Meditation - Anatomy of Ecstasy
by Harshada David Wagner
Focus on the subtle energy center within, says the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra.
In the past few issues we have been joyously exploring the 112 dharanas or meditation techniques of the 7th Century Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, to find new and wonderful ways to meditate and enjoy our meditation practice.
One theme that runs through the text is the idea of a subtle anatomy - a whole system of energy centers, ethereal passageways, and inner spaces which lie within every person. Just as medical scientists chart the material body, describing its processes and elaborate mechanisms for the sake of our physical health, the ancient yogis have similarly mapped out our subtle bodies, giving us rich clues to help us meditate and tap into our divine potential.
This month, we'll take a look at a few of these ideas through the lens of the Vijnana Bhairava and discover how we might follow the maps into the realm of our own inner bliss.
The Multidimensional You
According to yogic science, our physical body comprises only one layer of our overall make-up. Along with it, we have layers and layers of subtle, causal, and transcendental bodies. There are several different schools of thought that have classified these different energy bodies.
Some bodies, like our physical body, are made of matter; others are made of pure spirit. The yogis tell us that while we glimpse many of these different layers as we go through our lives automatically, internal practices - particularly the practice of sitting meditation, avail us an opportunity to explore these centers directly.
The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra has several dharanas or meditation techniques that refer to subtle inner passages, energy centers, and methods for exploring our inner anatomy. Let's look at a few.
In Dharana 12, the sage writes:
Madhyanaadi madhyasamsthaa bisasutraabhrupayaa |
Dhyaataantarvyomaya devyaa tayaa devah
The central channel, situated in the middle space, is as slender as a lotus stem. The Divine is revealed to one who meditates on the emptiness within it.
This dharana, or variations of it, is one of the main dharanas that I use in my own practice. It is also the technique I use most often with new meditation students. It is so simple and yet has profound effects.
The central channel referred to here is also known as sushumna nadi. The sushumna can be thought of as a column of light roughly corresponding to the human vertebral column. It is an energetic passage running from the base of the pelvis at the perineum upwards through the center of the body to and through the crown of the head.
This central channel is like the main thoroughfare for the subtle body. There are countless smaller nadis or channels which penetrate throughout our physical body which all connect to the sushumna. The sushumna nadi is the domain of the kundalini shakti. It is like a great highway or launching pad for her movement within our body. It is from this medial column that so many experiences arise.
In dharana 12, the sage gives us a very specific visualization - a central channel the size of a lotus stem. In case you're wondering, most mature lotus stems are about the thickness of a pencil. Then, the sage offers the dharana:
Meditate on the emptiness within the channel.
Even as you read, take a moment to orient your awareness to your middle space. For most people, even this mini-attention shift begins to bring a sense of peace. When we meditate, we can take it a step further. With our eyes closed, we can envision this stem-sized conduit - like a thin and subtle tube running through us - deep inside. Outer body parts such as our navel, pit of our throat, or bridge of our nose, may serve as useful landmarks to help us find this inner mid-line. Once we've oriented ourselves there, then we can begin to imagine the emptiness within the channel. I like to feel the rhythm of my breath and imagine the energy of my breath moving up and down inside the channel. Others like to envision the channel filled with ethereal light.
Whatever you do, keep allowing the tiny space to be empty. Feel the freedom and spaciousness in the passage and enjoy the freedom. Because it is empty, it is possible to sink your attention there. This is an important secret to deep meditation. See how much of your attention can go inside the tiny channel. See if you can feel the energy there. See if you can relax there and let your attention dissolve into the space.
Kundalini yogis spend years practicing this sadhana. Truly, it is a wonderful technique. That said, the sushumna is a passageway for many experiences, and a jumping-off point for many other deeply effective dharanas.
Journey Through the Chakras
pratichakram kraam kramam |
Urdvam mustitrayam yaavat taavad ante mahodayah ||
Meditate on that lightning-like shakti moving upwards from one chakra to the next up to the uppermost. At the end, one can experience the magnificent rise of Bhairava.
(Dharana six . Translation adapted from Jaideva Singh) This is dharana six from the Vijnana Bhairava. Here the Sanskrit term chakra is introduced. The chakras or wheel-like energy centers in our subtle body, get their fair share of attention in the mainstream these days. Many people are familiar with the word chakra and the idea that we have a number of exotic, lotus-like things inside of us.
