Methods for Quieting the Activity of the Mechanical Mind

The mind seems always to be busy, and we seem to have a constant inner commentary about sensations, perceptions, memories, anticipated activities, hopes and dreams, and worries about situations we need to address. Then there are the drives and cravings such as hunger, thirst, or sensations of discomfort, pain or desire. The mind remains constantly busy and there seems to be no way out. When we sit for meditation, we find it almost impossible to get rid of all of this activity, and in fact, simply because we are sitting quietly and trying to still the mind, we become much more aware of the activity than when we are involved in our constant round of activities externally.

Sri Aurobindo treats this as a more or less mechanical action of the mind and provides us various tools to address this. A primary aid is the separation of the witness-consciousness from the active nature. As we shift to this new standpoint, we begin to experience the mechanical action of the mind as something external to our awareness, and thus, it becomes easier to either disregard it or even reject it.

It is important, however, to exercise patience. Any impatience represents the stirring of rajasic desire which has the opposite effect and tends to disturb the mind rather than quiet it. The long habit of the mechanical mind is not something that is resolved in a day.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The mind is always in activity, but we do not observe fully what it is doing, but allow ourselves to be carried away in the stream of continual thinking. When we try to concentrate, this stream of self-made mechanical thinking becomes prominent to our observation. It is the first normal obstacle (the other is sleep during meditation) to the effort for yoga.”

“The best thing to do is to realise that the thought-flow is not yourself, it is not you who are thinking, but thought that is going on in the mind. It is Prakriti with its thought-energy that is raising all this whirl of thought in you, imposing it on the Purusha. You as the Purusha must stand back as the witness observing the action, but refusing to identify yourself with it. The next thing is to exercise a control and reject the thoughts — though sometimes by the very act of detachment the thought-habit falls away or diminishes during the meditation and there is a sufficient silence or at any rate a quietude which makes it easy to reject the thoughts that come and fix oneself on the object of meditation. If one becomes aware of the thoughts as coming from outside, from the universal Nature, then one can throw them out before they reach the mind; in that way the mind finally falls silent. If neither of these things happens, a persistent practice of rejection becomes necessary — there should be no struggle or wrestling with the thought, but only a quiet self-separation and refusal. Success does not come at first, but if consent is constantly withheld, the mechanical whirl eventually ceases and begins to die away and one can then have at will an inner quietude or silence.”

“It should be noted that the result of the yogic processes is not, except in rare cases, immediate and one must apply the will-patience till they give a result which is sometimes long in coming if there is much resistance in the outer nature.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 92-93


Tips for Optimizing Concentration

Substance rules over form. This concept is well known in legal circles when equity between parties is at issue. It also is obviously an important thing to remember in any field of life, but most especially in the practice of yoga. Sri Aurobindo illustrates this concept with several specific examples. Most people want to follow a set of specific rules to succeed in yoga. They are trained on how exactly to seat themselves, what exact breathing techniques to utilize, the exact manner of intoning the mantra, the timing of their practice and even where to focus their concentration. They are advised to focus, for example, between the eyebrows or at the tip of the nose, or in the heart. They believe that if they can carry out these external forms precisely they will achieve realisation.

Sri Aurobindo brings added clarity to this subject. While the form of the word or mantra may be important, it is more important to dwell on the deeper meaning of the term so that it is not simply a rote mechanical repetition one undertakes, but a full immersion in the meaning. Similarly, the question of where to focus the concentration is not related to a near-sighted attention to specific bodily areas, but refers to where the consciousness is “seated” during the process of concentration or meditation. It is not the space between the eyebrows that must be focused on, but rather, the Divine intention which is the object of the concentration, while the awareness “seats” itself in the specific location.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “If one concentrates on a thought or a word, one has to dwell on the essential idea contained in the word with the aspiration to feel the thing which it expresses.”

