Random Reflections Upon Field Meditation During a Solo Wilderness Retreat, 2005
By Dhammaccariya Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
168th day of summer solo wilderness retreat
Inyo National Forest
October, 15, 2005
(Copyright 2005 all rights reserved)
I became aware of the body well before dawn, so I got up and set the tarp and blankets out and meditated until sunrise. At first it was utterly silent without the sound of creatures or the wind. When I meditate in sitting position I tend to meditate acutely aware of the senses. I have found that the signs of absorption require an acute awareness of the senses to become observable, however, one must not engage the cognitive processes in this observational method. The Bahiya Sutta (U 1.10) is an excellent reference for this method of observation.
Bahiya Sutta (U 1.10) 'Relinquishing Cognition'
"Then, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no you in terms of that. When there is no you in terms of that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of dissatisfaction (dukkha)."
It is through this heightened observation of the sense of sound that I heard the movements of the creatures as they became active as sunrise approached. The herd of cattle gradually worked their way toward me and through my camp within no more than what seemed like 5 feet. Occasionally I heard geese in the distance, and several ducks flew over with their rapid flapping method of flight. At one point one of the ducks flying over seemed so close I could have reached out and touched it.
Eventually the sun rose upon my face at which time I opened my eyes. The sun's rays were partially filtered by a thin layer of clouds that hung over the White Mountains. Still the sun was too bright to gaze upon directly, so I kept my eyes partially closed and I filtered the sunlight through my eyelids and eyelashes. I found I could look just below the sun thus using the iris of the eye as a further sunshield. The effect was to produce the visual appearance of two disks of light, one on top of the other. There were also halos created by light diffracting from the surface of the eyelashes. The effect reminded me of a Tibetan thanka I had once seen. Still the sun was much too bright to gaze upon for long.
I awoke at 3:00 AM and sat outside to meditate upon the signs of absorption. Since observing the signs of absorption requires observing the senses I often am aware of sensory phenomena, although it often recedes into the distance as my attention becomes saturated with the signs of absorption.
The signs of absorption that seem to be dominant with me these days are charismatic ringing and various tactile sensations that would be called aura, chakras and stigmata. While stigmata in the Charismatic Christian context is often associated with spontaneous bleeding, I have had no skin lesions appear of any kind in conjunction with the intense sensations in the palms of my hands, or in the souls of my feet. I suspect these sensations are associated with nerve plexuses in the extremities, because I have found the stigmata sensations are quite common among the other ecstatic contemplatives that I have consulted with.
Even though many of us feel the sensation is so intense that blood will spurt out from our hands or feet at any minute it never does. Since none of us have had blood coming from our hands and feet I am inclined to question the legend that says stigmata does cause bleeding. Is it possible that the spontaneous bleeding of the Christian saints is a myth? Or, is it possible that those Christian mystics who supposedly had the bleeding, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, had been due to obsessively itching or scratching the hands and feet due to the charismatic sensations?
This morning behind the charismatic ringing was the sounds of the bird songs. As, I have said before, when one enters into absorption often the sensations flatten out and become, in a sense, objects unto themselves. This morning the many bird songs became a single chorus in which all of the birds were contributing.
This morning the nighthawk was the first to begin singing, and it called and responded to others of its species. As other species of birds awoke they contributed their song to the morning chorus, which became a symphony as the morning progressed.
Shortly before sunrise I began walking meditation, during which half the walking I faced the eastern horizon and during the other half I faced the western horizon. When the first rays of the sun spilled over the Benton Range I stopped walking and stood in meditation gazing upon the sun. I noted the thrill that accompanies the first sight of the rising sun.
Since the sun was too bright today to gaze upon directly, I gazed just below the sun. What I gazed upon was the jeep trail that I am camped next to, which arced before me to the right. Since I was gazing then I was not focused upon anything, so my peripheral vision expanded to include the entire scene before me. The arcing dirt road was in the foreground, then the gray-green sagebrush, which rose to a mound, was in the middle ground, then in the background were the two mountain ranges, the Bentons and the White Mountains, then behind them was the sky, which was turned amber by the rising sun.
