Coming back to the overview of the Eight Limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga, (see the first group of four here) the second group of four have to do with refining the mind-body-spirit connection and are more inward-looking than the first group. In fact, the fifth limb, Pratyahara, means “withdrawal of the senses” referring to the detachment from things outside ourselves. A conscious effort is made, through practice, to draw one’s awareness away from the stimulation of the world, society, and our reaction to it all. Pratyahara shows us our inner selves, allowing for (we hope) objective observation of how we are in the world, how we react to stimuli, and to see the habits of our own nature. The objective is that, once we have realized the ways in which we are drawn away from our higher nature, we can make the changes necessary to substantiate our inner growth. I think a downfall here is that people mistake the idea of withdrawal to mean not caring, or (worse) “holier than thou”. In fact, it is living fully present in the world but without the attachment to the minutia of it. Aside from the basic comforts of food and shelter —and books—, what does it really matter if one has stuff? What does it matter how one does in relation to another? The importance is on how one does in relation to one’s own potential and knowing. It is to learn to not be reactive when someone or something upsets us; instead, it is to take that time~~ those few seconds~~ between an event and any reaction to gather one’s self in to one’s true self, and not be reactive.
Once the senses have been quieted through pratyahara, the next limb is the concentration of dharana, which means to “maintain with resolve”. Here is where the mind itself becomes the distraction as one learns to develop the concentration needed to quiet the mind for meditation. In recent years, dharana seems to have become confused with meditation, and so when people are staring at a candle, focusing on one of the energy centers* of the body, or repeating a mantra (“instrument of thought”) or another sacred prayer or sound, in order to keep the mind from wandering, they call it “meditation”. This is, in fact, concentration. These are all ways to slow the thoughts that swirl through the mind and gently bring it back to just the one thing. The process of learning dharana began in the practice of yoga asana and in the breathing techniques of pranayama. Just as bringing focus to the mind during these physical yogas began the process for dharana, dharana begins the process for entering in to meditation.
Meditation is a state of awareness without focus. The mind has become so quiet that there are no thoughts at all, only stillness. Dhyana is this deeper concentration of the mind, and is very hard to attain. Somehow that rude store clerk or the laundry list keep seeping back in to the mind and disturb the stillness. Constant return to the focus of dharana works to calm, still, and retrain the mind to stay quiet so that the step forward to meditation can be taken.
The eighth of the limbs was described by Patanjali as the state of pure ecstasy and bliss. This is the state of samadhi. At this point, there is no division between the “self” and the rest of the universe. There is a connection to the Divine presence in all things. Herein lies perfected peace, a lofty goal for which to strive. It is the action of the striving ~~ the Eight Limbs of Yoga~~ that is the yogic path (Ashtanga). While it certainly would be nice to achieve the level of peace that gives oneness with the Universe, it is really the practice that the attention to the steps along the path that are of utmost importance. We can’t all reach Samadhi, but we can all takes the steps on the path and become better for it.
While I was certainly never able to attain the perfected peace of samadhi, I was able to (on a very few occasions) experience the momentary bliss that a true meditation brought me. Just for a short burst of time there was clarity and peace and the most beautiful blue I have ever seen. Much more often, the attempt at meditation, the practice of focus on one of my energy centers, gave me the groundedness that I needed to get through life.
Even now, as I write, when I need to clear my thoughts to let the words that want to be written come in to my brain, I call upon the years of practice that I have done in the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Regardless of the circumstances of my day-to-day life, or the large changes that have occurred over the years, I have always had these practices to rely upon. They are as much a part of me as my handwriting, my way of speaking; they are threads woven tightly, colorfully, through my being.
*Energy centers are usually referred to by the Sanskrit word, chakras. Chakra means “wheel” and refers to the round, spinning energies in each place. The correct pronunciation is with a hard “ch” as in children, not a soft one as in shadow. The Sanskrit characters that make up the word are a combination of the characters that sound “ch” and “k”, giving it the hard “ch” sound.