Infinite Peace: A Meditator’s Guide to Mind and Consciousness

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When I lived in California long ago, I loved
to trek through the Sierra Nevada mountains, where I could hike for days without seeing
a single car or building. Miles of winding trails led to spectacular
views of towering peaks, lovely valleys teeming with wildflowers, and shimmering, crystal
clear lakes. Each day I looked forward to hiking further,
to see the next dramatic vista, and the next, and the next. My practice of meditation resembles those
wonderful backpacking trips in a way. Every morning, I’m eager to sit down, close
my eyes, and explore the vast terrain that lies within me, in my mind. In four decades of daily practice, my enthusiasm
for meditation has never waned, because there’s so much to be discovered. Some people find meditation boring. I’d get bored, too, if my attention was always
rigidly fixed on all the details of the techniques I was practicing. But to focus merely on techniques is like
walking through the mountains with your gaze fixed on your feet and the patch of dusty
ground just in front of you. The whole point of hiking in the mountains
isn’t to simply put one foot in front of the other; it’s to explore the exhilarating heights
and to enjoy the splendid views. Your feet are instruments for travel, and
in the same way, meditation techniques are instruments for inner exploration. Using those techniques properly, meditation
can be a journey of discovery that leads to profound, life-changing insights, insights
about yourself, about the world, and about the ultimate source of all that exists. Meditation can also help you cultivate inner
peace and lasting contentment. To make your meditation practice more effective
and rewarding, I’d like to share with you a number of important insights that can help
you more clearly understand the intricate wonders of your mind and the light of pure
consciousness that illumines it. These explanations will be based mostly on
the wisdom of the rishis, the sages of ancient India, as taught in the famous Yoga Sutras
and in the remarkable texts of Advaita Vedanta. I’ll also draw upon modern psychology and
neuroscience, in addition to my own personal experience. When I trekked through the mountains, I always
brought a map. With its help, I could find the best routes
and avoid getting lost on the crisscrossing trails. This presentation is a bit like a map because
it can guide your practice of meditation and help you navigate the complex but marvelous
landscape of your own mind. When you close your eyes to meditate, you
metaphorically set foot on the landscape of your mind. Instead of seeing trees and mountain lakes,
you’re likely to observe stray sounds, occasional itches, and some discomfort in your legs and
buttocks. Sensations like these are common features
of your mental terrain. You’re also likely to encounter a multitude
of thoughts flowing across the landscape of your mind like a mountain stream rushing down
a steep valley. If you get swept up in that swirling stream
of thoughts, meditation is impossible. Instead, you’ll be immersed in thinking about
problems at home, deadlines at work, health issues, financial issues, and so on. To attempt to cross a rushing river isn’t
a reasonable strategy, but suppose you could trace the river up to the top of the valley
where it’s just a small trickle of water. To cross a little trickle is easy. In the same way, to effectively manage the
surging flow of thoughts in your mind, it’s helpful to trace them back to their source,
to discover their origin. That’s why it’s so important to become intimately
familiar with the landscape of your mind and all its intricate features. For example, have you ever noticed that most
of your thoughts are in the form of words and sentences?? When you see a little kitten, your thoughts
will probably include two words, kitten and cute. When you’re planning your day, a complete
sentence might arise in your mind, like “What should we have for dinner tonight?” And when an aggressive driver cuts you off,
a single word might pop into in your mind, maybe a word we can’t use here. To think in words and sentences is called
verbal thinking, and, it’s one of the most common features of your mental terrain. Not all kinds of thinking are verbal. An artist might think in shapes and colors. A mathematician might think in equations. And a musician might think in melodies and
rhythms. But for most of us, it’s verbal thinking that
dominates our minds. And that’s not surprising because we are intensely
verbal creatures. All day long, we talk, listen, read, watch
TV, browse the internet, deal with emails, texts, and so on. Language occupies our minds so much that verbal
thinking becomes habitual, deeply ingrained. So, it’s no surprise that verbal thinking
can stubbornly persist when you try to meditate. So, what can help stop that relentless flow
of words? When I trekked in the mountains, my mind was
completely engrossed in verbal thinking at the beginning of each trip. But after a day or two on the trail, something
surprising happened – all that verbal thinking suddenly stopped. And when it stopped, my experience of nature
seemed dramatically transformed. My senses seemed sharper somehow and everything
looked more vivid. I distinctly perceived the coarse texture
of tree trunks, the individual song of each chirping bird, and the sun’s warmth on my
skin. I realized how verbal thinking had dulled
my experience of nature, as if I had been peering out through a thick veil of words
that covered me like a heavy blanket. When that veil of words suddenly lifted, I
experienced nature more directly, without words and sentences coming in the the way. What was it that made my verbal thinking stop
