The Highest Yoga

“Consciousness is not the foam playing upon the surface of human existence and activity. It is the Ocean.”           -Paul Van Camp

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Johane in awe of Ausangate Glaciers, South side

 

A few days ago I returned from a very challenging and rewarding month of travel in the Andes mountains of Peru. When I went to my desk this morning I found a note I had written to myself on the day of departure 4 weeks ago. It was a question I had posed for myself to explore. I call these “Bhavana questions”. Such questions act as seeds for arising insights, insights fueled by the ongoing and regular practice of deep meditation.

That bhavana question read: “ I suppose. What is the supposition, the deepest unspoken limiting root-belief that that binds the infinite imperishable Self into the limited individual and seemingly separate human self?”

In other words, How does the already perfect and unbounded field of my own conscious awareness, which at the highest level is at once both personal and universal in essence-nature, become limited into the individual embodied and lived human existence? How does it become so persistently bound in limitation in this life? That is a question that goes to the heart of yoga. And by “yoga” I do not mean any particular tradition or form of practice. But rather every path and means in every tradition that seeks to unfetter and free the Self to know itself as the Divine.

My trip to Peru with my wife was our second in two years. We went with two objectives. First we would go on a trekking adventure along Inca trails in the high Andes mountains. Some years ago we did a four-day trek along the traditional Inca Trail to visit Machu Picchu. I wanted to return to some less traveled trails and visit Quechua communities living their traditional lifestyle. Last year we did a two-day trek that was extraordinary and filled with astonishing beauty of both humanity and the natural wonders. That was followed by 10 days of voluntary medical service in small communities of the Andes around the Sacred Valley.

This year we wanted to “up the ante”. We trekked the highest and most challenging of the standard treks in this region, the 6-day loop around the highest and most sacred mountain in this region, Mt. Ausangate. We crossed 7 major passes including two at or above 17,000 feet. It was hard. It was amazing. And it was a joyous adventure we shared.

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Ausangate, North side

Again this was followed, after two nights of rest in Cusco, by embarking on another 10-day medical mission with a team from Project Helping Hands. The team of doctors, nurses, physician assistants, and dentists worked very hard. We followed narrow tracks to remote villages, llama-trekked to others, to spend long days giving careful medical care and education to these beautiful and appreciative people.

On the last morning of our journey, meditating in my little tent, I had another bhavana-born insight about all of the work and challenges that our team had shared. It filled me with admiration for the members of this team who worked so well together. It goes to the very heart of what is called “yoga”. Even though (to my knowledge) no other member of the team had any ongoing daily “yogic practice” such as meditation, other than asana (yogic posture exercises and classes).

The Bhagavad Gita is one of the oldest source texts of the yogic traditions of India. It was believed written down perhaps in the 8th or 9th century BC. The conversations that it comprises are between Arjuna, the great yet conflicted warrior, representing the human side, and Krishna, as the avatar providing a voice for sublime wisdom. Through these conversations it describe the various types of yoga, and a universal wisdom that transcends religion and culture.

At our farewell luncheon I told our team of how inspired I was by each of them. You see, this team embodied yoga on three levels during our service mission. It is something that we all do in our varied lives, within our own work, with our families and in our service to others.

The first level is yoga of action. This is called Kriya Yoga. It is the way of “doing”. Every person on our team, for example was doing something extraordinary. They had left the comfort of their homes at significant personal expense and effort to travel to Peru. To trek into the high Andes, bringing medications and supplies. Then spent long days in service to all that showed up. (We treated over 2,000 medical patients, and nearly 1,000 dental patients individually.) This is kriya, the yoga of action. We show up, and we do what is needed. We give that which we have to give.

But behind and supporting this is a higher yoga, Jñana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge. This ultimately refers to the highest or most refined knowledge that leads to a liberating understanding life and Self at the deepest level. It is the knowledge that bestows fulfillment, even enlightenment. For this is the birth-right and destiny of every human. This is the very purpose and goal of deep tantric meditation.

In the context of this team I saw that their capacity to “do” was entirely supported and arose from their prior and existing knowledge. The hard-won knowledge acquired over years and even decades of study, of college and professional schools, of internships and residencies, of the patient teaching from uncounted teachers and preceptors. This professional knowledge is what gave rise to the capacity for these individuals to go to Peru and bring this very knowledge into their most capable service. This is Jñana yoga, moving from knowledge into the sphere of action.

