What is meditation?
How does it work?
What are its benefits?
Should you meditate?
Dr. John Heider, a psychologist, believes that meditation "is as necessary to a life of growth as regular brushing is to dental hygiene." Sounds harmless enough. But what if you were to brush your teeth with a harsh abrasive or a corrosive chemical? That would definitely be detrimental to your dental health. In the same way, how much your meditation is helping you spiritually depends on what kind of meditation you're practicing and why.
When we focus our minds on sensory input from the external world or on thoughts and feelings that arise within us, we are engaged in a type of meditation, in the broadest sense of that word. So you could say that all of us are already meditating at every moment. To help us understand this kind of meditation, let's enter briefly into the mind of Richard Morland, a college student in Boston, to see what he's meditating about.
Richard's on his way to school. Driving on roads slick from freezing rain, he's concentrating so as not to spin out or slam into someone's rear bumper. He thinks about meeting his girlfriend, Susan Johnson, for lunch today, and he smiles and feels a touch of desire coming on. But before he gets to see her, there's the chemistry midterm. That's on his mind too. Richard is applying to some top medical schools, so he's determined to finish his premed studies with the highest grade-point average he possibly can. His mind feels fatigued from the couple of hours of sleep he lost studying last night. That's all right, though: he'll make it up on the weekend. No proper breakfast this morning either, so Richard's feeling a little hungry, but then there's lunch with Susan in just three hours.
For Richard, the only bad thing about the chemistry midterm is that Fred, Susan's old boyfriend, who had even been thinking of marrying her, is going to be there. Richard's mind spins out on that for a while and then settles in on the Beach Boys tune on the radio. The song ends with news on the half hour. More hostage trouble in Lebanon. The United States has moved another carrier into the eastern Mediterranean. Richard tries to picture it it's a few years from now; he's married to Susan; he's taken hostage; Susan, alone at home with their child, pleads for his life.
Then he starts thinking about his uncle Bob. Richard received a call from his mother last night. Uncle Bob had gone into the hospital for what he had thought was pneumonia, but it turned out to be lung cancer. Richard's father had died from lung cancer just two years before. Aunt Sarah isn't taking Uncle Bob's illness too well, so Richard's mother is going to stay with her for a while. Richard likes Uncle Bob, who was helping pay for his tuition…. God, Richard prays, God, please let him get through this.With proper medical treatment and some luck he might make it a few more years.
Richard steers the car up the ramp of the campus parking garage and parks. As he gets out of the car and starts walking to class, he suddenly feels he'd like to take a break not just to take a vacation, but to getaway from the whole thing. But he keeps walking, and the feeling merges into the stomach numbing anxiety of his last-minute mental review for the chemistry midterm.
From the standpoint of the Bhagavad-Gita, Richard's daily flow of thoughts typifies that of a person in bodily consciousness. Such a person constantly thinks of eating, sleeping, sex, and self-protection or of things related to these four basic activities. Richard, for instance, was feeling hungry and tired, thinking about his girlfriend, and worrying about a possible car accident. Bodily consciousness also creates a widening circle of identification based on the body. One's own body is designated by sex, race, age, and so forth. And this body is connected with other bodies in relationships of family, community, and nation. Richard is involved in his own unique complex of relationships: with Susan, Fred, his mother, his relatives, his fellow Americans facing another international crisis.
Bodily consciousness also limits our activities to those involving dharma (materially motivated religion), artha (economic gain), kama (sensual pleasure), and moksa (attempts for liberation), Generally a person in bodily consciousness thinks of God only to obtain some material favor. Richard, we saw, wished God would give his uncle Bob a few more years of life. Economic concerns are also important to Richard. Though he often confides to friends that he isn't going into neurosurgery for the money; he assumes his life won't be one of poverty. His desire for sensual pleasure inspires, at least partly, his new and deepening relationship with Susan. And from time to time thoughts of liberation enter his mind: he wants to get away from it all.
