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True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 13: Sitting for Meditation

The first and foremost immediate practical step—the striking of the iron while it is hot, as they say—is to be seated in an erect posture for the purpose of the practice of yoga. The sitting posture is regarded as most conducive and necessary because in order to adjust the mind and concentrate it on the ideal of our quest, the body also has to be set in order.

The position of the body has to be decided in the beginning. What are the positions of the body? We can be standing, sitting or lying down. Experts in yoga have pointed out that the seated posture is best because when we are standing, the mind cannot concentrate wholly on its objective as the standing posture requires the attention of the mind on the body to some extent. Sometimes we may not be conscious that we are standing, especially when we are engaged in conversation or are gazing attentively at something. But whether we are aware of it or not, a part of the mind is keeping the body in position. Holding the body in a consistent way is made possible on account of the cooperation of a part of the mind. It may be only a reflex or subconscious action, but a part of the mind is given to the work of enabling us to stand erect and, therefore, the whole of the mind cannot be given for concentration, meditation, and so on. The standing posture is not good because if we become too absorbed in concentration, we could fall down on account of the mind not being able to keep the body in position. If we lie down, we may go to sleep. There is a chance of getting into a state of unawareness while we are lying down.

So, there is no alternative; we have to be seated. This seated posture should be comfortable because the purpose of being seated is not merely sitting. The purpose is to make the mind wholly attentive, or at least attentive in a large measure, to the ideal of our quest. If we are seated in an uncomfortable or painful position, then the mind will be thinking of that pain. If a person who is not used to sitting in padmasana forces himself or herself to sit in padmasana, there will be pain in the joints, an awkward feeling in the muscles, and the attention will be on the muscle pain rather than on the object of the quest. Sthira sukham āsanam (Y.S. 2.46), says Patanjali. 'Asana' does not mean padmasana, sukhasana or any particular asana; it is any posture that is very comfortable.

This comfortable posture should be such that it does not disturb the free flow of our breath. Many things are connected, one with the other, in our system. The muscles, the nerves and the vital force are immediately connected with one another, and they are indirectly connected with the mind. They exert a sympathetic influence upon the mental activity, and our main purpose is to train the mind in the art of meditation. Therefore, there should be a strengthening of the position right from the beginning—as, for instance, when constructing a building engineers give enough attention to the foundation. The laying of the foundation of a building is a very important part of the construction. It is not something unimportant or unnecessary. Hence, from the very beginning, we have to be cautious. It is no use taking a hundred steps at a time, not knowing the consequences thereof. Take only one step at a time.

First of all, before you start meditating or chanting anything, find out whether you are able to sit. Are you able to sit quietly, comfortably, for at least fifteen minutes continuously without shaking your body, without stretching your legs, without feeling pain, without feeling any signs of unnaturalness in your pose? This has to be checked at the very beginning.

Choose an appropriate posture. Do not try to do something impossible. People who are not used to sitting on the floor with crossed legs, who are accustomed to sitting only on chairs, may find it very hard to comfortably bend their legs. So for them, the advice is that they sit in such posture as would be nearest to the prescribed postures without causing undue pain, stress or awkwardness. In the beginning, we may even use a chair with a backrest to keep the spine as erect as possible. Later on, it must be improved gradually until we are able to fold our legs and sit erect.

Why is it said that we must fold our legs rather than stretching them out? It is related to the operation of the energy in the body. The purpose of locking up the legs and the hands in a seated posture is directly connected with the meditative techniques, and is not merely a whim or fancy. The reason is that energy is likely to leak out through the extremities of the body, through the fingers and toes especially. The extremities of the body are the nerve endings, and energy goes out through them because they are delicate. If they are left open, stretched forward, it is likely that the energy that we conserve in an act of concentration of mind may not be able to circulate within our system—which is our intention, ultimately. The energy may escape on account of the pressure exerted on the body.

Every form of energy tries to escape the centre of concentration—as, for example, soda in a bottle tries to escape, but cannot because the bottle is so thick. So the moment we open the top, it bursts out with a hissing noise. The same applies to any kind of energy. Why do children jump and dance and run about here and there, while adults do not? We do not see elderly men running about; they go very slowly, whereas a small child jumps. If we ask a child to go out and see somebody, it will run and jump and skip because it has bottled-up energy, whereas an adult has not so much energy. This bottled-up energy wants to escape. When energy gets concentrated it must find an avenue of escape, in some way or the other.

Much more does this fact become evident in a deliberate attempt at the conservation of energy in concentration and meditation. The moment we begin to deeply concentrate and wholly fix our attention on anything, all the energy of the body gets focused on that point on which we are concentrating. There is a withdrawal of all the energy of the body, and the senses also cease to function, to some extent. When we are deeply concentrating on something, the eyes will not see, the ears will not hear, and so on. Even loud noises will not be heard. We may be gazing without seeing anything, on account of the withdrawal of the mind. There is a focusing of all the energy on a particular point.

