Raja Yoga, one of the main four paths of yoga, is an eight steps systematic path that prepares us for meditation and eventually samadhi. It is sometimes described as an eight-rung ladder. More and more people today want to meditate but they find it quite challenging in spite of the simple instructions which vary between following the breath or fixating on an image, word or sound. To deal with the difficulties of establishing a stable meditation practice Raja Yoga offers a series of preliminary practices. The first steps start with moral restraints and observances which help create a pure and healthy lifestyle conducive to meditation. Then come asanas and pranayama to clean and unblock the energetic channels in the astral body. At this point our body and mind have calmed down and we are able to withdraw our senses. Now we are ready to concentrate although this is not meditation yet. What we call today meditation in many schools and traditions is in fact learning to concentrate the mind and keep the body still. Once this is attained we can enter effortlessly into the state of meditation. Concentration is therefore a necessary and fundamental preparation for the essential practice of meditation.
In the Bon* Dzogchen tradition of Tibet the practice of concentration is thoroughly examined and describes three stages. The first stage is “forced” concentration. It involves the application of effort. We persist in the practice to improve concentration because we are not accustomed to it. In the second stage we further develop this effortfull concentration until it transforms into an effortless and tranquil state. In the third stage we relax the concentration until it turns into a state of stable tranquility.
As we continue with our concentration practice different kinds of internal and external signs will appear indicating that we have gained a certain amount of control over our mind. This tradition says that although it is important to get those signs, it is also important not to seek to obtain them as there is the risk that we may willfully create them. If there are no signs the instructions recommend intensifying the practice using sound such an external or internal OM, practice in the company of the wise (satsang) or even going on a pilgrimage. There are eight internal signs:
The first sign is like a turtle that, when put in water, retracts its limbs into its shell. The practitioner feels almost like her mind cannot move.
The second sign is the image of a little bird in a cold wind that starts to tremble. Our mind starts to tremble because it is becoming very subtle and clear.
The third sign is like a crab that moves its limbs in a disordered way. This is a sign that the mind is not restrained or involved in making judgements but has effortlessly assumed its natural condition. After this experience we feel relaxed and loose without there being any imposed order in our thoughts.
The fourth stage is derived from ancient times where there were no matches and Tibetans still used to strike a flint to start a fire. Sometimes you get a spark, sometimes you don’t. This means that during the meditation session sometimes we are calm and sometimes we are not. By having both experiences we can comprehend what is true understanding and identify when we are in a calm state.
The fifth sign is like clear water flowing through a very narrow tap. This means that the state of the mind has become stable and even like a continuous fine flow.
The sixth sign is like a bee that does not want to move far from a flower full of nectar. This means that we feel very good, we have attachment to that happiness and we do not want to stop. However, this is not a negative kind of attachment but a desire to continue to practice for a long time.
The seventh sign is like a fish swimming in the sea in any direction it likes, without being concerned about any obstacles or accidents. This is like a sudden sensation of freedom, a feeling that in whichever direction the mind moves, there is no disturbance or distraction.
The eighth sign is like the wind blowing through leaves without getting stuck to anything. This means that whatever thoughts arise the mind continues to flow without forming attachments.
There are also external signs like not wishing to move physically or wanting to laugh or to cry for no apparent reason. It may seem we are going a little crazy but it just means that we are harmonizing our internal energies as a result of having liberated our mind.
The thorough application of concentration and the experience of the subsequent signs allow us to enter and remain effortlessly and for longer periods of time in the state of meditation, a state of presence and clarity. We are finally able to observe how thoughts continue to arise and disappear without following or suppressing them. Remaining in this state where thoughts self-liberate, there is no attachment or aversion, inner or outer, there is just recognition that all “outer” really is a projection of the “inner” state, and that is sufficient. At this point we have reached the top of the Raja Yoga ladder, a rung beyond high or low, first or last.
*Bon is the native religion of Tibet. The teachings presented here are from the Dzogchen tradition published by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche in Wonders of the Natural Mind (2000)