so abruptly? A radical shift had taken place in my mind,
a shift from thinking to observing, a shift from words and sentences to physical sensations,
a shift from complicated language to simple awareness. This shift occurred when the stunning beauty
of the mountains managed to draw my attention away from all the verbal chatter in my mind
and towards the wonderful sights, sounds, and smells all around me. This particular experience isn’t necessary
for meditation, but it does point to a powerful technique that you can use to bring verbal
thinking to a complete stop. The technique is to focus your attention on
what you perceive with your senses, and to learn how to observe those sensations without
using words. To shift from words to sensations, from thinking
to observing, is the basis for an important practice known as mindfulness meditation. It’s also called vipassana by Buddhist practitioners,
and in Sanskrit, it’s known as sakshi bhava, the state of being a witness. To practice mindfulness meditation, you can
begin by turning your attention to observe whatever physical sensations that happen to
occur in your body. For example, you can observe the firmness
of the floor beneath your feet and the weight of your body pressing down on the cushion. You can observe the touch of clothing on your
skin and the sense of pressure, warmth or coolness anywhere in your body. You might also observe some discomfort in
your joints or itchiness of your skin. The key to mindfulness meditation is to observe
each and every one of these sensations without making any mental comments about them. All these sensations appear on the landscape
of your mind like the trees and birds I saw in the mountains. After my verbal thinking stopped, I could
look at birds without naming them as sparrows or jays or hawks. I could observe each bird without making mental
comments about its color, its song, or the way it flies. In this way, for mindfulness meditation, you
have to learn how to observe sensations in your body without naming them or making mental
comments about them. For example, you might react to pain in your
knee with the verbal thought, “Oh, my knee hurts” But, you can develop the ability to
observe that pain without using words. You can simply perceive the sensation in your
knee without naming it as pain, without pinpointing its location, without classifying the pain
as being sharp or dull, and without evaluating how strong or weak it is. If you find yourself using words to describe
your sensations, you can gently remind yourself to drop those verbal descriptions and return
to simple, wordless observation of any and all sensations that appear on the landscape
of your mind. It’s also important to learn how to observe
sensations without making judgments about them. We often judge sensations to be desirable
or undesirable, pleasant or unpleasant, like when you smell the fragrance of a flower or
the stink of rotting garbage. But, making mental judgments about what you
perceive during meditation will immediately plunge you back into verbal thinking. Suppose you hear your neighbor’s dog barking
outside, while you’re trying to meditate. You might judge that noise to be an irritating
distraction. And that judgment might lead you to reflect
on how unfortunate it is to have annoying dog living next door. Next, you’ll start complaining about your
equally annoying neighbor, and his boisterous parties, and his blaring stereo system, and
so on. So much for meditation! The fact is, making a negative judgment about
the barking actually empowers it to bother you even more. But, what if you could hear the barking without
making a judgment about it? Suppose you considered it to be just a fleeting
sound, a mere passing sensation like a little itch or the touch of your clothing. Then, it wouldn’t bother you at all. Sounds and other sensations can distract you
only when you judge them to be undesirable. In the famous scripture, Bhagavad Gita, Sri
Krishna gives a similar message to Arjuna, the mighty warrior, who faces a horrendous
situation on the battlefield. There, Sri Krishna says, dhananjaya, O Arjuna,
samatvam yoga ucyate, yoga is equanimity, yoga is tolerance, forbearance, and acceptance
of things that can’t be changed, things beyond your control. Yogasthah, establish yourself in this yoga
of equanimity, kuru karmani, and fulfill all your duties, sangam tyaktva, without attachment
to the results of your work, without thinking in terms of good and bad. Siddhyasiddhyoh, whether your actions are
successful or end in failure, samo bhutva, look upon their results with equanimity, without
judging them to be desirable or undesirable. The message of this verse is important, not
only for meditation, but for life in general. Suppose you lost your cell phone. What can you do? Whining and grumbling about the loss won’t
bring your phone back, but it will ruin your day. Wouldn’t it be better to accept your loss
without fussing about it and get a new phone? In the same way, when you try to meditate
and you’re constantly distracted, what can you do? Complaining about distractions will only make
them worse. Instead, you can learn to accept the inevitability
of distractions. You can learn how to treat them as being small
and insignificant. In this way, you can cultivate equanimity
which will help protect your mind from being dragged back into verbal thinking again and
again. Another powerful technique used in mindfulness
meditation is to observe your breathing. This practice is called prana-vikshana in
Sanskrit, and it’s known to Buddhist practitioners as anapana-sati. To observe your breath is to mentally trace
the passage of air as it enters your nostrils, as it travels down your windpipe, and as it
