Internal Posture – Poise of Consciousness

The following is a guest post written by Arpan.


We all know the usual meditation instruction for shikantaza: just sit.

What does it mean? Does it just mean “physical sitting”? If so, then how is it different from me sitting and daydreaming? Or is it a metaphor for something deeper, as is the case with much that is associated with mysticism?

As is the nature of the human mind, this simple meditation instruction has been the subject of endless hair-splitting over the centuries. An ocean of literature has been written on it and its variants and a world of gradations and maps has been developed to either assess one’s level of progress or to assess one’s readiness to even start this practice. I would not scoff at the complexity of thought going into this entire work, since it is nothing but an attempt to capture some fragment of truth that can entirely be grasped only in real-time experience – but I wish to remove much that is chaff to our wheat.

The fundamental principle: An ideal teacher tells you what you need, but knows that regardless of what you are told, you will hear only what has a correspondence with your current level of consciousness.

There is an ancient Hindu anecdote wherein the King of the Gods and the King of the Titans went to the Creator Brahma, and asked for the knowledge of the Ultimate. Both are instructed to look at their reflection in a mirror. The Titan King looked at his reflection and concluded that this very body is the ultimate truth, and went on to preach the gospel of hedonism. However, the King of the Gods could sense the inadequacy in that instinctive conclusion and went back to Brahma with his doubts, whereupon Brahma told him: “You are ready for a higher reality. [Note: The instinctive conclusion is not being denied as false.] That within you which is not altered in wakefulness, dream or sleep, that which remains immortal and blissful at all times and in all places, is the Ultimate, is the Atman.”

Body and mind are not two fundamentally different realities. They are part of the same continuum ranging from gross to subtle. Whatever posture or activity your body takes up has a corresponding impact on the mind, and vice versa. For someone who is near completely identified with the cerebral process, just the mere act of sitting physically still would reveal to him the million micro-urges in the bodily nerves to “do something”, which correspond to the million-strong unnoticed moment-to-moment micro-activities in his mind (if nothing else, then just to scratch!). As he perseveres, the body would start experiencing solid stillness, which would imprint itself on the mind too, giving the practitioner a taste of a silent mind. Over time, as one gets used to this state of mental stillness, it tends to persist longer and longer off the mat. It is relatively easy to maintain this state in routine tasks that require little to no mental effort. With practice, it is possible do any and every activity within this state. This brings us back to the question, what is the defining characteristic of this practice? How can I cogitate with a silent mind? This latter question is to a moderately experienced practitioner what the question of difference between daydreaming and on-cushion shikantaza is to a beginner. This is where the concept of “Internal Posture” or “Poise of Consciousness” comes in.

When one starts practising shikantaza, one often starts with a riotous mind. What happens relatively soon is that the mind starts to split into two parts: the Doer and the Knower (to borrow from from Ajahn Brahm), or the Prakriti (Nature) and the Manomay Purush (the mental self). It is this Witness/Knower/Self part of the mind that one tends to carry over off the cushion for a while, before one loses consciousness of this state and immerses back into the Doer/Prakriti part again. (I am deliberately cutting out large swathes of metaphysical details as we can all debate them ad infinitum, and am including details only in as much as they facilitate actual practice.) Gradually, this Witness part can be strengthened to an imposing degree on a permanent basis. To quote Sri Aurobindo:

The substance of the mental being is still, so still that nothing disturbs it. If thoughts or activities come, they cross the mind as a flight of birds crosses the sky in a windless air. It passes, disturbs nothing, leaving no trace. Even if a thousand images or the most violent events pass across it, the calm stillness remains as if the very texture of the mind were a substance of eternal and indestructible peace. A mind that has achieved this calmness can begin to act, even intensely and powerfully, but it will keep its fundamental stillness – originating nothing from itself but receiving from Above and giving it a mental form without adding anything of its own, calmly, dispassionately, though with the joy of the Truth and the happy power and light of its passage.

