People can meditate for many months, or even years, with little result, simply because they have ignored the basics, thinking that such elementary practices are only for the merest beginner. Restlessness, especially mental restlessness, is the main impediment to deeper meditation. Our hardest job in meditation is to rid the mind of the static created by thoughts and desires.
There are three stages to meditation: relaxation, concentration, and expansion. Each one is important and none can be neglected, especially if you want to achieve the deeper states that are possible.
Step One: Relaxation
Relaxing the body
The ability to relax the body at will is the vital first step for meditation. There is a feedback loop between the body and the mind. If the body is tense or restless, the mind will follow, and vice versa. Just observe the tension in your muscles the next time you are about to have a difficult meeting. We can use this feedback loop to our advantage—by relaxing physically, we will automatically start to relax mentally.
It is very helpful to do a few simple relaxation techniques before actually starting meditation. There are two easy yoga postures that will help prepare both the body and the mind: the Deep Yogic Breath and the Corpse Pose. Brief descriptions of these two techniques appear in Appendix A at the end of the article.
Relaxing the mind
Mental tension is caused primarily by worries –– either preoccupations about the past or anxieties and desires about the future. One of the most effective ways to relax the mind is to observe the breath. The science of controlling the mind through breathing techniques, called pranayama, is one of India’s great gifts to the world.
The word prana has three meanings: energy, life, and breath. Prana is used, first of all, to describe the universal sea of energy that infuses and vitalizes all matter. Every atom, molecule, and cell is an extension of prana, just as waves are extensions of the sea that lies beneath them.
Secondly, prana is used to mean the vitalizing power that flows in all living forms and performs vital functions. Paramhansa Yogananda called this aspect of prana “life-force.” He further explained that life-force possesses an inherent intelligence enabling it to carry out the life-sustaining processes. Underlying the physical body is a subtle or astral body made up of prana.
Finally, and very important to the science of yoga, prana is used to refer to the breath. When we take a physical breath, there is a corresponding movement of prana in the subtle or astral spine. Prana flows up in the astral spine in conjunction with the inhalation, and down with the exhalation. By controlling the breath, which is easily felt, we can influence the flow of prana, which is much more subtle and difficult to feel.
Regular and Alternate Breathing
Immediately after you have finished relaxing the various body parts, use Regular Breathing to relax the mind. This simple technique involves inhaling, holding the breath, and exhaling for the same number of counts.
Alternate Breathing, another simple breathing technique, is similar to Regular Breathing, except that the breath is inhaled through one nostril and exhaled through the other. Alternate Breathing is “cooling” to the nervous system and helps calm the mind because it works in harmony with the natural flows of magnetic energy in the body.
These two basic breathing exercises are extremely effective in stilling the thoughts. For one thing, they serve as a focal point for concentration, which breaks the momentum of mental tumult. But more importantly, these techniques work with subtle energies little understood in the West. More complete descriptions of these two techniques appear in Appendix A below.
Once the body and mind have been relaxed, we are ready to proceed to the second stage of meditation: concentration.
Step Two: Concentration
While concentration is helpful for success in any area, it is absolutely essential for meditation, which by definition requires deep concentration. A special kind of attention is needed in meditation, where the mind is focused on inward realities rather than on external objects.
In meditation, all of our scattered forces must be brought to a single point of concentration at the spiritual eye, which is located at the point between the eyebrows in the frontal part of the brain. This is the center of will and intuition, and the seat of superconsciousness or total awareness. Meditation is, in large part, a conscious redirection of the outward flowing life-force in an upward and expansive direction. By concentrating at the point between the eyebrows, we automatically create a magnetism that draws the energy upward.
There are a number of practices that help us concentrate and interiorize the mind. The relaxation and breathing techniques we have already discussed will start the process. But yogis have developed more powerful techniques to help us focus mental energy. Three of the most powerful are watching the breath, chanting, and visualization.
Watching the breath
After relaxing both body and mind, you need a focal point for concentration. This focal point is the breath. Begin by taking a deep breath, followed by a triple exhalation to expel the air completely. Then mentally watch the natural flow of the inhalation and exhalation but make no effort to control them in any way.
To help deepen your concentration you can use a powerful word formula, or mantra, called Hong Sau, which is especially effective for calming the flow of prana in the spine. Silently repeat Hong (rhymes with “song”) with the incoming breath and Sau (sounds like “saw”) with the exhalation.
If the mind wanders, immediately bring it back to concentrating on the breath. This is very important. One of the problems with a wandering mind is that, without a reference point, we don’t have an easy way to recognize that it has wandered. The breath gives us that point. Any thought or mental image other than observing the breath can now be recognized as being a distraction.
