Expanding the Center

Recognition Sutra #17

Having already discussed the all-inclusive unity-consciousness that in this system is characterized as 'the Joy of Awareness' (cid-ānanda) or perhaps 'the joy of being [fully] aware [of the truth]', which when stabilized manifests as embodied liberation, Kshemarāja next raises the question of how one attains or uncovers this cid-ānanda in the first place. This leads him to discuss the spiritual teaching of the core or center (madhya). Becoming centered in the core of your being is a prerequisite to expanding it, which gives rise to cid-ānanda, which eventually becomes all-inclusive. So sūtras 17 and 18 teach us about the Center, how to access it, and how to 'expand' it (such terms are of course ontologically metaphorical yet phenomenologically descriptive). 
     Kshemarāja teaches (please note that everything in boldface below is translated from the original Sanskrit, not just the main sūtra):

मध्यविकासाच्चिदानन्दलाभः ॥१७॥

The Joy of Awareness is attained through the expansion of the Center. || 17 ||

The Blessed Goddess who is simply Awareness is [called] the ‘Center’ because [a] She continuously exists as the most intimate core of all and [b] it is impossible that anything could exist separately from that Ground (bhitti).

First let's consider the metaphorical sense of the term Center: Goddess Awareness is appropriately called the 'center' of all living beings because simple awareness of existence is their most fundamental attribute. That fundamental awareness is ever-present yet paradoxically elusive. When you settle into your natural presence, the ‘place’ within yourself that has been there as long as you can remember, the place where you feel most you, free of self-images, free of judgments and stories about yourself, the place where you just let yourself be and enjoy being, that is the Center (cf. Tantra Illuminated, page 387). That is why an indispensable element of any spiritual practice is cultivating one’s ability to let go of all doing and simply be. To be able to sit and do nothing, truly nothing, while fully awake and aware, is a remarkable spiritual attainment. When we relax into being, we may notice that awareness of being is the only constant in our ever-changing experience: another reason it is appropriately called the Center. 

However, ‘center’ is an imperfect metaphor unless we understand that the Center is actually everywhere: or rather, the nonlocalizable ground of all being. For this reason, Kshema again identifies the Center with the metaphorical ‘canvas’ (bhitti) of Sūtra Two. Nothing can exist separate from Awareness, which is why we call it the 'ground of being'. Another way of saying the same thing is that nothing can have an essential nature (svarūpa) other than Awareness itself, for if it did it could not appear as a part of anyone's awareness and thus would form no part of anyone’s experience. 

There is a less metaphorical sense of the term Center as well: the core of the subtle bodies of sentient beings, a central axis of vitality that is related to but not identical with the spinal column of the physical body. This column of energy, called variously the madhya-nāḍī (‘central channel’), the suṣumnā-nāḍī (‘graceful channel’), and the brahma-nāḍī (‘divine channel’), is explained by Kshemarāja next.

But in the state of differentiation (māyā), although She (that is, 'Goddess Awareness') remains Herself, She [partially] conceals Her real nature, making the realm of life-force energy (prāṇa-śakti) her own. . . . Through a process of further ‘descent’, she inhabits the levels of the intellect, the body, and so on, flowing into the paths of the thousands of channels [that animate living organisms].

As life-force energy [in human beings] she is primarily present in the form of the central channel, the Divine Abode [extending] from ‘Brahma’s opening’ [at the crown] to the ‘lower mouth’ [at the pelvic floor]. This is because all [biological and cognitive] processes arise from and subside into that [Channel], like [all the veins connect to] the midrib of the flame-tree leaf. Her precise nature remains concealed from bound souls, although she abides as the very core of their being.

When divine Awareness flows forth into manifestation, it becomes prāṇa-śakti or life-force energy, present in (and making possible) all forms of life from bacteria to the blue whale. In yogic theory, prāṇa is that which animates all living things, flowing in complex patterns of subtle energy that underlie and interconnect all ecosystems. All eukaryotic living things are thought to possess nāḍīs or subtle channels along which prāṇa-śakti flows, and some of these channels connect to the channels of other beings, forming a great web of life.

In human beings, the most important nāḍī is the central channel, for all other channels connect to it (usually at nexus points called chakras) and it is the basis for all neurological activity. Though lacking the scientific terminology, Kshemarāja’s lineage intuited that the various cognitive processes arose from and converged at the central channel, which of course is the subtle-body version of the spinal column. Regardless of the accuracy of their quasi-scientific speculations (which were based exclusively on meditation, not dissection), what's important in this discussion is the fact that central-channel practices can be as effective for yogīs today as they were in premodern times. Causing the prāṇa to flow freely and sustainably in an expanded and activated central channel is the yogic version of attaining libartion or ‘enlightenment’. (Note that in this tradition, the goal of the spiritual path can be attained in yogic or gnostic ways, or both, with the yogic version of liberation being much more somatic.) For this reason there are a variety of meditations and yogic techniques involving the central channel. In yogic theory, during ordinary habitual states of consciousness, prāṇa flows almost exclusively in the lateral channels called iḍā and pingalā, whereas if a person is abiding in natural Presence, prāṇa is flowing primarily in the central channel. Kshemarāja endorses both the gnostic (insight-based) and yogic paths, and indeed encourages us to see them as aspects of one path, as the following comments demonstrate.

But when Goddess Awareness, who is the Center, that which is innermost in all, expands through the process of the [gnostic] methods already taught, or, alternately, when the divine Channel that is the Center expands through the [yogic] methods that are yet to be explained, then, because of the expansion of that [Center], the Joy of Awareness is discovered, that is, attained. From that [discovery arises] the aforementioned embodied liberation. 

Whether the Center is conceived as fundamental awareness or as the central channel or both doesn’t much matter. What matters is that it must be expanded to access the Joy of Awareness. When you contemplate your essence-nature as author of the Five Acts, it expands your sense of what you are. Contemplating awareness as that which emits, sustains, and dissolves phenomena (instead of just passively registering them) expands your sense of what you are. This is the ‘gnostic’ method of expansion, as is the cultivation of any of wisdom-teachings given in the text so far. Both gnostic and yogic methods for the expansion of the central channel will be given in Chapter Eighteen, the longest and perhaps most important chapter in the text. If you want to learn the practices taught in that chapter, I encourage you to sign up for my course, since it is far more effective to learn them 'live', in an interactive way, compared to reading about them in a book or blog.


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This post is an excerpt from Chapter Seventeen of my forthcoming book, The Recognition Sutras