The following simple meditation is drawn from the well of Theravada Buddhism, which is the oldest surviving form of Buddhism. The meditation is called Anapanasati: Anapana means inhalation/exhalation, while sati means mindfulness, and so the meditation is no more than mindfulness of the breath. Seeing as we all share the breath in common it is a meditation that can be performed by anyone, at anytime, and anywhere. You don’t need to go to the shop to buy anything and you don’t need to find a teacher, you are the only instrument you need. The Buddha promised his devotees that mindfulness of the breath, “developed and repeatedly practiced, is of great fruit, great benefit.” Anapanasati is the meditation that Buddha practiced as he sat underneath the Bodhi tree and realised his own enlightenment, and so it is the method that he stressed the most to his followers, and is the core meditation practice in Theravada Buddhism.
The Buddha’s teachings of this meditation can be found in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (The Greater Discourse on Foundations of Mindfulness). In it he says: “A monk, having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty hut, sits down. Having folded his legs cross-wise, straightened his body, and set up mindfulness in front of him, at the tip of his nose, just mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in long, he knows: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he knows: ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he knows: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he knows: ‘I breathe out short.’; thus he trains himself.”
In the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, the young princes studied archery with the famous archery guru, Dronacharya. In ancient India, instruction in a particular art or skill was not limited to the techniques of that art alone but involved discipleship – the student would be trained in self-discipline, surrender, meditation and self-knowledge, as well as archery or whatever skill was being taught. One day Dronacharya told the class: “My lesson for the day is ‘Tell the truth; do not get angry.” Contemplate this and come back when you have mastered it.” The princes wrote the lesson down and went off to consider it. The next day all the princes except Arjuna (the hero of the Mahabharata epic and the famous Bhagavad Gita, which it belongs to) arrived on time for class. Dronacharya asked them: “Can I take it that you have mastered my last lesson, ‘Tell the truth and do not get angry?” The princes agreed that they had. Their lessons continued.
Days passed, but still Arjuna has not returned to class. After a week Drona sent for him. When Arjuna appeared he asked him why he had missed so many sessions. “My revered teacher,” Arjuna said, “you told us to contemplate ‘Tell the truth and don’t get angry.”
“That is correct,” said Drona.
“But,” Arjuna said, “you also said that we were not to return until we had mastered it. So far I have only mastered, ‘Tell the truth…'” Deonacharya smiled: “My son, it is indeed easier to learn to tell the truth than not to get angry, and your fellow princes have not even learned that much.” He turned to the other students: “Learn from Arjuna, this is not a lesson to be mastered in one day. You have not demonstrated your cleverness, only your dishonesty!” The student’s heads turned to Arjuna angrily.
The book I am reviewing – The Only Dance There Is – is a compiled transcription of two lectures Ram Dass gave to a room of psychotherapists in the early 1970s. The first lecture was at the Menninger Foundation in 1970, and the second at the Spring Grove Hospital in 1972. Seeing as Ram Dass was a trained Harvard professor and psychiatrist before he transformed into a yogi, he was in the fortunate position of having two perceptual vantage points to overlook the whole thing. His clear insight into the Western approach to solving man’s spiritual problems through psychology, and his new understanding into the Eastern approach through yoga and meditation allowed him the opportunity to act as a solid concrete bridge between the worlds of East and West. Prior to Ram Dass bridges existed, but they were of the old and fragile, made of rope variety, which were rarely crossed out of fear of the bridge collapsing and you falling into the abyss below. Because of this the game at this point in time was very polarised – us vs them, hippies vs police, East vs West, and so on.
In these lectures Ram Dass attempted to share the Indian’s non-dualistic outlook on life, called Advaita Vedanta, to an audience very much attached to the separation of all living things. Ram Dass eloquently shared what he had learnt in India, and what he had given up in Harvard, by comparing the comparatively new Western psychology to the 10,000 year old Eastern method of yoga and meditation. For example, he discusses in detail the Hindu chakra system, and how it closely resembles psychological systems for understanding human motivation – an area that Ram Dass happened to specialise in when he was a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Richard Alpert.
There once was a king who was going to put to death many people, but before doing so he offered a challenge. If any of them could come up with something which would make him happy when he was sad, and sad when he was happy, he would spare their lives. All night the wise men meditated on the matter. In the morning they brought the king a ring. The king said that he did not see how the ring would serve to make him happy when he was sad and sad when he was happy. The wise men pointed to the inscription. When the king read it, he was so delighted that he spared them all.
And the inscription? “This too shall pass.“
Once a seeker went to a great master. Bowing reverentially in the traditional manner he said: “O master, I seek enlightenment, please initiate and teach me so that I may attain That!” The master replied in a kindly manner: “Certainly my son, tat tvam asi, you are That, the divine Self lives within you. Meditate on that Self, know that Self, merge in that Self, realise that Self!” The seeker was disappointed. “O master, I know all that already. Why, that very teaching was featured in this month’s Yoga Journal. Please give me the secret teachings, I want the real stuff!” The master said: That is all I know. That is my entire teaching I have no secrets. There is nothing that I have not given you. However, if you are not satisfied, you can go down the road to the next swami’s ashram and see if he has something more suitable for you.”
The seeker approached the other guru and said: “O master, I seek enlightenment, please give me the initiation and your most secret teaching so that I may attain That!” The guru said: “I do not give my teachings so easily. You must earn them. You must do sadhana, spiritual practice. If you are sincere then you can stay here and work for 12 years. Only in this way will you earn my initiation.” The seeker was delighted: “That’s just what I wanted. That is real spiritual life, real sadhana. I’ll begin at once.” The guru assigned him the job of shovelling buffalo dung in the back paddock. The years went by. Each day as he shovelled the dung the seeker dreamt of his future enlightenment. He ticked the passing days and months off his calendar.
Finally 12 years were up; the great day arrived. He approached the guru with hands folded palm to palm. “O my guru, I have served you faithfully for 12 years. I request your teachings and initiation as you have promised. Please bestow your grace upon me.” The guru said: “My son, you have served me well. You truly deserve my teaching. Here it is: “Tat tvam asi. You are That, the divine Self lives within you. Meditate on that Self, know that Self, merge in that Self, realise that Self!” The seeker became enraged. “What! Is that all? The guru up the road gave me that the first time I met him and I didn’t have to shovel buffalo dung for him for 12 years!”
“Well,” said the guru. “The truth hasn’t changed in 12 years.”