Over the past five years, my life became a laboratory, a space entirely devoted to understand and dive into the nature of contemplative practice. I didn’t pick up this or that technique to make my life better. I rather transformed my life—in all its aspects—into a constant contemplative experiment. I rarely asked myself why—and rarely trusted the occasional answers I could provide for that ‘why’. It was a thing of intuition, a call, which I followed at the best of my abilities, even when I wasn’t really understanding where I was heading to. One of the most impenetrable points of obscurity has been the connection between what might be called ‘formal (sitting) meditation’ and ‘postural yoga’ (in its ‘ashtanga vinyasa’ form, in my case). Over the years, I tried several times to see why they could fit, to interpret them in different ways, variously ranking them, but nothing really sticked or worked. The only genuine thing that resisted was the intuition that both had something to contribute, although I was not really seeing the deep ‘why’. Until now.
What is practice?
What is practice? On the one hand, all contemplative practices can be approached as attempts at transforming ordinary experience in order to make it into something else (hopefully better). There is a component of effort, striving, interventionism, which drives practice onwards, especially in the beginning. But the time inevitably comes, when one realizes that the goal that practice strives to reach is precisely that point of stillness in which nothing really needs to be changed, everything can be welcomed, included, accepted for how it is.
On the other hand, thus, one might think that the real core of practice is to cultivate this sense of radical acceptance and non-resistance towards the whole of reality, moving from a no-saying attitude to a radical yes-saying. But this is also ultimately a partial and extreme view. Not only in ordinary life, but also at the most fundamental level of experience, we simply cannot stick to an unconditioned ‘yes’ to anything. This would entail to take whatever is currently appearing as ultimate, unsurpassable, absolute, while in fact nothing of what appears (even when what appears is the infinite itself) is actually ultimate, unsurpassable, absolute—there is always more, an infinitely greater potential that awaits ahead, unexpressed, silent, still buried in its empty potentiality. Taking this (anything) to be the whole is falling in the same mistake as rejecting it as unentitled to be.
So, what is practice? If both extremes are to be avoided, then practice is precisely the ability of integrating the opposites. Learning how to say ‘no more’ within the background of an infinite ‘yes’, and learning to say ‘yes’ while within the background of a transcendent ‘not only’. More generally, experience is rooted in the harmony of complementary opposites (to paraphrase Heraclitus): voidness and fulness, silence and voice, witnessing and acting, stillness and movement, and so on. Each of them entails the other, but the way in which the other is entailed might not be always apparent. The whole (and only) issue (the fundamental one, if there is any issue at all), is precisely this hiding of one of the two poles within or behind the other, given the impression of a partial or incomplete reality (like a world where there is no space for voidness, or a silence that can hear no voice). They are always both there, and yet they might not appear to be both there.
Practice is the natural process through which both opposite poles of experience are made to appear, as one constituting the background for the other. In this sense, practice is part of the equally natural process through the opposite themselves hide one another for the sake of appearing in their own right, and then reveal one another for the sake of regaining their original unity.
This is a ‘natural process’ in the sense in which growing up, digesting, or walking around are: they are not accidental and artificially constructed acts that are executed by agents for particular purposes—they are fundamental processes that define what agency itself is. Engaging in a contemplative practice might feel like (especially in the beginning) as ‘my doing’ guided by ‘this or that technique.’ But as everybody is doomed to discover, this understanding will sooner or later give room to the sense that practice is actually doing itself through ‘me’. This might be scary, but also immensely freeing. Yet, it is not a way of trivializing understanding or dropping (right) effort. If anything, it requires an even greater sensitivity and intuitiveness in order to carefully listen where the process naturally wants to go, preventing all sorts of other possible interferences to disband it. Even if being disbanded is itself part of the process, this does not mean that the process does not aim at a precise goal—and this goal is the ability to let emerge each pole of experience within the background of its complementary opposite.
Even if still relatively abstract, this point has already a general implication for two extreme ways of fashioning practice, both of which must be seen as problematic. One is the tendency towards simplicity, which might lead to oversimplification and trivialization. Asking for simplicity is asking for the core of something, for an essence or just a focal point that can help putting everything else in perspective. If used in this latter way, simplicity is indispensable, but if everything is reduced to its simplest terms and caged there, then it becomes stultifying and dumbing. Then one has shut one’s practice into a slogan of a few words, which ultimately mean nothing (what’s simpler than nothing, after all?). By contrast, complexity can quickly become overwhelming and it is extremely easy to get lost in all sorts of details, which appear the more important the more closely they are looked at, while one is also losing track of why they should be looked at in the first place. In the case of contemplative practices, details easily escalate both in terms of techniques and in terms of historical sources. They should not be feared nor shunned, since they provide the materials to explore and dive deeper and deeper into practice itself. And yet, without a proper understanding of the essentials, of the fundamentals, of the core, they are just chaotic noise, leading nowhere.
