Meditation began moving westward from Asia in a serious way in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An early example that has persisted to this day is the Kriya Yoga of the now deceased ParamahansaYoganada. Kriya Yoga is rooted in the Vedanta teachings of India and specifically the yoga sutras of the sage Pantanjali that were written around 400 CE. More recently Siddha Yoga (a.k.a. Tantric Yoga) was introduced in the west by the late Swami Muktananda. Tantric Yoga has its roots in the Tantra teachings of India. As early as the 1970s, the eastern process of meditation was being westernized. The Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson transformed eastern meditation into The Relaxation Response about which he said, “We claim no innovation but simply a scientific validation of age-old wisdom.”
Eastern meditation was thus on the slippery slope that led from a phenomenological way of directly experiencing alignment with the source of all being to a medicalized, objectively validated way of managing stress and anxiety. Today it can be found under “scientific” scrutiny in universities and employed as an intervention procedure by clinicians. Western science has turned a spiritual practice into a scientifically validated health procedure and redirected its age-old wisdom from transcendence to stress management. For those who prefer dancing with shadows, I will leave you here with the sanitized version made “safe” for western peoples.
What I will now do, in a generic way, is introduce you to how I see the true purpose of eastern meditation. To begin with, let’s examine the worldview that lies at the root of meditation. In the origination stories of eastern traditions we find an explanation for the world that runs more or less along the following line. The material universe is a manifestation of a source state from which everything arises. This is often described as a primal vibration, frequency or sound. Interestingly, this has a parallel in western science by way of string theory in physics, which posits that everything in the material universe arises from vibrating stings of energy.
The source sound is often represented by the Sanskrit symbol for the sound “Om.” While everything that manifests has its own unique sound or frequency expression, at its core or root is the primal vibration of “Om.” The source state has many descriptions and names, which can include: The Ground of All Being, All That Is, The Unified Field of Consciousness, Nothingness, Emptiness, Universal Mind, God, and so on. Let’s just call it Source.
Mystics throughout the ages, including some western mystics, have taught that a direct knowing of Source is available to each and every human being. To know Source one should look for it within. First one should “tune in” to one’s own unique vibratory pattern and then follow that inward to its core expression, which will be the primordial vibration of Source. In short, the way to Know Source is to come into harmonic resonance with the Source frequency, which is within yourself. Mystics often describe resonance with Source as a merging with the absolute and a feeling unconditional love. The only other way to Know Source is to experience it indirectly through experience of the personal expression of Source by one who is in harmonic resonance with it.
Looking at meditation from this perspective suggests that the purpose of meditation is to turn within and silently listen for one’s unique connection to Source. If one has “ears to hear,” then one will begin to move into harmonic resonance with one’s underlying vibratory nature. The greater the state of resonance the purer the reflected expression of Source.
Mystics describe several states that can be thought of as changing levels of resonance. To illustrate these states two charts adapted from two different perspectives are provided. Assuming that one begins in the ego state (fictive-self) where one is identified with the body/mind, then the state prior to Self-realization is what I have called the natural mind and others have described simply as I AM. One is on the cusp and in a state of consciousness in which the dominant mode of being is presence, a state in which one has recovered the state of resonance with the natural self into which one was born. Such a shift moves one away from always using the enculturated top-down perception learned during development to the ability to employ the bottom-up perception of a young child whenever desired. In other words, you can see the world clearly as it is and unencumbered by beliefs, stories and conceptual schemes.
While meditation can be made into a complex subject, it is simplicity itself. It is not a doing but a being. It is not had by mastery but by surrender. Transformation, when it comes, takes one. It is not an achievement. Or, in the words of Michael Valentine Smith, “With waiting comes fullness.”
The essence of meditation, inclusive of its many variations, can be thought of as a doorway into presence. Or, as I sometimes say, “meditation is presence on training wheels.” It is not surprising then to find that there are teachers who de-emphasize formal meditation and advocate for immersion in presence. In other words, life becomes your meditation. Meditation isn’t something you add to your life and engage in daily at 7 am. It is not another of your activities. It is not a search for something that isn’t here. It is your way of being in the world.
When life becomes your meditation, you become a state of present awareness, observing your life unfold in the moment. You monitor to learn when your awareness is no longer focused on the moment, that is, when you have left a state of presence. Where can you go, you might ask? One teacher, Richard Moss, answers this question through the Mandala of Being. A mandala is often described as a circle. Think of yourself as standing inside of and in the center of a circle. When you are fully focused and centered in the circle, you are present. You are fully aware of what is right here, right now. If your focus shifts to the rear, you are focused on the past. You are engaged in memory. If your focus shifts to the front, you are focused on the future. You are engaged in imagination. If your focus shifts to the left, you are focused on your personal story. You are engaged with your identity-self or fictive- self, that is, who you think you are. If your focus shifts to the right, your are focused on narratives about the external world. You are engaged in your beliefs, opinions and concepts, that is, explanations you’ve created or adopted about the nature of things in your world.
