Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Meditation: mental or devotional?

"There are two kinds of people....." Well, you've heard THAT before, I know. Meditation is practiced now by millions of people. One study I saw recently said 8% of the population. Like yoga (postures), however, most of what's taught is stripped of spiritual or religious content. That's neither good nor bad, of course but it runs to the question of what is the purpose of meditation? Is it a mental exercise? A kind of brain gymnasium workout? Is the goal to achieve cessation of thought and emotions in order to experience and enter a quiescent or quietist state? A trance? Blankness?

Or is meditation, per se, an act of devotion to God? If so, God as what? Whom? A blazing light, a thundering sound, as peace, Bliss, unconditional love? As a guru or deity?

No doubt my perspicacious readers are anticipating that meditation is either-or, or BOTH-AND and of course you would be correct.

To reach a higher state of conscious awareness one must first let go of the lower state. Just as you can't reach up to get something off a shelf if you are holding grocery bags in your hands. You first have to put the grocery bags down!

So the process of meditation necessarily involves an emptying of restless thoughts and a calming of agitated emotions, desires or attachments. The experience of emptiness is by no means passive or boring. In fact it is dynamic and thrilling, even if so deeply calm that those very words are inadequate to describe the experience. Thus it is that the goal of meditation is sometimes described in such terms. It's natural enough, for sure.

Since we accept that there "two kinds of" meditators, this must surely mean the "other" meditators are the opposite. Rather than to empty themselves, they seek to expand or fill their consciousness with a higher reality. Such aspire devotionally to worship or become One with the object of their devotions. Their approach to meditation might involve some preliminary chanting, then inward (perhaps mantric) chanting, visualizing their deity or guru and mentally placing themselves at the feet of their Lord!

In fact, a meditator can do both: first empty; then fill! And the filling need not be devotional. It can be mental or at least impersonal, such as visualizing a golden light, or an aureole of peace, compassion or tranquility. The filling can also be energetic rather than mental. This takes place when the object of meditation is to experience that dynamic vitality that enters the body and mind in a heightened state of consciousness.

(Just for the sake of completeness, I will acknowledge that meditation is practiced for health (physical and mental, including stress reduction) as well as the two main purposes outlined above. But in this case it still holds that one way or the other one is taught what to expect or to achieve and it's usually some variation of either emptiness or fullness in the forms of relaxation and/or happiness.)

There's another duality experienced by meditators. Take, for example, the experience of inner peace. One meditator may mentally reach up to and seek to BECOME peaceful while another meditator may want to relax and receive peace into himself. Both are valid and perhaps we could say that one represents an extrovert tendency and the other introvert---but those are just words and a way to express the difference in terms we might recognize from daily life.

In terms of ultimate spirituality (described as "enlightenment," "samadhi," "cosmic consciousness," Oneness and the like), some seek salvation as an end to mortal or egoic existence (usually in relation to suffering). Others seek it for the Bliss or joy it represents. Others, yet in order to share it with others. All of these are valid motivations. The only caveat is that rejection of life is contractive to our consciousness whereas Oneness with All necessarily is an expansion of consciousness. So the contractive part is equivalent to the emptying aspect of meditation.

Paramhansa Yogananda explained that the emptying experience precedes the filling of Divine Bliss. I've heard it said by other teachers that it is just the opposite: we get joy first, and then we transcend even that. Well, as Yogananda is my guru, naturally I "side" with him, but as my teacher, Swami Kriyananda puts it: who truly aspires to non-existence? Complete lack of feeling of any sort is equivalent to non-existence because feeling and consciousness are inextricably linked. So even logically and humanly speaking, Yogananda's promise of eternal joy in God is not only more attractive but it makes more sense. True, when a body dies, it would appear that the "end" of mortal existence is no-thing, but aren't appearances in this world deceiving?

Anyway I stray from the topic. A balanced form of meditation will focus on the emptying through methods of relaxation: yoga postures, energizing movements, diaphragmatic breathing and the like. This prepares the body-mind for expansion of consciousness using chanting, affirmation, visualization, and advanced pranayam practices such as kriya yoga.

However, transcendence comes through perfect stillness. It is not enough to "practice" meditation methods. When doing ceases, Being be-comes. Thus always leave time in your meditation sitting time to go beyond techniques of any kind and just BE. God in the Old Testament says "BE STILL AND KNOW THAT I AM GOD." Few people interpret the "I" of I AM as pertaining equally to our higher and true Self.

Finally, I will toss my hat into the ring by saying that as much as I enjoy the emptying and the thrill of silence, I find greater awakening and joy when I also offer myself at the feet of Infinity, and especially in the form of my guru whose eyes and image and feeling of his Presence I can detect when I invite him lovingly into my heart.

Yogananda taught us to be life affirming, not life negating. Ok, ego-negating to some degree, especially as it relates to selfishness or self-indulgence in the senses, but more generally to invite God into the summer of our lives. This means, among other things, into the summer of our active lives, dedicated to high and ethical ideals and actions.

Meditation is the quest for Joy! Blessings, Nayaswami Hriman