The Veiling Power of Thought

Your ego has a few things in common with this caterpillar

We’ve heard time and again that the continuous flow of thoughts must be stilled to enable the mind to experience its underlying awareness. “Be still and know that I am God”, says the Judeo-Christian psalm, although I would say that “be still and know that you are God” is more instructive.

But how is it that realized beings continue to use thought after their enlightenment if thought is the very thing that must be stopped to become enlightened?

The key to understanding how thoughts veil the Self is found in the relationship between the ego and thought.

According to Ramana Maharshi, the ego is not something that actually exists. It’s only an ephemeral type of ignorance, like a mirage in the desert. It rises together with thought and forces the Self to identify only with the body-mind apparatus. Sri Ramana compares the ego to a caterpillar that moves up a leaf by always keeping one end of its body connected to the tree. If the caterpillar were to disconnect both ends at the same time, it would fall. In the same way, as long as one thought flows into another thought, the ego can continue to bind the Self to a limited body-mind awareness.

Accordingly, as soon as thoughts are stilled in samadhi, the ego suddenly has nothing to “hold on to” and it falls away, allowing the Self to recover its unlimited awareness. Then, after coming out of samadhi, thoughts can begin again, but once the ego has been completely destroyed or purified (depending on the language of the tradition), the next wave of thoughts do not bind the awareness of the Self. The Self “sees” the mind and body, but is no longer identified with them.

In this view, the ego is akin to a magnetic force that tightly wraps the body-mind around the Self, like a blindfold. And the flow of thoughts is the power that allows the ego to persist. Once thoughts are completely stilled, the ego disappears forever and the Self is “set free”.  Therefore, thoughts play a key role in keeping the ego alive.

Because of the glue-like properties of the ego, our thoughts are “sticky”. We may believe that during our waking state we are quite aware, but from the perspective of the Self, thinking obscures awareness the way dust on the glass of a lightbulb dims its light.

During normal thinking, we are aware of our thoughts but also well aware of our body and our surroundings. However, as we’ve all experienced, if we suddenly slip into a daydream, then for a few seconds we are only aware of the daydream, losing awareness of everything else that’s around us. When we snap out of the daydream (which is a kind of mini awakening) we immediately regain normal awareness of our thoughts, body and external world.

Now from the perspective of the Self, normal thinking is like being stuck in a heavy daydream. There is very little awareness of awareness, so to speak. When we meditate and still the thought waves, the Self snaps out of its dullness and resumes its original and natural state as pure awareness, much in the same way as when we transition from a daydream back into normal thinking.

Although the solution sounds simple enough (just still the mind), we all know how obstinate the thought stream is. For example, when we sit quietly for a few moments, we can easily draw our awareness back to our sense of being, to our Self. But see how long we last before we are dragged back into the next thought. Just a few moments, really. That’s why thoughts are like a rushing current that prevent the sand from settling quietly at the bottom of a river. The rush of water is always disturbing the silt, pulling it up and tossing it around, even though the sand’s natural tendency, due to gravity, is to settle down and be still. In the same way, thoughts rip us away from the expanse of awareness.

In addition to being “sticky”, thoughts have another sinister quality: they are quite seductive and we become easily infatuated with them. If we had no interest in our thoughts, it would be much easier for us to ignore and quiet them down. But what a lot of seekers don’t realize is that we are quite in love with our thoughts. In the blink of an eye, our imagination takes us to an exciting place, or we relive a memory that brought us joy. This happens over and over again throughout the day. In fact, most of our existence as humans is lived in the realm of imagination and memory and most people would be terrified at the idea of not living in their thoughts.

That’s why as yogins it’s vital to practice awareness by catching ourselves in the middle of a thought and bringing our attention back to our sense of pure being (and letting go of the thought). This training strengthens the mind and allows our formal meditation to grow deeper.

Some of us may wonder how we can manage to get through the day if we are constantly shunning our thoughts? How will decisions get made? In terms of fulfilling our karma, what needs to be thought of will be thought of and what needs to be done will be done. We cannot escape our karma. Since we think so many hundreds of useless thoughts per day, there’s no need to worry if we practice killing a few of them as they arise. You will not turn into a mindless zombie. In fact, if you reduce your thoughts, your intellect will become sharper and each thought that remains will become more focused and effective. You’ll literally experience clarity of mind and you’ll feel a greater sense of peace. But remember not to just let thoughts go, but to re-focus your awareness on your sense of being as often as you can. When a thought comes up, cut it off by feeling your sense of being or by asking yourself “who’s the thinker?”

Someone once expressed to Sri Ramana their fear that thoughts are so constant, they can never be silenced. He responded as follows:

You fancy that there is no end if one goes on rejecting every thought when it rises. No. There is an end. If you are vigilant, and make a stern effort to reject every thought when it rises, you will soon find that you are going deeper and deeper into your own inner self, where there is no need for your effort to reject the thoughts.

Our infatuation with thoughts is a by-product of the ego. If we think of something nice we feel good, and we’re happy to remain immersed in that thought. But instead of continuing to live in the dull sleep of the waking state, we should practice ignoring our thoughts and centering on our true Self. That’s why it’s said that a jnani (Self-aware being) is asleep while everyone else is awake (centered on the Self and never deluded by thoughts) and awake while everyone else is asleep (full aware at all times and never unconscious or veiled by thoughts). If we are to be authentic yogins, we will not fear letting go of all thoughts. This is the heart of jnana yoga (the yoga of knowledge).

By Andres Pelenur © All Rights Reserved

Roadmap to Samadhi

Since I constantly refer to samadhi (meditative absorption) as the goal of meditation – in fact the goal of spiritual practice, I thought it would be useful to take a closer look at how samadhi is defined across various traditions. A solid grasp of the mechanics of samadhi is vital to conceptualize an end point to our meditative journey, otherwise how will we know where we are supposed to be heading? For this post, the primary framework is taken from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. I’m drawing on the explanations provided by I.K. Taimni in his excellent book “The Science of Yoga”.

As we read the scriptures, we come across the following terms: samprajnata, asamprajnata, nirvikapla, savikalpa, sabija, nirbija, sahaja, unmilana samadhi, etc. What do they all mean?

Prior to exploring samadhi, let’s quickly look at what dharana and dhyana (limbs 6 and 7 of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga) signify (note: dharana and dhyana indicate very different things from a Kashmir Shaivism perspective, but here we are looking at Sri Patanjali’s definitions).

In essence, dharana refers to the act of willfully concentrating on a single thought. When we sit down to meditate, our minds are flooded with all kinds of thoughts, and our effort is aimed at keeping only one thought at the center of our attention (usually our mantra or the image of our Guru). We gently let go of all other thoughts and try to stay focused on repeating our mantra. This continuous effort to concentrate on a single thought is called dharana.

Eventually, when we succeed at holding onto one continuous thought, so that it flows in our mind like an unbroken stream of oil, we enter into what is termed dhyana or meditation proper. It’s important to note that at this stage, we are still aware of ourselves and of the one thought before our mind, so there is still a clear duality present: that of the thinker and of the thought before him.

Taking it to the next level, samadhi, in its most general sense, manifests when the single thought/object in focus becomes so strong that all awareness of the thinker vanishes, leaving only the object of thought in awareness. In other words, the mind loses awareness of itself when it enters into samadhi. Yet, it’s important to point out that these and subsequent states of samadhi (see below) are impermanent in nature, meaning that when the yogin comes out of meditation and back into the waking state, the mind’s awareness of itself as a separate “I” (the ego, in other words), returns immediately. That is why the initial stages of samadhi, exalted and difficult as they may be to reach, are not tantamount to Self-realization or liberation.

As an aside, the above is the reason why we should be very careful before accepting someone as fully liberated just because they appear to have attained a high level of awareness or spiritual power. Although samadhi quickly leads to the development of supernatural powers, the impure ego of such a yogin is still very much alive, which explains the moral downfall of many a guru who seemed to be so powerful and enlightened. That’s why I say again and again that one should fully surrender only to a Janma Guru (born enlightened) as an insurance policy of sorts. Great siddhas such as Bhagawan Nityananda, Ramana Maharshi and Anandamayi Ma are clear examples of Janma Gurus (I include as Janma Gurus those who achieve spontaneous liberation after reaching puberty, as Ramana Maharshi and Anandamayi Ma did).

Returning to our study of samadhi, Patanjali sets out four levels and sub-levels of samadhi as follows:

  1. Samprajnata Samadhi (all four sub-levels are Sabija [with seed])
    1. Savitarka (gross)
    2. Savichara (subtle)
    3. Sananda (plane of bliss)
    4. Sasmita (plane of pure I-ness);
  2. Asamprajnata Samadhi (also is Sabija);
  3. Nirbija (without seed) Samadhi;
  4. Dharma-Megha Samadhi (Cloud of Virtue).

Samprajnata Samadhi – Savitarka (gross)

Samprajnata means Sa (with) prajnata (consciousness). This is the entry level samadhi where the trinity of knower, knowing and known collapse and only the object remains in the field of awareness (the known), and whereby the mind loses awareness of itself as an observer. In this samadhi, the various layers of consciousness that make up the mind are still intact, though in a latent state. There is clearly an object before the mind, only that the mind has become so focused and fused with the object that it seemingly disappears, leaving only the object in the mental field of awareness.

