Stages of Mediation in the Eight Limbs of Yoga

meditationIn this week’s article at “The Living Yoga Blog” we conclude our exploration of the Eight Limbs with a look at the fifth through eighth limbs describing the progressive stages of meditation.  Because we’ve already discussed meditation in a previous article, today’s installment will focus more specifically on the relationship of the stages and how a greater understanding can support our progress, both in the practice of meditation and in our daily lives.

Stages of Meditation & the Importance of “Non-Linearity” 

The first thing it can be beneficial to note is the stages of meditation are basically given as much importance as moral conduct, asana, and pranayama combined.  This is significant for a few reasons: first, it directly reverses the emphasis most of us place in our own practice, which is on the physical; second, it reminds us what we might see as a relatively simple process is in fact every bit as complex – and crucial – as ethics, care of the body, and breathwork put together.  By fully understanding this, we not only strengthen our commitment but also deepen our patience regarding what is a more complex process than we might assume.

A further point worth noting is, just like the other limbs, the stages of meditation are not meant to unfold in either a strictly linear or “discrete” form – that is, progress does not necessarily move smoothly or consistently in one direction, nor is the distinction between stages always clear.  Remember the Yogis’ observations that our minds are just like our bodies, which is to say they are ever-changing things.  This means that just as our physical practice has its natural ups and downs, so our work in meditation has periods of forward movement often accompanied by periods of returning to previous challenges.  Again, the more we can stay aware of this, the more patient and dedicated we can be and the sooner we will reach a state of true inner poise and peace.

Pratyahara – Guidance of the Senses

The first limb stage of meditation described by Patanjali is pratyahara or “guidance of the senses.”  This is often translated as “sense-withdrawal,” but pratyahara is actually far subtler and more powerful than this term might suggest.  The foundation of pratyahara lies in the Yogis observation we have the power to guide our senses toward both external and internal objects – that is, we can not only focus on events around us, but also on our thoughts, feelings, and inner experiences.

As humans, our tendency is to focus on the former, with the majority of our awareness being invested in external occurrences, often at the expense of witnessing our internal patterns.  Through pratyahara, we are taking the first step in acknowledging and cultivating this capacity to guide our focus both externally and internally.  In this form, pratyahara is clearly more than sense-withdrawal, but rather cultivation of the ability to mindfully guide the sense as desired, both in terms of the external and the internal.

Again, this is significant on a number of levels.  First, it involves realizing that rather than being at the mercy of our senses, we have the power to harness them. Second, the fact the Yogis present this as a distinct and significant stage of meditation is a valuable reminder to newer practitioners that simply learning to guide the senses is a valid and valuable part of the meditation process.  Most of us assume that focusing the mind is relatively simple, and therefore when we struggle with this process we think we are either doing something wrong or there is something wrong with us.  By understanding this initial step is actually a significant undertaking, we learn to be both more patient and also more vigilant in our efforts.

A final aspect of pratyahara worth noting leads back to the translation of “sense-withdrawal.”  Again, this can be misleading as it suggests pulling away from the world when in fact the true purpose of pratyahara is the exact opposite.  The Yogis realized that in our current state, our senses actually tend to isolate us – that is, our myopic focus on our views and goals often prevents us from truly seeing the situation and people around us.  By learning to truly govern the senses, including using self-study to be more aware of our biases and patterns, we can ultimately use them to more fully connect with our community and our world.

Dharana – The Beginning of Concentration

The second stage of meditation is dharana or “effort toward concentration.”  Once we have learned to control the senses and to resist the natural tendency to be distracted by stimuli around us, the next step of meditation is learning to keep the mind focused on a specific thing.  Again, if you’ve never tried to meditate, this might seem simple, but if you have you know that is far from the case.

Of course, most of us have a great deal of experience focusing, but the Yogis realized that capacity tends to be largely outside our control – that is, we are good at focusing on certain things but often move from focus to “fixation” or dwelling without actually realizing.  Further, while we are good at focusing on some things, we are equally challenged thinking of others – for example, we might be good at thinking about finances but less mindful of the quality of our relationships.  Further, when we try to shift to these less-developed avenues of thought, we have a tendency to circle back to our preferred domain.

For this reason, we need to understand that building our capacity to focus on simple and “neutral” things outside of the natural fixations of our minds is essential for both self-awareness and true mindfulness.  In other words, in order to move beyond the limits of our areas of mental strength – the areas of focus that both define and limit us – we need to begin with the seemingly simple act of learning to focus on things that don’t feed our strengths and in turn our egos.  In my experience, this step is often the single biggest obstacle on the path of meditation.  Simply put, the more we identify with certain areas of focus, the more our mind resists investing time in what it perceives as “less profitable” thoughts.  However, once we realize it is actually the “profitable” that are really limiting us, we’re able to make a radical shift in both our understanding and our efforts toward true focus.

