Meditation: Candle Gazing
Over the many years that I have been meditating (more than 40 years) I have used numerous techniques, often being just small variations on a theme of practices, each making a subtle difference, which have helped me to develop the needed capacity for acquiring what might be called the meditative state.
One of the most important aspects of true meditation, is learning how to concentrate. In fact, it has been rightly stated by several Indian gurus that there is no possibility of true meditation unless the practice of concentration has been developed first.
There is a maxim in spiritual literature which runs as follows:
Concentration leads to meditation
Now, all of us can concentrate; we do this every day when driving for instance, or reading or watching a film and following the plot, especially if the plot is a convoluted one.
This means that every one of us has the capacity to fix the mind on one thing, even if that is for a short timespan. It has been estimated that the average person can fully concentrate for around 30 minutes, after which when that time has elapsed, the individual finds that they lose attention and the mind drifts off. For a large number of people this attention span may in fact even be considerably less than thirty minutes.
I heard recently, that it was estimated that the average movie must not exceed 2 hours as American audiences do not have the attention span for say, a 3 hour film. I doubt if this statement is confined only to American audiences. And yet, there are thousands of highly skilled workers throughout the world, doing jobs that are often dangerous and require the fullest concentration; many other jobs are highly skilled and require precision and great care. We might think of airline pilots, sheet-metal workers, men working on oil rigs, surgeons and nurses, and athletes of all kinds.
Millions of people throughout the world need to use their faculties of concentration every day at work or when engaged in some kind of hobby that they love. We're all concentrating, whether we know it or not!
But this is good news, because it means that we all know how to concentrate when we need to, or if the function at hand requires it. When we are engaged in such activities which demand our fullest attention, most of us can give it 100 per cent, especially if 'duty calls' such as in saving someone's life or performing something that involves a high level of risk.
The fact is, we can all concentrate. That therefore means that we can all meditate.
The One-Pointed Mind
Have you ever noticed that when your mind is fully engaged on the job in hand, (whatever that may be) how the thoughts begin to subdue and quiet down? Artists and craftspeople know this very well. Many of them say that their art is a form of meditation. Musicians experience this also, and so do a large number of technically skilled people.
I even find this when I am writing. I start with a 'block of thoughts' if you like, or a vague mental concept of the idea that I want to express in words, and once my fingers hit the keyboard, I find that this block of nebulous thoughts tends to shape itself into the tangible words I want to use to express that thought. I start to lose 'me' and merge into something greater than the little 'I' the identity that I call myself.
Meditation techniques, especially concentration practices, help us to do likewise, by fixing the mind on just one thing. We call this mental fixation the One-Pointed Mind.
For the mind to fix on just one thought, we often need an external object of some kind for the mind to anchor to, otherwise there is a strong tendency for the thoughts to drift. Everything needs an anchor to attach to, and the mind is no exception to the rule. A ship in a harbour without an anchor will drift away of course. Our mind, rather like a ship, is always buoyant and floating on the currents and waves of thought beneath it. Without an anchor of some kind, the mind has this tendency to drift.
Candle Gazing Technique
In my early days of meditation, aged just 16, one of the first practices I did was to perform Candle Gazing. This particular practice holds many contented feelings of well-being around it for me, not just nostalgically, but because of the huge benefits that it gave to me. But it is also one of the very best meditation practices for developing the ability to fix the mind on one point. It can vastly increase your ability to concentrate.
There is always something magical in the air when we darken a room and set up a candle and light it. The candle takes on a life force of its own and glows as a small and comforting beacon of light amidst the darkened, shadowy gloom around it. Like a lighthouse, it guides the 'ship of the mind' if you like, to a safe haven.
1) If you use a space in your home for meditation, such as a small room perhaps, make sure that you do all the usual preliminaries such as taking the phone off the hook and closing the door so that you will not be disturbed. Set aside proper time for Candle Gazing (about 5-10 minutes is all that is required for this particular practice) and follow on with a general meditation thereafter, allowing for a total of 30 minutes.
2) Whether you are seated in a chair or on the floor in say, the Yogic postures of Half-Lotus or Full Lotus, we do want to have the candle itself fairly close to you, positioned at eye level. About 18 inches to two feet, is about the right distance between your eyes and the tip of the candle flame. Have the candle set up safely and securely in a proper holder of some sort, on a firm table that will not wobble and cannot be easily knocked over; we really do not want to start any fires!
