This technique is related to raja yoga, and in particular to the sixth step which is known as dharana, visualisation or pictorial conception. Those of you who have studied the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali know that there are eight steps in sadhana. They are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Of these, the fifth step, pratyahara is very important.
If you want to have a living visual experience, you should firstly try to block the sensory channels and isolate your brain. The senses are constantly feeding the brain with impressions twenty four hours a day all throughout life, and unless you can disconnect the brain from the sensory impulses, you will only have a feeling of the image and not see the image itself. If you try to see your image in a dirty or dusty mirror, you can have an idea of your image, but you will not get a clear reflection. Therefore, certain practices of yoga that lead to perfect pratyahara must be practised before you try to develop dharana.
When you try to visualise an object, a clear image will not come ail at once. At first you will only have the feeling of the object. Suppose you want to visualise a rose. You have seen the rose with your eyes and you know how it looks. You also know how it smells and how it feels and you are familiar with its other attributes such as its colour, size, texture, etc. When you close your eyes, you can think about a rose. If you go a bit deeper, you can feel like a rose, but you will have difficulty in experiencing the different attributes of the rose itself.
Now, if you can visualise the different attributes of a rose quite easily, it indicates the efficiency of your mind. If you have been able to isolate the brain and block the sensorial communications, then you can imagine the rose and the image you see will be just as clear as the one that manifests when you dream of a rose. As you know, some people dream very vividly while others don't, and some people dream in black and white while others dream in technicolour. This depends upon the extent to which the brain has been able to de-link itself from the sensorial channels.
When you can create an internal image of a rose and you can feel all its attributes, this is known as visualisation or dharana. When your mind is able to hold the object in vivid imagination, that is dharana. Success in this practice depends on how much you have been able to separate the brain from the senses, but this is not the ultimate efficiency of the mind. When you have perfected dharana you can develop your mind to such an extent that you have a living experience of a rose.
If, when you visualise a rose, the internal experience of the rose appears to be the same as the external experience, the quality of the experience will seem to be the same. However, there is a difference in the realm of experience. When you look at the external rose you perceive it through the senses, and when you visualise it internally, you perceive it without the senses. This is known as the living experience. In Samkhya it is called darshan, which means inner perception, and in raja yoga it is called dhyana. Dhyana is translated as meditation, but in fact, it means total experience.
There are no special practices to materialise this state of experience because it is a gradual state of perfection. If there are latent problems lurking in your mind, if your personality is tossed hither and thither like a shuttlecock, or if your consciousness is moving this way and that way like a pendulum, then this kind of experience is not possible. You may sit for visualisation and meditation, but without accomplishing the necessary preparation of the mind, you will only enter into a state of deep autohypnosis. That is why raja yoga outlines eight systematic steps of mental purification for samadhi.
Samadhi is a living experience, it is not trance or ecstasy, nor is it unconsciousness. If you are trying to visualise Rama, Christ or your own guru, when you attain samadhi you see him there as real or more real than in life. Samadhi is a very powerful and efficient state of your personality which marks perfection of the mind. It is materialisation of the entire process of awareness. If you have been meditating on a rose, in samadhi you can have a rose.
In order to accomplish this, the seven steps of raja yoga have to be perfected. The first is known as yama, self-control. The second is niyama - discipline. The third is asana - steady and comfortable posture, which can be maintained for one, two or three hours without wavering the body. The fourth is pranayama - retention of breath. It does not mean breathing in and breathing out. Pranayama means the gap between inhalation and exhalation; the period of retention. The fifth is pratyahara which means de-linking the brain from the senses. The sixth is dharana - pictorial conception or visualisation The seventh is dhyana - total awareness of the object of your visualisation The eighth is samadhi - a living experience of your object. Each step is a preparation for the next and requires a different type of training in order to be perfected.
Now, the meditation techniques which you are taught belong to the range of pratyahara. Ajapa japa is a marvellous practice of pratyahara. The practice of mantra also leads to pratyahara. Therefore, in order to perfect your visualisation you must first choose one practice of pratyahara for yourself. I will give you a regime for your practice of dharana.
