I've always been one for trying to learn new skills, wholeheartedly believing the fiction sold by self-help gurus: "You can do anything you set your mind to ... Realize your dreams" ... etc. Alas, I've learned by experience that actually I can't. I can think and write, and that's about it. Whenever I try to pick up a skill - playing the piano, speaking German, running a business, playing chess, juggling - I may achieve a certain shaky competence before finally grasping, what family and friends beg me to realise, that I'm crap at it, and should give up (actually that was mainly the piano).
One of the things I've tried to learn is meditation, and again, it's not something I got very far with. But in this case it's not because meditating is inherently difficult - I guess just about anyone can do it - but because I was never committed enough to take it the point where there would be tangible results. In fact over the years I forgot why I was doing it, or that it could lead to tangible results at all.
Recently I was clearing out an old bookshelf and I came across a little book called simply Concentration, by Mouni Sadhu (1959). I remember reading it twenty years ago, and that memory stayed with me ever since, together with a slightly guilty feeling of an aspiration never fully realised. I pulled it out recently and re-read it right through. Twice. It's a gem, and it left me feeling inspired.
The book is essentially a graded series of exercises aimed at gaining complete total mastery of the mind. They are meditation techniques, some of which I have seen elsewhere: for instance breathing 'colours' or focusing on the tip of the second hand of a watch, or clock, or the head of a pin. Each exercise is expected to take weeks or months, so this is something that would not expect to take less than, I guess, three years or more.
What I recognised, having remembered from reading the book the first time, was the slightly fierce tone. Sadhu leaves you in no doubt that he wants you to work. He's full of stern exhortations not to waste time pursuing 'egoistic and material aims', and instructions such as 'The beginner is strongly advised Not to Read in Advance any of chapters beyond which he is working' (I disregarded that one, sorry).
This is quite unfashionable now. TM, the system I'm most familiar with, insists that thoughts should not be blocked but simply observed and then allowed to depart. In Sadhu's approach the will is more strongly engaged: we are exhorted to show the mind who's boss. It's the teaching ethic of an earlier age, one that I'm old enough to have experienced and which I confess to being rather nostalgic for. Much of what I learned as a young child was from teachers who insisted I pay attention.
There's also something rather appealing about the idea that full self-realization can be largely achieved through a handful of rather mundane seeming exercises, pursued with dedication and will. It's not of course the only thing: one has to pursue a spiritual path, but Sadhu rather takes that for granted. I also like the plain speaking and the refreshing lack of Sanskrit terms and jargon. Sadhu was actually a devotee of Sri Ramana Maharshi, but points out that achieving the power of concentration is as much a part of western religious training as the eastern ones.
At the summit, he says:
You already know of many things which before were for you, as Himalayan peaks would be for an untrained climber from the plains. You can concentrate your attention on anything, under any conditions, without being disturbed, as formerly, by the onslaught of uncontrolled thoughts and emotions. You are really not interested in anything which lies beyond the magic circle of your attention and visualization created by your own will and no longer by something outside yourself.
This doesn't mean 'mental dullness', he insists.
Quite the contrary! The wise man possesses intelligence comparable to that of average people; but he only uses it when needed, and not as an untrained layman does, who thinks ceaselessly all his life and despite possible fame and fortunes, still amounts to nothing at his death. For a spiritually advanced man, thinking becomes something like the trivial functions of the average person such as eating or walking, etc. No reasonable man would fill his life solely with these functions and forget everything else.
A trained person, he goes on, can exclude all thoughts, ideas, words and images from the mind, and can choose or abandon emotions at will. If the exercises work, he says, a question will arise in the mind. (If it does not, the mind has not been properly stilled - go back and repeat the exercises for a few more months/years.) Addressing the question will lead to the summit of Samadhi, resurrection into a new state of consciousness, a precursor to full enlightenment.
I wondered, what sort of person it would be who could reach this peak of awareness, of mental and moral strength. What are the effects? Did Sadhu himself achieve Samadhi? Or was he just talking about it in an aspirational sense?
Perhaps the answer lies in the book itself. Despite, or perhaps because of it's apparently awkward and direct style, it has a curiously seductive power. There is an attractive, passionate urgency in it, utterly missing from modern manuals. I think he must indeed have reached his goal, but rather than rhapsodising about it, he provides a glimpse of its power through his writing. He left me feeling that it is something that even I could reach out for, if I was able to summon the necessary will, and that it would be really something worth having.
As for Sadhu himself, what kind of person was he? I pictured some grizzled Gurdjieff-type figure, but as you can see from the photo he looks like an average guy. He was a Pole, born Mieczyslaw Sudowski, and an electrical mechanic by trade. He fought for the Germans in World War One, lost his wife when the Nazis bombed Warsaw during the 1939 invasion, fought the Germans, was captured and spent time in POW camps in Germany and then Russia before going to live in Brazil, where presumably he started writing. A tough life, and one that must have fuelled a determination to rise above the traumas and tragedies of existence.
I don't know whether I will put Sadhu's exercises into effect or whether I will go back to my TM training. But for sure, meditation is something I'm not going to let slip again, and I thank him for that.
Click on this link for a sample of his writing.