But this is something quite unnatural for the distracted mind of the workaday world. The mind does not know what concentration is. It has never been taught the value of it, the purpose of it, or even the method of doing it. Now, suddenly, we are starting this technique, to which the mind is unaccustomed, so it wriggles out of this condition; the mind wants to get out of the clutches of this act of concentration, and finds some way of stopping it. Then we feel some sort of fatigue, awkwardness, unhappiness or tension inside, on account of which we may stop the concentration.

It is also possible that the energy will leak out. Now, the way in which the energy leaks out of the system is multifarious, about which we shall see in some detail a little later on. It has many ways of leaking out, but the simplest and perhaps the grossest way in which this can happen is by the extremities of the body coming in contact with the atmosphere. We know that in the winter, the wind blows very strongly. That is, from a place of intense pressure the wind blows in the direction of that centre where the pressure is less. It moves towards hot places from cold places. Likewise, the energy may leak out of our system on account of the pressure it feels inside, and it may move in the direction of that area where the pressure is less. The pressure in the system is more; the pressure outside is less. So, naturally, it will go out, and it will go out through the extremities—through the fingers and toes. Therefore, the student of yoga locks up the fingers and toes. The toes touch the body, and are not allowed to be exposed to the atmosphere outside. This is why we are advised to sit in a posture with our legs locked up.

Of course, the best asana is padmasana, which is said to be the king of meditative postures. But if sitting in padmasana is not practicable, we can have easier postures such as the one in which we are all seated now, for example. We are all sitting in one posture. When we sit in this posture, we are allowing our toes to touch the bare ground. This is why we are asked to be seated on a non-conductor of electricity.

When the system of yoga was propounded in ancient days, they used to sit on dry grass, a special form of holy grass in India called darbha kusa. Asanas or seats made of this grass were used. We can also use other types of seats, such as dry wood, but that would be very hard, so we cover it with a cloth, a cushion. The idea behind this is that we are seated on something which will not drive our energy down to the earth, because the earth is a conductor of electricity. We will get a shock if we stand on the ground and touch an electric wire. This is why we should not sit directly on the earth. Have a seat—a cotton seat is all right—and sit in this posture with locked-up legs, not allowing the toes to touch the ground. Sit in padmasana if possible, and lock up the hands—like we see in portraits of Buddha, for example, seated in meditation. Some people lock their fingers. There are various postures of this type.

We should sit erect. If we sit in a crouched position with our back hunched, or if there is any kind of distortion of the body, there will also be a kind of distorted feeling in our mind; we will feel a sense of uneasiness. The purpose of this physical posture is to enable us to gradually forget that we have a body. The consciousness that we have a body increases by the physical pain that is felt, or by any kind of illness that is in the body. A very healthy person does not know that he or she has a body. It is only a sick person who always feels that there is a body. A jubilant, healthy body will not be conscious of itself. That is the sign of good health. In yoga, the purpose is to ultimately rouse the consciousness out of attachment to the body for a different aim altogether. Now the consciousness is tied to the body in such a vehement, impetuous way that it is almost unthinkable how we can extricate it. The consciousness or the mind has become one with the body, and it is the body for all practical purposes. We and the body are one. We are the body; this is what has happened to us.

This is a very unfortunate state of affairs. We have regarded our body as ourselves, as there is nothing else that we can think of as being ourselves. It is a Herculean task to loosen the contact of consciousness with the body. No one should think that it is a simple matter. It is like peeling off our skin. Who would like to peel off their skin? It is horrible. But this is exactly what will happen. When we try to extricate our mind or consciousness from the body even a little, we will feel a shock. We will feel a creeping sensation like ants crawling through our nerves, and there will be tremors, perspiration, and similar uncomfortable sensations. We will feel this even when we are merely sitting for a long time without concentrating, without thinking anything in the mind. Try this, and see what happens. For one hour continuously, sit in one erect posture without thinking anything. Do not meditate, do not do japa—only sit. You will find a creeping sensation, a subtle feeling inside, as if some sort of wave-like motion is going on inside the nervous system. That is the sensation created by the movement of the pranas. The point is very clear, and there is no need to expatiate upon it further.

Be seated in one posture. It is advised by teachers of yoga that we must face the east or the north because of the magnetic influences of these directions. The sunrise is the cause of a magnetic force in the eastern direction, and the North Pole is said to be the centre of a magnetic force which runs from north to south. Hence, these two directions are regarded as very helpful in generating psychic electricity within us in the act of concentration or meditation. Face the east or the north, and be seated in one posture with the head, neck and spine erect. Keeping the head, neck and spine erect is difficult in the beginning; you will feel pain in the spine. So, in the earliest of stages, you may have a backrest. Use a cushion, or sit near a wall. That will help in the beginning to keep the spine erect. Whatever is helpful to you in this practice can be resorted to.

