Rene Descartes had declared in his famous “Cogito Ergo Sum” that “I think therefore I am”. In the present age of advancements in artificial intelligence and emphasis on letting robots take control of all the useful functions on earth, perhaps the ability to think or at least form functional logic is not adequate to establish one’s existence. I propose that we modify the statement and replace the word “think” by “meditate”. I do not believe that robots will be able to meditate anytime soon.
Having been raised in a religious environment I have been exposed to the concepts of prayer and meditation from my early childhood. Unfortunately, these are often considered to be religious rituals that many people, especially atheists, stay away from.
The words “prayer” and “meditation” are often used interchangeably. While a person can certainly engage himself in both of these activities at the same time the two are actually quite different.
Prayer is simply utterance (aloud or silently) of a message to God. A prayer can be long or of just a few words. What you say in your prayer is entirely up to you. One can ask God for something tangible or make a promise to do something good or can simply thank Him for one’s existence on this earth. One can ask for forgiveness or a new direction in life. Even if one does not believe in God just the regular utterance of a set of meaningful sentences addressed to some unknown person or even to oneself can have a calming effect and generate a positive feeling.
It can also be a formal prayer from a religious scripture. One does not have to be in a temple or church or any formal environment to pray. One can pray while laying in bed or jogging or taking a shower. Prayer is not a two-way conversation. Only you say whatever you want to say to God. God does not talk back to you or give a signal indicating that He has heard you.
I believe that a daily prayer to God is a simple and easy tool to keep ourselves on a calm, peaceful and comfortable path in life. Interestingly enough, it seems all religious teachings in the world are in agreement on this point. The “Vaishnavs” preach to say the name of “Krishna” everyday; the Muslims pray every day to “Allah” and the Christians are supposed to accept Jesus Christ as their “savior” and say a prayer before meals every day and go to church every Sunday.
Meditation, on the other hand, is achieving a certain state of mind. This can also be done outside a formal place of worship. The key is to somehow make your mind completely free of any pre-existing or systematic thought and then just grasp whatever idea flows to you. If you believe in God, you might say that this is a way of making yourself prepared to receive any message from God (in the form of an idea or a thought). If you do not believe in God you can still meditate, achieving this state of mind is in fact a key to being creative. There are all kinds of information on the internet about how meditation can also help one’s physical health.
There is no fixed rule or ritual for meditation. Following the customary practice, one could simply sit quietly, close one’s eyes and concentrate on something with total attention. I once attended a class offered by (late) Valerie Hunt, a lady with mystic power and a professor of psychological science at UCLA. She suggested a procedure whereby one lies down on one’s back in a comfortable position, closes one’s eyes and then imagines that one is breathing through various parts of the body: starting from feet, then to knees and gradually working one’s way up to one’s head. In any case, the key is to make the mind free of any thought.
I find that two very ordinary and simple practices help me achieve this state of mind. One is driving (alone) on a long stretch of a freeway or highway with little or no traffic. The other is playing “Solitaire” on my computer. Both situations involve doing some minimal mechanical activity (driving or moving the cards) which require some attention from our brain (and therefore prevents it from engaging in any serious or systematic thought) but let most of our brain “float”, so to speak.
The analogy of meditation that comes to mind is the use of a blower fan in a room full of clutter to blow away dust, debris, loose papers etc. to make the room “neat”. Even though the fan takes some space of the room it is keeping the rest of the room clean. Now the room will be ready to let golden sunshine or a gentle breeze come in.
Prayer can certainly be done in a group and so can meditation. However, one can probably free one’s mind of various thoughts more easily if one is alone and not distracted. Although prayer and meditation are separate practices there is a relationship between the two. Repeated uttering of a prayer as a set of words perhaps with a touch of melody in a group setting can induce a collective meditative state. One good example is “Hare Rama Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Hare Rama”. If you continue to say it hundreds of times you would probably reach a meditative state which we call “trance”. This is precisely what happens in a “Kirtan”.
Just like playing Solitaire or driving on a lonely stretch of highway, uttering of these repetitive phrases consumes a bit of our brain power but frees up our mind. Another example are the Buddhist chants such as “Buddham sharanam gachchhami “. The words do not have to be religious but could be any collection which you can say over and over in a passionate way. Many of Carlos Santana’s songs have this characteristic; for example, in the song “dance sister dance” or in his guitar recitals with John Mahavishnu McLaughlin.
Why should one even meditate or care to learn anything about meditation? Apart from the benefits of improving mental and possibly physical health, the ideas or thoughts that enter your head in a meditative state can be really intriguing. A creative person concentrates on those thoughts and then does something with them (painting, writing or making a gadget). If one simply brushes these ideas off as “idle thoughts”, of course one cannot be creative.
There is another and much more significant reason. I believe that meditation coupled with a systematic breathing ritual is a key to the spiritual world. My father used to do “pranayama” fairly regularly. I never saw him in the act; he would always close the door when he practiced it. This practice was a necessary step for “Kriya Yoga”. Unlike “casual” yoga exercises, serious yoga meditation requires special sitting postures or “Asanas”.
This has to be taught (“diksha”) by the right master and not something that can be learned from the internet or by attending some religious school.
Even if you do not believe in God it does make sense that controlling your breathing would allow you to take control of your life and possibly beyond. It should come as no surprise that breathing is one of the most important and intricate activities we engage in.
In many ways our conscious life begins with our first breath and ends with our last. Cellular respiration, the source of all our physical energy and expression in the world, is dependent on a constant flow of oxygen being delivered to each cell and carbon dioxide being taken away. Every emotional state we experience has a corresponding pattern of breathing associated with it. For example, even in our everyday language, we are advised: “to take a deep breath” to control our anger.
I meditate, and I pray. I believe that meditation gives me the ability to be creative and this ability is the essence of my existence. Living a life doing routine chores day after day and without any creativity is not real existence to me. I certainly exist and hope someday to go beyond my present existence through meditation.
The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America.