fills your lungs. Then when you exhale, you mentally trace the
passage of air as it leaves your lungs, traveling up your windpipe and escaping through your
nostrils. You can also observe how your belly and chest
expand with each inhalation and how they slowly contract with each exhalation. In addition to this, you can observe the faint
sensations inside your nostrils due to the movement of air. As you inhale, you can notice how the air
of the room feels cool and dry compared to the air exhaled from your lungs that feels
warm and moist. Focusing your attention on your breath in
all these ways helps you remain as the observer of sensations rather than as the thinker of
thoughts. Observing your breath also helps to keep your
attention fixed on what’s happening in the present moment. Verbal thinking often drags your mind back
into the past or pulls it into the future. On the first day of each backpacking trip,
my mind was totally preoccupied with problems of the past week and with making plans for
after my return. I was so busy thinking about the past and
future, that I couldn’t fully enjoy the splendor of the mountains in the present moment. The same can happen during meditation. Your mind can be drawn into the past by emotionally
charged memories or into the future by worries about what lies ahead. Fortunately, observing your breath can anchor
you firmly in the present moment because each breath takes takes place only now, in the
present, not in the past or future. In mindfulness meditation, it’s essential
to remain watchful or attentive to whatever’s happening in each and every moment. Psychologists studying this practice made
an interesting discovery. When you first enter a room where a clock
is ticking loudly, you’ll notice its sound immediately. But after a while, you won’t seem to hear
it at all. Psychologists already knew that repetitive
sounds are quickly ignored by our brains. But, when they measured the brain waves of
experienced meditators, they discovered something unusual. Throughout each meditation session, meditators
continued to pay attention to every tick of a nearby clock. They remained completely vigilant, constantly
alert to whatever appeared on the landscape of their minds in every single moment. If you’re not as skillful as those meditators,
it might still be a struggle to keep your mind from being swept away by a rushing river
of words and thoughts again and again. Verbal thinking has the power to forcefully
push its way into your mind. And that’s not surprising because there’s
a lot that you really need to think about. You have a complicated life with lots of unresolved
problems and pressing issues. So, it’s only natural for those problems and
issues to pop up in your mind, even during meditation. Many hours of practice are often needed to
overcome verbal thinking. It’s really important to note that meditation
is a learned skill. It takes time and practice to master any new
skill. So, to become proficient in mindfulness meditation,
here’s the basic practice: each and every time your mind gets drawn back into verbal
thinking, make a mental note that this happened, and then, gently bring your attention back
to your sensations and breath. You may need to do this many times, even in
a single meditation session, but eventually, you’ll learn how to avoid verbal thinking
and how to keep your attention fixed in the present moment. Until you completely master this skill, there
are two techniques that can help you in the meanwhile. The first is to deal with verbal thinking
proactively, at the beginning of each meditation session, by making a sankalpa, a mental resolution. Here’s an example of a sankalpa. “OK mind, I’m going to meditate now. I know you’re really concerned about several
problems I haven’t addressed yet, but I’m only going to meditate for 20 minutes. For these few minutes, you can certainly afford
to set aside your worries. As soon as I’m done meditating, I’ll address
those unresolved problems.” With a sankalpa like this, you give your mind
permission to set aside its concerns, just for the duration of meditation. You might be pleasantly surprised at how well
this works to minimize verbal thinking. But sometimes, no matter how hard you try,
verbal thinking stubbornly persists. For those times, there’s another technique
you can use. Instead of observing your sensations and breath,
you can observe your thoughts. Now, observing your thoughts not the same
as thinking your thoughts. To observe your thoughts, you have to separate
or detach yourself from your mind’s activities and watch your thoughts from a distance, so
to speak. It’s helpful to imagine your thoughts to be
like clouds in the sky, drifting across the landscape of your mind. In this practice, it’s important to avoid
judging your thoughts to be undesirable or trying to push them away. You simply have to watch them, without getting
involved, passively, like a disinterested observer or an impartial witness. To do this, it’s often helpful to use a clever
technique commonly known as labeling. Suppose you want to organize a cabinet of
office supplies and make separate labels for each item – pens, pencils, note pads, etcetera. Just like you label items on a shelf, you
can mentally label the thoughts in your mind. You can categorize your thoughts according
to their content. For example, when a memory arises, you can
identify it as a memory. When worries about the future or various emotions
arise, you can classify them likewise. Your categories can include planning, problem
solving, daydreaming, any categories you want. Suppose you want to make a label for some
notepads. You don’t need to recall where you bought
the notepads or wonder if other colors are available. You simply have to write out the label. In the same way, when memories, worries, or
