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PRABUDDHA BHARATAPaving the Path for Ghyana | Swami Satyamayananda  





            Paving the Path for Dhyana

           Swami Satyamayananda

     The Classical Posture and Its Obstacles


     'Body, head and neck erect and still, being steady, gazing at the tip of one's own nose, and not looking around.' (1) This instruction regarding posture for yoga is not to be interpreted to mean that the aspirant will sit stock-still and squint-eyed studying the nose. Sri Shankaracharya in his commentary on this stanza of the Bhagavadgita makes it clear: 'The words as it were are to be understood Е it is fixing the gaze of the eyes by withdrawing them from external objects Е with a view to concentrating the mind Е on the Atman.' The process commences with gazing fixedly; then 'the sense organs are withdrawn into the heart with the help of the mind.' (2) This is the classical posture and attitude for dhyana, meditation. This brief article uses the word dhyana in the sense of profound one-pointed concentration. Some interpretations, bordering on the absurd, as to why one's gaze ought to be fixed on the nose, float about. But Madhusudana Saraswati in his Gudharthadipika has, following tradition, pointed out two reasons: one, to eliminate laya, torpor, and two, to arrest vikshepa, distraction. (3)

     Whether one sits with eyes closed or half-closed the reduction of sensory stimuli reaching the psychophysical organism is inevitable. This, plus the conscious will to withdraw from all stimuli, makes a mind that is steeped in extroversion feel a vacuum. Then as a consequence comes sleep, 'a modification (of the mind) that embraces the feeling of voidness.' (4) If an aspirant's mind is not subject wholly to the first obstacle of laya, then an equally strong second obstacle of vikshepa takes over. Here one experiences more vividly, uncontrolled subconscious thoughts and feelings as well as conscious thoughts, overwhelming and destroying the force that is trying to subdue them as though some papier-machu were being ripped. These two powerful obstacles frustrate and pull down most aspirants. They are, however, more pronounced for those who sit with eyes shut.

     Binocular Vision and Its Connection with Thoughts


     If humans were born like the Cyclops, a race of giants met with in Greek mythology with only one eye in the centre of the forehead, we could have gazed at the tip of our nose without difficulty because of monocular vision. If meditation strictly meant 'gazing at the tip of one's own nose' these Cyclops could have become great yogis. But the disadvantage in monocular vision is the inadequacy of depth perception. Therefore accurate location of objects in space becomes difficult for one-eyed creatures, and this may affect survival. Beings equipped with binocular vision are better equipped to perceive the world and form a relatively correct impression of the location and features of objects in their environment. These eyes, so acute and reliable, have their own limitations and strangeness. One of these becomes apparent while gazing at objects close to the nose. To see for ourselves: hold the two forefingers, pointed at each other, half an inch apart, about two to three inches from the tip of the nose, and gaze at them with both eyes open. One sees the curious sight of a small finger with rounded ends floating between the forefingers. Truly speaking, perception occurs in the brain. The authors and commentators on Yoga evidently knew that focusing on the tip of the nose is difficult due to binocular disparity but this rule will be appreciated better when it is remembered that thoughts are perceived in the space in and around the eyes and not at the back of the head or its sides. It is also an acknowledged fact that by the control of the eyeballs, a partial control of thought is effected. Hence Swamiji, a great yogi himself, exhorts, 'Sit straight, and look at the tip of your nose. Later on we shall come to know how that concentrates the mind, how by controlling the two optic nerves one advances a long way towards the control of the arc of reaction, and so to the control of the will.' (5)

