The short answer:
Classical meditation takes two broad focuses. One focus is to use yoga processes that allows a person to spend quality time within their mind with their deeper self. This allows time out from the challenges of life, helps reset perspectives and approaches to these, and improves respect for, and the relationship and comfort with, self.
Experiencing this connection with self, often produces the internal drive from the deeper self, that projects renewed faith in others and passion for life purpose. It is a surrendering process.
The other focus involves using yoga processes to evolve the highest character traits possible for a person’s life related to their life’s challenges. Accomplishing this process can prevent ongoing experiences of emotional stress and a reduced ‘sense of self’ in social relationships. It can promote the achievement of a desired higher quality life. It can assist people to value the spiritual connection with a primal nature that connects all life. It is a growing process.
The Sanskrit word encompassing these meditation processes is called ‘dhyana’. Essentially meditation is self-psychotherapy.
A more detailed answer goes something like this:
The psychotherapy techniques and framework of classical meditation evolved a few millennia ago in ancient India, when culture and society were changing with population growth—from being clan-based hunter-gatherer people (rarely more than 40 people living within clan lands), to being civil-based people incorporating tens of thousands of people living within city-states.
In city states, individuals identified less as a part of nature, and more as a part of the bronze-age technology. They identified less with metaphysics, myths, meanings and intuition, and more with the expression of physics, logic, intellect and science. They identified less with small clan-family identity—and more with that of being a citizen of larger and larger populations of strangers, within organised groups in hierarchies of control and responsibility.
The structure and genetic makeup of the human brain and mind took millions of years of evolution to be most efficient and competent, for individual quality survival, within small clan-based hunter-gatherer groups. My personal experiences with hunter-gatherer people has led me to understand that the hunter-gatherer style of living, although it has little technology to ease the challenges of physical survival, overall it has less emotional stress; individual self-identity is more stable; the mind is quietest; life purpose is clearer; and happiness and contentment have a greater chance of occurring over a longer period.
In hunter-gatherer clans, the unpredictability of nature was the greatest challenge for both individual and coordinated group survival quality. In the emerging bronze age societies, farming and technological inventions, such as the storage silos for wheat and barley seeds, as well as stone protective walls, and permanent dwelling places, heralded increased predictability for survival. This however, required greater cooperation between larger and larger groups of strangers, in order to build, maintain and defend the technology. Strangers tend to cause more vexations to mental tranquility than family and friends.
The clans merged into town communities and eventually into cities. This is the recognised story of the evolution of civilised cultures, supporting larger and larger groups of people in higher and higher density living. Along with this group evolution, there was devolution of individual self-identity. Personal inequality fostered more emotional stress along with the erosion of the quietness of mind. Busyness of mind is demanded when many individuals cooperate, compete, jockey, and trade, in order to acquire and maintain a quality of life based on the material things of life—which are often limited.
In your life today, it is the unpredictability of other people that has now become the greatest challenge for your mental quality of survival—not so much the physical challenges of living in wild nature.
Hunter-gatherer spirituality mostly involved the individual relationship with the metaphysical—for example, the Dreamtime of Australian Aborigines. The religious rituals of civil living, evolved from these hunter-gatherer experiences of personal spirituality. They morphed into group-directed experiences focused on an immutable Godhead, and the worship was guided and dominated by priests. This required the civil communities to construct, and then gather en mass at impressive physical structures such as temples and churches. The immutable laws from God were written down and unchallengeable. This was the dawn of religion, with an emphasis on group conformity and common focus on a Godhead.
The personal connection to the spiritual values was appropriated to emphasise social-cultural values regarding the physical world. This distanced the individual from being aligned with their intuitive experiences, to being aligned with the intellectual experiences, within a framework of immutable rules/laws (such as the 10 commandments) attributed to this ‘imaged’ God. This process evolved the non-dual philosophies of the great religions of the world. This acceptance to a Godhead belief was the essential ingredient necessary to maintain community cohesion and relatively peaceful relationships within large groups of strangers. It underpinned the systems of civil living but also fostered physical inequality, classism and racism related to physical existence.
The Beginnings of Classical Yoga
In life, not everyone desires to be totally integrated within mass views and philosophies. Some people desire a more personal connection with their spiritual values. In the early Indian bronze age cultures, some personal spiritual techniques smouldered and survived. These techniques must have been taught outside those teachings of the dominating established religions such as Vedanta. The yoga historian, Georg Feuerstein has suggested that classical yoga was associated with the Forest People of ancient India, who were persecuted by the religious establishment, that was using some of the techniques attributed to yoga to support their united focus on Brahman—the highest universal principle or Godhead (1).
Using the personal spiritual techniques of yoga allows individuals to step away from the established religious doctrines and practices, to re-experience their personal connection with spiritual reality. The ability to use these techniques was called ‘Classical Yoga’.
