I was walking on the dirt road of the property in our Jadan ashram, India, when as I approached the ornate entrance of the Swastika building, I saw Tulsidas there, minding the reception desk. Tulsidas is roughly my age and I knew him from Sydney, but hadn’t seen him for the last 10 years. He looked very young and stylish. For some reason he started telling me that he did not think he would get this job as these days everyone wants to employ only young people, so he thought he would try to make himself look younger. His light blue long sleeve shirt was rolled up neatly to his elbows. He had short blond spiky hair, a diamond piercing between his right upper lip and nose near the corner of his mouth and wore skinny spectacles sitting low on his nose. Well, he certainly looked no more than 22 to me. He asked me if I could look after the desk for 10-15 minutes while he popped out for something, I said, ‘sure no problem’. Then right at that moment I heard a deep voice talking on a mobile phone while walking under my window. The voice instantly started pulling me away from the reception area and I knew I could not resist it. I quickly bade farewell to Tulsidas as he and the whole image blurred into the darkness of my bedroom. I woke up… and found myself in bed, still hearing someone talking on her phone. Wow, I thought, what an interesting fading out kind of transition from a dream reality, not even Steven Spielberg’s best animator could have done a better job!
Dreaming is the sign of our mind’s powerful ability to visualise. It creates masterpieces of films every night and as long as they last we feel them to be 100% real, to such a degree that they can even affect us physiologically. Certain dreams can lead us to have higher blood pressure, faster and harder heart beats, muscle tension and can even make us feel exhausted and sweat as if we had had a workout. We have to admit that not even in our wildest imagination in daily life, can we create something substantial like that. In fact it never happens during the practise of visualisation in the waking state. This clearly demonstrates that our ability to visualise in the waking state is significantly less than the ability we possess in dreams. “Why is that?” I keep asking myself. Why can the mind do it at night and not in daytime? Are there two different minds, one for the night and one for the day?
I remember one of my early yoga teachers saying that visualisation is best when it is done in a detached way, as though merely watching a movie. This attitude of a neutral observer can only be maintained as long as we do not analyse or become involved in the process by judgment or condemnation. For me, it works the best when I just let images arise spontaneously within my consciousness, making use of the complete freedom in my mind as I do at night while I am dreaming.
There are two categories of images we can use for visualisation.
The first category is the conditioned image: - an image, which is associated with our day to day social, cultural, religious and moral experience. The image can vary within the context of location, nationality and culture, which means that an image rich in meaning for one practitioner may be totally meaningless to another. For example, ice flowers on frosted windows in the morning, is an image understood by many Europeans but one which carries no meaning for most Australians. These symbols are stored in the individual’s ‘subconscious’ mind as memories that can be easily accessed. Some examples of conditioned images include a burning candle, endless desert, snow capped mountains, birds flying across the sunset, stars at night and waves breaking on the shore, just to name a few.
The second category is the universal image, which is located in the ‘collective unconscious’ mind, invoking deep responses such as mantra, jantra, mandala etc. For example throughout the ages, specific coloured robes have been associated with spiritual life. Its meaning is buried deeply in the collective unconscious mind. Therefore, consciously or unconsciously, the sight of a monk can help to awaken our consciousness whether we are religious or atheist. However it can also work the other way around by invoking negative associations. Think about an egg, whether it is boiled, scrambled, an ingredient in a cake or just a chocolate egg. The mind associates the word ‘egg’ with its original shape, which is another universal image. The universe and the mother‘s womb both egg-shaped, which in return symbolises life; so, when we eat egg, we eat life. Yes, it is just symbolic; however, on the subtle energetic level it creates the vibration of violence (Himsa) in the deeper layers of our being.
In the beginning, focusing on individual images for an extended period of time, let’s say even for 10 seconds, can be very difficult for most of us. Therefore it is much easier to begin the practice of visualisation by focusing on linked images. Following a story line is an excellent way to start training the mind. For this reason the most valuable visualisation practice that I have come across, is called, ‘Expansion of Consciousness into the Past - Self Inquiry Meditation’ by Swami Maheshwarananda, from the system he designed and called, Yoga in Daily Life. In this exercise the practitioner tries to recall events from the past systematically, one after the other in sequence beginning from the present. It is like rewinding the clock, watching the movie of our life in a reverse order as far as we are able to recall. When practicing this, I try to remain within the day and hardy ever move back into yesterday’s events. So, when I reach the morning I turn around and return in reverse order of events to the present. Going back and forth a few times in each practice, has made me realise some of the significant benefits of this mental exercise and how important it is for all of us to master.
