Tag Archives: vipassana

Letting Shakti Lead

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I’ve been starting to work with a very simple but profound set of instructions from a tantric yoga meditation teacher named Sally Kempton. Her book, Meditation For the Love of it,  has an amazing chapter called Letting Shakti Lead. Shakti, in this context, is a reference to the spontaneous, dynamic, creative energy within ourselves. It’s also called kundalini, lifeforce, divine presence, soul, or countless other terms in various traditions. Interestingly across numerous traditions both Eastern and Western, this creative divine energy is associated with the divine feminine principle.

In Therevada meditation, everything is dominated by the masculine principle of pure awareness, detachment, or stillness. In tantra, this is called the Shiva principle. Many spiritual paths favour one of these two principles. The traditions which aim primarily at dissolving the identification with the body, with emotions, and with thoughts, are favouring Shiva over Shakti, while those traditions that emphasise emotion-driven worship and ritual are favouring Shakti over Shiva. The Kashmir tantra tradition taught by Sally Kempton appeals to me because it seeks to balances the two.  By working inwardly in a meditative container with the dynamic energy of Shakti, the process balances stillness and dynamism.

Shakti literally means power. In theistic language, Shakti is the divine power of creation, God coming into manifestation through the various subtle worlds all the way down to the fully manifested physical reality. Shiva is the upwards flowing current whereby created beings dissolve and return to their divine source in the pure no-thingness of the unmanifest. Of course, God in the broadest sense is neither the unmanifest nor the manifest, but rather that which unifies the two. This is what the kabbalists meant by Ein Sof (Endlessness) or what the Zen teachings are probably indicating by saying that Samsara is Nirvana.

I’ll go into this in more detail in a future post, but for now, let’s get down to some meditation nuts and bolts.

So here is my understanding of the letting Shakti lead meditation. I make no claim to be accurately representing Sally Kempton’s work, although my understanding was partially drawn from that work.

1. Let yourself become aware of the spontaneous inner movement or dynamism.

I love this instruction, because it starts with something that is already recognizable to vipassana meditators. In vipassana this would be called impermanence, and regarded as a disappointment relative to the masculine ideal of crystalline permanence. Yet, in the tantra paradigm, this inner pulsation is regarded as the beautiful organic ever unfolding energy of creation. That’s a pretty different take on what in some ways seems to be the same underlying phenomenon. Except that one’s take on an inner experience partly determines the significance that that experience has. So the phenomenon is actually different when you approach it with a different stance. There is no fact of the matter as to whether the Buddhist have it right or the tantric yogis have it right. It’s a matter of what works better for the individual practitioner.

2. Welcome and honour the inner dynamic energy as the Goddess and as the authentic self

This is another step that might seem superfluous at first. Yet, I think it is essential. I’ve always felt that there is a subtle misuse of the term “self” in Buddhist lingo because they regard it as essentially static and free from embodiment. For the Buddhists the self is bare subjectivity. Nothing more than the felt sense that there is something experiencing everything else. In Western culture, thinkers have used the term authentic self completely differently. We mean something that changes and grows. We mean our deepest feelings and drives, and how these shape our personality and life story. That’s simply a different understanding of what the self truly is. Subjectivity may have nothing to do with the self in this Western sense of it. Now, the idea that kundalini is our true self seems more resonant with the Western notion of authenticity than it does with the Buddhist notion of self as something pure and static. Kundalini is ever evolving, ever unfolding. It is not essentially linked to the sense of subjectivity.

3. Ask the inner Shakti “Where would you like to play today”

This reminds me of my experiences with shamanic journeying. You don’t dictate to the spirit guides where you want to go. You ask them to take you somewhere that you need to go. It’s nice to finally be able to do something similar in meditation. The metaphor of play or dancing is key to the tantric vision of reality. All reality is ultimately the free play of the divine, it’s ultimately a great spontaneous dance of Shiva and Shakti. I find this interesting too in light of the central sexual metaphor of tantra and the fact that in the kink world various types of sexual activity are also called “play.” Perhaps this is correspondence of terminology is more than a coincidence.

