By Harshada David Wagner
In continuing with our series on the vijnana bhairava tantra, we explore meditations on the void or shunya
Recently, I was in New York City out-and-about running errands when, to my surprise, my bank card was refused for insufficient funds. I found an Internet access point and went online to check my bank account. My surprise quickly turned into shock when I discovered several large charges posted to my account, which I did not make! Someone had my credit card number and was using it to pay their cell phone bill and go on a shopping spree. I was furious. Furious for being ripped-off but also frustrated by the 40-minute process I had to go through over my cell phone to sort out the issue with my bank.
By the time I arrived at a café to do some writing, I was a mess. This kind of meltdown doesn’t happen to me very often anymore – but this combination of events was uniquely provocative. In my state, I sat down and ordered a drink and began the process of self-examination.
As I looked within, I saw that my mind was like a huge, honking, polluted traffic jam full of conflicting irate thoughts – all trying to make their way through the crowd. As I examined more closely, I felt the space they were occupying was much vaster than the little brain space between my ears. The traffic jam with its feeling of agitation extended all through the inside space of my body – from my head to my toes. I sat there and sipped my coffee and observed the phenomenon. Gradually, as I watched, I relaxed and began to compose myself. Somehow, I remembered my meditation practice and that I did have a choice in my reaction.
I began to watch my breath and relax my body. Gradually, as the crisis pitch feeling of the situation eased a bit, a small miracle happened. I still experienced all of the colliding thoughts and feelings, but I also experienced that within it, or rather around the edges or in-between the thoughts and feelings, there was something wonderful: space.
Around the edges, in-between the thoughts, there was free space that wasn’t filled with thoughts. There was an openness that wasn’t surging with anger and panic. I experienced the space as quite blissful and free. As I brought my attention more and more into that little bit of space, I was able to breathe and expand it. As I did so, the other stuff seemed to dissipate. At that point I had a choice: I could either be in the traffic jam part or I could be in the space that is vaster than the traffic jam – the vast space that contains the traffic jam.
By the time I finished my cup of coffee, my state had shifted. I still had a situation to deal with, but I had my heart back. This taught me a valuable lesson about navigating tough life drama.
In its simplest essence, meditation is about stepping into our heart – our own very personal inner space. As we make steps in this direction, we often see that our inner space is not exactly free and clear. Often it feels cluttered, chaotic, crowded, sometimes it feels angry or depressed or overly excited.
Try this: Stop reading this article and close your eyes for 10-20 seconds. What happened? What’s going on in there?
Chances are, when you closed your eyes, you encountered what I call mind-stuff. If you’re in a loud place, or in a relatively good inner state, it may be more difficult to encounter. But if you’re in a quiet room or you have any inner agitation, 10 seconds is more than enough time. You know exactly what we mean. Most of us walk around and even sleep with a tremendous amount of ‘mind stuff’ hanging around inside. Sometimes it’s laying low, other times it’s raging, but it’s usually there at some level.
When people embark into a meditation practice, they often come face to face with this stuff and experience it as a block to their enjoyment of the practice. Often, this mind-stuff is the reason why people don’t meditate.
They get overwhelmed by the suggestions of the mind-stuff or, when faced with the mess they have inside, decide they’d rather back out now, shut the door, open a good magazine and read about meditation and the inner space.
Well… read on.
There is a solution for this dilemma.
What to do? The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra written in the 7th century has what I have found to be the very best solution to the inner clutter dilemma. It has several dharanas – meditation techniques – that focus on the shunya or void.
Over the years, whenever I speak with people about the void, a common misconception arises: People who have not yet experienced this void think of it as blankness – like a blank chalkboard or a nothingness that is nil or ultra-plain. From my experience, the void they are referring to in the Vijnana Bhairava is anything but plain.
The tantric philosophy that gave birth to the Vijnana Bhairava teaches us that every person has within them an infinite dimension – that everything and everyone can be an entry point into the light of the Divine. Within the human heart – this inner space we’ve been referring to – there is infinite power and vast unconditional love and peace.
It may sound paradoxical, but the void that we experience in our own being is a very full emptiness. It is deep, rich, expansive. This void is the source of innumerable experiences – like a fertile womb. The masters call this void the heart-cave. Here, I must make a distinction for our technical yogi readers: The void or shunya, in Sanskrit, is often referred to in esoteric works as the expression of the causal body. This is a very specific definition and not exactly what we’re talking about here. Here, the Vijnana Bhairava uses emptiness as a meditational object, which can take us to the very deepest levels of meditation.
Meditations on the Void
The dharanas take on many different forms. Some have the meditator look with open eyes into empty spaces like jars or deep wells; others are more esoteric – inviting the yogi to imagine emptiness in various inner centres.
However we do it, when we meditate on the void, the method has the effect of clearing away the temporary thoughts and taking us beyond the flotsam and jetsam of the day-to-day thinking mind. In my café experience, this is what happened. There was all of the excitement of being robbed and going through a big hassle, but there was also that rich and peaceful inner space. When I focussed on the drama, the drama expanded and made me more and more agitated. When I focussed on the space, the openness and power of the space expanded and took me beyond the inner conflict.
The point is that our deeper self – our inner power – is always waiting to surge forth and be experienced. Often, all we need to do is shift our attention. Meditating on the void is but one method to help us make this shift.
You can use ‘void’ as the object of meditation in a variety of ways. Verse 48 of the Vijnana Bhairava says:
Dehantare tvagvibhagam bhitti bhutam vicintayet
Na kincid antare tasya dhyanann adheyabhag bhavet
(The yogi contemplates the skin of their body as an outer wall and imagines ‘there is nothing substantial inside.’ Meditating like this, they reach a profound state of transcendence.)
This is a very effective method for deep meditation. You simply sit for meditation and imagine that the whole inside of your body is totally empty. It’s as if your skin is a thin shell covering a totally hollow inner space. With your inner attention and imagination, you scan through your body from your head downwards imagining that all of the parts of your body are hollow, empty – without substance.
As your breath flows in and out, imagine it moving in this empty space. If you start off in an agitated state, give it some time. Just stay with the dharana. If your inner space feels especially crowded, imagine your breath like a wind moving through you and clearing the mind-stuff away, creating space. Even if you only experience a small bit of hollowness, go with it. Sink your attention deeper and deeper into the hollow part and watch it expand.
After some minutes of this, you may find your attention moving into a whole other realm – the realm of pure consciousness. Or you may fall asleep or go into an unconscious state when you enter the void. Whatever happens, don’t worry; try to enjoy it. Sometimes, our sessions are like expeditions into cosmic inner realms. Sometimes, they happen beyond the reach of the reporting mind. Sometimes, we’re tired and the spaciousness of the void gives us permission to nod off and have a sweet nap.
However you experience this inner space, however much you’re able to touch this space of the void, relish it. See how you can stay in touch with it when you come out of meditation.
Remember the void when you meditate, but also try to remember it when you’re out and about, when you’re in a crisis, when you’re watching a movie. Anytime.
This void, this heart cave, is the sanctuary that each one of us has within. With practice we can go there any time. How much time we spend there is up to us.
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