After Initiation: following the path

The points made so far are, we might say, the basics or essentials of Sant Mat. When, after initiation, we begin in earnest on the inner path of meditation, we discover that we have embarked on what seems a lifelong struggle with our mind. In meditation we may be trying to still and focus our attention and turn it within, but the human mind has the long-established habit of ‘running out’ in scattered thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations.

We soon discover that, although meditation practice has the purpose of turning the attention inwards, a seemingly inexhaustible stock of thoughts, images, memories and feelings distracts us from this aim. We start to appreciate the hitherto unnoticed power of the ‘five passions’ of lust, anger, attachment, greed and ego, which seem to have free rein over our thoughts, emotions, and actions. The human mind has a natural tendency to repeat the same thoughts and emotions, over and over. For example, if someone hurts my feelings I find myself dwelling on the memory by re-playing the event again and again in my mind, becoming agitated by the same emotion each time. Moment by moment, our experiences in life generate further thoughts and feelings, some of which become engraved in our mind through repetition. Our thoughts thus become mental habits which, over time, build our entire character and personality.

When through meditation we begin to see ourselves a little more objectively, we start to realise that the person I think of as ‘I’ is more or less the sum total of these mental habits. In meditation, we become intensely aware of the power of these ideas, emotions, and traits of character. This awareness is the beginning of wisdom. We start to withdraw our attention from this illusory ‘I’ and gradually disentangle ourselves from the delusions and entanglements that distract the real ‘I’ from realising its true identity with that divine love and energy mystics refer to as the word, the shabd, and by other names.

The power of repetition

The master explains that we can withdraw our attention from our powerfully distracting thoughts and emotions by replacing the constant replaying of these thoughts and emotions with a more powerful, inner-directed, form of repetition. This is called simran (repetition of words given by the master at initiation). With the body remaining motionless in meditation, simran stills and focuses the mind at the eye centre, an inner focus between and above the two eyes. In this stillness we can come to understand the reality of our mind, beyond the distracting play of thoughts and emotions. Through simran and then bhajan (listening within, directing our attention to the divine melody, the shabd) we can then withdraw further and further inwards until that divine love which is ‘beyond’ the mind becomes our reality.

If we sit in meditation for two and a half hours every day but spend the rest of the day completely absorbed in worldly thoughts and emotions, we will find it difficult if not impossible to dismiss the day’s events from our mind when the time comes for meditation. Hence, the masters recommend that in any spare moment during the day we engage in silent simran (repetition). In this way, the mind will be conditioned to turn inwards when we sit for daily meditation. The present master has put it this way: “with 24/7 simran, everything flows.”

Slipping and sliding

Those who start out on the path of meditation often feel that they are becoming worse as individuals, not growing more ‘spiritual’ in the way that they imagined. The master explains that this is an outcome of growing self-awareness. Before we begin on the path of meditation most of us grossly underestimate the hold that the attachment-laden mind has over us. We dance helplessly to the tune of our constantly changing emotions and desires while telling ourselves that our choices are governed by ‘free will,’ that we are free agents in charge of our own life. In reality, we are bound by our attachments and mental and emotional habits, not free to make wise or objective choices. As we try to control the mind through meditation we begin to see the process more clearly, and we can acquire some self-knowledge. Maharaj Charan Singh explains:

When you’re on the Path and meditating, you don’t become worse than before; you become more aware of your weaknesses. I often give an example also: you are in a closed room and it’s absolutely dark; a little ray of light comes from the ventilator and suddenly you can see so much in the room. You see dust particles and so many things that are moving about. But until that ray of light came, you were not conscious of all that was in that room. So with meditation, that ray of light comes in us, and those very things of which we used to feel proud, which we blindly thought were achievements, now we feel ashamed of them.

It doesn’t mean that we have fallen or we have become worse by meditation. We have just become conscious of those weaknesses. And when you become conscious of them, naturally you are ashamed of them, and that makes you want to get rid of them.14

Our own mind naturally knows us inside out. It has so many tricks up its sleeve that the part of us which is trying to still and focus the mind often despairs and becomes discouraged. At first we cannot even keep the body still, what to say of the mind! At times the path of meditation seems an unequal battle. Perhaps it is – after all, meditation is learning how to control the mind, and mystics say that control of the mind cannot be achieved completely without help from some higher power.

