Michael teaches yoga and meditation, practises bodywork, and does philosophy relating to the mind, body, and yoga.

the "goal" of meditation

“Meditation is what happens when you sit down to meditate.”

I’m not at all sure who was the originator of this brilliant definition. A friend of mine, who is no longer with us, told me about this maxim, which came from his own meditation teacher, after I had already been practising myself for four years or so. I found it revolutionary because, up until that point, I had found the process of meditation rewarding yet confusing and often frustrating. The frustration came, in retrospect, from the fact that I had an awful lot of preconceived notions about the practice and its purpose, which my experiences were simply failing to live up to most of the time. This short film, which I made nearly six years ago (?!?!) may help illustrate my point:

Let’s look, as a sort of launching point, at the role meditation plays in Patañjali’s eight-limbed (ashtanga) yoga. The last four limbs of the ashtanga comprise what yogis often call Rājayoga, or the “royal” yoga of internalised practice. 

The four limbs of Rājayoga are:

  1. Pratyahara - withdrawing the senses 
  2. Dhāranā - focused concentration 
  3. Dhyāna - effortless concentration/meditation 
  4. Samādhi - supreme internal absorption

We have already spent a bit of time exploring the importance of pratyahara as a means of ensuring that the mind does not become distracted by external factors. The necessity of this step becomes clear as soon as you begin to focus your attention. Think of the footballer standing at the penalty spot. It’s a stressful situation for even the most seasoned player, and can become even more stressful if supporters of the opposing team are seated (well, more likely in this scenario, standing) behind their keeper’s goal. This is an exciting if anxious moment for the crowd, who will do everything they can in order to distract the penalty taker’s focus. They’ll chant, shout distracting messages, wave their colourful team scarves in the air, and move about as much as possible in order to put the player off. It is in such an instant that pratyahara (whether or not the kicker speaks Sanskrit) is of the utmost importance—and it becomes all the more challenging when we consider the fact that natural selection blessed us all with a negativity bias

In nature, a creature who gives a balanced amount of attention to potential threats and potential rewards dooms itself to oblivion. A juicy plum hanging in the tree simply cannot be as tempting as a crouching tiger is terrifying; we must give far more weight to our would-be killer in order to enjoy our fruits later on. As a result, we all descend from the most vigilant of organisms; moreover, according to this study, people tend to spend considerably more time looking at negative images than positive ones. One can only imagine how much more this effect is amplified when thousands of screaming fans are taunting you at an extremely important moment! Although a penalty kick might not quite give you the exact same impulse to run away in terror as the crouching tiger would, your system does have a surprisingly difficult time distinguishing the difference. Yet the good news is that we can exercise our attention in a way that eventually allows us to override the flight instinct: while youthful footballers need to consciously exercise an extraordinary amount of willpower simply in order to avoid the crowd’s tactics, the more experienced players (just like experienced meditators) access this withdrawal of the senses so automatically that it doesn’t even occur to them to become distracted by anything external to the task at hand. 

Sometimes, though, the tiger is not the source of our negativity...

Sometimes, though, the tiger is not the source of our negativity...

The next thing the penalty kicker needs to contend with is whether or not he is mentally getting in his own way. Although a more experienced player may be effectively able to block out the sounds and sights of the massive crowd that is passionately taunting him, it is another task entirely to avoid becoming distracted by the internal pressures of the moment. Although the teammates, the club manager, or the player’s parents or friends may be nowhere in sight, their voices may be playing in his head; perhaps they are giving him various, sometimes conflicting pieces of advice. He needs to harness his ability to silence these voices in addition to his own: the expectations he has of himself about how important this moment is; the memory of the last time he kicked a penalty, particularly if it had been an unsuccessful attempt; the fear of how awful it would feel if he were to miss the penalty in front of a live crowd, a live TV audience, and subsequent watchers on Match of the Day and YouTube. Compared with the external noise, these thoughts may very well be much more difficult to silence. As soon as one thought comes, the player must push it away before suddenly realising that another thought has come in from the direction he wasn’t paying attention to! So he has to push that thought away as well, and so forth. It requires both vigilance and ease: if he lets his guard down, he won’t be able to give his attention to the necessary task; if, on the other hand, he tries too hard to silence all the thoughts, the very strain can create yet more unnecessary thoughts which deplete his ability to concentrate. The process of steadfastly yet patiently bringing the attention back to the focal point defines dhāranā, the second aspect of Rājayoga. 

