Approaches to Yoga and Meditation

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It’s customary to begin a traditional talk with a classical verse or two verses, so these verses are from the Gita:

‘He sees who sees the Lord standing equally existent in all the beings, the undying in the dying.

He who sees the Lord standing the same, kills not the Self by the self.

So he attains the highest goal.’

And the third verse is:

‘Not by much learning,

not by a brilliant intellect,

not by hearing many things is the Lord within realised.

He who seeks Him alone,

to him the Lord reveals himself as Himself’.

That is from an Upanishad called the Mundaka. The first thing to say is that although there is a tradition of learning in the Vedanta schools, they don’t depend on much learning, as you heard in the verse, not by much learning, not by a brilliant intellect, not by hearing many things. Well, why then, have the study of philosophy? Why spend seventeen or eighteen years translating texts from the Sanskrit? One thing which I can speak of from personal experience is that it keeps you out of mischief. Think of all the harm I might have done in those seventeen or eighteen years, which I didn’t do because I hadn’t got the time. I’d like to have done a lot of harm, probably, but couldn’t manage it. This is not the main point. The main point is this, that if we don’t study a little of the outlines of one of the great traditional religious philosophies then we begin, not to have no philosophy, but to invent our own.

We begin to become fatalists. ‘Oh, if it’s going to happen, it’ll happen. Things always go wrong for me’. Well, there are lucky days and unlucky days, you know. And if it’s an unlucky day there’s no use trying to do anything, and if it’s a lucky day there’s no need to try, is there, because it will go well anyway.’ In this way we paralyse ourselves with self-invented philosophies and for this reason the teachers recommend us to study the outline of one of the traditional philosophers and to know well one short text, like the Gita or the fourth Gospel, about the same length, so that we have an inner resource in a time of great trouble or of great temptation, or of great fear.

Now, I just want to outline some of the points of the basic philosophy and attitude to life. This philosophy is not meant to be something theoretical that you just say and then, when you’ve finished it, you go and turn on the television and forget all about it. Instead to say simply, one or two of these main points:

‘Follow the Shastra, follow the great traditions’.

We think, ‘Oh, I’ll work it out for myself. Why not? I’ll use my own judgement. Why should I follow old texts?’ We’re taught in studying to think clearly.

This is not clear thinking. To give an example, we should search in our own personal experience for the application of these things. I give a personal experience in chess. I was quite keen on chess when I was a student; anything was better than studying law. So I got quite good at chess and I studied the theory of chess which, when I was young, had been analysed by masters who’d given their whole lives to it for about a hundred years. So I knew the theory of the openings. When I went to Germany, they were very keen on chess, and I used to play chess regularly against a very keen player. Now, he was probably a better player than I was, but he hadn’t studied the theory. So when we played a game he was playing out of his own head. I was playing out of the heads of the great masters of the last hundred years, so I could always get a superior position.

I knew it was superior. I knew it was the winning position, but because he hadn’t studied the theory, he couldn’t, in that short five minutes thinking, work out what it had taken them a hundred years to work out. So I used to say: ‘Edgar, it’s gone’. He’d say: ‘What? What? No’. I’d say: ‘It’s gone’. And he’d lose. He’d say: ‘Oh, no, no, no, no. I know my mistake. I just went wrong there. I just went wrong there’. We’d play it again; the same thing; He’d lose again.

So, if we study what has been worked out by experiment, by the yogis of the past, by the classical yogis who wrote the text (or dictated the text rather) and then confirmed, in the subsequent centuries, by those experts who have practised these methods, then we start with an advantage. But it’s no use stopping there. I have seen chess players who simply studied the openings and they would play for twenty moves brilliantly, because they were playing the moves that they had studied, the moves that the masters of the last hundred years had worked out. Well, then it would come to an end of course. Then he would start to play with own head and it was terrible. So we must not merely study and get to know the outline of the texts but we must also come to understand them. And then we must put them into our practice, into our practice of life.

Now, the yoga is meant, not for trivialities of life. It’s meant for when I suffer a severe accident and lose an arm; it’s meant for when my daughter goes on the hard drugs; when my son joins a criminal gang; when I’m going to be thrown out of my house; when perhaps I’m going to become a refugee. It’s for these occasions that we study yoga. A modern yogi, with a sense of humour, he used to say: ‘It’s no use studying swimming when the ship is going down. You should have studied long ago and learnt to swim before you got on the ship’. In the same way he said: ‘Now, while circumstances are favourable, practice meditation – enough to gain a certain independence of the world and then when the crisis comes, that will come to you’. It must have strength. We can have theories and believe in them, but they have no strength.