That ‘higher’ power is in reality the inner power, the magnetic shabd or divine love residing within us, our essence. That divine love exerts the same ‘pull from within’ that brought us to the true master in the first place. There is more to a true teacher than meets the eye. A true master radiates spiritual beauty, humility, and love. The physical form and actions of a true teacher are, as much as any words, a means of imparting the teachings to the disciple. The true teacher is an embodiment of divine love, and that love is also the inner power which attracts and draws us within.

The outlook is unsettled

When we persevere in meditation, over days, weeks, months, and years, we learn gradually how to calm and focus our attention. Not that every day is better than the last. Our circumstances and our actions – our karmas – are rather like the weather. Not all days are sunny and warm, and few days bring us the sort of karma that is easy to deal with and simple to forget about during the hours of meditation. To the extent that we are attached to people, possessions, and events, the ups and downs of life will affect our ability to concentrate on the task of meditation. But, as the master often says, what is easy in life? If we give up at the first sign of difficulty in any project, how can we expect to make progress? Progress builds on repeated failure and repeated effort, as we can see if we watch a baby trying and failing, trying and failing to clutch some object until at last she succeeds. Through regular daily hours of practice, our wilful mind gradually begins to accept that it is going to lose the struggle one day, because with the encouragement of the master we will never give up.

Measuring progress: from here to eternity

Very often a disciple on the spiritual path wants to know whether he or she has made progress and, if so, how much. This is entirely understandable. After all, someone starting out to play a musical instrument or speak a new language can have his or her progress examined and recognised by certificates – first grade, second grade, and so on. Why can’t the same be done for meditation?

To some extent it can, at least for the most basic elements of the practice. We can ask ourselves, “Have I succeeded in keeping my body quite still for ten minutes, for twenty minutes, for an hour, for the whole period of meditation?” The answer may vary day by day, but hopefully we can discern improvement with habitual practice over time. This should encourage us to forget about the body. Habit, as the Chinese saying goes, makes nature. Eventually our body will remain still during meditation naturally, out of habit, not because we are watching the clock.

However, as soon as we try to analyse and measure what is happening with our own mind, things become far less simple. We may ask, “Am I keeping my mind in simran (repetition) or are my thoughts straying?” But time spent thinking about how much of our time is being spent in simran is time not doing simran, so the very act of measuring our progress hinders our progress. It is like planting a seedling and then digging it up every hour to see if the roots are growing, when we know that disturbing the soil prevents proper root growth.

To take another example, a true master possesses extraordinary humility. As we become more conscious of our own pride and arrogance we may think, “A sign of progress would be that I am becoming more humble and less judgemental of others.” So we ask ourselves, “Am I becoming more humble?” But if the answer we give is, “Yes, I have indeed become a more humble person,” this is only a sign of pride, not of humility.

In fact, this seeming paradox is true of the higher reaches of ‘outer’ disciplines as well. A renowned musician still practises for hours every day and may never be satisfied with his performance, however much the audience applauds. The scholar who passes with honours every examination up to PhD level finds that the more she studies the less she feels she knows and the more there is left to understand. Since progress towards infinity cannot be measured, mystics often resort to paradoxical statements about ‘progress,’ ranging from, “It is impossible for us to reach the goal ourselves; we can only try to become receptive to grace,” to “We are already there but don‘t realise it.” The truth of such apparently contradictory statements can only be understood through practice.

This is why the masters say again and again, “Don’t analyse, just practise.” Applying oneself to meditation is its own sign of progress. In religious terms we could say that the grace of the Lord, or the spiritual master, is shown in the effort we make in meditation. Effort is itself devotion, and it is devotion, not inner sights and sounds, that leads to spiritual realisation. More effort, more grace; more grace, more effort. Or if we want to put it in non-religious terms: practice makes perfect.

The world isn’t what it was

An encouraging sign, as we persist in meditation practice, may be that our attachment to things and people of this world starts to fade; we find the world less alluring. What once seemed exciting, attractive, and worthwhile starts to appear superficial and unrewarding. Increasingly we realise that if we are going to find permanent peace and happiness it can only be found deep within ourselves, not out here in the constantly changing world. This does not mean that we cease to love or care, nor that we give up on our responsibilities. To the extent that we become less scattered, less obsessed and less possessive about people and things, we will become more helpful to others and more focused in whatever we do.

