Meditation Tips from the Bhagavad Gita

Krishna has previously explained to Arjuna the need for living in a quiet and retired environment, even though active in the world. No matter how spiritual we like to think ourselves, our immediate environment and the condition of our body is a major factor in how our mind behaves in meditation. The external often dictates the condition of the internal. Now he takes up the subject of what the yogi should be doing in his retreat-whether at home or “on retreat” elsewhere. He has already mentioned the major activity, saying: “He should meditate on the Atman unceasingly.” So he proceeds:

The yogi’s seat (asana)

“The place where he sits should be firm, neither too high nor too low, and situated in a clean spot. He should first cover it with sacred grass, then with a deer skin; then lay a cloth over these.” (Bhagavad Gita 6:11)

Krishna assumes that the yogi will be sitting on the ground-as was usual in India at that time and even today in many instances. We will look at that first and then consider other options.

The ground should be firm, neither soft nor shifting as sand or gravel or on a heap of things that could slide. Sand is pulverized stone and after sitting awhile literally becomes stone-hard. Not being soft indicates also that the ground should be dry.

The yogi should not perch himself in a tree, on the edge of a precipice, or in/on any place where he might fall off if he fell over-either in sleep or samadhi.

The place should be clean, without dirt or debris. It should also be pure, not in a place where evil things have taken place, nor in a ceremonially defiling place such as a cemetery, a grave, or a place where killing of any kind has taken place or there are the remains of sentient beings.

Dampness and cold are often properties of earth where the yogi might sit, so he is directed to first put down some kusha grass. Kusha grass is considered purifying, and rings woven of it are sometimes worn in worship to keep the hands ritually pure. It is also a remarkable insulator, both physically and metaphysically. In India I have used kusha mats with a blanket on top for sleeping on damp ground in bitterly cold weather, and was never bothered with either damp or cold-at least underneath me. Such mats also make very good meditation seats. However, only dried kusha grass is used in matting, and the edges are very sharp and liable to cut the one handling it carelessly.

To compensate for this, and to increase the insulating effect, a deer skin may be placed over the kusha grass. A deer skin is the only animal skin considered appropriate for the yogi’s meditation seat (asana) because the vibration of the deerskin is neutral and therefore conducive to peace and tranquility. However, the deer must have died a natural death. To use the skin of a deer killed for its skin is to violate the precept of ahimsa. One of my vivid memories of the Hardwar bazaar is seeing deer skins for sale that had bullet holes in them. When I once expressed disapproval of this to a shop owner, he was quite sympathetic and said: “I understand how you feel about the deer being shot by a gun. Quite a few yogis object to that. If you give me some time I will find you one that was killed with a bow and arrow. I will provide you with certification to that effect.” When I explained that I was objecting to the killing of the deer, no matter what form it took, I could see that he thought I was being quite eccentric. Nevertheless, leading yogis have told me themselves that the deer must have died naturally. This makes such a skin hard to come by, since decay will begin right away. But it is possible, for I have seen them.

To keep the deer skin from becoming worn (I knew one yogi that wore out a skin every four years because he traveled almost constantly), Krishna instructs that a cloth should be placed over that (my yogi friend did not do this). He does not specify what kind, but at the time of the Gita cotton or silk would have been the common types. (Because the silkworms are killed to get the silk thread, many yogis would not use silk, though it, too, has insulating properties.) Paramhansa Yogananda recommended wool cloth as it also insulates against subtle earth currents as does kusha grass and silk. Sheepskins should not be used, as the sheep is killed to get it, whereas normal wool cloth is made from the wool sheared from the sheep without harming them.

There are two points mentioned here that you may think are inaccurate: cemeteries are not proper places for meditation, and no animal skins but deer skins are proper for yogis to use. Most of us have heard that crematory grounds are good places for meditation, and tiger skins are good to sit on for meditation. This is tantric tradition, not yogic tradition, and Krishna is purely a yogi.

The yogi’s chair

In the West many yogis prefer to use a cushion on the floor or sit on a chair. Both are perfectly fine, for the posture that will soon be described by Krishna is possible in a chair. It is important that our meditation posture be comfortable and easy to maintain. If you can sit in a cross-legged position without your legs going to sleep and making you have to shift them frequently, that is very good. But meditation done in a chair is equally as good. Better to sit at ease in a chair and be inwardly aware than to sit cross-legged and be mostly aware of your poor, protesting legs.

The chair should be comfortable-not hard, yet not so “cushy” that you bob around when you sit upright. It should also be of a design that will prevent your falling over in deep relaxation. A padded armchair can be very good for this, or one which has a curved back that will keep you upright.

The chair should not be so high that your feet cannot be resting flat on the floor, or so low that your knees are markedly above the base of your spine and can cause backache.

