Thursday, May 5, 2011

Meditation and Voice Dialogue

Time for Integration

I recently attended my second Voice Dialogue workshop and am excited about this system and how it fits in with my work of teaching meditation.  I felt inspired to share about this even though it may be premature.  I don’t know that much about it yet, and have not yet done any facilitation, but I am already using the ideas in my meditation classes.

In teaching meditation, my aims are twofold – facilitating the connection to Essence or the Self and then working on the integration of this powerful connection into our daily lives.  The integration part is more at the forefront for me at the moment.

Back in the late sixties, when I was introduced to the idea of a spiritual path, the focus was on the initiation.  It was all about receiving the blessing of a great master and waking up to the Inner Self.  Baba Muktananda’s specialty was shaktipat, or kundalini awakening - the beginning of the journey of transformation.  During the 70’s he touched hundreds of thousands of people.  It was thrilling to live in the energy field of the awakened kundalini for so many years around Baba.  As time has passed however, I find that my interest has moved on to the integration of the gift of shaktipat into my life in the world. 

Here in northern California, invitations beckon from every bulletin board with announcements of an abundance of spiritual techniques and processes unimaginable in the 60’s.  Back then meditation was exotic.  Here and now most people I meet have tasted a number of different traditions or styles. 

Dealing With Stress As A Yoga

In counterpoint to this array of spiritual possibilities, the difficulties and stresses of life on the planet at this time seem equally abundant.  Our situation of being bombarded with reports of suffering from all over the world makes it vital to find a way to live without being destabilized by stress and confusion.

Recently I was asked to teach a class on the Bhagavad Gita for a yoga teacher’s training course and in reviewing it, I was struck by the title of the first chapter – the Yoga of Arjuna’s Despondency.  Indeed the path often begins when we are moved by our despondency at the inherent conflicts in our inner and outer worlds to seek the respite of a spiritual solution.  By spiritual here I mean something that has to do with our deeper nature or essence.

At the beginning of meditation practice, the idea of how to deal with external stress may be paramount, but it soon becomes evident that it is the inner anxieties and negative emotions - the mind’s reactions - which are the real problem.  The Self is obviously not the problem, and being awakened to it does not it itself automatically solve one’s problems. 

Everyone Knows the Self

I remember being incredibly struck by hearing Baba once say, “Everyone knows the Self.”  It was in the context of a question from Swami Shankarananda about the then named Bubba Free John.  He asked for Baba’s reaction to Bubba’s claims of attainment and said to Baba in a questioning tone, “Baba, he says he is self-realized.”  Baba matter-of-factly replied that everyone is a knower of the Self.  It was his manner and tone that conveyed to me the idea, “What’s the big deal about that?”  Since we are That, it is no great surprise to know it. 

I enjoy pointing it out, drawing attention to it, and holding the energy of it while meditating with others.  It is one of my favorite ways of being with people and I find it natural and satisfying. Dealing with our “stuff,” our karmic conditioning, however, is a much more challenging process – which is why I am always on the lookout for tools to facilitate the process of developing spiritual maturity.

Voice Dialogue

After Lama Drimed came out of retreat, he began his exploration of ways to help his students grow.  Many of them had been doing traditional practice for many years and even decades, but with psychological blocks still largely intact.  When he said goodbye to me on the eve of my departure for Australia, he gave me two CD sets on Voice Dialogue by Hal and Sidra Stone.

I had experienced just a foretaste of this work during the Open Space sessions we did during 2008 at the gonpa and while I found it rewarding and refreshing, I was not drawn to the Voice Dialogue process which, from what I had read and heard, involved moving one’s chair to different positions and talking to various sub personalities, or selves.  I just didn’t get how it could help me.  I felt that I was aware of my different selves already.  So at that time it didn’t click.  Just recently, however, it did - when I was very generously given the gift of a workshop here in Arcata with Christina Cross, a long time student of Hal and Sidra’s.

The main idea of Voice Dialogue, which was created and refined by Hal and Sidra Stone over a long period of time, is that we have many selves.  There are primary selves, a group of which constitute our operating system - or personality.  And always, there are opposite energies which are called disowned selves.  These are more or less unconscious but appear in our judgments and affect us strongly.  When completely disowned, these energies usually attract people into our lives who carry these energies.  We then get to react to and interact with these disowned energies in our relationships. 

The result is conflict and suffering, in all its variations of anger, fear, sadness and anxiety.  If we run away from the difficult people, others arrive to take their place - as long as the disowned energies are kept unconscious.

In the Voice Dialogue system, our various selves or energy systems are brought into consciousness in dialogue.  One begins with identifying and strengthening the primary selves and it is only later that dialogue with disowned selves is undertaken.  The skill of the facilitator is paramount in providing a safe environment in which disowned, reluctant or unvoiced selves can “come out” and engage in dialogue and relationship with the facilitator. 

This system deeply impressed me, particularly when I heard that a facilitator cannot facilitate a self which he or she has not experienced himself or herself and furthermore, that a facilitator must not facilitate a self which he or she has judgments about or does not feel comfortable with.  It is crucial that each self is facilitated with an attitude of acceptance and positive regard.

The Magic of the Aware Ego Process

After the dialogue with a particular self comes the magical part, which is the separation from that self and the returning to center. I call it magical because it is here that the Aware Ego Process emerges.  It is not another self, but an awareness that one is different from the self which has just been facilitated.  When one sees and separates energetically from this self, the trance of that self comes to an end, and with regard to that particular self, there is what is called the Aware Ego Process.  When one comes out of the trance of that particular self, one is, at least momentarily, free of identification with it. 

During my first workshop I volunteered to be facilitated as part of a demonstration.  When I returned to center and separated from the self that was speaking, I had an experience of freedom, of Awareness, of the Self.  Nothing was needed to invoke this experience but the separation from that which clouded it – the trance of identification. 

The Doctrine of Recognition

A calm sense of presence was just there as I separated from the ordinary self which had been speaking.  Baba’s saying “Everyone knows the Self” came to mind in reflecting on this experience.  The Pratyabhijna philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, deals with this moment of recognition.  In this system, you only have to recognize once again who or what you really are.  There is no practice, no skillful means. 

