Monday, June 19, 2023

Higher Stages of Meditation (con't)

This post follows the previous post entitled: "Is Meditation Only Mindfulness: 7 Stages of Meditation."

In the prior post I identified the first two stages which I called: Mindfulness, and Focused Concentration. Mindfulness I described as relatively passive and dealing with observing the influence of the subconscious mind. Focused Concentration describes the vast bulk of meditation techniques which involve using will power, feeling and concentration in a positive direction focusing on some goal or object of meditation. 

 INNER SILENCE (Stage Three) Many people ask whether the goal of meditation techniques is to still all thoughts and mental narration. Well, 'yes' and 'no!' I call it the "goal-less goal" because the way the mind works (Yogananda called it "natural turbulence") we cannot and should not attempt to force the mind into submission like a stubborn donkey. But we CAN coax and train the mind. "Be still and know that I AM God" says the Psalmist. Yogananda called meditation "the space between thoughts." He also noted that the "soul loves to meditate but the ego hates to meditate."

Achieving inner silence is, then, a goal but must be approached very sensitively. Any tension surrounding the "effort-less effort" will sabotage achieving the goal. It can happen spontaneously in or out of meditation but it helps to be alert to it for it comes "like a thief in  the night. The experience is a refreshing dip into the silent mind and still heart. We can gently coax the silence to come by our secret longing and lo it will fill the space between thoughts and activities. At a stoplight, between phone calls, emails or projects, stop, stand or sit up straight, look up, smile, open your mouth as if to speak and be prepared to be cleansed in a weightless waterfall of peace. Befriend the silence as your best friend. Silence is always behind, beneath, above, and all around you. 

Interestingly, the deeper you go into your technique(s) in Stage 2, the more likely or more easily you can slip into silence when you shift the effort of "doing" to enter "being."

It is worth saying that the higher stages beyond silence can descend upon you in the midst of your techniques, thereby skipping the stage of inner silence. My description of 7 stages is linear only for the purposes of describing aspects of meditation but in real life,  well, "anything can happen!" But like a skillful craftsman with his tools or a gifted artist with her voice or instrument, it is the discipline of regular practice that forms the foundation for the genius and inspiration to reveal itself. 

Silence is not merely NO-THING. Silence is not empty; it is full of potentiality; it is powerful, sometimes overwhelming. Its potential is what yields the fruit of the next stage, Inner Experience. "Out of the silence came the song of creation!"

INNER EXPERIENCE  Like the stage of Focused Concentration, Inner Experience (Stage 4) constitutes the bulk of what is commonly described as experiences that take place in deep meditation: light, sound, vibration, love, peace, calmness, joy, visions, ideas and inspiration, satori and an endless variety of subtle phenomenon. Unfortunately, the ego eagerly claims credit for such things and yogis warn us from seeking these experiences for their own sake. "The path to enlightenment is not a circus" Yogananda would say. These things are milestones showing us that we are in touch at last with more subtler levels of reality. They are not proof of our sanctity or psychic powers and generally should not be discussed or disclosed openly but held quietly in gratitude. 

Such experiences are manifestations of our astral or energy body and of the astral world in which the astral body lives and moves. We don't actually achieve this ability: it's there all the time. It is our identification and preoccupation with the physical world, the senses, our thoughts and emotions that obscures what is already there. 

When such things happen we tend to doubt what we are experiencing. At some point we accept it as real rather than hallucinatory and we begin to enter into the experience by tasting its fruits of peace or joy or love. As we are able by deep relaxation and self-forgetfulness (including dispensing with the narration describing it) to receive or approach the experience with acceptance, love and/or self-offering, we begin to see these things as conscious (indeed, super-conscious), living, loving manifestations of our divine nature, God, guru or etc. 

Nonetheless, at this stage the "I" the experiencer is still very present. "I am feeling peaceful; seeing the inner light; hearing the sounds of the chakras." It is still not enough These divine manifestations of superconsciousness are there to invite us deeper into the next stage. In the Eightfold-Path this stage is called dharana.

ABSORPTION Here (Stage Five) mere words fail us for words require a subject, verb and object. Here the awareness of our separateness fades into a point of singularity of the experience itself. We are not in a trance; we are not less conscious; we are SUPER-conscious; more alive and aware--far more--than in ordinary states of waking consciousness. This is the stage known as dhyana. Usually translated simply as "meditation," this suggests that "real" meditation doesn't begin until we enter this state which Yogananda called Superconsciousness. As he also wrote, "When motion ceases, God begins." When we return to ordinary awareness, we never think "I don't know where I went." Absorption is deeply rejuvenating.

