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Words of Inspiration

As taught by the late Eknath Easwaran, passage meditation offers us the chance to let spiritual texts deeply penetrate our being.

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.

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