Basic steps for learning meditation

In many of my articles on self improvement, I often suggest meditation can be an invaluable aid to alleviating many of our daily problems. I don’t look upon meditation just as a problem solver, I meditate because I enjoy the consciousness of meditation. But, if we can gain real peace of mind through meditation, there is no problem that cannot be helped in some way. These a few preliminary steps for learning how to meditate.

meditation

1. Location

Firstly, find a suitable quiet place for meditation. If it is very hard to find somewhere quiet, use some meditative music to drown out background sounds. If possible keep a corner of your room reserved just for meditation; this will help build up a meditative vibration in that particular part.

2. The basics

  • It is important to meditate with a straight back. (If you try meditating whilst lying down, you are more likely to fall asleep, than entering into a high state of meditation.)
  • Don’t meditate after eating a heavy meal – you will feel lethargic and sleepy.
  • If possible shower and wear clean clothes before meditating.
  • Try to switch off. If you try to meditate straight after work, you may be still thinking about the day. Try reading some books on meditation to help make the transition from work to meditation.

Continue Reading →

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We will prevail

On April 16, 2007, a student at Virginia Tech, had killed 32 of the university’s students and professors besides himself. The tragedy had plunged the academic community at the university into sorrow and grief. The entire nation was deeply moved by this tragedy. Amidst this morning rose a voice that was strong, powerful and defiant with a touch of rebellion. It was Nikki Giovanni. She was addressing the thousands who had gathered the next day at the memorial service for the shooting victims. She was asked by the president of the university to give a speech at the memorial service. As Nikki Giovanni is a professor at Virginia Tech, she was herself deeply affected by the tragedy. She found it very difficult to write a speech. Instead she composed a poem. In fact it was a poem chant. In her very opening lines she takes the tragedy head on and accepts the reality with courage to ‘stand tall tearlessly’ and with humility ‘bend to cry’. She said,

“We are Virginia Tech.
We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while.
We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning.
We are Virginia Tech.
We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly,
we are brave enough to bend to cry, and
we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again.
We are Virginia Tech…”

In the lines that follow she conveys the message to her listeners that even as the tragedy is very personal, yet they cannot afford to indulge in the pleasures of self-pity. And so she tries to connect to the tragedies suffered by other innocent people like them. She said,

“We do not understand this tragedy.
We know we did nothing to deserve it,
but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS,
neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army,
neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory,
neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water…”

In these very powerful lines the poet by embracing the sorrow of others, transcends from the personal to the universal. Even as they grieved, by reaching out to the sorrow of others, Giovanni tapped into the fundamental goodness of humanity that resides deep within every human heart. Some of her closing lines are as follows,

“…We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid.
We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be.
We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities.
We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness…
…We will prevail…”

Many speakers spoke before her including the president of United States. But it was the lone voice of Nikki Giovanni that not only raised the spirits of the students and teachers at Virginia Tech, but also the entire nation. It is these rare voices like Nikki Giovanni who help us rise above hatred and intolerance. They help us to accept the reality around us and embrace our fellow travellers, on our life’s journey, with sympathy and goodwill.

“Our philosophy is the acceptance of life for the transformation of life and also for the manifestation of God’s light here on earth, at God’s choice hour in God’s own way.” ~Sri Chinmoy

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Be careful in rushing to judgement

It is easy to make snap judgements based on partial information and first impressions, but these quick judgements can be misplaced. These are a few things to bear in mind.
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Who is responsible?

When something goes wrong we often look for somebody to blame. The train is late, so we get angry with the train staff; but the problem may be completely out of their control. We shouldn’t blame someone when they have endeavoured to do their best given the circumstances. We have all been on the other side of the coin – where we have been judged and blamed, despite it being due to factors beyond our control. Sometimes it is those under intense pressure, who most deserve our patience and understanding.

Worst case scenario

A tendency of the human mind is to anticipate the worst. By nature the mind is suspicious, and if something happens we put a negative slant on it; however, there is a danger this negativity can become self-fulfilling. If we expect something bad, it is more likely to manifest. Instead, if we suspend this negative judgement, we often find that things turn out better than we expected. This is why it is important to avoid rushing to a negative judgement.

Judgement leads to conflict

If we are quick to judgement it can make other people defensive and confrontational. If we approach an issue with an open mind and open heart, we help to facilitate a better outcome – in which the other person can modify their approach. Continue Reading →

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The Master’s indifference

This is a short story which is semi-autobiographical. It touches on issues relating to expectation and seeing beyond outer appearances.

