This is Post 36 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
While meditation can initially be thought of as an exploration of our felt experience, or Sensation, in the field of the body, the wisdom of Intuition-Volition and of the green Northern Quadrant, is telling us that we need more than a medical anatomy textbook as our guide. Rather, we need self-enquiry frameworks that can guide our exploration down into the subtle, multidimensional, and energetic territory of Consciousness, and into the energetic reflection, or resonance, of Consciousness, in the energy fields of the body.
A Nested Hierarchy of Subtle Bodies
These maps to navigate by, are provided firstly the mandala, which has been my main frame of reference in these articles, but also by the stupa, which is a symbolic structure that reflects the nested hierarchy of the subtle bodies, and the subtle energy anatomy of the human body.
In my last article (here), I wrote about this subtle anatomy in three main ways: (1) in relation to non-duality; (2) as a way of locating the brahmavihāras in the fields of the body; and (3) as a way of understanding and systematically cultivating the experience of samādhi – the meditative state of integration and effortless concentration that arises as we learn to know our wholeness, and embrace the deeper and more subtle levels of our somatic experience.
Although our focus in this article is still the green Northern Quadrant and the Volitional, or energetic, dimension of experience, and the perceptual function of Intuition by which we know that dimension, I need now to continue further in addressing the important but paradoxical fact that the energetic reflection of Consciousness in the fields of the body appears to be available to sensory experience – in other words they are also aspects of Sensation, or vedanā, in the ancient Indian languages.
Vedana – Both Physical Sensation and our Experience of Subtle Energies
I capitalise the word Sensation, to distinguish it from the much narrower term ‘sensation’, and from the most commonly-used scientific materialist definitions of that word. Carl Jung brought a much wider and richer meaning to that word, as did the Buddha and the Buddhist tradition, I believe, when they referred to the skandha of vedanā.
Vedanā is often incorrectly translated as ‘feeling’, but even when it is correctly translated as ‘sensation’, this is understood narrowly – which is unfortunate, because vedanā is one of the most important concepts in Buddhist thought. In my view, the ancient Indian notion of vedanā is much better interpreted more widely, much as Carl Jung spoke of Sensation.
While the focus of the perceptual function of Sensation is the concrete, practical, and sensory dimension of existence, we need to think of it as referring inclusively to everything in our experience of embodiment. In other words, it needs to be thought of as including all of our sensory perceptions and bodily-felt experience, including the difficult-to-define and difficult-to-talk-about experience or ‘felt senses’ in the internal space of the body – even including experiences outside of the skin-line but nevertheless within the experiential field of the body.
Blind-folded by Scientific Materialism
If, as meditators, we are not shown that Sensation includes these ‘subtle’, or energetic, dimensions of experience, then the traditional practices simply will not work as well for us as they did for the Buddha’s disciples. We will be driving with the brakes on, or worse still, driving blind-folded by scientific materialism. I shall be returning to this theme, which is a very important one for all those who practice meditation and self-enquiry. It is especially important in connection with the ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ practice, which cannot be fully understood, in my view, within the framework of the narrow scientific materialistic view, in which, unfortunately, it is usually taught.
The recognition of the energetic nature of much of our bodily-felt experience is fundamental. While we may take the physical body as our starting point when we sit down to meditate, we cannot afford to listen to the voices of scientific materialism that are such an integral part of our culture (perhaps even masquerading as Buddhist wisdom teachers) who are instructing us to limit our world-view, and our awareness, to the scientific materialist fantasy of mere sensation. The world, and our existence in it, is much more mysterious and wonderful that those scientific materialist voices would have us believe. In approaching the physical body as meditators, I would like to suggest that we should think of the physical body as the Subtle Physical Body – the most physical of the subtle bodies.
Even the Physical Body is an Energy Body
As explained previously (here) in connection with the yellow Southern Quadrant and Sensation, even the Physical Body needs to be thought of as an energy body – as the energy body that is most obviously subject to the laws of time, of Biology, and of Classical Physics. The energetic dimensions of the Physical Body are clearly evident in our experience if we are open to them, but they can be more difficult to recognise because we are so much more keenly aware of the physical conditions of our bodily anatomy.
The other three surface bodies (the Thinking Body, Emotional Body, and Volitional Body) are much more obviously energetic in character – and much more obviously affected by Consciousness. When we start to recognise the way all four bodies interact as a dynamic and integrated system, we also realise that psychological transformation is much more easily achieved than the scientific materialists would have us believe.
