The First Chapter of “Passage Meditation”
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
I am going to suppose that your purpose in picking up
this book is to learn to meditate; so I will begin straight away with some
I recommend beginning with the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. If you already know another passage, such as the Twenty-third Psalm, it will do nicely until you have learned this prayer. But over many years of teaching meditation, I have found that Saint Francis’s words have an almost universal appeal. Through them pulses the spiritual wisdom this gentle friar drew upon when he undertook the most awesome task a human being is capable of: the total transformation of character, conduct, and consciousness. The prayer goes like this:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.
I hope you will understand that the word “Lord” here does not refer to a white-bearded gentleman ruling from a throne somewhere between Neptune and Pluto. When I use words like “Lord” or “God,” I mean the very ground of existence, the most profound thing we can conceive of. This supreme reality is not something outside us, something separate from us. It is within, at the core of our being — our real nature, nearer to us than our bodies, dearer to us than our lives.
If you prefer a passage from another tradition, here are some other popular choices I recommend:
Lao Tzu: The Best
The best, like water,
Benefit all and do not compete.
They dwell in lowly spots that everyone else scorns.
Putting others before themselves,
They find themselves in the foremost place
And come very near to the Tao.
In their dwelling, they love the earth;
In their heart, they love what is deep;
In personal relationships, they love kindness;
In their words, they love truth.
In the world, they love peace.
In personal affairs, they love what is right.
In action, they love choosing the right time.
It is because they do not compete with others
That they are beyond the reproach of the world.
A Song of David: Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; He guideth me
in straight paths for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for Thou art with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence
of mine enemies; Thou hast anointed my head
with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life; and I shall dwell
in the house of the Lord forever.
Rig Veda: United in Heart
May we be united in heart.
May we be united in speech.
May we be united in mind.
May we perform our duties
As did the wise of old.
May we be united in our prayer.
May we be united in our goal.
May we be united in our resolve.
May we be united in our understanding.
May we be united in our offering.
May we be united in our feelings.
May we be united in our hearts.
May we be united in our thoughts.
May there be perfect unity amongst us.
Having memorized the passage, be seated and softly close your eyes. We defeat the purpose of meditation if we look about, admiring the bird on the sill or watching people come and go. The eyes, ears, and other senses are rather like appliances with their cords plugged into the mind. During meditation, we try to pull out the plugs so we can concentrate more fully on the words of the passage. To disconnect the senses — to leave the world of sound behind, for instance — is difficult. We may even believe that it is not possible, that everything has been permanently installed. But the mystics testify that these cords can be disconnected and that when we do this, we experience a serenity beyond words.
So shut your eyes — without getting tense about it. Since the body should be relaxed, not strained, there is no need to be effortful. The best teacher for eye-closing I have seen is a baby…tired lids gently sliding down on tired eyes.
Once you have memorized a passage, you are ready to go through it word by word, as slowly as you can. Why slowly? I think it is Meher Baba, a modern mystic of India, who explained:
A mind that is fast is sick.
A mind that is slow is sound.
A mind that is still is divine.
Think of a car tearing along at ninety miles per hour. The driver may feel exuberant, powerful, but a number of things can suddenly cause him to lose control. When he is moving at thirty miles per hour, his car handles easily; even if somebody else makes a dangerous maneuver, he can probably turn and avoid a collision. So too with the mind. When its desperate whirrings slow down, intentionality and good judgment appear, then love, and finally what the Bible calls “the peace that passes understanding.” Let the words, therefore, proceed slowly. You can cluster the small helper words with a word of substance, like this:
Lord…make...me…an instrument…of thy…peace.
The space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually. They should be comfortably spaced with a little elbowroom between. If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind:
If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together:
Here “make” has put in its contribution, but “me” simply won’t get on with it. Before long some other word or image or idea rushes in to fill the vacuum, and the passage has been lost.
With some experimentation, you will find your own best pace. I remember that when I learned to drive many years ago, my instructor kept trying patiently to teach me to use the clutch. I was not a terribly apt pupil. After a number of chugging stops and dying engines, I asked him how I was ever going to master those pedals. He said, “You get a feeling for it.” That is the way with the words too: you will know intuitively when not enough space lies between them and when there is too much.
Concentrate on one word at a time, and let the words slip one after another into your consciousness like pearls falling into a clear pond. Let them all drop inwards one at a time. Of course, we learn this skill gradually. For some time we drop a word and it floats on the surface, bumped around by distractions, irrelevant imagery, fantasies, worries, regrets, and negative emotions. At least we see just how far we are from being able to give the mind a simple order that it will carry out.
Later on, after assiduous practice, the words will fall inward; you will see them going in and hitting the very bottom. This takes time, though. Don’t expect it to happen next week. Nothing really worth having comes quickly and easily; if it did, I doubt that we would ever grow.
As you attend to each word dropping singly, significantly, into your consciousness, you will realize that there is no discrepancy between sound and meaning. When you concentrate on the sound of each word, you will also be concentrating on the meaning of the passage. Sound and sense are one.
Trying to visualize the words — imagining them in your mind’s eye, or even typing them mentally as some people want to do — may help a little at the outset, but later on it will become an obstacle. We are working to shut down the senses temporarily, and visualization only binds us to the sensory level of consciousness.
Your body may even try to get into the act. I recall a lady who not only typed her passage mentally but danced her fingers quite unknowingly along an imaginary keyboard too. Another friend used to sway back and forth in meditation as if she were singing in a choir. So check yourself occasionally to see that you are not developing any superfluous body movements.
