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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
In my upcoming blog posts I want to share my own articulation of several important aspects about “life lived with a deep meditation practice”. What is the nature and the character of the “transformations”, those permanent and liberative changes that naturally arise when someone has a regular and consistent meditation practice? How does that work exactly? What is the science of that transformation, the astonishing and precious gifts of that process over time? Is it predictable and effective for everyone? Or is happenstance, working for some and not for others?
Those are important questions. A clear understanding of exactly how meditation works is probably the central purpose of my writing this blog. So that is coming very soon. And another topic to be addressed very soon is: How does one learn to meditate in this manner I am referring to. Why is it taught only directly from teacher to student in person, and not in a book or online course, etc? I will address this consideration also very soon.
In the meantime if you wish to learn more about the specific meditation practice tradition I practice, Neelakantha meditation, you are invited to visit www.bluethroatyoga.com . It is the modern day iteration, from a direct and ancient lineage stream, authentically grounded in the non-dual Kashmir Shaiva-tantra teachings.
For today, the question is: What exactly is meditation? It appears that every spiritual and religious tradition, at least on their esoteric experiential or what is called “mystical” side, has some form of meditative practice that is central to their tradition. We honor and respect all of these traditions. I would offer that all forms of meditative practice, in all of their variety, all do offer benefits to their practitioners. Out of respect for these traditions, whether new or old, I will not make comparisons nor offer any opinion regarding any specific tradition or form of meditation.
However, I will attempt to make clear the distinct categories of practices appropriate for different groups. I am specifically referring to the differences between meditation practice designed for and appropriate to those persons who are living as a renunciate: Those rare individuals who have chosen to turn away from the entire outer world to live as renunciates path (nivritti marg). Whether as a wandering “swami”, or in a cloister or ashram, “renouncing” relative life, possessions and society, etc.
In contrast, the vast majority of meditative and yogic practitioners are “householders” (pravritti marg). They have professions, trades or other means of livelihood. They maintain homes and have families, etc. and assume all of the responsibilities of a fully-engaged life. The tantra teachings and practices, including the meditation practices I am discussing, are 100% for householders. They support and enhance householder life. They nourish the expansioun of life towards complete fulfillment in every domain. While the practices for renunciates, including their meditation approach, mantras, etc., are completely incompatible with householder life! This is very important to understand. So it will be thoroughly discussed in a future blog post. The practice of renunciate methods by householders has caused much harm to their lives. And this continues to happen today simply because this is not well understood.
Let me be clear about what I am not here calling “meditation”. The word meditation is often used for a variety of practices in different contexts. “Guided imagination or visualization” is one example. This is when one leading person suggests that participants visualize specific places, conditions, or events. The thought-forms evoke certain moods or emotional states from memory. This can be very pleasant, can invoke experiences of peace or happiness, and can release physical stress from the body, etc. It can be s very enjoyable, and arguably is beneficial in a short-term way. But it is not meditation.
“Contemplation” is another practice that is often confused with meditation. This is when a topic, theme, or profound questions is explored within one’s own mind and awareness field. It can result in the arising of intuitive insight, sometimes of a profound nature. This can be a beautiful and powerful practice. Especially so, if the person already has a stabilized meditation practice in place. In this regard it can be a powerful add-on practice to their meditation. But we consider it to be separate and distinct from the core practice of deep meditation.
Self-inquiry (or “self-enquiry”) is the practice of contemplation specifically on the true nature of our own self. What is our truest and highest self-identity? What is it actually that I am? Who and what AM I? This also is a form of contemplation. The practice can result in the invaluable realization that “I am not my physical body. I am not my relative mind”. I am not my possessions, nor the sum of my various “roles” in life. I am something beyond . . .” Numerous amazing and highly enlightened teachers of past and modern eras, and from many diverse traditions or lineage streams, have advocated and praised this practice. (Ramana Maharishi and Adyashanti to name just two.) Yet we will notice, in studying their lives and teachings, that these same teachers did have a personally-taught meditation practice that they practiced with regularity and devotion over a span of years. Self-inquiry, like other forms of contemplation, are empowered and made capable by the existence of a prior established and consistent meditation practice.
