Meditation is being spoken of much more widely today than in the past. Granted it is necessary, how is it to be practised?
In the West, and for Western people attracted to the East, it would seem that the cart is being put before the horse. And how can the cart go straight if the propelling power cannot see ahead? In the present unsettled state of the youth of the world, anything that frees the consciousness from the mundane world where control is the essence of happiness will make a strong appeal, but the vital question will remain—What is life for? And the corollary—Who or what is man?
The system of Yoga expounded by Patanjali in the sixth or seventh century B.C. is there for all to try and follow, but it is difficult, for it demands attention to every aspect of life.
He begins with the student as he is, just as Krishna began with Arjuna where he was—a prey to misconceptions and therefore not knowing what were the right actions to be performed. That is where we too have to start—with what we know of ourselves, with our mind and ideas as they are. It is not meditation that we need first. Even the Buddha put meditation as the last step on his Noble Eightfold Path. What is first needed is the power to concentrate. But what is concentration? Concentration has to do with the mind we know and use, the mind that flits from object to object, pleasant or unpleasant, and the control of which is indeed difficult, as the Gita points out. Patanjali gives us a good expression by which we can understand this flitting; he calls it the "modification of the thinking principle." The mind becomes, as it were, modified or transformed into the subject or object that engages its attention. By reason of this tendency to diffuseness, it is not able to keep to one object or idea.
The mind is, therefore, full of objects, desires and ideas—all of which are forms—which we think about or which flit into our sphere of awareness and out again. The difference between this state of diffuseness and that of concentration is this: When we are fully concentrated the soul is in a state of being wholly devoid of taint of, or impression by, any object or subject, and is therefore aware or wakeful even when there is nothing to be aware of. When, on the other hand, we are not concentrated, the soul is, as it were, altered into the form of the object or subject that comes before the mind.
We should note that the mind Patanjali is here referring to is the mind as we know it and work with in ordinary life; and soul is not Atma or Spirit, but that aspect of the higher Manas which is active in Buddhi. It is impossible to follow this system of Yoga unless we start from the known, and all we know is the mind we use. We learn of the higher mind or soul, but faith in it grows within us as we progress and make the necessary effort.
The idea Patanjali gives us, that "at the time of concentration the soul abides in the state of a spectator without a spectacle," is very important because it points to a state of awareness and not of blankness. The difference between these conditions is like that between a man asleep in a dark room and one awake in a dark room. In both cases there are no objects that can be seen, but in the one case there is no sense of alertness, while in the other case the mind is in a state of conscious awareness, activity, receptivity.
It is not enough, therefore, just to sit for meditation—with or without a seed idea. The first stage is to find out just what it is that modifies the mind and prevents concentration. Peculiar as it may seem, the mind flits not only to that which is pleasant, but also to that which is unpleasant. It is not enough to blot out the unpleasant and be "modified" by the pleasant; we must remain "unmodified" by both.
Patanjali tells us that there are five different kinds of modifications of the mind. These have to do with our life as we know it. They are: Correct Cognition, Misconception, Fancy, Sleep and Memory. The last one is perhaps the hardest to "hinder," yet without this "hindering" concentration is not possible.
There are three ways by which we can learn to cognize correctly—by direct perception, using our senses and sense-organs; by reasoning and inference; and by learning from what others have observed or reasoned out. Without the use of these three we are apt to misconceive everything and be led astray.
Fancy is an idea based on no real foundation and on the literal interpretation of words. This is a commom state of man today. Opinions are based on hearsay, on newspaper reports, etc.; political, social and medical assertions are accepted freely without study or reflection. Just as, not "Behold, I know," but "Thus have I heard" should be our attitude, so in ordinary life we should not imitate or accept others' opinions blindly, but should say, "So-and-so states this or that." Only when we know a thing by personal and vigorous study of it are our opinions of any value to us, or to others.
Sleep we can understand, but we are sometimes "asleep" even when awake, that is, when we are passive, when we note nothing, desire or feel nothing, think nothing.
Memory, as said, is our worst enemy. Once something is imprinted on the mind, it is difficult to efface it. Sometimes the subject or object imprinted is so alive that it keeps impinging upon our waking awareness any and every time the mind is not otherwise engaged. Even when apparently forgotten, it can be recalled. Yet this modification of the mind must be "hindered" if success in meditation is to be achieved. As The Voice of the Silence says:
Thou hast to reach that fixity of mind in which no breeze, however strong, can waft an eathly thought within. Thus purified, the shrine must of all action, sound, or earthly light be void; e'en as the butterfly, o'ertaken by the frost, falls lifeless at the threshold—so must all earhly thoughts fall dead before the fane.
Yet we have to cultivate one kind of memory, for if we forget SELF, the Soul will "lose o'er its trembling mind control, and forfeit thus the due fruition of its conquests."