The first benefit is that it makes us realize how much has actually happened during the day no matter what time interval we have scanned through. Moreover, it demonstrates how much we have already forgotten and allowed to sink into our subconscious never really to be touched on again. This technique can help anyone to remember what was smelt, tasted, seen, felt or said, which ultimately sharpens an awareness that will stay with us increasingly outside the practice. It will even be present in our dreams giving us an insight into the relationship between the body and the mind. It is indeed a great technique that can help us in accessing all kinds of information that has been recorded by our mind. For instance, if you cannot find your car key in the morning, you need not start turning everything upside down; you just simply remember this technique and start scanning your memories. The key will turn up and you just walk there, pick it up and off you go.
The second benefit is that it is a relatively easy visualization technique because there is movement in the mind. Movement is what the mind loves; in fact, the mind is movement. So as long as there is movement, regardless of the guidance, the mind feels OK, unlike when we try to keep the mind still. Guidance is control, a kind of restriction because you don’t let your mind check out and wander off on its own. It is like driving on the Freeway. You drive in a certain direction (which is there for control) along with the traffic, and with the freedom you have of being able to move in and out of say 4 lanes thus making the journey more exciting. And this is why this technique with its relative freedom is a great way to prepare us for meditation where eventually we must arrive at a still image to be able to behold the Transcendental Truth, the Eternal and the Permanent.
The third benefit, which perhaps the most valuable of all, it teaches us that every situation, of its own nature, must keep on changing, thus firstly it would be foolish to get ourselves upset at every unpleasant change noticed. We don’t get upset when childhood dies away and youth appears or when youth passes and adulthood asserts itself because there is a continuity of existence of the same one, so too, at the moment of the death, there has to be no extinction of the individuality. The embodied ego on its evolutionary pilgrimage does leave its previous, well know, but “worn out” structure and is doing this for acquiring a new one according to its mental impressions (vasanas) that it has collected during its incarnation. The dweller decides on its own when time is right to change for a new embodiment that would serve it better expressing itself more completely for the sake of perfect fulfilment just like how we change our clothes to suit the convenience. Neither of us would in the morning go to the office wearing a night gown nor will we attend a yoga class after work in a suit. Additionally nowhere in the process of undressing the thought would arise that thereafter we will ever live naked.
It teaches us to keep moving on, that we should not get attached to pleasurable things either in life and try to re-live them again and again. You will soon see that there is an invaluable benefit in the ability of being able to move on. Imagine it as if you are watching a movie at the cinema, where the film will stop only when it’s over, and until then you have to go with the flow. This is unlike when you are watching a DVD at home with the remote control in your hand. We need to practice not to get attached, or stop and rewind at a certain scene. No matter how much we may like to do this, we must go on and acquire wisdom that enables us to suffer changes meekly with the comfort and consolation of the knowledge of their finite nature. It is the attitude of the wise to go through life, both in joy and sorrow, in success and failure, in pain and pleasure with the constant awareness: “Even this will pass away”. This calm endurance of the pairs of opposites, as mental equipoise, is a condition necessary for right knowledge of the true Self; this is the technique of Self-realisation, as explained in the Upanishadic literatures.
The ability to move on is important because throughout our entire life, the ego keeps projecting itself through the sense organs into the constantly changing outside world. It does this firstly to maintain movement and change in the mind by recognizing different objects, and secondly, by the experience of recognition, it acknowledges its own separate existence. It is this secondary experience that strengthens the ego’s existence, our individuality, by further disrupting or fracturing the homogeneous Cosmic Consciousness. In other words, the coming into contact with the objective reality is what fortifies the ego. By the sight, for instance, of a chair in the kitchen, there is a feeling ‘I’ see the chair there, which in return instantly reinforces the ‘me’ here. This separating agent, the ‘I’– the ego sense (asmita) – springs, according to Shankara, from the mysterious and indescribable ignorance (avidya) and is sustained by every experience. I experience therefore I am. (World + Experience = EGO)
This recognition and self strengthening identification process goes on even at night when we sleep. Rishi Vasistha illustrates this to Lord Rama in the Yoga Vasistha when he talks about the basic problem of finding happiness in life. Vasistha says the mind (ego) and the body are each other’s foes and when they come together there is a host of suffering on account of their mutual conflict. The mind gives birth to the body through its own thought-force, and throughout the body’s life time the mind feeds it with its own sorrow. It makes the body chase objects of unfulfilled wishes and desires, or run away from unpleasant experiences (Raga and Dvesa as attraction and repulsion). All day, every day, the body is forced to dance to the tune of the mind. Thus tortured by sorrow the body wishes to destroy the mind, its own parent! Hence, at the end of the day when the body collapses in total exhaustion, it takes revenge by destroying the mind during sleep. First the body falls into a deep sleep forcing the mind to be inactive, locking it away from the outside world and even preventing it from accessing memories stored next door in the subconscious room. This is indeed a prison for the mind and an experience of dying. The mind’s immense suffering, lasts until the body has rested enough. Then the waking up process commences where the mind gains access to the storage of memories and we start dreaming. Hectically rummaging through, grabbing and linking some of the stored memories of the day, the mind randomly mixes and projects them in an unconcerned manner. It does this just to feel safe and alive again. It says: I see them therefore I am. This is why dreams are so real. It is the same mind as in the wakeful state but with a very different attitude. If we had that strong desire to visualise during the day as the mind has at night we may well be able to manifest anything no matter what or how absurd it might be.
