The Three Steps
At certain times in one’s life, one stands before something unknown, or only partially known. School, marriage, a position in life, or, what we are about to consider, the entrance into a stream of spiritual thought and instruction. All are occasions when we face the unknown; they are also occasions when our personal characteristics make themselves known. At these times, the cautious, who are usually apprehensive and always imaginative, repeating “Business as usual” in reassuring tones, confront the new opportunity, only to find that there is no life in the adventure, while the ardent, choosing as their watchword “The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by storm”, employ shock tactics, only to discover that enthusiasm and intensity are not synonymous terms, intensity being a highly specialised and exceptional quality, which seldom appears until enthusiasm has died, but which, when it does appear, is one of the chief factors in success.
Of course there are many other methods of approach, but these two will serve our purpose. A goodly company of learners have belonged, and still do belong, to them both—and their common characteristic is that those following them have not yet learnt how to learn, for the instinctive reactions I have just described show that they are still following their own pre-conceived ideas, and while advancing with one foot into the new territory, are keeping the other firmly planted in the old. You cannot learn unless you dare to forget something of what you already know. What you know—(that is to say, what you think you know!)—is the significance you give to facts and happenings today as a result of your experiences mental and physical in the past. These experiences have set the key and the tempo in which the symphony of your life has been written, but the cadences, the melodies and the harmonies, are still in process of being composed, and the musical richness of that composition will depend on your receptivity. Your receptivity, in its .turn, will depend on your imagination, courage and mental flexibility.
Among potential pupils, there are some who love law and order, reason and seemliness, whose cheeks pale at the words ‘Love’, ‘Devotion’ or ‘God’, and there are those who scoff at the counsels of moderation and patience put forward by their anxious friends. These reactions are only of importance to their owners, who would be well advised, in nearly every case, to do violence, not to the Kingdom of Heaven, but to themselves, by forcing themselves to go, temporarily, in the direction diametrically opposite to their inclinations.
This preface is merely an attempt to show that what one believes oneself to be at the moment of impact with a fresh opportunity, is unimportant compared with one’s willingness to acknowledge the existence of unknown lands, and one’s courage and desire to explore them, that before one can start to learn anything new, one must discard pre-conceived notions and conventional acceptances as one discards one’s winter clothes in summer; and the teachers of the past have also indicated this.
Reading between the lines of the instructions given in the Upanishads and other classics, one sees that the same qualities were advocated then as now. Continuity of purpose, method, obedience and moderation, take precedence of enthusiasm and devotion, in the beginning. Those teachers prescribed moderation and patience, and in The Avadhut Gita the great Dattatreya says: “That Atman (Self) of which the high Yogis speak, most subtle, beyond perception, without attributes, must be realised step by step, and not by sudden violence”. They held that sudden immersion was dangerous, so they laid down three progressive and defined steps to be trodden by the pupil. They are:
Shravana—the hearing of the Truth, which is usually be done in company with others.
Manana—brooding on that Truth which has been heard. This is done by the pupil alone.
Nididhyasana—meditation or contemplation on the Truth, leading to absorption in the Truth.
The Truth has first to be received—that is shravana; then appreciated and accepted—that is manana; then incorporated into the inner being—that is nididhyasana. It is like the process of taking nourishment: first you collect the ingredients together, then you cook them, and finally you eat the food, which then enters the body and becomes the source of its strength and energy.
Hearing—listening to the truth in its different aspects; cogitating on and accepting that truth; then becoming one with it—this is the progression, and they say that this is all that is asked of the pupil. I should hope so! For although it sounds a plain and simple process, the mixture has been triple-distilled by those with experience, and it exacts all that the pupil can give, and, if he is willing, takes more than he knew he possessed.
As you may have gathered, the words ‘hearing’ and ‘cogitating upon’ are employed here in a wider sense than is usual, and I think it would be as well to try and piece together what the old Teachers meant when they used them.
