Anapana-sati Meditation

buddha anapanasatiThe following simple meditation is drawn from the well of Theravada Buddhism, which is the oldest surviving form of Buddhism. The meditation is called Anapanasati: Anapana means inhalation/exhalation, while sati means mindfulness, and so the meditation is no more than mindfulness of the breath. Seeing as we all share the breath in common it is a meditation that can be performed by anyone, at anytime, and anywhere. You don’t need to go to the shop to buy anything and you don’t need to find a teacher, you are the only instrument you need. The Buddha promised his devotees that mindfulness of the breath, “developed and repeatedly practiced, is of great fruit, great benefit.” Anapanasati is the meditation that Buddha practiced as he sat underneath the Bodhi tree and realised his own enlightenment, and so it is the method that he stressed the most to his followers, and is the core meditation practice in Theravada Buddhism.

The Buddha’s teachings of this meditation can be found in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (The Greater Discourse on Foundations of Mindfulness). In it he says: “A monk, having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty hut, sits down. Having folded his legs cross-wise, straightened his body, and set up mindfulness in front of him, at the tip of his nose, just mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in long, he knows: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he knows: ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he knows: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he knows: ‘I breathe out short.’; thus he trains himself.”

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Be Here Now: Book Review

Be Here Now Ram Dass

“Embrace the 10,000 Beautiful Visions”

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.

be here now

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Hamsa Meditation

MeditationIf 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
  4. 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”

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Mandala Meditation

mandalaMandalas (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.)

Tibetan Sand Mandala

Tibetan monks creating a mandala out of sand, as a meditation on impermanence.

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.

deathBuddhist 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.

vishnu

Hindu mandala which contains an image of Vishnu in it’s center circle.

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.

bindu to ojas be here now

This mandala (illustration from Be Here Now) is an overhead view of the Borobodur temple in East Java, Indonesia. The ancient Buddhist temple was purposefully constructed to resemble a mandala; I have been, and it is amazing, even more amazing than Angkor Wat. I strongly recommend you plan to take a visit one day.

It’s Here Now (Are You?): Book Review

its here nowToo often we underestimate the power of thought. Thoughts manifest. Your life is what you think it is. That’s why meditating and disengaging from the thought process helps free the self’ – It’s Here Now p. 63.

It’s Here Now (Are You?) is one of the best books I have ever read. It was surprisingly very well written, and kept me engaged from start to finish. Even though the book is not a work of fiction, it is definitely out of this world:  `I didn’t know it that night, but we would become close friends for the next six years… our conversation would become telepathic, thought to thought. It was easy to connect with him that way’.

I found out about this book through reading Be Here Now by Ram Dass, which told the story of how Dr Richard Alpert (Harvard psychologist turned LSD guru) had a chance encounter with a 20 year old white kid in India who spoke fluent Hindi and was accepted by all of the Buddhist monks, lamas and travelling yogis, much to Richard’s surprise. Richard ended up following this kid throughout India, and it is through him that he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. This resulted in his being sucked into a spiritual transformation and spat out a completely new being, freed from the chains of his ego. The young white kid was called Bhagavan Das and he ended up writing a very honest account of his experiences in India, which is this autobiography that I am reviewing, right now. Bhagavan Das never goes out of his way to make himself look good and actually writes into existence a lot of scenarios that put him in bad light, which is admirable. Bhagavan Das (Michael Riggs) also shares all of his spiritual insights and divine experiences, and doesn’t seem to mind if you believe them or not.

The book is flowing with great advice on how to pursue and embrace a spiritual lifestyle as well: `I think many Westerners are frustrated with meditation because they don’t realize that you can’t just sit down and meditate. First comes the need to learn to concentrate. One must practice being completely absorbed in something without thinking of anything else. You can’t skip this first basic step’. The book is difficult to put down, it’s soaking with Hindu spirituality, but even if you’re not into that sort of thing it’s still interesting to read the story of how some white kid from California escapes to India and becomes a saint pretty much over night, and to top it off there’s a lot of drug use and sex on the side.

Bhagavan Das does it all, and you can’t help but think of him as a spiritual materialist, snatching from every religion and ritual to find the sweet nectar of enlightenment. But this makes for a really interesting read as he allows you a peek at how spirituality is treated in India through all of its diverse religious practices. Throughout his journey Bhagavan tastes from every fruit of every tree, even forbidden fruits as he happens upon witches and demon worshipers and becomes fascinated with their `dark energy’. At one point he witnesses an Indian man meditating in a pit of fire, without so much as a scratch on his body. He also shows that at the end of the day he is still human: `Major Rikki also had a big stack of Playboy magazines, which I eventually gave into reading. I couldn’t resist the temptation. As soon as I was given the opportunity, I gave in to all of it. I was masturbating to pornographic magazines, smoking State Express No. 555, and listening to Major Rikki boast about his Military career’.

