Does this sound familiar? “I’m enjoying meditation, and the breath awareness and mantra I’m using are helpful, but I’m visually oriented. Is there some sort of visual framework I could weave into my practice that would help me stay focused?”
This is not an unusual question, but it can be difficult to answer. If we were gathering techniques from many traditions and piecing them together, we could make use of all sorts of images: thangkas from Tibetan Buddhism, classical Christian icons, paintings of the chakras, images of favorite deities, or even candles. We might visualize a tranquil beach, a forest glade, or a serene Himalayan retreat. These are precisely the sorts of inspiring images that we use to decorate our homes and meditation rooms. But randomly bringing these images into meditation is not very helpful, and may even be disruptive.
Fortunately, the science of mantra has a sister science that gives it a visual underpinning: the science of yantra. Yantras are geometric diagrams, often composed of a small dot surrounded by circles, triangles, and squares, each of which is symbolic. These images can be used to strengthen your meditative focus.
Let’s begin with the image of a point. Adepts in yoga describe a point as a gateway leading from the invisible to the visible. Suppose you are looking down the length of a railroad track toward the horizon. At first you see nothing except the convergence of the tracks themselves. Then in the distance you see a point gradually becoming larger and larger. Soon you recognize the outline of a locomotive and prepare yourself to jump out of the way. Out of apparently empty space, an object has emerged and gradually becomes a train.
From the perspective of yogic metaphysics, all visible things have traveled from unmanifested states of existence to manifested ones. Babies, buildings, and creative ideas arise from the unseen and become embodied. Even consciousness itself arises from the unseen, and the result of its manifestation is that each of us possesses a sense of individual awareness.
The yoga scriptures describe individual consciousness by saying that it is like a wave arising out of an ocean of pure consciousness. The two are naturally and eternally linked. And in a yantra, this link between finite and infinite reality, between individual awareness and pure consciousness, is symbolized by a point.
Sages remind us that it is through this central point that we travel in our meditative journey from individual consciousness back to pure consciousness. The theme is found in the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali’s classic manual on yoga, where he describes meditation as a process in which we learn to rest our awareness on a single point. As meditation deepens, this focal point acts as a pivot to turn the flow of attention inward. The eighth-century teacher Shankara similarly emphasizes the importance of one-pointed concentration:
The attainment of one-pointedness of the mind and the senses is the best of practices. It is superior to all other dharmas and all other practices.—Upadesha Sahasri 17:24
To practice one-pointedness, try using this image to support your concentration. Visualize a pond with a surface so still that it does not have even the slightest ripple in it. If a bubble of air were to float up from the bottom and break the water’s surface, it would create a circular pattern of small waves that gently spread out through the whole pond. This pond is your mind. As your mind becomes quiet in meditation, its surface becomes more and more still.
In mantra meditation, imagine resting at the precise point at which the object of your concentration, your mantra, first rises into awareness. The mantra, in this case, is the bubble, rising to the surface of consciousness. Your attention rests in the sound of the mantra at the point where it first reaches the surface of your conscious mind. The ripples of that sound spread through your mind, but you are not attending to their movements nor to the comings and goings of other thoughts. As far as any mental activities other than the sound of the mantra are concerned, simply do nothing. Once you have become established in your mantra using the visual image, let the image go and simply continue resting in the mantra, in the point at the center of your mind. The space of your conscious mind will be increasingly filled and united with the sound of the mantra.
When a point is extended in one dimension, the result is an infinitely long straight line. To put this in a yogic context, consider the following story from the Puranas, early texts of Indian mythology. Once, they tell us, a brilliant vertical shaft of light appeared before the gods. This shaft of light possessed a strength that rendered even the natural powers of the wind and the fire powerless. Amazed, two deities set out immediately to find its beginning and its end, but a search lasting many eons proved fruitless. Only after the gods had been humbled by its infinite immensity and power did the shaft of light reveal itself as the manifestation of pure consciousness.