We will take the preliminary step—shravana—first. Hearing and listening to the teachings given. The first essential is that shravana must be entered upon in the spirit of vichara—or true enquiry. In other words, not through curiosity or boredom. The people who drift from lecture to lecture on the plea that they are broadminded and must hear all sides of a question, are a very great bother. A preliminary search is of course necessary, for few discover at first that aspect of the truth which suits them personally, but before they decide that it is not for them, they should pay each system of thought they approach the compliment of a short stay, during which to practise shravana and manana on what is offered. The next important point is that shravana should be done consciously and with intention, that is to say, as the result of a conscious desire to learn something. It may sound platitudinous to say that anything done consciously has more powerful and far-reaching results than that which is done by chance or by habit, but this is often overlooked. If a man decides to take a certain step, he will have a certain objective in view, and he will also make certain preparations to enable himself to reach it successfully, and these conscious acts will prove very helpful to himself and also to those who are instructing him. Attention and concentration, as well as a sense of direction and progress, come to his aid in this way.
All teachers are agreed that control of speech is an essential preliminary to shravana, and also to pupil-hood. You cannot listen well if you are always breaking in, or interrupting involuntarily. Control of speech implies a certain control of thought. In shravana you are taking in, not weighing up. The weighing up, the criticism and the analysis will come later, that is, in manana, not in shravana. To mix the two is to weaken both. You are being introduced into a new country, and it is inappropriate and dull to keep glancing back over your shoulder and comparing its beauties with those you have left behind. What you have known and what you think you know now is far less important than what you are going to learn and what you will decide to accept in the future. It really matters very little whether you are an undischarged bankrupt or a saint in disguise, provided that you have an unbiased and responsive nature, for you are setting out to explore new seas, not to fish in old ones.
In all spiritual schools the pupil is advised to receive the words of the instructor as if they were addressed to himself personally. This is an important attitude for the pupil to adopt in shravana. If he thinks that the instructions about discipline, mind control, meditation, devotion, and also the identity of jiva and Brahman are being given to himself personally they will come alive for him, and cease to be theoretical statements addressed to the world at large. The impersonal attitude soon imparts itself to the Teachings, and they may appear lifeless. It is easy to listen to the instructions of a Teacher and take them for traditional pronouncements only, or as addressed to the other man, but if you do so, you will get very little out of them with which to build your new world.
Shravana— hearing—takes place in a state of receptivity. The good learner does not listen with an active mind, he listens with a quiescent mind; for the time being he is in a state of acceptance! The reason that importance is placed on a quiescent mind—some teachers even call it an empty mind—is because the teachings will have room to lodge there, and in their traditional and original form. A thought carries with it something of the quality and power of the mind from which it springs, and in the case of a spiritual thought, its origin is very high indeed. These conceptions have a high potency, unrelated to their mental content, and when they are imparted to an open mind, their vital power can also in some cases be transmitted, and then changes are affected in the being of the pupil which have little to do with his mental calibre. If the mind of the pupil is open at the time of shravana, the truth may strike the ground of his heart. If he is mentally active it will battledore and shuttlecock about, and probably be blown away by the wind of analytical criticism, before it has had time to settle and strike.
Learning is an art in itself, and when this dawns on the pupil, he will find means to practise it at all times and everywhere, and he will become ruthless, like all true artists, and use everything and everybody for the furthering of his purpose. In the Shrimad Bhagavata, an Indian classic, it says of such a one:—“He did not learn from one particular Guru only. He said: ‘From water I learn purity and the good taste of tastelessness. As water is sweet and pure, so is Atman. Man should manifest sweetness and purity in his conduct. I have therefore taken water as one of my Gurus’.
“Patience, forgiveness, supporting others without expectation of gratitude, I have learnt from my Guru, the earth.
“The wind blows everywhere, over the flower beds, deserts, marshes, palaces and prisons, without being attached to any of them, without preference or dislike. So I go everywhere, scattering my blessings of peace, without being attached to anyone. My Guru, the wind, has taught me this lesson. . . .
“As the sun, through its rays, absorbs water from the earth, only to give it back in a cool and pure form, so ought a Yogi to take the things of the world, not for his own sake, but in order to give them back in a richer and better form. This is what my Guru, the sun, has taught me.
“Though thousands of rivers empty themselves into the sea, yet it remains within its limits; so remains the mind of the knower of God, though objects of all kinds pour themselves into it. Thus have I learnt from the sea, my Guru.
“From the arrow-maker I have learned the value of concentration. In a certain town there lived an arrow-maker, who devoted his full attention to his occupation. Once he was beating the point of an arrow, when the king and his procession went by in the street. He was so attentive to this work that he knew nothing of the king’s passing, and when they asked him how he liked the music of the procession, he said: ‘What procession? When did it pass?’ So ought we to concentrate on truth, that no external object or event shall disturb us.”
