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A Guide to Meditation

by Swami Shivapremananda(more info)

listed in meditation, originally published in issue 14 - August 1996

In the West, the word meditation, means a concentrated state of mind in serious reflection. The Latin root of the word meditation mederi means to heal. It is an effort to heal afflictions of the mind, the hurt ego, by trying to understand the cause of the problem and finding a way to solve it, that is, by knowing what countermeasures to take. To meditate is to deepen a state of understanding.

Swami Shivapremananda
In the East, however, meditation does not mean thinking at all but fixing the mind in a spiritual ideal, to be one with it, or the thought-process dissolving in the consciousness of it. According to Zen, meditation does not involve any concept but is an awareness of an inner silence. As per the Yoga of Patanjali, meditation is a combination of three steps: Pratyahara, or abstraction or withdrawal of the mind from the sense-objects or attention to their memory, Dharanaor concentration, and Dhyana or contemplation which, however, is not a thought-process but an absorption of the feeling of oneness with the ideal.

Awareness of an inner silence is not something easy to achieve. It can be confused with a state of dullness or being soporific, which is not the purpose of meditation. To meditate does not mean to have a good rest while sitting pretty, and silence is not productive without spiritual aspiration. On the other hand, few have the capacity to think clearly, and too much of mental exercise could lead to tension and confusion.

In Bhakti Yoga, meditation is visualisation of the image of a chosen deity, together with mental repetition of a relevant mantra. For the Vedantin it is to contemplate on the meaning of selected verses from the Upanishads or similar scriptures. For the Catholics, it is saying the rosary, based on mantras like Our Father which art in heaven, or Hail Mary, full of grace. For them meditation also consists in feeling close to Jesus after receiving communion and retiring into a quiet place, the idea of transubstantiation of the Eucharist.

St Albert the Great, the teacher of St Thomas Aquinas, observed that meditation for philosophers is a process of perfecting a thought, and for the devotees of their love of God. Prayers said in silence as a dedication of oneself to God can also be called meditation, because it means turning the mind inward to one’s spiritual source, leading to peace, and inner fulfilment.

For the Hindus, repetition of a mantra, with or without a rosary, but with a feeling of spiritual oneness is meditation. A common Buddhist meditation consists in repeating the mantras: Buddham sharanani gachchhami, dharmam sharanam gachchhami, sangham sharanam gachchhami (I proceed remembering the Buddha, the righteous path and the welfare of my community). The Tibetans base their meditation on the mantra Om mani padme hum (I am Om, the jewel in the lotus of my heart). For Moslems, meditation is called zikr or repetition of selected names of God from the Koran, generally with a rosary. Feeling the breath which is a technique in Pratyahara, is an exercise in Zen meditation (the word Zen is derived from dhyana or meditation), as also counting from one to 20 or more, over and over again.


The two basic goals of meditation are:

1 Spiritual renewal or the feeling of oneness with a higher source of life, no matter whether one calls it the infinite and eternal spirit, transcendental and yet immanent in everything, or a divine being called God, or supreme truth, from which flow peace, wisdom and strength.

2 Through introversion, acquiring a deep state of peace, to search for the basic truths of life, to separate reality from illusion, to discard illusory ideas about illusion itself, to acquire a clear understanding of reality rather than confusing it with a foggy thoughtless state. The first is relatively easier through devotion and a sincere dedication. The second needs a long practice, to acquire philosophical maturity.

Peace of mind is a product of the first goal, which helps in the understanding of the problem one faces. An expanded state of consciousness enables one to loosen the psychological tightness of attachments and rise above petty reactions by the realisation that there is more to life than snobbery caused by the insecure ego and resentment by wounded vanity. A sense of elevation and oneness with a spiritual source helps to sublimate gross passions and acquire emotional maturity. The identity of oneself with the essence of one’s being strengthens the will to act according to what one should and should not do, after having made appropriate decisions.

Clarity of mind, which is a part of the second goal, helps to cultivate a sense of right and wrong, a basic purpose of education and a litmus test of any culture. The Greek root, charassein of the word character means to engrave, and its Sanskrit word, charitra, which means to cultivate. To engrave or to cultivate cherished ideals is what meditation is for, practised in a state of peace and clarity of mind, instilling a love of truth, of what one wishes to be, by sowing the seeds of suggestion through a deep feeling of devotion and dedication.

