The Way of Awakened Presence
Exploring the Foundations of Spiritual Practice
Sometimes meditation can seem like such an unnatural thing to do that we wonder why we do it. It might be argued that sustaining a state of spiritual presence throughout our daily activities is really the ultimate goal of our spiritual practice, so why sit still and practice difficult or boring techniques? Exploring the simple question of why we meditate can be approached from many angles and could easily be the theme of a large book. So we will only attempt to look at enough of these perspectives for the moment to develop a clear sense of the value of meditation.
Inner vs. Outer Practice
Usually when we think of meditation we think of sitting still. Our attention is directed inward with a focus on the quality of our awareness rather than on activity. So meditation is generally used to mean a time when consciousness and mind are emphasized. It is an interior practice through which our inner nature is explored and developed. Common synonyms for meditation include reflection, mind training, contemplation and deep thought – all of which indicate a period or moment of quiet awareness and introspection.
Yet our spiritual practice must also include our daily activity. So we can think of the various forms of spiritual practice as generally either being meditative practices or practices employed during daily activity – inner vs. outer practices. Of course, there are those practices such as Sufi dancing, hatha yoga, Tibetan yantra yoga, many chi gong practices, Tai Chi, walking meditation and the many forms of spiritual ritual that occupy the middle ground between inner and outer. They are not quite ‘purely’ inner in that we are engaged in some form of movement. Nor are they ‘purely’ outer in that the behavior or movement used is simplified and often ritualized allowing for greater awareness and intentionality. These forms of practice can provide an opportunity for integrating meditative awareness with action.
Viewpoints differ about the relative value of inner vs. outer practice. For instance, some say that inner practices are the primary and most important aspect of our spiritual path, and that outer practices are useful but slow and inefficient compared to meditation. Others say that inner practices are for those who aren’t able to maintain a meditative state during daily activity, and can readily be abandoned after this is established. Or that meditation is essentially a limited approach because it does not directly address the quality of our daily life. Or that meditation is essentially selfish (the navel-gazing type of comments), or that it is more important to be active in service or to take action to improve or contribute to humanity and the world around us.
Of course, there are elements of truth to these varying perspectives. In order to deepen our sense of the place of meditation in our spiritual path, we must take a moment to look a little more closely at the nature of transformation, and how various practices facilitate transformation.
The Mechanism of Awakening
The nature of spiritual practice can be viewed from numerous points of view. One basic distinction is between those perspectives that emphasis practice as facilitating or cultivating a process, as opposed to those that emphasize a more direct realization of the end state itself – what in Tibetan Buddhism are called completion stage practices. In the later approach, the style of the practice, and the way it is ‘held’ or understood, focuses on a direct attempt to access or reside in the state of realization or liberation, rather than to view the practice as a means to an end – as a process of growth, development, purification, awakening, cultivation or any similar concept.
One version of these two views of spiritual awakening is reflected in Chinese Buddhism as the ancient debate between two schools of thought about how awakening takes place. These are called the sudden and the gradual awakening perspectives. In the gradual view, awakening is understood as taking place over time, as maturing or ripening process. The sudden view holds that awakening happens all at once. A satori or kensho experience in Zen would be an example of an experience of sudden awakening.
Both of these perspectives have an important place in our practice. One point of view is that the distinction between sudden and gradual awakening is itself a dualistic, misguided concept. Enlightenment cannot be reduced to such simplistic mental categories. It is, therefore, more useful and closer to the truth to see the path as a play of these opposites, at times appearing more one way, at other times more the other way.
The obvious significance of the view of practice as ‘cultivating’ or ‘transforming’ us is that it matches the most common experience we normally have of our practice and our lives. It is often easier to sense the gradual development of qualities like clarity, acceptance, love and equanimity in our lives, and the falling away or transformation of our challenges and limitations, than it is to steadily attune to the view that we are radically free and always have been – that we are the Tao. So it is very practical to work with the view of practice as generating spiritual growth and change, even though we gain direct experience of a more nondual or absolute perspective, the emphasis eventually shifts to a view that is not time or development based. Though actually it would be more accurate to say that the understanding shifts to one in which the distinction between time, change and development versus eternal and timeless is transcended.
But we don’t need to be concerned about these issues at this point. Suffice it to say that for the vast majority of practitioners, it is simply realistic and practical to acknowledge and work with our experience of the path as unfolding in time. The spiritual path is fully rooted in a sense of development, ripening, maturing, cultivation and transformation. So how does this change come about? One of the most common understandings to be found in spiritual teachings is the notion that our thoughts, desires and emotions have form and substance. That is, each time we have a thought, emotional reaction, desire or aversion, we are either forming a new psychological entity, a thought-form or emotion-form, etc. Or we are re-experiencing one that was created in the past. According to the teachings of many traditions, such as Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and many others, these psychological forms are ‘things’ that have a non-physical reality. They are built of subtle energy, the vibration-substance of non-physical planes.
