Questions and Answers on the Practice of Meditation
Swami Rama (Meditation and Its Practice)
Why isn’t “Meditation music” considered helpful in deepening meditation?
Music is an external stimulus, which takes your sensory system and mind in the direction of external awareness, rather than toward the inward focus of meditation. Concentration on some pleasant, external stimulus-such as a rose or soft music-can be quite soothing, but it doesn’t lead you in the direction of the highest state of consciousness within. Enjoy music at other times, but do not confuse this with meditation.
What about using incense or candles? Are they necessary or helpful?
For the same reason, burning incense while meditation isn’t recommended because the scent or smoke can be a distraction. If you wish, burn a little incense before you meditate to establish a pleasant atmosphere, but we recommend that you put the incense out when you begin to meditate.
Candles that flicker can also be quite a distraction, even though your eyes are gently closed. If you can obtain a good quality, nothing, nonflickering candle, you’ll find it less bothersome, but again, since your focus is not meant to be on the candle, an external light is not essential.
There seem to be many different meditative traditions and techniques. What accounts for these differences? How do I know which technique is best for me?
All authentic meditative traditions seek to help students know their own innermost nature. These seemingly different techniques can be compared to many different paths up a mountain. Along the paths the view may differ, but from the mountaintop the ultimate experience is the same.
Some techniques of meditation use mantras (as discussed in this book), while other traditions use different practices, often involving focusing on the breath. Whatever practice you choose, it is important that you do it regularly and conscientiously. Different techniques are appropriate for different students, who may have varying personalities, inclinations, and capacities. Learn one method, apply it consistently over time, and observe what response you seem to be having to the practice.
The practice of meditation using breath awareness alone is not sufficient, because the aspirant should learn to go beyond the conscious and even the unconscious mind. Some traditions lead students beyond them, while other methods are limited to breath awareness alone. It is essential to develop a comfortable, still posture, and then to become aware of the breath, but a human being is also a thinking being, and cannot ignore dealing with the various levels of the mind. Therefore a technique that leads aspirants beyond all the levels of the mind is a higher method of meditation. We do not condemn other meditation techniques, but some are complete and some are incomplete.
Eventually aspirants have to become aware of their essential nature, the source of consciousness, from which consciousness flows through various degrees and grades. The center of consciousness lies beyond the body, senses, breath, and mind. Therefore a method that is comprehensive and leads to the removal of all barriers to the experience of one’s innermost being is the best method.
Not only are there many different techniques, but there are different paths of yoga, such as the path of devotion and the path of action. Which should I follow?
There are many diverse paths, but the goal is only one. The path in which you find inner satisfaction is your own path. Become aware of what path you feel is right for you.
Should I use an alarm clock to time my meditation?
From the beginning you should learn to strengthen your sankalpashakti (power of will) by resolving that you will rise on time and meditate for 10, 15, or 20 minutes. The mind is the greatest of all timekeepers, and as you progress, you will find that the mind wakes you up for your meditation. Nothing external is really needed when you have decided that you want to awaken and meditate at a particular time.
Generally it’s not necessary to use an alarm clock to time the meditation itself, since in meditation, unlike the state of sleep, you will not lose consciousness of the passage of time. It’s also rather unpleasant to end a tranquil meditation with the jarring tone of an alarm clock. If you’re concerned about the time, keep a clock within view so you can check the time, or better still, try to set up your meditation session so that you don’t feel so much time pressure. Meditate earlier in the morning, or in the evening when there are no more duties or responsibilities awaiting you.
What do I do if my legs begin to hurt or fall asleep?
This often happens when the aspirant does not do enough physical exercise, but if you begin to do stretching exercise before and after meditation, you will notice a difference after a few days. If you still experience discomfort, or your feet fall asleep, stretch out your legs and shift position for a few minutes. You can massage or stretch your muscles and then, when your legs feel comfortable, resume your original position. You will find that the length of time you can sit comfortably will gradually increase as you form a habit of sitting regularly, and in a few months the body will not feel the way it did in the beginning.
