By Pravrajika Vrajaprana
Pravrajika Vrajaprana is a nun at the Sarada Convent at the Vedanta Society in Santa Barbara. This essay appeared in the book Purity of Heart and Contemplation. The essay is posted in five parts.
For readings from Swami Vivekananda, go to Vivekananda.org.
While meditation has become widely associated in popular culture with relaxation techniques, meditation in the Hindu tradition is the antithesis of a passive act. True meditation is an intense and concentrated search for the divine Reality within. According to Patanjali—the ancient sage and author of the Yoga Sutras—meditation (dhyana) is “an unbroken flow of thought toward the object of concentration and has been compared to an unbroken, steady stream of oil when poured from one vessel to another.”
In raja yoga, the object of meditation can either be the impersonal, formless Reality or a personal form of God; what is essential is that the particular aspect of divinity appeal to the meditator’s mind. One can meditate upon God as either present within the heart or being present externally, though Ramakrishna, India’s great nineteenth-century saint, suggested the former, saying “the heart is a splendid place” for meditation. Raja yoga recommends that a clean and tranquil place be set aside exclusively for meditation and that meditation times be regular and consistent.
What happens, though, when we sit to meditate? Once the mind is quiet and the externals are turned down, random items from the subconscious pop up. That’s why we’re suddenly able to remember where we left the keys; that’s why we’re able to create the perfect retort for yesterday’s argument; that’s why an elusive memory suddenly arrives in perfect condition.
Anyone who’s meditated knows that one can begin with a firm resolve to fix the mind on God and end up by organizing the following day’s schedule. While we tend to take these shortcomings personally, it’s a universal human phenomenon and one that Patanjali investigated thoroughly.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are the first known attempt to systematize Indian psychology. In this classic text he has famously defined yoga as “control of the vrittis (thought-waves) of the mind.” To understand this definition, some background in Hindu psychology is necessary.
The goal of raja yoga is to control the vrittis— our thought-waves—so that our true Self, the Atman, can be experienced—unimpeded by our ignorance. Raja yoga’s classic metaphor is that of a lake: When the surface of the lake is calm and tranquil, the bottom of the lake can be clearly seen. When the lake’s surface is lashed into waves, the water becomes muddy and the lake’s bottom cannot be seen. The bottom of the lake represents the Atman; the water represents the mind; the waves represent the vrittis. If the vrittis are controlled, the mind will remain placid so that the Atman can shine forth in its own splendor. When we control the vrittis, we will be able to uncover the treasure within us, we will regain our lost kingdom.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But as anyone who has ever tried to control his or her thoughts knows, it’s not as effortless as it sounds. In order to control the vrittis we must completely overhaul the constitution of the mind itself and that means effecting a complete transformation of character. St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, gives similar counsel: “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” As with everything else in spiritual life, easier said than done.
Hindu psychology assigns the mind four different areas of function. The conscious part of the mind (manas) is its recording faculty and receives impressions gathered from the senses. The mind’s discriminative faculty (buddhi) classifies the impressions taken in and reacts accordingly; the buddhi is the higher part of the mind and is the source of both the will and intuition. Ego-consciousness (ahamkara), the third aspect of the mind, ascribes personal identity to mental impressions. The fourth aspectis the unconscious part of the mind (citta) which stores all thoughts and experiences in the form of mental impressions. For example: I am crossing a street. The recording faculty (manas) records the fact that as I walk, a large object is hurtling toward me. The discriminative faculty (buddhi) identifies this large object as a car moving at a high rate of speed. Ego consciousness (ahamkara) then tags this knowledge by saying, “That car is directly heading toward me. I’ve got to get out of the way!” The impression of jumping out of the car’s way is stored in the unconscious (citta), so that the next time I encounter a similar situation, I’ll know what to do.
According to Hindu psychology, this impression—as well as every other one that I’ve ever experienced either in this life or in previous lives—doesn’t drift away and dissipate. All impressions remain embedded in the mind, in either a faint or deeper form. These impressions are called samskaras.