Yet there still is a higher and deeper yoga underlying even this. It is this the Bhagavad Gita praises as the highest form of yoga. This is Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion. It is also the easiest, most natural and simplest mode of yoga. It does not have any separate parts: just the simple and empowering engine of one’s own spontaneous devotion to the highest in life and being. Devotion is the unspoken primal desire for fulfillment, the desire or power of will that longs for fullness. Without this there would not even be the interest much less the driving motivation to achieve knowledge. Without devotion underlying a desire to serve there would be no path of learning, no higher schooling, no careful and orderly acquiring of knowledge.

So it is these three yogas that combine together: devotion, knowledge and action; Bhaki, Jñana and Kriya, each giving rise to, and supporting the next. That is the beautiful sequence of yoga I came to see in my Project Helping Hands Peru team members this past month. And to that I bow.

 

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Quechua Mother and child, People of the Andes

To those who are devoted to the imperishable, the indefinable, the unmanifest, the omnipresent, the unthinkable, the immoveable and the eternal are the best of yogins.”     – Bhagavad Gita XII.3

Dear reader, I realize I have left you dangling with the very question with which I opened this posting: “What is that supposition, the deepest limiting root belief that that binds one’s infinite imperishable Self into the limited individual and relative human self?”

So I will continue and address this in my next posting, to be called “The Three Malas”. It is a fascinating consideration.

Best and Highest to each of you,    – Paul

 

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Morning at a pre-Inca Moon Temple site

Acharya India Pilgrimage: A testament

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Summit of Arunachala

I have been reading the Indian epic, Mahabharata, and was touched by the moment when Arjuna meets Krishna for the first time. (This is well before their conversations comprising the Bhagavad Gita.) Arjuna the warrior prince is profoundly struck by the recognition of the Supreme in Krishna: of God-consciousness fully embodied in the fullness of its own freedom, knowledge and power. And of the awesomeness of the compassion and love which that is. Arjuna recognizes that from that moment his life will never again be the same.
I am today completing a pilgrimage in India of three weeks visiting traditionally sacred sites with a group of Acharyas, authorized teachers and practitioners of Nilakantha meditation. I came on this pilgrimage because I was called to it, despite all of my doubts and small fears. I came to support the Acharyas and our own meditation teacher who was also there. And I received something very precious and essential along the way.
My thinking, my mind’s biases, would like to say that location does not matter. That Consciousness is truly expresses and fully present in every thing, person and circumstance. And that is completely true. Yet for how long have I wandered about failing to recognize that? What does it take to open whatever remains of the doors of my very own heart?
Location, sacred places, can act as transformers or lenses, as catalysts by the very intensity of Grace they bestow. Arunachala, a sacred mountain in southern India, is the location or vortex of the Agni lingam, the Divine becoming manifest as the power of fire. This mountain contains the meditation caves of the 20th century saint Ramana Maharshi. These caves still contain his presence, his love for it. And here we connect to this form of support.
But beyond the caves the route upward is more challenging with giant boulders and confusing choices. How do we get to that summit that calls us? Then we see that those who have gone before us are showing the way. There are actual arrows painted on the rocks showing: “This way”, “This way to the top”. And others indicate “Not this way. Don’t go this way!”

