The practice is to be done first of all in a meditation posture, preferably on a cushion or folded blanket on the floor, with one foot up on the opposite thigh and the other foot underneath, forming a triangle on which the body can be supported for a long time. Failing this, the practitioner may sit on a chair, but without supporting himself on the back of it.
The general posture of the back is something like that of a horseman looking into the distance. The spine is balanced, which means fairly straight, and the weight of shoulders and head should be felt to rest on the loins. Hands are locked together in some way, and eyes half shut or, if there is no tendency to sleep, fully closed. Westerners should cultivate where possible a seated position on the floor; it does not have associations of sleep for them and they can easily remain awake with eyes closed. The posture is much more difficult for Eastern people from those countries where they have sat on the floor from childhood, and been used to dropping off at odd moments. To Westerners, going to sleep often involves a ritual of going to bed; this fact makes meditation on the floor easier for them, so far as avoiding sleep is concerned.
To acquire a firm posture for meditation is a great advantage. For some people it is an absolute necessity. Passing thoughts and feelings are expressed by the face; longer-lasting moods by the movement or repose of the limbs; the fundamental attitude to life by the posture of the whole body, symmetrical and balanced or otherwise. Moreover, these expressions reinforce their causes, which is an important fact in training.
Someone who is worried or irritated by every triviality should sometimes face a mirror and slowly smooth the lines from the forehead till it is clear. Those who are professional worriers can use a rosary to repeat a mantra or a name of God silently, holding it somewhere at the centre line of the body, and keeping the other limbs still. One whose whole attitude to life is distorted should periodically bring the attention to the centre line of the body, the limbs into symmetry and the body straight; he should remain like that for a few minutes every so often. After some practice, the posture can be maintained in essentials during clerical work, and in many cases physical work also.
A traditional meditation posture frees from the reinforcing effects of bad physical habits or inner tensions. Seated in one such meditation posture, let the practitioner for at least half an hour try to search for what it is that he is worshipping – not necessarily in adoration, but in fear or anxiety if that is the case. It is his whole view of life and the universe that is in question. After at least half an hour of such analysis, which takes a good deal of courage, let him read one of the yogic or other books of revelation, to rouse an echo from the deepest layers of his being. If his analysis has been conducted with real determination, that echo is not too long in coming. When there is a stir, he will be able to face towards reality. The spiritual records call forth an answer because they are expressions of the truth of the human being. Deeper than the unconscious of Freud or the collective unconscious postulated by Jung, both of which are in the yogic classics included under ‘darkness’, is a God who is the projector of the universe. In the ordinary man he is as it were dreaming; concentration on the great spiritual sayings makes him stir – in fact the impulse to study them means that this aspect of God is already stirring.
Worship produces energization and clarification of the mental processes, and a view of the world as purposeful. The worshipper becomes dimly aware of the part he is to play in that purpose, and can experience in himself the strength to play it. As his ship begins to move, he sees also that the water rises in seeming opposition; but to a worshipper it is no true opposition – the bow-wave is simply part of sailing. He finds that worship is not an infantile dependence, but a responsibility; to fulfil it requires everything he is. But he gradually becomes free from many of the disadvantages of the man who has no sense of a cosmic purpose; ‘even a little of this yoga frees one from great fear.’
The best method for worship, and ultimately for realization of the Self, is to use the syllable Om. It belongs to no language – as Dr Shastri pointed out, it is not subject to the various grammatical modifications to which the ordinary Sanskrit words conform. In the Katha Upanishad, the teacher, who is the god of death, says:
The word which all the Vedas declare, and what is said to be the end of all austerities, seeking which men lead a life of religion, that word I declare to you. It is Om.
This syllable alone is Brahman; this syllable alone is the supreme; knowing this alone, whatever anyone wishes, that is his.
This is the best support, this is the supreme foundation; knowing this foundation one enjoys bliss in the world of Brahman.
Shankara says elsewhere,
Although the words Brahman, Atman and so on are names of Brahman, yet on the authority of the holy texts we know that Om is Its nearest appellation. Therefore it is the best means for the realization of Brahman.
It is used as a symbol, and as a name; yet it is more than these, for the Upanishads declare that Om is Brahman. The statement seems fantastic on the face of it, but it is not made for nothing.
Om is used in many traditions which have nothing to do with the Vedas; for instance some of the important chapters of the Koran have letters in front of them, whose meaning has been kept secret.
Mohammad said, ‘Every book has its secret, and this is the secret of the Koran.’ The most important set of letters is Alif, Lam, Mim, which in our alphabet correspond to A, L and M. Between A and M, an L is pronounced as U or double-U, which gives A U M – the same make-up of the word Om as is given in the Upanishads. (English people may remark that A + U come out to an O in Sanskrit, as they do in French – au re voir, au pair, and so on.)
