Most of us perceive meditation as sitting in silence with our eyes closed. Free of thoughts, free of worries.
While some of us may be truly in a state of meditation, the rest of us could be just technically, practising concentration and conditioning our body and mind to receive the experiences of meditation.
The preparatory step to meditation is concentration, and to practice concentration, we first need to learn to withdraw from external distractions. Patanjali described this as Pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses in the Yoga Sutra.
Practising Pratyahara allows us to develop sensitivity and awareness of our awareness. By that, I meant being aware of the sensory inputs and our reactions or response towards them. What are our emotions, feelings, thoughts and actions resulting from what we see, hear, feel, touch and taste? The leading practice here is to observe and maintain equanimity.
As we take a step back from the external stimulations, we leave them floating, so they are just there, while time and space allow us to look inward with care.
Pratyahara enables us to practice concentration and to develop unwavering focus towards our object of meditation or on our breath. In the Yoga Sutra, the practice of concentration is called Dharana. This one-pointed focus and extended period of concentration naturally lead us to meditation, or Dhyana, where we become one with the object of meditation and ourselves. Most often than not, it is in Dhyana that our true self and purpose are revealed.
In Dharana, or concentration, we focus on one single object. Our consciousness is internalised. In Dhyana, or meditation, our consciousness is expanded. Although our mind is quieted, we are very much aware of the internal and external circumstances happening at that particular time, but we remain equanimous.
However, it is sometimes not that easy to sit still to practice meditation, especially when we think our mind is flooded by everyday life circumstances. Most of us are stuck at Pratyahara. Concentration seems impossible. The moment we close our eyes, hoping to find some peace and quietness, the more we get distracted by the stories, thoughts, ideas and events that arise. The more we try to push them away, the more they attach to us. A simple need to be quiet can put us into complete frustration.
There are many ways that we can use to progress beyond Pratyahara. We can be dancing, painting, gardening, or doing something where we are in complete absorption, calmed and relaxed. Like in a trance, but we are conscious and aware. Perhaps, without realising, you have been doing them all along.
A couple of years ago, I started painting as one of my regular pre-meditation practice because, for some reason, my usual 2 hours seated meditation practice couldn't take place, and my mind was out of place. So I decided to do abstract paintings to stay in tune with myself. But soon enough, I took a step back when I realised there was something so profound that I wasn't ready to download and handle.
I later moved on to drawing flowers, but honestly, flowers aren't my thing. I mean, I adore them. So beautiful and magical creations, but I couldn't resonate with them. Well, maybe, one day.
So, I explored cartoon faces and drawing expressions. I fell in love with it. I incorporated mindful breathing into it and noticed myself immersed in a magical world where I could be quiet and connected. Every stroke was calming and adventurous, just like a flowy asana practice. But there was another aspect to it that made it feel somewhat different - Emotions that relate!
I got a little more curious about exploring human faces. So, I searched for a mentor online and was lucky enough to connect with Hoen, who happened to be an art lecturer at a local art university. He was such a fantastic mentor who allowed me to explore portraits beyond the 'technicalities' of art.
Blending the wisdom of yoga with arts was an excellent opportunity for me to navigate through my distractions and into my own world.
Through portrait drawing and painting, I am able to manage my emotions, which are usually the main distractions. I'd pick a reference that resonates with me. I slow myself down by observing the details of the facial features. Every stroke flows with my breath, and every detail brings me closer to the core. Emotions were acknowledged, and I let them drift away. Distractions were minimised. Followed by a seated meditation practice, my mind and body are, once again, cleansed and revived.
May I invite you to try this method with me? You don't have to be an artist to do this. Emojis are perfect references to start with but remember to pick one that resonates with you. If your emotion is heavy, avoid choosing an opposite one to suppress yourself. You need to express and let go, so you can go within, and see beyond the layers with clarity.
How can we find our true purpose when the mind is distracted?