Meditation - Into the Mind’s Eye
by Anupama Bhattacharya
To understand truth beyond subjective interpretations
Attention between eyebrows, let mind be before thought.
The choice of being is rarely volitional. But to see or not to see is a choice that we seem to frequently exercise in favor of the latter. Because, at the end of the day, it is easier to blind the contemplative mind in the wild mish-mash of frivolous concerns and superficial make-believes. What’s more important, bagging a good deal or putting your conscience at ease? Getting to the root of a problem, or grabbing at the nearest justification? If the answer seems simple enough from the ethical perspective, let us look back on the last few days, or even hours, and ask what has been the prime motivation for our actions and reactions. And how much of it actually resulted from conscious contemplation.
On the face of it, this doesn’t seem to have much to do with meditation. After all, meditation is understood to be a largely spiritual practice, where one closes one’s eyes and focuses on the deeper meaning of existence. Where one gets in touch with one’s ‘self’. Yet, at another level, meditation isn’t really separate from the actual world. Because, to get deeper, one has to pass through the superficial and if the superficial builds a wall of ignorance or deception, there is no way one can get through?
The word ‘meditation’ is derived from two Latin words: meditari (to think about, contemplate) and mederi (to heal). At its root lies the concept that meditation is not just an enlightening exercise, but is also equally essential for a healthy mind and body.
“Meditation has been glorified,” wrote Swami Chinmayananda in his book Meditation and Life, “as the most sacred vocation. Humans alone are capable of this highest effort, by which they can hasten their own evolution.” And, in this context, meditation is all about learning to ‘see’. To understand truth beyond subjective interpretations. “In preparing ourselves for meditation, we should first acquire the ability to look within,” wrote Swami Chinmayananda. “You must learn to go about your daily routine and uninterruptedly watch the mind. Each thought, word and deed should emerge from you bearing the seal of your recognition. Post a portion of your attention… Let it be a silent observer of the workings of your inner life and estimate the motives, intentions and purposes that lie behind your thoughts, words and deeds.”
This is self-analysis. The idea is to accept one’s psychological make-up as it is—with its glories, purity and strength as well as its deceptions, violence and ugliness. And not to live in a fool’s paradise.
“Your first analysis,” explains Swami Chinmayananda, “may seem like the narration of the ideal life lived by gods.” Because, that is how we tend to perceive ourselves most of the times. We can do no wrong. And even if we do wrong, it is for a larger good! Which is why, the analysis should try and detect the dark nature, the shadow self that lies hidden under layers and layers of justifications.
But this, if approached without sufficient preparation, can also cause paranoia, psychological disorders and depression. Which is why there are many techniques prescribed to achieve the correct state of mind, including prayer, relaxation routines, pranayama, sitting in silence, practicing general self-enquiry and chanting mantras. Some schools of Hinduism also suggest adopting a complete sattvic lifestyle before attempting meditation.
But this stage, according to most meditators, is only the beginning. This is catharsis, cleaning your system of its clogging miasma and preparing you for a glimpse into your untouched soul. It is only when the mind is free of its past baggage that the journey within can begin.
What is Meditation
Meditation has often been misunderstood as thinking or contemplation. But the actual practice of meditation transcends this definition.
“Meditation,” wrote Swami Rama, founder of the Himalayan Institute, “is a specific technique for resting the mind and attaining a state of consciousness that is totally different from the normal waking state.” Because, in meditation, “you are fully awake and alert, but your mind is not focused on the external world or the events taking place around you. Neither is your mind asleep, dreaming or fantasizing. Instead, it is clear, relaxed and inwardly focused”.
But meditation is not the ultimate path to self-realization.
“Meditation is not an entirely independent discipline but a stage in concentration common to almost all spiritual paths,” explains Swami Bhajanananda, former editor of the journal Prabuddha Bharata and an assistant secretary and trustee of the Ramakrishna Mission. “Each path of sadhana or spiritual discipline begins in a different way. But every path has a stage, which corresponds to meditation. The name given to this common stage varies from path to path. But whatever be the name given, it means some form of meditative awareness,” he adds.
