Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Sally Kempton, a meditation teacher who has immersed herself in the world of meditation for over four decades and has earned a reputation as a highly experienced, gifted, and insightful meditation teacher. Sally’s approach to meditation draws on her many years of training closely with Swami Muktananda, along with her deep knowledge of kundalini and subtle energies. She has maintained her initial training as a journalist throughout her life, writing and editing magazines, publishing books, and being a regular columnist, for a period of time, in Yoga Journal. Sounds True will be releasing Sally Kempton’s new book Meditation for the Love of It, as well as the audio program Beginning Meditation.
In part one of this two-part episode, Sally and I spoke about her understanding of the grace-based tradition in which she teaches, the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism. We also spoke about the role of the guru, and how she came into her particular style of teaching meditation. Here is part one of my two-part conversation with Sally Kempton.
Your book, Sally, Meditation for the Love of It, is not only one of my favorite books Sounds True has ever published, but also one of my favorite books ever published on meditation.
Sally Kempton: Wow!
SK: Thank you!
TS: And I was reflecting on what I love about the book so much. What I love about it—well, there’s lots of things, but one of them is that it’s not just a “here’s how you start practicing meditation,” but that there’s a central point in the book that has to do with the awakening of kundalini, and what meditation practice is like leading up to the awakening of kundalini, and then also after: what one’s relationship to practice might be like after kundalini is awakened. So I wanted to talk with you about that (and just begin to keep all of our listeners on board with us here), what kundalini means to you and a little bit about your own experience with it.
SK: Sure. I have actually come to have a fairly broad interpretation of what kundalini awakening is, and the context in which I understand it actually comes out of the Kashmir Shaiva tantric tradition, which basically says that in order to even be interested in spiritual enfoldment, you actually have to receive a kind of charge from the universe—in other words, that the human mind, in its unawakened form, actually isn’t even interested in spiritual matters. That tradition, which is basically a grace-based tradition, says that even to want to meditate, even to want to think about the inner world, and certainly to want to think about God in a mystical way, your kundalini has to have been awakened. But what the tradition says is that there are many, many different levels of kundalini awakening. What they call the “mild level” is the one where you start to have an interest in spirituality and an interest in meditation, and I would say—at least it’s my experience and my view—that most people come to meditation for, let’s say, for reasons of self-development. You know, I mean sometimes your medical practitioner tells you that you need to start meditating for your blood pressure.
I would say that my first experience of kundalini awakening sort of came out of the blue. I was in my living room with my new boyfriend, listening to a Grateful Dead record, and there was just this moment when overwhelming love just welled up out of nowhere and filled me up. You know, I was twenty-seven, and I had never experienced love before in that way, in that kind of global way. It brought with it this recognition that a) this was how life was supposed to be, b) this was why I had always been this discontented with my life, because it was wanting this, and third, a recognition that this was something that I had to transform my life in order to live up to. It all happened in about three minutes, and I turned to my boyfriend and I said, “There is so much love!”
And he looked at me like, “What are you talking about?”
TS: You weren’t on any drugs or anything?
SK: Actually, yes, of course!
TS: Doesn’t that make a difference?
SK: Yeah, it does make a difference, but the experience was that it had nothing to do with the drug, and my subsequent experience was that something came out of nowhere and awakened me. I’d done that drug many times, and I’ve never had that experience before or since. In other words, I’m very aware of the effects of marijuana—it’s very good for focus and visualization—but I’ve never known a drug that awakened the heart in that particular way.
What I think happened was that the drug sort of loosened my boundaries and allowed that experience to arise. What happened was, the next day, (I was writing a novel at the time. It was all about how difficult it was for men and women to love each other, and it was all about pain and love and victimization and mutual victimization.) I realized that I couldn’t do this anymore. I then spent three or four months trying to learn how to assimilate this, not knowing any place to go with it.
