“Meditation is not something that can be expressed in words. It must be directly experienced in one’s life.”
“Dhyana means absorption. It is the art of self-study, reflection, keen observation and search for the infinite within. It is the observation of the physical processes of the body, study of the mental states and profound contemplation. It means looking inwards to one’s innermost being. Dhyana is the discovery of the Self.” – B.K.S Iyengar, p. 223, Light on Pranayama
The Seeker (Sadhaka)
Spiritual seeking or entering into a meditative practice is often predicated by a search for wholeness, integration, truth, and communion or oneness with the Self, Soul or God. Feelings of separation, fragmentation, disease, alienation from the Self, Soul or God can prompt the seeking. Without acknowledging and acting on these inner yearnings one may live with a quiet but persistent sense of discontent, stress, worry, separation or alienation. It may feel as if one’s deeper purpose or meaning is not understood or embodied. If the yearnings are not present to seek beyond one’s current condition, the time may not yet be ripe for the beginning or continuation of in the quest, or there may be obstacles in the way. Other motivations such as the thought of wanting to remove stress from ones life, mend a relationship, find meaningful work, or to become more healthy physically, may end up leading to path of spiritually and contemplative practices. A near death experience or death of a loved one may also be a reason to enter spiritual inquiry. Just as the methods and traditions of contemplative practices are wide and varied, entry points into the practice are innumerable and individual to each person. In this piece, I will share about my own spiritual journey and map out the path of meditation as a practice as presented by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and specifically Sutra II.1 -2 which the describe the practice of kriya yoga and how to work through the afflictions and obstacles.
First, I’ll share about my own path to mediation and the spiritual journey. In my late teens and early twenties, I entered a period of truth seeking. What brought me to seek truth initially was discovering how disconnected my own relationship and much of the U.S. was to food, farming, nature, and deeper purpose. I came to understand that the roots to many personal and societal problems are greed, selfishness, desire, and ignorance of our interconnection with each other and all of life. This brought me to meditation to face myself. Up until that point I was undisciplined in my lifestyle and without a clear direction in my life. I had not suffered intense trauma or hardship in my childhood, however, I did come to realize that everything we’ve experienced, done or thought leaves it’s imprint in our consciousness.
When I begin to meditate, I had misconceptions about what meditation is. I thought meditation involved entering into some state of ecstasy or trance. During my first 10 day retreat, I was flooded with memories, impressions, what felt like things that had been stored in a dark attic were somehow coming into light, or being unearthed from the depths of the ocean of consciousness. I practiced Buddhist Shamatha and Vipassana meditation, which teach how to stabilize the mind by keeping the attention steady on an object, and then to open up the field of awareness. After doing a series of Vipassana retreats over a period of a few years, I began to have a better experiential understanding of the practice. What I realized was that this meditative practice, in order to be transformative needs to be lived out in all aspects of ones life. In mediation, you cannot hide some parts of yourself away in dark corners. Everything must come out into the light of awareness to be seen for what it is. That is how healing and transformation happens. My practice lead me to explore the paths of Vipasana mediation, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Patanjali Yoga taught by B.K.S. Iyengar. The last eight years, I have gradually gone deeper into the practice of yoga. What follows are some reflections on the path of meditation within the Patanjali yoga tradition as taught by B.K.S. Iyengar.
Dhyana Contextualized within Asthanga Yoga
“Meditation is the technique of inter-penetrating the five sheaths (kosas) of the Sadhaka to blend them into one harmonious whole. p.226 Light on Pranayama
“Meditation is to bring the complex consciousness to simplicity and innocence without pride and arrogance. No spiritual practice is possible without ethical discipline.” B.K.S. Iyengar, the Tree of Yoga (p.138).
As a path to wholeness and integration, the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali work both sequentially and holographically, meaning that the whole is present in each limb, or each of the eight limbs is contained in every single limb. For the most stable practice, the limbs are practiced in a sequential or spiral way, leading with the first two limbs: yama and niyama. Spirituality and living an ethical life cannot be separated.
Currently, we see an inclination in secular mindfulness practices to separate meditative concentration from the ethical practices involved in spiritual discipline, and in yoga communities to separate yoga asana from the rest of the seven limbs. These practices may lead to the lessening of stress and traumatic responses, greater health and increased productivity and focus, which is a powerful healing tool and can provide benefit to many people. However, if productivity and heightened focus gained by mindfulness is harnessed towards activities which perpetuate harm, or reinforce the ego, then ultimately the result is not healing or integrating for the individual or society. Just as if asanas are practiced without the other seven limbs they become an exercise/stress reduction program at best, and a feeder of narcism and cult of the body at worst.
Along with a strong ethical foundation, to embark on the inner journey of meditation (antaranga sadhana), mastery or strong familiarity with the limbs of asana, pranayama and pratyahara provides a stable foundation for the physical body, nervine strength and discipline of the senses. Below I have structured this exploration of meditation though the lense of Yoga Sutra II.1 and II.2 which give up the practices of kriya yoga, the yoga of action, (which is actually the eight limbs of yoga in “capsule” form) as a means to overcome to obscurations and afflictions and lead one toward dhyana and samadhi.
II.1 Tapah savadhaya Ishvarapranidhanani kriyayogaha
Burning zeal in practice, self study and study of scriptures, and surrender to God are the acts of yoga.
II.2 Samadhi bhavanarthah klesa tanukanranarthasca
The practice of yoga reduces afflictions and leads to samadhi.