Regarding the objects themselves, they are broken down into four types: savitarka (gross), savichara (subtle), sananda (plane of bliss) and sasmita (plane of pure I-ness). Let’s examine each briefly. These four levels of objects are found in the same corresponding four levels of consciousness.

As the mind becomes more concentrated and refined, it can hold different types of objects before it, from the most gross to the most subtle. Savitarka objects include gross thoughts, the gross breath, the gross sound of the mantra, the image of the Guru, thought streams, visualizations of the chakras, and even emotions and attitudes such as trying to feel compassion or devotion. All these are accessible to the beginner and can be placed before the mind during meditation. These are savitarka objects. The savitarka level of samprajnata samadhi also refers to the power of the mind that differentiates objects from one another, so that you know that this is a chair and that is a flower vase. Or you can distinguish one specific flower vase from another. It’s this power of the mind that is said to lead into the savitarka level of samprajnata samadhi.

After the mind becomes steady in the gross level of samprajnata samadhi, it experiences the true nature of the object before it. On this point Patanjali states that the memory of any object is purified of two lesser types of knowledge: knowledge based on the meaning of words (also known as the matrika shakti) and ordinary knowledge based on the input of the five senses as it relates to any object. When these two types of knowledge are eliminated by mental fusing into the object through samadhi, then the true innate nature of the object begins to shine. In other words, pure and direct knowledge of any object is attained at the culmination of the savitarka level of samprajnata samadhi. This knowledge is not based on the input of the senses or on the meaning of words used to describe the object. It’s a pure knowledge that arises when the mind directly fuses through concentration into an object. It’s direct cognition without the use of the senses.

Asamprajnata Samadhi

Once the object is experienced directly and fully known or realized, the mind experiences a short-lived slip into the state of asamprajnata samadhi, or samadhi without prajnata (the letter “a” as a prefix in Sanskrit denotes absence). In this state, the gross object that was consuming the field of awareness is transcended and vanishes, and the mind enters a kind of void or dissolution (laya) where there is no object before it. It then emerges into a higher and more subtle plane of consciousness and a new object once again occupies the field of awareness, only that this time the object is of a savichara (subtle) nature.

I.K. Taimni makes a few interesting points on the nature of asamprajnata samadhi. He states that even though there is no object in this type of samadhi, entry into it still depends on the force of the yogin’s willpower. It’s a continuation of the pressure built up to enter into the first level of samadhi. This means that it’s not in any way an effortless state. Second, he points out that in all levels of samprajnata samadhi the mind as an organ is still intact and that consciousness can only illumine objects placed before it, but not itself. So when the object disappears as one enters asamprajnata samadhi, there results a kind of void because no objects are being illumined by consciousness but consciousness in turn cannot illumine itself at this point.

Why can’t consciousness illumine itself? The answer is due to the presence of latent mental impressions (samskaras) and their seeds (bijas) that are lodged within the mind. That is why if you look at the list above, all of the four levels of samprajnata samadhi and asamprajnata samadhi are sabija (with seed), meaning they are not capable of destroying the latent mental impressions that obscure awareness from itself and bind the soul to the wheel of karma. It’s only when the yogin reaches the state of nirbija (without seed) samadhi that awareness becomes aware of itself, the samskaras are destroyed and Self-realization follows.

So once a yogin enters into the temporary state of asamprajnata samadhi, he experiences a very refined void of sorts until he emerges into the second level of samprajnata samadhi. Once he achieves direct cognition of the next object before him, he moves on, until all four levels of objects and consciousness are transcended. Accordingly, each time he moves from one level to another, he experiences a temporary entry into the void or cloud state of asamprajnata samadhi, which is nothing more than a transitional state of samadhi.

Samprajnata Samadhi – Savichara (subtle)

Once the yogin emerges into the second level of samprajnata samadhi, savichara, he’s able to access the subtle aspect of objects and the very instruments of cognition, which become objects themselves. For example, the subtle energy behind the breath, the prana or life energy, can become an object of awareness. Or the subtle powers of seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling become objects. The subtle vibration of mantra, beyond the gross sound of the syllables, also becomes a clear object of awareness (all these examples are speculative in nature and based on the commentary of others. We should accept them with a grain of salt and wait until our own inner experience either confirms or refutes them). The subtle objects that appear in meditation may also be of the nature of divine sounds, smells, vision of the Gods and other phenomena that pertain to the level of the subtle body. These experiences may also be fearsome in nature, with howling sounds, demonic faces, and other visions that yogins mention as mandatory rights of passage for an ego that is being purified.

Samprajnata Samadhi – Sananda (plane of bliss)

After attaining and mastering the savichara level of samprajnata samadhi, the yogin passes again through the void of asamprajnata samadhi and emerges into the third level of sananda (plane of bliss) of samprajnata samadhi. It’s interesting to note that only after the yogin transcends the savichara level of samadhi does Patanjali state that dawn of spiritual light takes place and that prior to that the yogin is quite out of touch with pure awareness.

In this level, both the gross and subtle forms of objects give way to a plane of bliss that lies beyond time and space and the subtle mind. But since all levels of samprajnata samadhi require an object before the mind, we can assume that the bliss experienced here is of a grosser form of consciousness that remains a subtle object of experience. In other words, it must be something less than the highest bliss of Paramashiva.

Samprajnata Samadhi – Sasmita (plane of pure I-ness)

The final stage of object-based samadhi according to this model is encountered when the yogin emerges beyond the plane of bliss into the plane of pure I-ness. At this exalted level the yogin moves beyond all objects and directly cognizes his own sense of being, the innate sense of awareness that is the target of all meditation and centering practices. But even at this high level Patanjali does not allow for a declaration of Self-realization or liberation from bondage because the samskara bijas, the seeds of past mental impressions, have not yet been destroyed.

In terms of how these latent impressions that veil the mind from pure awareness are destroyed, every time the yogin passes through samadhi, a new impression is formed that counteracts and weakens the vast storehouse of mundane body-mind based impressions. This is akin to using a thorn to remove a thorn. In other words, as the yogin gains proficiency in penetrating into a state of samadhi through repeated practice, when he comes out of it he brings with him a new mental impression of utter bliss and stillness of mind that begins to fill the mind during his ordinary waking state. This impression is full of the light of God, which creates an intense craving for the yogin to return to that state of awareness. As a result of these new impressions, the yogin’s exercise of his powers of discrimination (viveka) and detachment (vairagya) become extremely forceful, and his mind becomes completely non-attached from all of his old desires, attitudes, opinions and other movements. This lack of clinging to old mental impressions, while at the same time holding onto the growing awareness of being the pure Self, is the dual mechanism that works in tandem to destroy the old storehouse of impressions. In other words, it’s the repeated “dipping” into the state of samadhi during formal meditation that finally begins to kill the individual identification with thoughts, the body, the personality and the mind. In addition, the act of concentrating the mind in meditation also brings into focus many of the impressions previously buried within the subconscious. When the yogin becomes conscious of a lingering impression, it greatly weakens the latter’s ability to colour and influence his mind.

It should also be noted that once the yogin reaches the high state of sasmita samadhi, the limit of human willpower is reached, and from that point forward it’s the direct power of the Self that propels the yogin into the last stages of samadhi where all the remaining seeds of mind are finally destroyed.

Nirbija (without seed) Samadhi

After transcending, through the force of the Self, the sasmita level of samprajnata samadhi, the divine yogin emerges into nirbija samadhi. This samadhi is exactly the same as the asamprajnata samadhi that had no object to illumine, but unlike the latter, which was constrained by the presence of mental impressions, here the consciousness is able to illumine itself so that instead of a void, the overflowing bliss of pure awareness is experienced. In this way, nirbija samadhi is essentially Self-Realization, though Patanjali still makes room for one final level of samadhi. Although in nirbija samadhi the remaining mental impressions are destroyed by the power of awareness on their own accord, Patanjali states that final liberation only occurs when the yogin gives up any attachment to even remaining in this highest state of consciousness-bliss. In other words, the yogin must still exercise detachment toward this high state of enlightenment. It’s only then that the yogin passes into the final state of dharma-megha samadhi and finally emerges into Reality proper.

Dharma-Megha Samadhi (Cloud of Virtue)

Not much can be written about this mysterious level except to say that it’s supposed to represent final and complete liberation from any taint of duality, however subtle, and from the mechanisms (like mental impressions and the gunas [qualities of creation]) that allow duality to assert itself in the first place.

Some have speculated that it may represent what others have called sahaja samadhi, or natural opened-eyed samadhi. The distinction between closed-eyed samadhi and opened-eyed samadhi is stressed within the Kashmir Shaivism tradition, and many of the antinomian practices within the Kaula tradition of Kashmir Shaivism are aimed at allowing the yogin to stabilize his samadhi even when not sitting in formal meditation.