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There was a spiritual Master who had many disciples. At times, he would express great concern about their health or spiritual progress. Sometimes, no detail was too small for the Master’s concern – be it work, health or their own meditation. At other times, during weekly meditations, the Master would be lost in trance – deep in communion with the Highest Reality.

When a new seeker called Rakhal joined the path, he was surprised to find his Master appeared indifferent to his new arrival. As the disciples filed past the Master, the Master would offer broad smiles to his established disciples, but when it was Rakhal’s turn the Master closed his eyes and seemed to look the other way.

To some extent, Rakhal was puzzled; he expected his Master to treat everyone in the same way, yet it appeared the Master was showing favouritism to his older disciples. However another thought also came to Rakhal’s mind – despite the outer indifference, he felt inner peace and happiness while coming into the Master’s presence – even if he was outwardly ignored.

Over time Rakhal became used to this differing treatment and no longer expected to get a smile from his Master. He realised that outwardly the Master treated everybody in a different way, depending on what the individual disciple really needed.

Gradually, Rakhal felt even the Master’s indifference was an important lesson – the Master was wanting to teach Rakhal to let go of expectation, but instead develop his inner faith and inner connection.

After a few years, Rakhal had largely overcome his own expectations of how his Master should treat him. But then, when he least expected it, his Master would offer a divine smile or offer short words of encouragement. Rakhal was happy – both to receive the outer attention of the Master, and also because he had learnt to be detached about whether the Master spoke to him or not.

Then, out of the blue, the Master passed to the other world, and Rakhal was deeply upset to lose the outer, inspiring presence of his Master. But, now more than ever, the disciple was grateful for his Master’s lessons in detachment and learning to value the inner essence of spirituality.


Photo top: Sri Chinmoy meditation 1970s

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…The journey itself is home

In one of his travel diaries, Oku no Hosomichi, the 17th century Japanese Haiku poet Bashō most famously wrote, “A lifetime adrift in a boat or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” Born in 1644, near Ueno, in Iga Province, about thirty miles southeast of Kyoto, Bashō’s first poem was published in 1662. Over the next decade his poems continued to be published in various anthologies. In the spring of 1672 he moved to Edo to further his study of poetry. He undertook arduous studies in Chinese and Japanese literature, philosophy, and history. His studies also included Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism. By 1680 he made a name for himself as a poet and taught poetry to quite a few students. Basho is considered one of the most learned poets of his time. In spite of his success as a poet, Bashō was lonely and dissatisfied. From 1682 Basho started undertaking long journeys on foot. On each journey he maintained a dairy which turned out to be a new poetic form he created called haibun. In haibun, Basho combined haiku and prose to trace his journey. This combination of prose and poetry was rich in two kinds of images: the external images observed on the journey and the internal images that these outer images invoked in the mind of the poet. Starting from 1684 Basho composed several such travel diaries that included Nozarashi Kiko, or Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones (1685); Oi no Kobumi, or The Knapsack Notebook (1688); and Sarashina Kiko, or Sarashina Travelogue (1688).

It was his last travel diary, Oku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Deep North, that turned out to be his best and most famous piece of literary work. Basho composed this poetic travel journal on the last long foot journey that he undertook to the northern provinces of Honshu, covering 1,200 miles in over five months. He started his journey in the beginning of May 1689 and was accompanied by his student Kawai Sora. Their goal was to visit Oku that lay north of Sendai by following a narrow path that passed through the Sirakawa barrier, over the mountains. Both of them headed north to Hiraizumi, which they reached in one and half months. They then walked to the western side of the island, touring Kisakata and began hiking back along the coastline returning to Edo in late 1691.

When Basho was about to start on his journey many friends come to see him off. He describes this touching scene by putting into words an internal image that passes through his mind, “I felt three thousand miles rushing through my heart, the whole world only a dream. I saw it through farewell tears.” (1) Then he goes on to pen the following haiku:

Spring passes
And the birds cry out-tears
In the eyes of fishes

In this haiku, Basho is trying to convey the depth of his sorrow at parting with his close friends. The sorrow was so great that even the birds were crying and he increases the intensity by saying there were even tears in the eyes of fishes.