Most modern people don’t spend much time sitting on the floor, so initially some postures may be uncomfortable. However, you will probably find that as you become accustomed to your meditation postures, it feels increasingly natural. While it is commonplace for the body to have some initial difficulty adjusting to sitting on the floor (or any other new exercise), remember that you should never push your body to the point. Physical exercise before and after the practice of meditation is important in helping to maintain good blood circulation.
Sometimes my meditation is good and sometimes it is full of disturbances. How can I deal with this situation?
When your mind remains preoccupied by worldly concerns and desires, it interferes with your experience during meditation. In such cases, you should cultivate a firm determination to let go of all thoughts that are coming forward in the mind asking for your attention. Therefore, before you sit in meditation, it is important to have a determined mind and to elevate your awareness by doing breath awareness. Decide not to be disturbed no matter what type of thoughts come into the conscious mind from the storehouse of merits and demerits, the unconscious mind. When you learn to witness your thinking process without becoming involved with its image, feelings, thoughts, and interests, then no thoughts-good or bad, helpful or unhelpful-can disturb you.
Sometimes the body itches, the head tilts to one side, or other symptoms-such as yawning, spontaneous tearing of the eyes, or the need to swallow-occur. What is the correct way of dealing with these disturbances?
Such disturbances occur during the preliminary stages of meditation. If one does not overeat, learns to keep the mind free from preoccupations, and observes the body, these things can be checked easily.
Why do I feel afraid during meditation?
This problem often occurs in those who have avoided becoming aware of certain desires and suppressed thoughts, as well as those who wish to escape from self-awareness, not wanting to analyze or understand their thinking process.
Actually a student is always safe during meditation, because the closer one is to the innermost, immortal reality, the safer one becomes. It is true that in meditation, hidden motivations and repressed feelings do become conscious, but the aspirant should cultivate inner strength and allow these things to come to awareness, and then learn to let go of them so they do not continue to distract the mind. Sincere efforts and practicing meditation consistently and regularly, with firm determination, eventually help the student overcome such hurdles.
What is japa? How does it help to deepen meditation?
Japa is the continuous mental repetition of one’s mantra. It is a helpful tool for keeping the mind focused on maintaining awareness of the center of consciousness. One can do japa all the time, in all situations and conditions. One of the best ways of doing japa is the silent technique of reciting the mantra without moving one’s tongue. The mind has a habit of always thinking of and obsessing about both the desirable and undesirable objects of events of the world. Keeping the mind busy doing japa is a useful accomplishment which counteracts this tendency. When japa becomes ajapa japa (spontaneous and effortless, going on by itself), it creates inner comfort, joy, peace, and happiness. If japa is done with feeling, and not mere mechanical repetition, it helps the student in attaining mahabhava (ecstasy).
In all spiritual traditions of the world, some form of japa is recommended. It is one of the great supports and aids for an aspirant of meditation. Japa can be done using a mala, which is a set of beads much like a rosary, or it can be done only mentally. If you use a mala, you move one bead each time you repeat the mantra.
What is the difference between meditation and mental japa?
Japa leads the meditator like a constant companion, helping the meditator cross all the intervening barriers to reach a state of silence. Silence is the greatest of all attainments. It is an experience in which one remains fully conscious and aware of the inner reality or Self, which is the Self of all, the universal truth.
Do diet and sexual activity affect one’s meditation?
Of course these factors affect meditation, so the mind should not be encouraged to roam and obsess in sexual grooves all the time. Sex is a biological and emotional necessity to a certain age, although this appetite should be regulated. This should not become the most prominent and dominating purpose of one’s life.
As far as food is concerned, simple, fresh, nutritious food that is not overcooked is best for the student of meditation. However, even though foods that are rich in nutrients are most healthy, overeating is neither healthy nor conducive to meditation. Meditation should not be done either when one is hungry or just after one has eaten.
How do I know when I need a teacher and how do I find one?
When aspirants begin to examine the momentary and transitory nature of the objects of the external world, they find they are no longer fully satisfied with them. They begin questioning the purpose of life and then try to understand their own internal states. Often, such students study the sayings of the sages. It is during this period of seeking that students find they need a guide. There is an ancient saying – which is true – that when a student has a burning desire to know the innermost truth, is sincerely searching, and is prepared, then the teacher appears.
