When we introduce a topic, we often use a title or some sort of tag line. And when it comes to things and people, we like to give them labels: I am a yoga teacher, I have two kids, I like Italian movies…
It was probably the same 2000 years ago when Patanjali composed the Yoga-Sutra, his famous treatise on Yoga. Therein he captures the attention of his students right from the beginning, introducing yoga in a brief sentence with a strong impact: yogah citta-vrtti nirodha, “yoga is the pacification, concentration and complete focus of the mind’s fluctuating activities”.
The message is loud and clear: yoga has to do with the mind. The healthiest situation for it is calm and focus. Then what? Is our work done? Certainly not. Once it is in focus the mental instrument is merely fit to be sharpened through meditative practices. This process leads to the connection with pure Consciousness, yoga’s highest purpose.
This sums up yoga’s general approach.
Now, the method.
Practice is made of eight components. The first five are considered “external” because they frame our behaviour: rules of conduct (yama), lifestyle choices (niyama), physical exercises (asana), breathing techniques to work with energy (pranayama) and control of the sensory functions (pratyahara). Breath and control of the senses are – relatively speaking – more “internal” than the first three because they require a certain amount of self-awareness.
There are three more fully-fledged “internal” practices: concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and the highest state where the meditator is completely absorbed in his object of meditation (samadhi).
For maximum benefit these eight limbs are not to be practiced separately, one rung of the ladder leading to the next, as it has sometimes been said. Profound transformation happens when we are simultaneously engaged in all of them at the same time. Of course students usually start by working with posture and breath because they are more accessible for the majority, especially when they start at a young age (which was the case in Patanjali’s time). We never discard them entirely, but gradually increase the ratio of meditative practices to make our mind perfectly pure, eventually.
“I cannot meditate because I cannot empty my mind!”
How does one meditate? A number of methods have become popular in past decades. Many of them are modern adaptations of yoga’s techniques. The media praise its benefits and doctors acknowledge its contribution to physical and mental health. Some big firms make time for it in their employees’ working day, and some business meetings even start with a few minutes of meditation.
Yet despite growing popularity meditation is generally considered difficult, especially by beginners who believe that they must empty their mind in order to do it. But the idea that one must empty the mind is incorrect. It leads many people to give up meditation soon after they started, coupled with the fact that they jumped straight into it without having done the preliminary work of calming the mind. This would have the same effect as running a marathon if you never ran a step before in your life.
As common sense dictates, you should start from where you are. The preliminary stage consists in appeasing what Buddhists call the monkey mind. It may take some time, and it is important to realise that you cannot stop thinking, since after all the job of your mind is to think. A number of practical calming techniques are suggested in the Yoga-Sutra, but the list is non-exhaustive because (as Patanjali himself says – Yogasutra I.38), the possibilities are unlimited.
Stage one: to concentrate (dharana)
The first step is to choose an object that has a positive influence on you and make an effort to focus on it for some time. For example I might choose the lotus flower, a symbol of purity and harmony.
I make an effort to focus on the flower, even if there are distractions such as sounds and other visual stimuli competing for my attention every now and then. Gradually, I manage to concentrate on it a bit longer, and the more I practice, the better I get. At some point (if I do it consistently) I can eventually stay focused on the flower for a few seconds without being distracted. But I should be aware that it may take some time to get there.
This is called dharana, concentration: training the mind to stay fixed on one thing and one thing only, instead of jumping from one thought to another by connections and associations, a typical pattern of the monkey mind.
It would be wonderful to have gone this far! This pattern of concentration is an achievement in itself, so it would be fine to keep on applying it without taking any further step. But what happens when we take that next step?
Stage two: to meditate (dhyana)
When these few seconds of focused attention are gradually lengthened to a few minutes, it might evolve into something else: I am “grasping” this object. I start to acquire some of the flower’s attributes – peace, purity, harmony, coolness… It is difficult to describe this experience. At this point my mind is like a body of water with no waves, only ripples on the surface. I am deeply connected with my flower. I am so focused on it that I know it as I would know an intimate friend. Like a sponge, I have absorbed some of its intrinsic qualities.
This deep connection is dhyanam, meditation. It is like moving towards the sun: the closer I get to it, the warmer I feel. But it is not a permanent condition and I cannot assume that it will happen every time I attempt to do it, especially if I am attached to the memory of that state and try to replicate it.
Stage three: complete absorption (samadhi)
Through sustained practice the meditator maintains this profound connection to the point where something else shifts, making him and his object of focus merge together. It is as if the boundary between the two of them has become non-existent. They are one. Several words have been used to refer to this transcendental experience but none of them can express what it truly is: beyond time, words and description. Even the wisest yogis do not attempt to do it. At this point, the mind of the meditator is not empty, quite the contrary. It is filled with the object and by the noble qualities that come with it.
The raw ingredient
How do you choose an appropriate object of focus? Very carefully!
No self-respecting cook likes likes to prepare food with second-grade ingredients. The end result might be edible but it would not be tasteful. Similarly, before you embark into meditation you should take your time to choose your object of focus, since you want to absorb its qualities at some point during the process.
If it brings associations with unpleasant memories (smrti), if it triggers negative habits or subliminal patterns (samskaras and vasanas), or if you feel heavy, angry or imbalanced (tamas), it may be a sign that your meditation is not right for you. You may not even be aware of it and continue to “swallow” the poison without noticing its effect till further down the track.
But it does not mean that you should be afraid of trying! For concentration (dharana) or meditation (dhyana) to yield any benefit you first need to look deep within yourself and understand who you are, where you come from, and where you want to go. It helps you to choose the most appropriate “ingredient” for your meditation, a suitable object of focus. No matter how far you go with it, this first step is the most important one.