I teach a course called Zen and the Executive Mind in one of the top business schools in India. The course is hugely popular and one reason for its popularity is its great stress on meditation. Zen means meditation and meditation is something to be practiced rather than discussed; and naturally, practice of meditation is central to the course. A common difficulty practitioners of meditation run into is their inability to achieve inner silence – not just my students, but all meditators all over the world face this problem.
It is for this reason that one of the most frequently asked questions about meditation is about the difficulty to control the mind, to control the thoughts in the mind during meditation. In fact, as you move into meditation, the mind appears to become more restless, more chaotic. It is only partly true though; the other part is that normally we are not aware of the chaos in the mind, but in meditation we become aware of it.
In this short article, we are going to take a look at how we can achieve inner silence in meditation and retain that inner silence throughout the day.
One of the first mistakes we make is to believe that the moment we sit down to meditate the mind will immediately become quiet, still. Stillness of the mind is the end of meditation, not its starting point. In the journey of meditation, thoughts are going to be with us for a long, long time. In fact, even when we reach the highest peaks of meditation, which happens only to deeply committed meditators, thoughts will still be there in the mind. Meditation literature speaks of two kinds of samadhi, the highest peak of meditation – savikalpa samadhi and nirvikalpa samadhi. Even at the stage of savikalpa samadhi, vikalpas will be there in the mind. That is what the word savikalpa samadhi means – samadhi with vikalpas. In this state there still are thoughts, ideas, and so on in the mind, though they do not disturb the meditator. It is only in nirvikalpa samadhi that the mind becomes completely still, silent. There are no more thoughts, no ideas, nothing, except pure awareness itself. In that state, in the words of my parama guru, Swami Sivananda Saraswati, “the mind loses its own consciousness and becomes identical with the object of meditation”.
So if even in the lower samadhi the mind has thoughts and ideas in it, how can we expect the mind to become still with a few days or weeks of sitting in meditation, a few minutes day? Our expectations become our enemy, the enemy of our achieving meditative stillness.
For meditation is not something that we can rush into, but something that happens to us – and happens on its own, like sleep that comes on its own. There is nothing we can do to make it happen, except let it happen and surrender to it when it happens. The more we struggle to make sleep happen to us, the more we try to force sleep to come to us, the more it evades us. It happens when we relax, when we let go of all struggles, all efforts. Exactly in the same way, meditation happens when we let go of all efforts, all struggles, and do not even wait for it, but just let go. There is no other way for meditation to happen to us.
Yam esha vrinute tasya sa vivrunute tanum svam – says the Upanishad. It reveals itself only to the one whom it chooses, even as a shy bride reveals her body to the one whom she chooses for herself. And the requirement to be chosen is to let go – let go of thoughts, of worries, of plans, of the list of things to do, the deadlines.
And above all, to let go of the need to be in control, for the time being at least. My years of experience with meditation tells me that people who have a need to be always in control are the ones that have the hardest time getting into meditation.
But what happens if you want to let go but are not able to do it because thoughts keep coming into your mind? What happens when you sit in meditation and try to let go of your worries, your thoughts, your problems, all that keeps you away from inner silence but instead of inner silence, what you have is a mad, chaotic rush of thoughts and images, madder and more chaotic than before you sat down to meditate?
Struggling to stop the thoughts is useless because the struggle itself becomes another obstruction. Worrying about it is useless, because the very worry becomes an obstruction. The only thing we can do really is develop what masters call the witness attitude, sakshi bhava.
A book that influenced me deeply and changed my life when I was in my early teens is Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, the story of a boy in ancient India, at the time of the Buddha, with the same name that Buddha had when he was a prince. Young Siddhartha joins numerous spiritual traditions that flourished in India at that time, including that of the Buddha, meets the Buddha personally, but he is not able to reach inner stillness. Eventually, as an old man, towards the end of his life, while working as a ferry man taking people across a river, it is by watching the river flowing by that he finds inner silence.
That is exactly what we have to do. Thoughts will be there when we sit down to meditate, there will be worries, plans, deadlines, all kinds of things. Rather than fighting them, just become a watcher, witness. You become Siddhartha and let your mind become the flowing river. You become the sky and let your mind become the clouds floating by.
This can do wonders for you.
Yes, it will take time, but slowly you will find the thoughts in your mind losing their feverishness, a kind of serenity coming to them. It is like a torrent becoming a serene flow. From then on the journey is smoother. And when you discover inner silence, you will find there is nothing in existence more beautiful than that.
The Mundaka Upanishad has this hauntingly beautiful mantra:
dwa suparna sayuja sakhaya samanam vriksham parishasvajate;
tayor anyah pippalam swadu atti, anashnan anyo abhijakashiti.
There are two birds perched on a tree, friends, always together; of these two, one keeps eating the sweet fruits of the tree, the other keeps watching on.
As the Upanishad says, we are the bird that keeps eating the fruits of the tree – the pleasant and unpleasant experiences of life – and at the same time we are the bird that keeps watching, uninvolved, just witnessing. What is to be done in meditation is to become the bird that watches on, at least for the duration of sitting meditation.