In the Jewish tradition, the ‘God of Amen’ of Isaiah is a modern pronunciation of a word originally pronounced ‘Omein’; when Christ says so often in the Authorized Version ‘Verily, verily I say unto you’ he was saying ‘Omein, Omein, I say unto you’. In the Far Eastern Buddhist sects, especially the mantra sects, Om is one of the principal syllables for practice.
There are a number of other traditions which use Om, but the main point is practice, not piling up instances.
The three sutras of Patanjali on Om repetition are:
1.27 Om is his expressing-word
28 Repetition of it and meditation on its meaning
29 Thence realization of a pure self within and disappear¬ance of obstacles
In his commentary Shankara says:
Just as human gurus come to be before us when we devote ourselves to them, and give their grace to those who are
wholly engaged in serving them, so this supreme Guru God gives his grace, as perfection in meditation.
So the holy text says,
‘He who has supreme devotion to God, and to the teacher as to God,
From that Mahatma these glories shine forth.’
And the Gita:
‘He who does works for Me, who looks on Me as the Supreme,
Who is devoted to Me, who is free from attachment,
Who is without hatred for any being,
He comes to Me, 0 Arjuna.’ (XI.55)
Patanjali has said in sutra 23: From devotion to God also (samadhi comes about). Now how is one to be devoted to him, and by what means? To explain this, to show the methed of devotion, the sutra now says ‘Om is his expressing- word’.
He goes on:
The Lord protects his devotees from sansara, he leads the sansarin to nirvana, he causes him to have unsurpassed joy, and by conferring samadhi, he gives him realization. In every case the peak of devotion to the Lord is associated with truth, with the realization ‘the supreme truth is verily this’.
Now the question arises, is the fact that Om expresses the Lord a conventional association, or is it something natural and permanent as the light is an expression of a lamp? One may say: Suppose that it is an ordinary name set up for convenience, perhaps from divine revelation or simply by men, in the form ‘let us use Om as a name of God’. Previously to that, God would have been expressed by other names than Om, and the worshippers then would have been meditating upon him by some other sound or concentrated upon him by some other name. So they can do so still; what is specially important about Om?
The answer is, that the power of Om to express the Lord is something permanent, like the light manifesting the lamp. So even at a first hearing of Om, the Lord is cognizable, like the sun by its light. It may be objected that if this were so, the sutra ‘Om is his expressing-word’ would not have been necessary. It is just because the relation between Om and the Lord does not exist (naturally) that a conventional association is made by the sutra.
To this objection, the answer is: there is a permanent relation between the Lord and the Om expressing him. . . . The conventional association (pointed out in the sutra, simply) lights up the fixed relation (between the Lord and Om).
There follows a long technical discussion on whether names are arbitrarily chosen or not. The objector repeats his point that if the relation is permanent and not merely conventional, people should understand that Om expresses the Lord when they hear it for the first time. Shankara explains that the conventional association – the sentence ‘his expressing-word is Om’ – illumines or makes clear a permanent relation between the Lord and his expression Om, just as the conventional names ‘father’ and ‘son’ illumine an established father-son relation, which is a fact not dependent on names. On hearing ‘that man is the father of the other one’, the resemblance, etc. between them is noticed, which before perhaps had not been recognized.
So the conclusion is, whether one accepts the traditional view about names or not, either way there is here a fixed relation like that of father-and-son, and it is made manifest by the conventional association.
If there were no fixed relation between the Lord and this expressing-word, then it would not be correct that the Lord comes face to face with one by means of Om. . . .
But if there is a fixed relation between the Lord and the expressing-word, then Om is an appropriate means as a practice for worshipping God, and this is what the doctrine wishes to teach.
When the yogi has thus understood the relation of expression (Om) and expressed (the Lord), what is the discipline which attracts the grace of the Supreme Lord to him? To explain this the sutra says: ‘Repetition of it and meditation upon its meaning.’ Repetition of Om which is the expression of the Lord is called japa, and it is repetition mentally or in a low voice. The repetition is made of Om considered as of three measures (A, U and M) or considered as of three-and-a-half measures (A, U, M and the soundless). Meditation upon its meaning: meditation is contemplation on the Lord, the meaning, held steady by the Om which is his expression. The meaning is thus implanted in the mind (buddhi). ‘Is to be done’ is to be supplied at the end of the sutra.
Yogis who are thus doing both (Om-repetition and meditation on the meaning) attain one-pointedness of mind. And that attainment of one-pointedness is a result of worship. There is a traditional verse:
Through Om-repetition let him practise yoga,
Through yoga, let him set his mind on Om;
By perfection in Om-repetition and in yoga
The Supreme Self shines forth clear.
