What is meditation? Websters Dictionary defines meditation as: 1. to focus ones thoughts on : reflect on or ponder over; 2. to plan or project in the mind: intend, purpose. This is exactly what meditation is not. In fact, it is only when we take our awareness away from those everyday thinking processes that we are able to move into true meditation.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that after proper preparation (yama, niyama, asana and pranayama), the first stage is pratyahara. This is the going in stage of meditation. It is the fundamental experience central to all the meditation practices, and it forms the substrata for them all. Put simply, pratyahara is our closing off to external perceptions by ignoring them, and opening up to internal experiences by letting them come into our awareness. Pratyahara gives many of the benefits of meditation just by itself, because it brings us into a peaceful relaxed state, free from the activities of the world.
There are two directions we can take from here:
Concentrative meditation practices try to focus the awareness on one point, and exclude all inputs. This is the method outlined by Patanjali, and in Satyananda Yoga includes mantra yoga, ajapa japa, inner visualization and trataka.
Opening-up meditation, rather than focusing the awareness, allows it to remain open to any input such as thoughts, sounds, emotions etc., but one tries to observe these as an impartial witness or observer, and to allow them to pass without becoming involved. It results in clearing out the lower unconscious mind. Examples are the awareness of spontaneous thoughts in antar mouna and spontaneous visualization variations of chidakasha dharana. The Buddhist meditation vipassana, and mindfulness meditation are other examples of similar opening-up practices.
These are not exclusive of each other however; both may need to be done. Indeed, we cant hold the higher levels of concentrative meditation (dhyana and samadhi) until we have predominantly cleared the lower mind, because its disturbances force themselves into our awareness when we are trying to concentrate.
The benefits of meditation are experienced throughout every dimension. The yogis describe five sheaths or koshas that comprise the individual self: annamaya kosha (the physical body), pranamaya kosha (energy, vitality), manomaya kosha (mind and emotions), vijnanamaya kosha (wisdom and psychic qualities) and anandamaya kosha (bliss, enlightenment dimension).
Muscles and joints relax: Although one usually thinks of the physical practices of yoga as being the ones that help to relax the muscles and joints of the body, the meditation practices help to do this as well. Many people have come into a Satyananda yoga nidra class physically tense and agitated, and found that at the end of only half an hour the physical tensions have disappeared. This, even though (and maybe because) the person was not told to relax physically during the practice.
Stress relief the autonomicendocrine axis: Meditation practices relieve stress. They have been scientifically proven to move the functioning of the body from the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system and endocrine glands fight or flight mechanism, to the relaxed parasympathetic nervous system rest and digest mechanism. In this way we become much more relaxed physically and mentally, thereby opening the horizons of our life and preventing so many of the illnesses that are caused by stress.
Body armour: Conflicts in the unconscious mind can cause tightening of certain related muscle groups in the body, affecting our posture and facial expression. Its almost as if the body is symbolically protecting itself against possible threats from the cause of the mental conflict. Perceptive people can actually read a persons mental pain by the posture and facial expression. Wilhelm Reich called these tight areas body armour and noted that when the cause in the unconscious mind is allowed to surface and is resolved, the tightening goes away. The meditation practices can do just this, as we shall see.
Physical illness: Much scientific research over the years has proved the benefits of meditation in helping relieve physical illness, and returning the person to health. This includes cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory diseases. Of course, meditation is designed to help us evolve to our highest potentials, and is really about wellness rather than illness. However, the same factors that are stopping us from realizing our full potentials are also causing stress and imbalances in our lives, and as a result cause most illness and disability. So meditation can help in therapy, and these illnesses are usually the most difficult to treat medically.
Energy released from physical tensions vitality: The tensions of muscles and joints themselves accumulate a lot of the persons energy, and people are amazed at how much more energetic they feel after even just one class of simple stretching as in the introductory classes of Satyananda Yoga, or from a meditation class.
Energy released from mental repressions vitality: The yogis have claimed for thousands of years, and many psychiatrists and psychologists have agreed during the last century, that much of our natural vitality can be tied up in keeping repressed mental material down in the unconscious mind. Just keeping it down there requires energy. They have also noted the increased general vitality people experience when they can bring the emotionally-loaded unconscious material up into their conscious awareness and discharge it, as happens in psychotherapy and meditation.
Clearing of repressed memories: Here is where the meditation practices start to come into their own (see my article Overcoming the Tyranny of Memory in Yoga, November 2003). It has been clearly demonstrated over the years that meditation clears out repressed mental conflicts and neutralizes the emotions that are attached to them. The old memories lose their power to hold us back and we are freed from their weight forever.
