Inner Quest by Pandit Rajmani Tugnait

  • By Pandit Rajmani Tugnait
  • May 2003

Moving Inward      
                                                        The Practice of Meditation

40. What is meditation? Why is it important?
If you want to learn about meditation, you first need to know something about concentration. According to yoga, concentration means focusing the mind on one object. An undisciplined mind - the kind most of us have - tends to shift continually from one object to another. Steadying the mind by focusing it on one object helps you to gradually overcome this ever-wandering habit of the mind. After prolonged practice, the mind is able to focus on one object for longer and longer intervals. When the mind remains concentrated on one object for a period of twelve breaths, this is called meditation. Thus, meditation can be defined as the uninterrupted flow of concentration.

The human mind has an infinite capacity to think systematically, to grasp things that seem to be beyond ordinary perception, and to gain knowledge instantly. It has the power to command not only the body and senses, but also the events that take place in the external world. Poor concentration - which stems from the mind’s own habits of unrestrained anxiety, craving, and attachment to its previous experiences - robs the mind of its infinite power. Without the ability to concentrate, the mind becomes weak and loses self-confidence and willpower. Meditation seems to be the only way to train the mind thoroughly and to bring it back to its natural state.

Meditation practice enables a human being to attain control gradually over the mental modifications (or thought constructs) that continually disturb the mind-field. Meditation is a systematic discipline for working with all faculties of the mind and organizing them in a manner that allows the meditator to become more efficient and creative, as well as more calm and peaceful.

Because the mind is connected to the body and the external world, any valid method of meditation also includes other disciplines, which may seem unrelated at first glance. These include a healthy diet, exercise, and a disciplined approach to interactions with others. That is why practicing the following principles in a balanced way is said to be part of a meditation practice:
Yama: the five restraints-non-harming, non-lying, non-stealing, moderating sensual gratification, and non-possessiveness.

Niyama: the five observances - purity, contentment, practices that bring about perfection of the body and the senses (acts that increase spiritual fervor), self-study, and surrender to the Ultimate Reality.

Asana: physical exercises or postures.
Pranayama: breathing exercises.
Pratyahara: withdrawing the senses and the mind from unwholesome objects.
Dharana: concentration.
Dhyana: meditation.
Samadhi: spiritual absorption, the culmination of meditation.

41. How can I begin to practice meditation?
The first step is to acknowledge that you want to be happy and healthy. Learn to distinguish temporary pleasure from real happiness, and then decide that you are going to attain happiness, maintain it, and enjoy it. When you have made that decision, examine your body and explore your physical strengths and weaknesses. This will give you some idea of where you need to work on yourself.

In the beginning, you may search for some support or instruction from others, but ultimately you must do this work by yourself. On the path of meditation, you must not lean on others, not even your teacher. Meditation is self-therapy, and the aspirant must attain freedom from the teacher right from the start.

Once you begin to overcome your body’s stiffness and learn to relax, you will notice that your breathing pattern is irregular. So the first step is to work with your breath and replace shallow, chest breathing with deep diaphragmatic breathing. Deep diaphragmatic breathing will relax and soothe your body, because when you regulate the motion of your diaphragm, it regulates the function of your lungs. This in turn affects the function of the heart and the entire circulatory system. Ultimately, diaphragmatic breathing will bring the functions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and the left and right hemispheres of the brain into harmony.

When you have mastered diaphragmatic breathing, your body may still be stiff in places, but this discomfort will not disturb your breath. Rather, the disturbances in your breath can be traced directly to your mind. Every single ripple of thought that arises in the mind-field creates a jerk in the breathing pattern. When your awareness becomes refined enough to notice this, it is time to begin to learn the more subtle aspects of meditation-that is, how to deal with the mind and its modifications.

Before jumping into the practice of sitting in meditation, it is advisable to learn a systematic method of relaxation. Lie on the floor. Survey your body and relax it one point at a time. For example, first think of your forehead. Notice the tension you are holding there; relax and release it. If you are unaware of the tension or don’t know how to release it, deliberately create tension in your forehead, notice how it feels, and then release the tension and observe the contrast.

Using this technique, go from your forehead, to your jaw, throat, shoulders, arms, chest, stomach, hips, thighs, calves, ankles, and toes, and then reverse the direction and bring your awareness back to your forehead, point by point, beginning with your toes. Then bring your attention to your navel center and notice your abdominal muscles rise and fall as you inhale and exhale. When your breath has become completely calm and tranquil, come into a seated position slowly and gently.

