As I walked beneath the Moon tonight
We seemed to draw nearer one another.
The Lord’s great ropey knotted tresses
Revealed themselves a net of light
Trawling vast universes for those souls
By the cruelty of petty gods & pettier men.
Normally, I avoid current events in this blog — not because I have no thoughts on matters of worldly concern, but because I prefer for this blog to retain a sort of purity, to be timeless. A few of my recent articles have indirectly dealt with some of the fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic, but I tried to do so in a way which would have been useful even had that virus never arisen and will remain useful years from now when the world’s concerns may be quite different. Yoga, magic, and so forth, aren’t singular entities, but tool kits which need to contain more than a single hammer. This blog is something of an addendum to my own diary. The details which stay in my own journals are either irrelevant to anyone else, private to myself, or broadly fall into the category of what modern occultists have taken to call “UPG” — unverified, or unverifiable, personal gnosis. Only those insights of possible use to others which come of ritual, meditation, divination, or just plain old life experience, and which I feel I have the capacity to communicate by the written word, make their way here.
But we’re in strange territory, here. It’s not 100% unprecedented, as a lot of newspaper editorials seem to think, but it’s certainly rare. The events of the day aren’t such that I can pass them over without remark. Black Americans, and other people of color, as well as sexual minorities here in the States — including those of Latin and Hispanic descent, American Indians, those of Chinese and other Asian ethnic descent, homosexuals, bisexuals, transgender people, and others besides whose names and titles I do not know or who I (apologetically) am currently forgetting — are demanding that their voices be heard above the din of those of us of (broad) European descent, and many of us (never enough!) are at last listening, stepping aside, and trying to amplify them. This is happening in the midst of the same global viral pandemic. Incredible numbers of people around the world are gathering in solidarity, as well as bringing this movement together with their own native struggles, in spite of medical risks; however we may feel about that part of it, the bravery is undeniable and admirable. I’m never particularly optimistic about mass movements, but this one looks (both on the ground and astrologically) to be a genuine turning point.
I myself am angered by the treatment of human beings at the hand and by the boots, cudgels, and bullets of other human beings. Whether for reasons of racism, nationalism, religious zealotry, or any other attempted justifications, this behavior and these ideologies are unacceptable. But here’s where things swerve neatly back to the project of this blog:
My anger does not arise from fear or hatred. It arises from love and the nondual experience of Yoga. I’m human; I feel fear, hatred, and anger like anyone else. But the yogi seeks to disentangle emotions and other mental and neurological processes from one another to spot their real source in experience. Often enough, this process will cause a lot of mental events simply to dissolve and their neurological correlates to calm themselves for energy to divert where it is really needed. Sometimes, though, the seemingly unmoored thoughts and feelings can be traced even further back to something yet deeper. Whatever their cause, mental events are movements in the substance of consciousness; these can be pathological (which is to say, arising from the kleshas) or they can be health-promoting. Ultimately, we seek stillness of mind, but while we’re here in both subtle and gross material bodies, there will be some jostling about; we’d best make it work toward our goal, undermining dangerous patterns rather than creating new ones.
Contrary to Western expectation, there is no obligation for the yogi to be kind everyone. That’s a fine enough ideal to hold for oneself, but it cannot be universal; each yogi has their own mission to fulfill and each guru their own teaching modality. Trying to fit them all into the same box will lead to disappointment at the least, and could well keep the student from their appointed teacher. Compassion, however, is a different story.
True, unconditional love and compassion arise from the nondual experience, from the sure knowledge that there are no “others” to speak of. But compassion doesn’t always look like kindness to all indiscriminately. Often, it looks like calling out or putting a stop to the unskillful behavior of others with precisely as much force as is necessary under present conditions. This only happens when we begin to examine root causes and start to learn which behaviors are usefully interfered with and which need to run their course. When doing so, recall that individuals have their karmas, but so do cultures, societies, nations, and civilizations. Roots may grow in many layers of soil, often all at once.
Karma is just what we call the web of causality which we each must navigate; like a spider’s web or a fisher’s net, those karmas woven tight are difficult to escape. Strands will snap when pressure is applied to them but only if they have been undermined, often by building small actions over time like the use of a file on thick rope. When the nets of both the individual and of some broader body like a church, a family, or state line up fatefully, it can be almost impossible for that individual to find a gap or a weak spot. And so the hard work of change comes upon us.
The principle of karma is that life is, at base, fair. This will raise some hackles for those of us who care about social and economic justice. But look back at the above paragraph and you can begin to unpack; fair and just aren’t always the same. We live in an inherently imperfect (as made visible by our lights) universe. Though this universe is a Self-revelation of God (Parama Siva, Brahman, Mahaivairocana-Buddha, the Unknown Father) and every minute speck of it is alive unto itself, it is yet one in which we are made to seek for the One behind and in it; hence why Nathas can simultaneously affirm that we are awash in the most obvious ocean of divinity and yet call this selfsame Consciousness Alakh Niranjana — the Imperceivable Spotless One. As I hinted at earlier, we each have our own “mission”. This is not merely some worldly assignment of the love-and-light sort, though for some it may take that shape; we each have our own particular and peculiar bondage to release, so each must be got rid of in a way unique to it. Often, this demands address and aid from other beings, physically embodied or otherwise. Not everyone is here just yet to find their Satguru — or perhaps they’ve already found and been found, but require interactions with the Guru in a variety of forms and phenomena. Thus it is likewise the commission of many of us to be those forms and phenomena, knowingly or not. Nondual compassion, then, is making the attempt to be that form with some awareness of our place in the Whole, and so when placed by fate in circumstances proper for it to aid others in dissolving their bonds, those karmas, kleshas, and konditions* which hold them from experiencing the Peace, Freedom, and Happiness which is theirs by right merely of existing.
The nondual experience of the Natha Yogi is absolute, but it is radical in that it does not flush away, obviate, or sublate difference and distinction; rather, it finds the plurality within nondual Reality and the nondual Reality in all particulars. When we catch so much as a glimpse of this Beatific Vision, we may begin to carry out our duties — svadharma — as the glories of our own wills — svatantra; such duty is no longer bondage but Freedom and Awakening. Pray and contemplate that we not only have this experience and carry the ever-widening cosmic vistas it permits us into our lives, day by day, in the way most appropriate for each unique phenomenal moment.
