contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Yoga

LEARNING FROM OTHER TRADITIONS: KASHMIR SHAIVISM

My Druidry is an earth pathway and a nature mysticism – and it is more than that. It is concerned with recognising, and living from, a divine identity in a divine world. I practice a panentheist, non-dual, Druidry. But few of the mystical traditions known to history have fully held the two aspects together as one. Kashmir Shaivism, a form of traditional Indian Tantra, is an exception. Sally Kempton (1) explains.

“Rejecting the Vedantic view that the material world is illusory, an empty dream, the sages of Kashmir Shaivism saw all forms of the universe as manifestations of divine creative energy, of Shakti, the dynamic female principle. They worshipped Shakti in themselves, in the earth, and in every substantial and insubstantial thing, and they looked for the pulsing heart of divine bliss within all domains of experience. Astute seekers of the tradition knew innumerable pathways for uncovering the experience of the divine. They knew how to extract it from states like terror or pleasure or in the high point of a sneeze; the knew how to find the pulsation of ecstasy in empty space, in fixed attention, and in the sensations that come from swaying or twirling, or enjoying music or the taste of food.

“But the crucial insight of Shaivism is the recognition that when human consciousness lets go of its identification with the body and reflects back on itself, it is revealed as a perfect, if limited, form of the supreme ‘I’, which is God. By expanding their own I-consciousness beyond its limits, past its tendency to cling to narrow definitions of itself, yogis of the Shaivite path experienced God as themselves.

“Because they saw the world as divine, the Shaivite yogis of Kashmir had no difficulty enjoying life in all its different flavors. In this they differed from their Vedantic cousins and from the Madhyamika Buddhists who inhabited the same region of India. Shaivism was not a traditional renunciate’s path. Abhinavagupta (975-1025 CE), the preeminent genius of the tradition, was not only a philosopher and a widely revered guru but also an aesthetician, and artist and musician, and the center of a circle where sensory experience – including art, music and drama – was constantly being transmuted into yoga.

“It is this insight – that a serious practitioner of yoga does not reject their world, but instead transforms daily experience through their practice – that sets Kashmir Shaivism apart from many Indian yogic traditions, and has made this system particularly resonant for our time.”

(1) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011

NON-DUALITY AND YOGA NIDRA

This post is built around Dr. Richard Miller’s approach to Yoga Nidra (1) and my response to it. The resource I am working with – a book and a CD – was published in 2005. My concern in writing is with how a “meditative practice for deep relaxation and healing” can also be what one reviewer (2) described as the “perfect tool” for the author’s non-dual teachings. For the recommended practices “require only presence, and as such represent both the path and the goal of non-dual practice.”

The word non-dual is a translation of the Sanskrit advaita, literally ‘not two’. I remember a podcast in which Peter Russell (3), a long-term practitioner and writer in this field, cautioned against a tendency to equate ‘not two’ with ‘one’. He then told an ancient Indian story about the making of clay pots. A potter takes a lump of clay and makes two pots. One clay; two pots. In the Indian tradition, this is a ‘consciousness first’ understanding, and modern versions draw on terms like presence, awareness, ground of being, or true nature to point to our ultimate identity as this consciousness. ‘God’ is also used in this way. The understanding is that we are never separate from this identity, though we may feel separate from it, or forget it, or ‘not believe’ in it. After all, most of our attention is on our individual life in the world with all its pulls, stresses and demands.

Early in his book, Richard Miller describes his first experience of Yoga Nidra:

“Our instructor led us through Shavasana, the traditional yogic pose for inducing deep relaxation while lying completely still on the floor. The instructor expertly guided us into being conscious of sensations throughout our body, as well as to opposing experiences, such as warmth-coolness, agitation-calmness, fear-equanimity, sorrow-joy, and separation-oneness. I was invited to rotate may attention through the sensations elicited by pairs of opposites until I was able to embody these opposing experiences with neither attachment or aversion to what I was experiencing.

“I drove home that evening feeling totally relaxed and expansively present. For the first time in years, I felt free of all conflict, radiantly joyful, and attuned wit the entire universe. I experienced life as being perfect just as it was and felt myself to be a spacious nonlocalized presence. Instead of my usual experience of being in the world, I was having a nonmental experience of the world being within me, similar to experiences I had known as a child”.

