Dhyana: Yoga Meditation


Dhyana, or yoga meditation, is the 7th stage of Patanjali’s classical 8-limbed ashtanga yoga. …

From a practical standpoint, not much is said of dhyana in the modern writings on yoga. There is, however, much written on the notion of ‘meditation’.

But what most people today refer to as ‘meditation’ are generally varieties of techniques for stress relief and relaxation, and for enhancing and refining the faculty of ‘concentration’ (or dharana).

As Swami Gitananda explains in “The Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali”:

“Meditation is a most misunderstood word. It has come to mean for many, simply sitting with the eyes closed, or the repetition of a mantric sound over and over.

According to Patanjali, meditation is the seventh step of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga. Therefore it cannot be something as simple as ‘sitting with the eyes closed’. It must be something much more profound, much more elevated — and indeed it is!

Yet in modern times… one often encounters such comments as ‘meditation is good therapy’, and ‘my meditation has become boring’. … If meditation was such a mundane activity with such a mundane purpose as a cure for dejected and bored minds, why has the sage [Patanjali] put it as the penultimate step of a long and arduous climb?”

In the last article, I explored the ‘yoga of concentration’ known as dharana. At that 6th stage of ashtanga yoga we entered quite definitely into the ‘inner yoga-s,’ or antaranga – the subtle practices that we have been conditioning ourselves for in all the previous stages.

Although there is a notable separation between dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) in yogic philosophy, there is also an intimate connection between the two.

“Whatever great thing is known to men is known through meditation … the whole earth, middle space, the heaven, waters and even mountains are engaged in Dhyana”.
~ Chandogya Upanishad

In dharana, the mind is put through various rigors of trainings to restrain its waywardness and to refine its awareness to the ultimate degree of ‘one-pointedness’. Achieving this state is an ‘active process’ that requires much effort.

But it is precisely when this ‘one-pointedness’ of mind ceases to be an ‘active effort’ and then just ‘happens naturally’, without any effort, that we have achieved the state of meditation.

… notice that I refer to meditation as a ‘state’ (of being, or of mind), and not a techinique that we ‘practice’.

So dhyana, as far as it can be described with words, is an unbroken stream of concentration, whereby very little ‘sense of self’ remains. At this level, it becomes increasingly more difficult to use words and the reasoning, conscious mind to describe the experiences of yoga. After all, the state of meditation, by its very nature transcends our material human experience and everything that is related to it.

How is Dhyana Attained?

We could say that meditation (dhyana), is concentration (dharana) taken to ‘perfection’ — In other words, a meditative state is the natural result of ‘perfect concentration’.

So it is prolonged concentration, then, that leads the sadhaka into this ‘spontaneous’ and ‘free-flowing’ meditative state, whereby nothing but the object of concentration fills the mental space; and whereby the observer and the observed merge into one.

We could also say that it is the occasional appearance of ‘distractions in the mind’ that constitutes the essential difference between dharana and dhyana.

Are You Meditating?

Unless you are a dedicated and highly disciplined practitioner, the answer is “probably not”.

As Swami Gitananda points out above, this word ‘meditation’ has taken on a whole range of meanings today, from the very mundane exercises for calming the mind, to more structured practices for refining and improving concentration.  But these things, although some of them may be valuable tools on the ‘road to meditation’, are not themelves meditation, and in most cases, alone will not be able to take one to a state of meditation.

Why Not?

Because much preparation is needed before one is capable of experiencing this powerful, yet very subtle state of meditation. That sage Patanjali places dhyana as the 7th of 8 steps of yoga speaks volumes for the amount of preparatory work that is essential before the meditative state can be achieved.  As Swami Gitananda explains:

“Meditation is an exalted state of being which is produced by a moral and ethical, pure lifestyle; control of the body and breath through Asana and Pranayama; transcendence of and freedom from the imprisonment of the senses in Pratyahara. Practices of Dharana, exercises in concentrating and focusing the mind must be perfected. Only then is one able to even speak of meditation, let alone experience it.”

NEXT: Samadhi – The 8th Stage of Yoga

PREV: Dharana – The 6th Stage of Yoga

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