by William Page
Meditation is an ongoing effort to recondition the mind so that it will always be aware of the presence of God.
Before we begin, we have to make the mind a fit place for God to dwell in. We wouldn’t invite a king to visit us if we were living in a pigsty. We’d kick the pigs out, get rid of any evidence that they had ever lived there, remodel the whole place, repaint it, redecorate it, sweep and scrub the floors, open the curtains to let in the light, and set out some flowers to welcome our royal guest.
In the same way, we have to make preparations to receive God in the little cottage of our heart. We have to clean it up—get rid of all inappropriate, dirty, and evil thoughts; banish unwholesome emotions, habits, and tendencies; and fill it with purity and holiness.
This is hard, but we know that God’s grace can overcome all obstacles. Swami Sarvagatananda used to say, “Do your best and forget the rest.” All we can do is try as hard as we can—and pray for God to help us.
Meditation as taught in the Ramakrishna movement
Just as there are many schools of religion, so there are many types of meditation. The type taught in the Ramakrishna movement, at least to beginners, is described by Swami Satprakashananda in a wonderful little book, Meditation: Its Process, Practice, and Culmination, published by the Vedanta Society of St. Louis in 1976. He tells us to think of our body as the temple of God, and to imagine the mind as a crystal-pure lake with a beautiful lotus blooming at the center of it. Then:
As you watch the lotus within your heart, you see the Divine Lord seated on it in a form of ideal beauty, radiating love, wisdom, power, beauty and peace. Out of compassion for you the formless, featureless Divine Being has assumed form so that your mind can grasp Him. This is the form of the Formless One, an embodiment of Divine Consciousness, Divine Bliss crystallized.
Meditate on this Divine form, showering blessings upon you with upraised hands, watching you with compassionate eyes, greeting you with the sweetest words. Meditate upon Him as your All-in-All, as the sole Goal and Abode, until your mind becomes completely merged in Him and you realize Him as your very self. (68-70)
Some readers may wonder what form the swami is talking about. It’s the form of the Ishta Devata, which is usually translated as the Chosen Ideal or Favorite Deity. This is the personal aspect of God we love the most, the aspect on which we focus our devotion.
During meditation, we do japa and make an effort to see the Ishta seated upon the lotus of the heart. Some succeed at this better than others. If we have trouble visualizing the Ishta’s form, we can visualize it as light, engulfing and irradiating the heart. If we can’t even do that, we can think about its formless presence.
Some critical objections
Skeptics will object that we’re deluding ourselves by imagining that the Ishta dwells within us. “Self-hypnotism!” they’ll scoff. “You’re like children playing with their dolls, only you imagine that the doll is a living being within you.” “Playing with phantoms!” sniffs the famous writer and explorer of Tibet Alexandra David-Neel in one of her books.
In his book The Evolution of God (New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2009), Robert Wright argues that what we call God is a personalized construct that arises from a more impersonal reality. Wright calls this impersonal reality the “source of the moral order”—or, with a nod to Tillich, the “ground of being.” “Could it be,” Wright wonders, “that thinking of this source, and relating to this source, as if it were a personal god is actually an appropriate way for human beings to apprehend that source, even if more appropriate ways might be available to beings less limited in their apprehensions?” (446)
Vedanta says yes, and adds that Ishwara, the personal God, is the highest reading the human mind is capable of when it tries to grasp the incomprehensible Absolute. Swami Vivekananda illustrates this more concretely when he says that if a buffalo tries to imagine what God is like, the closest it can come is to think of him as a big buffalo. (CW 4:30; see also CW 2:155.) We have personalities, so we naturally think of the highest reality we can imagine as also having a personality. If there is an impersonal supreme reality, the personal God may be one of the conceptual stepping stones available to us in our long and tortuous journey to a point in our evolution when we’ll be able to perceive it as it really is.
The abiding presence of God
It is an article of faith in the Ramakrishna movement that advanced meditators may experience visions, ecstasies, and varying degrees of samadhi. But even those of us who haven’t experienced such things will eventually feel God’s presence. We may feel it within us, or outside us, or both. We may experience it as personal, or impersonal, or both. We may feel it as universal and all pervading, or as localized in a particular area. In prolonged or deep meditation, this feeling of God’s abiding presence can become very powerful.
This is an all-nurturing presence which we perceive as always benevolent, even though its workings may have no perceptible effect on our external circumstances. It may assume a stern aspect if we misbehave, for one of its functions is to guide us. It may vary in strength: sometimes we may feel it intensely, other times less so. In periods of stress, when we’re preoccupied with worldly affairs, or when we neglect our meditation, it may vanish altogether. But it has only become dormant. However long we may neglect it, whenever we turn back and seek it, it is bound to come forth.
This is an abiding source of comfort, an enduring source of strength, a light that never fails, an eternal companion that will always accompany us as we pass through the valleys and shadows of life. Somebody once asked Swami Akhilananda, the founder of the Vedanta societies in Boston and Providence, “Swami, what’s the point of all this meditation? What do you get out of it?” Swami Akhilananda’s face lit up with an indescribable smile, and he uttered one word: “Joy!”
Vedanta assures us: That joy is there. That comfort is there. That strength is there. That light is there. That Being is there. Let us seek it through meditation.
William Page has been associated with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Massachusetts since 1960 and is a member of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Association of Thailand. Email: WPAGE@YMAIL.COM