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The Battle of the Mind in Meditation: A Devotee’s Journey

by Nayaswami Diksha
Spring 2010 23 Comments

In Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings, the proper use of will power is essential for success in every undertaking. As a meditation teacher, however, I’ve found that people often become discouraged by mental restlessness and give up after only a few attempts to meditate. But, through the proper use of will power, anyone can overcome restlessness and achieve major progress in meditation. In my own struggle to meditate deeply, I’ve learned a few things that may prove helpful.

Seclusion: a turning point
My first real breakthrough in my battle against mental restlessness came during one of my early weeklong seclusions at Ananda Village. Seclusions are usually a time for going deeper in meditation, but I began mine in a discouraged state. Certain recurring, negative thoughts had followed me into seclusion. Whenever I tried to meditate, I was assailed by thoughts of my imperfections as a devotee, and the notion that I wasn’t “good enough” to meditate well.

After two days of this, I became so desperate to escape the tyranny of my mind that I decided to take charge. When the discouraging thoughts began again, out loud I shouted, “Stop it, get out!” Then, out loud and with strong will power, I started instructing myself in the basic steps of meditation.

I guided myself through the full body relaxation exercise, followed by 6 to 8 rounds of measured breathing. (Inhale 8, hold 8, exhale 8.) Then I mentally guided myself through the Hong Sau meditation technique: I watched the breath, repeated the mantra, and absolutely refused to let anything divert my attention. I was completely focused on the mantra and the breath—my lifelines to peace.

A profound experience
Soon thoughts began to dissolve and I started to relax. Gradually I was feeling more and more peaceful. After about 20 minutes, I let go of the mantra and became absorbed in a deep state of peace. I went so deep that I wasn’t even aware of my own existence. There was no body, no mind, no “I,” only peace. The experience was profound.

Toward the end of my meditation, an image emerged. I saw myself as an adult, embracing a baby in my arms. I knew intuitively that I was that baby, and I understood the message: “If you want to achieve depth in meditation, you need to accept and embrace yourself as you are. Only then can you make progress.”

That meditation convinced me that I could experience deep meditation, perhaps even samadhi (oneness with God). What I most needed was to resist, with strong will power, the negative thoughts that were pulling me down.

Discovering Patanjali’s 8-fold path
After that, my meditations improved and I occasionally achieved deep states. Attending an Ananda class series on Ashtanga Yoga*—the 8-fold path to enlightenment as expounded by the ancient master, Patanjali—gave me my next step. I realized immediately that here was a time-tested approach for finding God that I could use to deepen my meditations.

I began by focusing on Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas, the ten moral guidelines and attitudes that help us to meditate deeply and to find God. (Non-injury, non-greed, contentment, devotional surrender, etc.)  I worked with one attitude at a time, for a month to a year, depending on my need.

Contentment, especially, was an important one for me. In working with contentment, I made a conscious effort to accept things as they came, to see the hand of God behind all that happened, and to surrender to whatever God wanted of me. I resisted the tendency to try to force things to happen, and tried not to envy anyone or to compare myself with others. I made God my partner in all these efforts, and whenever I felt discouraged or had difficulty facing a flaw in myself, I offered it at the feet of God and Guru, and prayed deeply that they help me to change.

These practices proved very helpful. Through the persistent use of will power, I became an active participant in my own self-transformation, and I felt empowered. To record the changes in my attitudes, I kept a diary of my progress.

The root cause of all restlessness
While working on the yamas and niyamas, I became aware of deeper layers of restlessness I still needed to overcome. The root cause of all restlessness is ego—with its desires, attachments, and self-definitions. Practicing the yamas and niyamas loosens the grip of ego by making us more detached and impersonal, less preoccupied with the little self.

But I felt I could do even more. Intuitively, I knew that filling myself with thoughts of devotion to God would also help. When thoughts of devotion are uppermost in our minds, there’s much less room for restlessness.

As a first step, I began repeating two mantras over and over, including, “Lord I am Thine. Be Thou eternally mine.” I repeated them at the end of my meditation and throughout the day, whenever I remembered. Initially the process was purely mental, but gradually the mantras began to permeate my being, and my heart connection to God deepened.

I also found Swami Kriyananda’s affirmation for devotion** very helpful, not only for deepening my devotion but also as a mantra to “slash” thoughts. The affirmation speaks of a “sword of devotion.” Visualizing myself with a sword, I would protect my feelings of devotion by slashing any desires that surfaced during meditation.