A story told to illustrate this recognition is that of the bride to be.  Since it is an Indian story, it involves, of course, an arranged marriage.  The marriage is arranged by the girl’s parents and she is told of the wonderful qualities of her bridegroom.  She longs to meet him and is already in love with him, without ever having met him.  During the previous year, she and her family had been on pilgrimage and she had met a number of people casually, including this man.  He was just a member of a family group along on the pilgrimage and not significant to her.  She was not in any way impressed with him.  Fast forward to a year later, when she is now engaged to an unknown man.  When the “first” meeting takes place between the prospective bride and bridegroom, she realizes that he is that man she had met a year before, but this time she is very impressed with him and greets him with great love. 

This is the moment of recognition in which the actual man and the imagined man are found to be one and the same.  This experience is equated with waking up to the Self and discovering that the much sought after Self, the goal of meditation, is the very same self with which we are already intimately acquainted.  T.S. Eliot evokes this beautifully in the lines from “Little Gidding:” “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  It is the knowing it for what it really is that is the essence of the doctrine of recognition.

Conscious Choice

Although it is not the purpose of the Voice Dialogue system to develop a spiritual awareness to aid in the path of meditation, it is the way that it impacted me.  I felt that it can be a potent tool in the process of waking up and integrating. The system does not speak about enlightenment, but only about the Aware Ego Process, and that exists only in relationship with each of the conditioned selves.  With each facilitation, we meet and get acquainted with the many selves which represent our karmic conditioning.  Each time we separate from a self, the Aware Ego Process is strengthened and one is freer.  Voice Dialogue describes the Aware Ego Process as conferring conscious choice. 

I find this a wonderful way to describe the goal of the path of meditation.  Greater consciousness of course grants greater choice and an expanded view.  The Voice Dialogue process can be one of the infinite portals to this goal.  As one does the work of separating from all the various trances in our life, one is moving in the direction of enlightenment or freedom. 

I also very much like that the goal of Voice Dialogue is defined as a process.  It is how I have come to regard meditation and also the goal of meditation – as a constantly expanding consciousness or awareness.

During many decades of living in spiritual communities, I have noticed that they are populated by aspiring yogis and yoginis who practice a great deal of political correctness.  One form it takes is to identify with and to emphasize only those parts of oneself which conform to the prevailing norms and values.  In aspiring to be a good yogini, I did a lot of pretending that I already was and in denying and repressing the unregenerate aspects of myself. 

In Voice Dialogue it is proclaimed that everyone has so-called negative selves, such as controlling selves, weak selves, damaged selves, violent selves, victim selves, perfectionist selves, the inner critic and so on, ad infinitum.  Some are ancient selves that we may have come in with.  Others arise situationally or in particular relationships.  They come in clusters.  In contemplating this way of looking at the human personality, I immediately became aware of my various spiritual selves – the striver, the pleaser, the good student, the disciple self and the disowned guru self.  None of these selves can be enlightened. One has to awaken from the trance of each and every self to move toward that goal.

I got excited about the work of waking up from and separating from the many selves that people my inner world.  One potent tip was that if one is having negative emotions, one is in a self.  That made sense and the solution was clear.  Facilitate that self, dialogue with it, find out its job or purpose in Girija’s life, and then separate from it.

Inner Relationship:  the Key to Outer Relationships

In one exercise we were instructed to imagine someone about whom we have strong judgments and to list those judgments.  Then we were told that this list describes a disowned self of ours.  What an amazing discovery!  I contemplated this and tried it on, looking for that part of me that did indeed have those despised and scorned qualities.  In exploring this disowned self and talking with her, I found that one of the side effects was that I no longer held the negative judgments of that person and that the person had, at least partially, been freed from my projections – as if by magic.  Surely this is of great benefit in relationships!

Once again, it is an inside job!  Once again, the problems we experience as being outside are all projections.  I can say that I “knew” this, but it was wonderful to experience it viscerally in a particularly well designed technology.

The experience of sloughing off the trance was palpable and liberating.  In working with a professional facilitator, I explored a vulnerable child self which I had largely disowned.  I much preferred to think of myself as powerful, adult, competent, unafraid, and protected by strong boundaries.  It was difficult to access the very young child who had none of these qualities and instead was sad and vulnerable. 

As part of the process, there was an inquiry into the more positive qualities of the child – which actually turned out to be the positive gifts of vulnerability.  This exploration of the positive gifts is a part of every dialogue with a self.  Usually the self is questioned as to what purpose it serves in the person’s life, how it has served, how it has grown or changed to meet varying circumstances and what gift it can offer to the person.

The work always involves integrating the energy of each self so that its value and gift can be consciously used.  With most disowned selves, it is often just a tiny amount of that energy – a homeopathic dose – that is tried on by the Aware Ego Process and then integrated into it. 

In this case, I discovered that the sad and vulnerable child self was the source of the energy of compassion and was a valuable resource – when taken in an appropriate dose and when I was not overwhelmed with identification with it.  Working with energetics, which is a key component of Voice Dialogue, one experiments to find a balance point.  I found this aspect extremely intriguing and compelling.  Dealing with my own energy has been a lifelong challenge and I was eager to learn a technology that offered the promise of further integration for me. 

Vulnerability and Compassion

I had been teaching the path of the bodhisattva (the path of compassion) and I would often mention that a great meditation master had said that a bodhisattva has a permanently broken heart.  This wide open heart is the source of compassion.  The desire to close it to protect oneself from overwhelming sadness and grief is the job of the ego or the protector selves.  It is the job of compassion or grace to keep the heart open.  Eventually one finds the joy and peace in the heartbreak, which is a mystical event.

In the Voice Dialogue system, the protector self and the vulnerable child self stand in opposition to each other.  The protector selves are usually the primary selves - but not always.  Some people have a vulnerable child as a primary self and the protector selves are disowned, so that there is an issue with poor or absent boundaries.  In every case though, it is a matter of bringing in the opposing energies, finding the gift or benefit of each energy or self, and adding an appropriate dose of that energy into the Aware Ego Process. 

In teaching meditation, I often do a guided meditation with instructions or suggestions that one connect with the energy of Essence or Awareness (which corresponds to Voice Dialogue’s Aware Ego Process) and then, that one let the dramas, agendas and stories of our ordinary outer life move to the periphery.  I go on to instruct that the mind will bring up these stories and dramas during meditation and they should be allowed just to be.  They are not to be rejected or repressed.  My meditation instructions usually follow a format like this.

