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Concentrate/Meditate on the Continuum (the Saturday post) February 7, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.

[This is the post for Saturday, February 6th. You can request an audio recording of Saturday’s practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

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“When we first undertake the art of meditation, it is indeed frustrating. Inevitably, as our mind wanders and our body feels the tension it has accumulated and the speed to which it is addicted, we often see how little inner discipline, patience, and compassion we actually have. It doesn’t take much time with a spiritual task to see how scattered and unsteady our attention remains even when we try to direct and focus it. While we usually think of it as “our mind,” if we look honestly, we see the mind follows its own nature, conditions, and laws. Seeing this, we also see that we must gradually discover a wise relationship to the mind that connects it to the body and heart, and steadies and calms our inner life.


The essence of this connecting is the bringing back of our attention again and again to the practice we have chosen.”



– quoted from “Chapter 5 – Training the Puppy: Mindfulness of Breathing” in A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield


There are certain persistent misconceptions about meditation. One, that it is really easy for some people and that for everyone else it is torture. Two, that if your attention bounces around a lot then you are going to be one of those people who is “bad” at meditation. Three, that by sheer force of will, you can just sit down, “empty your mind, and think about nothing.”


Here’s the reality.


First, if you practice any kind of contemplation or mindfulness for any significant period of time, you are going to have “good days” where you just seem to drop right into the zone and nothing bothers you; and you’re going to have “bad days” where your mind doesn’t seem to be able to stay focused on a single thing for longer than a few seconds. Second, everybody’s mind bounces around a lot – that’s the very definition of cittavŗtti – yet some people are still “good” at meditation. And yes, it’s true, some people’s minds bounce around a lot more than others, frantically jumping from one sensation to another; however, the fact that the mind is in hyper drive doesn’t mean that someone cannot sit still and focus. Third, practicing requires effort, but not necessarily sheer, brute force. Also, while I might not use the phrase “empty your mind and think about nothing,” some people use that as a description of an experience I would describe as pratyāhāra (which is literally defined as “pulling the mind from every direction and in every respect to a focal point”) – so, rather than emptying the mind, one is filling it (infusing it) with a single point of focus.


But, even that’s not quite right.


Like many yoga, meditation, and mindfulness teachers, I often use the words “single-pointed focus” as if it is part of an introductory practice. In reality, however, it’s more of the middle or end of a practice. When we first sit down to focus-concentrate-meditate the mind-body is filled with the logistics of sitting: the body is aligned this way; ok, now the eyes are here and the breath is like this; ok, now I’m focusing on X… but X is a representation of xyz and now my mind is thinking about z… So, I come back to the body, the breath, and X… and all that X means; and now I’m thinking about the fact that I’m sitting here, breathing here, and thinking X… that represents xyz, which reminds me of A… and now I’m thinking about A (or c)…. So, I come back to the body, the breath, and X… and all that X represents – but I’m not thinking about z now, because if I do….I have to start all over again.


That’s the way it goes, that’s the practice. And that doesn’t even include the external distractions like a door closing or people talking in another room, a fly buzzing around, the memory that you might have forgotten to do something, the sleepiness that sometimes creeps in, and/or that part of your body that always seems to itch when you sit still for a few minutes.


But, that’s the practice – at least, that’s the beginning of the practice. When we first begin, we are aware of the object of our focus (and all its different layers), the process that it takes to stay focused, and the fact that we are the entity engaged in the process of focusing on the object that has different layers. For some practitioners this stage of the practice will be just a quick moment, for others it might be their whole sit; but, either way, it’s not “single-pointed,” it’s multi-pointed.


At some point, however, just as Patanjali explains in Yoga Sūtra 1.17, we move from the gross conscious awareness to a more subtle conscious awareness and then into a bliss state – where it feels good and “easy” – and then finally into that stage of I-ness which marks the beginning of absorption. What we find, through the practice is that the absorption that makes the experience truly “single-pointed” is just like “yoga” and just like “svarūpe” (“true nature”): It’s a process as well as a state.