Since my object was sun gazing, then my primary object was just the luminance of the sun, but the foreground, middle ground and background objects, of the jeep trail, the sage brush, the two mountain ranges and the sky and sun were just generalized forms which lacked all detail, and these forms possessed depth of field independent of the objects that made them. I stood there gazing upon that scene for quite some time.
After this meditation upon the landscape, in which it was flattened out into an abstraction I reflected upon some of the art history classes I took while completing a degree in fine art. What came to mind were the various forms that abstraction took from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, which began with the schools of the French Impressionists, which developed during the 1870's. It was their work, which was characterized by concentration upon the immediate visual impression produced by a scene and by the use of unmixed primary colors and small strokes to simulate actual reflected light, that was very much like what I was experiencing in the field meditations.
I also thought of art criticism of the 1940s and 50s, in which they were seeking artistic expression that flattened the object field down to color fields, and in particular I thought of the field painters, like Mondrian (1872-1944), the Dutch painter whose works were characterized by intersecting perpendicular lines and planes of primary colors, and his writings, most notably Neoplasticism (1920) that profoundly influenced the development of abstract art. It was his lines and planes that emerged in insight as I gazed upon in the arcing road and flattened fields of sage brush mountains and sky.
I also recalled that artists during this time period were exploring Asian philosophy, like Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the Russian abstract painter who considered form and color capable of expression. He was a founder of Blau Reiter, a German group of abstract expressionists. He also taught at the Bauhaus School from 1922-1933).
It was Kandinsky's earlier history as an Anthropologist, who became an artist at the age of 40 that reminded me of my own history. His special interest in Anthropology was the study of the shamanism of the Finnu Ugric who expressed their shamanism in Out-of-Body travel. They were called 'World Watchers' by their people.
Kandinsky left Germany during the war and immigrated to the USA, where he had a profound influence on the American abstract expressionist, like Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) who used a drip technique of painting. Pollock claimed to have been deeply influenced by witnessing a Navajo healing ritual.
At about 7:30 PM I took a break from transcribing Satchitananda's translation of the Yoga Sutras and gazed upon the sun until it set, then I switched to meditating upon the sound of the many creatures that were making their evening call to prayer. The dominant sound was the hum of the mosquito. The collection of sounds I was hearing was like a symphony of just violins playing the 'flight of the bumble bee.' There were of course the many bird sounds, most notably the night hawk's rhythmic 'Bzz, Bzz, Bzz' punctuated by the occasional 'Roar!' My effort was simply to let all of the sounds be one abstract sound. I sat meditating upon sound as one sound until the dark of night.
After sunrise I waited in the back of the van to let the morning air warm up enough so that my hands would not be cold while I wired the last connections on the battery switch, so I took the time to meditate some more. The hatch was open allowing the sun to come into the back of the van. I noticed that the sagebrush had many spider webs on them, and those webs glinted in the early morning light. So, I decided I would use this glinting as a meditation object by softening my gaze and allowing the details of the scenery to drop into the background, which allowed just the glinting to come forward to the foreground.
I found the shimmering spider webs were visible at considerable distance across the mesa, so they worked excellently as a field meditation object, because the whole foreground glinted with them. Since I was gazing my peripheral vision opened up and allowed in a wider field of view upon a scintillating meditation object without a central focus.
Many visual meditation objects depend upon a central object, such as a dot, to focus upon, but in this style of meditation it is the entire field that becomes the object of focus, so I suppose we should call them field meditations. It was very pleasant to just empty myself before this scintillating field of light.
Later I reflected upon the cognitive processes that are needed for these defocused field meditations. The brain has sophisticate signal processing features that are used for pattern recognition. The patterns fall into any one of the sense fields and are used for the cognitive function of perception. In this meditation we suspend the perception function of the brains analytical functions while retaining the brain's signal processing capabilities. And, we condition the signal processor ahead of time by choosing what sense and what part of the sense field we are interested in. In this morning's meditation I conditioned my signal processor to just pay attention to the brightest values.
