The Sacred Cow Talks are free educational presentations on the fundamental philosophical teachings of yoga and meditation as shared by Lou and Marilyn Guadagnino in Rochester, New York. These classes are given in a casual and impromptu style but they offer classical teachings on Sankhya, Vedanta, Yoga and Tantra philosophies and practices as presented in authoritative texts and scriptures by renowned and highly respected yogis and scholars.
We are sharing this blog as a way of documenting, organizing, and summarizing what is taught in each class for regular attendees and to expand The Sacred Cow Talks to others who cannot attend in person. These teachings are given free of charge as our way of honoring the altruistic motivation of all authentic meditation and yogic schools. These traditions offer methods and knowledge to ease suffering, increase joy, and teach us how to manage our minds, bodies, relationships, and realize what and who we really are.
We hope you benefit from them and enjoy the experience. Be sure to check out this blog regularly because we will be updating it after every class with new insights, references, sources and suggestions to help you learn how to manage your mind, body, and life. – Lou and Marilyn Guadagnino
Extracting the unique and life changing wisdom from yoga and meditation can feel like you are trying to suck the ocean through a straw: it’s daunting. It would take an entire lifetime of reading just to cover the basic scriptures and texts of Sanātana Dharma (popularly known as Hinduism). Include Buddhism, and you will need at least a second life.
India is a diverse culture that includes both contradiction and paradox. Indian philosophy includes six traditional schools or views (Darshanas). These Darshanas are diverse in their theories but they all agree on one thing: They originate from Vedic literature. The Vedas, composed in Sanskrit, are estimated to have been written between 2000 – 1000 BCE. They include: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda.
The Six Darshanas are as follows: Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mīmāṃsā, and Vedanta. For now we will be learning about three of these darshanas: Sankhya, Yoga, and Vedanta. We will also explore Tantra, an elaborate compilation of practices and philosophies that both exist as individual traditions on their own right and which intertwine with and expand on Sankhya, Yoga, and Vedanta.
Philosophically and religiously, India may be the most diverse and democratic culture in history. Anyone prescribing to any of the Six Darshanas or any combination thereof are accepted as part of the Sanātana Dharma tribe. But other philosophical and religious philosophies such as Buddhism and Jainism who do not accept the authority of the Vedas are also culturally respected as part of the Indian philosophical landscape.
However understanding the philosophies that run like a common thread through the scriptures and texts of Sanātana Dharma and Buddhism is necessary if you want to experience the deep profound insights from your yoga and meditation practices.
Philosophy in meditation and yoga is not speculative thinking. Philosophy explains and describes actual experiences and insights that each student will encounter sooner or later. Practicing meditation and yoga without having at the very least, a basic understanding of what these great spiritual texts teach, is like trying to drive your car in a foreign country without GPS and without knowing the language.
The Sacred Cow Talks were created to help you understand the goals of spirituality according to the ancient meditation and yoga traditions as well as the suggested methods to reach those goals. We invite you to join us on Thursday evenings in Rochester, New York at our office located in the East End area.
Sacred Cow Talks – September 2022
During this talk we were introduced to two fundamental philosophies: Sankhya and Yoga, as they are presented in The Bhagavad Gita (Song of God), an essential text of Sanātana Dharma (Hinduism). Sankhya distinguishes the real from the unreal by defining the real as that which is eternal and the unreal as that which is temporary. Yoga teaches many methods to attain union with the real.
At the start of the Bhagavad Gita we find Arjuna, a righteous warrior, psychologically paralyzed in an impossible conundrum. As a warrior Arjuna is sworn to defend righteousness (Dharma) and protect the innocent. However, unfortunately for Arjuna, his cousins are the cause of the unrighteousness he must defeat.
Just as the war between these two branches of the same family and their massive armies is about to begin, Arjuna throws down his bow and arrow and says he won’t fight. He turns to his Guru, Krishna, who is acting as his charioteer for advice. Krishna tells Arjuna that since he is a warrior who has sworn a lifelong oath to defend Dharma he has no choice. He must fight and fight to win. Krishna then explains Sankhya to Arjuna: All living beings, human and otherwise, have an eternal soul (Purusha) which was never born and which never dies. Only the body (Prakriti) is born and dies as dictated by its past actions (karmas). Therefore Arjuna should realize there is no contradiction between his duty as a warrior and his spiritual destiny.
Krishna goes on to describe Yoga as a variety of methods to realize unity with one’s eternal soul (Purusha) and achieve non-attachment for the body and all things transitory (Prakriti). Krishna teaches Arjuna the yogic practices of self-inquiry (Jñāna Yoga), meditation (Raja Yoga), selfless service (Karma Yoga), and devotion to God (Bhakti Yoga).
Takeaways from this talk: While meditating become aware of the stillness within. Your mind and body may be restless but all of your nervous energy is coming out of a deep stillness. Recognize the stillness within yourself as the reality of Purusha, and your restlessness as Prakriti, the temporary. All yogic paths: self-inquiry, meditation, selfless service, devotion to God, and others lead to the same goal: Unity with your own eternal being (Purusha).
Do not misunderstand the religious connotations of these teachings. Sanātana Dharma does not mandate any doctrine, faith, or belief system. Everyone is free to believe whatever is natural to them. The point of the teachings is to personally experience and validate the real from the unreal and to discover what methods help you the most.
Source: The Bhagavad Gita: There are currently many translations of Bhagavad Gita available. We recommend choosing a Bhagavad Gita that is a collaboration between a Sanskrit scholar and a recognized yogi.