The first recorded use of the word ‘yoga’ occurred in the Atharva Veda (1000 BC), and in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. (600 to 900 BC). In these texts, the word ‘yoga’ was used to describe horses joined to a carriage by a wooden yoke. Although it was a term for the sophisticated transport of that time, it was also used to denote mental processes used by certain people.
The word ‘yoga’ comes from the verb ‘yuj’ which means ‘the act or process of harnessing’, ‘to harness’, ‘to yoke’, ‘to join or unite’. Adding an ‘a’ to the verb yuj (yuja) creates the situation of being yoked, being in harness or being co-joined as a unit.
The word ‘yoga’ has been used for more than two millennia now as an analogy to describe mental-spiritual techniques. For example, in today’s world, if I say “Those two people over there are a ‘couple’, you will intuitively understand more about their behaviours, relationship and the way they think about each other, than if I said: “They are two people”. The word ‘couple’ was originally used to mean something that joined. The word ‘coupling’ originally meant joining two carriages. This is similar to the way ancient Indian people adapted the word ‘yoga’ as a visual analogy, from a connected horse and carriage, to denote those people who had mastered certain techniques to yoke themselves spiritually within their mind.
Traditionally, classical yoga people (yogis or yoginis) were said to have special powers or abilities (evolved character traits and attitudes), to cope with extremely difficult life situations, and connect with the highest principles attributed to life. They have developed physical abilities or mental abilities, or both. The word ‘hatha’ means ‘by force’, and when joined with ‘yoga’, means to yoke or join the mind to the body through force (or discipline), to maintain physical fitness and health at optimum levels throughout life.
The word ‘raja’ means ‘ruler, king or controller’, and when joined with ‘yoga’ means to yoke or join the experiences associated within the mind that give mental/emotional control, balance and equanimity. It also can mean the ability to yoke or join with equanimity, between minds, and even with the highest Principle of the universe (Brahman). (Brahman, as a metaphysical concept, refers to the single binding unity behind all life in the universe).
Modern yoga people interpret ‘yoga’ to mean: the joining of ‘body, mind, and spirit. This is a type of summary of both hatha and raja combined. There are also four traditional facets of applying yoga to the religious focus: karma, kriya, bhakti, and jnana.
The Dual Nature of Mind
So within the minds of ancient Indian people, when they were incorporating raja yoga, they were harnessing two things known as ‘prakriti’ and ‘purusha’. Prakriti means ‘original nature, natural form, origin, primary nature, a body, matter’ (from pra + kri: ‘to perform’), and refers to the things of physical nature. In a mystical/spiritual sense, prakriti relates to how a person interprets themselves and their physical body—in the form of the material world of nature. In their consciousness, they conceptualise that they exist as a physical being—sensing the world and examining what they sense, with their intellect.
Purusha means ‘the primeval part of man as the soul of the universe, a human being or a supreme being’, and refers to influences within the mind that are outside physical nature. In a mystical/spiritual sense, purusha relates to how a person interprets themselves within the inner reality of their mind: emotions and sense of self, beliefs, values, internal drives and motivations, mystical connections, of which they are not directly in control. Some people also experience internal voices, and visions.
Purusha is interpreted as our primal nature, which connects to all life; a soul experience; a part of a universal principal. In a modern interpretation we would identify this as the non-conscious facets of our mind.
In raja yoga there is also a term ‘Ishvara’. Ishvara means, ‘able to do, capable, a master, a prince, a Lord’ (from îs: ‘to belong to’). In Patanjali’s Sutra (1.24), Ishvara is described as a distinct (visesa) and capable (sakya) type of purusha. It denotes the pristine characteristic of the inner reality of mind, which when yoked to the consciousness, allows people to be capable and competent, and thus untouched by the suffering that physical life can cause. The word ‘Ishvara’ denotes how a person interprets the highest ideals or values of their inner reality. In a modern sense, you could interpret these ideals as the most capable characteristic traits that a person could evolve, so that they could ‘master’ the spectrum of challenges related to their life—to conclude that they are experiencing the highest quality of a life (whatever quality is to them).
Yoga is said to incorporate a dual philosophy. The first requirement is to recognise that there is a duality within your mind—one part you feel is you, which you ‘control’; and another part that influences you, and you don’t feel you have control over. Once this duality is realised, then by continually using techniques to yoke these two parts of mind as one—with a focus on excellence or higher purpose—this is the act of being in yoga.
The Techniques of Samyama
The ability to yoke these parts of mind is practiced using techniques, known as dharana, and dhyana, so that you can create and experience a state of mental character traits known as samadhi (from sam + â + dhâ: ‘to fix the mind on’). Yoga is applied to seven facets of conscious experience, to produce the eighth (samadhi) (Sutra 2.27). This is known as the ashtanga (meaning eight, and overall attributed to eight branches, or areas of life involving this mind focus).
