“Meditation introduces you to yourself on all levels
and leads you to the Self within.”
Sri Swami Rama of the Himalayas
Meditation and Its Practice by Swami Rama
This is a basic, clear, easy to understand book about meditation which would enable a reader to begin the practice on their own. In seven chapters, Swami Rama covers What is Meditation, Preparation for Meditation, Meditative Postures, Meditation Mind and Mantra, Breathing Practices, a Program for Progress in Meditation and concludes with Questions and Answers on the Practice of Meditation. I have used this book for several years as a reference for my own practice and in teaching meditation as part of yoga. Swami Rama’s words and ideas stand on their own without additions from me so I have simply summarized the important points from the book for this review.
Swamiji explains in the preface that “meditation will give you the capacity to improve your health, your relationships and the skillfulness of all your activities. This is because meditation can do something that no other technique can accomplish – it introduces you to yourself on all levels, and finally leads you to the center of consciousness within”. Swami Rama’s teachings, including this book, are based on the system of Raja Yoga, of which meditation is the 7th of 8 limbs.
In the West, we have borrowed bits and pieces of Eastern teaching with the result that the terms in yoga, which includes meditation, are mostly misunderstood. “Meditation is a specific technique for completely resting the mind and attaining a state of consciousness that is totally different than the normal waking state. In meditation, you are fully awake and alert, but the mind is not focused on the external world or the events taking place around you… the mind is clear, relaxed and focused within”. Deeper than thinking, contemplating or fantasizing, it is ‘inner attention’. The difficulties we have meditating are because our minds are not trained in how to understand our own inner dimensions. Here we learn to pay attention to our body, breath and mind. The result is increased joyfulness, clarity and awareness as well as enhanced creativity and better health. Meditation is a most enjoyable process which makes people self reliant, with the inner strength to deal more effectively with life.
In meditation, we ask the mind to let go of its tendencies to think, analyze, remember, solve problems and focus on the events of the past or expectations of the future. Our minds have grooves or habit patterns and we don’t know how to be here in the present moment. In meditation, we relax into a quiet, effortless, one-pointed focus of awareness. We let go of mental distractions by focusing the mind on one object, such as the breath or a mantra. Common mantras include Om, Amen and Shalom. In this book, he introduces the universal mantram SoHam (following the breath while exhaling hum, inhaling so). According to Patanjali, the codifier of yoga science, mantra becomes a bridge between the mortal and immortal parts of life. It is a support and focal point given to the mind.
There are many types of meditation practices and all are valid as long as they have the goal of helping you attain inner stillness and focus. Meditation is not a religious ritual but is simply a method of exploring the inner dimensions of life and firmly establishing oneself in one’s own essential nature.
Consistent, systematic practice is needed to learn meditation and to reap its many benefits. We need to learn to relax the body, to sit in a comfortable, steady position, to make the breathing process serene, to witness objects in the mind, to inspect the quality of thoughts and strengthen those that are positive and learn how not to allow ourselves to become disturbed in any situation, whether we judge it to be bad or good. Preparation is essential to avoid obstacles which disturb meditation. Illness, stiff tense bodies, being tired or agitated and being either hungry or having eaten too much get in the way. The person we bring to our meditation seat is the person we’ve been all day – the thoughts we think, the food we eat. Managing our lifestyle becomes part of our meditation practice.
A clean quiet place is all you need for meditation. You can meditate any time but usually early morning or late at night at the times you are least likely to be disturbed. Meditating at the same time each day helps to build a mental habit and resist procrastination. The first step is to cleanse the body. Stretching is next, either stretching or using hatha yoga asanas (postures) to help ready the body for meditation. Relaxation is next and he has also listed a progressive relaxation practice in Appendix A. Then focus on the breath. Again he includes several breathing exercises in the book and Appendix B. The breath is to be smooth and even with no pauses, breaks or jerks. He strongly advises against breath retention for health reasons. Then we sit in meditation, following the breath with the universal mantram SoHam. Sit quietly and let your mind focus on the mantra. When you become uncomfortable or need to finish, bring your awareness back to the breath then the body. Make a gradual transition back to the external world.
“The requirement for a good meditation posture are that it be still, steady, relaxed and comfortable”. Some people think you have to be flexible enough to sit in the lotus position to ‘really’ meditate. The only important thing is to have your head neck and trunk in alignment so you can breathe freely and diaphragmatically. Meditative postures are covered in the book as are instructions such as to not put the gaze between the eyebrows. There are many misconceptions in the west but such practices are not to be done during meditation.
In Chapter 4, Swami Rama goes into more detail about what ‘happens’ during meditation with mantra. While sitting, bring the awareness to the breath and mentally hear ‘hum’ on the exhale and ‘so’ on the inhale. As thoughts come into the mind, become aware of them, let them go, and bring your attention back to the sound of the mantra flowing with the breath. Do not create a war within by trying to stop your thoughts. Simply refocus your attention on the mantra. As you progress, you may want to consider receiving a personal mantra from a qualified teacher. He points out also that as we ‘progress’ in meditation, there should be a deepening sense of quiet and stillness. No dramatic phenomenon like lights or visions are required and are in fact a distraction.
Meditation helps you to know and understand the mind – memory, concentration, emotion, reasoning and intuition. Meditators learn to coordinate, balance and enhance these capacities, using them to their fullest potential.
Breath awareness is essential in meditation and very misunderstood in the west. Diaphragmatic breath 24 hours a day through the nose that is smooth, even with no pauses, jerks or breaks is the first thing we work on. Chronic stress can leave us with shallow jerky breath and smoothing this out can give us dramatic benefits just on its own. More advanced breathing exercises (pranayama) are not imparted until the student has demonstrated stillness of body and serenity of breath. The breath is the link between the body and mind and both reflects and effects both sides. Our breath is the vehicle by which life force/energy (prana) travels in the body.
The chapter on breathing practices includes the importance of breath awareness and goes on to describe 2:1 breathing in which the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation (no pause or retention between), and also nadi shodanam or alternate nostril breathing which is a powerful emotional stabilizer. Nadi shodanam is sometimes called Joyful Breath.
Swami Rama concludes the book with a chapter on working systematically with your meditation practice. He also explains a bit more about how the mind works. One should understand the four functions of the mind – manas, buddhi, ahamkara and chitta and be able to work with them throughout the day. Manas is lower mind through which we take in sensory data and interact with the world. Buddhi is the higher mind and has the capacity to discriminate. Ahamkara is ego, or our sense of “I-ness”. Chitta is the memory bank in which we store our impressions and habits. He speaks of the importance of reaching our complete potential. Knowing ourselves and facing our fears is an essential part of this work. This can be accomplished through sincere, consistent meditation.
“Beyond body, breath and mind lies silence. From silence emanates peace, happiness and bliss. The meditator makes that silence his or her personal abode; that is the final goal of meditation.”
Contact: Lynn Fraser firstname.lastname@example.org