Big Drink of Grace

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Bryce Canyon Trail Utah

A dear friend recently visited us in Baja for a few days. She is a young lady that my wife and I have known for about a year. We did medical volunteer work together in the Peruvian Andes. She is currently healing from a relationship break-up and needed to have time away for some support and some fun. She has been receiving valuable insights from therapy and making a personal study of her “attachment-issues” as she calls it, and how these have impacted her relationships. Of course this is a very fruitful area for personal growth.

During our conversations I was trying to articulate the difference between how therapy differs from the transformative effects of a regular deep meditation practice. By “therapy” I am generally referring to cognitive recognition and re-alignment of one’s operating patterns of thought, feelings and actions in life, as explored with a competent guiding professional.

I too have had the benefit from working with insightful therapists in the past. So I have great appreciation for their work and the value that they give. Primarily, this was in the form of recognitions of my own patterns of relationship to myself and to others. Then developing methods to improve them, to replace less-than-optimal patterns with better life and relationship strategies. This creates more freedom, more capacity and happiness.

One limitation to insight-type therapies, however, is that we operate in therapy as in life, from within those very same limiting thought patterns. We are using the relative mind to try to transform the relative mind. And it is very difficult to “get outside” of our own limiting viewpoints and reactive patterns. So changing them is likewise inherently difficult.

Meditation is fundamentally different in that it is a process of transcending the whole field of thought-forms and reactive patterns. It is a connecting, for a few minutes each day, with the deep non-conceptual source-place of our own highest Consciousness. This place of meditative repose (samavesha or samadhi) is full of the Wholeness and the “soma-value” of life, of Consciousness. This is naturally uplifting and healing. And it is inherently intelligent in its operation for our highest benefit. The “soma-value” is that aspect of Consciousness that is operative in protecting and uplifting life. It is a form of what is called “Grace”, or the “maha-shakti”, among other terms in the tantric traditions.

To make this clear to my friend, who has a beautiful and very refined religious perspective, I offered this metaphor: “That going into deep meditation is like taking a “big drink of pure Grace”, and then bringing it back into our life, into our body, our mind and our relationships. It then acts naturally to untangle any knots of limitation. It permits and causes us to heal and to rise towards our own highest expression in life, automatically, naturally and beautifully. For it only ever acts for our highest possible benefit.

So the transformation from meditation does not require that we “figure out” and find specific solutions to each of our limiting patterns, and the past forms of suffering that give rise to them. Yes, we certainly will have insights and gain the wisdom of our experiences, even as we release them into a greater and happier configuration of our own life. I compared it to “pouring cream-rinse” over the mats and snarls of our own various mental “tangles”. They just start to release. The patterns of limitation, which we all hold, begin to let go. And yes, this can be powerfully supportive for someone who is also working in therapy. The practice of meditation is complete and belongs at the center of our personal mandala of practices.

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Slot-Canyoneers, Escalante Utah
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The Meaning of “Mind”

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For students and practitioners of yoga and tantric meditation, we need a simple and clear definition of what is meant by the word “mind”. In the traditional and modern literature of the many esoteric traditions, the word “mind” is used in various and sometimes confusing ways. It is often mixed up with what would properly be called the principle of “consciousness” or the experience of embodied sentient awareness.

To address this ambiguity I have found the following to be a practical working definition of “mind”:        “Mind”, (n) is the sum of the activities and mechanisms that give rise to our though-forms and feelings: The contents of consciousness, but not Consciousness itself.

This includes the sensory perceptions as encoded in our brain and nervous system. It includes all of the “processing” that creates consciously-accessible content. It includes the processing and encoded brain activities that represent our past memories, our imaginative constructs of the future, and our conceptual representations of objects and events. This includes our constructed conceptual image of our self. That is what I call the “operating-relative self” (or ego), which is but a conceptual construct within the body-mind. That is not the “Self” that is our true and abiding nature, our highest and imperishable Self.

