There’s something quite interesting regarding expectations about spiritual practice, that I didn’t write about yet.
In yoga specifically, there’s an expectation that a very radical degree of asceticism is required in order to attain results. Essentially, the archetypal motive is that of Jetsun Milarepa living in a cave for seven years eating nothing but nettle brew and meditating. Is this really a requirement?
In order to answer this question, I need to split what’s usually known as the spiritual practice into several levels. The first level is that of initial, preparatory practice, which is the equivalent of listening very hard for a pattern in sound. When you’re trying to do that, you need to remove all the distractions. You can’t eat foods that will focus your attention to themselves, or to the effects they have on your body – eating ghost peppers is out of the question, as are drugs, alcohol or in fact anything that might be distracting, because if you try to listen very attentively for long periods of time, you will try to minimize things like other people wanting to talk to you, being influenced by substances, or whatever. So, in this phase asceticism not only makes sense, but it’s actually an absolute requirement. You can’t attempt to make a breakthrough in meditation if you’re in any kind of a demanding human relationship. You can’t do it if you have a job that requires that you dedicate the most productive part of your day to things that actively interfere with your meditative efforts. You can’t afford to have your mind disrupted by all kinds of bad influences when driving to work and back, eating junk food, getting drunk or being in a sexual relationship that will demand your full attention in order to work. So, how realistic is it for a normal person to live in such a way for a long enough period of time in order to attain success in this initial breakthrough phase of yoga?
Fortunately, you can rest assured that there is a big difference between the ideal situation, and the necessary minimum. I didn’t have an ideal situation; in fact, it was almost as far from the ideal as you can imagine. I was constantly interrupted, lived in what any traditionalist would rightly call an impure environment, and I didn’t meditate anywhere near the amount of time one would expect to be necessary in order to make a breakthrough. However, I made certain discoveries during the process, which I am about to share with you now.
First, the way meditation works is not linear. It’s not unloading sacks of beans from a truck, where you keep working in a linear fashion, and the more gets done the more you work. With spiritual practice, you need to have a high baseline of thought and emotion in your normal activity, which essentially means things that go through your mind as you do your daily chores, and I cannot stress this highly enough. This determines your outcome more than anything. You need to maintain a certain level of subtlety of thoughts and emotions throughout your day. If you drop the ball, you need to pick it up quickly; for instance, you cannot allow anger to last long, you cannot allow yourself to get depressed for long, and you cannot allow yourself to get caught in some self-perpetuated loop of low emotion. This requires that you learn to control your thoughts and emotions, and not in some radical way, where you would brutally prune your thoughtstream, but in a very basic way, similar to that of a physicist who keeps working on the superstring problem while he’s stuck in traffic, and doesn’t allow himself to get distracted – in fact, doesn’t perceive enough to actually be distracted – and when he arrives at work, he switches from his baseline level of working the problem, to the full engagement mode, where he is at his 100% concentration and capacity for some 15 minutes or half an hour, and then he needs a break, because that level of concentration is unsustainable for a longer period of time. He then gets something to eat, talks to colleagues, allows his mind to go blank and recover from the strain, and then after finishing his coffee, focuses back to work to recover the baseline, stay there enough to pick up the pieces, and give it another 15 minutes of full effort.
That’s how it needs to be done. And now the fun part: if you actually manage to keep your baseline spiritual contemplation throughout most of the day, meaning you don’t get lost in your chores, but you manage to keep the high level of thinking and feeling throughout, it means you kept your mind at the state of what would show up as alpha and theta waves on the EEG, along with the beta waves of normal thought. And those few and far between bursts of deeper meditation, they will then have a wide base of the pyramid to rely on, and your peaks will be much higher than would otherwise be possible, had you allowed your mind to go to shit for the most part of the day, and rely on meditation to fix you. It might fix you, but you will not make any actual progress. Can it be done, yes. I did it. If you think you have a complicated situation where my method wouldn’t work, I assure you, you don’t. Most people have situations that are actually less problematic than what I had to work with, and they don’t manage to do anything because they waste their time complaining instead of actually figuring out how to get things done within the constraints that are available. If you think it was easier for Milarepa to meditate in a cold cave with no food, than it is for you to meditate in a warm apartment, abundant resources, half a day of slack time and two hours available for full bursts of focus, you’re deluding yourselves. You have it easy, you’re just not disciplined enough and you don’t desire the goal strongly enough. If this desire is present, you will make swift progress.
