The Meditative Path - Chapter 1

CHAPTER ONE

TURNING ON THE LIGHT

INTEREST IN MEDITATION IN ITS VARIOUS FORMS HAS grown dramatically over the last thirty years throughout the Western world. What started as something of a fad for alternative-minded seekers who had encountered meditation during their travels in Asia has come to be regarded quite favorably by a wide cross-section of mainstream society. Meditation is now being taught in colleges, recommended to patients by medical practitioners, and even used by basketball coaches to help players improve their game.

Traditionally, the practice of meditation has been an integral part of spiritual life in many religions. Even today, meditation is often presented within a religious context. While this approach is perfectly valid and even desirable for those with religious inclinations, this book will demonstrate that meditation is relevant and accessible to everyone.

Meditation is a systematic, introspective practice to facilitate growth in three main areas:

· Getting to Know the Mind: carefully studying our inner world of feelings, thoughts, emotions, and various mental states.
· Training the Mind: intentionally cultivating three essential qualities for mental well-being-awareness, concentration, and serenity.
· Freeing the Mind: gradually reducing the power of negative tendencies that diminish inner peace and outer harmony.

It is important to note that these three aspects of meditation are not unrelated or separate, but rather constitute a single process of inner exploration, discovery, and development that I call the Meditative Path. There is nothing mysterious, haphazard, or bizarre about this process. It is very logical, and the principles involved can be easily understood in the context of a few basic concepts.

HUMAN BEINGS CAN BE TRAINED

Let us begin by considering the object of our study, the human being—a composite of body and mind. The body is the physical aspect of a human being, while mind refers to everything else that constitutes a person.

A student went to the meditation master and asked, "What is mind?" Without the slightest hesitation, the master replied, "No matter!"

We are all aware of the body and, to some degree, understand how it functions, what its needs are, and how to take care of it. There's nothing mysterious, for example, about using aerobic exercise to enhance one's general fitness, resistance training to build muscle mass and strength, or stretching exercises to increase flexibility. The body can be trained by these techniques to promote good physical health.

The mind can also be trained in various ways. Education is systematic training designed to develop intellectual capacity—the ability to think, reason, remember, plan, and so forth. Meditation is simply another way of training the mind, using various "exercises" to cultivate better mental health and well-being.

GETTING TO KNOW THE MIND

So, meditation is primarily concerned with this thing called mind. But what is mind? For most of us, the mind is a mysterious realm we have not known how to explore. One reason the mind is so mysterious is that it is too close to us. Because we identify so completely with the mind, we are unable to objectify our mental world and observe it carefully. Our experience can be compared to that of a fish in water. The fish is completely surrounded by water, but it is unaware of the water in which it swims. Similarly, though we identify with the mind, we often cannot see its functioning clearly. An ancient Sufi story is very revealing about this human blind spot:

On one occasion, the Mula Nasruden was outside his house crawling on his hands and knees, searching the ground.

A friend happened to pass by and, on seeing him, asked, "Nasruden, what are you doing in the dirt under this hot sun?"
Nasruden answered without looking up, "I have lost the key to my house, and I am looking for it."
The concerned friend immediately offered his assistance. "Here, let me help you. Where did you lose the key?"
"I lost it inside the house," replied Nasruden.
"But if you lost the key in the house, why are you looking for it out here?"
"Well, it's dark inside the house, so I came out here to search where the light is better."

Only by turning on the light inside his house will Nasruden find the missing key. Similarly, if we wish to understand the nature of the mind, we must turn our attention inward and observe our feelings, thoughts, and emotions. The mental faculty that allows us to observe the mind is awareness, which can be compared to light. While normal light allows us to see external objects, awareness enables us to know our internal mental processes.

THREE ESSENTIAL QUALITIES

I said that meditation involves cultivating three qualities essential to well-being: awareness, concentration, and serenity. Let's take a moment to define these terms, because in order to cultivate them, we must have a fairly good understanding of what they are.

