I felt good about yesterdays post, and wanted to make a follow up today.
First I want to talk about ashthanga-yoga. When I hear the word “yoga” these days I think of ladies in spandex, or of lean sadhus in strange, twisted poses. This is all very unfortunate because actually “yoga” means “union [with the divine].” And the main practice of yoga is not postures, it is meditation.
Ashtha means “8.” Anga means “part.” So, ashthanga-yoga is an “8-part meditation”: a process of meditation that involves 8 steps.
The interesting part is that the first 4 of the 8 steps happen before you technically start to “meditate.” That’s half the process of meditation! This speaks to the point I considered yesterday, that much of my battle to practice attentive mantra-meditation will be won or lost while I am not technically “meditating.” The first four steps of meditation are:
- Yama – rules
- Niyama – regulations
- Asana – seating / posture
- Pranayama – rules of breathing
The rules and regulations enforce humility, selflessness, etc. forcing us to behave in ways that take the focus off our own desires. This, as I have had to admit (see yesterday’s post), is really the key underlying issue in my ability / inability to be attentive/distracted during meditation.
When I actually sit down to meditate, first thing I have to do is “sit properly” – that is asana. Modern yoga has blown this whole thing grossly out of proportion, but I have found that it is very helpful to have some understanding of the basic principles common to all yoga asana (and summarized in the Gita’s 6th chapter, by the way). Basically: we have to pull up the kegel’s strength into our lower back, keep that lower back straight (perpendicular to the floor), let the shoulders have zero strength and hang down (but not forward), and stretch the neck straight by pulling the head upward and a little backward.
Its not as important as all that detail suggests – but that’s the ideal. I have found that if I sit straight like this, or close to it, I get less distracted. There might be a dozen reasons why. I think most of all its because my body is also making an effort to be attentive, and that encourages the mind to do the same.
Then there is pranayama. Again, this can get very elaborate, but for my purposes it doesn’t need to be elaborate at all. All I need is to understand the underlying principle in all the pranayamas and apply that. Essentially I just need to breathe in through my nose – pulling the air in by expanding my stomach outward (creating more space inside my body, which pulls air inward), and then breathe outward (exhale) though my mouth (especially since we need to make sound at some point – the mantra) by contracting my stomach and pushing the old air out.
Again, its not super important, but as soon as I do the first deep breath my nostrils somehow refresh my brain and I just feel sharper and more alert. It works. Maybe because I am metabolizing more oxygen, and that allows the brain to run more efficiently.
The fifth-eighth steps are:
- Pratyahara – withdrawing
- Dharana – grasping
- Dyana – meditating
- Samadhi – entering
For the actual “meditation” to “begin,” we have to first withdraw ourselves from the outer world. I have found a little catch phrase to be useful for that: “Shrink your world.” To elaborate: “Only this room exists. Only you and Krishna exist. Only you and the mantra exist. There is nothing else.” This encourages all other entities to leave my awareness, and I can then proceed further / deeper in the meditation.
Next, I have to grasp the object of meditation. In my case, it is the maha-mantra. This means that I have to accurately produce the sound. It has to have 32 syllables, for example. And I simply have to hear it, and check with my ears that the syllables are in the correct order and fairly well pronounced, so as to be clearly recognizable as “Hare,” “Krishna”, and “Rama.” This is dharana – placing the object of contemplation within the grasp of the mind.
The next, elusive step, “meditation” (attentive meditation) occurs only when pratyahara and dharana persist for at least a short while. In other words, when at least a short time goes by where I am aware of nothing except the sound of the mantra.
The final step is extremely elusive. Samadhi occurs when there is no longer a subject meditating upon an object. The subject becomes so immersed in the object that it ceases to remember that it is a subject, and becomes aware only of the object. There is no more sense of “I am concentrating on the mantra” – there is only the mantra, and it fills the self entirely. That is one way to understand samadhi: Where the self becomes the same (sama) as the object being contemplated (dhi). Another way to understand samadhi is a less abracadabra (and thus probably more accurate): when the contemplation of the mind (dhi) is always the same (sama). In other words, when dhyama persists indefinitely, continuously, that is samadhi.
Does the Mantra Have a Meaning?
Yes! That is part of dharana, part of pronouncing it correctly and letting it come within the grasp of the mind. When you hear the word “apple” you don’t just hear the phonetics (unless you don’t understand the language, which unfortunately is often the case with mantra), you hear the meaning. The sound “apple” carries to your consciousness the meaning: a certain type of fruit, etc.
Similarly, when we hear “Hare” we are not just counting syllables and checking pronunciation! The syllables and the sound conveys a meaning when heard. Now, frankly, if we just carbon copy the meaning someone else tells us we are being cheap and lazy. But you need to hear the meanings others give to help you formulate your own personal understanding. There are many meanings to any word, especially the spiritual words of the Mahamantra. Here are some:
- Hare means the goddess Radha, who is the brilliant, glittering, sparkling energy of attration and affection that shines from the black-brilliant Krishna.
- Krishna is the black-hole swallowing up the breath, hearts, attention, and desires of everyone. In other words, he is a gravity-well of beauty, charm, wit, allure, etc. etc.
- Rama means bliss – he is the brilliant super-nova of pleasure, estacy, bliss, happiness, peace. When we give ourselves entirely to him, there is an explosion of transcendent joy.
I suggest this as a short way to encapsulate most of the meaning: hare krishna, hare rama = “Krishna / Rama, take me! Make me yours!”
Dive in, dig in, work with this. Make it yours.
What About Service?
The most important thing, seriously the most important thing I’ve learned after 20 something years of meddling around with bhakti-yoga is that the mantra is service.
The act of chanting the mantra is in and of itself everything that perfect service must be. To sit down, to stop doing all kinds of things, to stop thinking about all sorts of things, to stop feeling, wishing, desiring all sorts of things – and just do the simplest purest thing of all – a thing which has no side-benefit, no fringe-benefit: simply pronouncing the name of the beloved, with all attention, with our hearts, minds, and bodies nowhere else but 100% engaged in that hearing and chanting of the dear, beloved name… that IS “pure devotional service.”
Think about that. Work with it. It is a jewel. Polish it, cherish it, wear it.
I hope my two posts on this subject are very, very beneficial to you; to the extent that you happily bless me to deeply realize what I’ve written. I do not want to linger on the outside of this mantra, either ignoring or analyzing it. I want to enter into it. The more pleased the devotees of this mantra are with me, the easier that will be.