How to Meditate

By Sri Swami Venkatesananda

So many textbooks are available on meditation nowadays that everyone has some idea of what it is all about. In brief, meditation is the most wonderful adventure: ‘Discovery of self’. Meditation enables us to enjoy consciously the peace, happiness and revitalisation that we unconsciously have in sleep. Meditation lifts us above the cares and anxieties of our daily life, it enables us to overcome our moral weaknesses and evil habits and thus transform our very life. By dispelling ignorance, meditation removes all our morbid and childish fears and leads us to the hall of divine light, where we perceive our self as the immortal essence of all existence, where we realise that we are at once linked in a bond of eternal love with all creation. By enabling us to get in tune with this cosmic substratum and so with others, meditation gives us supernatural powers. Unless these powers (of whose existence we are not conscious and which we shall not deliberately use) become natural to us, they should be shunned as distractions.

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‘An ounce of practice is better than tons of theory’. The following simple procedure will in due course enable you to enjoy deep meditation

1. Select a calm, quiet, clean and secluded spot or a room or corner of a room in your house reserved for this purpose. Sit there (preferably facing east—the sun rises in the east—or north—there is a great power in the north pole), with a symbol of God or a lighted lamp or candle, placed at eye-level. The best posture is, of course, the lotus posture; if you cannot do this, sit in any comfortable posture with your body erect. The yogi wants you to keep the back straight. All sorts of interesting reasons have been given, and one might be of interest to you. If the small of the back is held in, your back is naturally straighter than before. It seems to promote alertness of the mind. The moment you slouch and the small of the back shoots backwards and the spine curves forward your alertness is gone. The best time to meditate is from 4 to 6 a.m., but if this is not possible do this as soon as you wake up. It is good to have a quick bath; if this is not possible (without loss of the good morning hour), have a quick wash of hands, feet and face.

2. Chant a few hymns or offer your own prayer (audibly) to the lord: this is like switching the radio on and tuning it. Raise the mind to a higher level. Imagine you are in the presence of god. This may appear to be self-hypnotism, but the results are astounding.

3. Become aware that you are seated in your room or wherever it is. You are now aware of even your body’s contact with the seat. The knowledge ‘I am sitting here’ ensures that the mind is also here and does not wander away. If the attention tends to wander, gently but firmly bring it back: ‘I am sitting here.’ Become aware of the sensation of the hands resting on your knees or in your lap. Immediately the attention is brought within the body and once the attention is narrowed down, the whole inside seems to be illuminated. You realise that just one thing is happening—breathing. You are breathing.

4. Chant ‘om’ deeply, concentrating on the solar plexus, feeling that the sound vibrations arise from there. Feel that these sound vibrations travel upwards towards the crown of the head, through the vagus nerve. They actually will. When they reach the throat-region close your lips and continue ommmmmmm and let the sound fade out at the crown of the head. Do this three or six times.

5. It is one of those ironies of life that we seem to be interested in so many wonderful things in this world without paying the least attention to the greatest wonder which is breathing. It is because we are breathing that we are alive, that we are able to enjoy life. It is a supreme wonder. Ask yourself: “What makes you breathe out and having exhaled—what makes you inhale again?” What makes one take the next breath, or in other words, how does the breathing go on? When you pay attention to this you have forgotten where you are sitting. That is, the attention has gone still deeper within yourself and is now ready to go even deeper down. Breathe normally, effortlessly. At the same time, close the glottis a little bit, so that the breath itself produces some sound. (It is not the vocal cords but the glottis that helps to produce this sound.) Let this sound also fade away and not stop abruptly. You will find that your mind follows this sound and “goes inwards.” You may do ujjayi or bhramari pranayama.

6. Breathe gently now. Watch the breath. Try to listen to it without producing any sound even with the throat. It is good to use a visualisation of the nadis in conjunction with the breathing to bring about more intense concentration of the mind. Visualise the inhaled breath flowing down the ida and the pingala nadis on both sides of the spine. Hold the breath (Kumbhaka) for just a moment. (Kumbhaka literally means ‘pot-like’, which alludes to the abdominal cavity being filled by the inhaled breath.) Visualise the exhaled breath ascending up the sushumna (the central channel), at the same time drawing the abdomen in and up, as in uddiyana bandha.