Miller’s motivation to continue was “a longing in me to consciously awaken into and fully abide as this sense of presence”. As well as becoming a yoga teacher and psychotherapist he has worked with Direct Path teachings as a student of Jean Klein. He describes the very term Yoga Nidra as a paradox, a play on the words ‘sleep’ and ‘awake’ as it means ‘the sleep of the Yogi’. The implication is that the normal person is asleep to their true nature through all states of consciousness – waking, dreaming and deep sleep – while the Yogi is one who is awake and knows his or her true nature across all states, including sleep. The practice therefore involves both deep relaxation and deep inquiry.

A full practice on Miller’s CD begins with two commitments – one to a form of mindfulness at the edge of sleep where, for the reasons pointed to above, it is OK to ‘fall asleep’ since there is a trust that the process will continue to run at other levels. The second is described as a ‘heartfelt prayer’, articulated as though it has already been fulfilled – for in the absolute, there is only now: Miller gives the example ‘my friend is whole, healed and healthy’. Then the meditation moves through seven stages, the first six of which address specific forms of awareness: body and sensation; breath and energy; feelings and emotions; thoughts, beliefs and images; desire, pleasure and joy; and witness/ego-I. The final stage (sahaj) is our natural state, ‘the awareness of changeless Being’. Each stage provides an opportunity to identify conventionally positive and conventionally negative experiences, and to hold both in a wider embrace. The sixth stage inquires into the very nature of the ‘I’ that believes itself to be a separate witness, enabling the simple being of the final stage. The whole practice lasts about 35 minutes.

I’ve been looking for an evening practice to complement my morning one. After only a week, it has the right feel, the right format and the right length for me at this point in my life. Over the last three or four years non-duality has become my common sense. During this period I have worked a good deal with the ‘Seeing’ experiments of Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (4) and also with substantial resources from Direct Path teachers Greg Goode (5) and Rupert Spira (6). A non-dual view, as a working assumption, is now both cognitively and experientially well installed.

I don’t have a deep interest in non-dualist metaphysics for its own sake. I am deeply committed to this world and my human life. What I find is that a non-dual model of reality adds to my experience of human life in the world, and cannot be separated from it. I find myself leaning in to this nourishing and illuminating possibility, and committed to commit to living by it. Roger Miller’s Yoga Nidra has met me where I am. I am very grateful for this gentle, life-affirming, and subtle practice, which helps to maintain me on this path.

(1) Richard Miller Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Holding Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2005

(2) Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and The Wisdom Of Yoga

(3) https://www.peterrussell.com/

(4) http://www.headless.org/

(5) Greg Goode The Direct Path: A User Guide Non-Duality Press, 2012 (UK edition)

(6) Rupert Spira Transparent Body: Luminous World: the Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

TANTRIC MEDITATION

“There are many schools of tantra, but the tantric tradition that I follow is at its heart a methodology, a set of yogic practices that aim at yoking us (yoga means ‘yoke’) with the numinous energy at the heart of things. One fundamental premise of tantra is that a skilful practitioner can use anything – any moment, any feeling, any type of experience – to unite with the divine.” (1)

When exploring the ‘Direct Path’ approach late last year (2), I mentioned Tantra, especially the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism. I said : ‘if the Vedantic path is the path from I am something (a body and a mind) to I am nothing, the Tantric path could be said to be the path from I am nothing to I am everything. If the Vedantic path is one of exclusion and discrimination, the Tantric path is one of inclusion and love. The Direct Path brings them together.’ The consequence for me has been a further tilt towards Tantra.  After working with Rupert Spira’s contemplations (3) – for me, still Vedantic in flavour – I went on to work with another audio resource, offered by Sally Kempton (4). This is a modern presentation of practices from a classic Tantric text (5). I also re-acquainted myself with Sally Kempton’s Meditation for the Love of It (1)which I first worked with some years ago. In her introduction, quoted at the beginning of this post, she goes on to say:

“The core tantric strategy is to harness and channel all our energies, including the apparently distracting or obstructive ones, rather than trying to suppress or eliminate them. When we do that, the energy within thoughts, within emotions, in our moods, and even in intense feelings like anger or terror or desire, can expand and reveal the ground that underlies everything, the pure creative potential of consciousness itself. Tantrikas call that creative potential shakti.