Many of the places visited by them had a lot of cultural and spiritual history behind them. These were places that were described by other poets of the past and Basho refers to these poems in his writing. For instance when he reached a beach called Shiogama, it was evening. After the summer rain the sky was just clearing revealing a pale moon over Magaki Island. This beautiful twilight scene reminded Basho of a line from Kokinshu’s poem, “fishing boats pulling together” and for the first time he understood what the poet meant.

Along the Michinoku
Everyplace is wonderful,
But in Shiogama
Fishing boats pulling together
Are most amazing of all.

On this journey into the deep north, often his mind soared into the rich depths of the Japanese history, culture and Zen philosophy. From those aesthetic heights, Basho came out with insights that are golden nuggets of human thought. The form was in prose but on reading the aftertaste is sheer poetry. When visiting a shrine at dawn, he gives the following description, “huge, stately pillars, bright painted rafters, and a long stone walkway rising steeply under a morning sun that danced and flashed along the red lacquered fence. I thought, “As long as the road is, even if it ends in dust, the gods come with us, keeping a watchful eye. This is our culture’s greatest gift.” (2). For a moment it is worth pondering on Basho’s insight. This shrine was five centuries old at the time of Basho. It seems what Basho is trying to tell us is that far into the future, maybe hundreds of years later, if a devout pilgrim visits this shrine and even if the shrine is in complete ruins, the pilgrim will receive the blessings of the gods he has come to pay homage to. The shrine which is something physical is time-bound (i.e.bound to decay with time) but its essence “the blessings of the gods” is timeless, eternal.

During their journey, Basho and his companion decided to spend a night at a place called Iizuka in a country inn. As it was a country inn the facilities were less than basic. After they had gone to bed, there was a heavy rain storm. Basho writes, “Suddenly a thunderous downpour and leaky roof aroused us, fleas and mosquitoes everywhere. Old infirmities tortured me through the long, sleepless night.”(3) At another time when for days and days they had to walk through rain and heat Basho wrote, “Through nine hellish days of heat and rain, all my old maladies tormenting me again, feverish and weak, I could not write.”(4) Sometimes for days they also had to walk through marsh land. These and other descriptions give one the impression that the journey was arduous and physically very difficult as Basho was of a delicate constitution and suffered from several chronic diseases. Also travelling by foot in seventeenth-century medieval Japan was immensely dangerous and hazardous. Yet Basho was willing to risk his life for the rich experience of his journey. In fact he considered it a pilgrimage.

By the time Basho composed his last diary, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he had matured as a poet. The Narrow Road to the Deep North was the climax in his literary career. Using his close interaction with nature as a tool, Basho was always trying to be in resonance with something within him that was impersonal, deep and meaningful. Once when he was passing through a remote forest area where a few hermits lived in thatched huts under pine trees, Basho wrote, “Smoke of burning leaves and pine cones drew me on, touching something deep inside.” (5) Sri Chinmoy said, “Art in the most effective sense of the term is a sublime truth that draws our soul from within towards the infinite vast.” Through his poetry, Basho tried to achieve this artistic excellence. His poetry was based on the Zen concept that one attains perfect spiritual serenity by immersing oneself in the egoless, impersonal life of nature. The complete absorption of one’s petty ego into the vast, powerful, magnificent universe. Hamill writes, “When he (Basho) invokes the call of a cuckoo, invokes its lonely cry. Things are as they are. Insight permits him to perceive a natural poignancy in the beauty of temporal things – mono_no_aware – and cultivate its expression into great art.”(pg. xiv)

References

1. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 4
2. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 16
3. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 12
4. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 28
5. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 17
6. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. xiv

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Letting go of anger, doubt and jealousy

Whatever problems we may have, it is helpful to remember they are temporary. When we remember the impermanence of our negative thoughts, it diminishes their power and enables us to let go of them.

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This poem, by Sri Chinmoy, speaks of a trait in human nature to become attached to these fleeting emotions.

He forgets.
He forgets that anger
Is a passer-by.

He forgets.
He forgets that doubt
Is a passer-by.

He forgets.
He forgets that jealousy
Is a passer-by.

He forgets.
He forgets that bondage
Is a passer-by.

Alas, he touches their feet
And asks them to be
His bosom friends.

– Sri Chinmoy, The Dance of Life, # 655

Everybody is subject to anger, doubt and jealousy, but this poem reminds us that they are temporary experiences and not our real self. Sometimes, we can cultivate an attachment to holding on to these negative emotions, and then they become part of us. The secret is to let go and resist the pull of holding on. We have to remind ourself – this is not who we are; this is not what we want.

