The following explanatory articles were originally written for students attending the Centre’s introductory course but will also help to give outside readers an overview of the approach taken by the Centre in its teaching.
- Meditation East & West: “Man, know ThySelf”
- Meditation on the Divine Form
- Meditation: the Yoga of Modern Theosophy (article in Esoterica magazine)
Meditation East & West: “Man, know ThySelf”
As the word meditation means different things to different people, it is essential to define the term in the context in which you are using it. As we are using the term here, it is not either a process of deep thought (a common Christian usage) or a vacuous mental state – quite the contrary in fact – it is a state of intense concentration, undertaken in order to still the mind and which, if pursued to its ultimate, will result in the realisation of God. This last part is particularly important as it clearly identifies the path of meditation as a spiritual discipline or ‘yoga’: some modern systems of meditation place the emphasis on health benefits and stress management but, however welcome, these are ancillary to its deeper purpose which is spiritual transformation and the search for our Divine Reality.
That said, each of us can use meditation for whatever purpose we choose and in our own individual manner; there is no directing authority to say what is right or wrong outside our own consciences and the only motivation for learning to meditate that can truly be said to be universal is simply the desire to improve the quality of our lives. It must also be emphasised here that meditation is a spiritual activity rather than a religious one – it is necessary to distinguish between these two terms – although all religions use contemplative techniques in various ways and degrees. It is important to learn from the various religious traditions but without being limited by theological conflicts.
In all bar the most Westernised systems, concentration is the essence of the meditative process. By this means, we seek to focus the energies of the mind and to harness its powers, as a result of which we can overcome its constant chatter and induce a state of deep peace and inner stillness. The third part of the above definition hints at why – because in that state of absolute stillness we will experience God. Obviously, this is a very profound and, to many, controversial statement but many saints and sages over the years have testified to its veracity and the spiritually elevating effects of meditation can be felt by most at even a rudimentary level. That said, meditation entails no dogma; it is focused entirely upon self-enquiry and personal experience, to discover YOUR Reality.
That does not mean there is no theory or mechanics to understand, for yoga is a science. The world’s most authoritative text on the techniques of meditation is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Patanjali was a famous sage who lived in India about 2000 years ago; he codified the various teachings then current and produced the system universally known as Raja Yoga. His Yoga Sutras are a practical handbook not an academic treatise, and are essential reading for all serious students of yoga. Patanjali commences his Sutras with his own definition which simply states: “Yoga is the control of thought waves in the mind”. This Sutra (Book 1, No. 2) has been translated in various ways but its essence is clear: if you could still your mind, even for a moment, then you would experience Divine union (which is the meaning of the word ‘yoga’). But Patanjali also means the process as well as its culmination, in other words meditation is the means of controlling the thought waves in the mind, which eventually leads to the mystical consummation of yoga.
In order to understand the significance of Patanjali’s definition, it is helpful to imagine the human mind like a vast lake. The surface of the lake is covered with waves of various sizes, created mainly by external stimuli such as the wind. This surface is our everyday conscious mind, always in motion. Above the lake the sun is shining brightly, but what reflection do we see of the sun when we look into the surface of the lake? We see many small and partial sun-images, the one reality fractured and distorted by the movement in the lake’s surface. But imagine for a moment that the surface of the lake were to become absolutely still like glass; what then? In that case, we should see the sun reflected as it actually is – the One without a second. For mind is but a reflector of the Divine Consciousness. The stiller, the purer our mind is, the better we can manifest that Reality in our lives. Therefore the prime purpose of meditation is to transform our mind into a perfect reflector – pure and still like glass!
How to achieve this state of stillness is the main object of Patanjali’s teaching. Raja Yoga actually involves an eightfold system (the so-called Eight Limbs of Yoga), but the first five ‘limbs’ are preparatory, while the last three are directly concerned with what we style as meditation. However, the first five cannot be neglected because they provide the bedrock on which later success in meditation lies. The first two ‘limbs’ are yama and niyama, best understood as moral do’s and don’ts. Whilst morality is obviously a grey area, every true spiritual path springs from an ethical base, requiring personal endeavour to overcome the demands of the senses and to channel our energies in harmonious ways. The third ‘limb’ is asana, which means posture. All Patanjali suggests here is that you should be upright and steady: it is obvious that you cannot meditate successfully if you are in serious discomfort and unable to lose body-consciousness. The fourth ‘limb’ is pranayama, which entails special breathing exercises to calm the mind and control our inner energies. Although pranayama is certainly very beneficial, it can cause damage to the nervous system if incorrectly done, and for this reason must never be undertaken without expert guidance. Moreover, pranayama is not necessary in basic meditation – as distinct from calm, rhythmic breathing which is crucial in settling the mind. It is this latter that we must develop in the early stages; full pranayama can be postponed until the meditator has more experience. The fifth and last of the preparatory ‘limbs’ is pratyahara, which means sense restraint and involves the progressive withdrawal of our senses from seeking external gratification in order to intensify inner concentration. Pratyahara commences the all-important process of interning the mind.