Each of these subtle psycho-energetic forms*(see note below) remains with us – either active in our lives or experience, or less active or even latent in our subconscious like seeds waiting to sprout. These forms (called thought-forms by some, samskaras in Sanskrit, and various other terms) remain influences in our lives until they are neutralized. One of the ways that they are neutralized is through re-experiencing the desire, thought or emotion without re-energizing them with desire or aversion. There are other ways to neutralize or even transform a psychological energy such as emotion or desire, but for now we will focus on the role that desire and aversion play.
If we can re-experience all our old creations, all our old thoughts, reactions, judgments, desires and emotions, from an accepting, equanimous, balanced state of mind, then they are either neutralized or transformed. Both ancient and more recent psychological energies will inevitably re-surface in our experience, often just as sensations in our bodies, but also as consciously experienced emotions, memories or thoughts. And when they do, we have an opportunity to release them. But only if we can experience them with at least some degree of detachment and acceptance. If we react again, they are simply re-energized, or new energies are formed.
To experience our past psychological energies in a way that releases, heals or transforms them, we must be able to maintain some measure of a more centered, soulful state. This means to be able to witness them with such qualities as peace, contentment, equanimity, openness, unconditional love and acceptance, concentration and surrender. At any given moment, not all of these qualities may be equally present. But as long as there is a foundation of a few qualities such as concentration, awareness and equanimity – even if imperfectly developed – then the contents of our experience, even the flow of semi- and subconscious energy and material, is gradually being purified and uplifted.
It is these thought-forms (past desires, emotions, thoughts, etc.), along with our state of mind, that form a cloud blocking our realization of our true nature. Our spiritual practice both illuminates our current state of mind, as well as transforms our past thought-forms. As this unfolds our spiritual intuition grows and our heart opens. And when we have fully released the last of our ego-generated thought-forms – clearing all our past karma – we will have full and final Self-realization.
The various psychological energy forms that we create and experience – desires, aversions, emotions, and thoughts – can be divided into three general categories. The first are those that are most karmically heavy, dark, ignorant, and therefore, tend to be most regressive in terms of our spiritual growth, because they tend to most obscure our true nature. These are the product of the least wisdom and virtue. Then there are mixed or intermediate psychological energies. These are more of a balanced mixture of positive and negative energies. And then there are those energies that are generally more positive, virtuous and wise. These not only create more harmony, health, and goodness, but also lead us towards spiritual liberation.
In the Hindu tradition, these can also be categorized as types of karma. Karma here simply means energies that are the result of our intentions, which is another way of talking about these psychological energies and their results or implications – their karma. In Hinduism karma is divided into three types that follow the groupings above. These are simply called black karma (unwholesome, negative), black-white or mixed karma, and white karma (wholesome, spiritual, enlightened). A final state is beyond karma, where, since the state of being from which actions arise is beyond the experience of a separate self, then the actions flow from a more transcendent source that operates ‘beyond’ karma. This state does not lead to the formation of a type of psychological energy or thought-form that is karmically binding, because that requires being tainted with some kind of self-interest or a sense of a separate self.
The Power of Meditation
Meditation is so widely recognized as a particularly powerful tool for awakening because it is a practice that so profoundly establishes the conditions for the purification and transformation of psychological energies, and the building up of positive or wholesome thought-forms that replace and help transform mixed and heavier energies. Meditation is so powerful for this purpose for one simple reason – building up more spiritual energies and transforming or releasing less wholesome ones requires concentration and other positive qualities, and meditation is a special situation wherein positive qualities are nurtured with enhanced concentration. Concentration – and the other qualities that concentration can strengthen such as awareness and acceptance – is harder to develop and sustain while also engaged in activities. It is certainly possible to develop strong concentration and presence during activity, but it is generally more difficult than in meditation. Consider: when is it easier to do a complex math problem, or read a book, or have a conversation – when we dedicate all our attention to it, or when we do one or more additional things at the same time? And as meditation involves the cultivation of more subtle modes of perception and states of consciousness, invariably we find that setting aside quiet times dedicated to focusing on spiritual qualities, insights and abilities will cultivate these states much more quickly.
