Some reflections on Heart Practice
“Salutations to Sri Mata
Salutations to Sri Maharajni
Salulations to the Queen seated upon the lion-throne
Salutations to She who resides in the fire of consciousness
Salutations to She who shines with the red brilliance of a thousand rising suns
Salutations to She who bears the noose, the goad, the sugarcane bow; the five sense-arrows
Salutations to She whose red brilliance engulfs the universe.
One of the ways in which I have, for some years now, approached tantra sadhana is to start with something (relatively) simple, and then extend it with other practices as time, circumstances, and insights allow. There’s a tendency in western occulture to make a distinction between “basic” and “advanced” practices – where “basic” practices constitute something that you do for a set period and then never bother with again, and the “advanced” practices which are really, where the action is. In terms of my approach to tantra practice, I tend to think instead of “core” practices – which can be deepened and enriched over time.
I recently recommended to a couple of correspondents that the practice of the goddess dwelling in the heart might provide such an entry point. In that post, I wrote about how this practice has for me, shifted from being a “formalised” practice (i.e. one that I set aside time for) to a moment-to-moment remembrance – something I can “shift” in and out of as opportunity affords.
How to think about this kind of practice?
In an earlier post (Practice notes: On lingering) I brought up a recurrent theme I’ve been exploring here – “how to “think” beyond the concept of bracketed “exercises” (which are usually cast as productive trajectories) and the valorisation of the interruptive non-ordinary “altered state” and to refocus attention towards the everyday world which we seem to spend so much time, it seems, attempting to mount an escape from, or mourning the loss of enchantment within.” Much of my reflective writing on “practice” (posts tagged “practice”) here on enfolding has been concerned with questioning – and seeking to collapse – the tendency to make distinctions between spiritual v mundane, sacred v ordinary, inner vs outer, etc.
Phillip B. Zarilli makes a useful distinction, between two modes of practice: everyday practices – “habitualized and routine activities as walking, driving, or engaging in hygienic practices” and extra-daily practices – “rituals, dances, theatre training and performance, the recitation of oral narratives, meditation and/or religious practices, martial arts, etc., which require the practitioner to undergo specialized body-training in order to become accomplished in attaining a certain specialized state of consciousness, body, agency, power, and so on. Extraordinary energy, time and resources are often invested by a society to create cultural specialists whose embodied practices are the means by which personal, social, ritual and/or cosmological realities are created and enacted.
Because practices are not things, but an active, embodied doing, they are intersections where personal, social and cosmological experiences and realities are negotiated” (1998, p5).
I think this distinction can be a useful way of reflecting on the performance of spiritual practice (i.e. tantra sadhana) – particularly that of ritual, meditation, yogas and other practices which require both time, energy and commitment – and which aim to reorient the ways in which practitioners conceive of, and experience, their bodies and and the world around them. What interests me in particular is how these “extra-daily” practices can be routinised (to varying degrees) and become “habitualized and routine” everyday practices. Obviously, the one mode of practice feeds and supports the other, and whilst remembering momentarily that the goddess dwells within my heart-cave during an otherwise tedious meeting may not generate quite the same intensities as a formal ritual or meditation, the potential remains, nonetheless.
When I first began the extra-daily meditation on the goddess dwelling in my heart, I would rise early and perform a simple ritual and embellish it with selected verses from the Lalitasahasramana such as those quoted above. For an initial meditation on the goddess, I took this dhyana from Mike Magee’s translation of the Vamakeshvara Tantra: 1
“Then one should meditate on Devi, resembling a lotus, like the early morning rays of the Sun, like a hibiscus or a pomegranate flower, red as a ruby, or like kumkuma dissolved in water, adorned with a bedazzling jewel in Her diadem, and by a dense mass of small bells, Her mouth, like a line of black bees, amidst beautifully curved red lips, the circle of Her face like the dawn or a day lotus, a curved half moon of nectar on Her forehead, Her eyes like bows, and a beautiful brow, O Parameshvari.
“Her eyes are moving playfully to and fro, filled with joy and bliss, the roundness of Her cheeks surpassing the curve of the lunar crescent. The slender line which is Her nose is like a beautiful wanton shoot. Her upper nectar like lip is of the red effulgence of copper or coral. Her smile is sweeter than honey, the quintessence of love. Her very beautiful chin is endowed with all beauty.
