The Cause of a Flickering Mind in Meditation
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on September 4, 1983.)

Meditation is placed as the seventh stage in the developmental process of yoga practice as expounded by Sage Patanjali. Prior to the level of meditation are the earlier stages known as yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara and dharana. The understanding of a particular stage in this series requires a careful consideration. We are usually accustomed to think of the levels mentioned in yoga culminating in samadhi as links in a chain, but there is a difference here, and that is very important to remember.

Every link in a chain is independent and is mechanically connected to other links so that if one link is severed from the others, no vital injury is inflicted upon the whole chain. If we vertically hang a chain, the upper links will look like higher levels and the lower ones, the preceding levels. We can very well compare these stages of yoga – yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana – to these links of a chain or, to be more clear, to the various rungs of a vertical ladder. The rung that is above is preceded by the rungs that are below, and we understand the connection of one rung with another or one link with another in a chain, but this sort of understanding is irrelevant when we apply ourselves to the levels of yoga.

These stages of yoga which are sometimes translated as rungs in the ladder of practice are metaphorical rungs, not literal rungs. They are not disconnected from one other like rungs in a ladder or links in a mechanically contrived chain. In what sense are we to understand the stages of yoga, then? Here is the essence of the whole matter.

Generally, novitiates in yoga, or even so-called advanced practitioners who have some knowledge of meditation and the benefits of yoga practice, are likely to imagine that for some years we practise yama and then forget about it, and then take up niyama and then be done with it, then do asana, then that is over, then do pranayama, and so on. They think that we have a set period of months or years, as the case may be, for each particular limb of yoga mentioned, as if the earlier stages are done away with when one seems to be keeping one’s foot on the next higher stage.

Actually, the lower stages are like the foundation of a building, and when we raise the edifice or the walls or the large structure of a building, we do not do away with the foundation, imagining that it has nothing to do with the building at all. The walls stand on the foundation, and the ceiling stands on the walls. The superstructure of yoga is similarly stationed and founded and stabilised by that which is apparently lower in the sense that it has preceded it. The precedent is not necessarily the lesser. Here is again a small mistake that anyone can commit, thinking that yama is inferior to niyama, niyama is inferior to asana, asana is inferior to pranayama, and so on. When we come to dhyana we are likely to think that there is no meaning whatsoever in the earlier stages. This is certainly not true.

The growth of the spiritual aspiration in a person is the maturity of a slowly growing hard timber which becomes strong when it is full in its growth, completely mature, not because every stage of its growth could be dissociated from the other preceding stages, but because there was an efflorescence of the lower into the strength and the comprehensiveness of the higher.

The analogy that I mentioned just now of the foundation and the walls of a building may not be sufficiently descriptive of this condition. The matter is more serious. It is something more important than the foundation of a building because the foundation is a mechanical structure, and here we are concerned with a living process. These processes of the levels of yoga are the vital essence of a living, constructive being, and we have to bear in mind what a living being is. The organism called a living being grows into its perfection and maturity with the advance of time by transmuting the potentialities and the powers of the earlier stages into the larger comprehensiveness and inclusiveness of the higher one.

Thus, it is futile to imagine that asana is dissociated from the yamas and niyamas, for instance. Most people who are habituated to an excessive interest in the practice of yoga physical exercises do not even dream that there are things such as the yamas and niyamas. They believe that they have nothing to do with them, as if yoga physical exercise is the movement of a bulldozer with no life in it. The body is not a bulldozer consisting of mechanised parts, with no life. Yoga asanas are distinguishable from physical exercises such as sports by their being vitally connected to one’s moral existence and unselfishness of attitude. One who is not properly tutored in ethics and morals and who has not sufficiently grown in unselfishness cannot even be benefited by yoga physical exercises. This is something specific we have to mention in regard to yoga practice if we are to consider yoga exercises that appear to be physical as really related to yoga. Otherwise, they would be just like badminton, football or cricket.

