Meditation—Keeping the Mind on Track
A talk by the Warden of Shanti Sadan leading into a meditation session
Those who meditate are well aware of the challenge posed by distraction, when our thoughts stray from the practice and turn to other things felt to be more interesting or pressing. This is not a conscious turning on our part; it just seems to happen! And our distractions are not necessarily attractions in the positive sense. We may find ourselves ruminating on something we fear as much as on something we want or love. Thus our practice may start well, but after some minutes, or sooner, our concentration may weaken and the distraction take over, itself being displaced by other distractions. When at last we realise how our thoughts have taken a by-road, we may feel a little frustrated, and this adds to our loss of focus.
If we find ourselves in this position, be assured that it is a frequent experience which everyone has to deal with. Regular practice, and a growing insight into the workings of the mind, will lead to a great improvement, if we keep it up.
So let us ask why this basically simple instruction—to hold our attention on a text for meditation—can turn out to be so challenging.
It is because in meditation our field of conscious activity is not the concrete world of physical objects, which have fixed and definite forms, but the inner world of the mind. This subtle field of mental events has no form apart from the impressions that continuously pass through it, either rapidly and defying analysis, or sluggishly, as if reluctant to move on.
The mind, therefore, behaves in a very different way to the body. In the physical world, we usually work efficiently if we focus on one well-defined task at a time. If we want to drive, for example, we cannot at the same time be washing our hands, or writing. One task gives way to another. One activity stops in order to allow another to begin.
As regards our mind, there is no such clear procedure. When we install new thoughts for our special attention, as in meditation, we find that the present current of thoughts does not stop. It goes on seeking expression. Our thinking is a complex mixture that includes feelings, memories, imaginations and drives of various kinds. This powerful momentum does not retire just because we want to clear our mind for meditation. It takes a good deal of practice, or, if you like, inner training, to establish the meditative thoughts in our mind and to quieten the other thoughts for this brief period.
Another challenge arises due to the abstract nature of our themes for meditation, and the fact that we do not usually reflect on such things in our practical life.
This can be eased as we familiarise ourselves with the basics of the non-dual philosophy. Then we will recognise that all these practices point in different ways—through words, sentences or images—to the deeper realm within our own being, which is perfect and infinite, and by investigating which, we will be repaid abundantly for whatever efforts we make in order to uncover it.
Let us consider three liberating ideas from the non-dual teachings which can help us overcome the difficulties that occur in our meditation. These ideas are to be reflected on during our study time, outside the meditation period. If we absorb them into our way of seeing the world, we will find that the texts for meditation point to what is most meaningful and valuable to us.
The first liberating idea is that the Self is not the mind. It is the consciousness that witnesses the mind, the awareness that sees and knows the rise of the thoughts and their disappearance, but which is not itself a thought. The thoughts themselves are a blend of sense impressions and influences from the past that well up from the inner life of the mind. But whatever their source or content, all that we experience inwardly during meditation is revealed and illumined by the Self. The ever-conscious Self simply is, complete and not subject to the changefulness of what appears before it. To realise that this same Self is the reality in us, is to be identified with the freedom of enlightenment.
The next liberating idea concerns the way we deal with the strongest force in our mental life: desire. Our distractions are usually linked with some or other desire. We do not need to eliminate desires, but we can give them an upward turn. We are encouraged to desire what is best for our all-round well-being, and to pursue desires which can actually be fulfilled.
If we reflect on our life experience, we may discover that in spite of all the desires we have conceived and realised, we are still challenged by a lack of satisfaction, and this gives rise to new desires. So what has gone wrong? Why have not our desires fulfilled us? It is because we have focused on transient and partial aspects of experience, and that which is neither durable nor whole can never give complete satisfaction.