That was my first experience, and the second time it happened, the second serious awakening I had, which was much more focused and much more the kind of kundalini awakening that you’re talking about, it was really a downtown, New York hipster’s version of Saint Paul on the road to Tarsus: just like an “Okay! Oh my God! This is an experience that’s so much beyond my current reality that my life must change.”
TS: Can you tell us more of the specifics?
SK: In that one, about a year and a half before (and I talk about this in the introduction to the book), I had decided that, in order to pursue this path, I had to go for total transformation, so I had gone into a three-month spiritual training with a Bolivian teacher who had gotten together a group of people from the Esalen world, actually, including John Lilly and Claudia Naranjo, to do a Sufi-based, complete, integral, mind-body-heart training. It took three months, and when I was done with it, there was no turning back. I couldn’t go back to being a New York journalist and living in my apartment in downtown Manhattan and pursuing my New York Times articles, because what had happened was that I had actually seen not just what was possible, but I had had a terribly disturbing glimpse of all of the stuff in me that was in the way. In other words, it was that moment, actually, that Trungpa talks about in that statement of his, “It’s better not to get on the spiritual path, but once you’re on the spiritual path, it’s better not to get off it.” Once the process starts, at least in my case, you have to continue with it.
What that led to was my giving up my career and going to live in Los Angeles and work with this group, which was doing the trainings, which I taught in, and also continued my own inner work. After about a year and a half in this process, I went with my then boyfriend to a workshop in Berkeley with a Tibetan teacher named Tatang Tolku. He was giving a classical talk on the path out of suffering, and he did an exercise which I’ve come to realize is a standard direct-path exercise. He said, “Look at the back of your head.”
I was sitting in the front row, and I was trying to get the instructions right and I said something like, “You mean look at the inside of the back of your head, or look at the outside of the back of your head?”
He said, “Who’s looking?”
And I just went into that global awareness, witness, non-dual state. The thing that characterized it for me at the time was, along with the complete shift of vision—that is everything was inside me, and everything was okay, and there were no problems, and there was no ego—one of the people I was with, who was a very caustic, very acerbic guy who always kind of scared me because he had a way of honing in on your perceived weaknesses and sort of twisting the knife, for the first time since I’d known him, it didn’t bother me, because I was in such a state of non-duality, no problem.
When that faded, which, of course, it did, what I found was that, first of all, the meditation I had been practicing was starting to happen spontaneously. So we had been doing this very complex visualization process, which is kind of close to the Tummo heat in Tibetan Buddhism, where you imagine a glowing iron ball in your hado center, and then you bring it up to the heart, and there’s a goddess in the heart. Of course, it’s a very complex exercise, and I never had a sense that I was doing it properly, but after that weekend, I would close my eyes, I would start following the instructions, and it would start happening spontaneously. The ball would be glowing and the goddess would appear in my heart, and this sense of energy rising—classic kundalini experience—energy rising up my body, opening up the heart center, then rising to the head, and my entire head would explode. And I would sit there for two hours and come out of it. I remember thinking at the time, “Oh! This is why people have gurus! It’s because there’s some kind of transmission that occurred between us . . .”
TS: Okay, I didn’t follow that leap. I mean here you are, you’re practicing on your own .
TS: How do you get to the leap, “That’s why people have gurus”?
SK: Well, it was very clear to me that there had been a transmission of that.
TS: From Tatang Tolku?
SK: From Tatang Tolku, who I never thought of as a guru, but what was striking to me, actually, to backtrack, is that the group that I was practicing in was deeply anti-guru. In other words, their position was that you don’t need a guru, you don’t need a spiritual elder, that you can do it on your own, that there actually doesn’t need to be a transmission from a teacher. So the amazing shift in my state that occurred through contact with a teacher actually changed my whole idea at that time of what actually activates your shakti
And (this is another conversation) I have subsequently come to realize that, actually, it doesn’t happen only through a guru, at all, but it was very clear to me at the time that energetic transmission from a teacher makes a really big difference in how your inner energy unfolds, simply because it was so dramatic.