It’s Here Now (Are You) is a great companion piece to Ram Dass’ Be Here Now, and is an excellent book on its own as well. It is about a single person’s journey, and this is something we can all relate to. If you are into Indian spirituality, travel books or just need a good escape then this book might just be what you’re searching for!

Below is an interesting two part interview with Bhagavan Das about the writing of his book, for those of you that are curious.

The Panopticon – Big Brother is Watching, Probably

This Week’s reading is an excerpt from Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish which explores the prison system and how it was born out of the security imposed upon the ‘plague-stricken town’ of the seventeenth century (Foucault, 1997, p.205). Foucault also introduces the reader to Bentham’s design of the Panopticon – a cylindrical wall of prison cells with a large tower at its centre. In this analysis of the week’s reading I will outline the basic points that Foucault has made and make some connections of my own drawing from media and literature sources. I will also add to Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon by drawing on its symbolic connotations and how they relate to the prison system, the individual and society as a whole. Word?

The reading begins with Foucault describing a typical scene of a seventeenth century town that has been contaminated with the plague. The writer vividly illustrates the process of security that is put in place to avoid further contamination, and in doing so sets up the reader to notice similarities between what is being described, and what we know of the modern day prison system through books, movies, and crazies on the street. Foucault states that every town inhabitant must stay indoors while the front door is locked from the outside; ‘each individual is fixed in his place. And if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment… only the intendants, syndics and guards will move about the streets’ (Foucault, 1997, p. 195). This is very similar to what is done in prisons during ‘lights out’, where all the prisoners are made to go back into their cell, which is then locked, leaving only the patrolling guards and officials on the prison grounds. Foucault (1997, p. 196) continues his description of the plague stricken town by mentioning the guards stationed in observation towers at each of the town gates, in the town hall and in every quarter. This is to ensure that the town people are obedient and comply to the rules, and ‘also to observe all disorder, theft and extortion’. It is clearer than sky now that the prison was born out of this seventeenth century scene, which even has townspeople being summoned to their windows for the daily roll call. Prior to reading this weeks reading the word plague had always conjured up funny images of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) ‘bring out your dead’ scene, but never images of a disciplined society reminiscent of a prison. Thanks a lot Foucault!

 The film Bad Boys (1983), a movie sadly swept under the rug due to Martin Lawrence and Will Smith’s movie of the same title, revolves around the actions of Sean Penn’s character Mick O’Brien, a boy who gets sent to a juvenile detention center for committing a crime (I will use this movie to make some comparisons with Foucault’s text). The movie contains all of the elements that are present in Foucault’s (1997, p. 196) description of the ‘system of permanent registration’ – the juvenile detention center has the lights out, the daily roll calls, the guards on patrol and keeping watch in the observation post, solitary confinement and also as Foucault (1997, p. 197) describes, ‘the process of purifying the houses one by one’ which takes the form of regular room inspections, in which the cells are purified of any contraband such as drugs and weapons. If the plague riddled town is a ‘compact model of the disciplinary system’ (Foucualt, 1997, p. 197), then the juvenile detention center serves as a small scale model. Foucault (1997, p. 198) makes a point that the plague gave rise to this model, while the leper, or plague infected person gave rise to the ‘great confinement’, which in modern times is referred to as solitary confinement. The idea of exiling the leper to solitary confinement stems from the fear that he might infect other townspeople, in the case of modern day prisons solitary confinement has a similar agenda; to make sure that the often violent nature of the individual in question is not at risk of tainting the minds of the other reforming criminals.

An obvious example of such treatment in modern media would be the film Silence of the Lambs (1991), which depicts the dangerous (and thankfully fictional) cannibal Dr Hannibal Lector completely isolated in a glass room, in which he can be observed safely and kept at a considerable distance from other people. Dr Hannibal was ‘cut off from all human contact’ (Foucault, 1997, p. 198) and treated as a plague-victim; a monster consumed by insanity. Due to the severity of his disease his cell was the only one in the prison to be made of glass. This process of ‘individualisation to mark exclusion’, as described by Foucault (1997, p. 198), was used frequently from the beginning of the nineteenth century in prisons and asylums. Binary division was also regularly exercised, which is the branding of a patient or prisoner as either being sane or insane, dangerous or harmless etc. In the film Dr Hannibal lector, an ex-psychiatrist, seems perfectly sane in the way he talks and presents himself when compared to some of the other prisoners; however, he is labelled as insane due to his violent behaviour. It begs the question: is it right to label someone based purely on their behaviour? The character Rachel Solando in Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island (2010) emphasises the branding predicament when she says ‘Once you’re declared insane, then anything you do is called part of that insanity, reasonable protests are denial. Valid fears, paranoia’.

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