Explore the path to higher consciousness through a 4-stage meditation guide, integrating practices from Patanjali’s eight limbs.
Dive deep into the transformative power of meditation, where each stage offers a unique stepping stone to profound Self-discovery.
There are four basic stages to meditation practice — like the four movements in a beautiful symphony, they flow together in a great concert of higher awareness. Within these four general stages, Patanjali’s eight limbs provide specific practices.
Delving into each stage is akin to unlocking the notes of a melody, revealing a harmonious blend of tradition and introspection that supports one's journey towards heightened Self-awareness.
A simple guide to the stages — my four-part formula — for meditation practice is this: foster, focus, flow, and finish.
The first stage of meditation practice is arranging conditions that are conducive to meditative awareness — both internally and externally. To meditate, choose a quiet place where you will not be disturbed — shut the door, turn off the phones and computer, sit down, and intentionally direct your attention within.
As a beginning meditator, one of the first challenges I faced was my fear of being alone with myself! Sounds strange, yet when I look back, I can see how it took a while to settle in and get comfortable with the deep, and raw, connection that meditation brings. Don’t get me wrong; I have always enjoyed being alone. Yet by continually staying busy doing something, I remained distant from myself. Meditation was different. Finding the willingness to be undistracted and uninterrupted — to be truly alone with myself — took courage. I had lived for decades distracted from my Self, disconnected from what I truly felt and what I deeply knew to be true. But divine grace has a way of bringing us back to our Self, helping us rediscover our wholeness. When I was ready, meditation provided the way.
Hesitation to be alone with oneself can show up in subtle or obvious ways, like leaving the phone just out of range — in case someone important calls! Or, taking a problem to be solved with us into meditation. Thus, the first stage in meditation is fostering or cultivating an environment conducive to letting go of such distractions and embarking on the inward journey.
Ideally, find a private space where you can meditate — whether that’s a room dedicated to meditation or a shared space that can be reserved for, or kept private during, meditation. In this space, consider setting up a simple altar, one arranged with anything that helps to elevate and quiet the mind — a candle, incense, photos of your teacher or the saints. Whenever we catch fire with determination to meditate, we find a space for it.
One determined student I knew lived with roommates in a full and active household. Where was he going to find any quiet space? He set up his meditation altar on the dashboard of his car. Every morning, he went out to meditate in the garage, where he would not be disturbed. After getting clear about your intention to set aside time to meditate, and arranging a suitable environment, turn your attention to your posture.
When the sage Ramana Maharshi was asked about the best posture for meditation, he replied that it is the posture in which the mind is still. When the body moves, the mind moves. Find the posture that is best for you, one where you can easily remain still for an extended period. This is Patanjali’s third step, posture.
Meditation can be practiced seated on the floor, on a cushion, or in a chair. The posture should be relaxed but firm, with the spinal column straight. Sitting still with the spine straight and head erect encourages vital force to flow upward into the higher energy centers and helps us remain alert. An upright posture also reflects the quality of mind that is most conducive to meditative awareness — a firm intention to experience God or Truth, balanced with peaceful surrender to divine grace and timing.
The sage Patanjali notes that our meditation posture should be one that is “steady and sweet.” Say goodbye to any stereotypical ideas that your meditation posture needs to be some foreign form of bent legs, leaving you more conscious of the body’s aches and pains rather than freeing you from bodily awareness. Be comfortable. Be still. That is the advice of the sages.
The next step of meditation practice is conscious expansion of vital force through regulation of the breath. Breath is intimately tied to the vital force. Vital force is the connecting link between body, mind, and spirit. By enhancing our awareness of vital force, we can follow the energy flow into deeper aspects of our being. Breath becomes our vehicle.
With concentration, bring your attention to a single point of focus. When your attention wanders from that focus, gently bring it back.
An easy, natural, and readily available tool for concentration is our breath. Here’s how to use it: As you inhale, notice the feeling as cool air moves through the nostrils, touches the back of the throat, fills the lungs, and expands the abdomen. Observe the tiny peak of the breath as it changes, almost imperceptibly, from inhalation to exhalation. Then notice changes during exhalation, as your abdomen gently contracts and warmer air exits the nostrils. Stay tuned to the breath. Follow it. Watch as it becomes slower and subtler. You’ll notice that when the breath becomes quiet, so does the mind. When that happens, you’re ready to meditate, and you will naturally move from focus to flow, the third stage of practice.
Concentration naturally becomes meditation. After a while, breathing slows down, becomes subtle and shallow; thought activity decreases; and moments of calm, pure awareness are revealed.
Sages have compared the difference between concentration and meditation to be like the difference between a stream of water and a stream of oil. A stream of water has errant bouncing drops taking side trips away from the flow, while oil flows in an integral, steady stream. There is a palpable shift in our mental field when we move from concentration to meditation.
A time will come when the mind will stick to one point alone,
like the continuous sound of a church bell. This is meditation,
the fruit of constant and protracted practice of concentration.
The joy will be indescribable.
Excerpted from the book
Copyright ©2018 by Ellen Grace O’Brian.
Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.
© 2023 Ellen Grace O’Brian