Thus properly prepared, the yogi can commence the inward path itself. Raja Yoga’s three final ‘limbs’ are dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (the state of illumination or absorption in which the yogi becomes one with the object of his meditation). These three are not separate activities but progressive states of mental control; Patanjali describes the whole process by one word samyama, in the same wider sense that we often use the term meditation.
When we concentrate, we start to focus the wayward energies of the mind and to direct our attention towards one chosen object. Once we have succeeded in concentrating the mind then, and only then, can meditation begin for dhyana is sustained attention to our chosen point of focus. Eventually, by prolonged practice of dhyana, the mind will become totally still, in which case the state of samadhi will naturally arise and it is in this state of samadhi that the yogi experiences the Divine.
As anyone who has tried it knows, holding the mind upon a single point of focus is extremely difficult to maintain for any length of time. Indeed, most beginners in meditation tend to get frustrated by their apparent inability to concentrate. What they forget is that it is the nature of the mind to wander. Like a naughty puppy, the mind requires to be trained – and meditation is the lead that you place around its neck, gently guiding the puppy back whenever it wanders away. By this process, the puppy soon learns to spend more time where you want it to be until eventually it will remain ‘at heel’ to command. As in all forms of human endeavour, persistence and systematic practice are necessary. This is obvious when applied to the likes of gymnasts and pianists who are training their bodies to perform a specific function, but training the mind requires the same self-disciplined approach – and the process is even more difficult! Nor can it be achieved by strain and physical effort, which serve only to create tensions. The power to meditate comes from the will (atmashakti or ‘power of the soul’ as Hindus sometimes refer to it) and this power strengthens greatly within us as meditation develops. But as with the gymnast and the pianist, it is not just the end product that is important: there is enormous joy and love to be experienced in the progressive expansion of consciousness that is the hallmark of yogic development. Once we have been able to make contact with our deeper spiritual levels, we can start to tap the fountain of bliss that is our birthright. From then on, meditation is no longer a discipline but an intense joy and becomes as fundamental to our daily needs as eating and sleeping.
For the beginner, what is most important is to hold tight to the underlying principle of mental stillness, because this is all we actually ever need to develop. As the Bhagavad Gita says so poignantly “In the still mind, in the depths of meditation, the Self reveals itself”, a direct parallel to the Biblical “Be still and know that I am God”. We do not need to intellectualise spiritual growth, which blossoms naturally from within. But it is only when we learn to calm the emotions and quieten the constant chatter of the mind that our inner Divine guidance can be heard and our higher faculties emerge.
Meditation on the Divine Form (originally written for the ‘Theosophist’ magazine [Adyar, Chennai, India] and published in 1996)
Theosophy has never been a devotional tradition, at least not in the generally accepted sense of Bhakti Yoga or devotion to a personal form of God. Many theosophists shy away from anything that smacks of orthodox religious worship, partly I suspect because of past negative experiences of dogma or empty ritualism, and partly because most theosophists are either agnostic or accept only a formless and monistic concept of Ultimate Reality, finding it difficult to reconcile this with apparently dualistic practices.
Yet many great sages of yore found no clash between the two approaches. The great Hindu exponent of non-dual (Advaita) Vedanta, Shankaracharya, was also a worshipper of God in the form of the Divine Mother and his ‘Saundarya Lahari’, a devotional treatise on the worship of the Mother, is one of the classics of Bhakti Yoga. More recently, the famous 19th century Hindu saint Sri Ramakrishna, who experienced God in many forms as well as formless (he once spent six months without a break merged in the formlessness of ‘nirvikalpa samadhi’) taught emphatically that the experience of God was the same whatever the differences in approach. He likened God in the formless state to the water of the ocean; but for the benefit of His devotees, the water can solidify into ice. In other words, there is no qualitative difference in essence between the two even though there may be a quantitative difference, so to speak. Non-dualists may insist that any form implies limitation, and that limitation can never be an attribute of the infinity of God. This is logical, but form also implies purpose. Every form has its function in the Divine Plan: paradoxically, God limits Himself in order to reveal Himself more fully.
As is often pointed out, the finite mind cannot comprehend the infinite. In order to reach up to the formless, the human mind needs a ladder to climb which will eventually lead it to transcend the barriers of its own finitude. The name and form of God (the two are inseparable) provide that ladder by allowing the human mind to focus and harness its energies – something that cannot ordinarily be achieved with abstract or formless concepts. Once the heights have been reached, the ladder can then be jettisoned as having served its purpose.
To understand the significance of form, what is required is an adjustment to our traditionally separative attitude towards the world around us. If there is only Unity (as Madame Blavatsky, the Masters of the Wisdom, Shankaracharya, Ramakrishna, inter alia, all taught) then everything must be a form or projection of that Unity or omnipresent God. There is nothing else! God can therefore be contacted through any thing, any time, any place, any way. God is expressing Himself as every grain of sand, if only we had the consciousness to perceive Him as that. Unfortunately, living in the world with its obvious dualities, we tend to lose contact with this holistic reality and deny the immanent Divinity of matter.
The Jnana Yogis amongst us may try to dismiss all forms as ‘illusory’, because they are not ultimately Real. This is the great sticking-point of Advaita Vedanta, the concept of ‘maya’, and from the elevated viewpoint of a Shankaracharya or a Ramakrishna, it is no doubt a valid perspective. But Madame Blavatsky was totally practical when dealing with this, arguing that ‘maya’ is very real to us at our level of consciousness and we should therefore treat it accordingly. Reality is as ‘relative’ as the limitations of our consciousness dictate.
But the theoretical niceties are not so important. What matters is that if we accept the Divine origin of everything, then every form or aspect of life should be seen as an expression of that Divine Consciousness and can therefore lead us to its Source. We can achieve this directly by meditation, fixing our mind upon a particular form which expresses attributes, qualities or virtues that elevate and expand our individual consciousness. This is usually achieved through visualisation (an important but misunderstood mental faculty that blossoms with systematic use), and more potently by feeling the presence of the Divine manifested as the form we have chosen. Meditation leads progressively to identification between the meditator and the object of his meditation, the culmination of which is the merging in consciousness of the two i.e. the meditator becomes that on which he has fixed his mind. These states of ‘samadhi’ are clearly documented by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras and are the objective of the Raja as well as Bhakti Yogi (albeit from slightly different angles).
The Buddhist tradition is also very clear on this. The Dhammapada states in its opening lines; “Our lives are shaped by our minds. We become what we think”. Quite literally, we absorb and are moulded by whatever we apply our minds to, whether good, bad or indifferent. So the devotee deliberately selects that form which expresses to him subjectively the Divine attributes he seeks to emulate and identify with. In Hinduism, this is known as the Ishta Devata or Chosen Ideal, and the Hindu Pantheon contains thousands of different forms each embodying aspects of the totality of God. This practice is also followed to a significant degree in Roman Catholicism (Jesus, Mary and the Communion of Saints performing a similar function for many) and in Mahayana Buddhism. For some theosophists, the Masters of the Wisdom will provide such a focus.
The power of this technique as a spiritual discipline comes from the joint application of heart and mind towards the attainment of God – a frontal assault using the combined energies of will and emotion. From sustained concentration by the devotee yogi on the form of his Chosen Ideal will emerge a loving relationship between the two, a two-way process. (How such a response from the Ideal can come about is something each of us must seek to understand in his own way; nevertheless, it is a palpably real experience). This interaction intensifies greatly over time, the yogi experiencing an ever-increasing sense of the love and proximity of the Divine presence, until that love becomes all-encompassing and attains to its only possible consummation – spiritual union. In this blissful state, the yogi has so identified with his Ideal that he experiences that presence as manifesting through his own human form. The duality of relationship is thus superseded by the union of lovers; but however beautiful, this is by no means the end of the process. There still exists separation – actually a trinity; the yogi, the object of his meditation and his awareness of the process of meditation – but the more this state of union is practised (“savitarka samadhi”, initially only a semi-trance state maintained by deep concentration), the more intensely the yogi becomes conscious of his Ideal and therefore less of himself and his meditation, until eventually there is only the Ideal left at which stage the yogi has merged his individual consciousness totally in the person of God. From the separation of duality, love has led the yogi to union – thence to Unity.
Once God has been experienced through a particular form, the yogi may merge in the ultimate states of formlessness – the ladder of name and form then being no longer necessary – although some like Sri Ramakrishna prefer to maintain the form aspect of God in order to savour the sweetness of that relationship (like the famous Indian poet-saint Ramprasad, he used to plead with God, “I want to taste sugar; I don’t want to become it!”).
This technique of ‘form’ meditation is a sharp intensification of the more traditional methods of religious worship to be found in church, temple and mosque. However, devotion is de-ritualised and made purely subjective in order to enhance the intimacy of the aspirant’s loving relationship with his Beloved. Those who cannot relate to any particular ‘Divine Form’ can meditate on the Inner Light, the effulgence of their Divine nature given form within themselves; after all, whatever form you may choose for meditation, you are actually focussing on the expression or embodiment of your own Higher Self, the form simply adapted to suit your personal inclinations (a ‘bhavarupa’ as Sathya Sai Baba refers to it). What is crucial is the combination of both mental focus and emotional attraction; as fallible human beings we will not meditate effectively on what we do not find attractive and cannot fix our minds upon: but properly conducted, this type of meditation on ‘form’ is probably the most efficacious of all methods commonly employed – even for non-dualists!