7. Now the only thing you are doing is breathing. That is the only action, motion, movement. Become aware of this. Let there be the inner awareness, “I am breathing,” and let this stop the mind from doing something else. Gently but firmly hold on to the awareness, “I am breathing”

8. Repeat your mantra (any name of god or sacred formula or ‘om’) as you breathe in and out, without straining the breath. Associate the mantra with the breath—this is the trick. Repeat it once while you breathe in and once while you breathe out. If the mantra is long, repeat half while inhaling and the other half while exhaling, without breaking it. Without tension you gently but actively keep listening to the mantra being heard within yourself. Become more and more deeply aware of this sound. Listen to it with all your heart, with all your attention.

9. Keep looking at the picture, symbol or the flame in front of you (that is what you have been doing all the time, at least from step 5 above) but transfer that symbol to within yourself. Feel that the image is in your own heart. See it there. Do not stare at the picture or flame in front; if you do, then your eyes will get tired and begin to smart. If you merely look without staring or focusing you will find that the symbol goes out of focus. Do not worry. Your eyes will not blink. They will not water or smart.

10. Now close your eyes if you like, and visualise that image of god clearly within your heart. Let it be radiant and living. If the mind tends to wander keep the eyes open, looking within.

11. Gradually let that image expand till it occupies your whole body, the room in which you are sitting and eventually the whole world. Feel this. Feel that you yourself are just a little part of god, one with him.

12. Sit like this for a minimum period of 20 minutes. (The preliminaries may take about 10 minutes.) Gradually increase this period.

13. After this period is over, offer a prayer to the lord for the health and long life of sick people (whom you can actually visualise in front of you) and the peace and prosperity of those who are suffering.

14. Get up slowly. Do not immediately run away. Take a few minutes before you leave the meditation room. Your mind and your nerves were extremely calm during this practice and if you suddenly jump out of that mood and rush into company, you might injure the nerves. This is very important.

15. You can practise this at other times, too—several times a day. Do not sit for this practice within two hours after a meal. Do not wear tight clothing.

16. Do not eat anything for half an hour after this practice. And do not take bath immediately either.

17. If you wish to do a few rounds of pranayama, you may do so before you start this meditation practice or soon after step 2 above. Bhastrika is useful.

If the mind wanders open your eyes, gaze at the picture and start all over again from step 5 above.

Japa (repetition of a mantra) itself will lead to meditation. The lord’s grace will lead you to meditation and samadhi.

If evil thoughts enter the mind, do not pay any attention to them. Let them depart, as uninvited guests will if totally ignored! Go on with your japa, visualising the lord in the heart. If the mind wanders, resort to mental worship; or, open your eyes again and gaze at the image.

It is very important to see that the body and mind are relaxed. There should be no tension anywhere. The posture of the body should be steady but not tense. The mind should be concentrated on the object with ease: otherwise, every extraneous thought entering the mind will also get fixed there! Let go your hold on the world and gently hold on to the thought of god.

The secret in meditation is to be active without effort. Usually we are either active and full of effort or we go to sleep. But there is a state which is the happy medium between the two—to be awake and alert, but without struggle.

In the initial stages of meditation it is possible that as soon as the mind is concentrated and you begin to do japa, something you had forgotten is recollected by the mind. If it pertains to the business of the day, the mind is distracted. It is therefore advisable (in the initial stages) to keep a piece of paper and pencil by your side and note these down, so that the mind may be reassured that they will not be forgotten again and that it could go on with the japa. Use your commonsense in overcoming such obstacles.

Several methods have already been suggested not only to offset obstacles but to keep the meditation alive and alert. The very best is of course to seek the source of the sound of the mantra that is heard, and then the identity of the one that listens to the mantra. If this method is mastered, no disturbances (internal or external) need distract you, because you know how to make use of any disturbance! Anything that happens inside or around you is only going to stimulate you to greater vigilance. If there is a distraction, this vigilance will confront it with the question, “I am watching my breath and repeating the mantra. From where do you come?” Thus, there are no obstacles at all from there onwards.

On no account should you give up the morning meditation and get up from your seat before the appointed time: if the mind knows that you are a hard taskmaster, it will meekly obey you.

One of the main reasons why this meditation exercise is performed in the early morning hours is because it is then that the ego-sense arises after the period of deep sleep earlier. It is therefore possible to ask oneself: “Where was this ego-sense a few minutes ago? How does it arise and what is its source?”

Even during the day, close your eyes every hour and consciously withdraw the mind from the world, repeat the mantra and meditate upon god for just a few seconds. Keep up the current. If you keep a small japamala (rosary) in your pocket, it will help.

By even attempting to practise meditation you will enjoy peace of mind and the ability to concentrate the mind at will wherever you are.

