Summons to Meditation
Near the beginning of The Voice of the Silence we read, “The Mind is the great Slayer of the Real. Let the Disciple slay the Slayer.” This is a summons to meditation. Philosophically, of course, nothing can kill or destroy the Real, because the highest reality is changeless. According to the Bhagavad-Gita, the weapon cannot cleave it, fire cannot burn it, water cannot corrupt it, and the wind cannot dry it away. However, our awareness of that reality can be slain. Meditation may be thought of as the means whereby lost awareness of reality is restored and strengthened. In the Katha Upanishad one reads, “The Self-Being pierced the opening outwards; hence one looks outward, not within himself. A wise man looked towards the Self with reverted sight, seeking deathlessness. Children seek after outward desires; they come to the net of widespread death. But the wise, beholding deathlessness, seek not for the enduring among unenduring things.”
A rational appeal can be made for meditation as an antidote to a condition of distraction and mindlessness which exacerbates suffering. How do we experience and understand this condition? We tend to take the mind for granted, and relate to the world from the mind. We identify with, and solidify, the present configuration of our likes and dislikes (which are, in truth, temporary and relative). We readily act out and reinforce semi-conscious thought habits. We multiply our desires, and then fragment our attention pursuing outward objects looking for satisfaction. In the event that we are successful, that satisfaction is only momentary, as conditions change and desire is renewed. We attempt to flee dissatisfaction, which roots us in a sense of lack and inadequacy. Frustration is a constant companion, and anger flashes as the grievances we nurse against people and conditions boil over. We could assume, of course, that this is just how life is. But wisdom has always pointed to an alternative. If instead of taking the mind for granted and acting from that mind, we were to address and discipline the mind itself, we would experience another way of being. It is as if we lived our lives in a darkened room, looking to the world through day-lit windows. Our eyes are drawn to the light coming from the outside, but our feet stumble over a disarray of furniture and clutter that we cannot see. Mindfulness turns on the interior light, the first step in meditation, mind attending to mind.
But here it can be asked, if mind is the problem how can mind be the solution? Mind is only the problem because it has abdicated its responsibilities of wakefulness, critical thinking, and moral awareness. Mind given to short-sighted desire is the producer of illusion. When we say mind attending to mind, we mean mindfulness supplanting the dreamy distorted perceptions of mindlessness. Furthermore, theosophical teaching advances seven layers or principles to man, including a spiritual Self greater than mind. This is important because it means that man is not unaided in his efforts to master the mind. And once mastered, this mind serves as the instrument for the wise and compassionate spirit within. Put another way, the unenlightened mind is slave to the senses and a feeling of isolated egotism, but it may be disciplined to serve the purpose of the soul.
The system postulates that Ishwara, the spirit in man, is untouched by any troubles, works, fruit of works, or desires, and when a firm position is assumed with the end in view of reaching union with spirit through concentration, He comes to the aid of the lower self and raises it gradually to higher planes.
Preface, Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms
In his book, Why Meditate?, Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard points to the meaning of Asian words that are often translated to the English word ‘meditation.’ The Sanskrit bhavana means “to cultivate,” while the Tibetan gom means “to become familiar with.” Ricard writes, “Meditation helps us to familiarize ourselves with a clear and accurate way of seeing things and to cultivate wholesome qualities that remain dormant within us unless we make an effort to draw them out.” Ricard, who frequently serves as French translator for H.H. the XIV Dalai Lama, has advanced the Dalai Lama’s efforts to articulate rational and secular approaches to ethics and meditation. One needn’t become a Buddhist to benefit from Buddhist wisdom; in fact, the Dalai Lama has explicitly advised Westerners to stay within their own traditions, and work to vitalize those traditions along the lines of wisdom. A prominent interest in ‘mindfulness’ has sprung up in recent decades, spawning publications and classes, but also medical research on the brain, the immune system, and the emotions. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has studied the effectiveness of mindfulness on reducing stress, and helped to mainstream MBSR or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction practice, which draws on Buddhist techniques for calming and stabilizing the mind. Already a cultural shift is evident. As awareness grows that attitudes and ideas powerfully influence quality of life experience, and dissatisfaction is not entirely a function of circumstance, individuals are turning to the wisdom of mental training.
A traditional Tibetan metaphor well illustrates two important qualities of the meditative mind. If one wished to carefully scrutinize intricate cave paintings, a bright and steady lamp is required. If the lamp were dim, even if steady, the colors would be lost. If that lamp were bright, but the flame unsteady, vision would be distorted. So too the mind; meditative exercises aim to both brighten and stabilize thought. The flighty, changeable quality of thought is characterized in the Bhagavad-Gita “as difficult to tame as the wind.” Yet, Krishna insists, it may be tamed gradually by practice. The aphorisms of Patanjali define yoga as the hindering of mental modifications, and advocate dispassion and exercise as the twin means. “Exercise is the uninterrupted, or repeated, effort that the mind shall remain in its unmoved state.” Although advanced meditators do not require special circumstances, beginners are advised to establish a regular time and quiet place, as free as possible from distractions. Thus the flame of the lamp is steadied when guarded from external breeze.
