In meditation repetition is not the same as practice

One might feel that if one just goes on sitting in meditation and reading books about yoga and doing a bit of good in the world one will gradually progress, naturally. But repetition is not the same as practice. Now experts will tell you that most drivers don’t get better over the years. Ten years, twenty years, thirty years – their skill doesn’t improve but instead faults are reinforced. Many of them have never learned the width of their own car, even after twenty years so they drive as close as possible to the oncoming traffic because they’re not sure how much clearance they’ve got. This shows how mere repetition does not improve performance. Practice, on the other hand, is to repeat actions striving to reach some definite higher standard but not just by repetition.

Take a meditation:

In me there is a light, which lights the whole world,
it is radiating now, peace and understanding.

At first this is done in the expectation of some experience but after a few weeks in which nothing seems to happen the conviction that there is a light within begins to waver. The wavering is because in the study periods the enquiry has not gone deep enough to attain the conviction that there is really a light there. So the meditation can lapse into a poetic reverie. Though still repeating the meditation, the meditator has, in fact, given up.

This happens in all spiritual systems and schools. Say, we begin to practise the presence of God. If we are washing up, God is here. And for two or three weeks it feels like a spiritual experience. And then gradually it wears off. God is now somewhere round about the horizon and after a few weeks more he is back in an inaccessible heaven.

The Gita says this yoga must be practised without depression and with faith. Someone might say, ‘Oh faith, you know. Well that’s sort of believing something about which you have some doubts.’ Now we follow tradition, that’s to say we perform the practices and the actions in the spirit of tradition, with faith. But the aim is to confirm something in direct experience, not simply to go on, ‘I believe. I believe it all and more.’ Not like that. In these very simple things, in everyday action, there’s a secret.

The Gita says perform the actions without attachment to the results. You think, “Oh well that means you can make a mess of it, because you’re not attached to the results.” But then you haven’t done the actions. If I’m cleaning the floor and I think, ‘Well I don’t care what the result is’ so I leave part of it dirty then I haven’t cleaned the floor. So how to do it then? How to clean the floor and leave it clean and yet not care whether it’s appreciated or that anybody knows about it.

A prominent Jesuit father said that in the final year of his training he was taken to a stone floor and given two buckets of water, a scrubbing brush, soap and cloth and told to clean it. He got down on his knees and worked away. He left it spotless. As he stood up in the corner after finishing, the Master of Novices came in with bucket of sludge and threw it over the floor and then said, ‘Clean that floor!’ This is a high exercise in mental austerity.

But there can be something more to cleaning a floor. If we watch a tiny child waving a rag we see it taking pleasure in the movements of the cloth and the action of the hand itself. A floor-cleaner who is an expert meditator gets the same pleasure from the movements of the cloth and the action of the hands and the gradual shining forth of the true nature of the floor surface as it is cleaned.

Usually, we lose the sense of divinity when we perform familiar actions. Suppose we have to do lot of writing. These days, we no longer think how wonderful it is that instead of dipping the pen in the ink pot, it flows continuously from the biro. But if we practise yoga we can practise a form of meditation when we’re doing these actions but only if we’re free from the idea: ‘I’ve got this more to do, I’ve done quite a lot there, they haven’t appreciated it or they have appreciated it or this is going to wow them, supposing they don’t like it, this is going to get me some money, this is going to get me promotion.’

Here is an example which we all know: you’re working well and then somebody comes and stands near you. You can’t see who it is but you know it might be the boss. And immediately it’s as though you’re writing through a sort of syrup. You think ‘Is it the boss? Is it somebody who doesn’t like me and is looking for mistakes?’ These other thoughts come in.

To become independent of such thoughts is one of the freedoms given by the practice of Yoga. It is not only to be free from such thoughts when things are going fairly well but to be free all the time. Suppose the floor of a room has been painted, and while it is drying a plank on a brick at each end has been put from one doorway to the other for people to walk on. So when we have to go over we walk across the plank to avoid spoiling the paintwork. That’s quite easy, we just walk across. But if that plank were thirty foot up in the air, there’s hardly one of us who could walk across. If we have to cross we get down on our hands and knees and crawl across.

Why? It’s the same thing, after all. The reason is that when the plank is across the floor of the room, we know we could step off – we’re not going to, but we know we could – and so we don’t have to. The walk becomes firm and steady. But if it’s up there, we couldn’t step off and then somehow we feel unsteady and so we get down and crawl.

Our teacher told us that there is a divinity around and through our ordinary lives. In meditation we can learn to step off fear- and hope-oriented consciousness onto that firm real consciousness. When we have managed that even a few times, then in walking the plank of ordinary life it is, so to speak, just across the floor of divine consciousness. Our steps become assured; we do not have to keep going into meditation states in daily life but we have the assurance.

