Meditation is keeping the mind focused uninterruptedly on a subject for a certain length of time. All spiritual practices, ceremonies, prayer, and pilgrimage reach their consummation in meditation. In Patanjali's Yoga system, meditation is the last step before the final goal, samadhi, or superconscious experience. Sri Sankaracharya describes meditation as maintaining steady awareness within of Atman, the focus of the all-pervading Self.[i] Meditation on Atman, our true Self, is the highest form of yoga. According to the Kurma Purana:
The fire of yoga burns the cage of sin which imprisons a man. Knowledge becomes purified and Nirvana is directly obtained. From yoga comes knowledge; knowledge, again, helps the yogi to obtain freedom. He who combines in himself both yoga and knowledge─with him the Lord is pleased. Those who practice maha-yoga [meditation on the Self] either once a day, or twice, or thrice, or always─know them to be gods. Yoga is divided into two parts: one is called abhava-yoga, and the other, maha-yoga. That in which one's self is meditated upon as a void and without qualities is called abhava-yoga. That in which one sees one's self as blissful, bereft of all impurities, and as one with God is called maha-yoga.[ii]
Vedic sages maintain that our true identity is Atman, or our inmost Self. When we forget It and fail to realize It, we become victims of endless suffering. Knowledge of Atman or Self is the only way to put an end to all suffering and meditation is the only way to Self-Knowledge. In meditation our consciousness rises high, comes into contact with the Atman, or universal Consciousness, and finds connection with It. We expand, taste supreme Bliss, and attain the highest fulfillment of life.
The state of meditation is supported by concentration, concentration by withdrawal of mind, and withdrawal of mind by purity and self-control. Vedanta texts say that if you can concentrate 12 seconds on a subject uninterruptedly, it becomes one unit of concentration; 12 such units of concentration make one unit of meditation; 12 units of meditation lead to the first stage of samadhi; and 12 units of this samadhi lead to the highest samadhi, the supreme realization of Atman. But this achievement does not come of itself; it calls for repeated practice of meditation. The three components of meditation are: the subject of meditation, the center of consciousness at which the mind is held, and the method employed to guide the mind to concentration. The subject of meditation may be the nondual all-pervading Self, any specific aspect of the divine, or any divine incarnation. The center of consciousness may be at the heart, or between the eyebrows, or at the crown of the head. The method employed to invoke concentration may be any of the following: japa, or repetition of a sacred word; discrimination between the real and the unreal; dispassion, which is knowing the evil effect of sense-enjoyment; pranayama, or control of breath; and ceremonial observances.
Some examples of guided meditation are the following:
Sit in a straight posture. The next thing to do is to send a current of holy thought to all creation. Mentally repeat: "Let all beings be happy; let all beings be peaceful; let all beings be blissful." So do to the east, south, north, and west. The more you practice this, the better you will feel. You will find at last that the easiest way to make ourselves healthy is to see that others are healthy, and the easiest way to make ourselves happy is to see that others are happy. After doing that, those who believe in God, should pray─not for money, not for health, nor for heaven. Pray for knowledge and light; every other prayer is selfish. Then the next thing to do is to think that your body is firm, strong, and healthy; for it is the best instrument you have. Think of it as being as strong as adamant, and that with the help of this body you will cross the ocean of life. Freedom is never to be reached by the weak; throw away all weakness. Tell your body that it is strong, tell your mind that it is strong, and have unbounded faith and hope in yourself.[iii]
Sit straight and look at the tip of your nose. Later on we shall come to know how that helps to concentrate the mind, how by controlling the two optic nerves one advances a long way towards the control of the arc of reaction, and so to the control of the will. Here is one specimen of meditation: Imagine a lotus upon the top of the head, several inches up, with virtue as its center and knowledge as its stalk. The eight petals of the lotus are the eight powers of the yogi. Inside, the stamens and pistils are renunciation. If the yogi refuses the external powers he will come to salvation. So the eight petals of the lotus are the eight powers, but the internals stamens and pistils are extreme renunciation, the renunciation of all these powers. Inside that lotus, think of the Golden One, the Almighty, the Intangible, whose name is Om, the Inexpressible, surrounded with effulgent light. Meditate on that.[iv]
Another meditation is given: Think of a space in your heart, and think that in the midst of that space a flame is burning. Think of that flame as your own soul. Inside the flame is another effulgent light, and that is the Soul of your soul, God. Meditate upon that in the heart.[v]
Let your mind dwell on some holy personality─a Buddha, a Christ, a Ramakrishna. Then concentrate upon his heart. Try to imagine how it must feel to be a great saint; pure and untroubled by sense-objects, a knower of Brahman [supreme Reality]. Try to feel that the saint's heart has become your heart, within your own body. Here, again, the localization of the image will be found very hepful. Both Hindus and Chritians practice this form of meditation─concentrating not only upon the heart but also, sometimes upon the hands and the feet and the whole form.[vi]
Meditate on Vishnu, the Dweller in the hearts of all beings, seated on a lotus within the rays of the sun, his body luminous, adorned with diadem, necklace, earrings, and bracelets of great luster, and holding conch shell and mace in his hands.
Then the wise man should meditate upon the luminous, benign form of the Lord, without the conch shell and mace, but adorned with ornaments.
As the mind becomes concentrated on the form, he must then keep his mind on the form without ornaments.
Then he must meditate upon his oneness with the luminous form of the Lord.
Lastly, he must let the form vanish and meditate upon the Atman.[vii]
The benefits of meditation manifest on the physical, mental, and spiritual levels. On the physical level, the benefits are good voice, good health, and good complexion. On the mental level, they are emotional stability, clear vision, a sense of peace, freedom from worry and anxiety, and greater concentration. On the spiritual level, the seeker develops more faith, a taste of inner bliss, self-surrender to the divine, and spiritual enthusiasm. Practice is vital to actualize these benefits, and the practice must be right. Practice is considered right when the three components of meditation─subject of meditation, center of consciousness, and method to guide the mind to concentration─are kept unchanged and unaltered, and the practice is followed steadfastly with faith, devotion, and determination.
Meditation is cultivating a single thought reminiscent of the subject of meditation by repeating it over and over again. By following the same method and concentrating on the same subject at the same center of consciousness, that single thought becomes a giant thought-wave. In course of time the mind develops a channel for that thought-wave and the practice becomes effortless. No practice, however mechanical or intermittent, is ever lost. The Bhagavad Gita tells us that even very little of the practice of Yoga saves a person from the great fears of life.[viii]
Success in meditation is measured not by any attainment of occult powers, not by dreams or visions or miraculous happenings, but by glimpses of the divine that give the seeker a taste of inner bliss and permanent transformation of character.
[i] See Vivekachudamani vv. 332, 378, 381, 383, and 412.
[ii] Quoted in Raja-Yoga, by Swami Vivekananda, in Vivekananda: The Yogas and Other Works, Swami Nikhilananda, ed., Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, 1996, p. 618.
[iii] Ibid., p. 591.
[iv] Ibid., p. 620.
[v] Ibid., p. 620.
[vi] How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, trs., pp. 73-74.
[vii] From the Vishnu Purana, as quoted in Ibid., p. 177.
[viii] See Bhagavad Gita 2.40.