Action or activities are frequently referred to as meditation. Especially physical activities (or repose) in nature. Such things as climbing, skiing, surfing, trail running, cycling etc. we often hear referred as “That is my meditation.” Well yes! I myself do all of those activities, and know that they can bring us into a harmonious and beautiful state of “flow”. They are beautiful dimensions of life that transcend our problems and challenges. I celebrate all of them (and more). And saying that they are “our meditation” communicates a lot about this. But these activities are not what I am referring to as meditation in this blog. That is something altogether beyond.
In the Shaiva tantra teachings meditation is called the “stambha” practice, meaning the “central pillar” or trunk of the tree that supports the entire grouping of practices of an individual. The entire configuration of practices: meditation plus study, yoga asana, chanting or mantra repetition, pranayama, and forms of selfless-service: whatever an individual might rightly choose as forms of practice, is together called their “sadhana”. That is the full mandala or circle of one’s body of practices. At the center of this, and actually completely sufficient in itself, is the regularity of deep daily meditation. Even if it is just for a few minutes each day.
So I offer the following as a working definition of deep tantric meditation: The practice of turning attention within, in the inward direction of one’s own awareness, to access the transcendent source-place of our own Self. That Source is the infinite unbounded and universal Consciousness itself.
Meditation then, is the method and practice of turning attention within, within one’s own awareness field, and thereby to progressively traverse from ordinary outer, or gross and thought-dominated levels of consciousness, and moving towards and into the finer vibratory levels of awareness. This is done as a regular practice in order to access and receive the benefits of contact with the Source of our own Consciousness: our own transcendent source-Self within. Thereby do we cause the upliftment, liberation and transformation of our lives altogether, in every dimension of expression.
This definition is very general and is lacking in specifics of the method that is taught. There is a reason for this, which I will cover in my next blog post. We shall also soon address how meditation actually works to accomplish the transformation of life. How does Samadhi, the inward melting of awareness into the sublime wholeness of non-separative Consciousness actually work? And it works for everybody, effortlessly and naturally.
Consciousness and The Holographic self-identity within the Skull
What are the most important questions in life? What is so fundamental that everything else, all forms of knowledge and understanding, pivot on the answer?
For example, the Buddha’s inquiry (stated one way) was: Can any meaning or value be found in human life that is sufficiently profound to retain its value even in the face of our own mortality? What meaning does not wither, even beyond death? (Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness)
Rita Ghatuurey wrote (and quoted beautifully by Johnny Depp in the movie Don Juan de Marco): “There are only four questions of value in life. What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for, and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same: Only love.”
One question that we consider now, arises in the consideration of our own nervous system, our own body-mind and the activities of our “mind’. I offer this question as being of paramount importance to each of us:
Q: Is conscious awareness an epi-phenomenon, an emergent by-product, of the neurological activities of the brain and the nervous system?
Or alternatively, is consciousness, awareness itself, a fundamental prior-existing principle, within which all reality arises?
Could all the limited and relative forms that comprise the universe, including our own body-minds, exist within an underlying self-aware universal field of Consciousness? Because if that is the fundamental truth of the whole universe, then everything else must be considered in that wondrous light.
Everything hinges upon this question. Is it even possible to know the answer to this definitively?
The brain and neuro-biology, scientists proclaim with near universal agreement, that conscious awareness must arise from neurological activities within the brain. Yet no one has been able to offer an explanation for how this could be. They offer only that when the interconnections within the brain become sufficiently complex, that what is called consciousness, including self-awareness, seems to arise spontaneously. Yet when closely examined, all admit that it is not at all understood nor explained by any known mechanism. It is a problem for them.
Well the great tantric meditation masters, particularly of the Shaiva traditions of Kashmir that we study, have intuited and “seen”, fully realized within the experience of their own deep introversive meditation, the direct personal experiential knowledge that Awareness is the ground-of-being of the entire manifest universe. All arises within and is composed of nothing else but the vibratory forms, the crystallized thickened condensates of Consciousness alone. That is the fundamental underlying the “radical non-dualism” of Shaiva-Tantra. (As it is also for the tradition of Advaita Vedanta. Advaita meaning “not-two”.)
Ksemaraja, a great teacher of the Shaiva-Tantra over 1000 years ago, formulated 20 aphorisms, or sutras, summarizing the teachings in a simple direct articulation. In his Pratyabijña Hridayam (The Heart of Teachings on the Recognition of the Divine), in the very first sutra declares: “Citih Svatantra Vishva-Siddhi-Hetuh”.
“Awareness, independent and free, is the cause of the performance of everything.”