Here are some comments on the phrases of this verse. Through Om-repetition through repetition of the syllable, having his mind bowed before the Lord, let him practise yoga let him meditate on the Lord who is expressed by Om. And then, he whose mind has become unwavering as a result of his meditation on the Lord, who is the meaning of Om –
let him set his mind on Om let him repeat it mentally. Mental repetition is to be taken as the highest form, inasmuch as this verse associates Om-repetition with meditation (dhyana). The sense is that the mind must not run towards objects.
In this way, by perfection in Om-repetition and in yoga – a man who is undisturbed by other ideas opposed to them is one who is perfect in Om-repetition and in yoga – by that perfection in repetition of Om and meditation on the Supreme Lord, the Supreme Self (parama-atman) who stands above all shines forth clear to the yogi.
The next sutra is:
‘Thence, realization of a pure consciousness within, and disappearance of obstacles.’ Holy Vyāsa, at the beginning of his comments on this sutra, says: ‘And what else happens to him?’
This refers to the fact that one result has already been indicated, namely that Om-repetition produces one-pointedness of mind. Is that one-pointedness then the only result, or is there something else?
The answer is given in the present sutra.
Thence from devotion to the Lord by Om practice; pure consciousness within means something which is aware of the mind (buddhi) itself, which is within; that consciousness is the Self;
realization of it means recognition of one’s own nature as it really is.
It may be objected: the self is already realized in everyone as the feeling ‘I am an enjoyer’ or ‘I am a sufferer’. This is a universal experience; what is special about it? The answer is, that this is true, but this realization is a confused idea in the mind. When a man says ‘I am an enjoyer’ and ‘I am a sufferer’, the ‘enjoyer’ and ‘sufferer’ refer to the same thing, for they are (mutually contradictory) thoughts about the bare notion ‘here I am’.
Thus it is clear that (being mutually contradictory) they are merely notions arising from Ignorance.
Like what, then is the Self realized to be? Like the Lord, who is Self, pure, radiant, alone, without evil, supreme, conscious.
This extended quotation from Shankara’s commentary on the yoga sutras gives a good idea of the theory of Om practice. From its repetition, in a spirit of worship, as the expression of the Lord, there comes about perfect concentration in samadhi, removal of obstacles, a direct face-to-face vision of the Lord, and a realization of the Self within. He says that Om is a natural expression of the Lord, and when it is repeated there is at once a relation with the Lord, but this has to be made clear by directing attention to it, in cases where confusions distract the mind in other directions.
Some modern teachers compare the process to using a radio set; Om-repetition corresponds to tuning the set to the desired wave-length, and the station is immediately received. But if in the vicinity there are numerous other electrical appliances in operation, the broadcast may hardly be recognizable because of interference. They have to be shut off, and attention directed to what is happening in the radio set.
It is a question of actually practising the repetition. Swami Rama Tirtha, a fellow-disciple of Dr Shastri and a great mahatma who was also a scientist, laid special emphasis on Om as the central practice of Vedanta. He gives many instructions about it in his lectures and writings. Here is one of them:
When you sing this sacred mantram Om, you will have to throw your intellect and body into your true Self, and make these melt into the real Self. Realize it and sing in the language of feeling, sing it with your acts, sing it through every pore of your body. Let it course through your veins, let it pulsate in your bosom, let every hair on your body and every drop of your blood tingle with the truth that you are the Light of lights, the sun of suns, the ruler of the universe, the lord of lords, the true Self.
The yogis use strong phrases about Om. Dr Shastri says that all the forces of the universe are incorporated in it. These statements are not dogmas which a yogimust try to force himself to ‘believe’, though he secretly does not; still, they should not be quite forgotten. They are not said for nothing.
The yogi sits in a solitary place, in a firm upright yogic posture. He repeats Om with a rosary of 108 beads or knots, slowly; finally each Om takes about 15 seconds, including the in-breath. But there is no need to strive to lengthen it at first. If he concentrates on the physical sound produced in his throat and gives attention to it, after some weeks he begins to feel the vibration spread into the chest and further down, and also upward into the head. Let him put the attention on the down-ward-going vibrations. If he keeps upright and still, he will become aware of their spreading. At the beginning it is necessary for most people to be in a place where the Om can be repeated with a steady intonation, a strong vibrato (not a tremolo) and a well-prolonged MMMMMMMMMMMMM at the end. But with some practice, as the body becomes more tranquil and the tensions lessen, there is awareness of the vibrations even of a gentle repetition. The body is felt to vibrate with it, like a cello. It is worth while finding an opportunity to lay a finger on a cello while it is being played. Though the vibration is invisible to the eye, there is a strong feel – this gives a hint for the Om practice.