Gives more positive view of our memories: People usually dont realize it, but the way they remember their past is dependent on their emotional state when they are trying to remember. If the person is in a positive frame of mind, their memories will be the positive ones; if in a negative frame of mind, they will be the negative ones. Meditation, by fostering a positive frame of mind, gives us ongoing access to the positive aspects of our past.
Pratyahara: The different meditation disciplines have their ways of attaining this going in stage of meditation, some easy, some more difficult. Satyananda yoga nidra is an easy way of inducing this state because it comprises a formalized, step-by-step technique of dissociating our awareness from the different outside stimuli. At the same time it interrupts the thought monologue that usually goes on in our mind the whole day (see below). When we accomplish these two steps, meditation can go ahead; if we dont, it is impossible.
Awareness of and deconditioning from habitual ways we perceive our world: Perception is the process by which the brain interprets the input of our sense organs into internal experiences that are meaningful for each of us. Two people walking together along a path take in much the same sights, sounds etc., but each perceives different aspects of the scene. For instance, one might take in the beauty of the scenery, while the other takes in any possible dangers that lurk about. Each one of us essentially lives in a different world from the other because what we perceive in any situation depends on our mental programming. Meditation allows us to become aware of the processes of our perceiving so that they cease to become automatic, and we can choose what we perceive, whether with eyes closed or open.
Witness begins: As an extension of being aware of our perceiving, we start to go on to the next stage, which is being the witness the observer of our situation, and this develops into witnessing our thought processes, our emotions and our tendencies to behave in certain ways.
Attention taming the monkey: The thinking of most people is all over the place, jumping from one idea to another the reason the yogis refer to the average mind as a monkey. The process of meditation, especially the concentrative forms, gives the person practice at keeping the attention focused on one thing, be it a mantra, an image, a candle flame, or some other.
Concentration: When we consider the idea of concentrating in the ordinary sense, we think of the process of thinking intently of an object or situation; where the mind is working intensively. This is not the concentration we try to attain in the dharana stage of meditation. Here the inner perception is on the object of dharana, but the thought process has been largely ignored, and other thoughts that come are just allowed to flow by. We have accomplished this in the following way.
Stopping the mind chatter: The mind chatter is an internal monologue, the continuous flow of thoughts that goes on in the ordinary persons mind all day long. It doesnt stop from the moment they wake up till they fall asleep. It is changed from time to time by sensations coming in, but it flows on, dominating our mind, emotions, attitudes and behaviour for the whole of our waking life. People are so identified with this thought flow that they may believe it is actually themselves. Often they are surprised at how easy it is to break the flow, and how it immediately calms the mind when it happens. Then they realize that the thought patterns with which they identified are just a process, not the person. The meditation practices contain techniques that first cut the internal monologue about the outside events, and then they cut the part of it that continues on the basis of memory when the person is inside.
Awareness of thinking habits: We have developed habits of thinking about our life and our world. We often believe that other people have the same thought patterns, and then we are surprised when they reach entirely different conclusions about the same situations. These thinking patterns have become habits, based on our experiences of life; they may be rational, sensible and helpful, or they may be irrational, ridiculous and even destructive, but we repeat them over and over again due to habit. Because these thought patterns are so important in forming the emotions we experience and the decisions we make about how we will behave, it is important that we develop the ability to stand off and observe them. Meditation gives us just this ability; we become the witness of our own thinking patterns, and then we have the choice as to whether we want them or not.
Awareness of our ego roles, attitudes and motivations: Most people are so strongly identified with their roles in life, Im a managing director or Im a mother, that when the role finishes, such as when the managing director has to retire or the mothers children leave home, they feel annihilated. The same goes for our habitual attitudes about ourselves, other people, the world around us, the reason for life etc. These attitudes are so much part of us that we take it for granted that they are true, completely oblivious to the fact that other people hold their different attitudes and identification with roles, with the same unshakeable reverence. Because these are so powerful in motivating our ongoing behaviour in life, it is essential that we develop the ability to observe them. Meditation gives us the ability to do this, and allows us to put them into perspective.
Calming: The processes leading to pratyahara calm negative emotions. They do this in a number of ways. Firstly they allow us to dissociate our awareness from the external inputs that are causing the emotions in the first place. Then they cut the internal monologue that keeps the emotions going. They also lead to physical relaxation, a state that is not compatible with negative emotions. Many people find, even in their first experience of a pratyahara practice such as Satyananda yoga nidra, that uncomfortable emotions just melt away.