The first time I was taught this sutra, I found it to be the most radical, revolutionary and profound realization ever articulated. This single principle, eventually resonated so deeply within me as being a fundamental truth, that it transformed and brought into crystal clarity the very nature of life, of the universe, and of my own self.
(This fundamental understanding, and its myriad implications, are articulated and expounded in so many beautiful teachings, in many ways and from various viewpoints, in various texts of the Shaiva-tantra tradition.)
Furthermore, the direct personal living experience and realization of this truth is available to all persons today, as ever, within their own living laboratory of exploration into the essence nature of reality. This is done via the properly learned and cultivated practice of deep authentic meditation, that was developed in this tradition and today we call, Neelakantha Meditation.
Yet I find that it is also possible to see the truth of this core principle even in the field of outer human knowledge and logical consideration. Perhaps a truth in the absolute realm is mirrored as truth in even relative areas of knowledge. So let us now consider the operations of the marvelously complex human brain and nervous system.
Imagine a mirror with near-magical qualities. Not only can this mirror reflect back light and color to our eyes to see reflected images of whatever is place in front of it (including our own body and face). But consider a mirror that could also reflect the other senses: It could reflect sound, touch, taste and fragrance as well as visual form! And further this mirror can assemble the reflection into a 3 dimensional virtual-reality that we can move through and interact with any reflected objects in our physical and even emotional environment.
The “Mirror” of Consciousness is a very old teaching metaphor. (A “nyaya” is a teaching principle, a corollary or metaphor, used in the the yogic and tantric traditions to facilitate understanding.) Tantra as well as the prior teachings of Yoga offered that the experience of lived relative reality, including what we see as “nature” or the universe, is a reflected image presented to us in “the sky of Consciousness”. And as it says in the texts: “The Moon reflected upon the waters is not the actual moon.” Pointing to the underlying principle that Consciousness is the fundamental reality.
Here I am proposing that the brain can also be seen as a “mirroring mechanism” reflecting our present outer reality, and all of our past remembered experiences, into the arena of thought. This we call “the mind”.
In Sanskrit, a mirror of any kind is called “darpana”. It can refer to the reflection of the moon or mountain on the surface of water. Of a reflecting surface of a metal surface, or of a crystal. It also refers to the reflective nature of consciousness, in the teachings of yoga and tantra.
This can be a difficult concept to visualize. How does the field of Consciousness itself become expressed and perceived as the experienced reality? The macro-cosmic teaching is that the entire manifest universe, within which all physical and even subtle relative existence, is a crystallization or condensation of Consciousness itself. The existing world is a reflection within and composed only of that formless mysterious Absolute.
In the masterful text of Shaivism, The Tantrāloka of Abhinava Gupta teaches in the 3rd chapter:
“Thus, this entire cosmic existence, (the) total universe, is a reflection in the pure Sky of Consciousness of Lord Bhairava without the intervention, support or assistance of anything else whatsoever.” (Ahn. III verse 65) “Bhairava” is one of the many names for Śhiva in this tradition. Shiva represents the Absolute Consciousness in its full essence-nature, rather than just the mythologic deity form to which it is connected.
Well, on a human scale, we have our own micro-cosmic mirroring mechanism. So that we can now consider the nature of living in a “reflection” of the world around us:
The neurological mechanisms of the brain assemble and correlate the sensory streams, and compute patterns of trillions of correlations from the synaptic connections between cortical neurons. The emotional and feeling component provides additional layers of coloring to experience, including bodily response to the concepts and assembled images. Memory provides temporal reference from our past, influencing how they are valued and assessed.
Inside of our skulls, where physical light has never penetrated, our some 86 billion neurons are constantly performing this amazing feat. They are assembling all of our neurological inputs into a coherent representation, a holographic, almost real-time, sense of our living physical self. (Of these, about 16 billion are cortical neurons. These have synaptic connections with each other forming a neural network with hundreds of trillions of connections! It is about on the same order of interconnections as the entire internet with all computers connected to it. And all within a single human skull!)
The sensory streams interact and receive neural encoded inputs from the manifest physical world: Light is encoded in retinal receptors, rods and cones. Color, light, contrast, shape, form and movement are translated into patterns of optical neuron firings. Sound waves are encoded in the cochlea hair cells of the inner ear and then activate patterns of auditory neurons. Taste receptors on the tongue encode chemical aspects of foods. And olfactory receptors recognize the molecular vibration patterns of molecules entering the nose. A variety of touch senses create patterns of neuron activations for pressure, temperature, and pain throughout the body.
