The Battle of the Mind in Meditation: A Devotee’s Journey

In Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings, the proper use of will power is essential for success in every undertaking. As a meditation teacher, however, I’ve found that people often become discouraged by mental restlessness and give up after only a few attempts to meditate. But, through the proper use of will power, anyone can overcome restlessness and achieve major progress in meditation. In my own struggle to meditate deeply, I’ve learned a few things that may prove helpful.

Seclusion: a turning point

My first real breakthrough in my battle against mental restlessness came during one of my early weeklong seclusions at Ananda Village. Seclusions are usually a time for going deeper in meditation, but I began mine in a discouraged state. Certain recurring, negative thoughts had followed me into seclusion. Whenever I tried to meditate, I was assailed by thoughts of my imperfections as a devotee, and the notion that I wasn’t “good enough” to meditate well.

After two days of this, I became so desperate to escape the tyranny of my mind that I decided to take charge. When the discouraging thoughts began again, out loud I shouted, “Stop it, get out!” Then, out loud and with strong will power, I started instructing myself in the basic steps of meditation.

I guided myself through the full body relaxation exercise, followed by 6 to 8 rounds of measured breathing. (Inhale 8, hold 8, exhale 8.) Then I mentally guided myself through the Hong Sau meditation technique: I watched the breath, repeated the mantra, and absolutely refused to let anything divert my attention. I was completely focused on the mantra and the breath—my lifelines to peace.

A profound experience

Soon thoughts began to dissolve and I started to relax. Gradually I was feeling more and more peaceful. After about 20 minutes, I let go of the mantra and became absorbed in a deep state of peace. I went so deep that I wasn’t even aware of my own existence. There was no body, no mind, no “I,” only peace. The experience was profound.

Toward the end of my meditation, an image emerged. I saw myself as an adult, embracing a baby in my arms. I knew intuitively that I was that baby, and I understood the message: “If you want to achieve depth in meditation, you need to accept and embrace yourself as you are. Only then can you make progress.”

That meditation convinced me that I could experience deep meditation, perhaps even samadhi (oneness with God). What I most needed was to resist, with strong will power, the negative thoughts that were pulling me down.

Discovering Patanjali’s 8-fold path

After that, my meditations improved and I occasionally achieved deep states. Attending an Ananda class series on Ashtanga Yoga*—the 8-fold path to enlightenment as expounded by the ancient master, Patanjali—gave me my next step. I realized immediately that here was a time-tested approach for finding God that I could use to deepen my meditations.

I began by focusing on Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas, the ten moral guidelines and attitudes that help us to meditate deeply and to find God  (Non-injury, non-greed, contentment, devotional surrender, etc.)  I worked with one attitude at a time, for a month to a year, depending on my need.

Contentment, especially, was an important one for me. In working with contentment, I made a conscious effort to accept things as they came, to see the hand of God behind all that happened, and to surrender to whatever God wanted of me. I resisted the tendency to try to force things to happen, and tried not to envy anyone or to compare myself with others. I made God my partner in all these efforts, and whenever I felt discouraged or had difficulty facing a flaw in myself, I offered it at the feet of God and Guru, and prayed deeply that they help me to change.

These practices proved very helpful. Through the persistent use of will power, I became an active participant in my own self-transformation, and I felt empowered. To record the changes in my attitudes, I kept a diary of my progress.

The root cause of all restlessness

While working on the yamas and niyamas, I became aware of deeper layers of restlessness I still needed to overcome. The root cause of all restlessness is ego—with its desires, attachments, and self-definitions. Practicing the yamas and niyamas loosens the grip of ego by making us more detached and impersonal, less preoccupied with the little self.

But I felt I could do even more. Intuitively, I knew that filling myself with thoughts of devotion to God would also help. When thoughts of devotion are uppermost in our minds, there’s much less room for restlessness.

As a first step, I began repeating two mantras over and over, including, “Lord I am Thine. Be Thou eternally mine.” I repeated them at the end of my meditation and throughout the day, whenever I remembered. Initially the process was purely mental, but gradually the mantras began to permeate my being, and my heart connection to God deepened.

I also found Swami Kriyananda’s affirmation for devotion** very helpful, not only for deepening my devotion but also as a mantra to “slash” thoughts. The affirmation speaks of a “sword of devotion.” Visualizing myself with a sword, I would protect my feelings of devotion by slashing any desires that surfaced during meditation.

An ocean of peace within and around me

Toward the end of this 7-year period, I attended another Ashtanga Yoga class. During that class, I understood for the first time that true meditation begins only after one reaches the state of absorption (dhyana)—a state in which the ego is dissolved and we become one with a divine quality, such as peace or love.

