The story I’m about to tell you, originally told by the Buddha in a sutra, concerns a Zen Master who, while out walking one day, is confronted by a ferocious, man-eating tiger. He slowly backs away from the animal, only to find that he is trapped at the edge of a high cliff; the tiger snarls with hunger, and pursues the Master. His only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss by holding onto a vine that grows at its edge. As the Master dangles from the cliff, two mice – one white and one black – begin to gnaw on the vine he is clutching on. If he climbs back up, the tiger will surely devour him, if he stays then there is the certain death of a long fall onto the jagged rocks. The slender vine begins to give way, and death is imminent. Just then the precariously suspended Zen Master notices a lovely ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. He plucks the succulent berry and pops it into his mouth. He is heard to say: “This lovely strawberry, how sweet it tastes.”
Be Here Now (1971) is a classic text on Hindu spirituality that bloomed open like a lotus flower in the wake of the hippie movement. The seed for this book was planted in the mind of Harvard psychiatrist turned Indian mystic, Ram Dass, and was written – with the blessings of his guru Neem Karoli Baba – for a Western audience who were, for the most part, materially rich but spiritually poor
Be Here Now offered it’s readers and followers a drug free alternative for attaining higher states of consciousness, while its simple message to live in the present encouraged the pursuit and cultivation of inner peace. Since it’s original publication the book has sold more than 2 million copies and has had an enormous influence on the Western world’s adoption of Eastern philosophy and spirituality. I can’t speak for everybody, but my copy of Be Here Now is one of my most treasured possessions, it opened the door of spiritual discovery and casually pointed towards the way. To this day, Be Here Now’s teachings shine like the sun and penetrate even the darkest spaces. I recommend it with all my heart to those with an open mind, and a thirst for self discovery.
If you have never given meditation a chance, then today is your lucky day! Here is a great technique that you can start practicing first thing before bed tonight – it is a short but potent mantra called ‘hamsa‘ and originates from the ancient practice of Kriya Yoga. Ham and Sa (pronounced hum sah) are the natural sounds that your mind produces when you breathe in, and breathe out. Breathing in sounds Ham, while breathing out sounds Sa.
Ancient teachings say this mantra is a vibration of infinite consciousness, uniting us each with divine source – it is therefore associated with higher consciousness, or Brahma. It is said that this mantra helps us to erase duality and the sense that we are different or separate from each other, it allows us to dissolve into pure being. Hamsa is often linked with the image of a swan, an elegant creature who sits on the water without getting it’s feathers wet (this is the same as the lotus flower, another highly regarded symbol in Hinduism), in Advaita Vedanta (Hindu philosophy of non-duality) the swan and lotus flower are regarded as the perfect models of how humans on the spiritual path should live their lives – floating on the world of maya (illusion), in other words living within the material world, without being affected by the illusion, keeping dry of the wetness of egotism and materialism. Many believe that the Buddha used this mantra to attain his own enlightenment. To perform this meditation:
- Sit on a folded blanket on the floor in a comfortable position, ideally in half lotus or full lotus position (padmasana), and close your eyes. Sit with your spine erect (not too stiff, not too slack – this is very important), and with closed eyes focus on the point above your just above and in between both your eyes. Now allow your breathing to follow its own natural rhythm; don’t try to force anything. Simply acknowledge and accept short breaths as short breaths and long breaths as long breaths, nothing more. Even though we breathe all the time automatically, even when we sleep, we rarely allow our minds to be aware of this. At first, closing your eyes to concentrate on breathing might feel like a forced effort, but it will soon feel very natural and will develop it’s own rhythm, much like your heartbeat.
- After a few deep breaths, deeply inhale and sound Ham (hum) in your mind, hold the breath and then exhale while sounding Sa. As you inhale, expand your stomach to allow the air to fill your belly, when you exhale, tighten your stomach very gently to push the air out. Doing this while mentally repeating the mantra will sharpen your concentration and ward off any distracting thoughts. It is also helpful to think, at least initially, the meaning of hamsa which is ‘I am that’. Meditate on the interconnectedness of everything, and how the universe is contained within you.
- If you like, you can use your hands to create and hold a mudra. Mudra’s are essentially yoga for the hands and they are used to further enhance the effects of meditation – that is they allow prana (energy) to flow throughout the body. There are two main mudras for meditation that you can adopt.