In studying all of Patanjali’s levels of samadhi, nowhere does he explicitly state that the yogin’s samadhi occurs outside of his closed-eyed meditation practice. But since the final dharma-megha samadhi leads to absolute liberation which is permanent and irreversible, logic dictates that it also applies to the waking state, otherwise it cannot be called an absolute state.

Other Names for Samadhi

So what about the other names for samadhi? They are names that appear within different traditions. Patanjali belonged to the Samkhya Yoga tradition.

In Advaita Vedanta the terms nirvikalpa and savikalpa samadhi are used. Nir (without) and sa (with) vikalpa (conceptualization). Nirvikalpa samadhi is often identified with the nirbija samadhi of Patanjali, and savikalpa with all the levels of samprajnata samadhi.

Within Kashmir Shaivism, we hear of nimilana and unmilana samadhi. Nimilana samadhi covers all the phases of closed-eyed samadhi. When the yogin is able to extrovert his samadhi into opened-eyed samadhi, meaning that his state of pure-awareness persists even when viewing the objective world, that is termed unmilana samadhi (yes, both can occur simultaneously. You can observe the external world and be aware that it’s all pure consciousness. Ramana Maharshi used the analogy of a mirage in the desert. At first, you think the mirage is a pool of water. But after you realize it to be nothing but a mirage, you still continue to see the “water”. It does not disappear as in the analogy of mistaking a rope for a snake).

Unmilana samadhi, in turn, can be equated with sahaja samadhi, which may be the same as dharma-megha samadhi. The point is that different traditions use different names to denote the same inner states.

One final note on terminology. Ramana Maharshi categorized samadhi into three different types:

1. Sahaja Nirvikalpa Samadhi.  This is the final state of opened-eyed samadhi that is unshakable and continuous.

2. Kevala Nirvikalpa Samadhi. In this state there is a temporary but effortless Self-awareness but the ego still persists. The yogin experiences samadhi in formal meditation. In this samadhi there is no body-consciousness and no ability to function in the world. But as soon as meditation session ends, the ego re-appears. This is the same as Patanjali’s asamprajnata samadhi.

3. Savikalpa Samadhi. Here samadhi is maintained by the application of constant effort. The moment Self-attention wavers, the yogin is thrown back into the ordinary state of mind where there is a perceiver, perceiving and an object perceived. This samadhi is commensurate with Patanjali’s samprajnata samadhi.

* Ramana’s categories are found in David Godman’s book: Be As You Are.

Final Comments

Some seekers might feel disillusioned at the prospect of having to cross all these levels of samadhi. They may feel it to be an impossible and endless task, so why even bother trying? But by the age of five or six, a child understands that he or she must spend years moving from grade school to middle school to high school and finally to college or university. It’s understood that its a natural progression. In fact, many kids greatly look forward to advancing to a new level of school. Each new phase is an exciting fresh start. Each new phase is full of promise and adventure.

This is of course how we should approach our meditation journey. Moreover, some phases of meditation can be traversed with relative speed. It all depends on our effort and the Guru’s grace. And right effort attracts grace.

I can report, happily, that even at the early dharana stage of practice, there’s a tangible bliss and peace that manage from time to time to filter through the layers of the mind. I can only imagine, with great anticipation, what those higher states of concentration must bring.

In addition, regardless of how many levels of samadhi we have to surmount, what choice do we ultimately have? The awful alternative would be to resign ourselves to remain prisoners of the nefarious mind that thrashes us again and again against the rocks. “Feeling of duality is hell”, Bhagawan said.

The practice of yoga is full of wonder and amazement and the effort to become Self-aware is the very goal of life. There’s nothing holier or more sacred than our attempts to still our minds.

By Andres Pelenur © All Rights Reserved

Mind your Comfort Zone

We should not become yoga couch potatoes

Studying the scriptures and commentaries is wonderful – it’s a way to improve our understanding and keep the company of saints, but it should not draw us in to the point that we substitute active practice with passive reading. In a way though, reading is a form of practice, as thinking about the Self and contemplating the words of the Siddhas (perfected beings) draws down their grace and keeps the fire of our intention burning strong. But no person has ever attained Self-realization by mastering books. Moreover, yogic philosophy can be so detailed and complex that it can become a never-ending maze which is difficult to escape.

When we read, we feel no doubt a great deal of intellectual pleasure. Sri Nisargadatta warned, however, that we should be on guard against this type of intellectual satisfaction because if we feel we have understood the Self through the agency of thoughts, we become trapped in ignorance, as there can be no awareness when thoughts are present. It’s like a person who has a keen desire to become a car mechanic and studies in great detail all the manuals on how to build an engine without ever driving a car. Alongside our studies, we must work hard to still our minds.

Both Kashmir Shaivism and Vedanta have a vast body of scripture where one can get happily lost in, to the possible detriment of our progress. This is not to say that we should not study those great scriptures (I’m patiently waiting for Mark Dyczkowski to deliver on his promise to translate into English the entire Tantraloka), just that we must balance intellectual studies with actual meditation and other yogic practices. As stated above, it’s essential to always keep the company of our Gurus through their writings and traditions, as long as we are also striving with great effort to make contact with and experience our innate awareness.

Likewise, we should also be wary of beginner’s comfort. This occurs when we learn a little meditation and chanting, read a few books on yoga and quickly become comfortable with our current state of attainment, which is essentially nil. This tends to happen if we join a sangham (yoga community) where everybody else is kind of in the same state of complacency (or at least to our eyes appear to be). This does not mean there aren’t yogins among us with greater or lesser states of awareness, only that we can become too comfortable with the nice yoga studio or meditation hall, the beautiful music, and the delicious chai after the program. This also does not mean that people aren’t making sincere efforts in their yoga. But from the outside, since everyone around us seems to be more or less in the same ordinary state of mind, we assume our yoga journey will progress in infinitesimal small increments and that it will take lifetimes before we attain an expanded state of awareness. This is the wrong approach. Instead, we should heed the urgency in the voices of our Gurus and embrace their promise that if we hunger and thirst and go after Self-awareness with the same intensity as a drowning man trying to break to the surface of the water, we might very well attain samadhi (meditative absorption) in this lifetime. Accordingly, we should constantly remind ourselves that if we are not succeeding in separating our awareness from our thoughts, like the mythical swan that separates water from milk, then in reality we are not making the right effort in yoga.

The question then arises: how do we know that we are succeeding in separating, extracting and untangling our awareness from our dense mesh of thoughts? The answer is simple: if you meditate properly, maintaining an unbroken and consistent practice, you will very easily be able to experience the slow but steady separation or distancing of your innate awareness from the boiling cauldron of thoughts. You begin to experience the emerging stillness “behind the mind”. It’s self-evident and highly addictive, inspiring you to go deeper and deeper into that blissful stillness that is nothing less than Paramashiva.

By Andres Pelenur © All Rights Reserved

The Essence of Ritual

Just as without virility a man is impotent, and without life the body is dead, so is the external worship (without inner feeling).

- Abhinavagupta

 

Let the sight of the deity unite you to your own awareness. That is the true meaning of darshan (vision of your own Self).

When we step into a temple and approach an idol, we should do so with right understanding. The moment we make eye contact with the deity actually encompasses the beginning, middle and end of any ritual. Standing before the deity with folded hands, we can either try to feel the absolute consciousness the murti (statue) represents, or simply see a statue made of marble, bronze, wood or granite. The choice is ours. Once Swami Vivekananda was trying to explain the use of idols in Hinduism. To get his point across, he asked a man whether he would spit on the framed photograph of a family relative. The man grew angry and asked why would he do such a thing? In the same way the picture strongly invoked the presence and dignity of the person it was depicting, so do idols invoke the presence of God to those with right vision.

But being able to see the idol as consciousness presupposes our own internal contact with consciousness, developed through our meditation practice. Otherwise, consciousness remains only an intellectual concept, and any external idol will be very limited in its ability to still our mind. We may feel religious sentiments, but we probably won’t have access to consciousness.

As you can see, what is really being said is that it’s our own consciousness that’s in fact the power of grace and blessing behind any idol. This might sound controversial, as we usually try to invoke feelings of humility and surrender when prostrating before an idol, ascribing all power to the deity or Guru we are praying to. But as Abhinavagupta points out, it’s really the consciousness behind our thought-screen that is responsible for the efficacy of any ritual action. In other words, the true power behind the simplest act of folding our hands before an idol to the most complex Vedic fire ritual rests on our ability to have the awareness of consciousness at the forefront of our mind. That is why, for example, we can approach the murti of Hanuman and feel that he’s the sole lord of the universe, then move to Ganesh’s form and also feel he’s the sole lord of the universe and so on. There is no inherent contradiction here, as each different representation of God is really a symbol of the one formless consciousness underlying all of creation. And to the degree that we succeed in seeing not only the idol as a form of pure consciousness, but our own consciousness as identical with that consciousness (and by extension identical to the idol before us), to that degree we are practicing opened-eyed awareness (also called “centering”) and tapping into the grace that “flows” from the deity or ritual. Similarly, for any ritual to have its full effect, those engaging it in must do so with the awareness that every mantra, oblation or hand gesture employed is really overflowing with consciousness. The ability to detect awareness in movement grows stronger as we deepen our meditation practice, and it’s the secret that yields the fruit of any ritual. Otherwise, the repetition of mantras and throwing of offerings into a sacred fire or throwing of flower petals onto an idol are reduced to mechanical displays which produce little besides the short-lived “buzz” we get from the inherent purificatory vibrations of the mantras (this is from a yogic perspective, not from an astrological perspective where other protective results might be achieved according to the aim of the puja).