Awareness, which we might also call mindfulness, is the state of "mind being fully present." An aware mind is not just conscious in the ordinary sense, because we can be conscious without being fully aware, without clearly knowing what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what we are feeling. We often move through life with only a modicum of attention to our present experience, operating mainly on automatic pilot and reacting to situations habitually.

However, we do have some awareness or moments when the mind is fully awake to the present experience. It is important to recognize the subtle, but profound difference between just being conscious and being mindful, or having consciousness with awareness. Have you ever been driving a car when you suddenly think, "Oh! Where am I? I've gone past my turn off!" What was your mind doing before that moment of awareness? You were conscious, but your mind was not fully present—not awake, clear, and mindful.

In meditation, we want to cultivate that fullness of mind that lets us be truly sensitive to the present moment. Stop for a moment and consider, "What am I feeling now? Where is my attention?" Awareness makes this type of introspection and exploration possible. It is an essential element in the practice of meditation, and only through the development of this quality can we cultivate concentration and serenity.

Concentration is the ability to direct and hold our attention on one thing for a desired period of time. If we think of awareness as light, then we might think of concentration as a laser, or focused light. The strength of concentration is determined by how fully we can focus and sustain our attention.

Concentration is the mental counterpart of physical strength. Although we all concentrate to some extent, most of us would agree that the mind is rather unruly, and that it behaves much like a restless monkey, jumping from one thing to another. This unruly mind not only prevents us from applying ourselves fully to a particular task, but it can also make us miserable. Constantly thinking about the past, usually with longing or regret, or the future, often with hope or trepidation, can be oppressive. The mind is in overdrive, and we feel stressed. The need to slow down and develop some mastery over this mental activity is illustrated in the following Buddhist verses:

More than those who hate you, more than all your enemies, an undisciplined mind does greater harm. Hard it is to train the mind, which goes wherever it likes and does what it wants. But a trained mind brings health and happiness. The wise can direct their thoughts, subtle and elusive, wherever they choose; a trained mind brings health and happiness. (The Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaran, 87-88)

Through systematic and gentle effort, we can teach the mind to stop running from one thing to another and to concentrate on one object. But before we can train the mind to concentrate, we must know what the mind is doing. That is the role of awareness. With awareness, we simply know where our attention is at this moment. Even if the attention moves from one object to another, we can still remain aware, because awareness flows, just as a beam of light illumines each object it touches.

However, if we wish to develop concentration, then, in addition to knowing where our attention is, we must also make an effort to sustain our attention on the same object. Every time our attention moves to something else, we need to be aware of that movement and bring it back to the original object. With patient effort and regular training, the mind gradually achieves better concentration. The light of awareness becomes focused into the laser of concentration.

Serenity is an experience of rest, tranquility, even joy. The concentration we are interested in developing through meditation is characterized by serenity and clarity. It is impossible to achieve this type of concentration through sheer force of effort or will power. Forcing the mind to concentrate on a task produces tension, and after only a short time, we may feel exhausted. That is hardly a meditative experience or a desirable state. I can still remember my first driving lesson during which I was concentrating so hard that my head was aching, and I was perspiring all over. I certainly did not feel serene.

Unfortunately, most of us can concentrate only through force or will power. As a result, we often feel like we're jumping between the frying pan and the fire. Either the mind is tormenting us by being the unruly, out-of-control monkey, or we are struggling to pin the monkey down until we're exhausted.

In meditation, we do not force the mind to concentrate. Instead, we try to encourage the mind through vigilant, gentle effort simply to slow down, to be at peace. By means of awareness and patient effort, the mind can be taught to appreciate the pleasant feeling of resting with one object. It will then be happy to remain with that object. Emerging from a period of good meditation, we feel refreshed and serene.

Cultivating the Meditative Path involves developing these three qualities by means of various formal and informal meditation techniques that will be described in the next several chapters. Later, we will explore how these three qualities can be applied to a process of self-discovery that leads to insight, growth, and freedom.

