The Practice of Meditation

This month, we finish our exploration of the 8-limb path of yoga. We’ve already looked at the context, yamas & niyamas, asana, pranayama & pratyahara and now we turn toward dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, the limbs dealing specifically with the mind.

Samadhi, the last limb of yoga, is the ultimate goal of yoga practice. When in a state of samadhi a practitioner experiences the state of mind defined in Sutra 1.2: “Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.” There are several sutras dedicated to a discussion of samadhi and I’ve come to understand them as personal maps. Maps given to us by the ancient sages who wrote about their experience and understanding of the human mind. I am grateful for their writings, but I realize that reading their maps will not lead me to my own state of samadhi. Samadhi is difficult to write and talk about; it is after all a state of mind that doesn’t involve words. It’s a state of mind that we must ultimately experience and explore on our own.

That being said, I want to introduce the final three limbs and offer some general, practical ways we can apply the wisdom of these limbs to our lives as we strive toward that ultimate state of clarity.
The last three limbs are not isolated in the way the other limbs can be, they are three stages of the same thing. One flows into the other in a continual deepening of the practice. First the practitioner chooses an object of focus. Obviously you want to choose wisely. Meditation doesn’t automatically make you a calmer, better human being. A really big jerk can practice meditation and become a really focused jerk! Choose an object that will help you see more clearly and find more peacefulness in your being. Some examples include your breath, a photo of someone you love, an object from a place that makes you happy such as a seashell, an idea or concept such as compassion, or God. Once the object is chosen the practitioner sits with the intention of focusing on the object.Before we move on, I want to remind you of our previous discussions of the first 5 limbs because they prepare us for the last three. The yamas and niyamas help us to remember who we truly are and serve as constant reminders of how to be in the world with others and ourselves. And asana, pranayama and pratyahara offer us concrete practices. We stretch and strengthen our bodies so we can sit. We use the breath to draw our attention inward and settle the mind. We draw our attention away from our senses in order to avoid distraction. All of these practices lead us to a calmer mind, one ready for deep stages of focus–concentration, meditation and absorption–the final 3-limbs of yoga:


Sutra 3.1: Concentration is the fixing of the mind in one place.Dhyana
Sutra 3.2: Meditation is the one-pointedness of the mind on one image.Samadhi
Sutra 3.3: Samadhi is when that same dhyana shines forth as the object alone and [the mind] is devoid of its own [reflective] nature.

(From Edwin F. Bryant’s commentary on the sutras)

Samadhi is difficult to understand and talk about. But a really simple way to think about it is to remember a time in your life that you experienced deep clarity. A time that you saw something clearly, without the baggage of preconceptions and assumptions. A time that you knew in your gut that you  truly understood something. These are the moments in life that help us feel and understand the experience of samadhi.

Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are states of mind that we achieve through the dedicated practice of the other limbs. From the very external limb of yama we slowly progress deeper and deeper inward with each limb. We prepare our minds for focused attention through our practice. We cultivate a sense of inner stillness and begin to notice that we are experiencing clarity in our lives more often.

Personal Practice:

If you’re one of those people that sits down for meditation and fights with your mind the entire time, remember you’re not alone! Offer yourself compassion and commend yourself for putting forth the effort to sit in meditation. I encourage you to continue your practice and to find ways to stop fighting with yourself:

  • Instead of being angry that the mind won’t stop, take the mind as your object of focus.
  • Place a timer that has a nice sound in a place where you can’t see it (really helpful!). If you can, sit for at least 15 minutes.
  • Set your intention to sit and focus on the movements of your mind.
  • Without anger or judgement just notice what happens in the space of your mind. Rather than trying to ignore the distractions, notice them. Study your mind; notice patterns and themes. Notice whether your thoughts move in one continuous flow or if they jump all over from subject to subject.
  • Try not to get stuck on any one thing. Allow yourself to step back and “watch” your thoughts moving through the space of your awareness. If you notice that you’ve trailed off in some direction, gently remind yourself that you’re just witnessing the mind and come back to your focus.
  • Remind yourself over and over again as many times as you need to (and be grateful that you noticed the need to remind yourself).
  • When the timer goes off, just sit for another few minutes and enjoy the feeling of calm in your body. Take a few deep breaths.
  • You may want to record what you noticed about your mind and how your body and breath felt in a journal after practice.
  • At the end of the day you can add anything that you noticed or felt as a result of the practice to your journal.

As you continue to study and learn about your mind, you can decide what types of practices you need in order to work toward “stilling the changing states of the mind.”