Here’s a livestream to catch up on what’s been going on in our lives, and to talk just a bit about mantra practice.
I recently watched AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda and it got me interested in his teachings. So many people on the spiritual path have mentioned his Autobiography of a Yogi as the prime inspiration for their journey, but I had never picked it up before. After watching the film, I downloaded the Kindle version and am now about halfway through.
Paramahansa Yogananda was the final guru in a lineage that began with the “Deathless Yogi” Mahavatar Babaji. Yogananda came to the United States in 1920 and toured extensively, lecturing and teaching yoga, which he often referred to as “the science of religion.” He also began to publish a series of lessons which were made available by mail, intended to help the reader begin with meditation along the path toward learning Kriya Yoga (the practice taught by his lineage).
The Self-Realization Fellowship is the organization that he established in the US to carry on his work. They still offer his lessons by mail. The content was updated after Yogananda left the body by his disciple Sri Mrinilini Mata, to whom he had entrusted the project. She considered it her life’s work, and the revised series was finally launched in 2019. It remains faithful to the original series, but offers some additional depth, incorporating some of Yogananda’s later writings and quotes.
The introduction to the series is available to read for free at this link.
I am just beginning to study and practice the meditation techniques taught by Yogananda. I don’t know yet whether or not I will adopt them as my principal practice. They are quite a bit more involved than the simple silent mantra meditation that I have been practicing. I am definitely interested in exploring them further, though, and will report back as I progress.
If you have had experience with Yogananda’s teachings or have practiced his methods, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Many people begin meditation as a wellness practice. Others want to sharpen their focus and enhance creativity. Others are trying to develop a calm emotional bearing. Still others are seeking a pathway to heaven or enlightenment.
Here are a few observations about the four dimensions of human experience, and how a daily meditation practice can help to improve and nurture each of them. Some of what I will share has been documented by research, some is anecdotal and some even speculative. I’ll do my best to make clear what can be substantiated by more than my own hunches, and what cannot.
Meditation and the Physical Dimension
Meditation offers many benefits in the physical dimension of life, and could easily be adopted for the physiological effects alone. It’s one of the most effective ways to clear your body of stress hormones such as cortisol, and to promote the release of positive hormones like oxytocin. Daily meditators report that they sleep better. Meditation has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, and to reduce inflammation and help with pain reduction and pain management. There are also numerous health benefits to be derived from leaving behind the bad habits and addictions which tend to fall away after one adopts a daily meditation practice.
Also in the material realm, beyond the physiological benefits, meditation is often the gateway to better financial well being. Part of this is related to the better physical health, better decision making and better overall function promoted by meditation, but there is also a somewhat inscrutable tendency for things to simply “work out better” for people who meditate. Many people attribute their personal material well being directly to their intentional efforts to help it manifest while in a meditative state.
The practice can help you on the job, as well. Meditators report that they experience increased job satisfaction, better performance and better relationships with supervisors, peers and direct reports.
Meditation and the Emotional Dimension
Meditators report lower stress levels, and better overall emotional health. Studies tell us that meditation increases one’s sense of empathy for others, reduces anxiety, boosts self-esteem and optimism, and helps remove addictions, undesirable compulsions and negative states of mind. Better moods, better relationships, a prevalence of calmness and more joy are commonly reported “side effects” of adopting the practice.
Meditation and the Mental Dimension
Study after study has documented effects of meditation which include improved memory, mental clarity, attention spans and ability to focus. EEGs show more electrical activity in the areas of the brain related to reasoning and decision making. They also show enhanced activity between the two hemispheres of the brain, and globally throughout the organ.
Often, people who meditate report that they seem to have tapped into a wellspring of creativity and intuition that they scarcely knew was available to them before. New insights and solutions to problems seem to come to mind “out of the blue.” Creative people become even more creative. Collaboration becomes easier and more effective.
Better Performance by Any Measure
The effects of a regular meditation practice are profound, whether in the physiological, financial, emotional or mental realms. Once people begin to meditate they are generally more productive, happier, perform better and are more pleasant to be around. Even a quick review of the data confirms all of this, and should be an encouragement to anyone who is considering beginning a meditation practice.
There is yet another dimension to be discussed, though – that of the spirit. It is in the spiritual dimension where meditation proves itself to be not only a useful practice, but a nearly essential one.
Meditation and the Spiritual Dimension
When I use the word “spirituality” it is meant to describe the activities and pursuits in our lives through which we attempt to find meaning and purpose. Whether we are drawn in these spiritual pursuits toward theology, cosmology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, art, religion – whatever the approach – we are trying to determine why we are here, what meaning our lives might have, what legacy we might leave, and how to live the best and happiest life that we can during a relatively brief human life span.
It’s a little more difficult to speak with clarity, let alone certainty, about the effects of meditation in this dimension of human experience, but I shall do my best. Much of what I write falls within the domain of speculation, but I do believe it to be a well informed speculation.