And every spiritual aspirant has to travel this path. “In every path,” Swami Bhajanananda explains, “the aspirant begins with a large number of thoughts in the mind. These gradually become reduced, and the aspirant reaches a stage when there exists only a single pratyaya or thought in the mind. This is the state of meditative awareness. It is the common highway which every aspirant has to travel in order to realize God or the Supreme Self.”
And in this, we have to choose the technique best suited to us. “Sometimes people become caught up in comparing meditation methods or arguing about which tradition or teacher is ‘best’,” wrote Swami Rama. This can be detrimental to a beginner who does not possess the clarity needed to discover the intricacies of a particular practice. In such a situation, it is best to keep in mind that “good meditation teachers respect the universality of meditation and do not foster self-serving or cultish distinctions about their techniques”.
What Meditation is Not
Yet, at the same time, all systems masquerading as meditation don’t always fit the bill. “Meditation is not contemplation or thinking,” wrote Swami Rama. “In contemplation, you engage your mind in inquiry into a concept, and ask the mind to consider the meaning and value of a certain idea.” But when you meditate, you don’t ask the mind to think about a concept, but go beyond thought.
Meditation is also not synonymous with hypnosis or autosuggestion. “In hypnosis,” according to Swami Rama, “a suggestion is made to the mind… there is an attempt to programme, manipulate or control the content of the mind.” Whereas in meditation, “you simply observe the mind and let it become quiet and calm… exploring and experiencing the deeper levels of your being”. So, while hypnosis or autosuggestion may help in focusing your mind, they can never replace meditation.
Another misconception about meditation is its identification with religion. The difference is once again clarified by Swami Rama: “Meditation does not belong to any culture or religion… but is a pure and simple method of exploring the inner dimensions of life.” And whether you call this state samadhi, nirvana, enlightenment or Christ-consciousness, at the end of the day it is the same realisation. And even though some religions do employ meditative practices as part of their rituals, meditation itself is far removed from any set of beliefs or the distinctions of class or creed. “Religion,” according to Swami Rama, “teaches people what to believe. But meditation teaches you how to experience directly for yourself.”
History of Meditation
In that sense, meditation could be the primary path to evolution. Because meditation, or the practice of focusing on the inner self and attempting to transcend the accepted parameters of being, has existed in some form or the other beyond recorded history.
Research on the available historical data indicates that meditation developed in ancient Greece between 3500-2500 BC. In India, meditation developed around 2750-1500 BC. The lineage of meditation, according to the Texas-based National Meditation Centre, followed from Hinduism to Jainism in 1000 BC, as well as Buddhism in China, Judaism, Christianity, and so forth.
There isn’t much historical information on the earliest forms of meditation. But almost all ancient cultures show some sign or the other of a practice involving communing with the spirit. The structured form of meditation began to evolve in various cultures across the oldest civilizations of the world during the codification of religious or philosophical texts.
In Hinduism, there are techniques in the Malini Vijaya Tantra that go back 5,000 years, and the Sochanda and Vigyan Bhairava Tantra that are around 4,000 years old.
This was a couple of thousand years before the Buddha’s birth in around 500 B.C. But with the arrival of the Buddha, meditation found a modern and more disciplined expression. In the 2,000 years after the Buddha, his teachings, which included meditation techniques, were spread throughout Asia—into Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand, up into Tibet, China and Japan.
In India, one of the words for meditation was ‘dhyana’. In China this became ‘cha’n’ and in Japan the word became ‘Zen’, which found its way into the English language much before its actual practice.
“Popular interest in meditation,” explains Charles Alexander, professor with the department of psychology in the Maharishi University of Management, USA, “arose in the West during the 1960s as the result of a unique convergence between three major cultural forces: the psyche-delic revolution, the communist invasion of Asia (in particular, Tibet, with the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama), and the rise of an active American counter-culture, largely as a result of the Vietnam war.”
