By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Meditation is often presented as a pleasant experience
in which you hear birds singing and see flowers blooming while you float along
in a wonderland. Actually, floating in a wonderland is just the opposite of
meditation. In order to learn to meditate, you have to put in a great deal of work.
For a month or two the person who has just taken to meditation will tell you
all about how grand it is. But it is only fair to point out that, once you
really get started, this initial surge of enthusiasm is going to wane.
Not long ago I watched the news coverage of the annual Bay to Breakers run, from one side of San Francisco to the other. 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. 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.
To guard against such ups and downs, I would make a number of suggestions.
Right from the outset, it is important to do everything we can to make Self-realization our primary goal. The transformation of personality is so difficult that to accomplish it we cannot afford to dedicate ourselves to other objectives and try to practice sadhana on the side.
In the early days, however, this often means a change in some of our familiar activities. Several old acquaintances will gradually fade from our circle. Someone once asked Somerset Maugham, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Maugham replied drily, “Sometimes.” To rebuild our lives, we have to change our associations and our ways of living.
This is painful at first. When I took to meditation I made a number of far-reaching changes in my life, which naturally baffled a lot of my friends, who began to look askance at some of these changes. They were fond of me and thought perhaps I was losing my ambition and my drive. What I did was try not to be affected by this, not in any way to be apologetic or to impose my views on others. In a few years’ time they saw the changes I had been able to bring into my daily living and one by one they would seek my company, perhaps to ask my advice on daily problems.
For a while you’ve got to be prepared for questioning and sometimes even bewilderment from those who are near and dear to you. It calls on the one hand for a great deal of security within yourself and on the other hand for a great deal of discrimination.
Desire for the company of spiritually oriented people comes naturally once we take to meditation. We are beginning to change inside, often dramatically; it is natural that our tastes and desires should be changing too. As the desire to know ourselves becomes stronger and stronger, we’ll be looking in the paper not to find a good movie but to find a talk on meditation. When we go to a bookstore, we’ll pass by the bestseller tables to get to the religion or self-help sections. And we will be looking everywhere for the company of others who are dedicated to the spiritual life – not intellectually interested, but actually practicing disciplines like my eight-point program.
The Buddha would say that most people throw themselves into the river of life and float downstream, moved here and there by the current. But the spiritual aspirant must swim upstream, against the current of habit, familiarity, and ease. It is an apt image. We know how the salmon fights its way along, returning at last to its original home. Those who set out to change themselves are salmon swimming against the relentless flow of the selfish life. Truly, we need every bit of support we can get; we need friends, loyal companions on the journey. We have to do the swimming, of course; nobody else can do it for us. But there will be an easier and swifter passage if we can swim with those who encourage us, who set a strong pace and will not stop until they reach their destination. The burdens are shared, easing them; the joys are shared too, multiplying them.
In Sanskrit, this sharing is called satsang. The word derives from two smaller words: sat, meaning “the good” or “truth” or “reality,” and sanga, meaning “group” or “association.” Thus it signifies the seekers of the highest, banded together.
This kind of support is vital as meditation deepens. There will be gulfs where we have to leap across, precipices we have to climb just like a mountaineer. Climbers protect themselves by tying ropes to one another so that even if one person slips, the others can provide support. That is just what satsang means.
If you are following my eight-point program, my practical suggestion would be to make time to meditate as often as possible with others on the same path. You may read together for a short while or watch one of our videos, but the most important part is meditation. Wherever people meditate together, a healing force is released that deepens the experience for all. As Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am present in the midst of them.”
One of the important reasons for our Blue Mountain Center retreats is to provide this kind of rendezvous, where people who are searching for the supreme purpose of life can support one another and share companionship on this demanding journey. I am always pleased to hear from friends that our retreats are like an oasis for them, where they can find living waters and return home refreshed.
When a seedling is planted in the countryside, it is fenced in so it will have some protection. Similarly, as spiritual seedlings, it is a good idea to surround ourselves with the protection of others who are spiritually minded.
In Sanskrit there is a pithy saying that was on the tip of my grandmother’s tongue every year when school began. At the end of the day I would run home to tell her who I had been with and what we had done that day. “You don’t have to tell me who you have been with,” she would say. “I can tell.”
“All right, Granny, who?”
She would proceed to name every one of them. And she was always right. “Granny,” I would ask in amazement, “how did you know?”
And she would reply, “Samsargad doshaguna bhavanti” – which means, roughly, “We become like those we hang out with.”
Granny wasn’t one to waste words, so it was only when I learned to meditate that I began to understand what she was trying to tell me. Much more than words or behavior, Granny was talking about character – the influences on the mind that shape the kind of person we are becoming, for better and for worse.
According to this ancient Sanskrit saying, what is good in us and what is bad, our strong points and our weak points alike, develop because of constant association. When we associate with calm people, we become calm; when we associate with agitated people, we become agitated. When we frequent the company of people who are wise, we become wiser; when our company is otherwise, we become otherwise too.
If you want to be secure and selfless, the Buddha says, associate with people who are reasonably secure and selfless, and learn to be like them in their daily living example. By association we can become good, by association we can become selfless, by association we can elevate ourselves to a nobler way of life.
When I say we need to be selective in our company, I am not talking about withdrawing into a little group and refusing to have any contact with people who do not do as we do. We should be courteous and friendly with everyone, aware of their feelings and points of view, and avoid being judgmental. I am stressing the need to build deep relationships with those who welcome the changes we are trying to make and who will help us make them.
In time, of course, when our new ways of thought, speech, and action have taken a firm hold, we can stand in any company without being uprooted. Far from returning to our old patterns of conditioning, we will influence others by our personal example to change their patterns as well.
I would also emphasize the need to be with people and to contribute to life around you. When you are meditating regularly, you need the counterpoise of being with family and friends.
As you begin to taste the security and joy within, you may develop the tendency to bask in this inward state. From my own experience, I would say that this is just the time to turn your attention outwards. Unless we maintain close relationships with those around us, there is the danger of getting caught inside, locked within the lonely prison of the ego. To learn to live in harmony with others, to feel at home with everyone, we need the close ties of a wide circle of family and friends. None of us can afford to retire into ourselves and do our own thing if we want to become aware of the unity of life.
You occasionally hear it said that spiritual aspirants should drop everything and set off for the woods, or go to India and wander about on the slopes of the Himalayas. But only through daily contact with people – not trees or brooks or deer – can we train ourselves to be selfless in personal relationships.
When we keep company with those who are spiritually minded, we help each other grow through mutual support and example. Yet since we are all human, we give each other plenty of opportunity for developing patience too. Either way, we move forward.
This excerpt is from the Blue Mountain Journal Spring 2016.