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Japa, Silence and Ātma-tattva-avalokanam

by Stephen Parker (Stoma)

[This is from a transcript of a session with Stephen Parker (Stoma) at the 2019 Sangha Gathering at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama. This is Part 1 of 4 parts.]


It is interesting how long two minutes can be. When you really go into meditation, time is irrelevant. One second in samadhi is the same as a thousand years in samadhi. No difference. And so, give yourself those two-minute breaks during the day.

Our topic this evening is “Japa, Silence and Ātma-Tattva-Avalokanam.” All in fifty minutes. So, to make this manageable, we will just call it ‘Lazy Person’s Yoga’. It is all about lazy person’s yoga. Why? We are all so progress minded. We really want to make progress, and we work really hard at it. The problem is, every time you make an effort, you create an obstacle. Effort equals obstacle. This is the yoga of letting go of that. It is not that we do not make efforts. Obviously, you have to make an effort to learn a new posture or new breathing exercise, but ultimately, you have to let go of all of that, every bit of it, in order to really go deep.

What are we doing when we do that? We are recovering the natural state of being a human being. The natural state of the human body is relaxed, completely, totally relaxed. So relaxed that you don’t even move with muscles, you move with prana. Swami Veda was such a beautiful example. I have said many times we measured him over and over and over again as he was lecturing and moving around: zero on the electromyograph, no muscle tension of any kind. That is the natural state of the human being. That is how you become Ādāma in Judeo-Christian terms. This figure of Adam in Judaic and Christian scriptures, in Aramaic culture, is a picture of the natural human being, fully evolved spiritually. And so the state of the body is relaxed, state of the mind, concentrated, and in samadhi. And it is not a concentration that is like this, a lot of people sit there with foreheads wrinkled, focusing on their ajna chakra. It is a kind of concentration where the mind has just settled down so clear, so steady, so peaceful that it just settles on the object of concentration like you would settle on the face of your lover. That kind of feeling.

So the natural state of the human mind is concentrated in samadhi. Natural state of the breath: kumbhaka. The natural state of breathing is no breathing. Why? Because your meditation has gone so deep, your breath and prana have become so refined that a physical vehicle is no longer needed to transmit prana into your microcosmic universe. It just happens mentally. And you reach a point in your meditation where the breath just ceases without any thought for taking another breath ever. And eventually, of course, our samskaras pull us out of it. After a few seconds for most of us, after a few minutes, may be ten minutes if we are lucky, but that time is a doorway into the depths. And it all comes from letting go. From finding our natural state of mind.

The whole process of japa, of silence, of Ātma-tattva-avalokanam, is a teaching that helps us to reach that natural state. And we do it with the grace of the guru. In our centre in Minneapolis, for some time now we have been studying the Kashmir Shaiva text Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra. A catalogue of concentrations that take you to samadhi. Initially people often look at that book and they look at it as a sort of a cookbook. All I have to do is 1, 2, 3 and then I’m in samadhi, where there must be some secret esoteric way of doing this. When you start to read it, though, you get in about twenty-four versus where the text begins to really talk about the technique of meditation. You realise that this is our Himalayan method of meditation, pure and simple. Every practice that we do in our awareness of breath, in our concentrations, in the mantra and meditation is there in the Vijñāna Bhairava, and there is an ongoing mystery to me why we have for all these years lived in this Kashmir Shaiva tradition, and Swami Veda and Swami Rama never called it that. Swami Veda actually admitted this to me once which was very very interesting, and he never did give me a reason why they did this. Our practices were all described and the text begins with relatively simple basic breath awareness, and as you go through the whole sweep of the text and you get into the middle and the later concentrations, you realise that these are all just aspects of living a normal life. They are not special practices that you need to make time for. They are just being aware of things that come to you in the course of your daily experience.

For example, one of the verses talks about how to catch the moment before a sneeze as a way to go into samadhi. That moment when you feel the urge to sneeze and you take the awareness in a certain direction and off you go. Amazing! There is another verse that talks about spinning around in a circle until you get dizzy and fall down. These are pretty common place experiences. It is so beautiful because you realise after a while that what the text is talking about is how you live an ordinary life but you live it with awareness. You live it with a mindful awareness that is deepened so much that even the common place things take you into samadhi.