Of course, it's no wonder that a person in bodily consciousness sometimes wants to "get away from it all," because the body is a storehouse for misery. The Bhagavad-gita lists four primary bodily miseries: janma (birth), mrtyu (death), jara (old age), and vyadhi (disease). For a person in bodily consciousness, these distresses insinuate themselves sometimes subtly, sometimes with overpowering force into every aspect of life. On turning forty eight, Brigitte Bardot said, "It's the decomposition that gets me. You spend your whole life looking after your body, and then you rot away like that!" Richard is confronted with his father's death, his own possible death, his uncle's disease, his mother's and his aunt's' old age. His medical career will bring him into daily contact with these unavoidable components of material existence. In fact, someday a person might die under his care. We can classify material miseries in yet another way: adhyatmika (those arising from one's mind and body), adhibhautika (those inflicted by other creatures), and adhidaivika (those resulting from the forces of nature). Again, Richard, like everyone else in bodily consciousness, is suffering from each of these miseries. He and his relatives are experiencing various degrees of physical and mental discomfort. He is also worried about threats from others (Susan's old boyfriend and Middle East terrorists), and he's enduring the cold and hazards of a New England winter.
Some meditation systems promise a means to cope with the stress arising from the multipronged assaults of material miseries. Typically they are "easy" and involve little more from the practitioner than a financial commitment. But no amount of "peace of mind" gained by listening to tapes of mellow new-age music or the wind and the ocean waves can change the inevitability of old age, disease, death, and rebirth. Maintaining a superficial peace of mind in the face of these grim realities is not to one's credit. Even more pointless are meditation systems that promise the mental concentration and power to achieve' material success by influencing others, competing more successfully, defining one's goals more clearly, and so on. Any success achieved in this way is extremely temporary, vanishing without a trace at the time of death.
Confronted with the realization that life is, as the English philosopher Hobbes once observed; "nasty, brutish, and short," many people unfortunately adopt the inadvisable solution of suicide. Others adopt meditation practices that are the spiritual equivalent of suicide. Those who adopt these practices are, in effect, trying to dissolve their personalities into nothingness, though they usually express their goal in more attractive terminology: becoming one with the universe, becoming one with each other, becoming one with God (who is, in their conception, the impersonal white light). The psychology of this attempt is rooted in the grossly imperfect idea that personality and selfhood are ultimately illusory. To extinguish the self, therefore, is not the solution to the miseries arising from bodily consciousness. Rather, we must restore the self to its healthy condition.
The Bhagavad-gita states that to dissolve the self is impossible. Lord Krsna says to Arjuna on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra, "For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time." Understanding this, one experiences release from material miseries. "In the stage of perfection called trance, or samadhi," states the Gita (6.20-23), "one's mind is completely restrained from material mental activities. … This perfection is characterized by one's ability to see the Self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the Self. In that joyous state, one is situated inboundless transcendental happiness, realized through transcendental senses."
Lord Krsna also explains the natural position of the soul: "The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind" (Bhagavad-gita 15.7).The soul's constant struggle with the material body throughout many lives is unnatural, for the soul is actually part of God. The Vedas explain that the individual eternal souls are related to the Supreme Soul just as sparks are related to a fire. The souls are of the same spiritual substance as their source, the Supreme Soul, but are infinitely smaller. In their original condition, the souls are meant to exist in a relationship with Krsna in the spiritual world.
According to Bhagavad-gita, the real object of meditation is therefore the Supreme Self, Krsna. By meditating upon Krsna, the true nature of the individual self becomes automatically revealed. Consider this analogy: If you venture for a walk along the seashore on a moonless, starless night, you may not be able to see yourself or anything around you. But when the sky lightens with the first glimmer of light, then you can begin to see everything, including your own self, at first dimly and then more and more clearly as the sun rises. Self-realization works like that. To see the self to step beyond bodily consciousness we must first see God. The Bhagavad-gita (8.9) states: "One should meditate upon the Supreme Person as the one who knows everything, as He who is the oldest, who is Meditation the controller, who is smaller than the smallest, who is the maintainer of everything, who is beyond all material conception, who is inconceivable, and who is always a person. He is luminous like the sun and, being transcendental, is beyond this material nature."