Coping with the unconscious emotions: Clearing repressed memories is an important aspect of the purifying power of meditation. The memories have been repressed because the emotions they are covering are painful, but if we are to clear them, we will have to experience the painful emotions too. Meditation makes this easier for us by allowing us to be in a neutral emotional state (witness position) to face the unconscious. Then when the emotionally loaded memories come up and meet the neutral emotional state, the negative emotions are neutralized and the memories lose their power over us. Remember also that Satyananda Yoga teaches physical practices such as asanas and pranayamas to be done before the meditation, one of their benefits being that they put us in an emotionally neutral and balanced state even before the meditation starts.
De-conditioning from habitual automatic patterns of emotion: In the same way that we have habitual thought patterns, attitudes etc., we tend to respond to lifes inputs with the same set of emotions, over and over again. Some people respond with anger, some with hurt feelings, some with guilt, some with humour . . . all to the same situation! Meditation develops within us the ability to witness our situation and choose our responses. It also expands our awareness, so that we are able to see the bigger picture of our life, and respond accordingly.
Objective awareness of our desires and repulsions: Raga the attraction to desired objects or situations, and dwesha the avoidance of undesired objects or situations, are a part of the process of self-preservation of these bodies of ours. However, in the ordinary lives we live, their hold over us is not appropriate, and leads us into addictive and compulsive behaviours that make life a misery. A fundamental tenet of yoga is that if we are to evolve, we must attenuate these desires and repulsions. The meditation practices allow us to have a more objective view of these, and as they then cease to be automatic, we can choose how we respond to them.
Awareness of and de-conditioning from habits of behaviour: In the same way that we have our own individual thinking patterns and emotional responses, we have habitual behaviour patterns too. They have become so ingrained in us through habit that we just take them for granted. Some can be of benefit to us and some can be quite destructive. Meditation also gives us the objectivity to view and assess these. Do we want to continue with them? Or do we want to replace them? The choice is ours.
Automatic improvement in behaviour and relationships: Of course, as the meditation and other yoga practices help us to develop through all these, our behaviour becomes better and better anyway, our relationships with other people and with the world around us improve, and we develop into the more sattwic qualities of vijnanamaya level.
Clearance of the body-energy-mind: The more we clear the body-energy-mind, the more we experience the qualities of vijnanamaya kosha. These more and more become the basis of our life experience with eyes open or shut. Our whole life becomes meditation. We become physically relaxed, balanced, graceful and flowing, and our vitality also becomes balanced and free-flowing.
Perception: (i) We perceive people, objects and situations as they really are, not corrupted by unconscious blockages or wishes about how we want them to be. (ii) We become more and more the witness and, as we do, we become less and less entangled in the situations of life. In this way we are more able to contribute in a balanced and wise way to helping them. (iii) ESP: As we tune into higher sources of information we develop greater ability to reach conclusions and make decisions based on truth.
Reasoning and decision-making: Our reasoning and decision-making are more logical, uncorrupted by repressed mental material, and aided by intuition and precognition. This leads to wisdom, incorporating discrimination and discernment (viveka).
Unconditional love: Instead of trying to love, we become the love that was already inside us. It just flows out of us in the same unconditional way as perfume wafts from a flower.
Compassion: Because of the release of our love, we relate to others, and to Planet Earth, in a kind, non-harming way. We become more ethical in the way we deal with our world.
Communication: We relate to other people with free communication, social adeptness and harmony.
Inner security: Because we have essentially eliminated the sources of our old irrational insecurities we become secure within ourselves. This allows us to appreciate the beauty of life. We also become less acquisitive and less possessive of material things (asteya and aparigraha), and less and less attached to and entangled in the things and people around us (vairagya). In the same way, because of our security we have the courage to be truthful (satya), and it becomes natural for us to be so.
Spontaneous joy: We experience joy in life, and relate to other people and situations with humour, optimism and a positive attitude.
Ability to accomplish good work: Our life becomes a flow of action and the ability to accomplish good work in a selfless way, unimpeded by blockages of the lower mind; these result in good self-esteem and motivation. At a higher level we perceive the hand of divine grace in our endeavours and feel ourselves to be an instrument of that grace.
The vast majority of our human race are still slowly progressing in the lower koshas, and dont even have a glimmer of the exalted fate in store at the level of anandamaya kosha. Ultimately, however, according to yoga, it is the destiny of us all.
To quote Swami Satyananda in Meditations from the Tantras: The culmination of meditation is Self-realization. This occurs when the higher mind is transcended. The consciousness leaves the exploration of the mind and identifies with the central core of ones existence, the Self. At this point it becomes pure consciousness. When a person achieves Self-realization, it means he has contacted his central being and now identifies his existence, his life, from the viewpoint of the Self, not from the standpoint of the ego. When he acts from the centre of his being, the body and mind operate almost as separate entities. They are merely manifestations of the Self, his true identity. So it can be seen that the aim of meditation is to explore the different regions of the mind and eventually transcend the mind completely.