“There is no harm in concentrating sometimes in the heart and sometimes above the head. But concentration in either place does not mean keeping the attention fixed on a particular spot; you have to take your station of consciousness in either place and concentrate there not on the place, but on the Divine. This can be done with eyes shut or with eyes open, according as it best suits you.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 91-92

Yogic Concentration

The power of concentration is well-known. It is a power that we utilize daily to accomplish the various tasks set before us, or to achieve some goal that we have set for ourselves. In yoga, also, the power of concentration is required. The focus and intention behind the concentration is the primary difference between ordinary concentration and that utilized by practitioners of yoga. In his lectures on Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda devotes considerable efforts to explain concentration, describing the processes outlined by Patanjali, and how it can be intensified and focused, and the kind of results one can obtain. A systematic process of purification, quieting of the mind, control of the posture and the breath, and eventually, directing the concentration upon specific subjects or objects, is outlined. As the concentration intensifies, it becomes more and more directed and extraneous thoughts, feelings, and perceptions drop off. The result of such concentration is to see the manifestation of certain Siddhis, or powers, that arise when concentration is focused in particular areas, or attainment of the state of Samadhi. Sri Aurobindo provides additional insights to the process of concentration.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Ordinarily the consciousness is spread out everywhere, dispersed, running in this or that direction, after this subject and that object in multitude. When anything has to be done of a sustained nature the first thing one does is to draw back all this dispersed consciousness and concentrate. It is then, if one looks closely, bound to be concentrated in one place and on one occupation, subject or object — as when you are composing a poem or a botanist is studying a flower. The place is usually somewhere in the brain if it is the thought, in the heart if it is the feeling in which one is concentrated. The yogic concentration is simply an extension and intensification of the same thing. It may be on an object as when one does Tratak on a shining point — then one has to concentrate so that one sees only that point and has no other thought than that. It may be on an idea or word or a name, the idea of the Divine, the word OM, the name Krishna, or a combination of idea and word or idea and name. But further in yoga one also concentrates in a particular place. There is the famous rule of concentrating between the eyebrows — the centre of the inner mind, of occult vision, of the will is there. What you do is to think firmly from there on whatever you make the object of your concentration or else try to see the image of it from there. If you succeed in this then after a time you feel that your whole consciousness is centred there in that place — of course for the time being. After doing it for some time and often it becomes easy and normal….”

“It may be asked what becomes of the rest of the consciousness when there is this local concentration? Well, it either falls silent as in any concentration or, if it does not, then thoughts or other things may move about, as if outside, but the concentrated part does not attend to them or notice. That is when the concentration is reasonably successful.”

“One has not to fatigue oneself at first by long concentration if one is not accustomed, for then in a jaded mind it loses its power and value. One can relax and meditate instead of concentrating. It is only as the concentration becomes normal that one can go on for a longer and longer time.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 90-91

Distinguishing Concentration and Meditation from One Another

If we observe the mental status that takes place at times when we focus on achieving some objective or other, taking a test, working on a project, running a race, playing music, or creating some work of art, for example, we see that the attention is focused intensely on the task at hand, and there is in most cases, little perception of extraneous sensations or matters, or even of the passage of time. This is concentration. Concentration also applies when the focus is turned toward spiritual development, for instance, through intensive visualisation of a mandala, or through focus on awareness between the eyebrows, or in the heart region, or mindful attention on the breath or on recitation of a particular mantra. Brainwaves in a state of concentration tend to be tightly packed, dense and strong.

Meditation, on the other hand, has a different character when we view the process inwardly. The mental process may be more relaxed, the brainwaves less intense and more widely spaced from each other as the mind moves along its chosen object of meditation. Meditation, by definition, is an inward process, while concentration may be focused either internally or externally.

Each of these processes has its time and place and both clearly can be aids to the spiritual growth of the individual. It may be noted that in his lectures on Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda systematically explores the process of achieving concentration and describes the power of concentration and its effects. One-pointed focus is considered to be one of the ultimate achievements of spiritual discipline.

We find that the mind cannot remain constantly in a state of intense concentration. Thus, an alternation with the process of meditation can be highly beneficial and refreshing to the mind. Meditation is more reflective in nature, while concentration is more active.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Concentration is a gathering together of the consciousness and either centralising at one point or turning on a single object, e.g., the Divine; there can also be a gathered condition throughout the whole being, not at a point. In meditation it is not indispensable to gather like this, one can simply remain with a quiet mind thinking of one subject or observing what comes in the consciousness and dealing with it.”

