Meditation and Hatha Yoga

 

The word hatha is composed of two smaller words. Ha means “sun” and tha means “moon.” The word yoga means “to unite.” Thus, hatha yoga means “to unite the sun and moon.” The goal of practicing hatha yoga for men and women is to unite the qualities associated with the sun, such as the right side, warmth, activity, and masculinity, with the qualities associated with the moon, such as the left side, coolness, passivity, and feminine. This merging of the two polar opposites results in the birth of higher consciousness.

 

The exercises and practices of hatha yoga are part of the third step on the path of raja yoga. Hatha yoga practices include a series of physical movements and postures (asanas), body cleansings (kriyas), and certain anatomical locks (bandhas). While the ultimate purpose of hatha yoga is to create a strong and stable body so the practitioner can sit for longer and more comfortable meditation sessions, there are also important health benefits associated with the various techniques.

 

On a physical level, hatha yoga techniques offer a systematic method of purifying and strengthening the body through the practice of various stretching postures that enable a person to become graceful, relaxed, and supple. Hatha yoga postures also work to enhance balance and symmetry of the left and right sides of our body and to promote equilibrium between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. This is accomplished by alternating standing postures with inverted postures and forward bending asanas with backward bending poses, as well as practicing twisting postures first on one side and then switching to the other side. Because the poses cause gentle compression of the internal organs, digestive functioning often improves and under-active endocrine glands are stimulated. Large and small muscles relax as a result of practicing hatha yoga asanas and this can be of benefit for illnesses that are associated with abnormal muscular contraction such as high blood pressure, headaches, and asthma.

 

To understand how the practices of hatha yoga help the body and mind and prepare the student for meditation, it is important to describe the interconnection between the brain and the muscular-skeletal system. The areas of the brain responsible for maintaining muscle tone are located deep within the brain. These areas, which are referred to as the lower primitive brain centers, were the first to develop as the brain evolved and are controlled without our conscious direction. These reflexes are modified by input from the conscious part of our brain, the cerebral cortex. The cortex is the latest part of our brain to evolve and is considered to be the higher brain center.

 

In the most natural state, the more primitive lower brain center helps maintain a relaxed supple body. As we age, however, our conscious concerns and desires begin to interfere with the normal maintenance of relaxed muscle tone.

 

The proper practice of hatha yoga allows the primitive unconscious lower brain centers to adjust muscle tone unimpeded by inhibiting thoughts. This is done by assuming different asanas, which leads to activation of certain reflexes that are integrated in the lower brain centers and normally function without conscious awareness. It is through these reflexes that normal tone is reestablished. The postures used are, in a sense, also primitive in that they mimic the positions of animals, as is reflected in their names, including the butterfly, dog, peacock, cobra, or locust. Perhaps these postures facilitate a regression to the evolutionary roots of human beings, where posture is not distorted by conflicts of the conscious mind. To ensure that the lower brain centers are free from conscious cerebral inhibitory control, the mind is focused on the breath. Free from the conscious influence, the lower centers can reestablish proper muscle tone through the natural adjusting reflexes initiated by the hatha yoga postures.

 

To gain the maximum benefit from the hatha yoga asanas, it is best to relax deeply while doing the postures, to breathe evenly and slowly, and to focus on the area of stretch. The postures should be held with little movement and when coming out of the postures, it should be done slowly and gently. When hatha yoga postures are done for health purposes or in preparation for meditation, the following sequence is recommended: stretching exercises, standing postures, backward-bending postures, forward-bending poses, twisting postures, inverted postures, relaxation techniques, and breathing exercises.

 

When beginning the asanas, we should be receptive, patient, and calm. It is generally best to practice regularly, at the same time daily. Two excellent times to practice are early mornings after going to the bathroom and taking a warm shower. This will help us feel calm before meeting the challenges of our daily life. Doing yoga at night will help reduce the tension accumulated during the day and help allow for a restful sleep. When practicing asanas, pranayama, or meditation, it is best to wear loose fitting clothes and practice in a quiet, draft free room. We should wait two to four hours after eating to begin and should always relieve the bladder and bowels before commencing the postures. It is generally recommended that women who are menstruating refrain from doing the more strenuous postures, but meditation can always be practiced. While some mild discomfort may occur when we stretch tense muscles, we should maintain awareness not to stretch beyond our capacity to avoid injury. We should ease up on the poses if we feel burning pains or have involuntary shaking.