Sacred Cow Talks – October 2022
During this talk we were introduced to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. A sutra is a literary style. The word sutra means “stitch” (think suture) and is similar to what we call a “pithy statement” in the English language. A sutra is a whole bunch of wisdom reduced to a small dot. Patanjali was an author, compiler of classical yogic teachings, and Sanskrit grammarian who is a highly respected authority on yoga and all things Sanskrit. Patanjali didn’t invent anything but instead compiled what he considered to be the indispensable teachings of yoga. His opinions have been embraced by all the major traditions of Hinduism. In Talk Two we started to explore the kernels of Patanjali’s insights into yoga:
Patanjali’s Sutras 1-12
- This is the beginning of the instruction in yoga
- Yoga is control of the thought-waves in the mind
- When the thought-waves are stilled we abide in our real nature
- At other times, when we are not in the state of yoga, we remain identified with the thought waves in our minds
- There are five kinds of thought-waves: Some are painful, others are not painful. These are known as shreyas and preyas respectively
- These five kinds of thought-waves are: right knowledge, wrong knowledge, verbal delusion, sleep and memory
- The right kinds of knowledge are: direct perception, inference, scriptural testimony
- Wrong knowledge is knowledge that is false and not based on the true nature of the object being observed
- Verbal delusion arises when words do not correspond to reality
- Dreamless sleep is a wave of thought about nothingness.
- Memory is when perceived objects are not forgotten, but come back to consciousness.
- They are controlled by means of practice and non-attachment
Patanjali’s first sutra is telling. He defines everything he is about to share with us as “This is the beginning of instruction in yoga.” He doesn’t want us to become bigheaded or mistake his words as a treasure map. Sutras are not shortcuts to enlightenment. Sutras offer us opportunities to gain insights into our existence, self, and being but not without work. Sutras 2-12 outline the work.
Patanjali defines yoga as stilling the thought-waves in our minds and discovering our true nature which he describes as Samadhi (sah-mah-dhee). Samadhi refers to consciousness or awareness that is free of all thought forms. We already know samadhi from our own experience since our minds were once completely free of thoughts, when we were infants and small children, and yet our minds were most certainly aware and awake. Empty the mind of thoughts, memories, sensory impressions, and you are left with samadhi, which is the goal of yoga.
Patanjali categorizes thought-waves into five types: right knowledge, wrong knowledge, verbal delusion, sleep and memory. He warns us that some of these thought-waves cause pain and others do not bring pain because they are easier to transcend and experience samadhi.
He describes examples of right knowledge as direct perception, inference, and scriptural authority. Direct perception is when we perceive something for ourselves. It is something we directly experience. Inference is when we correctly perceive within ourselves something we have learned from accomplished yogis or written texts. For example, we learn about the concept of samadhi and are able to infer it as operating within ourselves. We recognize thoughtless awareness as the core of our moment by moment experiences. Scriptural authority is a bit trickier to understand because scriptures in yogic traditions are not the same as scriptures in Middle Eastern Religions. In yoga, scriptures along with the spoken words of yogis who have attained enlightenment, are not considered mandatory doctrine to be blindly believed and followed. Blind faith is highly discouraged. Instead students are directed to read the scriptures as well as listen to the words of their teachers and accept them only after verifying the truth of them for themselves.
Wrong knowledge is defined as knowledge that is not based on the true nature of the object being observed. For example, if we draw incorrect conclusions about samadhi based on our assumptions rather than our direct experience of samadhi. Our assumptions are wrong knowledge. The same is true for observing anything. Many people concluded the earth was flat because they couldn’t see past the horizon and they made many bad decisions based on their wrong knowledge. Wrong knowledge is the cause of much suffering.
Verbal delusion is when our words do not accurately describe reality. Thanks to social media verbal delusion is at an all time high. During our recent pandemic people were literally making things up or promoting false statements that harmed or destroyed lives.
Patanjali described dreamless sleep as a thought about nothingness. In yoga there are typically four states of consciousness: waking state, dreaming state, sleep or dreamless sleep state, and the turiya state which is related to samadhi. Turiya is unbroken, continuous, without beginning or end and runs through all the other states of consciousness. It is also known as the Witness, Atman, or Self because it observes all the other states but can never be observed itself. We typically think of the dreamless sleep state as being a sort of unconscious void but according to Patanjali dreamless sleep is actually a thought about nothingness.
Memory is when we perceive an object, draw our attention away from the object, and a mental impression of the object remains.
Patanjali tells us that all thought-waves can be controlled and even transcended through practice and non-attachment. Non-attachment is not repression, subjugation, or cold indifference. Non-attachment is simply allowing all thought-waves to come and go and recognizing them for what they are: transient thought-waves and not reality.
Takeaways from this talk: According to Patanjali the goal of yoga is Samadhi, the stilling of thought-waves in the mind. Whenever your thought-waves are still you are experiencing samadhi. No thoughts = no mind = samadhi. You can advance your meditation practice greatly by contemplating, understanding, and recognizing the five kinds of thought-waves in your mind: right knowledge, wrong knowledge, verbal delusion, sleep and memory.
If you practice recognizing and labeling these five kinds of thought-waves and observe how they affect your state of mind you will create a workable model of your mind. If you are like most people you do not have a clear understanding of your mind. You don’t understand how your mind creates your moment by moment experiences or how those experiences determine your judgment and your decisions. Like most of us, you let your mind do whatever it does and put up with the results. Patanjali offers you a blueprint of how your mind operates and how it creates happiness or suffering in your life.
Sutra 5 includes two important terms: Shreyas and Preyas. Shreyas refers to the things in our lives which are unpleasant at first but which ultimately lead to the pleasant. Preyas refers to the things in our lives which are pleasant at first but which ultimately lead to the unpleasant. Patanjali asks you to consider Shreyas and Preyas in your contemplations about the five kinds of thought-waves. Does a particular thought seem pleasant when it first comes into your mind i.e. exciting, hopeful, only to wind up causing you pain? Does another thought seem unpleasant when it first comes into your mind i.e. dull, boring, but it brings you joy in the long run? Try observing Patanjali’s five kinds of thought-waves in your own mind. Which thoughts bring you happiness? Which thoughts bring you unhappiness? Which categories do these thoughts belong in Patanjali’s model?
