HJ: The Yogi’s and Rishi seers of ancient India developed many powerful practices for cultivating greater awareness of the self, of which Tratak is one of the most powerful. Most people nowadays have so little control over their own minds that shutting off their thoughts even for a few minutes is virtually unfathomable. Yet this state is profound and highly useful in many respects. The constant chatter of the mind keeps us from hearing the voice of our soul, which faithfully guides through all situations with grace and ease when we acknowledge and truly embrace it. This is also known as our inutition and we have largely learned to ignore it. The ancient practice of Tratak provides a way for us to instantly begin to engage this innate guidance through shutting of the conscious mind at will. As we regularly experience this level of awareness through repeated practice of the Tratak meditation, we can ultimately learn to tap into the state whenever we desire without needing to practice any techniques.
This ability access our inner vision — the voice of our soul — is priceless and well worth the minimal effort involved in learning to permanently cultivate it in our lives.
By Dr. Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MBBS | Yoga Mag
Trataka is the form of meditation in which mind and soul are reached through the eyes. In trataka one gazes at an internal or external object or form. This deepens concentration and eventually takes one to the shores of dhyana, meditation.
Trataka means to gaze steadily. Thus in the practice you keep an object right in front of the eyes and gaze at it without blinking or moving the eyes. This takes some practice to master, but with time the aspirant develops more power of concentration and control over the mental forces. No object should be seen by the practitioner other than the one which he is concentrating on. The mind should not wander here and there but should be merged into the observation of the object.
Trataka helps the sadhaka (yogic aspirant) to understand his mind, and activates the unseen powers which fix and prepare it for self-realization. Internal trataka is mainly used for this purpose as it helps us to gain awareness of the subtle forces within. Today external trataka is used mainly for eye problems, but in the more esoteric and occult side of tantra the open eyes are also used to reach the higher stages of awareness. This is demonstrated in kriya yoga where the aspirant, by keeping his eyes open for the first hour of practice, is drawn into the deeper levels of the mind when he closes his eyes during the second half of the practice.
On the physical plane
During trataka the impression of the object falls on the retina at the back of the eye. It is carried to the brain by the optic nerve and via a maze of neuronal circuitry, it arrives at the visual cortex in the back or occipital part of the brain. This is the largest area occupied by any specific process and therefore control over the visual side of our life is of great importance to our well-being. Many people do not realise just how important the eyes and vision are. Only those who have lost their sight realise this. However, there is no other sense which plays such a major role in day-to-day living. This is reflected in our language which is full of visual imagery; for example, we see new meaning in things and gain insight from them. We are constantly bombarded by light waves from every part of our world, all in a complex mass of disorganised impulses that must be processed by the brain so that coherent and ordered living can proceed. Trataka aids this process by awakening several brain centres that are asleep, dormant, disconnected from the rest of conscious awareness and the other neurones of the brain.
To demonstrate the effect of the eyes on our normal lives one only has to think of those times when we read before going to bed, and how this practice puts us to sleep if we are lying down. When we lie down the neck is bent forward. This stretches the spinal cord, which in turn tugs at the brain and pulls on the optic nerve. Because the eyes are easily strained in this position the eyelids start to close. Thus the correct method of practicing trataka, the science of vision, can have a great effect on our daily lives.
The image on the retina is constantly changing and nerve impulses are continually being sent to the brain through more than two million connections between the eye and brain. This continual flow stimulates the brain, causing the sensory areas to send impulses to the motor areas thereby maintaining movement of the physical body. Thus when we try to sit still for meditation we feel as though we have to move, we itch or feel pain, all because our brain is continually sending signals to the body and getting no response. Through trataka we can learn to shut off the brain activity and gain control over the impulses being sent to our bodies. This helps to conserve our energy so that we can do more with our lives. Trataka is one of the ways to gain control over the largest of all sensory modalities.
Trataka is one of the many meditative techniques which utilises concentration as a means of switching off the sensory input. During trataka the brain has a chance to rest. Up to this point the brain has been constantly active and restless. It has received thousands of millions of nerve impulses every second, all of which must be sorted out and categorised into the various compartments of the higher brain cortex by the lower brain and the reticular activating system. Even during sleep the brain goes on recording different sensory inputs, though we are not conscious of them.
Throughout our lives the brain and body continually function to maintain our vital forces so that we may live. They rarely have a chance to rest totally. Thus the heart and respiratory systems keep up their unceasing rhythms every second of the day. The digestive process continually converts the meals you ingest into energy, and the kidneys, liver and other body organs are all constantly active in their respective functions. This is because they receive stimulation from the controlling mind and brain to maintain their action.
We utilise only one tenth of our potential brain reserves, and the tenth we do use is given over to repetitive and conditioned behaviour, which is either favourable or detrimental to our well-being. The brain does not have a chance to open any new circuits and to utilise its fullest potential, as it is busy all day and does not get the impetus or stimulation from the higher mind to try and overcome its limitations.