Now, for instance, there are people who are frightened of travelling by air. If you show them the figures, that you’ve got about the same chance of being killed in an air accident as you have of being struck by lightning – but you don’t worry, when you go out and it’s raining, that you’re going to be killed by lightning – you never think of it. They will accept that. When they’re shown the figures, they’ll accept it theoretically. But it has no strength, they still can’t get on the aircraft. If they think it right through, spend an afternoon thinking through what it actually means, what these risks are – then it’ll have strength and they will be able to travel by air when it’s necessary for them to, without this feeling,‘Oh, something’s going to happen’.

The outline of the general conduct in daily life is one of the important bases on which to practice meditation. Unless our conduct is reasonably in accordance with what we shall discover in meditation, then it’ll be difficult to go into meditation. And there are four principles which, to Westerners, are rather surprising. The first one is friendliness, the second one, compassion; the third one, a sort of cheerfulness at other people’s good fortune, which is rated a very high virtue and the fourth one is to become, to overlook, to become indifferent to, what is bad, what is wrong.

Looking at them in turn: maitri – friendliness. Not friendship, because if friendship, if I’m a friend with someone I must take their side, even if they’re wrong, and friendliness is not that, it’s friendliness to all. To be friendly but not to be committed to my friend, right or wrong, my country, right or wrong, my family, right or wrong. To be able to see that there’s something higher. Now, one example that’s given is this. If there are two rigid hooks, they lock together, and if you are here, your mind is like a rigid hook on a particular point or a particular relationship. You can be caught and drawn along, drawn away.

But if your mind is loose and flexible, then although the other hook will try to draw you, it won’t succeed. Without committing ourselves to something which is transient and passing and unreliable in the world; to be friendly, but not to commit ourselves to friendship to something passing. From the opening verse it said: ‘He sees, who sees the Lord standing equally in all the beings’. The Lord is wearing, so to say, different masks, different make up. If we commit ourselves to the masks, the masks will change and we shall be bitterly disappointed. But if we can see through the masks, to see something divine standing there, and see that – not infer it, not guess it, not hope for it, not have faith that it’s there – but to see, then the relationship will be with the divinity which is in the person, not to the changing personality.

To give an example. You can say: ‘ How can you say this? Supposing someone’s a wild beast, how can you say there’s a divinity there?’ Well, here again, we must examine our own experience very carefully. These things are not meant to be theoretical concepts. They are truths, and if they’re truths they can be found, and will be found, in our daily experience, and so I give you one of my own. In tropical countries, in India for instance, especially in the summer, a good time ago, high fevers were common and people sometimes had delirium. Now, some people, and it depends on the circumstances, they can be like wild beasts, because they think they’re being – as far as we can make out – attacked by enemies or by wild beasts or something like that, and they’re fighting for their lives. Now, if you have some technique, you are told, ‘Well, you know, you’ve got these things – you go and subdue the chap’, and he’s got to be got back to bed and more or less tied down with a sheet across him.

Then, they can perhaps… Well now, the face is glaring eyes and distorted with hate and fear and it’s lashing out, you see, and it catches you. It’s not easy to avoid these things completely. You can avoid, if you have some skill, to some extent. Well now, when that happens, you feel a flash of hatred and fury. But, then you look and you see… Behind that distorted mask of hate and fear, you can see the features of the man you know, your friend, as he was when he’s not in a fever, a very nice chap. You can see the noble human being inside the wild beast and that takes away the momentary flash of anger and rage, and you don’t go for him as you could have. Well, I just give this as an example – that it is possible to see, as it says, the divine standing in the beings.

But it’s not the external personality which is now functioning. There’s something deeper behind that, which is often momentarily or temporarily, for quite a time, obscured. But it’s possible to train to see it a little bit; and when it’s seen a little bit, then there’s a conviction that it is there; and then there’s an impulse to try to see more, and to behave: you are not giving way to the wild beast, but you are serving the human being when you subdue him.

He’s fighting like mad but you subdue him and just hold him down to the sheets. You are serving the noble human being, although you are subduing the wild beast, the temporary wild beast. Well, this is an example but, the teachers say that through meditation and through examining our experience of life we can come to the to the realisation that this is possible. And then through the meditation we can begin to develop a faculty by which this can be, at any rate, momentarily seen. Now, this is the first one – maitri. It’s a friendliness towards the divine in people, not a friendship towards their surface personality.