TS: Now just with this specific situation, with Tatang Tolku, how come you credited his presence, when you were sitting there, you were meditating, it could have just been happening inside of you?
SK: That’s a good question. Well, maybe it was the crow landing in the palm tree and the coconut falling off. I would also say that I’d done a lot of practice. I had been doing a year and a half of very concentrated practice, and probably what happened was that the focused energy of him, you know how a teacher (I’ve experienced this myself as a teacher), when a teacher is giving instruction and puts focused attention on a student with the intention that a student “get” something, understand something, it will very often cause that understanding to arise. I would say that was probably what he was doing, and that whatever that kindling was—you know, one of the ways we talk about transmission as a source of awakening is that the teacher lights the flame that’s already present inside the student—I think that’s what happened.
The guru-disciple issue is another issue. In other words, I never felt any particular pull toward him as a teacher. It felt almost as if he was the person who turned the switch, but given the fact that I went on to spend thirty years with a guru, I would say that that conclusion was perhaps germane to my future path.
TS: Mm-hmm. Now I want to backtrack for a moment, because you mentioned the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, and the tradition in which you teach, and that it’s grace-based. I was curious what you meant by that. What’s a grace-based tradition?
SK: I would say that there . . . of course, making binary distinctions is always misleading, but that there tend to be two basic approaches to the enlightenment path, right? One is the sort of Zen, self effort-based approach, which is that you sit there on your cushion until a breakthrough happens, and the other is the grace-based transmission: You need to receive help from the universe or help from a teacher in order to make the breakthrough. Kashmir Shaivism is a path which is completely, radically non-dual in that it teaches that there is only one energy in the world, and that it’s divine energy, and that God is in every atom of the universe, and that whatever arises arises in the mind of the divine. And, since everything that arises, including our sense of duality, arises in the mind of the divine, the tradition says that in order to take the route back to the recognition of your oneness with the divine, the God in you has to decide that it’s time for you to wake up, because it’s the God in you that caused you to fall asleep in the first place. So grace is actually the best English translation of a Sanskrit word, which is anugraha, which means “the power in which the individual delusion is removed by the universal cosmic force of awakening.” Does that answer your question?
TS: Yeah, and it sounds like—just to also clarify one other point—you now believe that this delivery of grace can both come from a teacher, but also simply from the universe itself.
SK: Yes, and I actually believe that it does come from the universe or it comes from within you. You know, it comes from the ever-present, awakening revelation-dispensing faculty that’s just part of consciousness.
TS: Okay, so now help the listener who’s trying to sort out, “Do I need a guru?” What’s your response to that?
SK: Thank you for that question. That’s an enormously complex question for me at this point in my life. I did, and the reason that I feel it’s very important to have a guru at certain points on the spiritual path is not for the sake of the awakening, which I believe can happen in many, many ways, but for the sake of training. In other words, a guru is, at best, someone who can hold up an absolutely clear mirror to you and show you where you are, what your enlightened self looks like, and what the obstacles look like. A guru, a teacher who is able to perform that function just makes it an awful lot easier to make the basic discernment between what’s your, let’s say, dualistically deluded, ego-based, insane story-following self, and the clarity of your essential self. I would say that’s the role of the guru, that level of deep mirror. It’s not that you need one—and going around looking for a guru is one of the great time-wasting activities that I think seekers engage in—but if you happen to have the karma to have a relationship with a guru that’s capable of providing that mirroring, it eases the journey in enormous ways.
TS: So you’re often introduced as a “teacher’s teacher” when it comes to meditation, meaning that you train teachers. Do you consider yourself a guru?
TS: So why not? I would imagine you performing that function for people.
SK: I would say that a teacher who’s able to be transparent to the teachings can perform or channel the guru function, which is not quite the same thing as being a guru because what a guru does—at least in the tradition that I was trained in, which is a tradition in which a guru takes total spiritual responsibility for a disciple’s self. In the ancient guru-disciple traditions, as I think you know, the disciple basically surrenders all spiritual authority to the guru, and the guru then takes the responsibility for guiding the student 100 percent on the path. It’s an unbelievably profound commitment that the two make to each other. I don’t have that relationship with students.