- The Buddhist dhyana mudra: We place our hands in our lap, one hand on top of the other (whichever order feels most comfortable, usually right goes under left) and the two thumbs touch each other to form a slight pyramid shape pointing up towards your chin. Therefore your hands are imitating your body’s pyramid shape when we sit in meditation. We use this to gauge our level of concentration; when we are in a high state of concentration the pyramid maintained by the thumbs remains erect and strong, when we lose concentration the thumbs begin to drop – the Buddha is often depicted as meditating with this mudra.
- The Yogic (Hindu) chin mudra: We rest each hand on their respective thigh, with all of the fingers extended outwards except for the thumb and index fingers, which touch to form an O. Again, the fingers should be relaxed, but not too slack; the straightness of the fingers is an indication of our levels of concentration. Arms should be straight and you should push your chest forward, this will straighten your spine and create a pyramid shape for your entire body (pyramids are a symbol of strength, and the shape gives your body a strong foundation). The arms shouldn’t be too straight, allow a slight bend in the elbow. Yogic tradition states that the thumb represents the supreme, while the index finger represents the individual; therefore, the two fingers joining to form an O represents the fusion of individual consciousness and cosmic/collective consciousness – the Hindu God Shiva is often depicted as meditating with this mudra, while Christ is depicted holding this mudra close to his heart.
- Do this for thirty minutes once a day possible, work your way up to an hour if you feel you can do it. If you can’t find time to meditate for that long then at least try to squeeze in 20 minutes. The best times to meditate are either first thing in the morning, or the last thing at night. It is important that you try to incorporate it into a daily practice, as you will not taste of any fruits unless you constantly tend to your inner garden. In keeping with this analogy, think of meditation as sunlight, and mantra such as hamsa, a method for focusing that sunlight. The more focused and one-pointed your concentration is (the less distracting thoughts you have) the more powerful a beam of sunlight you can direct on your inner garden. In time, and with daily practice, peacefulness will grow where the soil used to be bare. Just as the sun rises and sets every day, so should you aim to meditate once every day during either of these times. Become the sun, and your life will light up.
The initial stages of meditation are all about concentrating on the breath; only through concentration of the breath can we get rid of the cobweb of thoughts that are in our head space at all times. We have become so accustomed to living in a constant hyper state of thinking that we don’t even realise it until we actually sit down to meditate. You try to stop thinking, and more thoughts invade. Soon enough you start feeling itchy and have to scratch those itches, as though the body is resorting to drastic measures to get you back on the thought train. This is all good stuff, it is progress in the right direction and is something we have to work through to achieve deep and effortless states in meditation. After a few sessions, your thoughts will calm down faster, and you will realise how much power you unnecessarily allow them.
When the Buddha was seated under the Bodhi tree where he attained enlightenment, the demon Mara attempted to seduce him with material desires, such as beautiful women, but the Buddha remained unphased. So the demon summoned an army who threw all sorts of arrows and spears at him, the Buddha simply touched the earth with his right hand and all of the spears and arrows fell and Mara vanished. From a psychological perspective, these arrows represent thoughts or desires that attempt to take us out of meditation, eg by making us feel hungry, or itchy, whatever it is. By dismissing their power, they can no longer penetrate us and cause suffering – they simply fall to the floor. Thoughts are like a spoilt child who has grown up getting everything he wants, and you are either the parent who believes he should get anything he wants, or the parent who thinks it’s too late to do anything about it. Through meditation you can regain your deserved power over your thoughts, and it all starts with the breath.
In the following passage from Bhagavan Das’ book ‘It’s Here Now (Are You?), Bhagavan Das describes his learning of the Ham Sa mantra in his first few weeks living in India.
“A little pamphlet on the floor described a kriya yoga breathing technique called hamsa. I inhaled “Ham” and exhaled “Sa”, visualizing the Sanskrit letters ha and sa. I had a beautiful vision of a white swan landing on a lake in the snow. These ocean-of-light experiences were very peaceful. For two weeks, all I had was mind, breath, and tears. I sat in the lotus posture for as long as I could and kept turning within, looking at my interior world. I’d always come back to my breath, breathing in “Ham” and breathing out “Sa”. “Hamsa” is the natural sound the breath makes as it flows in and out. Breath becomes a curtain of energy, waving back and forth. In the middle of the curtain is a gap where eternity is experienced. I was getting these little glimpses of eternity as they came through the gap in my breath.” (p. 15)
I’ll end this post with a quote from Swami Shankarananda:
“Ham means “I am” and refers to the inner world. When you breathe in with the sound ham, you bring the life force from outside into your inner world. You affirm your ‘I am-ness’. Sa means ‘That’ and refers to the outer world. When we breathe out we hear the breath as sa and we affirm our connection to the objective universe. The breath confirms our intimate relationship with the outer world and forms an ongoing and immediate connection. I consider this to be the king of methods of breath control”
This is probably my favourite mandala, and it’s my most recent. It depicts the 7 chakras (energy centers in Yogic tradition) of the human body, and a kundalini serpent that has woken up from the root chakra (which appears to be choking the man… that was an accident!) The whole thing was drawn in pencil, except for the outlines and the fire which was done with paint, to capture its untamed nature. I like this mandala because of its contrast between the still and meditative man and the minimalistic patterns, to the roaring fire surrounding him.