Source: How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood
Sacred Cow Talks – November 2022
After our introduction to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 1-12 which defined the goal of yoga as samadhi (“When the thought-waves are stilled we abide in our real nature”) we reviewed Patanjali’s advise on how to prepare ourselves to learn yoga. In India, yoga is serious stuff. It is one of the oldest spiritual traditions in the world if not the oldest. The goal of yoga is liberation (moksha), the end of all suffering. According to Hinduism and Buddhism all sentient beings are caught in an infinite loop of pain called Samsara.
Samsara is the law of karma in operation on an individual, global, and universal level. All our thoughts, words, and actions naturally produce reactions and these reactions collectively interact to create the circumstances of our lives and the life of our planet.
Reincarnation is the natural outcome of the law of karma. Cause and effect continue until they are neutralized which is the goal of yoga. Our births including our physical bodies, parents, siblings, family members, the circumstances we are born into, and all matter of all things that make up our lives, are reactions from our past actions (karmas). Therefore in Hinduism and Buddhism, there is no concept of God or any other intelligent governing agent, rewarding or punishing anyone.
Our reactions to the circumstances of our lives right now which were caused by our past karmas create the conditions of our future lives. Yoga’s goal and purpose is to end all our karmas, good and bad, positive and negative, so we can once again rest in our original nature which is samadhi. Our True Nature, Self, or Soul, is beyond all the opposites created by the mind: good and bad, happy and unhappy, alive and dead, heaven and hell, etc.
However a student’s readiness to receive instruction is as important as the instruction itself and this theme runs throughout all Indian spiritual literature – Vedic or Non Vedic, Hindu or Buddhist. An old Indian story states that a lioness’s milk can only be stored in a gold cup because the milk is so powerful it will corrode any other substance. In the same way, only a student with gold-like qualities is capable of holding and fully benefitting from the teachings of yoga. Learning and putting into action Patanjali’s 7 Practices for the Preparation of Learning Yoga helps us become ready recipients of yoga’s knowledge.
Patanjali’s Sutras – 7 Practices for the Preparation of Learning Yoga
- Selfless Service (Karma Yoga)
- Correct Discipline
- Ritual in Everyday Life
- The Importance of Starting Where We Are
- Understanding Non-Attachment
Patanjali follows the traditional Hindu system of passing yogic knowledge from one generation to the next. He explains the goal of yoga, methods that reach the goal, and suggests supporting disciplines or habits that help a student reach the goal. He suggests developing seven habits to attain the goal of yoga:
Tapas often translated as “heat,” or “friction,” more precisely refers to the challenging and sometimes irritating experiences we encounter while developing a worthy discipline such as meditation or yoga. Most of us begin our practice with a hope of gaining something. We imagine ourselves in better conditions or we hope to become an upgraded version of ourselves.
But our actual daily practice turns out to be very different from what we imagined. Rather than feeling calmer we find ourselves feeling more agitated. Rather than feeling peaceful we feel restless. Rather than feeling inspired we find ourselves resisting. If we push ourselves to practice we feel like fakes and if we don’t follow through on practice we feel like failures. This friction, this back and forth, this ambivalence is tapas. Tapa’s internal friction eventually burns out our inferior motives, desires, hopes, and our need to prove ourselves to ourselves and others. Tapas burns out anything that obscures our experience and knowledge of samadhi.
Patanjali has a fascinating definition of Study. According to Patanjali and other yogis the practice of study refers to either reading and contemplating the words of enlightened yoga masters or yogic texts. But it also refers to the practice of repeating a mantra silently over and over again which is called Japa. We might understandably wonder how learning about the practices of yoga and meditation and concepts describing and explaining their common goal of attaining samadhi relates to something as simple as repeating the same sound over and over again.
The answer is simpler than we might think. They both reach the same goal. Samadhi, the goal of meditation and yoga, is our natural state. Samadhi is not a unique state of consciousness. Samadhi is consciousness in its most simplest form. Samadhi is conscious awareness. Samadhi is what observes everything that we become aware of in our minds and bodies. Therefore both knowledge i.e. understanding samadhi, and repeating a mantra which eventually transcends our thoughts, leads to the experience and knowledge of samadhi.
Selfless Service which is traditionally known as Karma Yoga is performing actions (karmas) without being attached to the outcomes. Karma Yoga was one of the teachings Krishna taught Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Stated simply: Fulfill your responsibilities with love, dedication, gratitude, and skill but let go of how things turn out. An other way of saying the same thing is perform all actions for God or offer the results of all your actions to God.
Correct Discipline is something every yogi and yogini must learn because discipline in yoga means something closer to balance than strenuous effort. For example, consistency is more important in meditation practice than pushing ourselves to meditate for long periods of time. Our human egos prefer either superhuman feats such as meditating hours every day or giving up meditation altogether and avoiding the tapas created by our inner struggle. Ego’s motto is always the same: “What’s in it for me?” A regular balanced meditation practice doesn’t offer ego a thing which is the point but it’s not something our egos are going to appreciate.
Ritual In Everyday Life makes everything in our lives sacred and it turns all activity into meditation. Ritual includes intention, attention, awareness, love, being present in the moment, and skill. If we choose to deliberately make eating our meals into a sacred ritual we transform an everyday event into a sacred event. We begin by forming an intention to see food as sacred because it is the sustainer of life. We express our gratitude by respecting the food products that nourish us. We show our appreciation by preparing beautiful, delicious, nurturing meals. While we are cooking and eating we keep our attention in the moment which is meditation. We offer our food to God and our loved ones with love, gratitude, and humility. The Bhagavad Gita tells us if we offer our food to God before eating ourselves we nullify any karma created in the process. This same process can be applied to every daily activity until our lives are nothing but love, devotion and meditation.