Purity of heart or freedom from resentment, hate, prejudice and negative thinking is another objective of meditation. Although it is said that repetition of a mantra helps to cleanse and enlighten the mind, there is no evidence that the mental sound-form does so, but the faith in it and the sincerity to direct one’s life by the ideals behind it. Thus, it is wrong to say that mantras are meaningless sound-forms. It is also advisable to discard the myth that no progress in meditation or spiritual life is possible without an initiation by a guru, although a worthy teacher is a help. As the Buddha says:

“By oneself alone is one purified,
Purity and impurity depending
    on oneself,
As no one can purify another.
By oneself one must walk the path,
The teacher merely shows the way.”


The injunction “let your whole life be an act of meditation”, is nonsense, first because it is impossible and, secondly, because its value is diluted. Meditation is a specific act by itself, to be practised regularly. Then it is a process in order to guide one’s life for the act to be meaningful. Meditation, to be effective, should inspire a philosophy to guide one’s life or a code of conduct to practise. That is why Patanjali’s Raja Yoga begins with two sets of ethics and regulations, yama and niyama.

1 Practical idealism is the first requirement in meditation, so as not to make it a hypocritical act but to support it by a philosophy guiding one’s attitude, motivation, action and relationship.

2 The second requisite is a suitable place to meditate, clean and peaceful, wherein to create the right kind of atmosphere by keeping a symbol on a sort of an altar with flowers and, when meditating, lighting a candle and mild incense, if desired.

3 The third is the right kind of posture, whether sitting cross-legged, if comfortable, or in a straight-back and firm chair, while keeping the neck, shoulders and back straight, without being rigid, so as to remain alert by breathing adequately (oxygen helps to maintain lucidity). For most of the people, even in India, the lotus posture (padmasana) is symbolic rather than practical, for one can meditate only when the mind is free from self-inflicted pain in the legs and hips, nor does it make any sense to let them go numb. The position of the arms should be relaxed by keeping the palms facing up in the lap, one over the other, or the hands should be on the knees with palms up or down but fingers loose and relaxed, with the tips of the index finger and thumb gently touching. If sitting in a chair, the feet should be together on the floor, with equal weight.

4 The fourth is cultivating a relaxed disposition before beginning the practice of meditation. There should be no fighting with thoughts or trying to stop the mind, as it were, or even a desire to achieve anything at all, for it is not an ego-trip or climbing the ladder of success, but an effortless feeling of a deep, inner poise and faith in, and love for, what one wishes to do, a quiet, absorbing predisposition to the ideal of the act.

With a relaxed mind one may begin with the awareness of an abiding, expanding relatedness to all that is around, to the whole universe, and to the transcendent and immanent spiritual source, which is also the essence of one’s inner being or soul. There should be a feeling of absorption and envelopment by a deep, inner peace. No doubt thoughts will come and go, but not to be distracted by a thought means not identifying with it, because a thought is sustained by the self’s involvement with it. When a thought comes, one may gently tell oneself “I am not interested but detached and in peace”. To begin meditation, it is necessary to compose oneself in this way for a few minutes.

5 The fifth requisite is called techniques that constitute the main practice of meditation. They are of several kinds, depending on religious or monastic or ashram traditions. For example, in some Catholic monasteries there are little books of meditation consisting of a thought for each day of the year, gleaned from the scriptures, which is memorised and contemplated upon in solitude, while mentally repeating the phrases from time to time to guide the meditation. In the chapel, meditation is done differently, when a monk reads aloud passages from sacred writings and his brethren sit with heads bent, eyes closed and fingers crossed, deeply concentrating on what is read.



STEP ONE: Cultivating a disposition

After a few minutes of relaxation (as described in how to cultivate a predisposition), gradually absorb the mind in the breath, that is, be aware of the coolness of the inflowing prana deep inside the head, in the nerve cells, and the warmth of the outflowing prana inside the lower nostrils, while breathing spontaneously. There is no need to breathe deliberately slowly, for the concentration in feeling the breath will automatically make it slow and find its own rhythm. From time to time, repeat mentally peace (shanti) when inhaling and liberation (mukti) when exhaling. The important thing is to have a sense of being filled with peace and to feel free from all tension and bondage. The practice may be continued for, say, 10 minutes.
The purpose of this form of pratyahara (or sense withdrawal) is a conscious experience of the prana, the external form of which is the breath and the internal source, the soul. The Latin root, spirare, of the word respiration means to breathe, and is derived from the word spiritus, the soul’s essence that gives life to the body through the vital principle, prana. By experiencing the breath through its coolness and warmth, one becomes aware of its source within by a sense of immense peace (shanti) and freedom (mukti), the two psychological forms of expression of the spirit within.

After a month of practice, the first stage can be prolonged by continuing to feel only the coolness deep inside the head even when exhaling, and ignoring the warmth of the outgoing prana, and renewing the cool feeling with the help of each inward breath. The psychological experience of this exercise is a state of fullness which can be guided by repeating the word paripurnam or its English equivalent spiritual fullness, from time to time. This may be done for five minutes or more, depending on the ability to maintain attention.

