The Purpose of the Havan

In the Vedic period, the havan (also called the homa, the yajna, and the agnihotra) was the practice by which people re-established their alignment with the natural order of the whole universe. In this practice, they aligned themselves internally. They then aligned themselves with all the forces that operated in their environment for the purpose of sustaining balance and harmony for the benefit of the whole: the individual, the family, and the community.

The fire ceremony had two aspects to it. One is regular and private to the family. I have friends in Kerala, in South India, in whose house the fire has not gone out for more than 1,000 years. That, to me, is just amazing.

Swami Chetanananda at havan at The Movement Centert, July 2010The second function of the havan is public. As an example of that, the oldest continuous yajna that I know of happens now in South India, but not very regularly. The people in the village where it happens claim that the ceremony has been going on for 8,000 years without interruption. The altar has three fire pits and is constructed in the shape of a bird, using 10,008 bricks which are specially made for the occasion–one brick for each line in the Rig Veda. The whole community builds the altar, covers it with thatch, and they meet for eight days, dawn til dusk, and chant the mantras together. They offer ghee, grains, nuts, and fruit into the fire. There is a very specific aesthetic quality to the whole experience because there is the fire, the offerings, the chanting and the smoke. All of the senses become completely engaged, and the ordinary, discursive, wandering mind becomes disabled.

For each of the sensory domains, the resonance of the experience permeates us and is intended to elevate us to a different level of experience of our own lives. So this practice, the ritual offerings, the mantra, the whole aesthetic sensibility, is intended to lift the practitioner and those attending into an ecstatic state in which a vision of the higher context in which each of us functions as human beings is accessible to us. It is a vision that we do not ever encounter in our ordinary lives.

In other words, the whole point of yoga is to achieve a state that transcends thought and feeling and makes accessible to us the direct experience of where we come from and why we’re here. That experience is so intimate that it transcends even the most intimate of our personal experiences.

A secondary aspect of that experience, seeing the larger context, we become aware of the more sophisticated reality in which we operate. We begin to understand that we are not the only sentient beings that are present here, and further, although we imagine we might be, we are not at the top of the food chain. In having the ecstatic vision of our own ultimate reality, we also encounter the spiritual beings that have a profound influence on all of our lives.

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I Bow to My Teachers…and I Also Bow to My Students

I want to talk today about something very simple: the practice of bowing.

Whenever I come to meditate or to teach, I always bow. I bow to my lineage gurus, and I bow to all teachers who have made themselves available, who shared the benefits and insights of whatever difficult work they have done, to uplift the lives of people. Bowing to such people in profound respect is an important part of the tantric tradition. It is not in any way a demonstration of subservience.

Swami Chetanananda BowingBowing is important for two reasons. The first is that the goal of our work is to have the palpable experience of the interconnectedness of the total unity of all. One of the reasons that a teacher is crucial is that if we can establish ourselves in the awareness of the interconnectedness between us and one person, then it is possible for us to take the leap from that experience of interconnectedness with one person to the experience of interconnectedness with all people, and from all people to all life forms, and from all life forms to the very living conscious field in which experience asserts itself in the first place. So, we’re not just bowing in respect for our teacher’s realization, their willingness to unconditionally accept and love us, and their allowing their own energy to be the nourishment for the awakening of our potential. We are also bowing to express our unity, which is the basic nature of reality.

In bowing to our teachers, we also bow to the work, the conscious effort that is necessary and appropriate in our endeavor to release ourselves from all of those limiting patterns that we were born into. Those patterns filter all the input and all the energy that we take in, and filter all the output, so that our understanding is always somewhat limited and our self-expression never truly meets the mark that we hope it would.

There’s one final thing about bowing that is also important. When I bow to my teachers, I am expressing my devotion. Devotion is the chemistry that unifies all the disparate aspects of my life and allows me to experience all the different ways in which I am called to express myself and the understanding that I am here to grow spiritually.