This was the most difficult mandala for me to draw, as it wasn’t spontaneous, but rather very geometric and precise. To get a sri yantra right is quite a difficult process, and I abused the hell out of a lot of erasers in the process! If you want to try drawing one yourself, or are just curious as to how tech the process is! Check out this site.
After I finally finished drawing this beast I was too afraid to colour it in! I drew the actual sri yantra on a different type of paper and pasted it in my glossy paged mandala journal, it gives it a nice effect in my opinion, and helps the geometric design to stand out in all it’s complicated yet beautiful glory! The yellow petals were done in watercolour, and the rest is coloured in pencil. This mandala is still incomplete.
P.S I’ve decided to wing it, pictures below..
I particularly like this mandala, especially the milk white kundalini serpent coiled up on the inside of the circle. The image is a snapshot of a man, any man, or woman, achieving enlightenment, the Buddha is there just for the symbolism of enlightenment. The horns on the backs of the dragons are supposed to be hair, and you can also see the persons’ nose at the very tip of the mandala. The sun and moon represent the passing of time, they could also represent the alchemical images of the unity of the sun and moon; also the sun symbolises masculine (conscious) energy, while the moon symbolises feminine (unconscious) energy. The two faces on either side of the mandala represent the ego and the id. The face on the left is of the ego, it is shaped like an adults face and represents the adult personality of the ego which is to tame the id. The face on the right is the id, it is shaped like a childs face and represents the childlike persona of the id, which is to satisfy it’s immediate urges and be present.
Below: Text taken from my mandala diary: 1st of April 2011
This is the second mandala I ever drew, I drew it in my cousins sketch book to inspire him to start drawing his own, which he did! I’m sure he’ll upload his own mandalas as well (they’re very good!) and you can check them out at his blog silly reverie.
This is a scan of the original, and I don’t know what the hell happened with the green water stain; that wasn’t intentional, I think I spilled my drink on it accidentally, but it looks cool! Also, this is my 100th post, hooray for me! If this blog were a TV series it would have jumped the shark by now, or you would start seeing the same episodes over and over again. Maybe I’ll just re post old posts from now on…?
Text taken from my mandala diary: 1st of April 2011
I like to draw while I read, this is a picture I drew on a chapter header in Carl Jung’s book on dreams.
This is the first mandala I ever drew. I drew it after reading Carl Jung’s book on dreams, on the very last page.
I was watching a video on crop circles and was thinking about aliens when I drew this, the baby with spikes coming out of its back was inspired by the movie Species, which I saw and was freaked out by as a kid.
I drew this mandala after a long meditation, and decided I wanted to draw the Buddha. The image of the Buddha meditating on a mountain top came to me in a mushroom hallucination in Indonesia a year or so prior. I was having a bad trip and my cousin decided to show me some yoga to help me snap out of it, I watched him carefully and attempted to follow the yoga positions and immediately felt the bad trip dissipate; it was as though the negative feelings were a small, tight ball of energy, and the yoga helped release it more evenly throughout my body. Even with my eyes closed I could still clearly see my cousin showing me the postures, in the blackness a super vivid image of a holy man meditating on the tip of a mountain appeared, I then flew inside his body and became him; I could hear the wind whistling around me, and then I was the mountain top, finally I opened my eyes and was me again. I’ll never forget that moment.
Mandalas (meaning “circle” in Sanskrit) are an important element in Buddhist and Hindu spirituality; they are symbolic diagrams, which are used extensively in sacred rites and as an instrument of meditation. A typical mandala is of a circle enclosed within a square, which has four gates – one on each side. The gates are often depicted as being guarded by demons or deities, while a bodhisattva is usually found in the center circle. The famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, through his exploration of Eastern mysticism, came to the conclusion that mandalas are a snapshot of the unconscious mind – he believed that drawing mandalas had psychological importance due to their ability to identify fractures in personality and work towards psychic wholeness.