Any practice in a prolonged state, especially in the beginning, loses its depth. Thus, after 10 or 15 minutes, detach the mind from the breath, keep the eyes closed and feel restful for a minute or two. One may also loosen up the shoulders, neck and legs, if there is tension.

STEP TWO: Repetition of Mantra

The second part of meditation, which is an aspect of internal dharana (concentration), consists of japa or repetition of a mantra, and can be combined with dhyana (contemplation). A mantra is a sound-form representing a basic spiritual ideal, such as uniting with the infinite spirit (Om), or transcendental truth, knowledge, infinity (satyam, gyanam, anantam), or a personal deity like Shiva or Vishnu or Buddha or Christ. A mantra can also be an affirmation of an ideal, such as Soham (I am one with the infinite) or Hari Om Tat Sat (the Lord is the infinite spirit, that is the truth). The two well-known Hebrew mantras are Adonai (my Lord) and Elohim (the all-powerful Lord of all).

A mantra should not be considered a magic formula, for there is no magic in Yoga. Continuous repetition of a sound-form helps to tap mental energy and focus it into the subconscious in order to plant and stimulate a spiritual ideal therein. This is the basic purpose of japa. To call it transcendental meditation is to indulge in hyperbole. There are various kinds of mantra but for japa its shorter forms are recommended, such as Om, or Soham, or a slightly larger form as Hari Om or Hari Om Tat Sat.

According to the voluminous Sanskrit-English dictionary by Sir Monier-Williams (Oxford University Press), the word mantra means, among other definitions, “to concentrate with”, drawing its roots man from manas or mind (more specifically, the conscious aspect of the mind) and tra from possibly trada (see under tra) or that which pierces or as per my inference that which engraves. Thus, mantra is a sound-form to consciously engrave in the subconscious a spiritual ideal of identity. Trada also means that which opens up, thus inferentially one’s spiritual consciousness. Remotely, the root tra can also be traced to tras (see under tra) which means to shine, thus inferentially the spirit within.

The mind is a field of energy. Energy pulsates through a principle or structure of movement. The mind moves by the pulsation of memory, latching on to one and then to another. Thus, the energy of the mind is dispersed. The purpose of repeating a sound-form continuously is to make the mind move in a tight circle, thus tapping its energy. Simultaneously, the sentiment of love for the spiritual ideal behind should be focused deeply within.

One may begin the second part of meditation by refocusing the mind in the breath, trying to be absorbed in it, as before, for a minute or two. Then start the mental intonation of the mantra Om, slowly and concentrating deeply, along with the inflowing breath, feeling its coolness, and again with the outflowing, feeling the warmth. The process should be continuous for several minutes. Then have a short pause, detaching the mind and experiencing an inner silence, and after which repeat the practice. Continue for a total of 10 minutes in the first month and then extend by another five minutes or so.

The psychological counterpart of this exercise, to be contemplated alternately, consists in feeling a subtle, sacred presence within: in the body giving it health or physical well-being, in the mind enlightening it with understanding and wiping out the shadows of negativity, in the heart or the soul awakening spiritual aspiration. The last means loving “God with all your heart and with all your soul” in the words of Jesus. These guiding sentiments are relative to the repetition of Om, which can be directed in between japa.

If the mantra is Soham, the sound So (infinite spirit) should be mentally intoned with the inflowing breath and ham (I am one with) with the outflowing, in the same way as with Om. The sentiment or the contemplative part may be based on the affirmation: “I am one with the eternal, infinite spirit within and around. The self in me is of the spiritual nature of my soul, rather than a product of physical instincts and personality traits. The self in me is purified by this communion with my soul, the essence of which is the same as the infinite, transcendental spirit of God.”

For a devout Christian the mantra can be Jesus Christ. Although it is not essential to synchronise the repetition of a mantra with the breath, the feeling of a harmonious rhythm can be developed by doing so, as if the mantra is floating in and out, permeating and enveloping oneself. Examples: repeat Hari Om inhaling and Tat Sat exhaling; or Jesus inhaling, Christ exhaling; or for those of the Jewish faith, Adonai inhaling, Elohim exhaling. While doing japa the mind should be deeply concentrated in intoning silently the mantra with a feeling of love for the ideal. Combining this dharana (concentration) with dhyana (contemplation relative to the mantra) is done in the following way:

If the mantra is Jesus Christ, or Adonai-Elohim, repeat the words for five minutes, then unfocus the mind breathing spontaneously for a minute or two, and begin the contemplative part for five minutes or so. This is done with the help of three phrases. In the case of Jesus Christ or a Vishnu mantra like Om Namo Narayanaya, the image of the deity may be visualised in the mind, or in the case of Adonai-Elohim a sphere of light as a symbol, but it is not easy and can be considered optional.

