DEVELOPING MEDITATIVE AWARENESS
There is no one method for realizing meditative awareness, so any system or teacher should only be used as a means to an end. If you begin to rely too heavily on either, or both, you forsake the cultivation of your own intuition in favor of dependency. With this in mind, as soon as you are confident enough, begin to trust the signals and insights that come to you during practice, namely those which seem to clear a path toward greater calmness of body and mind—like the lesser travelled path through the woods.
Again, there is no one proper way to sit, although many classic examples are provided in books and iconography. Religious images, like a seated Buddha, may provide initial inspiration, but they can also lead to mimicry, or worse—a feeling of physical or philosophical unease. Instead, find a modest way to sit that allows you to sit comfortably and breathe freely. If that means sitting in a chair instead of a lotus position, be practical and don't feel that you need to tie your legs into a knot and suffer through it. This will merely create an impediment to practice. Some days or nights you may even need to lie down, and that is fine too, if it doesn't put you to sleep. (Then again, you may need sleep more than meditation!)
On a related note, if you always practice meditation in one position, and you have done so for awhile, don’t be afraid to experiment with other “seats,” and don’t feel inhibited from quietly shifting from one position to another even during the course of a session(particularly if your legs are falling asleep). Ultimately, you should try to develop the ability to "drop in" to a meditative mindset in any number of forms--sitting, standing, and even walking.
Striving for absolute stillness is fruitless for the simple reason that our minds and bodies never totally stop moving until we are dead. We are not statues, but living, moving beings. On the other hand, this is not an invitation to fidget around during meditation practice—it is simply an acknowledgement that you can certainly make subtle or gross shifts without disturbing the cultivation of calmness. After all, eventually you’ll want to take this state of mind “out into the field,” beyond the confines of the meditation space.
Whatever your seat or asana may be, you should first acknowledge your skeletal framework and the simple sensation of gravity connecting you to mother earth. Fantasies of flying, or leaving your body, should not be entertained when starting off. From here, you should try to relax everything that is unnecessary to sustain your seat, allowing those physical subtle shifts mentioned above to occur.
Using the breath as your guide, slowly settle into a “roost” that doesn't impede it from moving freely. As much as possible, as you exhale, begin to release the tension in your body from the top down—head, shoulders, chest, belly, hips, etc. In this way, you can begin to bring your awareness into the breath and the body, gentling combing through the various knots that have become lodged in your physical, mental, or emotional being. This practice is sometimes referred to as samatha in the yogic tradition
It may be beneficial to add a simple phrase as you exhale, like “I release you,” as you move through various body parts, as if you were in dialogue with them. Or simply add a sigh or a light sound like “Ah.” Many tensions that get trapped in the body can be the result of past interactions (eg a stressful moment during the day), or old injuries, and they become like weights, sapping one’s physical and mental energy. Discarding or dissolving these impediments will, in time, produce a lightness to the body and an awareness of subtle energy.
For yogis the term “OM” is often invoked, and it can produce a very useful effect as well, a sort of sonic focal point; but it also carries with it theistic connotation that may cause some minds to wander off into fields of distraction and mental inquiry. Again, each person is different, but generally speaking, incorporating less technique and philosophy is better to begin with if possible, because then there is less to process. It is a paradox, but the more you know, the more time you will have to take to “unknow.” Meditation is not contemplation, although the two may be considered cousins.
Some people can easily “drop in” to a calm, meditative state, as if it was already a familiar place within them. Most others struggle. Like musical prodigies, a few of us have the innate, genetic proclivity for calmness, as if it was like finding a pitch or a tone within the psyche. For the majority, however, learning specific techniques is a necessary, albeit longer route. Alternatively, having a teacher directly “transmit” calmness to you—by voice, look, or touch, can be a real blessing, unless it comes at too high a cost.
While many yoga texts try to teach techniques involving breath retention or manipulation, this is a tricky business—or at best a means to an end. What you are ultimately trying to do is to "free" the breath—not to control it. Much of our daily lives are already spent restricting our breaths, which can cause excess tension to accumulate in the jaw, tongue, throat and belly—from talking, eating, ruminating, etc. These places can take a lot of time to unwind. To consciously hold one's breath, or try to bring the breath under conscious control through various techniques is like trying to capture a wild horse and put the reigns on it.
