How should I practice Tratak meditation safely at home without a guru? What are its side effects if not done properly?
Generally it is safe if practiced in a proper way. However, one should be slow in progression. Should not start doing it for long from the beginning but should increase in a gradual manner.
Trataka: sadhana for mind control and awakening
The first step on the path of spirituality is to control the mind and make it useful. The first sadhana of a sadhaka consists of understanding the mind, in knowing its direction and turning it upwards. The sadhana of trataka will help you a great deal in understanding the mind and making its unseen powers active, so as to prepare you for self-realization.
The practice of trataka is independent in its own way and is meant for aspirants of higher categories. Trataka is a very powerful sadhana. Gandhari had mastered trataka. Ramana Maharshi also practised trataka. Many sadhus in the mountains have practised this sadhana. Trataka shows us that the eyes are the instruments by which the mind and the soul are reached.
Trataka is of two kinds: internal and external. Internal trataka is called dharana or concentration because in this practice the eyes are closed and the mind concentrated upon some subtle element within. External trataka means fixing the eyes on some object outside. Trataka on any object can be performed during the day or night. In this practice one has to take into account the object, the place and the time. What is the object on which the eyes are to be fixed? Where is the object to be placed? At what time should it be practised?
The word trataka means to gaze steadily. Trataka is gazing without blinking at an object placed directly in front of the eyes. At the time of practising trataka, the eyeballs should remain steady and the eyelids should not flicker. No object except the one on which trataka is to be performed should be seen, and the mind should not wander hither and thither but be merged in observation of the object.
Methods of trataka
There are many methods of trataka which can be utilized by sadhakas according to choice and situation.
On a leaf: Take a large betel leaf. Prepare a collyrium (paste) with castor oil and make a black dot on the betel leaf. The dot should be the size of a pea or a little smaller. Fix this leaf onto cardboard. Place a light, a lamp or a candle behind you. Practise trataka on that dot in the morning and evening. Go on gazing at the dot continually for five or ten minutes without moving your eyelids. Do this for six months and then consult your guru.
Candle flame: Light a candle in the darkness and fix your eyes on the flame for five or ten minutes without blinking. Perform this practice in the morning and evening. There should be no break even for a day in this sadhana. It should continue as long as the eyes cannot fix themselves steadily on the flame. People with eye defects should practise this sadhana. Even children who suffer from eye defects should be encouraged to practise this technique.
Darkness: Sit by yourself in the dark and practise trataka on the darkness. The eyes should be open fully. Continue to see in the darkness without any light. Sit there daily and practise it steadily and firmly.
Blue sky: Sit in an open place or on a terrace at the end of the day and gaze at the blue sky without blinking. Try to feel that you have become like the sky or that the sky has come nearer to you. In due course the consciousness of the practitioner becomes so transformed that even though the object is in front of your eyes, you are not aware of it. The consciousness which separates the seer and the seen does not remain separate, but identifies with the object.
Photograph: Have a small photograph of your chosen deity. Take a sheet of blank paper, the size of a book, and cut out a circle two inches in diameter, so that there is a round open space in the paper. Now place the photo of your deity behind the paper, fixing it in such a manner that you can only see the face through the hole, and frame it under glass. During the day practise trataka on the photo. The photo should be straight in front of the eyes at a distance of one and a half feet. Try not to take your vision outside the round circle.
Havan: Perform havan daily and in the sacrificial fire put scented objects. When the fire has ignited and has burned steadily for some time, repeat a prayer to the fire god Jataveda and perform trataka on the flame. Try to think of the divine being in the flame while doing trataka.
Crystal: If you happen to have a crystal, practise trataka on it. This is an independent and important sadhana.
Shivalinga: Worship a shivalinga daily with great devotion. Concentrate on the water being poured on it. The shivalinga must be a black stone. If it is a really black stone, make a sandalwood mark on it and steady your eyes on the mark. Otherwise try to concentrate on the entire black linga.
Flower: Take a red, white or yellow flower. It should preferably be a dark coloured flower. If it is a red rose, keep it in the light and practise trataka on it. If it is a white or yellow flower, then practise in a dark room.
Flower on cloth: Take a black or dark green cloth, two feet wide and three feet long. Hang it on the wall in front of you and in the centre of it pin a yellow, white or pink rose. Now sit in front of the flower in a semi-dark room and practise trataka on it.
Metal object: Take any small article made of bright metal, like vessels that shine when polished. It may be of brass, copper, silver or gold, for instance, an incense burner, a small jug, or a panchapatra. It should be no more than two inches in height. Practise trataka on that bright object in half light.
Your shadow: In the morning, stand with your back to the sun and practise trataka on the shadow of your neck.
