Continuing along in our discovery of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga, this week we will take a look at the 7th limb, dhyana, sometimes described simply as “meditation”. But, for me, it requires a little more description to get the full flavor of what dhyana truly means. It is not just “meditation”, as in “I’m sitting on my cushion and doing my meditation”, but perhaps better explained as meditative absorption, or a state of alert awareness in which we are no longer “trying” to meditate or “doing” meditation, but rather we ease into meditative awareness as a state of being. We are no longer actively trying to focus and concentrate (as in the 6th limb, dharana), and no longer actively thinking about or judging the focus of our concentration. Instead, we relax into a state of keen awareness and stillness (inner stillness even though we might be physically moving), in which that state of doing transforms into our state of being and profound clarity arises. Some describe this as being “in the flow” or “in the zone”, as a condition in which we feel a free flow of our energy and awareness, unencumbered by the thinking mind, generally imbued with some sense of peace or joy.
You all know how I love quotes and I couldn’t choose just one today. A few of my favorite quotes about meditation include Thich Nhat Hanh’s “In mindfulness, one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion: it is a serene encounter with reality”, Deepak Chopra’s “Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It is a way of entering into the quiet that is already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day”, and Osho’s “Meditation is a surrender, it is not a demand. It is not forcing existence your way. It is relaxing into the way existence wants you to be. It is a let-go”. Each of these quotes so eloquently describes what is really happening in meditation, or dhyana.
Importantly, you don’t have to sit in a certain position or on a special cushion to enter into dhyana and get the benefits of meditation. This state can be entered into in the midst of our other daily activities. My favorite style of meditation is actually the moving meditation that I can sometimes achieve during my yoga asana practice. I say sometimes because I’m not always able to transcend my pesky thoughts and reach that place, but when I can, the yoga practice carries with it even more magic than ever. Sitting meditation is the style most people associate with the term meditation, but there are many options, including walking meditation, any number of mindfulness practices, mantra meditation, loving kindness or metta meditation, and many others. Moreover, many people are able to reach a state of dhyana, or meditative absorption, while doing other activities like painting, singing, gardening, hiking, playing with children, or whatever gets you out of your head and into the flow. So open your mind and explore the idea of dhyana and what methods might work for you. If you are a runner or a swimmer and you know that those activities are what get you into that flow state, then keep doing those! If sitting meditation or yoga work best for you, keep doing those! But remember not to try to force anything to happen. Then you’ll just be getting in your own way. Just keep practicing, and it will come.
Why should we do these practices? Most are familiar with some of the benefits of meditation, including things like stress relief, improved mood, reduced fatigue, improved concentration and efficiency. But there are other fascinating benefits including improved blood pressure, pain control, reduced signs of aging and memory loss, improved immune function, reduced inflammation, and improved self-awareness. Many of these benefits have been studied and documented in cancer survivors as well as the general population. It is easy to see how cancer survivors would benefit especially, and ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) now recommend meditation for cancer survivors based on the proven benefits! But just as TNH says above, meditation is not evasion. We don’t use it to escape from our life or our problems, but instead to allow ourselves to experience our current situation with clarity, serenity, equanimity, and freedom from the judgements of the thinking mind and the emotions that accompany them. Ahhhhhhh, how refreshing! And this simple practice doesn’t require expensive or complicated equipment; just you, your awareness, and some time and effort!
So give it a try! Many cancer centers now offer meditation classes. You can also learn on line, or read a book ( https://yogawithleona.com/2020/07/10/book-review-time-again/). But as with everything in yoga, be patient and compassionate with yourself. This is a practice, with no right or wrong way, and no winners and losers.