Reflections on the metaphysics of Tantric yoga and healing
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale: oxygen rushes in, ribs expand and the lungs reach fullness. Exhale: ribs relax, lungs empty, creating space for the next breath.
A single breath cycle represents an oscillation between complete fullness and complete emptiness. In the fullness at the top of the inhale, there is complete manifestation of the breath. In the emptiness at the bottom of the exhale, there is complete potential: potential to create the next iteration of breath, potential to begin the cycle anew.
You can observe and experience this cyclical, oscillating pattern everywhere: in the movement between day and night, in the waxing and waning of the moon, in the rising and falling of tides, and even in your own thoughts. When you meditate, you may have observed a thought naturally emerge and then naturally subside, creating space or potential for the next thought to arise. The universe around us represents our internal reality. As above, so below. Our inner and outer reality is not static, but rather it is in constant motion, in a perpetual dance between manifestation and potential, between contraction and expansion.
In the Spanda Karika, this is described as the interplay between Siva and Shakti, the two fundamental qualities of existence. Siva is pure awareness, consciousness that can be completely formless or that can take a contracted, specific form. If that sounds obtuse, Christopher Hareesh Wallis puts forth an eloquent explanation: water or H2O can exist in different states, either water vapor, water or ice. Similarly, pure awareness, Siva consciousness can exist in different states: fully expanded awareness without a trace of individual subjectivity and fully contracted awareness, the state of the individual perceiver who experiences existence from a particular perspective. Spanda is a continual movement between the most expanded formless awareness (think water vapor) and its most contracted form (think ice).
Shakti is power, the force that drives the movement of Siva or consciousness between expansion and contraction. According to the concept of spanda, all existence unfolds as a movement between a specific form of awareness and infinite expanded awareness, between being and non-being. This would not be possible without the continual interplay of Siva and Shakti. They are inseparable qualities encoded into the very nature of reality.
The developments of modern physics confirm this picture of existence. As the universe expands physically, it also manifests or contracts into increasingly complex specific forms. After the Big Bag, atoms turned to molecules, which coalesced into gases and planets, then eventually into plants and animals. From a cosmological perspective, the very nature of the physical universe is an interplay between expansion and contraction.
From a quantum perspective, the idea of wave-particle duality further supports the notion of spanda. On the most micro-level, all matter is made up of particles. Wave-particle duality confirms that all particles also simultaneously exist as waves. Waves represent the movement of energy between two poles or extremes. It is quite astounding that meditators thousands of years ago discovered by observation and direct experience what modern science has recently confirmed with precise measurement: everything in the universe is wave, energy, spanda; the dance of Siva-Shakti.
While this is a fascinating in its own right, it also has direct practical implications on our experience of life and our happiness. Suffering occurs when get “stuck” in a specific form, when we are unable to access expanded consciousness due to our attachment to that specific form. Instead of moving constantly between ice cube and water vapor, we become static ice cubes, cold, hard, separate and alone.
It is a common theme across Eastern philosophical traditions, including Buddhist and yoga lineages that suffering is caused by attachment and separation. Attachment is clinging to a specific form and forgetting that existence is equally always comprised of the expansive, infinite form of consciousness. Importantly, in the Kashmir-Shavist tradition of non-dual yoga philosophy where the concept of spanda emerged, the goal is not to escape from our material or specific reality in order to unite with expanded consciousness. Instead, we aim to move easefully between our specific experiences as an individual self and the experience of infinite formless consciousness, which are both present all the time in dynamic and creative tension.
When we meditate or practice reiki, we open ourselves to experience the expanded formless consciousness. However, most meditation practices involve focusing on a specific form, an object, a picture, a symbol, a mantra, as a means to access the infinite formless consciousness. According to non-dual Tantric philosophy, is not possible or productive to simply reside in infinite consciousness all the time. Anyone who has tried to meditate and simply “be empty of thought” can attest to how impossible this is. Instead, most practical and effective meditation practices encourage us to contemplate and focus on a specific forms. The particular form is not important, it can be an image of a deity, a religious symbol or simply clouds floating across the sky in summer. It can be the sound of a sacred mantra or simply the sound of the birds singing in the park. Whatever we focus on, we endeavor to resonate in spanda: to experience the simultaneous divinity of both our specific finite existence and the universal infinite consciousness.
The infinite state of awareness is a state of pure possibility and expansion. It is darkness, it is emptiness, it is the potential for the new. This state is within us all the time, in dynamic interplay with our (equally divine) individual existence. Recognizing this allows us to heal. Through the recognition of spanda, we “unstick” ourselves and loosen our attachment to specific forms and experiences by moving easefully and continually between the specific and the universal. When we access the formless potential that is within us all the time, we access the potential for transformation, our creative source. This is reiki, this is healing: the recognition that we have infinite formless potential within us all the time, and therefore we can manifest or contract any form of reality. Experiencing the resonance of spanda is to experience the potential for transformation, which is the fundamental meaning of healing.