Friday, February 24, 2012

A few words about sitting

In my last post, I wanted to stress the following point, but perhaps I missed saying it. I have seen that many devotees eventually come to a point where they lose faith in the mythology or some aspect of the theology of bhakti, or they become disillusioned by the kind of people who profess to follow these teachings, and so on.

In my experience one needs to have a strong baseline of spiritual experience that one can fall back on, a base line that one can return to in order to retrace one's steps until one restores one's mental stability and renews enthusiasm for sadhana, even when efficacious association is not available.

Things like the existence of God, the nature of the self as a spiritual being, the necessity for sadhana, the ultimate goal of prema... all these things seem like flimsy possessions when one is in an undeveloped state of spiritual life, and it seems that they are quite persistent, even in people who are acclaimed as having high levels of realization, or have great amounts of learning.

This, of course, is not true simply of the spiritual life, crises of purpose and meaning are standing in wait for everyone, no matter what their calling. It is called depression. But because the spiritual life makes promises of curing this particular problem by offering an answer to the meaning of life and a method to follow to get direct realization of the Divine Truth, whereby "all things will be known," it is perhaps far more acute for the spiritual aspirant when such crises arise.

Most people build on previous experience and slowly establish secure, unshakable stepping stones to which they can return when progress seems to be stymied in some esoteric region of farfetched philosophy or irrelevant myth or impossible practice.

Bhakti is highly dependent on symbol systems and mythology, as well as a complex theology that opens many doors to debate. Actually, all religious systems depend to some degree on these things, and the task of the scholar of comparative religion is to find the universal common ground that all religions and spiritual paths depend on in order to survive. In the same way that a study of, let's say, human biology, reveals universal traits that are common to Borneo tribes and to Arnold Schwartzenegger and can be applied in medicine, so too things are revealed by the study of religion.

Of course, a large percentage of students of religion are reductionists. They see religion as a byproduct of improper philosophical understanding, of incorrect psychology or as a misunderstanding of group dynamics and other sociological forces. They are not altogether incorrect, and certainly an understanding of these different disciplines helps to clarify the purpose of religion and helps us to give up certain false absolutisms about one's own religion. On the other hand, such analyses also tend to bring out the special features of our own particular path and give a renewed affection for the divine grace that gave us that unique and individual experience that brought us to it.

The Yoga-sutra is a kind of scientific treatise about spiritual life. Swami Veda Bharati likes to say that Patanjali is agnostic about the state of liberation, which he calls kaivalya. It is simply "being situated in one's own nature" (svarūpe'vasthānam), which is pretty much what the Bhagavatam also says, muktir hitvānyathā-rūpaṁ svarūpeṇa|vyavasthitiḥ.

By avoiding specific details about the nature of the Absolute Truth or the jiva in the pure state, it might be said that Patanjali's process is truly a "science" of spirituality, more so than most other texts. I, of course, as a follower of Rupa Goswami, find that there is a lacuna of misunderstanding about myth and the place of empirical experience in Patanjali, but at the same time, in view of what I said above, I also find that Patanjali sets certain parameters of spiritual practice that can be considered "base-line." In other words, by concentrating on certain externals related to mental discipline in the spiritual endeavor, he establishes a process that might be considered universally applicable, regardless of which specific myths or doctrines one happens to hold dear.

Now yesterday I talked about meditation, and briefly mentioned sitting and breathing. But in general I am lazy and don't give details about such things. There is plenty of information on the Internet about almost everything under the sun so anyone who is interested in doing the research can easily find what they are looking for.  I also have the defect of selfishness as well as being lazy and so I usually only talk about things that interest me, so I often avoid speaking of things that are really basic. However, I think it would be useful to consider a few things about sitting and breathing.

First of all, Yoga is about samadhi. Clearly and succinctly, it is about attaining a state of mind that is fully concentrated and free from the lower states of complete distraction, stupefaction, lack of concentration, and is attained through single-pointedness and dedication to the goal.

The Gita's hierarchies of karma-yoga are for those who cannot find the wherewithall or mental strength for meditation and therefore need extensive external props to cultivate a sense of one-pointedness. Even selfish activity when conducted in a spirit of complete dedication gives a certain sense of fulfilment. But generally, as even a beginner on the path realizes, selfish activity has too many unwanted consequences to allow one to achieve stillness of mind, and so at best permits temporary states of fulfilment.