The sages of yoga describe seven major and several minor chakras in the human subtle body. The seven main chakras dwell along and are pierced by the sushumna nadi. The seven main chakras are located near the perineum, the pubic bone, the navel, the sternum, the throat, the forehead, and the crown of the skull, respectively. Various qualities and powers are attributed to the centers, as are specific seed mantras, deities, and specific mystical geometry.
For our purposes, let's not get into the details about the chakras. Dharana six is inviting us not to dwell in the chakras but rather to go through them successively upward on an inner journey.
To practice this dharana, sit simply and draw your attention inside. Begin at the base of your pelvis - at the space between your sexual organ and your tailbone. Imagine a center of energy there. It may be more or less easy for you to feel the physical area without moving. As you get a sense of it, begin to imagine your breath moving there. Some yogis practice breathing as if there were a small opening there with the breath passing in and out.
When you've found this bottommost chakra, return to the dharana: Imagine the lightning-like energy moving there. After enjoying it there for some time, envision the shakti working its way upward. The next stop is the subtle space slightly above the perineum, above and behind the pubic bone. Repeat the same practice as before - enjoy the shakti moving there for some time before moving upward again. Continue chakra by chakra in this way until you reach the topmost center in the crown of your head.
If you take your time, this dharana can easily take up to 45 minutes to perform. It can also be practiced in a short meditation session. This is a great technique for those of us whose minds tend to wander. If you find your mind wandering off into fantasy or random thoughts or sleep, it's okay, you just pick up where you left off and move onwards and upwards to the next higher chakra.
If you use a mantra you can easily combine your mantra practice with this dharana. Try pausing on each chakra and repeating your mantra - feeling the mantra reverberate in each center. The upper centers: the heart center, the throat, the space between the eyebrows and the crown chakra, are particularly ecstatic centers for meditation. The secret is to stay conscious and keep with the dharana long enough to reach them.
Welcome to the Dvadashanta!
Dvadashanta is a term that appears often in the Vijnana Bhairava. Literally it means "the end of twelve". In practice, it refers to the distance of twelve fingers from the tip of the nose and is a means of mapping the way to important subtle centers. There are three main dvadashantas: an inner, an outer, and an upper one. The upper is the Brahmarandhra - or Sahasrara - the crown chakra at the top of the head. The inner refers to the space twelve fingers distance from the nose inside of us where our inhalation turns around near the heart. The outer dvadashanta is the outer space where our exhalation turns around to once again become the inhalation. Any three of these is a superb place to focus one's attention in meditation.
The sage of the Vijnana Bhairava sings the praises of this technique in dharana twenty-eight.
Yathaa tathaa yatra tatra dvaadaashante manah kshipet |
Pratikshanam kshinavrtter vailakshanyam dinair bhavet ||
Bring the mind again and again however and wherever it goes back to the dvadashanta. Doing this, the fluctuations of the mind will diminish and after some days you will acquire an extraordinary status.
This dharana is such a beautifully versed piece of advice for meditators. So simple - gently bring the mind back to the dvadashanta. The verse doesn't tell us which dvadashanta. The yogi here gets to choose. We can try each of the three and see which feels the most powerful. Again and again as we come back into this subtle space, our thoughts calm down. I love it too how it suggests practicing this technique over the span of days. Any meditator will tell you - meditation is not a one-shot deal. It takes a regular and sustained effort to effect deep transformation. Regular meditators will also tell you - it's worth every minute of practice.
The refreshing thing about the approach of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra is that it puts the practice in our hands. It points us in the right direction and gives us great tools, but ultimately we have to choose the tools that work for us and put them into practice in ways that uplift and inspire our practice.
The scriptures can point towards landmarks in our inner landscape, but ultimately, it's up to us to undergo the journey and see the inner world for ourselves. Gradually, the sages tell us, we begin to know a whole other level of ourselves - the level that is free and powerful.
Gradually, as we go deeper and deeper, we expand beyond all bodies, beyond all centers and commune with our Supreme Self. It is from this place that we can truly live, truly love and truly serve.