*”Konditions”, spelled with an initial k, was a humorous literary choice made by Shri Gurudev Mahendranath when referring to the variety of forms of social programming we each undergo. He referred to karmas, kleshas, and konditioning collectively as “the KKK matrix” which we each must overcome. I chose to retain Dadaji’s idiosyncratic spelling not only to honor the source of my terminology but also because “KKK” as a foundational set of problems seems satirically apropos.
made all the more cruel
of the One Needful Thing
for its shades and values
Watching the Sun rise
over Thames, Nile,
you catch glimpses
through the mist and storm
of mountains upon the air
And you wonder
Which peak is Meru?
Upon which do Sambhu
and Parvati sport
among the goblins?
In what foothills
do the Witch Queen
and windy Devil dance?
Exulting in Moonlight
or suffering by day
I feel each
as a lick by the tongue
of the Mother’s faithful tiger
Roughing away the scurf
of all actions, all patterns,
the sources of all pain
And here is immortality
You’ve seen me write in the past of my experiences with the so-called occult community — and you’ve likely gotten the impression that I am not especially dazzled by what I’ve seen. I do not intend to be overly negative, but frank discussion and honest conversation is how we grow.
Despite my underwhelming experiences with these groups, every few years I feel the urge to poke my head back in out of a very human need for common ground and socializing with those who can sympathize with strange experiences. I’ve made some very good friends this way, of course, but I by and large encounter some of the worst of humanity with each peek in the door.
For those of us with experiences which put us by default out of bounds for the constructed reality of our prevailing culture, there is this need for some sort of sub- or even counter-culture in which to feel more at home. There isn’t anything wrong with the impulse itself, but like most instincts it can lead us into trouble if we do not temper it with reason and experience. For most of us, social instincts lead us to tribalism and cliquishness, a tendency which may aid survival under some circumstances but when unchecked by other social feelings like empathy, compassion, and willingness to listen can easily become snobbishness, superiority, bullying, even bigotry.
Some years ago, my Guru warned me against being a cheerleader for other people. At the time, I was not sure what he meant by it — but as is common with the Guru’s insights it was soon made clear by events playing out before my eyes. Several prominent occultists — each author to several books and having strong followings — with whom I was acquainted and friendly began to reveal more and more their true colors. In some cases, it was as simple as pettiness arising from arrogance, but in some it was outright hatefulness barely disguised as spiritual aloofness. These in particular revealed themselves to be merely angry and afraid, hiding behind an above-it-all directness. A few such individuals, I’m not proud to say, I had been following closely and from whom I was seeking support and affirmation. Much of my public facing at the time was in some way supporting them or seeking their approval. Once the veneer began to peel, however, I understood what my Guru had meant and realized the foolishness of tying myself to the views and reputations of others.
Perhaps it is always so, but I am watching just now what seems to be an explosion of occult sycophancy. I’m watching my magicians, witches, and mystics — ironically enough — joining in on witch-hunts and cultish pile-ons, disguised of course as quite righteous defenses of those other bullies who disguise themselves as teachers and leaders.
Thus do the so-called mages and wise ones commit every error of the politicians and organized religions institutions they make such a show of criticizing or even combating (to what avail I have yet to see). I see professional spiritual workers making public sensitive private details of their clients to gain social capital in ways that even corrupt Catholic priests would find immoral; I see intellectual honesty being rewarded by mob attacks orchestrated by “elders” as fragile and afraid as any white male conservative they believe themselves above; I see sexual predators being defended in public by those who proudly declare a willingness to “believe victims”. What wisdom has truly been gained? What proof of attainment?
Groupthink, cheerleading, cynical self-interest, dishonesty, unself-aware hypocrisy — these are all obstacles for the mystic and magician, but they’re also signs of an immature mind. It is with great pain that we become aware of them in ourselves, made all the more difficult by keeping society with those who encourage and value them for the advantages they bring. Unfortunately we have in occultism a great many petty cult-leaders and would-be intellectuals we do not care who they harm if it shields their fragile little selves from reality for another day and plenty of willing subjects who are merely happy to have some Big Name’s approval.
My advice, if you want any, is to avoid public occultism in general. As you may be aware, other than this blog and my astrology practice I tend to keep to myself. But insofar as you choose to engage, be mindful not only of with whom but, more importantly, how and why you engage. If you see people set up as leaders and instructors falling into high school clique behavior, ask yourself what it says about them and their community. If you find yourself falling back on high school clique habits, give yourself a hard look and ask, “Why?” We’ve all been there, but why do we end up there? It’s an opportunity for growth when we notice it, but gone unexamined it can sink us like a lead weight — even if the people around us play along because they can get something out of it.
There’s truth in the saying that “power corrupts”, but it is a misunderstood truth. Power can’t corrupt in a vacuum. Rather, it allows us to bring what it is within us out, with the type of power determining precisely how it can show itself. Money is a type of power, as are political authority, academic respect, community organizing — the list goes on. If what a person has within them is compassionate (for example), having the power to put it into effect does not suddenly make the person a monster, but if the person had within them spitefulness, the more powerful they become the more they will enact that evil in the world and the less they will care about specific targets. When people say, for instance, “more money, more problems,” it isn’t that the problems actually multiply, but that they maintain scale with the level of wealth because the individual’s level of discipline with their money has not changed; it is the same with any form of power.
This all being the case, I am not condemning power but encouraging it. Improperly understood and incorporated into one’s thinking as an excuse for avoidance, “power corrupts” is a mighty tool in the hands of the haves against the have-nots. But let us not forget: magic, psychism, and meditation are all sources of power.
We have the Sanskrit word “śakti” which translates literally as “power”, and much like the English word power it is interchangeably used to refer to all manner of strength, force, and ability; śakti can grammatically indicate anything from raw physical strength to force of will to abstract energy to skillfulness. Of course, in Tantric Yoga we recognize all types of power as emanations of the One Power, Śakti with a capital Ś. Whether we approach Her as one Goddess or many goddesses or as an abstract force, we are each able to channel a particular amount of Her through our minds, bodies, and all other areas of our lives according to our karmas:
Perhaps I am born rich or become rich because I have done some work to open the way for wealth; or I gain political power because I have done what it takes (in this life or previously) to make myself a channel for this particular śakti; or, to get weird, maybe I have psychic power because I practice Yoga (whether or not that’s what I call it, whether or not it is in this life or due to work in another time) and clear out my subtle energy channels enough to send and receive information by them.