A few days ago, while I was gazing upon the mountains, I conditioned by signal processor to just observe the shift in color values. If I was meditating upon sound then I might again be just looking for tonal values without auditory details, and so on through all of the senses.
The reason why these gazing exercises are good practice for ecstatic meditators is they develop more functions other than the central theme of calming and stilling the mind. They also develop the ability to subtract out what is not desirable and to focus upon what is desirable. They also increase the sensitivity of the senses. Both of these skills are necessary for the ecstatic meditator.
Sensitivity is needed to be able to detect the charismatic phenomena, which is a subtle sensation that typically lies below the threshold of most people's sensory acuity. The ability to select for a portion of a sense field and to filter everything else out, is another useful skill, because along with sensitivity comes cacophony unless one learns to filter out the noise in favor of the 'rich' signal of the charismatic phenomena.
It had been an energetic night in which I lied awake most of the night filled with the scintillating sensations of meditative absorption (jhana-nimitta). Around midnight I finally entered into non-material absorption for a few hours of restorative sleep for the body. I became aware of the body again at about 3 AM. I got up, dressed and sat outside to meditate for a few hours. It was intensely quiet all of the way to the crack of dawn so that the scintillating sounds of absorption were quite loud.
During the silence of the pre-dawn I could hear a very distant wailing sound, which at first I ignored because I thought it might be a distant jet airplane, but the wailing did not diminish with time. Somewhat curious about this sound I penetrated it with meditative awareness, and found it was the distant wailing of coyotes being carried on the still canyon air. Just as I realized the source of that wailing, the local coyote clan contributed their call to that eerily beautiful wail.
Last night was another blessed energetic night in which the signs of absorption reverberated throughout the body until late. After a few hours of non-material absorption I returned again to an energy filled and vibrating body at 4:00 AM.
I got up and dressed and sat outside to meditate. The silence was not quite so intense as it was the night before, but I could still just barely discern the sweet wail of the coyote clans of the Owens River Valley.
After a few hours of meditation the body got too tired to keep sitting up, so I retreated into the van to enter into the non-material again. I did not return to the physical until heat from the sun was building in the van.
During an afternoon break from writing for a charge cycle of the laptop I noticed an afternoon rainstorm had built up over Crowley Lake. I sat in meditation facing the streaks of the rainstorm. The streaks of rain that gracefully arched down to the mesa tops brought my attention upon the thin stocks of new growth on the Artemisia, which where waving in the breeze stirred up by the nearby storm. It was these new gray-green stocks on the sagebrush that became the meditation object for me that afternoon. They scintillated and moved wave-like off into the horizon where they met the arching dark gray streaks of rain falling on Crowley Lake. It was a gentle moving energy meditation.
It was the waving motion of the Artemisia that reminded me of John Locke, a Plains Indian Hoop Dancer, who came to Tucson to perform several years in a row in the 80s. He said the costumes of the Plains Indian Grass Dancers, which is fringed, and the dance of these dancers, which is swaying, is intended to cause the fringe to move grass-like in reminiscence of the rolling grassy plains of the Great Plains. I imagined that the grassy plains were no doubt a meditation object for the Plains Indian shaman. Meditation on the movement of a plain of grass or sagebrush is one of those field meditations, in which there is not a central focus, but the uniformity of a whole undulating visual field becomes the object of meditation, and it is the movement that is so engaging.
It was another very busy night for me in the non-physical. The whole of the night was spent in aiding others in integrating wholesome pieces of the self. Most of those who I visited were members of the Arizona Vajrayana community. My help was in bringing the wholesome states to them and welding them in place with a touch, a smile or a hug. Over and over, person after person this was done for, and on occasion a few were completed, then we would weep in such moist joy together. For some reason I visited Ken Bacher, of Arizona Teachings, quite a few times.
I became aware of the body during the early morning hours, but the work was not complete. I felt people calling me to help them, so I reentered the non-physical to work with quite a few more people until after sunrise, when the needs of the body superceded the aspirations of others and I once again became aware of the physical body.
