The Limbs of Yoga: Meditation
Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although mindful concentration and meditation seem to be practically identical, there are infinite differences. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is the ultimate state of being acutely aware but renouncing focus. The mind has been quieted by the preceding activities and disciplines learned through the other limbs. In the stillness you have created, the production of thoughts are reduced to a minimum (theoretically at least). Dhyana is where all the practice has been leading.
Learning the ability to slow it all down and look within enables the work on awareness and self to be integrated. We’ve covered much of the territory that leads us here as we worked through Patanjali’s recipe for becoming yogi. Now we are at the destination of dhyana, the practice itself is like a whole new beginning, bringing a new set of learnings.
As one of the seminal texts on yoga as a system of living, the Bhagavad Gita is integral to good hustle practices. Krishna’s advice in the Gita on meditation is a perfect companion to where we have landed. In the Gita, Krishna makes a passionate defense for the benefits of meditation. Our protagonist, Arjuna, is in a state of emotional paralysis over starting the battle of Kurukshetra. He is slumped in the bottom of his chariot, weapons down, unable to motivate himself to get up and begin fighting. Arjuna as a fierce warrior at this point is displaying character traits more akin to a whiny child, as he pouts and sulks to Krishna’s increasingly firm entreaties to bring some mindful action into the moment.
This is a place all of us have been to. I encounter it regularly. It’s a place where you just can’t take the next step. You know you must, you know that when you do it will be good for you, you’ll enjoy it. And yet there you are slumped at the bottom of your own chariot; your mind filling you up with thoughts of all the other things you could do, and all the reasons to stay exactly where you are. Cue 5am alarms in winter.
Krishna throughout the Gita comes back again and again to meditation as the foundation of any imminent action. The Gita works as a text for those of us about to embark on making their dharma their life, as it is a reminder that while following that path is hard, it is far harder to do nothing and live a life empty of true purpose. Arjuna speaks for all of us when he counters Krishna’s prescription for meditation by pointing out that meditation is hard, likening controlling the mind to controlling the wind. And Krishna’s response?
Just keep practising.
Krishna is ardent about the practice of meditation as the key tool to reveal our true self and its nature. He gives Arjuna explicit instructions on what to do: how to sit, how to breathe, the stages to work through. He teaches him yoga for life right there on the edge of the battlefield. Krishna says that the practice of meditation is the solution to getting us back our innate wisdom, the knowledge of who we are and what we are here to do. As long as we don’t know who we are, or what to do, we remain actors, playing out roles that only ever reach a peripheral layer of our being. Sometimes we get so good at playing the role we stepped into that we never take off the mask and get typecast, unable to ever struggle out of our costumes and be ourselves. It takes courage to step out of being human and commit to searching for who we are, and a way to live in our truth.
Arjuna’s feeling of paralysis is a common condition when you become open to seeing your dharma. There is an accompanying sensation of vastness mingled with sheer terror—this is what you see when the veil is removed, and for one clear moment you connect and are shown what your life can be. In the Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna to show him who he is—referring to his godly persona rather than his charioteer buddy image.
Throughout the story Arjuna has only encountered Krishna in his human form, and while he knows he is possessed of godly powers, he wants the proof of Krishna’s divinity. When Krishna obliges by revealing his immortal self (reportedly a vast endless array of Krishna’s many bodies, forms, powers and action all at once) Arjuna is completely overwhelmed. Krishna has blindsided him, and he struggles to recalibrate the idea of the Krishna he knows, and the infinite source of wonder that he just saw, begging Krishna to immediately return to his original flavor.
This is how we find ourselves paralysed and overwhelmed when we have the experience of seeing our own potential and our own divinity when we connect to our greater selves. Part of the paralysis lies in the simplicity of the solution as both Krishna and Patanjali lay out in their own way: to follow your dharma, turn in, connect with your self, relinquish the ‘I’ for the selfless service to the greater humanity, meditate, and renounce attachment to results and objects through simply providing service. It is a straight-up prescription for the path of yoga, and both proponents guarantee the results are a life of meaning and joy. But as we know from understanding what is involved in the previous steps, it is difficult to relinquish the habits and patterns we have picked up over our life, and in the collective culture we are born into. It’s hard to stop being human after all.
You can liken this process of letting go, and the difficulty of releasing your grip, to the imaginal cells of a caterpillar undergoing its metamorphosis to a butterfly. The caterpillar has within it the cells of change for its cyclical evolution. When the process begins, the caterpillar body fights the cells that appear to bring about the change, seeing them as an enemy of its immune system. As the internal battle rages between caterpillar cells and butterfly cells, eventually the balance shifts, and the number of butterfly cells outweighs those caterpillar cells that are holding on to the old form and old ways of being. Once this balance is tipped, the new cells can do their work, bringing forth the butterfly ready for its life. We are all caterpillars, feeling the emergence of the innate understanding in us that change is necessary for us to evolve. But our imaginal cells fight it, and cling to the things that have previously served us, the behaviors and feelings that we know, even if on a conscious level we have the awareness that these behaviors aren’t serving us.
The metaphor of Arjuna’s battle is apt, as making change in our life, finding our good hustle, often feels like a battle. It’s confusing and exhausting, and all we want is for it to be over and peace to reign. This is where the story of the Gita is so familiar and relatable. Arjuna is at the point of collapse, in a painful identity crisis. He knows the war of Kurukshetra is necessary and to a degree inevitable, and that there is no quick and easy way to get it over with, as all civil negotiations have failed. The battle is going to change the face of civilisation. Arjuna is unable to see beyond the now to the greater benefits he will experience once the fighting is over. He is desperately looking for ways to maintain the status quo, to keep everyone happy, while knowing that this solution will result in no one being happy. When we make change in ourselves, especially when these changes begin to reveal the truth of our own inner butterflies, there is a ripple effect without and within. Resistance will come from your peers, your colleagues, your family and loved ones.
We are all sleeping caterpillar cells, and the awakening butterfly of one of us challenges the rest to look at their own lives and take inventory of their sense of fulfilment and purpose. You will undoubtedly be challenged both gently and critically when you start to reveal that you aspire to renounce your attachments and seek a life of dharma. This week, ask your inner wisdom to show you your dharma. Meditate on this, allowing your true nature of self to be revealed without paralysis and terror, Welcome yourself.