Tapas – The heat which purifies, burning zeal in practice
Related: The outer body (sthoola sarira), karma yoga, yama, niyama, asana, pranayama
“Fixed in yoga, perform actions, Having abandoned attachment, Arjuna, And having become indifferent to success and failure. It is said that evenness of mind is yoga.” -Bhagavad Gita II.48
The first aspect of the yogic path is through the outer body, through action, including developing strength of character through the yamas and niyamas and through tapas, which is literally the heat which purifies. Slowly our character builds up by practicing non violence, non stealing, truthfulness, bhramacharya, and non acquisitiveness. The body mind system become more stable by cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study, and devotion.
The asanas and pranayama bring holistic heath, firmness in body, regulation and even flow of prana (life force), mental stability and concentration, and equanimity amidst duality.
B.K.S. Iyengar explains how for him asana is mediation:
The type of dhyana I learnt through my practice of asana and pranayama is like the midday sun. As the sun’s rays at midday are in its zenith, in my practice of asana and pranayama I extend the rays from the disk of my consciousness to penetrate and pierce each and every cell of the body. This made me to bring the consciousness to touch and reach all the areas of its frontier, evenly everywhere without division. I learned to remove any inattention in the darks spots of the body that were obstructing and interrupting the rays of the consciousness. This way I learnt dhyana by bringing equivalence between the soul and its dwelling place — the body. This is how I bring dhyana in asana.” ADYM vol 7. page 202
Svadyaya – Study of the Self and sacred scriptures
Related: The inner body (suksma sharira), the mind, svadyaya, jnana yoga, pratyahara, dharana
It is said in many of the classic texts that the mind and senses are difficult to control or rein it. In the Upanishads, the senses are compared to horses, running after their desires, the mind the reins, the intellect the charioteer. Usually the senses run after their desires and the mind does not do much to rein them in, thus the chariot is pulled around without discrimination. In meditation and spiritual practice, we begin to observe how we get pulled by the sense desires, and develop the discrimination to rein in the senses and mind toward the source.
Svadyaya or self-study is to see where we get caught, what triggers us, where we are pulled into afflictive emotions, and to get to the source of the disturbance. It also means to reflect on the spiritual scriptures and how to apply them in our lives. The related limbs of pratyahara and dharana draw the mind and senses inward and stabilize the faculty of attention. Svadyaya is also learning who we are beyond our conventional identities. In short, we get to know ourself and what causes us pain.
B.K.S. Iyengar writes, “Patanjali as a great analyst of consciousness, shows the reasons for turmoil and the disturbances in the improper and perverse actions and thoughts which result in endless pain. These endless pains are caused by direct indulgence, inducement and abatement, motivated by greed (lobha), anger (krodha), and delusion (moha) which may be mild, moderate or intense in degrees. (p. 20 ADYM vol. 3) It is through deep introspection that the roots of the afflictions can be witnessed and not related or reacted to in the usually conditioned ways which make them manifest. By observing and witnessing our own thoughts and internal states without reactivity, we begin to become our own teachers by shining the light inward and developing discernment (viveka). States of ignorance shift to states of wisdom when we observe ourselves with awareness and discern the true from the false, reality from projection. The following is from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, in which B.K.S Iyengar comments on Sutra II.27 regarding the seven aspects of wisdom attained through contemplation. First he describes the attributes of avidya, ignorance.
The Seven States if Ignorance (avidya) :
- smallness, feebleness, insignificance, inferiority, meanness
- unsteadiness, fickleness, mutability
- living with pains, afflictions, misery, agony
- living with the association of pain
- mistaking the perishable body for the self
- creating conditions for undergoing sorrow
- believing the union with the soul (yoga) is impossible, and acting as though it were so
The Seven States of Wisdom (prajna)
- knowing that which has to be known
- discarding that which has to be discarded
- attaining that which has to be attained
- doing that which has to be done
- winning the goal that is to be won
- freeing the intelligence from the pull of the three gunas of nature
- achieving emancipation of the soul so that shines in its own light
Ishvarapranidhana, Surrender to God, the causal body (karana sharira), Bhakti yoga, dhyana and samadhi
“A final, but cardinal point to understand about dhyana is that it helps each of us shed completely the veil of ego as dhyana neutralizes the klesas, as well as the vrittis, and acts as an instrument of Ishvara. – p.171 Core of Yoga Sutras
“Thus the summum bonum of yoga (yoga phala) is atma prasadanam, the grace of the soul, whereby all actions are affliction-free and one lives in a pristine state of clarity and cleanliness from moment to moment without getting involved in the spokes of the movement of time.” ADYM p.22. vol 3
When asked whether or not yoga practitioners need to have faith in God, B.K.S Iyengar replied that it is enough to have faith in oneself (See chapter on faith in Tree of Yoga). The qualities of faith, energy, remembrance, contemplation and surrender keep us going. The contemplative traditions all imply that God, or the awakened nature, is within all of us. It is our true Self. The practices are a means to uncover that Self. In spiritual practice, no effort is wasted.
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,
Meditation and Yoga, Essay in Tree of Yoga, p.138
The Nature of Meditation, Essay in Tree of Yoga, p.144
Chapter on Dhyana and Savasana in Light on Pranayama
The Core of the Yoga Sutras
The Bhagavad Gita
Astadala Yogamala Vol. 3 and 7