The Importance of Starting Where We Are: Boy, this is a tough one for a lot of us. As usual ego wants to jump to the head of the line. Generally we don’t want to start where we are because that would require being totally honest and transparent about our current condition. “Who needs that!” ego thinks. “I want the most advanced practices. I don’t have time to be a beginner. I want my enlightenment now!” says ego. But as all of us learn sooner or later, there are no shortcuts in life, and there definitely are no shortcuts in spirituality. As Jesus put it: “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.” – Luke 12:2–3 — King James Version (KJV 1900).
The concept of non-attachment is challenging for most of us. We automatically tend to associate non-attachment with cold indifference when actually non-attachment is love. Real love is selfless. Genuine love isn’t looking for anything from anyone because love is fulfillment. When we want more from others than they are willing to give, it’s not because we love them too much and they don’t love us enough, which is what many of us believe. We always want more or something different because we are attached. Attached to what? We are attached to our desires and aversions which are products of ego but not products of our true selves. Our true selves are Brahmin, Atman, Samadhi, Pure Consciousness, Love, God as taught in The Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and many other yogic texts.
Takeaways from this talk: Learn, understand, and practice the seven skills Patanjali recommends to support your meditation and yoga practice. They will extend your practice into every part of your life. If you practice meditation regularly you will experience samadhi, pure consciousness, for brief periods of time and your experiences will make you wish you could experience pure consciousness all the time. But chances are you will lose your experience as you get up off your meditation cushion and get back to your everyday life. Patanjali’s seven preparation practices will help extend your awareness of your own blissful nature through all situations.
Source: How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood
The Goal of Yoga
Patanjali’s description of yoga’s goal, “samadhi” is technical i.e. “When the thought-waves are stilled we abide in our real nature.” He outlines what needs to happen for the goal to be reached which is helpful on a practical level. But there are other ways to understand the goal of yoga. Philosophical explanations share an experiential perspective. They describe what we will experience when we reach the goal of yoga which is often called enlightenment (nirvana) and liberation (moksha or mukti). We turned to Shankara who was born in or around 686 A.D. in Southern India for a philosophical understanding of the goal of yoga.
Shankara was an academic prodigy. By the time he was ten years old he had memorized the classic Indian scriptures and written commentaries on many of them. But more importantly during his short life, Shankara revived Hinduism. Prior to Shankara’s birth and during his life, Hinduism had been in decline. Gone were the days when the Rishis (enlightened persons) guided and instructed kings and common people. Instead Hinduism had been reduced to a cultural tradition where families and individuals paid priests to astrologically chart a baby’s future, chant mantras to help the family prosper, overcome illness, avert disaster, and help parents choose a marriage partner for their child.
Although all of these desires are perfectly natural and acceptable, during this particular period in Indian history, they became more important than the original purpose of the Vedas which is to help seeking individuals attain enlightenment or God Consciousness. The Vedas, as we discussed in earlier talks, are the single source of orthodox Indian philosophy and the inspiration of all six traditional views (Darshanas).
Shankara distilled the wisdom of the Upanishads (Sections of Vedic literature particularly pertaining to enlightenment) into what is known as Advaita Vedanta, which can be translated into English as non-dualism. In short, the individual soul (Atman) and the universal soul (Brahman) are one and the same. However it is important to understand that both Atman and Brahman are described by Shankara as “pure consciousness.” In his book, Viveka-Chudamani, Shankara described the Atman in this way: “The Atman is pure consciousness, clearly manifest as underlying the states of waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep. It is inwardly experienced as unbroken consciousness, the consciousness that ‘I am I.’ It is the unchanging witness that experiences the ego, intellect and the rest, with their various forms and changes. It is realized within one’s own heart as existence, knowledge and bliss absolute. Realize this Atman within the shrine of your own heart.”
Takeaways from this talk: You are not your mind. You are the witness of your mind. Therefore what ever complexities, troubles, and problems your mind causes in your life they do not define who you are. According to Shankara and Advaita Vedanta you are consciousness; That which witnesses everything that takes place when you are awake, dreaming or experiencing dreamless sleep. For example, if you think a thought such as “I would like to go to the beach” you are the conscious awareness that perceives the thought.
If you dream that you are being chased by a tiger you are the conscious awareness that witnesses the dream. In fact, this is how you remember your dreams. The conscious awareness that perceives your dreams is the same conscious awareness that sees everything you experience when you are awake. You would not be able to remember your dreams when you are awake without the same stream of consciousness perceiving both your waking and dreaming states. You can look at this example the other way around. You often dream about things or people you experience while awake. How do you recall your experiences when you are awake while you are dreaming without a singular consciousness perceiving both the waking state and the dreaming state?
We all know how hard it is to change thinking, emotional, and behavioral patterns. Many of us spend most of our lives trying to change these patterns; fighting ourselves, going back and forth between patterns created long ago, often without our knowledge or consent, and new habits we hope to instill in ourselves. What holds us back from authentic change? We are identified with our thinking, emotional, and behavioral patterns. We see them as being us, who we are. But what happens if we discover our habits and patterns are not who we are no matter how long they’ve been around? Then healthy change is not only possible but natural. Letting go of things we know are not essential to who we are as persons is easy. Advaita Vedanta’s insights into who and what we really are allows us to let go of the past and to become what and who we truly are now.
Tantra: The Immediate Experience of Pure Consciousness
Tantra consists of a wide variety of rituals, techniques, mantras, and initiations which give us the immediate temporary experience of pure consciousness. Tantra exists in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Generally speaking, a student is initiated into a tantric technique by his or her Guru after the student has shown genuine progress in the non-tantric practices. Non-tantric Hindu practices include such things as the four fundamental yogic paths of Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga, Jñāna Yoga, and Bhakti Yoga. In Buddhism non-tantric practices include the Eightfold Path, Mindfulness, practicing non-violence, and others. Today we were introduced to the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra (Divine Consciousness) which is a tantric text belonging to the branch of Kashmir Shaivism of the Shiva Tantra.
