Words of Inspiration

By Michael Nagler  |  

Mystics often compare the mind to a lake. In most of us, the surface of this lake is so agitated that we can’t see the beauty and resources that lie below, waiting to be tapped. Yoga, as Patanjali defines it, is nothing more or less than stilling the mind, so we can see that longed-for beauty and let our life be flooded with those largely unsuspected resources.

Most of the time-honored methods that sages have devised to achieve this tremendous state seem to fall into two categories: those that allow the mind to quiet down by not giving it attention and those that aim to channel the mind’s attention into a single focus. This focus helps us withdraw our attention from, and finally subdue, the endless stream of mostly random thought-making that is the mind. Some methods advocate using an external object, like a candle, or using the breath, or using something more internal. The most common internal device has always been a mantra—a charged word or short formula that you silently repeat, concentrating on it more and more deeply at the expense of those pesky thought waves.

There is, however, an alternative method. It’s called passage meditation, and it was introduced in this country in 1959 by Eknath Easwaran. (For more on Easwaran, see Luminaries) In passage meditation, the object of attention is not an image or an external object but an inspirational passage chosen from any of the world’s great spiritual traditions and memorized ahead of time. One great passage to start off with is the Prayer of St. Francis.

To use this method, try to establish your practice in the morning, before fascinating activities like breakfast or reading e-mail have taken over. Sit in a comfortable position, with your back, neck, and head gently erect in an anatomically straight line. Then close your eyes, breathe deeply and softly, and begin silently reciting the words of the passage in your mind, as slowly as you can without losing their meaning.

You want to let each inspiring word “drop like a jewel into the depths of your consciousness,” as Easwaran’s oft-repeated phrase instructs. There is no need to think about the meaning of the words. When you’re giving them your full attention, their meaning can’t help but sink in, leading to all kinds of positive developments. As we assimilate the inspired words, we find ourselves being spontaneously kind, for example; we find that addictions and unwanted behaviors of all kinds drop away as we come to resemble more and more the ideals that the passage we’ve chosen holds out to us.

For this to happen—and this is really the core of the technique—do not follow any associations that may come up, even apparently “pious” ones. When any such distraction arises, you can do one of two things about it, depending on how long it has taken you to realize you’re not on the passage. In the case of the odd distraction, the stray thought, simply bring your attention back to the words of the passage. Don’t get annoyed with your mind or take note of the distraction in any way; rather, refocus your attention on the passage. But the mind is tricky, and sometimes a distraction will take over and go on its merry way for minutes on end before we realize what’s up. At this point, we should “pick up the mind gently,” as Easwaran often said (getting angry at it will only be a second distraction), and bring it right back to the beginning of the passage. Boring? Exactly, but that’s partly the point. You are serving notice to the mind that you are in charge—that for a half hour, at least, it is going to learn to obey you for a change or risk what it hates most: being bored.

We Become What We Meditate On

The appeal of this technique is the absorption in beautiful, inspiring words that express the highest ideals of the world’s great spiritual figures. Since we choose the passages ourselves, the ideals they express are ones that appeal to us. Some people relate better to the unadorned truths of Buddhism, others to the rich rhetoric of love in the writings of, say, Rumi or Teresa of Ávila. Choose whatever is most meaningful to you; your tastes will probably broaden anyway as your practice continues. (In fact, if you stick with the same passage too long, you’ll find that it becomes stale and that its words lose their evocative power. It’s a good idea to be on the lookout for new passages to add to your practice before that happens.)

Along with immersing ourselves in positive content, we are slowing down the mind as much as possible without losing our focus; as many ancient texts say, this can have infinite results. As Easwaran put it in his collection of inspirational passages, titled God Makes the Rivers to Flow (Nilgiri, 2003), “Slow, sustained concentration on these passages drives them deep into our minds. And whatever we drive deep into consciousness, that we become.” Or as the Buddha says, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”

Practiced regularly, passage meditation can gradually bring us complete mastery of our thought processes—which, as the Buddha reminds us, means mastery of our lives. It is a powerful, welcome tool for breaking unwanted habits, resolving tangled relationships and entering wonderful new ones, realizing our maximum effectiveness at whatever we do, and sensing a deep purpose in our lives.

Of course, no form of meditation works very well all by itself. If we jump up from our cushion and run out into the same-old same-old, not only will we erase the effects of meditation, but we could end up throwing our lives out of balance. For this reason, passage meditation is combined with seven other practices in Easwaran’s Eight Point Program. These practices are: using a mantra of our choice as often as possible during the rest of the day; slowing down (avoiding hurrying, allowing enough time for meals, and generally simplifying life); training our attention (refraining from “multitasking,” giving our full attention to whatever we’re doing); training the senses (choosing carefully what we eat, read, watch, and listen to); developing an innate concern for other people’s welfare; cultivating spiritual companionship (spending time with those whose company promotes our growth); and reading spiritual (sacred and inspirational) literature every day. Practicing these do’s and don’ts reinforces our progress in passage meditation throughout the day.

So Ancient and So New

Passage meditation is a classic technique with similarities to the Christian lectio divina (sacred reading) and many other spiritual traditions. Mystics from Isaac of Syria to Simone Weil have described their struggle not merely to inwardly recite a scriptural passage but to do so with unbroken concentration; Isaac even relates going back to the beginning when he’s drifted too far off. Patanjali admonishes us to still the mind; the Bhagavad Gita goes further by telling us, through Arjuna, to “bring your mind back every time it wanders away.” Easwaran simply adds a practical definition of back (namely, to the passage) and away, meaning to anything else. (In our secular age, the psychologist, philosopher, and author William James said this faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is “the very root of judgment, character, and will.”)

Interestingly, passage meditation seems to be stumbled upon less often in the East than in the West, where it often appears as a special type or goal of prayer. The reason may be that we in the West are so intellectually oriented (as Easwaran once said, “You people are very word-conscious”) and not very devotional—at least before we’ve made some progress in meditation.

On the other hand, Easwaran also said that we Westerners have a determination that even the most devotional Indian might envy. In any case, the combination of devotion and determination—which is what passage meditation aims to eventually produce—is powerfully healing. And the world has never needed it more.

Michael Nagler is a presenter for the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation’s Eight Point Program and teaches nonviolence at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include the award-winning Is There No Other Way?: The Search for a Nonviolent Future.