Padmasana (Lotus Pose)
Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, gives the definition and purpose of the practice of yoga as:
योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः॥२॥ Yogash-chitta-vritti-nirodhaH (sutra 1.2)
"Yoga is the ability to still the fluctuations of the mind"
In order for us to attain this objective of yoga, Patanjali gives us the amazingly practical and effective eight-fold path of yoga. The eight limbs of yoga given are:
Yama (five restraints), niyama (five observances), asana (physical posture), pranayama (breathing practices), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (focus), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (total absorption).
The last three, dharana, dhyana and samadhi, are three stages of the practice of meditation. Patanjali uses the term "samyama" to denote the practice in which all these three stages of meditation are merged together as one practice.
Let us briefly look at the definition of these three stages of meditation as given in the sutras:
देशबन्धश्चित्तस्य धारणा॥१॥ deshabandhash-chittasya dhaaraNaa (sutra 3.1)
"Dharana is the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea"
तत्र प्रत्ययैकतानता ध्यानम्॥२॥ tatra pratyaya-ekataanataa dhyaanam (sutra 3.2)
"Dhyana is the continuous flow of cognition toward object of meditation"
तदेवार्थमात्रनिर्भासं स्वरूपशून्यमिव समाधिः॥३॥ tadeva-arthamaatra-nirbhaasaM svarUpashUnyam-iva samaadhiH
"Samadhi is the same meditation when there is the shining of the object alone, as if devoid of form"
How to meditate
Preparing the meditation environment
Here are a few simple guidelines to get ready for your meditation practice:
- Identify a space in your home where you plan to meditate on a regular basis
- Try to keep the meditation area clean and clutter-free.
- Try to isolate the meditation space from all possible sources of distractions – cell/home phone, TV, PC/laptop, notifications from email/facebook/whatsapp etc., pets at home, kids and other family members etc.
- Try to set a time and duration for your meditation and maintain the same schedule each day.
- The most common duration for meditation recommended is about 20 minutes. However, if you are totally strapped for time, you may adjust the duration accordingly.
- It is recommended that you meditate on an empty stomach.
Sitting for meditation
Patanjali defines the sitting posture (asana) as स्थिरसुखमासनम्॥४६॥ "sthira-sukham asanam" – the asana must be firm and steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukham). So, when you sit for meditation, you should be able to maintain the asana without any need for readjustment or experiencing any kind of pain or discomfort.
Some possible options are:
- Sitting on the floor on your yoga mat
- If sitting on the floor is not comfortable, try putting a cushion under you.
- If a regular cushion doesn’t do the job, try sitting on a bolster.
- If none of the above works, sit in a chair or on a stool/bench etc.
- It is highly recommended that in the meditation posture, the spine should be erect and vertical with the head, neck and trunk in alignment, arms and shoulders relaxed.
- Keep the eyes closed during meditation.
Choosing a mantra
The technique recommended by Patanjali is to use an "object of meditation" as the main point of focus. It could be any object – an image of a physical object, any of the five senses – sense of smell, taste, touch … etc., a thought, emotion, feeling etc. However, over the years as meditation has evolved, one technique that seems to find favor with most practitioners is the use of a "mantra" as the focal point of meditation. A mantra is word or a short phrase, along with its sound, that one chants constantly in the mind. Even though there are some techniques where you start out by chanting a sound audibly, it is recommended that the mantra be chanted internally.
In the old days, the tradition was for the student to spend about twelve years with the teacher (guru) and then the teacher would give a "mantra" to the student. Nowadays it is common to pick any word or a short phrase that you can identify with something positive as your mantra. You may want to experiment initially with a few different mantras and then pick the one that you find most suitable for your meditation. Having picked a mantra, it is strongly recommended that you stay with the same mantra for your meditation. The inner vibration of the mantra can have a powerful effect on your mind. So keeping the same mantra will enhance and maximize the positive effect of those vibrations.
Having decided on a mantra, it is time to sit down and meditate. If you have ever meditated before, you already know that no sooner you start chanting the mantra, the mind seems to get inundated with multiple thoughts. Many of my friends and students tell me that they do not meditate because they cannot keep their mind quiet even for a "minute". I would like to share a "secret" with you – even the most advanced practitioners who have meditated for many years are not able to keep their mind quiet for a minute. A minute is too long a time for the mind to stay focused on one object – even for experienced yogis.
Yes, keeping the mind quiet for a period of time is the ultimate goal of the practice of yoga. But that goal is not something that you will achieve after meditating for a week or a month or even a year! That’ going to remain "work in progress" for a long time, possibly even for your lifetime.
