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What do We Mean by “Meditation”?

by Elonne Stockton

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Students often ask us something like this:

We are doing pranayama each morning. Are we going to spend time meditating?

True meditation is a very advanced state. When people say mediation, they are usually referring to a specific concentration technique that they are using, a specific tool for helping to focus the mind. Maybe they use a Buddhist technique, or maybe they are repeating a specific mantra. Maybe they have another technique they are using from another tradition.

Working with the breath in pranayama is also one way of focusing the mind. And it is said to be the highest tapas/discipline because it leads us directly to the bridge of pratyahara/withdrawal of the senses. Pratyahara is the 5th of Patanjali’s 8 limbs, and it is called a bridge because it takes us from the limbs that are in our control, the things we can do – namely Yamas & Niyamas (how we treat others and how we treat ourselves), Asana (physical postures) and Pranayama (breath control/regulation) – to those limbs that are out of our control — Dharana/concentration, Dhyana/meditation and Samadhi/Nirvana.

Like sleep, meditation is an altered state, something that you fall into. Nobody can tell you how to meditate. Likewise, nobody can tell you how to sleep, even though they might offer suggestions to help you fall into a state of sleep – drink chamomile tea, turn off the lights, find a comfortable pillow, etc. No one can tell you how to meditate, but they can give you tools, specific techniques to use in order to help you one day achieve the state of meditation. Working with the breath is one of those tools.

Those of us who wish to just sit can spend additional time simply sitting with whatever is arising, either in between, before and/or after breathing exercises, allowing for a passive breath (inner gaze at the pubic bone/navel region). We can also work with other tools that we might have, like japa/mantra repetition or a specific Buddhist technique. There is no one formula, which means that if you have a technique that you have become accustomed to, you can always work the pranayama into your preexisting seated practice.

Further, if you learn another technique, you can incorporate it into your seated practice, so long as you don’t get lost in many different practices. You are better off finding one or two things that work well for you rather than varying your seated practice, trying this and that without making progress.

Patanjali describes the process in the Yoga Sutras: Sah tu dirgha kala nairantarya satkarasevito drdha bhumih. <br/ >It (repeated practice) becomes firm only if done for a long time, continuously and with sincerity. (1.14)

In order for our practice to become established and eventually lead us to a real state of concentration and meditation, we must continue to practice those techniques regularly, repeatedly, over a long period of time. And we must practice willingly, with genuine interest and commitment.

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