The goal of meditation is to gain inner peace. Peace does not come from any object, person or situation from the world outside but exists within us. It underlies all the thoughts of the mind. When the thoughts are quietened, we go beyond them and experience the peace that is always there.
The biggest obstacles in meditation are our own thoughts. To still the mind is like trying to get a playful child to sit down and be quiet when all she cares about is going out to play.
Step-by step method to go beyond your thoughts
Fortunately, there is a step-by step method that helps to silence the thoughts for meditation. Vedanta, the spiritual science of life explains how to do this.
It involves shifting your identification away from your body and mind to get to the peace that lies behind the mind.
Read on to understand the facts, terms and method, and then practice what you have read in the guided meditation below.
The human personality is made up of five layers which are called “sheaths”. You can see the five sheaths in this diagram. This term is used because the sheaths appear to cover the Self, our true spiritual essence. The nature of the Self is peace.
The meditation practice involves slowly turning your attention away from the first sheath to the fifth sheath where there are no more thoughts. Then, as you stay in that thoughtless state, you will transcend the sheaths and experience the peace of the Self.
What are the sheaths?
The sheaths are made up of matter or you could consider them to be layers of energy. The layers become progressively subtler from the first to the fifth sheath.
Slower, denser energy comprises tangible matter as represented in the diagram by the darkest colour. This is the first sheath called the Food Sheath. The fifth or Bliss Sheath, which is shown as having the lightest colour is the subtlest of all the five sheaths.
The demarcation lines between the sheaths are not to be taken literally; they are there to illustrate the gradations of subtlety.
Let’s now look at the sheaths one at a time.
The Food Sheath: The Food Sheath is the physical body. It is said to be the Food Sheath because the body is made up of and sustained by the food that we eat. And, when the body dies, it becomes food for other living organisms.
The Vital Air Sheath: Next is the Vital Air Sheath. This sheath is made up of the cosmic energy, or prana (Sanskrit) that comes in through the air that we breathe.
Both the air and prana sustain life in the body. Prana controls the physiological functions such as perception, respiration, digestion, circulation and excretion.
Changes in the health of the body and the state of the mind impact the breathing and the physiological functions. Conversely, by regulating the breathing, we can calm down the mind and normalise the body’s functions.
The Vital Air Sheath is subtler than the Food Sheath. We can’t see the air or energy, but we can feel it and experience it.
The Mental Sheath and the Intellectual Sheath: The Mental and the Intellectual Sheaths are even subtler. They are made up of thoughts which are not perceptible by any of the physical sense organs.
The Mental Sheath is made up of feeling thoughts while the Intellectual Sheath is made up of rational, thinking thoughts.
These two sheaths are the hardest to transcend in meditation. This is because we identify very closely with our feelings and thoughts and take them to be who we are. For instance, when we experience emotions such as joy or anger, we say, “I’m happy,” or “I’m angry.” Or, when we identify with our thoughts, we say, “I think…” “I know” or “I should have…”
The Bliss Sheath: The last layer of matter is the Bliss Sheath. It is called so because this layer of matter has no thoughts; and where there are no thoughts, there we experience bliss or peace. Our subconscious impressions lie dormant in the Bliss Sheath waiting for the right time to manifest as our thoughts and actions.
It’s important to note that although we do experience peace when we identify with the Bliss Sheath, it is not a positive state of peace.
The peace of the Bliss Sheath is similar to the silence that you experience when your neighbour turns off his lawnmower. While things are now silent around you, the outer environment doesn’t bring you real inner peace.
The goal is to transcend this last layer of matter and experience your spiritual essence, the very core of your personality whose very nature is peace.
Overview of the procedure
Begin your meditation practice by sitting alone in a quiet place at a quiet time.
To go beyond your identification with the body, the Food Sheath, it must be kept in the correct posture. Keep your back straight and in alignment with your head and neck. Relax your whole body, especially your face, neck and shoulders. Place your hands in your lap palms up, one on top of the other or on your knees with the palms up or down.
Being able to sit still in this way is a crucial very first discipline for meditation.
Gently close your eyes.
Now shift your attention to your breathing, keeping it slow and deep. As you practice, breathing in this way will become automatic and you won’t need to consciously focus on it. By doing so, you will go beyond your identification with the Vital Air Sheath.
Next, as you hold your body still and breath steady, you will find that thoughts not initiated by you will come up. You may feel certain emotions connected to those thoughts (the Mental Sheath) or you may have thoughts about some plans or judgements (the Intellectual Sheath). When this happens, bring your attention to your breathing while holding your body very still. Resist the temptation to move, rub, or scratch any part of your body.
Withdraw your attention to you, the inner witness who is aware of the thoughts. When you do this, you will find that the thoughts die down and the mind becomes quiet. This is because thoughts are sustained by your attention on them. When you take your focus away from them, they fade away from lack of attention.
When you are able to be present and sustain your attention on the silence, you will be identified with the Bliss Sheath.
Hold your attention in this thought-less state for as long as you can. With regular practice, you will slip into a deep state of experience. In this deeper state of meditation, you will no longer be striving to achieve no thoughts, you will simply “be” in meditation.
“Being” in meditation is where you will have gone beyond all the five sheaths and be abiding in the peaceful Self.
This is the goal of meditation. Hold your mind in this state for as long as you can and then slowly come out of your meditation.
It’s time to practice
Now that you know the theory, terms and procedure of the step-by-step meditation to go beyond your thoughts, you can begin your practice by listening to the guided meditation below.
Wishing you all success!
Guided Meditation to Go beyond Your Thoughts
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Thank you, Manisha, what a clear and beautiful explanation. The concept of sheaths is new to me, but makes perfect sense.
Thank you, Nava. Yes, most people don’t know about the sheaths. Vedanta is a spiritual science so there are many detailed explanations.