TS: But do you think that, potentially, the form that the guru takes needs to be updated in a contemporary way, such that maybe it wouldn’t be about this total responsibility, et cetera, but there’s new form?
SK: I do, I do. I do, and I believe that, in a certain sense, we have many gurus, that at every stage in the journey, there’s usually someone or something that is opening up the path for us in a way, and certainly teachers or . . . I like to make a distinction between a guru and acharya, an acharya being someone who is actually an expert in the path, and who has discerned between the teachings that are useful and the teachings that are not useful, and is able to give transmission at critical points, but who does not enter into that particular karmic relationship that the traditional saad gurus enter into.
I mean, this is a big conversation, the guru conversation, and one that I don’t have a final position on. I was in an absolutely traditional guru-disciple relationship with Muktananda, which meant that I did everything I could to surrender completely, and he helped me, in some rather miraculous ways, in transforming the nature of my mind.
TS: Let’s just pause there. So first of all, you weren’t drawn to Tatang Tolku to be your guru, but you were to Muktananda. Can you tell us a little bit about why? What about him, what about your experience with him created the call?
SK: I think that if you have that level of relationship with a guru, it’s a little bit chemical. In other words, it’s a little bit like meeting somebody and realizing that this is the person that you’re going to marry. It’s not a decision that you make with your mind.
To backtrack a little bit, back to kundalini . . .
SK: So, after that awakening with Tatang, I was in quite an intense meditation training in which we were doing three or four hours of meditation a day with all of these complex visualizations, and there was one particular night when I was meditating when the entire world exploded, and my awareness, my consciousness just went up in light. It was very radical, very beautiful, and to me at the time (because I had a lot of unprocessed fear), really scary. In the middle of it, feeling “Oh my God! I’m not prepared to handle this level of light!” the name, Swami Muktananda, came into my mind.
I knew a little bit about him. I knew that he was a guru who specialized in working with kundalini, and it was sort of like the universe threw me a lifeline and said, “This person is going to help you work with this energy that’s been awakened in you.” I was having a very dramatic awakening experience, and he was actually in this country (this was 1974) on a tour, and I knew that he was coming to Los Angeles, so I did something that I just generally didn’t do: I went to see him. I went to a salon that he was holding. Those were the very early days. There were not that many people there, and it was the typical 70s scene, you know, with lots of swaying people in white clothes. I walked in the room, I looked at him across the room, and these words came into my mind: “This person has something to do with the meaning of my life.” It was just a recognition. I had never been consciously aware that I was looking for a meaning in my life, but that was the sense. It was a total, destined, karmic meeting.
Then, in that afternoon, I had this big, exploding, heart-opening experience, which was pretty much the experience that I’d had back in my living room two years before, that had catapulted me onto the journey and which, in retrospect, I realize is really what my path has been about. It’s really about that opening to love, that opening of the heart. So these two things: the fact that he had affected my heart energy that way, this inner call to destiny, and the fact that he was an unbelievably vibrant, fascinating, delightful, ecstatic, classical, ecstasy-giving, dramatic, atomic-energy being. In other words, he was capable of totally drawing all of your energies to focus because he was so interesting and so emotionally riveting, and because, at that time, every word that he said (and he would say these very simple things) would kind of go into my heart and make some kind of transformation.
One of the things he said at that meeting: Someone said to him, “I have a lot of anger, and I don’t know what to do about it. It keeps erupting!”
And he said, “Just get rid of it! Throw it away like you would cut off your hair and throw it away,” which is, of course, in my understanding, just a) impossible and b) just silly!
TS: If only we could, yeah!
