Archive for May, 2008

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Take your non-dominant hand and try to press the index finger and middle finger together and separate them from the ring finger and pinky which are pressed together, a V shape with two fingers on each line of the V.  Spock used to do this. Make it flat. Not too hard? Now press the ring finger and middle finger together and separate the pinky off by itself and the index finger off by itself. Make it flat. Can you do it?

Apply yourself for a moment and you’ll get these. They require a bit of concentration as we tease muscle groups apart which usually work together. This act of leaning into our nerves so we can come up with something novel, by teasing apart something that usually works as a composite piece, is an act of tapas and I will call the region upon which it works a tapas-field. Tapas is a Sanskrit word which means “glowing fire” or “heat” and is used by yoga to convey a transformative act of concentration. The fire that will burn you clean, will burn you both toward higher development and deeper spiritual realization. The tapas field here is this: that moment where you can’t quite get the fingers apart, the fingers don’t just jump to it because they don’t yet know how; an act of learning something we can’t do yet.

The Ashtanga system seems designed to always have us up against this field. Learned through a teacher assisted self-practice setting (Mysore style), the student basically gets the green light to progress through the asanas until she encounters something that she can’t do. At this point, progress through the series stops and she stays there until she learns at least basic competency with the difficult thing; she learns to do something that she can’t do yet. An act of evolution.  As the progressive series unfold in Ashtanga, the degree of asana difficulty becomes an insurmountable curve, and even the most willing and gifted yogi eventually peaks out and gradually slides back down. Tapas is built into the system.

After succeeding at the Spockfinger thing, we can move onto greater tease-apart challenges. A good one is Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Up Dog. Try to tease apart firm squeezing of the thighs with total relaxation of the buttocks. (For people with tender lower backs, this is a good skill.)  Mula Bandha goes further. If Ashwini mudra is the anal complex of muscles, and Vajroli mudra the uro-genital complex, Mula Bandha is recognized as the cervix for women and muscles further back at the base of the penis for men. Try teasing those apart: 1. genitals from anus, and 2. for women: the cervix from the muscles that hold back urine, for men: isolations between the front and the back of the root of the genitals. You get the idea. (Check Mula Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati for more than you ever thought you wanted to know about this).

We can move into the lungs, a movement which will take us from the gross physical level into the next layer of subtlety, the pranic layer, hence pranayama. Hold your breath until you feel the urge to breathe; notice the nature and quality of this set of urges and the associations that may come with it. The prana, the life force, that comes from breath is fairly important-  hold your breath for a while and you’ll see what life is like without it: nasty, brutish, and with an emphasis on short. Tease apart: 1. a deliberate relaxed decision to resume breathing from 2. the unbearable need to react to the urges. In many ways, I see this as a very easy way to get right at the heart of yoga: an intentional exercise of pushing ourselves right to the edge of life, in a highly safe and contained manner, to open a laboratory of reactions in which we can train ourselves. Every little reaction-urge not acted upon is growth of yoga. Hold your breath long enough and the grim reaper himself shows up: what better teacher?! And how great that you can get him after only a few minutes. All yogas of any depth don’t just address death but actually flirt with it slightly. And the irony, of course, is that such death-considering practices release and cultivate fear-trapped life force rather than destroying that life force. It gives us a chance to “get over it” which is incredibly freeing.

And then moving to the biggie: teasing apart what I will call yogamind from discursive mind. This too requires that sense of bearing into, a quality which will be a joy and a rapture at times when we are up to it, and a burden requiring discipline when we are less inspired. It is the sense of taking on inner work, driven by the intuition that we are following an evolutionary path, which in turn provides the motivation to pursue it. Any other reason to do this? I will argue that yogamind, although periodically an aspect of the experience of all of us throughout life, is a way of being that can develop deliberately and stably only after a degree of competence has been gained in discursive mind; yogamind is a next step after discursive mind, and a necessary step for those who want to gain true bodymind integration, an alluring beacon for sure. It is at the heart of the hatha yoga mystery: the relation between the deeply somatic and the spiritual. If cultivated, yogamind has the capacity to unleash potent psychosomatic energies  which can have immense positive effects on physical and mental health. And it makes possible a sufficient carrying ability in the bodymind of the individual toward sustaining and embodying the states of higher spiritual realization promised to us by the yogis and sages throughout history.