There is a parallel between this story and the practice of meditation. In the human body, the vertical shaft of light is the spinal axis. Without the presence of this column of living energy, none of the lesser functions of human physiology can function. In meditation, the body is aligned along the spinal axis. This assists in the process of awakening a refined sense of inner awareness.
The archetypal number three, meanwhile, is signified in the yantra system by the shape of a triangle. The three points forming the angles of the triangle stand for any number of trinities, such as beginning, middle, and end; subject, object, and means of knowing; Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; past, present, and future; earth, sky, and heaven; or doer, action, and means of performing action.
Among the most important of the yogic trinities are the three gunas—the three qualities or “strands” out of which the universe is woven and which permeate every aspect of manifest reality. They have the Sanskrit names sattva (light), rajas (motion), and tamas (darkness), and they interact with one another to create endless permutations which are the limitless forms of matter and mind. For example, the human personality consists of a body (the tamasic element of the personality), internal energies (the rajasic element of the personality), and a mind (the sattvic element of the personality), while temporary states of mind can be tamasic (slothful, lazy), rajasic (full of desire and agitation), or sattvic (poised, tranquil, balanced). And so it is with everything.
The power of creation whose nature embodies these three qualities is termed Shakti (power, energy). Her consort, pure consciousness, is called Shiva (auspicious, benevolent). But Shiva and Shakti are inherently one, like fire and light. Their relationship is sometimes symbolized by placing a point (Shiva) within a triangle (Shakti). It is the union of these two principles that permeates all of creation in the form of a deep and lasting joy.
Triangles that point downward represent divine grace. They also represent soma, food for the fires of life.
Triangles may point upward or downward. Those pointing upward indicate rising energy and upward movement in the human body. They represent aspiration and effort. They also represent fire because they resemble the ascending shapes of flames. Triangles that point downward represent divine grace. They also represent soma, food for the fires of life. At the heart center, these triangles coalesce in the form of two interlaced triangles, the upward-facing triangle related to Shiva, and the downward-pointing triangle of Shakti (filled with benevolent grace).
When you sit for meditation in any of the cross-legged poses, you can see triangular shapes in your own body. The two knees and the base of the spine create a triangular base, and the whole body forms an upward-pointing triangle as well. A more elaborate analysis of the upward triangular shapes of the body portrays it as a tetrahedron, a four-sided geometric solid.
These and other yantric images can be found in the body when it is in a meditative posture. A human being is thus the embodiment of a yantra. When you are sitting in a cross-legged meditative pose, you are the image that is visually portrayed by the yantra.
How can you use these yantric images in meditation? Here is a simple and yet delightful meditative practice in which you travel up and down the central axis of your body with the breath, a visual image (a thread of light), and a mantra (so’ham):
Sit for meditation and close your eyes. Arrange your posture (even if you are not sitting cross-legged) so that you visualize your spine as a central axis, balanced from bottom to top.
Picture your body in the shape of an upward-facing tetrahedron. Let the interior of that shape dance gently with the flames of alertness and energy.
Relax your body, and let your breath cleanse and then nourish you as it flows out and in.
When you are ready, bring your awareness to the breath in the nostrils. Feel the breath there for some time. Add the mantra so’ham once your attention to the breath becomes steady—inhaling so and exhaling ham (pronounced “hum”).
Move your awareness to the eyebrow center. Now exhale down to the base of the spine with the sound ham, and inhale up to the crown of the head with the sound so. Breathe as if you are traveling up and down along the spinal axis, which you visualize as a threadlike shaft of light. Continue for a number of minutes, adjusting your posture so the spine supports itself with ease.
When you are ready, bring your attention to the ajna chakra, the eyebrow center. Rest your awareness in the sound of the mantra so’ham, gradually narrowing your attention to a single point—the point where the sound first arises in your mind. As you rest your attention in the mantra, let its sound fill the space of your mind.
Sit as long as you like, gradually transcending visual images and resting in one-pointed awareness of the sound of the mantra.