9.2 Awakening through Awareness

In the Vedic view, our sense of oneness with the whole can occur through four main pathways: through our intellect via reasoning (Gnana Yoga), through our emotions, primarily in the form of love and devotion (Bhakti Yoga), through our actions (Karma Yoga) and through meditation and other spiritual practices (Raja Yoga). The word "Yoga" itself, is Sanskrit for "Union," signifying the joining of the self with the whole, the dissolution of separateness and attaining that state of oneness. But in that state of oneness, our thoughts, our emotions, our actions and our entire state of being would be consistent with our awakening so that all these pathways merge into one. Therefore, our journey towards Metamorphosis would be far quicker if we consciously enable all these pathways systematically. Far too often, people enable one pathway to the detriment of the others and fail to reach their goal. For instance, it is common to pursue Bhakti Yoga by singing hymns and bhajans during auspicious times, while our thoughts and actions at other times are uninspired and even detrimental to our goal of awakening.

Awareness or Mindfulness is a tool that we need to lose our sense of separateness, our ego and thus, to awaken. It allows us to reach a state of non-illusion where we begin to see things as they are, not as we are. That is what the Hindus call seeing with the eye of wisdom, the third eye that awakens when the ego is shattered and the Atman is empowered. Hindus normally place a mark on the center of their foreheads that reminds them of that third eye.

In the Bhagavad Gita's model of a human being, the mind, that is the vast "subconscious" mind, of a Caterpillar or Kaurava is running amok, directing the decision-making intellect or the rational mind to fulfill its incessant desires. In a Butterfly or the Pandava, the intellect is in control of the steady mind. Prof. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia has an interesting analogy for the mind and intellect as an Elephant and a rider[13], but since we've already used the Elephant as a metaphor for the Truth, I'll modify it a bit. Imagine a horse and a little child as the rider.

The horse is the mind, while the child rider is the intellect.

In the case of the Caterpillar, the horse is wild, drugged with desires and therefore, bucking around and the child rider is simply hanging on to it for dear life. In the case of the Butterfly, the child is in control of the horse, which is happily trotting along. And awareness is the only tool that we need to change the behavior of that horse.

The book, "Awareness[14]," by Anthony DeMello, is the definitive English book on this subject and both the 4-step processes below are summarized from this book.

Here is a summary of the steps for awakening:
    • Step 1: Begin from a position of humility. Acknowledge that you are asleep and want to awaken. Since awakening is a never-ending, infinite process (anyone who claims to be awake is actually asleep!), you are in plenty of company.
      • Step 2: Be ready to challenge your existing belief system. It is these ideas that are influencing your life, adding all those illusions and making it the mess that it is.
     • Step 3: Be willing to replace these ideas with something unfamiliar, to learn something new.
      • Step 4: Become a passive, detached Witness of your thoughts. Don't interfere, don't fix anything, just observe.

It is the Witness in the Upanishadic Witness/Participant duality that can tame the horse. But notice that the Witness can watch his/her thoughts. Then who is this who is aware of the Witness watching the thoughts? And thus, an infinite recursion ensues. This is why the ultimate Witness, the Atman, is unknowable and can only be experienced in the joy of oneness, of integration.

But there are plenty of symptoms that occur when we identify with our ego, the Participant. Just as pain is an indication of something that's not right in our material body, a negative feeling such as anger, frustration, sorrow, etc., is an indication of something that's not right in our mental makeup, that the horse is going crazy again. A negative feeling indicates that we have identified with our ego, the Participant and added some falsehood within us. For the Witness is a compassionate and detached, permanently happy being.

As soon as you get an indication of a negative feeling you can perform the following steps for overcoming them:
    • Step 1: Identify the negative feeling, become aware of it.
    • Step 2: Understand that the negative feeling is in you, not in reality. So, stop trying to change reality to fix the negative feeling. No person or event on earth really has the power to disturb or hurt the Witness in you.
    • Step 3: Never identify with that feeling. It has nothing to do with the Witness and only to do with the Participant and the ego. Let it be, it will pass. Your depressions and thrills have nothing to do with happiness.
    • Step 4: Change yourself through understanding. When you understand what you didn't agree with in reality or what falsehood you added to reality which caused that negative feeling, then the world becomes right and the feeling will pass.

