Thursday, February 9, 2012

Yoga Sutras: a Guide to Meditation - Stanza 2

Perhaps one of the two most famous aphorisms of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is the second one: Yogas chitta vritti nirodha. This stanza is not easy to translate as succinctly as it is written in Sanskrit. Sanskrit contains meanings, overtones, and levels of reality that make the language rich with wisdom and ripe for interpretation. Even reciting the stanza can, to one who is receptive and sensitive, convey ineffable wisdom and heart-opening joy.

The most common translation we use around Ananda is “Yoga is the neutralization of vortices of feeling.” Unfortunately this tells us little, unless we investigate and ponder more deeply. I have spent my life of spiritual introspection pondering the layers of meaning of this one stanza. In this series of articles, however, I will view this rich stanza from the more practical level of the practice of meditation as more commonly experienced.

Put, therefore, more simply, Patanjali is essentially remarking upon what is needed to achieve the state of unitive consciousness that might be termed “Superconsciousness,” oneness, samadhi, or enlightenment. I do not wish to define or distinguish these terms and so, for the more limited purpose of this blog series, let me interpret this stanza loosely and thusly:

The state of “yoga” (an experience of peaceful, meditative awareness) arises as one relaxes the body, calms the feelings, and clears the mind of restless thoughts. On a deeper level and involving more directly our consciousness, we might also say that a state of meditation is achieved when we dissolve the ceaseless ebb and flow of tension, emotions, and thoughts which are result of our psychic reaction to memories or other mental images or thoughts which appear to us during meditation.

Tension in the body is a kind of kinetic e-motion; disturbed feelings arising from anger, fear, anxiety, or desire thwart our efforts to achieve inner peace during meditation; lastly, the flow of random thoughts arising from the subconscious mind during meditation obscure the clarity of our intuitive, inner awareness. Thoughts can have their source (or be affected by) in physical tension (or vica versa) or in our disturbed feelings.

Patanjali is, one might say, simply stating the necessary precondition to higher consciousness: we must dissolve the energy-laden commitments to identifying with our body, to investing in our emotional reactions (likes and dislikes, past, present, or potential), and to the habit of ceaseless thoughts. Later in the sutras he explores specific obstacles to higher consciousness and specific forms of concentration designed to transcend these obstacles.

We, as meditators, can use this stanza to remind ourselves to use the techniques of meditation and apply them to body, feelings, and mind in a scientific and effective way to clear the motions and movements of body, emotions, and thoughts that we might “sit” or commune inwardly with inner peace.

For the body it is good to use yoga postures, or stretching exercises (e.g., Yogananda’s Energization Exercises), to release tension and fatigue. For the nervous system, brain, heart, and lungs, breath control exercises can decarbonizes the bloodstream and oxygenate the brain and all the cells; equalizing inhalation with exhalation can bring the body into stasis or relative stability so as to release the energy drag upon our mind and concentration. For the mind, concentration using mantra, or breath, or devotional aspiration can achieve a laser-like focus in the upper psychic centers (forehead) to cauterize or hold at bay the ceaseless stream of random thoughts.

While this blog series is not intended to teach meditation a simple and illustrative suggestion might begin with tensing the whole body (while seated) as you inhale, and relaxing the whole body as you exhale. Do this several times. Then do three to five rounds of simple, deep, diaphragmatic breathing with equal measures of inhalation, retention of breath, and exhalation. (While holding the breath visualize “holding” the breath in the heart; as you exhale let all nervousness or negativity melt away.) Then sit and observe the flow of breath as if it were gradually clearing your mind of all restless thoughts until the mind was clear and open to the clear blue sky above and in all directions. After this, simply sit in the inner silence, communing with the feeling of peace and serenity.

In addition, we must remind ourselves that the purpose of meditation is to go beyond meditation techniques and practices and enter the state of inner silence, mindfulness, inner peace, or inner communion: just BE! We are so addicted to DOING and PRACTICING that when at last the time comes in our meditation routine to simply BE we sometimes find that we are not ready; we may be unwilling to let go of the ego-controller. But without first intending to achieve inner silence and then having at least a taste of it in each meditation, we will not experience the promise implied by the second stanza of the Yoga Sutras. “Yoga-peace comes from calming and dissolving the ego-active tendencies of the body, heart and mind.”

Nayaswami Hriman

Monday, February 6, 2012

Yoga Sutras: Guide to Meditation

This new series of blog articles is not intended to be a commentary or interpretation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Inspired by the aphorisms, however, I seek to use their guidance and inspiration to distill thoughts about the practice of meditation. Sometimes my remarks will bear directly upon the sutra(s) and other times only loosely or having served as an inspiration for sharing.

I often am asked which translation to use and I confess that as yet I have found no singular translation satisfactory. Unfortunately, neither my guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, nor my spiritual teacher, Swami Kriyananda (a direct disciple of Yogananda), has published translations and commentaries on the Yoga Sutras. Where I am aware of their paraphrase, I will of course use it. I survey other translations in order to distill what seems most in tune with the lineage I am dedicated to. However, their teachings, published, unpublished or recorded, bear directly and indirectly upon the Yoga Sutras. Perhaps as importantly, the Yoga Sutras are, themselves, of universal application and stature, bereft of sectarian filters. Thus I am confident that what I will share will be derived or inspired by them and my efforts to live and share them.

