There are phrases in the English language that have a long spiritual history. Even though their current usage is with a different meaning, the original usage carries deep mystical messages and may even refer to special meditational practices at the beginning and advanced levels.
Two of these phrases are ‘navel-gazers’ and ‘lotus-eaters’. Of these, ‘navel-gazers’ is more commonly used and one may have to search deeper in literature to find the phrase ‘lotus-eaters’.
Let’s consider first ‘navel-gazers’. Its current usage is somewhat, but not fully, far removed from the original meaning. The Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “one who stares fixedly at his navel to induce a mystical trance”. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, navel-gazing is “excessive introspection, self-absorption, or concentration on a single issue”. These definitions are somewhat distorted from the original content of the phrase.
The concept of the navel as the ‘centre’ of anything is a very ancient one and is common to the entire Indo-European language family and its tradition of ‘myths’. The centre of a wheel is its navel or a nave.
In the Vedas we read:
I ask thee of the far end of the earth.
I ask, where is the navel of the Universe?
I ask thee of the seminal power of the fecund steed.
I ask of the supreme space of the Word.
This fire altar is the far end of the earth.
This fire-sacrament (yajna) is the navel of the universe.
This soma (juice of the king of plants) is the seminal power of the fecund steed.
This revealed speech is the supreme space of the Word.
Rig-Veda 1.164. 34,35
Elsewhere in the Rig-Veda (RV), there is a seer, a sage, a rishi by the name of NaabhaanedhiShTha whose name means ‘one who is closest to the navel’. He is the seer of hymns 61 and 62 of the tenth book of the Rig-Veda. He is the son of Manu, the first Archetypal Man. He declares about his realization of Truth:
This is my navel.
Here is my companion kinship and home.
Mine are these shining ones (devas).
This ALL am I.
I am a first born child of Truth…
The holy location of the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece was called the navel of the earth. From the descriptions of the trance-like states of the Oracle, one can discern that these were states of meditation, perhaps arrived at by concentration on the navel centre of consciousness. The representations or replicas of the icon of Omphalos (the navel) available in Delphi today look like the icons known as lingas in the Hindu temples but wrapped in a net. These connections, obviously, are very ancient.
Navel gazing is not about gazing at the navel with the eyes. It requires at least two steps:
These practices are well known to masters of the yoga meditation traditions. But that is not all.
The practice of hesychea, stillness, is an important way of internal worship in the Christian tradition, in Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. This requires concentration on breath flow with a prayer like Jesus’s prayer. It is extensively taught in a series of volumes titled Philokalia in Greek, and Dobrotolubiye in the Slavonic and Russian Church – literally means, ‘love of beautiful things’. Several English translations are available.
It is the main training manual for the contemplative monks of Monastic State of Agion Oros (Holy Mountain), Mount Athos, an autonomous republic of monks in Greece. It is widely followed in the Christianity of Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. It has had an unparalleled influence next only to the Bible. It teaches the techniques of meditation based on breath awareness with Jesus’s prayer, and in some techniques, the breath is observed flowing from the navel region. This path of inquiry into contemplation led to the Greek phrase Omphaloskepsis.
The text of Philokalia consists of the writings of masters of hesychasm (the path of hesykia, stillness) from 4th to 15th century. Its philosophy, devotion and practices influenced such Russian authors as Nikolay Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky. The text answers almost all questions and challenges about meditation that are raised by our contemporaries in modern societies.
One of the greatest proponents and teachers of this path was St. Gregory Palamas in the 13th - 14th centuries. His chief opponent Barlaam dubbed the hesychasts as omphalopsychoi – they whose minds were in their navels! From this the phrase may have gone through a few changes and later became the derogatory ‘navel gazers’. Or, the British colonial rulers speaking of meditators in India, looking down upon them, probably thought of them as mere idlers sitting and doing nothing. The phrase came to be used more widely in English from the 1900’s onwards.
