Dhyana: the Seventh Limb

Dhyana is defined as a profound meditative state. One of my very wise teachers once told me that Dhyana differs from Dharana in that Dharana is an effortful practice and Dhyana is a gift of grace. The last two limbs of the 8-limbed path are not so much things that you can do as things that you can try to prepare for by observing the aforementioned six limbs.

Because Dhyana is something that happens out of grace rather than effort, I’m going to be doing a little “imagining the summit from Mallory’s peak,” if you catch my drift. If you’re interested in a more scholarly understanding of Dhyana, this is a solid resource.

I’ve been turning the idea of a meditation practice over in my mind, and I think there are a couple of cultural things I need to address.  Have you noticed that we have a cult of productivity, and therefore we covet exhaustion? We as a culture, (especially us Millenials, holla) strive to be the sort of worker who is so absorbed in their work that they don’t notice the passage of time, and therefore don’t require rest. We’re trying to compete with machines and computers, because that’s the job market.

Being caught in what’s known as “flow” aka the state in which a person is fully immersed in energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in whatever they’re doing, is distinct from Dhyana. Dhyana is characterized by not only focus but also by detachment from the senses and perfect control of both breath and posture. The reason that this is the penultimate step to achieving Yoga is that it requires years of disciplined focus and effort, and then only happens by grace.

Just because something can’t be achieved by effort doesn’t mean that it can be achieved by accident.

I grew up riding horses, and I’ll be the first to say I’m an inexperienced horsewoman. By no means am I an expert. But having grown up around them, I’ve had a moment, just once, where I felt that the horse and I were moving as one creature. I’d spent my whole life around horses, and achieved something resembling equanimity once. It lasted 3 minutes, and ended when I fell off. This is the closest comparison I have to Dhyana within the realm of my personal experience.

Falling off the horse is a pretty solid metaphor for how progress functions, in general. This applies to addictions, and to good habits, to skills we try to cultivate and to pitfalls we try to avoid. One of the things that Baron Baptiste talks about in his writing on meditation is that when you’re learning, you have to be gentle with yourself, to begin again without judgement.

I may be chasing my own tail with this explanation. Put simply, I think when you come to this limb, if Dhyana doesn’t seem to come, it’s time to backtrack and begin again.

The trouble with a Yoga practice is that it’s something you have to choose, moment by moment. I think of marriage, which is something I have never experienced, and I also think of riding a horse. Both of those things take a single-mindedness on what you’re doing, or you’ll fall. It’s sort of the do-karate-yes-or-do-karate-no Mr Miyagi moment, we’re having here. Do Yoga yes or do Yoga no, but do Yoga “guess so” and soon you’ll be squished like a grape.

Pratyahara and Dharana are both very difficult for me. They’re sort of contrary to my nature. I’m not good at denying myself what I want, in a moment. I’m also not good at sitting still for a very long time and staring at a candle flame. I crave activity nearly constantly. Do those things make me a bad person? A bad Yogi?

One of the neat things that I’m realizing is that Yoga has space for the body and brain that you bring to it, even if they’re fidgety and undisciplined. Those two physical traits have no value assigned to them. The fact is, different pieces of the larger practice come more easily than to others, in the same way that different Asana postures come more easily than others.

So the answer is neither yes nor no, as to whether my bad habits make me a bad person or bad Yogi, because a Yoga practice is about choosing new habits. Or, rather, Yoga is about no longer identifying with our thought patterns and habits, and being able to observe both as an outsider, with neutrality.

The fact is, that if you keep trying, if you gently begin again, then one day you’ll have a moment like when Daniel-san realizes that Mr Miyagi had been teaching him Karate all along, and he had the neural pathways to easily flow into the appropriate block. You’ll have a moment of Dhyana.

It may not happen while you’re rewatching The Karate Kid, but it probably won’t hurt to try.

“One who performs his prescribed duties and renounces the results of those actions is a yogi and a sannyasi. One does not become a sannyasi simply by rejecting the performance of sacrifice and performing no activities.” The Bhagavad Gita, chapter 6.1


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