emotions arise, you don’t need to recall their associated events or wonder about them in
any way. You simply have to label them. Also, your label for notepads will only say,
“notepads,” it won’t specify the color, size or shape of those notepads. In the same way, when you label your thoughts,
you need not make any mental comments about them; you just categorize them. That’s the key to the labeling technique,
and that’s the basic principle of mindfulness meditation: to observe whatever appears on
the landscape of your mind without making mental comments about it. So far, we’ve been exploring the landscape
of your mind from the perspective of a visitor, an observer who views mental features like
thoughts, emotions, and sensations. But, your mind isn’t a distant thing or place
like mountains in California. Unlike those mountains, you have control over
your mind. You can’t change the peaks and valleys, but
you can change your thoughts. So from another perspective, you can also
think of your mind as a garden. A gardener not only observes the plants and
flowers in her garden, but she can also plant new seedlings, she can sow little seeds, she
can pull up weeds and trim the bushes. In a similar way, you are not merely the observer
of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. You can also direct your mind’s activities,
you can shape your mental landscape, you can cultivate the garden of your mind. To use a well-known metaphor, you can plant
lovely flowers in the garden of your mind, or you can allow noxious weeds to overtake
its beauty. But the point here is, like a gardener is
the master of her garden, you are the master of your mind. You have a great degree of control over your
mind. Based on this perspective, we’re going to
examine some meditation practices that are distinctly different from mindfulness meditation. In these practices, instead of passively observing
your mind, you have to deliberately and willfully direct its activities. In particular, you have to narrowly concentrate
your attention on a chosen object of meditation and restrain your mind from doing anything
else. This is the practice taught by the great Indian
sage, Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, a 2500 year old collection of Sanskrit aphorisms. His text is the basis for most of the meditation
practices that developed in ancient India. You may know that the word yoga is related
to the English word, yoke. For this reason, many modern teachers define
yoga as union, union with God or with your higher nature. But, the words yoga and yoke have another
important meaning as well. A yoke is used not only to unite an animal
with a plow or cart. It’s also used to guide or steer that animal
by means of ropes attached to each side of the yoke. A yoke is essential for controlling the animal’s
movement. If you carefully study the Yoga Sutras and
their commentaries, you’ll find that the word yoga doesn’t mean union there. It means control, specifically, control of
your mind. The Yoga Sutras teach you how to train or
discipline your mind and how to concentrate your attention. The goal of this yogic practice is to reach
samadhi, which is a profound state of absorption that we’ll discuss later. In the Yoga Sutras, Pantanjali defines meditation
like this: dhyanam, meditation, pratyaya-ekatanata, is
the continual flow of identical thoughts, tatra, there, directed towards the object
of meditation. Before we discuss this flow of identical thoughts,
let’s first consider the object on which your attention is to be focused. That object is called alambana in Sanskrit,
which literally means a support. There are many alambanas that can be used
to support your practice. Like a gardener chooses suitable plants for
her garden, you can choose a suitable object to meditate upon. You can meditate on a candle flame, or a special
sound like om, or a traditional mantra like om namah shivaya. You can meditate on a deity placed on an altar,
or on a sacred image visualized in your mind. In each case, your attention is to be narrowly
focused on your chosen object of meditation, on the alambana. Much of the time, your attention isn’t narrowly
focused. It’s often wide open or broad like this beam
of light. A wide scope of attention allows you to be
aware of many things simultaneously, which is important in situations like when you’re
driving a car. But in yogic meditation, you have to narrow
the scope of your attention and restrict it to the alambana alone, like a tightly focused
beam of light that illumines one and only one thing. If you develop and strengthen this ability
to narrowly focus your attention, it can become extremely powerful. For example, the light shining on me right
now has about 200 watts of power. Suppose this light was concentrated into a
slender beam of incredibly intense light, like the beam of a laser. A 200 watt laser beam can cut through metal
and would burn a hole in my body. The ability to narrowly concentrate your attention
is a learned skill, like the skill required for mindfulness meditation. Developing this skill is simply a matter of
time and practice. In chapter six of the Bhagavad Gita, Shri
Krishna teaches Arjuna to meditate, and says, manas, your mind, which is cancalam, constantly
moving about, and asthiram, unsteady, erratic, nishcalati, it wanders, it strays or runs
about, yato yato in many directions, to many different places. In just an instant, your mind can wander off
to California, to India, even to the planets and stars. Therefore, niyamya, having restrained, having
brought your mind back, tatas tato, from wherever it has wandered, vasham nayet, you must forcefully
lead, etat, this, your mind, atmani eva, back to yourself, back to the alambana, your chosen
