A Practice, a State or Nothing?
Meditation is a practice and a state commonly seen as an integral part of yoga. Its practice is not exclusive to yoga though, creating much confusion as to what it is and how a person can go about it. Here I am restricting myself specifically to meditation as an inherent part of yoga.
Yoga is itself both a practice and a state, something that is not always well understood. The state of yoga is what occurs through the practice of yoga just as a meditative state is what occurs through the practice of meditation. There is little to distinguish between these two states and any attempt to do so ends up in a discussion of the relative practices of yoga and meditation and how they are carried out.
The Yoga of Meditation
One of the confusing issues is that yoga is used in many texts and schools as a term that incorporates many practices. For example the 'Bhagavad Gita' talks about 5 forms of yoga:
- Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Action
- Jnana Yoga: The Yoga of Knowledge
- Samnyasa Yoga: The Yoga of Renunciation
- Dhyana Yoga: The Yoga of Meditation
- Bhakti Yoga: The Yoga of Love
A yogi is a soul who practices one of the many forms of yoga presented in the Bhagavad Gita.
In the 'Yoga Sutras' meditation is not referred to specifically but is thought by many to be what is meant by the limbs of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi (referred to as Samyama). Samadhi, or Enlightenment, is the ultimate state of meditation and the ultimate state of yoga. As both the 'Yoga Sutras' and the 'Bhagavad Gita' explain there are many routes to this state, none of which are better or preferably to any other. Neither text delineates a single path or sequence to this state, a mistake that is often made with eight limbs of yoga in the 'Sutras'.
The Practice of Meditation
Samadhi can be attained by different techniques or practices including, for example, hatha yoga, pranayama, meditation, chanting. These practices can be combined, practiced in sequence or individually depending on the yoga school or lineage you adhere to. To be clear there is no agreed or absolute path that a yogi has to follow, that is the beauty and the confusion of yoga. There is no clear definition of yoga, despite what many teachers claim.
As a practice meditation is at the same time a simple and a difficult process. There is disagreement of what the practice of yogic meditation is and how one should/can meditate. There are probably as many different ideas on how to meditate as there are yoga/ meditation teachers. There is little in common between them but there are some identifiable principles in the two major texts of yoga.
The Texts on Meditation
In the 'Yoga Sutras' there is a key to perhaps how meditation might be carried out,
[The Vritti states of mind] are stilled by practice and dispassion. From these, practice is the effort to be fixed in concentrating the mind. Practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time.
Posture should be steady and comfortable. [Such posture should be attained] by the relaxation of effort and by absorption in the infinite.
Concentration is the fixing of the mind in one place. Meditation is the one-pointedness of the mind on one image.
In the Bhagavad Gita there are a number of suggestions by Krishna to Arjuna on the practice of meditation,
Those who aspire to the state of yoga should seek the Self in inner solitude through meditation. With body and mind controlled they should constantly practice one-pointedness, free from expectations and attachment to material possessions.
Whilst the following advice is a little dated (!) there is some useful guidance.
Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, and seat yourself firmly on a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass. Then once seated strive to still your thoughts. Make your mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified. Hold your body, head and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering.
When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a lamp in a windless place. In the still mind, in the depths of meditation, the Self reveals itself.
Meditation is superior to severe asceticism and the path of knowledge. It is also superior to selfless service. May you attain the goal of meditation, Arjuna!
Moving Into Stillness
Erich Schiffmann in his book 'Yoga—the Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness' has a great deal to say on the practice of meditation, such as,
The practice of meditation involves spending quality time alone every day with the discipline of centered sitting, and then to the very best of your ability carrying that meditative and centered listening mind with you all day long. And then doing it again the next day … and the next—so that a momentum is established. It's about 1) experiencing the truth of who you are, and 2) mentally listening inwardly for the wisdom and guidance of Infinite Mind, God—both in special times alone as well as all day long in the midst of daily life for as many moments as you can.
Although Schiffmann puts it as an approach to God, it is more than possible to see God, in this context, as an energy or presence that means something to you, whatever that might be.
Finally it is important to note that J Krishnamurti, amongst others, had a more radical view of meditation. As the 'Krishnamurti Foundation Trust' put it,
Krishnamurti’s approach to meditation is perhaps unique. It is certainly radical. It has been described as 'techniqueless meditation’, eschewing the practices, goals and controls advocated by most teachers and traditions. Meditation, he says, is not something you do or experience, nor can it be learned from another. It is not concentration or contemplation. There is nowhere to get to, and movement of the mind in any direction, with any purpose, is not meditation but is time-bound, rooted in the known. Even simply being, the future and past banished, is questioned by Krishnamurti, since its base is a centre, a ‘me’.
If you set out to meditate, it will not be meditation. If you set out to be good, goodness will never flower. If you cultivate humility, it ceases to be. Meditation is like the breeze that comes in when you leave the window open; but if you deliberately keep it open, deliberately invite it to come, it will never appear.
I personally do not accept this view which seems to me to reject the experiences of the many people, including myself, who regularly meditate. The idea that whatever you cultivate never happens is, I think, perverse.
Whichever approach to meditation speaks you, follow it with all your heart.