This doesn't mean that the awakening person will never have a negative feeling, but that the negative feeling will be fleeting if the person practices the above 4-step process as soon as one occurs. Metamorphosis is a process, without end. And as the awareness grows, these negative feelings will occur less and less frequently.

In the beginning, if we are starting off with plenty of negative feelings, then relying on just these four step processes could become tiresome. Therefore, it is best to ground ourselves with a habitual routine for practicing awareness, to calm the horse initially. Here is a variation on a self-compassion exercise from the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research (CCARE), devised by Prof. Kelly McGonigal[15]. It is a 3-minute breathing and meditation exercise that I've been perfecting over the past year with the help of two dear friends, Dr. Nilima Sabharwal and Dr. Chaya Prasad, to enhance awareness and to dissolve the ego.

The 3-minute segment consists of 10 long breaths for the meditation and 5 short breaths for repose. This segment can be repeated as many times as we like, but it works best if it is repeated at least 10 times during the course of each day. The best way to achieve this is to set aside half an hour each day for meditation at the beginning of the day. In case this is difficult to stick with, an alternate approach is to always take a 3-minute conscious breather before starting every major activity during the day.

Each long breath is a four-step process:
    • Step 1: Breathe in slowly but steadily over a 4 second period. As you are breathing in, imagine that the energy from the cosmos is coming in through the soles of your feet and filling up your entire body.
      • Step 2: Hold your breath for 4 seconds. As you are holding your breath, imagine that the energy you took in is gathering up all your negative feelings, all your pain and all your suffering.
      • Step 3: Breathe out slowly but steadily over a 6 second period. As you are breathing out, imagine that the spent energy is flowing out of your body through the center of your forehead, shattering your ego, taking with it your pain and suffering.
      • Step 4: Hold your breath for 2 seconds. As you are holding your breath, imagine that your spent energy is dissolving in the infinite energy of the cosmos.

Please don't sweat over the precise seconds for each step. For instance, during each long breath, as a Hindu, Imentally recite the 4 lines of the Gayatri mantra without worrying about the number of seconds. The meanings of the four Sanskrit lines of the Mantra correspond to what is being imagined in each step above during the long breath:
    • Step 1: (Breathe in) Om Bhur Bhuva Swaha. representing Brahma, the Creator. Each intake of breath constitutes the beginning of a new moment of Life and hence, the association with Brahma.
    • Step 2: (Hold) Tat Savitr Varenyam, representing Vishnu, the Sustainer, who is responsible for cleansing away our suffering and sustaining our happiness.
    • Step 3: (Breathe Out) Bhargo Devasya Dimahi, representing Shiva, the Destroyer, who is responsible for destroying our sense of separateness, our ego.
    • Step 4: (Hold) DeeyoYona Prachodayat, representing the supreme Atman, Paramatma or God, the infinite energy of the Cosmos.

The 5 short breaths are the normal 2 second in and 2 second out shallow breath.

I call this conscious breathing and meditation exercise, the Gayatri Kriya, because of its association with the Gayatri mantra during the long breaths. For me, the Gayatri Kriya is a form of mental hygiene that I must conduct on a daily basis, just as I conduct acts of physical hygiene on a daily basis. Can you imagine going without brushing your teeth or without taking a shower or without excreting for days on end? That would not lead to a healthy body. Likewise, I believe that living without performing some basic rituals of mental hygiene for days on end does not lead to a healthy mind. The half-hour that I spend on the Gayatri Kriya every day is a half-hour that has been paying me increasing dividends on a daily basis.


[13] Jonathan Haidt, "When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege," Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, April 2011. http://ccare.stanford.edu/content/jonathan-haidt-when-compassion-leads-sacrilege

[14] Anthony DeMello, "Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality," Image Publishers, June 1990. http://www.amazon.com/Awareness-Opportunities-Reality-Anthony-Mello/dp/0385249373

[15] Kelly McGonigal, "The Power of Self-Compassion," Stanford Cener for Compassion and Altruism Research, Feb. 2011. http://kellymcgonigal.com/2011/08/16/the-power-of-self-compassion/