object of meditation. If your attention wanders off dozens of times
during a single meditation session, it’s OK as long as you gently bring it back to your
alambana each and every time. That’s how you train your mind. It’s a bit like caring for a hyperactive toddler
who wants to crawl off in every direction. You can train a child not to wander away by
repeatedly bringing him back. The same holds true for your mind. Note that the goal of yogic meditation isn’t
to simply make your mind silent, completely free of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. As we saw before, Patanjali defines meditation
as a continual flow of thoughts, a flow of identical thoughts, thoughts directed towards
your alambana. What does that mean? Well, if you’re meditating on the sound, om,
each om-thought is followed by another. If you’re meditating on a mantra, each mental
repetition of mantra is followed by another. And if you’re meditating on a sacred image,
each mental impression of the image is followed by another. That means, focusing your attention on the
alambana actually engages your mind in constant activity, not in silence. But, this activity is utterly unlike those
that usually occupy your mind. Normally, your thoughts form a chain or sequence,
proceeding from one to the next. Each thought is followed by a different but
related thought through a process that psychologists call associative thinking. That series of related thoughts might be deliberate,
like when you’re scheduling a meeting at work. Or, the series of thoughts might not be deliberate,
like when you’re daydreaming. In either case, each thought is followed by
a different thought. On the other hand, when you narrowly concentrate
your attention on the alambana, each thought is followed by an identical thought. Each sound, mantra or mental image is followed
by another that’s completely alike. In this way, yogic meditation results in a
flow of identical thoughts directed towards the alambana. This unique state of mind is called one-pointedness. In this state, even though your mind is constantly
active, you paradoxically experience deep stillness, stillness in spite of your thoughts. The flow of identical thoughts in yogic meditation
is traditionally compared to the flow of thick, viscous oil. When oil is poured slowly and steadily, a
ribbon of oil is formed that looks like its suspended in the air somehow. It appears to be perfectly still even though
the oil inside the ribbon is in constant motion. The perfectly uniform flow of oil makes it
seem motionless. In the same way, the perfectly uniform flow
of thoughts in yogic meditation is experienced as a state of motionlessness, a state of complete
stillness.This is one-pointedness. It’s reached when your mind remains perfectly
focused on the alambana. There’s another important meditative state
that’s based on a psychological phenomenon that can loosely be called entrainment. When you hear a catchy song, part of the melody
sometimes gets stuck in your mind and you hear it again and again like a loop on an
old tape recorder. That’s an example of entrainment. Patanjali described meditative entrainment
like this: prashanta-vaahitaa, the continual, undisturbed flow, tasya, of that, of the flow
of thoughts directed towards the alambana, samskarat, is attained due to the formation
of a samskara, a deep mental impression. Samskara literally means a groove, an indentation
or channel. To extend our analogy, like a gardener creates
channels for water to flow through her garden, so too, you can create a channel for your
thoughts to flow, directed towards your chosen object of meditation. Samskaras are formed by long, intense practice. Musicians play difficult passages again and
again to achieve perfection. Tennis players practice their backhand stroke
again and again. These kinds of repetition create samskaras. Samskaras are traditionally compared to deep
ravines that are formed in mountains and hillsides due the runoff of water from rainstorms. Each time it rains, water flows down the ravine,
eroding the ground a little bit and making the ravine wider and deeper. The enlarged ravine is then able to collect
even more water the next time it rains. In a similar way, the intense, long-term practice
of yogic meditation can form a deep mental groove, a samskara, that helps entrain your
mind by channeling or directing your thoughts towards the alambana. Entrainment is easily gained through the practice
of mantra japa, the mental repetition of mantras. Mantra japa is the most widely used form of
yogic meditation because it’s easy to learn, and yet, it’s an extremely powerful technique. Most mantras are short Sanskrit invocations
that begin with om, like om namah shivaya, salutations to God in the form of Lord Shiva. If you mentally recite a mantra while concentrating
your attention on its sound and on its meaning, you can eventually create a deep samskara
that firmly entrains your mind on the mantra. Once entrained, when you meditate, the mantra
will go on echoing in your mind repeatedly, spontaneously, without any effort on your
part. With such entrainment, your attention won’t
wander off again and again and need to be restrained. In this way, meditation becomes utterly effortless. Most meditation techniques require constant
effort to keep your attention properly directed and narrowly focused. Such effort is necessary, of course, but it
has the unfortunate consequence of keeping you from reaching deeper states of meditation. As long as you have to exert willful effort
in meditation, you can’t reach the ultimate state of samadhi. Why? Samadhi is nirbhasam, the presence or appearance
in your mind, tad-evartha-matra, of the alambana alone, of the mantra alone, shunyam iva, in