Internal additional senses gather information about muscle tensions, position of joints, our orientation to gravity, and changes in motion or acceleration, etc. (Yes, there are actually more than the 5 main senses.) All of this information is “digital”. Neurons either “fire” or they do not. They have no other language.
All of these input patterns are modulated and catalogued and compared to our past experiences and memory banks. Conceptual identities are imposed upon recognized patterns in accordance with our expectations. That chair is the chair. That cat is the cat. A coherent self-narrative is assembled, colored and interpreted.
All of this happens in the present moment in our brains. The sense of self-identity, our perceived image of ourself and our relation to the physical world, is constructed from the neurological inputs.
This sense-of-self is stamped with an idea of persistence through time: Memory traces of past experience create the personal history: the perceived “past”. Relationships between actions are correlated with experience and allows fabricated expectations of future possibilities to be considered. What might happen? What if? This is called imagination, predictive or even creative thinking.
This is all a “virtual reality” experience inside our own skulls, in the network of neurologic representations. Fundamentally, on the physical level, the brain is acting as a 4 dimensional (3D-space, plus time) holographic mirror of the outer world. The world we see and know physically is not the “outer” physical world itself. But this is a marvelous construction formed of concepts and information. We may call this the constructed (or “vikalpa”, meaning conceptual) self-identity. Neurologists and other brain researchers call the mystery of how this neuron activity inside the skull is “assembled” into a coherent and consistent self-identity image that seems to endure through our life as “the great binding-problem of neurology”. How is it all “bound together”, filtered and packaged so seamlessly? This is not fully understood because one region of processing does not know what the other regions and sensory streams are to be providing. Yet it all comes together with a perception of seamless unity. We fill-in the gaps and the blanks.
Ahamkara, in the teachings of yoga, refers to the mind function of the egoic identity-maker: It literally means the “I-Maker”. It provides the intrinsic self-recognition within the neurological assembled-self that includes the constancy of recognition: “This is my experience”. “This is my life and body and mind.” This corresponds to the neurological self-identity within the brain that is an assembled and seemingly enduring sense-of-myself. We could call this the operating-self or conceptual-self. But it is a complex relative structure composed only of correlated and assembled concepts, digitally encoded at the physical level. (The subtle or energetic body may have corresponding forms in terms of vibrational energy patterns, irrespective of physical neurons. But this will not be explored here.)
The ahamkara is then, that which makes possible self-recognition and identity. (“This is me; my experience; my life; my body, etc”.) It is the same function that makes recognition of “other” (objective-reality, “out-there”, you, them, not-me, etc.) This one function of mind, the I-maker, fragments the unity of life, and even the fabric of the universe and of Consciousness, for that matter.
There is no awareness in the neurologic network of activities in the brain. Just inputs, configurations, assembled concepts and ideas, and outputs. Remembered configurations create the perceived “past”. Possible options that might arise or be caused, create a sense of “future”. But this all only happens in the present field of activity inside the skull. The Light of Awareness cannot be accounted for by the neural network, no matter how complicated and inter-connected. Intrinsically, it would be no more “conscious” than the thermostat (which is a very simple computer) in your home. Regardless of the degree of complexity no computer, not even the entire internet, has ever shown the slightest glimmer of self-awareness.
Awareness and the illuminated perception of the contents and forms within the “mind”, what is seen and known, is the sole function of Consciousness Itself! There is no physical (photon) light within the skull. Only the ever-presence of awareness itself, which illuminates everything. And this is always immediately available and present in every moment, in every experience, in every one of us. Awareness is never “not-present” in any experience. Consciousness is self-illuminating. It is the only Light of Awareness that exists. Nothing is seen or known except by Consciousness itself.
“Caitanyam-Atma” declares the 1st of the 9th century Shiva Sutras:
“Consciousness, absolute, independent and free, is the Self. Is our own Highest Self. Is the Universal Self.”
It is the Self, the final and highest identity of each of us, and it is the Self of all existence, one field of living Awareness. It is our true abiding (non-relative) identity. So we call this the Self (capital S). This is the great primary foundational truth upon which all of the Tantric teachings rest.
