Thankga and diving suit

 

Part I: Preparing for Death

I am currently participating in an in-depth course on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. According to Robert Thurman, the title is a bit deceiving, as it is a book about living.  There is no finality of death in this system, only various transitions known as the “between.”   In class, we use a translation by Francesca Freemantle with commentary by Chogyam Trungpa.  Trungpa’s commentary is interesting regarding its emphasis on a psychology of death and “between” states.   This article, however, will draw from other translations, texts and notions of death as well. 

The book emphasizes the need for a meditative practice of dissolution of the ordinary body (flesh and bones) while living. We need to suspend our materialistic views to dive below the surface into the unconscious mind, which is ordinarily inaccessible to the conscious mind, yet affects behavior and emotions.  By diving below the surface, we get a glimpse of the post-death process or the state known as the “reality between.”   The book describes the “between” states as being of utmost importance, and they are divided into six types of between states. I will not go into each between in this post, but one can find these defined in any translation of the book.  Trungpa’s commentary notes that a “between” is a place of emotional and psychological uncertainty.  In meditation, we can pause and sometimes experience “hanging out” in a between space.  Navigating the post-death state is a journey fraught with challenging perceptions including danger and beauty. We are reminded in the text that is all a display of the mind and that we no longer have a material body capable of being hurt or killed.  In dissolving ourselves during meditation, we get to hang our body temporarily on the clothesline, which helps us allow ourselves a chance to hang up our conventional view of our emotions and thoughts. In the ordinary material body, conscious ordinary thoughts and emotions pervade. In the subtle body, we get to experience the subtle mind more fully.   In the practice of Vajrayana Buddhism, this subtle body is achieved by various methods, including healing mentor (deity) meditation.   We do not dissolve into complete nothingness. Instead, we become “who we really are,” not identified with particular physical attributes or the materialistic self. 

To journey below consciousness during meditation, we have to put on a special suit to navigate the post-death “between” state.  As a deep sea diver needs a suit, goggles, and oxygen tank, we need something appropriate to plumb the depths of our consciousness.  After the process of dissolving our ordinary materialistic body, we don a subtle and more powerful body.  According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead when dying, we go through this dissolution process naturally, and it is necessary for us to recognize this process via our living meditation practice.  This body allows us to come to terms with the mind and its coded and symbolic phenomena.  Dissolving the ordinary body puts us in touch with a deeper level of the mind that is always present but often unexplored.  We then emerge as a body of light or encapsulated in a special suit or bubble that allows us the ability to transcend the limits of ourselves and connect with our innermost selves.  Tibetan art depicts this as spheres of light or rainbow light encapsulating the body of deities.  This light shines within to help cope with internal distress and encapsulates the body to deal with difficult external situations in life.  We imagine ourselves in our subtle body so that we can explore representations of mental phenomena that are generated and not apparent to our surface consciousness.  These phenomena or events may consist of colors, shapes sounds or embodiments and places that we may or may not recognize.

 

We practice this type of deep diving meditation whenever we are not doing concentration or loving kindness forms of meditation, though we may let go and get a glimpse of the between states in these meditations as well.  Tibetan Buddhists have a formalized way to use the imagination to get below the surface quickly and efficiently. This conception of death is something possible for people of various religious beliefs and those with no religious belief system.  The “between” state presents an encounter with whatever symbolizes problematic and overly attractive emotional states and thoughts for an individual. If one believes in reincarnation to a particular body or an ascension to another realm, this is a fascinating guidebook for the journey.  For those who think that life ends, and we just cease to exist, this may be an imaginative means to cope with emotions and troubling encounters as experienced in this life.

I will present some basic practices for dissolving the ordinary body and moving into the subtle body to facilitate an understanding of the “between” state in a future post.  I will also continue to explore this text regarding what is encountered in the between in part II.

References and Resouces of Interest:

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing In The Bardo – Francesca Freemantle and Chogyam Trungpa

The Tibetan Book of the Dead – Robert Thurman – Bob also has some great recorded lectures on this text.

Innate Happiness: Realizing Compassion-Emptiness – Khenpo Drimed Dawa – A great book that makes the path of Tibetan Buddhism and it’s practices accessible to Westerners.  Khenpo leads meditation groups and classes at the Awam Institute.

 

Below is the second video in a series of breath visualization videos I have created. This particular video explores alternate nostril breathing with a visualization of the wind channels and simple arm movement. Please review my prior deep breathing practice article and video here for more information on deep breathing and to gain comfort with the preliminary practice.  In this practice, the practitioner shifts arms between breaths as a way to further sharpen concentration and gain greater access to the left and right hemispheres of the brain.  In the Indian traditions, a mudra with the right hand is formed over both nostrils however, I draw my inspiration from Tibetan teachers and use alternating hands because I believe it engages the practitioner more fully.  Included in this video is a visualization of air or “wind” moving through the channels by taking it (air) into one nostril and expelling it out the other. I have provided written instructions for the practice below the video:

Alternate Nostril Breathing Visualization for Profound Support

Instructions (refer to the animated video above):

To begin this practice find a comfortable seated position on a cushion on the floor or in a chair.  Tilt the chin slightly forward to allow for space in the back of the neck and the direct flow of air from the lower belly to the top of the head.