To the unschooled yogi, this can actually be dangerous.
At first, think of the breath as something to be observed, as if you were a field biologist watching a wild creature move around in its natural habitat. Don’t try to trap it, or make it do anything. Alternatively, you might consider the breath as something sacred—or something to be revered. This may sound a little precious, but the fact that we are given breath does equate rather directly to the mystery and gift of life. We don't choose breath, or need to make it happen, it is simply given to us each day, like a sacrament, and it is always there for us—happening outside of our conscious control, keeping us alive.
Cultivating an awareness of breath is a practice unto itself, which can lead to profound insights.
Again, the overall goal at first is to let the body relax, and then, without force, let your nhales and exhales arrive at their fullest expression. As with the process of samatha, some people may benefit from repeating a simple mantra, thought, or prayer at the beginning of their practice. As you inhale for example, you might imagine healing energy coming into the body. As you exhale you can imagine stress and negative thoughts and emotions leaving the body.
You may invoke the aid of a particularly deity, patron saint, or spiritual relation, if this is relevant and useful for you. An advanced practice might be to treat each inhale as if it is the first one you’ve ever taken, and regard each exhale as the last one you’ll ever take. All of these constructs, of course, are merely ways to become “tuned in” to the deeper levels of consciousness, and after awhile, you may not need them, or they may change. In any case, keep in mind that they are only tools and they may become dull or not useful after while.
Once your inhales and exhales rise and fall naturally like waves in a gentle sea, moments of pause may naturally develop between the breaths which provide focal points of deep calmness and mental cessation. Again, these pauses should not be forced, but merely invited. Placing attention to the silence found within them is often referred to as the practice of nada, or developing the inner ear. Ironically, this “silence” is some of the sweetest music you will ever hear! For some, the practice of sanmuki mudra, or covering one’s ear flaps, is a good prerequisite to this inner listening, but nada is not the sound of the breath itself, but that which arises during its cessation, like the empty but pleasing sound inside of a seashell held up to one’s ear.
Like breath, thoughts and insights will naturally arise on their own, trying to interfere like bothersome children. This is normal, and of course some children and thoughts are quite delightful, because they bring us back an appreciation of the splendor in material life. But try not to get swept away with the chain of thoughts that eventually start linking together to solve a problem or address a worry. Instead, return to the simple observation of breath, and let these thought bubbles burst. This is referred to as vipassana in the Buddhist tradition. Again, meditation is different than contemplation, although the latter practice may be enhanced by the former, and vice versa.
Another misconception is that meditation must involve the absence of all thought—nirodha—but as with breath you shouldn’t try to consciously stop thought from happening. Instead, merely become aware of the running stream of your thoughts and notice how you respond to it—slowly reducing the tendency to let these daydreams take you down the rabbit holes of your mind.
The Elusive Self
The pure observation of the individual self is one of the most difficult practices of all, given our natural tendency to identify with all that appears to lie outside of us—other people, objects, and even that which is divine. As we go about our daily lives, we are constantly attracted or repulsed by other things, based on a personal sense of discrimination toward that which appears to enhance or detract from our well being.
Part of the challenge here is that much of our early lives (at least here in the West) is spent distinguishing ourselves and competing with others—first in school, then with jobs, etc., in order to make our individual mark or simply to secure food and money. This is an undeniable part of our animal nature, hardwired into us for survival purposes. By contrast, the spiritual life, examples of which are provided by various saints, Buddha, Jesus, etc., is largely seen as a path of self-abnegation, a life of poverty and/or service to others, and it is not an easy one to follow.
The trick, then, is to find the middle ground.
There are different schools of thought within the various spiritual systems—classically divided into dualist and non-dualist camps—all with their own terms and concepts aimed at examining the gap between ourselves and whatever object we choose as a mirror for self reflection, be it secular or sacred, inside or outside the body.
While breath and our own thoughts may serve as sufficient focal points for some, others may feel compelled to explore the attic of the mind, sifting like archeologists through all the constituent parts of human perception—the sense organs, the nature of the consciousness, etc., with the ultimate goal of uncovering the unblemished self, or soul, by slowly brushing away all the dust, or delusion, that obscures us from seeing our true self.