the perceived absence, svarupa, of you, of your ego. In samadhi, your mantra keeps echoing, but
your ego disappears. Let’s understand this clearly. Usually, there’s an obvious division between
you, the meditator, and your alambana, your chosen object of meditation, a mantra in this
case. But, in samadhi, that division actually ceases
to exist. How? In in terms of experience, you get lost in
the mantra, so to speak. You merge with the mantra or get absorbed
by it. This state of absorption is like listening
to your favorite music and getting totally immersed in its enchanting tunes and hypnotic
rhythms. While you’re lost in the music, you can still
hear it. So, who is it that gets lost? It’s your ego, your sense of individuality,
your feeling of being a listener. When you’re absorbed in music, your ego temporarily
fades away. In the same way, when you’re absorbed in meditation,
because your ego has temporarily faded away, you no longer experience yourself as being
a meditator. Your absorption in music will be broken immediately
if you have to answer a phone call. So too, your absorption in samadhi will be
broken immediately if your attention wanders and you have to bring it back. Exerting any kind of effort will cause your
ego to re-emerge and bring samadhi to an end. So, willful effort and samadhi can’t co-exist. That’s why you can’t attain samadhi if you
have to periodically restrain your mind from wandering. Instead of relying on willful effort, a deep
samskara can keep your mind firmly entrained on your mantra. That samskara enables a mantra to echo in
your mind effortlessly, allowing you to remain fully absorbed in samadhi. An important technique that depends on a deep
samskara and complete entrainment is the extremely slow repetition of a mantra. Not surprisingly, slower repetition of a mantra
can lead to deeper states of meditation. But, slower repetition also makes your mind
more susceptible to distractions and wandering. For this reason, you first have to fully entrain
your mind by repeating your mantra at a normal rate, then you can gradually slow down to
deepen your meditation. If your mind starts to wander, you can speed
up your repetitions until your mind gets fully entrained once again. Finally, there’s one more technique that also
depends on a deep samskara and complete entrainment. It’s an advanced practice that opens the door,
so to speak, to an entirely new realm of exploration. The practice is to gradually increase the
space between mantras like this: om namah shivaya … om namah shivaya …… om namah
shivaya ……… om namah shivaya. If your samskara is sufficiently deep, you
can actually stop between two mantras and remain in a state of perfect silence for many
seconds or even many minutes. As we discussed before, mere silence isn’t
the goal of yogic meditation. Yet, that silence can give you an opportunity
to make a truly extraordinary discovery, not by exploring your mind, but by exploring the
nature of the consciousness that reveals or illumines the activities of your mind, as
we’ll discuss next. We began by exploring the landscape of your
mind, the territory that includes all the sensations, thoughts, and emotions observed
by you during mindfulness meditation. Now we can ask, “Who is it that surveys your
mental landscape? Who is the observer? And during yogic meditation, who is it that
knows when your attention is narrowly focused or when your mind wanders?” Let’s examine this. Psychology textbooks say that all experiences
are in the form of sensations, thoughts, and emotions arising in your mind. That means, everything you have ever experienced
or will experience actually takes place in your mind alone. You directly experience the contents of your
mind, whereas you experience the world around you only indirectly. It’s your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin
that come in direct contact with the world. Then, these sense organs send signals through
a complex network of nerves to your brain, where they arise as the sights, sounds, smells,
tastes, and tactile sensations you experience. So, the world is known to you indirectly,
though your senses and nervous system, while the contents of your mind are directly known
to you. You’re intimately aware of your sensations,
thoughts, and emotions. You’re conscious of everything that that happens
to pop up in your mind. All this is superbly expressed by the rishi
who composed the Katha Upanishad, one of the most important texts in Advaita Vedanta: Indriyebhyah
paraa, higher than your five senses, the organs that come in direct contact with the world
around you, hyarthaa, are your sensations, the perceptions that arise in your mind. And arthebhyash ca param, higher than your
sensations, higher than the perceptions that arise in your mind, manah, is your mind itself. Before seeing the rest of this verse, it’s
important to understand how the ancient rishis characterized the mind. Modern psychology divides the mind in a three-fold
way, into sensations, thoughts, and emotions. But the rishis made only two divisions, into
parts they called manas and buddhi. Manas literally means mind, but here, it specifically
refers to mental activities over which you have no direct, willful control. For example, you have no control over your
sensations. With your eyes open right now, you can’t choose
not to see me. Since sensations can’t be controlled, they’re
considered part of manas. Also, you have no direct control over your
emotions. If you think you really can control your emotions,
try this little experiment: for the next five seconds, feel really angry. Ready, start. You get the point. You can control how you express your emotions,
but not your emotions themselves, so they’re considered part of manas. Finally, you have no control over some kinds
