the Path for Dhyana
Classical Posture and Its Obstacles
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fixedly; then 'the sense organs are withdrawn into the heart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,
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
Vision and Its Connection with Thoughts
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)
of Thought Shuts Out the External World
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)
Necessity of Immobility
'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
Movement and Tremors of the Eye
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.
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.
as Preparatory to Meditation
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.
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)
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.
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.
Leader behind the Leader
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.
Goal of Dhyana
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:
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)
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. ~
Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 2.8.
See Madhusudana Saraswati's commentary on Gita, 6.13.
Yoga Sutras, 1.10.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.192.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.5.3.
M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 745.
Brahma Sutras, 4.1.9.
Swami Vidyaranya, Jivan-mukti-viveka, trans. Swami
Mokshadananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1996), 168.
Yoga Sutras, 1.29.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2.31-2.
Yoga Sutras, 2.47.
Katha Upanishad, 2.3.10.
Swami Chetanananda, God Lived with Them (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 2001), 449-50.