To clarify, imagine a gifted amateur athlete – say a baseball player – who in spite of his or her talents has learned some poor mechanics.  He or she may have strong skills, but a seasoned trainer will realize those mechanics are limiting both potential performance and longevity.  To truly excel, this athlete is going to have to face the challenging task of stepping back and re-learning certain movement – a process that will be both hard and humbling.  If that athlete’s ego is strong and wrapped up in certain achievements, this step is often impossible – the primary reason so many talented amateurs are unable to make the step to professional sports.  But if he or she can trust the trainer and come to see these “strengths” are in fact holding him or her back, the act of stepping back and “re-training” correctly can ultimately allow him or her to achieve unparalleled success.

In this way, through dharana we are learning to step back from our usual (myopic) focus on the things that feed our identity in the name of cultivating balanced and mindful thought.  Ultimately, this allows us to achieve greater focus in both the areas in which we are already strong as well as those which are less developed, enhancing both our growth as an individual and also our connection to a much richer and more varied world than we may have previously realized….

Dhyana – Sustained Concentration or “Meditation,” Proper 

The third stage of meditation is dhyana, which can be translated as “sustained concentration” or what most of us think of when we think of “successful” meditation.  In simple terms, where dharana is when we are trying to concentrate, dhyana is when we succeed.  As alluded to previously, this is definitely a case where the stages of meditation are far from “discrete” – that is, the line between dharana and dhyana is a subtle one, and movement between the two, at least at the start, is very much fluid.  In this sense, again, you could say dhyana is what most of us think of as meditation, but it’s crucial to understand the Yogis felt dharana is every bit as beneficial and as valid a part of the meditation process itself.  Simply put, even simply “trying” to concentrate is valuable, much like trying to pick up a weight has benefit even if we can’t fully lift it.  In fact, if we give up, we will never build the strength to actually lift it.  In a similar way, dharana is essential to achieve dhyana and every bit as important in its own right.

To be even more clear, a common challenge in meditation is to think we have failed when our mind wanders.  When asked how their mediation is going, newer practitioners will often say: “Well, I sit, but I can’t really say I meditate….”  In the Yogic view, this is a misunderstanding: the act of sitting with intent is every bit as valuable as “successful” meditation.  If we can overcome this assumption and persevere in our efforts to focus, we will gradually build the ability to achieve and sustain dharana, leading naturally to dhyana and beyond that to samadhi, the true goal of mediation and of Yoga itself.

Samadhi – One-Mindedness or True Goal of Yoga

Our final stage of meditation and the culmination of the ashtanga is samadhi, or “one-mindedness.”  Again, just as dharana and dhyana can be seen as the fruition of the previous steps, so samadhi can be seen as the natural culmination of dhyana.  As we get better at concentrating, we gradually build the ability to achieve this state at will.  Further, as we get better at sustaining focus in the relative comfort and quiet of our meditation practice, we eventually learn to achieve and maintain complete focus amid distractions that might previously have challenged our peace, achieving the full focus and awareness that is the ultimate goal of meditation.

In this final stage, whatever we are doing and whatever the circumstances, we are able to be fully present while remaining aware of the world around us.  In this sense, samadhi is both similar to and distinct from a state we’ve all experienced.  We all know what it’s like to be so engrossed in an activity that it consumes our attention.  This is an excellent achievement and it provides us with a taste of what samadhi is like, but there are a few limitations to this state that make it very different from samadhi.  First, it tends to be outside of our control – that is, we cannot achieve it “at will.”  We also tend to need very particular circumstances to achieve it – circumstances which are usually tied to our sense of identity or ego.  Finally, that intense focus usually makes us less aware of other circumstances around us, deepening our connection with one area at the expense of others.

In samadhi, we are able to give our complete and undivided attention to any activity we choose and not just to “ideal situations” or the activities that feed our identity.  Further, we are able to fully focus without needing to “block out” or ignore the wide range of equally-important events taking place around us at any given time.  In this way, samadhi allows us to fully connect with the world and people around us, giving our full attention to all and not just the people and things that “serve” us.  Ultimately, in this way meditation helps us achieve a life of true presence,  allowing us to learn, connect, and grow at work and at home, in our relationships and with strangers, and finally in our own personal journeys….

In Our Next Article… 

Obviously, far more could be said about the stages of meditation, but we hope this gives some food for thought in terms of how they relate to the formal practice of meditation as well the other elements of the path of Yoga.  In our next few articles we’ll take a little break and explore some common questions that arise in the formal practices of the various branches of Yoga.  Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”

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