Accordingly, if we consider that simplest and most divine moment when we make initial eye contact with the temple deity, that very instant is the moment the entire force of the ritual – it’s beginning, middle, end and afterglow – is consummated , if we are able to connect to the pure consciousness the deity represents. Needless to say, unless we are highly evolved souls, we are probably not going to walk into a temple, set our eyes on the deity and be thrust into an experience of unity awareness. But as yogins we can and should try to gaze beyond the statue and into the pure awareness. This is, after all, the very reason we are practicing yoga. So the next time we enter a temple let’s not approach the idol as a human being approaching a marble statue. Let’s approach the deity as consciousness having a vision of consciousness.

By Andres Pelenur © All Rights Reserved

 

The Fire of Yoga

Can we withstand the fire of meditation?

In yoga texts there’s a lot of reference to “the fire of yoga.” We’re supposed to “burn” our karma in the fire of yoga, “roast” or “burn” our old impressions, or “purify” our mind through the fire of yoga. So what does this “fire” really signify? And what does the word “purify” actually mean? For example, what does it mean to “purify” our breath? And why is the idea of “purification” always tied to ascetic behavior? Why is the concept of generating tapas (heat) so central to the practice of yoga?

Yogic Purification

It’s common to hear the analogy that when you practice yoga, you’re purifying your body and mind just as gold melted in fire is separated from its impurities. Although it’s a beautiful analogy, it doesn’t tell us much. To understand how purification in yoga works, we first need to understand prana (life energy).

Prana, in its most basic sense, is our life energy. Prana comes into the body from many sources: from the sun, from the air we breath, from the food we eat. Within the body, there are many different types of prana that perform different functions. The five principal pranas are: prana, apana, udana, samana, and vyana. As stated above, each prana performs a different function, such as the distribution of vitality, evacuation of waste from the body, the power of digestion, etc. All pranas are ultimately one prana, and prana itself is a grosser form of shakti (consciousness in its dynamic, vibratory form, i.e. the primordial cosmic energy underlying and manifesting as all of creation). Some authorities actually consider prana and shakti to be synonymous.

Once prana enters the body, its distributed through our network of nadis (subtle energy channels) that resemble our physical nervous system.

As we go through ordinary life, some of our nadis naturally become blocked, just like an artery can become blocked. But here, the blockage isn’t caused by a foreign substance (like plaque), but by the interruption or narrowing of the smooth flow of energy through a channel. The blockage in the nadi can be caused by emotional disturbances (excessive anger, depression, negative thoughts) and by unhealthy living (smoking, excessive consumption of meat, alcohol, nicotine or through excessive loss of our vital fluids). When our breathing becomes weak (people who don’t exercise and sit all day long are known to breath using only a small upper portion of their lungs), the nadis are also affected. In short, many things can cause reductions in the flow of prana throughout the nadis, and in yoga it’s said that the root of all diseases can be traced back to blocked nadis.

The system of nadis, which are traditionally numbered at 72,000, have three principal channels: the ida, pingala and sushumna. Ida is considered lunar or cool and runs down through the left nostril. Pingala is considered solar or hot and runs down through the right nostril. Sushumna is the central channel, and runs straight up along the spine (note: Bhagawan revealed the Sushumna as the sun (red in colour), the Ida as the moon (blue in colour) and the pingala as the star (green in colour).

Criss-crossing depiction of Ida and Pingala nadis

Some texts envision the ida and pingala channels crisscrossing each other while others envision them running parallel along each side of the sushumna.

These different interpretations are not really material to our practice of yoga (perhaps in meditation we might have a vision of the nadis ourselves). The point is that our breath flows through either ida, pingala or both. Specifically, we always pull some air in with both nostrils but the primary flow of prana tends to occur either through the ida or pingala nadi, alternating every ninety minutes or so. Being able to make the prana flow through both ida and pingala simultaneously (equalizing the breath) is one of the required accomplishments in the early stages of meditation. In fact, it’s the first stage of what it means to “purify” the breath. Although there are specific physical breathing techniques to encourage the prana to equalize, if in meditation you establish a strong intention for the shakti and grace of the Guru to spontaneously unfold everything you need, then all yogic processes will occur automatically. This is the best way to meditate: surrender everything to the will of the highly intelligent shakti. Let the shakti determine what you need, when you need it and to what degree. Your sole job is to align your breathe with your mantra and to strive to repeat the mantra correctly (click here for meditation instructions). When the prana begins to equalize, bliss begins to rise in meditation.

Now as we all know, the breath and the mind are intimately connected. When the mind is calm, the breath is slow and steady. When the mind is agitated, the breath is shallow and rapid. When we begin to meditate, we synchronize our mantra repetition with our breath. In other words, we join the mantra to the breath. Now the mantra itself is a vibration of shakti, and as we repeat it, we literally draw down shakti into the body through the brahma randra, the cranial aperture at the top of the skull. The repetition of the mantra immediately begins to affect the breath by charging it with shakti. More precisely, mantra repetition and the drawing down of shakti begins to affect the vibration of the prana that is contained within the breath. In other words, the prana begins to vibrate at a higher frequency or more subtle frequency, if you will. Accordingly, this refinement of prana, which flows throughout the entire subtle body via the nadis and also touches the physical body through the breath, is what is referred to as the purification of the breath. It must be stressed that simply joining a mantra to the breath won’t affect the prana unless the mantra is repeated with proper awareness and technique.

As the prana is vitalized by the shakti of the mantra, it begins to flow powerfully through the nadis. Over time, the shakti clears all the blockages within the systems of nadis. As you meditate with greater and greater subtlety, the prana becomes highly refined. It becomes highly charged and ultimately purifies our three bodies (physical, subtle and causal). The shakti actually rejuvenates our inner organs, affects our cells, affects our blood, our bone marrow, etc. The numinous glow that is sometimes exhibited by yogins  is due to the presence of refined prana, i.e. shakti, throughout the body.

So the purification of the breath does not refer to the gross air that we inhale and exhale, but to the vibration of prana within the breath. In addition to its effects on our three bodies, refining or elevating the vibration of prana is extremely important in how it affects our stream of thoughts. In fact, the actual work of stilling the mind is not accomplished by our force of will (you cannot will yourself to still your thoughts because you’re employing thought in the very attempt). Instead, it’s the vibration of the mantra that holds the power to quiet the mind. The quieting is accomplished when the mantra eliminates the cross-currents of thoughts so that only the one-pointed thought (more like a vibration) of the mantra remains (we can envision a fragmented spray of water from a garden hose versus a steady stream of oil).

As the boiling cauldron of thoughts begins to settle with the repetition of the mantra, the breath also begins to grow longer and slower. Accordingly, the quieter the mind becomes, the longer the breath grows. Actually, the breath becomes so “long” and slow that the space between each inhalation and exhalation also begins to widen. Eventually, when the twin currents of prana (prana and apana) from ida and pingala merge into sushumna, inner breathing begins (pranic breathing) and the outer gross breath disappears altogether. From the outside, it’s as if the yogin has stopped breathing but remains alive. In fact, this is exactly what happens. At this point, the udana prana working within the sushumna nadi takes over the functions from prana and apana.

As an aside, the slowing of the breath is treated very seriously in yogic texts. The breath is divided into sixteen parts, called tutis. Each tuti occupies a space of two and a quarter fingers laid side by side horizontally. So when you breathe out, for example, the movement of the breath from its point of origin in the heart to its terminal point covers a space of sixteen tutis. Now the longer and slower the breath, the less space the breath occupies (this is a bit counter-intuitive). So if you are breathing fast, i.e. hyperventilating, then you are occupying more space. As stated above, the longer you make the breath, the more you can introvert your consciousness. It is said that if you are able to reduce your breath by even one tuti, you gain enormous supra-natural powers. It goes without saying that simply breathing slowly or holding your breath in no way reduces the sixteen tutis each breath occupies. Authentic slowing or elongating of the breath is accomplished spontaneously, as the shakti refines the prana and slows the mind (there are some volitional physical breathing exercises using the throat to encourage the breath to elongate, but as with everything, the real work is done by the shakti on her own accord). If you meditate properly, your breath will elongate very naturally, without the application of force.

To achieve the merging of the prana and apana into sushumna is the destination of every yogin, whether they know it or not (I’ll write a separate post on what happens after the pranas merge into the central channel as taught by Swami Lakshmanjoo). For now, in terms of understanding the purification of the breath, we can state that purification is achieved when the breath becomes so long and slow that the pranas flowing up and down the left and right channels collect at the back of the throat and slip down into the central channel.