So, I bow every time I come to meditation. I bow to remember to reconnect to the wisdom aspect of our spiritual endeavor, which is the understanding that we are all completely interconnected. I also bow to remember the devotion aspect of my spiritual quest. That experience makes me feel really, really grateful, grateful for my teachers, grateful for my students, grateful for my life, and grateful for life itself. So please know that I don’t just bow to my teachers every morning. I also bow to my students.

Posted in Devotion, Meditation, Sadhana, The Teacher | 3 Comments

The Tradition of Initiation

In the Vedas, a person who performs Vedic ritual sacrifice was called a Brahmin. Brahmin means “twice born.” The Brahmin is twice born because he receives an initiation that qualifies him to perform the sacrifice. It’s the beginning of his education and the beginning of a commitment that he makes to peel away the layers of the tensions that bind us together as a person. Those are tensions that we have accumulated through so many lifetimes, and that have manifested in this lifetime as the disappointments of our ancestors we’ve inherited. The desires that we manifest, the aspirations that we have, the areas that we go into in our lives, both constructive and destructive, are really an expression of the deficiencies in the nourishment of our upbringing. Those deficiencies are not there through anybody’s fault; they’re just what is.

In the Vedic times, for Brahmins, this initiation lifted them out of the family circumstances they were born into and immediately liberated them from the disappointments of their ancestors. They were born again into a different circumstance called a guru kul. The guru kul is the family of the guru, the family of the teacher. The tradition recognizes that the guru kul makes available the nourishment that wasn’t provided in the birth parents’ home. That nourishment dissolves the tensions that limit a person in every dimension of their life. It makes it possible for them to become completely spiritually developed and mature, totally fulfilled, and liberated in life.

Swami Chetanananda in Open Eye Meditation

Swami Chetananand Education

The central part of the initiation experience is when the guru takes his own conscious energy, his own awareness power, and plants it in the student, so that the energetic mechanism of the student acquires the nourishment needed to start to break down all of the accumulated tensions. As those tensions are broken down, the vital force within the person is awakened and expanded.

This was the critical moment in Vedic initiation, and the practice continued through all the various traditions in India. The Vedas were followed by the Upanishads, and then the six classical philosophical systems, including yoga, which ultimately matured in the Tantric tradition.

The Tantric tradition was unusual in its complete maturity because it asserts that there was only one consciousness in the universe. Even though there are many minds, there is only one consciousness. It is that one consciousness that the teacher is established in and through which their life force is transmitted to the student. That is called “shaktipat” in the Tantric tradition. The term means “descent of grace.” In the Tibetan side of the Tantric tradition, in Dzogchen, it’s called direct transmission.

This experience that I share when I teach open eye class is not different from the Vedic initiation. It is the transmission of the understanding that there is a singular dynamic awareness from which all phenomena arise, and that all phenomena are interconnected. So this interconnectedness, the understanding, the experience, the awareness of this interconnectedness, is what is being transmitted as shaktipat, or initiation. It is the continuing awareness of that connectedness that represents a leverage on all the tensions that we’re walking around with.

So, no matter what our condition is, no matter what our experience is, no matter what kind of confusion we’re experiencing, we have a reference point we can always go to. This experience is also an energetic resource we can draw on to lift ourselves out of whatever limited state that we have fallen into.

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Winter 2011 – Spring 2012 Lecture Series

I’ll be giving a series of Saturday morning talks at The Movement Center, in Portland, Oregon. The first is on Saturday, December 10, from 9:30 am to noon, and the topic is “The Energetic Mechanism, Yoga and Well-Being.” I will explain the energetic mechanism that underlies all of our physiology, and relate that to asana, pranayama, health and well being.

Other talks in the series will be on “Indian Religion and Spirituality,” and on two important texts from the philosophical tradition of Kashmir Shaivism: “Shiva Sutras: The Yoga of Supreme Identity,” and “Pratyabhijnahrdyam: The Secret of Self-Recognition.” The dates for those talks will be Saturday, January 14, 2012; Saturday, April 14, 2012; and Saturday, May 12, 2012.

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Why Do We Meditate?

I have thought a lot lately about the object of meditation and why we are meditating, or what we would be meditating on if we were actually meditating like we think we ought to.

