Alignment of our Underlying Philosophy of Yoga and Why it Matters
For a spiritual path to be effective, there should be an alignment of View, Practice, and Goal. Since I often mention that Mahāsāra Meditation draws from both the Shaiva Tantra and Advaita Vedanta traditions, some might wonder how the alignment works out, given that Shaiva Tantra and Vedanta disagree on their understanding of ultimate reality and, as a result, have prescribed different practice methods leading to Self-awareness.
In truth, Mahāsāra Meditation offers a completely unified View, Practice, and Goal, since its teachings are fully grounded in the Shaiva Tantra tradition. I only draw on Advaita Vedanta’s teachings (with a special emphasis on Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teachings) to highlight certain aspects of yogic practice from a different angle, and to guard against the wrong teachings that some neo-tantric teachers promote. When I reference Sri Ramana’s teachings, I do so in order to clarify the reasoning behind my approach to meditation.
Let’s delve into Mahāsāra Meditation’s View, Practice, and Goal.
The term View really refers to a tradition’s philosophical approach to Reality, including theology, metaphysics, soteriology, and other branches of philosophy. The Mahāsāra School of Meditation fully embraces the metaphysics and theology of Non-dual Shaiva Tantra (aka Kashmir Shaivism) as taught by Sri Abhinavagupta. Some of its basic tenets include:
- There is an existence called pure Awareness that is formless and eternal. It is aware of itself and in its pure state, it experiences itself as supreme bliss and peace.
- Pure Awareness is not like a dead block of ice, but contains three core powers: will, knowledge, and action.
- All creation is nothing but a reflection that appears within the pure Awareness, also referred to as pure Consciousness. Creation, time, space, and so forth are nothing but Consciousness, just as our vivid dreams are nothing but Consciousness.
- Pure Awareness is able to condense itself into time, space, and matter by passing through a series of 36 steps that contract or involute from pure Consciousness down to a clump of earth. These steps are called tattvas.
- The word God simply means pure Awareness. There is no God up there looking down at a separate creation. Creation is a reflection within God, so every atom and molecule is God. This is called monism (as opposed to monotheism). God is technically not the highest expression of Consciousness but makes an appearance when pure Consciousness stirs toward creation. At the highest level, beyond any expression of subject and object, there can be no talk of God as a creative and governing power. In the final state of Paramashiva, only pure Consciousness exists.
- This contraction of Consciousness is done willfully. It is not an unexplained illusion. From our relative perspective, creation is entirely real, although it does not bind or taint pure Consciousness, just like a mirror is not affected by whatever images are passing before its face.
- Because everything is always Consciousness, and time and space are relative realities, the entire Consciousness is contained within each point of consciousness. This has practical implications since it means that we, as a point of consciousness, can recover our original undivided, blissful, and peaceful Awareness. In other words, we can shift our identity from being an individualized consciousness to being the universal consciousness. We simply have to remove the limiting forces that bind us to experience ourselves as a limited point of consciousness.
- When you recover that full Consciousness, you no longer identify as just a human being. You experience that the entire universe is appearing within you. By analogy, when you look at your hands you don’t experience that you have only one finger. All ten fingers feel equally a part of you. When you become enlightened, you don’t experience that you are one body among other bodies. You experience that all bodies and things are equally a part of you. This means that you can continue to witness creation after enlightenment, although any true sense of division is absent.
- Pure Consciousness is only accessed through the dynamic vibratory power of Consciousness, known as Shakti. Since the entire universe is a vibration of Shakti, we can only reach pure Consciousness through that power. In the human body, Shakti expresses as the life-force, known as prana, and more purely as the Kundalini that is identified as residing in the root chakra at the base of the spine. It is Shakti that contracts and divides herself into duality, and it is Shakti that expands back to pure Consciousness. Our own I-sense is also an expression of Shakti.
- The cycles of expansion and contraction are simultaneous and eternal.
- Pure Consciousness and its Shakti are never apart, just as a flame and its heat can be contemplated as separate elements but in fact are never apart.
- In Mahāsāra Meditation, we work closely with the divine Shakti in her various forms. The proper use of mantra is emphasized as the primary means of attuning into Shakti, although it is not the only means.
The full View of Shaiva Tantra would take up an entire book, so I’ll stop here. In relation to Advaita Vedanta, we can point out some important differences.
- In Advaita Vedanta, creation is often referred to as duality. It appears due to an unexplainable spiritual ignorance called Maya. This Maya does not directly emanate from the will of pure Consciousness. In Advaita, Consciousness is devoid of the powers of will and action. It only has the power of pure knowledge, i.e. to know itself as pure Consciousness. In Shaivism, creation arises out of the Lord Shiva’s power of absolute freedom.
- There is no proper explanation in Vedanta as to how ignorance arose, even as an insubstantial appearance. How can something that is neither real or unreal, Maya, arise out of what is real, Shiva, without the latter’s involvement? And we cannot say that Maya belongs only to the mind because the mind itself is a product of Maya.
