By Harshada David Wagner
The first of a series of articles on the meditation techniques contained in the ancient Vijnana Bhairava tantra, highlights breath as a path to our real nature.
As people enter into a practice of meditation, the question often arises: On what should I meditate? What is the object of my meditation? From the perspective of the ancient tantras and Upanishads, the object of meditation is always the same: It is the Absolute – the Soul, the inner Shakti, the God-within. Adept meditators have the experience that they are that reality; that beneath the torrent of their thoughts, sensations of their bodies and dramas of their life, they are spacious, radiant, loving and free.
Every mystical tradition offers techniques that help people experience and rest in that inner nature. The assumption of the techniques is that we already are that Supreme Reality, so our practice is simply to move us beyond that which is distracting us from our essence. The tantric tradition of Kashmir is perhaps one of the most prolific and useful repositories of these techniques. The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra is a collection of 112 dharanas or meditation practices that are designed to help meditators experience and rest in their divine nature. The text offers a lavish menu of different methods that utilize many aspects of the human experience – everything from the breath, to music, to meditations on the void. In the next few issues, we will examine the text and discuss ways in which we can enrich our 21st century meditation practice, using the 7th century wisdom of the Vijanana Bhairava.
Lesson One: Enlivening our Relationship with the Breath
The first four dharanas in the Vijanana Bhairava deal with the breath – working with our breath and using the breath to carry our awareness inside. These methods go beyond merely watching the breath; they guide us to use our creative attention to penetrate into and enjoy the subtle dynamics of breathing.
In Dharana 2 the text says:
Maruto’ntar bahir vaapi viyadyugmaanivartanaat/
Bhairavyaa bhairavasyettham bhairavi vyajyate vapuh//
As the breath goes in and out, there is a pause as the exhalation becomes the inhalation and again before the inhalation becomes the exhalation. If one focuses their attention on these pauses, Bhairavi – the nature of Bhairava – will be revealed.
This is an age-old practice and one that many students find deeply effective. This natural pause between breaths happens again and again throughout our day – over and over again. (Most people take between 10-25,000 breaths per day.) The text is inviting us to be there with these 40,000 pauses and enjoy the inner bliss that they reveal.
In meditation, we practice this dharana by simply paying attention. We follow the currents of our breath and notice the ends and the beginnings. We notice how as the breath turns around, it pauses for the briefest time. As we meditate, we put ourselves there – ready to put our attention into that space – ready to enjoy the powerful energy it contains.
Often, as a meditator relaxes and begins to go deep into meditation, they find that their breath becomes very subtle – it may appear to be shallow or even stop for some time. This is a natural process and one that is usually quite delightful. This is different from holding our breath. Through the relaxation of our bodies and the deepening tranquility of our mind, the breath begins to pause spontaneously. The spaces between the breaths, on their own, become longer and more profound.
The verse above gives us a full invitation to enjoy these pauses. As we sit with our breath in this way, we pulse with a sweet and gentle rhythm. Moment to moment we dip deeper and deeper into what the dharana refers to as Bhairavi – the goddess, the Shakti, the nature of the Absolute Bhairava. The next time you meditate, try this and see just how much you can let go into that energy contained in the pauses.
In the fourth dharana, the text invites us to use the principle described above as a technique. It says:
Khumbhitaa recitaa vaapi pooritaa va yadaa bhavet/
Tadante shaantanaamaasau shaktyaa shaantah prakaashate//
When the shakti is retained outside after the exhalation and inside after the inhalation, it becomes tranquil. Afterward, as a result of this peace, Bhairava, the Supreme, is revealed.
In American English, we have a phrase, ‘Fake it till you make it’. In other words, even if your mind is not still enough to watch the space between breaths, even if your breath is not becoming still on its own, you can, through your practice, bring about this state by simulating the effect. Here, it is not a spontaneous cessation of the breath – it is rather a yogic technique you apply to bring about a shift in your inner state.
Before meditating, or any time when you need to bring stillness to your mind and body, try this: Sit down. After your next exhalation, simply retain your breath – just for a moment. Before you feel any strain or discomfort, release and inhale. At the end of a natural inhalation, again retain your breath. Do this a few times and notice the effect it has on your mind and inner feeling.
Note: It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to do this practice gently. This is not a severe pranayama or a test of strength or will. The retention we are describing here is very gentle, lasting only a few second. The breaths that you are taking in this technique are not ‘deep breaths’ they are regular, natural breaths. The only difference is that you are gently restraining the flow of your breath on the outside and the inside.
After a few gentle rounds of breathing like this, close your eyes and feel the peace that ensues. Often, after doing this, we are ready to enjoy the other dharana, peacefully observing as the space between our breaths increases on its own. Beneath and beyond the specific breath techniques offered in the Vijanana Bhairava there is a message for us as meditators: Use the breath, enjoy the breath. Allow the mysteries and simple power of the breath to be your teacher. It’s yours and it has the power to reveal your innermost nature.
In your meditation practice, use the breath to take you inside. You can try using creative visualizations with the breath: Imagine your breath filled with light or carrying with it healing energy or profound blessings. Try practising yogasanas and pranayamas to open your capacity to breathe. Try meditating after exercise when your breath is most expanded. Try meditating first thing in the morning when your breath is most gentle and subdued. Do whatever’s best.
In our modern lives, meditation is essential. Whatever technique we use, it is crucial that we do take the time to turn within and know our deeper selves.
If you have a technique you’d like to share, please e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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