As you go through the passage, do not follow any association of ideas. Just keep to the words. Despite your best efforts, you will find this extremely difficult. You will begin to realize what an accomplished trickster the mind is, to what lengths it will go to evade your sovereignty.
Let us say you reach the end of the first line: “ . . . an instrument . . . of thy . . . peace.” So far your mind has been fully on the passage and has not wandered at all. Excellent! But at the word peace the mind asks, “Who is the Prince of Peace?”
Well, it has raised a very spiritual question, and you say, “Jesus Christ.”
“Do you know where the Prince of Peace was born?” the mind returns quickly.
“Have you heard about Bethlehem Steel?”
And you’re off. “Oh, yes. In fact, my father had shares in it.”
“Oh, yeah,” says the mind. “What happened?”
Now, you are supposed to be meditating on the words of Saint Francis, but you continue with this absurd dialogue. This is the sort of thing you really have to be on the lookout for. Don’t let your mind wander from the words of the inspirational passage. If you want to ruminate on the stock exchange, get a copy of the Wall Street Journal and study it later. Under no circumstances should you try to answer questions or recall things during meditation. That is exactly what the mind wants; it tries to escape and become enmeshed in something — anything — else. The only strategy is to keep your concentration on the passage as much and as long as you can. It will be very difficult at times.
Suppose that the mind does get completely away from you. What should you do? In football, as you know, certain penalties are part of the game, and in meditation too a penalty should be applied when the mind becomes unruly. Be fair, and state the rules the first day. In plain language say, “I’m sorry, but if you run away from the passage, you will have to go back to the beginning and start again.”
The mind will pale on hearing that, and for a while it will be hesitant to leave. It may stand up, look around, glance at you, perhaps meander over near the door. But you should not apply the penalty yet — the door is still closed; the mind has not gone out. As long as you are on the passage and have not forgotten about it completely, even if there is some division of attention, don’t apply the penalty; just concentrate harder.
But when the door has opened, when the mind has jumped in its sports car and sped away, when you find yourself in a dress shop or a bookstore or at the beach, act promptly. Go up and tap the mind gently on the shoulder. It will probably cringe and say, “You’re furious with me, aren’t you?”
Still another trick, the rascal! It actually wants you to become angry and start scolding, because then it won’t have to return to the passage. Don’t get impatient or rattled. Say with perfect courtesy, “This is a poor time to go browsing for a best-seller. Won’t you kindly rejoin me in the room where we’re meditating on the Prayer of Saint Francis?” And gently take the mind back to the first line: “Lord, make me …” If the escape occurred during the second stanza, start at the beginning of that stanza. This is hard work, and the mind will get the point.
When we take our dog Muka for a walk along a country road, he sometimes sees a cow and dashes ahead to upset her. To prevent this, we call him back. Further on he sees another cow and starts to trot forward ever so slightly, hoping we won’t notice. Again, someone has to call out, “Muka!” He circles back. But after a little while his attention gets caught again, and he edges in front. This goes on ceaselessly.
Bringing the mind back when it strays is like that. But though you may have to do it many times, this is not a pointless activity, not a wasted effort. Saint Francis of Sales explains, “Even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your mind back and place it again in our Lord’s presence, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”
Then, too — unlike Muka — your mind will learn. Today you may have to bring it back fifteen times, perhaps thirty. But in three years, you may bring it back only a few times; in six years, perhaps twice; in ten years, not at all.
Occasionally the mind may try the old recorder ruse. You are repeating correctly, “It is in giving that we receive,” when a garbled version comes on: “It is in grabbing that we receive.” If this happens, don’t become agitated and try forcefully to turn off this unwelcome sound track. You may believe that you can do this with some effort, but actually you will only amplify the distracting voice. By dwelling on it, by struggling against it, you simply make it more powerful. The best course is to attend more to the true words of the prayer. The more attention you give them, the less you will be giving to the garbled version. When your attention rests completely on the passage, there can be no attention on anything else.
So when distractions come, just ignore them. When, for instance, you are acutely aware of noises around you while meditating, concentrate harder on the words of the passage. For a while you may still hear the cars passing by, but the day will come when you hear them no longer. When I first moved to Berkeley, I lived in an ancient apartment house on a busy street. My friends said I would never be able to meditate there — “Nothing but ambulances, helicopters, and rock bands,” they told me. I sat down for meditation at twilight, and for five minutes I heard it all. After that, I might just as well have been in a remote corner of the Gobi Desert.
You may wonder why I recommend an inspirational passage for meditation. First, it is training in concentration. Most of our mental powers are so widely dispersed that they are relatively ineffective. When I was a boy, I used to hold a lens over paper until the sun’s rays gathered to an intense focus and set the paper aflame. In meditation, we gradually focus the mind so that when we meet a difficulty, we can cut right through the nonessentials.
Second, we begin to resemble and actually become whatever we give our attention to. People who think and dream about money have minds pervaded by dimes and dollars, shares and properties, profit and loss. Everything they see, everything they do, is colored by this concern. Similarly with those who dwell on power, revenge, pleasure, or fame. For this reason the Buddha opened his Dhammapada with the magnificent line, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” And today, despite our technology and science, people are most insecure because they persist in thinking about and going after things that have no capacity to give them security.
An inspirational passage turns our thoughts to what is permanent, to those things that put a final end to insecurity. In meditation, the passage becomes imprinted on our consciousness. As we drive it deeper and deeper, the words come to life within us, transforming all our thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds.