But this does not mean that the Gita's 6th chapter is something that can be ignored as appropriate to another age when people were longer lived and situated in sattva-guna and therefore capable of sitting and meditating. Krishna says,

ārurukṣor muner yogaṁ karma kāraṇam ucyate |
yogārūḍhasya tasyaiva śamaḥ kāraṇam ucyate ||3||
For one just attempting to accede to the path of yoga, external karmas are said to be the cause, i.e., the means. When one has attained to the path of yoga, then quietening the mind and senses is said to be the cause or means. (6.3)

In other words, this is a stage that one must progress through in order to achieve the highest levels of samadhi. The Gita offers many paths, but Krishna did not let Arjuna the warrior, who tried to escape the duty of meditation by claiming it was too difficult, off the hook. He said, "You can do it by continued effort and detachment." (6.35) In other words, performance of prescribed duties -- even one as active as that of a warrior -- needs to be accompanied by meditation. This was understood by the Chinese and Japanese.

To cultivate one-pointedness, one needs more than philosophical conviction or devotional attraction, one needs self-discipline, both physical and mental. This begins with yamas and niyamas, about which I will say nothing here, but suffice it to say that these are, according to Patanjali himself, not even directy yoga, but only preparatory excercises. The next three disciplines, āsana, prāṇāyama and pratyāhāra, are also considered external (bahiraṅga) practices; the internal ones (antaraṅga) are dhyāna, dhāraṇā and samādhi.

Sitting (āsana) should not be mistaken for the complexities of haṭha-yoga. Not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with haṭha, but the goal of haṭha itself is meditation. As Svatmarama says in the Haṭha-yoga-pradīpikā, kevalaṁ rāja-yogāya haṭha-vidyopadiśyate (1.2) "I only instruct the knowledge of haṭha in order to lead one to rāja-yoga." And in various other places he confirms that. But even if we read the HYP, we will see that the āsanas and mudrās and so on are not nearly as elaborate as have been developed by haṭha-yogīs over the ages.

But to come back to Patanjali, who discusses āsana in three sutras (2.46-48):

sthira-sukham āsanam ||46||
prayatna-śaithilyānanta-samāpattibhyām ||47||
tato dvandvānabhighātaḥ ||48||
The seating posture should be stable and comfortable. Achieved by careful relaxation and by identification with the infinite [or with Ananta Shesha, the upholder of the universe and stability. The benefit is that one is not affected by dualities.

So the usefulness of haṭha is that it makes the body supple and loose and therefore helps one to remain comfortable in the meditative posture for long periods of time. Yogis like to say that one should be capable of sitting for approximately three and a half hours continuously in the posture; this is then called āsana-siddhi. Of course, for most people in the world, West or East, this is an extravagant objective that few could ever hope to achieve.

Yesterday we saw that Bhaktivinoda Thakur said to start from a half-hour, but you have to start somewhere, with some goal, and the first goal has to be to just sit quietly, no matter what is going on in the mind. The body must be trained or the mind will always be victorious, using the body as the vehicle for allowing dualities to enter. This is why Patanjali says that perfection in āsana makes one free from dualities.

Asana is the true beginning of yoga, then. There is no doubt benefit to chanting japa while walking or rocking back and forth, etc. There are no hard and fast rules, we are often told. This may be true, but if one wants to really benefit, then the experience of the yogis should be heeded.

In order to keep one's posture stable and comfortable, one needs to sit straight. Sit properly!! Sitting properly means holding your back, neck and head in a straight line. Unless one does this, breathing properly will be impossible. I will write about breathing later, but for now let it be said that if one bends forward while sitting, the lungs can only fill in the upper portions and thus breath is shallow and incomplete. This is not only unhealthy but extremely detrimental to the purpose of yoga. As to walking and so on while chanting japa: if one thinks that ruminating about various things while uttering sounds with the tongue by rote is helpful for attaining samadhi, one may continue with such practice.

In my opinion, it is better to sit quietly for half an hour and remember a few mantras with good concentration than to japper on for hours in the states of jāḍya, audāsīnya and vikṣepa.

Just a word about YS 2.47 above. YS 1.31 lists five external symptoms of vikṣepa (the distracted state):   duḥkha-daurmanasyāṅgam-ejayatva-śvāsa-praśvāsā vikṣepa-saha-bhuvaḥ -- pain, mental discomfort,  [involuntary] movement or agitation of the limbs, uncontrolled and unsteady inhalation or exhalation (such as sighing, etc.). The yoga system of Patanjali starts from the outside and works in. It should be said here that vikṣepa is really the first level on which sadhana has begun, as the states of kṣipta and mūḍha are too foreign to any meditative state whatsoever. So when one actually starts to practise yoga by sitting in āsana, the symptoms indicated in Sutra 1.31 will appear. 