What level of discursive mind is required before we can enact yogamind? Many people get beyond the need to explain reality through mythic stories; they question the myths, and allow a rational outlook to emerge. When such rationality prevails, one can turn his attention to many more things, including finer assessments of the thought-process itself, objectifying it, and instead of just thinking, recognizing the option of not-thinking. But below the rational outlook, I hold discursive intrusions to be too mighty for the ego to actually silence for more than momentary flashes of freedom, see below.

There is an essential step in yogic development covered in the Yoga Sutras,  the progression from 1:42 to 1:43, which highlights this thinking/not-thinking distinction; a subtler version of what I am calling discursive mind is referred to by Patanjali as savitarka samadhi “concentration mixed with awareness of name, quality and knowledge”, and since this is a kind of samadhi, it must be taken to imply cognition in its finer states, not just sloppy monkey mind, nor a typical rational person’s typical rational discursive mind. And an accomplished version of that which I am calling Yogamind  is nirvitarka samadhi, “concentration so that the object alone remains”. (Both translations by Swami Prabhavananda.) Also, I’m taking the various possible levels of these two states and placing them in a Hatha Yoga context, whereby the object of meditation becomes bodily sensations and states, or Vedana, either purely sensed or mixed with discursive commentary and unrelated chatter.  Vedana is a field, which like all fields, is in constant flux; the act which focuses on the field also changes the field; attention upon it will also organize it eventually into something higher, thus another term we can use here is Alchemical Mind, more below.

Stable, deliberate  yogamind is born from the state of a discursive mind that has learned to value the benefits of yogamind but, paradoxically, has a terrible time getting out of the way; too much of a klutz. Discursive mind periodically even engages in heated debates with the ego, attempting to talk it out of practicing yogamind; jilted former favorite son. The practitioner has to fight through all this just to get yogamind established. And I want to note here that many people reach the level where this could happen but do not pursue deliberate yogamind, rather simply continuing development of the complexity and scope of their discursive mind; this latter is the typical way a Westerner’s mind has developed in history.

Before going further, let me characterize my understanding of these two minds, discursive mind and yogamind. Within discursive mind itself, there are different types of thought paths, from the highly structured mechanizations of logic, to poetic/associative flights of fancy. Mathematics is pure logical structure at its root, but higher math gets into more poetic pathways of mind without losing the foundations of its structure, and the same with physics; Einstein mastered large amounts of precision calculation capacities before he got wild with them. And in those fields, if the calculations ultimately don’t work, the wildness is considered pointless frittering; Einstein got wild not entirely because he was following his soul over to the right side of his brain but because the disconcerting data demanded it. Great poets often never get good at math, and make a career out of such frittering, but may have a large command of the palette of multiple languages with all their left-brain grammatical structuring, or even language sum-total, the ur-language itself (Joyce), as a means of expressing the vast vision they perceive, or the vast sound they hear, touch, taste, smell. So, both the scientist and the poet here begin from a mental disposition which tends “left brain” or “right brain”  but (hopefully) eventually think and experience their way toward integration of the opposite pole.