For this reason, please don’t try to improve upon the words of the prayer or change them in any way. Just as they stand, they embody the spiritual wisdom of Saint Francis. When Ali Baba wanted to enter the cave of the forty thieves, he had to have the right password. He could yell out, “Open, brown rice” or “Open, shredded wheat” forever, but nothing was going to happen until he said, “Open, sesame.” Meditate on Saint Francis’s own words, and you will find that you begin to resonate with the spirit of self-forgetfulness and love that the words contain.
Using the same passage over and over is fine at the outset, but in time, the words may seem stale. You may find yourself repeating them mechanically, without sensitivity to their meaning. I suggest you memorize new pieces from the traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam so you will have a varied repertoire. As you commit a new passage to memory, it is good to spend some time reflecting on the meaning of the words and their practical application to your life. But please don’t do this while you are actually meditating.
In selecting a passage, be sure it really inspires. Don’t let yourself be carried away by literary beauty or novelty. Wordsworth and Shelley may have been splendid poets, but for passages on which to remake your life, I suggest you draw only on the scriptures and the great mystics of the world. And avoid choosing passages that are negative, that take a harsh and deprecatory view of the body, of our past mistakes, or of life in the world. We want to draw forth our positive side, our higher Self, and the passages should move you to become steadfast, compassionate, and wise.
Keeping a notebook of pieces to memorize may help. Later on, after you have learned to concentrate well and need a greater challenge, try a longer work. I find the Katha Upanishad, for instance, perfect for meditation. It is lengthy and complex; you have to be alert to use it. When it goes smoothly, you will feel you are traveling down one lane of a six-lane highway, such an expert driver that you hardly have to move a hand.
Once I went with an old friend to a meeting in the hills. The road twisted continuously, and his driving impressed me. On hairpin turns in India I have seen drivers lunge and clasp the wheel tightly, their faces grimly set. But my friend took each curve with an easy spin of the wheel, letting it swing back on its own.
“That’s amazing,” I said. “How in the world did you ever manage to learn that?”
He answered tersely, “Machines obey me.”
This is a good analogy with the mind that is disciplined in meditation. When we are fully concentrated on the passage, the mind obeys us. It will make the exact turn necessary. We know the road, the curves, the precipices, and where we felt intimidated before, now there is the satisfaction of mastery.
The best time for meditation is early in the morning. In a tropical country like India, “early” has to be very early — sometimes three o’clock in traditional ashrams. But in a milder climate, I would say between five and six is a reasonable hour to begin, depending on your schedule. Starting the day early enables you to take a short walk or do some exercises, meditate, and have a leisurely breakfast with your family or friends. It sets a relaxing mood for the rest of the day.
The dawn brings freshness, renewal. Birds and other creatures know this; we, “the crown of creation,” do not seem to. I have met a few students who were very late risers indeed. I teased one of them by saying, “Have you ever seen a sunrise?” He smiled sheepishly. “Never. But a friend of mine once did.”
At first, true, there may be conflict about leaving your bed as the first rays of the sun peep in, especially when the weather is chilly. I have a simple suggestion for young people: give one mighty leap, right out of bed! Don’t think — just act. To become more alert, you might try a headstand or shoulder stand, or a few exercises. Older people, of course, can creep out of bed more slowly. But they too should be up as early as reasonable, at least by six o’clock.
I have found a great aid to rising early: settling into bed early. I am not saying sundown or eight o’clock, but ten seems to me a reasonable and healthful time to go to bed — very much the middle path, which avoids extremes.
Whenever I forgot to perform an errand for my grandmother, she would ask, “Have you ever forgotten your breakfast?” No, I had to confess, I hadn’t, nor had anybody else I knew. Strike a bargain with yourself — no meditation, no breakfast — and you won’t forget to meditate.
It helps, too, to have your meditation at the same time every morning. It will become a reflex. At five-thirty you will feel a tugging at your sleeve, a reminder to get up and begin your meditation.
For those beginning to meditate, half an hour is the requisite period. Less than that will not be enough; more than that may be hazardous. I want to stress it. Please do not, in a burst of enthusiasm, increase your meditation to an hour or longer, because such a practice exposes you to dangers.
What dangers? Most people do not have much concentration; while they are still learning to meditate, they will remain on the surface level of consciousness. But a few have an inborn capacity to plunge deeply inward. And once you break through the surface level, you are in an uncharted world. It is like a desert, but instead of sand there are latent psychological tendencies, terribly powerful forces. There you stand in that vast desert without a compass. You have tapped forces before you are prepared to handle them, and your daily life can be adversely affected.
So please stick to half an hour in the morning and do not increase the time without the advice of an experienced teacher. I do not encourage those who meditate with me to increase the period of meditation until I have inquired into their patterns of daily living and made sure that they practice the other seven steps in this program. If you want to meditate more, have half an hour at night before going to bed.
Someone once approached me with a furrowed brow. “I went beyond my half hour this morning — have I damaged my nervous system?”
“How much longer did you go?” I asked.
Well, nothing is going to happen if you meditate five or six minutes more. But don’t meditate five minutes less.
Actually, it is best not to be concerned about time during meditation itself. Whenever you are aware of time, a distracting element has entered. After twelve minutes some people think, “Only eighteen minutes more.” Or they look at their watches every few minutes. Once you start meditating, forget about time. There is no need to keep checking the clock; with practice you will be able to time your meditation pretty well.