Seduction By Our Thoughts

No matter how often I suggest that one let everything be and that one need not reject or repress thoughts, there is the inevitable tendency in beginning meditators to feel that the voices, stories, and scenes that play out in our minds in meditation ruin our meditation or at the very least are a major distraction.  The most common obstacle I hear about is along the lines of “I couldn’t meditate because my mind was too active.”

The standard answer is that it is the seduction by these thoughts that is the problem, and not the thoughts themselves.  How then, to learn not to be seduced by our thoughts?  Here the standard answer is that it is a matter of practice.  I am excited at the prospect of being able to offer a technology to practice this, one which might further clarify the process of meditation.

The system of Voice Dialogue provides a way to facilitate a voice or self that wants to be heard.  It can be explored, accepted, allowed to express and then acknowledged for its gifts.  When allowed to come out, very dark energies often lose the ferocity which has built up over a lifetime of being disowned.  There is a great taming power in this work.  It is a skillful means for taming inner demons and for liberating and transforming their energy.

The goal of Voice Dialogue is to facilitate all parts of ourselves, to integrate the energies of our selves into our lives, and to strengthen the Aware Ego Process.  My insights into how it helps a meditation practice are not really part of Voice Dialogue per se, but an application which speaks to me.  It is made clear that the Aware Ego Process is NOT what the Buddhists might call Awareness or rigpa.  It is not higher consciousness, but is an ongoing process of awareness.  It only exists in relationship to a particular self and not independently. 

The Natural State

This also was very interesting to me.  I had long regarded the goal of meditation as the attainment of a particular state called enlightenment.  There was a buried assumption that there is an end state.  Later I learned that there is really no end state, no final goal, but just life as it is.  The process has no end - just as meditation has no end.  It is said that there are infinite selves.  As more and more of them are facilitated, Awareness – or meditation - is strengthened.  The key is separating from them, breaking the trance, and then carrying the gift to the center, to the overarching Awareness, which contains and holds everything. 

The result is meditation in life or what Baba called Sahaj Samadhi, the natural state.  It is free, unentranced, yet not separate or aloof.  It is Compassion arising from connection to Essence.  It is the union of form and formlessness, of Emptiness and Compassion, of Shiva and Shakti. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010



It seems that everywhere I look these days I run into the term bypassing, which has set me musing.  Bypassing refers to using spirituality as an escape from or rejection of the difficulties of embodied existence.  The bypassing practitioner strives to attain a blissful or transcendental state and avoids dealing with emotional issues.  Current thought deplores this tendency and encourages the integration of so-called spiritual experience with so-called ordinary, often problematic, experience.  I want to explore this idea because it has featured prominently in my sadhana. 

Meditating around Baba was definitely blissful.  There are so many experiences I could relate, but one comes to mind.  It was in the early 70s in India and a group of ashramites were on tour with Baba.  It was extremely hot.  We had gotten up early and boarded busses to take us to where the program for the day was to be held.  After a long and bumpy trip with a lot of jostling, dust and heat, we finally reached our destination and were led to the place where we would be sitting for the program.  Our group of westerners was placed up front near Baba’s seat and we waited and waited.  More and more people squeezed in.  I recall that it was extremely uncomfortable - the noise and crowding compounding the oppressive heat. 

As I sat there thinking how awful it was, I slowly drifted into meditation.  As I went into a deep state, all bodily discomfort disappeared and along with it all my impatience and irritation.  It was a very pleasant trance in which time whizzed by and the outer scenario unfolded at a seemingly great distance. 

After a long wait, Baba arrived.  I was aware of all that was going on but nothing took me out this pleasant meditative state. Various people gave speeches, Baba spoke and there was a very long darshan line.  Throughout the many hours of this program – I seem to remember that it was almost six hours from start to finish - I sat in meditation, sometimes going out completely and then coming back to semi awareness, but never revisiting my initial irritation and discomfort.  I noticed the heat and the fact that my sari was drenched in sweat, but these were just sensations without any sense of suffering. 

I remember being so grateful that I was able to get through this event so easily because of meditation.  It was a bit like taking a sleeping pill or tranquilizer as some of us did on the long international flights between the U.S. and India.  The painful time just passed effortlessly and even pleasantly. 

In the early days in Ganeshpuri before the Second World Tour, it was the custom to drop in to the Meditation Cave whenever we felt upset or stressed.  Going down to the cool depths of the dark room with its velvet cushions, dim blue light and recording of the mantra playing sonorously and softly in the background usually provided relief from whatever was bothering me.   Around Baba this relief was extremely reliable.  It seldom failed to manifest when I sat for meditation during all my years with Baba. 


More than a decade later, when I began to meditate with the Buddhists, the approach was quite different.  The idea of just passing out or disappearing into a comfortable trance was unacceptable.  For one thing, we meditated with our eyes open in the daylight.  This was a huge difference at the beginning and it took me years to get the hang of it.  I persevered and did get to the point where I could sit with eyes open and meditate without fighting off the temptation to close my eyes.

Eventually, I found that I liked it and in fact found it to be extremely valuable.  For me it removed the sense of separation between inner and outer and created more of an integration of the two, along with a more powerful sense of being present.  It felt more natural and real in some ways. 

After many years of rigorously avoiding closing my eyes, I slowly began to allow myself to do it occasionally and found that it was helpful in overcoming dryness or a kind of hardness or coldness.  After relaxing into the comforting darkness for a short while, I would spontaneously open my eyes feeling alert and expanded.

The focus of the open-eyed meditation is on rigpa, which in the tradition I studied is translated as Awareness.  It was more like Truth or Reality, as opposed to Bliss or Grace.  It was not nearly as reliable as the meditation I had experienced around Baba, but was much more subtle and elusive.  Very gradually, as I began to experience moments of it, I developed a bit of confidence. 

In some ways it felt that I was doing a more “grown up” meditation – that I had moved beyond a stage of just spacing out or going into a trance of blissful sensations and experiences.  It was also difficult, in that there was no getting away from the feelings of disappointment and failure.  As I gradually learned to touch Awareness, I realized that it had been part of my meditation with Baba as well, though it was not pointed out in the same way. 

The Three Aspects

One of the Buddhist teachings which I found fascinating was about the three qualities that inevitably arise in meditation.  These are stability, clarity and bliss.  Although these qualities are signs of meditation, it was taught that it is dangerous to indulge in them since they are not the goal.  The risk is getting stuck in them, which can delay or sidetrack one’s progress on the path. 