“Her neck is shell-like, She has large, open eyes, arms as graceful as lotus stalks. Her hands equal in appearance very beautiful red lotuses, and Her nails are brighter than brightness itself. Her rising breasts uplift a slender pearl necklace, which resembles a shower of nectar on them. Her truly beautiful belly is adorned with three lines.
“Her charming begemned navel is like a stream. The roundness of Her hips is like a precious jewel, She wears a girdle of pearls, and has beautiful buttocks. The circle of Her buttocks is cleft by a line, Her hair like royal elephant goads. Isvari, Her very beautiful thighs are like two beautiful plantain stems. Her two lovely legs are like two charming plant stems. Her unblemished lotus feet are like the crest gem of Brahma.
“Her redness surpasses the redness of the China Rose, vermilion, or the pomegranate flower. She is clothed in red garments, holding an effulgent noose and a goad. She sits on a red lotus, and is adorned with red gems. She has four arms and three eyes, and She holds five arrows and a bow. Her mouth is filled with various pieces of betel mixed with camphor.
“Her beautiful gazelle like body, smeared with red powder, is the vanquisher of the God of Love. She wears the most beautiful kind of clothes, and is adorned with every kind of precious gem. She is the Mother Who gladdens creation, the cause of happiness in the world, causing all love in the world, creating the world, the Devi made of Mantra, great good fortune Sundari, consisting of all wealth, eternal, supremely blissful, joyful.”
As I noted in the post on the goddess dwelling in the heart these poetic passages, with their extensive similes and metaphors are not merely cognitive and visual exercises – i.e. a means of mentally representing an iconographical image; but rather, they call forth particular moods (bhavas) associated with the goddess. Stephen Hopkins (2002) points out that visionary descriptions such as the above are “meant to inspire emotion, an atmosphere of “divine passion,” a direct experience of amorous feeling through a refined erotic language from Sanskrit Kavya. …In the rush of images, the concrete object of contemplation … expands before one’s eyes. The poets’ similes, metaphors, and double entendres serve at times to dissemble the original object of gazing – a jeweled belt, a toe, a thigh, earrings, crown, or navel – this along with mythic and cultic associations from Puranic liturgical texts, create a complex composite image….” (p138). 2
When I began to do this meditation, I found that, rather than trying to build up a “complete image” of the goddess, I was, rather, getting “flashes” of redness, a sense of brilliance, glimpses of darting eyes, a half-remembered smile, and so forth. I quickly found that this meditation “coloured my day” as it were, allowing me to be open and to become aware of “small wonders” – a shared smile with a stranger as we heard the train was (yet again) delayed; a pigeon perched in the luggage rack- that kind of thing. And the memories of those experiences are (potentially) reactivated again with each repetition of the practice, and become fused with present feelings, thoughts, moods generated by the practice – or the recollection of it.
Even a relatively short stotra such as this presents some problems though. When I began this practice, despite a basic familiarity with the symbolic meanings of the goddess’ attributes within terms of the Sri Vidya tradition (see for example Deity Meditation: Lalita), it was not immediately obvious to me as to why the goddess’ mouth would be compared to “a line of black bees”. In this post I commented that “occasionally in my practice I encounter things I don’t quite understand. I put them aside for later and, occasionally, understanding ‘bursts’ forth at a later point.” Sometimes such understanding arises from the practice itself, but equally, it may require some “digging” into the vast amount of literature out there – or better yet, talking with someone who is familiar with the practice – and incorporating any insights which arise back into the practice itself. As Sthaneshwar Timalsina (2012) points out, Tantric imagery is so bound up with Indian literary culture, that a lack of awareness of its coventions & themes compromises the aesthetic experience of these images and limits one’s capacity for engagement with them. So understanding what Tantric imagery (both textual and iconographic) “means” within wider Indian literary/philosophical culture can be thought of as a way of “enriching” the practice, and should be undertaken, I think, as one performs the practice – if only because trying to assimilate everything beforehand would quickly become a recipe for not getting started at all!
Stephen P. Hopkins Singing the Body of God: The Hymns of Vedantadesika in their South Indian Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2002)
Sthaneshwar Timalsina Reconstructing the Tantric Body: Elements of the Symbolism of Body in the Monistic Kaula and Trika Tantrik Traditions (International Journal of Hindu Studies, 16, 1: 57-91, 2012)
Phillip B. Zarilli, When the body becomes all eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art (Oxford University Press, 1998)
The Mysteries of the Red Goddess can be ordered at www.tantratexts.com