Another teacher, Leonard Jacobson, points out in his book Journey into Now that, at root, there is only one place you can escape to from presence and that is into the mind. Memory, imagination, identity stories, beliefs, opinions and concepts are all products of the mind. He suggests that most of us, most of the time, are lost in the mind. We become deeply immersed in our memories, imagination, stories and beliefs. We are too self-absorbed to be truly conscious of our life as it unfolds in the moment. Jacobson doesn’t teach abandoning the mind but rather learning to recognize it for what it is — a tool. We use it when it is appropriate and then set it aside. Do you need to plan a trip? The mind is a great tool. Do you need to find an error in a computation? The mind is a great tool. However, we actually need this tool far less frequently than we think. We are susceptible to overusing the mind because we’ve become addicted to thinking and confuse ourselves with our thoughts.
You are not your thoughts. You are pristine awareness or as Ram Dass says, “loving awareness.” One benefit of being fully aware in the present moment is that you become an observer of thoughts arising and subsiding in your awareness. You neither cause them to arise or subside. Typically, you can and usually do focus your attention on them and begin unpacking them, which is analogous to chasing after a butterfly through a tangled forest. You usually spend endless hours lost in pursuit of elusive “butterflies” and become lost in the forest of the mind.
Jacobson simply asks that we learn to be aware of when we are lost in the mind and bring ourselves gently back to the present without self-judgment or self-criticism. For those of us strongly addicted to thinking, it may be necessary to find some way to cue ourselves periodically to monitor our thought. To reconnect with presence, Jacobson suggests that we find something in the moment to be present with to help us focus in the now. It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be a tree, a pet, a child, a spouse, a friend, the feel of bread dough being kneaded, the smell of onions being grilled, the sound of a piano playing, the feel of our body resting against a chair, the unfolding of the road before us as we drive, the feel of our breath moving in and out of our body and so on. Jacobson does not object to using meditation as long as it is focused on presence.
The program that Jacobson offers is first to return to presence any time you become aware that you have left it, other than to accomplish a task. This is continued until being present becomes habitual. The second aspect of his program is to become aware or conscious, if you prefer, of the things that, unnecessarily, pull you out of presence. Of these things, he asks that they be examined for commonalities so that patterns of “seductive” thoughts or escapes from presence can be identified, examined, understood and released. One handy clue about when you’re being seduced by your mind is when you find your thoughts cluttered with personal pronouns. The second activity is an important part of becoming anchored in the present. Once you are at home in presence, Jacobson says that the deepening process begins. The deeper into presence you settle, the greater your resonance with Source. At the deepest levels of presence one’s harmonic resonance with Source may bring you into unity with All That Is.
If you find it useful to begin with a program of meditation, there is no reason not to do this. You should go into a meditation program with the recognition that it isn’t an end in itself. Once you’ve acclimated yourself to being present for short periods of time during meditation, you should consider weaning yourself off of a formal meditation process. If you need a transition between meditation and being present in your daily life, I would suggest that you use a Buddhist meditation called rigpa, for which there is an example at the end of The Looking Glass. From a foundation in rigpa you can begin the transition to being present as frequently as possible in the course of your daily life. This is where the real action is and the sooner you can get there the better.
In conclusion, I should mention that in some traditions that employ meditation there is another goal that should be briefly discussed. This goal is to become so intensely focused on or present with an object of consciousness that one fully merges with it. This can be either an “objective object” or a “subjective object.” By objective I mean an object in the consensus environment that most everyone is aware of or could be aware of, whereas a “subjective object” is phenomenological, private or personal. The meditator becomes one with the object. Development of this level of presence leads not only to becoming one with the object but the realization that there is only one object — consciousness itself. The meditator ultimately becomes one with All That Is.
In western philosophy, this is similar to what Immanuel Kant meant by “knowing a thing in its self,” which he thought was not possible, and therefore, our ability to know anything was always “second hand,” so to speak. If you cannot know a thing in its self, you can only know it indirectly or by inference. To offer an analogy, suppose you were one of those rare people who have no ability to feel sensations elicited by objects. Thus, you would not, for example, be able to feel heat coming from an object and would be susceptible to having your fingers burned, though you would not feel it. In other words, you would not have any sensory awareness of heat. You could infer it by the effect that it has on your fingers, or you could infer its presence from the reading on a thermometer.
Kant argued that we are forever like the person described above relative to the world and universe at large. We can know nothing about a thing in its self. Our knowledge is always limited to what we can gain indirectly through our senses and by inference from data gathered through instruments that extend our senses. Some of the yoga traditions of India would say that this is a mistaken conclusion on Kant’s part and that it is in fact possible to know a thing in its self under the proper circumstances. The knowledge thus gained, however, is phenomenological and not public in the same sense as scientific knowledge. If you are intrigued by this notion, I recommend that you read this free e-book, What is Science?