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Raja Yoga

VI. Dharana

Pratyahara is conservation of psychic energy and one gets mental strength, inner peace and a healthy inner life. Dharana or concentration is a steady flow of attention in one direction, object or idea.

The practice of dharana increases inner strength by reducing distractedness and increased efficiency from perception to action. The depth dharana or concentration increases sattva or inner clarity and balance.

Beginning the practice

In the beginning, it is good to fix the mind on something external like a picture of one's deity, a candle flame, a rose or anything that you feel will hold your interest and awareness. It is good not to change the object of meditation, though you may experiment a little initially. The important point is that you must be very interested in the object or else the rise of distractions which you are interested in will carry away your attention. The object of meditation becomes a target to steady the flow of attention and the mind's habit to scatter thoughts lessens.

Some prefer to concentrate on something abstract from the start instead of something tangible and feel best to concentrate with their eyes closed. There is nothing wrong with this except the choice must be because you feel you can do this and not as a bold ambitious move. You can always start with something tangible and then shift to the abstract by abstract ideas associated with the picture and concentrate with your eyes closed. Proceed slowly but with firm steps and you will lay a good foundation for meditation. Missed steps will demand a return to the basics, and backtracking in practice is not a good way to tread. Proceed in concentration with firm footing and understanding and soon you will know when you are able to concentrate on subtler objects and themes.

The practice of concentration

Make sure that neither cell phones, land-line phones or other devices enter the room if you wish to practice; otherwise, this is not for you.

Sit in any cross-legged position with or without a cushion, however you feel comfortable. If you cannot sit cross-legged, sit on a chair, keeping your back straight and feet uncrossed, flat on the floor. Use a timer for the duration you select—it is good to start with 12-15 minutes as it takes a little time to get settled in initially.

The object of concentration should be at eye level so the neck can be kept straight without tilting. Gaze at the object of concentration and let your attention form a steady link in its flow to the object.

Become aware of every detail in the object while watching within also, as thoughts about it will try to interfere and color the perception or assessment. Take an interest in discovery by observation but without allowing a concept to form about it. This is possible if you continue to observe keenly.

More and more detail will become observable and the mind will get saturated by the object. You will be able to close your eyes momentarily and not lose the flow of attention as the object will be seen within quite clearly.

Try to keep the eyes open for as long as possible, initially; the eyes will start watering anywhere from the 6-8 minute mark. Let them close gently a little before and continue to concentrate on the object within. As the image within starts losing clarity, open the eyes and there should be seamless observation where you do not feel the outside or inside as being any different.

The mind will try to connect observation with all kinds of thoughts; be steady and feel that with every breath, you are observing afresh. Let the thoughts rise and they will fall on their own accord. You will discover a great secret—if you leave these other thoughts and feelings about them as well alone, they will leave you alone too. They just come and go and do no harm.

The important thing is to not break the ray of attention on the object of meditation till the timer sounds. Say some prayers and leave the area gracefully.

Understanding distractions

We have already discussed a little of this earlier under pratyahara but let's relook at some important points. During concentration, other thoughts will rise in the mind and almost instantly, an urge will be felt to think about them, to dwell on them or participate in the thoughts. This is a very important point—you must be aware of the rise of other thoughts and of the urge to think of them. Often, we see the other thought rise but we are not aware of the urge to think on that thought and when the urge rises, we get swept away, getting ourselves mixed up with the urge. The image or thought is static memory and harmless. Often, it is used as an avenue for the strong feeling or dynamic memory which craves repetition. Examples of this are experienced in our daily life: if you are angry with someone, the anger may vent on others though they have nothing to do with why you are angry.

Going beyond distractions

As we have noted, we are concentrating on the object of meditation, and both the other thought and the surging urge to dwell on it are not us but something rising in us like waves in an ocean. The urge may still hold the image for a short while but will fall fast, as the urge and image or other thought exhaust each other by lack of fresh energy by you not identifying being with them.

The interest you take in the object of meditation will raise the quality of the flow of attention towards it and make the urge a little more distinguishable. It is here many seekers struggle, as the mind wants to flow towards what they call 'distractions' which are just other thoughts of interest that seem a little more interesting than their object of concentration.