But yoga exercise is not cricket. It is another thing altogether, specifically for the reason that it is connected to the vital values of life, whereas a game of sports need not be so connected. We may lose, or we may win in a game; vitally our life is not affected. But loss or gain in what we call yoga asanas is a destructive or a constructive blow to the whole organism itself because yoga is always known as union with reality, and it would be a blasphemy to talk of exercises of the physical type as yoga if they are not associated with reality in any manner whatsoever.

Each yoga student engaged in exercises of this type may contemplate for a few minutes and realise to what extent his or her exercises are in harmony with the reality of life. Thus, people with emotional tensions and torn feelings or anguishes which wrench their flesh should not practise yoga asanas. They will do more harm than good because there is an internalising of the energy of the system as contradistinguished from the externalising activity of outdoor games. In outdoor games, the pranas are thrown out as a heaving or bellowing movement. But in yoga the prana is conducted systematically, vitally, medically, as it were, and not thrown out violently as in outdoor games. As a needle is inserted into the flesh of a patient carefully and with great caution, so is the prana introduced in a highly systematised manner in the yoga physical exercises.

So is the case with the other stages also – dharana, dhyana, meditation – of which we hear very much these days. People both in the West and in the East are interested in yoga, but a mere interest in a thing is not adequate. We must also have the understanding and capacity to practically implement this interest that we evince in something that is good. “I sit for meditation, and I have come for a course in meditation.” These are usually things we hear from enthusiasts who rush for a short course and hope to achieve a long result. This is something which requires investigation with sufficient care.

When we are at the stage of what yoga calls the yamas and niyamas, we are engaged in fact in a highly constructive activity of purifying the whole personality of the dross of selfishness even to the very roots, if we are to go literally with the highly ascetic instructions of Patanjali in this regard. It is impossible for a person to have even a trace of selfishness, even a jot of it, if the yamas are to be considered as having been really mastered, and no human being can hope to master them in one lifetime. But the percentage of victory achieved in this attempt at the practice of the yamas is also the percentage of the inner toughness of the seeker, the strength that one has within and the indomitable energy that one will wield, not in an aggressive dictator’s fashion but in a calm, poised manner of one who knows one’s profundities in the intensity of an acquirement of knowledge.

The stages of yama and niyama, therefore, are not merely moral and ethical requirements of which people generally say they have plenty. This only is a way of speaking, as no one can have plenty of these. It is difficult to have even a little of these, honestly speaking. “I am already trying to be good and I have not done any mistake; I have not done any harm.” It does not mean that one is established in yama. Yama is a different thing altogether. It is a dressing of oneself in a new robe of spiritual radiance, and though no one can hope to be a master of the yamas and niyamas in one life, at least fifty percent or more of mastery is required as one’s possession and treasure in order that one may be found to be fit to step into the next stage. Fifty percent may be considered as a pass mark here; it is not enough if it is less, because then you cannot reach the higher stage and will get a kick from the top.

Now, coming to the point of meditation, which is the seventh stage, we can imagine what an amount of accumulation of inner strength is implied in considering oneself as being prepared for this adventure called meditation: a total dedication of oneself in a spirit of unselfishness, a preventing of oneself from getting retarded in the mire of sensory attractions, a capacity to be undisturbed in one’s muscles and one’s nerves, and more than all things that are already mentioned, the capacity to fix the mind on one point is required, which is the crux of the whole matter.

The difficulty in fixing the attention of consciousness on any given particular thing is sometimes considered as the result of a lack of sufficient time given to the practice. Many think that the practice has not been conducted for a sufficient number of months or years, and therefore, the mind is splitting, jumping and hopping, and it will not concentrate on anything. There may be a modicum of truth in the opinion that inadequate time devoted to the practice of meditation is one of the causes of the jumping of the mind from the chosen objective in meditation, but the greater reason is something else. It is the unpreparedness at the lower stages, and a sudden eagerness to master the higher without having controlled the lower. This should be considered as a principal reason for the incapacity of the mind to concentrate.

