Spiritual training at the outset can look unrealistic. It says: ‘Do this!’ or ‘Don’t do that!’, but a bare command can defeat its own purpose. It is like the King in Alice in Wonderland, who angrily tells the trembling witness: ‘Give your evidence. And don’t be nervous. I’ll have you executed if you’re nervous!’ There are some things that cannot just be commanded.
We feel that an order not to be nervous is like an order not to feel cold, or an order to like eating something unpleasant. The question is whether feelings can be controlled by a simple order, even when backed up with a threat of beheading.
In yoga the words used are more gentle; perhaps something on these lines:
A student of yoga should do his actions without personal hopes or fears about the result.
But the point remains: how is this to be done in real life? To do it, one would have to be already free from hope and fear. Surely he would be a master, not a student.
Now, there is a central teaching in yoga:
a fundamental change in behaviour can normally be brought about only by changing the very roots of the mind, and not by changing just the surface ideas.
To change the roots of the mind, namely the latent dynamic samskāra-impressions, needs sustained effort. It is true that there are some yogic short-term helps in an emergency, but the effect is temporary. The real change is like bringing someone who has neglected his health into a state of vigour and physical ease. It takes some six weeks to get any noticeable improvement, and six months for a big change. It will require a good three years of intensive training to convert a feeble body into a physical instrument equipped with energy, endurance and precision.
Inner training is similar. Serious yoga practice gives some result in six weeks – a brief unexpected feeling of independence and inner control; after six months there will be a significant change. If the practices are kept up with continued enthusiasm (not as drudgery, or dogged fulfilment of a pledge to oneself), in three years there will be a radical change at the roots of the mind. This does not mean an end to difficulties inner and outer, but they are now met with creative zest.
So when we are faced with a ‘Don’t be nervous!’ situation, it is a bit late to hope that some yoga technique, recalled from a book or lecture and only now adopted, will give instant calm. It will not. A non-swimmer who falls overboard cannot expect to duplicate the movements of swimmers seen on television. He ought to have learnt to swim long ago.
Still, yoga does teach certain things which if practised even a little can help in crises. They are life-belts, and no substitute for learning to swim. There is not always a life-belt available. Even the best yogic practices are uncertain in their effect until they have been done steadily for a good time. How long it takes depends also on what sort of life the practiser has been leading.
The mathematician Dodgson (who wrote Alice in Wonderland under the pen-name Lewis Carroll) was a good observer of human behaviour. The description of the Hatter’s nervous panic in front of the King shows him fidgeting with his hands and feet. Then he bites his teacup instead of the bread-and-butter.
In yogic terms, the prāṇa-s or life-currents of an agitated person go in a stream to the extremities: hands, feet and face. This dispersal can be corrected by bringing the attention to the central line of the body.
The Opening Practice
- Sit in a meditation posture . Sit in relaxation. This does not mean complete relaxation: the body would collapse. It means to have no more tension than what is required to hold the posture. In time, the body maintains itself without conscious control. Good posture helps to open up to the vital cosmic force which runs through everything.
- Bunch the fingers and press them for a few seconds on the abdomen just below the navel. Take them away, and then use the aftersensation to focus the mind there.
- Now breathe in deeply, without strain. Feel that the breath is coming in at the navel, and rising in a column of light up the centre line of the body; it reaches the spot between the eyebrows at the end of the breath. Of course the physical breath does not in fact come in at the navel. But an easy way to become aware of the central vital current, is to associate it with the movement of breath. The action is something like drawing up milk through a straw; here it is drawing up light.
On the out-breath, visualization is dropped. Mind rests. Then with the next in-breath, make the visualization again.
- Do this twenty-one times. Count on the fingers, or finger joints, or make twenty-one knots in a piece of string and use like a rosary. The breath should be deep and slow, but not strained. With facility, it lengthens naturally; the exercise can last six or seven minutes. But a record-breaking spirit is pointless.
The practice tranquilizes the body and mind, and opens them to divine cosmic currents. To know too much about the theory, however, is a disadvantage at the beginning. It generally disturbs practice.
The Line of Light
One of the main traditions, which Dr Shastri followed, recommends focussing attention on the central line of the body, from the navel circle to the forehead. It is a development of the previous exercise. In this more general practice, there is no movement of the attention, nor focussing on the breath.
Press a fingertip on the top of the forehead, and slide the fingertip down the front of the body. Pass it with light pressure between the brows, over the nose, chin, throat, breast, and end up at the navel. Use the after-sensation to bring the mind to the central line. Feel it as a line of calm light. Sit for ten minutes, looking at it, and feeling it. This is called the Line of Light practice, or in some traditions, the inner Middle Way.
Some experts add that in life situations when the impulse to move the body becomes very strong, the abdominal muscles (felt as being just below and round the navel) may be lightly tensed and then relaxed. Suppose you have to wait for a time before doing something active and important or even dangerous. Quite often the aimless tensing of muscles of hands and feet during the waiting period leads to loss of tone, so that when finally there is the relief of going into action, the movements come out jerky and poorly co-ordinated. Bringing the attention again and again to the central line, along with occasional tensing and relaxing the muscles felt to be round the navel, can prevent the loss of coordination. By this practice symptoms of nervousness are reduced. But unless it has been done in favourable circumstances for a good time, it will not show its true effect in unfavourable ones.
A ten-yard plank, a foot wide, is laid on the floor. Anyone could walk along it without stepping off. Many could do it with their eyes shut. But if it is the foot-wide top of a high wall, few would like to try it. The task is the same, but the knowledge that one absolutely must not step off, makes the difference.
If a strong rail is provided on which the hand can rest, the walk is again manageable. Once a rail is there, it is not found necessary to clutch at it. Because it is there, it is not needed.
The application to life is, that the Line of Light becomes the strong rail.
It is practised first in a meditation situation. When some facility is attained, it can be done when waiting, walking, or at other times when the senses do not have to be continuously alert to the environment. Finally it will begin to rise, and support itself, without conscious effort of attention. When something upsetting happens, the Line of Light manifests itself as a protective and calming influence, and the inner balance is recovered. It is as natural a process as recovering physical balance in a sudden gust of wind. In these ways, a practiser becomes more and more independent of the opposites.
Some people complain of the difficulty of fixing the attention continuously. They have no difficulty in doing so when they watch a favourite TV serial, or try to pick up scandal from a conversation at the next table. For serious training, the attention is to be treated like a puppy. A long cord is attached to his collar; when he dashes off, his name is called and he is gently hauled in. Fie is made to sit by pushing his haunches down. Then the pressure is released, the command given, ‘Away!’ and he dashes off. Soon his name is called again, and he is gently but firmly dragged in and made to sit. It is important not to get angry and so frighten him. But he must be pulled in, or the point of the training is lost. After daily sessions for a week or so, he will begin to come in with joy when his name is called, and voluntarily stay till released. He accepts it as part of the pattern of life.
In something of the same way, the attention can be brought back to the Line, and after some practice, will stay there. The daily practice is, in one tradition, eight minutes.
For a long time, meditation, like all other forms of training, will have good days and bad days: sometimes it will be only 20 per cent successful, but sometimes 80 per cent. A lot depends on how the daily life is lived. If selfishness is reduced to some extent externally, it will not return to disturb the meditation. Then on certain days the meditator will become aware, not of a more-or-less selfish individual looking at light, but of being light, and catch a wondering glimpse of what he really is, beyond the mind-cage.
© Trevor Leggett