The energetic perspective of the green Northern Quadrant frees us from scientific materialism. We find ourselves empowered and reassured. The re-wiring of the neuronal networks of our brains, we realise, can take place in its own sweet time. While the relatively slow pace of neuro-plasticity does have to be acknowledged as a limit on our psychological freedom, and on the pace of our spiritual development, it is not as significant as we are taught to believe. When we a truly resting as Consciousness, we are free – we are no longer listening to what the habitual reflexes of the brain and nervous system may be telling us; and no longer so subject to the signals of the endocrine system, and the biochemistry of our moods and anxieties.
From Separation to Connection through Resting as Consciousness
It is important that we do not allow a narrow scientific materialist definition of Sensation to hold us in a world-view of egoic separateness and egoic wilfulness. When we open ourselves to the deeper energetic dimensions of experience, we are opening ourselves to the levels at which we are not the separate beings that we appear to be, but are profoundly connected. And when, as we rest as Consciousness, and recognise the energies of Compassion, and experience the benevolent transpersonal Life Energies that naturally arise in the Volitional Body, a profound new world view emerges – we start to recognise our freedom, and release ourselves fearlessly into the flow of life.
The process of entering samādhi when we sit to meditate, is also a process of moving beyond scientific materialism into a recognition of the connected and compassionate nature of the universe. In previous articles (here, here, here and most recently here) I have sometimes approached this deepening into more subtle dimensions of experience using the notion of qualia. The term Qualia, which I have begun to use capitalised to indicate my particular use of the term, is used in philosophy and neuroscience to describe an experience that cannot be easily explained, or fully accounted for by the physical sense organs and the nervous system – the experiences of Consciousness and Being for example.
The Qualia – Talking about Difficult-to-Define Experiences
In the context of meditation and self-enquiry, the notion of Qualia is extremely useful for acknowledging the very important but difficult-to-define experiences that are clearly associated with Consciousness, but in a way that is very difficult to describe. The emerging scientific evidence regarding the Quantum Biology of the brain, is now in fact making these Qualia understandable in terms of the interface between Quantum Mechanical and Classical functioning within the brain, but they remain a mystery if we limit ourselves to the scientific materialist world-view – a world-view that continues, even in the 21st century, to derive its spurious authority from the Classical Physics of the 18th and 19th centuries, while completely refusing to acknowledge the implications of a century of Quantum Physics.
There are four Qualia that I find to be particularly useful as landmarks in the inner landscape of meditation. As there is an important Qualia associated with each of the four quadrants of the mandala, and with the four associated surface bodies, I have been calling these the Four Qualia: Being (east, Mental Body); Embodiment (south, Physical Body); Uncaused Happiness (west, Emotional Body); Life Energy (north, Volitional Body). They are very closely associated with the brahmavihāras, and may be thought of as a useful support for those wishing to explore the cycle of the brahmavihāras. Together, the Four Qualia show us the brahmavihāras from the perspective of the perceptual function of Sensation, and from the point of view of how Consciousness is actually embodied and experienced in the almost always incongruent fields of the body.
Reconciliation of Physical and Volitional – Surface and Deep – South and North
I find the Four Qualia to be an extremely helpful way of getting an experiential handle on the energy anatomy of the body as we first encounter it in meditation, and I shall be talking in some detail about them in my next article. I would like in this article however, to explain once again why we are needing to return to the conceptual function of Sensation (vedanā in ancient Indian terminology of the skandhas), and the territory of the yellow Southern Quadrant, in order to better understand the green Northern Quadrant, and the conceptual function of Intuition-Volition (which in the skandhas model is described in terms of the saṃskāras, or volitional energies).
We are once again drawing on the wisdom of the mandala, which requires us to address reality by observing how various apparent oppositions on the egoic level are reconciled on the level of Consciousness. Sensation and Intuition-Volition for example, appear as opposites (south and north) on the egoic level, but when we rest as Consciousness in meditative enquiry they are reconciled. This reconciliation is supported by the fact that the entirely non-material Life Energies of the Volitional Body are nevertheless experienced as Sensations in the body. The assumed Physical Body, on the other hand, is experienced as we go deeper, as not merely physical, but as itself a form of energy body – a psycho-physical energy body animated by a whole hierarchy of interpenetrating energy bodies that are each more ‘subtle’ in nature than the previous one.