Some systems of yoga start with this idea and concentrate on the SELF, but Theosophy teaches that no rung in the ladder of control can be missed. What is apparently conquered in one life may yet spring up in times of crisis and destroy our concentration. Therefore Patanjali says that concentration must be learnt by repeated or uninterrupted effort, with a firm position assumed with regard to the end in view. We must never give up. What will make us never give up? Nothing but the absence of desire. Desire often implies tension, struggle to obtain, while the real condition to be attained is dispassion, indifference to all else but Soul.
These are easy words, but what is the Soul? Let us remember that it stands for that which has nothing to do with the life of the senses and desires, the ordinary life that most of us lead. Soul is different from everything we know. Hence our difficulty. We have to begin to learn what Soul is by finding out what it is not.Once again Patanjali makes us start from what we have some glimmering of in our mind, however faint it be. After describing different types of meditation, he says that "the state of abstract meditation may be attained by profound devotedness toward the Supreme Spirit considered in its comprehensible manifestation as Ishwara." And he goes on to tell us who, or what, Ishwara is. The Gita also gives a wonderful description of the Supreme Spirit (Chapter XIII). In the same chapter, Krishna, speaking of "true wisdom of a spiritual kind," lists the virtuous qualities, which include a meditation upon things we know, such as birth, death, decay, sickness and error, and ends with the statement that "it is a never-ceasing love for me alone...a resolute continuance in the study of Adhyatma, the Superior Spirit, and a meditation upon the end of the acquirement of a knowledge of truth...."
These words were spoken after Arjuna had the spiritual vision vouchsafed to him. Before that, he had been told to fix his meditation upon the Higher Self. It is with such meditation, which gives us an idea of something beyond what we now know, that begins the path of progress toward a full realization of Ishwara as the Higher Self. As it is the Higher Self of us all, the idea of separateness that we have must be dispelled. Once we have studied all we can about Ishwara and gained some knowledge of what Spirit is, the obstacles in the way of concentration fade away of themselves.
But these obstacles have to be recognized before they can be destroyed. They concern the body—sickness, languor, laziness; the emotions—doubt, carelessness, addiction to objects of sense; and the mind—erroneous perception, inability to reach the abstract, and weakness of will which renders us incapable of holding on to any state even when we have reached it. These difficulties or obstacles bring grief, distress, trembling and sighing. Reversing the process, when we suffer from these states we should search for their causes.
As for conquering them, that should not be too difficult if we concentrate on what we already know for ourselves to be true, and increase our faith in it. Any accepted truth which we approve should be dwelt upon. Knowledge of things not known today will come naturally to us as we increase our concentration on what we do know, with faith and without doubt or distress.
We can overcome all obstacles by our attitude to life. As The Voice of the Silence says, "To live to benefit mankind is the first step." We must practise benevolence, tenderness and complacency, and remain unruffled by opposites like happiness and misery. To develop the mental attitude of higher indifference is to purify the mind.
We have to learn to steady the mind, hinder its modifications, and pay attention, conscious attention, only to those things we desire to know. To help us to see what happens when we do not do this, Patanjali reminds us that the mind becomes that on which it dwells. Hence we should dwell on what we desire, exercising control.
When the mind changes into the likeness of that which it ponders upon, it reaches what is called the "argumentative condition." In this condition, the mind is intent upon an object selected for meditation, whether gross or subtle, the significance of that object, its application, and the abstract knowledge of the qualities and elements of the thing itself. When the designation of the object and its meaning have disappeared from the mind, and the abstract thing itself is meditated upon, that is the "non-argumentative condition." The word "argumentative" is interesting. The dictionary says that it means "controversial," which implies that we have different opinions on a subject. Only when we get to the essence can these controversial aspects disappear. As The Voice of the Silence says: "...thou hast to feel thyself ALL-THOUGHT, and yet exile all thoughts from out thy Soul."
When we have learnt to reach the "non-deliberative" mental state, we attain that spiritual clearness in which knowledge which is completely free from error becomes ours. This knowledge has nothing to do with the knowledge gained by inference or from anyone's testimony, for the latter has to do with particulars and not with the field of knowledge itself. The train of self-reproductive thought stops all other trains of thought.
Beyond this kind of meditation, called "meditation with its seed"—for there is a definite object selected for the mind to dwell upon—there is a higher stage where no thought-seed is present. The mind-soul passes beyond the need for an object or a seed, and the abstract state is reached. The recognition of the object or subject ceases and the mind grasps the essence.
After all this, which is the foundation of meditation, and has therefore to be kept in mind throughout, Patanjali passes to the practical means of concentration. In Book III he deals directly with the stages of meditation. Each Book describes in greater detail what has been sketched in Book I. Our first step is that daily concentration which is outlined in Book I. But let us examine our motive for such study.
In the individual, man is conscious of the vast superiority of Nature; but when once he becomes conscious that he is part of an indivisible and indestructible whole, he knows also that the whole of which he is part stands above nature....Let him once touch on the power which comes from knowing himself as part of the human spirit, and nothing can crush him by its greatness.