Monday, May 26, 2014

Elements of Meditation: What You Need to Know (and Do)!

I have just completed leading this year's Meditation Teacher Training at the Institute of Living Yoga (part of Ananda Sangha in Bothell, WA). Many insights flow from nearly fifty hours of in-class practice and discussion of meditation among those who meditate. So it seems fitting to offer some basic thoughts about meditation. There are so many techniques that it can be overwhelming. I will attempt to summarize the process in its own natural flow from physical, mental to spiritual or, described slightly differently, from relaxation, to focus, to expansion of consciousness.

The Goal. It's so easy to be so caught up in the details of a meditation technique and routine that we forget the goal.

1.    Physical. To relax and retreat and withdraw from physical activities and involvement with the world around us and from the constant input of the senses.
2.    Mental. To release the mind from its ceaseless self-preoccupations and sense impressions so that it can be purely Self-aware, present, and mindful.
3.    Spiritual. To achieve a state of wholeness, of Being, of completeness. In such a state we feel connected and it is natural to feel loving toward all and to experience Life as conscious Joy, Love, and Peace.

The Practice. The practice, or the Way, follows the lead of the goal and the goal is embedded in the this "Way" the goal is not necessarily outside or beyond ourselves, nor is outside or beyond the Way, but within both.

1.    Physical. The goal, being embedded also in the body, must be stimulated and its memory reactivated. The body is sub-conscious. It operates on its own, somewhat independent level. We "use" the body and its functions for our own purposes, but it otherwise is designed to function largely on its own. Thus stopping all outer activities and jumping into our meditation asana (seat) is not normally how we begin. Instead we engage, activate, stimulate and awaken the body with some kind of mindful movements. Traditional yoga postures, Tai chi, and similar exercises are well known and highly recommended. Newer and in some ways more to the point, are the Energization Exercises such as we teach at Ananda. These were discovered and refined by our guru, Paramhansa Yogananda. You can see them demonstrated here, online at All such movements should be practiced with a meditative and mindful attitude in order to be effective.

2.    Mental But, first a word from our "sponsors":
1.    Focusing the mind inwardly and away from day to day preoccupations requires effort and purpose. It is essential to stimulate the desire for meditation, and, even more to the point, desire for the GOAL of meditation. Thus the traditional emphasis on devotion. For us to take any kind of action there has to be a need. A need implies something we don’t yet possess. This is true even if all the world’s teachings on meditation say that the goal is within us! Odd, isn’t it? This feeling of lack effectively creates an “I-Thou” relationship between the meditator and the goal of meditation. The feeling or surge of the “I” toward the “Thou” is called devotion, or perhaps the divine romance. “Thou” can be personal (guru, God, deity) or impersonal (peace, oneness, love) but, in the beginning, what we seek is necessarily “other.”

2.    It seems odd to define devotion but perhaps we could call it the internal, upward surge of the sincere seeker to achieve a state of Being transcendent of his own, separate ego awareness. There is, in other words, a directional aspect of meditation even if the goal, when realized, is already present at the heart of the complex outer matrix of our consciousness. Something of this intangible goal must already be within us, even if only dimly remembered; otherwise, we would not put out the effort to seek what we don't know. We necessarily begin with our ego awareness which is uncomfortable with its separateness (something is lacking). It seeks the full-filled state of Being. When the two becomes One, we find the One has always been, and, is here and now. But, why quibble? Meditative effort lies on the razor's edge between doing and being. It's a little like trying to remember a person's name: it's right there on "the tip of my tongue!"

3.    Intention and prayer Thus it is that, whether before our stretches or at the beginning of our sitting, we rekindle that devotion or feeling, that sense of yearning. Devotional chants, will-stimulating affirmations, a prayer, and other internal statement of intention is vital, lest we descend into the pleasant labyrinth of stream of consciousness images while meditating.

4.    Focusing the mind. So, now what? We are charged up but what do we DO? The greatest contribution Indian culture makes to humanity’s humanity is revealing how the breath affects our consciousness and vice versa. Just as with yoga postures, the position of the body can help induce a state of calmness and relaxation, so it is that controlling the breath rate and flow can do the same. But the initial stage of motivation is essential. There are innumerable breath control techniques. Using too many of them is self-defeating and the simplest is often just as good, perhaps better, than the more convoluted ones. One to three such techniques are best for daily use. At Ananda we’ll use one or two breath-control techniques to get centered, and one breath “watching” (non-control) technique to develop a steady, inward focus. In this way we go from ego control to letting go. There is a natural progression as the increasing slowness of breath rate eventually becomes so shallow that it begins to pause and momentarily cease. Rather than having the mind wait passively to enjoy the benefits of increased clarity and concentration, we also give the mind a mantra or affirmation so it too can participate. The mantra, timed with the breath, makes a powerful combination.[1]

3.    Spiritual. In the end, however, all techniques should cease as our heart, mind and consciousness rest in the Self. This can be described in an infinity of ways such as communing inwardly with peace. At first we feel and observe peace and enjoy it. By degrees and with non-effort we become peaceful and the sense of “I” diminishes. The same could be said of communing inwardly with the image or feeling of the guru’s presence; or God in one form or another.[2] Some would say this is a state of negation: stillness, perhaps. Others, expansion: communion, that is. The words are less important than the deep state of relaxation and satisfaction that steals upon us. At the end of our sitting time, we can share our spiritual blessings with healing prayers for others or in asking gently but confidently for guidance in our lives. The efficacy of these closing activities we leave to the higher Mind of Super-consciousness to work out (just as we leave behind techniques in order to receive the cleansing action of inner peace).

Which meditation technique is best? Aren’t there literally dozens and dozens of different breathing techniques and pre-sitting positions and movements? Yes, there are. But just as you don’t marry a dozen people but one, go “a-courtin’” and when you find your soul’s guide, marry and unite “happily ever after.” Once you do it will serve no good purpose to keep looking around.

The journey toward Self-realization cannot be known in advance any more than the rest of your future. It is not ours to say “It is this.” Or, “It is now finished.” We must act with faith and confidence, and also humility and receptivity. A dash of common sense and large dose of communal support, giving and receiving, are also vital, for we are not alone and we are not the first! There are those who know more than we. Be open to their guidance. Support those who support you in your spiritual journey and all will be well.

Begin the day with meditation. Carry on the day in the vibration of meditation. End the day giving it all back in meditation.


Swami Hrimananda!

[1] The more advanced kriya technique system works slightly differently where the kriya technique is the breath control technique and the letting go follows.
[2] To bridge from the doing into the state of being, it is often helpful to use imagery to focus the mind and heart. As the state of Being comes into focus and into our Being, we dissolve the image into Being.