Take note that at no point above did I mention desserts. I don’t have to be a good person to attain any or all of the above, I just have to have opened the way for them in ways appropriate to each. The difference between a “good” person and a “bad” person is just the sort of internal pattern — what we might ordinarily call “personality traits” — allowed to come forth by the application of ability. A person born to wealth is neither automatically better or worse than you or I (assuming you, the reader, weren’t born to wealth; if you were, feel free to ask for my PayPal info), nor does it imply any particular intelligence, bravery, or skill in this lifetime (regardless of bootstrap-related claims).
In times like this, when many people feel distinctly powerless in the face of worldwide environmental degradation, global events, national politics, and economics which seem to be on an almost otherworldly scale, it important that each of us heals our own relationship with power. For many, it is a matter of bare survival to figure out which forms of power they can draw from; those of us who have a handle on survival for the time being also have the luxury of revising our entire mindset on the matter. We don’t need to be aiming at wealth, fame, or political authority in order to find the value in power. In fact, everyone will find that they want and need power in different ways because everyone will have a unique set of needs to fulfill. But this is precisely why many of us practice magic, Yoga, or other occult and esoteric arts and sciences. Maybe you are searching for comfort and meaning in a world which presently seems quite hostile to the individual, or maybe you are trying to build a world more suitable for your children. Even the purest of mystics require access to power; Mother Śakti is the only way to escape rebirth.
Whether your goals are personal, charitable, or spiritual — or, as with many magicians, witches, and Yogis, some amalgam of the three — powerlessness is not the way to achieve them. The more obstacles stand in front of us, the more power is needed to remove, destroy, or navigate around them. We must find, channel, and own up to the power we need, not avoid it out of fear, anxiety, or misguided scruples. As to those scruples: power need not be “power over”, as it is first and foremost “power for” and it is our thoughts, words, and deeds which determine the value of its manifestations.
Psychic Witch: A Metaphysical Guide to Meditation, Magick & Manifestation by Mat Auryn (2020, Llewellyn Publications)
I’ll be honest: I pre-ordered this one because I like the cover art. It evokes for me the experience of browsing the Metaphysics shelves at Borders or the New Age shelves at Barnes & Noble back in the ’90s. It’s got the sort of “soft spookiness” of a lot of books on Wicca and witchcraft from when I was growing up. For the same reason, though, I wasn’t particularly optimistic about it. The online marketing for the book was clearly not aimed at me. Besides that, I’m pretty out of touch from modern witchcraft literature these past many years. I haven’t been especially impressed with a lot of it that I’ve seen, given that much of it anymore is full of high-flown poetic language alongside extremely rudimentary magical practices. That’s more or less what I was expecting from Psychic Witch, and I would have been happy just to have gotten an entertaining, nostalgic read.
I did get that nostalgic hit I was going for; picking up a Llewellyn book on witchcraft with simple but evocative black-and-white artwork is an experience which always takes me back to youthfully exploring outre ideas, my first forays into goth rock, and heading out into the woods at dusk to search for local spirits. But I got a lot more than that.
I’m now actually working through the exercises of Psychic Witch, step by step, as described, and I’m finding the whole thing an excellent refresher. Not only that, the practices herein are helping me to fill in gaps I’d left myself over the years.
It’s important to say that if you’ve been around the occult for a while, there’s not much really new in Psychic Witch. Much of it is familiar to me from past work with witchcraft, Yoga, and Franz Bardon’s Initiation Into Hermetics. The real benefit I’m getting out of it is a structured way of revisiting those aspects of psychic development which find utility in pretty much every other form of magical practice. Auryn’s step-by-step approach, founded in not only his own experience as a practitioner but also as a teacher, makes the material very digestible and applicable in a variety of directions. A favorite part of the exercises for me, and one which I know a lot of people will find helpful, is the focus on deepening one’s awareness with their own physical senses prior to, and as a baseline for, their subtle senses. In occult circles, it’s pretty common to try to make a leap over a perceived ontological gap between the physical and the “astral”, treating psychic and mental phenomena as somehow different in kind from bodily ones. Auryn cuts this error off at the source by grounding everything in the experiences we all know through our familiar old corpses.
For those newer to the practice, the same factors will make Psychic Witch an excellent next step. Whether you’re brand new, or have already done some work, you’ll find a lot of growth here. You won’t need much in the way of tools or materials to get through the exercises. Even the “spells” toward the end of the book rely on the the inner skills you’ll have picked up by that point rather than on exotic ingredients or complex rituals; those familiar with some of the better examples of New Thought will find a comfortable fit. The metaphysics of the book are similarly accessible. Auryn eschews the use of any particular cosmology or theology in favor of a paired-down and relatively universal approach which makes the practices easy to slot in to just about anybody’s core practice — or even to use it as a core practice until one finds their place.
While Psychic Witch is specifically marketed toward witches, it neatly recommends itself to any practitioner of magic or anyone desiring to be one. Beyond that, I will be suggesting it from here on to anyone asking for a good place to start their magical training. Auryn’s friendly voice and the sensitivity with which he adds experience upon experience and the sheer essential nature of the material make Psychic Witch a new standard for core occult training and, for me, a very pleasant surprise.
Click here to purchase your copy while helping me and your local independent bookstores all at the same time!
With an uptick in general stress levels, I’m seeing an increase both in the idea that emotions are uniformly to be despised and, on the flip side, that every emotion is worth sinking into in the name of self-care. Even here we find our society polarizing; ever was it thus! And, as ever, the truth — by which I mean the most helpful, actionable position — lies somewhere in the excluded middle.
Approaches from Stoicism to Christianity to Buddhism are often rallied to the claim that human emotions are somehow beneath the superior or spiritualizing individual. Vedanta and Yoga can also easily find themselves so abused. A close reading of the primary sources involved, however, finds much more nuance in their positions.