All of these are discursive mind. None of these are yogamind. Yogamind, as I see it, is the great OTHER to discursive mind, to language and logic mind, to both associative and mathematic mind. This post that you are reading is not yogamind, although it is attempting to point it out. As such, yogamind, specifically isolated and cultivated, is a great OTHER to almost all of that which has been generated by Western culture.  It can be seen as the often ignored ground of both minds. Some cloistered monks, dancers, atheletes, musicians, manual laborers and alchemists have gotten close, but their expressions of it haven’t been as clear as those that have come from the East, although the final highest stages of realization may have been equally realized. (Complicating matters somewhat, from the sixties onward, the East grew from being a marginal influence toward becoming a significant part of the story of the West, and cultural productions have never been the same since, especially in therapeutic circles. Also, many pot smokers have gotten a strong taste of yogamind; Eastern yogic cultural items have had a funny way of popping up in stoner circles of the West, tracing from the advent of the hippies. Undoubtedly, this is because pot and other psychotropics can open the door to yogamind, briefly generating it. The problem is that psychotropics’ fundamental contribution is exceptionally unstable and temporary, once the drug is metabolized out, the wire to nirvana is gone, whereas the yogamind I’m trying to convey here, the kind that comes with strong arduous practice, is as stable and enduring a bodymind state as one can have; wake up the next morning and those nerve connections are still there.) As a basic human capacity, yogamind isn’t something all that strange to Westerners so much as it never really had the discursive and outward sensate (ie: outward vision, outward hearing, etc.) aspect truly teased out of it so that its own intelligence could be seen in its purity.

So, although the spiritual life is often associated with right brain poetic/associative mind, the yogamind I’m getting at is closer to non-discursive mind, which is less about right or left brain and more towards a mind  learning to differentiate somatic information from the other data streams processed by the brain. A move away from thinking toward feeling, or a kind of thinking which uses somatic data as its primary material, not words, not images. The one tendency that is almost universal in spiritual literature of higher states is that we must feel our way into the higher state of being; thinking about it is not going to cut it. And by feeling I’m not talking about “feelings”, ie: emotions, but rather data from somatic nerves, of which emotions could be considered a corollary.

The term “yoga” has been used for many different types of practices which develop an individual spiritually as well as at grosser levels. The yogamind in this post is my expression of a matrix of techniques that I believe central and essential to yogic tradition. And like other yogas, it can be seen as an evolutionary engine which can work at both gross material levels as well as along the path towards subtle and causal reality. The tapas and teasing apart efforts mentioned above, and the separating of discursive mind from quiet mind, can move one toward greater gross development as well as toward greater spiritual development.

At first, yogamind is a state of focused attention to the experience in the present moment, as close to the root of our perceptual capacities as we can get. For example: seeing the field in front of us as it is, just looking with a minimum degree of interpretation; this can also apply toward hearing or touching or tasting or smelling. But at a certain point, these outward senses are folded into an inner sensing which is based on internal sensation, (pratyahara, the fifth limb of Ashtanga: taking outward senses and turning them inward), based on the data that the nerves take in from inside. Crude forms of internal sensation are, for instance, the feeling that we feel in our belly when it is full of food, or the stretch sensation in our hamstring as we do forward fold, two examples of the most rudimentary forms of internal somatic sensing. Not outward touch, like running fingers along a textured surface, but inward feeling. This makes the somatosensory cortex the part of the brain that is the ground for yogamind.

Raw sensation such as full belly or stretching muscles, or simple nerve discomfort or delight, is the predominant form of cognition in infancy. Needless to say, cognition steadily gains in sophistication, as the individual grows and develops, eventually moving beyond mere sensation, (and often negating the sensation process itself unfortunately) giving rise to an intellectual way of viewing the self and the world, which includes internal sensate data among other kinds of information in the calculations it makes. We could call this a mature adult cognitive capacity, an ability to turn attention to various fields and begin to work them out using different kinds of data and thinking.  Some people at this level are heavily reliant on bodily sensate data, some less, some are highly aware of the sensate parts of their cognition, others less. These different strands of mind are woven together by the conceptual power of language and become our internal voice, discursive mind.

