The Eight Point Program
A complete approach to the spiritual life
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.
These eight steps are designed for daily practice. Though they may at first seem unrelated, they are closely linked. Quieting your mind in morning meditation, for instance, will help your efforts to slow down at work, and slowing down at work will, in turn, improve your meditation. Hurry at work and your mind will race during meditation; skip meditation and you will find it difficult to be both slow and concentrated.
Some of the steps generate spiritual power while others put it to wise use during the day. Practicing all eight creates a balanced approach to spiritual growth, yielding the greatest benefits.
1. Meditation on a Passage
Silent repetition in the mind of memorized inspirational passages from the world’s great religions. Practiced for one-half hour each morning.
By Eknath Easwaran
The principle of meditation is simple: You are what you think. By meditating on words that embody your highest ideals, you drive them deep into your consciousness. There they take root and begin to create wonderful changes in your life – changes you have wanted to make, but have not known how to bring about.
When I talk about meditation, I am referring to a specific interior discipline which is found in every major religion, though called by different names. (Catholic writers, for example, speak of contemplation or interior prayer.) This interior discipline is not a relaxation technique. It requires strenuous effort. It does dissolve tension, but in general, especially at the beginning, meditation is work, and if you expect to find it easy going, you’ll be disappointed.
Meditation in this sense is not a disciplined reflection on a spiritual theme. Focused reflection can yield valuable insights, but for the vast majority of us, reflection is an activity on the surface level of the mind. To transform personality we need to go much, much deeper. We need a way to get eventually into the unconscious itself, where our deepest desires arise, and make changes there.
So what is meditation? It is the regular, systematic training of attention to turn inward and dwell continuously on a single focus within consciousness, until, after many years of daily practice, we become so absorbed in the object of our contemplation that while we are meditating, we forget ourselves completely. In that moment, when we are empty of ourselves, we are utterly full of what we are dwelling on. This is the central principle of meditation: we become what we meditate on. Here is a brief summary of the form of meditation I follow:
Choose a time for meditation when you can sit for half an hour in uninterrupted quiet. Early morning is best, before the activities of the day begin. If you want to meditate more, add half an hour in the evening, but please do not meditate for longer periods without personal guidance from an experienced teacher. Select a place that is cool, clean, and quiet. Sit with your back and head erect, on the floor or on a straight-backed chair.
Close your eyes and begin to go slowly, in your mind, through the words of a simple, positive, inspirational passage from one of the world’s great spiritual traditions. (Remember, you become what you meditate on.) I recommend beginning with the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.
You will find it helpful to keep adding to your repertoire so that the passages you meditate on do not grow stale. My books God Makes the Rivers to Flow and Timeless Wisdom contain many other passages that I recommend, drawn from many traditions.
While you are meditating, do not follow any association of ideas or allow your mind to reflect on the meaning of the words. If you are giving your full attention to each word, the meaning cannot help sinking in.
When distractions come, do not resist them, but give more attention to the words of the passage. If your mind strays from the passage entirely, bring it back gently to the beginning and start again.
Resolve to have your meditation every day – however full your schedule, whatever interruptions threaten, whether you are sick or well.
Meditation is never practiced in a vacuum. Certain other disciplines always accompany and support it, varying somewhat according to the needs of a particular culture or audience. I have found these seven disciplines to be enormously helpful in supporting the practice of meditation in the modern world.
For a full discussion of passage meditation, read this chapter in Easwaran’s book, Passage Meditation.
2. Repetition of a Mantram
Silent repetition in the mind of a Holy Name or a hallowed phrase from one of the world’s great religions. Practiced whenever possible throughout the day or night.
By Eknath Easwaran
A mantram is a powerful spiritual formula which, when repeated silently in the mind, has the capacity to transform consciousness. There is nothing magical about this. It is simply a matter of practice. The mantram is a short, powerful spiritual formula for the highest power we can conceive of – whether we call it God, or the ultimate reality, or the Self within. Whatever name we use, with the mantram we are calling up what is best and deepest in ourselves. The mantram has appeared in every major spiritual tradition, West and East, because it fills a deep, universal need in the human heart.
Select a mantram that appeals to you. Every religious tradition has a mantram, often more than one. But you needn’t subscribe to any religion to benefit from the mantram – you simply have to be willing to try it.
For Christians, the name of Jesus itself is a powerful mantram; Catholics also use Hail Mary or Ave Maria. Jews may use Barukh attah Adonai; Muslims repeat the name of Allah or Allahu akbar. Probably the oldest Buddhist mantram is Om mani padme hum. And in Hinduism, among many choices, is Rama, Rama, which was Mahatma Gandhi’s mantram.
Choose whichever version of the holy name appeals to you; then, once you have chosen a mantram, do not change it. If you do, you will be like a person digging shallow holes in many places; you will never go deep enough to find water.