I asked myself: where was I in this process? I was working on my attitudes and on devotion, but how often did I experience total absorption?  I took my new understanding as a challenge to deepen my meditation by achieving greater stillness of body (asana) and deeper states of interiorization (pratyahara), two of the steps in Patanjali’s 8-fold path.

Working with both these practices was like climbing a mountain—you can reach the top one step at a time, but strong will power is necessary. With asana, I started by sitting perfectly still for five minutes, while paying close attention to subtle muscle movements and tension in different bodily areas. Gradually I was able to sit for longer and longer periods until I could sit perfectly still for an hour or more.

Interiorizing the mind followed a similar course. I started with measured breathing and ended by visualizing the energy being withdrawn from my extremities into the spine. I followed this with Hong Sau, visualizing the little “I” (Hong) dissolving into Spirit (Sau). When sitting in the silence afterwards, I “cauterized ” any thoughts by visualizing a laser beam. Gradually I extended the periods of silence.

I worked with both these practices for about a year. Eventually, I was able to sit in the silence, undisturbed by bodily movements or restless thoughts, for an entire hour. Sometimes deep peace filled my heart, mind, and body. It was like becoming an ocean of peace—I felt it within me and around me. And I knew that nothing external could ever give me this kind of experience.

“Dying to the world without dying”

These practices led up to the second major turning point in my battle against mental restlessness: the eight-hour Christmas meditation at Ananda Village. Since I wanted to enjoy the entire eight hours without attacks of restlessness, I decided to prepare in advance.

A month before the meditation I fasted from all sensory input—no movies or mainstream magazines. I read only books by Swami Kriyananda and Paramhansa Yogananda. I kept a simple healthy diet and avoided sugar. From the moment I awoke until I went to sleep, I used my will power to infuse my soul with God, trying to be aware of the divine presence at all times—while walking, serving, eating, talking. Sometimes I fell short of my goals, but I kept trying.

The day of the meditation, I had only one desire: to disconnect from the world and experience the presence of God within. Mentally I etched on my forehead Yogananda’s definition of meditation: “Dying to the world without dying.” I was convinced that if I “died to the world,” I would go deep in meditation. I prayed deeply to God and Guru to help me do it.

After practicing each meditation technique (Hong Sau, Aum, Kriya Yoga), I tried to interiorize my consciousness more and more deeply. Next I recited the 23rd Psalm as a devotional self-offering to God and continued to sit in the silence. Once, when a desire was about to tempt me, Swami Sri Yukteswar’s beautiful promise came to mind: “Everything in future will improve if you are making a spiritual effort now.” Quickly, I slashed the thought. Five hours passed, and I was doing well.

During the meditation breaks, I avoided eye contact with people and stayed inwardly focused. Nothing existed for me, only the one-pointed desire to unite my consciousness with God. In the remaining 3 hours, I mentally repeated the Gayatri and Mahamritanjaya mantras (for purification and liberation) 108 times each, counting with my mala. If any thoughts came, I “slashed” them with the sword. After repeating each mantra, I would sit in the silence for about 15 minutes.

“When I meditate, don’t interfere!”

I put forth constant effort during the eight hours. At the end, I was mentally exhausted and felt only a little peace. Yet, my meditation practice improved immensely after that. By now, my ego knew that I meant it when I said: “When I meditate, don’t interfere!” The battle is not over, but with my ego less of an intrusion, I can relate more deeply to my higher Self.

I learned that we can achieve major progress in meditation by the conscious use of will power.  It takes constant effort and constant calling on God. Each step of the way, we must ask: “Lord, what do I need to change in myself to get closer to you?” When we ask with deep sincerity, God always answers.

Diksha McCord lives at Ananda Village and teaches at the Expanding Light Guest Retreat. She was initiated into the Nayaswami Order in 2009.

Ashtanga Yoga: The Eightfold Path of Patanjali:

  • Yama (control)
  • Niyama (non-control)
  • Asana (posture), stillness of body
  • Pranayama (energy control)
  • Pratyahara (interiorization of the mind)
  • Dharana (one-pointed concentration)
  • Dhyana (meditation, absorption)
  • Samadhi (oneness with God)

** Affirmation for Devotion, by Swami Kriyananda:

With the sword of devotion I sever the heart-strings that tie me to delusion. With the deepest love, I lay my heart at the feet of Omnipresence.

From Affirmations for Self-Healing, Crystal Clarity Publishers.

3 times a year, Diksha leads the 9-day program Meditation Teacher Training  at The Expanding Light Retreat.

All are welcome to the popular program Learn How to Meditate – offered almost every month.

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