 

The manner in which we practice hatha yoga determines the quality of the benefits we will experience. A systematic program should be followed, allowing for gradual perfecting of the postures and incorporating the progressive development of the following qualities: flexibility, balance, strength, and stillness. In general, the beginner should endeavor to develop each of these qualities in this order, achieving a certain level of proficiency in each one before attempting the next. For example, if we are just starting to practice the asanas, we should initially practice gentle stretching exercises, which are designed to increase flexibility and mobility of the body, thus laying the foundation for the develop- ment of balance. A stretch in one direction is balanced by a stretch in the opposite direction. Only after we have attained a certain degree of flexibility and balance should we attempt postures that involve greater strength and power. As we work to enhance flexibility, balance, and strength, it is essential to establish a smooth and even rhythm to the flow of the breath and to coordinate the breath with the movements. As muscle tension is released, the flow of energy and prana are also unblocked. With continued practice of regulation of breathing coordinated with the postures, there is a balancing of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system, leading to state of relaxation, calmness, and inner stillness.

 

Because of these relaxing effects, hatha yoga is also helpful on an emotional level. While doing the physical postures, the re-lease of muscle tension not only results in increased flexibility but also helps to liberate pent-up emotions and conflicts that created or underlies the original body tension. Working through or letting go of physical resistance can trigger a concomitant response on the emotional level, liberating the person from the subjective feeling of restriction.

 

Hatha yoga also has important benefits on the mental and spiritual levels. As we increase our capacity to hold a posture for extended periods of time, not only is our physical strength enhanced but also our psychological endurance and will power are strengthened. Through the cultivation of self-discipline and will power, we are able to assume a posture effortlessly and to hold it without discomfort. This leads to the quality of stillness, when all movement of the body and mind is quieted. As the depth and degree of concentration and relaxation are increased, the breath becomes very subtle. As a result, we can learn to let go of body consciousness and become aware of energy flowing within us. At this point, the mind can be allowed to flow with the breath and a mantra can be repeated, with the result that the body, breath, mind, and mantra become one. This coordinated effort leads to deeper levels of concentration and meditation.

 

There are also six cleansings (kriyas) that are part of hatha yoga practices. These cleansings prepare the body for the postures and like the asanas, these kriyas have important therapeutic benefits. Some of the kriyas also help meditation by enhancing the power of concentration.

 

Neti (nasal wash) is a simple and frequently used technique where warm salt water is poured into one nostril and allowed to pass out through the other nostril or out the mouth. This cleans out the nose, back of the throat, and sinus cavities and helps in sinu- sitis, allergies, and upper respiratory infections.

 

Trataka (gazing) involves focusing the open eyes on an external object such as a candle flame.

Kriyas: Cleansings **

  • Neti - nasal wash
  • Trataka - gazing at candle or between eyes
  • Kapalabhati - breathing technique
  • Nauli - separation of abdominal muscles
  • Dhauti - swallowing a cloth
  • Basti - lower bowel wash
  • ** Practice only under teacher supervision

The eyes can also be directed upwards to stare at the ajna chakra (third eye) or downwards at the tip of the nose. This has the effect of improving both eyesight and mental concentration.

Kapalabhati is a vigorous breathing technique that flushes out the respiratory system. It can be used for people who have asthma, sinusitis, and digestive problems.

Nauli is a technique in which the two central abdominal muscles are separated and rolled in a wave-like manner. This promotes better digestion and bowel function. The third chakra area is also stimulated and activated by this kriya.

Dhauti is an unusual technique practiced only by advanced hatha yoga practitioners. A strip of cloth is carefully swallowed and then gently pulled back out to aid in cleansing the throat, esophagus, and stomach.

Basti is another complicated procedure that is used to cleanse the lower colon. The upper wash is yet another type of cleansing that involves swallowing salty or lemon flavored water and then quickly regurgitating the contents of the stomach. This has great therapeutic benefit for stomach problems and asthma.

