The word dhyana is commonly translated as meditation. The colloquial word dhyana, used umpteen times daily, means being attentive or paying attention and that is an essential meaning for the word "meditation." Meditation is attentive, conscious living.
There is a formal word called dhyana as well. It is one of the eight limbs or steps of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. The eight limbs are: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi. Yama and niyama are codes of personal and social conduct. Asana (conscious movement) and pranayama (conscious breath) have been described in separate sections of their own. Here, we talk about the rest of the limbs as we now move beyond the psychophysiology of the first four limbs. Pratyahara is turning mental awareness from sense objects and sensory experiences associated with them to the internal space. The sensory world is the macrocosm of our external lives. The space within is the microcosm of our internal lives. This step marks the transition from the sensory and physiological aspects to the internal psychic and psychological aspects. Dharana is focus. This focus can be internal or external. Dhyana has already been explained here and samadhi is enlightenment.
According to Mircae Eliade in Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, in Isvara Gita 12 pranayamas on an object of meditation is dharana or concentration. Twelve pranayamas is 12 controlled, equal, and retarded respirations. So 12 pranayamas = 1 dharana. 12 sustained dharanas on a single point = meditation. Meditation = 144 focused pranayamas on the object of meditation. In the structured process of meditation, breath is one step, one unit of meditation. Be attentive to each breath and whatever arises in that breath. We walk one step at a time, no matter how long the walk. We meditate one breath at a time no matter how long the process. All that is relevant is the one step, the one breath, the one moment. We can simplify it and say that meditation is sustained, one-pointed concentration or focus!
There are so many ways meditation is defined. According to Patanjali, it is the cessation of mental activity. Some say it is mind with no thought. Others say meditation is a clear and still mind that reflects its true nature by not harboring any thought or mental activity.
What is clear is that meditation is extremely useful in learning to relax, deal with stress and anxiety, improving concentration and focus, and knowing your self.
In structured, formal meditation, also called passive meditation, a person sits still with an erect, and upright trunk, eyes open or half closed. The mental awareness is directed inward to be attentive to the universe within. This is not contemplation. There is a method to the formal meditation process. It is developing awareness or mindfulness of the manomaya kosha (mental body) and vigyanamaya kosha (wisdom/knowledge body). There is a concentrated effort to rest in the silent attention of awareness and not identify with the ongoing thoughts.
There are many commonalities to all the different styles of meditation. Here we see them in conjunction with Patanjali's eight limbs of yoga. There are no hard lines between the limbs as one flows and evolves into the other. All these are steps in a process, the process of meditation.
Relaxation and posture or asana: The first step is posture, or pose, or asana. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras specifies different sitting asana that are commonly used in yogic, Buddhist, Zen, Tao, and Sufi meditations. The head, neck, and spine are aligned and erect. The body is relaxed as it begins to settle down and become quiet. The process of relaxation begins with paying attention to the body, witnessing the body, becoming physically calm and still. If the body moves or is uncomfortable, the mind immediately moves to the body and off the object of meditation, which is often the breath, mantra, or an image.
The first step is understanding and settling the annamaya kosha, the physical body.
Conscious witness/awareness, pranayama or conscious breath: The process of being attentive, being a witness (sakshi, drashta, being mindful, present, in the moment) starts shifting from the calm body to the breath. The breath is the next layer of movement. Witnessing the breath and practicing pranayama, the process of turning inward begins.
The second step is knowledge of the pranamaya kosha, the body of vital energy.
Calm mind, sense withdrawal or pratyahara: The mind, usually extroverted, is to be turned within. It is constantly distracted by the external world of senses. The analogy often used is that of the chariot. The mind is the chariot and the senses are the horses. The horses pull the mind in wildly different directions. Awareness is the driver that must reign in the horses.
The third step is knowledge of manomaya kosha, the mental/mind body.
Pratyahara practices start pulling the mind away from the external activities. Pulling in the mind and senses is not enough. The senses can be made dormant but the mind must be given something in the inner mental space to focus on. It needs an anchor to avoid being constantly churned in the turbulent sea of mental activity. (See the story of Samudra Manthan.) It anchors on the breath, a mantra, an object, an image, or a symbol. The mind begins to settle down and become less restless as it attends to the object of focus. The process of relaxation deepens to the mind, relaxing the body even more deeply. It can now focus with fewer distractions.
The basis of all meditation is being attentive. It is difficult to be attentive during a state of agitation. So these steps are necessary to be able to meditate. It is also very difficult to turn within when the mind is totally engaged with the external world through highly active senses. The ability to separate part of the awareness, the attention that watches all this as a spectator, helps to put a little distance, some objectivity for a better perspective.