We should note, however, that the terms Maya and illusion are also found in Non-dual Shaivism. The main difference is that in Shaivism, Maya is a specific power of Consciousness and a stage of involution (stage six), and not some inexplicable appearance caused by inexplicable spiritual ignorance. Also, in Shaivism, full and final Self-awareness has to include awareness of duality as one with Consciousness. In Shaivism, if our enlightenment is limited to the formless pure Awareness we experience during closed-eyed meditation, then our enlightenment is not complete. Full Self-awareness integrates the external world within itself. In this sense, Non-daul Shaiva Tantra presents a more thorough and elegant philosophy.
The Mahāsāra School of Meditation teaches the View of Non-dual Shaivsim, along with its principal texts including the Shiva Sūtras, Pratyabhijñāhrdayam, Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, and many others.
Our chosen underlying philosophical framework has real consequences in terms of how we practice yoga. Because Vedanta posits a pure Consciousness that is completely separate from the appearance of duality, we see a strong bend toward renunciate, monastic traditions. The famous orange-robed swamis of India belong to ten Advaita monastic orders.
By contrast, in Shaivism many of the sages were householders in line with the teaching that we don’t have to remove ourselves from daily life. Instead of turning away from the senses, Tantric yogins develop the power to use the senses and their objects as access points into pure Consciousness. Since creation is really at all times pure Consciousness, we don’t really have to reject creation but simply recognize it for what it is. As we’ll discuss below, the above is not as straightforward as it seems.
Closed-eyed meditation is also emphasized in Shaivism, but since everything has the potential to lead back to Consciousness, we have many more tools at our disposal. Mantras, the body’s subtle energy matrix, understanding and harnessing the Kundalini Shakti, meditations on the nadis (the body’s subtle energy matrix), chakras, and sacred diagrams, as well as pranayama, mudras (physical hand seals or gestures), and physical asanas are all standard items within the yogin’s practice toolbox. This does not mean the yogin uses them haphazardly. Many of these tools are only effective when accessed through proper initiation from a competent teacher, along with their careful study and application.
The problem with the all-embracing Tantric view is that misguided or devious teachers have heavily abused it. Many so-called yogins have used the cover of tantra to promote a false spirituality that amounts to hedonism and sensual indulgence. This is why the Mahāsāra School of Meditation establishes a clear and proper order of things by incorporating some of the attitudes and practices of Advaita Vedanta, along with the more refined Tantric innovations.
Mahāsāra Meditation’s Practices
One of the big reveals with regard to the Tantric path is that many of the Tantric masters were actually serious renunciates. We only need to look at Abhinavagupta and his disciples, who were all celibate yogins. Although Abhinavagupta engaged in secret Tantric sexual rites, those rituals were reserved for advanced yogins who had already attained deep states of closed-eyed samadhi. Abhinavagupta himself writes in his Tantrasara that only one out of a hundred thousand yogins were qualified to participate in any form of sexual yogic practice. So for all intents and purposes, the greatest Shaivite Tantric Gurus were effectively celibate renunciates, even if they lived in a normal house and not in an ashram.
Some modern Tantric teachers, preaching the rhetoric of accessing pure Consciousness through the senses, love to ignore this fact or hope that their students overlook it. This is because it plays to their audience of Western students, most of whom have no interest in restraining their senses in any serious way.
The last recognized living Shaivite Tantric master was Swami Lakshmanjoo. If you read his biography, you would soon learn that Swami Lakshmanjoo was celibate his entire life (outside of any occasional sexual rites) and that he demanded the same discipline from his most senior Indian disciples. Sense restraint is simply a fact of authentic yogic life, regardless of the tradition.
As stated above, in Mahāsāra Meditation we reach Consciousness in an orderly fashion. This means we first learn how to meditate by turning our attention away from the senses, which allows us to calm the mind and gather our energies. If, in the name of Tantra, we don’t pull the mind back from its constant craving to connect with objects of perception, we will never be able to achieve deep meditation. This is where the language and methods of Advaita Vedanta come to our aid. Instead of getting overly excited about the fact that external reality is in fact Consciousness, we need to first learn how to still our mind and attain deep closed-eye absorption by turning our attention away from the external world. This is exactly how Swami Lakshmanjoo practiced.
It makes no difference that our thought-stream is itself a vibration of Consciousness. We still need to develop the power to still thoughts down to nothing. Only after attaining the highest state of meditative absorption will we be in a position to experience the movement of our mind, senses, and outer world as nothing but a blissful vibration of Consciousness. Otherwise, we risk becoming intellectual yogins without any inner experience.
On a related note, there are some teachers who wrongly teach that it’s impossible to still thoughts down to nothing, and that all we need to do is to watch the thoughts come and go without grasping or rejecting them. While it is true that we never wrestle with our thoughts, it is a fact that thoughts can be stilled to nothing, as long as we employ the three pillars of effective meditation: right understanding, right method, and right inner feeling. To deny that thoughts can be extinguished is to make a mockery of samadhi and the teachings of the scriptures. So while the first step is to watch thoughts with quiet acceptance, there are more advanced practices that indeed deliver the mind into absolute stillness. For this reason, whenever you hear a teacher tell you that it’s impossible to still the mind, reinterpret the teaching to mean that it is neither possible nor desirable to still the mind by force.