“Mandalas… usually appear in situations of psychic confusion and disorientation. The archetype thereby constellated represents a pattern of order which, like a psychological ‘view-finder’ marked with a cross or circle divided into four, is superimposed on the psychic chaos so that each content falls into place and the weltering confusion is held together by the protective circle… At the same time they are yantras, instruments with whose help the order is brought into being.” – Carl Jung (Civilisation in Transition, Collected Works, Vol. 10, par. 803.)
Mandalas are used widely as tools for entering meditative states of higher consciousness, simply drawing one is a meditation in itself, but actually meditating on the completed image is where all the power is. Ram Dass speaks about mandalas in a lecture he gave to a group of psychotherapists at the Menninger Foundation in 1970, he says:
“In Tibet, for example, they use what are called tonkas. If you go to a doctor in TIbet, instead of giving you a prescription like, “Pick these herbs by a damp rock” or “Go to your local pharmacy and get…” Instead of doing that, he often may give you a tonka, a mandala, to take home and put up on your wall and meditate upon. Now this is really far out, you see, because here’s your doctor, you go to him because you’ve got headaches, or because you’re depressed, or because you’ve got fear… and he gives you a piece of paper to stick up on your wall and meditate on. Now you’d say, ‘Well, that’s pretty primitive.” But wait a moment, just assume, for example, that they’re not all nuts, see, and they’re not all naive. And you go and sort of sit down in front of this paper and figure out what it’s about.
After a while you learn that the way these are designed is such that you put your focal attention on the entire mandala, which is a circle within a square and the square has gates, four gates. And then pretty soon your attention – you just let yourself be with that thing, let all other thoughts go and just stay with it – pretty soon, your attention is drawn in through the gates and in and in to the inner circle and into the innermost circle where there is a specific design or being or something and when you come in and in and in, you then experience the inner circle as something like a long tube. It takes on a depth, and as you stay with that inner circle you get drawn, literally drawn, your awareness gets drawn through that tube and you get drawn from that tube into, literally another frequency of vibration.
It is as though that model in the center of that little circle changes your consciousness because you have brought your consciousness down to just that circle. It’s like, if you go into the Fillmore Auditorium and there are huge rock and roll bands and twenty-five slide projectors and an overloading of the stimulus field, that will take your consciousness into another place.Now, you can struggle against it, and say, “Oh, I’m getting a headache and I’ve got to get out of here. I mean, they’re not feeding me linear information.” [laughs] Or you can say, “Well, here goes,” and just sort of surrender into this and then there is a new level of consciousness where you are experiencing all these things… in a Gestalt form, rather than in linear separate components. You’ve given up one type of analytic thought because it’s not adaptive at that moment. Well, a mandala, very much like what’s called faith healing, is based on the idea that “mind manifests in matter” and that if you change the nature of the vibrations or the nature of the level of consciousness, you’ll find certain levels of consciousness where certain illnesses don’t exist. What a faith healer does is use his own vibrational rate to bring you to another vibrational rate. That’s the way that process works.”
Buddhist monks often meditate on the mandala, and the teachings that are contained within it until they can conjure up the mandala in their mind’s eye without needing to physically see it. As all mandalas have a center point, looking at it can also be used as a method of centering the self, and one’s place in the universe. Tibetan Buddhists use mandalas as a method of meditating on the impermanent nature of reality, one of the Buddhas main teachings. They do this by creating large and intricate mandalas out of coloured sand, a process which can take days, and then destroying it upon completion, usually by brushing it up and depositing it’s remains into the sea.
Drawing mandalas is very simple, and is a very relaxing form of meditation. Simply draw a dot on a page: this will become the center of the mandala, or the bindu point as they call it in India. From there you may draw a circle around that dot. From that point on it is completely up to you what you do with it, as long as the pattern is fairly symmetric. You can draw more circles, a square or two, maybe even a triangle, and then you can fill it with patterns and colour it to your hearts content. Generally no two mandalas are the same, and each time you draw one it will reflect your current mental state; it will take a snapshot of your unconscious in a similar way as writing down a dream you just had upon awakening. By meditating on your mandalas, you can center your unconscious mind without ever needing to become conscious of it. Therefore it is more powerful than dream analysis, and takes less effort. It is a good idea to date your mandalas, so that you may look back on them, and see the progression of your psyche. If you want to know more about the history of mandalas, or are curious to know the symbolism of various shapes, patterns and colours found in mandalas, then I highly recommend this book – it is the book I personally use. If you would like to see some of the mandalas I have drawn, you can check them out at the following link – my mandala collection.