Of course, having ample time for meditation helps free you from worrying about when to stop. Another good reason for getting up early! In this way you won’t have to cut things too closely. Twenty-nine minutes for meditation, fourteen minutes for breakfast, eight minutes to complete a project before you leave — you know the story. Give yourself plenty of time for all the essential activities.
It is helpful if you can set aside a room in your home just for meditation and nothing else, a room that will begin to have strong spiritual associations for you. Hearing that, people sometimes object, “A separate room for meditation? I only have one room . . . where will I sleep? Where will I keep my clothes?” Well, if you cannot have an entire room, reserve at least one corner. But whatever you use, keep it only for meditation. Don’t talk about money or possessions or frivolous things there; don’t give vent to angry words. Gradually, your room or corner will become holy.
The scriptures say that the place of meditation should be calm, clean, and cool. I would add, well-ventilated — and, if possible, quiet. If there are spiritual figures who appeal to you deeply — Jesus, the Buddha, Saint Teresa, Sri Ramakrishna — have a picture of one or two. But otherwise the place should be very simple, even austere, not cluttered with furniture and other things. Let the graceful economy of the traditional Japanese home be your guide.
I sometimes receive catalogs advertising special paraphernalia required for meditation. I must have a cosmic mandala cushion, sit in a pyramid, and inhale only Astral Vision brand Illumination Incense. In meditation, the only equipment you really need is the will, and you can’t buy that through the mail.
It is good to meditate with others. Ideally, the whole family can use the same room and meditate together; it strengthens their relationships. Similarly, even if they don’t live in the same house, two or three friends can gather together in one home for morning and evening meditation. You will remember that Jesus said, “Where two or three come together in my name, I am present among them.”
The correct posture for meditation is to sit erect with the spinal column, the nape of the neck, and the head in a straight line: not like a ramrod, rigid and tense, but easily upright. Your hands may be placed any way they feel comfortable. You will find it a very natural position.
If you want to sit in a straight-back chair, use one with arms. Should you become a bit forgetful of your body, you won’t tip over in such a chair. Or you can sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor. You needn’t try to assume the classic “full lotus” posture, which most people find quite demanding. Your body should be comfortable — but not so comfortable that you cannot remain alert.
I want to emphasize this matter of posture because it is so easy to become careless. In meditation, people can be quite unaware of what their bodies are doing. Some twist around in the most amazing manner. Once, on the Berkeley campus — where strange events have been known to occur — I opened my eyes and saw someone meditating without a head. For a moment, I was stunned. Then I realized that somehow this fellow had managed to drop his head back over his chair, an advanced acrobatic feat. After meditation he came up to me and said, “I have a problem. I am hung up in time.”
“My dear friend,” I thought to myself, “you are hung up in space.” So without dwelling on it, check yourself occasionally in meditation to see that your head is in place — that you are not twisting around, leaning over, drooping like a question mark, or swaying back and forth. Particularly when your mind wanders away from the passage, or you become drowsy or enter a deeper state of consciousness, verify once in a while that your posture is still correct.
The appropriate dress for meditation has nothing to do with fashion. Simply wear loose-fitting garments, things that keep you from becoming too warm or too cool. Basically, clothes you feel comfortable in will do nicely.
You may have noticed how tense you feel when you are agitated, and how relaxing it feels to be absorbed in something. In meditation, of course, we welcome deep concentration. But it does bring with it a difficulty that will be with us for a long time — with relaxation comes the tendency to fall asleep. As concentration improves and the neuromuscular system begins to relax in meditation, a wave of drowsiness may come to you. A beatific look spreads across your face, you begin to nod, and that’s it.
Once, after I had been meditating with friends, the fellow sitting next to me confided, “I really had a good meditation tonight!” I wouldn’t have called it good, but it was certainly audible. What he actually had was about twenty-five minutes of pure sleep.
So now I have to tell you something unpleasant. As soon as sleep begins oozing through you, just at the moment you are really beginning to feel marvelous, move away from your back support and let the wave of drowsiness pass over your head. Do not give in. At the very first sign of sleepiness, draw yourself up, keep your spinal column quite erect, and give even more attention to the passage. This will not be fun. But if you say, “Oh, I’ll enjoy a few more minutes of this delicious drowsiness and then . . . ” — well, in a few minutes you will not be able to do anything about it.
You may have to resist sleep for a long time. But if you do not resist now, whenever a wave of drowsiness comes, there will be trouble ahead. Later on, when you enter the depths of the unconscious in meditation, you will not be able to remain alert. I have seen people meditating with their heads on their chests, and it is extremely difficult to deal with the problem then. If from the earliest days you can remain awake throughout meditation, you will be able to descend from the surface level right into the unconscious and walk about completely aware.
So whenever you feel sleepy in meditation, or the words seem fuzzy or slip away, draw yourself up. It may be necessary to repeat this over and over again. If you are still unable to dispel the drowsiness, open your eyes and continue with the passage or repeat the mantram for a minute or two, as explained in the next chapter. But don’t let your eyes wander, or your mind will wander too. It helps to have a focus for attention that will not distract you from your meditation — perhaps a picture of a great mystic or spiritual teacher whom you find inspiring.
Of course, I am assuming in all this that you have had your legitimate quota of rest the previous night. If you have not, drowsiness in meditation will surely defeat you.
The problem of sleep can be distressing, but it is also reassuring. It means that your nervous system has begun to relax, that the feverish pace of the mind has begun to slow down and that new challenges are presenting themselves to you.