As stated above, the purification of the breath is always accompanied by the thinning out of the thought process until only the sound of the mantra remains. This is what can be understood as the purification of the mind that leads toward the first stage of samadhi (meditative absorption). Both are considered the highest form of ascetic practice. True asceticism is not submitting to external physical hardships or tests, but to the work involved in purifying the breath and mind through a rigorous daily meditation practice.

At a more superficial level, the purification of the mind also refers to the thought process (which involves willpower) of replacing bad, negative, or wasteful thoughts with thoughts that are yoga-affirming, or simply by bringing the mind back again to the mantra during the midst of our daily activities (japa). Furthermore, purification of thoughts also means resisting thoughts that would lead to actions that are detrimental to our yoga.

There is a final angle to understanding yogic purification. Once we begin to draw down shakti during meditation, its reach extends deeply into our subconscious mind and even into the void of the causal body. Like a clear pool of water that is muddied by the stirring of a stick, kicking up silt, the shakti begins to throw up into our conscious mind many old and buried samskaras (mental impressions) that subconsciously govern our personality and actions. The disloging of old samskaras is not a pleasant experience. They can cause mental, emotional, psychological and even physical symptoms as they’re expunged from our system. To put it crudely, the shakti penetrates into the dark corners of our mind and conducts a thorough “spring cleaning”. This subtle cleansing of the mental “dirt” in our minds is a type of kriya (movement, action). Yogins are instructed to simply watch those movements with as much dispassion as possible, as kriyas always resolve themselves in a benign way. The “cleaning” of the mind is of course essential for the establishment of inner peace. In addition, the mind must be made pure so that later on, when intense concentration begins to yield supra-natural powers, the mind is pure enough a) to not think thoughts that are injurious to itself or others, and b) to not misuse the power for selfish, egotistical reasons.

The question arrises as to how a yogin can distinguish between an actual mental disturbance or physical illness versus a controlled kriya caused by the shakti? This is a vital point because it’s dangerous to label something as a kriya when it requires proper attention, medical or otherwise. In my own experience, a kriya has a different quality from a disturbance caused by our karma. They are of a different “taste” or color. This issue is quite subtle and must be experienced to be fully understood. The bottom line is that it’s not that difficult for an alert yogin to distinguish properly. This is important in order to not injure oneself by neglecting an actual medical condition. These processes and the ability to detect them only apply to serious yogins who meditate daily.

The Fire of Yoga

Turning now to the fire of yoga, at a basic level, simply resisting bad impulses or desires by replacing them with positive thoughts creates a natural mental friction that is considered yogic “heat”. It’s not easy to rebuff old, ingrained habits. This mental resistance to temptation is an ascetic practice that utilizes our willpower (which is why we fail sometimes). All yogins struggle to clean their minds of negative habits. The purpose is to preserve the shakti we are accumulating through our meditation practice. If we work hard at meditating but then turn around and dissipate all our precious energy indulging every whim and desire, we will of course attain nothing. It’s important to note that simply being deprived of something we have a strong desire for does not create yogic heat (think of incarcerated inmates who strongly desire this or that). The resistance to indulgence has to be volitional and one must be aware that the self-restraint is being undertaken with the intent to foster awareness. In other words, one must have preservation of energy and one’s awareness as the target of the self-restraint. Then the self-restraint is purificatory in nature as it exposes desires that usually only dissipate our energies, allowing us to gain mastery of the mind. This is tapasya. But this type of practice is not the real yogic heat.

Real yogic heat is proportionate to the degree of concentration of mind that we achieve. As our mind becomes one-pointed through mantra repetition, the pure awareness that fuels the mantra begins to shine/reflect in our intellect (normally the intellect reflects our mass of convoluted thoughts and is fully identified, through the agency of the ego, with the stream of thoughts, senses and body. As the mind becomes one-pointed, pure awareness begins to reflect in the intellect (because of the effect one-pointedness of mind has in purifying the ego), like clouds [thoughts] parting to reveal the sky [awareness]. In this way, the intellect is like a prism that is completely colored either by body-mind identification [grey clouds] or by pure awareness [bright blue sky]). The rising of pure awareness in the screen of the intellect is considered yogic heat. The intense energy required to gather the dissipated mind into a laser-like one-pointed beam of thought is also yogic heat.

In practical terms, it’s the “friction” between the breath and the mantra that causes yogic heat (the analogy is that the breath is a stick and the mantra is another stick and when rubbed together, they ignite “fire”). The “heat” being referred to is the mantra’s intense vibratory nature, or more precisely, the pure awareness that is in fact the mantra. This mantra/pure awareness destroys the stream of thoughts, roasts our old impressions, and finally even burns away our stored karma. At times, the physical body experiences strong physiological changes when the mind is bathed in awareness. The body actually burns, sweats, becomes heated, etc.

As Swami Yatishwarananda points out, one of the reasons celibacy is paramount for the serious yogin is because the brain must be keep cool (through the retention of the sexual energy and fluid) in order to be able to sustain the intense heat generated by meditation. Otherwise, the brain heats up too quickly and the yogin cannot withstand the furnace conditions that concentration fosters. Some yogins are seen in pictures with flowers or rudraksha beads wrapped around their head, and the reason is because both items have a cooling effect on the body (now this does not mean that advanced beings walk around always burning, which would be less than blissful. These discomforts are temporary and belong to the period of practice, not final attainment).

Ultimately, yogic heat is the very center of pure awareness. Its power completely changes our bodies right down to the cellular level and of course utterly transforms our mind. Concentration, then, is actually the real alchemical power that transforms the iron of the ordinary mind into the gold of pure, divine awareness. One-pointedness of mind is achieved not through the force of our willpower but through the vibration of the mantra, which is pure shakti. That shakti is the divine fire because it burns everything to a crisp, like fog burning off beneath the heat of the rising sun, until only the undivided blue sky of consciousness remains.

By Andres Pelenur © All Rights Reserved

Ethics and Yoga

Modern depiction of Sri Patanjali

In yoga there’s a lot of stress on morals and ethics. Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras points to the yamas (self-restraints) and niyamas (observances). They are:

Yamas:

1) Ahimsa: non-violence, non-injury, harmlessness;

2) Satya: truthfulness, honesty;

3) Asteya: non-stealing, honesty;

4) Brahmacharya: sexual continence in word, thought, and deed.

5) Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness.

Niyamas:

1) Shaucha: purity, cleanliness;

2) Santosha: contentment, peacefulness;

3) Tapas: austerity, spiritual disciplines;

4) Swadhyaya: study and recitation of scriptures, self-study;

5) Ishwarapranidhana: complete surrender to God.

But unlike conventional religions, morality in yoga is not tied to the concept of being rewarded with a place in heaven by a distant, transcendent God. Nor, like in Protestantism, is morality enforced as a badge of honour. At the far end of the spectrum, for the atheist morality is simply a code of conduct designed to control the masses – a type of social engineering.  So what’s the function of morality in yoga?

The observance of morals from a yogic perspective is quite different. At first it’s a conscious choice that has to be practiced. You choose to behave in this or that way. Choice always requires the application of willpower. But in yoga, morality ultimately becomes an automatic behavior that springs naturally from the attainment of Self-awareness. To put it differently, the practice of morals in the beginning is just an imitation of the natural flow of moral action that occurs once we attain Self-realization. Nevertheless, the practice of morals is essential in order to create the right mental climate of calmness and stability that will support the unfolding of our consciousness.

Ultimately, though, perfection in moral behaviour as listed in the yamas and niyamas is a sign that Self-realization is near because Self-awareness means seeing everything as your own Self. This is a literal experiencing of everything and everyone as your own Self, not an intellectual position. So just as you know that your ten fingers belong to you, you know that every object is also you. Naturally, a person doesn’t harm themselves unless there’s a mental imbalance. You don’t cut off your own finger. In the same way, once you attain a higher state of awareness, you realize (re-cognize) that the universe is literally in you, and you naturally behave in a way that is harmonious to your surroundings. Conversely, the more you see yourself as a separate individual, the easier it is to perform actions that are injurious to others. This is of course the “original sin”: to see yourself as separate from others, to see yourself as a finite being.

Accordingly, the willful practice of morality is an imitation of what will flow naturally in the end. But it’s still an important way of practicing that you are in everything and that everything is in you. It’s main purpose is to strengthen the development of your awareness.

As always, though, the observance of morals is there to support your meditation practice, which is where the real transformation of consciousness occurs. Even if you exhaust yourself practicing morals, you won’t move an inch toward enlightenment unless you meditate. In fact, you might harm yourself, because the intense self-control and austerity required to perfect morality must be digested daily in the fire of meditation. Otherwise, it’ll lead to repression which might manifest as a mental imbalance, which in turn can cause depression, disease or much worse. This is particularly true when trying to control one’s sexual energy (sexual abuse within the Catholic church comes to mind). In fact, the subject of abstinence is so delicate that it requires a separate blog post.

By Andres Pelenur © All Rights Reserved

The Cheapening of Kashmir Shaivism

Abhinavagupta

I’m quite used to seeing the word “tantra” distorted and misappropriated into some kind of aid for sexual pleasure, but it’s quite disheartening to see highly educated teachers cheapening the teachings of Kashmir Shaivism (a tantric path) into something that it’s not.