Unlike meditation, which involves sitting quietly and silently repeating a memorized passage, the mantram can be repeated under almost any circumstances, and it is so brief that it will come to your mind under even the most agitating circumstances. (In fact, that is often just when you will want it!)
The mantram is most effective when repeated silently in the mind. Repeat the mantram whenever you get the chance: while walking, while waiting, while doing mechanical chores like washing dishes, and especially when you are falling asleep. Whenever you are angry or afraid, nervous or hurried or resentful, repeat the Holy Name until the agitation in your mind subsides.
Do not make up your own version of the mantram, but use a formula that has been sanctioned by centuries of devout tradition. If you repeat it sincerely and systematically, it will go deeper with every repetition. It can be with you even in the uttermost depths of your consciousness, as you will discover for yourself when you find it reverberating in a dream – or, deeper still, during dreamless sleep.
By Eknath Easwaran
In today’s speeded-up ways of working and living, slowing down is an important spiritual discipline. In the modern world we are conditioned to live faster and faster with no time for inner reflection or sensitivity to others. We are only beginning to see that speed makes our lives tense, insecure, inefficient, and superficial.
It is not enough to talk about this; we must learn to slow down the pace of our lives. To do this it is a great help to start the day early; that is how you set the pace for the day. Have your meditation as early as possible. Don’t rush through breakfast. Allow enough time to get to work without haste. At any time during the day when you catch yourself hurrying, repeat the mantram to slow down.
In order to slow down, it is necessary to gradually eliminate activities outside your job and family responsibilities which do not add to your spiritual growth. At first you may feel at a loss for what to do with your newfound extra time. What we lose in activity we gain in intensity by learning to rest content on each moment. The English poet John Donne says, “Be your own home and therein dwell.” We can find our center of gravity within ourselves by simplifying and slowing down our lives.
It is essential not to confuse slowness with sloth, which breeds procrastination and general inefficiency. In slowing down, attend meticulously to details, giving the very best you are capable of even to the smallest undertaking.
By Eknath Easwaran
Everything we do should be worthy of our full attention. Doing more than one thing at a time divides attention and fragments consciousness. When we read and eat at the same time, for example, part of our mind is on what we are reading and part on what we are eating; we are not getting the most from either activity.
Similarly, when talking with someone, give that person your full attention. These are not little things. Taken together they help to unify consciousness and deepen concentration.
One-pointed attention is a powerful aid to meditation. Though our mind may be three-pointed or four-pointed or a hundred-pointed now, we train it to be one-pointed in meditation. Until it is trained, the mind will continue to go its own way, because it is the nature of an untrained mind to wander. Attention can be trained, and no skill in life is greater than the capacity to direct your attention at will.
The benefits of this are numerous. If you have trained your mind to give full attention to one thing at a time, you can achieve your goal in any walk of life. Whether it is science or the arts or sports or a profession, concentration is a basic requirement in every field.
One-pointed attention is helpful in whatever job you are doing. But perhaps the greatest benefit of a trained mind is the emotional stability it brings. In order to get angry, for example, your concentration must be broken – your mind has to change lanes. In order to get afraid, your mind has to change lanes. In order to get upset, your mind has to change lanes. What we all yearn for is a mind that cannot be upset by anything. And we can achieve it, too; but it calls for a lot of work in the training of attention.
When the mind is one-pointed it
will be secure, free from tension, and capable of the concentration that
is the mark of genius in any field.
By Eknath Easwaran
To enjoy life in freedom – to “live intentionally” – we have to train the senses to listen to us, for the simple reason that attention follows the senses. To do this, it is not necessary to deprive ourselves of good food or good entertainment, but simply to enjoy what is beneficial and ignore indulgences we will regret later. Training the senses does not mean denying them. It means educating them not to demand things that will cost us in health, security, or freedom.
In the food we eat, the books and magazines we read, the movies we see, all of us are subject to the dictatorship of rigid likes and dislikes. To free ourselves from this conditioning, we need to learn to change our likes and dislikes freely when it is in the best interests of those around us or ourselves.
We can have rigid likes and dislikes about anything from clothes to opinions, but the most practical place to start loosening them is with the senses: our likes and dislikes in what we taste, smell, watch, listen to, and touch. Freedom from the tyranny of likes and dislikes begins with training our senses to want what we approve of, and to follow our better judgment when it says no.
We can begin by saying no when our senses are urging us to indulge in something that is not good for our body or mind. The senses are the secretaries of the mind; to get the mind to listen to us, we need to bring them over to our side. We should choose what we eat by what our body needs, for example, rather than what the taste buds demand.
Similarly, the mind eats too, through the senses. In this age of mass media, we need to be particularly discriminating in what we read and what we go to see for entertainment, for we become in part what our senses take in.
