Focus on the yogic practice of dharana
In today’s world it seems that the natural state of mind for a human being is one of busy-ness, thought and constant stimulation. It has been estimated that the average human mind generates around 50,000 thoughts a day. Thousands of points of contact constantly feed thoughts, prompting us to respond or act in some way until, eventually, we are in a constant state of reaction. The mind and nervous system are so overloaded with constant sensory stimulation that the human consciousness has started to become dull just trying to cope.
It seems that as humans evolve, we are fast making the transition from human beings to human doings. As you look around the world and even your own mind, you see the constant movement and action that has arisen from unrestrained activity. Habitual conceptualisation and constant stimulation has created very short attention spans and an inability for simplicity and stillness. To restore the mind to a state of balance, peace and harmony, we need to reconnect to the core of who we are and the practice of dharana.
Dharana means keeping the mind steady and concentrated. Traditionally, it is said that when the body has been balanced by the asanas (postures) and the gross winds and mind have been refined and balanced by the use of pranayama, the yogi then reaches the sixth stage of yoga, which is called dharana. Dharana is the practice of single-pointed concentration. This is the stage of your practice where learning to stabilise the mind is your main focus. When the concentration of the mind reaches such a point that you can choose your point of focus and hold it effortlessly for an extended period of time, being totally engrossed in your object, then dharana has been achieved.
The untrained mind is often plagued by thoughts and impulses that are initially difficult to restrain or control. The Tibetans call the untrained mind “crazy elephant mind” because they know that an untrained mind does what it likes — much like a rampaging elephant that no-one can control or stop from destroying a hut, a village or whatever is in its path. When the Tibetans speak of a trained mind they say it is like a “well-trained palamino horse”. When a horse is well trained it is effortless to ride. It is safe, reliable, obedient and calm. The well-trained mind is the same. Just as a well-trained horse requires many hours of training to become like this, so does the mind. That is why the practice of dharana is the firm foundation on which all further practices are built until the final state of samadhi is attained.
To begin the practice of dharana it is helpful to understand and openly experience the business of the mind, to see through the surface, to feel into the depths and to rest at the core. In the Buddha’s teachings it is said that the outer world is merely a reflection of the inner world and that if you change your mind you will change your world. What you experience depends on the state of your mind. The full moon reflected on the smooth, clear surface of a lake at night provides an analogy for this teaching. If the water is stirred, the reflection is also stirred. When the mind becomes still, undistracted by thought and no longer stirred by the senses, a natural state of peace begins to arise from within. This inner peace or stillness arises once you have attained dharana.
To experience the still nature of the mind you must stop, quietly look within and focus upon a chosen object. The world will still continue to turn, sounds will still be heard, sensations and thoughts will still continue to flow, however all you need to do is accept what is and let go of your reactions. The more you accept your surroundings and let go of your reactions, the sooner you will enter a state of flow. When in flow you can begin to look within with clarity.
The Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikku, a renowned Thai sage, said, “If there were a useful inscription to put on a medallion around your neck, it would be ‘This is the way it is.’” This is the concept of bringing acceptance into your mind, of noting rather than reacting, of accepting instead of resisting. This accepting attitude is the key to moving into a state of stillness and peace. The more we surrender, the more we begin to end the cycle of action and reaction, allowing stillness and peace to arise.
A peaceful world is experienced through the eyes of a peaceful being. In the depths of all beings there is stillness and peace. In the depths of the great oceans there is calm, even when the surface is stirred by storms. The mind is the same. The depths of the mind are always calm and still; all you need to do is deepen your experience of the depths of the mind, let go of the surface and go within. As the great yogi Paramahansa Yogananda said in Autobiography of a Yogi, “Go within or Go without … the choice is yours.”
The untrained mind is unstable and dependent on external conditions. It is said that the untrained mind is like a balloon in the wind. If the wind blows from the north, the balloon has no choice but to go towards the south; if the wind blows from the west, the balloon must go towards the east. To stabilise the mind in stillness and peace requires a certain depth of awareness. This depth is achieved through feeling into your core without reaction. Just as the middle waters of the ocean may have currents and some turbulence, as you go within yourself you may find feelings and emotions that rise strongly. As the saying goes, all you need to do with feelings is feel them. There is a great tendency to go back into our heads when we experience strong or stirring feelings within ourselves. As you learn to feel without reaction you find that your awareness slowly begins to draw deeper within. The more you resist or react to what you are feeling, the more outward the awareness goes. So through accepting what you feel and surrendering, you will find that slowly you start to experience more stillness and peace of mind.
Imagine you had a house but never went into it — what a waste that would be. However, we are all homeowners, whether we know it or not. Going into deep meditation is like going into your house. Great yogis have been known to refer to going into deep equipoise as “going home”. Imagine your body is a house and your awareness the dweller. The outside of the house is always subject to the weather; if it is hot and sunny, you become hot; if it is raining, you get wet. To dwell outside the house like this makes you vulnerable to whatever is happening outside. If the world is busy, you are stimulated; if it is quiet, there is calm. What if you were to withdraw into the house? What would that be like?
To withdraw awareness from the outer field of sensory perception and draw awareness into the body, away from external events, it is important to accept everything you sense in each moment. Accept all the sounds, accept the temperature, accept the sensations in the body and the thoughts within the mind. Just sit with what is and how that feels. Notice the mind’s natural tendency to react, to want to move or struggle with what is, and how this fuels thought. Keep coming back to simply what is and accept. Until external distractions are pacified by the practice of accepting, it is going to be impossible to focus inwardly in a single-pointed way. However, once you become well practised in accepting and non-reacting, the external world will no longer distract or disturb you and you can then just be a witness. It is at this point you will find the body and mind start to become truly comfortable, open and relaxed. It is also at this point that moving in becomes natural and effortless.