SAMADHI Stages Six and Seven are the two basic stages (in fact there are many more sub-stages) of cosmic consciousness, called "samadhi." Stage Six is the initial experience by which we leave our body and enter the Infinite Bliss of God beyond all creation. (Technically, we have three bodies: a physical body; an energy (astral) body; and a thought (causal) body.) In this initial stage, called Sabikalpa samadhi, we return to ordinary ego consciousness with the memory of an awesome experience that we tend to claim as part of our ego. From this tendency we can easily lose the ability to go back to that state. But in time and with supreme effort and grace we can achieve the permanent state of Nirbikalpa samadhi which frees the ego forever from the hypnosis of its separate identity. I'm not going to dwell in these two final stages for two reasons: 1) I've not experienced them; 2) you haven't either! We both are better off for now focusing on Stages 1 through 5. I could describe what I have been taught in entering first an astral tunnel of light taking us to the causal tunnel of light which takes us to the white star, the doorway into Infinity. But, well, it wouldn't help us at this moment.

Joy to you!

Swami Hrimananda

Friday, June 16, 2023

Is Meditation only Mindfulness? 7 Stages of Meditation

Mindfulness meditation--both the term and the practice--dominates the field, conversations, and clinical studies of meditation. Is the practice of mindfulness the sine qua non, the final definition, of meditation? Most certainly NOT! By my account, mindfulness is only the beginning: and, an excellent beginning at that. If, for many, it is also the end of meditation, then so be it. Its contribution is worthy of the effort. ("The laborer is worthy of his hire.")

In the long history of meditation which the yogis of the Far East specialized in, there is much, much more. I'll be the first to admit that it is better to meditate than to merely TALK about meditation (or WRITE about meditation!) But it is also useful for most of us to understand the WHY, HOW, and the PURPOSE of meditation.

Based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda (author of "Autobiography of a Yogi"), I've identified seven stages of meditation. These stages align loosely with the Eight-Fold Path described by the sage Patanjali in the now famous YOGA SUTRAS. I will only make casual references to the eight-fold path because I want to focus more on the experience of meditation.

The stages parallel the process of growing self-awareness that we see during a human life and in the progression from lower life forms up to sentient life. This is to say, from the sub-conscious state to what Yogananda called the Superconscious state. But, lest I digress, let's talk about the stages. I will do so in twol articles rather than one large one.

STAGE 1 - MINDFULNESS When we sit in meditation and engage in the practice of simply observing our thoughts as those thoughts arise, we are peering down into the subconscious mind. This is not a clinical statement but, if you don't mind a pun, it is an observation! Where else would random thoughts come from when we are not engaged in activity or in conscious contemplation? The value of this form of meditation is potentially enormous, especially for those who have never meditated before and have generally not been living an intentional, conscious lifestyle. The movie, "Doing Time, Doing Vipassana" describes how some prisoners in Tihar Prison in India were transformed by their 10-day Vipassana meditation experience.This simple form of mindfulness can be very powerful for everyone at least to some degree especially in direct relation to the influence of the subconscious mind on one's thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. 

The principal challenge with mindfulness practiced in this way is that beginning meditators aren't generally able to detach from their own thoughts and emotions and calmly observe them with non-attachment. Accustomed as most people are with identifying themselves with their thoughts and feeling, it is difficult for almost everyone to resist not being fully engaged in the inner dialogue of the thoughts that do arise. 

For this reason, most mindfulness techniques are really more like Stage 2 meditations because the meditator is directed to focus elsewhere while calmly accepting the appearance of thoughts as a natural phenomenon. 

STAGE 2 - FOCUSED CONCENTRATION Here we find the vast majority of meditation techniques which engage our will, feeling, and mind. Broad categories include techniques using breath awareness and control; mantra; visualization; and affirmation. The bhav of any given technique might be predominantly mental, devotional, or energetic, or some combination of all three. Some are basic such as watching the physical breath while silently chanting a mantra or affirmation; others, are more advanced because focused on the subtle or energy body in the energy centers of the chakras, the flow of prana in the subtle body, or any of their many manifestations. While will power and concentration characterize all of these, some are more passive and others more active. 

They are all "aspirational" in that the technique employed affirms a state of consciousness higher than the subconscious or conscious mind. In the practice of the technique, there remains some level of awareness of the distinction between "I" the doer and what I am seeking. 

