Deft Spiritual Instruction In The Shvetashvatara Upanishad

Tucked between verses containing soaring lines on the Absolute, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad includes very practical, and sagely, spiritual instruction on how to meditate. It is worth reading closely and bears deep contemplation.

Be seated with spinal column erect

And turn your mind and senses deep within.

With the mantram echoing in your heart,

Cross over the dread sea of birth and death.

Train your senses to be obedient.

Regulate your activities to lead you

To the goal. Hold the reigns of the mind

as you hold the reins of a restive horse.

Choose a quiet place for meditation that is

Clean, quiet, and cool, a cave with a smooth floor

Without stones or dust, protected against

Wind and rain and pleasing to the eye.

In deep meditation aspirants may

See forms like snow or smoke. They may feel

A strong wind blowing or a wave of heat.

They may see within them more and more light:

Fireflies, lightning, sun, or moon. These are signs

That they are well on their way to Brahman.

Health, a light body, freedom from cravings,

A glowing skin, sonorous voice, fragrance

Of body: these signs indicate progress

In the practice of meditation.

As a dusty mirror shines bright when cleansed,

So shine those who realize the Self,

Attain life’s goal, and pass beyond sorrow.

The instructions on seated meditation are excellent. Sit with spine erect and turn inward, replacing the outward-going attention on sense objects and on mental objects with the inner light of awareness.

So are the words about having certain visions or experiences. Sometimes Zen overemphasizes the unimportance of visions, calling them “illusions.” While this is strictly true, it can be heartening for the spiritual aspirant to know that such visions (yes, mind-concocted and hence not the True Self unadorned) can be regarded as “signs of progress,” signs of greater clarity, depth, and direction. “Yes,” one might say afterward, “I am going the right way.”

The poem in no way suggests, however, that it is wise to grab onto such states, visions, or experiences. Doing so is a sure sign of lack of progress, and a surer sign still that you have embraced spiritual materialism. Anything less than Truth is a poor substitute and a tempting danger.

Thus, as in Zen, so in this Upanishad: clean the mirror, polishing it until it is so spotless that only the light of Reality can be reflected here.