Guidelines for success in trataka
Trataka is a simple practice, but in this sadhana one has to be very careful and alert as one’s vision and mental processes have to be watched. If the mind is slightly active, the vision wanders away from the object. At the time of gazing the eyes should not be opened very wide. In the first stage, trataka is practised on an object without thinking of its form, steadily and devoid of any mental changes.
Beginners should practise trataka in such a way that the eyes are not strained. If gazing is done in a natural state of mind, strain will be avoided. It is difficult to explain this, but by practice this technique can be acquired automatically. When the gaze becomes fixed in a natural manner and the aspirant has success in practising trataka continually for fifteen to twenty minutes, without any feeling of fatigue, for a few days, then another technique should be taken up.
The proper use of trataka
A little practice of trataka is of great use in removing eye disorders. Those who have weak eyesight and wear spectacles should practise trataka for five minutes daily on a dot on the wall. They should also wash the eyes with triphala every morning and evening. Practise for fifteen days or a month and then have your eyes examined by a doctor. There are other types of eye diseases. Certain people have double vision due to detachment of the retina. Some cannot focus their eyes properly. These disorders can be removed by performing trataka on the flame of a lamp.
During the practice of trataka the breathing must be slow, rhythmic and deep. This will bring steadiness to the breathing process, making the body and mind steady also. One can always control the onslaught of desire or anger by practising the elementary stage of trataka when excited. When any emotional shock is experienced, the practice of trataka is as beneficial as the practice of kumbhaka. Trataka opens up a storehouse of energy.
Trataka makes the mind steady and helps it to concentrate. Therefore, when an individual does any intellectual work, listens carefully to something or thinks about something, the eyes remain steady without a flicker, and thus a natural state of trataka is attained. This faculty can be applied consciously whenever necessary.
Trataka should definitely be practised for at least five minutes before beginning any sadhana. When one wants the mind to be concentrated, trataka should be performed on any object for some time, or inner trataka may be practised. Students especially should practise trataka. Its daily practice will help them to develop concentration and memory power as well as improve their eyesight.
One should always seek the guidance of a guru. Meditation on a single object is prescribed by many many seers. In Gita 6.13 Krishna says (Swami Nikhilananda translator):
He should sit firm, holding his body, neck, and head erect and still, and gaze steadily at the tip of his nose, without looking around.
In Patanjali's Yoga Aphorisms (III. 1-6, commentary by Swami Vivekananda, available here under the heading Raja Yoga- http://cwsv.belurmath.org/volume_1/vol_1_frame.htm):
- Dhâranâ is holding the mind on to some particular object.
Dharana (concentration) is when the mind holds on to some object, either in the body, or outside the body, and keeps itself in that state.
- An unbroken flow of knowledge in that object is Dhyâna.
The mind tries to think of one object, to hold itself to one particular spot, as the top of the head, the heart, etc., and if the mind succeeds in receiving the sensations only through that part of the body, and through no other part, that would be Dharana, and when the mind succeeds in keeping itself in that state for some time, it is called Dhyana (mediation).
- When that, giving up all forms, reflects only the meaning, it is Samâdhi.
That comes when in meditation the form or the external part is given up. Suppose I were meditating on a book, and that I have gradually succeeded in concentrating the mind on it, and perceiving only the internal sensations, the meaning, unexpressed in any form — that state of Dhyana is called Samadhi.
- (These) three (when practiced) in regard to one object is Samyama.
When a man can direct his mind to any particular object and fix it there, and then keep it there for a long time, separating the object from the internal part, this is Samyama; or Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi, one following the other, and making one. The form of the thing has vanished, and only its meaning remains in the mind.
- By the conquest of that comes light of knowledge.
When one has succeeded in making this Samyama, all powers come under his control. This is the great instrument of the Yogi. The objects of knowledge are infinite, and they are divided into the gross, grosser, grossest and the fine, finer, finest and so on. This Samyama should be first applied to gross things, and when you begin to get knowledge of this gross, slowly, by stages, it should be brought to finer things.
- That should be employed in stages.
This is a note of warning not to attempt to go too fast.
See Chapter 1 of the Yoga Aphorisms also where concentration is explained.
If I remember correctly Swami Vivekananda says at one point that he started meditation by focusing on a black dot. It is too hard to control the mind by trying to make the mind blank to start. It is best to focus on one object first. When the mind has been completely controlled to focus on one object, then it is easier to have the mind eliminate that object and make the mind completely blank.
But there is the warning on going too fast and without a guru. Both Patanjali (in his Yoga Aphorisms) and Swami Vivekananda (in his introduction to Raja Yoga) warn against this. Both the good and potentially bad side effects are stated in the Yoga Aphorisms.
Start your meditations, but each time you start pray to God first that He sends your guru to you for further guidance so you are not side-tracked along the way!