At the same time, many gurus such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Muktananda, Swami Satchidananda and Osho established followings in the West, some even making permanent bases there. This altered the spiritual face of the West, and meditation, which until then had been recognized as an esoteric eastern quirk, soon found its way into the mainstream.
Evolution of Meditation
“The meditation which took root in American soil,” says Prof Alexander, “is a unique blend of western pragmatism and eastern introspection.” This, in turn, contributed to meditation itself gaining a new definition, where the experiential spirituality of the East changed the mind-set of a largely materialistic West. At the same time, the scientific expertise of the West put meditation on their laboratory slabs and probed its external manifestations to better understand its objective nature. This led to a correlation between the experience and its symptoms, often resulting in the discovery of startling facts. For example, research revealed that techniques of one-pointed meditation and mindfulness meditation result in contrasting effects.
In one-pointed meditation, there is a narrowing of awareness where the focus is centered on an ever-diminishing spectrum, until the meditator ceases to feel any external stimuli. In mindfulness technique, the meditator receives a sharper sense of stimuli without the interference of the consciousness.
“To examine the effects,” says Prof Alexander, “yoga researcher B.K. Anand and his associates took a portable EEG (electroencephalograph) equipment to India to study a yogi who claimed the ability to enter samadhi to the exclusion of external stimuli.” The yogi showed no EEG response in deep samadhi, even when the researchers made loud noises or touched his arm with a hot test tube.
To study mindfulness, Zen meditators in Japan were tested. “They used EEGs to follow the meditators’ response to 40 taps on a tabletop,” says Prof Alexander. “In ordinary consciousness, after about 10 taps the mind gets used to the sound, and it is no longer received as a novel event.” But in the case of the advanced meditators, the reception to the stimulus of sound remained constant.
Dr Andrew Newberg, of the University of Pennsylvania, USA, who has been studying the effects of meditation on Tibetan monks through brain-imaging techniques, has this to say: “We compared the brain activity of people performing Tibetan Buddhist meditation to what their brains do at rest. Our studies… have shown that meditation increases activity in the front part of the brain and decreases activity in the area of the brain that orients our bodies in space.” Thus, the change in spatial perception and the loss of the subjective identification of the self during meditation.
And while science has begun to throw light on some facets of meditation, the modern meditator has also embraced technology to find a shortcut to the meditative state, mind machines and artificial stimulation of certain parts of the brain being classic examples.
Meditation and Health
While this mish-mash of technology and metaphysics may not always produce healthy results, understanding the effects of meditation has given a major boost to the alternative health care system.
Today, meditation has been accepted as one of the most effective remedies for stress and stress-related disorders such as high blood pressure, insomnia and heart diseases. This is achieved by monitoring the stress response of the body.
Normally, any threatening situation triggers off the stress response. The idea is to enable a person to act quickly and survive intense, short-term challenges, which require less brains and fast reflexes. This is possibly the survival response inherited from our pre-civilization days. But today, the same stress response is triggered off in traffic jams, work-related irritations, family squabbles and many such civilized banes. This, in practical terms, means that with each petty worry our body ends up preparing for a life-or-death situation. Further, since most of these work-related or family-related worries don’t disappear with a single confrontation, we remain in a perpetual state of stress.
During stress, the heart beats faster and blood pressure rises. The blood flow is diverted from the internal organs to the muscles as well as the areas of the brain that control muscle coordination. As a result, the brain releases chemicals that help the body cope better with injuries, including those that block pain and help the blood clot faster.
In such situations, meditation can break the body’s stress response and replace it with what Dr Herbert Benson, a pioneer of mind-body medicine, calls the ‘relaxation response’.
