I have always had heart trouble–by which I mean that I have always lived primarily in my head. In meditation, it is always much more natural for me to put my awareness in the ajna chakra between the eyebrows that in my chest area. When I chant the bija mantra “Yam” into the anahata chakra, I become aware of the heart center through the tingling of the sound vibrations, but maintaining awareness of a spinning green light, or any other attempt to be “aware of the presence of God in my heart” has always felt artificial and contrived. No matter how many times I mentally repeat the Jesus Prayer while going through my day, I keep “hearing” it in my head, not in my heart.
But I discovered this passage in Abdul Baha’s Prayers and Meditations, concerning those people with discernment to see the divine majesty everywhere:
Surely the lamp of Thy love is burning in their hearts, and the light of Thy tenderness is lit within their breasts.
This passage leapt out at me, demanding my attention, so I treated it as a subject for lectio divina, or "holy reading" meditation, repeating it slowly and deliberately in silence as thought it were mantra or a Centering Prayer “prayer-word.” I found it very focusing. Certainly, the image of a burning lamp in my heart was much easier to hold in awareness than an abstract “heart center” (even one with a rotating wheel of green light in it) and a flame much more concrete than an abstraction like “love.”
Something else that has plagued me for years is my tendency to sublimate and somaticize difficult emotions. When my mom was dying, I had suffered from fainting spells; before leaving home and fiancée for graduate school halfway across the country, I endured shortness of breath. My tendency to live in my head has pushed my body into advocating for my heart, demanding attention for my emotional challenges. Through the practice of yoga and, perhaps, through meditating on this image from this passage, I hope to be finally be able to allow, as the Eastern Orthodox contemplatives put it, the “mind to descend into the heart.”
Dame Evelyn Glennie
When we were small, our caregivers–with all the best intentions–taught us something that simply isn’t true: that we “hear with our ears.”
OK, perhaps there’s some truth in that statement–about as much as saying that we experience the sunshine with our eyes. But if we only wore dark glasses without using sunblock, we’d quickly realize how much of the truth we were missing.
Sound, like light, impacts our entire bodies. No matter how good digital sampling becomes, no digital piano will ever replace a real one because, though my ears may be taken in, my knees will know, as there are no hammers hitting strings inches from my knees on an electronic keyboard.
Another picture of Evelyn Glennie, because why not?
The first full-time touring classical percussionist of the 20th century, Evelyn Glennie, is deaf; she plays barefoot and “hears” through her feet (as well as the rest of her body.) Sound is a tactile phenomenon to her; she describes the sound of the snare drum as being alternately like “bullets” and “velvet.”
During a performance of Schönberg’s immense Gurrelieder, for extended orchestra and multiple choirs, I “heard” the first entrance of the male chorus in my sternum. And did you ever notice the small, white fireworks whose sound, though immensely loud, is deep enough that we feel the impact in the chest more than in the ear?
Sacred Harp Sing
At Sacred Harp sings, I often notice that the book vibrates in my fingers from the impact of my voice.
I could go on with myriad examples, but the point is that hearing is a full-body experience, and if we become really aware of the sounds we produce and receive, it can help us tune in to our bodies–which is, after all, the best way to come fully into the present moment.
When I am having trouble focusing in church, I often find it useful, during some part of the liturgy in which everyone is speaking or singing in unison, to let the words means themselves for a while–without my having to work at meaning them– and just let the sound of all those people behind me fill my back like wind filling a sail. (Because I have smallish kids, I am invariably seated right up front.) It brings me right back into the present like no amount of applied willpower possibly could.
Here’s an exercise you can try:
The chakras, a chain of “energy centers” that runs up the spine, are very useful focal points for body awareness. When meditating on them, I use the associated bijas for each chakra, chanting the syllable while holding my awareness on the area of the body in which the chakra resides.
- Hum a little while on one note. Where do you feel the vibrations? If you’re like most people, your lips are pressed together, and all the resonance is in your lips, teeth and jaws.
- Now try humming as though you had a raw egg in your mouth, and you didn’t want to break the yolk. Your jaw is slack, your tongue down, and your lips just touching. Most people report that the resonance drops down into the chest and even the belly when they hum this way.
- I usually practice five to ten minutes of body-awareness chanting–generally on the bijas, or “seed-mantra” syllables “MA” or “OM”–as a “warm-up” before mantra meditation. But occasionally, I devote the entire practice period to body awareness through meditation on the chakras.
There are many teachings on the correct or most efficacious way to use chakra bijas, and they are as divergent as they are passionately propounded. As Sound Yoga teacher Russill Paul says,
The Tantric tradition from which this sequence is derived never had a central authority that determined any specific methodologies and so there exist a variety of possibilities within the tradition offering a number of variations on the same practice.