     Intensity of Thought Shuts Out the External World


     Many aspirants excuse themselves from this time-tested instruction by saying that keeping the eyes half-closed and gazing fixedly does not help withdraw the mind from external objects. They find keeping the eyes shut more comfortable. This is often simply an excuse to sit passively in the name of dhyana and be overcome by lethargy in degrees. These same aspirants, when absent-minded or preoccupied with some absorbing thoughts, can simply shut out the external world, even in the midst of tremendous sensory stimulation as occurs in a busy street or a bazaar. They would then say, 'My mind was elsewhere, I did not see it; my mind was elsewhere, I did not hear it.' (6) In Sri Ramakrishna's simple words, during dhyana 'the senses stop functioning; the mind does not look outside. It is like closing the gate of the outer court of the house. The five objects of the senses: form, taste, touch, smell, and hearing Е are all left outside.' (7)


     The Necessity of Immobility


     Before 'gazing at the tip of one's own nose' it was advised to sit erect and still. Swamiji clarifies why: 'The spinal cord although not attached to the vertebral column, is yet inside of it. If you sit crookedly you disturb this spinal cord, so let it be free. Any time you sit crookedly and try to meditate you do yourself an injury.' (8) Ordinarily, being alert straightens the spine, lightens the breath and makes the eyes focused. Yoga demands this alertness in full measure. Regarding this the Brahma Sutras say: 'Acalatvam capekshya; (Meditation is) attributed from the standpoint of motionlessness.' (9) There has to be absolute stillness so as to leave undisturbed the kinesthetic sense. This kinesthetic sense is attributed to four types of nerves that are widely distributed in the joints, muscles, and tendons all over the body. These nerves, with different types of endings, sense the contraction and stretching of the muscles and joints; they also regulate the reflex and voluntary movements. All sensations of movement, even the microscopic, are transmitted via these sensors to the spinal cord and brain. Here they interact with both the autonomic and voluntary centres responsible for controlling bodily movements. Hence movement will keep the nerves, spinal cord, and parts of the brain busy enough to distract meditation. In fact, the main function of the kinesthetic or proprioceptive sense is to make the subject conscious of the sense of self (body).


     Nystagmus: Movement and Tremors of the Eye


     There are two obstacles to stilling the eyes. First is the vestibular sense that takes care of the body's orientation and balance, and for which the inner ear is responsible. These fluid-filled canals of the inner ear are lined with cells with very fine hairs projecting into the fluid. Any movement of the body disturbs this fluid, these disturbances generate electrical impulses in the nerves attached to the 'hair cells', and these impulses are transmitted to the motor nerves that then make the eyeballs move. This movement is called vestibular nystagmus. Of course, it goes without saying that the slightest movement of the eyes will disturb concentration. The second type of nystagmus is the high-frequency tremor of the eyes. The eye performs not like a fixed camera but a moving one, albeit with a difference: it constantly keeps moving back and forth while focusing on a moving scene. If one stares at a small object, say a point of light, isolated and fixed, it will seem to move; actually it is the eye that is having high-frequency tremors. On the other hand, if somehow the nystagmic tremors can be arrested and the object too is still as before, then the perceiver will, for a fraction of a second, have an enhanced image which will immediately blur and then disappear, reappear broken up, again disappear, and so on. These high-frequency tremors of the eyes, technically called autokinetic nystagmus, are an inextricable part of focussed visual perception. When nystagmus is operative it implies that the perceiver is aware of external objects and is not yet in the meditation mode.

     The Leader


     The word netra, meaning 'leader' or 'conductor', is the Sanskrit for eye. Among the five senses-visual, gustatory, olfactory, tactile, and auditory - the conspicuous leader is the visual organ. From the earliest times humans were aware of their hand-eye coordination and used it well to survive in a competitive and dangerous environment. Finely tuned hand-eye coordination is generally seen in sportspersons; hence their actions are so fluid and controlled. Contrariwise, a person with poor hand-eye coordination is called clumsy. Before a tennis player can lunge to return the ball, its flight will have to be closely followed; if the eyes are not focused then actions become erratic. It is a fact that restless or nervous persons are quickly noticed by the way their eyes and body, down to the fingers, behave. A calm person will have a steady look in his eyes. 'The hands, feet and eyes of an ascetic are not restless, also his words are not unrestrained; these are the signs by which the wise [one] is known.' (10) Thus it becomes clear that the eyes have a sort of controlling power on the body.