How to practice?
If practice is balancing the opposites that constitute experience, so that each of them can be seen as the background of the other, then one way of articulating and implementing this principle can work as follows (and what follows remains a work in progress).
Take the most general formulation of the two opposites: voidness and fullness, consciousness and contents, silence and voice, witnessing and activity (or more mythologically, śiva and śakti). Then practice consists in uncovering one of the two starting from the other (which leads to a circular movement).
Since recently, I like to call ‘Bhairava krama’ (the sequence of Bhairava, the mythological form of pure consciousness as awe-inspiring divine appearing, as presented for instance in the Vijñāṇa Bhairava Tantra) the movement of unearthing of the ‘void’ principle within the expressions of ‘fulness’ so that the whole spectrum of manifestations in which ‘fulness’ can appear will ultimately manifest as immersed, soaked, and supported by this transcendent and ineffable presence of voidness. This can be done in stages, by starting from relatively coarse phenomena (expressions of fullness) and uncovering how a form of voidness is immanently present there (the empty moment between breath, the sense of empty space within the body). Proceeding with the same method, it is possible to actually dive deeper and deeper, until the most subtle form of presence (the transcendental ‘I am’, void of any content) is itself dropped, or let drop into a formless, unobjectifiable silence, an unutterable hush. While it becomes fully understandable that some might want to just stop there, this whole process is in fact aimed at realizing how that hush was present, and is always present, at all the other levels of experience, even in the coarsest and most noisy. In this way, all the manifestations of fullness (the whole dance of śakti) appears completely pervaded by (and one with) emptiness (śiva).
But the opposite (complementary) route can also be explored. Starting from this sense of absolute stillness, stability, centeredness, equilibrium, it is possible to explore how movement can arise precisely from there, expressing, articulating, unfolding the potential of that same still center. Very recently, I came to realize that this provides (at least for me) a perspective to appreciate the potential that somatic practices like postural yoga can have. For long time, I was thinking that they were trying to proceed too on a path from fullness towards emptiness (akin to the Bhairavakrama). The mistake was my assumption that emptiness is more fundamental, and hence what you want to really get at in the end. But this is a mistake because neither emptiness nor fullness are more fundamental, they co-belong to each other. Somatic practices are great to explore precisely the other directionality of experience, the one that moves fromemptiness (stillness, silence—these are all synonyms) to fullness.
In this way, I like to think at the sequence of poses practiced in ashtanga vinyasa yoga as a ‘Bhairavīkrama’ (the sequence of Goddess Bhairavī), which presupposes an intuition into the ultimate empty ground of reality and then moves (dances) around it in order to articulate and express it in manifold ways. This is particularly apparent in ashtanga vinyasa because the sequence of poses can be interpreted as a methodical and systematic articulation of a fundamental one, which is in fact static: samasthiti (‘equal standing’). This is apparently a ‘simple’ pose, but it is basically an experience of full centeredness. All other poses can be experienced as variations on this theme, which explore how it can evolve and be transformed, without losing its fundamental root in a still center. It is much simpler to jump around, force oneself in all sorts of shapes, and seeking to either conquer one’s body or suppress one’s thoughts (and even easier to complaining for one’s failure on both fronts). Moving while remaining inwardly still it’s way more difficult—and that’s why it requires a devoted practice to be cultivated.
Both sequences thus entail an element of development, a diving into the potential of what superficially appears as a general simpler principle. One might think that none of this is really necessary. That’s true, of course, in the limited sense that there might be other ways of articulating the same fundamental simple principle (other ways of moving from śakti to śiva and from śiva to śakti). But as mentioned above, it is false that one can simply do away with any practice and stick to the simplest and barest formulation of the principle itself. That’s just like confining oneself to singing the tune of the Ode to Joy under the shower, putting aside the rest of Beethoven’s Ninth as irrelevant.
Ultimately, what drives practice onwards is the aesthetic fascination for diving deeper and deeper into the beauty of experience—which transcend good and evil, silence and voice, emptiness and fullness, simplicity and complexity, because it encompasses them all.