But there is something more. Shri Dada says ‘Every man must be able to go into voluntary mental and nervous relaxation and concentrate his mind on a symbol of God, whether it be a word, a concept or an image. It is this prolonged silence of the soul which brings before man the patterns of what he is to create, the archetypes of his contribution to the inner and outer world. Everyone has an infinite world of beauty and goodness in his mind; the few who have recognised it call it inspiration.’

Our teacher made a big point of this. There are inspirations raining on us all the time from the universal mind as to our purpose and what we ourselves should be doing in the ordinary course of daily life. If we come into touch with that purpose it will come alive in us and it will also be in consonance with the purpose outside of us and then we’ll be fulfilling our role.

We can say ‘Well, what sort of thing would this be? How could it differ from the actions of an ordinary good man?’ Because the actions of a good man are based on his own individual judgement they do not necessarily lead to the expected good result. When I was young we believed a welfare state would abolish crime. Why would people commit offences if all necessities were provided by the State? But the people who are throwing bombs now are not starving. The football hooligans who are killing people are not starving. Although we had good intentions we didn’t realise the true cause of the disturbances in society.

Let us give two examples from everyday life, in a distant country as it happens. In the traditional hotels in Japan, the guest has a private room. A maid brings the meals and so on to the private room. And one day she’s overworked and tired. She’s brought the meal and she goes out but she doesn’t close the door properly behind her. If the guest is a tough businessman who works hard himself and doesn’t see why other people shouldn’t work hard too, he shouts ‘Ayako, shut the door!’ If it’s a scholar, he calls gently, ‘Oh please shut the door, would you?’ And she comes back and shuts the door.

But if it’s a man of Zen meditation, he gets up himself and shuts the door. Well, this seems very simple. A charming little story. But it can have a deep meaning for everyday life.

The second case is also from Japan, where certain entrance examinations are rather stiffer than they are in this country. A talented boy is going in for what would correspond to A levels here and the teachers have told the parents that he has the ability to get into one of the prestigious universities which would be a great advantage for his life. But he will have to study every evening, five evenings a week. So they say to the boy, ‘Now are you willing to do this for a year? We’ll arrange this special tuition for you and if you work like mad you’ll probably be able to do it.’ And he agrees: ‘Yes. Yes I will’. The routine is that when he gets back from school, they have the evening meal and then he goes up to his room to study. The parents sit and watch television, though they keep the sound very low. But of course he knows what they are doing. After a couple of months he begins to get fed up, so after the meal he begins to stay on for ten minutes and watch it himself. Then a bit longer.

The father has a row with him. He shouts ‘You’ve damn well taken this on and you’ll damn well go through with it or I won’t lift a finger to help you in life afterwards.’ And then perhaps he does start up again in a sulky way but it can mean an antipathy to father which may last for the rest of his life. Then perhaps the mother has a go. She says, ‘It’s less than a year, just think of that. We’ll do anything for you. I’ll come up and bring you tea and cakes at 9 o’clock. Think to yourself it’s only just a little time. It’s not very long is it?’ And maybe that gets him going again but it’s still a resentful grind.

Now supposing those two parents had practised Zen and meditation and they had heard the little story about shutting the door. ‘Shut the door’. ‘Please shut the door.’ Or getting up himself and shutting it. Now they meditate on that. How does that apply? What happens is they meditate and then an inspiration comes. Father says privately to mother one evening: ‘You know, there is that diploma that I’ve often thought about. It’s not directly in my line but it would help me in my career later. It’s about a year. I’ve often thought of studying for it. Anything you fancy?’ She says, ‘Well yes. There’s that Western embroidery. There are classes. I could do that.’ So the next evening the meal is cleared away but the television isn’t put on. Father’s getting out some books now and puts them on the table.

He’s going to study for his diploma. And mother is laying out embroidery design and materials. ‘Oh’, says the boy. They don’t say anything and he goes up to his room. Now the atmosphere of the house has changed. They’re all studying. No resentment. The boy’s able to study because the others too are studying. This sort of action comes from inspiration. The other methods, shouting or the pleading, may get a temporary result but when the parent themselves do it then there’s a unity on the deepest level.

And it’s an example of inspired action.

Our teacher said that through meditation we can come towards what he sometimes called the cosmic mind, the mind of the Supreme. Then in our actions to try to become more and more independent of the considerations of the world – praise or blame, gain or loss – and do the action seeing the same divinity in the thing, the action, and the one who does it. That is inspiration and that gives freedom because what’s manifesting then in the individual is the same as is manifest in the universe.

© Trevor Leggett 1999

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