An ocean of peace within and around me
Toward the end of this 7-year period, I attended another Ashtanga Yoga class. During that class, I understood for the first time that true meditation begins only after one reaches the state of absorption (dhyana)—a state in which the ego is dissolved and we become one with a divine quality, such as peace or love.

I asked myself: where was I in this process? I was working on my attitudes and on devotion, but how often did I experience total absorption?  I took my new understanding as a challenge to deepen my meditation by achieving greater stillness of body (asana) and deeper states of interiorization (pratyahara), two of the steps in Patanjali’s 8-fold path.

Working with both these practices was like climbing a mountain—you can reach the top one step at a time, but strong will power is necessary. With asana, I started by sitting perfectly still for five minutes, while paying close attention to subtle muscle movements and tension in different bodily areas. Gradually I was able to sit for longer and longer periods until I could sit perfectly still for an hour or more.

Interiorizing the mind followed a similar course. I started with measured breathing and ended by visualizing the energy being withdrawn from my extremities into the spine. I followed this with Hong Sau, visualizing the little “I” (Hong) dissolving into Spirit (Sau). When sitting in the silence afterwards, I “cauterized ” any thoughts by visualizing a laser beam. Gradually I extended the periods of silence.

I worked with both these practices for about a year. Eventually, I was able to sit in the silence, undisturbed by bodily movements or restless thoughts, for an entire hour. Sometimes deep peace filled my heart, mind, and body. It was like becoming an ocean of peace—I felt it within me and around me. And I knew that nothing external could ever give me this kind of experience.

“Dying to the world without dying”
These practices led up to the second major turning point in my battle against mental restlessness: the eight-hour Christmas meditation at Ananda Village. Since I wanted to enjoy the entire eight hours without attacks of restlessness, I decided to prepare in advance.

A month before the meditation I fasted from all sensory input—no movies or mainstream magazines. I read only books by Swami Kriyananda and Paramhansa Yogananda. I kept a simple healthy diet and avoided sugar. From the moment I awoke until I went to sleep, I used my will power to infuse my soul with God, trying to be aware of the divine presence at all times—while walking, serving, eating, talking. Sometimes I fell short of my goals, but I kept trying.

The day of the meditation, I had only one desire: to disconnect from the world and experience the presence of God within. Mentally I etched on my forehead Yogananda’s definition of meditation: “Dying to the world without dying.” I was convinced that if I “died to the world,” I would go deep in meditation. I prayed deeply to God and Guru to help me do it.

After practicing each meditation technique (Hong Sau, Aum, Kriya Yoga), I tried to interiorize my consciousness more and more deeply. Next I recited the 23rd Psalm as a devotional self-offering to God and continued to sit in the silence. Once, when a desire was about to tempt me, Swami Sri Yukteswar’s beautiful promise came to mind: “Everything in future will improve if you are making a spiritual effort now.” Quickly, I slashed the thought. Five hours passed, and I was doing well.

During the meditation breaks, I avoided eye contact with people and stayed inwardly focused. Nothing existed for me, only the one-pointed desire to unite my consciousness with God. In the remaining 3 hours, I mentally repeated the Gayatri and Mahamritanjaya mantras (for purification and liberation) 108 times each, counting with my mala. If any thoughts came, I “slashed” them with the sword. After repeating each mantra, I would sit in the silence for about 15 minutes.

“When I meditate, don’t interfere!”
I put forth constant effort during the eight hours. At the end, I was mentally exhausted and felt only a little peace. Yet, my meditation practice improved immensely after that. By now, my ego knew that I meant it when I said: “When I meditate, don’t interfere!” The battle is not over, but with my ego less of an intrusion, I can relate more deeply to my higher Self.

I learned that we can achieve major progress in meditation by the conscious use of will power.  It takes constant effort and constant calling on God. Each step of the way, we must ask: “Lord, what do I need to change in myself to get closer to you?” When we ask with deep sincerity, God always answers.

Diksha McCord, a Lightbearer, lives at Ananda Village and teaches at the Expanding Light Guest Retreat. She was initiated into the Nayaswami Order in 2009.

* Ashtanga Yoga: The Eightfold Path of Patanjali:
•   Yama (control)
•   Niyama (non-control)
•   Asana (posture), stillness of body
•   Pranayama (energy control)
•   Pratyahara (interiorization of the mind)
•   Dharana (one-pointed concentration)
•   Dhyana (meditation, absorption)
•   Samadhi (oneness with God)

** Affirmation for Devotion, by Swami Kriyananda:
With the sword of devotion I sever the heart-strings that tie me to delusion. With the deepest love, I lay my heart at the feet of Omnipresence. From Affirmations for Self-Healing, Crystal Clarity Publishers. To order click here

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23 Comments »

  • theresa Balkaran-limrick says:

    I have read today your article, and it comes at a time in my life when I find myself being drawn towards something more within,at the moment the yamas and the niyamas are being my teachers,patience comes more willingly than it did before and I await the time to sit again in deep meditation, Thank you so much, your words are an inspiration, that i know i will come back to for support. Namaste.

