A Practical Guide to Meditation

sunder das - meditation-omharmonics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By S. Sunder Das

Meditation has been studied and practised by people all over the world.   There are many systems of this discipline and the consensus now is that every person should adopt the one that suits him best.    There are many definitions of Meditation, all of which, in one way or another emphasises the act of turning inwards, sometimes referred to as Pratyahara in Maharishi Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.    If we are asked to define meditation, there are no simple answers.   As in the case of electricity, we know it exists and we know its applications, but we are not sure what it is.   It is easier to describe how we experience meditation. The essential principles or states of mind involved in the study of meditation are:

  • “All of the body is in the mind, but not all of the mind is in the body”
  • “We see things not as they are but as we are”
  • “I am not the body, I am not the senses, I am not the mind”

The well-known poet William Wordsworth has described his own experience of meditation in the following words in his poem Tintern Abbey:

“A sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man –

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.”                 

 

Again, in another poem, he says:

“That serene and blessed mood

  In which … the breath of this corporeal frame

  And even the motion of our human blood

  Almost suspended, we are laid asleep

  In body, and become a living soul;

  While with an eye made quiet by the power

  Of harmony, and the deep power of Joy

  We see into the life of things”  

 

Perhaps the experience of Teilhard de Chardin described in the following words, also may represent meditation at its best.  He says in his Hymn of the Universe:  “Fold your wings, my soul, those wings you had spread wide to soar to the terrestrial peaks where the light is most ardent: it is for you simply to await the descent of the Fire – supposing it to be willing to take possession of you”

There are many types of meditation, some of which even involve movements. It has been remarked by some that the dance form Bharatanatyam is an example of this. In this context, it is useful to consider that Lord Siva, the greatest exponent of this dance form is also the Yogi who can sit in uninterrupted meditation over aeons of time.  The usual forms known to many people are the Zen and the Transcendental Meditation, the latter being commonly referred to as TM.  C. Naranjo, a serious researcher in this area, distinguished three types of meditation.

  1. The Way of Forms: This is also known as the way of concentration, absorption, union and outer-directed respectively. In this method, the meditator concentrates upon external symbols and objects like candle flames, mandalas and mantras.    For instance, Ramana Maharishi’s method of meditating on “Who am I” is popular with serious students all over the world.
  2. The Expressive includes those methods, which involve receptivity to thought contents and to the processes of consciousness.   According to this, the meditator dwells upon the form that springs from his own spontaneity, until he may eventually find that in his own soul lies hidden the source of all attributes.   Those who are familiar with the book, by an anonymous English writer, entitled “The Cloud of Unknowing”, will recognise this theme.   The expressive way has been described as the way of freedom, transparence and surrender, also being inner-directed.   It involves letting go of control and being open to inner voices, feelings and intuition.   The Shaman’s meditation seems to be an example of this method.
  1. The Negative Way involves elimination, detachment, and centering, denoting the way.   The meditator puts effort into moving away from all objects and not identifying with anything perceived.   The aim is to withdraw attention from both external and internal perceptions as also the internal experience, and to cultivate a detachment towards psychological processes.   The Buddhist approach known as Vipassana, the Mindfulness Meditation, falls into this category.

One of the most thorough systems is the Samkhya Yoga, namely the eight-fold path originated by Maharishi Patanjali.   While all the eight steps are designed to lead to the experience of Enstasis, the last four namely Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are considered the essentials of contemplation.  Samadhi itself is not considered one state but seems to be a progression towards Nirvikalpa samadhi, which is the ultimate in pure consciousness.  Although not many votaries may be able to attain Nirvikalpa samadhi, that is the end, which all meditators desire.   One of the most remarkable aspects of this state is the absence of thoughts and images although pure blissful consciousness exists.  This kind of Samadhi is very difficult to describe, but one of the nearest approaches to it is strangely to be found in Alice’s encounter with the Cheshire Cat.  This cat had the habit of appearing and disappearing suddenly, which disconcerted Alice somewhat.   The cat thereupon disappeared in stages, beginning with the tail and ending with the head.   Finally the whole of the cat had disappeared leaving only the grin.   Imagine the grin without a cat!   If we can substitute pure consciousness for the grin, then that is what Samadhi is all about.

When the votary can hold the image of an object in his mind and progressively ablate it, there comes a stage at which no thoughts or images exist in the mind but consciousness remains.   This method was used in a comprehensive study at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, in 1974.   The subjects were Postgraduate Medical students. They were taught the rudiments of progressive relaxation and the art of meditation.  With eyes closed, they had to hold in their minds, the image of a lighted candle on a candlestick.   When they could clearly form this image, they were asked to ablate the candlestick, leaving only the image of the lighted candle.   Then they had to ablate the image of the candle leaving the flame only.   They were asked to study the flame, its colour and its slight movement to and fro.   Finally the flame also had to be ablated.    Later on they were asked to describe this state of no thoughts and no images, which they could hold only for a short period of time.   They all remarked that it was a state of ineffable rest and contentment.   After a few sessions they became adept at reaching that state using the progressive ablation method.