 

 

Meditation, pranayama and the breath

 

As previously mentioned, pranayama is the fourth step in raja yoga. In Sanskrit, the word is derived from prana, which means “energy” and either yama, meaning “control” or ayama, which means “expansion.” Therefore, the word literally means “a practice in which the flow of energy is expanded and brought under control.” Prana is further derived from pra, which means “first unit” and na, meaning “energy.” Prana refers to the first and the subtlest form of energy, which animates the body and mind as well as the entire universe. All inanimate objects, life forms, and all human sensations, thoughts, feelings, ideas, desires, and knowledge are possible because of prana.

While prana underlies and sustains all aspects of human functioning, the main vehicle that allows for its control within the body and exchange with the outside world is the breath. This is the reason that breathing techniques are most closely associated with pranayama. Although eating also represents a vehicle for exchange of prana with the outside world, it occurs only a few times daily, while breathing occurs many times per minute.

The vital importance of breathing is exemplified by the fact that breathing is the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do when we die. Even the word for breathing in, inspiration, also means to be motivated or stimulated, while the word for breathing out, exhalation, also means to die. Yogis well disciplined in the science of breath often refer to their age not by the number of years they have been alive but by the number and quality of breaths they have taken.

Breathing is considered to be the link between the conscious and unconscious mind. Unlike heart, kidney, or gastro- intestinal functioning, breathing is the only physiologic function that can either be voluntarily controlled by the mind or, if we choose not to pay attention to the flow of the breath, the body can involuntarily and automatically control breathing. Therefore, in the conscious act of doing certain types of breathing exercises, we gain greater awareness and control of involuntary physical functions, as well as the unconscious mind. A more detailed discussion of the close interaction between breathing, the nose, the chest, the autonomic nervous system, the brain, and the mind can be found in chapter 9, Meditation and Its Effects on the Stress Response.

Disruptions in concentration are often associated with pauses and hesitations in breathing. Practicing simple techniques to regulate breathing rhythms brings about greater mental clarity and continuity of thought. Emotional states are often accompanied by altered breathing patterns. Examples of such alterations are the sobbing sounds of grief, the sighs of disappointment, and the trem- bling breath of anger. Breathing exercises can help regulate these altered patterns of breathing. This results in greater calm and control of emotions.

Breathing exercises can also help quiet and focus the mind to deepen meditation. Meditation can use awareness of the breath flowing in and out of the nose as a focus of concentration. This can be further amplified by simultaneous and silent repetition of certain sounds (mantras).

While it usually seems as though we are thinking many things simultaneously, we are in reality instantaneously and rapidly moving from thought to thought. By mentally following the inflow and outflow of the breath, the mind becomes highly focused, does not wander or change, and as a result becomes a more potent tool to appreciate and experience our inner and outer worlds.

The science of breath (swarodaya) describes the theory of prana and how breathing techniques control the flow and distribution of prana. There are several aspects of pranayama that are important, including each specific breathing exercise, breath retention (kumbhaka), and physical locks (bandhas) that are practiced as the student advances. These are all very important exercises for preparing for meditation because they help regulate energy transmission, flow, and distribution of prana through the energy pathways (nadis) and the main energy centers (chakras). Breathing is an invaluable tool in activating the latent spiritual force (kundalini) in its ascent to the higher centers of consciousness.

The techniques described below are the most important pranayama exercises. Each of these pranayama techniques can be practiced using the physical locks and breath retention. This should only be done, however, under the guidance of a teacher who is skilled in the science of breath and who knows the student’s general health and formal meditation practice. Except for a few techniques, pranayama exercises involve sitting with a straight spine, breathing only through the nose, and allowing the abdomen to move away from the body on inhalation and towards the body on exhalation (diaphragmatic breathing). The rhythm and rate may vary but is generally deep, though not overly forced, and smooth without pauses or jerkiness. If breath retention is not practiced, there should be no hesitation after exhalation or inhalation.

The complete yoga breath involves exaggerating the three phases of breathing in a slow and deep manner. The abdomen slowly moves out on inhalation, followed by rising of the chest, and finishing with the collarbones moving upwards towards the neck. Exhalation follows in the reverse order. This technique is especially helpful when we are tired and want to practice meditation because it brings a great deal of oxygen to the body and feels quite energizing. The complete yoga breath is medically quite helpful for asthma and chronic bronchial conditions, as well as for gastritis and irritable bowel syndrome because of its stimulation of the abdominal muscles and organs.