You will notice that the effort of sitting up has disturbed the calmness of your breath to some degree. Reestablish that calmness by again watching your abdomen move in response to your breath. Continuing to maintain that tranquility, be aware of your spinal column, and keep your head, neck and trunk straight. If you are sitting on the floor, arrange your legs so that you are comfortable and rest your hands on your knees. If you are sitting in a chair, be sure to sit forward on the chair, rather than leaning against the back. Place your hands palms down on your things and allow both feet to rest flat on the floor.

To withdraw your mind from unwelcome thoughts, simply resolve to watch your breath. Observe your breath as it flows from your nostrils to your heart center and from your heart center back to your nostrils. This is called breath - awareness meditation. It is the simplest and most effective method of meditation in the initial stages of practice and will help you calm your mind and balance the active and passive energies in your body.

Beyond this point of practice, it is important that you receive instructions from an experienced teacher to reduce the chance that you will be wasting your time.

42. Why is it so important to sit with your head, neck, and trunk straight when you meditate?
There are three main reasons why it’s important to sit with your head, neck, and trunk straight when you practice meditation.

1. This is the healthiest and most comfortable way of sitting. In this pose, the spine is stretched up, the chest is expanded, and the head is held in place effortlessly. Due to the straight spine and expanded chest, the lungs, heart, and the diaphragm work efficiently and in a relaxed manner.

The weight of the whole body is centered on the base of the spine and distributed through the buttocks. This creates pressure on the bottom of the spine and the pressure, in turn, creates heat. As the heat increases, the pranic force at the base of the spine expands and rise. Because the spine is straight, the pranic energy flows freely upward along the spinal column toward the head, burning up sloth and inertia while providing nourishment to the organs located between the base of the spine and the top of the head. as a result, anyone sitting in this pose will be relatively free from sloth, heaviness, and inertia, yet will remain relaxed.
2. At the base of the spine, between the first and second chakras, an energy channel called the kurma nadi originates. It runs all the way to the hollow of the throat and regulates the stability of the body and mind.

According to yogic mythology, there is an enormous and powerful kurma (tortoise) on whose back sits shesha naga (the cosmic snake). This snake has a thousand heads and it holds the earth on one of them. When it shifts the earth from one head to another, earthquakes occur. The most powerful earthquakes come when the tortoise-who holds the snake who is holding the earth-moves slightly.

The root of the kurma nadi is the tortoise. The stability of the spine (the shesha naga) and all that is centered around it depends on the strength of the kurma nadi. By keeping the head, neck, and trunk straight and sitting in a meditative pose, one attains firmness in the energy that is controlled by the kurma nadi.
3. Sitting in the same pose every day is a way of training our bodies and minds to be aware of the Truth on which we meditate. The pose and the practice that goes with it are instrumental in the formation of a fruitful meditative habit. The following story illustrates the point.

Once upon a time there was a student. He was sincere, hardworking, and quite intelligent. But his teacher was somewhat bewildered because this young man seemed completely incapable of giving the correct answers in the classroom. The teacher spent extra time with him, reviewing each lesson again and again and asking, “Do you follow? The student would always say, “Yes sir.” But the next day, his mind again seemed blank. Finally one day the teacher lost his temper and kicked the student so hard that the poor fellow fell down. (Thank God this didn’t happen in the West-a lawsuit would have been filed.)

As the student rolled on the ground his memory returned and he recited the entire lesson flawlessly. The teacher immediately understood the problem and admonished him: “Son, study your lessons sitting with your head, neck and trunk straight, not reclining on your bed.”

Time, space, and causation are basic conditionings of the mind. How we sit and where we sit creates a deep groove in the mind. It is important; therefore, to sit for meditation every day and to sit in the same meditative pose each time. The best pose is the one in which the head, neck, and trunk remain in a straight line.

43. Does what I eat affect my meditation practice?
Yes, food has a great effect on the quality of our meditation. Only food that is sattvic is conducive to meditative awareness. Sattvic food is fresh, light, and nutritious. It is cooked and seasoned so that it still retains its vitality. Heavily processed food is not sattvic. On of the indications of whether food retains its vitality is if it keeps its original fragrance, flavor, color, and texture after it has been prepared. It should not lose its identity during the cooking process. However, even fresh food that is light, properly cooked, and nutritious, remains sattvic only if it is eaten in the right proportion, at the right time, and with the right attitude of mind.

Just as we carry the subtle impressions (samskaras) of our deeds, food also carries samskaras. Food assimilates samskaras from a variety of sources: fertilizers, water, soil, and air. The most powerful samskaras are created by how food is harvested and how it is handled from the time it leaves the field or orchard until the time it reaches your table. When food is mass - produced and we get it from super-markets, we have very little control over these conditions. It is difficult to get reliable information about how the food has been grown, harvested, and handled. Thus, it is almost impossible to determine whether the food is sattvic. The best solution is to eat organic fruits, vegetables, and grains and to try to get your dietary needs met as close to the source as you can. Two ways of doing this are buying from local farmers and growing some of your own food. With packaged food, my experience is that the shorter the list of ingredients and additives, the better the quality.

