Thursday, November 15, 2012

What is Mudra? What is Meditation?

Haven't been posting lately as I'm working on my book. Here is a little something...

What is Mudra?

            What is mudra? Mudra means gesture. There are many different kinds of mudra, from hand gestures, to the complex bodily gestures of Hatha Yoga, to the subtle internal gestures of Kashmir Shaivism. Mudras are used in various disciplines from yoga to classical dance. This short article will not address hand and bodily mudras, and will instead focus on the subtler aspects of mudra.
            What is gesture? Wikipedia defines gesture as "a form of non-verbal communication in which visible bodily actions communicate particular messages, either in place of speech or together and in parallel with words." It is easy to see the physical aspects of this, at least with hand and bodily mudras, but perhaps not so easy to see the communicative aspects. What are we attempting to communicate with?
            According to my own personal experience coming after over 25 years of practice, I would restate this definition as follows:

“Mudra is a form of non-verbal communicative movement occurring between lower and higher selves, possibly starting as an instigation of movement on a bodily level but felt/initiated as a wave-front of much deeper movement on a subtler non-verbal, instrumental level that acts to unite the lower and higher aspects of one’s self.”

Mudra, much more than communication, is actually a movement that acts to unite. This follows one of the important definitions of yoga as union. Mudra is the uniting of polarities. It is the uniting of that which is divided. It is the uniting of the various channels of flow in the subtle body, bringing the forces of prana or life energy into balance and creating a stable and clear mind.
            When I first studied meditation I focused so much on the object of meditation that it rapidly became so frustrating as I could never hold it. It was only over 20 years later that I realized that the object itself is not near as important as the energy that holds it. Take for example the simple task of picking up a cup of water. We don’t need to focus on the cup as we pick up the cup of water. We only need to focus on our arm, which is moving, to pick up the cup. Our arm picks up the cup and holds it. We cannot hope to hold the cup without the arm. While this simple example may not seem relevant to the practice of meditation it is in a most vital way.
            Meditation is the act of holding an object with our minds. If we attempt to hold the object in our minds without understanding our mind and how it moves, we will never achieve the goal of actually holding the object in mind. Our mind will shift. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna tells Krishna that the mind is as difficult to control as the wind. Then Krishna responds by saying that yes it is, but little by little with the help of constant practice and detachment, it can be done. Most people when they read this verse focus only on Krishna’s answer as the key to controlling the mind. The actual key is hidden in Arjuna’s declaration. “The mind is as easy to control as the wind.” Can we control the wind? Not the physical wind perhaps. But the wind Arjuna is secretly referring to is our internal wind. This statement is a reflection of another verse in the Yoga Vasistha that is quoted in Hatha Pradipika: “the mind and the prana are like two sides of one coin. If you affect one, you affect the other.” This is the secret of both yoga and meditation. This practice of affecting the prana, to thus affect the mind, is the practice of mudra and is the very essence and secret of the science of yoga.
            Mudra is movement. The nature of this movement is described in the Yoga Sutras in the third chapter. The name given to this movement is what is called parinama, which means transformation of state. A transformation of state is a change from one state to another. In other words from an active, busy state to a calm one. Why would we be interested in this? To understand this we have to go back to the beginning of the Yoga Sutras and examine Vyasa’s excellent commentary of Sutra 1.1.
            Vyasa in his commentary to sutra 1.1 tells us that the mind exists in five possible types of states. Mudha, kshipta, vikshipta, ekagra, and niruddha. These translate to torporous/tired, frenetic/busy, distracted, one-pointed, and restrained. Energetically, these correspond to the classical gunas of samkhya and Ayurveda. The guna of earth and water corresponds to the torporous/tired mind, which is an extreme, negative state that the mind takes on when earth and water elements are out of balance in the body/mind system. The guna of rajas, which corresponds to the element fire when it is out of balance brings the frenetic/busy state of mind. When the gunas are mixed up, we get the state we most live in, the vikshipta or “distracted” state of mind. This state allows for short-term concentration on tasks but doesn’t allow the mind to stay focused for long periods. When the guna of sattva is dominant, then our mind is transformed according to both the Yoga Sutras and the Yoga Vasistha. Our mind then becomes clear and transparent and concentration becomes very steady and can last for some time. We will leave the fifth state alone for the moment.
