The Art of Meditation by Alan Watts
Alan Watts talks about the art of meditation and why it is important to practice it, especially in the civilized world.
Most traditions require a regular practice in order to progress, to get ahead. On the other hand, there are traditions in which no regular practice is required and people do fine, so I can’t say it is necessary. But I certainly find it useful, and I encourage other people to do it.
Regularly practicing meditation, even when you don’t feel like it, will help you see how your thoughts impose limits and color your existence. Resistances to meditation are your mental prisons in miniature.
It’s delicate, because you have to practice from the place of really remembering why you’re doing it, with some joy and appreciation. If you go into it with, “Oh, I gotta do my practice,” the practice will eventually clean that resistance out of you, but I don’t necessarily feel that’s a good thing. That’s what happens to people when they have to go to church every Sunday. I would rather push you away from spiritual practices until you’re so hungry for them that you really want to do a practice, rather than give you a sense that you ought to do the practice or that you’re a bad person if you don’t do it, because you will end up hating the whole business. In the long run I don’t think it will be good for you. Spiritual practice is wonderful if you want to do it. And if you don’t, don’t.
There are many different forms of meditation from a host of spiritual traditions. I will share with you some of the methods that have been most effective for me over the years. They include Vipassana (or insight) meditation from the Southern Buddhist tradition, mantra from Hindu bhakti devotional practice (including how to practice mantra with a mala, or rosary), and guru kripa (grace of the guru) meditation.
Remember the story of a Westerner arriving at the ashram in India and asking Maharaj-ji how to meditate? Maharaj-ji became quiet and closed his eyes. After a few moments, a tear trickled down his cheek, and he said, “Meditate the way Christ meditated. He lost himself in Love. Christ lives in the hearts of all beings. He never died. He never died.” Lose yourself in love.
“When you are with someone you love very much,
you can talk and it is pleasant, but the reality 176
is not in the conversation.
It is simply in being together.
Meditation is the highest form of prayer.
In it you are so close to God that you don’t need to say a thing
It’s just great to be together.”
Vipassana, or insight meditation, is a fundamental Buddhist meditation, drawn from Southern Buddhism. The focus or primary object of this meditation is the breath, and the beginning practice is just following the breath. Concentration on the breath is called anapanna, and it is just bringing you right here, now, through the breath. Everyone breathes. We all have our individual differences but we are all breathing in and breathing out.
Sit comfortably, with your body as straight as is comfortable, your head, neck, and chest aligned. Take two or three intentional slow, deep breaths, and close your eyes.
Focus on your breath going in and your breath coming out. Two ways you can do this are: By focusing on the muscle in the solar plexus, which every time you breathe in, moves in one direction, and every time you breathe out, moves in another direction rising, falling, rising, falling. And also by focusing on the inside of your nostrils at the tip of your nose as the air goes by, you will feel a slight whisper of air on the in breath, and as the air goes out, you will feel a slight whisper of air on the out breath.
Use whichever of those two spots is easiest for you to do. Pick one focus, either the rising and falling of the muscle in your abdomen or the air going by the tip of your nose, and stay with it for a period of at least fifteen minutes.
You are like a gatekeeper at the gate. Cars go in and cars go out. You don’t need to see where they go. You just notice the breath going in, breathing in, and the breath going out, breathing out. Your job is solely to focus your awareness on your primary object of the breath in the gentlest way possible.
Your awareness is going to wander; it is going to be grabbed by many stray thoughts. You’ll sit down and you’ll say, “Breathing in, breathing out,” or “Rising, falling.” Then the thought will come, “This will never work.” Now you can either take that thought, “This will never work,” and immediately go off on another train of thought, and even though you have instructions to follow, you just ignore them and then the meditation time is over. That’s okay. Or at some point when you get tired of that, you can say, “Gee, all I was going to do for these fifteen minutes was watch my breath.” This is just another thought. “Maybe I’ll just let it go, and I’ll go back to watching my breath.” See, that’s a strategy for gently bringing your mind back to the breath, for coming back to your awareness.
The art is to not get violent with your other thoughts. Don’t try to push them away. Don’t feel guilty because you are thinking them. They’re just thoughts. Very gently, again and again, simply bring your awareness back to the primary object of meditation: breathing in, breathing out. Just keep coming back to the focus of your meditation, back to the breath, back to awareness of the breath.
Whether your breathing gets fast or slow doesn’t matter; just notice it. Don’t try to change it, but just notice it. You are merely remaining aware, the gatekeeper watching the gate open and close. Any sounds, smells, or sensations, just let them come and let them go and bring your awareness back to either rising and falling or breathing in and breathing out.
