“What’s wrong with my meditations?” I asked myself. “Why isn’t there more focus, more joy? Why are they boring and uninspiring?”
Have you ever reached a point like this with your sadhana, where it just wasn’t giving you what you wanted? You have if you’re like most devotees. So what can we do about it?
My first thought was just to let it go for a while, hoping it would work itself out. This approach has a natural appeal, as in, “Let’s see if I can fix this without putting out any energy.” It has worked remarkably well for me over the years with mechanical things, which often “fix themselves.”
But sadhana? I don’t think so. Sometimes we’re experiencing such a “karmic storm” that about all we can do is wait for it to pass, but too often (as in the case of my boring meditations), this approach is just a waste of time. And haven’t we wasted enough time already?
In fact, I realized that I’d already been subconsciously trying this approach for a while and nothing had improved. “Okay,” I thought regretfully, “I guess I have to do something.” But what?
“Technique-tweaking” to the rescue
Our culture has a popular universal answer: “Change what you’re doing; variety will solve your problem.” Don’t like your job? Quit and get another. Having marital difficulties? Get a divorce and marry someone else.
In my case, I tried tinkering with my spiritual practices: a different mix of my sadhana’s meditation techniques—more prayer, affirmation, chanting, different yoga postures, etc. And yes, making little “technique tweaks” helped by providing a variety that perked up my interest.
Before long, however, I was bored again. My “fix” was temporary because it didn’t address the underlying cause of the problem. The difficulty wasn’t what I was doing; it was how I was doing it.
A question of attitude
We may think our sadhana’s meditation techniques are mechanical procedures, but the telling factor is usually attitude, not mechanics—and my attitude had been wrong: I’d been meditating based on what I get out of it.
And while we can’t avoid some of that attitude—why else would we practice at all?—we risk viewing our practice in terms of whether it pleases us, instead of whether it pleases God. (“Okay, God, I’ve been meditating regularly for years now. Isn’t it about time for some deeper experiences? More joy? Maybe a vision or two?”)
Once we catch the mind working like this, it’s easy to see how ridiculous it is. Consider the saint in Autobiography of a Yogi, whose only concern, after having meditated 18 hours a day for 20 years, and 20 hours a day for another 25 years, was whether he had succeeded in pleasing God!
If this makes you squirm, (I sure don’t like to dwell on it very much), it may be better simply to recall that central principle of karma yoga: nishkam karma: action without desire for its fruits. As much as we want to experience divine bliss, fathomless peace, and all that other good stuff, those are the fruits of the practice—and the more we focus on the fruits, the less we’re focusing on the practice itself, and on God.
In fact, the fruits of spiritual practice—and of all action—are God’s business, not ours. As Sri Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: “You have no right to the fruits of your actions. Your only right is to action itself.”
In other words, our business is what goes into our practices not what comes out of them. I used to hate that idea. “Why act at all, if I can’t determine the outcome?” Confessions of a control freak, I guess.
What if the results were up to us?
Now, however, I find this idea very freeing. Certainly we can influence the outcome—concentrating is better than daydreaming, for example—but we can’t determine it fully.
What hurts, in fact, is to think that the fruits of our practice are up to us, because then despair can set in: “I’ll never get there!” Now that’s pain.
Greater minds than mine have had the same thought. In the Bhagavad Gita, after Krishna gave Arjuna the teachings of yoga, telling him of its sublime qualities, Arjuna responded: “But Krishna, I don’t experience those high states. My mind is so restless, chaotic, powerful, obstinate—it’s like trying to master the wind!” (Who among us cannot relate to that?!)
Krishna’s response was: “True, that’s the nature of the mind. But you can master it—by sadhana and by dispassion”— dispassion, in part, toward the results of your own sadhana.
Why worry about something that’s none of your business in the first place? Think instead: “My job is to make a quality effort; the results are up to God.”
