As many who have tried meditation probably know, the journey to stillness requires a lot of patience. The scriptures of yoga describe a process to meditation that looks, on paper, to be rather linear. For example, the eight limbs of yoga outline a step-by-step guide to reaching enlightenment in a way that almost reads as easy. But how many times have you sat down to meditate only to observe a mind full of rapid thoughts moving in all directions?
If this has happened on your cushion, you are in the majority. Let’s first recognize that even the master yogis were human. Remember—the very reason the eight limbs and other guidelines were created was so that we would have handrails to hold when the mind’s winds of change threatened to knock us over.
Classical yoga texts tell us that the last three of Patanjali’s limbs—dharana (deep concentration), dhyana (awareness of existence) and samadhi (oneness or enlightenment)—are to be practiced once we have a foundational understanding of yoga’s powers of illumination. According to B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, we are ready to practice dharana once “the body has been tempered by asanas, when the mind has been refined by the fire of pranayama, and when the senses have been brought under control by pratyahara.”
So what does it mean to practice dharana and dhyana? Rolf Sovik, author of Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation, says that we can think of dhyana as “meditation proper,” and that our experience of dhyana is made possible by a sustained practice of dharana. If we were to think of dharana—our commitment to focus the mind on one breath, mantra, or sensation—as taking notice of every drop of water as it drips from a faucet, then dhyana is a stream of water droplets, flowing without pause. In other words, once we train the mind to return its focus to the present moment over and over again, eventually there is no pause between these moments and we experience pure, present awareness, or meditation.
An example of how yogis use dharana to move into dhyana is with mala beads, or mantra meditation. When meditating, close your eyes and touch each bead. With every touch, repeat a mantra to yourself or refocus your awareness on your breath. At first, you will have to re-harness your awareness with every bead; between every touch you’ll observe the brain’s habitual desire to chase another thought, memory, emotion or idea. But with continued practice, dharana’s duration will last for two beads, then three, then for an entire mala until you are seated in a steady stream of pure awareness. If you are using a mantra, it will begin to flow effortlessly without the exertion of the mind, and you will begin to experience a level of awareness that is distinct from the influence of any thoughts. It is here, yogis say, that we begin to learn and discover our true nature.
What is your experience with meditation? Have you found other ways to use dharana as a means of stepping fully into presence?