What is not included in this definition of “mind” is the power of conscious awareness itself. Consciousness, the ever-present field of awareness or sentience is prior-to and not dependent upon the operation of mind. It does not arise from the neurologic processing of the brain. (Even though many neuro-cognitive researchers think otherwise.) Rather, Consciousness is the universal and fundamental underlying principle of all existence.

“This entire world, and our very own Self, arises, manifests and abides within the Absolute Light of Consciousness”, the Tantrāloka declares. And simultaneously, Consciousness is the fundamental essence-nature of our own personal Self. It is the ever-present (yet often overlooked) field of personal living awareness within which all our experiences of life arise and exist. Mind, via the brain and nervous system, produces the contents of thought. But consciousness is the source of the experience of those contents.

So if mind is the source and the sum of all of our thoughts, the content of our consciousness. Then consciousness is that essential faculty which illuminates, sees and knows that content. That is what is meant by “the Light of Consciousness”. It is that by which all experience is actually known. And it is taught that there is actually no other existing light. For even the sun would not “shine’ except that it is illuminated, seen and known in that Light of Consciousness. (From the Tantrāloka, Ahnika I)

This definition and perspective on “mind” is confirmed in the teachings of classical Yoga and Samkhya philosophies. In their scheme of the 25 tattvas or “reality principles”, the highest principle is Consciousness itself in its personal aspect called “Purusha.” That is the individual or personal aspect of pure Consciousness.

Beneath this, in the realm of relative existence, are three tattvas that together comprise the “mind”. First there is the “buddhi” which the most subtle level of the relative mind. It corresponds to what western psychology would call “sub-conscious” in that much of it is not readily accessible. It includes all of the subtle memory-traces (samskaras) from our past experiences. And it determines what is permitted to arise up into the level of our accessible thoughts. Second is is the “ahamkara”. This means the “I maker” or ego. It stamps our experience with the recognition of belonging to our self: “This is my experience.” “These are my actions.” etc. Finally is the “manas”: This is the operating-mind of consciously accessible thought, concept formation, emotional coloring, and executive organizing, etc.

So these three, buddhi ahamkara and manas, are the 3 levels of function that together comprise the “mind”. But Consciousness itself (“purusha”, or “atma” in the later tantric non-dual view) stands apart, ever-free, ever-radiant, in its own illuminating Light of Consciousness. This distinction is of the utmost importance for us.

Diksha: “That Without Which, Nothing”

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Lost Lake Oregon and Mt. Hood

Today I want to share my perspective on the topic of initiation. This is much misunderstood and can even evoke an unfavorable reaction when first encountered. It is a tradition that can appear exclusionary or elitist to some. Whereas, the truth is that it is a necessary and beautiful aspect of the teaching of authentic living practice.

The teaching of “the practice of the practice” is completely initiatory in character. It has always been so in the various tantric lineage streams and it is as true today. While the various texts, the “tantras” of Kashmir Shaivism, as well as in classical yoga, give the philosophy, the perspective of understanding, the “theory of the practice”. The actual practice is taught only in person, directly from an authorized teacher to the student. This process is called “initiation” or dikṣha in Sanskrit.

Why is this so? Why all of the appearance of some form of secrecy or exclusivity? Why is it not taught in the books, or on YouTube for that matter? The best analogy I can use to explain this is that it is a transplantation of a living practice from one person to another. Just as a living sprouting seed must be carefully transplanted from one garden to another in order to be received in a living and protected condition that will grow and thrive. In other words it is transferred from life to life. That is why meditation instruction in the tantric traditions is always direct from person to person in dikṣha. It is this that assures that the practice will be active and effective when thus received. It may also be seen as the direct “pouring” of the knowledge of the practice from one container (the teacher) to another container (the student) in a pure, undiluted and protected manner.

