We thought the new year was a good time to revisit some of the basic aspects of Easwaran’s method of meditation. We’re always amazed at how much help we get from re-reading Easwaran’s instructions on meditation, especially when it comes to the seemingly small aspects like time, or the eternal struggle of distractions. This week we’re sharing excerpts from the first chapter of Easwaran’s book Passage Meditation. If you’d like to read more, you can find the full text of the book on our website.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!