            So how do we bring the mind to a sattvic state? According to Vasistha as described above, the mind is linked intimately to the pranic body, the energetic body. So if we examine the nature of the energetic body and make the corresponding adjustments, the mind will follow suit. The rajasic and the tamasic energies are like the twin pillars to either side of the central pillar of the sattvic guna. If we learn to bring them into balance, they in effect cancel each other out and we are brought into what we call the middle pillar or the central column. We will discuss this in more detail in a later article. For now, let us understand that balance is key to coming into a more sattvic state. In fact, this is the very definition of yoga given in the Bhagavad Gita 2.50. “Yoga is equilibrium.” Balance is the key to the sattvic state of body and mind.
            How do we find balance? We begin to notice the movements that bring us into balance and the movements that bring us out of balance. The movements that bring us into balance are called by Patanjali parinama. The movements that bring us out of balance are the reverse of that parinama. What do we mean by this? How do we even focus on movement?
            Everything in our life is a part of this movement. According to tantra, everything is in a state of expansion, maya, called Hrim, and contraction, liberation called Shrim. Don’t be confused by what I mean here by contraction and expansion. Here contraction means contracting towards the bindu or point of creation and expansion means the creation of the universe. We are always in an act of creation or destruction. Existence is fleeting. If you look for it, it is very difficult to find (I challenge you!). So we are NEVER separate from this movement. Never. All we have to do is learn to feel it.
            Prana or energy/movement is felt. This is explained clearly in classical Samkhya which says that the air element of which prana is intimately related, is connected with the sparsa or inner touch/feeling. So if we want to understand what prana is, we need to get in touch with our inner feeling. Prana is felt. Energy is felt. Movement is felt. When I say felt here I do not mean feelings like love, happiness, sadness, etc. I mean the actual sensation of feelings. Perhaps sense would be a better word. English is a hard language here to describe exactly what we are talking about. It is important to understand intimately the meaning here though.
            So we learn to feel movement. We learn to feel the movement from contraction to expansion. We learn to feel the movement from expansion to contraction. If we learn to feel these two directions of movement then we are well on our way to understanding mudra.
            In Shaivism, the terms used for these two directions of movement are called unmesa and nimesa. Unmesa is expansion. Nimesa is contraction. The interesting thing here is that they can go both ways. In other words, Unmesa can be both an expansion of freedom or an expansion of bondage. Nimesa can be a contraction of freedom or a contraction of bondage. These are important aspects of the mudra which need to be understood. We will discuss more on this later.
            What causes the directional shift in movement? One important concept very intimately related to mudra is called bandha. Bandha is that which binds. This binding causes a directional shift from outward to inner movement. Bandha shifts the unmesa of bondage to the unmesa of freedom. Bandha shifts the nimesa of freedom to the nimesa of bondage. Bandha is like a switch. It causes us to shift direction. It is at the heart of mudra.
            The bandha that I am discussing here is far beyond physical movement. The physical bandhas may help point the way, but in my personal experience, if you don’t find that way then the physical bandhas will never take you anywhere. The real bandha is deep inside you. It is the directional shift that turns energy around and causes bondage to turn to freedom. It is the ultimate form of recycling, taking bad energy and converting it to good. It takes confusion and turns it to liberation. This is the deep secret of bandha.
            When we begin to pay attention to this movement, this parinama in all of its aspects, then we begin to understand mudra. We pay attention to unmesa, to nimesa, to bandha. We pay attention to what direction things are moving. This is Krishna’s answer to Arjuna. Practice and detachment, what are called abhyasa and vairaghyam. These twin wings of yoga are like a life saver. We hold focus on what we want and discard that which we don’t. When we drive a car to Albuquerque, we don’t drive the car to Chicago or anywhere else. It’s that simple. Not complicated really.
            But you have to really feel this movement inside you. Don’t get confused by objective mind. The answer isn’t found in the objective mode of mind. The answer is felt deep in the instrumental layer. It is vital to understand the difference of these two modes. If you don’t understand this, you will be confused, without a doubt. If you start to understand on an intimate level this movement, you will understand mudra.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Another Question/Comment on Sri Vidya Post

I got this question/comment in by email about a week or more ago and have had to sit with it before commenting. I find it great that so many of you are coming up with very deep responses to some of my posts. Comments and questions are always welcome and can be made to