It first ought to be said that the meditation practices that we know, whether focused, mindful or transcendental, all come to us from spiritual traditions. They may be used to good effect by those who have little interest in spirituality, let alone religion or mysticism, but the fact remains that these practices and techniques are rooted in humankind’s quest for meaning – for a deeper understanding of the universe and our place in it.
So it is natural that a meditation practice, whether it is intended to do so or not, may lead one to levels of consciousness where glimpses of “the answers” arise, or at least where a further interest in “the questions” is sparked.
People who meditate often report a growing sense of their lives as part of a unity, or kinship, with other human beings, other sentient beings, or indeed with all things, living, dead, animate and not. I believe that this is because that unity is the fundamental truth, and meditation can bring us into a state of consciousness where that truth is not only evident, but where it is directly experienced.
Meditation also helps to cultivate the qualities of compassion, kindness, forgiveness and joy. Regardless of how one views the “purpose” of life, certainly these qualities are preferable to misery, hostility, callousness, rudeness and holding grudges or seeking revenge.
Meditation also seems to help us get in touch with the passions in our hearts, and helps us develop the courage to pursue them. This is key to finding purpose and meaning.
It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I have noticed in my own life and practice that meditation has helped me “get ready” – bringing ideas, resources and assistance to me by happy accidents of synchronicity at precisely the right times during my journey of personal development.
Explorations in the Essential Field
There are those who believe that our minds are structured in very much the same way as that which we observe as material reality. On the surface, things appear and behave differently than what we know to be true when we delve into their essential nature. Moving from the outward appearance of a “solid object” we first see compounds, then molecules, then atoms, sub-atomic particles, and then it gets very strange. As nearly as we can tell, the fundamental essence of things can be described as an energetic vibration, and what is experienced of it depends at least in part on the expectations of the observer. The vast field of probabilities waits until it is being observed before it decides how to express itself. Everything that we experience arises from this field of probabilities. All things arise from no thing.
As we achieve deeper and more profound levels of consciousness during meditation, it has been speculated that we can experience this field, and interact with it – perhaps even influence it – more directly than we do when mitigated by our bodily senses. Since the field is the foundational essence of all time and space, it is boundless. While experiencing these deeper levels of consciousness, we, too, become unbounded.
Stories of the great masters and saints who performed amazing feats (miraculous healings, being in two places at once, accurately predicting the future or giving witness of events which are happening great distances away, etc.) suddenly make more sense in this context.
When we meditate, do we really gain access to all of the wisdom and power of the universe? Do we encounter the face of God?
For many, many spiritual seekers over many thousands of years, that has certainly been the primary goal of the practice.
Calmer, Kinder and Better, At Least
Tempting as it may be to adopt the practice of meditation in hopes of attaining sainthood or supernatural powers, I shall be happy if it helps me to become, simply, calmer, kinder and more able to cope with the challenges of life in the coming decade or so.
It seems to me that this is reason enough to set aside a little time each morning and evening to practice.
I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts on the matter. Please get in touch by email, or leave a comment below.
“If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”
– His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
I began a daily meditation practice in April of 2019. The resultant changes in my life and well being have been nothing less than miraculous. Before beginning the practice, at the age of 61, I was miserable, obese, depressed, in chronic pain, suffering from high blood pressure and pretty much just waiting around to die. Since I began the practice, I have lost nearly 90 pounds, am off the blood pressure meds that I had taken for more than a decade, and can barely wait to wake up each morning to find what the new day will bring.
In this post, I’ll share a simple practice that you can teach yourself and practice wherever and whenever you would like. It requires nothing but your time, attention and persistence.
Some Benefits of Meditation
Here are just a few of the effects of a daily meditation practice which have been documented in study after study.
- reduced cortisol (the stress hormone) and cytokines (inflammatory agents)
- increased oxytocin (the “love” hormone)
- better sleep
- less anxiety
- reduced inflammation and pain
- lowered blood pressure, better cardiovascular health
- more electrical activity in the areas of the brain related to positive thinking and optimism
- increased intuition, insight and self-awareness
- improved self-esteem
- more creativity
- improved focus, attention span and memory
- increased empathy
- compulsions, bad habits, addictions and negative states of mind lift and disappear
There’s no way to do it wrong, as long as you do it.
Like many others, I had tried to meditate earlier in my life, noticing no effect. I think that my understanding of what meditation is, how it works, and my expectations were to blame. I wanted to “go somewhere else” or be someone else as I meditated. I wanted for all of the cares of the world to instantly melt away, and to find myself in an alternate realm of magic where I was at the center of it all – wise, powerful and in control. I wanted to feel all of that during meditation sessions, and when I didn’t feel (any of) that, I thought that I must not be doing it right. I quickly gave the practice up as a waste of time, feeling guilty that I didn’t “get it.”
When I began to meditate this time around, I started almost by accident, and without any expectations at all. It felt good, so I kept doing it. Then I started to research, and was lucky enough to stumble on this advice: there is no way to do this practice “wrong” – so long as you do it every day.
