Meditation in the Context of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

The word “meditation” is one of the brands that the mass consciousness has inseparably linked to yoga, spiritual practices and person’s development. And this opinion is justified: yoga is not yoga without psycho-practices, since it was yet in Hatha Yoga Pradipika that they wrote that “All the methods of hatha are meant for gaining success in Raja-yoga”. But what is it that we can actually refer to as meditation? There is no such word in Sanskrit, though it is actively used by Indian Schools of today. Moreover, in scope of closer investigation of the issue we see that they apply the word ‘meditation’ to a whole range of psychical activities that differ both in their essence and in their results. In addition to this we also see that the theme is evidently getting more and more “popular”. Most people who considered themselves to have been practicing meditation failed to answer my three simple questions: “What is the target?”, “What is the method?” and “What comes as the object?” The situation in some way reminds the already told story about one’s “dharana” on the carton box. Or some even more absurd “practices” similar to those used by naïve attendees of the trainings made out of thin air, like: put the picture of the car of your dream on the fridge door and spend 15 minutes of your day staring at it and hoping that one day it will “appear” in your life.

How can we get outside of the problem? What is this genuine meditation and how can one tell the true meditation as a practice from a situation when a person merely sits and imagines something, or – this even worse – when he is “pipe-dreaming”… Let us find some objective criteria.

First of all let us specify that though the word “meditation” is of Latin origin [1] we shall not reject it since it has been generally accepted and it has irreversibly come into the vocabulary of modern Yoga[2]. On the other hand, taking into consideration the fact that meditation is a yogic psycho-practice, we have every right to use this word only in reference to those types of practice that correlate with those described in Yoga Sutras. This is logic, yet even here we face the problem related to piles of invented “meditations” that are based upon erroneous translations and interpretations of YS. First of all, of that “chittah-vritti-nirodhah” sloka, and then of the lines 1.17-1.18 that we have just analyzed. I mean here different “meditations” on “de-thinking”, “bringing the consciousness to rest”, “emptiness” and so on. This idiotic stereotype has been engrained deeply into mass consciousness, but I hope that the reader who’s been reading this blog attentively has already set his mind free from this extremely erroneous and harmful concept.

The second problem is that there is a large number of techniques that come down to bringing a person into this or that state. As a matter of fact, they are the various “voiceovers”, or, if we say in a more formal language, they are the forms of hypnosis and auto-hypnosis. For instance, “…imagine that there is golden radiance around you, you are sitting in some warm place, the birds are chirping and the butterflies are flying around. It feels good, you are relaxed, your arm, leg are getting relaxed. You’re looking upwards…” And so on… The brainwashings of this kind are without number. And many people take them for meditation. And it does not matter whether it is the instructor doing this in respect of his students or a person who performs it independently for himself. There are also thousands of CDs: music for “meditation”, “meditative” texts, “moods” and so on. The problem is that all this has nothing to do with meditation in the sense of Patanjali. And in general it does not provide for any genuine, spiritual aspects. In fact these are the techniques of bringing a person into some specific state that is induced by another person – an instructor, a therapeutist or a hypnotist. Does it make any sense, or it does not? It all depends. If we look from the position of one’s advance – it is of no use… After coming out of this state a person shall remain the same as he was before. No expansion of consciousness happens, no new skills or motives emerge. From the point of “getting relaxed and enjoying”, experiencing some new state – well, in general, there is something in it. In such a way the “practices” of this kind at the best case come as hypnosis, and at the worst case scenario this will be a mere dawdle away. According to Patanjali such states are obviously classified as vrittis, the nidra (dreaming) and the smriti (recollection of pleasant moments).

The subject of “meditation” in such variant is often exploited by men of enterprise who stand far from spirituality yet produce all that kind of spiritual popcorn like “music for meditation on chakras”. Probably, according to their concept you should listen to the music – and the chakras will develop… The reader who knows at least something about the concepts of the chakra system opening will see the obvious absurdity of this. A person has listened to the “Ajna” music – has he become cleverer? Or is it that he has listened to the “music of Manipura” and has become a better fighter or a businessman? This is, of course, nonsense! Opening of a chakra is a complex process that requires much effort, while the music is sold under the tag of meditative just because in most cases it is lousy and no one will buy it to listen just for one’s sheer delight.