     Japa as Preparatory to Meditation


     Japa is recommended for those having an inclination for a meditative life but whose nature alternates between restlessness and calmness. Japa is recommended preparatory to meditation because the tendency to restlessness is removed by having that restless energy vibrate harmoniously and rhythmically, making it pliant for control. This is done by repeating the mantra at a set speed, with devotion, while keeping count with the help of a rosary or one's fingers. Parallel to japa the aspirant is advised to withdraw the mind inside by visualizing the deity in the heart. 'From that is gained (the power of) introspection, and the destruction of obstacles.' (11) Japa done with regularity will change the way one walks, talks, looks, and behaves; this is due to the serenity that comes over the entire psychophysical system. When this is accomplished, the mind itself will want to go deeper into itself for it has found a new dimension far removed from what the senses constantly deliver. Thus is set the stage for dhyana.

     Hatha Yoga


     Hatha yoga is sudden, forcible yoga. This yoga does not like to waste time doing things slowly. It has a tailor-made discipline to eliminate laya and vikshepa known as trataka. To modify it for our purpose, a pleasant object (a picture of God or a symbol like Om or, more commonly, a burning candle) is placed at eye level and at a comfortable distance of about a metre. The body is kept steady and the object is gazed upon with full attention, scrutinizing every detail. The eyes should not waver nor should there be conscious blinking. After a few minutes (the duration depends on individual capacity), as a dull ache commences in the eyeballs or the tear ducts become activated, the eyes must be shut. The image of this object now has to be gazed upon in the mind, the process kept up till the mental image begins to fade. Then the eyes have to be opened again and the gaze re-fixed on the object. Alternating like this helps the mind develop the power of concentration, both internal and external. As trataka matures, the external object is done away with, for its support is no longer required. This practice has to be taken up cautiously and persons with eye or related problems are debarred for obvious reasons, although hatha yoga claims that trataka cures eye diseases. The books also mention that trataka is like a treasure chest and ought to be maintained with care. (12) It may be interesting to compare the following meditation as described by Sri Ramakrishna: 'I used to meditate on a flame of light. I thought of the red part as gross, the yellow part inside the red as subtle, and the stick-like black part, which is the innermost of all, as the causal.' (13)

     Though not central to this article, it should also be mentioned that hatha yoga makes use of various asanas, kriyas, and mudras (postures, purifications, and symbolic gestures) to distill the body of its impurities. It is believed, and rightly so, that only a body that is clean from the inside can sit still for a long time undisturbed. Perhaps the most popular discipline prescribed in hatha yoga is pranayama. Pranayama, the control of prana, executed correctly under a guru, gives a wonderful control over the body and mind, and eventually leads to yoga.


     The Psychological Present


     Metaphorically speaking, a moment of time steps out from behind the dark curtain of the future, appears briefly on stage, and then quickly vanishes into the gloom of the greenroom called the past. Time seems dependent on two events one preceding and the other succeeding; but both have to be perceived for the idea of succession to arise along with that of time. When we are absorbed in a task, time flies; sit idly and time seems to crawl. Besides being entirely dependent on our state of mind, time is also one of its very foundations. During one-pointed concentration, stimulus deprivation and a high level of motivation make a moment seem to hang on and on. This is the psychological present; this is disturbed by even the slightest of kinesthetic or vestibular activity.