So, essentially, once you understand that you don’t need to actually keep the full meditative state for hours, but for seconds at first, and no longer than half an hour at maximum, but you need to keep yourself in a reasonably good state that can easily be switched to breakthrough-meditation mode at will. You don’t need to be at your best 100% of the day. You just have to watch yourself so that you don’t go fully to shit for more than 10% of the day, be at your normal high-thinking mode for at least 50% of the time, and have two bursts of 15 minutes to half an hour in the day, where you will touch and try to exceed your highest peaks of achievement. It’s by no means a trivial thing to do, but I can guarantee you that it’s doable, because I’ve been there and had done it.
The second thing to have in mind is that there’s a huge difference between trying to achieve initiation, and the requirements on purity and focus in this initial state, and the state you’re in after having achieved the breakthrough. Once you attained it, either darshan or samadhi or some similarly high state, it stays with you forever. It’s burned into the pathways of your brain, it’s burned into the structure of your spiritual bodies, and it doesn’t just go away because you had too much coffee or not enough sleep. This is why a beginner yogi can look more like a yogi than a master, because a beginner needs to observe all kinds of rules and restrictions to keep himself from going to shit, and to keep his meditative baseline throughout the day. Once mastery is achieved, it’s a completely different set of rules. A beginner cannot even imagine trying to meditate in a smoke-filled bar, and I gave spiritual initiations in such an environment. A beginner cannot even think about combining sex with meditation, because distractions are too great, and my wife, an initiated master herself, learned how to wield Shivaratri, the black Vajra, by feeling the state to which I go when I orgasm, when we had sex. She orgasmed together with me in that state, and achieved initiation into this spiritual state and energy level, and could wield it later at will. What I’m trying to say is, when you are an initiated master, things get weird, and the way you learn things no longer conforms to the limitations you had prior to initiation. A master will be able to attain higher initiation through practices that would preclude any kind of spiritual activity in a beginner. Also, it no longer matters how high your baseline Kundalini level is, what brainwave pattern can you maintain and for how long, in what condition your physical body is – essentially, you can be crucified like Jesus, be in dire agony, experience pain to the point where your consciousness is so blurred that you can’t really see straight, and still write articles like this one; essentially, for decades already nobody could figure out in what state I was looking only at the output I produce, and I produced some of my best work with unbearable headaches, high fever or worse, and in retrospect, looking at the work from a much more pleasant physical state, I understood that there are no corrections to be made; the quality of the output is the same as I would produce at my peak. Also, some things seem to defy logic: for instance, I can have a very low baseline Kundalini level, and at the same time be able to access the highest states, and invoke them in others. That’s because a high Kundalini level is important when you’re attempting the initial breakthrough, but once the pathways and spiritual organs of a higher order have been formed and activated, they work regardless of the state of the physical body, and in fact, if those achievements could be lost in sickness or death, could they be said to be of any permanence and value? A beginner’s spiritual baseline can be lost quite easily, by a lapse of concentration, drinking alcohol, eating bad or spicy food, or any combination of causes, but you can basically cook a master alive and his core of mastery remains untouched. One would expect one such master to have to return to the beginner-level of asceticism in order to attain a higher level of initiation, but that doesn’t seem to work that way. This is why Marpa Lotsawa could drink alcohol, have violent moods, and still be able to guide Milarepa through necessary karmic purifications and toward initiation. How did Marpa attain higher initiation? By doing his thing, by functioning in such a way as to be able to guide an advanced student with absolute precision through a completely unorthodox and ad-hoc invented set of hoops, while drunk and chastising his wife, a saintly person, for being stupid, and chasing her around the house in order to beat her up.
As I said, shit gets very weird.