The only things within the brain and neural network are the encoded representations of the experiences: the present-moment sensory streams and the trace patterns of past experience (whether remembered or forgotten). They are, in every case, conceptual representations and not the thing itself. In Sanskrit these conceptual representations are called vikalpa, which means concepts and the whole process of conceptualization.
Awareness itself, that which is conscious of all and every possible “known object” is itself beyond conceptualization (“nirvikalpa”). It is literally “inconceivable”-not subject to conception. This, for me, is the proof that , conscious awareness, “the Witness”, the knower of all experience, our own true Self, is not a product of the brain, because it cannot itself be reduced to a concept. It eludes every attempt to be seen as an object within consciousness. It remains ever the silent knower of all objects and experiences. Yet it is always available to be directly known by us in meditation, when we “melt” our separative perception into sublime samadhi.
The radically non-dual teachings of Shiva-tantra of Kashmir, some of the greatest meditation masters of all time, declares that the Absolute field of Consciousness itself (which is honored and named as “Shiva”) is the only existing thing or principle that can never be made an “object” within Consciousness. Rather, all objects of experience, from physical material objects to the subtlest of thoughts, are nothing other than vibrational forms arising within, and composed only of, that living, self-aware, bliss-filled operating-force of Consciousness. It is unbounded, never-changing and cannot die. It is this we investigate and open to in our deep meditation practice. And it is marvelous beyond words.
Yesterday I was hiking at a local state park on a riverside trail with my wife and we encountered a beautiful, multi-colored furry caterpillar slinking across the path. A risky journey given that there were many hungry birds about. Not to mention hikers like us tromping by.
I have been thinking of how I might adequately answer the question: “Why meditate?” And it occurred to me that this caterpillar could provide an answer. My wife and I had an extended discussion of the incredible transformation of the caterpillar into the beautiful butterfly. Of how the caterpillar could not possibly envision the butterfly it is to become. Yet what guides and enables this mysterious process, with this curious intermediate form so essential to its future destiny? It seems that the butterfly could not complete its own development in one embryonic span. It needed to acquire more resources: more food, more energy, more strength, more capacity before becoming the butterfly.
It is as though the insect’s personal evolution needed to be interrupted at this intermediate form – a simple segmented, many-footed slinking eating-machine. It is perfectly adapted to crawling up branches and devouring leaves. Taking in nutrient molecules filled with energy, with moisture, with building materials for what is to come. A destiny it surely cannot envision as it eats and enjoys this intermediate existence and life. Probably it would believe that its existence is full and complete as a caterpillar. Yet one day it has enough of this. Something beyond calls to it, mysterious, inexplicable, yet undeniable.
Perhaps it feels the calling possibility of transformation. Something it cannot ignore. So many of us have, as children, placed a caterpillar into a jar on a branch with a few leaves. Holes poked in the lid for air. And over days we watched the creature weave its own cocoon: a turning-within to a chrysalis form that has the very appearance of death. It is a going within, a turning-away from the outside world from the only, if limited, life it has ever known.
We know the rest of the story. The silent transformation that takes place in that tiny sanctuary, in its own little self-generated cave. A transformation that takes time and follows a sequence dictated by the intelligence, not of the creature’s limited mind, but intelligence woven in the fabric of nature itself. And then there is the struggle to emerge. We know that is hard, yet unstoppable. The juices and life-energy are squeezed by the very struggle to expand and open the beautiful wings that will carry it forward. We know that without that struggle the wings will not be formed. The insect would be shriveled and unable to fly.
Yet the magnificence does open and is revealed. And now it can fly! It can fly thousands of miles, from the northern to the southern hemisphere, to its home forest where its fulfillment will be complete.
The parallels to our own human journey are clear: to the transformation that is made possible by our own daily “going within” in our exquisite, transformative meditation practice; And to the unfolding and the challenging sequences that progressively releases our old limited life and identity. It is by this that we may emerge into the liberated magnificent fullness of our own lives.
We know that such liberation and beauty are possible in human life. We see examples in extraordinary individuals such as in Maharishi, in Gurumayi, in so many other enlightened teachers of every era. Today Pope Francis is such an example. With almost every one, if we study their lives, we find a period of contemplative inward focus, of going within. A period usually of some years of extended inward reflection that was transformative in their life. And only from this process, and their personal struggle to release former limiting identities and ways of being, did they emerge as liberated, and yes, magnificent beautiful beings. This is why I meditate.