Book Review/Mastering the Subtle Energies

Those of you who’ve been reading this newsletter for awhile know that one of the things I like to repeat over and over again is the two dimensions of meditation — concentration and awareness. Other terminology may be used such as absorption and insight. It doesn’t matter. The point is that there are two basic dimensions.

Some of you may think, “So what?” and, perhaps it is not so relevant for you. But for those who’ve had, or will have, exposure to various meditation techniques and traditions, the use of these two dimensions helps to bring order to the seeming chaos of methods and techniques. Some techniques almost exclusively emphasize concentration, some emphasize awareness, and others balance the two.

So, I was very happy to see a new book out called “Momentary Buddhahood: Mindfulness and the Vajrayana Path” by Anyen Rinpoche in which he shows the continuity of concentration and awareness (which he terms mindfulness and wisdom) through a variety of forms of meditation. Because of its technical terminology, this book will not be relevant to the majority of my readers, but there are a few of you who’ve had some experience with Ati Yoga, Dzogchen or Mahamudra meditation, and for that group, I would highly recommend this book.

For my general readership, let me summarize a few points from the book that I think everyone can relate to.

The author writes that when meditating on the thought of loving-kindness our ability to remain in the thought or feeling of loving-kindness without distraction is because of mindfulness (concentration). Without mindfulness we would not be able to maintain the feeling. The recognition or realizing of the true quality of loving-kindness is wisdom (awareness).

He also points out the freshness of the experience in the moment, and the difficulty of prolonging it as an authentic experience, rather than as a made-up experience, and that we need to refresh our meditation when we feel it going stale.

He writes: “It is like putting a piece of steel into a fire. The steel gets really hot, turns red, and heat radiates from it. The color and glow of the steel are indivisible. Yet the longer that we leave the steel out of the fire, the cooler that it becomes, and it begins to turn grey. Even though it is still hot, it does not have the clear energy of the red glow to it. Once that redness is gone, it begins to turn cold.”

In the sharpness of awareness, obstacles that arise in the mind cannot get a foothold. They are burned through by clear seeing in the moment of their arising. This is what is taught in the Ati Yoga view of meditation.

However, when there is not that sharpness of seeing, we have to apply antidotes instead. Hatred gains a foothold and we may to try to relace it by thoughts of loving-kindness, or by reasoning. But in the sharpness of clear seeing, it arises and disappears at the same moment, like drops of water hitting hot steel and turning to steam.

He makes the point that this level of clarity requires sensitivity to one’s subtle energies and maintaining balance of one’s subtle energies — what is called in India the “wind energy” or prana. The reason being in tune with one’s energies is important is because thought and energy are closely related. It is sometimes said that the “wind energy” is the horse that thought rides upon. If the horse is tamed and still the thoughts cannot move.

The practical application of this is that by meditating on the breath, we are entering the doorway to harmonizing our subtle energies. As our awareness of the breath expands, we begin to become more aware of our subtle energies. That is why I frequently say we are meditating with our whole body, not just the mind. That is also why you are encouraged to feel the breath at various places in the body, particularly at the area just below the navel, which is a kind of balance point. This is also why I’ve been encouraging you to sometimes feel as though you are breathing with the whole body. Also, our conscious movement exercises are designed to help us tune into the subtle levels of experiencing the body.

All our thoughts and actions begin as subtle energy, which is the seed. In moments when we can be aware at the level of subtle energy it is like destroying weeds before they spring up, rather than having to pull them afterward.

All of this can help us gradually, gradually to obtain greater levels of clarity in the mind. We begin to notice that in the moments when our clarity is strongest, negativity cannot get a foothold. Not that we are always like this. But seeing that this can happen at various moments gives us inspiration that further training will increase our inner strength, our ability to remain clear, aware, open, and loving in a variety of circumstances, even trying ones.

We begin our meditation sessions with gentle stretching and conscious movement. What is “conscious movement”? It is not something separate from our meditation; it can actually be a form of meditation.

Conscious movement acts as a preparation and aid to meditation, and also is a bridge between meditative stillness and the movement of everyday life. Conscious movement helps us experiment with how to integrate meditative awareness into everyday life.

What makes movement “conscious”? Here are some everyday examples: Think about how you touch your lover, your child, your pet. Now think about how you touch the cereal box, the doorknob, the lightswitch.

The way we touch inanimate objects is usually fairly mechanical — we automatically gauge the weight of the object, applying the right amount of grip strength, but otherwise it is fairly automatic. But when we touch a living being, particularly one we love, there is often a “being present” and communication that occurs.

When we touch a living being to express affection, there is an aliveness and a presence is our hand. Our hand is no longer merely a mechanical grasping object, but rather a living extension of our heart-feelings.

When we are touching consciously, we feel as though there is a communication that is transmitted and received at the skin surfaces.