SK: If only we could, exactly! But yet, that night, I was sitting on my meditation cushion, and I decided I would try it! The next time I got irritated—which used to happen quite regularly—I actually did this inner practice of cutting it off and throwing it away, and it worked. I’m not saying that it continued to work forever, but what I would find was that, when I followed his instructions, there would be a kind of radical shift, so it just felt to me as though, for many reasons (plus I’d been reading Trungpa, who kept talking about the fiery gurus of the Kashmir lineage, and he was super fiery—he was one of those take-no-prisoners, fiery Indian teachers) my heart, my sense of destiny, and the drama, the engaging drama . . . it was kind of like falling in love, meeting the love of your life.
TS: Now I don’t know that much about Muktananda, but the impression I have (and this is from thousands of feet, far away) is that a lot of people who met with him had these kundalini awakening experiences, but what I never have understood—and maybe you can help me here—is what he actually taught people, or how he trained people, beyond helping their kundalini awaken. I wonder if you could summarize what some of the key teachings or trainings were that you got from him.
SK: Good question. Well, his basic deep teaching was, “God dwells within you as you.” That was what he taught. And, “See God in others.” What he managed to do was, first of all, he taught classic vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism, which is he taught from changkra charya. He taught, “The self is the witness of the mind,” you know, “The supreme reality is satchitananda, being, consciousness, and bliss.” He was a classic Indian teacher of what Danick Ulman calls “the danta-based devotional tradition.” It’s non-dual: the self is consciousness, you know, remove the ego and the self shines. That very, very basic, non-dual, Indian, vedantic teaching. So he trained me very deeply in that. In other words, he taught vedanta, and he taught in such a way that he would give these teachings out of the Indian scriptures . . .
Here’s an example: “The supreme power manifests the universe from within herself the way a spider spins a web out of his own body.” He would give that metaphorical teaching, and as he would give it, you would experience it as a reality. In other words, I would have, over and over again, he would say, “Every part of this universe is scintillating with consciousness, with bliss, with intelligence,” and I would experience the universe in my own body becoming diffused, becoming consciousness. He taught by constantly giving you an experience of unity through his words. That was part of it.
Another part of it was that he ran this spiritual boot camp in which there was a group of people, we worked our butts off doing seva, running this very, very high-pressure tour. Nobody slept more than four hours a night for years. Everything—it was World War III, because if you screwed up, it would feel like the entire universe would cave in on you. So you learned the lessons that you learn in working with other people, in sacrificing your sleep, your needs and wants, to a greater cause, and for me, especially, in seeing how my psychological issues and my obstructions and my stuff would come up, and you never could discuss it with anybody. You never could process. You simply had to deal with it as a projection of your own mind.
Though I wouldn’t recommend that as a path for most people, and there are many, many downsides to that particular path, the truth is it’s an unbelievable spiritual training. It just teaches you not to look at others as the source of your happiness and misery, but to constantly turn it back on yourself, and practice with an arrow pointing toward your own heart.
What the first five or six years with him did for me was sharpen my ability, first of all to focus, and secondly to give up my stuff, to give up my agendas, to let go of my ego, to let go of my resistance, to actually become transparent to the workings of the shakti, of the energy. And it was a classic devotional guru-disciple relationship in that the experience of ecstasy that was present, for me, in his physical presence was so extreme that unbelievably difficult living conditions and relational conditions didn’t matter, because the spiritual experience that I was having eighteen hours a day was so much more powerful. I think that’s the amazing thing about being in the company of a guru who really kind of transcends the human world, who is able to bring an experience of such radical transcendence that a lot of your delusion and mental fog just melts in the light of it.
That said, once he died, once he left his body, I was left with a transformed consciousness, with a radically open heart, and with all my unprocessed psychological issues! All of the shadow stuff that I had worked with by going, “Okay, not that, not that, not that,” some of it had been dissolved. The vedantic teaching, as I’m sure you know, or you may know, is that (it’s a very famous teaching from Changkra Charya) when the light of realization shines, all darkness is burned up by that light, just as when you turn on a light in a cave, the darkness disappears. There is something about putting all of your childhood pain, all your romantic longings, all your ambition into that fire. It burns up a lot of it, but then you’re left with what wasn’t burned up, and then you have to do psychological work. I actually spent the next fifteen years, probably, just sweeping up the pieces of debris that had been left in my consciousness by the very, very radical, transcendent, transformative experience that I had been living in.