Although qualitative accounts were collected, it was necessary for research purposes to obtain other evidence which could be quantified.   It was decided therefore to use EEG (Electroencephalogram) measurements at various stages of the experiment.   A few dry runs were conducted to habituate the subjects to the experimental procedure.  In addition, the middle finger of the right hand of each subject rested on a small key, which had to be pressed after the state of thoughtlessness had passed.   Pressing of this key operated a device for marking the paper on which the EEG records were being drawn.  On examining the records later, it was found that most subjects started the experiment by going into the Alpha state.   When only the flame remained in the image, there were theta rhythms.  After the flame also had been ablated, there were very slow theta waves until the key was pressed denoting the return of images and thoughts into the mind.    In the study referred to above, all the subjects were able to achieve that state somewhat akin to Nirvikalpa Samadhi for a very brief period of time, lasting perhaps a few seconds.     The fleeting nature of this experience is perhaps a reminder that the kind of samadhi that the adepts speak about, can only be attained by the methods that Maharishi Patanjali recommends and that the process may take years to perfect.   Even then the grace and the guidance of a Guru may also be necessary.   It is likely that if the subjects in the study had persisted in practising regularly, they could have succeeded in prolonging the ineffable state.  Unfortunately they were very busy professionals who could not carry on the practice regularly.   But it is hoped that at least some of them have continued their spiritual exercises.

To refresh the memory of the readers about the various states of consciousness and the corresponding EEG patterns, the following will be useful:

  • Waking Consciousness –  Beta  waves  – 14 to 22 cycles per second
  • State of relaxation – Alpha waves   – 8 to 13 cycles per second
  • Very deep state of relaxation – creativity – Entry into a state of meditation – Theta State – 4 to 7 cycles per second.
  • Sleep – Delta state – .5 to 3.5 cycles per second.

Preliminary stages of mediation may also be seen to be a dominance of the right hemisphere of the brain, which emphasises the preverbal, spatial, emotional, passive, subjective and relaxed aspects of human experience.

Like all disciplines, meditation also requires a stringent process if beneficial results are to accrue.   First of all, the physical appointments are important.   It has to be performed in a quiet place where there is the least likelihood of interruption or distraction.   Preferably, meditation should be performed at the same time or times everyday.   Many practitioners prefer the Brahmamuhurta, the hours between 3.00 and 6 a.m.   Similarly, the twilight period is also said to be charged with spiritual force.  Yogis used to sit on a specially prepared deer skin, but that is not possible for most people.     A rug, which should be used only for meditation, is essential.     The conventional posture is the padmasana, the lotus posture, but for those who are unable to do this, a half lotus posture will have to suffice.   Contrary to popular belief, the padmasana is the most comfortable position for meditation.   Not only does it provide a firm base for the body it also makes a triangular path for the flow of energy, which must be contained rather than dispersed in all directions.  For the best results, it is necessary to face the east or north to take advantage of favourable magnetic vibrations.

After having settled down comfortably, all parts of the body should be made as relaxed as possible.  The eyes are closed, the eyeballs being directed slightly upwards. Deep breathing helps to make the mind come to rest.   One variant of this is known as the 1:2 breathing, which is performed in this way.   A fairly deep inhalation is taken, but the breath is not retained.   Slow exhalation takes place, taking twice as long.   If possible, the breathing in and out should be through the nose.  Twenty to thirty breaths are optimal to bring about quiescence of the body and mind.

The next step is to obtain some control of thoughts and images.   It is well known that the greater the voluntary effort, the greater the fickleness of the mind.   The mind has often been compared to the monkey, jumping from one thought to another!   A paradoxical method is employed to overcome this.   All control should be withdrawn and the thoughts, ideas and images allowed to flow through the mind without let or hindrance.   When that is accomplished, thoughts can be laid to rest.    The late Dr. Ainslie Meares, who helped many cancer patients to bring about remission of their condition, coined the expression “passive volition” to describe this technique.

At this stage, a complex stimulus like a lighted candle on a candlestick can be visualised and gradually ablated step by step, as described above.   When the ablation is complete, a blissful state of peace will be achieved.   Unfortunately this state will be short-lived to start with.   But with constant practice, beneficial effects will accrue.  It has been found that for maximum results, each session of meditation should last for at least 20 minutes.   Experienced meditators recommend two sessions a day.   It might be a good idea to end each session with the thought of the Supreme Being.    Many Hindus prefer the word Om.

Among the many benefits, physical, mental and spiritual which would result from meditation, the following seem important:

  • Control of the autonomic nervous system
  • Enhancement of the dynamic range of experiences
  • Increase in empathy
  • Achievement of loving detachment
  • Development of nonconformity
  • Acquisition of compassion
  • Spontaneous increase in creativity
  • Breaking down of barriers of caste, creed, religion, and nationality

Finally, it has to be emphasised that meditation does not pertain to any religion or belief system and can be practised by everyone, whatever his or her persuasion.

 

 

                                                                            

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REFERENCES

 

Anonymous                    The Cloud of Unknowing, Edited by William Johnston, Image Books

1973

 

Akhilananda, Swami     Mental Health and Hindu Psychology, George Allen and Unwin,

1952

 

Behannan, Kovoor, T    Yoga, A Scientific Evaluation, Dover Publications, 1937

 

Carroll, Lewis,               Alice in Wonderland, Macmillan,  St. Martin’s Press, 1973

 

Dukes, Sir Paul              The Yoga of Health, Youth and Joy, Cassell, London, 1960

 

Johnston, William          Silent Music, William Collins & Sons, Ltd., London, 1974

 

 

Kuvalayananda, Swami-Yogic Therapy, Central Health &  Education Bureau, Ministry of

& Vinekar, Dr. S.I.         Health, New Delhi  1971

 

Prabhavananda, Swami – Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras,

 

West, Michael A.(Ed.)     The Psychology of Meditation,  Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987

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