Typically, I would say that the object of meditation is growing the flow of creative energy, and that wouldn’t be wrong. But I think that there is another answer that is, in a way, deeper. That answer is that the object of meditation is the breath of life.

The breath of life is three-dimensional. First, it is the breath that keeps our body alive. It is also the breath which is the essence of our mind and our individual existence, our ego and our personality and all of that. Finally, it is the vitality of Life itself–it is the life of the universe.

In the past several months, I’ve changed the way I work in meditation, and I’ve changed the way I think about it. I used to refer directly to my energetic mechanism and skip everything else between my attention and that. But I’ve changed that now. I’ve come to understand that when they talk about the goddess in Eastern religious traditions, they are really referring to the breath of life. This means that the body is the divinity; it is the deity manifest in the material world. Mind is also the deity manifest in the intermediate realm between material and pure spirit. Beyond that breath is the deity itself. All three dimensions are present within the breath.

So now when I practice, I refer to my body on a regular basis, and I stay very much in contact with my body, recognizing the body as the deity in the material world. It’s important to take care of your body–to eat properly, sleep properly, and to move it every day. It’s also important to take care of your mind and to nourish it with sensory experiences that are pleasing, to have the experience of beauty and the unique ways that you appreciate it. Those experiences help release tensions in us by putting us in touch with what is rich, juicy and delicious about life. In this state, you will have access to the true religious experience, a sense of profound gratitude for your life.

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The Inheritance of Karma

Each of us comes into the world as a manifestation of the life of our mother and father. All mothers, whether they know it or not, are reaching into themselves when they have a child and pulling out a chunk of their own life. Each of us has received our life from our parents, and as we have received that life, we also received the resonance of the life they have had, which is received as a resonance of the life their parents had. All of this adds up to a frequency, a vibration that manifests our physical bodies, our intellect, and our emotions.

CC Photo courtesy of Jim Epler on Flickr

All of the attitudes and opinions and things we think we know that we don’t, we receive from our parents. All the limitations that they have experienced intellectually, emotionally, and spatially, become a limitation in our life. This is our karma.

Most of us understand karma to be like cause and effect, sin and retribution. We think of karma as payback for our mistakes. In fact, karma is not like that at all–it is the disappointment of our ancestors that we have inherited. It is their frustrations and, in many cases, their physical traumas, as well as their heartbreaks that live on even today in our life as our attitudes about ourselves and our limitations in our ability to take in information and to express ourselves fully from a deep and fine place.

It’s because of our karma that the functioning of our creative energy is suppressed. We become locked into a pattern of understanding ourself as a separate, disconnected, alienated and not entirely loveable physiological mechanism. We don’t understand what resources are truly available to us as a human being, and our lives become filled with frustration. The practice of yoga is about restoring the full function and range of motion of our creative energy, undoing the limitations our karma imposes.

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Kundalini, the Breath of Life

Classically, in the scriptures of the Vedas, of Kashmir Shaivism, and of Vajrayana Buddhism, the fundamental issue that each of us faces is to confront our own desires and in that confrontation, to understand the nature of our mind. We then appreciate that our mind is a manifestation of our consciousness, and that, in fact, it is not OUR consciousness at all, but consciousness itself.

A simple way to relate to this is for you just to look around the room you’re in. You may notice objects and have thoughts and maybe even feelings about them. There is, however, one thing that you are seeing that 99.99% of people never notice–your own awareness. Everything that is in that room is manifest on the screen of your awareness.
This awareness is one, and it has the capacity for extension and absorption–it has vibrancy. It takes on a fundamental presence, and within that presence there is all potential: past, present and future. All knowledge, anything imaginable, and even that which is unimaginable is present within that vibrancy. That presence, which is one and self-aware, is sometimes referred to as Shiva. More often, however, that vibrancy is identified with the feminine and is called a goddess.

This goddess is the breath of life. Another classical scriptural name for the breath of life is kundalini. That breath of life is present in each of us equally without ever differentiating itself, in the same way that a symphony is an expression of a huge number of notes that only together make a suggestion of the richness and the abundance that is available within the music itself.