To become an authorized initiating teacher of tantric meditation is a profound undertaking. It can require five or more years of dedicated study and practice before the initiation of a teacher as a teacher. I can say from my own experience that it is as challenging a commitment, both in depth and breadth of study and practice, as is going through medical school and internship. It takes as much time and dedication as becoming a physician.

Dikṣha, the personal and direct teaching and receiving of “the practice of the practice” of meditation, is the “sine qua non”: “That, without which, nothing.” It is the essence of learning a living and profound effective daily practice, which will then utterly transform, enhance and uplift the practitioner’s life.

The Sanskrit word diksha (dikṣa) comes from the combining of two root words: dik, which means “to give”, and kṣha “to take away”. What is given in initiatory teaching is the knowledge of the practice. What is taken away is any misunderstanding that might interfere with it being used properly and effectively. The practice itself is simple and natural. The instruction is given with care and precision.

The practice is entirely inward for the personal benefit of each practitioner. So this inward directionality is protected and kept pure by the tradition of initiatory teaching.

And that is exactly the reason why the texts do not give detailed or direct instruction in exactly how to go about meditating. The container is there. The perspective is there. The sequence of experiences and methods of transformation are carefully detailed in the texts. But the practice itself is reserved for initiatory teaching. And this is as true of the Yoga Sutras as it is for the Kashmir Shaiva tantric texts, such as the Shiva Sutras, The Vijñana Bhairava Tantra, and the Tantrāloka, to name a few extraordinary sources.

This is also the reason that I do not provide any details of “the practice of the practice” in this blog. I am happy to share my own experiences from meditation, the “fruits” of the practice, as well as the philosophical and textual underpinnings. To me these are realms of extraordinary knowledge and sources of continual fascination. To learn the practice itself though, again I refer interested readers to the bluethroatyoga.com website to locate an authorized teacher of Neelakantha meditation.

Tomorrow I will share how I came to meet my own meditation teacher, Dr. Paul Muller-Ortega, and learned this practice from him.

The Varieties of Mystical Experience

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Nataraja, the Dancing Shiva, at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, Switzerland

Varieties of Mystical Experience

Dear reader, have you ever had an extraordinary and unexpected experience of mystical or Divine nature? Perhaps one of sudden emerging into the direct experience of a reality beyond the ordinary? Or one that came as the touch of loving Grace, arriving when most needed, to utterly displace and release a state of suffering or peril?

It is the character of such spontaneous mystical experiences that they change our viewpoint on life forever. Once seen, they can never be unseen. They are never forgotten and continue to tug on our heart. Life pivots on such experiences. And we deeply desire to return there, to visit that realm again, or long to live permanently from that perspective. We turn towards something higher. A spiritual “seeker” (or finder) is born.

Such profound and spontaneous mystical experience may be accompanied by startling revelations: “This is what I truly AM!” They may be shot-through with the most complete knowledge of the unity within all life and all beings. They are replete with wisdom, love and freedom, the very “flavor”(rasa) of the Divine.

William James, the “father of American psychology”, gave a series of ten lectures at Harvard that were transcribed into his 1915 book: “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” But it is not at all about conventional religious experience. Rather, it is an analysis of many case reports of individuals who have had mystical or transcendent experience. These experiences may last for minutes or hours or a few days. They arrive seemingly out-of-the-blue. Most individuals are not able to re-access or repeat them. And they are uniformly haunted by the exquisite memory. They long to return to that state ever after. It is interesting that William James reported he personally never had such an experience himself, despite his deep fascination with them.

The lack of access to these very dimensions of transformative and transcendent experience is exactly what is addressed by the regular practice of deep tantric meditation. By means of Neelakantha meditation, practitioners come to have regular access in the meditative states called samadhi. This is not something that takes many years to develop. It starts to happen right away. Immersion into levels of samadhi often starts right from the very first meditations after properly learning the practice. This is ever amazing and can be heart-smashingly beautiful. Such “access” becomes increasingly available and increasingly conscious over time.