Shaivism is one of the oldest and most diverse spiritual traditions in Indian history and the world. Shaivism covers every conceivable perspective of God from dualism – where a devotee worships God as a distinguished deity separate from him or herself – to Tantra, where Shiva is God, the original Guru and originator of yoga. As God Shiva is Pure Consciousness, The Observer of all. He is the eternal witness and experiencer of everything that happens. Parvati is Shiva’s wife also known as Shakti (energy). She is the radiant blissful energy who emanates from Shiva and becomes everything Shiva Observes. In Shakti’s universal form She is all phenomena. In yoga she is called kundalini; the energy that purifies the chakras and finally merges into Shiva in the seventh chakra, which results in enlightenment.
The Vijnana Bhairava is a conversation that takes place between Shiva (Pure Consciousness) and Parvati (Shakti). Parvati asks Shiva to explain the fastest method to enlightenment and Shiva replies by sharing 112 techniques which give the practitioner an experience of pure consciousness. We learned two versions of Technique (Dharana) One. Version 1: Feel your exhalations with special attention on what is called the dvadashanta, i.e. 12 finger lengths outside the body starting from the nostrils and ending where the exhalation ends in space and rests for a moment. During the time the breath rests in the dvadashanta there is a throb of Shakti (energy). Feel this throb of energy as deeply as possible. Feel your inhalation until it too rests in what is called the hrdaya or heart center (center of chest) and again feel the throb of energy as deep and as long as possible. Do not control your breath in any way. Simply feel the full length of each exhalation and inhalation and feel the throbs of energy when the breath rests.
Version 2: We learned how the breath naturally forms the sound of a mantra, Hamsah which means “I am That.” Our inhalation forms the sound Ha. The M sound is added to Ha when the inhalation rests in our heart center making it Ham. Our exhalation forms the sound Sah. Hamsah repeats itself continuously in all living creatures. It’s fine to silently repeat the mantra at first until we acclimate to the sound but the goal is to feel/hear the mantra as it naturally occurs and feel the throbs of shakti (energy) when the breath rests in the dvadashanta and heart center (hrdaya). This is a typical tantric approach to enlightenment: It’s already happening. It’s always present. The practices help us become aware of what is already real.
Takeaways from this talk: There are tantric practices designed to give you a taste of the enlightened state. The point of daily practice is to maintain this state once you have begun to experience and understand it. In both versions of Technique One everything is natural. You do not control your breath and you do not recite the mantra. They happen on their own. The techniques just point out when the experience of pure consciousness is easily perceived and experienced. Tantra differs from non-tantric philosophies and methods in the sense that non-tantric traditions teach a path to enlightenment that includes the idea of becoming. You start at A, progress to S, and end at Z at some point in the future. Tantra accepts using the notion of gradual progress for people who need and benefit from such a perspective but tantra ultimately denies the existence of progress or becoming. Tantra’s main point is that reality is fully present now and is always present in all circumstances.
Another hallmark of tantra is its teaching about our mental demarcations between the doer of an action, the result of the action, and the process of performing the action. For example, a woman decides she wants to become enlightened and in doing so becomes the doer. She then decides there must be something she has to do to become enlightened and sets about doing it. Of course as she does the things she needs to do to become enlightened she develops an idea of what enlightenment is which becomes the result of the action. The doer, the doing of the action, and the result of the action is our typical way of perceiving ourselves doing anything.
But Tantra says the enlightened state has no such demarcations. Reality has no such demarcations. Tantra says we must dissolve all fabricated differences to know reality. How? Here is one example: Take up the practice of japa which is repeating a mantra all day and all night. If you examine your idea of yourself and what you are doing you will see there are three parts: The repeater of the mantra (you), the result of repeating the mantra (whatever you hope to attain), and the process of repeating the mantra. According to tantra you will only truly benefit from your japa practice when you repeat your mantra fully; so fully you transcend being the doer, who is doing something to obtain something.
Source: Vijnanabhairava or Divine Consciousness Translation and Commentary by Jaideva Singh
The Yoga of Divine Love
Devotional love for God is called Bhakti (Bock-tee) and it is one of the most popular yogas practiced throughout India and the world. During this Sacred Cow Talk we learned how bhakti is understood and practiced in Advaita Vedanta; one of the orthodox Indian philosophies that teaches non-dualism. Although devotion to God is usually seen as existing between two distinct and separate entities (God and Devotee), from Advaita Vedanta’s perspective only God i.e. Brahman exists.
Therefore in reality devotees are souls (Atman) who are living under the illusion of Maya (The illusion of separation or duality). Bhakti is a method to overcome maya whereby a devotee realizes his or her eternal unity with God. In other words a devotee recognizes that Atman (Soul) and Brahman (God) are one and the same. But it is important to remember that both Atman and Brahman are described by Shankara as “pure consciousness.” God, our true self, and all beings are manifestations of the same pure consciousness.
Bhakti is a path of love and ecstasy. Devotees use ritual, chanting God’s name, dance, cooking, and many other activities to increase their feelings of love for their chosen deity. Bhakti is popular amongst families because it doesn’t require many of the harsher disciplines that mountain yogis, recluses, and monastics follow.
We turned to a classic book on bhakti entitled Narada Bhakti Sutras. Narada is a legend who shows up in quintessential scriptures that span long stretches of time. Historically little is known about him but in the Chandogya Upanishad, one of the oldest scriptures in the world, he describes himself as a scholar who studied art, science, music, philosophy, and sacred scriptures but as he told his teacher, “I have gained no peace.” Narada shows up in another scripture called the Shrimad Bhagavatam where he explains how Bhakti Yoga, over the course of two lifetimes, brought him to enlightenment. He credits keeping the company of enlightened saints and other devotees for his success. Narada is one of the greatest proponents and examples of Bhakti Yoga so we began our understanding of Bhakti by reviewing his sutras 1-6.