But the essence here is that the stuff of yogamind is somatic data, represented by the somatic cortex, data directly gathered from what we feel inside, without discursive interruption. Mature yogamind “thinks” by constructing complex sensation representations, based in feeling but containing inner senses, inner seeing, inner hearing etc., in response to perceived fields, and “crunches” such data in processes of integration and resolution that can be felt. One implication here is that the mind is a sense organ, and the fields it can sense go way beyond the business of the basic mechanical functions of our own body, although it begins with that. What does yogamind sense?  This I’ll reserve for another time, but my basic answer: psychic fields, received in ever increasing scope, strength and collectivity as yogamind matures. (Briefly: Those within our circle of acquaintance, relation and love have exchanged receivers and transmitters with us, whether we have ever physically met them or not. This appears to transcend time and space limitations. They receive what we transmit and vice-versa, like radios, the greater the love and intimacy the  greater the exchange, of which dreams at night are one fairly apparent revelation thereof. This field of exchange can be accessed consistently through accomplishment in yogamind. The field uses as its medium what may be another force in addition to the basic physics four of electromagnetic, gravitational, strong and weak nuclear; we can call this the pranic force. Yogamind accesses and develops a sensory faculty within us which receives information through this force, just like eyes receive theirs through light. Practicing yogamind brings us into the inner koshas or layers of being, where we find the sukshma deha, the subtle body, with its sukshma indriyas, subtle sense organs, which go beyond mere subtle  feeling  and into…great mysteries. Before dismissing this out of hand, one must attain a degree of competency in yogamind, otherwise the relevant data won’t enact itself into one’s lab as it were. A percentage of people in the West in sports, business and politics take basic psychic communication as a given, usually putting it in the arena of “prayer” and often centering it in a Judeo-Christian matrix which unfortunately has provided us with limited tools for deliberately developing it .) We can also call this  the heart (the place where yogis have often situated the mind, “the mind which is in the heart”), as it has been referred to in various globalwide spiritual treatises and which appears to be an unavoidable stepping stone from which to access the highest states of Samadhi (which drop all cognitions, heart and mind). This spiritual heart is part individual, part collective, and it is a felt entity, with exceptionally subtle dimensions.

Yogamind relies on the emergence of the independent inner witness that was born with the maturity of discursive mind. This witness can put its attention capacity wherever it chooses, although total freedom as such is quite an accomplishment; most common is a witness that is free on surface levels, (ie: I can read this if I will it), but is often riding larger waves of primarily self-inflicted karma over which it has little control. If this less mature witness were to turn its attention away from discursive noticings about events and gross satisfaction of needs and urges, and actually hold in attention the deeper movements of the psyche which supports that witness itself, it may very well begin to get a bit shaky; this is material that discursive mind can take notes on, point out logical processes about, recognize images and themes, refer to what came before and predict what will come next, and so on. But these deeper aspects of the self have such a strong psychic charge that discursive mind is nearly helpless to take them and transform them. For this, the ego needs a mind which can contact felt reality itself, learn its valence in a wordless manner, and build the strength to begin the work of transforming it.

And here we come to the next step, and a radical move it is, and apparently not for everyone at this point in time. It involves the psychological concept of fusion which I was getting at earlier in this post: fusion is a condition that is necessary and unavoidable at each point in development and is only viewed as fusion when seen from a higher state of development. So, if you never tried to do Spock fingers, you would never wonder about your inability to do it. But the moment someone shows it to you, you become aware of a fusion of muscle groups as you take a moment to tease them apart. Only when you began reaching for the greater differentiation of hand muscles did anything like a fusion become apparent. Before that you were simply happily (or not so happily) fused. Let’s draw the concept into finer material: as a two year old, it was entirely appropriate to scream out “MOMMY!!”. As an adult, if you get off the phone with her and aspects of yourself are still screaming this at some level, you may well get curious about it; you recognize that some parts of your personality are still fused with Mom. A little fusion item is noticed, drawn into awareness as a result of the basic psychological urge to individuate from our parents, a process that many people never get very far with.

