Recognition Sutra #11
The title of this blog post makes some people think of a part of their body, and others think of emotions they don't share with everyone. But in truth, the most intimate part of you is that which is closest to you, that which is always closest to you--and that's your awareness, the power by which you experience your body and emotions. It's so close to you that you mostly overlook it. But if you investigate it, you discover it's the key to everything. This post explains how and why that is.
Right in the center of The Recognition Sutras comes its most mysterious teaching. Sūtra Eleven describes precisely how your awareness creates its experience of reality in everyday life, moment-to-moment, and how awareness of awareness fundamentally shifts that experience. Sūtra Eleven draws on the 'secret' teachings of the Krama lineage, and so it hasn't been correctly translated or understood until now, because only through the recent pioneering work of my teacher Alexis Sanderson have the teachings of this lineage begun to be unveiled. First let's look at the literal translation of the sūtra itself:
॥ आभासनरक्तिविमर्शनबीजावस्थापनविलापनतस्तानि ॥११॥
S/he performs those Five Acts through manifestation, attachment, subjective awareness, laying down a 'seed', and dissolving it.
Of course, this can only be understood with the help of Kshemāraja's commentary. He teaches us that the Five Acts of God (see p. 111 of Tantra Illuminated) are expressed in each one of us, in every single experience we have. The best way to explain this is through an example. Let’s say you’re at a music concert with a good friend. It’s a band that’s supposed to be really great, but you are not so familiar with them, and so you’re drawn to catch up with your friend while sipping your drink with the music playing (rather loudly) in the background. Then, the band enters an improvisational section (it’s that kind of band), and the music gets more and more inspired until it finally catches your attention when your conversation reaches a natural pause. This is the phase called 'manifestation' (ābhāsana): suddenly, a reality which had been vague and peripheral becomes central, and the whole quality of your awareness changes. (Of course, the manifestation of this music-consciousness is coterminous with the dissolution of the conversation-consciousness you were previously experiencing.)
Your attention is drawn towards the stage and the complex interplay of the musicians, and you become completely focused on their spontaneous group creation. Other thoughts fall away as you become absorbed in the play of light and sound on the stage. Your consciousness is now profoundly 'colored' by the music; or more accurately, it forms itself into a musical experience, into music-consciousness. It is suffused with the music, which takes on greater depth and nuance than before. This is the phase labelled 'attachment' in the sūtra (we could also translate rakti as 'enjoyment' or 'devotion'). In this phase, you are not even aware of yourself, you are so immersed in your perception.
Then—perhaps when the song starts to draw to a close—awareness spontaneously reverts inward, and you become aware of yourself as the one who has been absorbed in the music. This is the phase labelled 'subjective awareness' in the sūtra (vimarśana). You pause for a second in pure wordless apprehension of your experience, and then a thought-form rises like a bubble to the surface of consciousness, and you turn to your friend and say, “Wow! These guys are really good!”—which of course is just a way of saying I like this, which in its essence is actually an acknowledgement of yourself as the conscious agent of the experience, i.e., I am the enjoyer [of the current reality]. Kshemarāja tells us that the preverbal moment of subjective awareness is or can be a moment of camatkāra—sweet savoring, aesthetic rapture, or pure wonder. The articulation of the thought is the bursting of the bubble, the anticlimax after the ineffable moment of aesthetic rapture. It is the transition from experience to representation of experience, and thus it is also the manifestation that initiates the next cycle. If we don't learn how to rest in subjective awareness, we usually miss the opportunity to experience camatkāra. And that opportunity arises with the internalization of each and every experience.
We have used the example of a music concert, which you may or may not relate to. But we equally could have used the example of a fragrant flower, or a delicious bite of food, or a loving caress, or witnessing a street fight, or anything else that absorbs your attention.