4. Whatever experiences Shakti leads you to, try to enter inside of it and become intimate with it.

Rather than holding ourselves back and watching the experience unfold on an inner movie screen as we do in mindfulness meditation, with Shakti meditation we dive right inside of it. We let ourselves merge with it. A tip Kempton gives, which I’ve found surprising useful, is to try to perceive the experience as if from the side, rather than frontally. Somehow this facilitates the process of slipping inside of it.

5. If difficult experiences come up, rather than focusing on suffering or dissatisfaction, focus on tenderness, longing, and love-sickness.

This is a subtle difference. It’s like micro tuning the frequency of your consciousness so that pain, frustration, and stress are transformed into very poignant feelings of romantic yearning. It’s based on the idea that all suffering, whatever it’s apparent cause, is actually nothing more than a longing for our divine beloved. The other key is that labelling this experience as ‘unsatisfactoriness’ makes the experience shows up  as something one wants to be liberated from, something one wants to bring to an end. With the subtle tweak we transform the experience from suffering to yearning, and the latter is something that we can learn to love and enjoy in it’s own right. The Sufi teachings talk a lot about this kind of thing. Think of all that romantic poetry that speaks of the lover burning up in the tender agonies of desire yet not wanting to extinguish those flames, but instead only wishing to add more fuel to them. So sweet is the pain of love’s fire.

If that kind of sentiment gets you excited, then probably, like me you have a romantic temperament, and you’re a natural for tantra. If you think it sounds stupid and trite, then you might be happier with a different spiritual path. The recognition of the divine nature of longing itself has been written about by mystics in many traditions. This is the divine Eros, who in Greek Mythology was responsible for creating the world by bringing together Heaven and Earth. By turning suffering into longing, we make it possible to live divinely infused lives while retaining our consciousness as separate individuals.  This is the way of the Bhakta, the lover of God. It’s another means of breaking out of the Buddhist paradigm. Many great mystics have talked about reaching a point where they were a hairsbreadth away from plunging into the final liberation of non-being and yet for some reason they pulled back. Some are motivated by compassion for those who remain behind (the Bodhisattva). Others are motivated by their profound love for God, and a realization that their path of service to their Beloved requires a degree of separation from Him.

Until next time, Happy Passover for those of you who celebrate!

~May you love yourself as God loving Godself

Busting out of the Dharma Paradigm

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After a lot of work with a meditation practice heavily based on Buddhist meditation techniques, I have decided to try to strike off in a new direction. It’s harder than you might think. It seems that the deeper one gets into a meditation practice, the more all encompassing and self-evident it becomes. It isn’t just a matter of picking a different object or adding a new technique. It’s more about changing a fundamental mindset. In this way the framework in which a meditation practice takes place is a lot like what Thomas Kuhn famously called a paradigm. A scientific paradigm, Kuhn argued, is not just a set of theories and other explicit beliefs about the world. It is a rather a whole set of tacit ways of operating within a domain of inquiry. Kuhn argued that paradigms structure the very entities that one can observe and the problems that one can engage with.

In meditation, which is an inquiry into our inner experience, there is a similar kind of deep structuring of experience by the paradigm of practice one immerses oneself in. To make it concrete let’s look at the Buddhist meditation paradigm. It begins with the assertion that everything in experience displays three basic phenomenological characteristics. These are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-duality (i.e., not being either a subject or an object of some subject). The claim often made by Buddhists is that anybody who honestly investigates their own experience in meditation will find these three characteristics in every part of experience. There is a lot of talk about the idea that this is “just how things are” or “seeing the ultimate nature of things”. A lot of contemporary North American Buddhists even liken Buddhist meditation to science. They claim that it doesn’t involve any faith, but is simply a method for investigating the truth about phenomenal reality.

