At a holiday party couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with a lovely young woman who turned out to be a certified meditation teacher. After hearing that I was a yoga teacher and also teach meditation, she asked me: “What kind? Buddhist? Transcendental?” This reminded me of the sad reality that the general public has no idea that yoga has its own rich meditation tradition. My teacher Gary Kraftsow used to joke that even at yoga conferences they tend to teach “asana and Vipassana”. There is nothing wrong with the Vipassana style of meditation, but it is a different tradition from yoga and we should recognize it as such. So today we will take a closer look at the yogic teachings of meditation derived mostly from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
According to the yoga tradition, our minds tend to fluctuate between the states of attention and distraction.
This is a normal pattern that can be called “popcorn mind” (not a traditional term :), when different thoughts pop in and out, holding our attention for a bit and then switching to something else. There are many different things we are usually concerned with in our daily lives and our thoughts follow those recurring themes.
We perceive the external reality through our senses and then filter it through our minds.
Because of that filter, we rarely perceive an external object the way it is. When I look at a suitcase in my bedroom, it is never just a suitcase. It can be a source of frustration (as in “My husband left this monstrosity here again that I trip over every time I need to open the closet”), a source of excitement (as in “Yay, we are going on vacation soon!”) or anything else from a huge range of associations, memories and projections.
We perceive our internal reality via interoception, which includes awareness of our bodily functions, like breathing or heart beat and the thought process itself. Those internal perceptions get filtered through the conditioned mind as well with all its biases.
According to yogic teachings of meditation, either an internal or external object can become an object of meditation. At the beginning it serves an important purpose of training our focus and teaching us to be able to concentrate on one thing for an extended period of time (developing one-pointed focus). Later on we can use meditation to begin to differentiate between the object itself and our biases around the object, and eventually question our assumptions and conditioning itself.
There are three stages of meditation: dharana, dhyanam and samadhi.
First step: Dharana
Dharana (-dha- “to hold”) means being able to hold attention on an object for progressively longer periods of time without distraction. For example, you can hold your attention on the light of a candle, or the rhythm of your breath for extended period of time.
Second step: Dhyanam
Dhyanam (-dhi- “to reflect”) occurs when there begins to be a relationship between the mind and the object of attention. It means that you gain some insights about yourself from concentrating on the object. For example, by meditating on an image of fire in your belly you gain insights about your ability to process your experiences.
Third step: Samadhi
In the state of Samadhi the relationship between the object and the mind becomes very close, as if they have merged. At that point the mind begins to shed its conditioning and the object shines forth as it is. For example, if you meditate on a deity, in the state of Samadhi you take on the qualities of that deity.
At that point, according to Patanjali, instead of being clouded by your baggage, the mind becomes like a transparent crystal, able to reflect the object perceived, the instrument of perception (the mind) and the process of perception. When you get to that stage, you are no longer bound by your biases and are able to see the realty for what it is (neither good nor bad), and yourself for what you are (unchanging True Self). So ultimately meditation is about cleansing the filter of your perception.
Do our perceptions even matter? Do we need to clean those filters? Do we need to teach it to our students? We will discuss it next time. Tune in!
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- T.K.V. Desikachar The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice
- Gary Kraftsow Yoga for Transformation: Ancient Teachings and Practices for Healing the Body, Mind, and Heart