Meditation (Part 1): Perspective from Yoga

The famous Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl wrote in his best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning,

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”.

This profound recognition of the freedom to choose our state of being regardless of any circumstances came to Dr. Frankl in the midst of his heart wrenching experience as an inmate of a concentration camp in the early 1940’s.

The practice of Meditation is exercising this freedom to choose a harmonious and peaceful state of being. The words “practice” and “exercise” may give a connotation of effort, but this is not so. A more accurate way of stating it would be: Meditation is a state of well-being where we allow ourself to experience the bliss of inner peace.

We do not require extreme situations in life — such as the experiences of Dr. Frankl — to make us yearn for inner peace. Our day-to-day life is rife with stressful situations. Rather than allowing our state of being to be tossed around by events outside, Meditation invites us to choose the peace from within. Not only does this bring great peace of mind, it allows us to respond to challenging situations with a beautiful blend of centeredness and awareness.

What exactly is Meditation? In this post, we will see what Meditation is from the perspective of the science of Yoga. We look at the definition of meditation according to Maharishi Patanjali. We also look at the benefits of meditation that Patanjali describes in his Yoga Sutras. This post is the first of a series of three blog posts on Meditation. In the second (next) blog post, we address how to quiet the incessant mental chatter, based on the teachings of Patanjali. In particular, we look at how to prepare the body and mind for a blissful experience of meditation. Finally, in the third blog post, we look at the different analogies in Yoga texts that capture the different facets of meditation.

Before we explore further into meditation, allow me to clarify the intent of this post. In order to experience blissful meditation, the intellectual understanding of what it is or the mechanics of the process of meditation is really unnecessary. Just like we don’t need to understand the physiology of sleep to enjoy a good nights sleep. We also don’t need to understand the physics of sound and harmonics to enjoy melodious music! The intent of this series of blog posts is to recognize the value of meditation and inspire a sense of respect and appreciation to this practice. As Patanjali says in Yoga Sutras, when we do the practices with gratitude, honor and respect (Satkara Sevito), it profoundly elevates the quality of the practice.

Meditation is one of the limbs (segments) of the 8-limbs (Ashta-anga) of Yoga as taught by Patanjali. The first five limbs are clubbed together as external practices (bahiranga sadhana); these practices deal with the well-being of the external instruments such as the body, breath, the senses etc. The last three limbs, namely concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and equanimity (samadhi) are internal practices (antaranga sadhana) as they address the harmony of our inner faculties. After describing the 5 limbs of external practices, Patanjali begins his teaching of internal practices in a new (third) chapter in his Yoga Sutras.

How does Patanjali define meditation? The definitional sutra (aphorism) is – Tatra Pratyaya Ekatanata Dhyanam. Loosely translated as – Meditation is the state of (alert) mind that remains same from one moment to the next. The mind, filled with awareness, is so still, so calm, and free of disturbance that from one moment to the next, the state of the mind is identical.

As an analogy, consider the surface of a lake. When the surface is free of disturbance or turbulence, an object on the surface of the lake (say, a flower) remains in the same spot from one moment to the next. Furthermore, there is no effort to keep the surface still; there is no effort to keep the flower in the same spot. It just is. When our mind is similarly free of disturbance, we experience meditation. It happens effortlessly.

The difference between meditation and deep sleep is the presence of awareness. (While the analogy of the surface of the lake brings out the quality of stillness and tranquility, perhaps it does not convey the element of aware presence. In the third blog post of this series, we consider several other analogies that bring out this and other facets of meditation). This seemingly tiny difference — the presence of awareness — profoundly impacts our experience of bliss. Meditation harmoniously blends deep relaxation and elevated awareness.

Patanjali describes what happens when we experience meditation in the sutra — Dhyana heyaha tad vrittayaha — meaning meditation calms the turbulence in the consciousness. In fact, Patanjali defines Yoga as releasing the turbulence (vrittis) in his famous sutra Yogah Chitta Vritti Nirodhaha – Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Meditation therefore takes us to the deepest experience of Yoga.

Any disturbances or agitations in the mind consume energy. In fact, the mind chatter is an unnecessary expenditure of precious energy; it serves no useful purpose. When we bring the mind to a place of stillness, we stop this unnecessary drain of energy. The same energy can now be used to transform the state of mind into higher states of awareness. In other words, by relaxing the mind chatter, we also feel more alive. The restlessness (rajas) and dullness (tamas) give way to clarity and heightened awareness (satva).

When we come out of meditation, any problems that were bugging the mind is now seen from a totally new perspective, namely the perspective of elevated awareness. We can respond to the “problems” with elevated awareness. Not only that – we are also in a space where creative solutions to solve the problems can be born.

Meditation brings us in touch with the deepest aspects of our self. It is easy to see the depth of a lake then the surface is free of disturbance; in like manner, it is easy to get in touch with the depth of our being in meditation. It unites us in harmony with our own self. We are well rested, reposing in the cozy comfort of our own self! Not only is this good as an experience, it also brings a profound transformation in the quality of our actions. Let’s see how.

All of us have deepest intentions (nature of who we really are) such as joy, love, vitality, friendliness, to be of value, to be courageous, serve and uplift others, etc. However, in daily life we get caught up with the activities (disturbances) outside that we lose the connection with these deepest intentions. Consequently, we display actions that are not in harmony with these intentions. Perhaps we get angry, we complain, or we become lazy. In fact we cherry pick our near and dear ones and unleash copious amounts of anger and a plethora of negative energies!! Actions that are sponsored by such negative states of mind are not something we are proud of. For example, we usually regret our actions that we made from a space of anger.

With the practice of meditation, we take the commitment to reinforce the connection with the depths of our self. And something beautiful starts unfolding in our lives – our actions fall (raise!) in harmony with our true intentions. Our actions reflect the truth of who we really are! Furthermore, our actions are powerful – due to the resonance between what we express and our true identity.

There is a teaching in Bhagavad Gita that says – be established in Yoga and then perform your actions (Yogasthah kuru karmani). Furthermore, one of the definitions of Yoga given in the the Gita is skill in action (Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam). From my understanding, the skill that is needed in action is aware presence. To allow our actions to be inspired from a space of connectedness with our Self. That way, we express the nature of who we really are (joy, love, etc). In this context, allow me to present one of my most favorite quotes of Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Offer actions as an expression of joy rather than as an expectation of joy.
~Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

The relationship between meditation and action has been considered by Patanjali as well, in the Yoga Sutras. Tatra Dhyanajam Anashsayam — that which is born out of a meditative state of mind is free from imprints or accumulations. An example of an imprint (ashaya) is the Karmashaya – which Sri Sri Ravi Shankar describes as the “Karma Tank”, the repository of Karma. What the sutra says is that actions inspired from a meditative state do not leave a trail or residue that will affect our future experiences; the action and the experience is complete in itself, in the moment.

To summarize, meditation brings great peace by calming the disturbances in the mind. It aligns our actions with our deepest intentions, and makes the actions powerful. Because of our peaceful presence, the world responds to us in like manner. To quote the words of the well known author Ken Keyes, Jr., A loving person lives in a loving world. A hostile person lives in a hostile world. Allow me to extrapolate – “a peaceful person lives in a peaceful world”.