16 The Light Experiences
sutra 55 or (by) the sorrowless radiant (mental perception)
Shankara explains this as a much more important practice, and many teachers make it the first step, omitting the previous ones. The centre of attention (dharana) is the ‘heart centre’, roughly where the ribs meet.
Some yogis put a dab of sandal paste there before sitting; the fragrance rising helps them to keep attention centred. Two hours is not too long for the practice, says the teacher Swami Mangalnath in the Heart of the Eastern Mystical Teaching.
When the yogi can hold attention steadily at that spot, he generally becomes aware of something like a lotus, made of light, and he meditates on it. Many Westerners have only a hazy idea of what a lotus looks like, having only seen them from a distance. Like many of these traditional similes, this one has been chosen carefully to give an idea of the experience, but there is no necessity to stick absolutely to it. In some traditions it is spoken of as a shallow bowl, and there are other illustra-tions also. It is not a question of auto-suggesting a particular form, but of having enough idea to be able to recognize the experience when it comes. It will never be exactly like the anticipation.
When the ‘lotus’ perception is familiar, he is told to meditate on a light shining in it. As an indication, it is said to be like a flame, traditionally the size of his own thumb. If he is a devotee of an incarnation, he can meditate on the standing form of that incarnation, made up of light. But the form must be very familiar to him before he will be able to do it.
Sometimes a teacher directs meditation on the sun, or the moon, or a ray of light, or a jewel. All this is still dharana – the yogi comes to feel that there is at his heart centre, in another set of dimensions as it were, a great space like a clear sky, and in that sky shining the sun or moon or a gem. He does not yet feel that he is these things, because the meditation has not yet come to samadhi, but he sees them. The commentators add that they are true objects, as real, and also as illusory, as the things of ordinary experience.
Shankara says in his commentary that if the yogi simply keeps attention on the heart centre, he becomes aware of the lotus there, and then there comes gradually awareness of the nature of mind as it really is.
What is the buddhi in its nature? It is resplendent, always shining, like shining space pervading all. When one is concentrating simply on the heart lotus, but there is still some unsteadiness in the buddhi, so that the natural likeness of it to the purity of Atman has not yet been attained, then this radiant experience becomes manifested as appearances of sun, moon, or a precious gem and so on. When (in time) the buddhi comes to samadhi on I Am, and then does attain its natural likeness to the Self, it becomes waveless like the great sea, peaceful, infinite, I Am’ alone.
The teacher often gives one of the radiant forms as a meditation, partly because if he says nothing, the pupil may be dis-concerted or excited when it comes. If one is taken as the object of meditation, the preliminary light appearance will tend to be in that form, though really it is all-pervading. When in the winter they cut through the ice on the lake to get water, it always first appears in the form of the cut – whether a circle, a triangle, a square and so on. It must first appear in some limited form, though it is everywhere under the ice. In the same way, the infinite ocean of light, also described as an infinite shining space, first appears in a form corresponding roughly (but not altogether) to the ‘set’ of the pupil’s mind, consciously or unconsciously determined.
The light perception is like the perception of fragrance in that it gives confidence and faith in the yoga. It is true that unusual perceptions of fragrance or light would not necessarily convince a nervously critical mind; in such cases there may have to be experience of something like pre-cognition, of some unlikely event that duly happens. Wang Yang-ming, the last of the great Confucian sages, records such experiences during a period of seclusion in meditation. They were later confirmed by events, but he remarks that it was only playing with the powers of the mind, and did not lead to any spiritual progress at all.
These pre-cognitive experiences too are self-terminating; the excitement invariably dissipates the necessary calm of mind. And those whose extreme scepticism is based on a deep hidden fear may still persuade themselves that their memory must have been at fault.
The commentator is right when he points out that yoga cannot be practised indefinitely on a basis of ‘hypothetical probability’; it cannot be kept up without real faith. If a yogidoes practise on the traditional lines, he gets enough experience to convince a sensible man. If his intellect still complains that no proof is ever final, he must turn to look at how much proof he requires for the convictions on which his ordinary life is based. It is always found that he is guilty of a psychological fallacy, which has been called the Fallacy of Fluctuating Rigour. This demands an impossibly high degree of confirmation for what one wants to avoid, while perfectly satisfied with much less for what one emotionally accepts. Such a man does not get far at yoga, or indeed anything else as a rule.
Ultimately the real confirmations are changes in consciousness, expressed in outer life as inspiration, supported by whatever energy and courage may be necessary to implement it.
The practice of perceiving light at the heart centre need.not terminate itself, because it can lead on to samadhi, when the meditator and object of meditation become one. The yogino longer feels the radiance as separate, with himself aware of it (excited by the experience). He feels that he is the radiance, that his buddhi has become pure, waveless like a great sea of light, serene, infinite, ‘I-am’ alone. This is still a mental experience but it is one of the highest possible. The mind has become very like the Self in purity. Such experiences are reported in the Upanishads, and in the descriptions of yoga practice in the Mahabharata.
As a result of the practice of any of the means taught in this sutra or the last, some one portion of the yoga practice having been made a matter of direct perception, doubt having been thus dispelled
and faith established firmly in the teachings about subtle things right up to liberation, the flow of extravertive mental functions is pacified, and the highest detachment is accomplished.
In his Hokyoki account of training in early thirteenth- century China, Dogen, one of the greatest Japanese Zen masters, mentions the ‘fragrant’ and other effects. His teacher said to him: ‘I see you in the training hall sitting in meditation in the day and at night without falling asleep, and that is very good. After a time, you are sure to experience an exquisite fragrance, to which no wordly one can compare, and this is a favourable sign. Another favourable sign is to see before you something like a slow rain falling. Again if there arise various sensations of touch, this is also a good sign.’ But these were only to be taken as signs, and the teacher added that he must push further along the path of medition as urgently ‘as if you were shaking something burning off your head’.
There are also mentions in the English medieval Cloud of Unknowing, with a strong admonition not to remain stuck in such experiences. This is the same warning as that given by Shankara.
He says that there are four classes of yogi, and the first is a man who has had one of these direct experiences, preferably the ‘radiant’. Till then he is not classed as a yogiat all. Shankara remarks that the radiant perception is the real one, with the others merely preliminary. For some people, however, they are easier. Shankara mentions that the life must be self-controlled and independent, and the yogimust be studying the scriptures, repeating Om, and worshipping God. His warning about detachment comes again and again in his commentary on the yoga sutras. To become dependent on any mental experience, however elevating it may be, is to be in a prison. Even if the bars are of gold, and the view through them beautiful, and the food luxurious, the cell is cramped and it is still a prison.