Narada Bhakti Sutras
- Now, therefore, we shall teach Bhakti, or the religion of divine love
- Bhakti is intense love for God
- In its intrinsic nature this divine love is eternal bliss
- By attaining it a man becomes perfect, immortal, and satisfied forever
- On attaining That a man does not desire anything else; he grieves no more, he is free from hatred and jealousy; he does not take pleasure in the vanities of life; and he loses all eagerness to gain anything for himself
- The devotee may first become intoxicated with bliss. Then, having realized That, he becomes inert and silent and takes delight in the Atman
Narada defines Bhakti as “intense love for God.” Loving God in one form or other is a common thread running throughout the human race. Humans have felt a deep connection to some sort of divine presence in every civilization and amongst indigenous people worldwide. Therefore it is only natural that many of us choose the yoga of divine love for God as our path to enlightenment.
After defining Bhakti as “intense love for God,” Narada clarifies his statement further by defining divine love’s intrinsic nature as “eternal bliss.” This is an important qualifier because eternal bliss is an experience; something we know firsthand. Narada is not describing eternal bliss as something that exists in another time and place. The unity with God that Bhakti offers is not a hope for the future or something to believe. This is a distinguishing feature of all yogas and one of the reasons it is incorrect to define yoga as a religion; if we define religion as a faith on which we place our hope which is generally the case.
Next Narada makes sure we understand that the benefits of yoga are permanent and differ completely from our usual experiences: “By attaining it a man becomes perfect, immortal, and satisfied forever.” He goes on to describe the qualities of those who have completed the Bhakti path: “On attaining That a man does not desire anything else; he grieves no more, he is free from hatred and jealousy; he does not take pleasure in the vanities of life; and he loses all eagerness to gain anything for himself.”
The term “That” has a long history in Sanātana Dharma, going back to the Upanishads, some of the oldest Vedic Scriptures. “That” (upper case T) refers to ultimate reality or pure consciousness. It is interchangeable with the terms God, Brahman, Self, and Atman. The term “That” acknowledges the limitations of speech and the written word. God, Brahman, Self, Consciousness, ultimate reality cannot be described in words. In fact, attempts to describe God, etc., are dangerous because people tend to grasp onto descriptions and miss the reality to which they refer.
In sutra six Narada connects bhakti yoga with all the other yogas by describing the goal of Bhakti as samadhi: “The devotee may first become intoxicated with bliss. Then, having realized That, he becomes inert and silent and takes delight in the Atman.” This is exactly the same process as meditation and other yogas: Practitioners experience their inner worlds which consist of impressions left on consciousness created by their minds and senses until they transcend these impressions and discover a deep stillness within. After repeatedly experiencing inner stillness practitioners experience pure consciousness which lies beyond all mental and sensory impressions. The nature of pure consciousness is causeless bliss. After experiencing their own nature as bliss for some time practitioners become “inert and silent and take delight in the Atman.” In other words they go beyond even the subtlest of experiences including bliss and rest in That which is beyond body and mind, time and space: Atman, Brahman, Pure Consciousness.
In these first six sutras Narada has described the entire process of yoga and he has cleared up any confusion or uncertainty about whether love for God takes us to a different place than other yogas. There is only one reality and that reality is our nature and the nature of everything that exists. Beliefs are made of thought-waves, words, and they only refer to reality. It is only after we transcend or go beyond thoughts and words that we experience and know reality, our nature.
Takeaways from this talk: Bhakti is a yogic path and therefore leads to the same goal as other yogas and it shares the same stages of progress as other yogas. Love is a natural way of maintaining our attention. When we love something there is no effort involved. Our attention easily stays on what we love. Therefore Bhakti is a natural path because it easily maintains our attention on God whom we love with great devotion as our true eternal Self and the Self of all.
Source: Narada’s Way of Love translated with a commentary by Swami Prabhavananda
Karma: “It’s a Bitch,” or is it?
Karma is one of those overly-used abused words that we hear so often but never get a chance to correctly understand. The reason for this is simple: Karma is a complicated subject. Most people believe karma is a form of retribution: “He got his karma! That’ll show him.” In western culture the word “karma” is slang. Its definition jumps all over the place according to the intentions of the speaker or writer. But in Sanskrit the word karma is clearly defined. The subject of karma is complex and is intricately connected to understanding the broad influences of our thoughts, words, and actions. In fact, in general use, karma simply means action. Actions are karmas and Karmas are actions that include all of our thoughts, words, behaviors, and motives.
Understanding karma informs our meditation and yoga practices as well as our lives. The philosophy of karma which is embraced by both Hindus and Buddhists, acts like a mirror reflecting our karmic projections back to their source which is us; where we can hopefully disassemble them through knowledge and spiritual practice. Karma doesn’t carry the self-loathing and self-righteous baggage that sin and virtue do. If our past negative actions return to us in one form of suffering or another they don’t insinuate any kind of judgment about us. If we hit our thumb while hammering a nail most of us don’t feel condemned. We don’t take the pain personally. We don’t think, “This happened because I’m a bad person. I must have a black mark on my soul.” Karma is just cause and effect. It’s more like the law of gravity than the ten commandments.
But is there a practical benefit to understanding the philosophy of karma in our technological free-falling world? We took a look at this question in tonight’s Sacred Cow Talk and discovered a number of benefits. But to properly appreciate them we must first understand a few basics:
The Three Types of Karma
- Sanchitta Karma: Sanchitta Karma is a universal memory bank containing the total accumulated karmas created in all of our lifetimes. Many of these karmas lay in a dormant state and will manifest in our lives when the conditions are right. Every living creature has a sanchitta karma memory bank and the whole of creation also has a collective sanchitta karma memory bank.
- Prarabdha Karma: Prarabdha Karma is the cause of what is manifesting in our lives right now. Whatever our current situation, whatever we are experiencing, is a product of prarabdha karma. Again this is true for the individual and the whole of creation. The only way to end Prarabdha Karma is to experience it. Prarabdha Karma represents the things we cannot change.