of thoughts, like when you’re daydreaming. Random, involuntary thoughts belong to manas. On the other hand, your buddhi, your intellect,
includes all mental activities that you directly control. In particular, all intentional thoughts belong
to your buddhi. Now, let’s return to the Katha Upanishad. manasas tu paraa, higher than your manas,
the part of your mind over which you have no direct control, buddhir, is your buddhi,
your intellect, the part you can control. And, buddher parah, higher than your buddhi,
your intellect, is atma, the conscious Self, pure awareness, which is mahan, the greatest,
the highest of them all. Atma is your essential awareful nature, the
awareness that allows you to observe all your sensations, thoughts, and emotions. This verse refers to six individual levels
or stages involved in experience. The world occupies the lowest rung. You experience the world by means of your
five senses, which occupy the next rung. Your five senses give rise to various sensations,
which come next. All these sensations arise in your manas,
the part of your mind you can’t control. Above the manas is your buddhi, the part of
your mind that you can control. Finally, at the highest level, is your consciousness,
your essential awareful nature. A metaphor often used in Vedanta says that
the contents of your mind are illumined by consciousness like the contents of a room
are illumined by a lamp. The light of your consciousness reveals every
sensation, thought, and emotion in the room of your mind. In the absence of consciousness, your mind
would be like pitch black cavern, and you wouldn’t experience anything at all. Now you might ask, “What happens when we lose
consciousness, like in dreamless sleep, or coma, or under anesthesia.” Well, according to the rishis, you never really
lose consciousness. The rishis defined consciousness differently
than medical professionals. For a doctor, consciousness is a person’s
ability to respond to external stimuli. For the rishis, consciousness is your capacity
to observe the contents of your mind. They explained that in deep sleep, coma, and
anesthesia, it’s your mind that ceases to function, not consciousness. When your mind stops producing any sensations,
thoughts, or emotions for you to observe, even though you remain completely aware, there’s
nothing for you to be aware of. It’s like standing in a perfectly dark room
with your eyes wide open. What would you see? Nothing. But, your eyes would still see. You don’t go blind when the lights are turned
off. So, in the pitch black room, you’d see that
there’s nothing to be seen. That describes what happens in dreamless sleep,
coma, and anesthesia. You remain completely conscious, fully aware,
aware of the total absence of any sensations, thoughts, or emotions in your mind. At the most fundamental level, you are a conscious
being. You’re the awareful witness who observes whatever’s
happening in your mind. During mindfulness meditation, you’re aware
of sensations, thoughts, and emotions. During yogic meditation, you’re aware of the
mantra echoing in your mind. You’re also aware of the wandering of your
attention and efforts to bring it back. All this is known to you, the awareful witness,
the conscious observer. You’re aware of what’s happening in your mind
right this moment, but you can never be aware of awareness itself. A beam of light can’t turn around and shine
on itself somehow, and you, the conscious observer, can’t observe yourself. Besides, there’s no need to observe yourself. You already know that you’re conscious. You don’t need anyone or anything to reveal
your consciousness because consciousness itself is self-revealing. Your consciousness is self-shining, like the
sun. To see what’s inside a dark room, you need light. But to see the sun, you need nothing. The sun is self-shining, self-revealing. As an awareful, conscious being, you are like
the sun, always shining with the light of awareness. So far, we haven’t discussed different levels
of consciousness or higher states of consciousness. These ideas seem quite popular today, but
according to the rishis, consciousness has no levels or states at all. There are different levels of understanding. There are lower and higher degrees of assimilating
spiritual truths. And, there are three distinct states of experience
that we’ll discuss shortly. Experience has different states but not consciousness
itself, because, as the rishis discovered through deep meditation and introspection,
consciousness is unchanging, unwavering, like the light of the sun. But then, if consciousness is unchanging,
why is it that when you first wake up in the morning, your consciousness seems dull, and
later, after a shower and cup of coffee, your consciousness seems to shine more brightly? Does your consciousness have a dimmer switch
like a table lamp? If you feel dull when you first wake up and
feel brighter a bit later, that means, the feeling of being dull or bright is observed
by you. You’re aware of dullness or brightness because
those feelings are conditions of your mind, not conditions of consciousness. It’s your mind that starts out dull and grows
brighter, while the consciousness that illumines your mind is unchanging. Clouds in the sky can make a day seem bright
or dull, but the sun doesn’t shine more brightly on some days and less brightly on others. In the same way, your consciousness doesn’t
shine more brightly or less brightly; its light is perfectly steady. Like the sun reveals the constantly changing
clouds in the sky, your consciousness reveals the constantly changing conditions of your
mind. To understand this better, suppose you’re
driving at 60 miles an hour, and another car is traveling in the next lane at exactly the
same speed. If you look at the driver, you might see her