Deepening meditation and the physiological changes that accompany it require a body that works beautifully at all times. We must do what we can to make the body a good ally. We must give it what it needs: adequate sleep every night, wholesome, nourishing food in reasonable quantities, and lots of vigorous movement. Without a balance between physical activity and meditation, for instance, we may become irritable or restless. Exercise — jogging, swimming, climbing, hard work, and so forth for young people, and walking for just about everybody — can help to solve some of the problems that come as you descend in consciousness.
I would like to advise you of some of the little physical annoyances you may meet during meditation. When you sit down, the mind can line up scores of these and say, “Okay, boys, here we go! Now, one at a time!” Then the eerie sensations parade before you: you feel your left foot swelling; you feel a creature inching up and down your spine; you feel some dizziness, nausea, itching, tightness, or salivation.
Broadly speaking, these sensations are nothing more than stratagems of the mind to resist being brought under control. It wants to distract you and will use any trick. The Marquis of Queensberry rules simply do not apply. If you say, “That’s not fair,” the mind will answer, “What does this curious word fair mean?”
Never allow these annoyances to become an excuse for skipping meditation. If you do, the next day will be harder, because the mind has won a round.
When strange sensations trouble you, it is helpful to be sure the meditation room is ventilated, wear loose clothes, and have plenty of exercise during the day.
If you feel too hot, I would suggest that you also avoid stimulants, overheated rooms, and clothes that are too warm, sleep at night with windows open if you can, and drink plenty of liquids. (I have found fresh fruit juices and buttermilk especially helpful.)
Try not to dwell on these sensations, but give more attention to the words of the passage. When you concentrate more, you will probably find that these distractions disappear. But if your ears are ringing and you start to swat them, they will just ring louder.
If you are meditating with others, then sneezes and coughs (and their cousins — yawns, hiccoughs, sniffles, and snorts) not only tyrannize you but other people too. One sneeze and everybody’s meditation may be interrupted for a time. Do what you can to minimize these respiratory outbursts and preserve the quiet.
Similarly, it is a thoughtful act, a spiritual act, to enter and leave the meditation room silently, so you do not disturb others. Turn the door latch gently; tiptoe in and out; place your cushion and lap blanket, if you have one, quietly and mindfully. And use discretion in calling someone out of meditation. Do not do it unless a critical need arises — and if you must interrupt, please don’t stride up to them speaking in a loud voice or try to shake them vigorously; it can be a real shock to the nervous system. Touching the person with a bird’s lightness and waiting a few moments will probably be enough to make him or her aware of your presence.
You may find you need to reposition your arms or legs during meditation because they are going to sleep, or because you feel some fatigue, cramps, or tension there. It is not helpful to be too indulgent, of course, and move at every slight discomfort, but there does come an appropriate time to make some adjustment in position. Here, too, do it as quietly as possible and without altering your upright posture.
If you discover at the end of your period of meditation that your legs have gone to sleep, you can sit for a few minutes and massage them gently instead of trying to rise. In fact, I would say that it is better not to jump right up after meditation at all, especially for beginners, because your legs may have gone to sleep without your being aware of it.
Strong emotions may be activated during meditation. Occasionally, for example, someone will be afraid of breaking through the surface level of consciousness to a deeper level. Should this happen to you, open your eyes for a minute or two and repeat the mantram in your mind. Then close your eyes again and resume the passage. If the fear returns, repeat the process. Having a picture of a great mystic nearby may help here too.
Waves of positive emotion can also sweep over a meditator. A few get so moved they weep. Such a purging of pent-up emotion may be very beneficial. But it becomes an obstacle if you dwell on it, get excited about it, run to report it to everybody. A great Catholic mystic warns those who bask in this emotion that they may turn into bees caught in their own honey. When you go on concentrating on the passage even during waves of emotion, your meditation is immeasurably deepened.
Earlier I mentioned the mind’s many tricks and distractions, and here I can add one of its cleverest: tempting us with interior stimuli. You may see lights, perhaps brilliant ones, or hear sounds. Some people are fascinated by such things; they become hypnotized by the eruptions of light, by the colors and shapes. They relax their hold on the passage and stay back to watch the show. Exactly what the mind wants! This impresario will stage endless spectacles if you are content to stop and gawk.
We can see the most gorgeous interior fireworks and still be impatient in our daily living. And we can progress far on the spiritual path and never meet any of these things. So whatever you see — lights, lines, colors, shapes, faces, trees — do not stop to give your attention to them, but concentrate more on the words.
Entering deeper consciousness is like descending into a cave. There are bewitching experiences, and there can also be awesome, even disorienting ones. Just as the spelunker uses a rope to thread his way downward, the meditator’s lifeline is the passage. No matter what happens in meditation, never loosen your grip on the passage! It will guide you through all situations. If you do lose the words for a second, come back to them immediately.
One last warning: please do not try to connect the passage to a physiological function, such as heartbeat or breathing rhythm. Such a connection may seem helpful initially, but it can cause serious problems later. When you give your full attention to the passage, your breathing cycle slows down naturally and all the functions of the body begin to work in harmony; there is no need to force them into line.
To make progress in meditation, you must be regular in your practice of it. Some people catch fire at the beginning, but when the novelty wears off in a few days and the hard work sets in, their fires dampen and go out. They cut back, postpone, make excuses, perhaps feel guilty and apologetic. This is precisely where our determination is tested, where we can ask ourselves, “Do I really want to get over my problems? Do I want to claim my birthright of joy, love, and peace of mind? Do I want to discover the meaning of life and of my own life?”
