Water in its pristine and pure state of stillness is clear, transparent, and luminous when light shines through. Yet any disturbance on the surface will create ripples that diffract and distort the shinning light, often times hiding the treasures that may lie in its fluid depths. Consciousness, yoga teaches, is the same. When agitated and restless, the indwelling light of being becomes distorted, dulled, and scattered, oftentimes leading to the psychological ailments that plague our modern world. When mind is trained to become quiet and still through the meditation practice of Dharana, consciousness returns to its inherently transparent and clear nature, shinning its radiant luminosity on a world hungry for its healing touch.
This is no easy task, as our lives constantly bombard us with preoccupations that keep our minds distracted and programmed to want more. Often times conditioned by cultures designed for consumption and control, our minds wander from thought to thought in an endless stream of internal noise. So noisy have our minds become with the agitations of our everyday living, that we have forgotten our true nature. A nature that is discovered to be deeper than the Cosmos itself, revealing inner states of freedom and beauty barely imagined by the idling post-modern psyche.
Pratyahara, the fifth limb on the royal road to awakening of Raja Yoga, taught us how to withdraw our attention from the external world of the senses and redirect awareness inward. As we do that however, we soon find out that the “within” is a wild and an untamed place. We peek inside our inner being to soon discover a world full of thoughts and images, memories and plans. We witness a restless ocean of anxieties and regrets, picture-memory albums playing in endless loops, to-do lists and schedules that motivate us into everyday life.
Yet we find ourselves exhausted and stressed, overworked and with a feeling of unease. Our minds restless and preoccupied, we turn to entertainment and distractions to keep us numb from our very own self. In moments of contemplation we may ask, how do I find peace? The answer is, and has always been, within.
Quietening the Monkey Mind
Dharana, the sixth limb on our eight-limbed journey of awakening, is the technology designed by the ancient yogis to train and tame our “drunken monkey” mind. With Awareness now freed from worldly signals through the practice of pratyahara, it can now be directed and managed through the faculty of will. One learns to harness the energies of a distracted and scattered mind and focalize them toward a unified center of concentration.
In dharana, the Sanskrit word for concentration, the practitioner fixes the mind upon a single point, channeling the freed conscious energy to the desired object of concentration. By bringing the mind back over and over again to the chosen focal point, one develops a “spiritual muscle” that cultivates neural pathways that lead one back to center repeatedly. We concentrate, focus, and direct our conscious energy toward one point in order to quiet and still the thinking mind.
In this step of meditation practice effort is required, as one finds a mind constantly pushed and pulled by the vicissitudes of our wandering thoughts. One develops the power of attention and focus as the mind trains to sit one-pointedly on a single object. Attention wanders, we bring it back, over and over again. If a thought arises, one notices, lets go on the out breath, and then gently brings awareness back to that single point on the in breath. This practice begins to wire our neural pathways so that attention learns to return to center on its own. Once the grooves have been developed through our dharana practice, effort drops away as we train to rest on a single point of stillness.
Tools for Concentration
The object for developing concentration can be anything. Some use images or visuals such yantras or mandalas, which are complex circular sacred geometrical patterns designed to entrain the mind toward states of wholeness. Others use inner sounds called nada, which become audible only when the mind has become still. Mantras, repeated words or phrases, are also traditional objects used for concentration. The repetition of these particular syllables create patterns of focus by developing their own momentum, thereby overriding the habitual loops of mind so that mind may become still.
The various chakra centers are also suitable focal points, particularly the fourth heart chakra anahata, or the sixth “third eye” ajna on the center of the forehead. The sixth chakra is particularly potent, as it resides where we find the pre-frontal cortex; the brain structure implicated in concentration, focus, will and attention. Furthermore, ajna correlates with the pineal gland, a literal third eye found in the center of the brain that regulates our various bio-rhythms.
Breath as a Path
Using breath as the object of concentration has been determined to be most effective, as it is a function that goes on every moment of our lives. We don’t have to invoke an image or a word, as the rhythm of breath continually keeps its life-giving beat going whether we are paying attention or not. When we train to stay focused on breath in dharana, the practice helps us stay anchored in our center even when we are not engaged in meditation practice. A deep breath during everyday living will at that point have the power to bring us to center, as the developed grooves will pull attention to its stabilizing silence without much effort.
With our gaze turned inward, and the mind stabilized by concentration, awareness becomes laser-like in its ability to pierce through the layers of mind. We develop the capacity to quiet the restless surface of everyday living so that the deeper dimensions of being open like luminous flowers in a vast field of awareness. We learn to settle the waves of mind so that the radiant nature of consciousness may simply shine.
With a stable and quiet mind, the student is now ready for meditation.
Eugene A. Alliende has been practicing meditation and yoga for twenty years and facilitates weekly meditation groups and classes at his healing center. His passion is the exploration of consciousness, and how a deeper understanding of our true nature can help heal the individual and the world. Read his book Dimensions of Being here