Mental focus depends on a certain sense of acceptance about the fact that distracting thoughts will come. Notably, this is precisely the point at which many people who attempt meditation feel as though they have failed: they believe that a “successful” meditation is one in which they have achieved a complete emptiness of mind. But thoughts are, of course, inevitable. When they do come, the key is to bring the attention back to the point of focus: in the footballer’s case, getting the ball past the keeper and into the back of the net. In the process of meditation, the point of focus can be any number of things, depending on the specific tradition and technique. Sometimes, the focal point is the breath, sometimes a mantra, or a visualisation, or a candle flame, or the experience of consciousness itself. Wherever you have chosen to aim your meditative focus, the idea behind dhāranā is that you set your attention onto something, then notice when it wanders, then bring it back to the focal point. It really is as simple as that, though many meditators find this process understandably frustrating. Importantly, however, allowing that frustration to grow into some form of mental self-flagellation or a sense of defeat serves to push attention further away from the focal point, leading into a more furious spiral of distracting thoughts. 

Revisiting our anxious footballer on the penalty spot, we might perhaps see more easily how self-defeating such frustration would be. If he were to succumb to the temptation of growing more frustrated with himself every time a distracting thought came up, he would not only fall pray to a depleted sense of mental attention; he would also begin to experience the significant intensity of physical tension which comes along with such frustration. This bodily constriction would render him unable to perform the spot kick with any kind of effectiveness. The knowledge of his decreased effectiveness would feed into his mental apprehension, which would feed back into the mounting physical constriction, and so on. If he is instead able to maintain a sense of calm even in the face of his mental distractions, the chances of maintaining physical suppleness also increase significantly. In other words, his ability to bring his attention away from the disturbances and toward the focal point in a non-attached fashion gives him physical advantages as well. 

While it takes a significant amount of presence of mind, this continued re-centring of attention does eventually begin to bear out moments when the gaps between distractions lengthen. At these points, the re-centring of attention may not need to happen as frequently, and concentration seems to be riding on its own wave. These moments when maintaining attention on the focal point seems to require minimal effort is what Patañjali means by dhyāna—so-called “effortless” attention, the third aspect of Rājayoga. Without a fair amount of experience (and the exact amount, of course, varies from person to person), moments of dhyāna tend to be rather short-lived. Eventually another distraction will come up, which will need to be noticed and the attention will then need to be re-centred through the process of dhāranā. However, the more seasoned any footballer becomes in these types of intense situations, the more dependable his access to this state becomes. In fact, many experienced athletes who compete at the highest echelons of their fields often report that the pressure of these situations tends to create an even greater sense of ease (known in positive psychology as “flow”) when it comes to finding such moments of attentional stability. 

But as even experienced meditators will tell you, there are never any real guarantees as to how quickly one can reach such a state—and it is perhaps even more problematic knowing how long these moments will last. For the footballer, it seems as though much of the training associated with kicking a penalty is about developing the awareness to recognise these undistracted moments when they come, and seizing such a moment as the opportunity to go for the kick. The quantity and quality of repetitions the player has put into his physical practice of executing such a task will determine the degree to which the bodily motions of kicking the penalty have been incorporated into the somatic schema via both what we know as “muscle memory” and the motor-neuronal representations which have established themselves as reliable representational pathways in the brain. The automaticity of such an execution will create an internal environment in which the player does not have to put any deliberate thought (or if any, a minimal amount) into the physical execution of the penalty, which will reduce his chances of encountering, mid-kick, a distracting pull out of the self-sustaining state of dhyāna.