Every thought we think and every act that we do creates a subtle groove in the mind. The more the same thoughts are thought and the more the same acts are repeated, the deeper the groove becomes. The collective aggregate of these grooves or samskaras forms an individual’s character. If I react with anger whenever I run into conflict or frustration, I will create a mind which is predisposed to react with anger. Every angry thought and every angry act is recorded as an increasingly powerful samskara; the groove deepens. The more angry thoughts and acts are repeated, the more predisposed I am to act and think angrily so that it becomes nearly impossible to react otherwise. When someone has an encounter with me, they will think, “This person has a bad temper.” The same pattern will take place with love or with hatred, with selflessness or with self-centeredness. As water directed into a narrow canal gains force, so do our repeated thoughts and actions create behavior patterns that are nearly irresistible in their power.
Samskaras, these latent impressions of our past experiences, reside in the dark reaches of the unconscious part of the mind (citta) that lies hidden under deep levels of ignorance. In this deep and dark mental basement, innumerable samskaras from both this life and previous lives are warehoused. But unlike other, more predictable commodities, the warehoused samskaras activate and come to life as a sort of mental Sorcerer’s Apprentice, creating ever more vrittis in the mind. As vrittis produce samskaras, so do samskaras produce vrittis in an endless round of cause and effect.
Samskaras, like weeds gone to seed, continuously sprout when the environment becomes favorable. Proust’s famous encounter with a madeleine is a case in point. All of us have had occasion when a sight, a smell, a word, a musical phrase, will produce an avalanche of memory with an accompanying range of powerful emotions. Much of the time the stimulus isn’t external, it’s internal. Our memories combined with ideas and thoughts and imagination will, like rain on seeds, cause samskaras to sprout. As a result, vrittis erupt, agitating and muddying the waters of the mind, thus making real meditation impossible.
According to Yoga philosophy, what we experience as “desire” is actually the sprouting of samskaras stockpiled in the subconscious mind. There is a direct connection between having a memory of an experience and having the desire to either repeat or avoid the experience; like mental dominos in its predictability, if the dormant impression is awakened, the urge to repeat or avoid the experience almost always accompanies the memory.
Let’s say that yesterday someone made me a cup of coffee after lunch. It tasted good and I liked the way I felt after drinking the coffee. Today, let’s say, I’m in my room after lunch. A vritti rises in my mind about lunch, then about yesterday’s coffee after lunch, and about how good I felt after I’d had the coffee. A faint craving to again experience the well-being that came with that cup of coffee arises. Now that the desire has been subtly aroused, in comes the will: I get up from my chair and decide that I’ll make myself a cup of coffee. In very short order I’ve moved from a memory, to a desire, and then to an intention—an act of will (sankalpa). While this example is relatively benign, we can see how even a subtle memory hooks into desire which then hooks into action.
When actions are repeated, the samskaras get stronger and make the desire for further repetition more intense. The mental groove that is created becomes so powerful and alive that the desire becomes a demon that can and will haunt us. While this is most obvious in the case of addictions, for serious spiritual aspirants, all desires become little demons because they keep the mind in a perpetually turbulent state. In order to free the mind from the grip of desires, the connection between the will and desire has to be broken and the mind’s crazy whirlpool of vrittis has to be subdued into one steady, calm vritti. This, in fact, is what meditation actually is.
Freedom from the slavery of desire is the basic requirement for attaining purity of heart. What sadhana does raja yoga provide for stopping the powerful chain reaction of memory to desire to action? Hinduism is a strong advocate of starting where you are; there can be no fancy footwork without first learning how to walk. In Hinduism, “learning to walk” is equivalent to practicing the basic moral virtues. Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras formulated standards of moral behavior which since ancient times have been considered the basic groundwork for a serious spiritual life.
Patanjali divided moral conduct into two categories, yama and niyama. Yama consists of nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, chastity or celibacy, and the nonreceiving of gifts. Niyama consists of cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study, and devotion to God. Why are all these necessary? As Swami Hariharananda Aranya says in his classic commentary on the Yoga Sutras, “Cleansing of the heart is the aim of the practice of Yogangas [the practice of yama and niyama].”