How to develop focus
As mentioned above, there are three stages of meditation – dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. It is the dharana stage which helps us develop the initial focus. Many techniques are available for the practice of dharana. In the meditation programs that I offer, I use some of the following techniques for dharana:
- Simple breath awareness
- Counting the breaths backwards
- Five sense awareness (I call it pratyahara meditation)
- Trataka (candle gazing)
- Pranayama techniques like bhramari (humming bee), sama-vritti (equal rotation), interrupted breathing etc.
You can use one of these dharana techniques for some time to develop initial focus of the mind. Then you can transition to your mantra meditation.
Three attributes of a mantra
Once you begin mantra meditation, you will realize that very soon the mind begins to drift away from the mantra. When that happens, rather than fighting with the mind, you need to gently bring the mind back to the mantra. In an earlier article I gave a simple technique to help bring the mind back to the mantra. In this technique, whenever it seems that the mind has drifted too far away from the mantra, you can go through a sequence of body, breath and third eye awareness before resuming mantra chanting.
In the yoga sutras, patanjali has recognized that the mind will be drifting away with thoughts. In the early stages of meditation, the mind drifts away with thoughts of mundane activities that we go through in our day-to-day life. Be it some situation at work, home, supermarket or any other nagging thought that you may be harboring, these will tend to distract your mind while you are sitting for meditation. Patanjali labels such distractions as "sarvarthata" (sutra 3.11):
सर्वार्थतैकाग्रतयोः क्षयोदयौ चित्तस्य समाधिपरिणामः॥११॥
sarvaarthataikaagratayoH kShayodayou chittasya samaadhipariNaamaH (sutra 3.11)
"When there is decline in distractness and appearance of one-pointedness, then comes samadhi parinama (development in Samadhi)"
This sutra states that when you begin to reach deeper states of meditation, then your mind will fluctuate between gradually diminishing mundane distractions and increasing periods of one-pointedness when the mind is focused on the object of meditation. This is the same state of the mind that is described in sutra 1.42 as "savitarka samadhi":
तत्र शब्दार्थज्ञानविकल्पैः संकीर्णा सवितर्का समापत्तिः॥४२॥
tatra shabda-artha-jnAna-vikalpaiH saMkIrNaa savitarkaa samaapattiH (sutra 1.42)
"The samadhi in which name, form and knowledge of them is mixed is called savitarka samadhi, or samadhi with deliberation"
This is very important sutra as it gives us a clue as to how we can try to deepen our meditation. Here Patanjali offers three attributes of a mantra that can be used as a guide to deepen our meditation experience. These three attributes are:
- shabda (word or its sound)
- artha (the essential meaning)
- jnana (knowledge related to the word that is stored in our memory)
What the sutra is saying is that if during the meditation we can maintain our focus within the framework of these three attributes, then we have reached a deep state of meditation which is also the first stage of samadhi. Patanjali has labeled it as "savitarka samadhi". The commentators of the yoga sutras have indicated that savitarka indicates the state in which we are focused on the grosser aspects of the object of meditation.
As an example, let us say that we are using the word "peace" as our mantra. The "shabda" is the sound that the mantra creates in the mind when chanted. Shabda also indicates the word "peace" which can be mentally visualized in its written form.
‘Artha" implies the essential meaning of the word peace – the main reason why you picked this word as your mantra. Two people can have the same mantra but for different reasons. For one, peace implies peace at home. For another, it may mean world peace. So the "artha" part is specific to the individual and indicates the very essence of its meaning for the individual. "Jnana" indicates all the information related to the word "peace" that resides in our memory either at the conscious or the subconscious levels. This could include all aspects related to peace – peace at home, work, in the world, in the neighborhood etc. It could also be mixed up with another similar-sounding word "piece".
This sutra suggests that during meditation, whenever the mind drifts away from its mantra, try to bring it back to one of these three attributes that we have talked about. When you begin to stay within the framework of these three for some length of time, then you have reached the initial stage of samadhi called "savitarka samadhi".
Of course, Patanjali has given these attributes with reference to one of the states of samadhi. However, these can be used very effectively as a technique for meditation. These three attributes provide us a sort of a goal to keep in mind while in meditation. Every time your mind drifts away, try to bring it back to one of these three attributes.
I hope you will find this technique helpful in your meditation. I would love to hear about your own meditation experience, especially if you are using the above technique of focusing on the three attributes of a mantra.