Meditation is a subtle and advanced spiritual practice. To be a successful meditator, four inner qualities are necessary. Without these qualities, meditation would at best be a technique that brings a temporary calm and relaxation. As soon as you are done, your thoughts, worries and concerns that were suppressed during your practice will all come gushing back.
The masters of Vedanta have an analogy to illustrate this fact. They compare thoughts to wild birds and meditation to capturing them in a net. The hunter lays down food on the ground for the birds. As soon as they land and start to eat, the hunter throws his net over them. The frantic birds struggle to get out but soon become still with fatigue. When he lifts the net, the birds immediately take off, flying about in every direction.
Similarly, if our minds are not well-trained or prepared, our thoughts take off in all directions after our practice without bringing any positive change in our life.
Who is a successful meditator?
Our minds are made up of thoughts about our life. If our lives are busy and complicated, our minds are a messy jumble of thoughts.
To have a deep, peaceful meditation which brings a permeating peace that transforms our life and interactions, we must clean up, reorganize, and simplify our life. Our priorities must shift. We must make meditation and our inner growth a priority.
Who is a successful meditator? A successful meditator is one who is able to sit quietly in meditation for about 30-40 minutes. She is able to regulate the breath and hold the body very still while controlling the urge to move, scratch or rub any part of the body.
She is able to calmly and easily turn her attention away from her body and everyday thoughts and place it on her true nature, the Self. The Self is the peaceful inner witness who simply is. In the Self, there are no thoughts.
When thoughts arise from within, she is able to hold her identification with being their witness and allow the thoughts to play out and die away on their own without engaging in them. In this way, she remains unaffected by the thoughts that arise in the mind.
To be able to remain peacefully detached in this way, two important things are required: Firstly, the mind must be sufficiently pure, and secondly, it must have a keen ability to sustain its focus on only one thing—being the inner witness.
This inner purity and ability to concentrate will enable us to detach from our ego-based thinking and experience greater peace in our daily life.
To achieve this end, the spiritual masters of Vedanta tell us that a successful meditator must develop four special inner qualities.
The four qualities of a successful meditator are serenity of mind, control over the senses, the ability to withdraw the mind, and forbearance.
1. Serenity of mind
The first quality of a successful meditator is serenity of mind. This comes from being able to control the mind and consciously direct it to where we want the thoughts to flow.
Right now, we are totally identified with our thoughts. As soon as they arise, we immediately accept them, believe them to be true and act on them. If a fearful thought comes, we become fearful, if an angry thought comes, we become angry.
Thoughts belong to the mind. They are not who we are. We must remain mindful of what we are thinking.
To remain equanimous and serene, we must refuse to react, participate or entertain distracting thoughts. We must train ourselves to watch our thoughts and choose the ones that bring inner peace.
Most of our mental wanderings come from the false notion that we are limited. This is our ego, our personal identity that keeps us small, vulnerable and forever seeking happiness outside of us to feel fulfilled.
Real happiness lies within. It is our own true nature. So long as we keep running outside for our sense of purpose, fulfillment and identity, our minds will be habitually agitated and cannot remain calm and focus in meditation.
One of the best ways to begin learning about the true source of happiness and begin seeking happiness within is to read, learn and absorb spiritual truths. We can do this through satsang—keeping spiritual company daily through books, articles, talks and other media.
As we gain spiritual knowledge, we gain a better understanding of our path and higher goals of life. It becomes easier to detach from our thoughts and gain serenity of mind.
2. Control over the senses
The second quality is the ability to control our senses. Controlling the senses does not mean self-denial where we suppress our desire for pleasure. Sense control is the ability to stand strong and not give in to every little temptation to see, hear, taste, touch and smell pleasurable things to gain pleasurable experiences.
The one who has made her spiritual goals as a priority and is learning, reflecting on spiritual truths and living a spiritual life can better withstand temptations.
She understands that the senses are indefatigable. No matter how much we feed them, they never tire. Only when the body cannot take any more, or we fear ill health and gaining weight do we temporarily stop indulging our senses.
The senses can be compared to horses tied to a carriage. If the reins are strong and held by a skilled driver, the horses are well-controlled. The one who has been able to control her mind is the skilled driver.
The one who has reflected well on the fact that indulgences are never-ending and that they disturb the inner poise of the mind, then memories of past pleasurable experiences or the hope of future experiences that surface in meditation will be easier to control.
Such a meditator can shift her identification to the inner witness and remain serene when such thoughts come up.
3. Ability to withdraw the mind
The third quality is the ability to withdraw the mind from outer preoccupations and place it on doing our everyday duties.
For a meditator who has cultivated the first two qualities, shutting out outer distractions becomes natural. She is no longer looking for true happiness in the outer world or allowing sensory desires to disturb her mind.
She is able to easily withdraw her mind and place her attention on doing her obligatory duties at home or at work, enjoying the inner peace of placing her focus on the job at hand.
Doing so she not only gains inner peace but her work becomes the means to grow spiritually.
The last quality is forbearance. We habitually allow many small things to disturb our mind. My Guru, Swami Chinmayananda describes it as the ability to endure the little pinpricks of life.
Forbearance is the capacity of the mind to cheerfully endure all small inconveniences and troubles of everyday life such as changes in weather, machines not working, people not doing what they promised, a passing unkind remark, unexpected upsets in plans, delays, small disappointments and so on.
The key words to remember is to “cheerfully endure” the “little pinpricks of life.” A serious spiritual seeker tries her best to keep her mind balanced as she navigates her daily life.
If we are able to stay equipoised amidst the little inconveniences of life, we will be able to hold the mind steady in meditation. It’s the small little things that can sometimes cause the most upsets.
The means to achieving the highest happiness
The Self is the one and only real source of happiness. It is unlimited, powerful and eternal. When we realise the Self, all sense of limitation, fear, doubts, and sorrows will come to an end. It is indeed a worthwhile and lofty goal. It can only be achieved by journeying inwards through meditation.
Cultivating the four qualities above will enable us to develop the right inner atmosphere to reach this goal. And when we achieve it, it will bring us the highest happiness and complete fulfillment in life.
Chinmayananda, Swami. Talks on Sankara’s Vivekachoodamani, verse 356. Mumbai: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, 1989.
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