Who or what are we? What is the nature of mind and being behind our thoughts, identities, personas? This timeless question is at the heart of the spiritual quest, actualized around the world through a plethora of techniques and practices, yet normally hidden by the restless web of everyday living. In the eight-limbed system of Raja Yoga this question is central, as the entire set of practices are designed to prepare the individual for a direct confrontation with the radiance and power that dwells within.
We clean up our life choices and behaviors in yama; we practice health and wellness for body and mind in niyama; asana helps us heal our bodies and liberate energy stuck in our muscular-nervous system; with pranayama we learn to manage the liberated energy; pratyahara instructs us to look within; and in dharana we stabilize the mind by learning to focus the restless thoughts. According to Patanjali, only after the above prescribed practices have been mastered is the practitioner ready for the more advanced seventh limb: dhyana, deep meditation.
The Flowering of Pure Awareness
Even though in today’s age meditation has been discovered to be an excellent stress reducing and peace inducing practice, the yogis were clear that dhyana is ultimately a spiritual technology designed to liberate the human mind from the suffering inherent in this earthly existence. Both an activity and a state of mind, dhyana is the flowering potential of a mind that learns to rest in its own essential nature; pure awareness.
Dhyana is defined in the Yoga Sutras as the continuous flow of attention, without break, on the object of meditation. With practice the meditator begins to experience one-pointed focus, thereby stilling the body, senses, mind, and ego. Anchored in dharana through the continuous flow of one-pointed concentrated awareness, one then undergoes the final act of will in dhyana: the complete relinquishing of control and effort as mind returns to its essence.
We don’t have to stop thinking to enter the meditative state however. The mere recognition that mind-stuff is what pure awareness looks like when it is in motion, and that pure awareness is what mind looks like when it is at rest has the potential to untie our mental knots, giving us the freedom to just be with whatever is.
Even though the realization that the peace and freedom inherent in pure awareness is an always-already fact of our spiritual nature and can be had spontaneously, it is through consistent and regular practice that the mind eventually learns to flower into that open, spacious, equanimous, mindful witnessing capacity.
One trains to meet all that arises with ease and curiosity, thereby developing a stance from which to calmly observe. Without attachment, effort or clinging, one awakens to the impermanence of all phenomena.
Rewiring the Brain
Known as the two pillars of meditation practice, concentration and mindfulness rewire the brain so that inner peace becomes the basis of all experience. They help cultivate the inner capacity to sit with what is, but with the steering capability to bring the mind back to a central focal point on demand. By continuously returning to center, all conscious energy from thought, feeling, or sensation finally learns to merge and dissolve back into the one, bringing the thinking mind to a single point of stillness. When mind comes to rest, it returns to its original nature as pure awareness.
In dhyana there is still a separation between the subject and the object, even though the two are locked in continuous communion at this stage. Subject is defined as the individual perspective of a mind, aware of that which arises, or the objects. In its subtler dimensions, even thoughts and emotions are seen as objects, for they are witnessed from a deeper sentience as phenomena that comes and goes.
This sentience is, of course, that which is aware, present, and alive within you in this very moment, but gets filtered through your individual psychological makeup as soon as any object arises. All objects need a subject, or else they don’t exist. All subjects need objects, without which they have no reference point for their existence.
As we know, the deep link between the observer and that which is observed is also under examination by quantum physicists, for as we probe the objects we call matter all we find is empty space; and ultimately our selves. In meditation practice, we use our inner being as our research lab, smashing thoughts together to discover their underlying constitution. As a byproduct we find fulfillment, contentment, and the answers to the deepest riddles of life.
Central to our practice, as always, is breath awareness. The in and out can be wired to be attractors for the wandering mind, continually pulling it back to its source. The in-breath pulls the mind back to the object of meditation, the out-breath releases whatever arises.
A useful image is that of a central dot surrounded by a circle. The dot represents the focal object of meditation, such as the breath, and the circle the mindful awareness that extends out like an open field. The center is necessary so that the mind has a place of stillness to return to while one begins to experience the true expanse and vastness of awareness. In that sky-like expanse, we witness what arises, whether thoughts, sensations, perceptions, images, or emotions, as ever-shifting clouds.
All those who have tried to meditate know how hard it is to quiet the mind. Since our modern daily practice is to think, plan, remember, and worry, the modern psyche knows no peace other than sleep. Many activities can bring us to that state of serenity, such as art, music, dance, or romance, and we all know sublime moments in life, such as birthing a child or falling in love, but meditation is the direct path.
When the mind finally learns to quiet, the final stage of yoga dawns, like a sunrise on clear blue sky.
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