So we have the support of those who have gone before us, ancient and recent teachers. Just as I am following close behind you, my dear Acharya friends. Because this is the only service that calls me. This direction of becoming a teacher, to stand in my own freedom and embody the knowledge and love contained in these teachings. That is my mountain and life path.
This journey has provided so many extraordinary gifts and unexpected pivots that it would indeed read as chapters from the Mahabharata. I will mention just two.
The first was when we finally stepped into the inner-sanctum of the Kashi-Vishvanath temple in the ancient and most revered Indian city of Varanasi. As I entered the small space I glanced to my right and glimpsed the black monolithic linga, there naturally emerging from the earth. Being in its presence broke some dam deep within my individuality. Some unseen walls came tumbling down. I was laid bare to a great depth of freedom and love that had always been there, but now I was naked before it. So here I am.
It was disorienting and part of me was terrified by it. But another part so grateful said “Yes. This yes. Thank you yes.”
Then we all walked to the great cremation grounds of Manikarnika, the cremation grounds of “the dropped earring of the Goddess”, which has been operating 24/7 for over 3,000 years. And this, these cremation pyres and the relatives’ devotion, resonated with what was going on inside me. I felt a sacred sort of peace and even beauty in the fires that burn away the temporary- freeing life and lives to move onward. I am already in that fire, burning away that which is unnecessary. But as for this body: Not yet.
Later, in the purifying life-giving river “Mother Ganga” (the Ganges), I immersed myself completing a ritual for accepting the liberating gift of fullness I had received. This is what happened in Varanasi in the company of the Acharyas (who certainly also received them, each in their own way.)
The second pivotal, what I would call an initiatory moment was at a fire-offering ceremony, called a “homa”, at another sacred location and temple a few days later. This was at the Nataraja temple of Chidambaram, home of the dancing form of Shiva, the Absolute Consciousness. It was on the evening of an extraordinary day of honoring and invoking Ganesha, the intelligence that governs and removes our obstacles. During this elaborate fire-sacrifice ceremony, while the temple priests were performing the rituals, I was there silently offering my own limitations into that fire, all of my own separative and limiting individuality into that fire. I did this systematically.
I offered, released and burned my own 3 malas (root errors), that of smallness and inadequacy; that of difference, separateness and differentiation; and that of arrogance, of thinking it is a separate person and not the Whole that acts.
I offered my doubts and my fears (Yes all of them.) and my holding-back. I offered my false identifications. The ideas that I am this body or this mind or my roles in life, etc. I offered all my obstructing-patterns in life: patterns of fear, of anger, of hatred, of depression, of refusal. Then my opinions, my ignorant judgements, ideas and suffering-laden beliefs and karmas.
I offered my entire limited individuality into the fire. I was enacting my own cremation. And I was inwardly shuddering and grieving for what was being “lost” to the fire. All of this will certainly one day be consumed in fire. So it may as well be here and today in this sacred place surrounded by these friends. I knew and trusted that what was essential would not be burned but would arise.
I celebrate life! I want to live fully and free. All live is indeed one. So I live in everything. In this very body that you see I am most honored and grateful for the opportunity to step forward again to serve. The highest is to offer oneself in service to the Highest: In Sanskrit “atma-samarpana”.
Postscript: A few days later I felt that I was still in the process of “sifting through the ashes” of my own fire-offering, to see what shards of my relative and temporary self still remains among the ashes. Most of it was of no use and is happily let go. Certainly there are some necessary fragments to be kept, such as the wisdom hard won from past experiences. So I will finish sifting through the vibhutti ashes. Who knows? Perhaps I will find a jeweled-earring there amongst the dust!

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The Sky and the Reflection

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Today, mid-February of 2017, Finds me in Varanasi, the most ancient and sacred city of India. Located on the banks of the Ganges river, where 3 rivers join together, mid-way between its Himalayan source and the Bay of Bengal towards which it flows. This great river of India has always been revered as the life-giving goddess “Ganga”. And so it is to this day. This morning at sunrise I bathed in her waters, as yet another pilgrim nourished by this place of devotion: devotion to life, to the river, to the practices of yoga, and to welcome again the rising sun.
All of the great eastern traditions of philosophy, of spiritual teachings and practices, and yes, of the religions of India, all of them intersect here. Yesterday our group consisting of meditation teachers visited one of India’s most revered temples: the Kashi-Vishvanath Shiva Temple. In the name “Shiva” refers to the universal principal of consciousness. “Vishvanath” means the lord of that which gives rise to the entire universe (“vishva”). So this is very beautiful. And the visit uplifted me deeply with its living energy of freedom. Just as it does every day for tens of thousands of visitors arriving from every quarter of the globe.

