As anyone who practises meditation will attest, it is not easy to suspend the thought process. Even if thoughts regarding the external objects are switched off, our internal memory (Chitta) keeps feeding past events to our mind and this cycle does not die down easily. Any attempt to control or force the mind to stop always ends in failure. What is required are some supports on which the mind can rest before it glides off into effortless flight. These are observations on a few aids which might help in quieting the thought process.
…in the Rajayogic Samadhi there are different grades of status, – that in which the mind, though lost to outward objects, still muses, thinks, perceives in the world of thought, that in which the mind is still capable of primary thought-formations and that in which, all out-darting of the mind even within itself having ceased, the soul rises beyond thought into the silence of the Incommunicable and Ineffable. In all Yoga there are indeed many preparatory objects of thought-concentration, forms, verbal formulas of thought, significant names, all of which are supports (alambana) to the mind in this movement, all of which have to be used and transcended; the highest support according to the Upanishads is the mystic syllable AUM, whose three letters represent the Brahman or Supreme Self in its three degrees of status, the Waking Soul, the Dream Soul and the Sleep Soul, and the whole potent sound rises towards that which is beyond status as beyond activity.
Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – I: Concentration
In the paragraph above, Sri Aurobindo is discussing the various stages of Samadhi described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras(Savitarka, Savichara, Sananda, Sasmita and Asamprajnata) and how supports are required to guide the mind into stillness. When we consider this problem, the analogy of tightrope walking comes to mind. The solution in tightrope walking is to carry a pole for alignment and balance while the solution in meditation is to use some support (i.e. Alambana as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras calls them) to steady the mind. These are some kinds of supports which can be used.
Supports (Alambana) for contemplation
1) Concentration on Name: This is done by chanting the word AUM, some name of the Divine (pick your favorite) or something more elaborate like a Mantra (see Mantra).
2) Concentration on Form: This implies holding an image before our vision. This can be a candle light (Trataka) or some other image which makes the mind tranquil (see Contemplation on the sky or Concentration on the Mother’s photograph). The reason this works is because part of the mind assumes the form of the object it sees (referred to as Chitta Vritti) and this induces a state of calm within. Excessive practice of visualization can also be counter-productive because the ultimate goal here is not to develop a wonderful imagination but to silence the thought process and allow a greater Power to illuminate the resulting void.
3) Imagine looking at your body from outside yourself :It is useful to imagine you are outside your own body and looking at it from a different perspective. Imagine looking at yourself from above the head or from behind the back. This disentangles the consciousness from the physical body and can be a useful (albeit imaginary) prelude to the actual experience of the subtle (astral) body separating from the physical body.
4) Concentration on an idea:This means contemplation on some powerful idea. One could choose one of the Mahavakyas from the Upanishads (e.g. “thou are that”) or a verse from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri or any other spiritual work.
This concentration proceeds by the Idea, using thought, form and name as keys which yield up to the concentrating mind the Truth that lies concealed behind all thought, form and name; for it is through the Idea that the mental being rises beyond all expression to that which is expressed, to that of which the Idea itself is only the instrument. By concentration upon the Idea the mental existence which at present we are breaks open the barrier of our mentality and arrives at the state of consciousness, the state of being, the state of power of conscious-being and bliss of conscious-being to which the Idea corresponds and of which it is the symbol, movement and rhythm. Concentration by the Idea is, then, only a means, a key to open to us the superconscient planes of our existence; a certain self-gathered state of our whole existence lifted into that superconscient truth, unity and infinity of self-aware, self-blissful existence is the aim and culmination; and that is the meaning we shall give to the term Samadhi.
Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – I: Concentration
The concentration must be done silently rather than loudly as was demonstrated in the “Serenity Now” episode of the TV series Seinfeld : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uC1Ri_0MlEs
5) Concentration on some center within the body: The mind can focus its awareness on some center within the body. Three centers which can be chosen are the center between the eyebrows, the center above the head at the Sahasrara Chakra and the heart center. This is already discussed in Meditation.
6) Sensation: Normally, as mental beings rushing through daily activities, our entire awareness is concentrated in the head and we are seldom aware of the rest of our body. This is especially true of urban dwellers and absent-minded thinkers. Increasing this awareness can also be a support for steadying the mind. Let the awareness focus on the calves, soles of the feet, elbows, back muscles. This can guide the mind to a state of silence.
7) Breath: Gradually slow down the breath until it becomes relaxed, silent and subtle. Let the mind watch this breath. The Buddhists call it Anapanasati
8] Attitude: Learn to look at the world with eyes of benevolence and compassion. Develop compassion for all since no one is perfect. There has to be a temporary withdrawal from the heated disputes and controversies of life in order to first gain some inner peace. The Gita calls this attitude Apaishunam or non-censoriousness (Gita 16:2). There is room for confusion here because some may conflate this inner attitude of friendliness with their own desire to go around hugging people and making lots of friends. That form of socialization is certainly not helpful in Yoga because increased social activity can be detrimental to spiritual progress, as (initially at least) one needs to maintain some isolation from people to go deeper within and increase awareness of one’s own consciousness.
When we learn to suspend the thought process while simultaneously fixing the concentration on the Sahasrara Chakra above the head, first the area of the forehead begins to feel cooler. Then the brain begins to feel lighter and a faint vibration accompanied by a feeling of void arises within. After that we may feel a quiet tranquility descending into the head from above. This is the beginning of the descent experience, the trademark of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga.
- A previous blog post on Types of meditation
- Swami Jnaneshwara Bharati has developed a (highly recommended) list of all these gradations of techniques based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. (see Five stages of meditation and Types versus Stages of meditation)
- Some entertaining New Yorker Cartoons on the subject (one) (two) (three) (four)