In the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius — one of the most important classics of Stoicism, and certainly the most influential for the average modern reader — we find numerous instances of the good emperor expressing a very deep experience of his own feelings and passions. While he seems to be of two minds on their value, he does not ignore them. A friend and self-described Stoic once opined to me that he found even Marcus’s desire to keep such a journal to be a sign of uncured vanity, and thus a failure of Marcus’s Stoicism. To me, this is a rather extravagant interpretation; philosophy should not make a person inhuman, but encourage the better parts of their humanity. It perhaps says more about the observer’s need to judge Marcus’s looking for a means to explore his own experiences while leaving his insights to posterity than it says about Marcus’s success or failure in his philosophical endeavor.
More in my wheelhouse, we have the common notion of detachment found in Yoga, Vedanta, Samkhya, Buddhism, and on and on; more or less every spiritually-oriented Indian philosophy, whether Hindu or otherwise, gives some attention to detachment. Those in the West who immediately embrace it tend to do so in the same spirit in which my friend misconstrued Stoicism; for them, detachment means apathy and apathy in the modern sense of simply not caring. A bit more charitably, many such individuals perhaps see repression as the only alternative to license.
Others, however, take detachment as license. This interpretation is founded in the relativistic notion that since nobody can know for sure what is a good or an evil action, any action may be performed by the mystic so long as it is done with detachment or “lack of ego”. The Karma-Yoga of Bhagavad Gita is often cited as support. Again, this is a misreading. Lord Krishna is only speaking of the performance of unpleasant duties in a spirit of surrender as a means to purify the mind; material consequences still accrue from actions taken in this way even if the psyche is made more free thereby. It is quite a stretch to take from this the idea that any and every fleeting emotion should therefore be indulged. An Avadhuta or Mahasiddha may act in any way they wish; for the rest of us, “Do what you will, but choose wisely!”
Emotions are emotions; feelings are feelings; thoughts are thoughts. There is neither inherent good nor inherent evil to them. They are functions of our bodies and minds. While changeable, they have purpose in survival as well as motivating a number of higher pursuits. They cannot be dismissed out of hand, and repressed emotions universally go septic as they churn in warm darkness below the surface of the psyche. Detachment is for the Yogi the healthiest angle of approach. The truth of detachment is simply that we recognize that emotions are emotions; feelings are feelings; thoughts are thoughts. We neither indulge nor repress them, but learn to observe. This way, we redirect the energy of our emotions into the very act of observation itself, not only gradually starving potentially distracting or destructive cycles of their motive force but also learning about what lies behind those processes in the first place.
Feeling our emotions and thinking our thoughts is not the problem. The problem is in letting them run away with us. They must be acknowledged just as bodily sensations must, and just the same they must be appropriately gauged for severity, diagnosed, and treated for what they signify rather than for what they look like on the surface. Here is much of the work of Yoga.
Not long after the last article went public, I received an unrelated text message from a close friend asking me about day-to-day methods for managing anger. Working a public-facing job as I do, I’ve become somewhat expert at that, though that’s not to say I always do it perfectly. But this does return to our previous topic: calming the mind is a gradual process. Certain activities (or substances) may calm us down temporarily, but what we really need to do is build the habit of calm. It takes time and effort, but we can certainly get ourselves to the point at which calm is the norm and anger, fear, panic, anxiety, hatred, and so forth are exceptional. The very same process will eventually parch the seeds of those mental states — though that degree of restraint will take most of us far longer to achieve. If you are having difficulty with one of these afflicting mental fluctuations, please first re-read that last post linked above. For those of you who have already read it but want a brief reminder, it is this: awareness of your own mental and emotional patterns is already a huge step toward resolving those patterns, while knowledge of consistent effort over time as the only way of building healthier patterns is a tonic to despair and frustration.
But if you’re not already a meditator, what are the options for putting this into practice? More to the point of my friend’s question, what can be done during normal daily life to cut these harmful patterns off before they really get moving? In answer to these questions, here is a three point plan for managing these afflictions in our lives. Note that these are not graduated steps, but concurrent aids and constant tools. They all work best when used in tandem and daily.
This one isn’t easy in isolation, but makes a necessary adjunct to the following two. This method simply consists of paying attention to your own mind and behavior. Granting that this isn’t always easy when in the midst of anxiety or anger, you can usually spot the moment your response is triggered. Do not discount how important this is! While a seemingly small realization, finding that split second of transition from self-controlled functioning to semi-conscious adrenaline beast is a big step toward creating the sort of hairline crack into which the wedge of free will may be inserted.
Once you’ve discovered this transition point, start inquiring into it: What does that transition feel like? What are the physiological and psychological signs of it? How do you know when it has gone beyond the point of no return? For example, when my anxiety is triggered, I immediately feel the muscles in my upper back and neck tensing up. This is my moment to stop the cycle. If I allow it to continue, I will feel a flutter move through my body (likely the moment when adrenaline begins to pump into my system in a big way) and I begin to feel angry; I’m more of a “fight” than “flight” sort of person, so I prepare for a conflict which now feels inevitable. I have found over time that I can catch myself here, as well, though the space is much smaller. If I do not, my vision will blur and everything will appear as if I were looking through a red filter. At this point, I just have to ride it out and mitigate as best I can. Your pattern may be similar, but could be quite different; the important thing is to keep your wits looking for your own cues and make note of them. The more familiar with them you become, the better able you’ll be to use them in future instances.
Japa is a practice common to Yogis of all stripes, as well as religious Hindus and Buddhists. Simply, it is the mental repetition of a mantra. Tantric and yogic literature love their folk etymologies, analyzing the roots of words (usually in Sanskrit) in such a way as to draw out their esoteric significance. One such interpretation of “mantra” is “man” + “tra”, with “man” being short for manas or mind, and “tra” meaning “protector”; ergo, mantra means “protector of the mind”.
There are two principle ways of applying japa which for convenience I’ll call sitting japa and walking japa. Sitting japa is a form of simple concentration, or contemplative prayer for those of a devotional bent, in which you sit in a comfortable, straight-backed position, and regulate your breathing by repetition of a mantra. The procedure is as follows:
- Sit cross-legged on the floor, using a small cushion as a wedge beneath your sit-bones.
- Close your eyes or fix them in a relaxed manner upon a single point (a dot on the wall, the image of a holy personage or deity, a candle flame, the burning tip of a stick of incense, whatever).