If we want to live happy, healthy, and spiritually productive lives, we must overcome our taste for modern luxuries and learn to live on a diet of rice and other whole grains, dahl (legumes), vegetables, dairy products, and fruit. Reducing our intake of soft drinks, fake juice, and popular snacks that are loaded with sugar and salt will automatically increase our intake of sattvic food.

Eating sattvic food makes the body light and bowel movements regular, and improves the function of our liver and kidneys. When the body is comfortable, the mind feels good. A cheerful mind is needed for meditation.

44. Is it possible to have a good meditation practice and still eat meat?
Meat is not something terrible. A vegetarian diet is not the sole - or even the most important - criterion for being a yogi. However, the type of meat that is available in markets is not pure meat it contains chemicals that have come either from the animals themselves or from the butchering, processing, and preserving process. When we eat this meat, we are also taking these chemicals into our bodies.

Because animals have a more evolved consciousness than plants, meat products carry more powerful samskaras, and eating them invites these animal tendencies into our system. Plants are also alive, but because their self-identity is less evolved, their samskaras are less powerful. Therefore, with a vegetarian diet we get vitality from the food we eat, but are less affected by the samskaras of what we eat. If you read about the origin of the meat that is available today - how the animals are raised and fed, and how the meat comes to the market - you will not eat meat, regardless of whether or not you have any interest in meditation.
But to answer your question directly, depending on how sincerely you practice and how you arrange other factors that are an integral part of meditation, you can have a good meditation even if you eat meat. However, just as the food we eat is the most important factor in our health, it is also crucial to spiritual development. A balanced vegetarian diet, one that provides enough protein and vitamin B12, is more conducive to meditation than a non - vegetarian diet. Compared to most components of a vegetarian diet, meat is not sattvic.

43 A. Famous texts, such as the Hatha yoga Pradipika, advise practitioners to include an ample amount of ghee, other milk products, fruit, and sweets in their diet. But today we read everywhere that to stay healthy a person should avoid fat and sugar.
We have abused ourselves so much by indulging in excessive eating and other unhealthy habits that we no longer deserve to eat good, sweet, rich, delicious food. But the time many people become health-conscious, they have already consumed enough sugar, fat, and salt to last several lifetimes! That is why in modern times, students who start their yoga practice late in life must confine themselves to low fat milk, skim milk, or perhaps even whey. To make up for the damage they have caused to their kidneys, liver, heart, and circulatory and nervous systems, they must stick to a pure, sattvic diet-one that contains the least possible amount of fat, salt, and sugar.

Some people have been fortunate enough to have missed all these luxuries or, driven by Providence or by their innate inspiration, began leading a healthy, yogic lifestyle at an early age. The ancient dietary prescriptions still apply to such people. It all depends on your physical condition. For someone with a normal, healthy body and mind, yogic prescribe three different sets of dietary rules at three different stages of practice. Swami Rama has distilled the essence of the dietary instructions found in the ancient yoga manuals and presented them in Volume 1 of his book, Path of Fire and Light, as follows:

Diet During Beginning Levels of practice. Normally, this is a balanced vegetarian diet, based on grains with legumes (dhal), fresh-cooked green vegetables, fresh milk products and fresh, raw fruit. Ghee is used sparingly as a cooking medium. A variety of seasonings and spices may be used, but harsher spices, such as chili peppers, raw onions, or garlic, are avoided.

Diet During Intermediate Levels of Practice. At this level, diet will be based on specific grains, usually wheat and barley, which are often friend in ghee with mild spices, such as ginger, and which may be cooked with sugar. Legumes are used less frequently and may be restricted to fresh (not dried) beans such as chana (which is similar to garbanzos). Fruits and milk play an increasing role.

Diet During Advanced Intensive Practice. When advanced practices are being done, most solid foods are dropped, though fresh fruit may still be taken in moderation. Milk, especially milk rich in butterfat, becomes the focal point of the diet, and is taken, as always, after boiling. It may be combined with water, spices, or sugar.

45. When should I meditate and for how long?
The best time to meditate is in the early morning. Wake up before sunrise. Before beginning your meditation, empty your bladder and bowels and brush your teeth. Take a bath or shower, if you wish, and spend a few minutes stretching or doing some gentle asana.