In 1960s, Dr Benson , who was then working at the Harvard Medical School, started research on the physiological effects of Transcendental Meditation (TM). He found that there was a counter-balancing mechanism to the fight-or-flight response in most stress-inducing situations. He realized that just as stimulating an area of the hypothalamus can cause the stress response, so activating other areas of the brain results in its reduction and create the relaxation response, which is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress.
Aim of Meditation
At the same time, accepting meditation as part of a healthy lifestyle would be grossly under-rating a technique that is often believed to be the key to self-realization. Because, in essence, meditation is not a technique to be practiced, but a way of life. “Meditation,” explains Swami Krishnananda of the Divine Life Society, “is the art of uniting with Reality.” It is not something we ‘do’. Meditation is not extraneous to our being but an integral part of it. And as long as we treat it as a chore or a disciplinary measure, its truth will elude us.
“We have to make a careful distinction between one’s ‘being’ and the ‘action’ that proceeds from one’s being,” says Swami Krishnananda. “What fatigues the person is the latter and not the former. If meditation is also to become a work or a function of our being, it too would fall outside our nature. And one day we shall not only be tired of it but also be sick of it, since it would impose itself as a foreign element upon our being or nature, and it is the character of our essential being to cast out every foreign body by various methods.”
The last parts of sage Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, as described in his Yoga Sutras, define three stages of self-realisation, namely: dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (enlightenment).
Dharana, or the sixth limb of yoga, is the cleansing process of the mind where the focus is on understanding the psyche. Here, concentration plays the key role. When dharana is mastered, dhyana becomes an effortless focus on the nature of reality. After both comes sadhana, or the ultimate goal. This is the aim not only of meditation, but of life itself.
Yet, to understand the concept of samadhi, it is imperative that we take into account the various schools of thought dealing with the nature of God and creation. Although the perception of God in various religions may differ, there are, in essence, three main sets of beliefs. The most prevalent is dualism, which believes that God and its creation are separate entities and that, when we reach enlightenment, we put ourselves in God’s grace. This is the crux of both Christianity and Islam, as well as the dvaita philosophy of sage-philosopher Madhavacharya. Monism, or the adavita of Adi Shankaracharya, does not recognize such differentiation, and claims that we are nothing but God, and realization of this godhood is our ultimate goal. The qualified monism of Ramanujacharya bridges the gap between the two and believes that though we are not God, we come pretty close to godhood.
Samadhi itself is of two types: savikalpa and nirvikalpa. In savikalpa samadhi, there is an awareness of the material world, while nirvikalpa samadhi is the complete identification with the universe, where nothing but the awareness remains.
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had linked the occurrence of samadhi with the awakening of the kundalini. He said: “A man’s spiritual consciousness is not awakened unless his kundalini is aroused. The kundalini dwells in the Muladhara or the base chakra. When it is aroused, it passes along the Sushumna nerve (one of the three invisible nerves that connect the base chakra to the crown), goes through the centres of Svadhisthana (sex chakra), Manipura (solar plexux chakra), and so on, and at last reaches the crown. This is called the movement of the Mahavayu, the spiritual current. It culminates in samadhi.”
In his introduction to the collection of essays titled Vedanta For the Western World, author Christopher Isherwood writes: “Samadhi is said to be a fourth kind of consciousness: it is beyond the states of waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep. Those who have witnessed it as an external phenomenon report that the experiencee appeared to have fallen into a kind of trance. The hair on the head and body stood erect. The half-closed eyes became fixed. But these are mere symptoms, and tell us nothing. There is only one way to find out what samadhi is like: you must have it yourself.”
Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. For meditation, and its goal samadhi, go beyond the cognitive understanding of symptoms and causes. Stretched lips don’t explain happiness. Nor is pain understood as watering eyes. You have to be there to understand its nature.
And, in being there, realize yourself.
The verses highlighted in the story are from the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, a treatise on the practice of meditation with 112 techniques, supposedly told by Shiva to Parvati
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