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The state of restraint is when there is a disappearance of outgoing samskaras and the appearance of restraining samskaras. These emerge in the mind at the moment of restraint. The mind’s undisturbed flow occurs due to samskaras.

Patanjali, Yoga Sutras III.10

We often speak of “enlightenment” as if it were a sudden, once-and-done event that arises as if from nowhere. We all know that there’s more to it than that, but our language around it can be very misleading. This is because we tend to treat all mental events this way; every thought and emotion is as if unique, spontaneous, and uncontrollable. I haven’t allowed myself to become angry, I was made mad — that is to say, forced into anger with no input or recourse. But like so many things in our lives, mental states are a matter of cause-and-effect and they follow clear patterns.

Meditation is the process of stilling the mind so that pure Awareness may shine forth in its nakedness, and this is achieved through graduated degrees of concentration. While this is framed in many ways, one of the more precise ones comes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Patanjali focuses throughout his teachings on the psychology of Yoga and not so much on metaphysics or theology. For Patanjali, meditation is the exercise of weakening those samskāras — mental patterns — which turn the mind outward by generating and strengthening samskāras which turn the mind inward.

The use of this model is not only to gain more intellectual understanding of what one is doing, although there is practical value to that. More immediately the understanding of the presence of these samskāras is useful for warding off despair. We will have many apparent failures on the path of Yoga, 100% of them the results of outward-tending samskāras. As we discipline ourselves and push forward, however, we will encounter more and more sits during which our minds successfully turn inward, and those will both lengthen and deepen. Of course, we will continue to have shallow or distracted sits, but they will become less common and easier to overcome. When we understand that we are working with subconscious patterns, we can then more consciously engage with them with the knowledge that such things don’t change overnight.

This is a universal lesson; it applies to every sort of mental pattern, even those which we don’t immediately relate to our spirituality. Magicians can of course avail themselves of this perspective in determining how best to facilitate concentration during their operations. More importantly, everyone who meditates, for whatever purpose, may learn the value of consistency and of being realistic in their expectations of themselves; discipline is a good thing, but it can too easily cross over into self-flagellation.

Moreover, in times of stress and trouble we must remember that external circumstances trigger the activation of samskāras. People with strong fearful samskāras will likely respond to stressors with fear, and so forth. Meditation is a tool for overcoming these patterns, at first retraining them to something more useful and, eventually, doing away with them to allow for genuinely spontaneous decision-making. It can be a great help to remind ourselves of the nature of this process frequently, for even this small step grants us the little mental gap necessary to observe such patterns in action and so perhaps stop them before they activate or simply sit with the activated patterns rather than letting them run wild.

In troubled times — and all times are troubled! — take your toolkit with you into the world. Meditation is not merely what we do on the cushion. Internally chanting mantra (japa) is a simple way over time to generate that much-needed mental distance which allows us to observe our own patterns at work rather than being carried away by them.

Om Namaḥ Śivāya