While many think the integration of the wholesome states comes from emulation, or scholarship, or devotions, or religious practices, or ritualized behavior, it in my experience does not. I find it is in the silence and emptiness of tranquility and equanimity that the components of the wholesome states are perceived and welded into place.
The meditation techniques and devotional practice are nothing more than ways to occupy the neurotic self and certainly to redirect it toward the noble life. But if we so fill ourselves with cognitive devotional practices, then we are obstructing the spiritual transformation through our very religious practices, by leaving no room for the wholesome to emerge.
It is ever so silent here, other than the mornings and evenings when the nocturnals join the diurnals in a chorus of praise for life. I found some years ago while camped along a remote stretch of the Arizona-Mexican boarder that this depth of silence is very useful for cultivating charismatic hearing. In this silence we are not so taken up by the mechanism of hearing. Thus in this silence it is easy to hear the ringing, chirping and rushing sounds of charismatic hearing.
The wind only blew for a few hours this afternoon, and became still by sunset. It was very quiet for the evening meditation. I lit only two candles to keep warm with to conserve paraffin.
This evening, while meditating, I found the flickering of the new bottle-candle quite distracting until I used the shifting light patterns as a field meditation. With my eyes closed I observed the light and the dark equally and did not pay attention to the shifting values of dark and light but just to the flickering on and off. It was a very successful experiment that easily led to meditative absorption.
While eating dinner I was gazing out at Alkali Lake in the distance from the rocky prominence of the new campsite. Often birds fly just overhead because of the sudden increase in height over the canyon floor. This evening a Harris Hawk flew just over my head on its gliding search of pray.
After dinner I gazed out at the insects as they moved about in their random patterns. The setting sun's rays were caught in their wings so I gazed upon the movement of the glinting sun in their wings. It made a good field meditation, and since it was so very silent, it was a very pleasant meditation filled with the charismatic sounds.
While meditating I heard a dragging sound just outside the tailgate of the van, and since the gate was still open I peeked out to see what was making the sound. I turned out to be one of the gray-backed squirrels, which was dragging a recently discarded banana skin. It seems banana skins are a greatly prized item among the rodent population. This was the first of the squirrels I had seen at this new campsite, and still no sign of annoying deer mice and packrats.
During the nightlong meditation I entered the collective psyche, as I often do, and met some interesting beings, who kept directing me to the work of some Canadians who were working to put together a Forum-like personal growth and development workshop. So, I traveled there to meet with them.
They put me through their program, which did not seem to involve meditation or the ecstasies at all, so I was rather curious why I was directed to them. At one point we were doing an exercise in which each person spoke about his or her personal tragedies. This was of great interest to me, because I have wanted to construct my retreats as a symposium in which people will be given the opportunity to make a contribution to the dialog.
In the non-material domain at this 'forum' the person would stand before us and speak and show us the scars from their tragedy. Each story became more traumatic and the scars became proportionately more convoluted and deep until the scars were winding around their bodies in maze-like designs that reminded me of Maori artwork I had seen in New Zealand as an adolescent.
The stories went on all night and it became a parade of the dead, and each being became less human-like and more abstracted until the last one just had a spherical head with no ears and two shining black holes for eyes, and its spheroid head was deeply etched in scars that wound spiraling like a Maori masque, that wound back and forth like the acupuncture meridian system of the head.
This last being brought me back to the physical. It was well before dawn when I returned to the body, so I sat up and meditated upon the signs of absorption and I reflected upon the images and the sensations and stories observed in the collective psyche.
This sequence of subjective events supported my interest in creating a meditation retreat that is a peer-level symposium. While silent meditation retreats have great value, I find there are just too few opportunities to speak and express one's insights and attainments in the various expressions of Buddhism today. People need to be given the opportunity to speak from their experience.
The strange patterns of scars on these beings in the collective psyche reminded me of the vegetal art forms of Babylonian and Persian art, which reminded me of pre-Christian Celtic art, which also had a vegetal design motif, then I thought of paisley, the colorful, woven or printed and swirled pattern of abstracted, curving shapes from the town of the same name in southwest Scotland. The paisley then brought me to reflect upon the Tohono O'odham art form representing their 'god-head' I'itoy, which is represented by a small and simplified anthropomorphic being in the center of a maze. Adam-like he is called, 'first Man' by them.
