By coincidence or grace, the first thing that I ever read on meditation was an English translation of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra. It was 1968. I was eighteen and a freshman at the University of California, and a woman handed me a book containing the first English translation of the text. This was my initiation into the yoga of delight and wonder.
This is the way it happened. Let’s go back about two months before I saw the book. A physiology lab on campus was conducting research on meditation, yogic breathing, biofeedback, hypnosis, and dreams.
I signed up to be a subject in one of their experiments on brain waves (EEG) and biofeedback. The experimental subjects got brain-wave biofeedback with pulsing lights, which I thought sounded really interesting. But someone had flipped a coin and my name was selected as a control subject, so I received no instructions whatever, no feedback. I was just wired up, with EEG wires all over my head and left there in total darkness and total silence, in a soundproofed room for two to three hours at a time, every day for several weeks.
I had never heard of meditation, so I simply noticed what was going on. Gradually my senses opened up in ways that I had no words to describe. I merged with blackness and infinity, I became that, and entered a world of spacious peace. Space itself seemed to be made out of harmony.
Walking out of the lab each afternoon, I felt refreshed and wonderful. It was as if my entire previous life had taken place in a mild sleep state, and now I was really awake. It was as if I had never seen the world before. Everything alive seemed to glow, especially the trees. I felt in love with existence.
I began to appreciate every detail of light, every touch of air, every sound, with extraordinary clarity. Light itself seemed soluble, an elixir I was drinking in through my eyes and the pores of my skin. I was delighted. The feeling was similar to the peaceful joy of surfing, but more intense and steady. I felt like myself, but this was a self I had never spent time in before.
I would have been astonished, but the intensity was balanced by a magnificent serenity. I was drenched in moving peacefulness. The perceptions seemed natural – this is the way the world has always been – but I had been too oblivious to notice.
Over the next few days, I noticed that even taking calculus tests was easy; my mind was lucid and I could remember a formula that I had glanced at the night before, then derive its applications right there during the test.
The experiment continued for a couple of weeks, and I enjoyed going to the lab each afternoon and sitting there in the dark for hours, then walking out into the light and discovering a new world. I also got used to living in this free and open state, in which I just breezed through tasks that previously were a chore.
The researcher conducting the experiment did not say anything at the time, because I was a control subject, which meant getting no feedback during the study. Months later he told me that the EEG indicated I was awake, but in a very deep state.
The heightened sensing and superb functioning lasted for a month or so after the experiment was over, as a continuous and self-maintaining state. Then it started to fade away, and I missed it. I was thirsty for that nectar I had been sipping.
The physiology lab seemed like an interesting place, and I needed a job, so I started to work there. In the first staff meeting I attended, one of the female graduate students read a couple of lines from a little paperback book. My ears perked up, and after the meeting was over, I asked her about it. She handed me the book, a paperback copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps. It was open to a page. I looked down at it:
Radiant one, this experience may dawn between two breaths. After breath comes in (down) and just before turning up (out) - the beneficence.
As the breath turns from down to up, and again as breath curves from up to down – through both these turns, realize.
Or, whenever inbreath and outbreath fuse, at this instant touch the energyless energy-filled center.
A flash went off in the middle of my head as I read those lines. An electric current lit me up from the inside out, everywhere in my body. In one instant, everything changed. I was standing there in the lab, but the world was full of new possibilities, because the words in the book spoke to the heart of what I experienced during those hours in the dark room and afterwards. That was it, I was in love. I immediately jumped in my car and drove to the nearest bookstore to buy the book. Standing there in the bookstore, I read:
Wandering in the ineffable beauty of Kashmir, above Srinagar I come upon the hermitage of Lakshmanjoo. It overlooks green rice fields, the garden, of Shalimar . . . Water streams down from a mountaintop. Here Lakshmanjoo - tall, full bodied, shining - welcomes me. He shares with me this ancient teaching from the Vigyan Bhairava and Sochanda Tantra, . . . and from it Lakshmanjoo has made the beginning of an English version. It presents 112 ways to open the invisible door of consciousness.
From my experience in the lab, this felt intimate and familiar. Hmmm, so there is a teacher by the name of Lakshman Joo, who lives this teaching, and he says there are many ways, and each one can be practiced and tested.