Or to put it a different way—lest it seem that God bestows divine favors simply on whim—we may be intellectually open to Divine Mother, but on some level, we may not yet be open enough for Her to come in. As Yogananda once said to a disciple who was asking for help and felt he was not getting it, “If you shut me out, how can I come in?”
Asking the right question
The masters assure us that if we keep on trying—with energy!—we will attain what we seek. So when I’m dissatisfied with my practice, I don’t ask, “What am I not getting?” Rather, I ask, “What am I not giving?” It’s usually easy to find an answer, such as:
- Be fully present—Letting the mind roam among all my projects, obligations, and fantasies is not a spiritual practice. A quality effort begins with staying engaged with what I’m there to do.
- Practice with gratitude—Here I am, practicing techniques that can bring liberation. Might I not practice with gratitude to the Source of those techniques?
- Be self-giving—The lover seeks to please the beloved, not himself. What a beautiful attitude for sadhana! How can it help but draw God’s presence?
- Prime the pump—Do I practice with whatever I can manage of the states that I seek—joy, or love, or peace—and eagerly anticipate even more? This is a powerful application of the law of magnetism to spiritual practice: the more you’re “on the wavelength” of what you seek, the more you’ll experience it.
- Be enthusiastic! —Do I look forward to my practice, or has it become dull routine? Let me make each asana, breath, or Kriya an experience to savor, rather than simply “counting down” until the practice finally ends.
All these are very down-to-earth matters. We can manage them if we’re willing, (granted, that is sometimes a big “if”), because they are our business, and nobody else’s.
In the case of my boring meditations, I realized that my solution was the last one of these: “Be enthusiastic!” I had been waiting for my practice to become interesting, instead of meditating with interest. I recall thinking, “Okay, if You won’t take me deep, at least You could make Yourself more interesting than my daydreams and projects, so I can stay more concentrated.”
As in, “Please, please, don’t make me put out more energy. That’s too much work!” Another ridiculous thought.
Time to roll up my sleeves
I now faced the option I’d been trying to avoid: working to put interest into my meditations.
Then I thought: “Wait a minute! It’s not about working; it’s about interest. When I want something, it’s no work at all to be interested; it happens naturally. So let my interest come naturally from my heart’s desire for God.”
I started beginning my meditations with one of my favorite prayers from Yogananda. I silently repeated it over and over with high energy, like an affirmation, going deeper and deeper into my heart’s yearning:
Divine Mother, with the language of my soul I demand Thy presence.
Thou art the essence of everything, and I am Thy child. I am awake in Thy presence, for Thou art the Light. Make me see Thee in every fiber of mybeing, in every wisp of thought. Awaken my heart! (Inner Culture, July-Sept 1941)
My meditations immediately began to shift. Yes, it took some energy—it always takes energy to change directions—and it wasn’t a night-and-day difference right away. Yet there was a definite shift, and it became stronger over time, (until I forgot again, of course, and had to remind myself again).
I began to feel more fulfillment in my meditations – not because I was swimming in an ocean of divine love or having visions (I wasn’t), but because I was concentrating on what I could give during meditation: my complete attention, my energy, my sincerity, my longing.
When I remember this, I can relax more because I know that I’m completely in my own business rather than in God’s business. I know that I can happily leave the results in God’s hands—where they’ve been all along anyway.
What a relief!
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Gyandev McCord lives at Ananda Village and teaches at The Expanding Light Guest Retreat. He serves as Director of Ananda Yoga, Worldwide.
Thank you so much for your article. I read it many years ago and it is still pertinent today. I have been on the Path and meditating for many years and like most other devotees go through periods of dryspells in meditation. It is kind of like crossing a desert and looking for an oasis. Of course, the oasis is with us all the time and we just don’t realize it. Thanks for sharing your own experiences and suggestions, which can help all devotees in their sadhana.
Jai Guru, what a timely article I came across. It had been as if my own thoughts are being repeated and given expressions. Thanks for the insight . My enthusiasm is rejuvinated.