As you might imagine, this can be a long, arduous philosophical inquiry. It appeals to those who are burdened by an intellectual bend of mind. If this is the case for you, Indian sankya philosophy may be worth a look, for it is the foundation of The Yoga Sutras. Meanwhile, there are some simple, practical exercises that can be done quite easily, in compliment with samatha practice, like focusing on a particular body part and then releasing not only the tension there, but also the very notion that the self resides within it (eg Direct attention to your feet, and say: “I feel my feet, but I am not my feet. I feel my legs, but I am not my legs,” etc.)
Slowly, by playing “hide and seek” with your self, your entire body—including the sense organs, etc.—can be partially “erased” and then reconfigured in a different way, with a less egocentric perspective. In yoga, this self-investigative process is known as svadyaya, and it is one of the three necessary components of practice. Ironically, you may gain more control of your body by becoming more “detached” from it, for our reactions to stimuli—whether they are pleasurable or painful—are often accentuated by our identification with the body and/or our dependency on it.
Within most Buddhist practices, there is no belief in a permanent, consistent, self at all. What most people accept and portray themselves as is merely seen as representational form or “namely self.” It is like a mask. You are given a name at birth, for example, but this is somewhat arbitrary and merely representational. You can change your name, occupation, etc., but these are simply superficial attempts at representing your true nature.
To make things even more complicated, since the mind is constantly interacting with different thoughts, objects, and other people, the notion of self is ever changing, like a molecule reconstituting itself from moment to moment, as it attaches and removes itself from the immediate objects and ideas around it. Ultimately, we begin to realize that the egocentric mindset, which can be so useful for everyday survival, is unfortunately an unreliable lens by which to witness the deeper layers of the self.
Cultivating Emptiness and the Central Channel
The process of removing tension your body and disconnecting your mind from the constant dance it does with various sense objects is an act of purification, or kirya, and it paves the way for calm awareness, or sattva. If you are musically inclined, you might think of this process as a “re-tuning” of your body-mind. From this “sattvic state” you will then be able to access more subtle tones, shades of internal awareness—like the movement and holding patterns contained within the sense organs themselves(the eyes, the tongue, the ears, the skin)—and eventually get a taste of unfiltered, pure being.
In our everyday lives, our sense organs are employed like useful assistants, running errands and bringing back information to us from the outside world. Our eyes, ears, skin, tongue, and nose help us process this information and interact with it; just as our limbs help move us closer or further away from these desirable or undesirable things. But when we use our sense organs for spiritual nourishment, we need to turn them inward, and this practice is known as pratyahara— withdrawal of the senses.
The breath can be very instrumental in rounding up the senses, which are generally in a state of constant, outward movement, like a pack of unruly hunting dogs. Since the senses know that they cannot function without the presence of breath, bringing them into concert with its rise, fall, and any pauses into between, is a useful means. The eyes can be tamed by moving them back and forth in rhythm with the breath, and then letting them settle forward, resting on an object like the tip of the nose. Some close the eyes entirely, but visual images may still prevail, which are distracting in the same way as thoughts.
The flow of visual stimuli can sometimes be dissolved by attending to the sound of the breath. Likewise, the ears can be tamed by listening the silence in between breaths. The tongue is of particular interest, because it is the conduit into the central channel, or susumna nadi. Like the eyes, it too can be moved left to right with the breath, before settling down
behind the front teeth. It is important to try and relax the tongue entirely, beginning at the front and travelling back into the mouth cavity, and this may require sticking it out and stretching it, as an animal does when it yawns.
Some yogis use their tongue to stimulate the upper soft palate, even cutting off the plenum that anchors the bottom of the tongue, but this is not necessary. Simply relax the tongue and let it find its own comfortable position in the mouth, like a comfortable snail, even though you may feel like the village idiot, with your tongue hanging out, drooling, not comprehending anything. Eventually, when you release all anticipation of speaking or eating, the tongue will take on a new role, both enervating the brain and dropping your consciousness deeper within.