The rise and fall of other thoughts or what we call distraction is not the problem, neither is the urge to dwell on them—but to slip in attention, get mixed-up with the urge and start expanding the thought is distraction. When you are distracted, you shift from the tract intended to another tract—never having become aware. As long as you feel you are doing something in concentrating, you are susceptible to this dislodging. If you feel it is not just something you are doing but looking directly within which is 'being'—you will hold steadier, as being is not just existence, it is also awareness of existence at the same time. Doing need not always be connected with being, but being is capable of doing as part of being itself. When a mother sees her child in some danger, it is not her physical frame that responds but being, the very existence in her sees a danger that must be addressed, and all of her rises into action.

I'm discussing this here because with dharana, we are entering the inner court of yoga (there are some different opinions about the what constitutes the inner court). The first five limbs also have their inner elements but work on the developing the seeker for this inner adventure—which is an act of being, and this being does what is needed. The ego cannot do yoga.

Single action of pratyahara and dharana

Pratyahara arouses and awakens the inner intelligence, as the mind is brought into the field of observation along with 'things outside'. The direct observation of the mind is abstraction or withdrawal from concepts, ideas, habit or conditioning. The same intelligence also directly perceives what is outside and this flow of attention is called dharana or concentration.

Interruption or distraction is not the rise and fall of other thoughts or urges, but an interruption or shift in your own attention—from what you intend to observe to something else due to inability to concentrate. When the inner intelligence watches the mind or within and at the same time flows uninterruptedly towards the object of attention or outside, there is a single movement of pratyahara and dharana or abstraction and concentration.

Benefits of pratyahara and dharana

Meditation will come naturally to one who practices concentration. A distracted mind is a breeding ground for all kinds of physical and mental illnesses. A concentrated mind will manifest itself in good physical health, abundant energy and will never cause worry, suspicion or be anxious, as it will extend its best effort when any situation presents itself. One becomes very efficient in all things and has high output as wastage of all sorts is eliminated. Newer skills will be learnt more easily as the concentrated mind does not have inner resistance. The most difficult and trying of situations will be handled with calm, equipoise and finesse and one will walk lightly where others tread heavy.

Some practical hints

Do one thing at one time and do it with full concentration and heart. Once done, don't continue to dwell on it—done means done mentally too.

All action has equal value, nothing is secular or mundane, as actions are a mirror in which we see our motives and have an opportunity to do what needs to be done best, as part of the situation itself, without trying to stand outside things with a personal motive.

Yama and niyama lay the foundation for a healthy arrangement with people, things and conditions outside as well as within, in the inner world. It brings order to the mind and this ordered mind can start building positively.

Asana and pranayama not only purify the body and energy pathways, they renew healthy connections in the subtle pathways and increase the psychic energy which will be needed for pratyahara and dharana to follow.

The base of the first four will eliminate any soft-spots or areas one is most likely to fall. It does not mean that one should not or cannot practice concentration from the beginning, but that the fundamentals should not be brushed over casually and over-confidently.

To increase sattva or clarity and balance, one has to decrease tamas and rajas. The practice of asanas and pranayama will help but only if one consciously thins desires and passions that will always ignite the embers of rajas. Practicing asana and pranayama and still living a life filled with desires, hopes and expectations is like walking far each day to get water with a bucket full of holes.

Be wise and know where to start, proceed gradually but with sure footing and you will not have to backtrack. Backtracking in all ways and regrets of all sorts are two serious obstacles for the seeker that must be avoided.

These first six limbs of yoga seem difficult and perhaps even boring at first because we are always used to doing something to in order to get something good, pleasant and better. If you approach yoga with this attitude, you will find it quite unappetizing, unpleasant and even distasteful or painful. Yoga is a journey that seeks to know the truth at every stage. In the initial stages, you will see the truth about your own self, the condition of your mind and the force of habit, and this may not be pleasant if you came in order to feel good. If however you came to yoga to know the truth, to see your mind, inner world and feelings as they are—however turbulent—will be a good thing, as you know what needs to be done next. A seeker of truth must embrace the truth from the very beginning in his or her heart—and if this has been done, one will never have regrets or any use for a rear-view mirror. One will march forward boldly and confidently but gently, with humility.

Next, we look at meditation where we will spend quite some time and study a few series of writings, notes and more. The mat or field of practice includes all life. Be diligent in your practice.

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