“Concentration means fixing the consciousness in one place or on one object and in a single condition. Meditation can be diffusive, e.g., thinking about the Divine, receiving impressions and discriminating, watching what goes on in the nature and acting upon it, etc.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 89-90

The Difference Between Static and Dynamic Meditation

When an individual sits for meditation, does he come out of the meditation changed in some way? … or is meditation something like a state of ‘statis’ where time goes by, but nothing happens? Is the individual taking a ‘time out’ from life but not moving the purpose and focus of the life forward? These questions arise when we examine the statements of those who attempt meditation and who report they simply saw rounds of thoughts and sense impressions impinging on them, and that they wound up following these until they noticed it, and then tried to draw back, until the next ones captured them; or else, that they found they were simply ‘nodding off’. Many people who take up meditation report they may feel more relaxed or peaceful at the end, but realistically, their actions afterwards have not changed in any meaningful way.

As with anything an individual does in his life, there is a reason or motive behind it. If one begins meditation without a clear sense of purpose, without an aspiration directed toward that purpose, then it tends to simply be static and does not aid much, if at all, in the actualization of the seeker’s ultimate purpose in the life. This leads to the question of whether meditation can be dynamic and focused, without simply becoming another vehicle of expressing some form of vital ambition. Ultimately everyone acts in the world. The action can be motivated by ego and vital ambition, but it can also be directed toward a higher aspiration and the transformation of human life. It can be an attempt to deny life or an attempt to affirm life. Everything depends on the direction and sincerity of the seeker’s motivation in the action.

A disciple asks: “What does Sri Aurobindo mean by ‘a self-dynamising meditation’?”

The Mother responds: “It is a meditation that has the power of transforming your being. It is a meditation which makes you progress, as opposed to static meditation which is immobile and relatively inert, and which changes nothing in your consciousness or in your way of being. A dynamic meditation is a meditation of transformation.”

“Generally, people don’t have a dynamic meditation. When they enter into meditation — or at least what they call meditation — they enter into a kind of immobility where nothing stirs, and they come out of it exactly as they went in, without any change either in their being or in their consciousness. And the more motionless it is, the happier they are. They could meditate in this way for eternities, it would never change anything either in the universe or in themselves. That is why Sri Aurobindo speaks of a dynamic meditation which is exactly the very opposite. It is a transforming meditation.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 87-88

Determining the Appropriate Posture for Beginning with Meditation

For someone beginning with meditation, every aspect of the process raises a question. One of these questions relates to the body. The eventual goal is to attain a state whereby meditation can occur regardless of what the body is doing or how it is positioned. However, this is not usually the way things start out. Sri Aurobindo responds on this point.

The practice of Yoga Nidra is widely discussed in modern yoga circles. This involves attaining a lying-down posture for the body and then systematically relaxing all the limbs, muscles and calming the breathing, such that a state of deep relaxation and meditation can result. This practice frequently leads to a state of sleep, as the mind, the breath and the body all are habituated to treat such actions as an invitation to sleep.

If one attempts meditation while walking or standing, there is an increased level of alertness to the outer world, as well as physical reactions required to remain standing or moving, and these are habitually treated as an invitation to the consciousness moving outwards to the external world.

It is thus that the seated posture becomes the most recommended one for those starting with meditation. There are many recommendations for specific asanas to be attained, and specific ways of sitting to be followed, but the main issue for starting meditation should be a comfortable seated posture that can be held motionless for some time while the mind moves its focus inward or upward.

Eventually, as the practice of meditation deepens in the being, it can take place anywhere under any circumstances. The seeker, however, should be prepared for steps or stages to reach this result.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The sitting motionless posture is the natural posture for concentrated meditation — walking and standing are active conditions. It is only when one has gained the enduring rest and passivity of the consciousness that it is easy to concentrate and receive when walking or doing anything. A fundamental passive condition of the consciousness gathered in itself is the proper poise for concentration and a seated gathered immobility in the body is the best position for that. It can be done also lying down, but that position is too passive, tending to be inert rather than gathered. This is the reason why yogis always sit in an asana. One can accustom oneself to meditate walking, standing, lying but sitting is the first natural position.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg. 87

Beginning the Process of Bringing Meditation into One’s Life

If we shift to the standpoint of the observer of the mind, we will notice that as conditions vary, the ‘mind-stuff’ (citta) takes on different characteristics based on our state of reactivity and interaction with perceptions, feelings, events or external circumstances. We may consider an image of a lake that can either appear perfectly still and have a glass-like and reflective consistency, or when whipped up by wind or other external factors sends up waves, whether steady and of measured amplitude, or extremely agitated. If we are worried, angry, frustrated or upset in some way, the mind-stuff sends up agitated waves. If we are in a state of peaceful awareness, the mind-stuff is very quiet and still. If we are focusing on a steady object of concentration or contemplation, the waves will tend to be consistent and coherent with a pattern of steady repetition. Scientists who measure brainwaves have reported that different types of waves, alpha, beta, delta, etc. appear in the brain as the individual undergoes different states of mind. These waves correspond to attentive awareness, dreaming, deep sleep etc. Those who are in a deep meditative state also exhibit specific wave patterns corresponding to the brain activity in that state.