Stability is the quality of steadiness, immovability, stillness, or pure being.  It is that quality I experienced on that tour with Baba when I happily sat for six hours in the hot and crowded place without moving.  It is the experience that young Ramana Maharshi experienced as he sat in the temple in Arunachala.  It is said that people had to feed him and that birds nested in his hair.  Both nirvikalpa and savikalpa samadhi involve the quality of stability.

Clarity is the quality of awareness, wisdom, or knowing - but knowing without any particular content.  The mind is expanded beyond its usual limits of discursive thought and concept.  This space of clarity is the source of wisdom, the light of consciousness.  I remember hearing a story about Anandamayi Ma in which she was visited by some monks who were scholars and who asked her questions about esoteric points of philosophy and practice.  Although she had never been exposed to philosophy of any kind, it is said that she answered their questions brilliantly and they left quite satisfied.  I would call this the clarity or wisdom quality.  Clarity is also the experience of clairvoyance in which one can see future events or know the minds of others.

The third quality, bliss, refers to any pleasant or comfortable sensation.  It is not necessarily ecstatic or orgasmic, but can be a merely pleasant sensation or even the absence of suffering.  It is related to bhakti or divine love.  It can be quite subtle and manifest as a sense of well-being – or it can be very strong and lead the meditator to spontaneous song and dance.  Baba’s quality of bliss was very strong.  I remember his writing and speaking about the bliss which arose during his days of sadhana and which was so strong that he would spontaneously dance or embrace trees.  He powerfully conveyed this quality to others, merely by his presence.

These three qualities are the same ones used to describe the Divine in Hinduism where they are known as Sat, Chit and Ananda - Being, Consciousness and Bliss.  In the early days of my sadhana in Ganeshpuri, these qualities were admired and even worshipped.  It was much later that I heard that they relate to experiences which necessarily arise in meditation but which can be traps or pitfalls if one becomes attached to them.  

There are stories of yogis who get trapped in Being, or stability, and spend years cultivating stillness, silence or immobility - to their detriment.  It is said that if they die while still attached to this quality, they will take rebirth in a formless realm where they can spend huge lengths of time reaping the fruits of this karma.  During this time they are not progressing towards enlightenment.

Those who become attached to Chit or clarity may be yogis who strive for siddhis of clairvoyance or those who become psychics.  I knew a woman quite well back in the early days in Siddha Yoga who had been a practicing psychic.  When she met Baba, he told her to stop doing that work.  I believe that he wanted her to avoid the pitfall of attachment to any siddhi which fell short of the mahasiddhi of full enlightenment.

The attachment to bliss is seen in those who are so satisfied by their love and their bliss that they fail to develop the higher qualities of mind and to reach full enlightenment.  We can all think of examples of the attachment to bliss.  It reminds me of the story about Mother Theresa’s diaries, which were published after her death.  They created quite a stir since it was revealed that she had gone through an extended dark night of the soul, in which her experience of the presence of Christ had disappeared.  The experience of bliss in which she communed with her Beloved, Jesus Christ, had sustained her for many years, but around the time that she began her ministry in India, it vanished.

The scandal was that during her long ministry which was so moving and inspiring to the world, she was without the blissful inner relationship to Jesus Christ which had originally inspired her.  The diaries relate that she was very upset and consulted many priests asking for help and advice.  Her previous experience apparently never returned and she did all the work for which she is famous without this inner support. 

When I first read about it, I felt immediately that she had been moved to a higher state which involved a closer identification with Jesus.  When she began her work with the dying in India, she had in effect become Jesus.  She could no longer taste sugar, but had become sugar – to use the metaphor of which Sri Ramakrishna was so fond.  Although Ramakrishna was constantly being taken up to the experience of Oneness, he preferred to remain in the state of duality – in effect, to taste the sugar.  It was very sad to me that there was no such understanding of these higher yogic states among the confessors and guides that Mother Theresa consulted in her despair. 

Attachment to Experience

The warning about not getting attached to the three qualities is meant to keep one from getting sidetracked on the path of meditation.  I took it very seriously and for years, I would not allow myself to spend any time in the stability or the bliss in which I once had reveled.  I followed the advice to break up the experience of meditation so that it does not become stagnant.  The metaphor here is that the running water of a mountain stream is the freshest water since its flow is constantly being broken by flowing over rocks.  Without this dynamic flow with its breaking up, water – and meditation – becomes dull and stagnant.

I think that in my eagerness to practice properly and well, I sometimes shot myself in the foot, so to speak.  As I sat in meditation, sooner or later some of these signs of stability or bliss would arise.  My habit was to immediately break it up.  Out of curiosity I once decided to stop interfering and to just let it happen.  As I watched the familiar experiences unfold, I saw that I didn’t get carried away and after some time I found that I could still hold the Awareness while experiencing these fruits.

As I write this, I can’t help but notice that I have left out the sign of clarity.  I know that I never rejected or turned away from insight or understanding or wisdom as it dawned in meditation.  Rather I welcomed and explored all experiences of clarity.  Perhaps I was and still am addicted to this.  In contemplating this, I have concluded that I use this quality in my work.  I want to be of benefit to others and feel that one way I can do this is to use whatever understanding and insight I might have in counseling and teaching.  This perception has led me to conclude - hopefully - that it is when the attachment is primarily for oneself that it is problematic. 

In any case, it is obvious that each of us has different karma and different ways of contributing to the world.  The yogis who sit motionless for years in caves can serve humanity in their own way, as can ecstatic bhaktas who might contribute devotional music, dance and love for the upliftment of humanity. These three are divine qualities, after all, and always confer benefit.

The issue is really attachment, which can easily lead a practitioner to mistake the experience for the final goal.  How many really want the final goal?  How many settle for something along the way that feels like the right thing at the time?  It is said that we are all addicted to samsara, which makes sense to me.  We cling to and grasp at the things we like about embodied life, things which seem comfortable and familiar.  I believe that clinging and grasping must go if we are to live in the moment, without control or manipulation, truly experiencing all of life – just as it is - as perfect and divine. 

Addiction, which is just a word for very strong attachment, is of particular interest to me since I have an addictive personality.  I suppose I come by it naturally, since it runs in my family.  When I was young, I used to worry that I too would be or even was an alcoholic like my parents.  Several psychics have reassured me that I am not, but still I know that I can easily fixate compulsively.  Perhaps it is due to the preponderance of fixed signs in my astrological chart.  Whether I call it addiction or fixity, there is an aspect of my nature that grabs and hangs on. 


