Why meditate and how?

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Swami Veetamohananda
Swami Veetamohananda


Meditation (dhyana in Sanskrit) is the act of maintaining, in an elevated state of consciousness, a stable train of thought on a unique object.

Tatra pratyaya ekatanata dhyanam” “Meditation is maintaining a single and unchanging wave of thoughts at a specific level of consciousness.” Only thinking of an object is not meditation. The act of thinking only involves manipulating a series of waves of thought. Patanjali calls these waves of thoughts vrittisor pratyayas.

The mind has two tendencies. The first is to constantly move from one wave of thought to another. This mental tendency to latch onto different objects is called dispersion – sarvarthata. The second tendency is to concentrate: the mind focuses on a single object. Meditation – dhyana– consists of consciously focussing the mind.

Patanjali lists five conditions for a seeker to be able to enter the state of dhyana:

First, the seeker must have faith – shraddha, meaning faith in the supreme goal of life and also faith in the possibility of attaining this goal.

Second, the seeker must possess both the enthusiasm and energy to continuously exercise the power of his/her will.

Third, the seeker requires the support that comes from a faithful and accurate memory – smriti

Fourth, the seeker must be immersed in concentration.

Fifth, the seeker must be aware of the Self.

To preserve a stable train of thought, it is important to have a firm memory. However, meditation is not a normal process of memorization. We are generally capable of remembering many things, and some of us even have an excellent memory. But, it is difficult to have a firm memory while focusing our mind on a single thought, and it is precisely this capacity that must be developed in order to meditate.

Normally, memory involves recalling past experiences. To remember is thus to remain in the past. Every day, we spend a lot of time either remembering the past or imagining the future. The present is so fleeting that, as soon as an experience occurs, it already becomes part of the past. Meditation is not about remembering the past; it is instead about maintaining a memory of the present. Meditation is also not about trying to prevent the present from sliding into the past, into forgetfulness. It is about fixing the process of memory entirely on the present moment.

Seekers observe a representation of a Deity, then close their eyes and try to remember what they’ve seen. This action only leads them to memorise an event that took place in the past. It makes meditating mechanical, repetitive. It frays the nerves and opens the door to all the memories of the past. This is why such seekers cannot progress, even after years of practice!

True meditation is the direct interaction with a conscious image. When you see your beloved in front of you, you live with them in the present. For meditation to resemble this, we must look into our hearts and “see” a living image there. This only becomes possible once we are able to focus the light of our consciousness into the depths of our heart. It is there that we can constantly observe the movements of our thoughts, and preserve the awareness of our self. 

Beginners can find this challenging, which is why it is recommended to begin with prayer and worship. These are acts that by definition take place in the present. Prayer, for example, cannot slide into the past without this being noticed. Indeed, prayer ceases as soon as concentration is lost. In fact, true spiritual prayer requires intense effort in order to be established in the present moment. Even when addressed to an unknown Being, prayer enables you to live in the present. Worship makes this Being feel more real and enables you to stay longer in the present. When this interaction in the present, between the soul and the image, is interiorised and intensified, it becomes meditation.

Thus, true meditation is an act that always brings the mind back to the present. In addition, the act of meditating is the flow of a constant current from our consciousness of our ‘self’ (the ‘self’ being the subject) towards the image in our mind (the ‘image’ is the object). When this movement or impulse becomes stable – and you may have observed this during our guided meditation sessions – the object ceases to change. This movement/impulse originates from within the individual self and fixes itself onto the object. 

This impulse—of the individual self—is the will. It is true that, when we try to meditate, memories flood the mind and we feel powerless against this. However, it is good that we allow the mind to wander in this way. And in teaching our will to fix the mind onto a single object, the image inside of us will become constant.

This is the way we confine our memory to the present. And this is meditation.

It is often thought that meditation is about emptying the mind, by purging it of all images. In reality, meditation means maintaining a single thought, even if one can indeed call this “emptying the mind” in practice. Completely suppressing one’s thoughts only exists in deep sleep, as well as in some rare forms of absorption, such as samadhi. To get there, our mind must grasp no object and, instead, must objectify its own tendency to grasp. If one tried to remove all thoughts without having acquired such purity and spiritual power, the result would most likely be a form of sleep or hypnotised stupor. Here is what Swami Vivekananda tells us on this point:

When individuals try to empty their mind without having been properly taught or prepared, they have every chance of succeeding only in covering themselves in tamas – material ignorance. This makes the mind lifeless and stupid, and leads them to believe that their minds are actually empty.” 