To still our mind, we need to learn how to concentrate. In Mindfulness Meditation, concentrative practices are usually bypassed in favor of open monitoring, although the Theravada tradition, which is the origin of Mindfulness, has extensive teachings on concentration. In Mahāsāra Meditation, we gladly learn how to concentrate since gentle concentration is actually very blissful. Without concentration and sense withdrawal, it is not possible to turn our attention inward toward the light of Consciousness.
As an external support to meditation, we have to learn to adjust our behaviors. Here we benefit from the study of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra, which teaches us the moral and ethical foundations to deep meditation. To truly still the mind, our life has to support our meditation practice, and our commitment and enthusiasm to meditate has to be profound.
In order to access those deep states of Consciousness, in Mahāsāra Meditation we take support from initiation into mantra, highly nuanced meditation instructions, chanting, and scriptural study (View teachings), including the study of Kundalini and her movements. In this way, Mahāsāra Meditation is a thoroughly Tantric path.
Because my discipleship to my Guru is such a sacred and rewarding part of my path, in Mahāsāra Meditation I don’t discourage students from establishing a heart connection to an authentic Guru of their choosing. That said, if I feel a particular Guru is not the real thing, I would say so. Note: I am very strict with whom I consider fit to be considered a Guru. Most of the living Gurus with large missions that cater to the West don’t make the cut. Many of the Gurus that I consider authentic are no longer alive, although that poses no obstacle to receiving their grace. Although I also believe that fully enlightened beings are present on this Earth, they are most likely not on Facebook, so you might never find them.
Since many Western students cannot digest the understanding that a human being can, at the same time, be the embodiment of pure Consciousness, Guru Yoga, as it is called, is something that has to arise naturally from within. Students who are not interested in human Gurus are encouraged to equate the vibration of the mantra with pure Consciousness.
Finally, in Mahāsāra Meditation we don’t keep running after newer and more powerful mantras or different levels of initiation. You can learn a hundred mantras, each one more secret than the next, but unless they are whispered into your ear by a fully enlightened being, they will do nothing for you. This is because in the beginning all mantras are powerless (with the above noted exception).
When we receive a mantra, we have to unite with its power through constant practice. This takes some time (from a few months to a few years). All the mantras you receive from Western teachers who blog, sell courses, and are part of the yoga circuit are mantras that you will have to repeat with great love and dedication for them to bear fruit. This is because none of these teachers, in my close observation, are actual realized beings like Bhagawan Nityananda or Sri Ramana Maharshi.
When you come across a teacher charging thousands of dollars to uplevel your meditation, give you a “higher” mantra, and so forth, please proceed with extreme caution. It’s okay to pay for yoga courses that move you from basic to advanced philosophical concepts; the key is to watch out for promises of greater and immediate access to pure Consciousness by getting imitated into this or that special mantra. In truth, even the most ubiquitous mantra like Om Namah Shivaya can take you to full Self-awareness if repeated with proper method and feeling. There are great Gurus in India that attained everything through this well-known mantra. In truth, mantras do not have to be secret to be powerful.
While it is certainly possible to receive new mantras and higher initiations, these awakenings manifest spontaneously from within as blessings and gifts of our own meditative energy. My own direct initiation by my Guru, as well as many other mystical experiences, were all received directly from within. They manifested in their own time as a result of the active and accumulated spiritual energy I gathered through loving surrender to the one reality we call Consciousness, our own inner awareness.
Both Advaita Vedanta and Non-dual Shaivism share the goal of liberation while in the body. Liberation means liberation from an individualized consciousness. Enlightenment, perfect Self-awareness, liberation, and other terms all point to the same state. That said, in Mahāsāra Meditation we understand that the attainment of perfect Self-awareness is extremely rare and that it can take several lifetimes of practice to achieve. We also understand that the final timetable of our liberation is not in our hands, but rests on the Lord’s power of grace. As yogins, we cannot produce results. Our ability is limited to devoting ourselves to our practice and allowing the results to manifest on their own. The more we surrender, the faster our results, since the ego is all that stands in our way.
In this way, Mahāsāra Meditation is about surrender and letting go. We never try to attain anything by brute force. Our only task is to continue to practice with love and compassion, knowing that the spiritual energy called Shakti is what actually does all the work.
While perfect Self-awareness is the final goal, in the beginning, we don’t need to carry that expectation on our shoulders. We meditate to develop inner strength and spiritual growth in line with our capacity and interest. In the beginning, we meditate to have a real taste of the bliss and peace that flow from a quiet mind.
Even though Mahāsāra Meditation references several yogic traditions in order to highlight different practice points, it’s true philosophical grounding is within Non-dual Shaivism, thus offering a unified View, Practice, and Goal.
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