Swami Veda used to do this all the time. I can remember several times arriving here at SRSG and going up to pay my respects and something had happened in the moments before I arrived, and he would be sitting there in the chair just gone. It was amazing to see how readily that can happen. And it does come to you after a while. And it can go to incredible depths.

The last couple of years, after I retired from being a psychotherapist, I’ve been involved with a bunch of neuroscientists which has been really fascinating, and it has also caused me to go back into some of Swami Veda’s writings about the nature of the mind’s ability to observe. There is a place where he recounts a story in one of his initiation experiences with Swami Rama of being able to observe the movement of his arm to a time resolution of ten to the minus fifty-seventh of a second—A micro-moment that is ten to the minus fifty-seventh of a second! First of all, how did he know that? This is orders of magnitude more precise than the vibrations in cesium atoms that form the basis of an atomic clock. Your mind has the potential to keep time more precisely that an atomic clock! Absolutely amazing.

This is one of the arguments I have these days with secularised forms of mindfulness. They are very helpful, they do a great job of introducing people to the technique, but they don’t talk about the depths to which that mindfulness can go and how far you can develop this skill.

Swamiji talks about how, once your mind field is purified and clarified, the mind can observe its own activity precisely, with no distortion. We think in the west the term subjective means inaccurate, biased, opinionated, but all that stuff is gone from a purified mind field. And that ability of a yogi to observe the mind with the mind is something that yoga can give to neuroscience that will help neuroscience to learn about the brain and nervous system much faster than it would ordinarily be able to do. So this is now my mission; I have picked this up. So how do we get to that kind of acuity of observation from just the awareness of our breath? That is an amazing distance. It comes down to our practice of japa.

When you have been initiated with a mantra, along with the mantra that you use in your meditation, comes into your mind as Swamiji used to say ‘a little drop of the guru mind’, a connection with that subtle flow of cit-shakti, power of consciousness that gives the mantra its own energy and its ability to guide your meditation from inside. So, in a way, it becomes your guru and that is why we always say to people who had just received the mantra ‘let your mantra lead your meditation, wherever it goes’. And gradually as you go through the process of making that japa more and more subtle over time, that is what automatically trains your mind in those very fine levels of perception, that allow you eventually to reach a place where you can see the micro moments that Swami Veda was talking about.

And I realised, asked myself the question, looking at the Vijñāna Bhairava, how can somebody relate to a sneeze in a way that they go into samadhi, and the answer is that through the process of japa, you train your mind to have that kind of ability to be mindful, to be able to watch with that accuracy and care. That is such a precious gift. That is such a gift of grace, it takes you in your meditation from ordinary words to a feeling where the words drop away and they don’t exist anymore in your meditation and then it becomes just a vibration. And then from a vibration it becomes a pulsation that eventually focuses into a point. And then you go through the point and then to beyond. And that process of gradually deepening and making your japa more subtle is what helps you to train your mind to go into those depths. But again, when you make it too effortful, you end up getting in your own way. And I think we have all had a moment in our meditation when all of a sudden it was easy, when everything just settled. And the mantra seems to do itself and the mind seemed to go into this process of ever-deepening concentration without our having to push it. That’s what we are looking for and this is why Swami Veda constantly made a joke out of saying, ‘I only practice lazy man’s yoga.’

So japa is a thing that really takes us into that depth. It takes us to a state of silence eventually. It takes us towards the place where the thought of the mantra is just arising in the mind before there is even any such thing as a subject or an object. That’s the place we are looking for. That very first arising of the mantra thought is just a throb of consciousness. Not even a word yet. This is much subtler than language. In Kashmir Shaiva tradition they call it ‘spanda’. And it isn’t even really a vibration because a vibration means movement and space and time and at the level of spanda there is no such thing as space or time. They don’t exist yet. There is just this throb in consciousness. And the way it is described poetically is Shiva’s urge to manifest the world.

To be continued….



The Himalayan Tradition of Yoga Meditation

Purification of Thoughts     Dhyana    Mindfulness
Japa     Dharana     Shavasana
Breath Awareness     Qualified Preceptor
Guru Disciple Relationship     Unbroken Lineage
Yoga Nidra     Silence Retreats     Full Moon Meditation

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