Meditation is a perfect realm in which to explore and learn to integrate this tendency.  The key is letting go – letting go, in fact, of grasping and holding at all levels.  This includes letting go of the attachment to bliss and also to the concept that I must let go of it.  I began by grasping at it and welcoming it, and then I practiced rejecting it and breaking it up.  Eventually I found a balance in which I could let it arise and enjoy it without getting sidetracked by it.  It is a very subtle and tricky negotiation.

This negotiation is the work of integration and is the solution to the problem of bypassing.  The issue isn’t about the qualities or experiences, but about integrating or joining them to the vaster awareness.  In Siddha Yoga we called it the Self and the Buddhists might call the No Self.  It does not matter what it is called – spirit, mystery, God, essence, being, consciousness, awareness or the peace that passeth understanding. 

It is our true nature, who we really are.  It is vast, limitless, empty and full.  It is right here all the time and yet can seem so far away.  It contains stillness, clarity, bliss and also agitation, darkness and pain.  It embraces and holds everything and is at the same time beyond everything.  It is what is.  Baba called it sahaj samadhi, the natural state.  Poets describe it best.

While on the path there is benefit in practicing various methods.  They make the mind supple and fluid.  They help us explore our nature and discover for ourselves who and what we are.  They even out our imbalances.  I applaud all methods and skillful means on the path. 

Although it is true that many practices can provide a complete path to enlightenment, it is also true that doggedly sticking to one technique out of misguided loyalty or a strong self image can hinder growth.  In general, I think that as one progresses on the path, one’s practice – or one’s approach to one’s practice - becomes less specific, simpler, and subtler. 

Two Aspects of Meditation

In teaching meditation these days, I am drawn to a two part approach.  The first is the experience of the Self.  Through guided meditation I invoke and point to this place so that students have some frame of reference for the path.  This is the realm of spiritual awakening – that mysterious catching fire which is the work of grace or blessings and from which everything on the path unfolds.

The second part is a focus on what keeps us from experiencing that awakening and in fact living from it.  I call this aspect “dealing with one’s stuff.”  The stuff can be on any level - physical, emotional, mental, karmic, environmental.  In a way, it is all of our unenlightened habits.  Including this part means that there is less chance of bypassing.

To integrate our stuff with the Self, I use a variation of tonglen which is a traditional compassion practice.  The variation involves working with one’s own suffering, rather than the usual format of breathing in the suffering of others.  I find that doing this first makes it easier to practice the traditional tonglen, which involves breathing in the darkness and suffering of others.  This extremely counter-intuitive practice can be terrifying or at the very least off-putting, until one discovers that it is not as dangerous as it appears.  If one begins, however, with one’s own suffering, it can be easier since the darkness is already there.

In this variation, one breathes in one’s own suffering and gives it space.  The attitude to be cultivated is one of curiosity, openness and compassion.  As one breathes in the suffering, there is no rejection or repression or fixing, but letting whatever arises just be.  The focus is on allowing it as much space as possible, which one can imagine in a variety of ways.  Then on an outbreath, one breathes out light and compassion to the feeling of suffering.

At the beginning, it is nearly impossible to do this usefully with each and every breath, so the instruction is given to first let something arise naturally and then on an inbreath, breathe it in and give it space.  Then, whenever ready, on an outbreath, one breathes out light and compassion to the feeling of suffering.  For severe trauma, it is enough to just focus on the outbreath for a time.

In dealing with one’s “stuff” in this way, there is no antidoting, no repression or rejection of the dark, but an integration of darkness and light.  With practice, various kinds of resolution can occur.  One may see the block or stuckness in a new and different light.  The block may morph into different forms bringing up old traumas and repressed emotions.  It is an exploration of one’s inner psyche, with compassion always applied to every situation. 

It can be very revealing, sometimes leading to the perception that darkness and light are ultimately one, or that self and other are the same, or that all is constantly changing, or even that suffering has no real  existence outside of the mind. 

In a group, after a short period of this practice, students are guided to drop it and once again meditate on one’s essence.  In this way the “work” is sandwiched between periods of meditation and is done from the frame of meditation.  In individual practice, one can just follow what arises, using the variation of tonglen whenever anything one might label suffering arises.

In every case it is the feeling or energy of the suffering which is breathed in and not the story.  It is the feeling behind “I’m angry” or “I’m bored” or “I hate this,” which is used in the process.  It is not the pain itself, but the suffering with which we habitually overlay it.  It is not a strict formula, but can be adapted to one’s temperament and mindset.

The Dance of Life

After practicing in this way for a long time, I find that I have developed a habit of breathing in everything that I experience whether it is good, bad or ugly.  If I am feeling anxious, irritated, overwhelmed or sad, I just remember to breathe it in and let it be, as it is.  At one point I was surprised to find I did it with very positive feelings too.  Baba’s teaching to regard everything as the play of the Goddess Kundalini fits perfectly with this adaptation of tonglen.

As one is breathing, the world is passing in and through one’s being.  One is part of all that is without separation.  Whether painful or pleasurable, there is bliss in all of it. This is the bliss that transcends the plane of duality.  It is the bliss of awareness of it all – the bliss in just being.  It is not the kind of bliss that prompts tears or dancing, but a subtler bliss of life, as it is, without resistance, without interference or manipulation.  It is the naturally grateful and graceful state of an authentic human being.

Monday, November 1, 2010



A Kinder Model

In Siddha Yoga, many of Baba’s students and devotees went through a lot of suffering due to the fact that it appeared that the church, or SYDA Foundation, was the only way to remain connected to the power of guru’s grace.  There was enormous suffering attendant on leaving the fold - so much so that there is a group of angry and disaffected people still under the spell of the trauma, as they explore the thread of anger and despair. 

I would like to present a kinder and more beneficial model, a model in which there are an infinite number of paths or spokes radiating out from Baba.  There are the two successors with their followings and there are many other spokes as well.  I think that Shankarananda has presented a version of this model in his Nityananda Tradition website.  He makes categories of swamis with ashrams, teaching swamis, lay teachers, etc.  I am less interested in the descriptive labels and categories and more interested in the recognition of legitimate and viable paths emanating from the fact of Baba’s existence in this world.