In this way, my first taste of the revelations the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra is singing of came in isolation, sitting in silence and darkness, with no knowledge and no technique. The next spark came through the written word, the sense of being electrified by the current of power behind the words of Lakshman Joo and Paul Reps. It was obvious to me that they were writing from inside the same living, pulsating current of electricity that I was awakening to.
After awhile I hit a kind of dry spell, because I did not know how to create a daily practice – something that would keep my body and nerves tuned so that I could live in the presence of the sutras. There was a whole set of skills that I did not know, which would allow me to intentionally create the conditions that had been happening naturally in the lab.
I made a meditation sanctuary out of the storage room off the garage, and sat in there listening to Music For Zen Meditation And Other Joys, by Tony Scott, and burning bad incense. I put in the time, but I wasn’t connecting to anything. It did not occur to me that I could go to the beach and sit on the sand and meditate. My house was a block from the beach, I grew up near and in the ocean, and always feel at home there. Yet for some reason I thought, wrongly, that you had to sit inside to meditate, with stuffy, smoky air.
I started reading C.G. Jung’s essays on yoga, and exploring the breathing and visualization techniques he was describing. I read little paperback books on yoga and experimented with asana, pranayama, candle-gazing, and concentration techniques.
One day I was reading Playboy magazine, and in the letters to the editor there was a question: “Dear Playboy: I live in New York, and outside my window I saw some people dressed in robes, dancing and chanting HAIRY BLAMA or something. What was that?” The Playboy Advisor replied, “Those are Hare Krishna devotees, and they were chanting: ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.’ This means, approximately, ‘Lord God, Lord God, God God, Lord Lord’.”
I liked the sound of this for some reason, and wrote it down on a 3x5 card, stuck it in the pocket of my jeans, and carried it around with me until I had it memorized. Then each afternoon I sat in the room off the garage and chanted it quietly. I liked both the English and the Sanskrit. This was probably the first time in my life I ever prayed.
I did not know anything about how to pace myself – I had the idea at the time that I should sit there for 45 minutes to an hour, not knowing then that this was way too long for a beginner. I did not know how to be informal with a mantra, and let it roll through my awareness in its own rhythm, repeating itself without effort. Also, the incense did nothing for me except make me sneeze.
Yoga means fusion, integration. But if you attempt to integrate too much, you get confusion. I was having occasional success at meditation, and then totally confusing myself by practicing too many different techniques for too much time each day.
So it was that I began to study yoga asanas, pranayama, meditation, and mantra. I have the sense now that there was a plan to the improvisational way I fell into meditation and fell in love with meditation. It gave me sympathy for those exploring on their own, and also respect for the profound inner guidance often operating in students.
Over the next five months of searching and studying, with the help of several teachers, I slowly began to create an appropriate discipline.
One of the great practices I learned was the Transcendental Meditation Technique. TM is similar to Sutra 16:
Hum a sound, such as ahhhhh . . . uuuuuuu . . . mmmmmm, or hreeeeemmmm, or eemmm, or even the sound hum itself. Bathe in the sound with infinite leisure . . . Continue to listen while the sound dissolves into silence. As the sound fades into an imperceptible hum, follow it into the hum of the universe.
The TM training conveyed a sense of trust in spontaneity and simplicity. My teacher was a nice old lady named Beulah Smith, who spoke with a soft Southern accent. I gathered that she had been the wife of a Navy officer for much of her life, and when he died, she set herself free and traveled to India to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. She also spent time with Tat Wala Baba, a sadhu who lived in a cave with dozens of cobras. In her eyes was a peaceful wildness, and I learned a lot just from her ease of being, her naturalness and acceptance. I learned to do almost nothing, just sit there and listen, feel, and look at what is happening, while the mantra repeated itself in the quiet depths of my awareness.
On the first day of training, in a one-to-one session, Beulah asked me if I was having many thoughts. I said yes. Then she said the most interesting thing: “Thoughts are a part of meditation. Don’t try to push them out. When you become aware you are thinking, just return to the mantra in an easy way.” There was a kind of sparkle in her eyes as she said this, a sense that you can welcome your personality and individuality as you plunge into infinity.
TM is radical in its simplicity. You don’t hold the attitude of complaining against thoughts. You drop the fantasy of being this beleaguered person seeking peace, if only those damn thoughts would cease. In Beulah’s eyes and words, I could sense an embrace of the naturalness of being human, you just link up your everyday self with your eternal self. If you can catch this feeling, it is an extraordinary gift of freedom, because meditation is then a seamless part of life, as natural as breathing. I did not realize it at the time, but this is a profoundly tantric approach to meditation, in which the rhythm of your daily life comes into a love relationship with the transcendental level of essence. The TM instructions were coming from a similar current of insight as gave rise to the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra.