As the breath becomes calmer, gradually feel it higher and higher in the nostrils until you are watching it high up in the nasal cavity. It may take some minutes to get calm and centered enough to feel the breath there.
Now you can transfer your concentration from the flow of the breath to the point between the eyebrows, the spiritual eye. By concentrating at this point and keeping your attention from wandering, you gradually bring the flow of prana under control, enabling you to interiorize it.
Total interiorization of the mind
The key to success with the Hon Sau technique is to deepen your concentration at the spiritual eye until you no longer think of anything except the rhythmic flow of the breath. As the breath and life-force begin to calm down, the mind is naturally able to concentrate more deeply. Deeper concentration brings about an even greater calming of the breath and life force, allowing yet deeper focusing of the mind.
The final stage of this cycle is the complete withdrawal of life-current from the body and the senses, and total interiorization of the mind. In very deep meditation the prana becomes completely focused at the spiritual eye, and the body’s need for oxygen and breath ceases.
You can think of the Hong Sau technique as a kind of bridge allowing a shift from the more physical aspects of our being, represented by the breath, to a calm inward focus. Normally the technique of watching the breath should take up about a quarter of your meditation. Without concentration, which helps interiorize the life-force, any time spent supposedly meditating is largely ineffective.
Other methods of concentration and interiorization
There are three more methods of achieving a state of deep concentration. The first, chanting, works with the verbalizing function of the mind.
- Chanting: Paramhansa Yogananda often said, “Chanting is half the battle.” We will make little progress on the spiritual path until we can direct the natural love of the heart toward higher realities, and chanting is one of the very best ways to awaken spiritual fervor. Chanting also helps direct and focus the mind by giving us a clear focal point for our thoughts.
- Visualization: Visualization bypasses the verbalizing functions of the brain and therefore helps enormously to focus and calm the mind. One of the best things to visualize is simply the face, and especially the eyes of Jesus, Yogananda, or another saint that might be dear to you. Try to see them clearly so that they are alive within your mind.
- Chanting AUM at the chakras: Chanting AUM mentally at each of the chakras has a powerful, interiorizing effect. Start at the coccyx center, at the base of the spine, and slowly work your way up, mentally chanting AUM at each chakra. Pause and concentrate briefly at the point between the eyebrows, then slowly work your way down, again mentally chanting AUM at each chakra. Do several rounds of this, ending the final round at the spiritual eye.
Don’t let go of techniques too soon
Techniques that concentrate and interiorize the mind will normally take up the greater part of a meditation. With the mind deeply concentrated and interiorized, you can now go on to the next stage of meditation, expansion, in which you focus on inner realities. At least the final quarter of your meditation should be spent in silent inner communion with your own higher Self and God.
Step Three: Expansion
The final stage of meditation is the expansion of consciousness. In fact, until we reach this stage, we are not truly meditating.
In his book, Metaphysical Meditations, Yogananda writes, “Meditation is not the same as concentration. Concentration consists in freeing the attention from objects of distraction and focusing it on one thing at a time. Meditation is that special form of concentration in which the attention has been liberated from restlessness and is focused on God.”
This distinction is vital. Concentration, a mental faculty, can simply increase the ego and therefore lead us further into delusion. True meditation, on the other hand, involves the superconscious and will always lead us toward truth. The final stage of meditation requires that we hold our attention on some aspect of the Infinite — Light, Love, Joy, Peace, Calmness, Sound, Wisdom, or Power.
We might think of these traits as being qualities of a vast sea. Concentration techniques get us to the shore of the sea, but deep meditation requires that we enter the sea and eventually merge with it.
After finishing the preliminary techniques of concentration, spend some time immersing yourself in whichever of these eight qualities most attracts you. True meditation is deep concentration or absorption in any of these qualities. Those who have found a guru might meditate on God as He manifests through that soul, or through one of His saints. Try to draw the consciousness of the master or saint into your own.
Whether communing with God in an impersonal or personal form, try to dissolve all sense of individuality and separation. Become one with the object of your meditation! Hold this expansive state of consciousness for as long as you can. This state of total absorption will seem perfectly natural, when it happens, because we are merging back into our own soul nature.
The ultimate state of expansion
The ultimate state of expansion is known as samadhi in Sanskrit. In this state you no longer perceive any sense of separation between yourself and the Infinite. You do not merely think, but know, that everything in creation is an expression of one Infinite Consciousness, of which you are a part.
Try always to keep your meditations fresh, energetic, and intuitive. Too little use of techniques will result in shallow meditations, but too much routine can make your meditations dry. Try to find the balance that brings you the most joy. Increasing inner joy is the truest hallmark of deepening meditation.