And here is my claim for the teasing apart of yogamind from discursive mind: having arrived at the state of mature adult mind which is mature rational discursive mind, we remain there for a while before we begin to get itchy for something more. One process that may present itself as a solution to this crisis is the act of existing simply in the present moment and letting go of the mind that needs to think and plan and remember and desire its way through everything. This strikes us as somehow a higher way of being, partly because we begin to get a glimmer of how such a way of being allows a bit of traction towards being able to move the deeper material in our psyche; and indeed, this is getting at the ways of being  that the spiritual traditions of the East overtly advocate and those from the West obscurely so. Having spent some time just being, and recognizing the benefits, we suddenly begin to perceive intrusions of discursive or analytic mind as fusions, as something we would rather not have during meditative moments but can’t control…yet. And so the urge, when we are inspired, is to lean into the tapas field of mind control, and to seek tools and teachers who can help us with this. I see the Western movement toward yoga as a way of addressing this emergent developmental thrust.

What form does it take? Mature adult discursive mind, now seen as a state of fusion, gives way to the work of separating itself from yogamind. Yogamind here can be understood as the feeling substrate which gets marked up, affected, determined, by thoughts. (I’ve gone into this heavily in previous posts on this blog). Free it from discursive mind, then it soars. It engages felt objects directly, receives a trace from them, and  it transmutes that trace, the greater the focus, the faster and more complete the transmutation into something more integrated, more evolved. Focus can be intensified with practice over time and the great yogis attest to how far this can go. Again, analysis and poetry can express all this, it can paint it or compose it in sound, but such representations aren’t actually doing it as yogamind can do it, just as this piece I’m writing can’t. Great art can inspire us to… engage reality directly.

How does this transmutation work?  Well, if we see an outward visual field, that tree over there, we can’t really do much to it, without picking up a real chainsaw and going mad with ancient antagonisms toward the great mother; or better, going over and hugging it, that might do something. But, following the fifth limb of the eight limbs of Ashtanga, Pratyahara, which tells us to take outward vision and turn it inward, then we can begin to work on the fields that present themselves. The Tibetans would have us establish inner mandala-like visions, and then begin manipulating them. Acute outward vision can help put this in place, but it is the inward theater where the work happens. So, yogamind is inner work. Likewise with sensation, which is closer to the Hatha Yoga way (I’ve called this radiant heartfelt somatic vibrational presence, and it is a state of higher and deeper feeling. It is not a negation of the Tibetan tantra which relies heavily on the visual cortex, or nad yogis who go with the auditory cortex; for those ways, look up one of those teachers): the capacity to feel a full belly matures into the capacity to feel subtle emotions, matures into the capacity to feel the feeling substrates to intellectual work, on up to highly subtle and powerful perceptions of cosmic processes, etc. These sensings begin to move beyond merely the somatic cortex and begin to  manifest in the cerebral-spinal circuit, and into the life in the cells themselves, and project from there into the larger cosmic bodymind, the big collective mind outside of ourselves, of which we are a part. Each soul is a neuron in the larger collective nervous system.

Such collective yogic work typically manifests as concrete samskara fields of varying density and quality which can be transformed with yogic focus. Here is where the alchemical roots of Hatha yoga assert themselves: samskaras become seen as fusion items and yogamind can sense them in their elemental form, and like the complexities of chemistry, many forms begin to emerge along with a qualitative aspect, ie: this here samskara is definitely not gold, but a little bit more like shit, or static, or the crud in the drain of my kitchen sink. But, I clearly sense it, and I’m willing to bear attention into it, I’m willing to work with my body in the recognition that the body is the theater in which this transformation process must happen. (Thus asana, mula bandha, pranayama, energy of  teacher, energy of a community of at least a few others doing the same, etc: various methods to get the energy level up so that we can do the work of yogamind). The samskara undergoes the alchemical process of purification, of teasing apart the strands that are mushed together, of feeling the greater energy that emerges from it as it becomes a finer substance, of feeling the energy that is released as that which was locked up in the crud is revealed and goes to work, of noticing how the other senses begin to merge with inner feeling begetting seeing-feeling, hearing-feeling, etc., of feeling the cosmos come in as another doorway of perception is opened, of feeling the heart quicken  and come to life as it instinctively senses something exciting happening which opens its desire to love and feel.