- Breathe in by pushing your belly out and out by relaxing your belly; do not suck air in or force it out, as this causes further tension and can trigger anxiety. Try to keep your in and out breaths the same length without straining. Take a few such breaths to get a good rhythm and to begin breaking down tension.
- Repeat your mantra inwardly; depending on the length of the mantra, repeat it one or two times at a leisurely pace as you inhale, then the same number of times as you exhale. Keep your breathing pace regular and relaxed; adjust mantra repetitions to your breath, not the other way around.
- Use a rosary or japa-mala to count off your repetitions; a standard mala has 108 beads, which is traditional, though 18, 33, 54, or other symbolic numbers are suitable. Orthodox Christians sometimes use a knotted rope or string to count off prayers; this also works if you do not have a mala. Some yogis also use their right thumb to count off the joints of their little, ring, and middle finger of their right hand, equaling nine; the thumb of the left hand can then be used to count off each group of nine on the joints of all four fingers equally 12 rounds or 108 total repetitions. Choose the method which is most suitable to your situation. Counting is not strictly necessary, but is a good way of ensuring that you spend around ten minutes on the practice; you can also set a timer for 10 or 12 minutes, or start with 5 minutes and work your way up. Don’t sweat such details; use what aids you and discard what gets in the way.
While the goal is to concentrate your mind on the mantra alone, do not strain at it; if you find your mind straying from the mantra, gently return your attention to it and continue. Over time, this will become more natural and you will have less trouble with it. Even with some experience, however, you will have days of distractions and will have to catch yourself from time to time. Don’t worry over it; just keep going.
I recommend sitting japa once or twice a day, morning and/or evening; it can be done as a lead-in to the simple meditation given below.
Once you are accustomed to your mantra in sitting japa, you can bring it with you into your every day life. The procedure is very simple: when you have no need to be focusing on any other mental task, chant the mantra inwardly. That is, when you are not writing, speaking, or otherwise having to focus on anything else, repeat the mantra in your mind. If sitting at a desk waiting for the next task, or taking a leisurely walk, you may wish to join the mantra with your breath in a relaxed way; if walking at a brisker pace or something of the sort, you may instead repeat the mantra on its own cycle regardless of breath. In any case, make the mantra the centerpiece of your mental environment; return to it as soon as a task is done.
Walking japa can be a massive help in driving the wedge of free will into an apparently intractable mental event; not only does it give you mental breathing room throughout the day, you may also begin japa the moment you notice an internal triggering event. It may not entirely halt the pattern, especially early in your practice, but it will still provide a little distance which can be key in extricating yourself from the situation before it gets out of hand or at least reminding yourself that you have a choice in how you respond. Again, the idea is short-term interruption and long-term weakening of old patterns and the building up of new, healthier patterns.
Choosing a Mantra
A mantra is traditionally given by one’s teacher, but this is not always an option. Here, I present a small selection of mantras suitable for anyone’s use. Though any of them can be further empowered by a Satguru’s blessing, they do not require a Guru.
Om Gam Ganapataye Namah (pronounced something like “om gung guh-nuh-puh-tuh-YAY nuh-muh-huh) is the seed mantra of Ganapati (Ganesha). In addition to aiding in concentration, this mantra is helpful in removing obstacles, opening pathways, and pacifying local spirits.
Om Namah Sivaya (pronounced “om nuh-muh she-VAH-yuh) is the core mantra of Lord Siva, the Absolute Consciousness. He is known by many names and titles, including Bholenath, the Lord Who is easily pleased, and the name Siva itself means “auspicious” or “good”.
Om Amrta Tejahara Hum (pronounced “om um-rit-uh TAY-juh-HA-ruh HOONG”) is one of the mantras of the Buddha Amitabha; it is said that anyone who faithfully chants his mantra will be reborn in his Pure Land wherein it is significantly easier to attain enlightenment. Other versions include the Japanese Namo Amida Butsu, Namomitabhaya Buddhaya, and Om Amitabha Hrih.
Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me is suitable for Christians; it is known as the Jesus Prayer and is commonly used for contemplative prayer among Orthodox Christians.
While the above include Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian options (and many other religious traditions present possibilities, including the Sh’ma Yisrael of Judaism) it is not necessary to be a “believer” to make use of this technique. Choose the mantra above which resonates most with you, or another one from your own tradition and get to work; for the present purposes, it is the capacity of mantra practice to aid in concentration which is most important.
3: Zazen & Shikantaza
Shikantaza, Japanese for “just sitting”, is perhaps the simplest form of meditation there is. But simple isn’t easy! For most people who try to jump right into it, such a practice can be a form of physical and mental torture. The goal of shikantaza, insofar as there is a “goal” at all, is to simply remain aware; over time, obstacles to awareness dissolve on their own simply through the power of relaxed consciousness of them. But we must work our way there.
- Sit as you did before while doing japa. (Note that you may use your japa session as a lead-in to this meditation.)
- Breathe naturally; if your breath gradually changes during the practice, that is okay, but avoid sudden shifts if you can.
- Keep your eyes open and relaxed; with your neck straight, let your gaze drift down so that you are looking at the floor about three feet in front of you or else at a blank patch of wall, an icon of your choice, candle flame, burning tip of incense, or any other place to rest your vision. You may also close your eyes, keeping them either slightly down-turned (if you are stressed or anxious) or slightly up-turned (if you are drowsy or weary). Different sources will tell you that one or other of these is the “right” way to do things; try both and decide for yourself which gets you the better result.
- Once you are settled in, begin to mentally watch your breaths. Mentally follow your breath as it enters your nose, flows into your sinuses, then back and down into your lungs; follow it as you exhale, rising out of your lungs, through your trachea and sinuses and back out in front of your chest.
- With each cycle of in-and-out, count; once you reach seven or nine (choose in advance which you will use), start again at one. Inhale, exhale; one. Inhale, exhale; two. Inhale, exhale; three. And so forth. There is no need to count the total number of cycles or track how many times you reach the full count before starting over.
- As you continue this counting, allow any thoughts, emotions, or sensations to simply arise and set of their own accord. Notice them and continue breathing and counting. If you find yourself having been drawn away from your breath and your counting by any given thought or sensation, simply acknowledge it, return to your breath, and start over at one.
