The Mystery of Meditation


Have you ever meditated? Have you ever thought that from the outside, a person who is meditating looks like he or she is “doing nothing”?! Yet the internal experience can be very busy. In fact, with no obvious outer movements, a meditator routinely focuses, loses focus, focuses again, loses focus, focuses again….and on and on like that until the meditation ends!
I remember the first time I met people who meditated. I was 13, and this couple was my friend’s parents. I remember thinking that meditation meant levitation, and was so impressed that these two could levitate! I remember imagining them behind the closed door of their meditation room, legs crossed and eyes closed, hovering above the floor. Later in life when I found out that meditation is just “sitting there and focusing”, I remember being very disappointed. “What good is that?” I wondered.
Chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutras presents the “8 Limbs of Yoga,” and we learn that AT LEAST four of the eight limbs are actually some form of meditation! The first two limbs detail the Yogis ideal attitude, behavior, and mindset (Yama and Niyama). The third limb is postures (Asana), the forth is breathing techniques (Pranayama). The fifth limb is withdrawal of the senses (Pratyahara), which is the first step in meditation! In fact, we could say that ALL of the limbs are preparing us for, and leading us towards, the deepest level of meditation (Samadhi).
As regards the experience of Samadhi, let me be clear that I am not speaking from personal experience, but from accounts of other Yogis and spiritual texts. In Buddhism, the state of Samadhi is called Nirvana. This state is said to be a realization of the “ultimate truth” that all life is connected and that we are all a part of the same network of life. The experience of this realization is said to be completely blissful; a deep understanding that all is well, and that  because we are part of a bigger divine plan, and we needn’t fret nor worry.
I want to say a little more about the last three of the Eight limbs. ALL of the last 3 limbs can be translated into English as “Meditation.” In English we don’t have single words to describe the varying degrees of the meditative state. We just have the single word “meditation.” Below are more detailed descriptions of these three varying depths of meditation, from most surface level to the deepest:
Dharana – Most often translated as “concentration.” This is the beginning of a meditation practice where we clear our schedule and our meditation area (even if it’s only for a few minutes!). We sit down, and focus or “concentrate” on that which we have decided will be the object of our meditation. The object of meditation could be an object from nature such as a stone or a flower, a photograph of a special person or saint, or the repetition of a word or phrase (mantra).  The “object” could also be your breath, a candle flame, or a kriya. Just DOING these actions of concentration is what’s meant by dharana.
Dhyana – Harder to define because it’s such an internal process. Essentially dhyana is what most people mean when they say “meditation.” It’s a state that is deeper than dharana. When our meditation deepens to this level we find ourselves doing less thinking about the object of meditation, and more observing or simply being with that object. It is sometimes described as “feeling that the whole word is miles away.” In reality, a meditation practice normally flips back and forth between the states of dharana and dhyana.
Samadhi – Hard to describe because I’ve never experienced it (yet!). Others have described it as the state when the everyday processing of the mind ceases, and the practitioner realizes union with the divine. This state is said to be blissful and transformative. It doesn’t come on demand, and many practitioners believe thatreaching the state of samadhi  only happens through divine grace (and in 99.9% of cases, through many years of intense practice).
The abovementioned types of meditation are all based on the idea that as humans we cannot stop the flow of our thoughts. There is a part of our mind that is always thinking and processing and judging and evaluating and planning. We cannot stop that. Instead, meditation is built on the idea that WE ARE NOT OUR THOUGHTS, and that with practice we clan learn to project our attention onto that which we deem most important. We observe our thoughts and notice the part of us that is observing. What is that part of us that is not thinking but observing? That is the part of ourselves we are aiming to strengthen through meditation.
The way to strengthen the observational part of our mind is to, well, practice observing! So in the practice of meditation, regardless of tradition, we find something to observe, or focus on.
These are some things meditators choose to focus on: a word or phrase (mantra), a photograph of an important person or saint, a rock or feather or something from nature, a candle flame, your own breathe.
Through practicing meditation, I’ve come to see my own focus like a flashlight. I have the ability to shine that flashlight on that which I deem important. There will always be “a million things going on” in my mind, which is precisely WHY we practice meditation! Is the flashlight of my mind shining light on a worry, a regret, a dream, a funny joke, politics? Is the flashlight of my mind focusing on what I think is most relevant at the moment, or does the light keep flickering back to unresolved grievances and complaints?
The practice of learning to control the beam of our own focus is a slow process, and can be very humbling.  Although it may be slow, I want to stress: Just like anything else in life - Practice will make you better! Bit by bit, you WILL gain composure and inner peace through practicing meditation. Even 2 minutes, over time, will make a difference.