We can look at the bloody history of the Christian church to see horrendous examples of schism, strife, war, inquisition and all manner of human suffering arising from the idea of “one true church” or a single belief forced on others.  Whoever first said, “Let a thousand flowers bloom” expressed my sentiments.  I favor a celebration of that flame which lights other flames, a celebration of the lighting of that flame and a celebration of what emanates from the lighted flame. 

In reading about different spiritual traditions it seems to me that when a yogi or spiritual practitioner reaches a certain point of spiritual maturity, he or she begins to act from inner inspiration and begins his or her “ministry,” based on whatever arises from within.  Baba did not follow in the footsteps of his guru, Bhagawan Nityananda, who never created an ashram, never gave public talks, or really did much of anything in an outer way. 

There are so many examples - in Buddhism, Christianity, Sufism and Hinduism – of realized beings flowering in a way that deviated from that of their gurus and creating something new for those destined to benefit from them.  I am in favor of supporting all the fruits of the spiritual process – both the carrying on of the tradition and the creating of something new and different.  

Ladders and Circles

At the swami reunion there was some sharing of how Baba’s naming his successors - someone coined the term “super swamis,” though not in a disparaging way - was disempowering for some of the swamis who were involved in running the Foundation.  Hierarchies and categories are part and parcel of organizations and while there are benefits, there is also a loss, a disempowering or devaluing of the lower categories.  For example, in Siddha Yoga these separating designations included the categories of senior swami and junior swami as well as the categories of swami and householder.  To the American democratic sensibility, these can carry a subtle judgment of superiority and inferiority. 

I don’t really see much relevance in the West between swami and lay person or householder.  In fact most of the so-called “ex-swamis” are householders.  While recognizing the inevitability of outer differences in position, station in life and occupation, I prefer to focus on the essential oneness of all those who received Baba’s grace.  All are part of his mandala, which is a circle, and all are equally holders of the flame. 

Of course, it is natural that those with great abilities, talents and power will shine more brightly than others, but the essential quality of the mandala remains.  The outer labels or designations arise out of and are part of a church mentality. 

In a church it is all too easy to forget the essence and to be seduced by the externals.  To counteract this tendency there are unifying rituals which draw attention to the essence or spirit and reinforce unity.  In the Christian church there is the sacrament of communion.  The name aptly describes its purpose.  The ceremony of tsog (ganachakra feast) in Tibetan Buddhism is reminiscent of this ritual communion where spirit is invoked.  Around Baba, I think that the dancing saptah served such a purpose.  It is circular, ecstatic, communal, uplifting. 

Up and Down - In and Out

Vertical ordering with its levels and hierarchies are inherent in any structure or order.  In spiritual life, the manifestations of verticality represent the movement upward from matter to spirit, from man to God, from earth to heaven.  There are lower and higher tattwas in Kashmir Shaivism and lower and higher chakras in the subtle body.  In the process of purification in which there is effort to raise one’s consciousness, this verticality is meaningful.  It is also painful because of this effort, for effort can bring out egoic striving and judgment. 

I see two different movements of sadhana.  One is this vertical movement in which one tries to move energy up, to purify lower tendencies, to progress upward.  I think that the inward movement is an aspect of this, since the outer is regarded as impure or false and the inner as divine and pure.  It was a revelation to discover that Jin Shin Jyutsu regards the basic energy pattern of a human being as circular – up the back and down the front.  The inclusion of this circular model was very healing for me.

The second movement is the outward movement of expansion – the movement to greater inclusivity.  This corresponds to the tantric approach in which the world is viewed and embraced as divine.  It is the sadhana Baba laid out daily in his motto, “Honor yourself, worship yourself, love yourself; God dwells within you as you.”  He repeatedly exhorted us not to think of ourselves as sinners, as small, but as siddha students - as great and noble. 

A corollary to this is to regard whatever one is going through as an aspect of the sublime process of spiritual evolution.  There are no false steps.  There are no mistakes.  Once awakened, the path is wherever one places one’s foot.  There may be darkness and light, sun and shadow, but these pairs of opposites are contained within the whole which is none other than Paramashiva, containing both form and formlessness.

Recently I was going through the collection of DVDs at the house where I am staying and came across “Dune,” which I watched again after many years.  Watching the DVD brought back to me what I had so loved about the Dune series by Frank Herbert.  I had been riveted by the vastness of the scope and the focus on a spiritual evolution over long stretches of time, intermingled with incredibly complex and Byzantine tangles of politics and history. 

The part of me that deplores politics with its motivations of greed, jealousy, pride and desire longs for the purity and simplicity of the yogic approach with its ideals of renunciation, authenticity and honesty.  Yet, after months of solitary retreat, I found that this lifestyle was not the answer for me.  It was somehow incomplete because it did not deal with the world “out there.” 


The famous oxherding pictures, a series of ten pictures and poems from the Zen tradition, tell the story of the phases of the spiritual path simply and brilliantly.  In the first picture, titled “the search for the bull,” the seeker, overcome by suffering, searches for a way out.  His quest bears fruit as he goes through the phases of “discovering the footprints” and “perceiving the bull.”  The path proceeds by stages to full enlightenment.  The ninth picture is “reaching the source” and then surprisingly, the direction shifts and the tenth and final picture is the return to the world. 

Once the source has been attained, there is no more seeking, no more problem, no more effort, no more deploring of the world and its politics.  In Paul Reps’ commentary on the 10th picture he says, “Why should one search for the footprints of the patriarchs?  I go to the market place with my wine bottle and return home with my staff.  I visit the wineshop and the market and everyone I meet becomes enlightened.” 

I don’t interpret this to mean that everyone he meets becomes enlightened as a result of seeing him, although that meaning is there.  Rather, I think of it as saying, “I see that everyone is enlightened already.”  It is the state of the present moment - perfection in the now.  One only perceives imperfection when one strays by so much as a hair’s breadth from the natural state, which Baba called sahaj samadhi.

As I ponder this, I relax my tendency to disapprove of those who exert control over others in the name of the church and look at the positive side in which many are served, as I was, by the existence of structures which offer the promise of providing the path laid out in the ten oxherding pictures.  At the beginning of my quest, I would not have been interested in a bedraggled yogi wandering through the market place holding his wine bottle and smiling blissfully upon all. 

