|AHYMSIN NEWSLETTER, ISSUE - May 2019|
Japa, Silence and Atma-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 2 of 4 parts. Part 1 can be read here.]
So, we take our meditation back to that level and then things really begin to change; we begin to make contact with the deep silence. The natural state of the mind can also be described as a state of silence. Swami Veda often said, ‘The deepest meditation has no experiences. As long as you are having experiences, you are not there yet.’ And when you get to that great silence of asamprajñāta samadhi that is when you are really reaching the goal. And so we do these practices of silence which are one of the really characteristic things that distinguish our tradition from many other traditions. It certainly is our speciality here. It is such a wonderful experience. I think of it as my home. I think of it also as heaven even though sometimes in the process of getting to heaven you have to go through a little hell. Anybody who has been on a longer silence retreat will understand that period of cleansing that goes on in your mind, in your emotions. But eventually you reach a place that is just extraordinary.
I had the chance to really dive into those depths ten or eleven years ago with a number of other people, a bunch of us in a group, and that was so extraordinary when it came to the completion of the practice, every one left the retreat at a different time. Each time somebody left, it was as though they had died. There was a real sense of grief about having to leave this beautiful relationship. It is even hard to articulate how that felt. But we knew that we would probably never be this way with each other again, at this level, at this depth. It was so wonderful. And in the process of going through that gradual refining of our physical and mental and emotional silence for three months, we got to a place where we had let go of an awful lot. And it gives you a little taste of that natural human being and the kind of heart that grows in you when you are approaching that sense of being a natural human being.
As you grow in that direction, I think some people who have been practicing for some time may recognise walking around the world sometimes and feeling like divinity is kind of hiding out there somewhere, and you start wondering where is it. It is as if it could jump out from behind a bush any minute and surprise you somehow.
There is an English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins who wrote a beautiful poem about this called “God’s Grandeur”. The first line is “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” He takes this picture of a taking a piece of foil and shaking it in the sunshine. And the light of Brahman comes in a flash at first. This is another thing I really like about the Kashmir Shaiva tradition; they talk about these things experientially and it gives you a clear sense of what to look for.
One of the things that they describe is the flash of atman that occurs whenever you change your state of consciousness. Their idea of states of consciousness is a little different from yoga tradition. We talk about waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and turiya. In the Kashmir Shaiva tradition, they say all of those states also exist within each other. So they have waking waking, waking dreaming, waking deep sleep, dreaming dreaming, dreaming waking, dreaming deep sleep and so on—nine states of consciousness. It is a really interesting way to think about states of consciousness because you can see how you go through these states during the day, and each time you make a transition from one to the next, there is a flash of atman, every time. We miss it almost all the time because of having busy, busy minds full of effort. And gradually, gradually you begin to watch, your mindfulness begins to suffuse your whole mind field, in a way that you can begin to catch those flashes, and they talk about first just being able to catch the flash, then being able to carry it into the middle of the next state of consciousness so that you gradually begin to suffuse all of your states of consciousness with this deep deep mindfulness that comes from the cultivation of your relationship with your mantra and japa. And that develops over time into this attitude of ātma-tattva-avalokanam, of avalokana, looking around for the tattva, the essence of atman, everywhere around you. As you gradually begin to get a sense of the presence of that, through the sense of presence in your own mind, it is a really joyful feeling. It is not an intensely joyful feeling; it is very light, very sattvic kind of joy. But even just making an experiment in that direction brings that sense of joyfulness even if you don’t catch the flash the first time.
Once I was asked to lecture about atma-tattva-avalokanam at a silent retreat. One of my curses in life is I have to give lectures at silent retreats. And I thought, “Oh, gosh, I have talked about this so many times! How can I do something different, something better?” So, I thought would try something experiential. So, I talked about some of the usual ideas for a few minutes, and I said, “OK, everybody, let’s just sit in meditation for a few moments,” and we went into meditation for five or ten minutes. And then as people were coming out of their meditation, I said, “Now before you open your eyes, before you turn your mind outside, ask your mind the question, ‘Who breathes?’, and let your eyes gently open.”
And like it’s happening in the room right now, everybody went into this really deep silence suddenly after just a few minutes. I told them it was like sitting in a forest of old growth trees! It was as though people have been practicing for three or four days. The room was so still. Now, of course, as a lecture this was kind of a problem for me, so I did the usual professor thing, and I asked if anybody had any experiences they wanted to talk about or questions or comments. This was a dumb thing to say—really dumb—and everybody just sat there in their silence. And then I looked again and then I realised, ‘Stoma, don’t disturb them.’ And I just said, “OK, we’ll just sit here.” And we sat for about half an hour, just beautiful.
So it becomes a matter of looking out from an inner stillness. The more I think and the more I teach about meditation practice and particularly about the emotional purification part, the more impressed I am at the central importance of just cultivating a mindful attitude and forgetting making time for all these other practices. Forget all about them! If you do that, you will never stop practicing. You will be practicing 24 hours a day whatever you do. You will sit here in a lecture, aware of your body from head to toe, and you will be practicing asana. You will be sitting and listening to a lecture, and all of a sudden you become aware of one of the deeper layers of chitta doing some little japa. It begins to come naturally; it begins to flow in a way that it becomes your natural habit and your natural state of mind. And that is what really is the most beautiful thing about meditation. The basics are so simple. Often not easy as we all know, but they are simple.
There is a beautiful little passage in Swami Lakshman Joo’s commentary on the Vijñāna Bhairava where he talks about cultivating this attitude of constant mindfulness, and he suddenly gets very vehement about it and says, ‘Just do it, just do it now. Do it ten times. Do it for a day. Do it for a month. Do it for ten years. Do it for full life time, just do it. It starts now.’ And he just goes on and on like this. But that is really the truth. And every time you come back to that, every time you come back to your breath, every time you come back to your mantra, that is a lovely homecoming.
The more you do it, the stronger that habit of mind becomes. And after a while, you begin to see some changes in your personality. And effortful mind that is constantly striving all the time and creating all of these obstacles is a mind that tends to be a little impatient. So, when you begin to let go of that, your patience grows enormously.
I have a number of very difficult friends for whom I have learnt to be very grateful because they really teach me about patience, and I can see the difference it has made over time so I don’t shy away from difficult relationships. I think of them as an assistance on the path at this point in my life. It wasn’t always that way. But it is an attitude that grows as you deepen this habit of maintaining this mindful and joyful mindfield in the process of looking for the Self everywhere you look. And the most beautiful thing about it is that you start to look around in the people around you. And you begin to see the beauty in them even when they are being obnoxious. Even when their energy is opposing you, and it makes you more able to do some Aikido with them.
Aikido is a wonderful discipline. People often think of it as a martial art, but it is not really a martial art. It is learning to dance. The founder of Aikido has a saying that I just love, ‘There are no attacks; there are only invitations to dance.’ And if you have ever danced with Swami Tat Sat, you know how that goes.
The couple of times that I participated in his workshops, I’d be trying this with somebody and the minute I try to stand my ground and fight, the whole thing would fall completely apart. It was just amazing. And of course, whenever I interacted with Swami Tat Sat I always ended up on the floor, as we all do. But it really teaches you something about how to engage with people. And I think that is one of the things that folks struggle with so much in our personal lives, in our family lives, in our life together as a sangha. There is lots of that sort of wrestling that goes on and the more you take this awareness deep, the more able you are to begin to see how to dance with it. And it is wonderful when you finally begin to get that because then all of a sudden all kinds of stress leaves you. You cease to take things so personally.
(Photo by HeungMin Baik)
To be continued….