Being a spectator of the body and the mind is essential; but in order for it to work the spectator must be silent, neutral and can make no judgments! If there is judgment, be attentive without reacting further. Judgment immediately blocks the ability of being a neutral spectator. It also starts a vicious cycle of reactions. That stops us from learning about aspects of the mind we do not like. In meditation, we must clearly see all aspects of ourselves and accept who we are.
The mind must disengage from external stimuli and from the restless distractions of the body. Then the mind can be turned in and given something specific to attend to. The process is somewhat like getting a young child to stop playing outside and come indoors to do some homework. Here the child is the mind and the parent is the awareness/witness/silent spectator.
Letting go and inner focus or dharana: Now that the body and mind have been settled, are attentive, the mind can begin to focus on itself. The mind is the subject and the mind is the object. The spectator mind pays attention to the mind space very quietly, without judgment. As the mind focuses on itself it is attentive to all its content--the old and current programming that includes labels, biases, ideologies, preconceptions and conceptions. Nothing is avoided, or rejected, or sought.
The knowledge of manomaya kosha continues to deepen.
This inner, attentive focus starts clearing the mental space as it begins to let go of conditioning and programming, or is at least aware of it. There is a variety of objects, images, inner channels, spaces that can be the object of focus. As the mind starts opening, it starts freeing itself from unconscious, mechanical actions and behaviors. It understands its conditioning and programming. Each mind is a set of complex programs, conditioning, concepts that it has been acquiring since birth.
For instance, no situation has any meaning; it is the reaction that gives it the meaning. Let us explain that. Two teenagers from a small town go together for a trip to a nearby large city. One loves the city, the trains and buses, the crowds, the bustle and the energy. She loves the different foods and diverse people. The other hates it. She cannot stand the noise and the dirt. The crowds tire her and she wants simple, familiar foods. The city is the same, or neutral. It is the reaction that each has that makes the experience so different. Both reactions (we will not label them as positive or negative as that would be based on our conditioning!) result from each teenager's own conditioning or programming that determines the biases, likes and dislikes, comfort levels, and perceptions. It is the reaction that determined the experience, not the situation.
We view everything through the lens of our conditioning, but do not know how deeply colored our lens is, or what color the lens is. The more we cling to a certain pattern of thinking, the more rigid the views, the deeper the conditioning and the effect of ego or I-ness. We also do not realize that everyone's lens is different from our own. So what is real, uncolored?
So when the mind starts letting go its attachment and identification with thoughts, the grip of conditioning and programming lessens. The coloring decreases. There is less reaction. Like/dislike, pleasant/unpleasant, love/hate reactions are more muted. There is clarity in thinking and there is greater perception. The programs and conditioning that formed the concepts and thoughts have not necessarily gone away; they have just settled to the bottom of the mind pool or been transformed. They no longer cage and limit the mind to the same extent.
The murky mind is becoming clearer.
Opening up and meditation or dhyana: Liberating and freeing the mind from its cage of tethers and fence posts requires openness. The mind is now receptive to change, open to letting go the I-ness of ahamkar or ego.
Wisdom flows in and this is the vigyanamaya kosha, the body of wisdom.
The conditioning and programming created the character and personality that becomes "I" as distinct from "you." (We relished that distinctiveness and wanted to be "different" earlier.) "I" has an ego that keeps it separate and distinct. What happens when the tethers and fence posts of ahamkar/ego and its programming that walled the "I" within its boundaries dissolve? Mind opens up as it keeps being minutely, totally attentive. It begins to see itself for what it truly is without any superimposed programming. Before, it saw the programming. It confused the programming to be itself. This is dhyana.
What was there before any programming?
When there is no or minimal conditioning, when the mind opens to itself (before it was closed to itself), all basis for all dualities and boundaries such as like/dislike, pleasant/unpleasant, love/hate, me/you are gone. If those dualities are gone, the open mind is liberated from the desire to seek, avoid, or reject.
Awareness or consciousness now accepts whatever is, just as it is at that moment. It is no thing and it is every thing. It does not have to choose between its self. Every thing is it--its projection. It can watch the thought dispassionately without becoming the thought. It can look at a situation without becoming the situation. There is freedom from the concepts and conditioning of the thoughts of the past or future because there is only now, and so it is liberated from them. It was always free but it did not know it. The conditioning and programming created the illusion of the cage of "I" with its ring of fences.
Samadhi or enlightenment: This is when anandamaya kosha (bliss body) is revealed. There is no identification with the physical body. So there is no identification with anything that happens to the body such as birth and death. Samadhi is beyond description. This is a very rare state.
Being completely attentive to its Self, free of all illusions, the awareness of the "witness" knows that there is no "I." It knows itself to be the infinite cosmic consciousness. The individual consciousness has merged totally into the cosmic. It is beyond thought, form, time, space. It simply is.