While observing the signs of absorption and reflecting upon these patterned art forms, I followed the patterns of the charismatic phenomena. I noticed the scintillating charisma swirls and is pattern-like, and I wondered if the various patterned art forms from around the world were in some way related to the experience of the charismatic phenomena.
I went deep into the charisma, which seems to follow the central nervous system. And, as the absorption deepened I found the psyche responding by producing images that were related to the deep past, then to basic patterns of life, first subsistence, then reproductive, then fight-or-flight, and I saw how the nervous system is deeply related to the meditation states and phenomena, such that the deeper we go into absorption the more we retrace through the evolutionary development of the Central Nervous System (CNS).
The three basic psychological patterns of survival, which are represented by subsistence, then reproduction, then fight-or-flight originate in the limbic system, which is a group of interconnected deep brain structures, common to all mammals, which is involved in olfaction, emotion, motivation, behavior, and various autonomic functions, and especially survival. It is often called the reptilian brain, because its functions are so primitive and so basic to survival to all animal species.
Over the decades of meditative absorption I have found if I do not react to any of the material that is presented by the psyche as I traverse the absorption states, then eventually I arrive at a wall of black that overwhelms the entire sensory system, which I believe is the awareness dropping below the limbic system, which is our link to the sensory apparatus.
I believe other aspects of the charismatic experience that relates to the nervous system are the chakras, or discrete energy centers, which are most probably related to nerve plexuses. The experience of an aura is most probably becoming aware of the nerve tissue in the skin as a whole organic structure, and not as individual sensations. And the ringing and scintillating quality of the charismatic experience is most probably observed when one becomes aware of the background noise in the circuit of the nervous system.
The observed phenomena of a rush of energy up the spine, which is characteristic of the 'kundalini' in the yoga tradition, is very possibly the movement of the awareness beyond the limbic system into the spinal cord itself. And, finally the spontaneous jerks that are common among people who have arrived at meditative absorption, are most probably produced by releases of pent up nerve energy which is released by reducing the pressure of the musculature upon the deeper nerve channels, when the body becomes relaxed due to meditative absorption.
Spontaneous jerks have been observed among mystics as far back as the history of mystics goes. In the yogas this phenomena has been observed and called 'kriya' which means 'to move,' and has been associated with non-volitional movement since Patanjali's yoga sutras. The term 'kriya' is associated particularly with the movement of dance. One of the early Christian mystics of the Desert Fathers, was the Egyptian Saint Vitus, who had very pronounced charismatic jerks and shakes, so much so a nervous disorder, that is now called Sydenham's chorea, was named after him, Saint Vitus' dance. It might be interesting to note that the term 'chorea' in 'Sydenham's chorea' comes from ancient Greek and means 'to dance.' In the 18th century the Quakers and Shakers earned their names because the Quakers quaked and the Shakers shook during their religious practices.
Today hypnotists have noticed spontaneous jerks in their subjects and have called the phenomena 'hypnic-jerk'. NASA researchers have noticed that astronauts also manifest spontaneous jerks while in space. The Space Administration has been speculating that they are caused by cosmic rays. This is not an effective argument because cosmic rays are just as present on earth as they are in space because their movement is unaffected by the atmosphere. Astronaut jerk is most probably a related phenomena to kriyas and is most probably caused by weightlessness, which allows the muscles of the astronauts to relax sufficiently to allow for spontaneous jerks to take place.
There seems to be a clear and definite connection between artistic abstraction, shamanism, mysticism and the contemplative life. It seems to be all held together by the charismatic phenomena that arises due to skilful meditation. And, that charismatic phenomena arises due to developing a heightened awareness of the senses that is also withdrawn to the point of abstraction.
MAHå-PARINIBBåNA-SUTTA (DN 16)
"The growth of the bhikkhus is to be expected, not their decline, so long as they ...(remain) favorable to meditative absorption (samadhi)...'
Sotapanna (stream winner) Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
the Great Western Vehicle