In all the wisdom traditions, we are encouraged to familiarise ourselves with that principle within us which does not pass, and the nature of which is freedom, independence and fulfilment. The idea is to give our priority to this desire for wisdom and higher experience. Once the force of desire is merged in our higher quest, the hindrances to our meditation practice will be replaced by a new energy conducive to ongoing progress.
Our third and final liberating idea or principle concerns the role of our individuality in the progressive life of meditation. Meditation reveals that the Self we are seeking transcends narrow egoism. This means that the less we assert our personal views and preferences, the closer we are to identifying with the true Self that underlies the apparent individuality.
Our ego is limited in time, and it changes with the course of our life. The underlying true Self is eternal. Our ego is limited in space, being localised within the physical body. The true Self is all-pervasive, present everywhere. The implication of this is: ‘Do not take as your guide the ego, but live according to the illumined wisdom that proclaims our true being, our true I, as beyond personal egoism and its concerns, and is completely free.’
Let us now turn to our meditation practices. This is the time we enter our inner sanctuary, where there is stillness and light, and we bathe and rest our inner being in that tranquillity.
The first part of a meditation session is an inner preparation, when we consciously turn from the outer noise and business to focus within.
Quietly observe your state of mind. Notice any sense of hurry or expectation and let them go. For a moment or two, treat your mind as a pupil and encourage it to approach the meditation with a calm, respectful, receptive attitude.
Breathe, a little more slowly and deeply than usual, through the nose if possible. Make the in and out breaths about the same length. Feel the chest and abdomen expanding, and relaxing.
Then, inwardly, silently, repeat to yourself a word that points to what is best and highest for you. It could be, Light, or Peace, or Truth, any name for the ultimate Reality, or Love, Freedom, Beauty Absolute. Choose one word, and repeat it inwardly, with each in-breath and out-breath.
The well-known benefits of deep, rhythmic breathing are enhanced by coupling it with the inner repetition of a key word in this way.
True meditation always assumes the hidden presence of the one Reality behind appearances. By taking a name or pointer for that which is meaningful to us, we begin to still and purify the mind. The confusing stream of mental associations is slowed and we gradually become aware of the inner light and presence in which all mental experience occurs.
If your mind wanders, as soon as you notice, bring the attention back to the breath and your chosen word. If frustration arises, let that go also, and focus again on the conscious breathing and repetition of your word.
Imagine that you are sitting in a space filled with light and stillness. See yourself bathed in that light and stillness.
If it helps, you can see yourself in a place that is special and meaningful to you, filled with warm light and a tangible stillness. It can be outdoors or indoors, an imagined scene, or one based on memory, or a place depicted in a picture that suggests to you the peaceful atmosphere. Then place yourself in that scene, being receptive to the light and stillness it signifies. Alternatively you can imagine a space without boundaries, simply filled with light and stillness.
If other thoughts arise, as soon as you become aware of them, give them no further attention and turn again to the image of yourself in that space filled with pure light and stillness. Practise this visualisation for five minutes.
Meditation on a Text
I AM SELF-AWARE CONSCIOUSNESS.
FREEDOM AND HAPPINESS
ARE REVEALED IN MY TRANQUIL MIND.
The text points to the nature of our Self as the pure consciousness in us and in all. The Self is not only the principle of Being in us, the I am. It is also the self-aware Consciousness that makes all experience possible. And it is the source of true happiness. How do we approach this great reality? It reveals itself in our tranquil mind.
When we meditate on a text like this, we try to make it the main thought, or group of thoughts, that fills our mind. We do this by calmly repeating the text to ourselves, and keeping our attention on it as best we can. We have already noted how other ideas may arise and capture our attention. If this happens, bring the mind back not forcefully, but firmly and lovingly, and calmly focus once more on the text. Do this meditation for five to seven minutes.
Our closing practice will prepare us to take up again our tasks in the world. It is to offer thoughts of peace and goodwill to all without exception. Let feelings of goodwill emanate from you, and at the same time, you yourself are receptive to the influence of goodwill issuing forth from those around you.