There are millions who use language as an unconscious habit. Then there are those who use it consciously. When they look at a word, its entire history and idiomatic associations flash in their minds as a single picture. They are the ones who use the language meaningfully. The same applies to using the phrases like ‘navel-gazers’. The phrase is a suggestion to meditate by the methods described above.
Let us all be navel-gazers.
A less commonly used but known phrase is ‘lotus-eaters’ or ‘lotos-eaters’, depending on whether one uses the Latin ‘lotus’ or the Greek ‘lotos’. The legend of lotus-eaters (lotophagoi in Greek) is well known in western literature.
The earliest reference is to be found in the 9th book of the Odyssey of Homer composed circa 8th century B.C. Here the winds blow Odysseus’s ship towards North Africa where he and his sailors land in the country of the lotus-eaters. The hospitable people of that country offer them the only food they know - lotus flowers and lotus fruits/seeds. The Greek sailors succumbed to a state of inner satisfaction and inactivity. They no longer wished to sail back home but wanted to dwell there among the lotus-eaters. Odysseus forced them back onto the ship, made them fast till the effects of the lotuses they ate had dissipated before they were able to sail homeward.
The most well-known and detailed description of this is in the English literature in the poem of 173 lines of Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), Lotos-eaters. It also, like Homer, describes the indolent and languid state of the lotos-eaters. An allusion to such indolence is found also in the 5th chapter of Ulysses by James Joyce. Similarly, Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence (6th chapter) uses a comparable allusion.
In the age of mythology that is long gone little facts were woven into intricate and complex myths. It is possible that in the 8th century B.C., the stories of the meditation masters of India were floating about in the then known world. India was a land of mysteries to the Greeks at that time. The maps of the world eastward of Egypt were hazy. The myths and stories floated about and triggered the imagination of bards, wandering singers and story tellers.
While Egypt was known for its copious lotuses, it is in India that the full mystical and symbolic significance of the lotus developed. We suggest that the legend concerning the yogis of India became distorted as it travelled and floated to far away shores on wings of many story-tellers’ imaginations.
It has been suggested by some critics of poetry that the land of the lotus eaters as depicted by Tennyson does not have a physical reality and is more like a vision. For example, his lines 16-17:
Three silent pinnacles of aged snow,
Stood sunset-flush’d; and, dew’d with showery drops,
surely describe some symbolic mountains with three snow-topped peaks. Neither Homer, nor Herodotus who locates the area to be somewhere in Libya, mention the three snow-clad pinnacles. The question is - what might these three pinnacles symbolize? On that, more will be said at another time when space for a full analysis of the poem is available.
In between the veils of myths, some facts shine through. In Tennyson’s poem, we read lines that suggest less of the common lassitude but more of the trance-like state of meditation or even yoga-nidra (art of conscious sleep, sleepless sleep known to yogis). We read:
…To each, but whoso did receive of them
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
Far far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake,
And music in his ears his beating heart did make.
A person not immersed in meditation and not trained in yoga-nidra can only interpret the states of mind described here to be that of involuntary lassitude and a dullness of senses. However, to a meditation guide these lines suggest a completely different state of consciousness with which Homer and Tennyson are not familiar, nor is obviously James Joyce.
Tennyson’s poem describes four experiences of the sailors who tasted of the lotuses. Let us look at these from the viewpoint of a meditation guide, a yogi.
1. To him the gushing of the wave
Far far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores;
The poet, not knowing of the meditative states, has given a negative and sad interpretation to the experience. In reality, it is well known to the deep meditators that during meditation the sounds coming from outside seem to become faint and as though from far away. In the scientific research on meditation, it is common to test a meditator by producing a sudden sound and checking the brain’s response to the same. In the case of accomplished meditators the brain’s response is very faint unlike those that are in a common wakeful state.
The second condition is:
2. and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
Here the poet is incorrect; never having heard the voice of a person in the state of meditation, he is giving vent to his imagination. Indeed, in such a state the voice changes and becomes deep, as though coming from within the navel centre and the heart centre, and not from the throat and the vocal chords. For a further understanding of this topic, please refer to this writer’s recordings of two courses titled “Cultivating a Meditative Voice”, taught to those being trained to teach meditation. It becomes a deep, ‘grave’ voice but not thin.