Often rigid likes and dislikes are merely a matter of attention getting stuck. We get caught in a groove of what we have been conditioned to like or dislike, and we canít imagine getting free. And when we find that others have their attention stuck in their groove, friction results. Usually, without thinking, we react negatively and move away. But we can learn to play with those likes and dislikes instead, and once we taste the freedom this brings, we really find it enjoyable.
6. Putting Others First
Gaining freedom from selfishness and separateness; finding joy in helping others.
By Eknath Easwaran
If we have been slowing down the pace of our life, practicing one-pointed attention, and loosening our likes and dislikes, we should begin to see the benefit of these new patterns in all our relationships.
John Donne said, “No man is an island.” That is why selfless relationships lead to happiness, while a self-centered life leads to loneliness and alienation. As human beings, it is our nature to be part of a whole, to live in a context where personal relationships are supportive and close.
Dwelling on ourselves builds a wall between ourselves and others. Those who keep thinking about their needs, their wants, their plans, their ideas, cannot help becoming lonely and insecure.
The simple but effective technique I recommend is learning to put other people first – beginning within the circle of our family and friends and co-workers, where there is already a basis of love on which to build. When husband and wife try to put each other first, for example, they are not only moving closer to each other. They are also removing the barriers of their ego-prison, which deepens their relationships with everyone else as well.
It is important to remember here that putting others first does not mean making yourself a doormat, or saying yes to whatever others want. It means putting the other person’s welfare before your own personal desires. That is what love is: the other person’s welfare means more to you than your own. And love often requires you to say no.
When we put others first, we deepen our own security and dramatically enrich our relationships.
7. Spiritual Fellowship
Spending time regularly with others who are practicing passage meditation for mutual inspiration and support.
By Eknath Easwaran
Spiritual friends are what Buddha would have called “right companionship.” Everything we do, he reminds us, either adds or subtracts from our own image as human beings. What we give our time and attention to, what we talk about, what we read about, the people we are close to – all these contribute to either a higher image of the human being or to a lower one.
Cultivate time with people whose companionship elevates you. We can seek out goodness in people. We can seek out what is noble in human character. We can look for goodness and nobility in choosing our friends, in choosing to whom to give our attention and our love. It is especially helpful to spend time regularly with others who are basing their lives on the same spiritual values.
When you are trying to change your life, you need the support of others with the same goal. If you have friends who are meditating along the lines suggested here, you can get together regularly to share a meal, meditate, and perhaps read and discuss your spiritual reading. Share your times of entertainment too; relaxation is an important part of spiritual living.
One of the best forms of spiritual association is to work together for a selfless goal like relieving hunger or protecting the environment. Wherever people work like this, without expecting any reward or recognition, their individual capacities are augmented and enhanced. They are unleashing an irresistible force which, though we may not see it, is going to change the world.
8. Spiritual Reading
Drawing inspiration from writings by and about the world’s great spiritual figures and from the scriptures of all religions. Studying Easwaran’s works for general inspiration and for specific instruction in passage meditation.
By Eknath Easwaran
The media drown us in such a low image of the human being that it is essential to remind ourselves constantly of something higher. We can balance our outlook with spiritual reading: something positive, practical, and inspiring, which reminds us that the spark of divinity is in all of us and can be released in our own lives by meditation, prayer, and daily spiritual practice.
For this reason, I recommend half an hour or so each day for reading from the scriptures and the writings of the great mystics of all religions. Just before bedtime, after evening meditation, is a particularly good time for this kind of reading, because the thoughts we fall asleep in will be with us throughout the night.
The spiritual life is so challenging that it can be likened to an ascent up a lofty and noble mountain. We start from the plains – we might even say Death Valley – and slowly, very slowly, work our way up. There are joyous recompenses, of course: knowing that at long last we are moving towards the summit, glancing back and seeing how far we have come, feeling ever stronger and more vibrantly alive. But there are difficulties too, and they do not disappear as we climb higher. Gorges fall away on all sides, massive rocks stand in our pathway and must be surmounted, swirling mists and storms impair our vision. Cold and lonely seems the way at times, and we doubt we will ever reach the top.
At such moments we can draw welcome consolation from the writings of the mystics who have themselves gone up the mountain. Whenever our confidence ebbs – for most of us as frequently as the ebbing of the sea – we can turn to the words of these men and women of God and renew our hearts, draw fresh breath, and bring back into sight our supreme goal. Their trials put our obstacles into perspective, and their triumphs give us courage. We see just what we can be as human beings: our capacity to choose, to change, to endure, to know, to love, to radiate spiritual glory. Personally, I never tire of reading these precious documents. How blessed it is to be in the holy presence of a St. Teresa or a Sri Ramakrishna!