In 1970 I was not able to perceive the higher dimension in apparently mundane phenomena and thus needed a time-honored system to join.  I had prayed for a guru and what appeared was Baba Ram Dass with his story.  I jumped on that thread and embarked on my quest which led me to India and Baba. 

Even though I met several gurus before meeting Baba, I was attracted to his scene.  In addition to karma, I think this attraction was also due to the power of his display, his entourage, his ashram, the sheer number of his devotees and other outer aspects which enchanted me.  It felt safe to join something which was already established and which was attractive to so many others.  Although radical in essence, the scene around Baba did not seem in any way experimental to me.

We all need comfort when embarking on the journey into the unknown.  Baba called it the Self, which is very comforting, since it sounds so close and familiar.  The Buddhists call it Emptiness which is very off-putting for many.  The poem connected to the eighth oxherding picture describes this beautifully:  “Whip, rope, person and bull – all merge in No-Thing.  This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.  How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?  Here are the footprints of the partriarchs.”  This phase of Emptiness naturally moves on to the final picture of the return to the marketplace. 

There is no time frame suggested for this progression.  It may take many lifetimes to move from one stage to the next – or the blink of an eye.  There are a variety of other frameworks to describe the stages, such as the tattwas of Kashmir Shaivism and the bhumis of Tibetan Buddhism.  They are just conceptual frameworks and do not necessarily describe actual experience.  It is said that enlightenment can be gradual or sudden, or a combination of both.

Motivation as the Key

The stages may unfold easily and naturally or may involve struggle and great suffering.  It is a process of purification by which all that holds us back from being who we truly are is seen through and left behind.  At the end we are left with our prarabdha karma, our destiny, as it were.  If it is our dharma to defend and protect the church, then that is what we will do.  It can be done with the attitude of the bodhisattva, with the enlightened attitude of loving kindness.  It can be done with wisdom and compassion rather than a punitive or judgmental attitude. 

Since we can’t really know another’s inner motivation and attitude, it seems that the best approach is to investigate our own and to make sure that it is as clean as it can possibly be.  If there is anger, it is a clue that it is flawed and will not result in upliftment and benefit for anyone.  Of course, there can be the manifestation of anger without its being real – something which was dramatically demonstrated by Baba. 

He would blast someone with a torrent of fire and then immediately turn with a smile to Amma and say, “How was that?” or some such thing.  He was like a mother punishing a child for the sake of instilling good habits for the future well being of the child and not out of any personal anger toward the child.  Baba manifestated the divine quality of wrath as opposed to the personal quality of anger - the difference being the motivation.

Benefit From Loss

An organization or church can hold firm to its standards and values without anger and punishment - or it can demonize those who disagree, practice vendettas and issue fatwas.  There was a time when I was shunned by the swamis, the people who had been my peer group for many years.  This was devastatingly painful yet the aloneness in which I was plunged did provide an experience of renunciation which was valuable and useful. 

In my aloneness, all I had was God, and my communion with this inner core of truth became a powerful reality.  The experience of the Self can come about in infinite ways.  One feature that marks this experience of connecting with one’s inner truth is the stripping away of outer distractions, whether positive or negative.  The comfort of relationship, as well as many other ordinary human comforts, can keep us from our true nature.  Adversity of all kinds can be a boon, as many have attested. 
My bout with cancer was such a boon. 

The Vijnana Bhairava teaches that one can regard any experience as a portal to the Self.  Contemplating the dharanas provides practice in shifting one’s mind from the ordinary to the extraordinary which exists at every moment in every manifestation.  This is the path of tantra, which was Baba’s path. 

It does not matter where one’s outer circumstances fall along the continuum between the poles of traditional structure and radical experimentation.  One can always practice and find the wisdom and love inherent in life itself.   My prayer is that all beings have the grace to practice!  Sarva Mangalam!!




Recent events at the gonpa – a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center - where I lived for 12 years have inspired me to write about a topic which I am calling “the church.” It is a topic which I have contemplated for many years. 

Until he resigned recently, Lama Drimed was the Spiritual Head and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Chagdud Gonpa Foundation.  He had been named by Chagdud Rinpoche as his dzogchen lineage holder and had been given Rigdzin Ling as his seat.

He was never comfortable with running things and preferred the lifestyle of a yogi or hermit.  After his traditional three year retreat which ended in 2008, he found he that he was not happy to continue with “business as usual” and began to explore new directions in response to the needs of his students.  He said at one point that he felt that despite years and sometimes decades of traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice, there were often psychological blocks or habitual patterns which held students back from making real progress.  In his exploration of various ways to facilitate real spiritual growth - techniques developed by western teachers, therapists, and healers - he began to deviate from the traditional pattern of teaching in the centers founded by Chagdud Rinpoche.

One of Rinpoche’s outstanding contributions was his focus on the motivation of the bodhisattva, the one who lives to benefit others and uses all skillful means to do so.  I feel that it was with this motivation that Lama Drimed began to employ alternative methods of inquiry and alternative “yogas” to assist his students in their development.

This deviation from the traditional path and the practices shared by all the Chagdud Gonpa centers was upsetting to many of the other Chagdud Gonpa lamas and administrators and the ensuing controversy has resulted in a transition, in which Lama Drimed will move out of the gonpa but may continue to lead traditional drubchens and other programs from time to time at the gonpa, in addition to continuing his teaching independently outside of the gonpa. 

Growing Pains

While there are fears, hurt feelings, anger, sadness, indignation, confusion and all of the reactions that come from change, I feel that this inevitable transition will ultimately benefit those involved.  This does not diminish in any way my feelings of appreciation of and compassion for the suffering involved. Such transitions are always opportunities for soul-searching and for adjustment, an essential aspect of the path.

As a source of inspiration and blessings for so many, it seems to me that Lama Drimed will be able to do this most successfully and powerfully if he is free to follow his inner inspiration, to continue his exploration and to develop his own style of benefiting others.  The difficulty comes for those who have loyalty to or connection with both sides of the matter.  It is most difficult for the students of Lama Drimed who live at the gonpa. 

I can understand and sympathize with the feelings of those who want Chagdud Gonpa to continue as a beacon and source of support for all the dharma students whom Chagdud Rinpoche touched and taught.  Many feel inspired to preserve his legacy by ensuring that people will be able to visit any CGF center and find the same programs and practices done in the same way, providing continuity and support for the practice of so many. 

