“It is not possible to teach meditation.” My teacher’s words sliced the soothing silence of the meditation class. How could this be true? If it was, what had we been doing for the last 30 minutes? I was about to be introduced to the concepts of dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation), and to realize that my misconceptions of meditation were even broader than I’d first thought.
Perhaps the most common misunderstanding when it comes to meditation is that its sole purpose is to empty the mind of thoughts. If you have ever tried to sit with your monkey mind for even a few minutes, you will know what a tall order this is. We each have thousands upon thousands of thoughts per day, so many that most of us allow them to whizz around our minds without ever really paying attention to their content. Whilst the ultimate stage of meditation may be a place of no thoughts, the process of arriving there is just as important, if not more so. In order to achieve dhyana, there is a vital preliminary step: dharana.
Here I'll explain more about the differences between these two concepts and how it will help you to achieve a truly meditative state.
Although not impossible, it may take many years of practice, dedication and discipline to reach a truly meditative state, one in which it is no longer possible to perceive the act of meditation or separate a sense of self from it. In yoga, this is known as dhyana.
Dhyana is the seventh step in Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, preceded by the more commonly known aspects of yoga such as asana (physical postures) and pranayama (breath control). Although dhyana can be translated from Sanskrit as “meditation,” it is not quite the definition of meditation that most of us are familiar with these days.
In yoga studios, apps and YouTube videos across the world, the word, meditation, is in fact used to describe the practice of dharana; of learning techniques to focus and concentrate the mind in preparation for dhyana. Focus on breath, bodily sensations, mantras, chakras or drishti are all forms of dharana, in which the mind is trained to fix on one particular subject or object.
(Here's how you can begin Using Your Drishti to Improve Focus.)
Practicing dharana allows us to observe patterns of the mind and to notice the interrupting thoughts, eventually leading to longer gaps between them over time. Regular practice of dharana enables deep concentration to occur naturally and more frequently, even outside of the practice. Training the mind in this way dramatically improves mental strength, even to the point where monkey mind may no longer be the default setting in day-to-day life.
Dharana is clearly beneficial in its own right, and an important tool for accessing meditation. Yet as my teacher so starkly pointed out, meditation itself cannot be taught. It should be thought of as a spontaneous state in which concentration merges with dhyana. Have you ever concentrated on something so deeply that you forgot about absolutely everything around you? Perhaps while surfing, drawing, driving or writing, you became mesmerized, transported and totally lost in the moment. Such glimpses of dhyana support the notion that it is not a phenomenon you can teach, rather one that is spontaneously experienced as a result of extreme focus.
From this perspective, meditation in general can be considered somewhat simply as various, progressive stages of concentration. Sounds straightforward, right? In a frustrating paradox, the more effort you apply, the less likely you are to reach dhyana. Concentration should not be confused with exertion; rather it is a form of discipline for the mind. It is perfectly normal for the mind to wander during meditative practices; meandering thoughts in fact provide the cornerstone for practicing dharana and are thus a vital part of the process. Repeatedly flitting between thinking and returning to a focal point is a profound practice in itself.
Witness Your Power
Observing your own consciousness in this way is arguably just as powerful as uniting with it through dhyana. Becoming aware that there is both a thinker and a witness to the thinking is vital in order to be liberated from destructive thought patterns. Without this perspective, it is easy to perceive that your sense of self is inextricably linked to your thoughts and that there is neither escape from them, nor any possibility of changing them. By practicing dharana and ultimately dhyana, thoughts begin to have less significance, less power.
Divide and Conquer
The misconception of meditation solely as an attempt to clear the mind of thoughts is therefore potentially damaging to the practice. I know countless people who have given up on meditation in response to feeling like there is no way they could possibly stop thinking, that it is impossible to tame and train the monkey mind. Separating dharana and dhyana as stages in the process helps us to realize that meditation is about much more than this. Transforming concentration into meditation is an ongoing journey, and thoughts are a valuable vehicle.
(Continue reading in 7 Steps to Take Your Meditation Practice to the Next Level.)