We all need encouragement

Anyone who has persisted on the path over time will admit that there are ups and downs in his or her relationship with the path. Doubts and discouragement assail everyone from time to time. This is quite natural; an amateur runner hoping at least to complete a city marathon will start the race full of optimism and energy. Halfway through, when the initial enthusiasm has worn off and it is nothing but hard work and pain, she may well think, “Why am I doing this?” and contemplate giving up. That is when a word of encouragement and a reminder of the goal makes all the difference. The serious professional runner, by contrast, has trained and trained and trained again and thus understands what is happening to her body and mind at every stage of a race. She expects mental and physical highs and lows and knows from experience how to overcome them. In the same way, someone who has devoted time to regular daily meditation over many years comes to recognise the real ups and downs that accompany the practice and with faith and trust in the spiritual teacher keeps going regardless.

Many of us may think from time to time that we are just not much good at meditation and perhaps never will be. Maybe our master has made a mistake in initiating us? Maybe the whole thing is a fairy story? Maybe we would be happier downing a few glasses of wine, taking a long holiday from meditation, or going fishing? Maybe not, when we stop and think it through. ‘Practice,’ after all, is built on ‘failure’ after ‘failure.’ We tend to think failure is something negative, something to be avoided. But this is a misunderstanding. If we watch a child trying for the first time to stand, then to stay upright, then to walk, then to run, we see how repeated failure is not a by-product of effort but, on the contrary, absolutely essential to success. Maharaj Charan Singh says:

Before we start learning to run, we have to pass through so many stages. You know that when a child takes birth, it is difficult for the child even to lie down properly. Then he has to learn how to sit, and he has to pass through so many processes, so many failures, before he learns to stand on his own legs. After that, he learns to walk, and so many times he falls. Then, slowly and slowly, he picks himself up and learns to run, and does not fall. This whole process is essential before he can run.

Similarly, all these failures [in trying to still and focus the mind] are part of our ultimate success. They should be a source of strength to us, provided we continue with our ‘failures,’ we continue giving our time to meditation, and do not become disgusted and leave meditation. We should go on making attempt after attempt – that is what it means.

Great Master [Maharaj Sawan Singh] used to say, “If you can’t bring your success to me, bring your failures.” It means, assure me that you have at least been giving your time to meditation. Whether you have achieved any results or not is a different question, but you bring me at least your failures, because that means you have been attempting to meditate, you have been doing your best. And if you haven’t noticed any results, that is entirely for Him to see about. We should do our best. Whether we succeed or fail in meditation is a different thing.15

The master is always positive, always encouraging, always supportive, and he leads from the front, by his example. His remedy for any tendency to neglect our meditation is “more meditation.” He says, “We are stronger than we think” and “We can do it.”

Over to you?

Nevertheless, at some point we are probably going to ask: “If the master wants me to still and focus the mind, why doesn’t he make it happen? Supposedly the master is in touch with Truth, is in control of events and not a slave to circumstances in the way that I am. Then let him take me within when he sees fit and let him connect me with that divine melody, with the shabd. I don’t really need to do anything myself – and anyway I can’t do it!”

It’s a thought, but let us think a bit more carefully and clearly about it. The master has initiated me to teach me something; to benefit me; to make a real change in me. He is there to make sure I succeed. And the master will not give up on a disciple. We can be certain that if the master wants to teach me something then, one way or the other, I am going to learn it.

Let’s use an example. A child goes to school and starts to learn how to read. The teacher introduces the letters of the alphabet, shows how words are formed from letters. But the child doesn’t ‘get it’; she knows the individual letters a,b,c, etc. but cannot actually read anything yet. So for homework the teacher gives the child a piece of paper with a few simple sentences and says, “I want you to take this home and read it.” The child gets home, looks at the paper and can’t make sense of it. She thinks, “I can’t do it, I’m probably no good at reading, I’ll play instead.” But then she thinks, “The teacher is expecting me to read this so it must be important. I need to find out what it says.” So she begs her mother, “You can read, you are my mother, just do it for me; tell me what it says, then I can just repeat the words to the teacher. I’ll even do something for you to make up for it – I’ll tidy my room.” What a brilliant idea!

But her mother is wiser than this. She knows that the point of the exercise is not that someone who already knows how to read should understand the words. The purpose is for that particular child, who cannot yet read, to learn how to do so, to become able to read for herself.