Nadi shodhanam (alternate nostril breathing) involves alternately breathing through the right and left nostril. After a full and relaxed inhalation through both nostrils, the practitioner uses the tip of the right thumb to block off airflow to the right nostril, and exhales through the left side. This is followed by an inhalation through the left nostril. After slowly taking a full breath, the left nostril is blocked off with the tip of the ring finger and air is eliminated through the right side. After completely exhaling through the right nostril, the breath is drawn in again through the right side. This completes one cycle. The process then repeats itself and three to seven cycles are generally practiced. This technique is generally done before beginning meditation because of its effects on purifying the energy channels (nadis) and for the clarity of mind this exercise brings. Alternate nostril breathing has also been shown to be very useful in treating psychological problems such as anxiety, obsessive thought disorders, and depression.

Breathing and Pranayama Techniques

  • The complete yoga breath - abdomen, chest, and collarbones
  • Nadi shodhanam - alternate nostril breathing
  • Ujjayi - sobbing breath
  • Kapalabhati - shining skull breath
  • Bhastrika - bellows breath
  • Bhramari - the bee breath
  • Sitali - hissing breath
  • Sitkari - cooling breath
  • Surya bheda kumbhaka - alternate nostril breathing with retention

Ujjayi (sobbing breath) is a pranayama technique practiced by breathing in slowly through both nostrils with the inspired air being felt on the roof of the soft palate. A soft, continuous sobbing sound is made because the glottis remains partially closed. Mental repetition of the mantra SO can accompany inhalation. Without any pause, exhal- ation begins with the out flowing air also being felt on the roof of the mouth. Mentally, the mantra HAM (rhythms with the word “rum” and “numb”) can be repeated. Seven to twenty-one repetitions can be practiced. Ujjayi helps to calm the mind and helps physical conditions such as sore throats, nasal congestion, and sinusitis.

Kapalabhati (shining skull breath) consists of a rapid, vigorous, and forceful expulsion of air using the abdominal muscles and diaphragm. This is followed by a relaxation of the abdominal muscles and a passive, gentle, spontaneous inhalation. Seven to twenty-one repetitions can be done, followed by a brief rest. Three to seven cycles can be practiced. Kapalabhati is both a breathing exercise and a kriya (cleansing) and is helpful for sinus infections, nasal obstruction, for stimulating the digestive organs, and for exercising the abdominal muscles.

Bhastrika (bellows breath) involves forcefully moving the abdominal muscles in and out so that exhalation and inhalation are vigorous and rapid. One in-and-out breath is one cycle. Between seven and twenty-one cycles are generally practiced and then repeated three to seven times. Alternatively, the practitioner can close off one nostril and do both inhalation and exhalation out of the same side for several repetitions and then switch sides. The benefits of bhastrika are similar to kapalabhati.

Bhramari (bee breath) is a technique that involves partially closing off the throat and glottis and bringing air in through the nose. A sound is produced on both inhalation and exhalation that resembles the sound of bees in flight. When many people practice this exercise simultaneously it makes a beautiful, melodious sound. This pranayama technique can be practiced from seven to twenty-one times. Bhramari can be used for thyroid conditions, throat problems, and sinus congestion. It also helps bring about mental clarity before meditation.

Sitali (hissing breath) is practiced by breathing in through the mouth and out through the nose. Two methods of inhalation are possible. The student can turn the tongue backwards so that the tip is resting on the soft palate. Breath is then taken in through the pressure of the combined resistance of the tongue and soft palate. The other, more common approach is to roll the tongue lengthwise into a tube-like structure and protrude the tongue a little beyond the lips. Exhalation in both instances is slowly out through the nose. This pranayama technique is useful for cooling the body, which is helpful for conditions that involve excess body heat including fever, menopausal hot flashes, or being overheated from exercise or hot weather.

Sitkari (cooling breath) involves breathing in through the mouth and out through the nose. The teeth are closed and the tongue is placed so that it does not touch the teeth, palate, or bottom of the mouth. Air is drawn in making a loud nose. The breath is deep and slow. Exhalation is done quietly. This can be practiced from seven to twenty-one times. Benefits include cooling the body, helping insomnia, and controlling the appetite.

 

Note: This information is adapted from my book, How to Meditate Using Chakras, Mantras, and Breath.