The second one is karuna, which means something like sympathy or compassion and we would normally say this is the impulse to do some good to them. In the morality of most of the Eastern systems, less stress is placed on this than on purifying the heart and not being hostile to people. They think that most of the woes of the human world and human life are caused by hostility of human beings to each other, not by natural catastrophes or by accidents. Those can be relatively easily met – the famine, a failure of the monsoon, can be relatively easily met. But when there’s a perpetual civil war in the area, and we are trying to do good by bringing in the food, it’s a temporary and local good.

A few people get fed, mostly the warring sides grab it, and the war goes on. But if something can be done to reduce the cause of the civil war, well then the problem can be really solved. Without that, unless we purify our own minds, as it is said ‘We’re doing good with boxing gloves’. Imagine yourself with boxing gloves on, trying to work in the kitchen or in the house. Well you can just about manage to do a few things. But all the time you’ve got no delicacy or sensitivity and the boxing gloves keep knocking things over and getting in the way. Imagine trying to play the piano in boxing gloves, or to cook a meal in boxing gloves.

Now, they say we have boxing gloves of hate and love – sticking attachment, and therefore we can’t act efficiently. In a certain situation there’s a little group of us, and one says, “It’s quite clear to me that Hugh will be the best man to do it, but I don’t like him. No, we won’t have him. George will, he’ll do it nearly as well. Well in this, this is the sort of boxing glove, there’s no sensitivity to the true needs of the situation at all. I want to hit something, with boxing gloves on. And even when I try to help, I knock things over. So the first thing is to begin to purify our own instruments, our own mind.

There’s a rather, ironical story. St. Therese of Lisieux, she was a rather sentimental saint in France in the last century, and she wrote in her diary that there was a nun in the convent who had got a very bitter tongue and nobody liked her. St. Therese didn’t like her either, but she thought ‘This is wrong’. So she thought ‘Well, I’m going to make a special attempt now to be particularly nice and helpful and kind to her’. So she did that and she reports that after three months or so, that nun said to her, ‘You know, I think you’re the only friend that I’ve got in the whole convent. You’re so nice and you’re so kind to me. You must like me a lot.’ Well now, a pupil of a yoga teacher read this and said to the yoga teacher ‘There’s a woman in our office who’s just like that. Nobody likes her. She’s got a bitter tongue and she’s awful, she behaves so spitefully sometimes. But I’m going to try this, you see’. So the teacher said ‘Well, it’s much better if you try to purify your own feelings, your own instruments first, before you try to do this sort of good’. She said ‘No, it must be alright. I’ll try. I’m going to try’. So she tried, and after three months she reported to the teacher.

She said ‘Well, it worked. I’ve made a special attempt to be particularly nice and kind and friendly to her and, you know, she said to me: ‘I think you’re the only, only friend I’ve got in the office. So, you must like me a lot. You’re so kind and you’re so helpful to me’. So the teacher said, ‘And what about your own feelings?

’ The pupil said, ‘Well, you know, in an office, of course, it’s a bit limited. You only see parts of people, certain aspects of people. But, through this I’ve got to know her really well’. And she said, ‘When we began, I didn’t like her at all, but now, I simply hate her!’

The teacher said: ‘Until you purify your own mind, before you try and do this sort of good, it won’t be very effective’. Boxing gloves, they can be boxing gloves of the tongue. Mother Theresa of Calcutta makes this point.

She says, ‘A wound with a sword, even if it’s deep, if it’s washed and then it’s bandaged and it’s protected, it will heal in time. But the wounds left by a venomous tongue, only the Grace of God can heal because the victim’s always opening them up’. ‘Oh yes, he said that, and that!’ Well, I use that as an example.

Now mudita – being able, not to interfere, but to be glad at the success of other people and not always trying to be putting a spoke in the wheel, or trying to run them down, or feeling jealous of them. They say this is much more difficult than it is to be kind to people, because when you’re kind to people you’re in a position of superiority. ‘I’m going to help you; so, I’m in a higher position’. Spiritually, that’s, not necessarily a great virtue. Of course it’s good but, just the same, it’s the satisfaction of scattering, ‘How much good I’m doing, I don’t know’. ‘Is it good to feed the villains?’ ‘I’m as good as gold when I’m starving, absolutely starving’. ‘Just asking for a crust of bread, sir, that’s all I’m asking for. I’ll share it. There are others here. They’re worse off than I am. There’s one that can’t walk, can’t walk to beg. I’ll share it.’

I’m as good as gold and you give me some food. But the moment I’m well fed ‘Ah hah’. Then I’m starting to kick people around and push them out of the way and grab their rations. Have you done good? Well, we don’t know. It isn’t automatically good. But to purge ourselves, to free ourselves from feelings of resentment and spite, and a desire to put a spoke in the wheel and to run things and people down – if we can prevent that, this is regarded as the main virtue that’s needed in society. Well, I just mention this. It’s often a surprise to Western people, who don’t always agree with it. But it might be worth considering our own experience.

