I’m no daredevil. You won’t catch me skydiving, bunjee jumping, or doing pirouettes 30 feet in the air on a motorcycle. I would like to think I have the courage of my convictions, perhaps even genuine moral courage, but if you’re looking for someone to join you white-water rafting, there’s no point in jotting down my number.
And yet I understand the motivation behind extreme sports. Ultimately these daredevils who purposely put themselves in harm’s way say that in doing so they are propelled out of their everyday state of awareness into an altered state of consciousness, that they feel fully alive, fully conscious. This is the same reason I sit down for meditation.
Many cultures have rituals for inducing a higher state of awareness, and some of these scare the wits out of people. In the caverns at Baia in southern Italy, for example, novitiates were drugged and sent down long, narrow passages in the black bowels of the earth to face their worst fears. Rites of passage in primitive societies often involved terrifying ordeals that could be life-threatening. Forcing a person to the very edge of death, teetering on a cliff, or standing with the barrel of a loaded gun pressed to one’s forehead all result in a state of extraordinary mental clarity. And the craving for the “high” that comes with risking death in battle is common to virtually every culture from the Apache to the Maya, African tribesmen to European knights, Assyrian troops to Japanese samurai.
Many cultures have rituals for inducing a higher state of awareness, and some of these scare the wits out of people.
I once had this kind of experience. I was assigned the lead role in a play in the 7th grade, and I had the worst case of stage fright imaginable—I was in absolute terror as I stepped out onto the stage. Then something remarkable happened. My body was still trembling but my mind became phenomenally, almost supernaturally clear. To my own astonishment I remembered all my lines. It was amazing to be so anxious and so calm at the same time.
The Spanda Karika, a ninth-century yogic classic, provides some insight into this phenomenon when it says, “A person is thrust into perfect Self-awareness when in a state of fury or ecstasy, shock or grave danger.” All of us have had this experience at one point or another.
That state of crystalline clarity also happens when you go into shock. Working in a hospital I saw this often. People who’d just been in a serious accident or were having a heart attack—people you’d assume would be in a state of mortal terror—would often be remarkably calm. The author of the Spanda Karika points out that people completely beside themselves with anger or joy sometimes go into this state too. So do people in a crisis when they can’t decide what to do. They slip into a condition of mental paralysis. The mental process simply shuts down; although they may still be able to move and speak, there is absolutely no thought in their mind.
For example, do you remember ever being so flustered or emotionally overwrought that for a moment your mind simply stopped working? It might have happened when, completely out of the blue, your spouse turned to you and said, “I don’t love you anymore. I want a divorce.” Or if a police officer appeared at your door to say, “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but your father has just been killed in a car accident.” Or maybe you checked your lottery ticket numbers and discovered you’d just won twenty million dollars. For a few seconds your mind simply can’t absorb the experience. You stand there dumbstruck—not thinking, simply being.
The Kashmiri adept, Kshemaraja, wrote a famous commentary on the Spanda Karika. “The yogi notes when a moment like this is occurring,” he tells us,“and instantly brings his full attention to this state, using it as an entryway into deeper states of awareness. Ordinary people, however, are usually overcome by emotion and lose that precious moment, surrendering instead to fear or bewilderment.”
According to the Spanda Karika, you have this experience continuously throughout the day. Every time your mind turns from one subject to another, there’s a fraction of a second in which there’s no verbal content in your awareness. But it flashes by so fast you almost never notice it. The text says that if you could catch hold of this state of awareness, called spanda or thought-free consciousness, you would see into the heart of reality.
Fortunately we yoga students don’t have to risk our lives to experience spanda. We can simply sit down and meditate. The same state of super-lucidity that warriors who rush into battle and swimmers who dive off towering cliffs feel can be induced simply by watching our breath. Just breathe naturally, allowing the air to pass in and out of your lungs in a smooth, continuous cycle. Bring your full awareness to your nasal septum, the bridge between your nostrils, and feel each exhalation and inhalation. Gradually your respiration will slow down. Eventually you’ll notice that rather than breathing predominantly through your right or left nostril, you’re breathing through both nostrils equally.
Fortunately we yoga students don’t have to risk our lives to experience spanda. We can simply sit down and meditate.
Suddenly you’re relaxed, and your mind has stopped hopping from one thought to the next. Instead, it becomes intensely clear. Your awareness feels tranquil but vivid, as if the shade had just been removed from a 1,000-watt bulb. You feel completely alive and absolutely focused in the present moment. This simple technique, which works by stimulating certain nerve paths between your nose and your brain, has been used by yogis for thousands of years as a shortcut to higher states of consciousness. It’s comforting to know that you can attain the same—or an even deeper—state of awareness without using daredevil tactics.
However, the Vikings were on to something when they claimed that to die in battle was preferable to dying from sickness and infirmity at home in bed. Their ethics were questionable, but they did understand that to die in a state of full, clear consciousness was better than dying in a confused or unconscious state. Yogis say the same thing. To die in full consciousness allows you to navigate the after-death state with clear awareness, rather than being buffeted by your subconscious tendencies.
The yoga tradition offers many avenues to this state of tranquil lucidity. Hatha yoga and breathing exercises can put you there. So can chanting mantras or singing devotional songs. If you really focus on the sound vibrations when the music or the mantra stops, you’re plunged into a living stillness in which you deeply experience the silent presence of your inner being.
Kshemaraja claims that this state is not only an introduction to your true Self, it is also a glimpse of the all-pervading consciousness that unites us and out of which the universe itself is projected. To enter that level of lucid, thought-free consciousness is to step through the portal of Self-awareness into a profound spiritual experience that the Spanda Karika says is deathless. Maybe meditation is the most extreme sport of all!