The insulation provided by kusha grass and deer skin are unnecessary when meditating in a chair so you need not bother with them. It is good if the chair can be used only for meditation. (The same applies to a pad or mat used for cross-legged meditation on the floor.). This will pick up the beneficial vibrations of your meditation, and when you sit on it your mind will become calm and your meditation easier. If you cannot devote a chair to your meditation, find some kind of cloth or throw that you can put over a chair when you meditate and remove when you are done.

The inner seat

Shankara wrote a short essay in which he analyzed the symbolism of the eight “limbs” of Patanjali’s Yoga. He says that the yogi’s asana-seat-must be a steady mind which remains focused on its object of meditation. With this in mind, Krishna adds:

“As he sits there, he is to hold the senses and imagination in check, and keep the mind concentrated upon its object. If he practices meditation in this manner, his heart will become pure.” (Bhagavad Gita 6:12)

The senses, their functions, and the inner memory of their past sensations in various forms are to be held at bay by the meditator. As he does so, absorbed in his meditation on the Divine, his heart becomes increasingly pure.

The yogi’s posture

“His posture will be motionless, with the body, head and neck held erect, and the vision indrawn, as if gazing at the tip of the nose. He must not look about him.” (Bhagavad Gita 6:13)

His posture will be motionless. The Sanskrit text says the body should be held motionless (achalam) and steady (sthirah). As the yogi meditates his body should not move back and forth or side to side, but be completely still. This is ideal, but please do not think that Krishna is advocating some kind of self-torturing coercion of the body. He does not say we should sit as stiff as a petrified mummy. That is just self-torment. For the great yogic adepts also say that the posture must comfortable-easeful and relaxed. The Yoga Sutras say: “Posture should be steady and comfortable.” The Yoga Vashishtha simply says: “He should sit on a soft seat in a comfortable posture conducive to equilibrium.” Shankara comments: “Let him practice a posture in which, when established, his mind and limbs will become steady, and which does not cause pain.” Relaxation is the key, for the Yoga Sutras further say: “Posture is mastered by relaxation.”

With the body, head and neck held erect. The Kaivalya Upanishad says: “Keeping the head, the neck and the body in a straight line.” The purpose of this is to ensure that the upright body will be balanced and not move. The head should be held so the chin is parallel to the ground. As Shankara directs: “The chin should be held a fist’s breadth away from the chest.” This is done by making a fist, holding it against your neck, and letting your chin rest on your curled-together thumb and forefinger. You need not be painfully exact, about this. The idea is to hold your head at such an angle that it will not fall forward when you relax. Otherwise you will be afflicted with what meditators call “the bobs”-the upper body continually falling forward during meditation.

And the vision indrawn. As if gazing at the tip of the nose. The literal translation from the Sanskrit is: “Looking toward [samprekshya] the tip of his nose [nasikagram svam].” This means that your eyes should be closed, relaxed, and turned somewhat downward. “As though gazing at the tip of the nose” indicates that your eyes should not be crossed-but just turned downward at the angle that they would be if looking at the tip of the nose in a relaxed manner. To help you sense the right angle to turn your eyes down, touch the middle of your horizontal forefinger to the tip of your nose and look down at the finger without turning your eyes in. That way you can determine the angle without making yourself cross-eyed. The angle is important because turning the eyes all the way down may strain them and also tend to put us to sleep. So the eyes should be turned down, closed, relaxed, and then forgotten about. If they spontaneously move up or down in meditation, that is perfectly all right, but we should begin with them turned down.

He must not look about him. This is not so hard to manage-keep your eyes closed!

Common sense must always be used. For example, those with back difficulties should make compensation for them, and not mind if they cannot sit fully upright.

Krishna makes no mention of the hands, because it does not really matter. Just rest them in your lap or on your thighs and forget about them.

The yogi’s inner work

“So, with his heart serene and fearless, firm in the vow of renunciation, holding the mind from its restless roaming, now let him struggle to reach my oneness, ever-absorbed, his eyes on me always, his prize, his purpose.” (Bhagavad Gita 6:14)

Just as there are several points for the yogi’s outer practice, so it is with his inner practice, and we should consider them. Here is Sargeant’s literal translation of this verse: “With quieted mind, banishing fear, established in the brahmacharin vow, controlling the mind, with thoughts fixed on Me, he should sit, concentrated, devoted to me.”

With quieted mind. Many people become impatient with themselves or their practice if right away their mind does not calm down, but that is why yoga is a practice and not a matter of instantaneous effect. After some sessions of practice the effect should begin and the mind start to quieten after the first minutes of meditation. After all, each day we have spent hours and hours stirring up our mind and forcing it into reactions of all kinds. Moreover, it is a living entity, not a machine that can be switched off with the flick of a finger. Right meditation practice will certainly still the mind after a bit. But we must be helping it by arranging our life in such a way that distractions will be minimal. Diet is also crucial here. A rajasic or tamasic diet (to be discussed in the seventeenth chapter) hinders the efficiency of yoga meditation. And most of all, our thoughts and emotions condition the mind substance, making it either easier or more difficult to still.