However, the purpose and the “work” of a regular meditation practice is not to “collect” transcendent experiences. Experiences do come and are treasured, but they are brief. What is more important is how the practice transforms the life of the individual. How is one changed, uplifted and liberated from limited expressions of thought, feeling and action? How is life changed permanently for the better? How do we move towards and into our own enlightenment? This is the “work” of daily meditation over time. And it happens automatically, intelligently and very efficiently by the very simple and easy means of committed daily practice.

Within just a few months after beginning Neelakantha meditation practice I experienced some very surprising changes in how I was moving through life. This was especially noticeable in my relations to other people. It was very surprising and curious. Like most all of us, I have had my own reactive patterns: “hot-buttons” and triggers that would set off some reaction automatically in my mind and body. Somethings would make me erupt with feelings of anger, for example. Certain situations would trigger strong negative judgments or opinions. Something else might make me fume. These were various reactive thought-patterns that I had thought were just part of my character. And they were largely unconscious until they erupted into action.

What happened after some few months of meditation is they started to dissolve. And this was without any specific intention or effort on my part. It just happened. A circumstance would arise that used to trigger a reaction, and what happened was: nothing! It was as though all of the “levers” or buttons that used to be pulled or pushed by triggering circumstances no longer had any effect: They were taken “off-line” or disconnected. This was wonderful and felt very freeing. I became a much nicer, happier and more peaceful person. (My wife noticed and liked these changes in me very much!)

Of course this is not the end of the journey of refinement. It is just the beginning. There are many layers to our contracted patterns that are deeply rooted in past experiences. They are mostly hidden from our direct conscious access. These are the residues or traces from past experiences that contain some buried suffering. It is these that our meditation practice releases. The suffering contained within them is released during meditation and just goes up in smoke. The suffering is gone, and only the wisdom contained in our past experiences remains.

The tantric teaching (as in yoga philosophy) is that all of our past experiences leave “traces” called samskaras, embedded at the deepest level of the mind, like memory traces inscribed at the subtlest level of the body-mind. These act as “seeds” that can “sprout” when they are triggered by particular circumstances. Thus activated, they replay the contracted habitual patterns of thought, judgments, emotions and actions, a reenactment of that suffering. Meditation is said to “burn the seeds” of those impressions. And thus the “burnt-seed” is one that can never again “sprout”. Their suffering is released. The negative pattern, at that level, will not arise or be activated again. This is called the “burnt-seed” metaphor or nyaya.

There are also very startling adjustments that arise as we move though these processes of transformative change. There are very definite “awkward stages”. After my reactivity-disconnect (described above) was well underway I became what I call “socially incompetent” for a time. I was never very adept in large group social situations anyway. But now it was much worse! Rather than being triggered by other people, I now saw other people’s dramas or self-stories as not making any sense to me. Even with close friends, I would often say the wrong thing and get myself into trouble. So I just became very quiet and tried to stay carefully neutral in any social situation. I felt very awkward and out of place within my own social world.

After some time had passed, more compassion and joy with being around other people flowed in, and seemed to fill the space in me that had been left vacant. I see now that my relationships are definitely richer, more authentic and satisfying.

It is a very interesting process with many surprising stages. As the Shiva Sutras says: “Vismayo yoga-bhumikaḥ”, “The stages and phases of yoga are marked by surprise, wonder and blissful astonishment.” (Sutra I .12) It is a journey that continues.

In coming posts I would like to discuss my understanding of the foundations of our limiting self-identities and thought-constructs. What exactly is it that needs to be released as we move towards greater freedom and fulfillment? How does all of that actually work?