In a large number of people in the world there is a violent movement of the emotions. Mostly, people are sentimental and emotional rather than rational and reasonable. Occasionally we apply reason and rationality, but basically man is as much emotional as can be, suggesting thereby that human nature has not entirely taken possession of the human being. There is a little bit of the animalistic instinct of the lower species from which man is said to have evolved, and emotion is nothing but instinct operating in a particular level. Therefore, we are more susceptible to emotional actions, and less susceptible to rational arguments. If we touch the sentiment of a person, we can know that person’s reaction in a moment, but rational arguments do not so easily enter the head because rationality is a later growth in the process of evolution, and the previous prepossession, which is emotion, which is nothing but the dynamo that pumps energy in the direction of the fulfilment of desires, is before us as a hard task.

We may think that we are not emotional people, that we are highly scientific, mathematical, precise, calculative and rational. This we may be under normal conditions, but there are also conditions in life which need not be and cannot be called normal, and under those conditions reason will not operate. It will die in one second if abnormal conditions of life descend on the heads of mankind. Only emotion will work, and sentiment will go amok, ravaging. This we see especially in mob psychology, which takes possession of even political minds these days who take advantage of the weakness of man when subjected to the operation of the herd instinct, called mob psychology. Reason does not work. It is nowhere at that time.

Thus, the process we call meditation, which is the seventh stage, is the taking into account of everything that has preceded it as an earlier stage, while also being conscious of everything that was earlier. It is like a supreme judge in a court of adjudication who is conscious of every factor involved in the case on hand. Whatever we have been in the stages of yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana will be taken notice of in the state of meditation. You cannot tell the meditation, “I have finished all these earlier stages. Now why do you worry about all these?” Nothing of the kind is the fact. Meditation as the seventh stage is the culmination of the lower stages. It is the evolution of the earlier, and not the snapping of the connection with the earlier. It is the end which is the evolution of the means, which are the earlier proceeding stages. This is why one who has been weak in the earlier stages cannot be strong in a later stage. Thus, to expect an achievement of a total absorption of consciousness by way of meditational attention would be a futility in the case of a person who has been not sufficiently cautious in the earlier stages. If there has been great error in the judgment of oneself in the stages preceding, that error will tell upon one’s effort in the higher stage of meditation.

So when a person, a seeker, a sincere sadhaka finds that meditation is not going to be practicable – it is neither possible to sit in one pose for a considerable period of time, nor is it possible to concentrate the mind on anything – this condition should awaken a new dispassionate spirit in oneself. “Why is it that I cannot concentrate? What is wrong with me?” Put this question to your own self: “Why do I have this desire to jump here and there, to move twenty places and walk about in all directions, to talk to this person and that person, to do this and do that, and never have time to sit or concentrate for a moment? What has happened to me? What is wrong with me that I cannot concentrate?” Another person cannot be expected to give you an answer to this question. Each one is one’s own judge. To thine own self be true. Be true to your own self. If there is something which is not justifiable in the eyes of God, that can be a good reason in preventing the mind from taking even the initial step in meditation. What is it that will not be permitted in the eyes of God? Does anyone know? It is that which will not be permitted by the principle of unselfishness. God is the supreme state of non-self in the sense of abolition of all individuality.

Thus, there is no question of I-ness or affirmation of the self as opposed to another alienated from the self. Selfishness is that type of psychological operation by which the affirming principal, which is the psyche, distinguishes itself from its environment and opposes reality, as psychoanalysts tell us. The psyche, which is selfish, is opposed to reality outside because it finds that its needs, requirements, desires, and passions cannot be fulfilled if it is to follow the norms set by that which we call reality outside. There may be social norms, natural norms or spiritual norms which will set at naught the ambitions of the selfish psyche, so there is a tug of war between the selfish psyche and the law of the reality outside.

It is up to you to understand what reality means, and I need not define what it is here, because anything that you consider as real is reality for you. There is no use saying in a theoretical fashion that only God is real, as that would be mere armchair philosophy which means nothing in practical existence when you know very well in your own deepest conscience that you consider other things also as real as God Himself. So it is no use telling the mind that only God is real. We know that the world is also real, the shops are real, the marketplace, the railway trains and buses are all real, society is real, and everything that sustains us physically is real.