By way of introduction, Kashmir Shaivism is an umbrella term used to denote the teachings from the lineage of Masters above and under the great Abhinavagupta, who lived in the 11th century, A.D. The lineage runs toward Abhinava in several streams, starting from Somananda, Utpaladeva, and Laksmanagupta, as well as from Bhatta Kallata, Mukula, and Bhattenduraja. He also had another teacher, his principal and most important Guru, Shambunatha. Through contact with these masters Abhinava was initiated into the four principal schools of Trika Shaivism, namely Pratyabhijña, Spanda, Krama and Kaula. Abhinava’s great genius (aside from his tremendous inner state), was to synthesize the teachings of the various schools of Shaivism into one unified system, elucidating in his Tantraloka the most elegant and thorough philosophical system ever recorded.

Before I get to the subject of this post, let’s briefly review what’s implied by the word “tantra.” In Trika Shaivism, we have the notion that everything is Shiva (absolute awareness). Shiva is divided into Shiva-Shakti, Shiva being the unchanging absolute, the substratum of all things, while Shakti is Shiva’s emissional power, i.e. the dynamic aspect of the absolute that manifests as the vibrating or pulsing consciousness.  In other words, all of creation, including the space-time continuum, is nothing other than an expression of Shakti. Accordingly, there’s no foreign or mysterious “substance” of Maya as conceptualized in Advaita Vedanta. There’s no “illusion” to overcome through a process of negation. There’s no “ignorance” to overcome. Instead, everything is at all times Shiva (let’s call it pure consciousness). Creation is neither real nor unreal (as postulated in Vedanta), but perfectly real, though relative in nature. Creation is an emission of consciousness governed by the free will of Shiva. In other words, creation is a self-veiled state of consciousness; a consciousness that is continually expanding out into duality and collapsing back into unity (from Shiva’s perspective. From an individual perspective, we usually refer to an ordinary person as having a contracted state of consciousness and to a yogin as having an expanded state of consciousness).

The truth that everything is at all times consciousness unfortunately translates into a misguided approach to yoga whereby some believe they are excused from having to extricate themselves from matter, as it were; they need not renounce or negate anything, but instead simply experience everything as a manifestation of their own Self. In other words, we simply need to re-cognize reality for what it is. Accordingly, we don’t need to shun our senses, but rather engage them fully as an aid to the attainment of spiritual awareness. This is usually the modern understanding of what the tantric path entails, which gets many a Western audience very pleased and excited.

Some teachers who anchor themselves within the Kashimir Shaivism tradition are very proud to tout the above understanding and insist that nothing really has to be renounced. All that is needed, then, is a shift in understanding. All that is needed is to practice seeing everything as Shiva (as our own Self). We can enjoy our senses as long as we keep in mind that everything is consciousness. We need not renounce any activity, including sex. They openly criticize the traditional Yogic approach set down by Patanjali, which is very renunciatory in nature, insisting on all kinds of observances, restraints and austerities. In contrast, the so-called Kashmir Shaivite teacher paints a very rosy picture of a yoga praxis that’s very relaxed and easy to undertake.  A method perfectly suited for the modern, comfortable Starbucks loving crowd.

The problem with the above understanding is that it’s nothing but a terrible distortion of the true methodology employed by Abhinava’s lineage. The idea that nothing has to be renounced and that only a shift in perspective is required, is both jejune and deceiving in nature. It fails to mention the basic fact that the shift in question is not an intellectual shift, but an empirical shift that can only come about after a prolonged and successful meditation practice culminating in unmilana samadhi (opened-eyed samadhi). And to pass through the many stages of samadhi requires nothing short of total viveka (discrimination) and vairagya (dispassion) and a prolonged and difficult spiritual journey.

To tell  a budding yogin that he or she need not subscribe to serious discipline and total dedication to formal meditation (all yogic disciplines, including celibacy, have the sole function of supporting and nourishing one’s meditation practice); painting a picture of “comfort-yoga” as I like to call it, where everything is Shiva and you need not restrain from anything but simply endeavor to perceive the undivided reality behind everything – is to literally cut the flower down before it’s had a chance to blossom.  It’s putting the cart way in front of the horse. Although such talk is pleasant to listen to, it’s a self-serving aberration of yoga from teachers who are too afraid (or simply ignorant) to present what yoga is actually about. In other words, they’re playing to their audience for fear of losing them.

One must remember that yoga is the complete evisceration of the ego consciousness, which involves a total transformation of the mind, which in turn demands centering a tremendous amount of energy into a laser-like one-pointed beam of thought. To accomplish this requires a total gathering of all of one’s vital energies, and that’s why constant discrimination and dispassion is required to allow one’s meditation practice to properly unfold.

So while the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism is absolutely correct, we should not pervert it by thinking that its practical application does not demand intense forms of self-restraint. Those who love to preach of the ease and beauty of seeing everything as consciousness should also tell their students that Abhinavagupta and all of his disciples were total celibates (please refer to K.C. Pandey’s “Abhinavagupta: An Historical and Philosophical Study”). And the fact that Abhinava and his disciples practiced kaula methods involving sexual rites does not change the above, for only highly evolved beings who had complete control of their senses, mind and organs were allowed to participate in these highly secret practices which were designed to bring the closed-eyed samadhi already attained by them into the final state of opened-eye samadhi. In other words, you have to already be perfected in yoga before directly engaging the sexual energy in any way, shape or form.

Therefore, Patanjali’s focus on yama, niyama, pratyahara, and meditation leading to Samadhi are unavoidable for anyone hoping to attain Self-realization. There is simply no other way, outside of being zapped by the highest level of shaktipat (descent of grace) and attaining instant enlightenment thanks to the operation of Shiva’s perfect freedom and grace.

So the fact that so many so-called Kashmir Shaivism teachers are selling Trika yoga as an easeful path that is distanced from renunciatory practices is a total sham. Trying to embrace everything as consciousness without purifying the mind and breath through an assiduous meditation practice and without restraining the senses is nothing but a delusion or fantasy.

There is one counter argument that might be raised: that it’s better to present a skewed or soft view of yoga to those who are very early in their understanding instead of scaring them with the truth. At least they’ll warm up to the possibilities of yoga and meditation and later on, once they gain some insight, the reality can be taught. Although there’s some merit to this argument, I think the detriments outweigh the benefits, since those who are fit for the practice of yoga and who have actual potential for Self-realization will not shrink at learning of the demands required of them. Furthermore, as a matter of principle, it’s simply a disservice to the tradition to spread a false view of its methodology. The practice of truth, after all, is a central tenant of yoga.

If I were just starting in my practice, I would be in a big hurry to learn of the most effective means. I would certainly not appreciate being taught a version of yoga that sounds more like a self-help, how-to-find-happiness course (where you learn to feel “expanded” and “see everything as God”). What this message implies is that there’s no need for any serious discipline (which of course requires self-effort). To my view, whoever is exposed to this kind of teaching is handicapped right out of the gate.

The final point I want to make is that all this talk of the realities of self-restraint, discipline, sustained meditation, etc., might make it sound as if yogins are masochists who enjoy torturing themselves. Nothing is further from the truth. What is difficult to appreciate is the fact that once you break through the initial stages of meditation and make contact with the very real bliss of the Self, the various types of self-restraints (though never easy because the pull of old impressions keeps coming back) are actually filled with real joy, for they directly facilitate further access to the bliss of meditation. Unfortunately, this reality has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. From the outside, it always looks as if yogins are strange creatures wallowing in painful self-denial, but from the inside, the outer disciplines (read: renunciations) are an armor that protect his ever growing inner peace, joy and bliss. There’s nothing morbid about it. You have to experience it for yourself.

For those teachers who like to wrap themselves in the divine mantle of Kashmir Shaivism (you know who you are), I beseech you to teach yoga properly. Let students understand the landscape that needs to be traversed. Don’t confuse Trika Shaivism’s philosophical maxims with the actual requirements of practice. You should know that they are two very different things.

By Andres Pelenur © All Rights Reserved

Meditation Instructions Part III

Please click here to read Part II of the Meditation Instructions

The Role of the Guru

So far I’ve focused on your meditation seat, on posture, breath and mantra. So where does the Guru come in? By Guru, I’m referring to a physical outer Guru, not the inner Guru who’s always with us.

Having a physical Guru (whether living or departed), necessitates establishing a bond with that individual. You accept a Guru because you feel a connection to that Guru, or more importantly, because you feel devoted to that Guru; not because that person happens to be the first Guru to cross your path.  If you don’t feel devotion toward the Guru, he or she should not serve as your Guru. And that devotion is not a forced emotion. As many seekers will tell you, the connection to the Guru is divine, secret, and in many occasions completely unexpected. You meet the Guru or see a picture of the Guru and something shatters your heart. You just know.