Srila Prabhupada states, "Since the Lord is absolute, deep meditation upon Him is as good as yogic trance" (Bhag. 1.15.28, purport). When, immersed in such trance, we perfectly understand ourselves to be part of God, related to Him as His eternal servants, several important improvements in our lives naturally follow. First, we quickly become free from the material miseries outlined above. Krsna says in the Gita (12.6 7),
Those who worship Me, giving up all their activities unto Me and being devoted to Me without deviation, engaged in devotional service and always meditating upon Me, having fixed their minds upon Me, O son of Prtha for them I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death. (our italics)
Even in this world, the practitioner of Krsna meditation remains undisturbed. "As a lamp in a windless place does not waver," says the Gita (6.19), "so the transcendentalist, whose mind is controlled, remains always steady in his meditation on the transcendent Self." Srila Prabhupada comments, "A truly Krsna conscious person, always absorbed in transcendence, in constant undisturbed meditation on his worshipable Lord, is as steady as a lamp in a windless place."
The system of Krsna meditation outlined in the Bhagavad-gita and other Vedic books of knowledge is variegated, embracing many forms of mental concentration. First and foremost is meditating upon the Hare Krsna mantra: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Krsna, being nondifferent from His names, is personally present in this mantra. In Bhagavad-gita (8.7), Krsna says, "He who meditates on Me as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, his mind constantly engaged in remembering Me, undeviated from the path, he, O Partha, is sure to reach Me." Srila Prabhupada comments: "One's memory of Krsna is revived by chanting the maha-mantra, Hare Krsna… This mystic meditation is very easy to practice, and it helps one attain the Supreme Lord."
Just as Krsna is present in His name, He is also present in transcendental literatures that contain His instructions and narrations of His pastimes. The instructions of Krsna are found in the Bhagavad-gita, while His pastimes are contained especially in theSrimad-Bhagavatam. Devotees meditate on Krsna by absorbing their minds in these transcendental literatures. The Bhagavatam recommends,
To hear about Krsna from Vedic literatures, or to hear from Him directly through the Bhagavad-gita, is itself righteous activity. And for one who hears about Krsna, Lord Krsna, who is dwelling in everyone's heart, acts as a best friend and purifies the devotee who constantly engages in hearing of Him. In this way, a devotee naturally develops his dormant transcendental knowledge.
Such reading is an easily practiced form of meditation. "Even a child," states Srila Prabhupada, "can hear and derive the benefit of meditating on the pastimes of the Lord simply by listening to a reading from the Bhagavatam that describes the Lord as He is going to the pasturing ground with His cows and friends" (Bhag. 3.28.19, purport).
We can also meditate on Krsna in His form of the arca-vigraha, the Deity in the temple. Because our present material senses are incapable of perceiving Krsna's original spiritual form, Krsna kindly consents to become visible in the form of the Deity. Srila Prabhupada states, "Nowhere in the universe are there such beautiful bodily features as those of Lord Krsna. Therefore His transcendental body has nothing to do with anything materially created" (Bhag. 1.9.33, purport). Krsna Himself says, "Those who fix their minds on My personal form and are always engaged in worshiping Me with great and transcendental faith are considered by Me to be most perfect" (Bg. 12.2).