We begin with the first aphorism, "And now we come to the practice of Yoga." May I offer then that we commit to the practice of meditation on a daily practice, coming to the practice of "yoga" (seeking Oneness with the Self) as a distinct and conscious effort, apart from the rest of our day's activities? Not only are we encouraged to establish the daily habit of meditation but, having done so, to enter into the practice with calm and conscious intention. Never let meditation become routine and rote. You might even intone this aphorism as you turn away from other activities (or upon arising) so that you are clear and intentional.

Too many students brush aside the value of this "setting aside" with comments like "I meditate all the time." Or, "I strive to remain in mindfulness throughout the day." Well, "like duh!" Of course, we all should do that. But such practices are not a substitute for putting aside our activities in order to "Now I sit to meditate upon the inner Light of the Infinite Spirit, the eyes of my guru, the all-pervading sound of Aum (and so on)."

And even if, as a meditator, you are loyal to your daily practice, how easy is it to focus on your techniques and practices and upon your progress in achieving meditative states of inner stillness rather than upon the goal of meditation? True meditation begins when our practices (pranayamas etc.) end in superconsciousness. As Yogananda put it, "When motion ceases, God begins."

I also put this in another way, based on a story from Yogananda's life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi." As a young boy or teenager he visited a saint who remarked to Yogananda that Yogananda often entered the quiescent state of inner stillness but, asked the saint, had he achieved "anubhava" -- love for God? We, as meditators, mustn't forget the goal of meditation even as we are non-attached to the time, place, or form of the goal. Union with God, or true yoga, is our goal. There is no point in defining either "union" or "God" for they can define themselves by our own experience. To say, simply, that we seek an upliftment of consciousness into transcendence and into the thrill and bliss of that state is sufficient for general purposes.

Next blog: Stanza 2: Yoga is achieved through the dissolution of the ceaseless reactions of attraction and repulsion; of the restless motions of body, senses, and mental images and our reactions to them.


Nayaswami Hriman

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What is Meditation?

This Saturday, February 4, I begin this year's 8-session Meditation Teacher training program. Not surprisingly, one of our first topics is "What is meditation?" Although most of us know a duck when we see one, I am sure that a specialist in ducks could have our heads spinning with the many varieties and distinctive characteristics among ducks.

Meditation may, therefore, seem pretty obvious, but it gets less so as we peer behind the veil of its outer form and attempt to describe the view from within. There exists a seemingly endless array of meditation techniques, moreover, that only compound the question of "What is meditation?"

One could approach meditation from the outside-in and say it is the act of closing one's eyes, being very still, and focusing within one's own mind. But that gets us close to (ha, ha) "no-where." Paramhansa Yogananda, author of the well-known classic, "Autobiography of a Yogi," described meditation as "concentration upon God or one of His aspects." As much as I like the definition, you have to "have been there" to find the nuggets of gold in that mine. I can only imagine the howls of objection to his definition, inasmuch as millions of meditators do not think in terms of "God" and would reject such a definition out of hand. And, in all fairness, how do you concentrate on something unless you can "see" it (feel it, etc.)?

From the outside it looks like a the meditator has escaped reality and is in a purely subjective state of mind. Yet meditation is sometimes described as "not an escape FROM reality, but an escape TO reality!" If meditation consists of silently chanting a mantra or other affirmation, visualizing a light, a diety, or one's guru then one might be tempted to say that meditation is a form of interiorized concentration whose effects (presumably) produce satisfactory results (defined as peace of mind, devotion, lowered heart rate, blood pressure, etc.). Okay, fair enough. But is this enough? "Is that all there is?"

What about altered states? Enlightement? Samadhi? Cosmic consciousness?

From the viewpoint of raja yoga (as so succinctly stated by the sage Patanjali in the famous Yoga Sutras), meditation is clearing the mind of mental images such that awareness is Self-aware. Our sense organs produce mental images which in turn cause reactions (like, dislike, etc.) and our life experiences produce memories, thoughts, and other mental images. The mind doesn't particularly treat any of them differently: a memory can be just as intense as the experience, at least emotionally speaking. Thoughts can evoke even greater internal response as anything going on around us or any objects within our reach, hearing, or view.

Meditation, from this perspective, then is to shut out both the external stimuli of the senses and the internal stimuli of passing thoughts and images (and associated feelings or emotions) in order to view the Viewer; to view the viewing. In this "view," knowing, knower, and known (object, act, and subject) become One and the Same ("Same-adhi"). ("Adi" in Sanskrit can refer to "first" or "original.")

This is not an easy state of Being to achieve, given the talent and predilection of the mind to produce images ceaselessly even (and perhaps especially) when there are not external sense stimuli. Thus most meditators complain of the intrusion of restless thoughts during their meditation. Hence, also, the plethora of breathing techniques, chants, visualizations, and mantric formulae employed like a phalanx of corporate consultants to bring the mind to heel. They each have their place and their effect, far beyond the scope of a simple blog article such as this to pursue.

The pearl of great price remains however this state of Being and, to make things worse, such a state is not even the goal, but is, rather, but the doorway to super-consciousness: to higher states of consciousness too profound, too sacred to utter (although future blog article might try :) ).

Not wanting to attempt to teach a meditation technique in this limited space, let me say, simply, that we can experience moments of this kind of "satori" or mindfulness many times in a given day if we would be open and awake to their appearance: between words, actions, breaths, at a stoplight---indeed at any pause between thoughts or actions there exists a space of Being that can refresh us with, well, being, or "well-Being!"

Blessings to you,

Nayaswami Hriman