Hands in meditation

Photo by Kristen Francis

This breath of life, the vibrancy of ultimate consciousness, is the subject of our meditation. When we sit, we’re tuning into the energy that supports our physiology and our physiognomy–our bodies and our minds. In becoming aware of the circulation of energy that sustains our bodies and our minds, we will become aware of a deeper energetic movement happening within this mechanism, which is also kundalini. There is the energy that supports our body, the energy that supports our nervous system, and the energy that is awareness itself–all of which is one and all of which is ever-present within us.

There is no duality, there is no dichotomy, and it is so profoundly simple that there is nothing to be confused about.

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Upcoming Talks

If you live on the West Coast and are interested in hearing more on some of the topics covered in this blog, you might want to attend one of the talks I’ll be giving over the next few weeks:

Swami Chetanananda closeup

Photo by Patty Slote

The Breath of Life
Seal Beach, CA
Saturday, May 21
5:00 – 7:00 pm
The Omadawn Center

Growing Your Creative Energy
Portland, OR
Friday, June 3
6:30 – 8:00 pm
The Movement Center

I’ll also be leading a five day meditation intensive in Portland, July 20 through 24. In addition to daily meditation, I’ll be giving a series of talks. The focus will be the complete teachings of my guru, Swami Rudranananda, also known as Rudi. I’ll emphasize his spiritual practice during the last phase of his life, which he called his tantric work. You can find more information about that program at The Movement Center website.

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The Power of Gratitude

All rituals and all mantras are a technology for connecting to the subtle elements of our existence and expressing gratitude from our life to life itself. Every day we have to find a way to muster our resources to the degree that we cut through all of the smoke and dust that manifests in our mind to make contact with gratitude. We have to make contact and sustain it long enough that our hearts can be filled, that our minds can be cleared and nourished, and that our bodies can be relaxed. From that place, we can go forward in our life feeling and expressing gratitude and uplifting all of the circumstances that we move in.

As you might guess, this isn’t easy. If you try it, you are automatically going to attract obstacles–not because you have issues or problems, but because you are attempting something very powerful and important. The patterns of energy in your life will organize to resist change, and that resistance will manifest as obstacles. What you think of as issues are also your spiritual gifts, and you can be grateful for those as well. If you are, you can transform them, and those things that previously held you down become a source of tremendous energy and power.


CC Photo courtesy of on Flickr

You have to understand that the profound transformation that will unleash an unimaginable possibility in your life isn’t free. You have to focus on it, nurture and nourish it, and persevere. It’s been many eons, many lifetimes, that you’ve been wandering around in confusion, and that confusion may take a while to dissolve. So persevere and come to a place where there is fullness in your heart, light in your head and magic happening all around you in your life.

Whatever else is going on for you, if you bring yourself to a state of gratitude every day, it won’t take long for the obstacles to be surmounted and the difficulties to be resolved. There will be increasing joy and beauty and more reasons to be grateful.

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The Essence of All Spirituality

After reading the Vedas again, I’ve come to the conclusion that their essence is also the essence of all spirituality. What it’s really all about is gratitude.

Spiritual practice is about coming to a place where you make contact with your body and your breath. You’ll note that when you become very aware of your body and your breath, your mind will automatically become quiet. If you hold that awareness long enough, you will discover that feeling what it feels like to breathe feels really good. Eventually, your heart will open.

As your heart opens and the tensions in your body and mind further dissolve, you will experience a flow of energy that is the vital essence of your life moving in you. You’ll come to a place where you can feel where this energy is coming from and into which it is dissolving, and you’ll feel the breath of life breathing in you. You will begin to appreciate that there is a profound abundance that is the same as your awareness, which is the ground of all experience.

Photo by Steve Maxwell

When you are in touch with your body and breath and are appreciating the movement, the vibrancy of the breath of life functioning within you, naturally you come to a place of profound gratitude. You understand what a miracle consciousness is and that you have the opportunity to participate in the crazy ride that is your life. How amazing!

While we are fully responsible for our choices, the only choice that we can ever make that is not already programmed into us and a function of the disappointments of our ancestors is to be completely aware and, in our complete awareness, quite naturally totally grateful.

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