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.