The Eight Limbs of Yoga–part VIII
“As you think, so you become.” ~Patanjali
Welcome back to the Limb by Limb Series. As most of you already know, Patanjali wrote a a blueprint on how to live a content and compassionate life called the Eight Limbs of Yoga. A couple weeks ago I discussed the 5th limb of the series called pratyahara. Pratyahara is the act of sense withdrawal. It is the beginning stage of meditation where we make a conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and instead focus inward. Through this practice, we learn to control bad habits and detach from anything that will impede our inner growth.
Once we begin to master the practice of pratyahara, we then move on to the next limb in the series called dharana. Dharana is the practice of training the mind for meditation through concentration. Normally, the mind, our thoughts, jump around from here to there, over there and back here. It is difficult to keep the mind focused on one thing. In dharana you practice concentration by slowing down the thinking process. In the beginning, this can be done by focusing on one single object. Because the mind has a hard time grasping something abstract, use something concrete like a flame, image of a deity, a photograph, a sunset, a mandala or any other object or symbol that allows you to feel peaceful.
When focusing on your chosen object, you can also activate a technique called tradak. Tradak is the act of gazing at a single point. With this method we use the outward and inward vision alternately; this keeps the eyes and the brain working together. This is said to bring the restless mind to a halt and increase concentration. Some yogis keep their eyes open during this practice (despite that their eyes will water eventually–this is completely normal). When keeping the eyes open, it is important to remove contact lenses and glasses so that the eyes can relax and soften. Others close their eyes, focusing on the imprint of the image in their mind. Tradak is a powerful tool for those beginning their journey with meditation.
The process of dharana works like this: first the object of concentration is outside; then you bring it inside within the mind. If you lose it, just refocus or open the eyes, re-grasp the image, and try again. Slowly you will develop the impression in your mind as you progress through the practice.
For example, let’s say you wanted to concentrate on a rose that was given to you by a loved one. You gaze at the rose for some time and at some point the mind will say, “He gave me this rose to me on my birthday.” Now the rose is gone from your mind and instead an image of “he” is there. The mind continues: “He took me to my favorite restaurant that night and we had a bottle of my favorite French red wine.” Within minutes, or even seconds, the mind’s focus has shifted from the rose to Chateaunuef-du-Pape.
You need not worry. This is the nature of the mind. Just like playing the piano, cooking or painting, you have to practice. And with practice, comes frustration, sure, but it also leads to accomplishment. Meditation is the same way. Do not be easily discouraged. How many times did you fall down while learning to ride a bicycle? Remember Patanjali’s words in Sutra 14: “Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.”
As you continue to train your mind with dharana, it will become easier to see the chosen object of concentration within your mind without the aid of the object. Training the mind to do this prepares your mind to then expand your concentration to ideas as well. In addition, silently repeating a mantra is also an approach to dharana. Each of these methods help train the mind for the goal of meditation.
This is the cycle of dharana: you single-pointedly focus the mind on an object, idea or mantra; then it runs away. You bring it back; it runs away. You are taming a lion. Once it is tamed, however, it will listen to you. You will eventually be able to sit quietly and focus on one thing for an extended period of time. You will be able to control your mind. Once this happens, you are meditating, which is the next step in The Eight Limbs of Yoga.