The social atmosphere, the natural atmosphere, the astronomical atmosphere, the universal or the spiritual atmosphere are all realities, and they have to be paid their due. But selfishness is precisely that attitude which will not accept any dictate from the regulations and laws of these degrees of reality mentioned. Therefore, it is not very difficult for a person to know whether one is selfish or not, and also to what extent one is selfish. Only a little dispassionate thinking is necessary. It is no use saying, “I am not selfish. I am quite okay. I am unselfish.” This kind of propaganda will not be of any use in serious matters such as meditation. Each one should know to what extent one reacts to outer reality. The reactions that you set up in respect of reality outside, whatever that reality be, is the touchstone of your unselfishness or selfishness. This also will be the touchstone of the extent of victory that you may expect in your meditations.

These are certain essential points which one may bear in mind when considering how important meditation is in one’s spiritual life. When I say spiritual life, naturally I mean all life, not only one kind of life because, to repeat again what I told earlier, the higher includes the lower, and therefore, if you consider spiritual life as perhaps the highest condition of life, all those other kinds of life which you regard as irrelevant or lower are not discarded but subsumed and absorbed into this higher condition. Therefore, even the lower conditions of materiality, business, commercialism, politics and social living are not discarded in the spiritual outlook of life. They are absorbed by way of transmutation in a higher menstruum of a vaster reality.

A spiritual seeker is not a runaway from the lower realities of life. This would be a poor understanding of what spiritual seeking is. He is a person who has conquered the lower realities and not one who has run away as an escapist from social life, from political life, from business life, etc. He can be a better businessman than other people, perhaps, if he enters into it, but that is a different matter. He is trying to comprehend the very essentials behind these outer forms of human activity. That is why his interest is larger, but not different. It is larger than the lower but not different from the lower. So the larger includes the lower, and it is different from the lower only in the sense that it is higher.

Meditation is the apex of spiritual existence, the final word in spiritual achievement. And who can expect this achievement, this golden fruit from the garden of Hesperides, to cite an analogy from Greek mythology? Who can expect to have these golden apples unless we slay, like Hercules, the dragon of the impulses of the lower nature?

In the absorption and transmutation of the lower into the higher, a very important chemical action takes place, that is, when the lower impulses are transmuted into the higher potency of concentration and meditation, they shed their selfishness. The essentiality, the potency and the reality in them alone is propped up and brought to the surface of the higher comprehensiveness. The selfishness that is characteristic of the lower level is removed in the absorption of the principles of the lower in the higher. You may be wondering how a lower stage can be freed from selfishness. This is exactly what the Bhagavadgita, for instance, requires us to do. All activity in any level of life is divine ultimately; it is expected to be divine, and becomes a form of virtual worship if it is rid of the selfishness which is likely to infect it. All occupations in life are equally worthy and adorable in the eyes of God provided these levels of activity are considered as degrees of the same ultimate reality, meaning thereby degrees of unselfishness and not degrees of selfishness.

In the meditational stage, therefore, we have to bear in mind a well-known factor, namely, that one has to be seated in meditation for a protracted period. One minute, five minutes or ten minutes of sitting every day may not be sufficient because that would be like adding a spoon of sugar into the Atlantic or the Pacific to make it sweet. The twenty-four hours of distracted activity may drown this little effort of a few minutes’ meditation. Therefore, it is necessary to see that the effect of meditation is adequately strong to compensate the diversions and distractions of the other hours of the day. The other hours of the day – the hours of office work, occupation, job and the like – are to get magnetised by the touch of this potency that has been generated during the period of meditation so that the iron of human work becomes the gold of spiritual worship by the very touch of this philosopher’s stone, we may say, of meditation.

To this end one may have to devote sufficient time; that is true of course, as already mentioned, but the quality of meditation is equally important, if not more important. While the quantity or the number of minutes or hours devoted for the purpose is important, more important is the quality of concentration. A highly intense focusing for even a few minutes may produce a more lasting and beneficial result than a shallow meditation for even ten hours. Therefore, time as well as intensity have to go together.

