Meditation: A Simple 8-Point Program for Translating Spiritual Ideals into Daily Life
By Eknath Easwaren
Publisher: Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press: 1991
In this book Eknath Easwaren discusses eight spiritual principles and practices which he considers essential for cultivating a spiritual life. Easwaren, who is perhaps best known for his translations of and commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, and the Upanishads, says that the principles discussed in this book are universal and can be found repeated in many different spiritual traditions the world over. He presents them as an eight-point program for living a spiritual life. For him each point is dependent on the others, in the sense that success follows best when they are practiced together, each reinforcing the others.
Interestingly, although the book is titled Meditation, only the first chapter – on the first point of the eight-point program – deals with the daily practice of sitting meditation. Easwaren defines meditation as
a systematic technique for taking hold of and concentrating to the utmost degree our latent mental power. It consists in training the mind, especially attention and the will, so that we can set forth from the surface level of consciousness and journey into the very depths.
The overall journey of meditation has three main stages of discovery, all to be accomplished only by inner experience: the first, when we realize that we are not the body; the second, when we realize that we are not the mind; the third, when we discover and experience who we really are. This Easwaren terms “the great discovery,” though he also says, “what we discover cannot be put into words, but thereafter we are never again the same.”
Easwaren advocates that readers meditate by repeating a prayer or a mystical verse slowly, not with the purpose of pondering its meaning, but to attain a deep level of concentration. He recommends sitting every day, and sitting at the same time every day. He also explains that if the practitioner sticks to one place to sit for meditation, that place will gradually take on a sacred atmosphere, which in turn will support the meditation practice.
The author considers it a mere misconception to associate progress in meditation with gaining psychic or occult powers. He says, “If you want to know how people have progressed on the spiritual path, just watch them in the little interactions of everyday life. Are they patient? Cheerful? Sensitive to the needs of those around them?”
The second chapter deals with repeating a mantram. He says it is important to choose a mantram that has been used by spiritual practitioners over the centuries; such a mantram carries a unique spiritual power, resonating with a sacred atmosphere. He suggests using every opportunity to repeat the mantram silently as we go through life. If we repeat it at night before going to sleep, we will enjoy deep, relaxing, healthful sleep. In addition, he says, “The mantram is of inestimable help when negative emotions sweep through our minds.” The mantram brings equipoise and harmony. “Extreme oscillations of the mind like elation and depression can be controlled by the mantram.” If we repeat the mantram as often as possible throughout the day,
the tension in our bodies … ebbs away … We toughen our will, too, which signals the end of addictions that may have enslaved us for years. Internal divisions are healed and our purposes unified … We gain access to inner resources – courage, patience, compassion – which are presently locked up within … Gradually, if we repeat it often, the mantram permeates and utterly transforms our consciousness.
If we repeat the mantram often enough, for long enough, he says we will reach a stage where “the mantram repeats itself ceaselessly without any effort whatsoever.” He calls this a “glorious state.”
The third chapter discusses the need to slow down. In modern society, he says, we easily slip into the habit of hurrying. “When we go faster and faster, we grow more and more insensitive to the needs of everyone around. We become dull, blunted, imperceptive.” The mind that whirs along at high speed, he says, loses the ability to reflect or to notice its own patterns. Easwaren says, “This is what happens to speeded-up people. They become automatic, which means they have no freedom and no choices, only compulsions.” The spiritual life requires us to reflect, to make conscious choices, and to recognize our own patterns of behaviour so as to be able to change them.
The fourth chapter, titled “One-Pointed Attention,” discusses the importance of doing one thing at a time and giving full attention to the task at hand. It is a matter of training the mind which has the habit of running in many directions at once. “If we are to free ourselves from this tyrannical, many-pointed mind, we must develop some voluntary control over our attention. We must know how to put it where we want.” The habit of splitting the attention (in today’s parlance “multi-tasking”) leads not only to physical exhaustion, poor learning, errors, accidents, and many tasks done badly and without enjoyment, but also carries over into split attention in meditation.
The fifth chapter, titled “Training the Senses,” deals with the need to make conscious choices, rather than simply being led by the pull of the senses. Easwaren does not advocate austerity but, taking the example of food, he recommends developing the self-control to avoid over-eating or eating things that are unhealthy for the body. Training the senses, however, takes a high level of vigilance, because the senses have been in unquestioned control for so long.
For a long while we are so vulnerable that we can be caught at any time. The senses will be comfortably seated inside when some of their former pals – sense objects – come to the door and call, “Can the senses come out and play?” At this point, of course, we can always say no. But if we are napping upstairs, the senses will jump up, look around, grin at each other, and rush right out.
The sixth chapter is called “Putting Others First.” Here Easwaren discusses how compassion and thinking of others’ needs and wishes ahead of our own is a fundamental aspect of a spiritual life. We put others first “any time we refrain from self-centred ways of acting, speaking and even thinking.” For Easwaren, “putting others first is the easiest and most natural step we can take towards developing love of God” – which is the supreme goal of the spiritual life. Love of God, he says, is the only power than can overcome what he calls “elephantiasis of the ego.” Ultimately, he believes, everyone can learn to love.
The spiritual life is marvellously fair: it is open to everybody. No favouritism, no hereditary class. No matter where you start, you can learn everything you need to learn, provided you are prepared to work at it. So too of love …
The seventh chapter, titled “Spiritual Companionship,” deals with the support and encouragement for spiritual effort that comes from joining together with others who are also striving toward a spiritual goal. “Truly, we need every bit of support we can get; we need friends, loyal companions on the journey … The burdens are shared, easing them; the joys are shared too, multiplying them.”
In the eighth and final chapter, Easwaren recommends reading the writings of mystics. He recommends reading widely: “the treasures of mysticism can be found in all religions, and we should not confine ourselves to the tradition most familiar to us.” Reading thus widely, we will see “the universality of the mystical outlook.” He makes an interesting distinction, however, in noting that when we read the writings of many different mystics, we are reading for inspiration, but when we read the writings of our own teacher, we read for both inspiration and instruction. That is, mystics from different cultures and periods of history may give instructions for their disciples that are not appropriate or helpful for us. For practical instruction, we must rely on the guidance from our own teacher.
While Easwaren has written the book for a modern readership with contemporary life-styles and pressures in mind, he says that the disciplines he describes are universal. “They come recommended to us by men and women down the centuries who experimented with them and discovered their potency in the crucibles of their own lives. That is their guarantee.”
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.