Hmm…What Would Kuhn Say? (I should get that on an armband!) Kuhn would point out that the entities and properties that the observer expects to see based on their paradigm will influence what they actually discover. In that case, going into meditation with the assumption that absolutely all experience truly displays the 3 characteristics  would make it at the very least much more likely that one would see those characteristics. In fact, it’s not easy for beginning mediators to see the 3 characteristics in a lot of stuff. It takes a lot of work on the cushion to train the mind how to break apart seemingly solid objects into fluctuating, vibrating, flickering sensations. Even then, it’s not always obvious that these fields of vibration are unsatisfying. One often has to search for the dukka (suffering) in the vibrations. Sure enough, in looking for it, one can usually find it. The last one, non-duality (often called no-self) is the hardest of all to perceive. It involves something called dis-embedding. This is where awareness separates itself from the aspects of experience that are normally part of the perceptual background. In effect, there is a kind of radical figure-ground switch, where what was once the perceiver becomes perceived. This switch is followed up with a further effort to see both what was formerly the perceiver and what was formerly the object at the same time. This is pretty neat trick, and it has the result of synthesizing formerly disparate aspects of the perceptual field.

In my meditation practice, I must have gone through thousands of such cycles of perceiving these three characteristics and thereby creating a more synthesized perceptual field. It’s a pretty difficult process, nothing feel-good about it. It involves ripping your comfortable reality to shreds in order that it can be reborn in a less fragmented form. However, the outcome seems worth it to a lot of people. It does reduce the amount of overall stress in the perceptual field and increases the sense of flow and equanimity. However, despite these benefits, it seems to leave out a lot of stuff that’s really essential to living a full and vibrant human life. It is focused on reducing experienced suffering at a very neurologically basic level, but not on creating value, flourishing, or eudaimonia (pick your term!).

The main thing I want to draw attention to right now is just that Vipassana meditation is a highly conceptually structured process, not at all a simple or naive approach to investigating lived experience. There is little doubt in my mind that following the techniques of vipassana meditation will eventually reveal the truths that it posits in experience, but where I object is to the claim that this way of viewing reality is somehow special or ultimate. “The Buddha said so,” just doesn’t cut it for me.

So getting back to Kuhn again, what should we look for if we want to evaluate the Buddha’s teachings as a paradigm for experiencing the truth about phenomenal reality? We should look for something that Kuhn called anomalies.  Kuhn argued that scientific theories are never strictly proven or falsified. Rather, if one looks at the actual history of science rather than thinking in terms of unrealistic and idealized notions about scientific method, one sees that scientists persist in using a paradigm as long as that paradigm continues to generate interesting research problems. When paradigms start to crumble, it is because it starts to get beset by anomalies. An anomaly is not simply an experimental result that is not predicted by a theory. Theories can often be elaborated upon and expanded to try to accommodate unexpected results. This is what scientists do all the time, and it’s not bad science. However, sometimes experimental results start making things difficult because they are so outside of the paradigm that the theories cannot be coherently expanded to make sense of them.  There is a sense not just that things are getting strange, but that the research within the current paradigm can no longer continue without a lot of headaches.

Bringing this back to meditation and Buddhism, what are the anomalies we see. In this post I’m not going to tackle the anomaly of divine emanation, because that deserves a post of its own. Here I’ll point a more universally recognized anomaly, which is an experiential tension between the early Buddhist teaching that life is not worth living, and the pervasive human tendency to experience life as valuable in itself. The early Buddhists scriptures based on the historical Buddha’s teachings are pretty stark when it comes to the value of life. Basically, all lived experience is inherently a burden, no matter how good it seems.  The only reason not to just kill yourself is that it doesn’t actually work thanks to the mechanism of re-incarnation. If it weren’t for re-incarnation, one could save oneself a lot of trouble on the meditation cushion and receive ultimate liberation from suffering through a very simple act. This should be a sobering thought for all those contemporary scientistic Buddhists out there who want to be fundamentalists about the Buddha’s original teachings while simultaneously being skeptical of literal re-incarnation.

But centuries before modern rationalism cast doubt on the idea of re-incarnation, people started to get uncomfortable with this life-denying aspect of the Buddha’s teachings.  Human beings, God bless them, have a serious hankering for existence! As much as it pains us, we can’t help but feel that there is some point to it all (when we aren’t depressed anyway). The Mahayana reformation decided to jettison (or at least indefinitely post-pone) the whole spiritual suicide idea by inventing the idea of voluntary re-incarnation motivated by compassion.