It is assumed that these virtues will be practiced not only physically but mentally as well. Nonviolence means not injuring other beings physically as well as avoiding injury through words and even through thoughts. Noninjury also means developing a feeling of friendliness toward all living beings. Truthfulness means being truthful in word and in thought, yet truthfulness shouldn’t be used as a ruse for inflicting pain upon others. For this reason, speaking carefully is advocated and garrulousness is avoided. Thinking truthfully is also emphasized: if we don’t think the truth, we can’t speak the truth, so we need to be careful of where our imagination leads us.
Few people are selfish enough to steal, but “nonstealing” means not even harboring a lurking desire to possess what belongs to others—not only someone else’s pretty car but also their renown, their success, their happiness. While chastity seems like a fairly straightforward spiritual practice, we need to remember that chastity isn’t merely abstaining from sex. It also means keeping the mind as restrained as the body by refusing to allow the mind to dwell upon sexual desires and fantasies. For those who are married, chastity entails being completely faithful to one’s spouse in thought, word and deed.
All these virtues seem, if difficult in the observance, at least understandable in their motivation. But what could possibly be the problem with receiving gifts? Frequently things own us more than we own them: accepting gifts can leave a subtle feeling of indebtedness toward the donor. Gifts can be subtly disguised bribes that taint the mind of the receiver. It was for this reason that the ancient sages were wary about the mental coloration that accompanied receiving a gift. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t accept a gift that is freely given with pure love as the only motive; what it says is, Beware if that isn’t the motive behind the gift.
Cleanliness presumes both external and internal purity. While external purity is obvious, internal purity means controlling the mind. Swami Hariharananda’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras states that “cleansing the mind of impurities like arrogance, conceit, malice, etc. is internal purification.” Contentment is actually a part of mental cleanliness because a dissatisfied mind is a turbulent, unhealthy mind. The idea, “What I possess is enough,” should be cultivated because the true source of happiness lies within us, not outside. Happiness is not going to suddenly spring upon us when we finally grasp some external grail. Happiness is found in contentment with what we have, not in getting all we desire. Neediness is the direct antithesis of happiness. This kind of contentment, however, shouldn’t be equated with divine discontent. We should be dissatisfied with our state of spiritual progress while remaining satisfied with the externals that we’ve been presented with. Again, to make another qualification: Contentment is not a code word for condoning injustice or accepting poverty as the will of God or the natural state of the universe. That’s not contentment but callousness and certainly has nothing to do with spirituality.
Austerity means maintaining mental poise amidst what Hinduism refers to as the “pairs of opposites” or dvandva. Life brings us all pleasure and pain, hope and despair, praise and blame, health and sickness. We can’t take one side of the coin without getting the other. To be able to accept both sides of the coin with equanimity and strength—being neither excessively elated in joy nor utterly despairing in sorrow—is real austerity. Austerity also means not letting things get under our skin: while many of us can withstand the great shocks of life, petty daily irritations prove that we’re not as spiritual as we had hoped. We cannot practice raja yoga if pettiness knocks us off balance.
In raja yoga “study” means both study of the scriptures as well as the repetition of a sacred mantra. Both practices are recommended because they keep the mind at a higher level of consciousness during non-meditation time. Since comparatively few hours of the day are actually spent in meditation, study provides both pure food and exercise to the mind—not just during the time of study, but also during times of work and recreation. Like the cow that chews its cud after the grass has already been eaten, so study provides “the gift that keeps on giving”—a full and open storeroom of nutritious food for the mind. To again quote Hariharananda’s gloss on the Yoga Sutras, “Through the study of Sastras [scriptures]…, worldly thoughts decrease and a taste for spiritual objects arises.” Part of the discipline of study is firm regularity in both meditation and scriptural study. Through regular practice we create a positive samskara so that at the appointed time the mind will naturally become quiet since it has been trained by repeated habit to behave that way.
The final moral virtue that Patanjali discusses is surrendering all actions to God. By surrendering ourselves and all our actions to God, we are able to live and act in a detached and tranquil manner. Life’s burdens are taken off our shoulders and placed in God’s hands. Like a dog under the gaze of the master, the ego—the root of ignorance—remains tamed if we can keep God in the foreground at all times. Says Patanjali: “From that [self-surrender to God] comes realization of the Self and the obstacles are resolved.”