The best time to practise is in the morning before the sun rises, when everything is quiet and tranquil. Then your mind is fresh from sleep and is not yet disturbed by the events of day to day life. Take a bath and get yourself ready for sadhana. Chant Om for ten minutes and superimpose the sound vibration in and through your spinal column. Then practise a few asanas, followed by pranayama. Now you are ready to commence visualisation
Focus your awareness at the heart centre or at the mid-eyebrow centre and practise your visualisation there. For those who are not psychic or rational by nature, the heart is the best centre. Those who are psychic or rational by nature will find the mid-eyebrow centre is best for them. Now, don't try to visualise the object as a whole. You must first proceed through general to specific, or you must select for visualisation one of the many attributes of the object. If you are trying to visualise the deity or your guru, you can practise trataka on his image. Trataka means looking at an object with open eyes and intent gaze. Then close your eyes.
So, fix your gaze on one point of the person. Develop in your mind the image of his toe, one of his eyes or his mid-brow centre. If you try to visualise the whole person, your mind will be dispersed because it is not capable of visualising a person in the same way that it would view a panorama. You might be able to imagine the hair, forehead, nose, eyes, face, body, feet and hands, but nothing will be clear. Therefore, just try to feel or imagine one point. You might find success with this technique: imagine a red dot on the guru's forehead and try to make it more clear and more dear to yourself. As soon as the red dot becomes visible, the whole figure of the guru will flash clearly through your mind.
Of course everyone has to discover the best method for themselves, but I will tell you my personal technique. Whenever I want to visualise or communicate with a person, I don't really think about his form or concentrate on it. I first develop in my mind a long blade of grass. Then I visualise a whole bunch of the blades of grass and automatically the person is before me. I can see him face to face. This technique may not work for everyone, but it's a very spontaneous experience for me.
In the raja yoga of Patanjali, this whole process is known as samyama. Samyama means control over the functions of your awareness. You should train your mind so well that if you want to have awareness of the sun, you can have it. If you want to see a star-studded sky with closed eyes, you can see it, and if you want to visualise your own heart, lungs or intestines, you can see them. You should be able to visualise any object and see it as clearly as you would with your gross brain. You should also be able to hold your awareness on the process of your thinking and then move your awareness to another person and follow his process of thinking. The raja yoga sutras declare that when you have total control over all the functions of the mind, you have control over the objects.
We human beings, particularly of this century, are intellectuals. Even the yoga we practise is intellectual yoga. I'll give you an example so you can confirm this for yourself. Have you eaten chocolate? Of course, everybody has, and some eat it every day. Now, sit quietly and try to experience the taste of the last chocolate you ate. Can you enjoy the taste of a chocolate without a chocolate? No, it is not possible. You know how sweet it was and how delicious it was, but you cannot experience it. That is the limitation of an intellectual mind. We have a lot of knowledge but we lack experience. If you ate a chocolate yesterday, why can't you experience its taste now?
If you go to a Zen master, he will ask you a question like this: 'Have you ever been pricked by a thorn?' You will say, 'Yes.' 'What did you feel?' You'll say, 'Pain.' 'Can you experience that pain now?' You'll say, 'I remember it but I can't feel it.' Then the master will say, 'Go and sit there and develop that experience.' If you have already had an experience in life, why can'! you manifest it at another place and at another time? By the practice of yoga, you should break those limitations and be transported to the terrain of experience.
What you refer to as visualisation, I call an experience. The Sanskrit word for experience is anubhava which literally means 'to be'. If you want to visualise a rose, you have to be a rose. If you want to visualise pain, you have to be the pain. If you want to visualise the guru, you have to be the guru. So, the definition of experience is, to be that. It's not merely feeling or imagination; it is not illusion, it is a transformation of the total force of the mind. You can transform yourself into a rose, your guru, Christ or even a chocolate cake.