Often we have quite a romantic idea about meditation. Sit down, cross your legs, close your eyes, take a deep breath and you will be immediately transported to a state of transcendent bliss: listening to the angels whisper in your ears as all your troubles just melt away. It is possible that this may happen, but just as possible that you will find yourself squirming with discomfort, desperately waiting for the session to end while all the demons from your past get together for some kind of high-school reunion party in your head! If that type of scenario is more usual for you, rather than giving up and going for a beer, take comfort in the fact that meditation is not supposed to solve anything in itself; really it is designed to equip you with the necessary tools to solve the problems yourself. In fact this challenging practice can support you in solving the biggest problem of all, arguable the only one worth solving, finding out who (or what) you really are!
A beautiful metaphor for the meditative process is given in the seminal Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita. The great warrior Arjuna is about to ride into the most epic of battles on a chariot driven by Krishna, the highest of divinities incarnated in human form. Before the war commences, Krishna drives Arjuna to the middle of the battlefield so he can view the competing armies in all their fearsome glory. What Arjuna sees troubles him deeply. Since the war in question is a battle between two competing factions of his family, Arjuna realises he is about to partake in the violent demise of many of his loved-ones; understandably he starts to have major reservations.
“O Krishna, I see my own relations here anxious to fight, and my limbs grow weak; my mouth is dry, my body shakes, and my hair is standing on end.”
The rest of the text involves Krishna convincing Arjuna to fulfil his role as a warrior thereby expounding the central tenants of the Hindu path to liberation.
No, the Bhagavad-Gita is not an invitation to go out and kill people for spiritual gain. Rather it is an incredibly sophisticated explanation of how to attain the highest of spiritual realisations while still performing your worldly activities – as opposed to renouncing the world to live in a cave eating nothing but moss. Part of the beauty of this short text is the numerous layers of meaning it contains – reflecting the Hindu idea that there is not one single path to enlightenment.
What does this have to do with the meditative process? If we view the battle in the Bhagavad-Gita as the internal struggle that meditation practitioners face, we start to understand why the process is so challenging. When sitting in meditation we are brought to the centre of our own battlefield. We can see the various aspects of ourselves that we have become incredibly familiar with; we have grown up with them, they are like family. We may find the tendency to distract ourselves from pain, the feeling of frustration, the tendency to complain, the pleasure of daydreams, self-criticism, various judgements, hopes, dreams, fears and all the rest. We may question why it is we should attempt to disengage from them by focusing on our object of meditation – they are part of us so surely they demand our attention? Whatever comes up in meditation is also what comes up in our everyday life, be we aware of it or not, so the dilemma runs much deeper than just what happens when you sit on that cushion.
By bringing us face-to-face with our tendencies we are practising self-reflection. Most of us live an unquestioning life: we go to school, we go to work, we raise a family, enjoy our free time, complain about the weather – all with little thought. By facing the various aspects of ourselves, we eventually learn to see beyond them and we may just catch a glimpse of what we really are. Texts like the Bhagavad-Gita outline the methods and motivation for doing just this – what you will find many of them share is the focus on awareness.
Another of the multitude of overlapping themes covered by the Gita, is the concept of performing one’s duty, but without an attachment to any specific outcome. So we are to act not out of desire for reward or fear of failure.
“The wise unify their consciousness and abandon attachment to the fruits of action…”
Bhagavad Gita 2:51
This is a subtle, but somewhat complex, concept which may seem quite alien to those unfamiliar with it, and a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this article. However we can see still a parallel to the meditative process. If we meditate to attain bliss, enlightenment or to show other people just how amazingly spiritual we are – we somewhat miss the point of it. Rather than trying to fix or change anything, we are simply observing whatever comes up: paying attention to our internal battlefield.
A seemingly simple exercise such as sitting and bringing your attention back to your breath, is surprisingly challenging – sometimes said to be the most challenging of all the spiritual practices. At the deepest level, this practice can take us into the indescribable realms beyond duality. Where there is no good/evil no self/other, just a union with all that is. Perhaps this is worth injuring a bit of leg cramp and boredom for!
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