Meditation (Dharana, Dhyana)
Calm the bubbling emotions, sentiments, instincts and impulses through silent meditation. You can give a new orientation to your feelings by gradual and systematic practice. You can entirely transmute your worldly nature into Divine nature.
-- Swami Sivananda
There are many ways to meditate, but each one relies on the same thing: mental focusing, or “one-pointed concentration.” That means exactly what the name suggests, concentrating on one thing only. A simple description, and not necessarily as easy as it sounds. Yet it is a process that holds many profound benefits.
Meditation is about getting to know your mind and how it works; a sort of laboratory for observing and training your mind. There are lots of reasons to meditate: better physical health, less stress, better sleeping habits, and of course, personal spiritual growth. People who meditate are generally calmer, more compassionate and have more insight. Meditation helps increase these positive qualities through the non-judgmental observation of your mind.
There are many effective meditation styles, and no one way is better than another. The style you choose depends on your natural inclinations, and which type of yoga, spirituality, or religion you practice. Choice of style is extremely personal and people often try various methods before settling down to one. Sometimes they outgrow a method, try something new, and recycle back to the style they enjoyed once before, this time with more awareness or maturity. Meditation can be done however you decide at any given time. The important thing is to start a practice, commit to it, and let it grow from there.
The differences in meditative practices are generally in the choice of subject to focus on. Sometimes it’s a visual focus such as a candle or mandala; sometimes it’s a word, a song, or a phrase; sometimes it’s the following of physical movements, such as breath or walking; sometimes it’s the visualization of images and use of the imagination; sometimes it’s simply observing the pattern of changing thoughts.
For beginners, it’s best to find a basic method which gives you a structure and a set of steps. For example, one simple technique is to sit upright and relaxed, on a chair or cross-legged on a cushion, and bring all your attention to your breath. Stay quietly here for 10-20 minutes, letting any thoughts or feelings go, and simply come back to the breath. That’s it. Just continue to release any thoughts or feelings and continue to come back to the breath until the time is up. It is most typical that just as you get comfortable, your mind will interrupt with it’s many wavering thoughts – your grocery list, sex fantasies, somebody you’re Really Mad At, your tight schedule, and The Thing You Have To Do Right NOW! Know that these thoughts are all part of the process, and as they come up, let them go and go back to the breath. Continue until your time is up, without any expectations or judgments. It is best to establish a time at least once a day to sit, either morning or evening. The important thing is to begin, and keep beginning, every single day. If you miss a day, don’t worry. Begin again. See what happens when you do this practice daily. Meditate for short periods at first, then, once your concentration has improved, sit for longer. Some experienced meditators have nurtured their practice so consistently that they even like to sit for an hour or so, feeling fresher and lighter after each session.
One of the long-term goals of meditation is to become less seduced by, and attached to, the ego, with its relentless appetite, so we can learn to see and observe things as they are. Observing things as they are allows greater ability to accept “what is.” And from that point, we can make better choices. Since the ego wants the next new lover, food, job, clothing, ipod – you fill in the blank – meditation helps quell this wavering mind and as a result we become more centered, aware and less stressed. There’s no question meditation can have an enormously positive impact on the way you life your life.
As the Dalai Lama says, “all beings are united by the desire to gain happiness and avoid suffering.” In his book, How To Practice: The Way To A Meaningful Life, he describes three Buddhist techniques for mental peace which anyone can use for self-improvement, whether they follow Buddhist precepts or not: morality, concentrated meditation, and wisdom. Note that concentrated meditation is an important step, and the second one, in this three-pronged technique. This concludes that the practice of morality – causing no harm to others and cultivating deeper concern for others – is the first step to meditation, as it removes external distractions. From there, comes meditation – mental focus and calm even in stressful situations – a practice to remove more subtle, internal distractions. It is from that point that the seeker can address issues of appearance and reality.
The Dalai Lama speaks of several ways to meditate:
Analytical meditation – meditation through reasoning and reflection
Stabilizing meditation – meditation through fixing the mind on an object (a mantra, or the breath, for example) or a topic (such as attachment), which he calls “calm abiding.”
Subjective meditation – meditation to cultivate a new attitude or strengthening a way of thinking (such as compassion)
Objective meditation – meditation on a topic, such as change
Wishing meditation – meditation where you wish to be fulfilled with a quality, such as unconditional love
Imaginative meditation – meditation where you imagine you have the qualities you do not yet have, i.e., imagining yourself filled with light.
In his discussion of stabilizing meditation, which is essential for bringing the mind under control, the Dalai Lama says, “ …both stability and clarity are needed with respect to the object of meditation. Thus the biggest obstacles to sustained meditation are excitement and laxity. Excitement prevents stability. When the mind does not stay on the object but becomes distracted or scattered, the object of meditation is lost…lethargy causes laxity, which prevents clarity. In coarse laxity, the mind sinks, the object of meditation fades and is lost…as you see, the mind needs to be tuned like a fine stringed instrument.”
Another way of approaching what the Dalai Lama calls Stabilizing Meditations are meditation techniques called Mindfulness Meditation. These include breathing meditations and are considered an excellent practice for both beginners who want to calm and relax the mind, as well as more advanced meditators, who want to go deeper in their spiritual development.
For example, in How To Meditate: A Practical Guide, Kathleen McDonald discusses a type of Mindfulness Meditation she calls Meditation on the Clarity of Mind: “The reality of our existence is that we are a combination of body and mind…all in a constant state of flux...we think ‘I’m attractive,’ ‘I’m ugly,’ ‘I’m a good dancer,’ ‘I won’t succeed’…we believe these projects and assume they are permanent and unchanging…Meditation on Clarity of Mind is an effective antidote on our concrete projections.” In this meditation, she suggests we observe our breath until our awareness is sharpened. From this point, she suggests turning our attention to the clarity of our consciousness. “Your consciousness, or mind,” she states, “is whatever you are experiencing at the moment: sensations, thoughts, etc…the nature of each of these experiences is clarity, without form or color, pure awareness…focus your attention on this clear, pure nature of mind…do not think about anything or wonder...simply observe.”
McDonald notes many ways of meditating in her book, including a variety of Analytical Meditations, such as: Meditation on Emptiness, Meditation on Appreciation of Human Life, Meditation on Death Awareness, Meditation on Impermanence, Equilibrium Meditation, Meditation on Love, and more.
A range of meditation styles include Visualization (or Imaginative) meditation. For example, in Tibetan meditation, the visualization of oneself dying is used to heighten awareness of our mortality, and in Tantra, the visualization is often used to identify oneself completely with a deity who is pure.
Devotional meditations are used in many practices, such as Bhakti Yoga. This would include reciting prayers out loud or internally, with great sincerity. Prayers are spoken with a full heart in an effort to communicate with our true nature. It goes beyond the simple reciting of words. These meditations fill our hearts and serve as a reminder of what we are trying to accomplish and sets the cause for what we want to accomplish in the future.
“To give your sheep a large, spacious meadow is the best way to control him,” is a popular Zen saying. In speaking of meditation, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki says that “if you want to obtain perfect calmness…you should not be bothered by the various images that you find in your mind. Let them come, and let them go. Then they will be under control. It sounds easy, but requires special effort…this effort is the secret of practice.”
Nurtured patiently and over time, the meditation practice you choose will become more and more familiar, your mind will become more liberated, and your life will reflect this freedom in expected – and unexpected – ways.
Dalai Lama and Jeffrey Hopkins, How To Practice: The Way To A Meaningful Life, 2002
Kathleen McDonald, How To Meditate, 1984
Chogyam Trungpa, Meditation In Action, 1991
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 1970
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