"One of the things I find so attractive about Tantra is the absolute freedom it offers, or more accurately, I think, the absolute freedom it points to, the absolute freedom that we are born with. 
It’s the freedom that comes with being made up of the same substance that the rest of the universe is made up of - divinity, consciousness, god, goddess, love, whatever we call it.  To me, Tantra is the belief or world-view, the knowing, that God is in our very cells.  Goddess is in all that we see, all that we touch, all that we eat, all that is…    And therefore, the essence of it isn't contradictory with any other beliefs I've had, and that is, to me, more evidence of how beautiful and true it is.  For me, it doesn't even conflict with Catholicism.
I remember being taught that we are all part of the body of God.  In Catholic school this meant being shown a poster of Jesus' face that, when one got up close to it, saw that it was made up of thousands of faces.  I understood this as a child to mean that the holy spirit dwells within each individual, that Jesus is within and without.  To me, the essence of Tantra is the same.  The actual practices, and probably the results of Tantra, might be quite different, but I think one could be a practicing Catholic and a Tantric believer. 
This is where my questions lie.  I enjoy some  of the Tantric practices I've been introduced to a lot, and I'm so interested in learning more.  I enjoyed the incense of the Catholic church too… and communion, and scripture, and singing…  To me, there is perfect freedom in whatever one chooses as her sadhana.  To say, that we must be fully-in, we must commit 100%  to anything, goes against my very basic concept of what Tantra is.  If it is the acceptance that God is us, we are god, all is sacred, even the completely mundane, then doesn't that make us free to take or leave whatever feels right to us from any tradition?  Because no matter how we choose to engage, we are engaging with her.   
Once we have had the good fortune to come across such wisdom, such powerful tradition, it is it "wrong" to not dive-in fully? And what does dive-in fully really look like? Is that different for each individual? If we accept God to be in every atom of every universe, then does that make every moment of our life sadhana?  Is Tantra actually a path or is it a way of seeing the world?  If it is a path, where is it going?  How can we be going anywhere if we are already living God on earth, within our bodies, if she is who we are?  Where are we going?  If we are always connected, always divine, why do we spend so much time trying to connect with the divine?  How do we define success when it comes to sadhana?
I know that somewhere in all my questions, my answers lie.  I feel incredibly blessed to have met Sri Amritananda, and to have been taken under his wing during my stay in India.  He and I understood each other on some levels.  He understood how foreign all of this is to me.  He also understood what it is about the tradition that compels me, and he always assured me that worthiness is my birthright.  He taught me that I must embrace the Goddess within me, and that to do otherwise, is foolish.  He taught me that merely by being completely natural, I am okay, I am divine.   He also seemed to be saying that having fun is of utmost importance because he never missed an opportunity to giggle.
Thanks for making my wheels turn with your writing.  Sometimes the technicalities of it all make me feel a little dumb, or a little slow, or a little lazy, but then I remember who I am."
Thanks for your questions which make me think even more deeply about matters. Just now getting back to your question. In some ways I already answered something similar to another question on my blog but your question is also a bit different.

"If it is a path, where is it going?  How can we be going anywhere if we are already living God on earth, within our bodies, if she is who we are?  Where are we going?"

These are good questions. In some ways I suppose our "path" is very dreamlike. I don't ultimately have the answers to these questions beyond what drives us (or at least me) inside. I know for me that I just feel driven a lot of the time, with insatiable curiosity. This world is so big, so vast that I feel compelled to understand it on some, on any level. There are many answers but so many of them fail to comprehend to truly understand our magnitude.

When I speak of faith in my blog it is the deep faith that fuels one's self forward. Not so much as in a right or wrong faith but the personal faith that carries one foot in front of the other. I find personally that without it, I fall prey to conflicting ideas or passing movements and then end up muddled or confused. So in other words, I was mainly speaking in the previous article (on Sri Vidya) about how to inspire movement, how to "supercharge" it, in a way that overcomes the inertia of conditioned and collective consensus reality. Consensus reality can become so deeply ingrained that it acts as a limit to our true nature. I believe faith, personal deep faith that gives rise to conviction, can help to overcome the walls of this inertia. Even if this inertia itself is the play of the Goddess, I still feel that to lie down and let go with it is not in our nature either. Our nature is to move forward, to evolve, even if this evolution is all a dream in the grand scheme of things.
With deep conviction that comes out of that personal faith I find myself propelled into new arenas, new areas of life and exploration. Life is ever moving. Sometimes I feel that it is the God/dess herself expanding and evolving. And perhaps it is all coming from a place much bigger than myself. And hopefully I will continue to have "fun" in the process!