There is only one failure in meditation: the failure to meditate faithfully. A Hindu proverb says, “Miss one morning, and you need seven to make it up.” Or as Saint John of the Cross expressed it, “He who interrupts the course of his spiritual exercises and prayer is like a man who allows a bird to escape from his hand; he can hardly catch it again.”
Put your meditation first and everything else second; you will find, for one thing, that it enriches everything else. Even if you are on a jet or in a sickbed, don’t let that come in the way of your practice. If you are harassed by personal anxieties, it is all the more important to have your meditation; it will release the resources you need to solve the problems at hand.
To make progress in meditation, we have to be not only systematic but sincere too. It won’t do to sit and go through the mental motions halfheartedly. We need to renew our enthusiasm and commitment every day and give our best all the time. Success comes to those who keep at it — walking when they cannot run, crawling when they cannot walk, never saying “No, I can’t do this,” but always “I’ll keep trying.”
Have you heard the expression “heroes at the beginning”? All enthusiasm for the first few days, but then . . . Not long ago I watched the news coverage of the annual Bay to Breakers run, from one side of San Francisco to the other. Some fifteen thousand people showed up to participate . . . brand new color-coordinated outfits, top-rated running shoes, digital stopwatches, everything you could want for a serious race. And what enthusiasm at the start! Everyone bouncing along with jaunty, springing steps, grinning at the spectators, scanning the competition for an attractive face . . . this is the life!
The next morning, though, I read about the aftermath. Fifteen thousand may have started, but thousands never finished. Sure, at the beginning, everything feels fine. But out around Hayes Street — after the downtown traffic, the noise, the fumes — a lot of people begin to think twice. The pavement is hot . . . and so are those top-rated running shoes. Hills are coming up, and the attractive face that refreshed your eyes has disappeared over the next rise. Up ahead a billboard asks, “Wouldn’t a nice cold beer taste good right now?” Next thing you know, you’re sitting on a stool at Roy’s Recovery Room, watching the end of the pack trudge along and thinking, “Next year …”
It helps to know at the outset that you will be running a marathon in this program, not simply jogging once or twice around a track. It is good to be enthusiastic when you sit down for meditation the first morning; but it is essential to be equally enthusiastic, equally sincere, at the end of the first week, and the end of the first month, and for all the months to come.
If the whole vista of the spiritual journey lay before us we would see that it divides into three stages, each culminating in a remarkable discovery. These are profound experiential discoveries, not intellectual ones. They bring a different way of seeing life and the power to make our words and deeds compatible with this new vision. Mere belief or theory is never enough; we must change ourselves. As one Christian mystic observed, “Our knowledge is as deep as our action.”
Language cannot describe these inner experiences very well. When I say stages, I am only approximating. There are no sharp boundaries; everything takes place gradually over a long period. But perhaps a few analogies will make these discoveries easier to grasp.
In the first stage, we discover experientially that we are not the body.
Not the body? A startling realization! We have been lured into believing precisely the opposite: that we are essentially bodies, and that a worthwhile life is one well packed with sense-stimulation and pleasure, with all the delights of food and drink, sun and surf, luxurious fabrics and devastating fragrances.
What is the body then? Let me put it this way. I have a tan jacket of worsted wool made about ten years ago in Hong Kong. It fits me nicely, and I give it proper care: I don’t drop it in a heap on a chair; I button it, smooth it out, and hang it up carefully in the closet so it will last several years more.
But when I wear this tan jacket, I always have another jacket on underneath: a brown one made in Kerala, India. It fits even better — not a seam anywhere — and has brown gloves to match. I take good care of it, too.
Now, you wouldn’t confuse me with my tan woolen jacket, would you? Well, I have discovered after some years of meditation that this brown Kerala jacket, my body, is not me either, but simply something I wear. In fact, though you can’t see me do it, I have learned how to take it off during meditation, leaving consciousness of the body behind. When meditation is over, I put it on again so that I may have the privilege of serving those around me. Someday my tan jacket will wear thin and have to be put aside. And someday too my brown jacket will no longer be useful for service, and I will have to put it aside in the great transformation we call death.
The discovery that you are not the body has far-reaching consequences. For one thing, you no longer see black or brown or white people, but people with all kinds of beautifully colored jackets. You no longer identify people with their color — or their age or sex or hairstyle or any other peripheral matter like money or status. You begin to awaken to the central truth of life, that all of us are one.
Then, too, you develop the capacity to see clearly the body’s needs and how to provide for them wisely. You will not be taken in, for example, by just the taste of food, or by its color, or texture, or the sound it makes . . . or the sound the advertiser makes on its behalf. If the senses set up a clamor for junk food you can say affectionately, “Sorry, friends, that’s not fit for you.” The senses may be disappointed at first, of course, but your body will be grateful: “He really takes good care of me!”
Please do not think this means you lose your appreciation of food. Actually, it will increase. When you can change your eating habits at will, you not only enjoy wholesome food, you have the satisfaction of taking good care of your body. All the other things we charitably call food will leave you unsatisfied.
Wise choices in food, exercise, sleep — all these enhance your health. You feel vital, alive; fatigue leaves without saying goodbye. Minor ills like colds and flu will brush you lightly, if at all. Chronic complaints often dissolve, and you are largely shielded from many serious diseases like hypertension and heart disease. All this prolongs life and keeps you active, perhaps until the last day of this mortal life. In every tradition, sages often retain their vigor into their eighties and nineties.