Feeling, then, is your guide that takes you deeper; it is the middle water that connects the thinking, sensing mind to that deeply centred inner state of stillness and peace. Feel the body by holding your awareness just on the body and nowhere else; start to narrow your field of perception. Imagine you are drawing the field of your awareness to the surface of the body. There is nothing beyond the surface of the skin in which you are interested. Let all sounds be unattended as you start to observe only the body and its sensations. Do not become drawn into thinking about what you are feeling. Just feel. The conceptual mind loves to give a commentary on what is or isn’t happening at any given moment, especially when there is a lack of outer stimulation. Just observe the relationship between the mind and what you are feeling. Whenever you feel a painful sensation, note how the mind reacts out of habit. Open to what you are feeling and accept.
Acceptance is the key to letting go. All that is arising within you has always been there; it is just that you were not aware of it before. Just keep feeling deeper and deeper into the body. It may be helpful to use your breathing. As the Tibetan lamas say, subtle winds ride upon gross winds. This means that your breathing can affect your mind. The “out” breath is a very calming and soothing vehicle that can be used to steady the mind when experiencing discomfort or an endless barrage of thought. Let the “out” breath be the vehicle for removing the tension held within.
Bound flow is the tightness and blockage that results from holding in emotion and not processing feeling as it surfaces. Use the breath to remove the backlog of bound flow that has clogged the inner energy of your body. Apparently, when some of the first Tibetan lamas came to the West, one of their observations was that Western people need to breathe out more. Think back to the last time you experienced something that was challenging or painful. Did you hold your breath?
To use the “out” breath to release bound flow, imagine yourself as a balloon full of hot air. Breathe out with the clear intention of letting go. Accept whatever feelings surface and then just let them go. Breathe in to where you feel stuck or tight and accept how this feels. As you surrender to feeling, you will open up the space, allowing it to move. As you breathe out, just let that feeling of tightness and discomfort flow through your body, releasing it with the outward breath. There is no need to push. The more you relax, the more you will find that all tension flows out of the body and you become very comfortable and content.
When the body is feeling very comfortable and content, it is time to move deeper within. Going within is somewhat like going from outside your house on a sunny day into your basement. When you first walk into the basement all you can see is the vague outline of things. However, if you sit there for a while and let your eyes adjust, you will find everything becomes clear again. As the meditation joke goes, “Don’t just do something, sit there!”
As your practice of meditation deepens you may notice dullness creeping in. It is vital that at this point mindfulness is held and your mind remains focused. The “in” breath is sometimes helpful at this stage. Use long, slow inhalations. Imagine drawing the energy from the breath deep into your abdomen. As you remain aware of the breath this gives you an object to remain focused on. The two extremes of mental sinking and mental wandering are what you need to work with until a state of mental balance has been reached. At this point it is like balancing on a seesaw: on the one side you have dullness; on the other, thinking and sensing again. To stand with one foot on each side and come to a state of perfect balance is the aim of the practice. Using the breath to aid balance, it is helpful to apply this simple rule of thumb: if the mind is becoming excited and starts to move outwardly, use the “out” breath, accepting and letting go to bring the mind back in again; if the mind becomes dull and sleepy, start to use the “in” breath and focus the mind more intensely, looking deeper for more subtle sensations within the breath to focus on.
If you remain mindful of the breath in this way, noting when the mind wanders or slips into dullness, you will start to develop a special type of subtle concentration. When this concentration is trained and tempered through many hours of practice in meditation, a strong, balanced state of mental abiding will eventually develop. It is at this point, in a state of meditative equipoise, that your practice of dharana has truly been mastered. Equipoise is the balanced state of peaceful abiding in meditation. As the mind starts to find balance and stability naturally abiding within, it is time to take the one seat of stillness, to merge with your object and remain in stillness and peace for extended periods of time. It is at this stage that your practice of meditation becomes effortless and fruitful. This is the fruit of your labour, the blissfully fulfilling state of oneness and peace. The mind is well trained and highly alert yet so relaxed and absorbed in an incredible state of stillness and bliss.
A candle flame provides a good analogy to describe this state. When a naked flame is exposed to a draft it flickers. The size of the flame is reduced because of the perpetual movement of the flame in the wind. When you remove the candle from the draft by putting it in a lantern, the flame begins to stabilise and the movement stops. As the flame is protected within the lantern, no longer disturbed by distracting winds, it begins to grow in size. Slowly it becomes longer, emitting more and more light. The flame finally reaches a point where it is perfectly tall and still. When the flame remains like this for an extended period of time an extra glow begins to appear around it like a second aura. This aura is the brilliance of stillness. The mind is the same. When the mind remains still for quite some time it becomes illuminated and very aware. When this stillness is held in a state of equipoise, unmoving for an extended period of time, the same extra glow as that of the candle flame arises. Yogis deeply trained in meditation can hold this state of equipoise for as long as they choose. Hours, days, even weeks may pass and the yogi is still mindful, aware, comfortable, relaxed and still. It is through continued practice at this level that further states are experienced until, finally, after years of diligent and steady practice, samadhi may be attained.
Well documented in various yogic traditions are the innumerable benefits from remaining in a deep state of meditation like this. All that is required is steady, constant effort. As the saying goes, the dripping tap fills the glass. Those well practised in dharana experience balance and peace of mind — not just in meditation but also in daily life. The depths of the mind are always still and peaceful. If you remain mindfully connected to this stillness and peace in your daily life you will find that things do not affect you so much anymore. The beautiful thing about such a practice is that being still is effortless, whereas doing requires energy and action. Once the mind is trained it is more inclined to just be. There is nothing to do; just be.