In conscious movement, our view of our body is similar to that of conscious touching. As we are moving our hands and arms in space, we are viewing our body as an extension of and expression of our inner feeling. When we stretch our arms up, we are not merely mechanically stretching muscles and tensions. We are opening from the center of our being and expressing that through the movement of our outstretched arms. We are projecting our intention from inside us, through our arms, out past our finger tips.

In conscious movement we are aware of our “subtle body” — the subjective experience of our body — and not just our visible physical body.
Our visible physical body stops at the skin, but our inner experience of our body can expand and shrink. Our subtle body, our sense of ourselves, can expand or contract, depending upon how open and connected we are.

The opening up of the body helps us maintain openness of awareness. The open mind and open heart find expression and embodiment in a certain attitude and carriage of the physical body. And vice-versa, the embodiment of openness and spaciousness in the physical body helps support an attitude of openness of heart and mind.

Physical contraction is generally associated with fear, replusion, cold. Expansion is associated with attraction, love, confidence, warmth. Excessive contraction leads to restrictions in the flow of breath and energy in the body. Conscious movement helps us become aware of contraction, expand, and soften restrictions.


Stare without blinking at something brightly lit — an exterior window, an electric light, a candle flame — now close your eyes and see the afterimage. Quickly the afterimage fades. Try to watch it until it totally fades. Even after you think it has faded see if you can maintain a trace of the image for a few seconds

Ring a bell. Stop. Listen to the vibrations slowly die down and subside. Listen to the sound get fainter and fainter, until it seems you cannot hear it anymore. Even after you think the sound has totally faded, see if you can maintain a trace of the sound in your mental ear for a few seconds.

Shake or vibrate some part of your body — your hand, your trunk, your head. Now gradually make that moment finer and finer, as fine as you can, until it is a slight tremor. Finer still until it is invisible from the outside. Finer still until it is just the memory of a movement inside. Maintain that sense of subtle inner movement for a few seconds.

Application of this exercise: When we are sitting in meditation we are training ourselves to become aware of very subtle sensations and experiences, as well as very gross and obvious ones. These exercises will help us tune into subtle sensations in our body, and subtle movements of our breath, emotions, mind.


Three Levels of Meditation

August 10, 2009


The writings of Zen are full of apparent paradoxes: “the pathless path,” “the gateless gate,” and so forth. How can there be a pathless path? If it is pathless then it is not a path. What is the sound of one hand clapping?

This isn’t just nonsense. Such statements point to an experience that is not quite captured by either of the opposites.

“Meditation involves effort” “Meditation is effortless” Both of these statements are true. “Right effort” refers to the correct balance — the middle way.

An ancient meditation master said that “When the strings of a harp are too tight, they break. When they are too loose, there is no sound. When they are just right, neither too tight nor too loose, every note sounds in its proper tone.”

It could also be compared to spinning yarn from wool by hand — something that most of you are probably not familiar with — try it sometime! To keep the yarn from becoming too thick or too thin, one maintains a subtle tension, not too loose and not too tight.

In meditation we gradually discover a form of effort that does not involve strain or striving.


Tea is water, coffee is water, cola is water. It is possible to use filtration and other methods to separate the pure water from the flavoring ingredients.
However, even in the unseparated state, the water is still clearly present, providing the essential quality of wetness.

Once we have tasted the silence in meditation we can develop beliefs that “I must sit for 20 minutes before I begin to experience the silence” or “I must sit for 40 minutes before I begin to experience the silence.” While these beliefs reflect past experience, they can become limiting when deeply held.

The wetness of the water is inherently a part of cola. We may not like the fizz, the sugary flavor, and the effects of the caffeine. And we may want to filter those out, which will take some time. However, the essential quality of water is immediately present. Even with the fizz, and the sugar, and caffeine, and artificial coloring, we still are experiencing water. We don’t have to wait for a filtration process before we can experience the essential presence of the water.

Similarly, silence is an inherent part of our experiences. Even the most frenetic experiences, filled with fizz, buzz, and sugar, still take place in inherent silence. We don’t have to do anything to touch the silence. The silence is already there. It is a matter of not doing that which obscures the silence. Sometimes trying to get to the silence kicks up waves that obscure the silence that is already there. (This relates to last week’s discussion of “right effort” — the balance between doing and not-doing.)

We can use “silence”with two meanings: the silence that stands in opposition to noise, and the silence that is present within noise.

Think of music. Look at a piece of sheet music. Each note is separate. Each note arises out of silence and returns to silence. The notes are separated by silence. If the silence were not woven into the music, it would not be music.

Think of speech. When we are communicating with someone verbally there is silence between words. There is silence at the end of sentence. When we want to emphasize something we pause in meaningful silence. Speech is not possible without the silence woven into it.

What happens when we focus on the silence between the words? What happens when we focus on the silence between the thoughts? What happens when we focus on the silence within the sensations?