Is the Deity simply a stone statue? Srila Prabhupada explains:
Because the elements are the Lord's own energy and because there is no difference between the energy and the energetic, the Lord can appear through any element. Just as the sun can act through the sunshine and thus distribute its heat and light, so Krsna, by His inconceivable power, can appear in His original spiritual form in any material element, including stone, wood, paint, gold, silver, and jewels, because the material elements are all His energy. (Cc. Madhya 5.97, purport)
"The Visnu forms of worship in great temples of India," Srila Prabhupada informs us, "are not, therefore, arrangements of idol worship, as they are wrongly interpreted to be by a class of men with a poor fund of knowledge; rather, they are different spiritual centers of meditation on the transcendental limbs of the body of Visnu" (Bhag. 2.1.19, purport). If one is not able to visit a temple, one can also meditate upon Krsna's form as depicted in paintings, such as those found in the pages of this magazine.
The bona fide spiritual master directs the disciple in the performance of meditation. Srila Prabhupada explains,
One should not meditate according to one's personal whims. One should know perfectly well from the authoritative sources of scriptures through the transparent medium of a bona fide spiritual master and by proper use of one's trained intelligence for meditating upon the Supersoul dwelling within every living being. (Bhag. 1.6.15, purport)
The spiritual master instructs one how to constantly meditate upon Krsna even in the performance of one's work. This functional meditation helps awaken love for Krsna and fixes one in transcendence. Every action one performs thus becomes a meditation.
"Bhagavad-gita makes it clear," states Srila Prabhupada, "that one can attain the highest perfection of spiritual life simply by offering service according to his ability, just as Arjuna served Krsna by his ability in the military art. Arjuna offered his service fully as a military man, and he became perfect. Similarly, an artist can attain perfection simply by performing artistic work under the direction of the spiritual master. If one is a literary man, he can write articles and poetry for the service of the Lord under the direction of the spiritual master" (Bhag. 3.22.7, purport).
No matter what our position, we can apply these principles and practices of Krsna meditation in our lives. Let's suppose that our friend Richard has taken up the process of Krsna meditation and incorporated it into his life. Here's his typical day now: Each morning Richard spends an hour chanting the Hare Krsna mantra on his meditation beads. Sometimes he chants indoors, and when the weather's good he goes to a nearby park.
The chanting is spiritually refreshing. Then Richard prepares breakfast: fruit, yogurt, a hot cereal. He puts everything on a special plate and places it before a picture of Krsna he keeps on top of his bookshelf. Meditating upon Krsna, he softly repeats somemantras.
After breakfast, it's time for the half hour drive to school. In the car he listens to a taped lecture on the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. Arriving at school, he spends the rest of the morning in class. He is still studying to be a neurosurgeon, but he realizes that the real cure for the miseries of disease, old age, and death lies in reawakening the soul's eternal spiritual nature in relation with the Supreme Soul, Krsna.
After class, he meets Susan for lunch. She has prepared enough for both of them some hearty vegetarian sandwiches and carob-walnut cookies. They still plan to get married, but they see their relationship as a spiritual partnership, a way to help each other progress toward the goal of becoming free from material attachments and developing their unique personal loving relationships with Krsna. That means some restriction in the matter of sex, but they feel they have gained a great deal of mutual respect and understanding in return.
After lunch, Richard and Susan spend some time reading together from Bhagavad-gita, something they do every day. They appreciate the insights the Gita offers into their personal relationships and the world around them. On weekends Richard and Susan visit the temple, which has recently acquired some new computers, and Richard and Susan use their knowledge of computer programming to help the devotees set up a computerized accounting system. They also attend classes on the Bhagavad-gita,take part in the temple ceremonies, look at the beautifully decorated Deity of Krsna, and enjoy a feast of delicious vegetarian food that's been offered to Krsna with devotion. In this way, Richard and Susan are practicing Krsna meditation throughout the day.
Should you meditate? The answer is yes meditate on Krsna by chanting the Hare Krsna mantra, reading Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam (there's a sample in the center section of this magazine), seeing the form of Krsna, and offering your talents in His service. And if you think you have more important things to do, the Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.22.32) offers this advice: "There is no stronger obstruction to one's self-interest than thinking other subject matters to be more pleasing than one's self-realization." So make time for Krsna meditation in your life. That might mean sacrificing something, but you will gain the highest reward.