The most prominent of these, of course, is aṅgam-ejayatva, which is the very opposite of "stable and comfortable" position. It can be overcome by two mental exercises: deliberate relaxation (prayatna-śaithilya), which comes through observation of the body and self-correction and through ananta-samāpatti, which has a double meaning. One is to cultivate a transcendence to the body through identification with the unlimited spiritual Truth, the other is to feel the solidity of the Upholder of the universe, Ananta. Vijnana Bhikshu also suggests that Ananta, who is none other than Patanjali himself, gives grace to the serious practitioner and that this is a further intent of the verse.

At any rate, the point here is that this is a base-line. If you can fix your mind even for a moment on the Truth of your eternal spiritual nature, on your Existence, and dwell on the meaning of Consciousness itself, your experience will be strong enough to give you a reliable resource in faith. And as Vyasa says in his Bhāṣhya to I.20, "Faith is like a mother who constantly protects the yogi." śraddhā cetasaḥ samprasādaḥ | sā hi jananīva kalyāṇī yoginaṁ pāti | tasya hi śraddadhānasya vivekārthino vīryam upajāyate | "Faith means full clarity of mind. Like a beneficent mother, it protects the yogi. Then, the yogi endowed with faith and seeking discriminatory wisdom, develops strength of resolve."

Radhe Shyam.

More here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A few words about meditation

It has come to my attention that some people are having a difficulty putting all the pieces of my philosophy and sadhana together. That is perfectly understandable, since various people are coming to the issue from different angles of vision and levels of experience and knowledge.

Most people who read or hear about this Prema Sadhana or Sahaja Sadhana are coming to it from the point of view of the bhakti-marga, which is not at all surprising since that is my original orientation also. However, as readers of these pages will know, I am critical of the general approach to bhakti for several reason.

Too many devotees of Krishna are literalist and ritualistic in their approach. Moreover, they are philosophical so dualistic that phrases like bhedābheda are functionally meaningless to them. They get the bheda part, so much that they are willing to die or kill for it, but the abheda part of it is a complete mystery.

Because of these defects, they are basically stuck in the beginner stage of the bhakti path or the Prema Marga, and have very little hope of ever escaping it. When you are on one level of advancement, you have to maintain a particular niṣṭhā for it, which is a bit like putting blinders on and moving full steam ahead, ignoring challenges and doubts until one day those challenges and doubts reach a certain critical mass.

When that critical mass is reached, then one goes through a period of transition, which may be easy or difficult, some never make it through this "dark night of the soul"; most recede into the comfort zone and force themselves into a hysterical and hypocritical pretense; some drop out altogether, denying the validity of their spiritual experience and holding the entire thing to be a "God illusion" and looking for meaning in some mundane project; the least intelligent move on to another religious sect in the hope of reviving their secure faith, while others take to philosophical atheism and yet others to the "sexed-up atheism" of Buddhism or Shankara monism.

And some fortunate souls progress onward to the next level of the Prema Marga.

In actual fact, some people will be surprised to hear it, the negative movement away from literalism, fundamentalism and ritualism posing as Theism and Absolute Truth and towards a kind of base position in monism is not undesirable, but a necessary movement to rationality without which any progress will be nothing more than a hallucination, no matter how many followers one accumulates or big temples one builds in the name of prema bhakti and devotional service.

For devotees who are desirous of moving on to the next level, it is necessary at this stage of advancing from the kaniṣṭha stage to come to terms with the synthetic nature of all Indian religious thought and practice. No path exists in a cultural vacuum, least of all the bhakti tradition. The bhakti tradition is a part of the pan-India religious tradition otherwise known as Hinduism. Those who deny this are first class fools. Those who do recognize it must come to terms with it. The very word bhedābheda is an indication of this synthetic character.

When I talk about meditation, I am talking about abheda-mananam in a very fundamental sense. It is closer to the yogic idea of īśvara-praṇidhāna or sensing the presence of and identity with God, rather than any Tantric or Pancharatrika exercise of visualization. The key is the internal movement.

parāñci khāni vyatṛṇat svayambhūs
tasmāt parāṅ paśyati nāntarātman
kaścid dhīraḥ pratyag-ātmānam aikṣad
āvṛtta-cakṣur amṛtatvam icchan
The Self-born Creator pierced holes [i.e., the senses] facing outward; therefore humans look outward and do not see the true Self within. Some wise man, desiring immortality, turned his eyes inward and saw the indwelling ātman. (Katha Upanishad, 2.1.1)
The implication for the devotees is that purely external orientation, whether it is in matters of ritual, sadhana or textual interpretation, is just that -- external.