A Simple, Powerful Practice
There are many different types, techniques and styles of meditation practice. I have studied and experimented with quite a number of them, and still vary my practice depending on what seems to be working for me at the moment, or new things I have learned about and want to try. I’m going to describe my current daily practice. It is the one I would recommend to someone who is interested in beginning.
Several words of caution are in order before I describe what to do. This is a deceptively simple technique which has been used by millions of people around the world for centuries. It is practiced by people of all ages, nationalities, religions, beliefs and stations in life. It will yield vast benefits and blessings to your life if you practice it consistently, but this will take some time. One cannot “install” a new state of mind, anymore than one can install a crop. We plant. We nurture. Things grow and produce the harvest. Do not expect to “feel anything” or to see any results in the early days of this practice. It takes time.
I’m also not going to provide a lot of detail here on what happens to our mind and body during meditation. In general, we learn to become calm, our brain waves settle down into a lower frequency, our bodies become relaxed. Do not expect to feel or sense anything unusual or profound (although this may eventually happen). Just devote some time to the practice each day for a few weeks, and see what happens.
The technique that I’ll describe is the one that I personally practice each day. Although I have not been taught TM, I understand that this practice is quite similar to what Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught. It comes to us from the Hindu tradition, but it is similar to centering prayer as practiced and taught by many Christian mystics of various denominations. It must be emphasized that this practice meshes well with nearly any faith, but one need not have any religious convictions or beliefs at all to benefit from it. The physiological and neurological response depends only on a willingness to practice each day.
How to Meditate
For this meditation, you will need a mantra. Mantra simply means “mind tool.” It is a sound that you will repeat to yourself silently during the meditation. When this technique is taught by a guru or yogi, a specific mantra may be selected for the student based on their age, gender, temperament, etc. For our purposes, almost any simple word or sound will do, although it would be best if the word does not call to mind a lot of associations. For instance “car” might be a poor choice, as your mind may be drawn to images of cars. This is why the ancient mantra sounds from India and Tibet make such excellent mantras for we Westerners, because there are no deeply ingrained associations with them for us.
The mantra I would recommend for starting out is “SO HUM” (sometimes pronounced “so-hung” or “so-haum”). The literal meaning of the mantra is “I am.” So it is an affirmation of sorts, but you should not focus on the meaning during meditation. Just repeat the sound silently in your mind.
Ready to begin?
- Sit in a comfortable chair, feet on the ground. Hands in your lap. Don’t cross your legs or arms. Try to keep your spine relatively straight.
- Set a (gentle sounding) timer for 20 minutes.
- Take a few deep breaths with your eyes closed. Open your eyes softly and briefly, and then close them again. No need to keep a focal point. Just relax.
- Begin repeating the mantra silently. SO HUM. SO HUM. SO HUM.
- Keep repeating the mantra silently. When your mind wanders, gently come back to the mantra. Do not judge yourself or worry when your mind wanders to tasks that you need to complete, or the TV show that you watched last night, or your grocery list or whatever. When you recognize that this is happening, just bring it back to the mantra repetition. If your mind wanders, or even if you drift off to sleep or whatever, it’s alright. There’s no way to do this practice wrong as long as you just do it.
- After 20 minutes, wiggle your fingers, toes and maybe stretch a bit, to ease back into normal consciousness. Gently open your eyes, and breathe for a few moments before getting back to your day.
That’s it. The beauty of this practice is that it can be done anywhere, any time, without any props or aids or anything else added to the picture. Also, you’re not trying to focus your mind, or eliminate anything, or hold on to anything. It’s just a very gentle falling into your natural state of “relaxed but alert.” You may “lose” the mantra altogether sometimes if you get deep enough, and that’s okay too. Just bring your attention back when you notice that happening.
Some Final Words of Advice
Here is something that I shared with a friend who was considering beginning this practice.
I’m guessing that if you do this, the first few times especially, you’ll be frustrated. Nothing is happening, I can’t relax. I don’t feel different. My mind is racing. I’m not doing this right. Blah Blah Blah.
But if you stick with it and do it every day, twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the afternoon (if you can – go shorter if you must) then after awhile it will begin to make a difference.
The keys are don’t focus, don’t visualize, don’t do anything. Just sit, Breath. Repeat the mantra silently. Every day. Twice a day. Work up to twenty minutes a session. That’s it.
A Few Links
Here are a few links that may be of interest.
Centering Prayer (Video) – In this short video, my friend Gary Thomas, who is an Assembly of God Pastor, describes his practice of centering prayer.
Transcendental Meditation™ Official Website – I must emphasize, again, that what I practice is not TM, I have not been taught TM, and I make no claims that what I describe above will yield the same results. I would love to hear from practitioners about your experiences. Here are a couple of videos about that practice.
How to Get Started With Meditation – This is a blog post which gives a little more information on what happens to the brain during meditation, and describes some alternative methods. The binaural beats technology described is also a great way to get started with the practice, helping to slow the brainwaves into the Alpha or Theta zones using stereophonic sounds. I still use that technology on occasion.
Do you meditate? What is your practice like? Please comment or email with your ideas, experiences and any questions.
Image Credit: Photo by ESA/Hubble