Meditation is called "Dhyana' in Ashtanga Yoga and is the penultimate seventh step in the eight-limbed system. Meditation is perhaps one of the most confusing topics for many people. There are so many books written on meditation and so many types of meditation techniques - Insight, Vipassana, Mindfulness etc. etc. The list goes on and on. The tragedy is that many sincere aspirants get lost amongst all this mumbo-jumbo and don't know where to start.

The reason why meditation is so confusing is because one always tends to think that meditation is sitting and doing something. Actually meditation is sitting and doing NOTHING. I remember a very illuminating incident reported by Candace Pert in her book Molecules Of Emotion. She had been trying to meditate for a long time without much success and asked the famous author of "Ageless Body Timeless Mind", Deepak Chopra the reason why she was not getting any success. His answer "You are perhaps trying too hard".

Yes. Meditation is about not trying anything. In EVERYTHING else we do in life, we will generally do better if we try harder (like our career, the SAT, building muscles, relationships, gardening etc.) but that is where meditation is different from everything else we know.

Let us lay some groundwork to understand meditation better. Below are a few questions and answers.

First, why do I even need meditation, I am quite happy already?

This is very similar to the question "My house has not burnt down since the last 20 years. Why do I need fire insurance?". Meditation is your insurance against tragedy and suffering. Vedanta (the philosophical part of Hinduism and on which Ashtanga Yoga is based) says that actually each one of us is blissful in nature. The only reason for suffering is due to our delusion that we are this body of ours. Vedanta tells us that "pain is inevitable, suffering is not". We may be happy today, but we don't know what kind of future awaits us. Meditation is the process of discovering our true nature which is described in Vedanta as Sat-Chit-Ananda or existence-consciousness-bliss. We exist, we are conscious beings and our internal nature is bliss. We all know that we exist, we also know that we are conscious beings but we have forgotten that we are actually blissful. Meditation is the process of re-discovering the fact that we are actually blissful on the inside.

What do I need to do in meditation?

In meditation we stop 'doing' everything we usually do. What do we usually do in our daily lives? Eat, watch TV, discuss, analyse, mow the lawn. In summary, in our daily lives we perform actions and we think thoughts. When we stop all action and thoughts we are meditating. Patanjali said "Yoga is the cessation of all movements in the consciousness". That is the definiton of meditation.

So if I sit quietly without any external disturbances, I am meditating. Right?

Absolutely. But here's the catch - the word quietly. When you sit quietly, are you really quiet? Of course not. As soon as you sit quietly, you will notice that your thoughts do not stop. The incessant chatter of the thoughts continues. You remember a scene from last night's movie, you think about your refinance, your attention goes to a friend of yours. This is the difficult part of meditation. You have to overcome this. In fact the control of thoughts is such an important step that it has been given a separate rung in the eight-step ladder of Ashtanga yoga, called 'Dharana' or 'concentration'. Just try sitting quietly for sometime and you will soon notice that there are thoughts and thoughts. When all thoughts disappear for a sustained length of time, you reach the seventh step of yoga 'Dhyana' or meditation.

But when I say to myself 'Aha finally, no more thoughts' isn't that a thought in itself?

Yes it is. And here is where you need to learn the technique of meditation. Meditation is NOT the suppression of thoughts but rather watching them with detached nobility. If a thought arises, just watch it as if watching a scenery from atop a mountain. If you keep doing this for a long time, the thoughts will become less and less and finally disappear.

How do I know that I am succeeding in meditation?

Effective meditation leads to more happiness. It will give you the ability to handle life's problems more effectively and not lose your cool when faced with tough situations. It will make you into a more kind hearted person and more love for all things will automatically arise in your heart. Meditation will make you want to count your blessings rather than complain about your shortcomings. People will notice the change in you and some may even ask you whether something has changed in your life. If you notice some of these things happening in your life then you are succeeding in meditation.

What is the technique of meditation?

There are many techniques of meditation and all are good. But all you need to know is the common denominator in ALL types of meditation. Meditation is being with yourself and observing everything that is happening within you without getting involved. Below are the steps for meditation.

  • Choose a time when things are quiet and you are not likely to be disturbed for at least 30 minutes
  • Choose a secluded spot where you feel peaceful and alone.
  • Choose a sitting spot where you can comfortably sit for 30 minutes. A firm chair with cushion or futon is good enough. Just ensure that it is not too cushy that makes you sink in too deep. It is best if you can sit cross-legged on the floor with a comforter or quilt folded in four. You may keep a wall or some other support behind you to support your back if you need, but do not lean back - keep your body as erect as comfortably possible. Bottom line - be comfortable and erect.
  • Start of by taking three long breaths with full awareness. The breaths will calm down your mind.
  • Now breathe normally and observe the breaths as closely as possible. Do not try to control the breaths.
  • You will soon notice that your mind is taken away from the breath to some thought and gets entrapped in it. This is normal. Just remember that even the greatest yogi went through this in the beginning. You are not alone. When a thought arises just watch it like you may watch a passing cloud. Do not analyze it or get trapped by it otherwise this will invariably lead to more thoughts.
  • As you develop your practice you will notice that the thoughts will become less and less with time. This is the sixth step of Ashtanga yoga called 'Dharana'. When you can concentrate on one thing only (your breath in this case) for some period, say 10 minutes or so, you have achieved Dharana.
  • It is said that when you can be 'thoughtless' for 25 minutes or so, you have achieved the 'first samadhi' experience. This is the practice of the seventh step of Ashtanga Yoga called 'Dhyana'. Regular practice of Dharana and Dhyana eventually leads to the eighth step of Ashtanga Yoga 'Samadhi'. This is the state of expanded consciousness wherein one realizes that he is the entire universe. There is no her, him and them, only me and that me is everything there is. That 'me' is no longer the body or mind but the universe.

What is the mechanics of meditation?

The answer to this question is very important because then you will know why you have to do meditation in the way described above. The whole of Vedanta, which is the philosophical basis of Ashtanga Yoga, can be condensed in just one simple sentence in Sanskrit 'Tat Twam Asi' which means 'Thou Art That'. This basically means that each one of us is divine in nature but we have forgotten that due to the mind being entangled in external stimuli and thoughts. When we can discard all external stimuli and thoughts, the inner self realizes its true self.

In the technique of meditation we saw what 'Dharana' means. The stage of Dharana is often compared to a goat tied to a stake. If the rope is long the goat will walk around a lot. Now if you make the rope shorter and shorter then eventually the goat will not be able to move much and it will just sit down on the ground in surrender. The mind is like the goat - give it its rein and it will jump around gleefully from thought to thought. Watching the thoughts without getting involved is like shortening the goat's rope. When the mind finds that you are not getting involved it will settle down like the goat.

In Vedanta the mind in called 'antaha karana' meaning 'internal instrument'. The interesting thing about the mind is that it is the only obstacle to meditation but is also the only 'instrument' that can allow us to succeed in meditation. Normally our inner self lives in the belief that it is the body and mind, but when we passively watch the thoughts in the mind, the inner self slowly starts to learn its true identity which is described in Vedanta as Sat-Chit-Ananda or 'existence-consciousnes-bliss'. The inner self 'exists', it is 'conscious' and it is 'blissful'. There is no sorrow or fear in the state of the inner self, these are all creations of the mind. Therefore in the state of 'Dhyana' one feels only joy. With continued practice of meditation this inner joy also translates to outer joy and thus to happiness.

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