If your mind wanders, just notice it, then very gently bring it back to breathing in and breathing out or rising and falling. Wherever your mind is now, just notice where it is and very gently bring it back to rising and falling or breathing in and breathing out. If it helps to think to yourself, “breathing in, breathing out,” with each breath, that is perfectly okay. If it helps to count breaths, try counting to ten, counting each in and out breath cycle as one, and then start over. If your mind wanders off in the middle, start over. Sometimes it can be really hard to get to ten! But don’t judge yourself, don’t get frustrated, there’s no success or failure, only your awareness of the breath.
All the sounds, everything that comes into your ears, just notice them as more thoughts and come back to your breath. There is nothing you need to think about now other than breathing in and breathing out or rising and falling.
Notice the shape and form as the breath goes by – the beginning, middle, and end of the in breath; the space in between; the beginning, middle, and end of the out breath; and again the space.
If you experience agitation or confusion or boredom or bliss or anything, just see it as another thought. Notice it and bring your awareness back to rising and falling or breathing in and breathing out.
If you begin to doze, take a few deep intentional breaths. Rising and falling or breathing in and breathing out. All the feelings in your body – the sounds, the sensations, the tastes, the smells, the sights – just notice them coming and going and bring your awareness back to the primary object of meditation.
Firm your seat, head straight, rising and falling or breathing in and breathing out. If you are getting to the end of your sit, use these last minutes consciously. There is no beginning and no end. Every breath is the first and last.
Gently but firmly each time your mind wanders bring it back to rising and falling or breathing in and breathing out. Be vigilant but gentle. Bring the awareness back to the basic primary object of meditation, basic attention to the breath.
If your mind becomes agitated in the course of the day bring it back to the breath, rising and falling, breathing in and breathing out.
Meditation on the Guru
Imagine a realized being standing before you, someone to whom you feel particularly attuned, such as Christ, Mary, Mohammad, Ram, Hanuman, Anandamayi Ma, or your guru. This being is radiant, luminous, with eyes that are filled with compassion. You feel this being radiating the wisdom that comes from an intimate harmony with the universe.
It is just so incredibly gentle and beautiful to start a dialogue of love with a being who is love. Sit in your meditation area and gaze at a picture of a being whose love is pure, whose love reflects the light of God. Experience that love flowing back and forth between you and the picture. Just open yourself and surrender.
See yourself reflected in those compassionate, non-judging eyes, and allow yourself to open more and more. This is your Beloved. Sit before this being, or imagine such a being sitting in your heart. Just be with that being and return the love. Despite all of the impurities to which you cling, despite all your feelings of unworthiness, such a being loves you unconditionally. It’s OK to carry on imaginary conversations with this being; the exchange opens you to compassion, tranquility, warmth, patience – to all the qualities of a free being.
This interpersonal quality of devotional meditation allows you to start from your psychological need to love and to be loved and to bring it into the presence of wisdom, compassion, and peace. When you are with a being who embodies these qualities, they rub off, and you feel more evolved, even to the point of recognizing the radiant light within yourself. Acknowledging your own beauty allows you to open even more to the Beloved, until finally the lover and Beloved merge, and you find that what you had seen outwardly as perfection in your Beloved is a mirror of your own inner beauty.
Ultimately you become that kind of love. You’re living in that space and don’t need anybody to turn you on to love because you are it, and everybody that comes near you drinks of it. And as you become more and more the statement of love, you fall into love with everyone.
A mantra is a repeated prayer, words, a holy name, or a sacred sound or sounds. It’s like a tape loop going on inside that reminds me of who I am. It’s like a niche in the wall where the candle flame never flickers. It always brings me right back into to my heart, into the eternal present.
A mantra can be a name or names of God, in Sanskrit or English or Spanish or whatever language you know. It is usually recited silently in the mind, though at times you may want to say it aloud or sub-vocally, still keeping it internalized and without intruding on other people’s psychic space. Sanskrit is interesting because it is based on seed syllables, or bij mantras, that set up vibrational fields through sound. They work even when recited silently, reverberating within.
Some mantras are more conceptual. All mantra works by repetition. Practiced consistently, mantra has the ability to steady the mind and transform consciousness. Mantra should be repeated frequently. It can be repeated any time, any place – when you’re walking, taking a shower, washing the dishes, waiting in line for the movies.