So the mother, instead of telling the child what the words say, encourages her, gives her small hints, keeps her on task, praises her sincere failures, tells her she can do it if she perseveres, keeps her going in the right direction, and slowly and slowly the child makes out the words and then the sentences until – hurrah! – she ‘gets it’ and understands for herself what the words are saying. And it turns out that it’s not important at all what the words say. What’s important is that by means of these particular words she learns to read, and once we can read, well, as we know, a whole new world opens up for us; everything changes.

This example might help us to understand why the same inner spiritual path can be taught by a true teacher using different words and different concepts according to time, place, and audience. It also explains why there’s no short cut, no substitute for meditation. Meditation is a learning process for me, for the disciple. It is meant to benefit me, to transform my way of knowing. Therefore, I have to engage with the process myself. However arduous it is, however inadequate I feel, however long it may take, I cannot delegate that learning process to the master or to anyone else – and nothing can take the place of meditation.

The essential truths

When we study the teachings through words on a page, we are learning the “a,b,c” of Sant Mat. We may understand that the path is a path of meditation, even if we don’t fully appreciate what meditation means. When we encounter a true teacher we may come to know from that master’s demeanour, words and character that the master really does have something to give us that is more valuable than the most precious diamond – and we may sense that this is what we really want. Initiation then gives us our spiritual homework – at least two and a half hours meditation every day.

However, it is only through experience, through the practice of meditation, that we will learn to cope with the inevitable ups and downs in our relationship with the path. It is only by following the vegetarian diet, avoiding drugs and alcohol and living a clean moral life that we gradually come to understand how this way of life benefits us and makes meditation possible. It is only when we are engaging in regular daily meditation practice despite our busy lives or challenging circumstances that we appreciate the practical value of reading spiritual literature and listening to satsangs. And at the same time we come to understand that these outer activities, helpful as they may be, can never be a substitute for meditation.

A true teacher can guide and support a disciple on the inner path, but we have to do our part. If we wish to follow the guidance of a true teacher we should think carefully about the commitment involved and ask ourselves whether we are prepared to put in the effort required.

Clear thinking about the path

A true master encourages us to think clearly about our situation, identify the action needed and then take that action. At the start of this brief outline of Sant Mat it was said firstly that a true teacher leads us to the understanding of the truth – of how things really are, secondly that this is a truth which cannot be expressed in words but only realised through experience, and finally that this inner experience is gained through meditation, which requires sustained effort and determination.

These statements embody the underlying logic of the inner path. Logical arguments are built on axioms or self-evident truths. It is self-evident, for example, that as human beings we desire happiness rather than suffering. It is equally self-evident that we cannot secure permanent happiness for ourselves or for anyone else if that happiness relies on the fulfilment of worldly desires, needs and ambitions. This is because the physical world is an arena of instability and change. Moment by moment everything alters. We can do our best to plan for the future but the truth is we never know what it holds. And we know, whether or not we admit it to ourselves, that everything we hold dear in life – our relatives, possessions, friends, our own body – will be left behind at death.

What goes around comes around

An axiom of the masters is that our existence is governed by the law of karma, of action and reaction: the principle of “As you sow, so shall you reap.” We can see that the physical world runs on cause and effect. If I plant a flower seed and the conditions are right, it will grow and blossom. If I don’t plant it or the conditions are wrong, it will not. But in the sphere of human life things are more complicated. Because we cannot see clearly why things happen as they do, events can seem to be random or unjust. An old ditty runs:

The rain it falleth every day
Upon the just and unjust fellow,
But more upon the just, because
The unjust has the just’s umbrella!

The karmic consequences of good and bad deeds are seldom seen within the span of a human lifetime. Moreover a human being can cause far more suffering – or indeed good – in one lifetime than can be paid back in a single future life. The masters say that every action, good or bad, has its consequence; good and bad deeds don’t cancel each other out.

We can prolong our involvement in the chain of karmic cause and effect by reacting unthinkingly to events and thus making poor choices. Or we can think and reflect, make wise choices and resolve to turn our attention within, to the still point at the centre of the turning wheel of existence, to become eternally free of uncertainty and suffering.

What is the proof that happiness lies within?

For most people, it is not self-evident that the happiness we seek can be found within, through meditation, whatever the books may say. This is where the encounter with a living master can be decisive. A true master is a living example to disciples – one who ‘walks the walk’ as well as ‘talks the talk’ of Sant Mat amid all the problems and distractions of the world. By encountering a living master, it may become evident to us that true and lasting love, peace and contentment really can be found within, and this inspires us to make the inner journey for ourselves.