There are also many other pseudo-meditations that originate from erroneous or incomplete interpretation of primary sources. For instance, the “meditation” on chakra described in a number of modern sources: a person visualizes, for instance, a bloody-red triangle in Manipura, as well as petals and some other elements from the canonical description of a chakra. He proceeds to “watch” it. And then – ..? And then nothing. As a person who’s been “practicing” such things during several years of my spiritual quests I know that nothing happens. Why? Because in fact such “techniques” make up only a part of a real technique. Most of all sound doctrines tend to reduction of their discourse. I shall draw an example from the field of martial arts – from karate. When the beginners start to work out tsuki – the straight punch with one’s arm – they keep the other arm next to their thigh. So that the people who’ve been engaged, for instance, in boxing are constantly wondering: why do they draw the other arm back? Indeed, you can punch like this, holding it in front of you – nothing will change, it is even more convenient in this way. Really – why? And only when you get to know how Okinawa karate looked like you understand that initially they used the other arm for seizing up and getting on the fist. It’s just that in sports karate this last element – seizing up – is missing. That is why, indeed, this arm is taken back merely by tradition. While in combat karate when you are grabbed by hair with one arm and get your low blow done with the other one, it all looks very harmonious. Here we once again recollect the already quoted anecdote about two men, one of them digging the pit and the other filling it up. In case of “meditation on chakras” the original source did not provide for explanation of how exactly one should meditate. And in simplified apprehension of blunderer mystics the meditation was brought down to mere visualization or concentration of attention on some zone.

In order to understand the essence of meditation in the sense of yoga (i.e., of Patanjali) let us use the lines of YS that we have already analyzed, and first of all the line 1.17 that provides for two obvious criteria of the meditative practice:

1. Meditation gives rise to new knowledge that a person previously lacked.

2. This knowledge changes emotional and existential state of the person, taking him out of his engagement with some certain vritti.

In this sense meditation has nothing to do with any external attributes, and so it does not matter whether you sit in a lotus pose or whether your eyes are closed. Though it’s clear that “you’d better be sitting than standing, you’d better be lying that sitting”… But it’s not about the pose you take and the actions you do. It’s about what comes as the focus of your mind.

Let me give an example to illustrate the afore-drawn. In our School we have a classical meditation purposed at removal of resentment (grievance, aggression) [3] in respect of another person. A resentment is obviously a vritti, and it is of klesha-type for it is grounded upon such kleshas as avidya and dvesa. Being a vritti, resentment touches upon emotional (obviously) and mental components of a person. The mental component of resentment is manifested in form of “explaining” the actions of offender a la attributing him with some negative features, wiliness and so on. As a rule, such speculations appear to be far apart from the truth. And in this sense we may correlate these emotional experiences with such vrittis as viparya (unauthentic knowledge) and vikalpa (mental speculation). Emotional return to reminiscences about the resentment apparently comes as smriti, and dreams about revenge are the nidra.

Everyone can try this to make sure that resentment cannot be removed by mere self-convincing that “I forgive him” or by autosuggestion in the way that “well, he in a nice fellow, he has the right to make mistake”. In this way – and all those of the kind – one can drive one’s aggression deeper into subconscious mind, and there it will turn into sanskara that will further become the seed of a new karma.

The correct variant of meditation on removal of resentment shall be the attempt to use somatic or some other cue in order to empathize the person who has offended you – first in general, and then in the situation where the offence was caused. The experiencing of his states takes one to cathartic insight about the genuine cause, the residue of this person’s actions and his view of the situation. Such insight comes as comprehension (samprajna) of the situation in the true sense of the word, because prior to this you saw the problem from one hand only, and now you see it from the position of your opponent and you see the whole of it, i.e., its very core. In this – and only in this – case you change your emotional attitude to the situation and the other person. Such meditation results in true – not imaginable – expansion of consciousness (metanoya) and in genuine forgiveness, not a far-fetched one.

Of course, the process of empathizing another person, especially if you hold grievance against him, is not easy and is associated with strong emotional resistance. However, it is this very overcoming the resistance that comes as the process of meditation. Unlike thoughtless sitting and visualization of nice pictures, it requires real spiritual and volitional effort, but its performance is more solid. It is solid because in case you have really understood another person you will not only cease reproducing the grievance that you have, but you will also have no grievance in relation to other people in similar situations. In this way the expansion of consciousness will be of permanent character. 

Another difficult point in understanding the core of meditative practices is that the result of meditation, the comprehension, shall not appear immediately after one starts meditating, or in some guaranteed period of time (like “meditate 15 minutes a day and the happiness will come”). It may require to spend much time abiding in this state of inquiry (in fact, in the state of dharana and dhyana) until the answer will suddenly “dawn upon” you. This state of inquiry requires much energy, but the experienced insight will come as a complete compensation. In this sense the process of meditation itself is not that pleasant, at least at initial stage, for it resembles the training of the previously unused muscles.

Thus, summing up the afore-said, I shall set forth the basic principle of correct yogic meditation: meditation is a conscious attempt to find an answer to the question that is not obvious to you, and that will change your life.

Or, to make it short,

meditation is a question!

And as for the skills of finding the right questions for meditation, they are the art of yoga that in fact the chapter 3 of Yoga Sutras is dedicated to.

[1] Initially meditation stood for a short pause in Catholic mass meant for the parishioners to think about their sins.

[2] Of course the reader has already caught the point of my position that lies in my belief of all esoteric teaching to be dynamically developing. Each epoch brings its ideas, amendments and description languages, that is why we have every right to speak about “modern Yoga”.

[3] I shall put in your remembrance that the essence of resentment is the suppressed aggression.