3. And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake,
This is indeed an absolutely correct description of the state of yoga-nidra, yoga sleep or sleepless sleep. The yogi produces the delta brain waves in this state, the slowest ones that the brain produces. Common people produce them when they are so fast asleep that they cannot be awakened. But the yogi, while producing the delta brain wave, appearing to be fast asleep, is fully conscious of his surroundings. This has been tested in psycho-physiological research laboratories and found to be correct.
4. And music in his ears his beating heart did make.
From a yogi’s point of view, this line may be explained at two levels:
a. It is well known even in the case of not very highly advanced meditators that one hears the sound and rhythm of one’s heart during meditation. Some meditation systems, both yogi and Sufi, even teach the aspirants to listen to the heartbeat and do the japa (mental recitation of a divine name) with the rhythms thereof.
b. Those on the path of nada-yoga (yoga of sound) are familiar with the phenomenon of hearing an internal music.
Another theme of the poem that we have not quoted above is that the sailors have lost interest in worldly matters. They are content with this state of internal fulfillment and do not wish to return home.
In the chorus they sing:
Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown;
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
“There is no joy but calm!”—
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?
This is a well-known description of the state of dispassion that one embarking on the spiritual path undergoes. It is the repeated sentiment of vairagya, described in Buddhist and Vedic traditions. It is, however, not an invitation to lassitude and laziness but to a state of inner calm. Tennyson’s line:
“There is no joy but calm!”
is identical to the teachings of shama, inner peacefulness and quietude in the traditions of yoga and the Vedas, the same as the Buddhist path of shamatha. This state can be achieved by a lotus-eater.
How to eat lotuses?
The answer to this question will unveil the mystery of the lotus-eaters. Only those well-versed in the philosophy and methods of kundalini-yoga will comprehend what is being referred to below.
In this system are described seven primary centres of consciousness, located more or less at the: (i) base of the spine; (ii) genital region; (iii) umbilical region; (iv) cardiac region; (v) throat region; (vi) between the eye-brows; and (vii) in the corona of the cranium. Each centre fulfills and controls specific psycho-physiological systems and operations in the personality. These centres are known as chakras (wheels) or lotuses. In the coloured diagrams in the Tradition, they are always depicted as lotuses with letters of the alphabet as mantras inscribed in petals.
As one progresses in meditation, one of the most advanced meditations consists of leading the mind’s concentration through the petals of the lotuses in a prescribed order as initiated by one’s meditation master. For each petal there is also a mono-syllabic mantra, consisting of the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, to be visualized in the petal. In the process, there is (i) a downward progression from the eye-brow centre or the throat centre to that in the base of the spine, and (ii) the upward progression in reverse sequence.
After these progressions have been fully mastered, and their effects realized, the petals are eliminated, the lotuses have all been ‘eaten’ or ‘consumed’ and their energies merged into the main stem, the mainstream of the current of kundalini. Thus does one become a lotus-eater.
This fact is illustrated in the stories of Parvati. In the Tantra system, Parvati is known as the personification of kundalini. Kundalini that lies coiled up at the base of the spine is undertaking ascetic endeavours (tapasya) to meet her eternal spouse Shiva who dwells in Mount Kailasha that is the thousand-petal lotus. She first fasts on fruits, and then on leaves and petals. When she abandons even consuming the petals and leaves, she becomes known as ‘a-parNaa’, ‘the one without petals’. She becomes slim, as the central sushumna stream of kundalini becomes a luminous streak of lightning like a lotus stem. Only then does Shiva appear before her and they are wedded.
This is the hidden story behind the ‘legendary’ lotus-eaters. Parvati is the first lotus-eater and we all imitate her. This is also an illustration of how commonly used words and phrases often keep concealed in them spiritual secrets which open themselves to those who do abhyasa, repeated endeavours of spiritual practices.