“Shakti, the so-called feminine aspect of divine reality (often personified in Hindu tradition as a goddess), is the subtle pulsation of creative potency that permeates all experience. It is normally so subtle and hidden that tuning in to shakti can feel as if the veils came off your senses, or like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the landscape goes from black-and-white to Technicolor. In our reflective moments, the felt sense of shakti can be accessed by sensing the life force that pulses in the breath, and that is often experienced as energy currents moving in the body. In the yoga traditions, this internal shakti is called kundalini. It is quite literally the power that impels spiritual evolution. Though kundalini has hundreds of facets, one of the simplest ways we experience is as a subtle energetic pull – sometimes called the ‘meditation current’ – that draws the mind inward when we meditate. Many of the practices in this book help draw your attention to this energetic presence in the mind and body.”

The result of this work is a sense of closure for my contemplative inquiry, as an inquiry about path and practice. At the end of it, I find my home in a modern Pagan Druidry that fully integrates Tantric features, whilst also responsive to the wisdom of other traditions. My practice has a contemplative core. It continues to include formal meditation, body/energy work and an intuitive Goddess devotion. I live the wheel of the year. My inquiry energy is now turning outwards, wondering about new forms of engagement in the world.

(1) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011 (Taken from the author’s preface.)

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/11/21/intensive-inquiry/

(3) Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World – The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

(4) Sally Kempton Doorways to the Infinite – the Art and Practice of Tantric Meditation Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2014

(5) Jaideva Singh Vinanabhairava or Divine Consciousness: a Treasury of 112 Types of Yoga Delhi: Motilal Banaridass, 1979

 

THE PHILOSOPHER & THE GODDESS

A story told by Sally Kempton in Awakening Shakti: the transformative power of the Goddesses of Yoga Boulder, CO, USA: Sounds True, 2013. The philosopher in question is Shankara, regarded as the founder of advaita Vedanta, which has been highly influential in theosophy and the New Age, as well as in India. But not unchallenged, though the resolution described in the story is equivocal.

“It happened like this. One day, as Shankara wandered through South India, he found himself on the bank of a river in flood. Shankara was fearless – he had faced down tigers, he had seen through the world-illusion – so what was the problem with a flood? He waded into the river and soon found himself up to his chest in rushing water. Then a weird thing happened. His body stopped working. Standing on one leg in the middle of a swift-moving river, with the other leg lifted to find his next foothold, he froze. His strength gone, his will paralyzed, Shankara panicked. For the first time in his life, Shankara knew the terror of being completely powerless. He realized that if he didn’t get moving, he could drown.

“Then he heard a cackling laugh. An old forager woman, bent with the weight of her years of labour, stood on the opposite bank. Desperately, Shankara called to her, ‘Help! Get help!’

“The crone raised her head and looked fully into her eyes. She laughed again, her laughter foaming over until it reached the sky. Then she dove into the river and in a few swift strokes swam to where he floundered. She seized him around the chest and pulled him to shore.

“’Shankara’, she said, ‘you preach that women are a trap. You say that this world is an illusion. You won’t so much as look at a woman. But can’t you see that your strength comes from Shakti? What happens when you lose your Shakti? Without Shakti you couldn’t even move your limbs! So why do you insult Shakti? Why do you insult the Goddess? Don’t you know that I everything? Don’t you know that you can’t live without me?”

“At that moment, the story goes, Shankara realized that he had been denying the obvious. He had been insulting his own life-energy – without which he would not even exist! He bowed down to the Goddess – for indeed, the old woman was the Goddess herself.

“Moreover, he became a closet Shakta Tantrika – a lover of the sacred feminine power within the world. He kept his conversion more or less secret – after all, he was an official world-renouncer. But today in South India, many officials of his orders of Indian monks worship the Goddess.”

ALREADY ENOUGH & ALREADY AT HOME: THEO WILDCROFT’S ‘WILD YOGA’ REVOLUTION

This is an extract from a piece by Theo Wildcroft, published as Wild Yoga Satsang 1 at www.wildyoga.co.uk  – Theo is both a Druid and a Yoga teacher and she is working on a ‘wild yoga’ based PhD. Project. In the extract she presents a view of hatha yoga, its history and its continuing evolution.