Knowledge Alone is Liberative

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Land’s End Los Cabos

That “Knowledge alone is liberative”, is declared as a fundamental principle in the very first chapter of the masterwork of Kashmir Shaivism, the Tantrāloka (“Light on the Tantras”) written by a most honored and enlightened genius precisely 1000 years ago in Srinagar, Kashmir. His name was Abhinava Gupta. His writings summarize, clarify and bring into our focus the exact theoretic knowledge that underpins the tantric methods and practices (including our Neelakantha meditation). My meditation teacher, Prof. Paul Muller-Ortega is the world’s foremost practicing authority, as well as scholarly Sankrit interpreter, on the writings of Abhinava Gupta.

What then, is the nature and character of that liberating knowledge? What is it that one needs to learn and to know in the process of rising to one’s own enlightenment? It is not just some body of information, not some assemblage of ideas or concepts. That is where we start in order to approach it. But it is “known” only in the fullness of realization that is the fruits of true deep practice. I hope to offer an example of this today.

In our tradition we make a clear distinction between “the theory of the practice” and “the practice of the practice”. The theory is the conceptual knowledge that gives a framework and reference point for understanding how and why we approach the actual practice of meditation as we do. This is for the benefit of the mind. If our reference frame of conceptual knowledge were too small, too limited by errors of limited understanding, then we would limit our access to recognizing and assimilating the sublime and transformative revelations that happen spontaneously in meditation.

One could actually have a moment of deep Samadhi, of the complete “melting” of separative perception into the transcendent wholeness of non-dual Consciousness. And yet not even recognize nor later remember that this has occurred! That is what happens when our reference frame or belief system does not even allow for the possibility of such Consciousness to exist. It is as though it did not even happen. And that is the reason why, in learning the practice of meditation, we also learn the very simple principles of “the theory of the practice”. This permits the transformative effects of meditative absorption to be received into the mind, brain, body. To resonate there in full recognition. In other words, the experience of Samadhi in meditation can become embodied and lived knowledge.

One of the great original source-texts of Shaiva tantra are the 9th Century CE Shiva Sutras of Vasagupta. An incredibly compact and ever astonishing source of deep wisdom. The first two sutras of this text set the foundation for the entire teaching:

Shiva Sutra I.1             “Caitanyam ātmā”      The highest (supreme and universal) Consciousness IS the Self: The Self of all that exists, and our own true and highest Self.

Shiva Sutra I.2             “Jñanam bhandhaḥ”    Limited (or limiting) knowledge is bondage. Is the nature and source of our seperative, small, non-fully-realized, self-identifications.

There are certain approaches to meditation that are quite popular today. They are practices that are to be honored as they are of benefit to a great many persons. Thus their teachers, traditions and practitioners are to be respected. I am referring to the practices that are based upon placing one’s awareness within on a specific focus of non-judgmental noticing of the breath, of the thoughts that arise, of memories and of feeling states, etc. Those practices (in general as a group) do provide distinct benefits in terms of reducing stress, release of the effects of past traumatic experiences, down-leveling of negative reactive emotional states, and other benefits to the body and mind. Let us look at how those work in the “theory of the practice”.

According to the theory, those practices leads to separation of the three components of perception or experience. In the relative level of experience it is understood that there is the “experiencer” the subjective knower, the means-of-knowledge, and then the known-object. This triad always occurs together. In the classic Indian example: “I see a pot.” The “I” is the knower, the pot is the known object, and the seeing, the mechanisms of vision and inner perception of sight, is the means of knowledge.

In the forms of meditative practice being described, one becomes more aware of the separate nature of this triad. This leads to dis-identification with the objects of experience. “I am myself not that pot.” So this permits the release, at the level of the mind, dis-identification with past experiences that are often filled with past suffering. It permits the down-leveling of entanglement with the anxiety, the suffering and other limiting effects of past experience. This is my understanding of the “theory of the practice” if those (non-tantric) types of meditation.

