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Bhavana - culling up, image, reality


These are notes to complement the Deeper Practice, online, work:mountain-meditation bhavana : (nt.) becoming; a dwelling place. || bhāvanā (f.) increase; development by means of thought; meditation.

(mental) development: bhāvanā. - Effort to develop, s. padhāna. - Wisdom based on d. s. paññā. - Gradual development of the Eightfold Path in the 'progress of the disciple'.

'mental development' (lit. 'calling into existence, producing') is what in English is generally but rather vaguely called 'meditation'.

Somewhere in his writing to other writers, Stephen King makes a profound argument for mind reading.  Telepathy - communicating from one mind to another without gesture, moving the mouth, or making a sound - is entirely possible.  Not only is it possible from one person to another, but it's possible to transmit ideas across time and distance.  He wrote that in 2006, and spoke to me reading it years later.  And reminded me that this happens across centuries when I read Dickens.  I can travel millennia when I read scriptures.

Yoga works with this.  It's called Bhavana.  It has to do with this thing called consciousness, or awareness, and its power.

If I say the word mountain, you have some kind of intellectual, physiological, and psychological response.  It might be a memory, or pure invention. Even if you have never seen a mountain in your life, something happens.  Even if you have only ever read the word mountain in books, and have no visuals but those garnered by imagination and the descriptions of fairy tales to guide you, the fact stands: mountains are real things in the world, and you have some inkling, of them.  I'm saying 'inkling' is both psychological and physiological.

Take a moment to realize this, and let it sink in: if I ask you to put your attention, all of your attention, to the color of the text on this page, something shifts in your body.  Your eyes change.  Different lines of communication fire up in the brain.  Certain nerves fire, rods invert, light is registered.  Noticing a color is a physical, act.

If I were to ask you to shift all of your attention to something internal, there would likewise be a complex physiological response.  Try it.  Send all of your attention to the hairs on the back of your neck.  Or to the space on the inside of your big toe.  Or the space between your eyebrows, deep to the bone.

I don't know what you experience when you do this.  But I do know there is a physical response.  Interestingly, this response isn't a thing that can be measured by the most sophisticated of laboratory tests.  We can measure heart rate or analyze the chemistry of your blood.  We can get brain scans.  But the brain scan is not a map of what you did, 'in your imagination'.  There is no possibility, yet, of following the profound sequence of events called 'paying attention'.  And yet there is no doubt that it is a physical, event.

This is the first thing to recognize; it might just be 'observation', or 'noticing', or even 'imagining', but there is a physical reality to imagination.  There is a physical and physiological component to what is called 'attention'.  When I say mountain, a litany of events happen in your body.  Some of this is muscular, some chemical, some mechanical.  Some has to do with the composition of water and mineral salts, some with electricity.  When I say a word, a poem begins in your body.

The second thing to recognize is that by suggesting the word, mountain, I am referring to a reality that you understand.  Even if the understanding is purely conceptual,  hand me down, or theoretical.  Things, like mountains, actually exist out there in the world.

But the reality you call up is also, abstract.  The mountain in your mind's eye is in your mind's eye, not Utah.  The imagery in your head might approximate the Himalayas, but is distinct from the Himalayas.  There is something subtle, to the mountain in your mind.  It's like an Platonic form.  It's not real in the world, but it is real, in it's own way.

This sense, the fact that something called 'mountains' are real, is bhava.  The essence.  The being, ness.  The reality of there being things called mountains.  Even if the planet were to spontaneously combust, explode in to a gazillion pieces, and even if there were no such thing as mountains and valleys on other planets, we could still make a firm argument that something mountainous has a reality.  You could say it in Spanish, Sanskrit, or Cantonese.  The words vary.  The images, vary.  The details are infinite.  Yet mountain-ness, is.

Bhavana is when we call up the is-ness, of a thing.  Like a mountain, or light, or circles.

Thirdly, notice that by drawing our attention to something like, mountain, we are re-directing our mind.  It was somewhere else.  Probably, it was many other places.  It was probably narrating, assessing, measuring something up.  It was probably worrying, or projecting.  Bhavana is an interruption to this usual rambling of our mind.  A calling of mind, to attention.  Minds are not good at this.  They are much better at wandering.

This is important.  Bhavana is a technique of centering uncentered attention.  By doing so, it links our attention to something, while de-linking it from where it was.  If you've done any yoga at all, you'll recognize this as an important aspect of how and why to do yoga.  We're trying to train a mind that usually can't center, to center.  And, we're trying to disassociate from our normal pathways of thought - which tend to be both irresistible and utterly predictable, outright boring - toward something more worthwhile.  If I were to be high minded, I could say we are trying to connect more and more frequently to the things that matter in life, and disconnect from the things that don't.

Mountain culls up an aspect of reality, and elicits a physical and psychological response; you see, bhavana is a direct provocation of our responses to and core beliefs about reality.  The same 'reality' of a mountain, for example, can provoke one's sense of being on a precipice with a long way to fall, being lost in clouds of confusion, or the density and stability of physical reality.  It may alternately inspire with magnitude, lend the perspective of a removed distance, or invoke steadiness.  Depending on the context, a mountain peak may mean we've come a long way, or that we have a terribly long way to go.

This is where it actually gets interesting.  Given the same invocation, everyone comes up with a startlingly unique, response.  Last spring I used the imagery of a seed, or a packet of seeds.  Sometimes, people would plant them and watch what grew.  Sometimes, the seed carried the genome of a peaceful or familiar place.  And other times seeds represented decisions, invoking karma.  At yet other times, students envisioned themselves, as seeds.

