Introduction to Meditation – Preparation, Methods and Practice
Meditation is a disciplined practice to attain control of the mind, by way of limiting the flow of thoughts and then ultimately leading to a state of consciousness with cessation of thoughts. The goal of meditation at a “lower” level is to attain physical and mental well being. At a “higher” level, it is to realize God or the Atman – one’s true inner-self.
The Hindu system of meditation has only one fundamental goal – God realization or realizing the Atman, which are one and the same, viewed from two different perspectives. But this quest of the ultimate goal is never easy; for an earnest aspirant, it may even take several births to attain it. Such a “higher goal” could at the best be the bastion for only a woefully small minority of people.
But the effort put in meditation never goes a waste; meditation calms down the mind, improves one’s mindset and mental well-being and enhances one’s physical health too. It is by grasping these benefits that meditation has evolved into a ‘science’ to offer these fringe benefits, namely the physical and mental well-being for the benefit of the majority.
Before going into the ways of learning meditation, some basics about the mind and its relationship with the body have to be understood.
The mind – body relationship
The mind is known as the subtle body. All our emotional dualities – pleasure and pain, peace and restlessness, anger and compassion, love and hate etc are all caused by the unceasing activity and oscillations of the mind. The mind has its existence only in the form of flow of thoughts. The more turbulent the flow of thoughts is, the more are the fluctuations of emotions. The less the flow of thoughts in the mind, the more peace and tranquility does one get. If the mind could cease its activity altogether, one transcends the dualities of pain and pleasure, the relative and the absolute – a state known as “Ananda” or bliss or Samadhi.
It is a known fact that gross (physical) body functions as a slave of the mind. Physical activeness, fitness or sickness has its intrinsic connection with the mind.
The converse is also true. The condition of the gross body affects the condition of the mind. The vital force that controls the body is known as Prana, whose gross function is breathing. Functioning of the mind and prana (breathing) are intrinsically interlinked. When the mind slows down, breathing slows down; conversely, when breathing is controlled, mind is controlled. The control of the breathing by disciplined practice is known as Pranayama.
Lured by the umpteen “schools” that profess teaching easy ways to do meditation, many think that it is akin to learning some form of fitness exercise – learn the basics and procedure and then go meditating happily ever after! Nothing could be more naïve than that!
Mind is compared to a male elephant in heat; mind is compared to a monkey which can’t sit in a branch ever for a short while. Our mind is a storehouse of accumulated impressions (called vasanas) and the moment one sits to meditate, the store-house opens and one faces a flood of thoughts that can thwart one even from doing even a semblance of meditation! Whatever be the “easy” way to meditate, be forewarned that it may take even years for the “less-prepared” ones to calm the mind for 10 full minutes.
The 8-stage Yoga – Patanjali Ashtanga Yoga
The Eight-steps in Patanjali Yoga are:
- Yama (Self control/ morality)
- Niyama (Disciplines)
- Asana (Physical Posture)
- Pranayama (Breath control)
- Prathyahara (withdrawal of mind from senses)
- Dharana (Focusing mind on a single point)
- Dhyana (Meditation)
- Samadhi (Attainment of Unity with Divine)
The Hindu system of 8-stage meditation guidelines (known asAshtanga yoga) as professed by Saint Patanjali (in his Yoga Sutra) places meditation at the 7th out of 8 stages, the last one being,Samadhi. All the 6 stages preceding meditation are only preparations that make one qualified better to succeed in meditation.
The first two preparatory steps are known as yama and niyama. If the goal of meditation is the “Higher one”, it goes without saying that these two steps are extremely important.
Yama covers non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy and non-covetousness. Niyamacovers internal and external purity, contentment, austerity, study of scriptures and a sense of surrender to God.
Assuming that the goal of meditation is only the “lower one”, even then certain basic disciplines are important to get benefits of meditation. They are:
(a) Moderation in intake of food
(b) Moderation in sleep
(c) Moderation in indulgence in sensual pleasures and physical activity.
Excessive eating or inadequate eating and excessive sleep or inadequate sleep will act as hindrance in practicing meditation. One should not undertake meditation when the stomach is full. At least 2 to 3 hours should have passed after eating when one sits for meditation.
Moderate and simple stretching exercises (which are calledYogasanas) can make the body conducive for undertaking meditation.
The sitting posture (Asana) must be comfortable. Sitting on a flat surface over a soft mat or a folded blanket (but not too thick a cushion), cross legged in the posture known as “Padmasana” (Lotus posture) is the best. But, for westerners not used to sitting cross-legged, sitting on a bench, hanging the legs down is acceptable. Sit erect, with the spinal chord and neck vertical. Place your hands on your knees or clasp your fingers and place your palms near your stomach.
The choice of place for undertaking meditation should be calm, free from possibilities of disturbance, unobtrusively ventilated and comfortable. Certain holy places (certain mountains and hills, certainriverbanks, forests, temple premises and places where the mortal bodies of great saints were laid to rest) are very conducive for undertaking meditation.
Meditation is best practiced at early morning known as Brahma Muhurtha(after 4:00AM till sun-rise), noon, evening (at about 6:00, around sun-set) and at mid-night.
We have already discussed aboutPranayama, the breath control. It is generally said that Pranayama helps one to prepare effectively for meditation. Kriya Yoga is one popular method for Pranayama. Pranayama involves slow breathing in, holding and slowly releasing the air from the lungs at controlled timings. There are also schools of opinion which do not insist on practice of Pranayama.
