While the practices of yogasanas and pranayama are understood by most people, meditation remains a grey area. What is meditation, how to meditate, what happens when we meditate are the questions that have very vague answers.
By Pragati Oswal
Yoga has become one of the most sought-after techniques for the purpose of calming the mind, management of stress, physical fitness/flexibility, leading a healthy life, having control over oneself, recovering from chronic diseases as well as spiritual uplift.
While the practices of yogasanas (physical postures) and pranayama (breath regulation& extension) are understood by most people, meditation remains a grey area. What is meditation, how to meditate, what happens when we meditate are the questions that have very vague answers.
Meditation is the process of mind, a process in which mind is fixed steadily yet effortlessly, objectively, non-presumptuously on the object of contemplation. In other words, meditation is something that happens to one while one has an unbroken stream of thought about the object, uninterrupted by different kinds of thoughts about the same object.Although people mostly look for peace of mind, relaxation/de-stressing, healing as the end result(s) of meditation, traditionally the purpose of meditation was to reach the essential knowledge (opposed to the acquired knowledge due to one’s limited perception based on various opinions). To address the former, various simplified methods of acquiring a calmer state of mind (with reduced number of thoughts) have gained popularity. Popular methods include, channelization of thoughts on a particular subject by the way of breath regulation, mantra chanting, guided relaxation, set of instructions and training to shift attention towards the present moment etc.
Yogasutras(aphorisms) by Patanjali, regarded as one of the authoritative texts has an entire portion called sadhanapada (practice of meditation) to guide how meditation is to be practiced and achieved. He advocates eight-limbed path. These eight limbs, ashta-anga, are not eight steps but eight aspects that complement and supplement each other, just like the limbs in our body. The first five of these, address the mind indirectly and the last three help gain direct control over them. According to Patanjali, the eight limbs need to be observed simultaneously for the culmination of meditation.
The first two limbs are the Yama (restraints/abstentions) &Niyama (observances),or don’ts and do’s that, advocates Patanjali, must be practiced at all times under all circumstances so that there’s no conflict regarding how one must act in the world, one’s code of conduct and the decisions that one must take.
The Yamas/Self-restraint in actions includes abstention from violence (ahimsa), from falsehoods(satya), from stealing(asteya), fromindulgence(brahmacharya), and from hoarding (aparigraha).
The Niyamas/fixed observances are purity/cleanliness (saucha), contentment (santosha), austerity (tapas), self-study/self-analysis(swadhyaya) and persevering devotion to God (ishvar pranidhan).
One wonders at how one can follow one or more of these with sincerity! We do not live in an ideal world after all.
Challenges of practicing abstentions
There are so many challenges faced by one at a basic level while practicing the yamas(abstentions).For instance, Ahimsa/Non-Violence non-violence in action and speech is still doable but non-violence in thought is extremely difficult. When one feels hurt by someone automatically one sometimes starts to think of negative or even hurtful things for the other.
Similarly, Satya/Truthfulnesscan hurt another person’s feelings and start a series of negative exchanges. The habit of making things more pleasing to others, fitting in, the fear of rejection, being thought of as lesser than another and (in extreme cases) survival are some of the plausible reasons for not being able to speak the truth.
Again Asteya/non-stealing is a tricky one, because people steal under various garbs. It could be stealing of name, credit, time or even bargaining in a situation where the other is extremely disadvantaged.
Brahmacharya/ non-indulgence can be breached even without one’s awareness for which one has a zillion examples from daily life.
Aparigraha/non-hoarding isn’t just about over-collecting, stocking up or possessing many material things! It’s also about holding on to feelings, hoarding impressions for an event or people especially grudges.
Cultivating the right personality for meditation
Coming back to how this is linked to the practice of meditation, the common problem faced by people is regarding the difficulty of being able to meditate because they are constantly bothered by hurtful things, untowardly instances and general worries. If one could practice the Yamas suggested by Patanjali, there can be some concurrence regarding how that would lessen some of the mental clutter in the first place.
The same way Niyamas/Fixed observances also help one deal with conflicting thoughts. Practicing Saucha/Purity can keep one’s personal habits and thoughts in check. Santosha/Feeling content can automatically induce a sense of gratitude and check the desire to steal or the tendency to envy. Tapas/Austerity is a tough one, presenting to oneself a discipline so that one can understand what it takes to culture and nurture healthy protocol for action. Swadhyaya/Self- study can help keep one identify one’s own strengths that need be adhered to as well as one’s short-comings so as to bring in the required humility to rectify that. Ishavar Pranidhana/ Surrender to God is to deal with situations that one cannot change or control completely, somewhat like the COVID situation at this point in time. It has a cathartic effect on one’s being and connects one to every other one at the very basic level of existence, flesh and bloodas one may say.
Why and how mental and emotional baggage, disappointments (with self or another), unhappiness, enmities, obsessions, sensitivities, distrust, guilt, depression, anxiety etc. creep into the psycheand get established becomes a major deterrent to the practice of meditation. It is probably because the world (formed by the people) is fraught with the opposites of the Yamas/restraints and Niyamas/Observances i.e. violence, falsehood, theft, indulgence, greed to possess more, impurity, discontentedness, frivolity, self-indulgence and manipulative-control. While we come across “goodness” more or less often, our guard against the other is too high. Plenty of mental baggage get created during one’s interactions with the world.
The good thing about practising even one or two of the yamas/restraints and niyamas/observances is that there is an overlap between them. Pursuit of one makes more conducive, the pursuit of another automatically.
The next limb, is asana,physical posture. Patanjali does not list any specific asana, except a suggestion that it should be a posture that one can hold comfortably (Sukham) and steadily/motionlessly (Sthiram). In other words, still the body to still the mind because stillness in the body aids stillness of the mind.