This is the kind of thing going on inside the life of actual sages who are sitting there “doing nothing”. Such work can go on into evermore subtle sheaths infinitely, and it may altogether cease at times as the realm of Vedanta’s Brahman is entered (a state of apparent nothingness recognized by many traditions  by many names as the creative matrix itself). Of course, those who come near such a sage (either materially or psychically) will feel something, because intense inner work like this registers in the energy fields of various material locations as it flows through subtle channels, frequently including  the general vicinity of the sage’s own physical body.

A couple notes here: the yogamind I’m referring to here is not absence of cognition. It is rather yoga cognition, or alchemical cognition (alchemical implying precise inner experience of elemental interactions without utilizing outward measuring devices; alchemical writings and art is always poetic, free flowing, associative, dream-like, but C.G. Jung and others insisted that the alchemist’s experience itself, before artful expression,  was one of a stably centered presence in the psychic realms where dream-like things actually exist, where deliberate sensing of these things, as opposed to merely being swept along by them, is an accomplished task of bodymind). Also, pure awareness divorced of cognition, discursive or alchemical, as mentioned in the yoga sutras above, comes later. When Patanjali delineates yoga in the almighty second verse of the first part of the Yoga Sutras: “Yogas Chitta Vrtti Nirodhaha”, (“yoga is the cessation of fluctuations in the consciousness”) we can see this at three levels at least: 1. freedom from distraction, 2. freedom from discursive analytic mind, 3. freedom from any manifestation at all: realization of Brahman (if we follow the thread through to its Advaita conclusion).

Yogamind and discursive mind are not enemies, although, as we pick sides in a sports contest just to have fun in that realm of entertainment, so we can pick sides between the two minds as we go through the arduous winnowing of coming to higher awareness. The bodymind seeks to move fusion towards differentiation, and such a need will continue to assert itself until purified elements can stand on their own and both minds get a chance to do their work, which eventually will give way to a higher integration. Once yogamind has been established to a degree, has wrestled itself free from the matrix of discursive mind, the correspondences between the two minds remains intimate. Busy intellect makes yogamind’s work much more complicated- the play in which discursive mind may take delight can result in long hard labor for yogamind as it tries to sort out the vibrational chaos left by addictive impulse gratification, or even intellectual experimentation or fantasy play. Habitual emotional-mental patterns can be rough on yogamind; if the psyche is in the grip of  an old negative piece of history, discursive mind may be playing archaic ridiculous tape loops, secretly fueled by invisible unmet needs, while yogamind desperately digs down into the psychic dirt endeavoring to root up the mess once and for all by actually trying to learn to contain the psychic charge. If yogamind succeeds in its adventure, typically by activating sleeping monsters down there, so they can be allowed to grow and become civilized, discursive mind will be free to engage more integrated forms; at a certain point in development, discursive mind needs yogamind.

Going the other way, a more sophisticated intellect will allow the potential for a more sophisticated yogmind, though it makes yogaminds’ work more daunting. And so a deep masterful yogamind will make for truly compelling discursive expressions should the individual choose to make them. And there is no need to get ahead of ourselves and worry about whether to integrate mindstyles or tease them apart because the direction will present itself as a compelling urge when the time is right. How do we know which urge is compelling and which is not? Discernment of this kind I see as a great labor, but it’s again essentially alchemic: learn to determine the quality of the combination of elements which make up the urge, or even look for the pure element itself, which is gold. Because there is such a thing. Hopefully it can come to life between us in the hatha yoga room.

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