I should point out that at any time in meditation, one might be suddenly transported into a higher state whether consciously sought or not.

In the stages of Patanjali's Eight-Fold Path focused concentration includes niyama (positive action), asana (strength and determination), pranayama (calming of life force and purity of feeling), and pratyahara (focus of the mind away from the senses).

This stage constitutes the bulk of what most people associate with meditation. But it is by no means the final or higher stages.

In the next installment we will touch upon the higher stages beginning with inner stillness, moving to inner experience and rising toward cosmic consciousness.

Stay tuned...............................Aum, Shanti, Amen!

Swami Hrimananda

Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Value of Guilt: a lesson from Judas Iscariot

Guilt, these days, gets a lot of brickbats. It's true that obsessing over one's past errors is unproductive and unhealthy but maybe we are misinterpreting the function of guilt to tell us something. As our body warns us with pain when we misuse it, so too can our conscience warn us through our thoughts and emotions. 

I'm not a historian of the evolution of Western psychological therapy, but I can say that blaming cultural conditioning for instilling guilt seems, to me, an overreaction to the cultural norms of the past.

And there are indeed some who try to "guilt-trip us." We have the proverbial Jewish mother "guilty tripping" her adult child for not calling her daily. We have the fundamentalist preacher or the priest preaching the threat of hellfire. This behavior can indeed inflict mental harm especially if instilled at an early age. But to claim that one should live a guilt-free life is like a tired old Existentialist throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

And, who knows, maybe the real message in regards to excessive preoccupation with guilt is simply a warning that we have become obsessive? That fact doesn't necessarily negate the message of guilt itself.

Meditation and introspection can help us discern whether guilt has a valid message for us to consider or whether it comes from outside ourselves and has no merit. 

All I'm saying is that guilt has its place in our lives. 

Paramhansa Yogananda counsels us that if confronted with a critique, ask yourself if there's any truth to it. If so, consider what you can do to change your behavior or make amends but, if you honestly, sincerely and calmly conclude there is no merit to the critique, then let it go. 

His guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, advised in such heated moments to respond calmly, "Maybe you are right." By neither admitting nor denying, you buy time to contemplate the situation in a quieter, calmer moment. There are other responses too such as thanking a person and saying that you'll have to think about it. (When you are being critiqued as a representative of a principle or an organization, it may, however, be appropriate to be more proactive in your response because your response is not in self-justification but in self-defense of something greater than your ego.)

Take the heinous deed of Judas Iscariot.

Notwithstanding the claims of some interpretations of the Book of Judas, the canonical accounts make it clear that Judas betrayed Jesus and that when Judas realized his error he, out of guilt, killed himself. I'm not a proponent of suicide as a solution to anything but I do believe in the law of karma and its corollary, reincarnation. 

Paramhansa Yogananda claimed to have met Judas in a recent incarnation which, after presumably many incarnations subsequent to his betrayal of Jesus, Judas had worked out his karma and achieved soul freedom with the help of an enlightened Indian master of the nineteenth century. Judas' recognition of the nature of his error, irrespective of the reaction of taking his own life, was obviously a goad to come back and carry on the work of redemption. Even as merely an interesting story, it has a message for us. 

It is important not "to kill the messenger" of guilt and ignore the message. This is true whether the feeling of guilt rises up within you or is delivered uncharitably by someone else. It takes courage to perform the spiritual surgery of self-examination and ruthless self-honesty. Wallowing in one's guilt and defining oneself by our mistakes is the mistake that we make all too often: by so doing we effectively excuse ourselves from making the effort to change. 

Once we resolve to do better, we need to shake the dust of guilt from our feet and get back up and carry on with our journey toward soul-perfection. It is at THIS stage that the modern disdain for guilt has its place. As Swami Sri Yukteswar was quoted by Paramhansa Yogananda in "Autobiography of a Yogi," "Forget the past. The vanished lives of all men are dark with many shames. Human conduct is ever unreliable until anchored in the Divine. Everything in future will improve if you are making a spiritual effort now."

This quote truly sums up the wisdom of how to deal with our errors.

As Lord Krishna teaches us in his homily to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, the soul is pure, free, and without stain just as God beyond creation is the same. Live more in the freedom of the soul and karma cannot touch you. If the "I" that erred has been dissolved there is no "I" to which karma that can hurt you. 

Let us congratulate Judas on his spiritual victory and let us work on our own with as much courage and determination.

Swami Hrimananda