The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 32: Meditation Posture

 

Amitabha, Tibet, 145 CE. Photo by David Barnhart, taken at the Encountering the Buddha exhibit at the Smithsonian

 

Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, and seat yourself firmly on a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass. Then, once seated, strive to still your thoughts. Make your mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified. Hold your body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering. With all fears dissolved in the peace of the Self… sit in meditiaon with me as your only goal. (BG, 6:11-14

Krishna shifts to telling Arjuna some specific steps in meditation.

I share this section because there are two truths about meditation posture: the first is that your exact physical posture isn’t important. The second is that your physical posture is very important.

If you go to a meditation class or speak to people who have practiced for years, you’ll learn that most practitioners have options: cushion, bench, or chair; walking meditation or lying on the floor; hands clasped, open, or in mudras; eyes open or closed. It was in watching a video of an old woman meditating near a stupa that I finally realized: just do whatever works. She was sitting on the ground, leaning on one arm. The other rested across one raised knee. Her eyes were fixed at a middle distance on the ground. She was smiling softly. She looked comfortable but alert, something I rarely achieved in my own meditation posture. But she wasn’t hung up on having her legs in the lotus position or her arms just so.

There’s a balance here. Once you understand the purpose of meditation, posture may not be so important. But for the novice unlearning a lifetime of bad posture habits, physical position can be a hang-up. We are physical beings and how we orient out bodies in space can help or hinder our mental and spiritual experience. If our attention becomes fixated on our comfort, seeking the least distracting position can become a distraction itself. This is part of what hatha yoga is intended to do: prepare you for meditation. You move and stretch your body because sitting still in meditation is hard work!

Yesterday I said Easwaran’s translation in this chapter feels a bit too focused on willpower. Listen to the active verbs he uses in the above passage: strive, hold, keep. I think these verbs reinforce “achievement” spirituality. Compare it to the Feuerstein translation, which has only one active verb, sit:

Holding trunk, head, and neck even, motionless, and steady, gazing [relaxedly] at the tip of his nose and without looking round about, [with] tranquil self, devoid of fear… he should sit, intent on Me. (6:13-14).

The trick in meditation, as with life, is to find the balance between effort and relaxation, active attention and passive noticing. For me, it’s not so much stilling my thoughts as letting them play, like active toddlers, until they come to rest naturally. It’s not helpful when my achievement-oriented brain is yelling at them, “RELAX!”

And the same is true with the body. I begin with an awareness of my body, because until I become intentionally aware of my body and appreciate its posture, it will become a persistent distraction.

Prayer:
Embodied, Incarnate One, you made, for me, a body; You made me as a body;
You made me more than a body.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 31: The Will and the Self

 
530-520 BC

Hydria with Depiction of Quadriga, Charioteer and Hoplite, Workshop of Lysippides Painter, 530-520 BC. From Wikimedia Commons. The Bhagavad-Gita describes the human person as a chariot, with the will as the driver and the Self as the lord who rides along.

 

Reshape yourself through the power of your will; never let yourself be degraded by self-will. The will is the only friend of the Self; and the will is the only enemy of the Self. (BG, 6:5

This is a place where it’s worth doing some language study. The above translation is from Easwaran, which I have used for most of these devotionals. But I think it’s important here to compare it to the Feuerstein translation:

He should raise the self by the Self; he should not let the self sink; for, [as] the self is indeed the friend of the Self, [so also] is the self indeed Self’s enemy. 

As I’ve said, I don’t know Sanskrit at all. My Hebrew is pretty thin, and my Greek is only slightly better. I rely on language experts and multiple translations to help me wrestle with ancient scriptures. The issue in this passage is the various creative ways atman is used.

Easwaran chooses to make this a distinction between the will and the Self. Feuerstein instead goes with “lower self” and “higher Self.” Either way, the notion is that the part of us that is truly divine and eternal, that aspect of our consciousness that retains a connection to the Lord of Life, is the real higher Self. But in our confusion, we often think of the part of us that decides and has agency as who we really are. This is the lower self, or as Easwaran interprets it, our will.

The reason I prefer the Feuerstein translation in this instance is that in the next few verses, Krishna is going to talk about meditation, and I think our Western way of thinking about the will, and willpower, and self-control, and achievement often poison our understanding of meditation. People will say, “I’m no good at meditation,” because they’ve been taught that it’s about controlling your thoughts. It’s a paradox present in so much spiritual growth, that we have to learn how to relax. People sit down to meditation with the idea that they are going to grit their teeth and really focus. Through effort and intense concentration they are going to still their thoughts.

It’s like trying to pick up a towel while you are standing on it.  

We will look more, eventually, at the different components of the self, this thing I think of as I. But for now, let’s rest with this truth: There is part of me that is pure consciousness (Self), and there is part of me that has agency and makes decisions (lower self, or will). The part of me that has agency can facilitate my knowing my Self, or it can obscure it. Deciding to decide in favor of my Self is one of the most important decisions I can make, and yet I often choose distraction. I procrastinate on enlightenment. Paul expresses something similar: “I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate” (Romans 7:15, CEB).

My self can be an ally of my Self, or it can be an enemy. Do I have the courage to explore why?

Prayer:
Master of my Self, help me master my self.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 30: Pleasures and Treasures

 
Screen Shot 2020-06-26 at 5.29.59 AM

Detail of a botched “restoration” of a painting of Mary by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. News story here.

 

Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. The wise do not look for happiness in them. But those who overcome the impulses of lust and anger which arise in the body are made whole and live in joy. They find their joy, their light, and their rest completely within themselves. United with the Lord, they attain nirvana in Brahman. (BG, 5:22-24)  

Yesterday I pointed out that like the Sermon on the Mount, the above quote singles out the passions of anger and lust as particular traps. It also connects to Jesus’s words in another way:

“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them.  Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, CEB)

Earthly treasures have this in common: they end. We value them for a time because they bring pleasure to the senses, but when they end we feel sad, or angry, and we long for more.

My mind goes to news of the recent botched painting restoration in Spain. Of course we want things of beauty to be preserved, and we want great works of art to last so that they can be seen by future generations. But nothing lasts forever, and sometimes our efforts to preserve our pleasure actually lead to ruin. This particular amateur “restoration” left the Virgin Mary looking hideous and goofy.

Yes, the ruin of a beautiful work of art is sad and outrageous, but I can’t help laughing when I see these photographs. Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. Sometimes we try to “hold on” to an aesthetic experience of great art by possessing a painting, as if owning it will let us own the feeling of it. We put art in museums (to visit occasionally) or on our walls (where they become simply more furniture). Sometimes artists, like Banksy, try to draw our attention to the strange relationship between art, temporality, money, and ownership by destroying their own art.

rehearsal-800x354

Banksy released a video of the “rehearsal” of his prank. Excellent in-depth news here.

Our desire to possess, to keep, to hold on, all of this is attachment. We get angry because our attachment is threatened. We covet and lust because we want to own. We want to preserve this moment of pleasure or comfort and carry it into the next one, and the next, which is an impossible task.

Jesus says our real treasure is “in the heavens,” or the skies. Krishna says it is within ourselves. I think there is little difference between the two.

Prayer:
God of Time and Timelessness, of the Eternal and the Finite, help me to find my treasure in you,
in the sky, in myself.