The qualities of presence developed and stabilized in meditation will also gradually emerge in our daily state of presence – but they will generally emerge first in our meditations and later integrate into our activity. Once having established a solid foundation in concentration, our meditation state will invariably be deeper than our ordinary state. Meditation is the birthing ground for our spiritual lives. It is the backbone around which our practice develops. Because of the greatly increased concentration that any experienced meditator has developed in their meditations when compared to their ordinary consciousness in daily activity, a much greater percent of their transformation takes place in their meditations than during the remainder of the day. This is not to understate the importance of seeking to work with ourselves throughout the day. Nor do we wish to undervalue the significance of life itself as a profound source of spiritual education and challenge. It is simply a recognition that our time dedicated to meditation is generally a more intensive period – not only for focused attunement to more awakened perspectives and qualities, but for the purification of old ‘creativity’ (psychological energies) from yesterday or millennia ago that still haunts us and holds us back, often in ways of which we are not even aware.
Further Thoughts About Meditation
It is rare to find examples of individuals who have come to very deep levels of awakening without the support of a profound meditation practice. Those rare cases where the arising of deep realization and character seems to come quickly or effortlessly, it is undoubtedly the result of extensive practice (including meditation) in previous births. Added to this may be the power of grace (especially when very intensively focused). But the vast majority of great saints and sages demonstrate a background of meditation even in the life considered.
Just as visions are usually encountered within before they manifest outwardly, so meditation is a sanctuary of empowerment in which we encounter our true nature and creativity.
Meditation is a vast and noble tradition. Countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, saints and mystics have sat with great resolve manifesting Christ Presence and bringing enlightenment to the world. To practice meditation is to enter the timeless dignity of this highest of human endeavors. In each daily meditation period as well as in daily acts of awareness and service, we merge with this eternal lineage.
Meditation is profoundly natural. It is an action in harmony with the cycles of Nature. Just as we move from deliberation, reflection and planning to action and expression; just as night is followed by day, winter by spring and summer and death by rebirth – so is meditation a conscious act of inhalation, of death and inwardness in natural balance with outer manifestation and activity. Meditation has been called “learning to die daily” in order to be reborn.
Meditation only seems like work because of the karma that we encounter within ourselves when we seek to open to our true nature. Discovering our true nature is effortless. It is the effort and time it takes to release or transform the obstacles to this recognition that we have created in the past that is what makes meditation a ‘discipline’ or ‘work’ for many of us. As our burden lightens, so will the quality of our meditations and the effort required.
Some Suggestions for Practice
Take time as you sit down to meditate each day to remember what an opportunity it is that you have the karma and grace to have contact with the dharma in this life. Feel the qualities of joy, hope and gratitude that this can stimulate.
Often reading about meditation, as well as talking about, hearing talks or reflecting on meditation, inspires our practice. Try reading a little about meditation just before a sitting. Also meditate unexpectedly if the spirit moves you.
Seek to cultivate the resolve that meditation is of the highest priority in your life. Do not easily let meditation take a back seat because you are too busy or have other distractions. If our motivation is strong enough, we can almost always find time to meditate.
Try keeping a meditation journal. One can use a meditation journal to keep track of intentions we wish to remember (such as dedicating our practice to the enlightenment of all beings). We can write down potential inspirations for action or creativity which can sometimes slip away later like dreams. We can record insights and new perspectives. Sometimes if we don’t write these things down, we can be subtly distracted by not wanting to forget them, which is released by writing them down. We can also use our journal to keep a record of the types of practices we are using, or to keep descriptions of exercises that are complex.
*The term psycho-energetic forms that I am using here is meant to cover a broad range of psychological categories that include thoughts, emotions, intentions, plans, desires, aversions and memories. In spiritual literature there is no commonly used English language term that I know of to cover all of these. The closest to this might be the term thought-form, used by some esotericists, which I am less inclined to use since the word thought is not usually used to cover such a broad range of psychological phenomena. There are terms from other traditions, but these are less well known to many people. These include, for instance, samskara and vasana from Sanskrit (Hindu) which are commonly used to indicate this idea of a psychological energy that is an imprint or energy resulting from desires, emotions, intentions, etc., that leaves an inclination to future action or karmic effect. The Pali word sankhara is the Buddhist version of samskara, with a similar meaning. The Christian mystic and esotericist Stylianos Atteshlis (Daskalos) used the term elemental to cover the same idea. This is a term drawn from western esoteric and alchemical works that was originally defined as various nature spirits associated with the four elements – earth, water, fire and air. The corresponding nature spirits or ‘elementals’ are gnomes, undines, salamanders and sylphs. Daskalos seems to have modified the definition to include human created psycho-energetic forms (desires, emotions, thoughts), since the substance of these is also the psychological versions of the same four elements, and the psychological elements that humans create as desires, thoughts and emotions, have, once created, their own energy of life. Hence, they are ‘elemental’ forms of life. All of these terms mean approximately the same thing, and I sometimes use all of them, though for this book I will most often say psychological energies, psycho-energetic forms, or elementals.