A great love is expected of you. You know what love is. It is a pouring forth of oneself on the object that one loves in such a manner that one does not any more exist at that time. The whole of oneself has melted into liquid and is poured on the object of one’s affection. There is no one’s own self at that time; the object only is. That is called love. Such a love is expected of a spiritual seeker in regard to the object of meditation because it has been chosen rightly by the seeker as the sole determinant of one’s future career in existence. “My be-all and end-all is in this object.” This is how you are to think about the object of your meditation. It is not a slipshod sympathy that you give for a few minutes as if it is a job that is entrusted to you. It is not a job; it is your life and death. It is the beginning and end of all things that are meaningful for you in your life.

The choice of the object of meditation is to be so effective and permanent that it cannot leave hold of you, and you will not leave hold of it. It is the greatest treasure that you have with you. Who would leave hold of a large treasure which is the highest value that one has? Therefore, to think that you have no time for meditation is a meaningless gibberish. You cannot say, “I have no time for meditation.” It only shows that your love is somewhere else, rather than on the object of meditation. It is not necessary that you should have time for loving. It is a timeless action of the consciousness, as is breathing. One does not say, “I have no time to breathe,” and likewise, one does not say, “I have no time to love.” It does not require time because it is a timeless operation of consciousness. Therefore, one cannot say, “My mind is distracted in meditation,” if one really has a love for it.

But how can one have a love for it? How does one love an object in this world? What is the technique behind it? What actually happens to oneself? Nothing happens except the recognition of the value of the object. The value that is seen, the meaning that is read in that object is so perfect, complete, supreme, that there is nothing comparable with it in this world. “Incomparable is this object, and therefore, even death will not deter me from attempting my union with that object.” Such is the determination expected of a spiritual seeker in meditation.

But you may be wondering, “How is it possible? What, after all, is the object of meditation? It is some sort of an abstraction, some concept, some idea, some formula, some visible painting, some image. Can I consider all these as the be-all and end-all of my life?” These difficulties arise because of a poor understanding of the very purpose of meditation itself. One does not know why one meditates; the difficulty is only this much. Everybody says meditation is good, so you also do it. But why should you do it? The child’s answer is, “For peace of mind.” This is definitely not the reason because as one does not easily know what meditation is, one also cannot know what peace of mind is. No one can define what peace of mind is. It is merely an asking for something, one knows not what. What is peace of mind? It is inexplicable, a phrase whose meaning cannot easily be clear to anyone.

The reason behind all these difficulties is precisely this, that we have a brainwashed background of the evaluation of anything in life, brainwashed in the sense that we have been tutored right from childhood, babyhood, that the material values of life are the only values of life. Our father, our mother, our neighbours, our friends, all tell us this only, “What value money has, what value land has, what value property has, what value name, fame, power, authority has!” Who can say these things have no value? These have value, and only these have value. There is nothing else visible to the eyes. Other than land, building, property, wealth, name, fame, power, authority, what do you see in this world with your eyes? There is nothing. So all the values are engulfed by these visible values of life; the value of meditation, if it is told to be a different thing, will be interpreted in these material forms only: What does it bring to me?

A commercial question is raised even before God Himself: “What will You give me if I meditate on You?” This is what you ask: “What will I gain if I meditate?” You have an idea of gaining some material facility, a material comfort, a materially comfortable circumstance, even by meditation itself. Will we sell God Himself for the sake of the wealth of the whole world? We will not stoop down to that.

The life that is spiritual is a razor’s edge. It is not for the blunt brain or the totally crass, uneducated consciousness. It is no use trying to teach it to every blessed person, every Tom, Dick and Harry. It will not work. It is subtle, as what we call the universal principle is subtle. For us, what we call the universal is an abstraction which is invisible to the eyes. No one has seen the universal in this world. Everything is a particular. This, that, and everything that we see with our eyes is a particular so-and-so, such and such, this or that. Who has seen the universal? The universal is a concept in our minds.