Repeat about half-a-dozen times each of the three following phrases very slowly and with deep feeling: “My body is your temple”, then pause and feel for a couple of minutes a flow of harmony coursing through the entire body, the spirit of God purifying it, giving it health. Then repeat in the same way “My mind is your altar”, pausing again to feel a profound peace permeating it, cleansing and liberating it from all that is unwholesome. Then “My soul is your abode”, followed by a feeling of pure love filling your heart.

This combined form of dharana and dhyana may be practised for five minutes each and then extended to an equal amount of time or a total of 20 minutes, or as long as one wishes.

The idea of sticking to one mantra only is to accustom the mind to its sound pattern, in order to engrave its grooves in the subconscious, as it were. The choice may be made by oneself. Experience will tell, given enough time, if a mantra is suitable to one’s psychological make-up through a sense of harmony with it, or not. There is no rule that a mantra cannot be changed if the mind resists it.

The preference of receiving initiation from a guru is personal but there is no dogma that to repeat a mantra one has to be initiated into it. Sensible teachers try to find out the psychological inclination of the student before giving a mantra, rather than perfunctorily superimpose one with a dubious understanding that the former can know what is appropriate for the latter just by sensing the vibrations. My teacher, the late Swami Sivananda, never urged anyone to receive mantra-initiation but, if someone came to him for it, he generally inquired about the preference, as to how a spiritual identity is sought, before giving an appropriate mantra.

Whereas a mantra should not be treated frivolously by revealing it to just anybody, to make a top secret of it is rather silly. All mantras can be found in books.

STEP THREE: Affirmations in meditation

After the practice of the second part a short pause is necessary, keeping the eyes closed and feeling detached and restful. If there is tension, move the shoulders and the head a little. Breathe freely for a minute or two and then refocus the mind in the breath to begin the third part of this integral meditation, all of it being a combination of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. This last part is a process of seeding the subconscious with some basic affirmations, relative to their opposite traits which are common to human nature.

The mind is a complex organism susceptible to influence. No one is born like a blank page on which the parents and others write what is good or bad. We are all born with innate propensities of character, even though in a rudimentary state, but each as a distinct individual. Then the first few years are highly impressionable, marking the subconscious indelibly through parental influence. Afterwards, in adolescence and later years, we keep on marking the formative mind by the influence of our surroundings and by our own positive endeavour or falling into bad habits, as well as by being susceptible to wholesome or negative influence of individuals we closely come into contact with.

The purpose of the following part of meditation is self-educative, as to what should be our nature and should not be, the ‘reality’ being what we need for our security and happiness. One may make a list of affirmations as per individual preference and necessity, and memorise them. However, they should be few and short. The following six affirmations are recommended.

While inhaling and feeling the breath, mentally repeat slowly and with a deep conviction “Peace is my real nature” and while exhaling “Not conflict”. Repeat the phrase three or four times each, then try to absorb the meaning in silence for about a minute, breathing spontaneously. Then continue with “Love is my real nature,” “Not resentment”; “Truth is my real nature,” “Not untruth”; “Happiness is my real nature,” “Not unhappiness”; “Strength is my real nature,” “Not weakness”; “Freedom is my real nature,” “Not bondage.”

Then give a short pause, breathing freely and feeling detached. Begin again, fixing the mind in the breath, and repeat three or four times each, inhaling “Peace” and exhaling “Only peace”; “Love”, “Spiritual love”; “Truth”, “Only truth”; “Happiness”, “Inner fullness”; “Strength”, “Mental strength”; “Freedom”, “Spiritual freedom”. Then conclude with a pause of at least three minutes, breathing freely.


The best time to meditate is in the morning, but only if one wakes up fresh. Otherwise, an appropriate hour should be chosen, but not immediately after a meal. This session of meditation will take from 45 minutes to one hour. In the beginning one may shorten it to 20 to 30 minutes and, after sufficient practice, prolong up to one hour. For most people a long meditation is not useful and may even build up tension. The quality is more important than the length.


An inner poise, a truthful, open, compassionate and unselfish nature, free from pretension, snobbery, prejudice and dogmatism, are the qualities one encounters in those who have progressed in meditation.
This article first appeared in the magazine Yoga and Health, published by Yoga Today Ltd, 21 Cadburn Crescent, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 1NR and is reproduced with their permission.


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