What I think happens in such a situation is that (just to put it in terms of the tradition) is that all of the karmic tendencies that you brought into this lifetime, they all come up. They just get exposed. Some of them get sort of dissolved, and then you have to deal with the rest of it. It’s like a very, very fast-track journey that not that many people really have the time, the life circumstance, to pursue. I wasn’t married, I didn’t have kids, at that time, I was a swami. I was a professional spiritual practitioner, so to speak. That was my life. I actually don’t recommend that kind of guru-disciple relationship for someone who’s not on that kind of fast-track, “take me to the end of it in this lifetime” path.
TS: Unless their kundalini is calling them, as you described.
SK: Unless their kundalini is calling them. I think you have to be dragged onto this path.
TS: I want to circle back.
SK: I don’t usually talk about this so dramatically.
TS: No, it’s good, but I want to circle back, because my original observation was that the way that you teach meditation is deeply informed by your own kundalini awakening experiences, and what I’m curious about is the exercises and the approach that you lay out in Mediation for the Love of It. Is that what you received from Swami Muktananda?
TS: Where did the approach that’s in this book—which I think is incredibly creative and luscious, and makes meditation a passionate, enjoyable endeavor!—where did it come from, from you?
SK: Well, two things: First, my original awakening experience was an experience of an arousing of bliss in my inner field. What I found was that, in meditation, in those early days, I would find myself inwardly “following the bliss,” to use Campbell’s phrase. I was very naïve. I didn’t really understand what “self” was, what that “no-self self” was. His teaching was, “Meditate on your self,” which I understood not to be your ego self, but something greater. So I would search for myself by following the path of what we call the shakti, which was the vibrating, pulsing, kinesthetic experience, inside the inner field, that opens when you turn inside in meditation. In those days, I meditated with a mantra, and as you know, one of the qualities of mantra as a practice is that mantras contain an energy of their own, so when you work with a mantra, it penetrates. The energy inside the mantra penetrates the energy inside your inner field, and it sinks you deeper into your subtle body, into your causal body, intimately opening up the super-causal body, the turiya state, the fourth state. That was what I would do: I would say the mantra, and the energy would penetrate me into deeper and deeper states.
Then, at a certain point, I got basically as far as I was going to go, and I went into this place where I would close my eyes, I would go into meditation, I would get into this kind of restful state, and then I would sit there for an hour, and it was really nice, but I wasn’t (to put it in shorthand) becoming more enlightened. I wasn’t becoming more awake.
My work, for years, had been editing Swami Muktananda’s books. I was very pickled in his teachings, you know, in the way that you are when you work with your teacher’s writing. I had created, out of his talks, a book on meditation in which he spoke about meditation on the self, and I began to try to unpack that teaching in my own experience: What does it really mean to meditate on the self? What self is it that I’m finding? Is this the true self? Is this some kind of energy field in my consciousness? I just began to explore my own field, and I would find that suggestions would come up from inside that would lead me down certain paths, and I would follow them, then there would be an opening. There would be a deepening. My life outside of meditation would also begin to shift.
So I got together a group of friends (I was still living in the ashram) who were also committed meditators who were stuck. Everybody got stuck at a certain point, because there were not instructions about what to do. There were instructions about where to begin, and if you actually listened carefully to Gurumayi, who was actually the teacher of the path, if you listened carefully to her teachings, you would see that she also was giving subtle instructions. There was really no playbook, so I started to try to find a playbook that could be shared. I worked with these friends, and I would give them instructions in what I had been doing, and then they would share what their experience was. Then I just started teaching it to fifty people, and then to 150 people, and then giving a couple of large courses in it, and I found that these little pathways that I’d discovered were transformative for other people, as well, so I wrote the book.