Dharana are the techniques to keep concentrated focus on an internal language of mind—images and metaphors related to past events (samskara), beliefs, understandings, inclinations, desires, goals and philosophies—that the non-conscious mind projects onto our conscious mind, deep within the inner reality of our mind. This inner language is dynamic, and the practice of dharana is to concentrate this language around a kernel of particular life circumstance, for the purpose of evolving characteristic traits that would better handle the particular circumstance—with a focus on higher purpose and value of outcome.
Once successfully held using dharana, the techniques associated with dhyana can be employed. Dhyana is interpreted as ‘meditation’ and involves various mental processes, that can create harmony between the non-conscious metaphors-beliefs (that people have acquired), and their wants/needs and desires of the life situations they wish to experience—for survival quality and predictability. Within the processes of dhyana, the person has to be aware of the higher purpose and excellence to be acquired from their experiences (particularly with other people). This is the Ishvara focus, and it is performed with reverence and respect.
Once harmony within mind occurs, basic beliefs, and understandings change. Stressful emotions subside. Sense of self, and the way people value themselves, rises to excellence. Their inner characteristic traits relating to excellence and higher purpose also evolve. This allows them to exhibit mastery (to be a prince, or a lord) of all the life situations they encounter. They have access to greater competency, to live a more spiritual and fulfilling life, if they wish.
Successful dhyana of transforming inappropriate beliefs, shifts the state of character. This is the Samadhi experience. The new awakening is sometimes euphoric, sometimes trance-like, sometimes vastly peaceful, sometimes appreciative. It also generates more confidence, and competence. From this time, the new character traits are to be valued, and used in the every day collection of experiences. Dharana, with dhyana, with samadhi, are the associates to bring the mind into harmony, and together are known as samyama.
Most Meditation is Not Dhyana
The five main Hindu religious philosophies (and somewhat for Buddhism) incorporated many of the practices of yoga into their doctrines, and changed the emphasis from an individual spiritual focus within the mind, to a more religious and social focus, with an aim to worship Brahman. The doctrines promoted group worship, prayer, ritual, and the need to follow an immutable Godhead doctrine.
Forty years ago, yoga was still considered “devil worship” by most Christian groups of the Western world, because of the religious connection of these Hindu philosophies. Today the exercise component of yoga (hatha) is now well accepted, and most people have also experimented with meditation.
However, in my understanding and experiences, what is being taught as ‘meditation’, is not the classical form of meditation—it is not the processes of dhyana.
The word “meditation” is not from India, it is derived from the Latin “meditationem—a thinking over”, then from ancient French: “meditacioun” which means: contemplation; devout preoccupation; private devotions; prayer; thought; reflection; study and meditative approaches to prayer. It is a religious incorporation of a spiritual practice.
This was the word that early Christian Europeans could best associate in meaning, when they observed certain people in ancient India, sitting in a lotus or half-lotus position with an internal focus, in parks, gardens and the forest (but not doing this in the temples).
Classical meditation is not contemplation, reflection, study, or meditative approaches to prayer, nor private devotions. It does not have the primary aim to still the mind—that is associated with the techniques of pratyahara (from prati + a + hri: ‘to take away’). It is not a passive mind exercise. It is closer to self-psychotherapy within the privacy of the mind, where processes occur to change the meanings of one’s life story, grow higher characteristic traits which support individual survival quality, and are applied when interacting with others, and with nature.
Every time you practice dhyana, you change yourself with intention.
The dhyana processes remove emotional stress in social relationships, create equality within self through connecting with the spiritual values of life. “Sense of self” changes and evolves a deeper appreciation of “what can be done to get the highest quality from this life”. It actively evolves ideal characteristic traits, and through this connects, in ideal ways, to all life—and beyond to Brahman.
The process of dhyana involves learning to have unwavering focus using an internal 4-dimensional language, which relates to five facets of human social survival. Mental-theatrical intention (rituals/mudras) along with breathing techniques and intention (pranayama), are used with this language, to evolve character traits with abilities to overcome life’s challenges—through transcending mediocrity in thoughts and behaviours.
Healthy Brain Chemistry
To successfully use classical meditation, people must have normal healthy human brain neurochemistry, and normal human health, neither illness nor pain, nor frailty. This is where the exercises and diets of hatha yoga have their value.
When you are sick you cannot successfully meditate. When your brain is chemically dysfunctional—using alcohol, too much caffeine, fructose overload, pharmaceutical or street drugs—the ability to meditate is sacrificed. Specific herbal medicines can increase meditation effectiveness by normalising brain neurochemistry. Certain psychotropic drugs can give an experience away from the reality of the mundane, and allow individuals the vision to break free of social conditioning, to pursue a more spiritual path outside the control of other people and establishment authority.
1. Feuerstein, G. 1998, ‘The Yoga Tradition, its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice’. Hohm Press, Arizona.
If you desire to learn more about classical meditation, and refine your own techniques, consider doing the 10 week online course on classical yoga using the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali as a reference.
All levels of experience are welcome.
For expressions of interest, go to: https://www.billgiles.com.au/raja-yoga-course/