The Church

There is a place for the aspect of the spiritual path which I call the church.  An organization or structure which can continue to help others after a great spiritual light has left his or her body is one of the fruits of such a being’s path and attainment.  While the organization can provide guidance to later generations, it can also be a source of difficulty and of the darkening of the light.  This can happen when originally fresh and spontaneous enlightened activity becomes codified and encrusted by all the aspects which form and structure entail, particularly power politics. 

At the beginning of my spiritual life in Baba’s ashram I never even thought of the existence of a church, the organizational aspect of life around the guru.  In Siddha Yoga, the church grew slowly and the early stages were invisible to me.  As foreigners in India in the early 70s, we had nothing to do with the running of the ashram and we just lived at Baba’s feet - meditating, serving and basking in his presence.  I was with Baba many years before the creation of SYDA Foundation. 

Organization became necessary during the Second World Tour in 1974, when there was an evening program to put on every night as well as weekend intensives and retreats.  This entailed roles, jobs, departments and more separation of public and staff.  Of course there were jobs and departments even in the early days, but it felt then as though we all related directly to Baba without the interface of department heads, managers, and security guards. 

When Baba sent Shankarananda and me to Ann Arbor to start an ashram, the process was quite informal.  We just copied the Ganeshpuri ashram and created a reproduction.  During our time there, the Foundation was created and we lost much of the direct connection to Baba in the necessary interface with the Foundation. 


While I recognized the need for organization for Baba’s work, I did not enjoy it.  From the beginning I was not the kind of person who gravitated to membership in a church.  For example, in my courses in anthropology in graduate school, I had studied the evolution of culture and found that I resonated much more with small and primitive groups with undifferentiated structure, a more democratic feel and a closer connection to spirit.  Although I never got to the stage of doing fieldwork, I had already decided to select a more primitive culture. 

At the University of Michigan in the late 60s, the study of peasants was all the rage and Ann Arbor was a hotbed of liberal politics.  I was accused by my fellow grad students of having no political awareness.  It was truer than they even knew.  Although I was certainly more liberal than conservative, my leanings did not spring from a political view, but instead from a spiritual orientation which I was not yet even aware of. 

The first group I ever really joined, heart and soul, was Baba’s.  I was moved by Baba’s work of helping people - by blessing them, awakening them and giving them teachings on higher consciousness.  In order to facilitate his reaching as many people as possible, a structure and organization were necessary.  I applauded the creation of more than 60 ashrams all over the world and the initiation of more than 60 swamis.  I was happy to be part of what I believed would be a sublime and enlightened world movement.

The politics, various scandals and difficulties that transpired shattered my idealism and created a great disillusionment.  This phase was also the source of maturity and wisdom - but that came later.  During the period of disillusionment, I clung to my faith that if I hung in there, I would grow and the path would bear fruit.  I felt that my only hope was my own spiritual development and that nothing else mattered.

After ten years with Gurumayi, however, I knew that I was not growing and became filled with the desire to get away from a situation which seemed to be holding me back rather than spurring me forward on the path.  Actually, I cannot truthfully say why I left.  All I really know for sure is that I had to go. 

New Directions

The same kind of feeling arose for me when I decided to leave the gonpa.  I can point to all kinds of movements which led up to it and which synchronously attended the shift in direction, but I cannot truly say what the cause for it was.  Perhaps I felt in Lama Drimed’s new direction, a cosmic hint for me to also take a new direction. 

In any case, I support his new direction even though I do not personally resonate with the specific approaches he is taking.  While the tools he is using are wonderful and incredibly useful, they are not my tools - at this moment.  What I feel very enthusiastic about is the fact that he is adding western tools which engage the body, the psyche and the inner energy of the student.  I had often felt that the traditional practices did not totally address my needs. 

These days I am practicing what I could call “following the thread.”  It is a bit like unraveling a big and tangled ball of string.  It entails just paying attention to what arises - both inside and outside - and applying awareness and compassion.  It can even involve following an apparently wrong direction - following a thread of karma that seems to be somehow encoded in my program for this lifetime.  My rule is to follow whatever arises in my being.

It is like exploring a maze rather than focusing on solving it, or finding the way out.  In this game the point is to go down every pathway so that the entire field is explored - the field or maze being my own karma.  As each dead end is explored, there is a kind of blessing conveyed as it is seen with acceptance, with neither grasping nor rejection.  The idea is to leave no thread unexplored. 


This is similar to what Baba described once the kundalini is awakened.  He taught us that the awakened shakti moves through the system purifying karma on all levels.  The movements and changes in one’s body and mind are all manifestations of that purificatory action.  They are called kriyas and we were instructed to surrender to them with faith in the process.  Baba recommended that we read Devatma Shakti, which describes this process in great detail.

In the “awakened kundalini” model a conscious energy moves throughout the subtle body -our energy body - getting rid of disharmony, obstructions, and imbalance on every level allowing our true nature to manifest in Self-realization.

Another metaphor for this process is to bring the light of consciousness to all the dark places in one’s psyche – to all the unconscious aspects of ourselves.  It is like sitting in Awareness and then carrying a lighted torch of that awareness to all the dark basements, dusty hidden rooms, forgotten closets and even sub-basements in our “house.”

In the early days around Baba, I was fascinated by the kriyas I saw and desperately wanted to have them.  We were told that these spontaneous performances of mudras,  hatha yoga asanas or the uttering of Sanskrit mantras were all movements of the awakened kundalini.  Some of these kriyas were quite exotic.  We saw people roaring like lions or slithering across the floor like snakes. 

In spite of the fact that we were taught that whatever arose after the kundalini awakening (shaktipat) was a purificatory kind of kriya, I still regarded my negative emotions and thoughts as my own.  I made a distinction between “spiritual” kriyas I observed and my own ordinary egoic reactions and upwellings.  I only began to dissolve this distinction and to regard all arisings as part of the spiritual process during long solitary retreats in the late 90s.

This practice of following inner inspiration is a far cry from what happens in a church.  I spent many decades in church - which is one way that I think of my time living in spiritual community.  This was absolutely necessary for me and in many ways a wonderfully rich and gratifying experience.  It served my process and could not have been otherwise.  In a way, it was a thread I had to explore and live out completely.  I am not in any way devaluing the existence of such organizations with their rules and regulations, but merely pointing out that there are other phases and other ways one’s spiritual growth can be served.