When we shift our concept, shift our view, does our experience of meditation change?

It can be good to sit for long periods of meditation. It can be good to sit for short periods of meditation. It can be good to notice the silence for an instant in the heat of the moment.

With your vision, focus on something close to you in the room. Now look past that and focus on something further away. Both have been there the whole time. It’s a matter of what we were focusing on.

As we get older our ability to effortlessly shift focus becomes impaired. We need bifocal lenses.

When we first start meditating, we use meditation as a kind of bifocal lens. But later our mind could become supple enough and flexible enough to effortlessly move between focusing on the foreground and focusing on the background.

The background is the meaningful silence, the unconditional yes, the limitless love.

July 12, 2009

What is. . .

Being present. . .

Without struggle. . .

Being present. . . to what is . . . without struggle

Meditation is about being present to what is, without struggle. Paradoxically, that sometimes may mean being present to the struggle. (How can that be? Seems illogical. . . It is a pointer. It is like a natural koan – something we cannot penetrate in advance with reasoning apparatus – something to be understood through life experience.)

In formal meditation and in daily life we may notice moments when we are just present, without struggle.

Sometimes our noticing this triggers a series of thoughts that takes us out of simple presence.

However, eventually we can become familiar with these moments of presence and allow them to be, for as long as they naturally last, without disrupting them and without trying to artificially prolong them (which is another way of disrupting them).

This natural presence is something that is intrinsic to our nature — a deep and fundamental part of our nature.

If we experience a moment of pure presence, in meditation or in daily life, we can be deeply grateful — our meditation was fruitful.

We do not spend most of our life being present and aware without struggle. It only occurs for moments. Over time, these moments can become longer, with familiarity.

It is hard for us to imagine how we could live a normal life maintaining simple presence. It is best no to try to imagine it, creating more fantasies, thoughts, and complications. Just trust the process.

It’s so easy to forget, and I have to remind myself time and time again, that meditation is a “process,” not a “state.” We can experience a “state” of concentration, absorption, clarity — and such states can last for several minutes, and seem somewhat stable. At some point our mind observes what’s going on and labels it: “This is a pleasant state. I hope this lasts awhile! What do I have to do to make it last? I want to come back here again!” If one thinks about it too much, the state may begin to disintegrate.

It is easy then to let one’s meditation become about pursuing this “state,” because it seems to feel very good, while it lasts.

This process of pleasurable states developing, and of then longing to recapture these states, and then of developing insight into this, seems to be part of the inner logic of the unfolding of a meditation practice.

“States” are good, because they are a demonstration that “something is happening,” and provide much of the initial motivation to practice. But all states are temporary, which is a good thing, LOL, because otherwise we could fall into a permanent state of unpleasant feeling!

The times when our meditation seems a bit more difficult are also good. Of course, sometimes there is a correctible reason for this — we haven’t been getting enough sleep, the room is very hot, we are sitting in an uncomfortable position. But other times, it is just in the nature of what is happening for us at that time. We’ve had a stressful day, something difficult is going on in our lives, we are coming down with a cold. . .

Even if it does not lead to a state of bliss, meditation at such times is fruitful because it gives us an opportunity to experiment with an alternate way of relating to our discomfort, our restlessness, our pain.

I recommend you read that sentence again.

Meditating in difficult circumstances is good, because difficult circumstances are bound to arise in our life. Sometimes we can avoid them, sometimes we can distract ourselves from them, but sometimes there is nowhere to run to and we have to just face them.

Meditation can help us practice in small ways for the larger difficulties that will arise.

The way to deal with difficulties in meditation is not to grit our teeth and bear them, but to look more closely at them and enter more deeply into them. Physical and emotional pain, when we look closely at it, is a series of sensations in the body and a series of thoughts. Generally we want to hold these at a distance. When we welcome these sensations and thoughts into our field of attention, look at them closely and without preconceptions, and enter into a more intimate relationship with them, we may find we can dance with them.

Sometimes they may transform. Sometimes they may disappear. Sometimes they may stay, but our relationship with them is different.

When a state of bliss arises, it is a good mediation. When a state of bliss does not arise, it is a good meditation. If you’ve had moments of awareness and awakeness, and moments of becoming intimate with your experience without preconceptions, you’ve had a good meditation.

When you feel you are trying too hard, and going nowhere, look into that. Who is trying? Trying to go where? In the end all that we have is this present moment. Not a story about the moment, but the bare reality of the moment. How deeply can we look into the moment. When we feel we are blocked can we look into that feeling of being blocked. Not taking for granted the story that there is a block, and someone that has to overcome that block, but looking freshly and innocently at what is going on in that moment?

It is exactly the same journey for all of us. Everything that I say here, I am saying for my own benefit. If you listen and hear something you can take away for yourself, please do so.

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