May Focus of the Month
Meditation & The Last Three Limbs
The first yogis aimed to solve a problem that still pervades today. It’s called the “monkey mind,” and it refers to the ever-firing, overly anxious human brainscape that has added a layer of frazzle and fret to our already-fraught condition. A complete yoga practice is designed to give us enough clarity to see our experiences for what they are rather than through the carnival mirror-style distortion of emotionally reactive, memory-attached consciousness. If you were to crack open the Yoga Sutras, you would not have to get very far to see how important a meditation practice is as part of the yogi’s journey. Sutra #1 says, essentially, “Following are the teachings of yoga….” Sutra #2 goes on to say, “The purpose of yoga is to still our thoughts. If you master this sutra, you need not read on to the rest.”
Meditation occupies some significant territory on yoga’s eight-limbed ladder, taking up three of the last three rungs on the climb toward enlightenment. The breakdown is fascinating:
Dharana, the 6th limb, has to do with concentration. The suggestion is to fix your mind upon an object until you become so absorbed that there is little room for the mind to do much needless worrying or past/future travel as it is wont to do. A funny fable tells us of an acolyte meditator who once shut his door and fixed his mind upon a bull until he barreled out of the room with horns and hooves himself. The take-home is twofold: Be as focused as this acolyte, but be wary of where you place your attention.
From the recommendation to concentrate upon a single object spring many forms of modern-day meditation: from mantra and japam meditation, or repetition of a significant sound; to guided visualizations; to the use of a talisman; to the use of a drishti, or focal point; to the tuning in to a single sense, such as hearing or touch; to the holding in mind of a spiritual figure. Dharana is an essential practice that prepares the mind for deeper states of contemplation.
Dhyana, yoga’s 7th limb, comes closer to the definition of meditation as we think of it, the suggestion being to sustain concentration for a prolonged period of time, fixing the mind upon a single object while quelling the tendency to name, categorize, judge, or assign value to that which is in focus. To sit in this style of meditation is to see reality with perfect clarity, leading to an awareness unstained by the ego’s preferences or priorities. Eventually, the yogi’s subject becomes the Self that dwells within the self, and he/she abides in sacred, nondual reality.
When the mind succeeds in accurately reflecting reality, the yogi perceives her true nature in which self and other are unified. To sustain this clarity of consciousness is to live in Samadhi, or liberation, the 8th limb. A meditation practice helps us to collect more and more moments of pure awareness so that we may finally reside around the clock in “bliss that defies description.” Those who have experienced samadhi describe it as a coming home or as an experience of sweetness and peace that cannot be conveyed in words. Paramahansa Yogananda offers as vivid an account of samadhi as is available, describing it over the course of many paragraphs in Autobiography of a Yogi:
Soul and mind instantly lost their physical bondage and streamed out like a fluid light from my every pore… My sense of identity was no longer narrowly confined to a body but embraced the circumambient atoms…My ordinary frontal vision was now changed to a vast spherical sight, simultaneously all-perceptive… An oceanic joy broke upon calm endless shores of my soul. The entire cosmos, gently luminous, like a city seen afar at night, glimmered within the infinitude of my being….
Excitingly, scientists have discovered that meditation really does help keep ego in check, increase empathy, and provide mental clarity, affirming the claims yogis have been making for millennia. Neuroscientists have identified the portions of the brain responsible for emotional reactivity, autobiographical memory (or ego) creation, self/other distinctions, present-centered attention, and time/space awareness. Interestingly, these locations in the brain become markedly restful during deep states of meditation, and a regular meditation practice increases gray matter in many of these regions, helping us to function optimally even when the meditation session has concluded.
Although we often begin and end class with a brief meditation, we will place special emphasis this May on listening to the silence beneath the sound and to heeding the call of highest consciousness. We look forward to sharing these sweet moments on the mat!
Leigha & Jacqui