In sharp contrast, our “theory of the practice” for tantric Neelakantha meditation is fundamentally different. Tantra teaches that there is a fourth factor that is present in any and every perception or experience. It is beyond the triadic separate viewpoint of the knower-the means of knowing-and the known object. The fourth factor is the over-arching and prior-existing field of Consciousness itself. It is referred to as “the Turya” which simply means” the fourth” state. It is the state of consciousness that is entered, recognized and known as samadhi: the state of inward absorptive immersion in Consciousness itself. It is the unity of the 3 components into the abiding “witness consciousness”as it is called. It is this that we discover, explore and delight in with our meditation. It also automatically releases any identification with past suffering or limited forms of knowledge. But rather than doing it in a separative direction, it is an opening to the unifying Consciousness. The Light or Sky of Consciousness, as it is called and praised in the tantric tradition.

Much more on this consideration will follow in future posts. For now, let me just add that the only way I know to actually access this fourth-state, (intentionally, naturally and predictably) is through the “practice of the practice” of deep tantric meditation.

The Ocean and the Wave

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In the teachings of the Shaiva Tantra of Kashmir, there are certain very useful teaching metaphors, called “nyāya” in Sanskrit. These are valuable “containers” and points-of-view that permit understanding of esoteric knowledge that would otherwise be obscure or confusing. For me, the most valuable of all of these is “The Ocean and the Wave” nyaya.

The “Absolute”, or supreme and overarching level of pure Consciousness, is the very essence-nature of our own highest Self. It is that which we come to directly know and abide in through meditation. It is the source and ground-of being of the entire universe. It has many names of reference in the teachings, that all point to this same absolute existing principle. Among these are “anuttara” (“of which there is nothing higher”), “Shiva” (the deity form from their Vedic culture is itself a mythic designation of that Consciousness), “Puruṣa” (the yogic term for the self as Consciousness of the individual), etc. Understanding and recognizing that such terms are referring to the supreme and unlimited Consciousness can bypass much confusion!

The difficulty for the mind is that the “Absolute” is of a transcendent nature. It is beyond all relativity and cannot be adequately contained or expressed in thought-forms or language. Which is not to say that it cannot be “known”. It is known in the deepest and most direct samadhi (inward absorption) of our meditation. As the teachings clearly and correctly state: “Only Consciousness Itself can know the Absolute Consciousness.” And: “That Consciousness is the only reality-principle that cannot be made into an object (or concept) within Consciousness.” It always escapes our efforts to conceive it. So we must “know” it within our own ecstatic meditative awareness.

It is boundless, boundary-less, and formless. It can appear to be empty of any content. Yet simultaneously, it burgeons and bristles with the vibrating energy of every possible form of expression. That is what is called its “Shakti”, its dimensions of potency, its inherent power to manifest every possible creative expression. It is full with every manner of curious paradox.

So to approach a level of understanding of what would otherwise escape our understanding we use nyaya, metaphors. The Ocean and the Wave. The Absolute is Oceanic in its character. And we ourselves are individual waves upon that Ocean.

The ocean is sometimes still, and sometimes arises into energetic and moving wave-forms. The individual, as embodied consciousness, is a standing wave: an enduring expression, a Light-Life-Wave, unique and magnificent. Yet the wave is never separate from the Ocean, its source. The fundamental character of the wave is that it is always also the Ocean. This expresses very beautifully the relationship between the individual microcosmic Self (Puruṣa, Atmā. You and I.) and the Absolute universal and imperishable Source-Consciousness of all that exists.

The full realization of this deep truth is known as “Self-Realization” (among numerous designations in different traditions). It is the Freedom (kaivalya of the Yoga Sutras) that is attained from the dis-identifying with our limited forms, including our body, mind, roles and possessions; And knowing ourselves as truly being composed in essence as that imperishable Consciousness. And beyond even that, is the ultimacy of non-dual realization: That everything is composed of, and consists of nothing but a form and expression (wave) of that Oceanic Consciousness that holds and supports all. It, at once, is beyond every thing (transcendent) and is the essence within everything (immanent). The Ocean and the Wave.