Now, having comfortably seated ourselves in this posture, what follows? What are we going to do by sitting like this? Here starts the real investigative activity, which is the beginning of yoga. Our mind starts working, and it starts working in a very comprehensive manner.

Many have suggested that before we actually start thinking on any particular issue of yoga, it is better that we take a deep breath. Many types of pranayama are prescribed, but we need not go into all these details because they have one purpose ultimately—to harmonise the flow of the breath. Just as all the asanas, or the physical exercises which hatha yoga prescribes, have one purpose ultimately, which is to keep the body in a perfect single chosen position, the purpose of the different breathing exercises is to finally systematise the process of breathing, instead of breathing heavily as we do when we are running or are exhausted, etc. The more we are composed, the slower is the process of our breathing. It is only in a disturbed condition that we heave the breath. So, when we are seated in a posture, the best thing would be to take a very slow, deep breath, and slowly exhale, as slowly as possible. This, continued for a few minutes, coupled with Om chanting in a sonorous, mild tone, will prepare the mind for its further work.

But if our mind is disturbed for any reason, we can neither take a deep breath very slowly, nor chant Om with peace. This is another essential factor. If we are agitated for some reason, we should not sit for meditation; that is not the time for sitting. Every one of us has occasion to get disturbed in the mind. Something happens either within us or outside us which puts us out of gear, and we are unhappy. We are morose and moody, and do not know what to do. At that time, there is no use sitting in a posture or regulating the breath. That is why there is the very cautious advice that we must be adequately established in the practice of the yamas. It is because there is no practice of the yamas that this disturbance comes. Why are we moody, melancholy and dejected? What is the matter with us? Something is wrong in our way of thinking. We have not been able to adjust ourselves properly with society, or with our desires, and so on. These all come under the yamas. We have not laid the foundation properly, and now we are sitting in asana. We are not ready for the asana itself. This is a very important thing to remember. Are we agitated, frustrated? This is a question we must put to ourselves.

Also, it is proper or advisable to review whether the mind has any deep attachment to anything—something which compels us to pay attention to it. Mild attachments do not matter; there may be many like that. But, is there any deep-rooted attachment which is inseparable from our normal emotional feeling? Everyone has some attachment or the other, and if there is something very severe and inescapable, that has to be dealt with in an effective manner. What prevents us from concentrating the mind on things spiritual is attachment to something or the other in this world.

What is attachment? It is nothing but the concentration of the mind on something. And now, we are here only to concentrate the mind on something; that is the very purpose of yoga. But what is it that we are trying to concentrate upon? We have got some peculiar idealistic notion of what we have to meditate or concentrate upon, for which we are sitting in the name of yoga. But the mind has already concentrated itself on something else, different from what we are conceiving as the object of concentration, and so there is a tussle between an idealistic picture that has been placed before the mind in the name of yoga and a realistic attachment with which it is very much concerned.

Now, this is a very serious matter for the students of yoga, for people who live a spiritual life. This is so serious that we cannot simply close our eyes to it, because if deep-rooted attachments are not dealt with in a proper way and the requisite attention is not paid to them, we force our will to concentrate on something else in the name of yoga, and it will be harmful to the system. It will violate our personality, insult our mind, and cause various complexes and illnesses—physical as well as mental.

Therefore, after you are well seated, review in your mind if you have any strong emotions inside, either of intense affection or intense resentment, because either of these is dangerous. If you find that it is hopeless—the mind is so much agitated on account of this attachment or resentment that it is no use sitting for meditation—well, stop your meditation for the time being: “My dear friend, enough for this day. Today I am not going to meditate. I am very much upset.”

What to do now? Again comes the need for a psychological analysis. A deeply upset person cannot conduct a psychological analysis, and so you must do this analysis with the guidance of a superior. If you have not got a Guru, at least talk to somebody who is more advanced than you. He is not your Guru, but you can consult him: “Something is very seriously wrong with me. What can I do?” He may give some advice. Two heads are better than one, as it is said. So, if you do not have a Guru, some such collaboration from your co-brothers on the path will be helpful because you cannot analyse yourself when you are completely out of order due to deep attachments or anger, etc.

The love of God is the deathblow to all our earthly emotions, and a deathblow is the severest of blows. Nobody can tolerate it. It is an awful pain; we cannot bear it. Though we use the word 'love' like a honeyed term, the love of God is a terrific thing. Here is an occasion, an instance where love, which ordinarily is a source of joy, becomes a source of sorrow and repulsion—and is painful, as if it is venom. The love of God is not, at the outset, a source of joy. It is an axe that we deal at the root of all our joys. This is the reason why most of us cannot take to a serious practice of meditation. A daily review of the mind, a constant assessment of the conditions of the mind, a regular check-up of what is going on in the mind—even in a subtle, invisible manner—would be necessary before taking to actual practice of pratyahara or dharana.