A steady external discipline brings to light internal changes which otherwise go unnoticed. There is no way to make progress in meditation without assessing the present condition of the mind. Our ordinary uncritical absorption in the flow of events and mental states only reinforces reactive patterns and habits. Consciousness is embedded in a self-woven web of prejudice, what the Buddha called ‘the cocoon of false discriminations.’ The mind, which is capable of enlightened creativity and power, is instead prostituted to the retention of ignorance. Attention is hijacked by involuntary plunges into memory and anticipations about the future. We obsess about perceived wounds and slights from others. We rehearse arguments of defense and prosecution within our heads. Thus it is necessary for one to break away from compulsive cerebration, and develop skill at directing attention where one wills. The most elementary technique in meditation, taught in all schools of Buddhism, is mindfulness of the breath. By deliberately placing attention on the sensation of the rising and falling abdomen, or the brush of air through the nostrils, one is withdrawing it from compulsive and semi-conscious trains of thought. It is only then that one may observe one’s vulnerability to distraction. One is advised to observe not only the object, but also the ‘tether’ of one’s attention to the object. Inevitably, that tether will give way, and one will find oneself lost in mental fantasy. The moment one becomes aware of this, one is instructed to simply return to the object of attention. It is important to avoid reactions and analyses of the distraction, for this only adds further impediment. Distraction is not to be regarded as failure, but rather one is to rejoice every time one ‘wakes’ to the fact that distraction has occurred. And then directly and efficiently return the mind to the object. In time one discovers that distractions feed on attention, and as they are starved out they are weakened, until they gradually disappear.
The discursive mind is especially greedy as an attention glut. Few objects of fantasy carry such compelling momentum as rehearsed argument. One of the manifestations of craving or ‘trishna’ is the effort to secure a sense of personal completion through argument. Just as it is difficult to renounce ‘the last word’ in heated interactions with others, it is difficult to turn one’s back on an internal mental argument. Obsessive worries, which have revolved hundreds of times in the head, suddenly intrude during meditation with urgent attraction and the false promise of being immanently solvable. But like an irrational number, the remainder is interminable. Meditation offers the ‘solution’ of transcendence. Underneath the discursive mind is a sense of eternal completion, that ever IS, irrespective of cycles and forms. The essential Self, the abstract ‘I’, can neither gain nor lose by mental phenomena. As one progresses and experiences separation from the discursive mind, a new horizon of consciousness is revealed. Logic, argument and language are valuable assets. But they are tools of consciousness; they should not enslave the mind. It is possible to gain skill engaging and disengaging the discursive mind.
Meditation, then, is the inner path, the way to self-knowledge. Ricard, in his book Happiness, A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, writes, “Buddhism distinguishes between an innate, instinctive ‘I’—when we think, for instance, ‘I’m awake’ or ‘I’m cold’— and a conceptual ‘self’ shaped by the force of habit.” H.P. Blavatsky, who studied in Tibet in the mid-nineteenth century, elucidates this same important distinction.
We distinguish between the simple fact of self-consciousness, the simple feeling that “I am I,” and the complex thought that “I am Mr. Smith” or “Mrs. Brown.” . . . “Mr. Smith” really means a long series of daily experiences strung together by the thread of memory, and forming what Mr. Smith calls “himself.” But none of these “experiences” are really the “I” . . . nor do they give “Mr. Smith” the feeling that he is himself, for he forgets the greater part of his daily experiences, and they produce the feeling of Egoity in him only while they last. We Theosophists, therefore, distinguish between this bundle of “experiences,” which we call the false (because so finite and evanescent) personality, and that element in man to which the feeling of “I am I” is due. It is this “I am I” which we call the true individuality . . ..
The Key to Theosophy, pp. 33-4
While exercises for developing concentration and discernment are essential, motive must go hand-in-hand with method. Who is it that wants meditation? Why does one wish to follow the inward path? The fugitive, vulnerable personal ego is susceptible to the allurement of airbrush images of trance states, superhuman powers and psychic phenomena. This false self, who skirts responsibility and fears being ordinary, is constantly on the prowl for ‘highs’ and a sense of specialness. All of this spells a pathway to self-delusion. If one cherishes shallow, self-centered purposes, one may invest in a false teaching. The true teaching emphasizes the Heart Doctrine, the summoning of a great, impersonal, universal motive to rescue all sentient beings from suffering. One’s personal efforts at meditation are significant only in relation to a vast prospect of universal self-transformation. Thus, in Tibetan Buddhism, it is important to consecrate each session of meditation to the welfare of all beings before one begins the exercise, and, again, at the end of the session to dedicate the fruits of the exercise to universal enlightenment.
In his article Meditation, Concentration, Will, W.Q. Judge writes, “Will and Desire lie at the doors of Meditation and Concentration. If we desire truth with the same intensity that we had formerly wished for success, money, or gratification, we will speedily acquire meditation and possess concentration.” Here is the ancient universal emphasis, found in all spiritual traditions, on cleansing the heart. It is impossible to advance in true meditation without assessing one’s values. Furthermore, the power of meditation is not something exotic and special, but an intentional exercise of the same will and desire haphazardly wielded over lifetimes of delusion. “The mysterious subtle thread of a life meditation is that which is practiced every hour by philosopher, mystic, saint, criminal, artist, artisan, and merchant,” writes Judge. “It is pursued in respect to that on which the heart is set; it rarely languishes . . ..” The meditation that is practiced at a set time, then, is not an escape from life, an isolated, exceptional recreation, but a practice that shapes attitude and mentality for everyday life. Ricard writes, in Why Meditate?, “Meditation is a process of training and transformation. For it to have meaning, it must be reflected in every aspect of your life, in all your actions and attitudes. If it is not, you have wasted your time.”