Yoga Sūtra 3.1: deśabandhah cittasya dhāranā



– “Dhāranā is the process of holding, focusing, or fixing the attention of mind onto one object or place.”

Yoga Sūtra 3.2: tatra pratyaya-ikatānatā dhyānam



– “Dhyāna is the repeated continuation, or unbroken flow of thought, toward that one object or place.”

Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras provides an outline of the process as well as descriptions of the desired states that can be achieved through the practice as well as the less desired obstacles and conditions that may be experienced along the way. The sūtras definitely provide some “shortcuts,” but they are only accessible to those who are willing to fully commit and surrender. For everyone else, achieving that “single-pointed” focusing and harnessing the power of the mind-body requires mastering āsana (“seat” or pose, and therefore the body); then mastering prāņāyāma (“awareness and extension of [breath], and therefore the mind); in order to transcend the gross and subtle levels of conscience awareness of the breath. Once one transcends the gross and subtle levels of conscience awareness, one can experience pratyāhāra (“drawing the senses to a focal point”), which enables one to focus, concentrate, and meditate.

Another way to think of this is that once your body is stable and comfortable, your breath deepens. Once you bring awareness to the breath, deepening, prāņāyāma becomes pratyāhāra; pratyāhāra becomes dhāranā; dhāranā becomes dhyāna; and dhyāna becomes samādhi. Sometimes we move through these states in an instant, without really being conscious of the transition and other times it takes a lot of committed practice.

But, before you get it twisted, make sure to notice (and remember) one critical factor: We have all experienced these states – if even for just a moment! Some of us have experienced these states on a mat, on a cushion, on a prayer, rug, on a pew, or even on a mountain trail. Some of us have experienced it with a book, a friend or family member, a lover, or a work project. We have experienced it with music and dance and other forms of art. Sometimes we are very deliberately and very intentionally working towards the experience and other times it is just what the mind does, because it is capable of doing it.

“This meditative state is the highest state of existence. So long as there is desire, no real happiness can come. It is only the contemplative, witness-like study of objects that brings to us real enjoyment and happiness. The animal has its happiness in the senses, the man in his intellect, and the god in spiritual contemplation. It is only to the soul that has attained to this contemplative state that the world really becomes beautiful. To him who desires nothing, and does not mix himself up with them, the manifold changes of nature are one panorama of beauty and sublimity.

These ideas have to be understood in Dhyana, or meditation. We hear a sound. First, there is the external vibration; second, the nerve motion that carries it to the mind; third, the reaction from the mind, along with which flashes the knowledge of the object which was the external cause of these different changes from the ethereal vibrations to the mental reactions. These three are called in Yoga, Shabda (sound), Artha (meaning), and Jnâna (knowledge). In the language of physics and physiology they are called the ethereal vibration, the motion in the nerve and brain, and the mental reaction. Now these, though distinct processes, have become mixed up in such a fashion as to become quite indistinct. In fact, we cannot now perceive any of these, we only perceive their combined effect, what we call the external object. Every act of perception includes these three, and there is no reason why we should not be able to distinguish them.

When, by the previous preparations, it becomes strong and controlled, and has the power of finer perception, the mind should be employed in meditation. This meditation must begin with gross objects and slowly rise to finer and finer, until it becomes objectless. The mind should first be employed in perceiving the external causes of sensations, then the internal motions, and then its own reaction. When it has succeeded in perceiving the external causes of sensations by themselves, the mind will acquire the power of perceiving all fine material existences, all fine bodies and forms. When it can succeed in perceiving the motions inside by themselves, it will gain the control of all mental waves, in itself or in others, even before they have translated themselves into physical energy; and when he will be able to perceive the mental reaction by itself, the Yogi will acquire the knowledge of everything, as every sensible object, and every thought is the result of this reaction. Then will he have seen the very foundations of his mind, and it will be under his perfect control.”



– quoted from “Chapter VII: Dhyana and Samadhi” in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 1, Raja-Yoga by Swami Vivekananda


Saturday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for the “04192020 Noticing Things” playlist.]

You may notice that the playlist is longer than normal – that’s because it’s actually two (2) different playlists. If you are using the music, you get to choose your musical focus.




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