There is a special relationship between the Physical Body, which is the outermost of the surface bodies (most keenly felt at the Base Chakra), and the Volitional Body, which is the innermost (most keenly felt at the Heart Chakra), and within which paradoxically, the Physical Body is contained. They a reciprocal opposites and form a yin-yang pair at south and north in the mandala – so their healing and reconciliation needs to happen together as we learn rest as Consciousness. The healing of this pair of bodies requires however, a similar reciprocal healing of the another pair of opposites – the Mental and the Emotional – which are located at east and west in the mandala.
Reconciliation of Mental and Emotional – East and West
The four surface bodies work as an interdependent system, in which the surface is contained within the deep; everything is connected to everything else; and everything is contained and held within Consciousness. This means that the reconciliation and integration of all four bodies needs to progress together.
The Mental Body and the Emotional Body, at east and west in the mandala, are reciprocal opposites on the egoic level, so that when one is developed and more conscious, there is a strong tendency for the other to be carrying psychological patterning that is unconscious, and is very likely to be, unconscious, repressed, and in Shadow – to use Carl Jung’s eloquent psychological metaphor. They are also, like the Physical and Volitional bodies, a yin-yang pair.
So, as with the Physical and Volitional Bodies, the healing of the yin-yang pair of the Mental and Emotional Bodies at east and west in the mandala needs to happen together. The state of wholeness that I have been calling ‘resting as Consciousness’ cannot be achieved without the recognition, separation and reconciliation of these opposites, and it is my belief that the Buddha’s ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ practice, was originally conceived as a way to accelerate the integration of the two key oppositions within the psyche – those symbolised by the axes of the mandala.
Mindfulness of Breathing and the Two Yin-Yang Pairs
There are actually four yin-yang pairs within the dynamics of the energetic anatomy of the four surface bodies. The two most significant ones however, are those that are symbolically represented by the axes of the mandala – the polarity of Volitional and Physical at north (green) and south (yellow), and the polarity of Mental and Emotional at east (blue) and west (red). These two pairings are of enormous importance, because when we become attuned to them, they are very clearly felt in the body (but experienced differently by women and men – since the yin-yang polarities are reversed), especially when we do the Buddha’s ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ practice.
As we pay attention to our breathing, our attention moves up and down the trunk on the body, but it moves in a paradoxical way – because it moves up the body as we breath in, and down the body as we breath out. This means that, as we breath out, our attention naturally moves down to the region of the lower chakras, which are where we experience the Physical and Mental bodies; and when we breathe in, attention naturally moves to the region of the upper chakras, which is where we experience the Emotional and Volitional bodies.
Mindfulness of Breathing – the Short Breath / Long Breath Approach
There is mention in the Pali record of the Buddha’s teachings on the Mindfulness of Breathing, of the importance of being aware of the distinction between what is referred to as a ‘Short Breath’, and what is referred to as a ‘Long Breath’. Whereas it is perhaps reasonable to assume, as most readers of these texts do, that the Buddha was inviting his students to notice, without forcing the breath, when it is shallow and when it is deep. This is not universally accepted and some traditions within Buddhism have taught Mindfulness of Breathing as a form of controlled breathing, with short and long breaths.
Given the very wide range of interpretations as to what the Buddha’s ‘Mindfulness of Breathing actually was, I have, having explored several approaches, come to the conclusion that we need to consider the possibility that the Buddha was inviting his students to notice the subtle yin-yang polarity between the region of the Hara Chakra and the region of the Solar Plexus Chakra (the Short Breath); and the subtle yin-yang polarity between the region of the Base Chakra and the region of the Heart Chakra (the Long Breath). This approach in which the practitioner alternates between the Short and Long Breaths in stages (the length of these stages can vary – typically 5 to 10 minutes each) is subtle, and difficult to teach, not least because it is experienced differently by women and men, but I have found the approach to be a powerful catalyst for psychological integration and for consistent entry into states of samādhi.
While many who have been practising Mindfulness of Breathing in more ‘traditional’ ways, may find the Short Breath / Long Breath approach to be a curious and even odd, it is possible to see this approach to the practice as a precursor in early Buddhism, to the keen attention to these polarities that we see symbolised in the mandala a few centuries later. The way in which this Short Breath / Long Breath approach serves to accelerate our integration process, by allowing us to overcome the dualistic psychological polarities that maintain patterns of unconciousness in the egoic psyche, is something that I will be returning to in future posts.