 

 

 

Meditation and the benefits on the mind and emotions

 

While practicing meditation we learn to slow the rapid movements of thoughts across the conscious mind. Meditation then trains our mind to become more focused, proficient, and creative and less scattered, chaotic, and disorganized. Through meditation, we learn to use our will and the decision-making component of our mind to direct our thoughts. (For a more detailed description of the five components of the mind, refer to chapter 12, The Mind.) We learn to think in different ways, gaining newer and richer inner mental experiences. The mind becomes more like the concentrated and powerful light coming from a laser beam and less like the weak light emanating from a light bulb.

Meditation enhances our awareness of how our body, breath, senses, conscious mind, and unconscious mind interact. This expanded awareness helps us see clearly, discriminate wisely, and make good decisions about our physical and emotional health. A physician who practices holistic medicine may use meditative techniques as part of his/her therapy to treat various medical and emotional concerns and illnesses.

During meditation feelings and thoughts that were previously hidden and unconscious rise into conscious awareness. Generally, unpleasant feelings and thoughts do not simply go away if they are avoided. Instead they get buried in the subconscious or unconscious like dust buried under a rug. When this occurs, we rarely have control over these thoughts, yet the train of associations arising from them affects our behavior.

The Benefits of Meditation

  • Slows the thinking process
  • Enhances awareness of body and mind
  • Brings to conscious awareness feelings that are unconscious
  • Helps us experience each moment more fully
  • Helps us observe our feelings without judgment
  • Helps us stay in the present
  • Releases unpleasant memories and anxiety
  • Eliminates dependency on other people and objects
  • Helps us become aware of shared experiences with others
  • Increases compassion for others
  • Helps us practice loving kindness and generosity
  • Teaches us to accept ourselves
  • Explores the four levels of consciousness
  • Helps us experience higher states of consciousness

Meditation can act in ways similar to psychotherapy because it allows for these unconscious thoughts and emotions to rise to the surface. Here they are observed and impartially scrutinized and we can make a decision whether to take action on our concerns or to simply let them go. We learn to think what we want to think, when we want to think it, and how we want to think it. We learn to be in control of the moment and in stressful situations resist the emotional and psychological pressures from the unconscious. As practitioners of meditation we learn to be in control, directing our will to do what we want to do and to not do what we do not want to do. Advanced teachers of meditation describe this ability as self-mastery.

When we meditate regularly we experience each moment with heightened awareness and greater clarity. For ex- ample, when viewing a beautiful sunset, we might be somewhat distracted by thoughts of work, feeling hungry, or worries of being late for some future obligation. Our attention does not stay completely focused on the sunset scene. As a consequence, we might not experience the smells in the air, the sounds of birds singing, or the intensity of the colors of the sky. Thus, we would not be fully present. Alternately, as students of meditation we use learned skills of concentration to turn off mental interference and concentrate totally on the whole sensory experience. At the end of meditation, we may notice that colors become more vivid and sounds more melodious. There are no more extraneous images placed between the experience of the sunset and us. In a sense, we become one with the total experience. As a result, we become more aware of subtle phenomena that are otherwise not apparent to us, and our world becomes deeper and richer.

 

During meditation we watch feelings arise with a quiet, nonjudging awareness. This allows us to carefully observe the contents of our mind. We also learn to trace our emotions to their source. Meditation helps us let go of distracting emotions that bind us. We learn to experience the totality of feelings, yet not be enslaved by them. By following the path of meditation, we learn to feel the wide range of human feelings in an intense and direct way, including the unpleasant emotions of anger, jealousy, fear, and sad- ness. At the same time, meditation teaches us not to overly indulge these feelings and to avoid hanging on to or surrendering to them. Ultimately, meditation leads to liberation from disturbing and distracting emotions, thoughts, and desires, and replaces these disturbances with a sense of inner quiet, freedom, and joy.