For the footballer, the goal is literal; however, for the meditator, it is far less well-defined—to the extent that we can say that she has a goal at all. Like the footballer, the meditator wants to establish her ability to recognise the undistracted moments, but she is at a bit of a disadvantage in that she does not have anything concrete to perform at such a time. In fact, if she does attempt to do so—for example, by trying to “capture” the moment, or by creating some kind of narrative about it—it is more than likely that she will relinquish her dhyāna by inviting plenty of potential distractions, which will probably come more frequently again. If anything, the task for the meditator, after recognising that she has hit upon a moment of dhyāna, is to surrender to it so as to allow it to extend itself as long as it can. But this raises the question: to what end? If maintaining goals in the yogic process is counterproductive, why should we aim to experience, or extend dhyāna? Furthermore, why would we aim to go “beyond” that even, into samādhi, the mystical-sounding, all-absorbing final limb of Rājayoga?

It does seem rather counter-intuitive. On the one hand, focusing on some meditative “goal” is a bit of a slippery slope: it can take us away from our current point of focus, which can make meditation increasingly more frustrating. On the other hand, we must have some reason that we put ourselves through such practices, rather than fatalistically doing nothing at all. I feel that both philosophy and praxis ought to be ameliorative—they should provide something for us that will make life somehow better. So what, exactly, should we take “better” to mean? In order to answer this question, we will have to take a closer look at what exactly we mean by a concept which, up until now, we have taken almost as an a priori fact about human existence. In my description of both the spot-kicking footballer and the meditating yogi, I have referred to this concept as both “attention” and “focus.”

At first glance, there does not seem to be anything inherently controversial about using these words, or tacitly subscribing to these concepts. But because philosophy serves the important function of examining the deeper truths beneath the structures of our assumptions, we would do well to look specifically at the notion of attention precisely because it, perhaps more than anything else, defines the common thread amongst all of yoga’s various iterations throughout its long and motley history. Some of the earliest mentions of yoga as a practice came in the Upanishads, which describe the process in terms of an attentional synthesis of sorts. From the Katha Upanishad:

When senses are firmly reined in/ That is Yoga, so people think/ From distractions a man is then free/ For Yoga is the coming-into-being/ As well as the ceasing to be…

And from the Śvetāśvatara Upanishad:

When he keeps his body straight, with the three sections erect, and draws the senses together with the mind into his heart, a wise man shall cross all the frightful rivers with the boat consisting of [brahman]. Compressing his breaths in here and curbing his movements, a man should exhale through one nostril when his breath is exhausted. A wise man should keep his mind vigilantly under control.

Both of these texts (wonderfully translated by Patrick Olivelle), likely date from the 4th century BCE. 

The Bhagavad-Gītā (ca. 2nd century BCE) also defines the various forms of yoga in terms of where the yogin strives to hold his attention: in karma yoga, the intention stays on the action itself, rather than the fruits of the action; in jñāna yoga, one places attention on the knowledge itself; and in bhakti yoga, the devotee endeavours to couple his attentive awareness entirely to the object of his devotion—namely, in the case of the Gītā, Krishna. In more recent times, the internationally acclaimed American yoga teacher Elena Brauer named her most recent book on the process of yoga The Art of Attention

Patañjali’s text appears, temporally, between the Upanishads and Brauer, but it does of course carry the thread of the importance of attention in rather major ways. In the second sūtra of his composition, he defines the practice in the following way:

Yoga to bring the swirlings of consciousness to a halt.

While all of this may appear straightforward and relatively sensible so far, don’t worry—it gets far more complicated! Patañjali’s claims about the purpose of the yogic process leave us with a fair number of rather awkward questions. The ones I am particularly interested in are: What, exactly, is attention? And who, exactly, is paying it? Whether or not you are familiar with yoga philosophy or you think you know the answer to this question, I encourage you to check back in next week. I’ll hopefully show you how, when it comes to who we really are, both our common-sense notions and what we think we know from yoga philosophy simply cannot be true...

who am i? part one: who you are not