When we limit sensory input as in trataka, or switch it off through pratyahara, we give the whole body a chance to relax completely. Partial or complete shut down of the brain for a short time is an extremely powerful form of rest. The ramifications of internal awareness on the body-mind complex are immense. The breath and heart as well as all the organs of the body slow down, rejuvenate themselves and store vital energy or life force. In this way the ageing process is slowed down, and in higher stages of sadhana it is reversed. In India there are yogis alive today who are hundreds of years old. This is because through yogic practices such as trataka they have gained mastery over mind and body. Others will themselves to leave their bodies in the process called maha samadhi.
Trataka, both internal and external, opens up dormant centres in the brain. As the predominant areas are quietened down, the areas which are normally dormant have a chance to come into our field of awareness. This enables us to utilise them in extending the quality and length of our lives.
A group of psychologists has devised a system to keep a visual image perfectly still and stable on the retina, even if the eyes move continually. One apparatus for inducing a ‘stabilised’ image, a state resembling trataka, is an extremely small projector mounted onto a contact lens, worn on the eye. The projector faces the eyeball so that the same image falls onto the retina no matter how the eye is moved. Such an experiment was reported in June 1961 Scientific American by Roy Pritchard, in an article entitled ‘Stabilised Images on the Retina’. These experiments simulate trataka, but meditation with the eyes open does not require any apparatus to maintain stillness of the eyes, body or mind. With practice it is possible to learn to maintain perfectly stable eyeballs and to concentrate and direct prana through the eyes.
Using the stabilising apparatus, scientists were able to investigate a theory of Donald Hebb, that continuous change in input is required to maintain normal awareness. Subjects looking through the special contact lens reported that the stable image disappears. It was discovered on an EEG (electroencephalograph) machine, used to measure brain waves, that the moment the experimental subject reported that the image had disappeared the brain was putting out predominantly alpha waves, which are eight to twelve cycles per second. These are the waves associated with meditative states, relaxation, creativity and higher levels of consciousness.
Another way to supply the observer with a uniform visual input is to have him observe a completely pattern-less visual field called a ganzfeld. This effect is most simply attained by placing the two halves of a ping pong ball over the eyes or by using a white-washed surface. After twenty to thirty minutes some subjects have reported an absence of any visual experience which they called ‘blanking out’. This was not just an experience of darkness, but of switching off the visual centre of the brain so that they did not know whether their eyes were open or not, and they could not control their eye movements. These states were also associated with alpha waves in the brain.
These experiments show that it is possible to disconnect our sense functions from our awareness. The experimental subjects were aware that they had no sense of vision. This state is pratyahara, cutting off the senses from awareness. Yogis can self-induce this state through techniques like trataka. After a long period of rigorous training, various physical, psychic and spiritual experiences, as well as an increased understanding of mind, self and the meaning of life and death, arise. Continuous, unbroken and determined ‘effortless effort’ in trataka and meditation is an important step on the way to an enlightened state of being which allows one to see into the truths of the world and life.
Mind and prana
Trataka is a method of extending usual consciousness and discovering it to be a personal construction. Trataka is thus a technique of turning down the brilliance of the day so the ever present and subtle sources of energy can be perceived within. It is a deliberate attempt to cut oneself off from the external ‘reality’, the flow of life around us and to contact a new mode of consciousness other than the active one. Trataka is a method of contacting the higher self and expanding our consciousness into higher realms. Thus we can learn to flex our mental muscles, purify our mind, understand its inner workings, and find out who we are. Through trataka we cleanse the doors of our perception. It is possible to develop psychic qualities of clairvoyance through this practice. However, you should be warned that practicing the art of trataka for this purpose alone is not recommended.
Most people cannot look at an object for very long without blinking or having to move their attention to another object for some time. Normally when we look out at the world our eyes are constantly moving about. In scientific language this is called saccades. Even when we try to gaze straight ahead without moving the eyes, small, uncontrollable movements occur called optical nystagmus. These are involuntary only because we have not learned control over them or over our minds through techniques such as trataka. People find it very difficult to overcome this movement of the eyes, the tears that form, and the blinking action at the beginning of practice, for the pranas in the higher levels of our body which motivate them have not been brought under conscious control. Because we are always looking out, and rarely in, the brain and mind are habituated to looking outward and we find it difficult to gaze inward. Through internal trataka, gazing inwards, we learn to perceive our inner world. Through external trataka we can look outward and at the same time retain awareness of our internal processes, which helps to rebalance the pranic nadis, ida and pingala, opening up the middle path, sushumna, the doorway to higher awareness.
On the spiritual plane
Through trataka we develop one-pointed concentration by focusing our mind on one object to the exclusion of all others. When the sense modalities are turned off we are drawn into internal space and awareness of our being. By cultivating this awareness over a long period of time, we can journey through the inner paths to higher realisation, union of the lower and higher selves. This is why in trataka one is told to be constantly aware of the object of meditation and nothing else. Thus D. Knowles in The English Mystical Tradition states:
“Forget all creatures that God ever made, and the works of them so that thy thought or thy desire be not directed or stretched to any of them, neither in general or in special… At the first time when thou doest it, thou findest but a darkness and it were a kind of unknowing thou knowest not what, saying that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God.”
Through trataka we can remove our blindness or illusion and awaken fresh perception by flooding the dark inner areas with light. In Zen this is called ‘intuitive awakening’. The Sufis say that a new organ of perception has developed. In yoga and tantra, trataka is said to open our ‘third eye’ of intuition and perception of the inner universe.