Another help is to cultivate the daivi sampad that the sixteenth chapter of the Gita speaks of – positive virtues such as fearlessness, purity of mind, self-mastery, uprightness and so on. The Gita advises us to develop samata – equanimity – in success and failure, while dealing with pleasant and unpleasant people, with enemies and friends. That too helps a lot. Patanjali speaks of the need to begin meditation by cultivating the five yamas and the five niyamas –non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, abstinence from over-indulgence, non-possessiveness, cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study and surrender to existence.
What Inner Silence Can Do For Us
“When you are still, you find that your perception of life is at its purest,” says Ron Rothbun, in The Way Is Within. One of the first things inner stillness does for us is to make our perceptions keener and clearer. This is true about mental perceptions as well as about physical perceptions. I do not think it needs to be explained that when our mind is disturbed, our perceptions are distorted. The mind is like a mirror and everything we see, we see through it, in it. Just as the distorted mirrors you find a village fair elongates or flattens out or in other ways distort your image falling in them, when the mind is restless, not at peace, all our perceptions are distorted. A case in point is what one of my students did on a pilgrimage to Kailas-Manas Sarovar. He was upset because he had to stay back at Manas and couldn’t proceed to Kailas and when the tent in which he was staying at Manas caught fire, instead of pouring water to douse it, he emptied a can of kerosene oil over it. Many of us have made terrible road accidents because our mind was not still while driving. Under pressure even great executives take wrong decisions. It has been known for airport traffic control personnel to become the cause of airplane accidents because their minds were upset under stress. The timeless Vedantic metaphor of rajju-sarpa-bhranti is a beautiful example for how our perceptions are distorted when the mind is not still. In semi-darkness, we see a piece of rope lying on the floor and because we are afraid, the mind has lost its stillness, we mistake it for a snake and scream in terror.
When your mind is still, it becomes easier to get into what modern psychology calls the flow state. And similarly, when you get into the flow state, your mind becomes still. In a way we can say flow is a state of still mind. Flow is what sportsmen frequently speak of as the zone. In flow your efficiencies increase manifold, you are ccompletely involved in what you are doing, totally focused, entirely concentrated. Your mind experiences no distractions, even when highly distracting events happen right next to you as in the case of a neurosurgeon who remained focused on the brain surgery he was doing in spite of the roof collapsing behind him. You have great inner clarity. There are no confusions, no doubts. In flow you know exactly what needs to be done, your perceptions attain absolute clarity. You feel absolutely challenged, fully engaged and you experience a feeling of ecstasy, a sense of rapture, so that the work itself becomes self-motivating, without a need for other rewards, as happens to a mountaineer, for instance, when he tackles a dangerous cliff.
George Leonard, author of The Ultimate Athlete, speaks of a sportsman’s experience of being in the zone, in the flow state: “Long distance runner Michael Spino was training one rainy day along dirt and asphalt. After the first mile, he realized something extraordinary was happening; he had run the mile in four and a half minutes with no sense of pain or exertion whatever. He ran on, carried by a huge momentum. It was as if the wet roads, the oncoming cars, the honking horns did not exist. Gradually, his body lost all weight and resistance. He became the wind itself. Daydreams and fantasies disappeared. All that remained to remind him of his own existence was “a feeling of guilt for being able to do this.”
What Spino is speaking about is the experience of countless people engaged in all kinds of activities: an executive in the boardroom, a salesman dealing with a customer, a teacher in the classroom, a cook in the kitchen, a woodcutter splitting wood, a gardener mowing grass, people doing a million other things. Because flow is a state available to us all, if only we can make our mind still, have inner silence, while engaged in the activities of our life.
Tibetan psychology, deep, profound, based on the insights of countless yogis over millennia, speaks of our two minds: the lower mind that it calls sem and the higher mind, rig. In the words of Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, sem is “the discursive, dualistic, thinking mind…that thinks, plots, desires, manipulates, that flares up in anger, that creates and indulges in waves of negative emotions and thoughts, that has to go on and on asserting, validating, and confirming its existence by fragmenting, conceptualizing, and solidifying experience.” Sem is the mind as we know it, the mind that masters liken to a candle flame in an open doorway, constantly flickering, subject to every passing external influence.
Apart from this mind, we also have what is called rig, the higher mind, what Indian spiritual psychology calls prajna, chit, chiti – “the primordial, pure, pristine awareness that is at once intelligent, cognizant, radiant, and always awake.”
The wisdom of yoga, the wisdom of the east, teaches us that sem has no intelligence and all intelligence belongs to rig. The intelligence of the ordinary mind, the lower mind, of sem, is the intelligence of rig reflected on it. And just as the reflection of the sky in a lake will be clear when the water is clear and disturbed when the water is disturbed, when sem is still, it can reflect the intelligence of rig beautifully and when it is disturbed, we have either very little intelligence or confused intelligence. Inner stillness is the state where our sem is still and reflects intelligence perfectly, giving us keen perceptions, great imagination, superb creativity and sound memory.
Just one more thing. Life becomes beautiful, the world is beautiful, only when our mind is still. When your mind is upset, say because you have just received the pink slip, the beautiful sunset is no more beautiful, the delightful movie is no more delightful, nor is the grand concert in the best hall in the city any good. And when your mind is still, the entire world is beautiful – a simple walk on grass becomes an unforgettable experience, sipping coffee from a cup becomes wonderful and you are mesmerized by the calls of a bird from a distant tree and the chirping of a cricket at night – which I can hear at this moment!