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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

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.")

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