3) Select a candle of your choice. Any kind will do, but I like to use a tall, slim candle, like the type found in churches. The candle may be of any colour that you want. Pick a colour that is perhaps symbolic for you, such as white for 'purity' if you like. We want a nice fine, tapering candle point of light from the wick, and the tall candles tend to provide that effect better, I find.
4) The room should be sufficiently darkened so that the candle flame, once lit, dominates the atmosphere of the space you use. Curtains are drawn, blinds are closed, door is shut and telephone/cell phone is most definitely off. Put a "Do Not Disturb" sign over the door handle if you must.
5) You are seated before your candle, and you light it. If you want to gauge the time spent (I suggest 5 minutes) you may set a soft-toned alarm for 5 minutes if you want to. After some practice, you will naturally gain a sense of how long you have been performing Candle Gazing, and dispense with an alarm altogether.
6) Become aware of your breathing, as you gaze softly at the tip of the candle flame. If there are no drafts, the candle flame should be burning tall and brightly, forming a nice steady, elliptical point, without wavering from side to side. All we are doing is just breathing softly and gently through the nostrils, in and out again. Keeping the lips closed, continue to breathe deeply but gently in and out through the nostrils only. This has a naturally calming effect upon the brain and consciousness.
7) The eyes are just gazing steadily at the point of the flame. The eyes have what is called a soft focus. This means that you are not attempting to narrow the eyes in an intense stare. There is no need to make a furrowed brow and look intense. The idea is to gently gaze at the candle flame, with soft eyes, relaxed lips, the tongue sitting calmly in the mouth resting against the lower teeth without being stuck to the roof of the upper palate. All of the facial muscles are completely relaxed. We want to feel that this is so. The face itself is one of total composure, Buddha-like in its tranquility.
8) As you gaze deeply and steadily at the candle flame, you will find that the room around the candle and its flame tends to disappear, especially if it is sufficiently dark enough. Try to avoid looking beyond the candle flame at any other objects which might still be seen softly in your peripheral vision, lurking in the shadows. Keep the mind, the eyes and the intention solely upon the candle flame.
9) Now, your soft-toned alarm rings and lets you know that 5 minutes has passed. With practice, you will intuitively know when the time is right to finish. Close your eyes now.
10) With eyes closed, cup the palms of your hands over your closed eyes, sealing off any external light so that the eyes are enclosed in total darkness. Don't press upon the eyeballs themselves. Now watch what happens. The image of the candle flame will have been creating an impression on the backs of your retinas, and this image makes an almost indelible impression that disappears slowly after a few more minutes. You will register the exact image of the candle flame, its shape being impressed upon the mind's eye, as it were.
Keep your inner focus upon the flame in the mind, and allow it to change into a kaleidoscope of colours. You will see many different colours, often starting with yellow, changing into red, and turning green and blue and purple. It's really quite a beautiful vision to behold. The colour sensitive cone cells in the retina have been activated, and now they are giving you the feedback of their impressions from the candle flame. This impression of colour will likely last for almost another five minutes.
Once the retinal visions thin out and disappear, you can bring your hands down from your face and rest them in your lap or wherever you normally place them, and continue to meditate for a further 20 minutes or so. When you are finished meditating, turn on the light and blow out your candle. Always be safe around the use of candles.
External Concentration/Internal Concentration
In this practice of Candle Gazing, you have achieved two great things in one; you have performed a consistent and steady external concentration exercise, by gazing with eyes open at the candle flame for at least 5 minutes, and then you performed a further few minutes doing internal concentration by focussing with eyes closed via the 'inner eye' upon the after-image of the flame.
These two practices, of external and internal concentration will have enormous benefits for you in all your meditations. With increased ability to focus on just one thing, you will be able to control the wayward mind itself. Thought will gradually become sublimated and reduced.
When you have performed Candle Gazing often enough, it will be easier to control the direction that the mind takes, and to 'switch off' whenever you need to.
The Illumined Mind
The mind itself becomes rather like the candle flame; still and burning brightly, illuminating the darkness which surrounds it, steady and calm. The mind becomes a refuge for peace and well-being instead of a torment to the soul.
It is this very still, calm point in the mind which becomes the basis for illumination of the mind, and thus, for true meditation itself. The concentrated, yet calm mind leads progressively and naturally into the meditative state. Candle Gazing, deceptively simple, leads the way, both actually and symbolically.
* Stephen Austen has written a print-version book on the subject of meditation entitled Meditation for Everyday Living and an e-book entitled Meditation: Key to the Soul. (Please go to his Profile Page here on HubPages and click on the website link which will take you to Stephen Austen's Amazon Author Page where you may find these books.)