Devotees of Kundalini call it “mental beaming” and often use photos of renowned guru’s as their focal object. The rest of us use candles, if we do it at all. My first experience with this practice was in 2004 at the White Lotus Foundation Yoga Teacher Training retreat where they called the practice Trataka (tratakum) or “candle gazing”. The Sanskrit translation of trataka is”to gaze mindlessly.” Whatever label you apply, it is a powerful and engaging meditation practice, especially for those who have trouble with traditional sitting meditation. When your monkey mind refuses to settle down during meditation (it happens to us all), tratakum can be a good method to guide the mind toward calmness.
Here’s how it’s done, minus the turban, the guru photo, and intricacies of chakra focal points requisite in kundalini. However, for a detailed kundalini style tratakum meditation, check out this link. Now for the simple steps that can applied by anyone!
- Rule number 1: Release your expectations. Make the intention to experience tratakum as it is and nothing more.
- As with standard meditation, choose a location where you won’t be disturbed.
- Light a candle and sit in an upright posture to ensure chakra alignment.
- Focus your gaze on the candle flame; notice the corona of light around the flame (it looks like a halo); notice the area under the tip of the flame, a hollow spot where light and dark coexist.
- Keep your gaze on the flame without blinking for as long as you can. Your eyes will water, but that’s fine; it happens to all of us. You may gradually lower your eyelids as you stare at the flame. This typically eases, in some cases eliminates, the watery eye challenge.
- You may see images within the flame; just go with it. Continue candle gazing for at least ten minutes, maintaining a focus on the flame and letting come what may.
Some practitioners find that reprieves help. For example, they focus on the flame for, say, ten minutes and then close their eyes for five to ten minutes and watch the flame dissipate in their “mind’s eye.” After the reprieve, they repeat the process (candle gazing, closed eyes, etc.) until they’ve completed their designated meditation time. This is where it helps to have a timer, but the choice is yours.
My first experience with this practice was quite powerful, then again it happened around a large campfire while being sage smudged by Tracey Rich and guided by Ganga White, smack dab in a private canyon that was once used by Chumash shamans. What’s there not to like, right! Shamans and smudging aside, I was able to hone my focus and truly let my thinking ego mind go perhaps for the first time in years (and this coming from someone who had haphazardly practiced meditation for years). I no longer practice tratakum in its “pure” form, but when I go to the zafu for my daily routine I do typically have a candle (or burning incense) present as a point of focus to get me started. If you struggle with traditional breath focus (shunyata, zazen, or whatever style) trataka may be a stepping-stone to condition your mind toward calmness. It is not zazen and it is not shunyata, so don’t bring those notions to the cushion. We often become attached to what we think is “right practice” or “wrong practice” and when we do this it may cause all of our practice to suffer. When you do trataka, let it be trataka; just as when you do shunyata, let it be shunyata. But by all means, release your expectations and allow yourself to see what happens. If you feel stuck in your current meditation practice, perhaps trataka can help you over the hump. If nothing else, it may settle you into the present moment and give you another tool for your Mindfulness Toolbox.
As with all things, take what works for you and leave the rest behind. I’d love to hear about your experience with this, so please write me in the comments section.
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