In other words, what’s in the book came out of exploration and also willingness to follow the signals of this kinesthetic, vibrating, energetic thread that is the pathway of the awakened kundalini.
TS: Yeah, that’s what I’d like to hear more about. You have a chapter in the book called “Letting the Shakti Lead,” and I was so interested when I got to this point, meaning the meditative practice is tuning in, experiencing the shakti. Maybe you can help us understand more. How do we know when we are really contacting that and then letting it lead the way in our practice?
SK: Yeah. We can do it, if you want.
TS: Yeah! Let’s do it! Okay!
SK: I don’t know any one way to discern it except to experiment, so if you want to close your eyes . . .
SK: . . . and tune in to where you feel energy in your body. The way that I find that it’s most useful to do this actually to just focus on the place where the breath is caressing your inner body. You know, as the inhalation comes in, it strikes your inner body in a certain way. And as the exhalation expands out from that, there is an experience—maybe in your heart, maybe in your belly, maybe in your throat—and as you tune in to that, just the place where the flow of the breath is touching your inner body, you notice that there is a kind of pulsation, or a feeling of aliveness there. (pause) If you’d like to just say what’s occurring for you as you follow that instruction, then we can see what’s going on.
TS: Well, just to track with our audience: Once I contact that, which I have here, what’s next?
SK: What does it feel like?
TS: It feels in me like first, a fullness in my lower belly, and then I started noticing a kind of pulsing up more in the head.
SK: Right, so if you were to follow the pulsing, if your attention is kind of drawn to the head and the pulsing in the head, so then let yourself be with the pulsing. This is the next step. Let yourself feel your way into the pulsing.
Then there are two ways to go here. The first is to just have a moment of recognition that this pulsing is actually the shakti in your body, and that recognition is really important. It puts you into what, for want of a better word, I call “dialogue” with your own energy, and then you can ask, “Okay, so where do you want to go? Where are you leading?” That’s one way to do it. And then you sort of wait, and you stay with the pulsation. It’s very important here, because sometimes what the shakti will do is bring up a lot of thoughts or, “Is this the right way to go?” so you need to do whatever your practice is for working with thoughts. Let’s just say for now it’s noting thoughts as thoughts. See if you can stay with where the pulsation is taking you. (pause)
And now here’s a trick: See if you can slightly direct the pulsation toward the back of your body, which is kind of a trick for allowing the energy to take you inward. What will kind of happen is that the energy then starts to expand outward, toward the back. Again, this is pretty much my experience with it, and it’s a lot of other people’s experience that you begin to become aware of the field of energy, the pulsing field of energy that’s larger than you, and you move in it. You take yourself through it, and you follow where it leads. It might evolve as an expansion, as a sense of expansion. It might evolve as an awareness of awareness. It might evolve in a visual way, which happens to a lot of people. It may send you into a kind of causal-body state, where you’re kind of just out.
So it will evolve in many, many different ways, but you’re not trying to direct it, and you’re not trying to impose a system on it, but you do give a little bit of directionality to it. I’ve found—this is one of the things that I’ve discovered in the process of meditation—that if you bring your direction behind the body, it will tend to take you into an inward state, whereas if you let your attention go in front of the body, you often end up in thoughts or fantasies, or whatever.
TS: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. I’m curious: In all of your years teaching, do instructions like that work with people who are more beginners, or is that more a series of instructions for when you work with practitioners who have been meditating for a while?
SK: They definitely work better for people who have more practice.
I do two levels of meditation teaching. I give a meditation class, and my Beginning Meditation CD is very much a very concentrative one, with very specific instructions, and we work with a visual form or a mantra or a breath practice, very simple. I really think that you need to carve out the groove of meditation with concentrative practice. I’m a big believer in the power of concentrative practice.