This reform was probably for the better as it made the Buddhist paradigm more encompassing of the data of deep human experience, but it led to some pretty severe tensions within the ideological framework of Buddhism. Zen, resolved these tensions by telling us to throw logic and rationality out the window.  For example, the classic Zen teaching that Nirvana is Samsara is pretty resonant with the teachings of many other mystical traditions that the divine being is both utterly transcendent and utterly immanent at the same time. However, while this is a seeming paradox no matter how you slice it, with Buddhism this whole teaching sits a little oddly, since it is in straight up contradiction to what the Buddha taught.

Well never-mind, all religions are full of contradictions aren’t they? Yes, but I’m not really interested in the logical coherence of a religious viewpoint here, I’m interested in noticing how historical paradigms for meditation practice condition and perhaps constrain that practice. I’ve always felt that a spiritual frameworks should not be unnecessarily obscure. Although the Mahayana (Zen) and Vajrayana (Tibetan) schools of Buddhism do re-appropriate much of the life-affirming and even theistic concepts that early Buddhism repudiated, there is a strong sense that this results in paradox and an inability to speak in clear open language about meditation practice. Of course, Zen asks us to embrace this paradox as part of our practice. But what if the paradox is only necessary because of the unwillingness to step out of the original paradigm structure set forth by the historical Buddha?

It reminds of Ptolemaic astronomy, which placed the Earth at the centre of the planetary system. For many years after Copernicus presented his heliocentric model of the solar system, the Ptolemaic system was still viable, because it incorporated epicycles that sustained the predictive accuracy of the model. Yet, at some point the need for so many epicycles became too burdensome to work with on a practical level and the model ceased to be useful. While Zen and Vajrayana innovations bring an affirmation of life and re-introduce the Shakti principle back into the Buddhist picture, there is an unavoidable tension with the original one-sided teachings of the Buddhist paradigm. The paradigm can accommodate innovation, but the original core elements of the paradigm create unnecessary obscurity, complexity, and confusion, and this shows up and has a definite impact on meditation practice.

The basic tenacity and goodness of the desire for life, for sex, for the richness of meaning is one of the fundamental anamolies that made me never entirely comfortable with the Buddhist paradigm. Of course, it didn’t hurt that my home religion of Judaism has very strong teachings about the importance of remaining engaged with human realities and the fundamental goodness of God’s creation.

So why did I spend so long toughing it out on the meditation cushion looking for the 3 characteristics? The simple answer is that I did it because the technique is so damn effective. It clearly produced results. It created fundamental and permanent shifts in my consciousness that opened me to new worlds of experience, and reduced the suffering I experienced on a moment by moment basis. That’s pretty nice and worth some extra effort and suffering along the way. I also felt that I didn’t have a choice once I crossed a threshold called stream entry. According to the articulation of the Buddhist paradigm put forward by Daniel Ingram, once you cross stream entry, you’re stuck with involuntary vipassana until you either finish the process in total enlightenment or your die. This was like having a gun to my head. I’d better keep going I thought.

Yet, at some deeper level there was always a resistance to the process, always a sense that it was somehow a violation of something sacred, something that in my heart of hearts I knew we weren’t supposed to mess with too much. My individuality, my sacred separateness, my soul, my authentic self, my unique purpose, my sense of service, my self-expression (notice all those possessive pronouns!) These were things that the Buddhist paradigm regards as so much karmic wood for the pyre; attachments to be burned off through practice.

Two weeks ago, I had a major shift in my practice. I felt some deep inner knot untie and my resistance to sensory experience was dramatically reduced. For a few days, I flirted with feelings of selflessness, centerlessness, agencylessness. It was peaceful in the way the desert landscapes can be, but it was not beautiful, for beauty depends on finitude. I had a deep realization that I had to change course. I realized that my days of hunting for the 3 characteristics were over. I had to turn my meditation practice around, break out of the Dharma paradigm!

The adventure of that attempted jail break will be the subject of future posts.

~May you Love Yourself as God Loving Godself