I asked Beulah how long to meditate, and she said, 20 minutes every morning and evening. In the morning, before breakfast and in the afternoon or evening, before dinner. Sit for a minute at the beginning, to settle down. And at the end, sit with the eyes closed for three minutes before opening them. Don’t just look at your watch and jump up. Always be gradual in these transitions. Beulah sent me home to meditate on my own, then come back for several days of checking and follow-up.
At home I discovered that oddly enough, the act of meditating felt totally normal to me, a bit like cleaning the house. During meditation, one of my predominant feelings resembled sweeping, moving boxes and sorting. I was feeling many kinds of sensations, excitement and anxiety, associated with my to-do lists. Here and there, for a moment, there would be a flash of infinity, as if you move a box that has been sitting in the garage for as long as you can remember, and underneath it the floor is translucent, with the Milky Way shining through it. But that would be only a flash, a second or two. A glimpse.
Meditation also feels something like receiving a massage. I sat in the chair, feet on the ground, aware of the fatigue and ache in my muscles, and could feel my blood vessels opening and washing away the tension and tiredness. This is a mildly painful process, like sore muscles being massaged. It felt as though there is an infinitely patient and relentless massage therapist at work with a billion tiny hands, determined to get me back into shape to enter the ring again and go for it. I also noticed a quick, special-effects type of scene transition: one moment I would be regular me, sitting in the chair, just like any tired person, my attention called to the ache in my legs. Many people have this experience sitting in a hot bath, relaxing. The next moment I would be inside the sensations in my muscles, and I was simply a throbbing sense of aliveness and life healing itself.
I was so ignorant and naive, I did not know enough to protest how normal meditation felt. An everyday chore, or rather a whole series of ever-changing chores. There would be minutes that felt like grooming a dog or a horse, running a comb through the hair. Waxing a car. Cleaning and tuning an engine. Vacuuming a carpet. Cleaning up a workspace after a project has been completed. So I just tended to each inner need as it arose, and unhurriedly did the careful work each item seemed to demand.
Meditation calls for good hands. When you are touching a lover, a musical instrument, or putting a lug nut on a wheel, there is an exactitude of touch required and an unhurried sense of craft. Touch means you are giving and receiving attention and tension, as you handle whatever is there. The skills required in meditation are analogous to those required to elegantly do any physical chore; you reach out with the “hands of attention” and touch each breath, each thought, each impulse of energy flowing through your body and mind.
During meditation, many aspects of the self call out to be embraced by attention: the flow of breath, a universe of bodily sensations, and the orchestra of the mantra fading away into the silence. Then thoughts of everyday life emerge, as my muscles and nerves calibrate the exact amount of energy and type of alertness required by each upcoming activity. My brain would bring up one stressor after the other – that test tomorrow, bill to pay, conversation to have, dreaded chore to do – and assign it the appropriate, minimum, and simplest way of engaging.
Relaxing and unstressing are only part of the process of paying attention; some situations call for greater alertness or relaxed vigilance. My brain was sorting the priorities and relative importance of each item for my survival and goals. After choreographing the to-do list and assigning the most adaptive amount and kind of attention, my brain would say, “Ahh . . .” then go silent. This sorting took most of each twenty-minute meditation session.
William Blake said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is, infinite.” So there I was, down on my hands and knees with a brush, cleaning the doorway. The chore of meditation felt like any cleaning task.
After meditation, when I was going about my day, was when I felt the quiet inner ecstasy. I was attending the university, working, and surfing, doing the normal things, but it was all suffused with a superb sense of relaxation, as if I had just come back from a fantastic vacation.
Three days after beginning the daily practice of the TM technique, I began to enter the world of heightened sensing again – seeing and feeling and hearing the energy fields given off by living things. Around noon, I was standing outside the Student Union, looking at the grove of trees swaying in the breeze. Gradually I realized that I was immersed in a quietly glowing sphere of shimmering peacefulness. This was a very physical experience and I felt as relaxed as a cat in the sun. The shimmering energy felt beautiful, and I found that I could see with it somehow. Over the next half hour, various people I knew came walking by, and I found that from a quite a ways away feet away I could see what mood they were in, by the odd shapes and moving patterns of colors I was seeing in the space around their bodies.