drinking a cup of coffee on her way to work. But, you won’t see her drinking coffee at
60 miles an hour. She’ll look perfectly stationary to you, because
you’re both traveling at the same speed. To see her drink coffee at 60 miles an hour,
you have to be a stationary observer, standing on the side of the road. In the same way, to observe the changing conditions
of your mind, you have to be an unchanging conscious observer. Your consciousness is like the sun, always
shining steadily. There’s no day or night for the sun, but there
is for the Earth that it illumines. So too, there’s no waking or sleep for consciousness,
but there is for your mind. Every day, you undergo three states of experience:
waking state, dream state, and dreamless sleep. Everything you experience happens in one of
these three states. Anesthesia and coma are included in dreamless
sleep. Daydreams and so-called out of body experiences
are included in the dream state. Various states of meditation, including samadhi,
occur in the waking state, assuming of course, that you don’t fall asleep while you’re meditating. Ultimately, whatever happens in your mind
during the states of waking, dream, and dreamless sleep is observed by you, the awareful witness,
the unchanging conscious observer. Even though your consciousness is unchanging
like the sun, it certainly seems to get affected or disturbed by many experiences, especially
by intense ones. For example, when a loved one dies and you
feel overwhelming sadness, the sadness in your mind certainly seems to affect your consciousness. Sadness seems to rub off on your consciousness
somehow, which is impossible if consciousness is truly unchanging. When you say, “I am sad,” the truth of the
matter is, you are the conscious observer of sadness that’s present in your mind, and
that consciousness itself isn’t affected by sadness. Sadness belongs to your mind, not to you,
the awareful witness. To understand how this confusion takes place,
it’s important to acknowledge the fact that experiences can sometimes deceive us and lead
us to wrong conclusions. For instance, in the evening, you say, “The
sun is going down,” as the sun slowly descends towards the horizon. But in fact, the sun is stationary relative
to the Earth; it’s the Earth that moves. As it rotates on its axis, the horizon slowly
moves upwards towards the sun. Watching the sunset can lead to a wrong conclusion,
the conclusion that the sun actually travels through the sky. In the same way, the experience of sadness
can lead to a wrong conclusion, the conclusion that consciousness is actually affected by
sadness. When the sun shines on a pile of stinking
trash, does the sun get tainted in any way? And when it shines on a sacred temple, does
it become more holy somehow? Obviously, the sun remains utterly unaffected
by everything it illumines. So too, your consciousness remains utterly
unaffected by all the sensations, thoughts, and emotions in your mind that it reveals. Now, if your consciousness is unchanging like
the sun, if sadness doesn’t truly affect it, then why do you feel so sad sometimes. To explain this, Vedanta uses a metaphor based
on a colorless crystal like this. When I hold this crystal in front of my robes,
it seems to become orange. But in fact, there’s not a trace of orangeness
in the crystal. It remains perfectly clear, in spite of its
appearance. Appearances can be deceiving, as they say. The orangeness that belongs to my robes can
be wrongly attributed to the colorless crystal. In the same way, the sadness that belongs
to your mind can be wrongly attributed to your unchanging consciousness. Like this crystal is totally unaffected by
orangeness, your consciousness is totally unaffected by sadness or any by any other
emotion, thought or sensation that happens to arise in your mind. These teachings are meant to convey a crucial
and life-changing truth, that sadness and other afflictions arising in your mind can’t
affect the light of consciousness that illumines them. That light of consciousness is your essential
nature, so in a manner of speaking, sadness can’t affect you! To fully grasp this profound truth, lots of
introspection and critical thinking is necessary. But with the help of these teachings, you
can discover for yourself that sadness is not a problem. Sadness is not your enemy! After all, you probably enjoy watching sad
movies. Walking out of a movie theater with tears
streaming down your cheeks, you might say, “That’s the best movie I’ve seen in a long
time.” Movie sadness isn’t fake or unreal; it feels
like any other sadness. Yet you enjoy it. You enjoy it because you know that you’ll
return home utterly unscathed by all the terrible tragedies you witnessed on the screen. In a similar way, when you realize that your
consciousness is utterly unaffected by the terrible tragedies you witness in life, your
experience of those events will be completely transformed. Instead of being overwhelmed, you’ll be able
to gracefully accept any sadness, loss, or grief that arises in your mind because those
feelings won’t seem so threatening anymore. You’ll know that your true nature as unchanging
consciousness remains untouched, in a state of perfect peace, in spite of life’s tragedies. And you’ll be able to respond to those tragedies
with compassion, love, and wisdom. This dramatic inner transformation is called
liberation or enlightenment. A life of spiritual practice can culminate
in this transformation if it’s fully supported by your ongoing practice of meditation. Each time you sit down to meditate, you proceed
a little further, one step at a time, towards the goal of inner peace and perfect contentment,
on your journey of spiritual growth.

 

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