This raises the question: is it really necessary to have a Guru, especially if the inner Guru is always with us? The Shiva Sutras proclaim: Gururupayah (the Guru is the means) 2:6. That is, the Guru is the means to liberation. Ksemaraja, in his commentary on Sutra 2:6, states: Gururva parameshvari anugrahika shaktihi (the Guru is the grace bestowing power of God). Countless other scriptures proclaim the glory and absolute need of a Guru (if you don’t currently have a relationship with a physical Guru, don’t worry. If you’re sincere in your desire to elevate your consciousness and if you devote yourself to the daily practice of meditation, sooner or later a Guru is bound to shower his or her blessings on you). So the answer is a resounding “yes”. But why, if we already have the inner Guru?

The answer is that our mind, mired as it is by the mud of samskaras (mental impressions), doubts, desires and erroneous thinking, is not the most reliable guide. That’s why an authentic and realized Guru is vital. He or she continually points us in the right direction. In addition, a physical Guru gives our mind and heart something tangible to focus on, as opposed to an abstract concept of the Self which in the beginning (until we experience it in meditation) is not easy to formulate or hold onto.

So how do we bring the Guru into our meditation practice? One answer is to meditate on the Guru’s form. This type of meditation is a yoga unto itself and is very powerful. But despite its effectiveness, it’s not easy to accomplish because holding on to a mental image is much harder than listening to a sound. That’s because the universe is really an expression of vibration, with light and form being subsequent to the initial throb of creation.

Nevertheless, bringing your Guru into your meditation is an extremely blissful and stabilizing practice. When I first bow to my asana (meditation seat), I imagine myself bowing to my Guru, Bhagawan Nityananda. And right before I begin to repeat my mantra (or during the first repetitions), I offer my meditation to my Guru.

Next, I engage in the very blissful practice of nyasa (placing or locating). During nyasa, I place the form of my Guru in different parts of my body. I start by placing his form in the lowest chakra, working my way up to the sahasrara (thousand petal lotus) chakra above the head. I make sure to install my Guru with particular attention in the muladhara (root), anahata (heart), ajna (third eye) and sahasrara chakras. Then I install his image in each eye, in each ear, in my mouth, in each hand and in each foot.

This simple practice of installing the Guru is, in my experience, powerful beyond measure. It instantly quiets my mind by several degrees and draws me into a deep state of silence. When I honour Bhagawan by installing him through nyasa, I feel that I’m receiving his protection and grace. I find that the vibration of my mantra intensifies many times over when I combine his image (holding it steady in my mind) with the sound of the mantra. My installing Bhagawan in my body and mind, I practice becoming one with him, and there’s nothing more joyful for a devotee. This is one of the reasons why I feel so much enthusiasm to get up each dawn and meditate, because I know that I’ll be able to spend a few minutes merging with my Guru.

After spending some time meditating on Bhagawan’s image, I gradually shift my focus fully onto the sound and vibration of the mantra. As I do that, I don’t let go of Bhagawan completely. Instead, I begin to feel that Bhagawan is the mantra and that it’s his power behind it. I then follow the technique discussed in Part II of these instructions, whereby my own sense of identity gradually dissolves into the mantra. Then the vibration of the mantra, my sense of identity and Bhagawan are all fused into one vibration. As I meditate, I try to let the mantra expand and literally take over my mind, so that only its vibration exists. This is how one leads the mind into stillness. And this is why your mantra needs to have the sound “Om” in it, as it’s “Om” that holds the power.

As you go deeper and deeper into the vibration of the mantra, you will begin to attain different levels of concentration, meaning that all other thoughts and images foreign to the mantra begin to disappear. This concentration, which is relaxed and yet at the same time very one-pointed, is the first step toward samprajnata samadhi (meditative absorption with an object of consciousness at its source). But the good news is that you will actually begin to experience the mystical bliss of the Self long before you attain mastery of samprajnata samadhi. The point here is to simply allow yourself to be completely consumed by the mantra, in the same way paper is consumed by fire. This is how you bring about the ecstasy of meditation and correct stillness of mind.

Movements in Meditation

One of the issues yogins have to deal with, sooner or later, is how to handle movements, itches, discomfort, cramps, etc during their meditation session. The answer is simple: go with the flow. At the start of a session, when I first expand my lungs by taking a few deep breaths, I also yawn a couple of times. This is good as it brings more oxygen into the brain. After I settle down, I’m able to sit very still for about a hour. Sometimes, however, I’ll feel a terrible itch. The best thing is to scratch it, so that you can quickly return your focus to your mantra repetition. If you try to be a hero and ignore the itch, you’ll only be focusing on the itch instead of on your mantra. Better to scratch and return to the mantra. The same goes with aches. For example, if your ankle begins to hurt, simply shift your position slightly. The idea is to try to become comfortable again as quickly as possible, so you can return to your primary focus. Of course, if you are constantly in pain or constantly adjusting your position, then there’s something off with your posture, your seat or your body. Here I’m talking about minor itches or aches that come only once in a while and interfere with your meditation. As your ability to concentrate grows stronger, you’ll be able to pay less and less attention to such distractions.

Some people also think that once they start meditating, then need to sit as still as a statue. Although it’s good to remain as still as possible (and with a straight back), as the shakti (spiritual energy) begins to accumulate and spread throughout your body, you may find that it makes your body move in certain ways. These natural movements (and I emphasize the word “natural”) indicate that the shakti is working on your body (and mind). For example, sometimes I find that my mouth opens for no reason, and that it stays open for a few minutes (I mean open wide, like when you’re sitting in the dentist’s chair). Other times I might utter a sound, such as “Ha!”. At other times my chin gets pointed all the way up, stretching my neck, while at other times my chin goes all the way down, almost touching the suprasternal notch at the base of the neck. These physical bhandas (locks), combined with certain spontaneous breathing patterns that I won’t discuss here, all occur naturally and without any thought or intention on my part. These kriyas (movements) are set in motion by the power of the shakti being drawn down during meditation and their purpose is to remove blocks in the subtle system of nadis (channels) that resembles the physical nervous system. The removal of blocks allows the prana (life energy) and shakti to flow properly throughout the body, preparing you for higher states of awareness.

Kriyas come and go on their own, and their variations are infinite. All you need to understand is that if you suddenly feel the urge to move in a certain way, don’t resist. Let your body follow the flow of energy while you keep all of your focus on the vibration and repetition of the mantra. Just observe them in a passive way and do not get involved with them or they will interrupt your meditation. Just surrender your body and mind to the will of the Lord and keep your focus on the vibration of the mantra in tune with your breath.

Coming out of Meditation

After your concentration begins to wane, you’ll find your awareness becoming extrovert and the energies in your body returning to normal. Don’t rush out of meditation. How you come out of meditation affects how you’ll come into your next meditation. After your meditation ends, sit quietly for a few minutes, steeping in its energy. Thank your Guru and slowly open your eyes. Take a few deep breaths.

Gently lift your right ankle and lower it onto the carpet. This usually hurts a lot if you’ve been sitting for an hour. Take your left calf or ankle and press it over your right ankle. This is a little trick that works wonders: by putting pressure on the right ankle, the pain dissipates rather quickly. Once you’re able to, lift yourself from your asana and kneel before it in vajrasana. Sitting like this on your ankles also gets rid of any pain. Then bow again fully before your seat, thanking your Guru again for having received the opportunity to meditate.

Don’t forget to change out of your meditation clothes right away. You want to keep your meditation clothes only for that purpose. The cloth will accumulate your spiritual vibrations and will help ease you into your next meditation.

In terms of how long each session should last, begin with twenty five minutes and work your way up, until you can sit comfortably for an hour to an hour and a half. Anything beyond an hour and a half per day will be mandated from within, when the time is ready. Personally, I meditated for one hour a day for the first twelve months with excellent results. So one hour is a respectable goal to have, at least during first year of meditation.

Finally, it’s vital that you meditate on a daily basis. Being a bit fanatical about it is actually good, for only a sustained daily practice will give you a chance to develop strength in your ability to concentrate. If you meditate a bit here and there, results will be severely limited. Needless to say, try to meditate at the same time every day. You’ll find your mind slips into meditation easily at the appointed hour. The best time to meditate is between 3:30 AM to 6:00 AM.  That said, I’ve found that meditating from 6:00 to 7:00 AM has worked just fine.

Final Comments

Your daily hour of meditation is not an isolated event. Swami Lakshmanjoo said that “practicing awareness” is the fastest way to attain Self-realization. Your formal meditation hour is where you develop that awareness. The rest of your day, however, must include practicing the awareness you touched upon during meditation. So what does this actually mean?

As you know, meditation allows you to become increasingly aware of the eternal awareness behind your thoughts (in proportion to the degree that you can make your mind one-pointed). When your mind quiets down and you sense pure awareness, a mental impression is formed of that experience. Later, when you come out of meditation and re-enter your extroverted mind, the impression of the stillness felt in meditation is left behind, and as you go about your day, you can try to bring your mind back to that awareness. This is called centering and it’s practice is essentially feeling or touching the awareness that you are not your body or your mind, but the unmoving consciousness behind them. Centering is accomplished with the aid of the mantra. Japa, or silent repetition of the mantra, performed in the midst of your activities, is a vital support to your meditation. The more japa you perform, the better your meditation will be. Likewise, the more you stick to your daily meditation regime, the more powerful and subtle your japa will become.

