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    “This is the central principle of meditation: we become what we meditate on.”
    EKNATH EASWARAN
    (1910–1999)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Complete Instructions in Passage Meditation

Meditating on a memorized inspirational passage is the heart of the program called passage meditation. Seven supporting disciplines are used throughout the rest of the day, helping you go deeper for a lifetime of discovery. The full text of Easwaran’s basic book on passage meditation is available in this section of our site. Use the links below to select each chapter. Read about this book in our store

Passage Meditation: Bringing the deep wisdom of the heart into daily life by Eknath Easwaran


1 Meditation on a Passage

2 Repetition of a Mantram

3 Slowing Down

4 One-Pointed Attention

5 Training the Senses

6 Putting Others First

7 Spiritual Fellowship

8 Spiritual Reading


In This Chapter

1 Meditation on a Passage

I am going to suppose that your purpose in picking up this book is to learn to meditate; so I will begin straightaway with some instructions.

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:


The Whole World Is Your Own 
I tell you one thing – 
if you want peace of mind, 
do not find fault with others. 
Rather learn to see your own faults. 
Learn to make the whole world your own. 
No one is a stranger, my child; 
this whole world is your own.
   – Sri Sarada Devi

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.
   – Lao Tzu

Let Nothing Upset You
Let nothing upset you; 
Let nothing frighten you. 
Everything is changing; 
God alone is changeless. 
Patience attains the goal. 
Who has God lacks nothing; 
God alone fills every need. 
   – Teresa of Avila

Radiant Is the World Soul 
Radiant is the world soul, 
Full of splendor and beauty, 
Full of life, 
Of souls hidden, 
Of treasures of the holy spirit, 
Of fountains of strength, 
Of greatness and beauty. 
Proudly I ascend 
Toward the heights of the world soul 
That gives life to the universe. 
How majestic the vision – 
Come, enjoy, 
Come, find peace, 
Embrace delight, 
Taste and see that God is good. 
Why spend your substance on what does not nourish 
And your labor on what cannot satisfy? 
Listen to me, and you will enjoy what is good, 
And find delight in what is truly precious.
   – Abraham Isaac Kook

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.

Pace

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:

Lord.make.me.

If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together:

Lord      make

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.

Distraction

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.

“Yes, Bethlehem.”

“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 de 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.

The Passage

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.

Time

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.

“Five minutes.”

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.

Place

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.”

Posture

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.

Drowsiness

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.

Physical Sensations

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.

Dangers in Meditation

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.

Renewing Our Commitment

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.”

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!

Next Chapter: 2. Repetition of a Mantram


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