In meditation we learn to stay in the present, to let go of troublesome memories, and to release anxiety of the future. Meditation is not about acquiring new experiences or getting to any different place, but rather involves accepting what we already have and being where we already are. We learn to be here now. Meditation then helps expand the moment--we experience the fullness of the moment and realize its full potentiality. In the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, this is called beginner’s mind. As we practice meditation, we become willing to begin each moment as a new and life-enhancing experience. Each time we sit for meditation, the experience is fresh and alive.[i]

 

When we meditate we do not withdraw from the world but from dependence on objects and people as sources of gratification. The process of meditation teaches us that we often seek happiness through desiring external objects. Turbulence of the mind is based upon the type of desire we have, especially when we want more than what is necessary for healthy and comfortable living. When a desire arises, we often become dissatisfied because we find ourselves separated from the source of satisfaction. We suffer because we are worried we will not attain what we want or are afraid we will lose what we already have. Through meditation we realize that the true source of happiness does not reside in attained objects and goals but in a state of mind that is independent of these objects. When we practice meditation we realize that we are truly content when we are free from desires.[ii]

 

In meditation we begin to understand that all human beings are part of the same underlying universal consciousness, just as all drops of water in the ocean share all the qualities of the ocean. Meditation helps relationships because the student realizes that all people share similar types of feelings, experiences, and qualities. We begin to see the reflection of ourselves in others and begin to relate to others as we relate to ourselves. Other people are seen not as objects to get something from but as fellow travelers on the same path of life.

 

This experience of inner relatedness results in our being able to feel compassion and empathy for others. We learn to practice loving kindness, express generosity, and have gentle speech in our relationships. As meditation progresses, we learn to let go of the pain and sorrows of past losses and betrayals. The heart releases its disappointments and expands and we learn to direct loving kindness even to people we may dislike or who have hurt or threatened us. Patience, tolerance, and forgiveness are mature qualities that develop as a result of practicing loving kindness.

 

We learn to accept ourselves when we practice meditation regularly. As we sit quietly in meditation, we become aware of unpleasant emotions, physical pain, or fears of death, disease, poverty, or injustice. During the process of meditation, we learn to have an accepting attitude towards each of these negative feelings and experiences. Because we develop a tolerant attitude towards our own fears and unease, and at the same time realize that all humans have similar anxieties and apprehensions, we learn to feel compassion for other people’s suffering as well. Seen in this light, compassion is an intense and sincere feeling that rises spontaneously in our own heart to help relieve the pain of others.

 

Meditation helps us explore the four levels of conscious- ness, which are waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and sleepless sleep (turiya). This last level is a highly conscious state similar to deep sleep except we remain totally awake and aware. Every human has potential access to this highly aware and peaceful state of consciousness because it is constantly and permanently available to experience, but most individuals are too distracted and preoccupied by their thoughts and desires. Meditation can provide the necessary techniques to consciously experience sleepless sleep.

 

While the ultimate goal of meditation is not to experience altered states of consciousness, there are some experiences that result from meditation that are quite interesting and life trans- forming. Some people develop panscopic vision, which involves the ability to perceive an object from all sides at once. There are descriptions of being able to visualize with the mind’s eye more than the three dimensions that our physical eyes normally see. Barriers between the senses are lowered and people sometimes describe being able to see sounds and fragrances or to hear colors. Extrasensory perception including clairvoyance and telepathy, can also be an outcome of intense concentration practices.[iii] Advanced teachers of meditation always warn their students to view these phenomena with simple curiosity, with neutrality and dispassion, and never to use these abilities to impress, manipulate, or harm another person.

 

The benefits of meditation can be understood by the following analogy. The human mind is like the ocean, the conscious mind representing the surface of the sea and the innumerable fluctuations of thought and emotion representing the ocean waves. Lying beneath the surface is the unconscious mind, analogous to the deep and submerged ocean expanse. The turbulence of the thought waves obscures the depths of knowledge underneath the conscious mind in a similar way that ocean waves make it impossible to see beneath the ocean surface. The process of meditation calms the tumultuous ebb and flow of the mind’s outer layer of wave activity like a calm day quiets the ocean surface. Unconscious repression and habits deep within the mind are allowed to rise to the surface to be observed, in a similar way that bubbles and currents rise and dissipate on the ocean surface. Since no energy is supplied to suppress them, the bubbles gently burst and dissipate. This dispassion averts the creation in the unconscious of further increased psychological pressure that can produce exaggerated emotional reactions, like tidal waves in the ocean. The conscious mind becomes quiet and still, and the deeper mysterious layers of the unconscious can be observed and experienced, similar to the way the ocean depths become visible on a calm, wind-free day. Finally, the individual, separate self merges with universal consciousness, like a wave that merges with the great ocean expanse. True knowledge and tranquility result and the individual experiences the peace and bliss of universal conscious- ness.