Because this was 1968, on a University of California campus, some of the people I saw around campus were tripping on marijuana, speed, LSD, alcohol, mushrooms, and various combinations of the above. I made a game out of learning to recognize the characteristic patterns in the energy field created by each drug, and to detect if the substance was just coming on, peaking, or if the person was crashing. I could see, from fifty or a hundred feet away, if someone was into yoga or meditation, by the type of luminosity radiating into the space around their body.
Over the next couple of months, this ability to sense energy fields in and around people kept developing by itself, day by day. At the time, I had never heard or read about energy fields, auras, or subtle bodies. I had no ideas or concepts, so I just made it up as I went along. This did not feel like “extra-sensory perception;” clearly, this was sensory perception. I was seeing, feeling and hearing. It was just enhanced compared to what I was used to.
There was no sense of being part of a spiritual elite. For all I knew, everyone else already perceived these things, took them for granted, and now, finally, I was in on the secret. My feeling throughout 1968 and for several years afterwards was simply that I had woken up a bit and joined the human race, or at least submitted my application.
When I looked at people, they appeared to be illuminated from within, slightly translucent, with many layers of vibrating, softly glowing substance comprising their being. At the deepest level I could perceive, everyone was equal – luminous beings, dignified as kings and queens, and really good at hiding their light. I did not feel spiritual, just sort of normal.
You could say it was gut instinct, amplified by some kind of radar. Something akin to magnetism, the magnetic field of the life force, was renewing itself with every breath, every heartbeat, and inviting me to live in accord with its reality. I started to feel, for the first time in years, that my body was a superbly healthy animal, and I was listening to my animal instincts.
In the evenings I would go home, read through the verses of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra and recognize what I had been experiencing that day, with a sigh of relief. Ah –someone else, whoever wrote these words, has experienced what I am experiencing, in terms of waking up to these blessed flows of energy through the body, and cared enough to write it down. I am not alone in this awakening.
Although these perceptions constantly surprised me, it all felt like a coherent reality. There were handy uses, like when driving – I could sense from a mile away if there was a speed trap ahead. The more I accepted this realm of perception, the more intimate and familiar it felt.
The price I paid for being so wide-open to beauty was being wide-open to pain – my own pain and that of others. I had to learn to feel and heal every bit of pain I was in, every day. I learned to tune in to my body as a musical instrument, listen to every string resonating, and then bring everything into tune. This is what a daily yoga and meditation practice meant to me. It became clear that my path was to tend to every rhythm, pay attention to every breath, pulsation of thought, sensation, and heartbeat. Only by moving through the world in balance, following my instincts, could I get away with living in such delight.
It seemed to me that others, especially artists, had a similar kind of perception into the invisible, or almost-visible world. I knew musicians who could snatch a tune out of the air – hear it in the language people were speaking, and form chords that went with the song of life. I knew artists who could see the magic in a tree or a person and draw or paint it. And I knew dancers who could take an impulse and make gorgeous movement out of it. I knew women who could look at you, see into your heart, and know how to love you. I was in awe of all these friends and their gifts and how they cultivated them. It took me awhile to figure out what my gift was for: seeing the innate yogas that the body does spontaneoeusly.
Good humor and mutual respect developed between me and the students who were drug-takers. For my part, I was highly entertained by how wild their energy fields looked, and admired their courage, to drop unknown substances and then stay up all night pursuing insights. I just did not have the time, money, or health to waste on getting wasted. From their side of the perceptual field, I was their token yogi, a calm, happy center in the midst of the chaos, and everyone enjoyed teasing me. Watching me do alternate-nostril pranayama sent them into giggles and they delivered one-liners such as, “Hey Swami, we’re going to get stoned, so, like, why don’t you go over there and stand on your head.”
One of the yoga books I was reading had a quote from an ancient text, “The yogi becomes as sensitive as an eye.” When I read that, I said, “Uh-oh,” even as I recognized what they were referring to. In a yoga class in early 1968, the teacher said, “Always keep a balance of sensitivity and strength. You need strength to cope with sensitivity, and you need sensitivity to make good use of power and strength.” This rang true because it was and still is a challenge to maintain the kinds of physical, emotional, mental, and “energy” strength to allow me to tolerate this joyous and terrifying world of perception. I discovered that going in the ocean every day, catching a few waves, gave me a charge of needed power to handle the extra sensitivity my body was dealing with.