Educated minds in the material sense, as we evidently all seem to be, cannot know that the so-called abstractions are the greater realities of life than the concrete substances which we touch with our fingers. All the values of life which we regard as dear and near are invisible things. Visible things are not the values of life, though it is a little hard for us to know how it can be. We know very well that name, fame and authority are not visible objects, and people can literally hang themselves if these are denied to them. Physical security and comfort, but bereft of a good name, bereft of the least respect and regard, bereft of the least recognition from society, is usually considered as worse than death, even if we have all the gold of the world in our pocket. This means the visible gold is not as important as the invisible respect that we expect from society outside. One who is insulted and disregarded by way of non-recognition in every way does not consider oneself as endowed with any meaning whatsoever. All physical comfort but an insulting word going with it will be enough to topple down all the facilities of physical comfort. An insulting word is not a visible object; it is a concept, and the concept is stronger than all material facilities given to us.

Even material possessions are concepts only; we may come to that. The land, property and gold that we have are ideas in our mind. They do not actually belong to us. We know very well that the land we possess is not sitting on our head or sticking to our body. The money is not in our hand; it is somewhere, and even that somewhereness is a notional value that we attach to it because wealth is an invisible concept in the mind. It is not a gold, silver or currency note that we call money. It is a power for acquiring, possessing, purchasing what is called wealth, which may be symbolised in gold coins, silver coins, etc. The power is, again, an invisible concept, as I said. If all the value of the world is in gold, and an occasion arises when gold has no value in this world, we will find that we cannot eat it and appease our hunger. All the currency notes in the world can be devaluated in one moment under given circumstances. The conceptual value attached to these physical substances called money alter so quickly that the visible things which were all the life of a person yesterday may be the death of the person today by the change of the conceptual value attached to them. That the whole world is an idea, finally, is the opinion of great thinkers and philosophers. The world is only an idea, not a physical substance, and all that we consider as meaningful in the world is also an idea. So why should we ask for something from meditation, from God? What is that something we are asking for?

There is a basic mistake in this muddled way of thinking, and so a subtle education of the mind is necessary at the very outset in order to be able to concentrate the mind because it will not concentrate if it is not educated properly. Absence of education is nothing but this attachment to the notional values of life, which really have no value finally, as notional values are attached to physical substances and even abstract ideas which are supposed to bring physical comfort.

The universal, as I mentioned, is something invisible to the eyes, but the beauty of a thing is the universal that is present in the object. The object that is beautiful is appearing as such because of the indwelling of the universal in it. The larger the presence or the percentage of the universal in an object, the more attractive it is, the more beautiful it is, the more valuable it is, and more indispensable it becomes. The highest universal is what we call God; and if the universal cannot not be, God also cannot not be. It has to be. The universal has to be because with this little analysis we have made here, we find that all life is nothing but universals operating in an abstract fashion. The highest gradation, the finale of these universals, is the largest universality which includes everything which is lower, and does not exclude them. It is not like horseness being separate from the horse. It is not that kind of universality that we are speaking of. Here the universal, whose meaning I mentioned in a few words just now, is actually more real, and is perhaps the only real thing in life. That is God, the only real thing in life, which includes all the so-called concrete things also. Such conviction is necessary before we can expect to have even a meagre percentage of success in meditation.

Coming to the point, sufficient time has to be devoted to meditation. A few minutes, fifteen minutes, or even half an hour may be inadequate. An hour’s sitting may be considered as a minimum even for the busiest of people, and a more frequent sitting will be beneficial; that is one side of the matter. But the more important thing suggested is the quality of concentration, which cannot be expected if the lower stages are not mastered and selfishness is still lingering in the subconscious and the unconscious.

Our quality of meditation is nothing but the quality of our personality manifesting itself. Whatever we are is projected in meditation, and so the flickering mind in meditation is indicative of a distracted and torn personality not yet ready for meditation. These are certain considerations which we may bring home to our own minds so that we may prepare ourselves for this great adventure which is the supreme goal of life.