“How can speech have access to those places where the mind cannot go? Speech can describe sensory experiences but not extra-sensory ones.” – Swami Kripalu
We have all had a meditation, or at least imagined a meditation, where the thoughts parted and a spaciousness appeared behind them. This spaciousness does not have clearly defined properties, it is hard to grasp. But it does have flavors. It might seem light and loving, or clear and transcendent. It may appear as fullness or as emptiness. Anyone who has had this experience may find themselves seeking to repeat it or wanting to go deeper into it.
One of my monk brothers, back in the Kripalu ashram days referred to these experiences as, ‘blackmail from god.’ The experience is just out of reach and it appears that any selfishness or fear can obscure it. Yet one may feel the promise that if every condition were met the floodgates would open and one would be immersed in that spaciousness.
Yogis had this experience in ancient times too. In fact, this type of experience may have been the very stimulus for yoga to develop. We could correctly say that every yoga technique was designed to clear the way for this experience or draw it close. Ancient yogis drew road maps to help them understand the experience and recognize how to access it, and what came in the way.
A simple progression emerged that evolved to become Sankhya Darshan, the philosophical foundation of all our modern yoga. This model was based on an observation that there is a dividing line between our interior and our exterior. The external world is infinite and they imagined the inner world must also be infinite. The external world is revealed through the senses.
The Katha Upanishad, an early text states: ‘The self-existent Supreme Lord pierced the openings of the senses outwardly; therefore, a man perceives only outer objects with them and not the inner Self. But a calm person, wishing for immortality, beholds the inner Self with his eyes closed.’ (Katha Upanishad, 2.4.1)
The senses naturally open outwardly so it is very easy to perceive the external world. The inner world is more difficult to see and requires that we calm the senses so they can turn to look inwardly.
Each sense has the ability to perceive a different range of the external world. The eyes can see the stars, but the ears can only hear at most a few miles. To smell a flower we must pull it close, and we can only taste things that touch the tongue.
The Sankhya model says that senses capture experience, mostly outside and bring it to the mind. The mind synthesizes the senses inputs, combining them so that the sound we hear comes from a visual source, and flavors and odors blend to give a taste to the food we see on our plate.
Asanas and pranayamas were designed to bring attention inside and keep it from flowing outward. This process is called pratyahara, literally to, ‘not feed the senses.’ The effects of the asanas and pranayama are enhanced when they are practiced in a quiet place with the eyes closed. When the attention turns inward, the world disappears and one only experiences the self.
But what is this ‘self?’ The senses are excellent in picking up their respective stimuli. The taste buds can detect sugars and oils, spices and herbs, etc. The self has none of these. The eyes can pick up colors and shapes, but we don’t have these inside.
In the quote above Swami Kripalu states that speech can describe sensory experience, but not extra sensory ones. All the words spoken by the mouth and the words that make up our thoughts come from the same place, the mind. Sankhya teaches that the mind is behind the senses and that the senses ‘dump’ their perceptions into the mind and the mind sorts them out and weaves them into a coherent experience. The mind communicates in the language of words. Thoughts are mostly words. The mind holds our memories so images and memories are part of the mind also.
When the senses introvert through pratyahara, the mind doesn’t have as much to comment on and becomes quiet. We have turned away from the world and the instruments with which we interact with the world cannot find any sight, sound, taste, smell, or touch that it can construct into an experience. The mind becomes puzzled, it becomes quiet, and we experience mystery.
How much could the mind dissolve? How much space or time could occur between thoughts? If we dissolved far enough could we come back? Much of deep yoga is an exploration of the space behind mind. Since we can’t take words into those experiences, (if we think, we come right out of them,) we leave our personal self behind and enter into an impersonal state, the state of Buddhi. Buddhi is less connected with our personal self and more connected with the infinite. By dissolving into Buddhi we find that we are the infinite itself.
Exploring that infinite is deep yoga.