In Sutra 9, Samadhi Pada, Patanjali speaks of vikalpa, meaning fancy or unfounded belief. Something we can struggle with in our meditation practice. In order to reach the state of one-pointedness or ekagrata, we must learn to put aside the flights of fancy to which our minds can be prone – trains of thought which may have their basis in sensations and impressions arising from our practice, or may not be related to our practice in any way. I think all new and seasoned meditators alike have had an experience of the wandering mind. Indeed we may never be aware of the way our minds jump and wander from one thing to another until we start to meditate. And the first experience of the stillness that one day cuts through this is such a revelation.
So, in our practice, the challenge is to simply rest in awareness, not trying to shut out our thoughts but to bring our minds back to our focus – often, but not always the breath – time and time and time again. There is nothing but the breath, nothing but that moment. Other impressions will continue to arise, but gradually we are more able to bring ourselves back and to stop ourselves from spinning off in all directions.
And this is hard, hard work. To an observer, it is impossible to tell how difficult it is. It looks as though we are sitting still, doing nothing at all. It may even look as if we are asleep! But the meditator knows, really feels, the difficulty, and also the effect. The increased stillness, the sense of calm, the serenity. This may only last a short time, a tiny fraction of our sitting time. Gradually it may last longer. But it’s elusive – we cannot catch hold of it. To reach those few precious moments, we have had to learn to let go – of the dramas and fancies of our wandering minds, of the stiffness and discomfort of our bodies, of the incessant need to move. And now we let go too of the state we have been striving for. We have to learn not to strive, not to want the same experience the next time. Our practice is to sit, to focus in stillness, and to accept whatever comes – the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, the stillness and the fidgeting (mental or physical). Everything must change; we cannot capture a moment, assume it is the pinnacle and stay there. There will be amazing experiences along the way, and days our meditation is just dreadful. But in continuing to practice, that wandering mind becomes a friend. It helps us to recognise the patterns of our behaviour, the things we obsess over, the amount of time we dwell in scenarios of our own making. As TS Eliot said in ‘The Four Quartets’ and again in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’:
Human kind cannot bear very much reality
We like to invent our own fancies, particularly those in which we can make ourselves right, in which we come out looking good to ourselves. But meditation makes us braver. It helps us to see more clearly. More truthfully. To live in reality, rather than our own work of fiction.