During my internship as a young physician back in 1980, I lived in Denver Colorado. This region is called the “western front, where the Great Plains give way to the Rocky Mountains. It is a land of high snow-capped peaks, cascading rivers, deep pine forests and the promise of adventure at every turn. The Summer mornings here are often crystalline blue and dazzlingly clear. A mountain sky full of light and energy and not a wisp of clouds.
However, on most afternoons, clouds begin to materialize out of nowhere. They gather, thicken and darken, piling upward rapidly into enormous thunderheads. The temperature drops, winds begin to swirl then the first flash of lightning is followed by the rolling of thunder. The wild sudden storm cuts loose with such great and wild energy. Drenching downpours release all of this water in a dazzling display of power. Then suddenly it is over: The sky clears, the sunlight and a vast open sky return.
It is all so astonishing and mysterious. There was nothing apparent in that sky. Where did all of this come from? Of course it was already there in potential, the energy of sunlight on snow, invisible water vapor brought from the surrounding mountains’ snowfields. It only appeared that there had been “nothing” there.
The foundational and most authoritative text of the Shaiva-Tantra of Kashmir, the non-dual “high” tantra that is the source and basis of our deep meditation practice, is the Tantraloka of Abhivana-Gupta of Kashmir, “Light on the Tantras”, written almost exactly 1,000 tears ago. In one of the most beautiful and enigmatic teachings in this encyclopedic book, Abhivana-Gupta articulates a key “view” on the essence-nature of the universe, and thus of our own lived-experience of life. He says (paraphrasing):
This entire manifest universe (“vishva”), everything, all of nature, objects, beings, experiences and knowledge is but a reflected-image or counter-image (“pratibimba”) that arises in the unbounded infinite Source which is celebrated and called the “Light of Consciousness” and indeed the “Sky of Consciousness”.
(The non-dual teaching, to the degree one can attempt to articulate it at all, is that all of the relative objective universe and what is known to us as human life, is nothing else but that absolute principle of consciousness (referred to as “Shiva”). Nothing else other than That actually can be said to exist at all!)
So the hypothetical question that is then posed in this teaching is: “Well then, if this entire world is actually a “counter-image” arising within the “Sky of Consciousness”, then what would be the appearance of the “original-image?” (In reference to the level of the Absolute, beyond the relative). The delightful and mysterious answer of Abhinava-Gupta is: “Why it is absolutely nothing at all!”

So, to me, this is like the vast and empty sky, my own conscious field-of-awareness. Seemingly empty of content, as it first appears in deep meditation. But like the summer mountain sky, it is burgeoning with the potentialities and energies (the “Shaktis”) of every possible gift and form. Of you and of me and of a summer storm.
And it is into that sky of Light, that sky of Consciousness, that we “go” and immerse ourselves in our meditation, so easefully and so naturally. That seeming emptiness and silence turns out to be the fullness, that which is replete with our own fulfillment. This introversive meditative immersion, which is so readily accessed and achieved, is what is known as “samadhi”. Much more on this to come later. For now, from Varanasi, “Namaste”.

Bliss is the Opposite of Suffering

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Bryce Canyon Utah

In his 10th century masterwork on Kashmir Shaivism, the Tantrāloka (“Light on the Tantras”), the sage Abhinavagupta succinctly summaries the argument for knowledge as the direct path to liberation:

“Indeed bondage consists of the habitual enactment of a persistent double false presumption that is persistently enacted in ordinary awareness:

“First, we take what is not our True Self to be the authentic self. (the body, the mind, our roles in life and other partial identifications, etc.)

            “Secondly, we persistently animate the opposite false habitual presumption: We fail to recognize that which actually is our true and authentic Self (perfectly full Consciousness) as being our true and abiding Self.

            “Liberation consists of the dissolution and eradication of this double erroneous presumption. First there must occur the dissolution of the false and ignorant limited identifications. Only then can we proceed to release the blindness that prevents the full realization of the highest, imperishable and authentic Self.

            “This is what is known as the Great Fusional Pervasion (mahā-viapti) and is how it is established.” (Paraphrased from Ahnika V, v. 105-107, after Paul Muller-Ortega.)

What is known as “limited knowledge” (“jñanam-bandhah”, of Shiva Sutra I.2) is not just the knowledge of limitation, of the forms of partiality, of the lived relative small self. It is rather that which precludes the knowledge of fullness, the knowledge that bestows liberation. When all limited and limiting knowledge dissolves (through our sustained authentic meditation practice), then what remains is the already-present and prior non-dual direct experiential knowledge of Wholeness, of the Great Self (“caitanyam-ātma”, of Shiva Sutra I.1).

In the same manner, the dissolution of all forms of contraction and suffering, of the three modes of limitation (mala) [1. of the limitation of smallness and lack of fullness (anava); 2. of the limitation of differences or discrimination (mayiya); and 3. of the limitation of arrogation of doer-ship (karma)]; When these all dissolve into the fullness of that lived knowledge, what remains when all suffering is dissolved, is known as “Bliss” – Ānanda.