     The Leader behind the Leader

     The nervous system is designed in such a way that every sensory impulse (action) is translated into a motor impulse (reaction). The senses undoubtedly lead the body (imagine someone without sense organs; that person will be a vegetable). It was shown that the eyes lead the rest of the senses. The scriptures and also common sense are unanimous that the mind is obviously higher than the senses and is their real leader. It was also demonstrated that perceptions, thoughts, and feelings are largely responsible for making the eyeballs move. That there is a connection between the eyes and thoughts needs no proof, for we are the proof. In fact, the eyes are said to be an extension of the brain. Our thoughts get reflected in our eyes, that is why eyes are called 'windows of the soul'. Tell somebody something nice and see the delight in the person's eyes. On the other hand, if a child knows you are fibbing, see how your eyes shift and you become uncomfortable. This irrevocable connection is noticeable not merely in our daytime activities, but also when we dream. Though unconscious of the external world, the eyes move rapidly during dreams, and hence the dream state is labelled REM (Rapid Eye Movement). Thus it becomes clear that by controlling the mind, the senses, and the body too, can be controlled. But yoga recommends applying this controlling power to the body, then rising up to the optic nerves and to the brain, and finally to the mind.


     The Goal of Dhyana


     Diligence destroys the two demons called laya and vikshepa. Seated in the classical posture maintained by 'thinking of the unlimited', (14) the yogi snaps the 'arc of reaction', implying that the arc of action - the sensory stimulus entering the brain - will fail to elicit a reaction in the form of cognition. The posture is still, relaxed, and yet full of controlled energy. To the onlooker, the yogi's eyeballs appear steady but with a blank look, gazing at the tip of the nose. This will also mean that the eyes are bereft of nystagmus. The natural rhythms of respiration, circulation, metabolism, temperature, and other functions have astonishingly quietened. The yogi feels tranquil, alert, and very far removed from the body because he has withdrawn the senses 'like a tortoise withdrawing its limbs'. (15) As meditation intensifies, one feels as if one is entering into a vast inner space. It is like stepping out of a dank, dark dungeon into the bright world outside. As meditation becomes profounder, knowledge and bliss arise simultaneously. The yogi appears to the onlooker unmoving and devoid of life. Sri Ramakrishna says, 'By certain signs you can tell when meditation is being rightly practised. One of them is that a bird will sit on your head, thinking you are an inert thing.' (16) This inertness might seem ridiculous, repulsive or alarming but the Katha Upanishad assures us: 'When the five sensory organs of knowledge come to rest together with the mind, and the intellect, too, does not function, that state they call the highest.' (17) Consciousness, having withdrawn from everything, leaves just a trace of itself in some areas of the brain. The yogi has gone beyond the ken of human understanding. To let Swami Abhedananda take over as the onlooker and relate one of Sri Ramakrishna's periodic experience of this state:

     One day the Master was in deep samadhi, seated on his bed like a wooden statue. He had no outer consciousness. Dr Mahendralal Sarkar checked his pulse and felt no throbbing. He then put his stethoscope on the Master's heart and did not get a heartbeat. Next, Dr Sarkar touched the Master's eyeballs with his finger, but still the Master's outer consciousness did not return. The doctor was dumbfounded. (18)

     Yoga of course does not need the services of a doctor to verify its experiences. But broadly speaking, a doctor will be even more dumbfounded than was Dr Sarkar when, on the reactivation of the vital signs in the body, it will be seen that the intense subjective experience has transformed everything. The yogi has now become a knower of Atman, a sage, a blessing to humanity. This is the goal of dhyana. ~





     1. Bhagavadgita, 6.13.
     2. Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 2.8.
     3. See Madhusudana Saraswati's commentary on Gita, 6.13.
     4. Yoga Sutras, 1.10.
     5. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.192.
     6. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.5.3.
     7. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 745.
     8. CW, 1.166.
     9. Brahma Sutras, 4.1.9.
     10. Swami Vidyaranya, Jivan-mukti-viveka, trans. Swami Mokshadananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1996), 168.
     11. Yoga Sutras, 1.29.
     12. Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2.31-2.
     13. Gospel, 604.
     14. Yoga Sutras, 2.47.
     15. Gita, 2.58.
     16. Gospel, 604.
     17. Katha Upanishad, 2.3.10.
     18. Swami Chetanananda, God Lived with Them (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 2001), 449-50.





International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015









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