Returning to my earlier dream, in reality the Swastika building doesn’t have a reception area, certainly not the spacious glassy Trade Centre type and Tulsidas was always a modest and simple man whom I cannot imagine with a piercing. So looking back I can see that my dreams are illogical, rambling, disjointed plots, in fact, a composition of unrelated memories of my days, carrying no particular meaning whatsoever. Just like the other night when I was leisurely riding my bike on the Tour De France with a group of people; next to me on my right the Dalai Lama and in front of me Hemingway. On waking up I first congratulated to my mind for this terrific job and then expressed my disappointment for the absence of Jesus and Elvis. Individual memories have their own separate meanings but together they make no sense to me. Although, I am sure any of us, if interested, could interpret these fanciful experiences as meaningful stories of our unfulfilled desires, passions and emotions. To me, dreams are merely security tools, survival tactics for the ego and a means to wake up the body. This is because the residual sensations of the day are stored in our subconscious mind (Svadhishthana chakra) in chronological order, like data saved on a spinning disc. And when the ego finally accesses this coiled up past - our memory, it shoots through the chakra, like an arrow, crossing many sectors picking up information along its path and that just cannot be matched in a logical way. It does it deliberately in order to create a movie that either excites or shocks us enough to terminate sleep as quickly as possible. Working 1-2 hours every night the mind, interwoven with the ego, dreams intensely to wake the body up so then it can enjoy the rest of the day browsing the wide world freely through the sense organs. As a result, once the body is awakened, the mind regains its power again and starts bossing the body around. Thus the war goes on, day in and day out like a tennis game of torture and suffering. And, as long as it is so there can be no happiness in life, says Vasistha.
Further to this, in the process of dying when the vital force (prana) leaks from our physical body the senses shut down one by one closing the mind’s access to the outside world. This makes the mind increasingly nervous. This happens not only because it is left with nothing to identify itself by from the external world, which should be fine by now since that happens every night, but because of the permanent loss of prana. It knows that this time it is not just the usual process of falling asleep. It knows the time has come to say good-bye to this physical body but it is not quite ready to let go. During this process the ego quickly turns inward, accesses the subconscious and desperately starts scanning through our memories. This is when we see our life as a film which keeps the ego in control for a little more. This is clinging to life (abhinivesha). Creating the movie is a bit different this time because the mind is not in a rush for change, in fact, it only wants to prolong its current state of existence. Therefore it doesn’t just fly across the Svadhishthana chakra, as in when we sleep, but it goes nicely along the track. This time its purpose is not to shock or excite but to gain time which brings us at last to the moment of truth, wherein our fundamental character is ultimately expressed. Whatever stands out for the ego from this film, it sticks with, and this will establish the direction we move on in getting a new life. This is how we, well, the ego, determines the theme of our future birth. In the Prashnopanishad, where Rishi Pippalada answers one of his students’ questions, we read: “When a man dies, the thought held in the mind enters into prana. Prana and udana accompany the soul and take it to its desired world” (Nine Principle Upanishads by Swami Satyananda). For an uneducated, untamed ego what stands out the most is always something where it felt hurt or where it felt there was an unfairness that still needs to be justified and corrected. In this way the ego can glorify itself once more.
By taming the ego we develop an astonishing ability of control that enables us to move on without getting stuck anywhere within the film; even more significantly, we could pick a valuable moment and really get stuck by choice - pause the movie and stay there until all our pranas have been withdrawn from the physical body. Then, slip out with the help of Udana (one of the five main pranas which assists the astral body separating itself from the physical body) and secure a greater future birth for us with that single noble thought we dearly hold in our minds. Isn’t this indeed a desirable endeavour?
As well as engaging the mind in the process of meditation by keeping it passively active, this visualisation / concentration technique from the System of Yoga in Daily Life, clearly develops our mental strength. This could be the greatest and most important strength that we can acquire in life, giving us the scope to utilise it beyond this lifetime.
Maheshwarananda, Swami. Yoga in Daily Life – The System. Ibera Verlag/ European University Press, Vienna, 2000.
Venkatesananda, Swami. Yoga Vasistha. The Chiltern Yoga Trust, Fremantle, 1984.
Satyananda, Swami. Nine Principle Upanishads. Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, 2004, p. 22 (Prashnopanishad, question 3, verse 10).