In the first stage of meditation, then, we discover that our bodies are really garments we wear — or, if you like, vehicles in which we ride. After many years in this country, I have learned the ways of the automobile, and I feel comfortable with such a comparison. In the early days, though, I heard some expressions that confused me. Soon after I came to California I went on a trip with some friends. The lady driving suddenly announced with concern, “I’m out of water!” She looked all right to me — it hadn’t been that long since we had eaten lunch — but I suggested she stop at the café ahead. Then someone explained, “She means the car is out of water.” “Oh!” I said — thinking to myself, a little mystified, “Why doesn’t she say that?”
All these bodies of ours are just cars moving about — some compacts, some big sedans. Some of them can dash away from a traffic light; others take a while to get going, especially in the morning. And although many were made in America, we have a refreshing mixture of imports too.
Having come to realize in the first stage of meditation that we are not our bodies, in the second stage we make an even more astounding discovery: we are not our minds either.
Sometimes when I state that, I catch the look on people’s faces — a look that seems to say, “Just a minute! First, you tell us that we’re not our bodies. Okay. Sounds craz —— . . . well, unusual; but we’re suspending judgment. But now you tell us with a straight face that we’re not our minds either. My friend, you’ve just eliminated us completely!” When I see that look I hasten to add, “Wait a bit. There’s more to the story.”
If this body is like the body of a car, the mind is the engine — the most important part of the vehicle. As such, we ought to give it special attention and care. After all, you can get along with a Model T body if you have a Ferrari engine. But so many people who want a Ferrari body are content to keep an old Model T engine putt-putting along inside it. Most of their attention goes to externals: chrome hubcaps, bordeaux cherry vinyl seats, geodesic paint jobs, velveteen steering wheel covers, little dolls that shake their hula skirts in the back window. What is the good of all that if the pistons are worn out and your engine won’t perform? We need minds that are powerful, lucid, capable of discrimination.
And we need minds that will follow directions, not ones that are rebellious. Suppose I come out one morning, start up my car, and drive off to give a talk on meditation in Milpitas, south of San Francisco. As soon as I cross the Golden Gate Bridge, my car veers east towards Interstate 80. I keep trying to turn the wheel, but there is tremendous resistance — the steering mechanism is ignoring me. “Milpitas!” I protest. “We’re supposed to be going to Milpitas!” But the car only roars insolently, “Reno! Reno! We’re going to Reno!” Then I think I hear it snicker, “Why not sit back and enjoy the ride?”
Would we put up with that? Well, no . . . not from our cars. But most of us do from our minds. In theory we would like the mind to listen to us obediently, but in fact it will not — chiefly because we have never taught it how. Augustine’s words speak plainly: “I can tell my hand what to do and it will do it instantly. Why won’t my mind do what I say?”
Everywhere there are a few people who will not accept this condition, who see it as a loss of freedom, a kind of bondage. My grandmother, my spiritual teacher, knew nothing about cars, but she understood the mind. When I would give tit-for-tat to others, wax angry because they were angry or standoffish because they stood off, she would say, “Son, when you act that way, you remind me of a rubber ball. Throw it against a wall and it has to come back.” It took a while, but I finally resolved not to be a rubber ball in life.
I have often said that the spiritual life has nothing to do with the paranormal and the occult. But I do have one ability that seems to some people a kind of miracle, though it is simply a skill that anyone can develop through years of meditation: I can tell my mind what to do.
Where is the miracle? As Shakespeare’s Hotspur would say, “Why, so can I, or so can any man.” Well, here it is: when I tell my mind what to do, it obeys. If a craving should arise for something my body does not need, I smile and say politely, “Please leave,” and it leaves. If something big tries to move in — say, an angry thought — I don’t bandy words; I say plainly, “Out!” It goes immediately.
Meditation will do for you what it has done for all who practice it regularly: enable you to steer your car expertly. If you want to stay in one lane and cruise, your mind will obey you. If you want to change lanes or turn right or left or even make a U-turn, your mind will respond. When your mind does that at command, you have mastered the art of living. You are no longer dependent on external circumstances; you can decide how you want to respond, whatever happens. If a friend acts thoughtlessly, for example, you don’t have to dwell on it; you can fix your attention on the good in that person instead. If you begin to feel low, you simply change your mind — you have learned how — and restore your equanimity and cheerfulness. You can now think what you want to think, and every relationship, everything you do, benefits enormously.
When you know you are not the body, you find it inaccurate to say, “I’m not feeling well.” Your body may be indisposed, but you are always well. Now, in the second stage of meditation, you discover it equally inaccurate to say, “I am angry.” The mind is angry. Instead of being consumed by anger, you can have a little fun at your own expense: “Hmm! There seems to be a nut loose up in there.” A mechanical problem — anger — has developed, and if you know how to lie down on your mental car creeper, scoot under your mind, and tighten things up — or, more likely, loosen them a little — the problem can be set right. And you don’t have to pay out hundreds of dollars before you get your car keys back.
This perspective brings precious distance — detachment — from the problems of both body and mind. For one, negative emotions no longer threaten. I mentioned anger, but fear comes under control as well. You can tune the engine of your mind very much the way you choose — in fact, you can come to have such mastery that even in your sleep, negative thoughts like resentment, hostility, and greed will not arise. You take full responsibility for your mental states as well as for your behavior.
A well-tuned mind helps to conserve the vital energy wasted in negative emotions. No one would leave a car running in the garage all night, but we let our minds run on much of the time. No wonder we often feel tired and dispirited! This loss of vitality can even lead to illness.
