untamed horses, drag the hapless person in five different directions at once. At times the mind becomes dull, drowsy. The brain does not function fully when drowsy, and no concentration is possible in this state. When the mind is alert but scattered, one’s attention drifts from one thing to another. With effort one can keep the scattered mind for a limited time in a circle of thought. Through the practice of sense-control (pratyahara) and focusing (dharana) one may attain a one-pointed state of mind. One-pointedness is meditation. Meditation leads the developed yogi to a waveless state of mind in which spiritual truth is spontaneously revealed. This is the goal of raja yoga. “The real aim is to make the mind functionless,” said Swamiji, “but this cannot be done unless one becomes absorbed in some object.”
Spiritual teachers from different religious traditions, philosophical orientations and cultures prescribe different meditation techniques. There are hundreds of specific meditations. Nevertheless, we can categorize meditation in the sense of concentrated thinking into six major types.
One general type of meditation is to witness the workings of the mind without trying to suppress or direct thoughts that arise. Vedanta philosophy asserts the true nature of the Self as beyond mind and thoughts. The Self is the witness of all phenomena. Witnessing one’s thoughts, one feels disidentified with the Witness Self, the spiritual Reality. As the spiritual aspirant practises this type of meditation, he finds his wandering mind becoming calm, fit for deeper meditation. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that the mind is like a naughty child; if you look at it intently, it feels shy, as it were, and begins to behave. Some also practise this type of meditation just to relax.
Another type of meditation is to think excellent thoughts. Swami Brahmananda said, “The mind has to be made steady by two means: first, go to a quiet place, make the mind free from waves, and meditate. Second, develop the mind by thinking excellent thoughts. The mind must be given food. That is how it remains calm. The food for the mind is meditation, japa, and holy thinking.” The idea is to occupy the mind with ennobling thoughts to the exclusion of negative or degrading thoughts. Some compare the mind to a dirty inkwell attached to a desk top. To clean the inkwell we need to pour in a large quantity of clean water. Pure and holy thoughts, reflection on the love and compassion of God, contemplation of the inspiring lives of saints all these act like currents of fresh, clean water to cleanse and purify the mind. A pure mind is a calm mind, fit for deep meditation.
Some teachers, especially Buddhists, recommend meditation on the transitoriness of all things. The phenomenal world, composed of the same gross and subtle elements as our bodies and minds, appears intensely real to us. Our minds naturally seek what we believe to be real. Attachment to the objects and people of this world obstructs our view of the changeless Reality. When we think deeply on the composite and impermanent nature of all things our homes, our friends and family, even our own bodies and minds our attachment to these things decreases. We begin to realise that these things are not as real and permanent as they appear at first glance. Youth, beauty, wealth, prestige never last. Lincoln’s advice to a young man applies equally in our days of success and failure: “Even this shall pass away.” Because the disease of worldly attachment is deep-seated, drastic medicine may be needed to root it out. Therefore, some religious teachers instruct their students to practice meditation in a cremation ground or graveyard to impress vividly the transience of the world on an overly attached mind. The Holy Mother said,”Discriminate always between the real and the unreal. Whenever you find the mind drawn to any object, think of its transitoriness, and therefore try to draw the mind back to the thought of God.”
Many sects of Hinduism and Buddhism practise meditation on God with form. They regard the various deities, Shiva, Durga, Vishnu; and the Avataras like Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and Ramakrishna; as manifestations of the Supreme God. Meditation here means visualising the luminous form of the Chosen Deity. Repetition of a Divine Name, or a mantra greatly helps the mind to limit its wandering and achieve deeper concentration on the object of visualisation. Swami Shivananda said, “If you meditate on God with form, He Himself will reveal to you His real nature. It is very difficult to meditate on the formless… There is no question of inferiority or superiority in this; it is a question of temperament. Whatever appeals to one is best for him.” If we love the object of meditation, our concentration deepens more easily. The yogi cultivates devotion to improve his meditation. The devotee practises meditation to deepen his love for God.
Some like to think of God as endowed with personal qualities such as love and kindness but without form. The formless personal God is the chief concept in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and one of many conceptions in Hinduism and Buddhism. One may meditate on the formless personal God by feeling the living conscious presence of the Lord in the heart by visualising a Being of boundless light, radiating peace, love, wisdom and joy.
The sixth type of meditation is meditation on the Absolute Brahman, the formless, qualityless, impersonal Reality beyond all conceptions, the Ground of Being. Monistic Vedanta recommends this type of meditation. Swami Brahmananda said,”God should be imagined as vast and infinite. To bring this idea of vastness within, one should look at the Himalayas or the ocean, or gaze at the sky.” Of course, any representation of the infinite falls short of the Reality itself. Therefore, some employ more tangible symbols like the syllable “Om,” repeating the sacred word while visualising its written form as a symbol of the all-pervading Self specially manifest in the heart.
The benefits of meditation depend in part on the motive one has in practising. The jnana yogi in his discrimination between the Real and the unreal, the karma yogi in his performance of selfless work, the bhakta yogi in his worshipful adoration of the Divine and the raja yogi in his quest to control the mind, all benefit from the power of concentration developed through meditation. As any power can be injurious if not used with caution for a good purpose, so also concentration without basic moral training may be harmful to oneself and others. Modern medical science has discovered the therapeutic value of meditation in treating hypertension, high blood pressure, insomnia and other by-products of high-pressure civilization. The Latin root of the word meditation means “to heal,” but spiritual seekers will always consider good health as a fringe benefit, subordinate to their primary Goal, which is Self-realisation or God-realisation.
Of all spiritual disciplines prescribed for attainment of Self or God-realisation, meditation forms the core, the common, underlying thread. Whether one believes in God with or without form, as personal or impersonal, or whether or not one believes in God at all, one can practise some form of meditation conducive to success in one’s particular approach. The science of meditation, raja yoga, includes a comprehensive psychology, both theoretical and practical, designed to diagnose one’s state of mind and prescribe an appropriate technique to make the mind fit for deeper states of concentration. Even from the standpoint of maintaining one’s physical and mental health in our modern world, one should consider practising meditation. Perhaps the root meaning, “to heal,” most accurately describes the value of meditation, which can cure our ills, be they physical, mental or spiritual.