Not wanting to take sides, I have devised my own method, in which I chant each bija for a given time period, with my awareness resting at each chakra on the way up, and ending in a period of silence.
I felt free to devise my own method because, for me, chakra meditation is strictly about awareness and intention. I do not know what it means when teachers say that a certain bija “opens” or “activates” its associated chakra–in fact, though I try never to rule anything out, I am generally skeptical about claims that mantras, mudras, “healing sounds,” or other aids to practice have an empirical effect on us. For me, a bija mantra is a string around my pranic finger, helping me to focus on the area of my body to which it points by dint of association built up by repetition and practice. I suppose it’s almost Pavlovian in a way: just as my dogs know food is coming when they hear me pick up their bowls, my awareness goes straight to my muladhara chakra the moment I begin chanting “lam.”
Here is the version of the chakra bijas that I use: the “a” is pronounced like the “o” in “come,” and the “l” is pronounced with the tip of the tongue on the hard palette:
Muludhara (“root”) Lam
Swadhisthana (sacral) Vam
Manipura (solar plexus) Ram
Anahata (heart) Yam
Vishuddha (throat) Ham
Ajna (brow or “third eye”) Sham (Aum is also common)
Sahasrara (“crown”) Om
Imagine that you are chanting each bija "into" the associated chakra; see if you can feel the resonating vibrations of your voice in each part of your body. Feel free to experiment, both with the various methods that are taught–for instance some teachers chant the bijas, some whisper them, and some speak them silently and internally–and with methods of your own that you may find more helpful. To quote again from Russill Paul,
Although there is a classical system of Kundalini Yoga that has been standardized and which must be respected, it is also necessary that we stay true to our personal experience and experimentation especially if it is rigorous and put to the test over a substantial amount of time. Rather than have our powers of perception dulled and our awareness lack the conviction of personal experience, mantra shastra is, in the final analysis, a science that is based on research and experimentation. Furthermore, there are exceptions to every rule, so we must learn to learn from our body as much as from our head...At the very least, you will know what works for you.
Is there such a thing as too many pictures of Evelyn Glennie?
My wife and I recently went to hear Krishna Das–she for the first time, me for the third. (It was her first kirtan, in fact.) On the way home, I described an experience I had during one of the chants.
While I still have Jesus as my ishta, or “chosen ideal,” I long ago came to view Him as one Way among many. But though I have sung many kirtan chants, both other people's and those I have composed myself, I still experience occasional resistance to other divine names–a legacy of conventionally exclusive Christian training. This resistance usually breaks down fairly early (when it appears at all) and so it did on this evening.
I felt the moment of breakthrough viscerally, in my body–as though a golden wash of warmth burst out of my heart and flowed down into my arms.
“And then,” I told my skeptical physician wife, “and you’re going to think I’m crazy, but by the time the chant was over, my hands were hot and tingling.”
“Really?” she said, more curiously than incredulously. She then surprised me by saying, “You have more body awareness than I do.”
Now, my wife is far more naturally athletic than I am, and I would have thought that she’d be more physically attuned than I. However, I have two practices specifically aimed at increasing body awareness. One–body awareness through sound–I will discuss in a future entry. The other is cultivating awareness through attention to the chakras.
Chakra,a Sanskrit word meaning “wheel,” refers to seven “energy centers” in the body, according to Yogic thought.
1. The muludhara, or “root” chakra, located at the perineum (or at the anus, depending on the school of thought,)
2. The svadhistana chakra, located just below the navel (or at the genitals or the spleen, once again depending on whom one asks,)
3. The manipura chakra, located at the solar plexus,
4. The anahata, or “heart” chakra,
5. The visuddha, or “throat” chakra,
6. The ajna, or “brow” or “third eye” chakra, located between and above the eyes, and
7. The sahasrara, or “crown” chakra, located on, or just above, the crown of the head.
The chakras each have their traditional associations–for example, the throat chakra with communication and relationships, the “third eye” with intuition, and the “crown” with superconsciousness and union with the Divine–and “blockages” in, or “imbalances” between them are believed to cause hindrances to spiritual progress, emotional problems and even physical disease.
Let me interrupt myself at this point. If you’re familiar with the Sanskrit word shraddha, you’ve probably heard it translated as “absolute faith in God.” But I subscribe to what I believe to be a more nuanced and realistic definition: the willingness to suspend disbelief long enough to give a thing a try and see whether it works.[i] (For me, this experimentalism is probably the single most bracing and refreshing thing about Hinduism/Yoga; nothing is to be taken on blind faith, but everything is to be put to the test. As Kabir wrote, “If you have not lived through something, it is not true.”[ii])
I am exercising a great deal of shraddha toward most of the traditional beliefs about the chakras. Whether they are each really located at or near an actual neural plexus, whether they literally “open” as kundalini energy passes through them on its journey up the spinal canal, whether they truly become “blocked” or “imbalanced”–any or all of these things may be so, but you can’t prove any of them by me.