Imagine or visualize (eyes opened or closed) three straws (channels) running through the center of the body lengthwise.  The straw (channel) beginning at the right nostril is red and the straw beginning at the left nostril is white (see image above for reference).  These channels begin at the opening of the nostril and travel up towards the crown of the head where they bend or curve downward to pass by the nose and end below the navel in the lower belly.  These channels attach to each other in the lower belly and are intersected by a wider dark blue-black straw (central channel) that runs from the lower belly to the crown of the head.

Begin by taking a nice deep breath in and expelling air completely through the nostrils.  Note: It is recommended that you gain proficiency in the deep breathing through both nostrils visualization practice here

While expelling the air on a count of 8, fluidly and slowly following the count move the arms towards the center of the body with the left elbow forming a right angle and the right elbow resting on the palm of the left hand.  The right index finger is pointed and pressed against the left nostril to block the passage of air.  

Breathe in through the right nostril on an even count of 8 (8-second count if possible. If not, adjust the count to suit your abilities)

Hold the in breath for 4 counts (2 counts if 4 is too long) and while holding fluidly separate the arms and move them back towards the center of the body this time with the left elbow resting on the right arm.  The left index finger will end up pushing the right nostril closed.

Breathe out of the left nostril for 8 counts.

Hold the out breath for four counts.

Breathe in through the left nostril for 8 counts. (continue pushing the right nostril closed)

Hold the in breath for 4 counts and while holding fluidly separate the arms and move them back towards the center of the body this time with the right elbow resting in the palm of the left hand.  The right index finger will end up pushing the left nostril closed.

Breath out of the right nostril for 8 counts.

Hold the out breath for 4 counts.

Breathe in through the right nostril for an even count of 8.  

Hold for 4 counts and switch sides breathing in through the left.

Repeat 10x or for several minutes if you’d like.

Complete this practice by performing three deep breaths in and out of both nostrils to a steady count of 8 by visualizing the air coming through the two straw-like channels situated at the opening of the nostrils.  The air continues moving up the channel to the top of the head where they turn through the bend and make their way to the lower belly where they meet the central dark blue channel. Hold the in breath for 4 steady counts and imagine the air transferring into the central dark blue channel and moving up to exit through the top of the head in 8 counts. Hold the exhaled breath for four counts and begin the in breath cycle again.

After completing 3 deep breaths return to your natural breath rhythm for a minute or more or begin your meditation practice.  

Resources of interest:

Robert Thurman

Yogi Acharya Lama Gursam

deep breathing visualization

 

 

NOTE:  I have realized that the channels are reversed on this image.  The red channel should be on the right side of the body.  I will fix this at some point and replace images and videos.  

I am working on a series of meditation visualization videos depicting breathing exercises.  This particular video deals with deep breathing.  In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, these practices are referred to as Tsa Lung, Tsa meaning channels and Lung meaning wind or wind-energy.  The channels depicted are not part of the physical anatomy, rather they exist energetically.  I believe that having the meditator imagine these channels while breathing is unique to the Tibetan tradition, though the channels themselves are part of other Indian traditions.

I am providing a video above diagramming a visualization of the process of deep breathing through both nostrils based on teachings of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  Performing deep breathing exercises every day is a critical aspect of mind-body health.  Deep breathing practice calms the nervous system, increases focus and allows one to more readily access deep breath and therefore calmer states in times of stress and anxiety.  The breath provides support for times of difficulty and a way of flowing with the troubling state rather than resisting it.  It also gives the practitioner greater awareness of their natural breathing rhythm and the ability to meet it wherever it is in that moment.  Deep breathing is something I demonstrate and practice with almost all of my clients and students.  I do breathing exercises every morning prior to meditation, and if I have time for nothing else that day, I make sure to do deep breathing. Doing deep breathing without visualization is always an option and a good way to begin.  However, deep breathing with a visualization of the breath moving through the body is even more influential in concentrating and focusing the mind.  The channels I am depicting in the video above are my interpretation of verbal teachings received from Robert Thurman during the Nalanda Institute’s contemplative psychotherapy program.  I also gained an invaluable understanding of the channels from Yogi Lama Gursam.  As I have learned in the Tibetan tradition, each teacher often has a unique way of describing how these channel visualizations work with various breathing techniques.  I have done my best to interpret this via the viewing of traditional depictions and verbal teachings.

Instructions (refer to the animated video above):

To begin this practice find a comfortable seated position on a cushion on the floor or in a chair.  Tilt the chin slightly forward to allow for space in the back of the neck and the direct flow of air from the lower belly to the top of the head.

Imagine or visualize (eyes opened or closed) three straws (channels) running through the center of the body lengthwise.  The straw (channel) beginning at the right nostril is red and the straw beginning at the left nostril is white.  These channels begin at the opening of the nostril and travel up to near the crown of the head where they bend or curve downward to pass by the nose and end below the navel in the lower belly.  These channels attach to each other in the lower belly and are intersected by a wider dark blue-black straw (central channel) that runs from the lower belly to the crown of the head.

Begin by visualizing the air coming through the two straw-like channels situated at the opening of the nostrils.  Moving up the channel to the top of the head where they turn through the bend and make their way to the lower belly where they meet the central dark blue channel.  Imagine the air transferring into the central dark blue channel and moving up to exit through the top of the head.  If it is helpful, steady the inhalation to an even count of 8 and the exhalation to an even count of 8.  One may also find it useful to breathe in on a count of four and out on a count of 8. Additionally, experimenting with retaining the full in breath and holding the full out breath for four or more counts may be helpful.

Resources of interest:

Robert Thurman

Yogi Acharya Lama Gursam