Before we go on to the fourth and fifth of the Five Acts of awareness, let me say a little more about camatkāra, or aesthetic rapture. ‘Rapture’ here does not mean excitement or ecstasy; it refers to being elevated out of one’s habitual consciousness in an intensified moment of awareness that results from internalizing an experience of beauty. In fact, there is no adequate English translation of camatkāra, since this term refers to the experience of pure being and wonder that one accesses in connection with any experience that intensifies and absorbs awareness. We can hardly overstress the significance of the fact that according to this teaching, any experience can have a camatkāra moment, a moment of experiencing the pure beauty and wonder of being. Even the experience of revulsion or horror can have a camatkāra moment!
Kshemarāja tells us that the camatkāra moment results from the dissolution of object-consciousness (which is focused on the music, the flower, or whatever) into subjective awareness, into one’s innate subjective presence. It is the moment just after the conclusion of a moving poem and before you have a thought about the poem. For that moment, you simply abide in awareness, your own presence, suffused with the beauty of the poem. If, through Tantrik practice, you learn to see everything as beautiful, then you can have countless such moments every day. For this, we must go beyond our conditioned ideas of beauty; we must go beyond what the mind is conditioned to ‘like.’ We must release our resistance to what we don’t like to see the beauty in it. Resistance is nothing but commitment to our conditioning. If you want camatkāra to become the leitmotiv of your life, you must become willing to allow the experience, whatever it is, to totally dissolve into the silent presence that you truly are.
Then you discover that Awareness is fascinated by everything, by the whole range of experience. It's fascinated by an attractive form, and by the body-mind's pull toward that form. But it's also fascinated by the smell of shit and decay, and by the body's revulsion to that smell. It's fascinated by stillness and by activity, by emptiness and by fullness, and by grief as much as by joy. This is apparent to everyone who really gets to know the most intimate part of themselves. It's kind of in love with everything.
The Fourth Act
But what happens when resistance is our normal mode of being? When we are invested in the illusion of control, and try to manage our experience? What happens when the experience is not fully allowed in? When we push away pain or grip onto pleasure? That question leads us to the fourth phase, the phase of concealment, or 'laying down the seed'. Kshemarāja says:
But when, despite being dissolved [into oneself], the experience of the object deposits internally various impressions (saṃskāra) such as anxiety (śaṅkā) and so on, then it is established in the state of concealment, becoming a ‘seed’ of worldly experience (saṃsāra) that will sprout again.
When something is pleasurable, we get anxious it won't last, and when something is painful, we get anxious it won't go away. This anxiety is a subtle or obvious expression of resistance to reality. When any experience is resisted, it does not dissolve completely, but leaves a trace of itself behind called a saṃskāra, which literally means ‘impression’. Before we discuss the nature of saṃskāras in more depth, let us look at the movement of consciousness that creates them. Whenever we turn away, even partially, from what is happening in the present moment because it is too uncomfortable, too painful, or even too wonderful, it creates a saṃskāra. When we resist reality, don’t show up, go unconscious, or ‘check out’, then we don’t fully receive the experience, we don’t allow it to fully pass through our being, and that is why it leaves an impression.
Have you ever turned away from what someone was trying to share with you because you didn’t want to deal with it? Have you ever pushed your pain or loneliness away with alcohol or television? Have you ever met someone’s eyes and saw such intense love there that you had to look away? All these incidents, and many others like them, leave behind the impressions called saṃskāras, which we could also call ‘unfinished energy patterns’. It’s almost as if everything wants to be seen; everything seeks the light of awareness, so if you turn the light down, if you go partially unconscious, an impression is formed in your energy body that will need to be seen and resolved later.