By following these purificatory disciplines we gain inner freedom—freedom from our desires and the impulses that pull our attention away from God, deflecting us from our spiritual quest. Trying to meditate without practicing these disciplines is like swimming in the ocean through a bed of seaweed: You can’t swim in any direction if your legs are entangled; it’s all you can do just to tread water. Similarly, if our minds are entangled in a nest of lower impulses—our individual tangle of samskaras and desires—our minds won’t be free to move in a spiritual direction. But if we can gain control over our minds and detach the will from our desires, then we can swim away freely. “The whole purpose of the monastic life,” Thomas Merton said, “is to purify man’s freedom from [the] ‘stain’ of servility which it has contracted by its enslavement to things that are beneath it. Hence the true monk is one who is perfectly free. Free for what? Free to love God.” While Merton saw this search for freedom as essentially monastic, Vedanta would say that it applies to all serious spiritual seekers.
Desires in and of themselves are not the problem. As long as we have a body and mind, desires of one sort or another will arise and flow into the mind. The Bhagavad Gita says, “As water flowing into the ocean leaves the ocean undisturbed, so desire enters the mind of the wise person, leaving the mind undisturbed.” If a desire enters the mind and we think about it without acting upon it, the samskara created is much weaker than the samskara created when we choose to act upon it. Further, the more we practice not acting upon our desires—not even mentally dwelling upon them—the more attenuated the desires become. The more one practices celibacy, for example, the more easy and natural celibacy becomes. On the other hand, if we act upon a sexual desire, a deep samskara is created which makes acting a second time all the more easy.
The will is food for samskaras: without that food, the samskaras will grow increasingly weak and will be less prone to manifest as desires. When samskaras do occasionally surface as desires and are hooked by the will, then they become strong again. For that reason, serious spiritual seekers need to be alert at all times.
It is only with the highest spiritual realization—samadhi or nirvana—that samskaras are finally obliterated. Like seeds which have been burnt, samskaras can never sprout again after this most profound of spiritual experiences. Only in samadhi is there the complete cessation of the ego, a complete “renewing of the mind.” Since this lofty state is extremely rare, the immediate aim of raja yoga is to attenuate the samskaras so that meditation is possible.
When our minds become sufficiently purified so that we’re no longer continually fighting off lower impulses, we then have the freedom to be able to direct the mind with complete concentration to the divine reality within. Just as a reservoir has enough conserved energy to power electrical turbines, so the mind—once freed from the continual drain of attraction to sense pleasures and ego-driven endeavors—becomes an engine of tremendous power.
This power is essential because real meditation is going against the universal mental grain. Most of our life, sadly enough, is lived in an unconscious and automatic way. While we like to think of ourselves as rational and directed beings, most of the time we run on autopilot. Our thoughts are rarely organized and we tend to think and act in habitual patterns. When most people say they are “meditating,” they’re usually just falling into the unconscious stream of life that carries us all along.
Meditation swims against this powerful unconscious current: first, by consciously suppressing the various vrittis that normally whirl around our minds, and second, by keeping the mind concentrated upon only one, continually repeated vritti, that of God or the Self within. That vritti includes one name (the mantra) and one form (that of one’s Chosen Ideal). Since thought always involves both words and forms, meditation employs both to completely engage the mind in divine contemplation.
Before this can happen, however, the mind must first be withdrawn from external objects (pratyahara) and then the mind must be fixed on a center of spiritual consciousness within. This concentration or fixing of the mind (dharana) has been compared to a bird returning to its nest. Once the mind stops reaching out for sense objects and rejects unrelated thoughts, the mind develops a natural inwardness. This inwardness allows meditation—when unwavering, prolonged and concentrated—to deepen into an utterly complete absorption which makes union with God, samadhi, possible.
It is only at this point that we truly behold the divine in its own glory. Before this, we have had only an idea of God or the Self. With samadhi, the true nature of what we’ve meditated upon shines forth. This experience is more than “perception”—it is direct and immediate knowledge unimpeded by the mind’s limitations. With this experience, we are eternally and perfectly free. We know who we really are; we know we are pure, perfect, free from want and limitations. We have regained our lost kingdom.