The Meditative Path is not an intellectual preoccupation with abstract concepts; nor is it just a matter of doing a few mental exercises for concentrating the mind. As you will discover, it is a journey marked by thoughtfulness, clarity, and understanding that touches every aspect of your being and your life.

The goal is inner peace and outer harmony. Meditation is the path, and we are all fellow travelers on the journey.

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EXERCISE:
RELAXING THE BODY

As a first step toward meditation practice, try this simple mental exercise for relaxing the body. Relaxation is not so much something you do, but something you allow to happen when you stop tensing your muscles. This exercise is designed to help you release any tension in the body.

· Begin by sitting comfortably in a chair or cross-legged on the floor in a quiet place with your eyes closed. If possible, try to maintain an upright posture. Put aside all your concerns for the past and future and just bring your attention to the body, noticing what it feels like to be sitting. Check to see whether the body is balanced and the posture is erect. Try to remain still. Slowly and systematically move your attention to the following parts of the body and be attentive to each area for a short time.
· Bring the attention to the area around your face, the forehead, and especially around your eyes. What do these areas feel like? Spend a little time gently releasing any tightness or pressure, relaxing and soothing all the muscles.
· Move your attention to the neck and the shoulders, releasing and relaxing all the muscles.
· Become aware of your arms, and just let them hang loosely and freely.
· Notice the feelings in your hands as you simply allow them to rest.
· Bring the attention to your chest, and release any tightness.
· Become aware of your abdomen, relaxing all the muscles.
· Bring the attention to your left leg, allowing it to be very heavy and completely at rest.
· Move the attention to the right leg, and relax it as well.
· Now, you can either repeat this process of moving your attention through the body, or just sit for a while, remaining aware of the whole body and being at peace with it.

This exercise can be practiced whenever you like for a period of five to ten minutes. It will help you release physical tension and establish a more peaceful state of mind.

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QUESTION TIME

In this section, I will address questions commonly asked about meditation and its application in everyday life.

Is meditation like falling asleep or a dull, fuzzy state of mind?

Quite the contrary. In meditation we cultivate a heightened state of wakefulness and clarity. In fact, dullness is one of the main hindrances to good meditation.
Is meditation the same as relaxation?
Taking time to pay attention to the body and relaxing the muscles is indeed a form of meditation, provided that the mind remains wakeful and alert. A relaxed body facilitates a serene state of mind. However, there is much more to meditation than relaxation.
Is meditation like daydreaming or being lost in thought?
Daydreaming is the very opposite of meditation. In meditation, we try to remain alert and clearly aware of what the mind is doing.
Is meditation similar to hypnosis?
If hypnosis is a state in which you do not have self-awareness and you cannot recollect what you experienced, it is certainly not meditation. In meditation, there should be awareness and a clear memory of the experience.
Will meditation inhibit ones capacity for creative thinking?
No. Creative thinking is the product of a quiet, clear mind. Practicing meditation can facilitate new and meaningful insights.
Is it true that you can cure illness through meditation?
It is a well-known fact that one's state of mind greatly impacts the physical body. Having a peaceful mind, free from the stress of negative thoughts and emotions, is conducive to better physical health. So we can say that through meditation it is possible to prevent or relieve unnecessary physical illness.
Some meditation techniques specifically promote healing. However, I think that it is an overstatement to say that we can cure or prevent all physical illness through meditation.
What about the development of psychic powers through meditation?
Many years ago, I was explaining the basics of meditation to a group of school children. One of the boys seemed quite enthralled as he sat looking at me with big eyes and eager anticipation. Finally, not being able to contain himself any longer, he asked, "Can you really fly?" Of course, he was greatly disappointed when I told him that I was not able to fly without the aid of an airplane.
It is natural for us to have a fascination for the supernormal, and I think it is good to keep an open Mind about such phenomenon. In many Eastern meditation traditions, it is firmly believed that meditators who attain very high levels of concentration can develop psychic powers and supernormal abilities. Be that as it may, it is certainly beyond the scope of this book and, more importantly, unlikely to have any practical relevance to our own experience in meditation.


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