‘Chant Om with every fibre of your body.’ It is not meant as a metaphor. One who chants Om in the meditation posture, upright and still, finds the tensions relaxing; there is an appreciable effect by the end of eight minutes. Then he feels a sort of resonance which comes at first only occasionally, some-thing like the resonance which a man experiences who sings in a small space like a bathroom. The repeater of Om feels it more clearly as his hardness softens and his attention sharpens.
If we hold down the middle C on a piano, without sounding it, and then strike a low C double-forte and staccato, we find that the middle C is softly sounding, though it has not been struck. It would be the same if a C below the ear’s range were sounded; the middle C within our aural range would still sound, though for no apparent reason. Om repetition tunes our physical instrument, so to speak, and after some weeks or months the repeater becomes aware that along with the Om which he himself is saying, another Om is sounding in him. The instru¬ment has been tuned by deliberate sounding, but when it has been tuned, it will sound even though not sounded. In Zen it is referred to in the koan, ‘Of the one hand, what sound would there be?’
Repetition of Om, using the perception of the sound, in the end produces a sort of double consciousness. There is the ordinary perception of body, and the awareness ‘here I am sitting at this time and this place’. But along with that, there is a consciousness of the sound, long-drawn-out, vibrating in certain parts of the body and finally throughout the whole body, and a feeling that besides the Om being uttered, there is another Om, felt as an added resonance. This other Om seems to be ‘heard’, but not as a vibration through the air; it seems to be an addition to the uttered Om, heard through the flesh and bones of the body. There are various descriptions of the experience, but there is no point in collecting them. It is a question of experiment, and the experience when it does come is not what had been imagined from the descriptions. Not that the latter were wrong, but they are always mixed up with the pre-conceptions of the reader, and so his imagined anticipations are faulty.
Suppose a yogi takes one of the verses of the Chapter of the Self, to use with repetition of Om.
The world is not different from him, who is ever standing as the supreme, who is to be known, who himself divides into many. From him the bodies all come forth, he is the root, eternal, he is constant.
He meditates on the meaning of this text, and then sums up that meaning in Om. Om is the expression of that Lord, as the voice or the strength are the expression of the man. He repeats
Om with this conviction, which is sometimes steady, and some-times has to be again and again renewed. After some weeks of repetition for, say, an hour a day, some of the super-impositions (adhyasa in Shankara’s term) of place and time and cause-and- effect begin to lessen. They become thinner, so to say. The sound as expression of God fills more and more of the forefront of waking consciousness; the feeling ‘I am saying Om’ becomes intermittent, and in its place is an experience of Om as divine universal energy and so-to-say parenthood, with himself in it. He feels that his body is beginning to dissolve in Om, that he is Om. The meditation is then going into samadhi.
A final point about the practice is that, as Shankara says, mental repetition is the best. Most people cannot achieve it at once: their minds wander. At first repetition needs to be fairly clear, otherwise the characteristic Om ‘feeling’ is not noticed because of tension in muscles and nerves. But this is only at the beginning. Fundamentally the practice is not a question of drowning inner tension by a thunder of sound, as in some mostly primitive sects which have almost no discipline of refining the psychological instruments. Such a practice can be harmful to the instrument, because it is against its nature; it corresponds to working in wood across the grain instead of studying its con¬stitution and following the natural lines. In yoga, practice is along the true lines of development, which have been studied minutely. Forcing a thing instead of studying and following its nature is painful and often fruitless, both in yoga and in the world.
For example, if a radio set is not properly tuned, there is noise along with the desired programme. The programme can be received more loudly by increasing the volume, but it is not heard more clearly because the noise increases also. And so very loud and excited repetition of mantras may be an attempt to drown internal or external interference by volume of noise. Some spiritual perceptions may be experienced, but the deep- seated vasana complexes – of power or sex or vanity – are also heightened, and they distort the experience. They are parasitic elements, as some Christian mystics call them.
There has to be some force in the Om practice at first, or else it can tail off into day-dreaming. But the aim is to still and clarify inner awareness, and then the Om is to be perceived more and more as an ‘inner’ sound. When sleepy, or assailed by distractions, or even out of exuberance of spiritual joy, Om may be pro¬nounced loudly or sung, as Rama Tirtha used to shout it echoing in the Himalayan valleys; but that is not the essence of the practice. Abu Bakr used to repeat the name of God quietly, Omar repeated it loudly. When the Prophet, whose disciples they were, was asked about it, he said, ‘Omar is in the stage of purification, while Abu Bakr is in the stage of contemplation.’
If worship through the Om practice or any other practice is successful, the yogi feels something of the expression of the Lord in himself. But till what Shankara calls the stage of ‘right vision’ is reached, this does not yet affect the fundamental conviction of being a separate individual. When he comes out of meditation, he has a memory which is a great support in life, but it is not yet a clear experience of identity. He is still a karma yogi, moving towards Knowledge, but not yet wanting to jump into it.