With the calming of he senses, you may start to experience a sense of emptiness, or sunyata, as everything dissolves into the central channel and the even flowing breath that moves up and down within it. As with all practices, this may begin as a mere concept before it is actually felt. But just as a bird molts its feathers or a snake sheds its skin, you may now begin to “cast off” what you think of as your human form in order to develop a spiritual body. This is often called the “light body,” or subtle body—filled with effortlessness, pure illumination, and bliss, rather than gross physical parts like muscles, bones, etc.
Likewise, your mind may begin to experience moments of transcendence from its everyday duties, and from this higher plateau the business of succeeding in the world may seem more trivial in importance.
Tapas is the inner fire, or heat, that rises from meditation practice and catalyzes any spiritual enterprise. Just as when you engage in hard physical exercise and you experience your body temperature rising, yoga asana, pranyama, and meditation can also produce a kind of rarified heat. This in turn can be used to further cultivate and enhance these mind-body practices, just as the fire on a stove can be used to skillfully cook various ingredients together.
The Yoga Sutras mentions that without tapas, none of the other techniques will really work. It further suggests that only a guru can initially give tapas to you, just as Prometheus passed along divine fire to humans. If you are lucky enough to receive an energetic transmission from a reputable guru or healer, take it with gratitude. It will generally leave you with a blissful sensation in your body that you have not felt before, and it can also cut through blockages that might otherwise hold back your practice.
Tapas can also be conceptualized as a kind of controversy, or friction, between two things. Just as two sticks rubbed together can create friction, heat and fire, likewise certain physical actions and counteractions, breath patterns, or even thoughts that challenge the normal direction of one’s mind, can produce tapas. An unfathomable mantra, or a Japanese koan, are two examples of the latter.
The Descent of Grace
Within most yogic schools of thought, an individual human being can only hope to catch momentary glimpses of the divine light that sustains our temporal form, despite daily efforts to do so via meditation practice. In devotional, theistic practices, however, this divine insight may be gained via a more direct and immediate path. This is known as bhakti, and it requires a complete surrender of one’s being—generally to a specific deity (eg Krishna). The devotee, via chanting and prayer, merges with the deity in a state of ecstatic rapture, similar to(but not the same as) romantic love. Within this rapture the nectar of grace flows.
While some of the other yogic methods listed above(eg pranyama, dhyana, etc.) may help purify the individual soul to prepare it for this gift of divine grace, there is still no guarantee of gaining this experience, for it isn’t something that can be produced through technical means alone. One can only pave the way by opening the door of the heart, which in concept seems a simple enough proposition—yet for most of us this door is locked and heavily guarded. Often it takes an extreme moment of existential crisis, bordering on despair(eg the loss of a loved one) to be able to throw oneself down at the feet of something one cannot even fathom and utter the simple call for help. This is the key that opens the door, however; and it is the challenge and the mystery of faith.
Many bhakti devotees dismiss other physical and philosophical methods of yoga as inferior, but these other practices may be useful as necessary antecedents, like stepping stones toward total surrender. For many, too, total submission to a guru or particularized deity is highly problematic—and understandably so—for it requires a “blind faith,” and a letting go of the egocentric form which takes most of us a lifetime to construct. Logically, too, it seems implicitly incorrect that any one person or a particularized divine form can represent the ultimate.
Within the theistic realm of practice, terminology becomes a big problem, for putting a face on the divine is a paradox. Hindus cleverly solve this problem by worshipping more than one deity, admitting that the divine has many faces and aspects, but this can be confusing to monotheists or atheists. Ultimately, the entire argument about whether God exists or not is rather fruitless, for the divine presence is either felt or not. To create an abstraction is not useful, for it simply invites further distraction and religious fantasy. So, if devotional practice doesn’t call to you, be content where you are.
For those inclined to follow this path, however, “go to God,” is a useful mantra, employed to direct oneself toward the divine. It is said in the Bhagavad Gita that one’s soul will travel toward the last place the mind directs it, so this is a means to that end. There are many other refrains within various religions, including Christianity, which express the same idea in more poetic form(eg “Into your hands, I commend my spirit,”). If one of these appeals to you more than another, use it, but don’t let the words serve as anything but a vehicle.
As a final note, remember that all methods and means of meditation are only temporary rafts from which to cross from the secular world to the sacred, until at last these two are indistinguishable from one another.