Four times in the Bhagawad Gita the Lord tells his disciple Arjuna that, because He considers him worthy and in a fit state to receive the teachings, He is imparting to him that Supreme Secret which men of wisdom, philosophers, saints, sages and all those who have eyes to see, have sought in every age by means of all the religions.
This secret doctrine which is to be taught to Arjuna is the teaching of yoga or union, by the practice of which a man may become conscious of his identity with God ; and these eighteen short chapters of the Gita may be said to be a clear exposition of how this Supreme Secret may be discovered by the mind of man. Our ordinary minds, however, occupied almost exclusively by the business of living and filled with ordinary thoughts which seem to follow each other in uncontrolled confusion, is not a fit means with which to penetrate into the silence of the spiritual realm.
Man must forge a more subtle instrument for himself with which to discover that Secret which lies in the depths of his own heart. And this forging of the instrument can only be done by meditation. “When the mind has been stilled, when the preoccupations and worries of to-day and tomorrow have been silenced, when individual interests have been subdued, then only can we turn our full energy and attention to the quest for the “ One who is seated within as Consciousness ”.
It is for this reason, perhaps, that in the Gita the teachings of dhyana-yoga (the yoga of meditation) are not given until the end of the fifth chapter. Important as the practice of meditation is considered to be even at the very outset of the spiritual path, yet it is even more essential for the disciple to realize that right action must come first as a preparation. As in the famous ox-herding pictures of Zen Buddhism, the man must first realize the existence of the ox—his own uncontrolled senses—and wish to tame him. Only when he has finally succeeded in taming him and ridden home on his back, can he sit quietly down in his lovely mountain hut to begin the practice of meditation.
These first four preparatory chapters of the Gita teach of the fleeting and unsubstantial nature of the world of appearances on the one hand and of the nearness and lasting reality of the spiritual world on the other. They teach of right action which is performed without thought of reward disinterestedly and without attachment, and of wrong action which arises from greed and desire, the great enemy of reason, “ destructive of knowledge and wisdom ”. (III. 41).
They teach of the mysteries of sacrifice and of that supreme wisdom sacrifice which as Shri Shankaracharya says is “ to know the conditioned Self as identical with the unconditioned Brahman (God the Absolute) and to sacrifice the Self in Brahman ”.
And in the fifth chapter is given a description of that yogi who has succeeded in learning these lessons, who “ has renounced all actions by thought ” (V. 13), who is free from personal desires and anger, who has liberation as his goal.
Such a man is understood to be ready to practise meditation. He is no longer at war with himself through divided interests, but at peace because wholly absorbed in the quest for the great Secret which is to be revealed to him in meditation. The teachings of the Gita repeat over and over again the paramount importance of cutting the ties uniting the mind to personal interests, because, while they are still strong and binding, no man’s will is strong enough to keep his thoughts from turning continually towards the objects of his desires. Difficult as the struggle is, the ties binding us to individual attachments, comforts, duties even, must be worn thin by lessening our interests in them ; otherwise the mental conflict will destroy the inner peace and spoil the meditation.
Chapter Six is entirely devoted to the teachings of dhyana-yoga or meditation. Here the well-known instructions are given for the right conditions to be observed while meditating, the traditional preparation of the seat and the correct position of the body. In the East, the lotus position with crossed legs is considered ideal as it can be held in complete comfort by the disciple and is conducive both to the relaxation of the nervous muscular system and to the alertness of the mind. Perhaps, however, here in the West this position will always be found difficult to maintain for long periods, especially as completely relaxed stillness is so essential to deep meditation.
It is significant that in this long chapter only two verses are devoted to the physical conditions of meditation and two to the necessity or maintaining a balanced and temperate attitude in the matters of food and sleep, while all the rest of the chapter deals with the requisite state of mind. It is urged that we must give up all “ fancy-born desires ”, all mental images ; but even when we think we have succeeded in doing this, the mind will still continually slip away from the subject of meditation and will have to be brought back again and again.
When Arjuna, speaking for all of us, voices the difficulties of meditation owing to the restlessness of the mind, the Lord agrees but teaches that the mind can be subdued by these two means—by abhyasa and by vairagya, that is to say, by constant practice and by detachment.
This verse (V. 35) seems almost the key to the teachings on meditation. It is evident from studying the implications of these two words that there is no quick easy way to success in meditation. It must be practised continually, untiringly, not just for a few months expecting to see progress and results but without missing a day for years. And at the same time the disciple is to practise this detachment, this cutting of the ties uniting us in thought and interest to the outer world, and is to be free from mental attachments even to his own spiritual progress or duties. By these two means the disciple should gradually
“ make the mind constantly abide in the Self, bearing in mind that the Self is all and that nothing else exists ”. (Shri Shankara’s commentary on VI. 25).
And to make this easier, it is urged that the yogi, by constant study of the scriptures, should thoroughly convince his mind of the unreality and unimportance of material objects, circumstances and values. This will set free his mind from the ever-present pull towards the outer world which is such an enemy of deep meditation.
It is said by modern pilots flying the Atlantic, when they are halfway between the coasts on either side, that they have reached the “ point of no return ”, whence it is easier to go on than to turn back. What we need in meditation is to get to this point. And the Gita is very insistent that, if only a man will continue long enough with “ constant practice ”, he will undoubtedly begin to feel the strong pull of the magnet drawing him inwards towards the “ Bliss of Brahman If he can continually “ raise himself by himself” (VI. 5) so that the light of wisdom may gradually shine through his purified mind, he will become proportionately more and more aware of the spiritual world, more and more conscious of the “ Infinite Joy ”, more and more indifferent to the pull of outside interests.
The teachings of the Gita repeat many times that there are two signs which indicate that the purified mind is approaching nearer and nearer to the “ other shore ” ; these are a sense of oneness everywhere, a conviction of the unimportance of differences, and a sense of great joy which never really leaves the disciple either during meditation or in his outer life.
The goal ultimately to be reached is to become one who “ knows in truth this glory and power of mine and is endowed with unshaken union ”. (X. 7).
And this unshaken union can be reached through meditation, dhyana, which “ is a continuous and unbroken thought like a line of flowing oil ”. And we can, in the tranquil rise and fall of thought corresponding to the slight rise and fall of quiet breathing, maintain a continuous thought of “ Om ”, an unbroken awareness of the “ One Who is seated within us as Consciousness ”.
Unshaken union is both the goal and the reward of meditation and this sure promise is given to all devotees :—
“ Thus joining thyself to Me in union, thou shalt indeed reach me ”. (IX. 34).