To dilate and saturate and finally to dissipate the mind, is the task in front of a pupil. To dilate the mind by shravana; this is done by disregarding and levelling its banks of prejudices and its psychological twists, and fearlessly exposing it to the impact of the teachings, allowing them entrance, untampered with, rather than letting the mind go out to them and perhaps distort them to suit itself.
What comes after this dilation of the mind? manana— saturation—the cooking which follows the assembling of the ingredients. Shravana without manana is sterile. Because a fact is in a notebook, the truth about it is not necessarily in one’s mind. Note-taking is not inconsistent with a receptive mind, but the notes lose their value unless they are used soon, that is to say thought upon if possible immediately, while they still hold the living power of the teachings given. Manana should follow close on the heels of shravana, otherwise one’s remembrance is coloured by prejudices and pre-conceived ideas, and then the true nature of the teaching imparted is lost.
I remember once going with my Teacher to a big gathering in the East End. It was held to celebrate the birthday of the holy Prophet worshipped by those who formed the audience. There was a huge concourse of people, all very alive and excited, and on the platform were the Elders, Dr Shastri, and a poet who was going to recite the scriptures and traditional verses of worship, as well as some of his own. I sat in the front row and as soon as the programme began I was absolutely amazed to see with what intensity and appreciation the audience followed what was said. They swayed, they cried out in ecstasy, and they shed tears when the poet spoke. I became more and more depressed. Into my mind rose a picture of the audiences to which I was accustomed. Everyone attentive, probably note-books in hand, quiet, polite and fully controlled, and I thought what an anti-climax it must be for my Teacher to speak before them, when he was probably used to such co-operation and enthusiasm in the East.
When it was all over, and we were going home, I said as much to him, but I didn’t think he looked as enthusiastic as I had expected. He then said: ‘Did you notice what happened in the interval when we had finished speaking?’ Well, I had noticed that they had left their seats very quickly. ‘They were going to the buffet’, he said. Well, that was shravana without manana. They were receptive, but not retentive. One has seen the same thing, and done it too, no doubt, many times at a concert. The glory of the music is still in the air, but in the foyer people are in groups, either throwing themselves into a discussion on the technical merits or demerits of the performance—seldom of the music—or frankly talking about something quite different.
The retention of teaching in the mind, matures it for the mind. On this point it has been said: “The realisation of the identity of man’s individual spirit with the supreme Spirit is the apex of the teaching of the Advaita, but it is not to be attained merely by hearing and accepting it, it needs deep thought, careful analysis and the guidance of reliable authorities as well. If, even after deep thought and analysis, this identity is not realised, then the process must be repeated again and again, until such knowledge is acquired. It is of no use to exclaim: ‘All is Brahman’, or ‘All is Maya’ when you have not been through these preliminary stages, it is only a pain and an outrage to all who hear you. Such people are called vacha jnanis which means ‘those who are liberated in word of mouth or speech only’.
Talking of the need for manana, my Teacher once said: ‘What would you think of a man who had fallen in love with the words of a sentence, and failed to notice the meaning of the sentence?’ Shravana gives the words of a sentence great importance, but the meaning of those words will only be revealed by meditating and brooding upon them.
Now we said that manana is done alone. This does not mean shut up in a`room alone, for one of the most important things about manana, and one of its great merits, is that it can be done anywhere, and for any length of time, provided the mind is bent to the task. Many say: ‘I cannot repeat a name of God, or say a mantram while I am going about my daily work, or walking in a street, I keep forgetting and losing it.’ It is true that such repetition needs a very directed concentration, but when brooding on a subject, the mind plays over a much wider field than it does when holding the meaning of a single word, or a sentence, and the respite given by changing from one aspect of a subject to another, generates vitality in the mind, and an ability to hold on. It is a kind of inner running commentary on a wide theme, and we are told that discursive meditation is easier to practise than any other inward activity. You select an aspect of the teaching, say the Law of Karma, or Maya, or the significance of the teaching on the five sheaths; whatever the instruction has been in the lecture or shravana you have attended, and you determine to consider it from all points of view, at certain times during the day, with the intention of either further understanding it, solving it, or reducing it to the form of a question for someone else to solve for you. This is, of course, only one of the ways in which to practise manana, but you will learn mind control and concentration without tears, at the same time, if you become expert at it.