A person might ask: If everyone is already perfect and complete in our essence-nature as imperishable Consciousness, then what is the need for pursuing a life of practice (sadhana) in order to achieve spiritual liberation (jivan-mukti) in this lifetime?

Bliss is the opposite of suffering. It is the way we live that intersects and determines the experience of our life: the fullness, the satisfaction, the meaningfulness and the fulfillment. That is what permits the establishment in our lives of the moment-by-moment lived values of highest love, of bliss, of knowledge and the capacity to enact our own highest forms of service to life.

Restoring Thillai Kali

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Some of my fellow meditation students have been asking me, “What is the single most important gift or revelation you received when you were in India recently?”

There are several that were truly extraordinary, completely unexpected and precious gifts. So it was difficult to answer. Yet first and foremost, I told them that it is important to understand: You do not need to go to Chidambarm. Yes, it is an exquisite temple with an extraordinary history that is a sort of “spiritual home” a place of grounding of our tradition on the planet. The place where Shiva Nataraja, the Dancer who is dancing the dance of all life and being into existence, within our own highest Consciousness. There in that temple He is praised and recognized in ritual and personal homage, as has been done for so long. (Perhaps since the second century of the common era.)

But there is nothing that you must go there to receive. As an initiated student and practitioner in our tradition, that which is “there” already lives inside you. You do not need to go there to receive it. If that were the case then it would be problematic. If you had to go there to receive this blessing and knowledge, then you might need to return again and again to renew it.

But it is not so. Visiting Chidambaram is a celebration and witnessing of a certain configuration and tradition of that celebration. It is a recognition (Darshan) of your own Highest Self which you access every day in your Nilakantha meditation.

That said, this was my highest gift from Chidambaram: When my friend Patrick and I first arrived there we went to our Dikshitar priest (our advocate and guide here), Sundaramoorthy Dikshitar. He took us first to the Thillai Kali temple located about one mile from the main Nataraja Temple.

This was the “home” of the extraordinary expression of the innate power of nature and of the universe known as Kali. Here are housed murtis (statue forms) of Kali, both in her benign pleasing and gently form, beautifully adorned. And yet just off to the left of this, facing the opposite direction, is her fierce and terrifying form. One glance at Kali in this form shakes me to my core.

She is buried completely in a small mountain of red cumcum powder to keep her appeased, only her eyes are uncovered. They are an abyss. They are the primordial abysmal eyes of the mother goddess, utterly black and bottomless. It is a knowing that one day they will swallow you in death and take you back. For it is she that breathes life into you as an embodied person, for this time on earth. And yet that abyss is utterly filled with the most astonishing love. It beckons. That is Kali.

Historically, it is revealed that originally, this whole central Kali Temple, together with Kali in her own form as the Dancer of Life, was actually located within the main temple directly in front of Shiva Nataraja. They faced each other, and the temple tradition indicates that they loved to dance to each other. The great cosmic dance “contest” was their sport. Shiva dancing the totality that held the entire universe within Himself. And Kali, the maha-Shakti, the great wheel of potencies that is the operational expression of everything. They are one. But the arrival of Brahmin priests of the Vedic tradition at one point of history objected to this. The compromise was that the Thillai Kali Temple be removed from the main Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram and be re-located to the outskirts of the town where it is today. (They also introduced at this time the ritual worship of the “crystal lingam” as a symbol of Shiva worship, even thought the Nataraja form of Dancing Shiva could never be displaced there.)

My own personal experience at the Temple, one that was very intimate and lives in me now, is just precisely this: the restoration of Kali to the temple within-my-own-Heart, to Dance again, before and with Shiva Nataraja. When I went to the main temple for my first darshan there, the first of many in the earliest morning. Where the town’s worshippers assembled to visit the Dancer before beginning their daily activities. Gathered with them, to the sound of the amazing bells of the temple, ringing in praise and celebration of life.

Kali and Shiva dancing before each other forever, and at this very moment, within the temple of my own Heart. That was my most astonishing and beautiful gift from Chidambaram. (And I can still hear those beautiful bells ringing, ringing.)

 

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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

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.