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One meditation exercise is to sit still and observe the thoughts that come into your mind. We don’t judge or even try to control them. But, we just see these thoughts as external entities – as passersby. Through this exercise, we realise our deepest inner self can accept or reject the flotsam and jetsam of passing thoughts, and gradually their power diminishes so we become aware of the stillness underneath. Even if thoughts still come, we have the confidence and ability to disassociate ourselves from them.

If you like, you can imagine these passing thoughts as clouds high in the sky, leaving no mark on the earth below.

***

It reminds me of a story about Socrates. Once Socrates, with his followers, went to see a soothsayer. The mystic examined Socrates and said “this man is full of impurity, anger and jealousy.” The followers of Socrates were shocked, believing he was a great sage. They wanted to leave straight away, but Socrates said ‘No, let us wait to see if there is anything else the soothsayer has to say.’ The mystic went on “Although Socrates has these qualities, he also has them under his control.”

The point is that even a great sage like Socrates is subject to the passing emotions of anger and doubt, but great sages don’t identify with them – they don’t allow them to become the master of their lives. It is this detachment which enables man to become more illumined.

We shouldn’t be discouraged if we are aware of negative thoughts and emotions which come to the fore. Our job is to let them go and see them as itinerant passersby. At the same time, we should never surrender to these negative emotions – we always have to see them as a false representation of our self.

Important things in the spiritual life

A story by Sri Chinmoy – ‘Four most important things in life’. Plus a commentary on these four spiritual precepts, mentioned by the spiritual Master Balananda.

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One day Balananda said to his disciples, “I know all of you want to become my good disciples, but it is quite a difficult task. Each of you needs to develop four most important things in your life. You need to develop the capacity to tolerate the world and to tolerate your own life. You need to develop the capacity to sacrifice everything that you have and everything that you are. You need to cultivate the capacity to remain silent even when you are mistreated mercilessly, without rhyme or reason, by a hostile world. You need to develop the capacity to remain calm, quiet and tranquil without being completely shattered when you lose in the battlefield of life or extolling yourself to the skies when you succeed in the battlefield of life.”

The disciples said to him, “Master, is it at all possible to do all this in one incarnation?”

Balananda said, “Why not? Why not? I, too, was once upon a time a disciple in this incarnation. In this incarnation I realised God. You also can realise God, provided you always do the right thing at the right time, with the help of the right Master.”

Four most important things from: India and her miracle-feast: come and enjoy yourself, part 9. at Sri Chinmoy Library.


Commentary

1. Tolerate the world

The world might be full of frustration and injustice, but thinking about this injustice does not help improve the world, and it is does not help our life to reach its potential. To tolerate the world does not mean we ignore the world; real toleration is to love the world in a divine way. It means we are aware of the divine potentiality hidden in the world, but with a detachment about the invariable mistakes and problems. It is when we can accept the world and have faith in its possibilities, that we are in a better position to offer something worthwhile.

If we concentrate on the negative qualities of people, we won’t help the world make progress. But, if we are able to look beyond the current imperfections, we have the capacity to bring their good qualities to the fore.

I shall tolerate the world,
I shall.
Only by tolerating the world
Shall I be able to help
My mind to ascend
And
My heart to transcend.

Sri Chinmoy [1] Continue Reading →

The discipline to follow a spiritual life

This post looks at the strictness of spiritual Masters and the discipline needed to follow a lifelong spiritual life.

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I grew up in Yorkshire and when I went down south to Oxford University – for comedic purposes – I would often exaggerate about how tough and grim life was up north. So it’s not surprising that one of my favourite comedy sketches is Monty Python and the Four Yorkshireman.

***

When I joined the Sri Chinmoy Centre, I would love to hear stories about disciples visiting Sri Chinmoy in New York. The stories were inspiring but also sounded quite intense – getting up at 6am to meditate, then running, then more meditation – then activities and more meditations until the early hours of the morning.

Then you would hear an older disciple say: “well you should have been around in the 1970s – we used to have to get up at 3am to get a bus in from Manhattan, for a 5am meditation, 10 mile run, and that was all before breakfast…”

And so it would go on, each disciple explaining in greater detail the tremendous intensity and great spiritual focus of life in New York. Though when I went to New York in 2000, I found a very relaxed atmosphere to complement the meditations. The disciples never mentioned how much time they spent eating and going to coffee shops.