Meditation on the subject, on the “me”, is called aham grah upasana in the Vedanta. But the subject, here, is the empirical self: the reflection or image of the real atman—the universal Self. The existence of our individual self is obvious and does not need to be proven. However, its real nature, in the form of atman, is not apparent precisely because the pure atmancan never become an object of our meditation. Inthe state of samadhi, once all the waves of thought are calmed, the pure atman shines of its own light. Introspection is a state of being and as such is not a meditative process.

It also happens that, sometimes, we enter into a state of consciousness where the mind becomes calm and watchful. We distinctly feel a deep inner silence. Each movement, each thought seems fresh and meaningful. This feeling arises when the mind has not landed on a particular image and, instead, is calmly observing our thoughts as they come and go, like clouds dancing in the sky. This is what it means to live in the present. 

As a result, we become capable of observing the silent current of life without being pulled by the power of this same current. In this state, the individual self becomes conscious of the entire mind, rather than of a particular object or image. We can liken this to a fish that suddenly becomes aware of the water in which it previously had only noticed other fish, worms, plants, etc. Now, the fish is there in the water, silently gliding along with all of its fins. This is the type of consciously-cultivated calm that is appropriate for meditation. 

Some seekers reach this meditative consciousness thanks to the love that they bear towards their beloved Divinity. They think of It with such love that their entire self vibrates from this thought, like a musical instrument producing a single continuous sound. There is no room for any other thought, there is only the living presence of the Divinity attached to the present moment. 

Thus, in true meditation, the mind becomes like the string of a violin held taught between the self and the object. The mind vibrates in the present moment, producing endlessly-renewing melodies in our consciousness. 

The human mind is the grandest marvel of the entire universe. The entire knowledge, the entire mystery of the universe are hidden in its depths. It is important for us to understand how the mind functions. 

First, the mind is nothing like a computer—it is certainly not an object that we can manipulate as we please. The mind was already created when it came to us, and it has been influencing us well before we became aware of how it functions. The mind of an individual is also not an isolated unit. It is part of a vast cosmic mind and functions according to some specific universal principles. The mind of an individual receives impulses of cosmic energy, which are called prana.

Let us hear Swami Vivekananda on this: 

All minds are identical, and are at the same time different parts of a unique mind. Whoever knows a lump of clay knows all the clay in the universe. Whoever knows and controls his mind, knows the secret of all minds and has power of each of them.” 

Second, the mind operates in accordance with several cosmic laws. Patanjali’s yoga system, which codified the science of the mind, is known throughout the world and continues to attract much interest. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the twenty-first century will be more focussed on the science of the mind than on the science of substance. 

Let us try to understand the five fundamental principles of yoga.

1. The first principle is consciousness. This consciousness belongs to our true Self. In the Vedanta, the Self has many names: purusha, atman, jiva, etc. The rest – the material universe in its entirety and each individual mind – belongs to prakritiPrakriti is neither matter nor consciousness. It is a primordial ante-substance—substance prior to its manifestation. Our mind and all other matter are manifestations of prakritiPrakriti has no consciousness, but it is neither dead nor inert. It is an unconscious power that animates the entire universe. However, prakriti is not luminous in and of itself, and thus it is known only when the light of purusha falls on it. In contrast, purusha, or atman, is luminous on its own—it is luminosity itself. 

The distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness is fundamental for the practice of meditation. Only the Self is conscious—being unaware of this truth has the consequence of rendering all mental and physical activity unconscious. Yes, one can say that blood flowing through the body, the digestive process, the assimilation of nutriments by our body, and other physiological activities continue without our consciousness. Indeed, a large part of our mental life takes place automatically. But if this automatism also creeps into our meditation, how could we then hope to master ourselves, our emotions, our instincts, and our mind?

The more we establish ourselves in the Self, the more we become conscious. And, the more we become conscious, the more effectively we control our thoughts and our actions. This consciousness of the Self is essential in all aspects of our life. The Self is where our consciousness lies. We must open ourselves and allow our consciousness to flow, not only in the activities of the mind, but also in each activity of our daily life. The clearer and more pure our mind, the more intensely shines the light of the Self and the more our consciousness of the Self and our self-mastery are developed. 

2. The second fundamental principle of yoga tells us that knowledge is the result of a modification in our consciousness. To know an object, the mind takes the shape of that object. This modification of the mind is called vritti in Sanskrit. 

