This week we’re sharing an excerpt from Easwaran’s series The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living. In this three volume set Easwaran goes through the Bhagavad Gita verse by verse sharing his commentary and insights into how this ancient text can provide practical wisdom for daily spiritual living. This excerpt is from the second volume, Like a Thousand Suns, and features Easwaran describing the stages of meditation.
Chapter 7, Verse 1
Sri Krishna: With your mind intent on Me, Arjuna, discipline yourself with the practice of yoga. Depend on Me completely. Listen, and I will dispel all your doubts; you will come to know Me fully and be united with Me.
We are dropping into the middle of a long conversation between Arjuna, a prince in ancient India, and Sri Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer and spiritual teacher, who represents the Lord, present in the hearts of us all. This is not an external conversation; it is very much internal. Arjuna is every man and every woman, and in the Bhagavad Gita we have slipped into his heart to listen in on a dialogue between two levels of our own consciousness. The voice we recognize belongs to the surface level of awareness – intelligent and well-intentioned, but full of doubts about the meaning of life and how we ought to live. The other voice, so full of wisdom, is the voice of our real Self, the Lord of Love, whether we call him Sri Krishna or the Christ, Allah or the Buddha or the Divine Mother.
As long as we are living for ourselves, dwelling on our own separate needs and problems, we cannot help identifying with our apparent self. It is very much like wearing a mask too long, so long that we think we are the mask and forget who we really are. But through the practice of meditation and its allied disciplines, all of us can learn to take off this mask and discover beneath it our real Self, called the Atman in Sanskrit, who is the source of all love, all security, all wisdom, and all joy.
In 1960, when I first began teaching meditation in the United States, these ideas were still very new. In those days, if you told someone you were interested in meditation, you had to be prepared to face a certain amount of laughter. Later, when I offered a credit course on meditation on the University of California campus in Berkeley – probably the first course of its kind to be offered by an American university – it drew about six hundred people and thirteen dogs. Now meditation is in the air, and I think the idea must be familiar to everyone in this country. Yet I think there is still no more maligned word in any language than the word yoga, with which Sri Krishna opens this chapter. Yoga is not exercises or physical postures; it is not a religion; it is not art or archery or music or dance. It is a body of dynamic disciplines which can be practiced by anyone, from any religious tradition or from no tradition at all, to enable us to remove this mask of separateness and learn to identify ourselves completely with our real Self.
Every spiritual tradition has its own formulation of these disciplines, but though they may differ in name and detail – the Sermon on the Mount, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Eight Limbs of Yoga – there is no difference between them when it comes to the actual practice and their effect on daily living. In my own life, I have found a set of eight steps to be tremendously effective in leading the spiritual life in the modern world. I have listed these steps in the Introduction, and everything I say is with an eye to how they can be applied.
The heart of this program is meditation, which Patanjali, a great spiritual teacher in ancient India, divides conveniently into three stages: dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Patanjali’s exposition is so precise and so free from dogma that I don’t think it can ever be improved on in these qualities. But it is written in a kind of lecture note style, in the expectation that other teachers will elaborate on these notes in their own way on the basis of their experience. So instead of quoting Patanjali, let me tell you from my own experience what these three stages in meditation amount to in their impact on daily living.
In the first stage of meditation, called dharana, we make an astonishing experiential discovery: we are not the body. It is not an intellectual discovery, it is an experiential discovery, and the first time we hear this statement it doesn’t make sense at all. If this body is not us, what is it? This is the question I was always asked after my talks, and I have developed all sorts of ways to convey what this experience of dharana means.
For one, this body of mine is very much like a jacket. I have a brown jacket with a Nehru collar, made in India, which has served me very well; I take good care of it, and I expect it to last me at least another five years. In just the same way, this body of mine is another brown jacket, made in South India and impeccably tailored to my requirements by a master tailor, whose label is right inside. This jacket has to last me much longer than the other, so I am very careful with it; I give it the right amounts of nutritious food and exercise and keep it clean inside as well as out. But just like my Nehru jacket, this body-jacket will someday become too worn to serve me well, and having made this discovery that I am not my body, when death comes I will be able to set it aside too, with no more tears than I would shed when I give my Nehru jacket to the Salvation Army.
In this discovery that you are not your body, you discover simultaneously that others are not their bodies either. The consequences of this are far-reaching. For one, you no longer see people as white or black, yellow or red or brown; you see people just like yourself wearing different-colored jackets. The whole question of race or skin color becomes absurd: black is beautiful, white is beautiful, and of course brown is beautiful too.
Secondly, when you no longer identify others with their bodies, you will be able to see them as people instead. It lifts an immense burden from your relationships with the opposite sex. No matter what the media try to tell us, I don’t think anything is more certain to disrupt a relationship than treating the other person as a physical object. On the physical level, all of us are separate, and it is the very nature of physical attraction to change with the passage of time. On the other hand, nothing is more certain to deepen a relationship than concern for the other person’s real welfare, which we can see clearly only when we cease identifying people with the body-jackets they wear.
Another way I sometimes look at my body is as a compact little car, built for service. It doesn’t guzzle a lot of gas; I can park it anywhere; nobody notices it at all. But it is the car; I have to be the driver. I don’t let it pick me up in the middle of the night and take me off to some casino; it has to go where I choose to drive it. As St. Francis put it, speaking of his body, “This is Brother Ass. I will wash him, I will feed him, but I am going to ride on him; he is not going to ride on me.”
The practical implication is that in this stage of meditation, we gain some measure of control over problems at the physical level. Many of our problems have a physical component, even if their roots are in the mind, and in dharana we learn to have some say in things that used to be compulsive. Overeating, for example, is not really a physical problem; it can be solved only in the mind. But if you have a problem with overeating, it is a tremendous help to be able to tell your hand what to do. I have friends with this problem who sometimes come to me and confess, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” I can understand this kind of craving easily, but what used to puzzle me was, even if we want something terribly, why should we have to put our hand out and put it into our mouth? If we know we shouldn’t eat it, we should be able to sit on our hands and that would be the end of the matter. But when I mentioned this to my friends they would just reply, “I couldn’t help myself. Some unseen power took over my hand and put the whole lemon meringue pie into it.” This kind of eating is compulsive, which means there is very little enjoyment in it. But in dharana, as we begin not to identify with the body, our whole perspective on eating changes; we begin to have some say in what we put into our mouths.
The second stage of meditation is called dhyana, from which the Japanese get their word for meditation, zen. In this stage we make an even more astonishing experiential discovery: we are not the mind either. When I used to say this in my classes on meditation on the Berkeley campus, there would be groans from the back of the lecture hall. “First he says I’m not my body; now he tells me I’m not my mind.” And they would ask, “Then what is the mind?” My answer is that just as the body is the external instrument we use in life, the mind is the internal instrument. If the human body is like the body of a car, the mind is very much like the engine. It is capable of tremendous power, but most of us spend so much time on the appearance of the body of the car that we don’t get around to opening up the hood to see if the engine is still there. It is there, but in order to get it running properly, it is essential not to think that we are a part of it. And once we get this perspective in dhyana, we can lie down on our backs on our little meditation trolleys, just as mechanics in garages do, get under the mind, and say, “Oh, yes, that old resentment; there’s a little screw over there that’s too tight.” Then we make the necessary adjustments and the problem is gone.
In other words, emotional problems like depression and insecurity are only mechanical difficulties with our engine, the mind, which means that every one of them can be solved. The implications of this are tremendous. Most of us go through life thinking that we can never be different from what we are. We may like it, more often we may dislike it, but we cannot get rid of the liabilities with which we have been born or which we have acquired in growing up. As long as we think that we are the body and the mind, this is true. But just as in the first stage of meditation we see that it is possible to change any physical habit, in the second stage of meditation we gain the capacity to change any emotional habit, to transform insecurity into security, rigidity into flexibility, hostility into compassion, hatred into love.
The secret of this transformation is breathtakingly simple: we become what we meditate on. There is a story in ancient India about a sculptor who was so gifted that his statues almost seemed to come to life out of the stone. Once, lost in admiration over his stone elephants, one of his students asked, “How do you do this? These elephants are more real than real elephants are; you can almost hear them trumpeting.” And the sculptor replied, “There’s no secret to it. I just go and get a big block of stone, set it up in my studio, and study it very carefully. Then I take my hammers and chisels and slowly, over a number of years, I chip away everything that is not elephant.”
When I see a person sitting quietly with eyes closed, giving all his attention to the Prayer of St. Francis, I like to think of this great sculptor, studying his big block of stone with such intense concentration that he really can see the elephant coming to life within: the trunk, and the big ears, and those keen, absurdly small eyes. We see only a block of stone, but for the sculptor, the elephant is already right there inside, struggling to be released. This is very much what we do in meditation, only instead of an elephant, it is the Atman who is imprisoned within us. In meditation, each of us is in a life sculpture class in which we are both the sculptor and the rock. Almost four billion big, shapeless rocks – no wonder we are sometimes uncomfortable with ourselves or think the world is ugly. But a mystic like St. Francis might say, “Of course, the rock is shapeless; no one would deny that. But look within, with intense concentration, and you can see the halo and the harp.”
In meditation we give the mind a shining model and study it very carefully every morning and every evening until it is printed on our hearts. Then, throughout the rest of the day, we go along chipping away at everything that is not Self. It takes many years, but in the end, the great mystics of all religions tell us, every bit of anger, fear, and greed can be removed from our consciousness, so that our whole life becomes a flawless work of art. This is the third stage of meditation, called samadhi. Samadhi really is not a stage at all, but a stupendous realization in which all the barriers of separateness fall. Then there are no walls between the conscious and unconscious, no walls between you and others; your consciousness is completely integrated, from the attic to the cellar. When this happens, Patanjali says in one of the grandest understatements in mystical literature, you see yourself as you really are: the Atman, the Self, who dwells in the hearts of us all.
Most of us cannot even glimpse how miraculous this transformation is until we try to achieve it ourselves. Then we shall see why the mystics tell us there is no greater challenge on earth than the challenge of Self-realization. The Compassionate Buddha puts it beautifully in one simple word: patisotagami, “going against the current” – the current of all our conditioning, in how we act, how we speak, and even how we think.
In my village in Kerala state, South India, when the sky was a solid wash of water and the river was swollen from the monsoon rains, we boys liked to jump into the river and swim to the other side, not with the current – anyone could do that – but against it. It wasn’t just that the current was fierce; the river would be full of branches and all sorts of other debris, so that even if you had good, strong arms and a lot of stamina, there was the danger of being drowned. That was the challenge of it. It might take an hour to get across, and there were very few who could reach the other side exactly opposite the point from which they left. Most of us would end up a few hundred yards downstream. But there were one or two – we used to admire them tremendously – who were such strong swimmers that they could make it straight across. It required strong muscles, powerful lungs, a lot of endurance, and – most of all – an indomitable will.
That is just the kind of spirit you need in meditation. When a flood of anger is sweeping over you with monsoon swiftness, that’s no time to let yourself be carried away. As Jesus might say, “Anyone can do that.” Swim against it; that’s what it means to live. You will find your arms almost breaking, your endurance stretched to the limit, but you’ll find there is such satisfaction in the achievement that nothing easier will seem worthy of your effort again. That is why the spiritual life appeals so deeply to the young and adventurous. It is only when you take on this challenge and begin to understand the extent of it, the daring and the courage and the resolute, dauntless spirit it requires, that you can look at St. Teresa of Ávila or Sri Ramakrishna and see that this is someone who has climbed the Himalayas of the spirit, who has stood on Mount Everest and seen the entire cosmos aflame with the glory of God.
Can you see from this what Sri Krishna means when he says in this verse, “Depend on Me completely"? No one in the world is so self-reliant as those who have realized God, just because they have put all their faith in the Lord within. When the mystics talk about God, when they refer to the Lord or the Divine Mother, they are not talking about somebody outside us, floating in space somewhere between Uranus and Neptune; they are talking about the Self, the Atman, who is nearer to us than the body is, dearer to us than our life. In samadhi, when all the barriers between us and the Self fall, there are no more doubts about the meaning of life, no more vacillations, no more sense of inadequacy or insecurity. We become part of an infinite force of love that can never perish, and all the resources of the Lord within flow into our lives to be harnessed for the welfare of the whole.