In this article, Swami Asokananda reflects upon the journey that took him from novice meditator to one of Integral Yoga’s master teachers. He shares the challenges and triumphs of having a regular meditation practice, as well as the insights and wisdom he gained on the way to his cushion three times a day.
I’m often asked, “How can I deepen my meditation?” My answer is, “You have to first make sure you’re enjoying your practice.” If you don’t enjoy your practice and you’re determined to practice through willpower, then, to make yourself do something you don’t enjoy, there are only two basic options: the carrot or the stick. You have to either bribe yourself to meditate or you have to punish yourself. I don’t think either approach really works in the long term. The moment you stop the carrot or stick you will fall back because, in truth, you don’t really want to do it—you haven’t trained yourself to enjoy it. The people who stick with their practice and make good progress are those who have found a way to make up for this motivational shortfall of wanting to do something that you don’t feel like doing without resorting to the rewards and punishments.
For me, there is no other way but learning to find enjoyment in the meditation itself. The practice should provide inherent satisfaction. If not, there’s a danger of it becoming rote and mechanical, and not taking us very deep. So, I’ll share with you a three-part process that I utilize that I learned from Sri Gurudev Swami Satchidananda, and that has enabled me to look forward to my meditation practice.
Stage 1: Preparing for Dharana
Sri Gurudev taught us that, before we try to focus the mind, it is helpful to let the mind run around a bit while we learn to keep an eye on it. So, the first thing is to give the mind some space to do its own thing. Rather than handing the mind an object of meditation right away, allow it have some time to let things percolate up, and see if you can be an observer of what’s coming up. I allot about seven minutes of a 30-minute session to this phase. I discovered that first there arises what I refer to as “miscellaneous nonsense”—snippets of songs or random thoughts. But if I can stay as an observer, often deeper, unprocessed life experiences will begin to surface from the subconscious mind.
If I make these thoughts the enemy, grit my teeth and grumble, “Get out of here. You’re bad news. I’m trying to meditate,” I am unnecessarily creating a powerful foe. Life is hard enough; we don’t need to make our meditation practice one more difficult and frustrating battle! If you have the capacity to stop the vrittis without suppressing them, more power to you. But I don’t know if even saints can just stop the mind. In Stage 1, our job is to know if thoughts are arising. Someone should be aware! “Hello, is anyone home?”
Stage 2: Dharana
If I am able to remain a wakeful observer, often the mind itself will begin to slow down. It will come to me and say, “Hey, give me something to do.” Then the second stage or dharana—to which I dedicate about 16 minutes—can begin. Now we give the mind a technique. Take your time to choose well, experimenting, or “dating” different techniques. Your technique is considered your Ishta Devata. Ishta means your beloved. Devata means the Light. Ishta Devata is the way your heart naturally gravitates toward the Light. Ideally, you want to fall in love with whatever technique you use—whether it’s a mantra, image or the breath. Sri Gurudev has said the best practice—the most powerful way to rein in the mind—is repetition of the sacred Sanskrit sound vibrations. That’s what I use.
In Stage 2, my job is to put my heart into the mantra and know if something other than the mantra is going on in my mind. The way I do that is that after each mantra repetition I’ll take a microsecond pause to check if I am focused on the mantra or if the mind has wandered into thoughts. I’m checking in to see who is overseeing my practice at the moment, an awake consciousness or the subconscious impressions. It is not difficult for the mind to repeat a mantra and think. Again, as in Stage 1, I’m not interested in making an enemy out of the thoughts, but I feel that I am responsible for being aware of them. This nano check-in takes a bit of effort and practice, but I feel it helps transform me into a conscious entity.
Where it gets really interesting is that the check-in can also be subsumed by the subconscious mind! It is designed to take over any function or activity that is done on a continual basis. So we have to remain alert as to whether we are really checking in or if it is a pseudo check-in.
Stage 3: Preparing for Dhyana
If I’ve done the first two stages well—if I’ve been a non-judging observer, if I’ve put my heart into dharana—then the mind may naturally move into this third stage. Now I am no longer encouraging thoughts, as in Stage 1. And I am no longer giving the mind a technique, as in Stage 2. In Stages 1 and 2, we are knocking at the door. In Stage 3, we are invited in. It makes no sense to keep knocking at the door at this point. We can enter the house as a pure witnessing awareness.
Whereas in Stages 1 and 2, I’m interested in following when the mind is thinking and what it’s thinking about, in Stage 3 I’m more interested in who is thinking. In Sanskrit, this thinker is called ahamkara, the I-maker. This individual ego is generating the vrittis. Ahamkara uses the vrittis to keep creating Swami Asokananda, projecting his story and keeping him bound in a small circle of awareness. Going after the vrittis won’t end up accomplishing much. There’s plenty more where they came from! If we’re going to move beyond the mind, we need to go deeper, to the root of the problem.
How to get to the root? The small “I” is a contraction of Consciousness—a drop in the Infinite Ocean. The goal of Stage 3 is to relax this contraction so that the membrane that separates the drop from the ocean becomes more permeable. Some force is holding this membrane together and it is difficult to know how to dissolve or get around it. Even our attempt to dissolve it often reinforces the integrity of these walls.
So, what I do is a kind of mental aikido. A thought is made up of two components: prana and some content. In Stage 3, I drop the content and I use the energy of the thought as a solvent to dissolve the membrane of the “drop-ness” and relax into the ocean of the Self.
This may sound good on paper, but how does one go about extracting the energy of thought and use it to dissolve the sense of separation? First, you have to truly understand that the voice in your head is not you. “You” are the one performing the operation; you can’t do this if you think you’re the patient. If we have done the first two stages sincerely, this level of detachment has awakened in us, at least to some degree. Then, with the scalpel of a slight movement of our intention, we extract the prana from the vritti. And then we can allow the prana to take care of the rest. Why can we leave it in the hands of the prana? Because prana naturally wants to expand beyond limitation; it is the nature of prana to expand and to merge with the Whole.
In Stage 3, we are trying to be more of a human being and less of a human doing. It is less about technique and more about resting in what is. In Stage 3, we are releasing the illusion of limiting boundaries. Whereas in Stage 1 it was more a part of the mind watching the mind, in Stage 3 it is the real Witness that observes the mind.
I’ve described to you the process that I have developed that allows me to love my practice. It is the responsibility of each seeker to find the way to fall in love with and enjoy their practice enough to want to be there consistently. By enjoying our practice I mean practicing in such a way that we are not waiting for it to end so that we can do what we really want to do. It is through such enjoyment that we will find ourselves naturally going deeper.
Personally, my mind enjoys the variety of the three stages. I find that it’s more fun than just sitting and repeating a mantra for the entire meditation. I like that it includes periods for focusing and witnessing. Often these approaches are considered two distinct schools or approaches to meditation, and we are supposed to choose one. Gurudev didn’t present it that way. He suggested that we allow the mind some time to run around, gather it to one point with a technique that we love, and then allow that focus to lead us into a witnessing consciousness. At least for me, this way of practicing gets me happily to my meditation cushion three times a day.
About the Author:
Swami Asokananda, a monk since 1973, is one of Integral Yoga’s foremost teachers, known for his warmth, insight and good humor. His teaching comes out of his own practice and experience, having absorbed the wisdom of his Guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda, since the age of nineteen. While he enjoys sharing the practical wisdom of the yogic philosophy (especially the great Indian scripture, the Bhagavad Gita), he also loves his practice of Hatha Yoga and is one of the primary instructors for Intermediate and Advanced Hatha Yoga Teacher Training. In the past, he has served as the president of Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville and he currently serves as president of the New York Integral Yoga Institute.