On the devotional path, this is explained a little differently, as sāsaṅga-bhajana, without which all the external activities of bhakti in themselves will not give prema or rasa. You have to make that spiritual connection, and the only way that is possible is by finding the depths of one's inner being and identifying one's self as spiritual, not material. When that has been attained, then one goes on to parā bhakti, as stated in the Gita.

brahma-bhūtaḥ prasannātmā na śocati na kāṅkṣati |
samaḥ sarveṣu bhūteṣu mad-bhaktiṁ labhate parām ||
Becoming Brahman, one is satisfied in the self, he neither laments nor desires, he is equal to all creatures. [In that state] he attains the higher bhakti to Me. (18.54)
The external activities of bhakti, i.e., vidhi bhakti, are there to help purify the grosser manifestations of rajas and tamas and to establish sattva so that one can sit down and meditate and go deeply within.

Too many devotees fall into a bad habit with their japa, which confirms that they have a misconception that the purely mechanical chanting of the Holy Names will somehow bring them to the ultimate level of achievement. When we talk about nāmābhāsa and nāmāparādha, we are talking about inattentive chanting, and indeed Bhaktivinoda Thakur included inattentiveness as pramāda in his explanation of the Ten Aparadhas in Hari-nāma-cintāmaṇi.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur there divides inattentiveness into three subdivisions, lethargy (jāḍya),  indifference (audasīnya) and distractedness (vikṣepa). Two of these correspond roughly to the yogi's lower citta-bhūmis of mūḍha and vikṣipta. Overcoming indifference, i.e., staying motivated, requires good association, but even the motivated meditator needs to overcome lethargy, the fruit of tamas, and distractions, the result of a preponderence of rajas.

Although Bhaktivinoda Thakur gives various prescriptions for overcoming these three defects, primarily focusing on seeking out higher association, which gives inspiration and so on, but in each case he comes back to sitting in isolation, minimizing distractions as far as possible.
Giving up sense objects, spend some time in the company of Vaishnavas,
one should chant the Name in a secluded place to eradicate the flaw [of inattentiveness]. (12.16)
Bhaktivinoda Thakur says that this can mean either chanting while sitting in an isolated room with the door locked, or with the eyes and head covered with a cloth.
Vaishnava custom holds that chanting is best performed in the presence of Tulasi Devi,
in a place of Lord Krishna’s pastimes, or in the association of saintly devotees. (12.18)
The words used here for Vaishnava custom are sätvata-vidhäna, which means the system discovered by the Vaishnavas who have enjoyed worshiping the Lord. At first they chant just half an hour a day, then gradually double this time and then again. Eventually they increase to chanting a lakh of Names per day, eventually increasing to three lakhs a day. Such increases take place naturally as one develops a taste for the chanting. (Comment to 12.18)
At first one should begin by keeping this rule for half an hour in such. By chanting or meditating in the company of advanced Vaishnavas one will see their mood and example and by emulating it, develop the desire to give up his indifference to the Holy Name. "So search out devotees of this quality and stay in their company, then emulate their character and give up lethargy." (Comment to 12.26)
There is no doubt that the opportunity to meditate with an advanced meditator is a special blessing that is not given to even sincere practitioners. Any ashram that teaches or promotes meditation practices should always have advanced meditators always present in group sessions.

But the point is that, as Bhaktivinoda Thakur intimates, there is a common ground of Yoga practice and Bhakti-yoga. One should not think that because the goal is apparently different that the practice is also different. On the level of pure mechanics, the same things are required and no Bhakti-yogi trying to take credit for seriousness can afford to allow the practices related to meditation to be ignored.

The Bhagavad-gita gives the basic outlines: Sit in a sacred spot regularly... but sitting with the back, neck and head erect is essential. Keeping the body still, practising keeping the body still for a longer and longer period of time. In Chapter 12 of HNC, Bhaktivinoda Thakur says to start by chanting for a fixed period of time each day, suggesting half an hour, rather than beginning with a count, because the tendency is to concentrate on the number of malas at the expense of training the mind to be still and concentrated. So I have come to feel also that it is better to chant with good concentration for a short time than spend a long time chanting without concentration.

Though Bhaktivinoda Thakur (nor indeed the Goswamis) do not mention it, breath observation and control is a necessary element in progressing to deeper levels of meditation. Then, careful attention to the mechanics of other processes that lead to the meditative state.

With regards to sanga, as you probably guess, I believe that sadhaka couples should meditate together as their primary practice. Other Yugala practices -- indeed any practices, no matter how potent -- will always be defective if there is no direct training in mind control, citta-vritti-nirodha.