With this background, we can see that as an individual begins the process of practicing meditation, the first steps are basically to achieve a rather calm flow of brain waves that are quietly attentive. This is most easily achieved in the early stages by finding a quiet location that does not provoke too many impressions of the senses. Texts on meditation recommend finding a secluded place, that is neither too warm or cold, too windy, wet or dry, and that allows the mind to quietly center itself. Initially, using the power of habit, it is recommended to try to meditate at a fixed time on a regular basis.

As the individual advances in the practice, there is the influence of the habit that allows the mind to come to the quiet, meditative status quickly, and eventually, it becomes possible to retain this state virtually constantly regardless of potential distracting influences. This also implies that the type of purifications known as yamas and niyamas in Patanjali’s yogic text have taken hold, as thoughts of desire, harm, anger, obviously disrupt the mind-stuff.

Conditions internal and external that are most essential for meditation.”

Sri Aurobindo notes: “There are no essential external conditions, but solitude and seclusion at the time of meditation as well as stillness of the body are helpful, sometimes almost necessary to the beginner. But one should not be bound by external conditions. Once the habit of meditation is formed, it should be made possible to do it in all circumstances, lying, sitting, walking, alone, in company, in silence or in the midst of noise etc.”

“The first internal condition necessary is concentration of the will against the obstacles to meditation, i.e. wandering of the mind, forgetfulness, sleep, physical and nervous impatience and restlessness etc.”

“The second is an increasing purity and calm of the inner consciousness (citta) out of which thought and emotion arise, i.e. a freedom from all disturbing reactions, such as anger, grief, depression, anxiety about worldly happenings etc. Mental perfection and moral are always closely allied to each other.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 86-87

Stages and Forms of Meditation and Contemplation (Dhyana)

There is considerable confusion about what exactly meditation is. This is compounded by the fact that there are numerous different techniques that are taught as meditation, ranging from practices that are called ‘mindfulness’ to those that include detailed visualisations. Sri Aurobindo provides an overview of various practices that fall under the concept of dhyana, which is not precisely translated as ‘meditation’. There is thus not one absolute and perfect method of meditation; rather, meditation can be practiced variously by different individuals based on their capacity, their background and the inner need.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “There are two words used in English to express the Indian idea of dhyana, ‘meditation’ and ‘contemplation’. Meditation means properly the concentration of the mind on a single train of ideas which work out a single subject. Contemplation means regarding mentally a single object, image, idea so that the knowledge about the object, image or idea may arise naturally in the mind by force of the concentration. Both these things are forms of dhyana, for the principle of dhyana is mental concentration whether in thought, vision or knowledge.”

“There are other forms of dhyana. There is a passage in which Vivekananda advises you to stand back from your thoughts, let them occur in your mind as they will and simply observe them and see what they are. This may be called concentration in self-observation.”

“This form leads to another, the emptying of all thought out of the mind so as to leave it a sort of pure vigilant blank on which the divine knowledge may come and imprint itself, undisturbed by the inferior thoughts of the ordinary human mind and with the clearness of a writing in white chalk on a blackboard. You will find that the Gita speaks of this rejection of all mental thought as one of the methods of yoga and even the method it seems to prefer. This may be called the dhyana of liberation, as it frees the mind from slavery to the mechanical process of thinking and allows it to think or not to think, as it pleases and when it pleases, or to choose its own thoughts or else to go beyond thought to the pure perception of Truth called in our philosophy Vijnana.”