For me, the great revelation of the chakras is the enormous leap in body awareness one can make through attending to them. I’ll talk more about that in future entries; for now, I’ll just say that turning our awareness toward these centers can open us up to what is going on in our bodies, especially as they respond to emotional-spiritual stimuli.
Why is this awareness important? Because we are embodied beings, and all our experiences–including our experience of God–are rooted in what Bhagavan Das calls “this precious human body,” the only vehicle we have in our striving toward spiritual liberation.
We are all so overstimulated that it is easy to miss the “still, small voice” of God in our lives. Awareness of our physical being can help put us in touch with the God who is, as the Islamic hadith says, “closer to you than your jugular vein.”
“One needs to do so little, really, to experience God,” wrote Anthony de Mello. “All one needs to do is to quieten oneself, become still–and become aware of the feel of one’s hands. Be aware of the sensations in your hand…There you have God living and working in you, touching you, as near to you as you are to yourself.” [iii]
The great Carmelite mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, knew vividly the value of our embodied experience, and how our bodies allow us to be the Presence of God in the world:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours–no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing good. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
[i] Paraphrased from talks by Swami Tyagananda at the Boston Vedanta Center.
[ii] Translated by Robert Bly.
[iii] de Mello, Anthony, Sadhana: A Way to God. Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1987.
There is a yoga discipline called pratyahara, which means “control of the senses” or "withdrawal of the mind from sense objects." During practice, the mind is supposed to be so focused that no distractions are able to enter our awareness. And that withdrawal is a good thing—I want to experience my experiences fully. But I like to think of pratyahara more broadly than that. When I am on a hike or picnic or retreat, for instance, I don’t want radio, television, recorded music or the internet intruding; I want to withdraw my senses from the overstimulating media that usually occupy them, so that my mind may be more available to the subtler experiences around me.
But even then, my “monkey mind,” as the Buddhists call it, continues to interpose itself between my awareness and the world. Everything I see and hear reminds me of something I need to do, someone who is trying my patience, another time and place in which I saw or heard something similar, something I know, or wish I knew, about the thing seen or heard. Nothing just is what it is on its own terms—everything becomes an object of my judgment and analysis, a springboard for my daydreams.
So I find it useful to regularly withdraw my attention, not from external stimuli, but from my internal commentary on them, which allows things to be more what they are. Be a stranger—be “not from around here,” the better to experience things as for the first time. It helps if the field of stimuli is relatively narrow—any activity I do more or less mechanically can clear a space for contemplative practice—and on a good day, when I am mowing the lawn or cleaning up the kitchen or folding laundry, I will remember to take advantage of the opportunity. Here’s what I do:
I begin by becoming aware of my breathing, which “takes attention away from thinking.”[i] The moment I begin this is one of the most satisfying moments of the day; there is a sense of release and restfulness, but not a somnolent restfulness—rather, a heightened awareness charged with energy even as it calms me, that gives me a pale glimpse of what it means to be “he who in the midst of the greatest silence and solitude finds the intensest activity, and in the midst of the intensest activity, the silence and solitude of the desert.”[ii]
I then begin to pray the so-called Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. This prayer, adapted from the words of the blind man who called out to Jesus from the roadside, has been used in contemplative practice since the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and is still widely practiced in the Eastern churches. It is prayed over and over, like a mantra.
(A word of explanation: the Greek word eleos, which is translated “mercy,” actually has a broader meaning than we ordinarily ascribe to it, including not only forgiveness but healing. The word has the same root as elia, meaning “olive,” because prayer for healing was—as it often still is—accompanied by anointing with [olive] oil. The point being that a repeated prayer for mercy is not necessarily the grimly penitential exercise it might sound like.)
Now here’s the counter-intuitive part: you’d think that repeating something over and over in your head would just add to the chaos, but in fact it does just the opposite. When the monkey mind is occupied with the mantra, I am actually freed from the distraction of memory, anticipation, plans, regrets, fantasies and all the other busywork that occupies me most of the time. So I am able to see, hear, feel everything much more vividly, without a layer of commentary between my deeper self and my experience. What a potato feels like as I rub the dirt off its surface under the tap, how the ocean sounds on the far side of a stand of trees through which the wind is blowing, the licorice smell of a pile of pulled weeds—everything is novel and intensified, unfiltered by commentary and classification. Experience bypasses the monkey mind and registers more directly.
The Indian sage Patanjali wrote, “The Seer is intelligence only, and though pure, sees through the coloring of the intellect.”[iii] When the intellect is otherwise occupied, the view is less colored. The monkey mind leaves you alone.
"Pray without ceasing." –1 Thessalonians 5:17 This entry was originally part of a larger post at Little Teaboys Everywhere.