All aspirants should know that an authentic teacher is always selfless and knows the state of mind of the aspirant and guides them accordingly. Do not search for a teacher, but prepare yourself first, and your teacher will come. Those teachers who are selfish and dominant or who exploit their students can never really guide anyone, teachers who are selfless, experienced, and who practice meditation know whether aspirants are actually prepared to tread the path. It is true that a competent teacher is a gift of grace from God.
I advise seekers not to run here and there in search of teachers, but rather to prepare themselves by watching their own mind, action, and speech, for there is a teacher within everyone, and that is their own conscience. If we ignore our inner teacher, then a teacher outside will be of no use to us. Learning to listen to one’s conscience is a great preparation for the path of spirituality.
Sometimes the ego comes forward and misguides us. The mind is a magician which can play many tricks, but the sincere aspirant will learn to recognize when the inner guidance received comes from their conscience or from a deluded or egotistic part of their personality. I advise students to pray to the mighty Self within, for heartfelt prayers are always answered.
How do students know that they are progressing?
Progressing on the path of spirituality is not like progressing in the external world. On the inner path, progressing means developing a peaceful and joyous mind. The student does not feel agitated or excited. This inner experience is a sufficient indication of the progress of the aspirant. The aspirant is also bound to meet others on the path of spirituality who share similar goals, for the law of nature is that similar attracts similar.
Can meditation cure emotional problems?
Meditation is the highest of all therapies, provided it is practiced systematically. Gradually aspirants learn to deal with their problems, fears, and habit patterns. Every human being has the capacity to advance and is fully equipped to deal even with gigantic problems, provided they follow their path with firm determination and sincerity. If when your human efforts are exhausted you still do not find peace within, then surrender yourself to the Self of all, the Lord of Life. Such self-surrender is the highest of all methods.
Are there any dangers in practicing meditation?
Meditation is not at all dangerous, but if we are not prepared, then sitting with closed eyes and hallucinating is a sheer waste of time and energy. We should understand the whole method and gradually train ourselves to be “insiders.” Most of us are taught to learn, watch, and verify things only in the external world. Learning to look, find, and see within is an entirely different path. Therefore learning to practice meditation systematically is useful.
Many teachers claim that their methods are a shortcut, and that other methods are lengthy. There is no such thing as a shortcut or a lengthy process; the path depends entirely on the student’s capacity, sincerity, and determination. Do not be swayed by such propaganda, publicity, or promotion. Work with yourself.
What are the symptoms of deepening meditation?
Meditation makes the mind one-pointed and inward. When you have learned to arrange your worldly duties so that they don’t create any obstacles, and when you practice meditation regularly and punctually, then you will find it rewarding in a special way. The mind becomes penetrating and one-pointed, and starts to fathom the subtler dimensions of life. These are the symptoms of deepening meditation.
How does one develop a feeling for the mantra?
In the beginning, simply follow the technique of mantra repetition. Later on, as this habit becomes a part of your life, you start to experience joy. You actually love your habits, and when the japa becomes an irreplaceable habit of your life, you feel attracted to and delighted by the mantra.
What is the final outcome of meditation? What can we expect?
The books all say that the final outcome is the attainment of samadhi. There are various types of samadhi, but I can tell you that a meditator is fully capable of attaining the highest state of wisdom, in which the mind cannot and does not pose any questions, because all questions are answered and all problems are resolved. This delightful state of mind brings tranquility in the external world and permanent peace within. Such meditators remain aware of truth at every moment and become fearless, for they remember the Lord of Life in every breath, and live in the world unaffected by worldly turmoil.
How long will it take a sincere student to attain the final goal?
This depends on the quality of the students’ internal states and the intensity of their determination, as well as the punctuality and regularity they maintain in meditation practice. Some students become excited and emotional about wanting to attain the highest state. They practice enthusiastically for a few days, but then their interest wanes and they stop practicing. However, those who persevere, practicing their meditation with regularity and full determination, surely attain the highest wisdom in a short time. Aspirants have many fantasies, desires for inner experience, and expectations of miracles, but when they understand that these are not helpful, then they abandon them and step beyond the mire of delusion, treading the path of light.