“Meditation is the easiest process for the human mind, but the narrowest in its results; contemplation more difficult, but greater; self-observation and liberation from the chains of Thought the most difficult of all, but the widest and greatest in its fruits. One can choose any of them according to one’s bent and capacity. The perfect method is to use them all, each in its own place and for its own object; but this would need a fixed faith and firm patience and a great energy of Will in the self-application to the yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 85-86

Various Forms of Meditation and Their Potential Benefits

Most people are confused about what meditation is. One of the causes of this confusion is the variety of forms of meditation that are recommended and practiced by various traditions. Some forms of meditation require strenuous efforts and considerable time to bear fruit. The Mother provides insight into meditation and proposes a method she finds most suitable. Her preferred method harnesses the power of aspiration, which reminds us of the focus of the Rishis of the Rig Veda, who placed Agni, the ‘mystic fire’, the flame of aspiration, in front as the first power to be engaged in achieving realisation.

The Mother writes: “It is very difficult to meditate. There are all kinds of meditations…. You may take an idea and follow it to arrive at a given result — this is an active meditation; people who want to solve a problem or to write, meditate in this way without knowing that they are meditating. Others sit down and try to concentrate on something without following an idea — simply to concentrate on a point in order to intensify one’s power of concentration; and this brings about what usually happens when you concentrate upon a point: if you succeed in gathering your capacity for concentration sufficiently upon a point whether mental, vital or physical, at a given moment you pass through and enter into another consciousness. Others still try to drive out from their head all movements, ideas, reflexes, reactions and to arrive at a truly silent tranquility. This is extremely difficult; there are people who have tried for twenty-five years and not succeeded, for it is something like taking a bull by the horns.”

“There is another kind of meditation which consists in being as quiet as one can be but without trying to stop all thoughts, for there are thoughts which are purely mechanical and if you try to stop these you will need years, and into the bargain you will not be sure of the result; instead of that you gather together all your consciousness and remain as quiet and peaceful as possible, you detach yourself from external things as though they do not interest you at all, and all of a sudden, you brighten the flame of aspiration and throw into it everything that comes to you so that the flame may rise higher and higher, higher and higher; you identify yourself with it and you go up to the extreme point of your consciousness and aspiration, thinking of nothing else — simply, an aspiration which mounts, mounts, mounts, without thinking a minute of the result, of what may happen and specially of what may not, and above all without desiring that something may come — simply, the joy of an aspiration which mounts and mounts and mounts, intensifying itself more and more in a constant concentration. And there I may assure you that what happens is the best that can happen. That is, it is the maximum of your possibilities which is realised when you do this. These possibilities may be very different according to individuals. But then all these worries about trying to be silent, going behind appearances, calling a force which answers, waiting for an answer to your questions, all that vanishes like an unreal vapour. And if you succeed in living consciously in this flame, in this column of mounting aspiration, you will see that even if you do not have an immediate result, after a time something will happen.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Exercises for Growth and Mastery, Dynamic Meditation, pp. 155-156

Helpful Tips About the Practice of Meditation

The 3 gunas of Nature, Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas are active in all things, even in the approach we take to the practice of meditation. Understanding these modes and the specific types of energy they each represent can aid us in tuning the meditation practice for ultimate positive results. Tamas acts through darkness, sloth, torpor and indolence. When Tamas is in the ascendent, there is an inclination to avoid meditation through tiredness or inertia or a sense of it being useless. When Rajas rules, there tends to be an effort to control and dominate the process, an active pressure to succeed, which results in ruffling the ‘mind stuff’ (citta), thus defeating one of the primary goals of meditation. Sattwa provides a calm, focused and effortless poise that is an optimal basis for achieving receptivity and responsiveness to the light and peace of meditation.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “It is quite natural to want to meditate while reading yogic literature — that is not the laziness. The laziness of the mind consists in not meditating, when the consciousness wants to do so.”

“It is not a fact that when there is obscurity or inertia, one cannot concentrate or meditate. If one has in the inner being the steady will to do it, it can be done.”

“Effort means straining endeavour. There can be an action with a will in it in which there is no strain or effort. Straining and concentration are not the same thing. Straining implies an over-eagerness and violence of effort, while concentration is in its nature quiet and steady. If there is restlessness or over-eagerness, then that is not concentration.”

“It is certainly much better to remain silent and collected for a time after the meditation. It is a mistake to take the meditation lightly — by doing that one fails to receive or spills what is received or most of it.”

“The best help for concentration is to receive the Mother’s calm and peace into your mind. It is there above you — only the mind and its centres have to open to it.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Work, Meditation and Love and Devotion, Practical Advice About Meditation, pp. 154-156