One woman's seeds were fine, tiny, weightless and delicate, silvery.  Another woman's was as large as an avocado, but dark.  One seed was as big as a hand, with a burr around a dense black core, spiney, spidery tendrils that seemed to move with volition.  Watching what came of the seeds brought up English gardens or a single, passionately exotic and perfumed, bloom that wilted after a few deliriously beautiful moments.  Some grew rows of wheat, some blackened and cracked the earth.

These images are not talismans, fortune telling, or prescriptive.  But they are rich with information.

I was once in a training working with bhavana.  The teacher asked us to close our eyes, drew a symbol involving intersecting triangles and dot on the chalkboard (yes, chalkboard: this was years ago), then asked us to open our eyes and let the image sink in.  Then, we were asked to share.  At first, no one said anything.  The symbol was abstract, after all.  And we were students, probably invested of the idea that there was a right answer, and that we were in some way supposed to perform.

After a few achingly silent moments, a woman spoke up.  She said she saw the star of David.  Then someone else laughed, at themselves, but out loud in the room and said yes, I see that now, but what I saw was a human body, with stubby arms and legs.  Then someone else spoke up and said they saw an angel's wings, someone else saw moving geometric shapes, as in a kaleidoscope, and a final person said she saw a wound.

There is so much, information, here.  It's deeply psychological.  And, if we were to ask about heart rate, emotions, breathing, we'd see that these responses are also deeply physiological.  It's not, the instructor pointed out, that the image itself means anything; it's what we ourselves bring with us that makes meaning.  From a few innocuous lines on a blackboard, we call up religion, tradition, and persecution.  We see human flesh, divinity, art, whimsy, and pain.

It's important to notice and understand what this means.  Working with imagery, archetype, or symbolism isn't important because symbols mean or do anything in particular.  The mountain doesn't have portents like a tarot card or attributes like a medicine, clues like a mystery novel.  It isn't about the image; it's about us.

I can't emphasize this enough, especially in this context of training the mind through yoga.  All too often people say things like 'blue symbolizes fluidity', or 'the heart chakra is green and is associated with serenity, balance, and calmness'.  It's misleading to say images mean, anything.  As I suggested, a seed doesn't necessarily mean anything.  Some seeds spread waste to the ground, some seeds grow weeds, and some grow manicured and predictable rows.

However, the use of bhavana and imagery does have art and reasoning, behind it.  It loses it's meaning if images are chosen at random, just as surely as it loses it's meaning when someone imposes meaning, for you.  Bhavana can't be arbitrary.  Inviting students to feel a cool breeze of breath, or to see the color red, or to expand their heart awareness becomes gobbledeegook unless it's resonant with context.  You see, although we do each carry our own inner meaning, that inner meaning also unfolds in a shared, reality.  That reality is the place in which things like mountains really do exist.  Bhavana or imagery has to resonant with the current context.  If it doesn't, it will fall flat, sound like hippy-dippy shit, or wrinkle people's foreheads.  It will clash.  Physically.  And psychologically.

Done well, bhavana can enrich a moment, an experience, a breath, or a physical movement.  Meaning has layers.  Bhavana develops, these layers, while creating a temple, a resting place, a developing mind.

Training the mind to focus for whole seconds at time is said to be the most effective methodology for working with thought.  And if we're going to be honest, most of us take a good deal of our yoga benefits from the way it works with thought.  Most of us have a very hard time indeed focusing the mind on anything, at all, because we're multi-tasking, catch our information in short clips of status updates, headlines, and traffic signals, and have the hardwiring for negativity and looking for the next coming problem.

But this is more interesting, still: if what comes up in bhavana is unique, created by our own memories and experiences, than there's a sense in which we aren't working with mountains, at all.  What comes up is you, and what you work with is you.  What comes up is your general reactions to having a long way to go, or confusion, or being grounded.  Chase Bossart says that yoga is the science of experiences: what we're doing with bhavana is directly cultivating experiences of uncertainty, grounding, growth, decision making, or whatever, in the context of safety.  These aren't actual mountains, but the story you carry about loneliness, or beginning new ventures, or being overwhelmed with information.

We're invoking the place between conscious and unconscious mind, and laying down new experiences.  Which is how neural pathways and images and memories are made.  How, samskara, are laid.  We are having a new experience.  And as all the literature will tell you, it is one thing to 'understand' or read or have told to you, it is quite another again to go through the thing yourself.  Experience is the most profound, knowing.  As psychotherapists would have it, we heal our past experiences by having the same experience, with a new outcome.  All this to say: memorizing or dissecting or reading this article is not the same as sitting down, now and then, and going through the experience of bhavana.

One last point.  At it's best, bhavana or evocative language as used in yoga should have it's source not only in context, but in anatomical realities. We can touch people with our words. I think this is a more profound touch than is actual physical adjustment.  It touches deeper physiological structures.  It reaches for 'subtle body'.  It has more meaning, to it.  The spine and the human form have been metaphor for mountain, and vice versa, so long as there have been poems to say or maps to follow.  Mountain mimics the human structure in altitude, having the fullness of three dimensions, a sense of ascent, a view from the top,

The Siva Samhita says:looking inside

In your body is Mount Meru

encircled by the seven continents;

the rivers are there too,

the seas, the mountains, the plains,

and the gods of the fields.

Prophets are to be seen in it, monks,

places of pilgrimage

and the deities presiding over them.

The stars are there, and the planets,

and the sun together with the moon;

there too are the two cosmic forces:

that which destroys, that which creates;

and all the elements: ether,

air and fire, water and earth.

Yes, in your body are all things

that exist in the three worlds,

all performing their prescribed functions

around Mount Meru.

He alone who knows this

is held to be a true yogi.


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