In the beginning, meditate only as long as you enjoy it. Don’t push your self beyond your capacity or make meditation a chore. Simply form a habit of meditating regularly - ten or fifteen minutes a day is a good start.

Later, try to meditate in the evening as well as in the morning. It’s best to meditate at a set time, but if this is not possible, make a habit of meditating just before you go to bed. Again, ten or fifteen minutes are enough in the beginning. Once you are accustomed to meditating for a short period, gently begin to expand your capacity by gradually lengthening the time that you spend in meditation.

46. Where should I focus my attention during meditation?
If you have a weak constitution, suffer from digestive problems, fatigue easily, or have a weak immune system, then the manipura chakra (the navel center) is the best focal point. The anahata chakra (the heart center) is good for those students with a predominantly emotional orientation who want to transform and channel their emotions for communion with the Divine. Concentration at the vishuddha chakra (the throat center) can be beneficial for those inclined toward the creative arts. For those with a primarily intellectual orientation, focusing on the ajna chakra (the center between the eyebrows) is best.

But of all these places, the best focal point is sahasrara chakra (the crown center). However, leading the mind systematically to the crown center and maintaining your attention there is an exact method that requires precise instruction from a competent teacher. Don’t focus at the crown center unless you have received clear instruction to do so, or you feel a natural and spontaneous pull toward that chakra. 

Remember that these are just general guidelines; various systems of meditation provide specific guidelines. For example, in certain Buddhist and Zen schools of meditation, the breath is used as a focal point. In mantra meditation, the nature and unique characteristics of the specific mantra into which you are initiated usually determine the center on which to focus.

In traditions that use mantra meditation, the most appropriate center for focusing your attention is the one to which you are directed by the grace of the master or the grace of the mantra. If you are initiated by a teacher who has been blessed with the living wisdom of a spiritual tradition, then the mantra itself becomes your guide.

Mantra is a self-conscious, self-illumined force. The eternal flow of love and Divine compassion in the form of sound knows which mantra is best for you and why. If you have not received clear instruction from your teacher about where to focus, simply allow your mind to be led by the power of your mantra.

47. People talk about psychic experiences in meditation. What is the meaning of these experiences?
Psychic experiences are a signal that you are moving in the right direction. They come and go. Such experiences can inspire you and reassure you that you are making progress. Like any experience, they last for a specific period of time-two minutes, five minutes-and vanish. But before they vanish, they leave a strong and delightful impression on your mind. It is important to assimilate these experiences and use them to strengthen your faith. This will help keep you moving along the path.

However, many people cannot distinguish between truly spiritual experiences and hallucinations. No matter how unusual or supernormal an experience is, if it does not add to the purity of your heart or the one-pointed ness of your mind, then it should be ignored. A spiritual experience is always illuminating and uplifting. If you do not find these characteristics in your so-called psychic experiences, then simply disregard them. And even if you do find these characteristics, do not become complacent. Keep practicing and keep yourself open to the next and higher level of experience. This is an ongoing journey. You are infinite, your journey is infinite, and the experiences you gain along the path are also infinite. Don’t get stuck with the experiences you have had; there are many more to come.

48. How do I know whether I am making progress in meditation? How can I progress faster?
There are two ways of knowing. The first is to observe how much mastery you have gained over your thoughts and emotions both in meditation and in your daily life. Do you become agitated and disturbed as easily as you did before you started your meditation practice? When you are disturbed, how long does it last?

Let’s say that before you started meditating, if you had a fight with someone in your office, you would still be upset when you got home. That feeling might have lasted the whole evening, making it difficult for you to enjoy your family. Now if you have an unpleasant encounter with a colleague, you wash your hands of it when you walk out of the office and are fully present with your family when you get home. That is progress.

When you sit for meditation, distracting thoughts from the day may flit through your mind. If your automatic response is, “Oh, who cares? This is my meditation time,” that is a good sign. But if you find yourself caught up in your thoughts, turning events and conversations over in your mind instead of paying attention to your object of concentration, you are not making much progress. In that case you need to practice non-attachment to further vitalize your meditation. Remind yourself that all these events and objects are parts of the material world and are ultimately not valuable. Cultivate the knowledge that life is not confined to the realm of the material. When this knowledge becomes vibrant and alive, you are making progress in meditation.

The second sign of progress is that you miss it you don’t do it. Let’s say you begin your day without meditating. All day long you hear a whisper from the depths of your heart, “I have not done my meditation.” When you sit down in the evening to meditate, the intensity of your meditation is markedly increased, and you think, “Thank God, I have time to meditate.” This is a good sign. If you miss you meditation, but the thought of it lingers in your mind, it means you have fallen in love with meditation and are making good progress.

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