Anyway, whatever stories of all night meditations and early morning marathons, it is hard to beat the discipline and intensity of some of the really strict Indian spiritual Masters, such as Devadas Maharaj, Swami Yutkeswar, and of course the famous yogi Milarepa.

At the same time, when we read about these genuine spiritual Masters, we feel the outer strictness is a complement to the inner love and concern. It is this real love and concern, which is behind the efforts to guide, mould and shape the aspiring human seeker.

On one occasion, Sri Chinmoy was asking a few disciples if they could stay on a Christmas Trip (spiritual vacation in Bali at five star hotel) for another week. This was Sri Chinmoy’s simple request, but it is the kind of request we might find hard to fulfil. At the time, we think of our work responsibilities and it can become hard to prioritise the spiritual life. In seeking the eternal, it is tempting to think we have eternal time. We want realisation, but we feel it can always put it off to a later date.

On paper, it is easy to prioritise spirituality, but in practise it can be more difficult. In Sri Chinmoy’s lifetime, I missed out on a few opportunities to travel and see my Guru and his unique Peace Concerts – opportunities I will never have again. My economist mind would weigh up the pros and cons, costs and benefits, and often took the conservative approach and didn’t go to as much as I could. Now these golden opportunities are no more.

Even now, having the determination to prioritise the spiritual life in simple ways requires a deep commitment and determination. I appreciate any seeker who can follow a spiritual discipline year in year out.

By contrast to our own fumbling attempts at obedience and discipline, through the ages you can hear some remarkable stories of devotion and obedience from the really great seekers and yogis. These stories are worth cherishing because they can remind me us of the benefits and beauty of a dogged determination.

Milarepa’s determination

milarepaIn Milarepa’s case, his Guru told him to build a house. Milarepa was surprised because he hoped that he would be learning advanced meditation techniques – not manual labour. But, feeling obedience to his Guru was the highest ideal, he did build the house as instructed. On completing the house, far from praising his disciple, his Guru said that the house was not satisfactory – he must knock it down and start again. Milarepa did this – he knocked it down and built it to the new specifications. But on nine occasions, his Guru said it wasn’t good enough and he had to rebuild the house. It was only Milarepa’s burning aspiration and desire to realise the highest that kept him obeying his Guru’s seemingly tough outer commands and outer indifference.

Eventually, after many years of hard toil, Milarepa burnt off his bad karma and was rewarded with realisation; he became a famous yogi known throughout Tibet, and later the world. But, ten years of building houses and knocking them down certainly puts spending money on an air ticket to Prague into perspective.

Of course, spiritual Masters have to deal with seekers of different capacities. To one seeker, a daily ten minute meditation may be tremendous progress and real effort. To another seeker, the Master may see they have the capacity to meditate from 5am in the morning. A real Master will always care for the highest potential of his disciple – and this may well involve challenging them to go out of their comfort zone. A Master is also concerned in keeping his disciples balanced. It is sometimes the ego, which likes to choose the hardest path, but suffering is no guarantee of progress. A seeker of the calibre of Milarepa is rare indeed!

Following is a story by Sri Chinmoy about the spiritual Master, Devadas Maharaj and his disciple Ramdas. Ramdas had tremendous potential and capacity, but the story is instructive for showing how a real spiritual Master is willing to show tough love in order to get the best from his disciple.

When I think about the difficulty of getting up at 6am to meditate after seven hours sleep, I shall think of this story.

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This is my last warning

When Ramdas was a young boy, one night he and his Guru, Devadas Maharaj, were meditating separately at different places. It was snowing heavily and the weather was extremely cold. Each one had an open fire in front of him to keep him warm. Ramdas meditated a few hours; then he fell asleep. When he woke up, he saw that the fire was totally extinguished. He was frightened to death, for he knew that his Master would be furious if he went to him to get a few burning coals. But at the same time he was unable to bear the cold weather. Finally he mustered courage and went to his Master for a few burning charcoals.

Devadas Maharaj came out of his trance and insulted Ramdas mercilessly. “Who asked you to leave your parents and your family if sleep is so important in your life?” he shouted. “This is my last warning. If you ever fall asleep again when you are supposed to be meditating, I shall not keep you as my disciple. You do not deserve to be my disciple.”

India and her miracle-feast: come and enjoy yourself, part 5 Traditional Indian stories about Devadas Maharaj, Agni Press, 1977 at Sri Chinmoy Library

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I should add: Ramdas Kathiya Baba went on to become a great spiritual Master in his own right.

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