We continue our introductory journey into Patanjali’s eightfold path of raja yoga and arrive at the penultimate limb: Dhyana.
Dhyana is commonly translated as meditation or contemplation, implying an active state of doing something in order to bring about a sense of calm and harmony in the mind and body. Others argue that the definition goes deeper. That dhyana is the (spontaneous) state of oneness and unity and connection that one finds oneself in as a result of meditating or doing something meditative. Although it may have taken “effort” or an energy of doing to find oneself in dhyana, it is an effortless state – an energy of simply “being”.
“Effortless effort” – a term we might hear often in the physical practice of asanas and yet equally applies to all aspects of the yogic journey, or the path of any spiritual seeker. A beautiful balance between effort and effortlessness – doing and being.
In the craziness of present times, of “civilized living”, we rarely find ourselves experiencing that balance. Most often in a state of “doing”, we are rarely present in our lives, aware of what it is we are actually doing in the moment, of how we are spending our time and therefore our lives.
Generally we are doing one of three things:
Rarely are we living in the Now.
Meditation (through the numerous styles and methods that exist) offers us a simple (but not always easy!) tool to become still and calm and to experience the Now and find balance between the doing and the being. And potentially, through the journey of meditation, we might experience dhyana.
By following the preceding limbs of Patanjali’s path, meditation may become more accessible. Incorporating the moral, ethical and personal codes of the yamas and niyamas, and moving and breathing the body consciously (asana and pranayama), are a great preparation to draw one’s attention inward, detach from sensory input (pratyahara) and “focus the mind on a particular point” (Sutra III.1 as translated by Bouanchaud), which is the essence of concentration or dharana.
When I put aside some time to meditate I often find that, as I begin, my mind is racing with thoughts – a continuous stream of unconscious perceptions – and my body is responding to that physiologically in a heightened state of tension, feeling contracted and dense. To calm both the thoughts and the body, I find it helpful to begin by simply focusing on the breath. I bring all my awareness to my breath, and with my internal gaze watch it and feel it travelling in and out of my body. As I continue breathing, I find that naturally more and more space appears between my thoughts and I feel more spacious within the body.
At this point, I become more consciously aware of my surroundings, and my inner space, in the very moment in which I am, because I am not being as distracted by thoughts and physiological reactions. I become aware that I am aware. I am the observer. I can also more easily sense the subtle vibration of vitality within – a felt aliveness that diffuses throughout the body. This is known as prana in Sanskrit – life force energy – and is understood to be the original creative power; the master form of all energy working at every level of our being.
At certain points in my meditation, however, I might suddenly find myself, as if magically and always spontaneously, in a space that feels completely vast and yet in perfect union with the moment and my surroundings. I might be so bold as to say that I feel and know a perfect harmony and connection between myself and all and everything in creation. It is as if my greater Self knows that it and all of creation are formed of the same energy (prana) which makes us One.
To me, this is dhyana. An effortless state that moves from the dual state of awareness – being aware of this and that, the observer and the observed – into a state of oneness experienced as the ultimate form of love. Sometimes this experience is fleeting; other times it lingers for longer. All I do know is that I cannot force myself to be in this state of being. Rather, it is extemporaneous – and all the sweeter for it. Such as the joy and love sparked upon receiving an unexpected gift.
Because dhyana transcends the ego and is beyond form, it is difficult to describe effectively in words (albeit I have tried in some way to do so above and am unlikely to have done it justice). It is a state that has to be experienced on an individual level.
Whether or not dhyana graces one’s meditation experience, the physiological and mental benefits of the latter, especially if practiced regularly, are undeniable. And in meditation, we reconnect with our true nature – that which is calm, peaceful and tranquil – and we know ourselves to be this way in the very moment. Not someone we used to be, or someone we hope to be. But who we really are in the Now.
Written by Leigh Bosch | August 2021