 

While practicing meditation we learn to slow the rapid movements of thoughts across the conscious mind. Meditation then trains our mind to become more focused, proficient, and creative and less scattered, chaotic, and disorganized. Through meditation, we learn to use our will and the decision-making component of our mind to direct our thoughts. (For a more detailed description of the five components of the mind, refer to chapter 12, The Mind.) We learn to think in different ways, gaining newer and richer inner mental experiences. The mind becomes more like the concentrated and powerful light coming from a laser beam and less like the weak light emanating from a light bulb.

 

Meditation enhances our awareness of how our body, breath, senses, conscious mind, and unconscious mind interact. This expanded awareness helps us see clearly, discriminate wisely, and make good decisions about our physical and emotional health. A physician who practices holistic medicine may use meditative techniques as part of his/her therapy to treat various medical and emotional concerns and illnesses.

 

During meditation feelings and thoughts that were previously hidden and unconscious rise into conscious awareness. Generally, unpleasant feelings and thoughts do not simply go away if they are avoided. Instead they get buried in the subconscious or unconscious like dust buried under a rug. When this occurs, we rarely have control over these thoughts, yet the train of associations arising from them affects our behavior. Meditation can act in ways similar to psychotherapy because it allows for these unconscious thoughts and emotions to rise to the surface. Here they are observed and impartially scrutinized and we can make a decision whether to take action on our concerns or to simply let them go. We learn to think what we want to think, when we want to think it, and how we want to think it. We learn to be in control of the moment and in stressful situations resist the emotional and psychological pressures from the unconscious. As practitioners of meditation we learn to be in control, directing our will to do what we want to do and to not do what we do not want to do. Advanced teachers of meditation describe this ability as self-mastery.

The Benefits of Meditation

  • Slows the thinking process
  • Enhances awareness of body and mind
  • Brings to conscious awareness feelings that are unconscious
  • Helps us experience each moment more fully
  • Helps us observe our feelings without judgment
  • Helps us stay in the present
  • Releases unpleasant memories and anxiety
  • Eliminates dependency on other people and objects
  • Helps us become aware of shared experiences with others
  • Increases compassion for others
  • Helps us practice loving kindness and generosity
  • Teaches us to accept ourselves
  • Explores the four levels of consciousness
  • Helps us experience higher states of consciousness

When we meditate regularly we experience each moment with heightened awareness and greater clarity. For ex- ample, when viewing a beautiful sunset, we might be somewhat distracted by thoughts of work, feeling hungry, or worries of being late for some future obligation. Our attention does not stay completely focused on the sunset scene. As a consequence, we might not experience the smells in the air, the sounds of birds singing, or the intensity of the colors of the sky. Thus, we would not be fully present. Alternately, as students of meditation we use learned skills of concentration to turn off mental interference and concentrate totally on the whole sensory experience. At the end of meditation, we may notice that colors become more vivid and sounds more melodious. There are no more extraneous images placed between the experience of the sunset and us. In a sense, we become one with the total experience. As a result, we become more aware of subtle phenomena that are otherwise not apparent to us, and our world becomes deeper and richer.

During meditation we watch feelings arise with a quiet, nonjudging awareness. This allows us to carefully observe the contents of our mind. We also learn to trace our emotions to their source. Meditation helps us let go of distracting emotions that bind us. We learn to experience the totality of feelings, yet not be enslaved by them. By following the path of meditation, we learn to feel the wide range of human feelings in an intense and direct way, including the unpleasant emotions of anger, jealousy, fear, and sadness. At the same time, meditation teaches us not to overly indulge these feelings and to avoid hanging on to or surrendering to them. Ultimately, meditation leads to liberation from disturbing and distracting emotions, thoughts, and desires, and replaces these disturbances with a sense of inner quiet, freedom, and joy.