It is a good idea to establish a specific period of time for practice. A traditional method is to watch the tip of a stick of incense and continue practice until it burns itself out. Of course, setting a timer and placing it out of sight so that it does not distract is also a possibility.
Again, I must emphasize that none of these methods work overnight — though I don’t discount the possibility of certain results coming quickly. What is most important is consistency over time. Those two factors in tandem can do great things, but if either is neglected the whole thing falls apart. If all of this is new to you, begin with any of the above three points and add the others in as you feel comfortable doing so; I find that japa is the easiest place to start, but begin wherever feels most natural for you. Most importantly, wherever you start — keep going!
The state of restraint is when there is a disappearance of outgoing samskaras and the appearance of restraining samskaras. These emerge in the mind at the moment of restraint. The mind’s undisturbed flow occurs due to samskaras.Patanjali, Yoga Sutras III.10
We often speak of “enlightenment” as if it were a sudden, once-and-done event that arises as if from nowhere. We all know that there’s more to it than that, but our language around it can be very misleading. This is because we tend to treat all mental events this way; every thought and emotion is as if unique, spontaneous, and uncontrollable. I haven’t allowed myself to become angry, I was made mad — that is to say, forced into anger with no input or recourse. But like so many things in our lives, mental states are a matter of cause-and-effect and they follow clear patterns.
Meditation is the process of stilling the mind so that pure Awareness may shine forth in its nakedness, and this is achieved through graduated degrees of concentration. While this is framed in many ways, one of the more precise ones comes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Patanjali focuses throughout his teachings on the psychology of Yoga and not so much on metaphysics or theology. For Patanjali, meditation is the exercise of weakening those samskāras — mental patterns — which turn the mind outward by generating and strengthening samskāras which turn the mind inward.
The use of this model is not only to gain more intellectual understanding of what one is doing, although there is practical value to that. More immediately the understanding of the presence of these samskāras is useful for warding off despair. We will have many apparent failures on the path of Yoga, 100% of them the results of outward-tending samskāras. As we discipline ourselves and push forward, however, we will encounter more and more sits during which our minds successfully turn inward, and those will both lengthen and deepen. Of course, we will continue to have shallow or distracted sits, but they will become less common and easier to overcome. When we understand that we are working with subconscious patterns, we can then more consciously engage with them with the knowledge that such things don’t change overnight.
This is a universal lesson; it applies to every sort of mental pattern, even those which we don’t immediately relate to our spirituality. Magicians can of course avail themselves of this perspective in determining how best to facilitate concentration during their operations. More importantly, everyone who meditates, for whatever purpose, may learn the value of consistency and of being realistic in their expectations of themselves; discipline is a good thing, but it can too easily cross over into self-flagellation.
Moreover, in times of stress and trouble we must remember that external circumstances trigger the activation of samskāras. People with strong fearful samskāras will likely respond to stressors with fear, and so forth. Meditation is a tool for overcoming these patterns, at first retraining them to something more useful and, eventually, doing away with them to allow for genuinely spontaneous decision-making. It can be a great help to remind ourselves of the nature of this process frequently, for even this small step grants us the little mental gap necessary to observe such patterns in action and so perhaps stop them before they activate or simply sit with the activated patterns rather than letting them run wild.
In troubled times — and all times are troubled! — take your toolkit with you into the world. Meditation is not merely what we do on the cushion. Internally chanting mantra (japa) is a simple way over time to generate that much-needed mental distance which allows us to observe our own patterns at work rather than being carried away by them.
Om Namaḥ Śivāya
The desire to renounce things is the obstacle. The Self is simple renunciation. The Self has renounced all.~ Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi compiled by Sri Munagala Venkataramiah, Talk 268
The past several days, as of this writing, have been filled with excruciating pain. I had never before experienced literally blinding pain, but an exposed nerve in a broken tooth will do that, apparently. In one particularly bad instance, it was only through mental japa — the concentrated repetition of a mantra — that I managed to hold it together enough to make an appointment with the dentist and walk home from work to take care of myself. While I’m sure I would have survived without it, the Yoga discipline of japa notably improved my performance under the circumstances.
The timing is funny, as a friend of mine had just asked me the following a few nights before the tooth became a problem: “What do yogis do? With witches, I can look at something or even just make something up and say, ‘That seems like something witches would do,’ but I can’t do that with yogis.” I’ve been thinking about it ever since, as I’d never really stopped to consider how I’d describe what yogis do before. The intense pain of a nerve ending exposed to the elements gave me a stark context for my contemplation. You’d think I could just say, “Yogis do Yoga,” and let that be that, but as I said in my last post Yoga is difficult to pin down. Patanjali clearly defines Yoga as both the set of practices which achieves and the achievement of the stilling of modifications of the mental substance. That’s a helpful definition as far as it goes, but it does require a lot of unpacking.
I won’t insult or bore my readers with another lengthy explanation of the fact that what gets sold as “yoga” in the marketplace bears just about zero resemblance to the real thing; let’s take that as a given and move on. Things like meditation, contemplation, ritual worship, and so on are obvious enough examples of “stuff yogis do”, but they don’t always look as expected. There’s not one form for any of these things which you can count on in any given individual or group, and even some of the common terms will mean different things depending on context. All of these practices, their myriad of shapes and names, and the variety of reasons for engaging in them are all very important for the yogi; read about those, try them out for yourself, and you’ll know a good bit about “what yogis do”.
But, significantly, you won’t know the most important part: Yogis renounce.
Yogis renounce every obstacle to Awakening. We renounce our own sense of action and desserts, all of our karma. We renounce our conditioned thoughts and emotions. We renounce our love of life and our fear of death. We renounce our disgust, our grasping. We renounce those things and ideas with which we identify, those building blocks of selfhood and separation. We renounce our lack of awareness and our misapprehensions.
This may sound extreme, but stick with me. This is not the cultish “breaking down to build up in our image” thing; the lineage does not force this renunciation in the individual, nor does the Guru insist upon it. We practice our meditation, our chanting, our ritual, making every thought, word, and deed throughout the day somehow a thread in the tapestry of our Yoga. We continue to engage with the world as needed, but do so with increasing spontaneity and decreasing artificiality. Whatever is real within us, we discover it by peeling away everything else.