But normally, in a meditation workshop, I will give an instruction that asks people to go inward in this particular way. I usually direct them, because I do a lot of meditation based in the heart center, to go into the back of the heart and see if they can move through the back of the heart. A lot of people who are just beginners actually do find that that “great heart” spaciousness opens up, but with a beginning meditator, because you’re so concerned with doing it right, and the mind is so tricky, and so much of it has to do with getting yourself comfortable in the body and learning how to work with your thoughts, that it tends to be hard for beginning meditators to do that more subtle thing for more than a minute or two without getting lost. So yes, to answer your question, it’s much more revelatory for experienced meditators.
TS: Now, because I want to bring all of our listeners along with us, I’m wondering, could you take us through this back-of-the-heart meditation?
TS: Let’s do it.
SK: Okay. So close your eyes. You really need to be in an upright posture to do this. The way I like to do it is to bring yourself to the edge of the chair, if you’re on a chair, and then breathe in and let the breath make the base of the posture heavy, and exhale and let the exhalation just gently lift the spine up through the crown. Again, inhaling, let the inhalation deepen and ground the contact between the base of your body and the seat you’re sitting on; and exhaling, feel that the breath is lifting your torso from inside, so that, without so much using your muscles, just let the breath guide the body into a subtly more upright posture. (pause) And if you’re not used to contacting the heart center, you might want to put your hand over your chest with your palm right over the place where the breastbone kind of pokes out a little bit. (pause) And, inhaling, feel that the breath flows in and down to the center of the chest, so you’re a little bit to the right of the physical heart. This is what’s sometimes known as the spiritual heart.
And the breath flows in, and you can have the feeling with the inhalation that the breath is almost like a subtle caress. It’s just opening up and bringing your attention to this area of the body, the area in the very center of the chest, deep inside. And with the exhalation, you can gently feel that this area is expanding just a little bit, and you notice as you do, as you inhale softly, letting the breath come to rest in the heart, in the inner heart center, and exhale, feeling that the energy is just gently expanding your feeling of connection to that center. (pause) And if it feels right, you can imagine that there is a flower in your heart, like a rose or a lotus flower, and with the inhalation, the breath touches the flower and there’s a sense of the petals opening. With the exhalation, the petals open a little more. (pause)
And as the breath flows in and out through the heart, you just allow your attention to notice the quality of the energy in your heart, without trying to make the energy be soft or open or in any way trying to change it. Just being aware of the energy, the experience of energy in your heart. (pause) And then, with the next inhalation, feeling that there is a softening or an opening in the energy in the back of your heart, and let your attention move through that opening. With the inhalation, your awareness is moving through this energetic softening in the back of your heart. And with the exhalation, you begin to become aware that behind your heart, there is an expansive field of awareness. (pause)
The breath now flows in, and with your attention, flows into the back of your heart, and you become aware of the flower at your heart, the very benign presence of the spaciousness that opens up behind your heart. And you just keep allowing the breath to flow into the heart, out through the heart, opening, little by little, your sense of this soft, expansive energy, this field of awareness that opens up behind your heart. (pause)
And if it feels right to you, if it feels natural, you might allow yourself to gently explore the area of the back heart. How far does it reach behind you? (pause) Not with any agenda. Just gently feeling your way into this expansive region in the back of the heart. Breath flowing in and out through the heart. If thoughts arise, when you notice you’re thinking, just note “thought” or “thinking.” Just let yourself rest with the breath, the caress of the breath, the sense of expansion through the back of the heart.
TS: Thank you, Sally. What I’m realizing is that there are so many things I want to talk to you about! So, for now, we’re going to call this the end of part one, but we’ll have a part two to our conversation.
I have been speaking with Sally Kempton. She is the author of a beautiful new book from Sounds True called Meditation for the Love of It, a book that has a foreword by the author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert. Sally has also created a new two-CD program with Sounds True called Beginning Meditation.
This is the conclusion of part one. We will continue with more coming up on part two with Sally Kempton.
SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey.