Skills to Cultivate
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There are many Yoga techniques that can be learned. In pursuing those techniques, one can be left with a bewildering sense of uncertainty about "why" all of the methods are being learned, aside from a general idea that the methods are for "Self-Realization" or "Enlightenment".
Difference between techniques and skills: To put it simply, there is a vast difference between a skill and the methods or techniques that were used to attain that skill. Think of the way an infant does many actions in those early months and years. The child may be playing with this or that toy, or exploring the new environment of this new world. Yet, all of the play and exploring leads to development of a few underlying skills, such as the motor skills of being able to hold an object in the hand, or to move the legs so as to go from here to there.
Techniques are tools to gain skills: In Yoga science, all of the techniques are used to develop certain skills by which one can meditate at a depth that will reveal the Center of Consciousness, the Self within. It is not so much a matter of the techniques themselves being important, but rather the techniques are tools to cultivate the underlying skill.
Learn the skill, not just techniques: Below are seven skills to cultivate for Meditation. It is the skill we want to learn, not merely techniques (though, again, the techniques are quite useful). For example, we want to gain the ability to directly relax the body, smoothen the breath, and quiet the mind in a moment, with no technique needed to do it.
Apply that skill in the moment: Having the methods, but without the skill mastery is not the goal. We want to have the direct ability to apply the skill in a moment. However, to gain mastery in the skill, we may need to learn the techniques and gradually advance to the point of directly applying our learned skill.
Many techniques, but only a few skills: By remembering that the goal is to attain those few skills, the underlying simplicity of Yoga is seen amidst the seeming complexity of all the techniques.
Relaxing: This may include relaxation exercises in the corpse posture, such as tense and release, complete relaxation, 61-points, or yoga nidra (yogic sleep). It may involve a range of Hatha Yoga postures learned over some time.
Repetition is the key: By repeating the relaxation exercises over and over, the nature of relaxation itself is gradually known, experientially. You may practice the exercises in a class, with a recorded voice, or on your own, systematically going through the various points of inner attention.
The root skill is how to relax: However, the root skill to be learned is how to relax the body, directly, immediately, at your own will and desire, whenever you want. Gradually, it becomes easier and easier to do this, with or without specific methods. Because of the practice of the methods, one develops a heightened level of awareness and an increasing ability to simply "relax the body" with no technique whatsoever.
Apply that skill whenever you choose: However, the skill to relax at choice, may have come from repeated practice of specific methods of relaxation.
Sitting posture: Several different meditation postures are offered in Yoga, including the Accomplished pose (Siddhasana), the Auspicious pose (Swastikasana), the Easy pose (Sukhasana), and the Friendship pose (Maitriasana). One may spend years developing and refining their meditation sitting posture. There may be many adjustments of cushions, spine, legs, feet, arms. The flexibility of the body, and elimination of soreness or pain is enhanced by Hatha Yoga postures.
The root skill is how to sit: However, the goal of all of these postures, methods, and adjustments is the skill of sitting comfortably, steady, and straight.
Choosing what is right for you: While it is true that the sitting posture may develop over a long period of time, it is also easy to have a comfortable, steady, and straight posture almost immediately. To do so means working with a posture that is right for you, regardless of your stage of development. The easiest to start with is the Friendship pose (Maitriasana) which is sitting straight in a chair (though even this requires some training to do well).
Go directly to a comfortable posture: Gradually, a skill itself is developed, whereby the aspirant is able to just sit down and be comfortable and steady, and have the head, neck, and trunk aligned. While one may continue to do the preparatory practices, the skill is to go directly to a proper sitting posture.
Breath training: Breath training starts with awareness, and ends with awareness. In the beginning, one learns to observe the quality of breath, whether there are jerks, pauses, fast breathing, or shallow breathing.
Then the breath is regulated so that the jerks and pauses are eliminated, the breath is slowed, and becomes deep. Many breathing practices may be learned, including diaphragmatic breathing, two-to-one breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and a variety of vigorous breathing practices.
The root skill is how to breathe: There are many breathing practices, and variations within those practices. They are designed to balance, energize, or calm the breath and underlying energy system. However, they are all directed towards having the skill to make the breath smooth, slow, and serene, in a particular way that allows your balanced energy to bring you deeper into meditation.
The skill of serene breath, in a moment: Eventually one develops the direct skill of making the breathing process serene, in a moment. After all of the techniques, the practice comes back to simple awareness that becomes so subtle that attention goes beyond the gross breath, to the subtle energy, and on to the mind. The ability to attend to breath in this way is a skill, not a method.
Witness everything: Often students of meditation mistakenly trying to eliminate thought patterns from the mind, rather than learning to be a neutral witness of the objects of the mind field. This mistake usually comes from misunderstanding the process of quieting the mind.
The root skill is how to witness and let go: To quiet the mind does not mean suppression or repression of thoughts and emotions. Rather, it has to do with the skill of letting go, of allowing the thought patterns to flow without interruption, remaining focused not on the objects in the flow of the river of mind, but on the stream itself.