A word of caution about Pranayama
It is extremely important that pranayama must be learned from a properly trained and trust-worthy Guru. It should be practiced strictly under the direct guidance of the guru in the initial stages. Uncontrolled and unguided practice of pramayama has potential dangers of creating troublesome side effects. Any attempt to practice it in excess (of one’s physical capacity) must be shunned.
Considering such risks, there are some spiritual traditions that do not emphasize the need for practice of Pranayama. Saints like Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Saradadevi, Ramana Maharshi, Mata Amritanandamayi and the like do not really give undue importance to the practice of pranayama.
Some techniques of meditation offered by different Gurus
When we come to procedure, it’s here that we come across myriad options and schools of practice. Hinduism insists that one should learn meditation from a qualified Guru.
Some of the various methods professed by different schools are:
(1) Meditate on the form of your favorite God
This is the most widely suggested method for Hindus, who have the natural flair for establishing a loving relationship with physical forms of God. Bhakti (devotion) is the easiest to way to relate to God according to Saints like Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
Know your Ishta (favorite God) first. If it is ,say, Krishna, keep a picture of Krishna before you, intently watch Him, close your eyes and meditate on his form within your mental eye. if you can’t get His whole form, even meditating on his lotus feet or his glowing face is quite fine. Let all other thoughts except your ishta’s form be wiped away from the mind.
2) Do Mantra Japa and immerse yourself in the thoughts of God
Learn a Mantra (generally the holy name of your favorite God beginning with Om) from your Guru, repeat it by concentrating on the God-form or on the sound or on the meaning of it. In the recent past, Papa Ramadas was a great votary of the efficacy of Mantra. Naam (the Mantra of god), Dhyan (Meditation) and Seva (service) are the ways he recommended for spiritual progress.
Mantra Without God Form
As per the school of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, A Mantra can also be just a syllable, without relation to a God (as practiced in “Transcendental Meditation“).
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi became extremely popular in west as he could offer TM as a meditation technique for people with no interest in religion or spirituality.
Maharshi Mahesh Yogi – The saint who took TM to the west.
“Who am I?”
Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi
For that, meditate with an inquiry: “Who am I?” Inquire by negation “I am not the body, I am not the mind, I am not the ego…” Proceed till mind settles in its inner most recess at peace. If a stray thought comes up, “Ask where from has this thought come?” The reply is “from inside me”. Then look deeper and go to the source of the evolution of the “I” thought in you. Kill all thoughts in the same way as and when they emanate and establish yourself in thoughtless state.
According to Ramana Maharshi, this is the “straight path” practicable by all needing no external support like pranayama, bhakthi (devotion) on God, worship of divine forms or chanting of mantra.
4) Relax-Chant Om-Delve deep-Watch your breath (Ma-Om) and Meditate – the IAM Technique
The Integrated Amrita Meditation(IAM) technique evolved by divine mother Mata Amritanandamayi can be learned free of cost from qualified trainers from Mata Amritanandamayi Math. According to the IAM technique, the watching of the breath is coupled with “Ma-Om” mental chanting while inhaling and exhaling. Certain prescribed Yogasanas too are to be practiced before doing meditation. (To be learned from qualified trainers only. See introduction to IAM technique in the video below).
Integrated Amrita Meditation (IAM) – benefits
Sri Abhinava Vidya Tirtha Swami of Shrinkeri Sarada Math. According to his biography, Lord Shiva himself taught him Kundalini Yoga in his dreams and made him visualize all the Chakras, the presiding deities of each chakra and experience Samadhi.
5) The Kundalini Yoga
(7) Awaken the “Serpent Power – The “Kundalini” and imagine its traverse through various nerve centers (Called Chakras) along the spinal chord (This is the “Tantrik Method”, never to be practiced without Guru’s guidance).
And there are more and more techniques….
What we discussed above are only a few techniques offered by great masters of Hinduism. There are so many other techniques evolved by so many other Hindu and Buddhist monks being practiced by different schools of religions and sects. Ultimately, a sincere and earnest seeker will surely end up in the right school and technique for meditation by the will of God.
All these techniques are aimed at withdrawing the mind from running behind sense objects and turn it inwards (known as pratyahara by Saint Patanjali – the 5th stage) and then making the mind focused on single point (known as dharana – the 6th stage). Remaining steadfastly focused is dhyanam (7th stage). When mind transcends even this stage and remains in thought-free awareness, it is Samadhi(8th stage). Some say that all these three – pratyahara, dharana and dhyanam put together is meditation.
Though these guidelines may look too simplistic,practicing them to perfection is not an easy task. One has to practice with perseverance, never losing heart and never slacking on the preparatory disciplines. In the beginning, one may try to sit in meditation for 5 minutes and gradually increase the period to 15 minutes and more. Experience will tell you that duration of sitting many a time will be beyond your control.
What is the sign that you are really doing meditation and not simply watching the plays enacted by your mind? When mind is truly focused or truly stops, it transcends time. One tell-tale indication of successful meditation is this: When you open your eyes after meditation thinking that some 10 minutes would have passed, but you find that almost 20 minutes have gone. Yes! You have succeeded in meditation. Another indication is: your erect posture will remain so when you open your eyes; you would not have stooped nor slouched from your position. Drowsing to sleep is a normal problem faced by many beginners! If done rightly, you will feel very refreshed, peaceful and contented when you wind up your meditation session.
To repeat, the preparatory disciplines are quite important in succeeding in meditation. Surprisingly, you will also find that as you practice meditation with perseverance, your capacity for self-discipline also improves; you will find that you are able to gain control over your sense organs and also the mind’s tendency to hanker behind sense-pleasures.
Know your goal; learn from a qualified Guru and practice with determination to succeed in meditation.