Knowledge is the relation between the individual self and the object. The pure atman—the Self—cannot know an object. The mind must intervene between the Self and the object—in other words by taking the form of the object. Knowledge results when the atman’s light falls on this modified mind or vritti

There are different types of vrittis. For example, when we observe a tree, the mind goes to it and takes its shape. It is thanks to this process that we know the tree. If you close your eyes, the mind reproduces the image of the tree, and it is from this image that you remember the tree. It is also for this reason that what we call life, or existence, is in fact the result of worlds living within worlds. In the same way, the physical exterior of a tree is a universe unto itself, whereas there also exist subtle interior worlds. When the mind is projected towards an interior world, we are led to know them all. All of these modifications belong to the mind and to it alone, and are called vrittis.

There can be no knowledge without the vrittis. In deep sleep, the mind produces no vrittisand, when we wake up, we say “I knew nothing”. However, even during deep sleep, a special type of vritti exists. This sleep is a state dominated by tamasand is called nidra vritti. It is only when the mind is in a state of super-consciousness—the nirvikalpa samadhi—that it is absorbed in the Self and that only atman exists. This is the state of pure existence. Any sense of emotion or of spiritual vision is in fact a modification of the mind. 

In that case, what is right knowledge in fact? It is called prama in Sanskrit, while false knowledge is called bhrama. A wave of thoughts that creates right knowledge is called pramanaand one which creates erroneous knowledge is called viparaya. Attachment, hate, fear, and other emotions are all caused by mistaken knowledge. 

You might say that abstract ideas like goodness, beauty, the infinite, and so on are modifications of the mind. It’s true! Abstract ideas like pure energy, luminosity, and others, do not contain an object. Nevertheless, they are not harmful and instead provide a practical demonstration of our remarks. The wave of thoughts that creates this abstract knowledge is called vikalpa. Once you ready yourself to meditate and try to visualise a god, your consciousness is not “true” because, in reality, you do not see your god. At the same time, it is not false either, because your imagination has not gone somewhere that does not exist. Every time that you meditate, remember what you previously imagined! As your meditation becomes more intense over time, your imagination will transform itself into right knowledge, with a direct vision of your Divinity. 

This right knowledge of the Reality that exists beyond the senses is the goal of meditation.

3. Third, the mind has different levels. Each level or floor has its own vrittis. The vrittis that are in the external levels are less refined and linked with exterior objects. The tendency towards the spiritual, and the intuition of poetry originate from the higher levels of the mind. 

These more subtle vrittis belong to levels that are fundamentally internal, and include supra-sensitive truths of the spiritual world. The majority of people are only conscious of the less refind forms of thought. It is only when we dive deep into supra-sensitive world that we become conscious of waves of subtle thoughts. 

We have said that knowledge is the reflection of the light of purusha– or atman– on the vrittis. The coarser vrittis reflect very little light, and little knowledge of the Self is associated with them. The more subtle vrittis reflect far more light. They produce brilliant images, and a substantial knowledge of the Self is associated with them. This is why a mental image of a divine form is used in meditation. This enables the seeker to become closer to their atman and see more and more of its light. This is how we produce the appropriate supra-sensible vrittis

There is a relationship between language and knowledge. We generally do not tend to think much about words. Nevertheless, let us consider this: when you awake from a deep sleep, you can, for example, see your mother standing in front of you. The first experience is simply one of perception. Your second experience is to recognize her. Recognition is the result of a thought. And thinking requires words: the recognition of your mother comes from the word “mother”. In the same way, when you hear or murmur the word “mother” to yourself, the image of your mother appears in your mind. Since childhood, we have associated ourselves with words of objects or forms, and we can no longer think without words. This means that there is an ongoing relationship between forms and names. Knowledge is the result of an inner combination of words. 

During meditation, we use special approaches called mantras. These mantrasare different from ordinary words, which carry a limited amount of meaning. In contrast, mantras transport the divine aspect or Reality is brought to our mind. In addition, mantrasare states of vibration that gradually awaken the pure and subtle vritti that reveals Reality.

We have also said that meditation is about establishing one unique vritti, which means maintaining the current of a single harmonious thought that excludes all other names and forms. 

4. Fourth, each experience leaves in its wake an impression called samskara, which has the power to reproduce this vritti. The unconscious is the reservoir of uncountable samskaras. These latent impressions constantly jump out in our desires, in our emotions, in our memories and in our ideas. This damages the mind, which is why we find it difficult to stick to a single vritti during meditation. But how then can we root out all of these samskaras? This can only be done by the superior light or by spiritual illumination. Or by spiritual practices like the repetition of mantras

5. The fifth fundamental principle of the psychology of yoga is the continuous modification of the mind, which can never be fully stopped. Besides the Self, everything in the universe is subject to constant change. Meditation thus means staying within infinite harmony – rtam.