We have now made a little enquiry into the scope of shravana and manana, but there still remains nididhyasana to consider. Whereas the other two stages are practical and introductory, this is their fruit, and, in its advanced stage, it is the climax of the yogic training. It is therefore not possible for me to say anything very illuminating about it, save what I have heard in the course of instruction. Shravana can be undertaken by anyone, and its results take place in the mind. Manana can be undertaken by anyone, but, in fact, is seriously attempted by few; its results also show themselves in the mind. The third stage— nididhyasana—although it will have to be achieved by everyone at some time, is for those whose efforts in shravana and manana have fructified. There are progressive stages of nididhyasana; at first it is said to be an uninterrupted and prolonged contemplation of a single thought on which the attention is directed like a stream of oil, which is unbroken and unchecked in its flow. As this contemplation grows in intensity and duration, the mind ceases to be the medium through which the contemplation takes place. ‘Takes place’ is a wrong term, for the thing contemplated is now revealed as the nature on of the contemplator himself. As one writer says: `Then the Self or Consciousness stands apart, as it were, from its limited vehicles, the body and the mind.’ This is, however, the culmination of nididhyasana; in its beginning stages the it is a prolonged meditation or contemplation.
It is not very helpful or good to use such words as ‘`elimination’, ‘absorption’ or ‘dissipation of the mind’ without being able to get a little idea of what is meant by such terms. One reads such sentences as—‘Now the mind becomes no mind’ or ‘the mind is now dissipated like a cloud, from the face of the sun’, and I think that a good many people get an uneasy feeling that the ideal before them may be a state of childlike acceptance, which, while doing no active harm, is not a consummation devoutly to be wished. One has only to read the works or recall the descriptions of the God-realised Sages of the past and present to know that something very different is in store for the hero who succeeds in this training.
It is often stated that the mind takes the form of what it meditates upon, and also that it is capable of transformation. Speaking very generally, the mind may be said to become no mind when it ceases to manifest its salient characteristic, which is, recognition of multiplicity resulting in reaction or thought. The vitality of an untrained mind is principally derived from the stimulus afforded by the objects physical and mental that it contemplates, and those objects are usually limited to what will pander to the egoistical cravings of its owner. Dilation is the term we have used for a mind which, in order to grasp something apparently foreign to it, places itself under voluntary discipline, and overcoming its prejudices, widens its horizon. But the Teaching is that the mind does not draw its joy and its fulfilment from activity, or from hovering over many flowers, but from pressing the juice out of one, in other words, from its power to immerse itself, for however short a period, in the object of its contemplation, whatever that object may be. This constitutes the value and the peculiar attraction of concentration, both in mundane thinking and in spiritual contemplation also.
Now although it may be true to say that the mind receives its joy and ultimately its release through immobility, quiescence— both names for the same thing—this is not the opinion of the mind when in its kindergarten stage. Then, it thinks that the more objects it can grasp with its antennæ, the richer, fatter and more vital it will become, and it is only after recurrent attacks of anemia, that it starts to question the wisdom of this extrovertive plan of campaign.
When this moment arrives, the process of its metamorphosis has begun and it slowly learns to immerse or immobilise itself in the contemplation of one concept for longer and longer periods, and this is the beginning of nididhyasana. The only concept which is inexhaustible, and which can hold the mind long enough to enable this change to take place in its completeness, is the affirmation of the nature of the Self of man, and the highest nididhyasana is prolonged and continued contemplation on the identity of the individual and the supreme Self. In the end, the contemplation becomes self-acting, and the distinction between the concept and that which considers it, is swept away. This is the culmination of nididhyasana, and the point where it merges into samadhi.
It would need great spiritual experience to describe what happens to the busy, moving mind, when, at last, it becomes directly aware of the unmoving, all-pervading Consciousness, in which, unsuspecting, it has carried on its activities for so long, so we will content ourselves with saying that the indirect knowledge obtained through shravana and manana, does, ultimately, lead to direct experience of Reality. Nididhyasana culminates in the unbroken samadhi—this is the goal.
Swami Mangalnathji, the great modern Rishi, sums up these three steps in the life of a pupil, in his work Vira Vijaya or The Triumph of a Hero. He says: “The Truth in the sentences which describe the nature of Atman, when listened to, reflected upon and meditated upon, is known as Atman Himself—and so He reveals Himself.