- Agami Karma aka Kriyamana Karma: Agami Karmas are the karmas we are currently creating which will manifest in the future. Agami Karma is where free will enters the karmic picture. Our Prarabdha Karma may be creating unavoidable pain in our lives right now but if we choose our reaction wisely, we can change our future karma. Example: We choose to use our suffering as motivation to practice meditation and other yogas more consistently. Our practices change our thoughts, words, and behaviors which in turn changes our future Prarabdha Karma.
After learning about the three types of karma we looked at ways our new understanding might help us in our spiritual evolution and in our everyday lives. Here are a few of the items we discovered:
- The philosophy of karma squarely puts the responsibility of our lives on our shoulders. No person or force is rewarding or punishing us. We have created everything we experience in our lives.
- Karma isn’t personal. If we perform actions that result in our suffering it isn’t happening because we are bad. Consequently if we perform actions that result in our happiness it isn’t happening because we are good. Our fundamental nature which is consciousness is beyond good and bad and all the other opposites our minds create.
- As the Serenity Prayer tells us, there are some things we have the power to change, and there are other things we do not have the power to change, and it is important we know the difference. We create many negative karmas for ourselves when we waste precious energy trying to change what can’t be changed. And the entire time we are doing it we are not changing the things we can change.
- The philosophy of karma puts an end to one of the oldest questions in the world: “Is it destiny or free will?” According to the philosophy of karma destiny is created by our own decisions (free-will) and yet the options we have to choose from are influenced by our past actions (destiny).
- The philosophy of karma offers us a rare opportunity to be one hundred percent responsible for ourselves without condemning ourselves or becoming self-righteous.
- The philosophy of karma makes a clear distingusihment between ourselves and what we do. When this insight is accompanied by a correct understanding of yoga we gain a clear idea of what and who we are.
- The philosophy of karma expands our awareness and gives us an appreciation for how our actions affect others and how everything is connected.
Takeaways from this talk: By taking full responsibility for our Sanchitta Karma, accepting our Prarabdha Karma, and creating new Agami Karma we make wiser choices that better our future. Also the philosophy of karma helps us make these changes without making us feel bad about ourselves which is a major distraction for many of us that prevents us from growing. And the philosophy of karma makes us more sensitive to others and more aware of the interconnectedness we all share.
Source: A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy by John Grimes
The Yoga of Meditation
January 5, 2023
We started 2023 by delving into the practice of meditation. We once again turned to the Bhagavad Gita wherein chapter six Krishna teaches Arjuna the yoga of meditation. Bhagavad Gita is considered the “milk of the vedas.” Many meditation masters have made the suggestion: “If you can only read one book read Bhagavad Gita.” Therefore we can trust Krishna’s advice and wisdom about meditation. By now most of us have heard and read a lot about meditation. There are many online resources but Krishna’s teachings on meditation and yoga are historical. They have inspired all the Hindu yogis and meditation masters. What an auspicious way to welcome the new year!
Krishna starts his teaching on meditation by defining yoga: “He who performs his duty with no concern for results is the true yogi – not he who refrains from action.” Withdrawing from our busy life in the world is not yoga. Yoga is not a form of escape or avoidance. Yoga is the knowledge of how to fully live in the world with clarity, purpose, dignity, empathy, wisdom and grace. When we perform our duties (responsibilities) without concern for results we are practicing yoga.
Let’s contemplate Krishna’s advice: What would happen if we fulfilled our responsibilities but let go of how things turn out? We would harmonize our lives with our environments and we would be free from ego with its desires and its aversions which would give us equanimity. We would do what is needed to be done in any situation but we would be free of the conflicting questions and doubts that typically fill our minds when we try to control outcomes.
But how do we do it? Isn’t trying to let go of getting something from our actions a desire for a result? The truth is there is no way to use our minds and wills to renounce our desire for outcomes. Contemplating the words of a great being or enlightened master is a form of yoga that gives us direct insight in to the nature of reality.
Since we cannot use our wills to follow Krishna’s advice there must be another way. If you attended our past Sacred Cow Talks or have been reading this blog you may remember Patanjali’s definition of yoga in his second sutra: “Yoga is control of the thought-waves in the mind” and his third sutra which explains the goal of yoga: “When the thought-waves are stilled we abide in our real nature,” which Patanjali called samadhi. Patanjali also explained we have four states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep, and turiya or pure consciousness which sees, experiences, or witnesses the other three states of consciousness.
The technique of meditation gives us the experience and knowledge of pure consciousness. Slowly but surely we become more and more familiarized with pure consciousness in our meditation practice until one day we become stabilized in it which simply means we no longer lose our awareness of pure consciousness. Pure consciousness is beyond ego and therefore we are filled with contentment in ourselves. Our joy is self-contained and is independent of anything outside ourselves.
Now Krishna’s words, “He who performs his duty with no concern for results is the true yogi – not he who refrains from action” become clear. Once we are aware that our true identity is pure consciousness and not ego and we perform actions from pure consciousness yoga becomes automatic.
Next Krishna tells Arjuna something very mysterious: “For the man who wishes to mature (in yoga), the yoga of action is the path; for the man already mature (in yoga) serenity is the path.” When we begin our meditation practice we need to put forth effort. We have to learn how to meditate; we need to practice every day, and we need to practice whether we want to practice or not. In other words we must use our minds and wills. This situation creates a lot of inner friction between our conflicting desires (tapas) but Krishna has already given us the solution: Meditate and become aware of pure consciousness: “… for the man already mature (in yoga) serenity is the path.”
Here is a very subtle teaching about meditation: Once we have developed a consistent meditation practice and have experienced the turiya state (pure consciousness) we automatically experience deep serenity and our practice changes from trying to discover inner peace to maintaining inner peace. Our own inner state of tranquility becomes our guide. We no longer need to look for pure consciousness because we know we are pure consciousness through our own experiences.
