Dc logoThe 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”

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.