|Chapter One: Overview of Meditation
Meditation is one of the most natural and most rewarding of all human activities. The great master of yoga, Paramhansa Yogananda, defined meditation as “deep concentration on God or one of His aspects.” Practiced on a daily basis it produces astonishing results on all levels of your being: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. It connects you with your own inner powers of vitality, clarity, and love. When done deeply, it also gives you an expanded sense of connection with life and an experience of profound joy.
Meditation has three aspects: relaxation, interiorization, and expansion. The process, stated simply, is:
a) Relax completely, both physically and mentally.
b) Interiorize your mind and concentrate one-pointedly, usually at the point between the eyebrows.
c) Focus your concentrated mind on an aspect of your own deeper self or of God, such as love, joy, or light. This will help to naturally expand your consciousness.
Although this process is simple to explain, the actual attainment of deeper states requires dedication and discipline. Yet even a little practice of meditation gives immediate results. Meditators find that practicing even a few minutes a day increases their sense of well-being and brings increased joy.
There is an innate yearning in each of us to expand our awareness, to know who and what we really are, and to experience union with God. At a certain stage in this “eternal quest,” as Paramhansa Yogananda called it, we are guided to find inner stillness through the practice of meditation. Restless thoughts are a kind of mental “static” that must be silenced if we are to hear the whispers of our own inner self.
Profound perceptions about the nature of reality come through intuition rather than logic, from the superconscious rather than the conscious mind. When the body is completely relaxed, the five senses internalized, and the mind totally focused, a tremendous flow of energy becomes available. That intense energy can lift us into superconsciousness, where our inner powers of intuition are fully awake. Deep meditation helps us become aware of personal and universal realities barely dreamed of before, while even a little internalization of the consciousness lifts us toward that state and brings great peace.
Physiologically, meditation has been found, among other things, to reduce stress, strengthen the immune system, and help regulate many of the body’s systems. During meditation the breath slows, blood pressure and metabolic rates decrease, and circulation and detoxification of the blood increase. Recent studies of patients with coronary artery disease showed that a combination of meditation, hatha yoga, and a natural vegetarian diet reverses heart disease far better than the best medical treatment presently available. Meditation changes the frequency and intensity of brain waves in beneficial ways and has even been shown to increase the size of the frontal lobes of the brain.
Mentally, meditation focuses and clarifies the mind. James J. Lynn, the most advanced disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, was the founder and chief executive of one of the largest insurance companies in America. He often arrived at his office late in the morning after several hours of meditation. When associates asked how he could accomplish all his work with such a "relaxed" schedule, he responded that meditation enabled him to do his work much more efficiently. With his mind completely centered, he was able to make decisions in a few moments that otherwise might have taken weeks.
While the physical and mental benefits of meditation are great, it is first and foremost a spiritual art. Its purpose, ultimately, is to lead us to perfection, to the realization that we are one with the Infinite. We come from God and are made in His image, and our hearts are restless until we achieve unity (yoga in Sanskrit) with Him again. Like lotuses opening to the sun, we are compelled by our own higher nature, the spark of God within, to experience increasingly expanded states of awareness. Meditation is the direct pathway to this unified state.
In recent years meditation has become widely accepted and practiced in the West. It is now taught in churches, recommended by physicians, and widely practiced by athletes. There are meditation chapels in airports, hospitals, and even in Congress.
It is an ancient art, going back in time to a period long before historical records were kept. Stone seals showing people seated in various yoga postures have been found in the Indus Valley of India, and have been dated by archaeologists as far back as 5000 B.C. Yet meditation is much more than an interesting but long-forgotten ancient practice. For many thousands of years, it has remained a dynamic discipline, renewed again and again by the experiences of saints and sages of all religions.
Every religion has some branch (often somewhat secret) that seeks mystical union, with its own form of meditation to achieve that end. Every age has examples of great men and women who have achieved Self-realization, or union with the Divine. The East, especially India, has developed the science and tradition of meditation. Over the centuries great sages and teachers discovered truths and techniques, which they passed on to their disciples, who in turn passed them on to their followers. Generation followed generation in an unbroken tradition for thousands of years. This tradition continually refreshed the practices—those which proved true and lasting survived, while those which were tainted with ignorance fell by the wayside. Moreover, the East developed a culture that looked to enlightened beings as examples of how to live. In India, children are still taught through stories and examples from the lives of Self-realized souls such as Rama and Krishna, two great saints of ancient India. It has been said that the greatness of a culture can be judged by its heroes. In the East, and particularly in India, the greatest heroes have been those of the highest spiritual attainments.
The West, however, has lacked a living tradition of meditation passed on from master to disciple. Great saints there have certainly been, but usually they have been self-taught men and women who had to discover the pathway to mystical union with little or no outside help. Moreover, they often knew no techniques to channel the enormous inner energy awakened by their intense devotion. Without teachers to guide them, or techniques to help them, their inner energies became obstructed, and many were beset with great physical suffering. In a society that didn’t understand or necessarily respect sanctity, many had to face the opposition of their families and even their spiritual “superiors.”
In the West our heroes have tended to be more warlike than Godlike. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization. His wry but charming reply was, "I think it would be a good idea."
Finally, with the inflow of teachings from India, the tradition and benefits of meditation are being introduced to the West, and a new tradition is developing. The practice of meditation has tremendous potential for enriching both our individual lives and our society. The historian Arnold Toynbee has called the introduction of the Eastern spiritual traditions into the West the most important influence in the twentieth century.