When in meditation I fall in a state of reverie or sleepiness I imagine what I would do if, all of a sudden, I found out I had only five more minutes to live. Even though I’m only imagining that possibility my brain gets a real jolt, my heart starts beating faster, my eyes open up and I breathe harder. I feel a sense of urgency and become present and awake.
There is a story about the Buddha who compared our human predicament to children at play in a house that is on fire. Someone outside calls the children urgently to get out of the house but they keep on playing. The mindlessness of the children in this story could be applied to the way we do so many things in our life, including meditation. We want to meditate or we have been meditating for a long time but we feel that our practice is stale and uninspiring. The repetition of the mantra lacks “bav” or devotion or the following of the breath is monotonous and it is easy to get lost in thoughts, imaginings and sleep, specially if it is late at night and we are tired..
The Raja Yoga system, also called Ashtanga Yoga, is one of the four main paths of yoga. It is a gradual 8-step system where slowly we prepare for meditation which does not come until the 7th step. It is good to remember that there is a preparation process and that it takes time for the body and mind to be ready for meditation. According to Raja Yoga we first work on observing an ethical and healthy lifestyle, then we purify our physical and energy bodies by doing asanas and pranayama and unblocking energy knots in muscles, organs, psychic nerves and chakras. By this time our body and mind have quieted down, the energy has increased and we are able to withdraw the senses and be still and in silence. At this point we are ready to start concentrating on a specific point or object and keeping our attention there for a while without being distracted by a fidgeting body and a scattered mind.
This does not mean that we have to excel at all these stages before attempting to meditate but we have to be aware that the body/mind needs time to get strong and stable. This also applies to the breath as we cannot slow down our breath as long as our body is uneasy and our mind preoccupied with many worldly thoughts. Finally when we find the strength, time and motivation to sit on a cushion we can start concentration. Many of the practices that we call meditation are in fact concentration. We try to keep our attention on a focus (breath, image, mantra) and when our mind wanders away we bring it back to the object of concentration.
As we all know concentration requires effort and the sharper the concentration, the more clarity and focus we get. A Zen teacher used to say: “Big effort, big result; little effort, little result”. I would like to add that it is not so much a question of quantity of time on the cushion but rather of quality and intensity. This is why I suggest keeping the sessions SHORT but INTENSE, applying yourself 100%. Throw yourself into the practice you have chosen for 5 or 10 minutes like if those were your last minutes left to live, or like if your house was on fire. That is a lot of intensity, I agree, but you already know that if you apply yourself halfheartedly nothing much happens. If in spite of applying yourself fully you still feel drowsy or distracted, break the session, stretch your legs, drink some water and even splash your face with cold water if you feel sleepy. Then resume with your practice. This may sound extreme but we need to approach our practice in a radical manner to move out of our comfort zone. Keep this plan for a few weeks and then increase the duration of the session little by little as you feel that you want to meditate longer. The trick is to always get up from the cushion on a positive note feeling that you could have stayed longer.
Have you ever become involved in an activity, perhaps writing or playing music, when you totally forgot about yourself? It is an amazing experience to realize suddenly that one or two hours have evaporated. Maybe you even forgot that you were hungry or that you needed to stretch your legs. That intense concentration is what we need when we sit on our cushion and then, eventually, we may find ourselves moving into a state beyond form and time while at the same time remaining intensely aware. This is meditation, the 7th step of Raja Yoga. The next and last step is samadhi, a super conscious state with many levels of depth.
Finally, Swami Vishnu’s main recommendation for meditators in his excellent book Meditation and Mantras is regularity as through repetition we learn and create new habits. In this case we are trying to establish the habit of meditation to the point that if you don’t do it one day you will miss it.
To summarize, concentration or meditation is not drifting into a placid state that can lead us quickly into distraction and sleepiness. Concentration requires effort and until we can reach one-pointedness of mind, it is work. Because it is difficult to sustain a sharp focus for a long time it is important not to strain ourselves, so short bouts of intensity and periods of rest are very important. After you have followed this strategy for some time, try once in a while to meditate for the fun of it, forgetting about the time limitation, the effort or the goal.
And speaking of goals, why do we put ourselves through this training? It is good once in a while to refocus our intention. We want to increase our concentration to be able to meditate. And we want to meditate because we want to rest, to disconnect from the body/mind tyranny that keeps us bonded to our preoccupations, imaginings, anxieties and fears. When we are able to let go of our story, even for a brief moment, the energy can finally flow through us unimpeded and the result is an intense experience of belonging, love, clarity and bliss, that which we are. And the reverberations of that surge of energy can last more than a brief moment, they can actually transform deeply the way we think, move, see, talk and approach life. That is why we practice.
May you all apply yourselves wholeheartedly and may you all drop body and mind! This is my wish.