Family and general practice physicians report that between seventy and eighty percent of their patients come in with psychologically generated complaints, vague feelings of “dis-ease.” The Buddha had an incisive term for this: duhkha, which implies “out of joint.” When vitality has been wasted we simply do not function well, like an elbow that has slipped out of place.
When we know how to set right any turmoil in the mind, all the power comes into our hands, to be used for the benefit of all. I cannot imagine a time when this was more essential. Every one of us has so much to give — more than we can realize — and it is so badly needed. Can we afford to waste it?
Having discovered that we are not the body, not the mind — both subject to change, to growth and decline — the question remains, “Who am I?” In the third stage, the tremendous climax of meditation, we make the most significant discovery any human being can ever make: we find out who we really are.
As long as we identify with the body and the mind we bob around on the surface level of consciousness, chasing after the fleeting attractions of life outside us. Here a pleasure won, there one lost. A bit of praise today, some criticism tomorrow. Profit, loss, profit, loss. Thus our days are spent, and we are scattered, divided, restless, incomplete.
Now, in profound meditation, we drop below all that and become concentrated on one thing and one thing alone: our true identity. In this absorption, this great gathering within, we break through the surface of consciousness and plummet deep, deep into our real nature.
What we discover cannot be put into words, but thereafter we are never again the same. With all our consciousness gathered to an intense focus within, the boundaries that seem to separate us from the rest of the world disappear. The duality of subject and object, knower and known, falls away; we are opened to a transcendental mode of knowing. Albert Einstein must have glimpsed this when he wrote from the perspective of a great physicist:
A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
In this profound state all petty personal longings, all hungering and thirsting, all sense of incompleteness vanish. We discover, almost in every cell of our being, that deep within us we lack nothing. Our inner reserves of love and wisdom are infinite; we can draw on them endlessly and never diminish them.
Previously, vague tones of discordancy sounded through what we thought and did. Like a shoe that pinches, a dislocated shoulder, the wrong key in a lock, matters were somehow just not right. But now a sense of rightness pervades our life; we fit, we belong. This earth, nature, our fellow creatures, we ourselves — all things take their proper places in one grand harmony. Because we identify not with a fragment of life but with the whole, conflicts and division cease.
Of course, problems in the world remain — perhaps only now do we see just how threatening they really are. But we see too that they can be solved, and that we have the wisdom and resourcefulness with which to solve them. Those difficult stretches that test our mastery — sudden rises, hairpin turns, icy roads — we negotiate skillfully, like a practiced driver. And since we are fit to meet such challenges, they come — even big ones. But we stand ready: there will be difficult steering ahead, but we can manage it without fatigue or burnout.
Life itself becomes an effortless performance — very much like the virtuosity of a renowned pianist or cellist. The artist makes it look so easy; we almost want to exclaim, “Why, I could play that way!” But what enormous practice goes into such mastery! Once, it is said, a great painter took a mediocre portrait and brought it to vibrant life with a few quick strokes. His students were awed. “How did you manage to achieve that?” one asked. “It took just five minutes at most.” The master said, “Oh, yes, it took only five minutes to do it. But it took twenty-five years to learn how to do it.”
This skill in living brings beauty to your relationships. Only the sense of separateness makes us quarrelsome or difficult with others, and now no one can ever be separate from you again. Imagine that the little finger on your left hand turns feisty. It looks over at the thumb, which is minding its own business, and says, “What’s that odd bird doing here? I’m going to tell him to clear out. If he doesn’t, he’s in for a drubbing!” What could be more absurd? Doesn’t an injury to the thumb hurt the whole hand, of which the little finger is a member? When you discover your real nature, you discover simultaneously that you and others are one. In harming them, you are actually harming yourself; in being kind to them, you are being kind to yourself. All life is your family now, and though you express it in different ways with different people, you feel towards each person — to use the words of the Buddha — as a mother does towards her only child.
This does not mean that differences of opinion all vanish. There is diversity on the surface of life; that is what gives it interest. But now you always have the ability to understand other points of view. Aren’t people essentially the same everywhere? The differences account for only one percent; the similarities, for ninety-nine. You can jump right out of your shoes or sandals into another’s and see things as they do; you can leap right across supposed barriers of age, sex, economic status, nationality. You live in everybody, just as everybody lives in you.
Attaining this state of consciousness is the highest goal we can have in life. Different religions have called it by different names: illumination, enlightenment, nirvana, Self-realization, entering the promised land or the kingdom of heaven within. But whatever the language, the experience is everywhere the same. Jesus called it “a pearl of great price.” Without it, our lives will always be wanting; even if we had to give everything on earth to obtain it, the cost would not be too high to pay.
If you set out on the path of meditation — and I certainly hope that you do — please follow carefully the guidelines presented here. Read them over and over until they become thoroughly familiar to you. You may have heard the expression, “When everything else fails, follow instructions.” In meditation, you can avoid most difficulties by following the instructions from the very first. From my own experience, verified by the mystics of all lands, I know that in meditation we enter a new realm — or, more accurately, we enter with conscious eyes a realm that is already ours. To do this safely and surely we need guidance. These instructions are your guide.
You are now embarking on the most extraordinary journey, the most exacting and rewarding adventure, open to a man or woman. I haven’t tried to conceal the fact that learning to control your mind is difficult — the most difficult thing in the world. But I want to remind you always that what you are seeking is glorious beyond compare, something far beyond my capacity, or anybody’s, to render into thoughts and words. In my heart I have no greater desire than that you should reach the goal. Accept my wish for your great success!