In Buddhism, the word “mantra” means “mind protecting.” A mantra protects the mind by preventing it from going into its usual mechanical habits, which often are not our optimal conscious perspective. Mantra is a powerful spiritual practice for centering and for letting go of strong emotions, such as fear, anxiety, and anger. The more you practice mantra, the more it becomes a part of you. When you need it on the psychological level – for example, when you feel afraid – using your witness, you notice the fear and replace the fear with your mantra. This will occur naturally once mantra becomes an established practice. Mantra is a daily reminder of the presence of the Divine within ourselves and in the universe.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The mantra becomes one’s staff of life and carries one through every ordeal. It is no empty repetition. For each repetition has a new meaning, carrying you nearer and nearer to God.”
Keep repeating your mantra consciously until it becomes a strong habit. Go for a walk and say the mantra all the time you are walking. Notice everything but keep the mantra going. Keep realizing that being with God is your focus – and therefore everything you see is part of God.
Maharaj-ji said, “The best form in which to worship God is in all forms.” Everyone you meet is Ram, who has come to teach you something. Mantra is remembering that place in the heart. Ram, Ram, Ram. Say it, mouth it, think it, feel it in your heart. You are continually meeting the Beloved and merging into perfection.
The Divine is present in the soul of all living beings and throughout the universe. God has been called by different names in different ages, countries, and religions. According to the Hindu view, an avatar is an incarnation of divine consciousness in human form. An avatar takes birth at a time when spiritual teaching is needed to establish new pathways for realization. Ram, Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus are all avatars in the Hindu view. Their names evoke divine power and are often used in mantra.
Once you choose a mantra and establish a practice, it is a good idea not to change mantras too much. If you stick with the same mantra, the practice will become deeper. Following are some mantras; you can select one that feels right for you or find one from a tradition that feels comfortable to you. Use whatever name you associate with the Divine.
My guru, Neem Karoli Baba, used Ram, and he often could be seen mouthing, “Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram . . .” Ram (or Rama) in the Ramayana is a being of great light, love, compassion, wisdom, and power, who lives in perfect harmony with the dharma, the One. Ram is the essence of who you are when you realize your true Self, the Atman.
Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai, Jai, Ram (“Beloved Ram, I honor you”)
If you use Ram when you meditate, say/think/feel Ram on the out breath. The out breath is the breath you will experience at the end of your life. Associate it with love, mercy, compassion, bliss, letting go. Train yourself into this Ram mind.
Another option is the maha-mantra (“great mantra”) to both Krishna and Ram:
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna,
Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare.
Hare Rama, Hare Rama,
Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare
Krishna represents many aspects of human love: parental love, romantic love, and love between friends. His instructions to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita are a complete teaching on living life as a spiritual practice.
Om is a sacred sound mantra, one of the bij (seed) syllables mentioned earlier, sometimes called the sound of the universe. It’s very primordial – think, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God.”
Om Namah Shivaya (“I bow to Shiva.”)
Other mantras from Buddhism are:
Om mani padme hum (“I bow to the jewel in the lotus of the heart.”)
Om Tare Tu Tare Ture Swaha (“to the Mother in the form of Tara.”)
A mantra from the Greek Christian tradition, in the Philokalia:
Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Mantra can be practiced with a mala, a string of prayer beads. In the West, a mala is commonly called a rosary. A mala has 108 beads, plus a larger guru bead. A wrist mala has 27, 36, or 54 beads, plus a guru bead. All of these numbers – 108, 54, 36, and 27 – are sacred numbers in numerology, with digits that add up to nine. The mala is an external aid to doing mantra. You recite the mantra as you pass the beads through your fingers. The feeling of the beads moving through your fingers is a wonderful centering device.
In the traditional way I was taught to use a mala, you use your right hand, passing each bead between the thumb and the third finger, bead by bead, moving the beads toward you. With each bead repeat the name of Ram, or whatever your mantra is. Proceed to the guru bead, pause, and bring your guru or teacher to mind. Then turn the beads around and go the other way. Do not complete the circle. That helps you mark each cycle of 108.
Swami Ramdas, a devout Indian saint of the last century whose life revolved around listening to the will of Ram to guide his every activity, tells us, referring to mantra and kirtan (devotional chanting), “People do not know what the Name of God can do. Those who repeat it constantly alone know its power. It can purify our mind completely. . . . The Name can take us to the summit of spiritual experience.”
EXCERPTED FROM Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart by Ram Dass. Copyright © 2013 by the Love Serve Remember Foundation. Published by Sounds True.