Banishing fear. This is not often discussed in writings or talks on yoga, but it should be given attention. It is no surprise that when we sit for meditation we will find that our mind is restless and trivial. We also realize that long-buried impulses from the past-including past lives-may surface, such as anger, lust, greed, and so forth. But in so many lives, as well as this one, we have been in situations that produced a great range of fear in us, from simple apprehension to absolute terror. When such things surface we are not aware of the cause, only the fear itself, and this actually compounds the fear. The fear of death also can arise, because in meditation, as in sleep, there is an approximation of the withdrawal of the life force that occurs in death. I have known a few people who were bothered by the fear of death in the beginning of their meditation practice. How did they overcome it? By the practice of meditation itself-nothing special is needed. So when unreasoning fear rushes over us, we need only keep on as usual and it will be banished. At times we may feel anxiety at the onset of peculiar sensations in the body as well as the mind, and fear that we may be harmed by whatever is producing them. There is also fear in the form of doubt to be contended with: fear that our meditation may be of no effect, or fear that we will not attain as much as we should, and even fear that we will not live long enough to make any significant progress. All these are just vagaries of the ego-mind and should be ignored.

Established in the brahmacharin vow. Certainly, part of “the brahmacharin vow” is celibacy, for even non-monastics must live a disciplined and non-sensual life. The idea that God “created” or ordained marriage so men and women could have all the sex they wanted in an approved setting is outrageous. All who aspire to true humanity-much less divinity-must be chaste in body and mind. Those who do not wish to so live should do as they please, but leave yoga alone. This is why Patanjali says that the first step in yoga is moral observance (yama-niyama) which includes brahmacharya-celibacy.

The Dharma Shastras which describe the correct life of non-monastics are quite explicit about the need for husband and wife to lead lives of continence. See how the yogi parents of Paramhansa Yogananda lived it as presented in Autobiography of a Yogi. In the very first chapter we find: “Mother made a remarkable admission to my eldest sister Roma: ‘Your father and myself live together as man and wife only once a year, for the purpose of having children.'” The fact that Yogananda, a devoted son and a pure-hearted yogi, would reveal this to the world in the pages of a book show how necessary he felt it was for both Eastern and Western readers to be shown the standard of chastity that yogis should observe in their life, not using their non-monastic status as excuse for lesser behavior. He underlined this later in the forty-fourth chapter, giving these words written to Mahatma Gandhi by his wife Kasturbai: “I thank you for the most perfect marriage in the world, based on brahmacharya and not on sex.” Please note that these are examples of married yogis, not monks imposing their ideas on others. Also remember that the guru of Yogananda’s parents was himself a married yogi, so there is no monastic influence in their case.

Having said all this, I must point out that the brahmacharin vow (vrata) involves the discipline, purification, control, and non-indulgence of all the senses. Furthermore, it is a vow-a voluntary resolution. Those who do not wish to make such a resolution need not do so. But they should not lie to themselves and others by claiming to be yogis.

Controlling the mind
. When the mind is quieted, rendered fearless, and strengthened by the power (virya) accumulated through continence and discipline of the senses (for the word “virtue” is derived from the Latin word for power), then-and only then-it can be controlled.

With thoughts fixed on Me. The mind must not be made empty and static, for that would be stagnation and conscious coma. Rather, thoughts that impel the consciousness toward God must be generated in a constant, though calm, stream. Patanjali says that the repetition of Om and Its meditation “is the way.” But the Mundaka Upanishad is even more explicit, saying: “With mind absorbed and heart melted in love, draw the arrow and hit the mark-the imperishable Brahman. Om is the bow, the arrow is the individual being, and Brahman is the target. With a tranquil heart, take aim. Lose thyself in him, even as the arrow is lost in the target….Meditate on him as Om. Easily mayest thou cross the sea of darkness.”

He should sit
. Both body and mind need to be steady. Shankara says that asana means steadiness of mind as well as of body. It has been said that Buddha became enlightened because he knew how to “sit” through firm resolution, holding body and mind under his control.

Concentrated. The mind must be gathered up and made unitary. This is the meaning of the word “yukta” in this verse. The mind must be joined or “yoked” first to itself and then to God in the state of yoga, of union.

Devoted to me. Such union is not abstract, nor is it only awareness of our finite spirit-self. Rather, it is a filling of the consciousness with God as the eternal Object-Subject. Self-awareness is necessary, but only as the precursor of God-awareness. In that awareness we find our true self, which is why Jesus spoke of “losing” our life to “find” it in the greater, primal Life that is God.

The yogi’s Goal

“If a yogi has perfect control over his mind, and struggles continually in this way to unite himself with Brahman, he will come at last to the crowning peace of Nirvana, the peace that is in me.” Sargeant: “Thus, continually disciplining himself, the yogi whose mind is subdued goes to nirvana, to supreme peace, to union with Me.”

Ever keeping this in mind and following what Krishna has just told us, the yogi will come to the Goal unerringly and-comparatively speaking-easily.