Another period of meditation just before going to bed is of incalculable benefit. It carries the fruits of meditation into the state of deep sleep. A great spiritual teacher said that if you restore order to the mind before you go to sleep, the mind is free to refresh itself thoroughly. Meditation restores order to the mind.

Of course all that has been described so far is no more than japa or the repetition of a mantra and the visualisation of what that mantra represents. These are effective aids—but in themselves they do not constitute meditation. The use of these aids is based on a simple and sound principle. The world outside is mainly name-and-form to us: the other sense stimuli are not so strong as the visual and the auditory. Our waking consciousness is dominated by sights and sounds. Our inner world is even more so. Our dreams (day dreams as well as night dreams) are also made up of these two. Objectivity is name and form. Hence, the student of yoga replaces the multitude of names and forms (worldly, exciting, emotion-generating and pain-ridden) by one name and form of god (divine, sublime, peace-giving and bliss-filled). This too is name and form, and this too is an object—though surely god is not a name and form, and god is not an object. Ultimately therefore even this will go; but pushing it is foolishness.

Used rightly, however, these aids turn out to be valuable. And, what is their right use?

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras suggest the following:

When the name and the form are perfectly steady, the student begins to question it. “Is this the reality? Is this the self? Is this god? Is it not my own imagination, the object of my thought, the projection of my mental conditioning?” This questioning is not just mental or intellectual exercise; it is much deeper, for by this time the mind is fully concentrated, the image is clear and steady, and the mind is calm.

The answer to all these questions is an obvious ‘yes’. However, the student does not abandon the whole thing and get up and walk away. He enters into himself even more deeply. The enquiry may continue along these lines: “This is not the self or the reality. But, then, what is it? How is the unuttered sound heard within: what is it made of? How do I see this image, where is it, and what is it made of?” Surely, there are no verbal answers to these questions! The sound is not made in the usual way (by the vocal cords, etc.). The image of god (or whatever it is that is chosen for the inner visualisation) is not there as a solid substance. What is it made of? ‘The mind-stuff’ is an unacceptable answer: it is an expression as meaningless as the other one we suggested to ourselves as an aid—‘god within’. To be meaningful it must be as real and as clear to you as this paper is. Thought answering a question concerning thought is waste of time. Hence, we pursue the enquiry by direct internal observation. The vital aspect of this part is to reject all thoughts concerning this phenomenon.

At this stage the observing consciousness looks steadily at the object. There is no movement of thought. There is great clarity. Suddenly it becomes clear that the object is but a reflection, a projection in the indivisible consciousness. Thus the division between the observer and the observed is abolished; and this gives rise to an experience of inner delight.

However, there is still movement in consciousness. Consciousness is still aware of itself: this is the original division which is therefore potential diversity. There is the awareness of ‘I am’ which can easily expand itself into ‘I am this’, ‘I am that’ etc. Hence, even this is known as samadhi with consciousness, or samadhi with the seed of diversification present.

Beyond this no effort on the part of the student is of any use, nor is it necessary. An effort is the expression of the ego, perpetuation of the division; abandonment of the effort is also the expression of the ego’s inability or unwillingness to reach this point. The ego-sense should reach this point and in total self-surrender abandon all effort to abolish division, in the knowledge that the ego itself is the creator of the division, it is itself the division. What happens beyond this the masters have alluded to as ‘divine grace’. Patanjali also speaks of god as what remains after the ordinary self-awareness ceases to be (purusha visheshah).

Awareness of division is the abolition of division. There is no division in the awareness which is undivided by the division. This position is not reached, it is not something to be attained: it is, it always is. When the dividing ego is seen to be incapable of dividing the indivisible, the shadow is seen as shadow; that which is is: it alone is—and that is kaivalya aloneness or all-one-ness, the knowledge that infinite diversity is infinite.

How this enlightenment takes place no one knows. At one moment this inner light begins to shine everywhere in your consciousness, and suddenly the ‘I’ has disappeared. It was not there in the first place. Only consciousness remains. Knowledge alone remains. Action alone remains. Seeing alone remains. Without the ego creating a division, a space between I and the other. When this light shines constantly within oneself, only then is one able to realise that what goes on inside is love; that that love is genuine and that that love is directed towards the omnipresence.

Articles by Swami Venkatesananda:

  1. Swami Venkatesananda — Guru and Disciple
  2. Swami Venkatesananda — How to Medidate
  3. Swami Venkatesananda — Word and Deed