Concentration and Trataka Meditation

Trataka is a Sanskrit word that signifies "steady gazing." We'll defer here to using the Sanskrit word, since it's an easy one and since "steady gazing" sounds a little awkward (for example, it's easier to refer to outer trataka and inner trataka than to "outer steady gazing" and "inner steady gazing").

The basic form of the exercise consists in gazing without moving the eyes. This means that the eyes need to become extremely relaxed, which in turn means that before you begin the exercise you need to be well versed in the basic form of meditation and capable of maintaining a relaxed state of mind for a decent span of time.

The following are some different types of trataka, starting with the easiest. It should be noted that the approach to trataka offered here is fairly non-traditional.

Soft Trataka

The aim of this exercise is to allow your eyes to remain steady and motionless for 5-10 minutes without focusing on anything in particular. This means that you will be concentrating on the sensations associated with the muscles of your eyeballs for the duration of the exercise, and nothing else – to whatever extent that is possible for you. You will likely find it easier to allow your eyelids to remain open, since it takes less muscular effort and you may find distracting the slight movement of your eyelids when held shut. Try it both ways and choose as you prefer.

In any case, you don't need to maintain an "unblinking" gaze. If you are keeping your eyes open and if they start to water or feel dry, then blink if you wish to in order to keep your eyes comfortable. This is not an exercise in self-abnegation or "mind over pain."

Nor should you choose a particular object to keep your gaze steady upon. The purpose of this particular form of trataka has nothing to do with visual stimulus. If you have your eyes open, then you can simply let them go into "soft focus" with whatever is in front of them becoming indistinct or double-imaged.

The idea is simply to maintain the focus of your attention upon the slightest movements of your eyeballs. You may soon notice that every time a thought arises, it is accompanied by a subtle – or sometimes not so subtle – motion of the eyes. Just relaxedly and relatively thoughtlessly observe those motions and the periods of stability in between.

This is a good exercise for general relaxation, since you will likely find it quite relaxing, while at the same time building your powers of concentration. After a week or two of this kind of trataka, you will be ready to try out the next form.

An alternate form of this exercise, if you'd like to experience deeper relaxation, is to focus your attention on fully relaxing your eyes, rather than on their specific movements. Extend the area of your focus to encompass the entire region from your eyes to the topmost joint of your neck, where it inserts into your skull. Get a sense of the connection between these two apparently disparate regions – they are, in fact, connected by myofascial membranes such that tension in one area can cause tension in the other. By fully concentrating on relaxing this region, you can achieve two aims at once: increased concentration and increased relaxation.

Soft Outer Trataka

In this exercise, instead of allowing your vision to blur or go double, you hold a specific object in your gaze. Obviously, then, this requires that you have your eyes open. It does not matter what the object is, though if you are learning meditation for self-knowledge and unity, then you might find it best to choose an object that has some positive, spiritual significance for you.

So the reason for the "outer" in "Soft Outer Trataka" is because you have chosen an object "outside" of yourself to focus your gaze upon. This is not an inner visualization exercise. What, then, is the meaning of "soft" here?

It's a little difficult to explain, but perhaps an example will help. Sometimes you may find yourself looking at something without really seeing it. It's not that your eyes are in soft-focus such that the object is blurred, but that your mind is in effect elsewhere so that you aren't really seeing what's within your visual field.

In a similar way, we will be looking at the chosen object without really looking at or seeing it. Again, our eyes aren't in soft focus as with the previous exercise. They are focused on the object, but our attention is elsewhere – maintained internally upon the sensations of movement within our eyes.

Hence, we can see that this exercise contains just one apparently small difference from Soft Focus Trataka. However, we're likely to find this difference significant in the way it affects the steadiness of our gaze and the level of our concentration. After a week or so of this exercise, we'll be ready to move on the next stage.

Focused Outer Trataka

You may already have a sense where we're headed with this. From Soft Outer Trataka in which we keep our eyes focused but our attention on the eye muscles, we progress to Focused Outer Trataka, in which we maintain our attention concentrated on the object we are looking at. In this case, we definitely are seeing what we're looking at.

So, using the same or a different object, pick a particular spot upon which you would like to hold your gaze steady. Without moving your eyes from that point, begin to really see what it looks like. Study it intensely while keeping your eyes completely relaxed and completely still. If you feel any tension creeping into your gaze, then you are "trying too hard." Back up to Soft Outer Trataka or Soft Trataka and allow your eyes to relax and become motionless. Then focus again on the point, making sure you're really seeing what you're looking at. Your mind should not wander or be in any other place than resting firmly upon the point at which you are gazing.

Again, if your eyes become uncomfortable – becoming watery or too dry – it's fine to blink or close them until they are comfortable once more. Spend another week or so practicing this form of trataka before moving on to the next form.

Inner Trataka

Once we have mastered Focused Outer Trataka, we are ready to "convert" the object of our gaze into an inner visualization. We start this form in the same way as the last, with our eyes open and gazing steadily at an object, really seeing it. Once we have a firm sense of what the object looks like – perhaps after a minute or two – we close our eyes and reproduce within our mind's eye the exact replica of what we were seeing.

This does not mean that behind our closed eyes an apparently palpable vision should appear. We're not talking about hallucinating the object or seeing it as if in a dream. Instead, by "mind's eye" we're referring to the mind's capacity to re-image within itself an external object. If this doesn't make sense, then perhaps this will: right now, with your eyes open, think of your best friend's face. You'll likely find you can see his or her face in your mind's eye, even though you don't actually see that person in front of you.

In the same way, we re-image the object we were studying during our Focused Outer Trataka, bringing it "inside" where we see it in our mind's eye. And in the same way as we really looked at that outer object, we likewise look at this inner object, studying it until it becomes absolutely clear within our minds.

This wraps up our review of the various kinds of trataka. As a concentration exercise, trataka is one of a kind, taking us intimately into the very crux of where the concentrative act resides: the act of looking and really seeing.

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