Takeaways from this talk:
Chakras: Understanding Our Relationship With Everything
February 2, 2023
Besides yoga asanas (postures) chakras are undoubtedly the most common images that come to mind when people think about yoga or eastern mysticism. Diagrams of yogis sitting in meditation with colorful lotus flowers ascending their spines adorn book covers, online articles, and yoga retreat ads. Despite the popularity of chakras we seldom hear about their cosmological significance or even why we should care about them.
During this Sacred Cow Talk we began our studies of the chakra system and its significance in our lives and in the lives of all living creatures. Because the first thing to understand about chakras is they are a map of the microcosm and the macrocosm, the individual and the universe.
The yogis had a specific vision of the cosmos: Everything in existence mirrors the whole of existence; the microcosm is the macrocosm and the macrocosm is the microcosm. The universe is a contraction of consciousness that moves from the subtlest forms to the grossest forms. The subtlest being pure undifferentiated consciousness and the grossest being matter.
Pure consciousness is the universal observer which experiences and knows all that exists. Pure consciousness is not a thing that exists in time and space and so it cannot be said to exist nor can it be said it does not exist. It is boundless conscious awareness. The one eye that sees all.
There is only one pure consciousness experiencing and knowing everything perceived and experienced by all living creatures for all time. The consciousness that knows and experiences everything passing through my body and mind is the same consciousness that knows and experiences everything passing through your body and mind.
Pure consciousness contracts into more and more limited forms until it becomes gross matter. But pure consciousness never loses its original expanded state in any of its contracted gradations even when those gradations reach the state of gross matter. Therefore pure consciousness is always available. In the universal macrocosm these gradations are known as tattvas and in the human body they are called chakras.
The Seven Chakras
A little background information is helpful to understand the chakras and their significance. The chakra system is central to many schools of yoga such as Patanjali’s yoga but is designated as Tantra. Tantra is an elaborate collection of practices in both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions with an emphasis on direct experience (see Tantra: The Immediate Experience of Pure Consciousness).
According to yoga, consciousness contracts into human beings following a process that includes three gradations of the same energy: Gross, Subtle and Causal which are typically called the causal, subtle and gross bodies.
The causal phase is where consciousness transforms into subtle energy and has been likened to a blackout. Unbounded consciousness takes on limitation becoming the causal body, a transformational stage which becomes limited further into the subtle body, which further transforms into the gross physical body. But these causal, subtle and gross gradations of energy are not following a sequential order. They are occurring simultaneously.
The chakra system is a map of the subtle body. The subtle energy animating the subtle body is called by different names depending on its function. The main form of this subtle energy is called Prana. Prana acts as a conduit flowing between the subtle body and the gross physical body. In the subtle body prana is subtle energy and in the physical body prana is breath. At death prana leaves the physical body taking the subtle body with it.
The chakras are vortexes of energy that extend throughout the subtle body in an elaborate system of channels called nadis. The chakras are located in the main nadi which is called the Sushumna Nadi. The sushumna nadi runs inside or along the physical spine. Each chakra’s energy vibrates at a specific rate manifesting matching tendencies. For example, the Muladhara Chakra lies at the base of the spine. Muladhara means “root” and represents the element earth. Likewise the muladhara chakra affects our “root” or feeling of stability mentally and physically. If energy is blocked in our muladhara we may have some or all of the following symptoms:
- Weight Fluctuations – gaining or losing
- Constipation or Incontinence
- Pelvic Pain
- Poor attention
- An urge to rush throughout the day
- Anxiety or Stress
- Inability to take decisive action
Yoga offers methods to clear blocked energy in the chakras. Some of these methods include yoga (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), and chanting the chakra’s seed mantra (bija). The bija mantra for the muladhara chakra is LAM. Bija mantras are sound vibrations that resonate at the optimal frequency of a specific chakra. The mantra’s vibration realigns the chakra, bringing it back to natural balance.
Kundalini energy is subtle energy that is often called “spiritual energy” because once kundalini is awakened it rises through the sushumna nadi piercing the chakras, purifying them, as well as the nadis (channels) throughout the subtle body. In this way kundalini purifies our subtle bodies, minds, physical bodies, and guides our spiritual evolution all the way to enlightenment which occurs once kundalini has pierced the sahasrara chakra (crown of the head) and rejoined Shiva (Pure Consciousness).
For most of us kundalini lies dormant wrapped around the muladhara chakra; the word, “kundalini” means coiled. When kundalini is dormant our awareness is limited to the gross level of energy. We identify with our bodies and our egos.
Consequently we think, feel and act like a limited entity. We see ourselves as the center of everything. The purpose of life is to survive, secure important relationships, possessions, and seek pleasure. The world outside our bodies appears to be nothing more than a projection of our needs. If people provide us with what our egos believe bring us pleasure and security they are friends. If people threaten what our egos believe bring us pleasure and security they are enemies. Everyone and everything else that doesn’t either empower us, or threaten us, won’t show up on our radar screens.
According to yoga our outlook and condition are not due to moral failings. They are simply the natural outcomes for people who suffer from ego and body identification. The key to spiritual evolution is awakening kundalini and there are a number of ways of doing it which we will not go into right now because kundalini requires a teacher’s supervision.
Awakening kundalini can be a very powerful life-changing experience which requires guidance and readiness. However we can begin to understand kundalini by putting it into context. Kundalini seems to be aligned with spiritual traditions that recognize spiritual energy. Indigenous people have their shaman who teach, heal, and dispense spiritual energy. The nature spiritual traditions of Europe worked with spiritual energy and considered it a requirement for wisdom. The Taoists in China taught methods to collect and preserve spiritual energy. The Kabbalah and Sufi traditions include spiritual energy in their teachings and practices. And of course Christianity teaches that Jesus initiated his disciples into the mystery of the Holy Spirit which is still considered to be accessible in some Christian traditions.
Takeaways from this talk: