Updated: May 24, 2021
Please note that these are my own thoughts based on my studies. I do not purport to understand the fullness of this topic.
There are tens of thousands of pages of texts from which one could cull an understanding of what some of the original thought was about what we would today call “meditation.” I am focusing on two widely available texts, translated by individuals who were/are both scholars and practitioners of yoga. I find the work of people who have deep academic knowledge as well as a profound spiritual relationship with the practices to be my preferred sources.
“Yoga is establishing the mind in stillness.” 1.2
“Stillness develops through practice (abhyasa) and non-identification (vairagya.)” 1.12
“Abhyasa is the effort of remaining present.” 1.13
“Vairagya is the mastery over the craving for what has been seen or heard.” 1.15
The Wisdom of Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, A New Translation and Guide by Ravi Ravindra
If you graduated from a 200-hour yoga teacher training and don’t know sutra 1.2 you might be required to turn in your union card. Most yoga taught in the West is based on the eight-limbed path of yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The text serves as a manual to guide you to the ultimate goal of yoga, and some of the practices of yoga that we are most familiar with, like asana (step 3), pranayama (step 4), and meditation (steps 6 and 7) are featured.
What is yoga? According to Patanjali (note that other writers and texts define yoga differently), yoga is the practice by which one brings the mind to stillness. One of the Sanskrit words in that phrase is vritti, which has many translations but I particularly like “whirling” because it gives a visceral sense of what it is like to be inside my mind on an average day. Swirling, whirling, churning--a vortex of thoughts. Thoughts that sometimes don't move in a linear fashion, and sometimes repeat over and over for hours in rumination. Any kind of thought is a vritti. The problem is that when you are so absorbed in this funnel cloud of thoughts, you can’t simultaneously align with your peace, or your true nature which is love and bliss, or hear your inner voice saying “I need to rest” or “this isn’t the right path.” The thoughts are too loud, too demanding. The practice of yoga (in its fullness, not just poses and breathing) leads one to be able to still/lessen the whirling of thoughts, sometimes only briefly, but enough to recognize that you are so much more than your thoughts, likes and dislikes, experiences and beliefs. While ancient yogis would not have called this "meditation", calming the comings and goings of the mind is one way we would describe meditation today.
The text goes on to tell us how to accomplish the monumental task of stilling the mind—practice and detachment. Practice means making an effort to remain present. Being present is part of the foundation of how meditation is taught in the modern world. Jon Kabbat Zinn, the creator of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) defines his form of meditation as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Many of the techniques that are taught to help people meditate are purpose-built to keep the mind in the right now. These include using mala beads, candle gazing, or repeating a mantra. Over the years I have been teaching, it is this place that students tend to get hung up. They think they can’t meditate because they haven’t found the right technique, or combination of techniques, that allows them to progress toward a more quiet mind. Despite the fact that it is exactly what they teach you in MBSR, I think it is really hard for the average non-meditator to be present for even 30 seconds (let alone 5 minutes) without using some supports. Some days I need multiple supports—music plus mala, or chanting plus candle-gazing, or even walking, mantra and mala at the same time. These supports are like props in a yoga practice, in that they make it more available and set you up for success. Use all of the supports that you need to increase your ability to be right here right now.
In addition to remaining present, we also need to practice detachment, or as Ravindra puts it, master our craving for what we see and hear, and by extension everything else we take in through the senses. In my less elegant turn of phrase, we can’t let our senses drag us around all over the place. The senses exist to provide us with information about our environment so that we can make choices that benefit our organism. The senses are not supposed to be in charge. Our higher mind, which in yoga would be called buddhi or the intellect, is supposed to be filtering all sensory input and, using discernment and intelligence, make good choices. In the analogy from another classic text of yoga called the Upanishads, the senses are wild horses hooked up to a chariot in which the charioteer (the intellect) is riding. One doesn’t let the horses/senses decide where to go. When things are working as they should, the charioteer exerts control over the senses, filtering out irrelevant information and acting on the important stuff.
Here’s how it all comes together. Sensory information creates vrittis. And because we are wired to pay attention to sensory information, it is really easy to get distracted by it. You hear a noise outside that you recognize as a train going by. Ideally what happens next is that your mind lets go of “train“ and your ears search out the next sound. What sometimes happens is “train…whatever happened to that group Train…I liked that song, what was it called…Drops of Jupiter…oh yeah, I was supposed to be memorizing the names of Jupiter’s moons…let’s see Io, then what…dang my memory isn’t what it used to be…maybe I should take omega-3…blech that fishy taste is nasty…”
The moment when you detach from the train train and go back to listening for sounds (or whatever support you are using) is the moment you begin to train your mind to meditate. Give it a try! Instead of beating yourself up for your mind wandering, congratulate yourself for recognizing that it happened.
Speaking of trains, one of our students shared an analogy about trains, thoughts and the brain. Check it out here.