We do not thereby destroy our personalities, efface our likes and dislikes, or enervate our affections. So long as we are human beings, we will have these characteristics. But we do learn to wear them more lightly. We come to see them for what they are: fancy dress, the shape and color of which reveal something of what is underneath but which cannot be it. We therefore take them less seriously, seeing them as opportunities for practice and simultaneously as ornaments or toys to be enjoyed for as long as they last.
We renounce the world and thereby ourselves — as everything we think we know of ourselves is conditioned by the things of the world — but ultimately we renounce renunciation. Many Hindu and Jain Yogis become attached to asceticism, Christian mystics to mortification, Buddhists to non-self; these are all a form of egotism, fear of death, of grasping after renunciation itself. Even renunciation and holiness become sources of pain if we fail to see them for what they are after they have served their principal purpose. Patanjali tells us that the purpose of Nature (prakrti) is for the enjoyment and liberation of the Self (purusha); once it has performed both of these tasks, it becomes as if non-existent. Of course, the world doesn’t really vanish when one attains Awakening, but such a person is able not only to see the world as it is, but to see through the world, to see beyond the appearance to That which upholds it. At that point, what is there left to renounce but the thought of renunciation itself? When everything is let go, everything can simply rest in its own nature.
Ultimately, then, we can cut through it all to this: what yogis do is whatever it takes to get to that place wherein everything is just as it is. It is a paradox of spiritual practice that we must apply a great deal of effort over a long time just to realize — genuinely realize, and not just theoretically accept — that there’s nothing to realize and no effort is necessary. Yogis live this paradox. All of the schools, lineages, metaphysics, theologies, cosmologies, meditations, mantras, yantras, and rituals are just for this. However grandiose, lowly, or merely absurd that may strike any given ear, that’s it, that’s all we do.
Yoga is notoriously difficult to pin down. There are numerous schools and sects of Yogis crossing multiple religious bounds, and though there are major points of agreement between them there are also significant disparities in doctrine. I have a lot of trouble, therefore, when people ask me for book recommendations on the topic. Ultimately, however, Yoga is Yoga — the techniques matter more than other details, and the Goal is the Goal however we formulate it. No amount of books can ever encompass the depth and breadth of Yoga. Only practice can do that. But hopefully the annotated reading list below can give those interested a practical beginning. I note in advance that I have tried to hold myself to including books which are more or less easy to come by in the US book market. I know that a few of these books are in and out of print, so sometimes will go for a high price but seem always to return to print in an affordable form within a couple of years.
Making a Beginning, Revisiting Basics
“Where to start?” is perhaps the hardest question to answer. Yoga is not the sort of topic which can be broken down into chunks digestible by anyone and everyone; really all you can do is point out a particular trail of breadcrumbs and leave it up to the individual to follow them or not. Or, perhaps, you can dump out a pile of jigsaw pieces in front of them, letting them know in advance that this is only one corner of the puzzle and that some of the pieces in the pile won’t even be useful until they dig more pieces out of the box later but which they’ll be glad they have on-hand when they get there. I hope that these similes get the point across and give some perspective on why I chose the books I did.
- Be Here Now by Ram Dass (many editions). The more hard-nosed may object to this book’s inclusion given its popularity in the New Age crowd, but it’s a really valuable exploration of the wherefores of Yoga practice. I would not call it a book of practice, per se, though it does include some useful tips.
- The Dhammapada (many editions, though I like the translation of Ananda Maitreya published by Parallax Press). While I do not identify as a Buddhist, the Buddha was obviously quite the accomplished Yogi! In a sense, this book is also not a manual of meditation techniques but it does include valuable insights into how we may live in order to maximize our meditation. As the Buddha himself advised, each individual will need to figure out for themselves what helps and what doesn’t, but having someone who’s been there ahead of you sending back field notes can’t hurt.
- The Chan Handbook by Venerable Master Hua (2004, Buddhist Text Translation Society). I re-read this little book every so often; it’s a quick read, but also good to just open up now and again and read through a topic or two at random. I stumbled upon my copy at a used book store and bought it on a whim. I was not sorry at all, and find it to be an eminently useful companion in meditation. Every Yogi should have a copy.
- In Days of Great Peace by Mouni Sadhu (various editions). This is the most important book which has ever entered my life. Everyone has theirs, the book which propelled them on their course. This is a simple memoir of another man’s spiritual journey, though there are instructions on meditation within.
Intermediate reading is a little more straightforward because you can assume a bit of experience at this point. I think that initial experience needs to come before what academics might think of as “background knowledge” because this is a field in which you can fill your mind with any number of different, even contradictory, ideas which are only made useful by the context of practical application. I therefore save not only more details of practice but also things like historical connections and metaphysics for here.
- Am I A Hindu? by Ed Vishvanathan (2012, Rupa Publications India) & The Essentials of Hinduism by Swami Bhaskarananda (2002, Viveka Press). I put both of these together because they are useful in the same way and they’re both equally worth reading. I place them here not because the prospective Yogi needs to actively convert to or identify as a Hindu, but because exploring and to some degree participating in the broader cultural context which preserved and developed Yoga over millennia is essential to understanding those ideas and practices which have come to us in the modern West. While the techniques are very adaptable, they arose from a place and time among people. We have to respect that; lack of awareness of it not only causes confusion and offense, it also causes severe misinterpretations of the source texts and subsequent misapplications of the methods! (Along these lines, I also suggest visiting Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain temples, shrines, or ashrams in your area, if possible.) Developing Yoga knowledge must be far deeper than exoticism and tourism.
- Kapila’s Samkhya Patanjali’s Yoga by Brahmrishi Vishvatma Bawra (Revised Edition 2012, CreateSpace). Combining translations of and commentaries on Kapila’s Samkhya teachings as well as Patanjali’s famous Yoga Sutras, this volume provides a point of entry to these linked traditions which is accessible without being shallow. Samkhya is taken for granted in a lot of Yoga and Tantra literature, even if metaphysical interpretations may differ among them, so having some grounding in it as well as how it ties in with Patanjali is very valuable.