  • Sanjay Rajora says:

    great insights!!

    thanks

  • shubha says:

    I read your article today, it was just in time! I am struggling with my meditations. Lots of devotion and will power surely helps. You have inspired me greatly, Thanks!Aum…This will definitely help me out,

  • paula jones says:

    Thank you Diksha, for taking the time to go through all this. It helps a lot. So glad you’re finding what you’ve yearned for. Thank you for giving us hope to do the same. God given will power used continually is stronger than delusion! Get out!
    In Master’s Love, Paula

  • Alicia Silvia Reyes says:

    Diksha,
    Thank you very much for sharing this interesting article about something meditators constantly struggle with: The Battle of the Mind. This article has effectively helped me many times when my thoughts and imagination bothered me during meditation. I will continue to use your clear advice and I am sure it will help me deepen my meditation.

    A thousand thanks, God bless you.

  • P.S.Sivastava says:

    This is an excellent article on the practical aspects of MEDITATION. I myself have also experienced negative or unwanted thoughts that often pop-up without any reason. They disturb the process of interiorising my concentration and it disturbs the entire effort. Many Thanks to Diksha. I will follow your path to get myself on track.

  • Linda Hagen says:

    Thank you so much. This has given a lot of insight to the process of meditation. Love, Linda

  • Lori Wise says:

    Diksha, this is such a beautiful & inspiring window into your journey … thank you for sharing it. Many blessings, Lori :)

  • Nick says:

    This was lovely. Thank you so beautiful.

    Many Blessings, Diksha

  • Chandi says:

    This was lovely. Thank you so beautiful.

    Many Blessings, Diksha

  • Vidya says:

    Dear Diksha, Thank you so much for describing your journey in such detail. I am having the same difficulty that you had and even worse. Your article has not only inspired me to strengthen my own meditation practice but has also given me a step-by-step approach towards attaining that goal. I like the idea of working with one or a few of the yama/niyamas at a time. Thanks once again for sharing…

  • Kaaminii says:

    Great article Diksha, I have been fighting my own battle with the move to Colorado and this really hit home!

  • Your will power is inspiring! I will use some of your techniques right away in my meditations: especially, “When I meditate, don’t interfere!” Thank you for inspiring me with your dedication to go deeper into God.

  • Nitya says:

    Dear Diksha,
    What a beautiful, powerful and helpful article! You are very inspiring to me. With a grateful heart, Nitya

  • Bhakti says:

    Wonderful article Diksha, very inspiring and helpful. Thank you :o)

  • Nancy Cralle says:

    Thank you so much, Diksha, this is a wonderful article and came at just the right time. I am having restlessness recently in my meditations, and this helps so much. Love and Peace, Nancy

  • runbei says:

    I was struck by something that Nayaswami Kriyananda wrote in a letter, which was published in the book “In Divine Friendship.” He said essentially that meditation isn’t really about calming the mind, but rather calming the heart.

    In the stages of a child’s development, the stage of feeling, from age 6 to 12, comes before the stage of will power (12 to 18). In his book Education for Life, Swamiji explains that nature arranged the child’s growth this way for a number of reasons – one being that will power is motivated and focused by strong feeling. I imagine it’s why Master said, “Chanting is half the battle.” When I can awaken devotional feeling, my mind easily becomes concentrated; otherwise it’s very hard.

  • Kirk Evans says:

    Terrific article, Diksha. Thank you!

  • Karen Peacock says:

    Thank you, Diksha! That was beautiful and very timely for me as I struggle to increase my will power and watch for ways my ego tries to trip me up or shorten my meditation period. You were very inspiring.

  • Leda says:

    I feel deeply grateful with you, because your article really inspires me and give me new will and empowerment in my practice.

  • michael vera says:

    This article was very informative. I have trouble still meditating. I got plenty of tips with this article. I know her and if she can do it, so can I.

  • julie roberts says:

    Thank you Diksha! This was helpful…

  • Cris Crisman says:

    Thank you Diksha! This was very wonderful and inspiring! Thank you for sharing this.
    Aum, Peace,
    Cris

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