“I talked about the democratisation and evolution of postural yoga practice – how hatha yoga was created in a medieval flowering of practices to effect the alchemy of the physical, human (and exclusively male) body into a divine form. How there was much to be celebrated in this expansion of the idea of spiritual realisation from the elite Brahmins to (half of) the mass of humanity; and also much to be avoided, in the strange mortifications and torturings of the flesh to achieve these aims. I explained how, in the late 19th and early 20th Century, there was a deliberate and concerted campaign to revolutionise, systematise and sanitise these practices in the (re)creation of an indigenous Indian physical tradition. How a small number of men, involved in this development, drew on practices as diverse as body-building, indigenous martial arts and Swedish gymnastics; and redrew ancient Tantric and Vedantic philosophy in the light of their knowledge of modern European enlightenment thought, medicine and science. How this process of syncretism, common to all religious and cultural practice, allowed for the indigenisation of yoga as a newly authenticated ‘ancient’ practice of India; and in turn packaged and extended yoga for its explosion onto the international stage.

“All this to say: that before yoga was an internationally beloved interpretation of an Indian cultural treasure, yoga had already become an Indian response to the spread of international physical culture and philosophical thought. All this to say: the men we most have to thank for that repackaging of yoga for a ‘Western’ or western-facing population, are those Indian nationalist pioneers – Krishnamacharya, Jois, Iyengar, Sivananda, Desikachar, Yogananda and others. All this to say: the most hyped, most recent, most commercial fads in yoga today take their cue from Sivananda himself, giving out his guru’s grace in initiations and spiritual names by post to Westerners. All this to point out: that these deeply profound men, for whom we are truly grateful, claimed dubious ancient lineages, divine inspirations and direct transmission of spiritual/physical knowledge into their hands, and obscured their own roles in substantially innovating these practices, and the interpretations and commentaries on the ancient texts that underpin them. They did this as a way of infusing power, prestige, mystery, exoticism, scientific validity and thus their ongoing control over their creations. And thus here we are, at risk of calcifying ‘real’ yoga into supposed ‘ancient’ forms as a reaction against what we intuitively feel is yoga’s slide into hybridism, endless diversity, commercialism and irrelevance as a spiritual discipline.

“Authenticity is not to be found in the age of the practice; nor in the deceptively elegant principles of simple, ‘universal’ philosophies and alignment. The profound sits alongside the mundane. For a practice to be authentic, it has to be yours. Medieval yogis developed hatha yoga as a tool to render the human body divine. Early modern yogis repurposed hatha yoga as a tool to create a strong, prosperous, conservative and healthy Indian population, fit to meet and succeed in the challenges of international, modern capitalism. Later modern yogis have rewritten hatha yoga once again, in a neo-Tantra, New Age, international, commercially aware pyramid scheme of glamour, anti-aging and material success underpinned by the cult of positivity and beauty-as-truth. Align your body, and you too can perform effortless gymnastics. Align your heart, and the universe will bring you everything you need. This development of hatha yoga is both radically new and entirely in keeping with what came before it.

“What I see now, in certain circles largely outside the commercial mainstream, is yet another repurposing of hatha yoga: blending it with ecstatic dance, paganism, bhakti and Buddhism, to achieve something new again. What that turns out to be, and how it works is the focus of my research. The point is that it is still yoga.

“I am passionate about recognising the production and transmission of embodied spiritual knowledge/practice by individuals within their communities. Whilst we honour with profound gratitude each and every teacher that has held and added to a lineage to pass it along to us, what is vital is that we learn to trust our inner teacher, and that we learn with the support of each other. For decades at least, groups of (mostly) women have been sharing physical-spiritual practice this way. For decades we’ve been calling it ‘yoga’. The Wild Yoga Experiment is my way of honouring, cherishing and developing that inner teacher and that circle.

“Most of us in the circle last night admitted that we began coming to yoga for superficial reasons, and that the reasons why it meant as much as it does to us are complex, even contradictory. There are tensions around beliefs – around opening up to a spiritual aspect of practice when almost all of your formative spiritual experiences are tied to other people seeking to control what you believe. We talked about jnana yoga – the yoga of knowledge. We talked about bhakti yoga – the yoga of devotion that does not, in its modern, Western form at least, ask any belief of you at all.

“That there is a way to open your heart to the miracle and beauty of the universe without assuming the nature of what created it: this is powerful. That there is a space and a way to practice in which you can open your heart to the mystery and perfection of the universe whilst at the same time not losing sight of the certain knowledge that there is much to fight and change in the world: this is powerful. That there is a way to prepare and support each individual in being a ‘better’, more engaged, more effective person without imposing a definition of what ‘better’ means upon them: this is a community’s life-work. That there might be a way to do all this whilst at the same time recognising the permanent near-exhaustion of our lives; whilst honouring and holding and cherishing the notion that you are already enough and you are already home: this could be a revolution.”

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