In Tantrik theory, we each have a ‘subtle body’, also known as an energy body or emotional body. Each experience we have is an energy pattern that passes through our subtle body, so it stands to reason that only those experiences that are resisted in some way leave an impression. These impressions are of two basic varieties. Experiences that we turn away from because they are uncomfortable or painful leave saṃskāras of aversion, and experiences we resist by clinging to them leave saṃskāras of attachment. The second variety might need more explanation. If an experience is very pleasurable, we instinctively cling to it, thinking something like 'I don’t want this to end'. Because of this clinging, the energy pattern cannot freely pass through your being, so it leaves an impression. (This is how cycles of addiction form.) On the other hand, if the experience is quite pleasurable but not as wonderful as you want it to be, you might think 'if only it was more _____ or less _____' and in this way you don’t fully show up for what is, and therefore the experience leaves an impression. Each impression has a kind of energetic charge which will express when the saṃskāra is later activated.
The example of energetic charge that Kshemarāja gives is carefully chosen, since śaṅkā, meaning anxiety, doubt, or inhibition, can characterize either type of impression. Impressions of painful experiences are charged with the fear of possibly having similar experiences in the future, while those of pleasurable experiences can be laced with anxiety about the transient nature of all feelings of happiness. The first causes aversion when activated, and the second, grasping. The saṃskāras are metaphorically called ‘seeds’ because, like real seeds, they can lay dormant for a short or long time until the conditions are right, and then they sprout. That is, when along comes a situation that even superficially resembles that in which the saṃskāra was laid down, the saṃskāra is activated and surfaces in the form of aversion, attachment, or emotional reactivity.
For example, if your parent yelled at you when you were young, someone yelling at you in a similar way now will trigger far more aversion in your system than it would for someone else who didn’t have a yelling parent. The earlier experience that wasn’t digested is now triggered and greatly amplifies the unpleasantness of the present moment experience. Likewise, if you meet someone who resembles the greatest infatuation of your life, the 'one who got away’, you’ll feel an attraction that is amplified by the unresolved impressions of the previous love affair. Thus you end up having reactions that are disproportionate to the present moment reality, because you are simultaneously reacting to what is present and to the unresolved past experiences hanging out in your system. In more extreme examples (which are actually very common), you are reacting much more to the past than to the present, and the saṃskāras obscure your vision so much that you can’t correctly gauge their distorting effect.* It is crucial to understand that, prior to substantial spiritual practice, you are constantly projecting the past onto the present without knowing it.
To sum up, not fully showing up for painful experiences creates saṃskāras that, when later triggered, create aversion in your body-mind; while not fully showing up for pleasurable experiences as they are creates saṃskāras that, when later triggered, create grasping attachment in your body-mind. If you always act on your aversion and grasping, the samskāric patterns will deepen and deepen in a vicious cycle, creating fear-based behavior patterns in the first instance and addictive behavior patterns in the second. These saṃskāras are concealed within the subtle body and can even block the flow of prāṇa, life-force energy. They are, Kshemarāja tells us, “seeds of saṃsāra that will sprout again.” (Saṃsāra means both ‘worldly experience’ and ‘the cycle of suffering’.) Inevitably, all your saṃskāras will be triggered by your various life experiences. But that is your golden opportunity: when a saṃskāra is triggered, it can be healed, resolved, dissolved, and/or released. That is the fifth phase, the phase of revelation, resolution, and grace.
How can we access the fifth phase, that of 'dissolving the seeds'? How can we effectively heal and resolve existing saṃskāras, and how can we live in such a way as to avoid depositing more saṃskāras?
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This post is an excerpt from Chapter Eleven of my new book, The Recognition Sutras.
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* Some people have the idea that saṃskāras are something bad, that you have them only if you failed to properly process your experience, because you were psychically weak. This is not really the case; or rather, it’s close to the truth, but there is no self-denigration necessary because we all start out with a weak energy body just as we all start out with a weak physical body. We all carry childhood wounds because children by definition cannot fully process a painful experience; their energy bodies are just not mature enough. Therefore, the unprocessed pain is stored in saṃskāras to be digested later when the energy body has matured. This is indeed a mercy and a miracle, this capacity we have to move through a difficult experience by storing some of it for later resolution. However, a yogī must eventually digest these saṃskāras, even if he has already become a fully functional adult, because on this path we seek not just functionality but integration and deep fulfillment.