In meditation we learn to stay in the present, to let go of troublesome memories, and to release anxiety of the future. Meditation is not about acquiring new experiences or getting to any different place, but rather involves accepting what we already have and being where we already are. We learn to be here now. Meditation then helps expand the moment--we experience the fullness of the moment and realize its full potentiality. In the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, this is called beginner’s mind. As we practice meditation, we become willing to begin each moment as a new and life-enhancing experience. Each time we sit for meditation, the experience is fresh and alive.[iv]

 

When we meditate we do not withdraw from the world but from dependence on objects and people as sources of gratification. The process of meditation teaches us that we often seek happiness through desiring external objects. Turbulence of the mind is based upon the type of desire we have, especially when we want more than what is necessary for healthy and comfortable living. When a desire arises, we often become dissatisfied because we find ourselves separated from the source of satisfaction. We suffer because we are worried we will not attain what we want or are afraid we will lose what we already have. Through meditation we realize that the true source of happiness does not reside in attained objects and goals but in a state of mind that is independent of these objects. When we practice meditation we realize that we are truly content when we are free from desires.[v]

 

In meditation we begin to understand that all human beings are part of the same underlying universal consciousness, just as all drops of water in the ocean share all the qualities of the ocean. Meditation helps relationships because the student realizes that all people share similar types of feelings, experiences, and qualities. We begin to see the reflection of ourselves in others and begin to relate to others as we relate to ourselves. Other people are seen not as objects to get something from but as fellow travelers on the same path of life.

 

This experience of inner relatedness results in our being able to feel compassion and empathy for others. We learn to practice loving kindness, express generosity, and have gentle speech in our relationships. As meditation progresses, we learn to let go of the pain and sorrows of past losses and betrayals. The heart releases its disappointments and expands and we learn to direct loving kindness even to people we may dislike or who have hurt or threatened us. Patience, tolerance, and forgiveness are mature qualities that develop as a result of practicing loving kindness.

 

We learn to accept ourselves when we practice meditation regularly. As we sit quietly in meditation, we become aware of unpleasant emotions, physical pain, or fears of death, disease, poverty, or injustice. During the process of meditation, we learn to have an accepting attitude towards each of these negative feelings and experiences. Because we develop a tolerant attitude towards our own fears and unease, and at the same time realize that all humans have similar anxieties and apprehensions, we learn to feel compassion for other people’s suffering as well. Seen in this light, compassion is an intense and sincere feeling that rises spontaneously in our own heart to help relieve the pain of others.

 

Meditation helps us explore the four levels of conscious- ness, which are waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and sleepless sleep (turiya). This last level is a highly conscious state similar to deep sleep except we remain totally awake and aware. Every human has potential access to this highly aware and peaceful state of consciousness because it is constantly and permanently available to experience, but most individuals are too distracted and preoccupied by their thoughts and desires. Meditation can provide the necessary techniques to consciously experience sleepless sleep.

 

While the ultimate goal of meditation is not to experience altered states of consciousness, there are some experiences that result from meditation that are quite interesting and life trans- forming. Some people develop panscopic vision, which involves the ability to perceive an object from all sides at once. There are descriptions of being able to visualize with the mind’s eye more than the three dimensions that our physical eyes normally see. Barriers between the senses are lowered and people sometimes describe being able to see sounds and fragrances or to hear colors. Extrasensory perception including clairvoyance and telepathy, can also be an outcome of intense concentration practices.[vi] Advanced teachers of meditation always warn their students to view these phenomena with simple curiosity, with neutrality and dispassion, and never to use these abilities to impress, manipulate, or harm another person.

 

The benefits of meditation can be understood by the following analogy. The human mind is like the ocean, the conscious mind representing the surface of the sea and the innumerable fluctuations of thought and emotion representing the ocean waves. Lying beneath the surface is the unconscious mind, analogous to the deep and submerged ocean expanse. The turbulence of the thought waves obscures the depths of knowledge underneath the conscious mind in a similar way that ocean waves make it impossible to see beneath the ocean surface. The process of meditation calms the tumultuous ebb and flow of the mind’s outer layer of wave activity like a calm day quiets the ocean surface. Unconscious repression and habits deep within the mind are allowed to rise to the surface to be observed, in a similar way that bubbles and currents rise and dissipate on the ocean surface. Since no energy is supplied to suppress them, the bubbles gently burst and dissipate. This dispassion averts the creation in the unconscious of further increased psychological pressure that can produce exaggerated emotional reactions, like tidal waves in the ocean. The conscious mind becomes quiet and still, and the deeper mysterious layers of the unconscious can be observed and experienced, similar to the way the ocean depths become visible on a calm, wind-free day. Finally, the individual, separate self merges with universal consciousness, like a wave that merges with the great ocean expanse. True knowledge and tranquility result and the individual experiences the peace and bliss of universal conscious ness.