Repeating the mantra throughout the day is not a mechanical chore. When you repeat your mantra with love and proper awareness, knowing it to be the body (vibration) of God, the mantra will purify all of your systems: physical, subtle, mental, and emotional. This process is the same as meditating. In a sense, japa is wakeful meditation (although it’s not as powerful as sitting for formal meditation. Never make the mistake of thinking that performing japa is a substitute for formal meditation). When you repeat the mantra with proper awareness, you’ll begin to soak in the bliss of the Self even while performing mundane tasks. Japa, done properly, delivers deep peace and bliss. It’s an essential support to your meditation practice. Never underestimate the value of getting into the habit of repeating your mantra as much as you can. Repeat it when you first wake up, during your day, in the evening, and when you are trying to fall asleep. This is how yogins  behave.

May your meditation practice reveal the splendor of your own divine awareness.

Hari Om Tat Sat!

By Andres Pelenur © All Rights Reserved

Meditation Instructions Part I

Since so much of this blog is dedicated to promoting the practice and understanding of meditation, let’s dive right into that sacred space. I’m dividing these posts into three parts: pre-meditation, meditation, and post-meditation practices.

Preparing for Meditation

There are many factors involved in establishing a successful meditation practice, the first being enthusiasm. Ideally, a sense of excitement and anticipation should be there as we wake up each morning and prepare to sit in silence. It should not feel like a chore. Normally though, we only get excited about things that bring us happiness or pleasure, so until the natural peace and bliss (which is vastly more subtle and superior than human happiness or pleasure) that flows from meditation begins to manifest (which can take some time), what is needed is a strong sense of commitment, in the same way that a marathon runner commits to train at all costs for an important race.

The time and place of meditation matter. Try to mediate at the same time every day, ideally in the early hours of the morning, beginning just before dawn. You should shower before meditating, as it’s important to wash away the tamasic (inert) energy of sleep. At the very least, wash your face and sprinkle a few drops of water over the crown of your head. Drink a little water to wet your throat.

Keep a set of clothes reserved only for meditation. I always mediate with a thin woolen sweater over my t-shirt, as I find that my body temperature can sometimes dramatically decrease or heat up. A thin sweater evens out the fluctuations. What’s important, however, is to wear a pair of pants that are very thin, so as to not obstruct the blood flow. The aim is to reduce the chances of the legs falling asleep, which is both painful and distracting. Accordingly, I wear a set of very fine silk pajama-like pants. I also have some Indian white cotton pants that work well. The point is that the cloth should be very thin and comfortable. I usually also wear socks, though it’s not important.

Meditation Cushion and Foam Back Support

Your meditation space and seat are critical for success. You should have a small area set aside for your practice that remains otherwise undisturbed. Ideally, you should sit on a carpet. Your meditation cushion (yes, you need one) and lower back support are also important (unless you are an expert hatha yogin). The meditation cushion is actually so important that your practice can easily fail if you overlook this essential detail. Its purpose is to anchor your body in a comfortable position, allowing you to sit cross-legged for long stretches of time, which requires your hips to be positioned a few degrees higher than your knees. In other words, your hips and pelvic bone should sit a little higher than your knees, creating a natural incline, allowing your knees to effortlessly touch the ground. Otherwise, if you sit directly on the ground, your hips will be lower than your knees, causing your knees to “float” in the air. This is to be avoided, as it places a  heavy strain on your lower back and will thwart your ability to meditate. Ultimately, you should be able to sit from one to two hours in perfect comfort.

Example of sitting with knees pointed up. This is NOT how one sits for meditation.

For a proper posture, the cushion cannot be too high or too low. Also, the cushion should be filled with something like buckwheat hulls, i.e. something that adjusts and molds to your body. I can’t underscore how important it is to have a comfortable cushion that allows you to lock your legs down without any discomfort. Once you cross your legs, you should rest your right foot over your left thigh in ardha padmasana. Do not attempt to sit in full lotus posture as it’s quite difficult.

Ardha Padmasana (half lotus), my preferred meditation posture. Both knees touch the ground and the right foot rests over the left thigh.

Next is the foam square I use to support my lower back. I can also meditate without any back support, but frankly, to sit for long periods of time, I find it helpful to have a little support and to sit up against the wall. Both the cushion and foam square were purchased at a meditation store.  One final word on the cushion. Not all cushions are made equal. At the store, I had to try six or seven cushions to find the one that felt just right. Remember, it should not be too high or too low. Just enough filling to be high enough to create the incline that allows your knees to touch the floor.

Woolen Meditation Asana (seat)

Finally, I also like to meditate on a woolen yoga asana (seat). The woolen square has two purposes: first, by sitting on the same cloth over and over again, it actually accumulates a little of the shakti (spiritual energy) that is drawn down during meditation. When you sit for your next session, the vibrations in the asana enable you to sink into stillness with less effort. Second, the seat is a symbol for the power and presence of the inner Guru. When you sit on the asana, you surrender your body and mind to the Guru and you honour your own divinity. It’s no different than the throne of a king, which represents the power of the office of the king. In the same way, the yogin’s asana represents the power of yoga that flows directly from God.

By Andres Pelenur © All Rights Reserved

Please click here to read part II of the meditation instructions.

 

 

Advaita Blues

jñānam bandhah (knowledge is bondage)

- Shiva Sutras, 3:2

Today I’d like to discuss some of the problems inherent in Advaita Vedanta as a path of practice (as opposed to its philosophical nuances). Yes, there are problems with Advaita’s metaphysics both in how the Ultimate Reality is construed and in how Maya is explained, but these are mostly academic in nature and immaterial to our day to day sadhana (spiritual practice).

Yoga has penetrated the West primarily in two forms: hatha yoga as found in yoga studios (which eventually introduces the practitioner to some kind of Hindu scripture) and philosophically through Advaita Vedanta. Anyone who has studied the words of Ramana Maharshi, Sri Nisargadatta, and others can see the attractiveness of this approach: it’s highly rational and intellectually satisfying.

Advaita is a logical, internally consistent system that works like a well oiled machine. It’s intellectual word play at its finest. We are constantly reminded to seek and separate the eternal from the transient. “Am I the body? Am I the mind? If not, who am I?” are common practices. By again and again returning to the knowledge that the only thing that seemingly does not change is the awareness behind our thoughts – the witness consciousness, as it were, the advaitin tries to intellectually shock his mind into stillness. It’s almost like a yoga via a koan method. It’s properly classified as a type of jnana yoga (yoga of knowledge).

Despite the beauty and elegance of the system, it translates into immediate trouble for Western yogins. This is because the logical reasoning that makes up advaita is not difficult to master, which has caused the world to become populated by an army of “advaita masters” proclaiming Self-realization and setting themselves up as teachers. They sit and talk and utter beautiful concepts, always reducing the mind and material world back to nothingness, always circling back to emptiness, as it were, no matter what the issue being discussed. This technique, which is expertly deployed by real masters such as Sri Nisargadatta, is mimicked by unenlightened individuals. Just browse the internet and you’ll find countless teachers, seminars and yoga retreats…

The problem is that all those sincere and well-meaning yogins who study with these teachers are attaining nothing. They sit and nod and during their silent breaks contemplate the teacher’s wonderful sayings but in the end leave with only “food for thought”. The understanding of the transient nature of reality, of the power of now, of stillness, etc is very moving, no doubt, but delivers nothing but mental complacency. Why? Because attaining a higher state of awareness does not occur within the realm of thought. It unfolds when thoughts are stilled, which is only achieved through the hard practice of concentration (i.e. effort), which is nothing other than meditation. Let’s not forget that after Ramana Maharshi attained Self-realization, he sat for days in perfect stillness, his mind completely dead to the outer world, to the point where he developed open sores on his legs and was eaten alive by bugs.

Likewise, we must remember that Sri Nisargadatta himself meditated formally, every day, before he attained Self-realization. He condoned traditional yogic practices. In one of his talks, he called Jiddu Krishnamurti “a great thinker”, and it was not meant as a compliment.

The error is in thinking that if we arrest the mind through intellectual analysis of the transient versus the eternal, we will somehow sever the identification with our body-mind and slip into enlightenment. Unfortunately, this is not going to happen. Instead, I would add that, realistically, Self-realization can only be achieved (for 99.9% of us) through the process of meditation (there are a minute few who have attained realization by force of the Guru’s grace or by total surrender and devotion to the Guru).

When we feel intellectually satisfied with an elegant internally-cohesive philosophy, we should know we are in trouble. True yoga, as the Shiva Sutras point out, is moving beyond intellectual knowledge and into direct higher awareness. The knowledge being referred to in 3:2 of the Shiva Sutras is intellectual knowledge, i.e. knowledge born of thought. True knowledge is of course thoughtless, also known as pure awareness.

There is nothing wrong in studying Advaita texts. As I said, they can be very inspiring. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that intellectual practice will lead to tangible results. We need to receive the gift of meditation for that to happen.

By Andres Pelenur © All Rights Reserved