The fourth limb,Pranayama, is translated as rhythmic regulation and extension of breath. Breath acts as a conduit between the involuntary and voluntary activities in the body. On the one hand, we breathe without awareness, on the other hand, we can totally control our breath rate at will.When the mind is stressed or disturbed, it sends signals to the autonomic nervous system for sympathetic activation of the body. This is characterised by an increase in the involuntary activities like heart rate, blood pressure, pulse rate, breath rate automatically. These can be stabilized by voluntary breath regulation.With the practice of pranayama, the signals of mental distress can be regulated and prevented from affecting the body.
The fifth limb is Pratyahara which means withdrawal of sensory inputs which could be understood as moderation or control over everything we take into ourselves from the outside world. This includes the food we take, impressions we carry and our associations with people who we like or dislike or our social involvements.
Patanjali seems to be suggesting that a personality needs to be cultivated so that meditation can be facilitated.
Excercising mind control
The next three limbs address the mind progressively like the steps of a ladder.
Dharana/Concentration as the sixth limb of yoga, is holding one’s mind onto a particular inner state, subject or topic of one’s mind. The mind is fixed on thought or a mantra or an object one wants to observe, basically any concept/idea in one’s mind. Fixing the mind means one-pointed focus, without jumping from one topic to another.
Most of the people try to engage with meditative practices from this step. Hence the common complaint regarding the inability to concentrate in the first place. The irony is that most of us are almost effortlessly focussed on a number of subjects. The difference is that we are unaware of the intensity of that focus. Most of these subjects are our strong emotional impressions. Many people newly in love are focussed on thoughts related to their beloved. On the other hand, one is equally fixed on someone that one dislikes or hates.
Dhyana/ Meditationis the unbroken flow towards the object of concentration. The process of mind starts to culminate and when one stays in this state for a while, the knowledge of the object shifts from what was known with a coloured perception to its essential nature.
The process of meditation is also referred to as silencing the mind or a no-thought state. Let’s understand the nature of mind as Chanchal or that which moves or is unsteady. The unsteadiness is experienced by the way of fluctuating thoughts. When the fluctuations cease, the mind ceases to be. In other words, one moves beyond the conditioned scope of the mind. During meditation one goes beyond the known mind (which is always shifting, moving or drifting) so, the momentary experience of that state is described as silence or no thought state. That’s because, the mind unlike the way we have generally known, has become steady. Mostly people register this stateonce they are out of it. They momentarily touch silence or blank or a thoughtless state.
At a physical level,during this process, the parasympathetic tone gets enhanced, the blood pressure and the metabolism get lowered and the body and the mind come to a state of complete harmony. This accelerates the body’s self-healing capacity. Physically one feels recharged and mentally fresh.In general, this itself is what people seek when they say that they would like to learn meditation.
In Karma Yoga, the state of meditation is facilitated by getting absorbed in one’s action. Some sportsmen refer to it as the “zone”.The “zone” is a state of supreme focus that helps athletes in all sports perform at their peak potential. It is when the mind fully connects with achieving a goal, such as getting a hit, or stealing a base. It’s a mental state of total involvement in the present moment without the fluctuations of the mind like worry, doubt, or fear about results.
The eighth, last limb isSamadhi –Merging with the object of concentration.
There is no distinction, during the eighth limb of yoga, between the meditator, the act of meditation and the subject of meditation. It is the state in which the mind is so absorbed in whatever it is contemplating on, that the mind loses the sense of its own identity. The thinker, the thought process and the thought fuse with the subject of thought.
It is in this state that Yogahappens. While Patanjali defines Yoga as “citta vritti nirodha” or cessation of the modifications or fluctuations of the mind, the meaning of the word Yogais union or yoking together. That is to say, when the meditator, meditation and the object of meditation get yoked together, the modifications of the mind cease altogether.
If the physical body has been the object of meditation, then the mind which is effortlessly focussed on the body, merges with it. This state is associated with a quantum leap of consciousness and quantum healing, a state where many people experience bliss, complete ease or even reversal of disease.
Attaining Yoga or Union
To sort out one’s confusions regarding the practice or rather the act of meditation, one needs to ask oneself what it is that one seeks really. What is one looking to achieve? If one seeks to meditate to overcome the stresses of life and relationships then a sincere attempt at contemplation and analysis of the situation based on the Yamas(Restraints) and Niyamas(Observances) while in a comfortable posture and being aware of one’s breath, shall help identify blind spots or the ignored details. One can then figure with more clarity how to resolve their problems. To put it in the yogic terminology, without subjectively attacking the situational or personal conflict (ahimsa) objectively analyse the self (swadhyaya) and the truth (satya) of the situation.This needs to be done with pure intention (Saucha) & austerity (tapas) believing that a solution shall manifest (ishvar pranidhana).
If one seeks to meditate to improve concentration, focus on the breath and the moving thoughts. Watching the thoughts that come and go, related or unrelated and the repetitions start to create a sense of ennui and even detachment to them. After that it becomes easier to focus altogether.
For self-healing, explore the mental conflicts like suggested and then make one’s own body the subject of observation, contemplation and concentration. With regulated breath and a comfortable stable posture, the body awareness starts to deepen and that facilitates relaxation or restfulness to begin with. As one progresses in one’s meditative practice (which requires regular practice done patiently over a period of time) the healing starts to manifest.
If it’s Yogaor union that one seeks, then practice ashtanga ! (says Patanjali)
Pragati Oswal is a Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) Practitioner and Researcher with expertise in Yoga, Acupressure and Energy Healing. She uses these therapies as a substitute for medicines, to facilitate pain relief, healing and wellness. She can be reached through her website www.pragatioswal.com or her facebook page https://www.facebook.com/PragatiOswal/