Focusing on flames for concentration before meditation

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Do you like staring at fire? I’m not talking about bushfires or the deadly blazes that break out in buildings, but the delightful dancing flames that force you to think deeper.

Studies show that staring at fires lowers blood pressure, thereby promoting relaxation. It also promotes social behaviours and meaningful conversations, and confessions often take place by the fireplace.

If you’ve gone on camping trips or lived in winter conditions, then you would have experienced this. While I was studying abroad, sitting by the fireplace with a mug of hot chocolate was my favourite activity during harsh winters.

Not only did it keep me warm, it helped me unwind and reduced whatever edginess I was feeling. Observing the flickering flame is very relaxing and can put you in a contemplative mood or a sort of hypnotic trance.

Yogis have been practising this deceptively simple, but powerful technique for centuries, using the flame as a focal point to acquire concentration as a preparation for meditation.

Called trataka, it is a pre-meditative technique defined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (an ancient text on the practices of hatha yoga) by Svatmarama, as “looking intently with an unwavering gaze at a small point until tears are shed”.

Having never tried it before, I recently accepted an invitation by the Netaji Subash Chandra Bose Indian Cultural Centre to try out the jyoti trataka (candlelight gazing) workshop conducted by yoga instructor Khemchand B. Gupta.

Sitting in a circle, we started out with some preparatory eye exercises to ready the eye for the technique. Room lights were dimmed as the master gently and deftly guided us along.

“In trataka, an object is gazed at until its subtle form manifests in front of the closed eyes.

“The point of concentration is usually a symbol or object which activates the inner potential and can absorb the mind.

“The symbol most commonly used is a candle flame, because even after the eyes are closed, the impression remains naturally for some time,” explains Gupta.

There are many other symbols that can be used, such as a crystal ball, full moon, star, rising or setting sun, a black dot, rock, rose, and even your own shadow. But, the candle flame produces the best after-image that helps in easier visualisation of the flame.

He adds, “Associations and identification through the eyes are major contributing factors to distractions.

“Furthermore, the eyes move constantly, either in large movements or tremors. Even when the eyes are focused on an external object, the perception is always fluctuating due to these spontaneous movements.

“When the same object is constantly seen, the brain becomes accustomed or habituates, and soon stops registering that object.

“Habituation coincides with an increase of alpha waves, indicating diminished visual attention to the external world. The mind is then ‘turned off’.”

At first, it was difficult to keep the eyes open for long without blinking. One eye started tearing, and pretty soon, my tears were flowing freely.

Though we were asked to keep our movements to a minimum and remain silent to not distract others, I had to dig into my pants for a tissue because my tee-shirt was getting damp from the tears.

My eyes felt cleansed after the session and I was definitely more relaxed. My friend who accompanied me had a similar experience. It was therapeutic.

The set-up is simple. Sit with your back erect, either on the floor or on a chair. Light a candle and place it at eye level on a stand, about three to four feet in front of you.

Trataka is to be practised with spectacles removed, so people with glasses may have to adjust the distance between the stand and themselves, so that they observe a clear image of the candle wick.

The focus should be on the top end of the wick, as the candle burns. Keep your eyes relaxed while fixing the gaze on the wick.

Try not to blink as blinking will interfere in the formation of a clear inner image.

This gaze is kept constant for some time, and then eyes closed. Once you start tearing, close your eyes and try to visualise the inner image of the flame between your eyebrows.

If you don’t see it, don’t be disappointed – you should start seeing it with practice. Keep the eyes closed for as long as you see the inner image. Then re-start.

Benefits include improved eyesight, memory and concentration; alleviates insomnia, headaches, depression, anxiety and fatigue; removes stress, dullness and lethargy; calms the mind; and above all, bring inner peace.

“Texts say that it should be a carefully kept secret like a golden casket,” says Gupta.

Ideally, trataka should be practised for 10 minutes before retiring for the night, in a dark room, without a draft to ensure that the flame does not flicker.

Done daily, you should be able to observe some benefits in a week or two.

“Trataka unlocks the inherent energy of the mind and channels it to the dormant areas of the unconscious. Svatmarama mentions arousal of clairvoyance in his writings, but other capacities such as telepathy, psychic healing, etc, can also develop.

“Physiologically, trataka relieves eye strain and the early stages of cataracts. Ultimately, the eyes become clearer, brighter and you will be able to see the reality beyond appearances,” says Gupta.