I’ve done social service for about twelve years and at the end of it, the good you’ve done is of people who’ve come back after twelve, or fifteen or twenty years and said: ‘I left school at fourteen or fifteen and so on. But it gave me a lift, an impulse at that place and I went on. I went back to study, which I’d never been interested in, and I’ve got on and…’ One of them, he took a first class honours at London University. Well that, you can say, has done some good, because it’s given him choice. But, in general, you can improve the condition of people and it’ll fall back again when you stop. Unless something can be awakened in them, it won’t be of lasting benefit. So the yoga morality believes that the most important thing is to help people to awaken this divine element in them. It’s not to make things more comfortable, necessarily, for the personality, although it’s a good thing to do to relieve the immediate wants.

‘He sees, who sees the Lord’. It has to be an actual vision. You know the system of meditation, to sit still, in a roughly balanced position, and then as the thoughts come up to let them go. One teacher said: ‘Don’t shake hands with the thoughts when they come up. Not wanted.’ ‘Oh she said to me the other…’ Not wanted. ‘I could have got a good one…’ No. ‘There might be a chance…’ Not that. Don’t shake hands with them. ‘There might be a chance to pull off something good if I…’ and then you start shaking hands with them and making a scenario and then the meditation is interrupted.

Some Zen people sit – it’s worth doing to have the experience – to get up early before the dawn, find a hill where you can see the sun rise and collect a cloth full of pebbles and sit there. Then before the dawn, before the sun has just come up, allow the thoughts to come up. And as the thoughts come up, one by one, throw them away. Throw the thought with a pebble. Take a pebble in your hand, ‘There might be a chance of…’ Throw it away. ‘Supposing this…’ Throw it. ‘Oh I don’t know what I’d do if…’ Throw it. ‘That might be a good…’ Throw it. Then gradually the thoughts will become less and less. Well, this is worth experimenting. And then it can practised at home, to sit, to shut or half shut the eyes, and as the thoughts come up, mentally throw them down the hill. Then, as the sun comes up, the teacher says the sun will come up inside and there will be a vision. ‘I see’.

These things are established in calm and purity. Just like any scientific principle. If you want to establish the principle of gravity it’s no use going out and looking at the leaves in the autumn gale. Gravity is at work there, but you can’t see it clearly. So you have to go into the laboratory, or best of all go on the moon. You saw the man, perhaps, do it. He dropped a bit of paper and he dropped a bit of lead and they they fell the same, in the perfect vacuum. The principle is established in these very pure, calm and quiet conditions. Then it can be recognised. Then we can recognise that the wind is taking the leaves up and as the gust of winds stop, the leaves begin to come down – gravity. We can recognise gravity then. But if we begin by trying to see it, we won’t see it. It has to be first seen in a very calm and pure state of the mind. Then it can be seen, just glimpsed. And once it’s seen there, it can be seen in the external world.

Now, the teacher says: ‘You become aware of the currents, the inner currents of life. There is a divine inner current of life.’ By practising meditation, we can become aware of it and our actions will begin to conform to the inner currents of life. If you look at a map, say of the Pacific Ocean, you think, ‘Well, I want to get from Japan down to Australia’. You know about the great circle and you draw the curve and think, ‘Oh, that’ll be the easiest route’. It seems simple enough. But there is an immense current called ‘The Black Tide’ – the Japanese call it Kuroshio – which can go as fast as ten feet in a second. From there to here in a second, whoosh. That’s not shown on the map.

When we plan the journey, we don’t know about that. If we get there and try and make that journey against that tide we won’t have any success. But if we become aware of the inner currents, from someone who knows, or by going there and looking ourselves, then we should be able to go round it. In the same way, in a meditation, it lays a foundation for actions which will be in accord with the inner current. Otherwise our actions, although well-planned and well-reasoned, they seem to be very good, they’re not effective. They’re very often not effective. And if they are effective, it’s not the effect we expected. But if they’re in accordance with the inner current then, although the actions may seem very weak and feeble, the current will take them forward and they will become effective.


maitri = friendliness, pleasantness, lovingness
karuna = compassion, mercy mudita = gladness, goodwill
upekshanam = acceptance, equanimity, indifference, disregard, neutrality
sukha = happy, comfortable, joyous punya = virtuous, meritorious, benevolent
bhavanatah = by cultivating habits, by constant reflection, developing attitude, cultivating,
impressing on oneself
prasadanam = purified, clear, serene, pleasant, pacified, undisturbed, peaceful, calm.

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