Develop one, single new habit: This is like a process of developing a new habit. The new habit is the habit of letting go of thought patterns when they arise. By developing one, single new skill that becomes a habit, that of simply letting the thought pass by when it arises, we become a witness to the whole stream of mental process. We can train ourselves in this new habit, though it takes effort.
It is normally the habit of the mind to attach itself to the thought patterns when they arise. The greater the coloring of the thought pattern, with attachment or aversion, the more quickly and tightly the mind clings to that thought pattern once it awakens. These in turn lead to our actions and speech.
That drive towards action and speech is the stirring of the aspect of mind called Manas, which is wanting to drive the cycle of actions and sensory input (karmendriyas and jnanendriyas) in the external world. In other words, that old habit of attaching to rising thought patterns normally stirs us to move from our meditation, or leaves us in a fight with the mind.
Two stages to this new habit of witnessing: This skill of habit change, letting go, and witnessing is cultivated in two stages:
Witness, simply witness: There are a variety of concentration methods used to train and focus the mind on gross, subtle, or subtler objects, while at the same time, the root skill is to be able to simply witness the train of objects traveling in the mind without getting caught up in them. While we are learning specific methods, it is very useful to continually remember that the ability to witness objects in the train of mind is a root skill we are trying to cultivate.
Inspecting helpful and not helpful: When one can witness the train of objects traveling in the mind, the next skill is the ability to call back individual thought patterns so that they may be observed and inspected with that trained skill of witnessing. There continues to be a steady body and smooth breath (the previous skills).
The root skill is how to discriminate thoughts: When we have the skill of witnessing the stream of thoughts, and also the skill of being able to call back individual thoughts, next comes the skill of deciding which are helpful and which are not helpful in our growth.
Inspecting a thought is a skill: By learning to witness, and then learning to inspect individual thoughts for their useful versus not useful qualities, we become free from the control of unconscious thought patterns, and move ever closer to the experience of the deep center of consciousness. The ability to inspect individual thoughts is a skill, not a method, and is crucial for advancing in meditation.
Attenuating samskaras and karma: This ability to bring back, and to inspect thought patterns is a key skill in attenuating the deep impressions of samskaras that normally, invisibly lead to the playing out of our karma (actions) in the external world. Often, we don't really see these thought patterns, but instead get unconsciously led to actions and speech that we later regret.
Promote that which is helpful: After discriminating between helpful and not helpful thought patterns (the skill explained above), the positive, useful, or helpful thoughts are intentionally reinforced through our willpower, or sankalpa shakti. The next skill is promoting the thoughts that are helpful, turning them into actions or into new habits of thinking.
The root skill is how to promote the positive: This ability to promote the thoughts that are helpful requires developing the skill to direct willpower, or sankalpa shakti, so as to turn the positive thoughts into action. (When kundalini starts to stir, sankalpa shakti, or the power of determination comes first, before kundalini travels to the crown chakra.)
The positive power of ego: The skill of promoting helpful thoughts rides on the positive power of the ego (ahamkara), the training of the sensory-motor mind (manas), and the wisdom of choice (buddhi), while integrating these with the storehouse of the thought patterns (chitta). In other words, it means integrating the Four Functions of Mind.
Do nothing with that which is not helpful: What do we do with the negative thoughts, or the thoughts that are not useful to our growth and well being? With the thoughts that are not helpful we do nothing, absolutely nothing. We simply do not engage them. We take an attitude of neither feeding into them, nor trying to push them away. By focusing only on the helpful thoughts, the other ones gradually lose their intensity of coloring, and become mere memories, without having and ability to control our thoughts, emotions, and actions.
Go gently: The letting go and witnessing skill works with this discriminating skill so as to gently move us in the direction of growth and depth in our spiritual practices.
Equanimity is a skill: Resting on the foundation of the other six skills is the skill to not be disturbed by any situation, whether in daily life or at meditation time.
The root skill is how to maintain equanimity: This quality of not being disturbed does not mean being inert. Rather, this skill means having balance, equanimity, which comes over time. This equanimity does not mean being emotionless. The difference is between having an emotional response arise and seeing that response stay with you for some extended period of time, versus having an emotional response that rather quickly fades away as you make any needed adjustments or changes.
Equanimity comes in stages: Eventually one may develop the skill of not being disturbed in any situation such that there really is a continuous equanimity, but again, it comes gradually in stages. It is important to see how this skill grows over time, so as to not set ourselves up with expectations of immediately having complete balance and equanimity.
Remain calm, without acting: This is a skill unto itself. One may be able to train themselves to be an actor, and appear to be not disturbed, but with this skill, one can truly have calm, without merely acting as if calm.
A critical skill: This skill of not being disturbed is a critical skill in advanced meditation. It is called non-attachment, or vairagya.
Cultivate these skills: Cultivating the skills is the real key to advancing in meditation, not just the addition of more and more techniques, although knowing techniques is important.
Like fingers on a hand: These skills work together, like fingers on a hand, and bring one ever closer to meditation, samadhi, and Self-Realization.