- The Yoga Vidya of Immortality and The Pathless Path to Immortality by Shri Gurudev Mahendranath (available online from the International Nath Order). While specific to a particular Natha tradition, many of the writings of Shri Gurudev Mahendranath are composed of the sorts of breadcrumb trails I mentioned before. While avoiding many overt metaphysical statements, Mahendranath focuses instead on the barest concepts necessary to bring meditation and ritual practices to life while emphasizing that every Yogi needs to deconstruct and reconstruct their own intellectual edifice out of the their own experiences rather than relying on the architecture given them prefabricated.
- Yoga Vidya Samhita by Vidyanath (available as a free PDF directly from Vidyanath). More breadcrumbs! Yet Vidyanath presents with good humor a trail of his own crazy gnosis. The most fascinating thing about this work is how much is transmitted in the art.
- Maha Yoga by K. Laskhmana Sarma (2002, Sri Ramanasramam). In contradistinction to the Samkhya Yoga of Kapila and Patanjali, that of Sri Ramana Maharshi is based in a radical non-dual interpretation incorporating South Indian Saivism and Vedanta by way of the personal experience of a modern sage. K. Lakshmana Sarma, under the pen name ‘WHO?’, efficiently expresses the teachings of the Maharshi in both theoretical and practical terms. It’s a book worthy of reading, re-reading, and much contemplation.
- Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg (1995, Shambhala Publications, Inc.). There are numerous forms of meditation in the many Yoga traditions extant. Mettā is one which receives relatively little attention outside of Theravada Buddhist circles, but which has a great deal of value. Each practitioner must find the correct balance of practices for themselves, a dynamic balance which will change greatly over time; the practices needful will depend upon the individual’s personal makeup and the challenges which arise from it. For many of us, perhaps especially today, major challenges growing out of the interaction between individuals and the world include fear and anxiety and the anger and hatred which are their natural and inevitable fruits. Mettā is a meditation practice which leverages our innate capacity for compassion to quell our anxieties and cradle our fears by honestly opening ourselves to a greater experience of our basic similarities with others. The value in such a practice in living more effectively in the world for the practitioner of Yoga cannot be underestimated; as Yogis tend to become increasingly sensitive as our practice intensifies, all such aids should be kept close at hand.
There can’t really be any such thing as “advanced reading” in Yoga, as advancement in Yoga by nature takes one well beyond anything which can be written about. As we deepen our cultivation, however, it can be very helpful to look further afield to different models and methods from a variety of schools and traditions. As, ultimately, Yoga is Yoga, we can learn from everywhere and incorporate any number of useful ideas and techniques. The following is a sampling only, a list to get started; it is not intended to be exhausted, only representative.
- The Yoga of Siddha Tirumular: Essays on the Tirumandiram by T. N. Ganapathy and KR Arumugam (2004, Kirya Yoga Publications). Tirumandiram is a classic of Tamil Saivism with an especial focus on Yoga, covering theology, metaphysics, and practice. There are English translations and commentaries available, but this volume of essays unpacking its major themes makes for an excellent introduction to the Saiva Siddhanta school of South India.
- Shiva’s Trident: The Consciousness of Freedom and the Means to Liberation by Swami Khecaranatha (2013, CreateSpace). An accessible and practical point of entry into Trika (Kashmiri) Saivism. Swami Khecaranatha gives a helpful overview of Trika metaphysics — similar in broad strokes to Saiva Siddhanta, but quite different in interpretive lens — while encouraging real engagement with its methods. Trika can seem pointlessly complex from the outside, so having someone peel back the layers and reveal the spotless simplicity at its center is extremely valuable.
- Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali by Samkhya-yogacharya Swami Hariharananda Aranya (1983, State University of New York Press). Among the deepest, most technical, and most genuinely useful commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, this should be in the library of nearly every Yogi. This is a very dense book which rewards slow study and repeated visitation; it isn’t a book you’ll fly through in a week and expect to take anything useful away from it. Grounded in the aforementioned dualistic Samkhya metaphysics, Hariharananda’s approach is detailed and rigorous, including an incredible number of esoteric exercises tucked into its many corners.
- Avadhoota Gita translated by Shree Purohit Swami (1988, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers). This is one of the few books on this list that you may need to hunt down, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an affordable copy and it will be well worth it. This is the best English translation of Avadhoota Gita of which I am familiar (and I have a few), including a wonderful editorial introduction which contextualizes the book. This particular Gita is central to the Natha school of Yoga and bridges the gap between Hindu and Buddhist yogas. It is a short book, but worthy of meditation.
- The Original Yoga translated and edited by Shyam Gosh (1999, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers). Secondary sources often make teachings usable for the modern reader, but primary sources often have far more packed into a much smaller space and in purer form. This volume contains translations of and commentaries on the Yoga Sutras, Siva Samhita, and Gheranda Samhita. It’s always nice to have different versions of Yoga Sutras around, but the real gems here are complete (which is to say, not puritanically censored) translations of two important Hatha Yoga classics. Siva Samhita and Gheranda Samhita are perhaps two of the most important primary sources on Hatha Yoga practice, including both physical and meditative instructions.
- Philosophy of Gorakhnath by Akshaya Kumar Banerjea (1999, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers). An extended unpacking of another book of historical importance to Nathas, namely Siddhasiddhantapadhatih. While SSP is constituted in part by an extended exploration of certain Hatha Yoga mainstays such as the subtle energy system, cakras, and so forth (all of which interesting in its similarities to and differences from what many people are used to), it is ultimately founded in the Natha realization that all of these things, however useful they may be to any given individual or community, are ultimately sidelines to the main course of Yoga: the realization of the nature of the Self and of absolute freedom.Though this volume does not contain a complete translation of or commentary on SSP, the depth with which it explores the key themes of that work make it an excellent Yoga text in its own right, as well as a valuable extended introduction to SSP for those who wish to hunt down such a translation at a later date.
I reiterate once again that the suggestions above are hardly exhaustive, nor could such a list ever be. I very much hope that it proves helpful for those who are looking for some new avenues of exploration. Ultimately, even the largest library on the topic of Yoga cannot bring one Awakening. Beyond that, the Yogi must eventually coat themselves in the ashes of every book they’ve ever read, every idea they’ve ever had clogging up their mind; in the meantime, take every notion and method as a provisional tool and don’t get hung up on any one of them.
Actually there isn’t a thing / much less any dust to wipe away / who can master this / doesn’t need to sit there stiff (Big Stick poem 4, translated by Red Pine)