Once this state develops, then the habitual activity in the outer part of the mind (the Doer) can be left to itself, with little to no impact upon one’s progress, though it would be relatively easy to impose quietude upon this part once the essential freedom of the Witness has been attained. It is the “meta-awareness”, or “awareness about your awareness”. This fundamental state of Witness that remains unaltered off and on the cushion is the first experience of Poise of Consciousness or the Internal Posture. I say first, because once you know (by real-time experience) how to sit in your mind, you can do many more things than merely sit (though this is the most fundamental as well as the ultimate poise to learn). Everything you do in yoga with body and breath is to fundamentally prepare your outer instruments (the ones that are currently more amenable to direct manipulation) such that they experience the posture that you must truly experience in your consciousness, so that you experience it in your consciousness eventually. If you situate yourself adequately internally, then breath and body will follow the correct course naturally.

One thing I have personally experienced is: as one sits still, and perseveres through the strong impulses to move the body, a point comes when suddenly large chunks of “awareness” seem to get released from their habitual preoccupation with futile little indulgences in body and mind and conglomerate together into a dense mass. This often gives a feeling of a whirling fan across the length of the torso, with the mass/pressure building up either in the centre of the forehead, or a strong and peaceful opening above the head, as in a prayer, and sometimes a deep pressure in the heart centre. All “Silent Illumination” schools (whose motto may be, “You are the Buddha/Brahman”) basically indicate the internal posture of Buddha/Brahman which you can assume right now, regardless of the obstacles in your physical and outer psychological nature or in the way you breathe. Once you assume that posture, the rest of the work will happen by itself. That makes for the simplicity and the difficulty of this process.

Magick is fundamentally the art of getting into the internal posture reflective of someone who already has the thing you intend to gain. This is also closely related to the true meaning of “Faith” – a will-cum-knowledge that persists against all outward appearances to the contrary. If you wish to be a leader, you must have the internal poise of a leader. Then the speech and action as would befit your natural leadership style would emerge naturally. Plenty of people imitate successful people in their outer habits and yet fail to experience any real success, simply because they fail to tap into the inner poise of these successful people whence such habits of action have emerged.

At deeper/higher levels, the distinction between stillness and activity starts disappearing. For example, in tantra, you can send an active force to effectuate something. Such a force can be countered by another force from someone opposing your intention. Alternatively, you can embrace the creation (or at least the situation) as part of yourself, and be poised in the adequate manner. This sets into motion a more impersonal and “directionless” silent will, which does not crush and sustain opposing and friendly factors respectively, but simply rearranges all factors such that even in opposing, one cannot help but create it. Since the action is “global” and directionless, there is, in a way, nothing one can counter/oppose.

True mastery of stillness forms the bedrock of strength and joy in activity as well as in passivity. Any lack thereof is a sign of pending progress. As the Isha Upanishad says:

Those who pursue Ignorance (the way of the Many), fall into darkness. And as if into a greater darkness fall those, who pursue Knowledge alone (the way of the One).

That is your koan for today. 🙂

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14 Responses

  1. James says:

    This is what Neville refers to as a “state”.

    I’ve mentioned this story before but I’ve done this exact thing when it came to martial arts…

    I was in the state of “out working” other people… I would give it 110% every, for warm ups, during drills, etc…

    One day I was watching a video about B.J penn who is one of the most naturally gifted and talented mma fighters of all time. (In fact, he was notoriously lazy, and coasted by on natural skill).

    I thought “Man that sounds way better than what I’m doing” and so I merely decided to be “talented” instead.

    It worked, it worked so well infact that I put in about 20% effort compared to how I use to, with 100% more results.

    • Illuminatus says:

      I guess this is where your instruction came from:

      Play with this before a task or while pondering a goal…
      “What would this be like, if it were easy?

      • James says:

        Yup, that’s it exactly.

        >Body and mind are not two fundamentally different realities. They are part of the same continuum ranging from gross to subtle. Whatever posture or activity your body takes up has a corresponding impact on the mind, and vice versa.

        This is my favorite part of your post, and understanding this at even a tiny level increases your perception in a way that on-lookers could mistake you for a mystic 😉

    • Fellababa says:

      Hey could you share that vid if you still know which one it was ? =)

      • James says:

        that was around 10 years ago now, so I don’t recall which one it was. You can youtube “BJ penn highlights” and poke around and you’ll find a lot of neat stuff.

  2. James says:

    I totally did not see that part, whooops! 😀

  3. Shubanshii says:

    Think you meant “split into three parts” as you list three things

    • Illuminatus says:

      It is two parts:

      1. Doer / Prakriti (Nature)
      2. Knower / Manomay Purush (the mental self) / Witness

      It is an awkward sentence as Witness is introduced immediately afterwards but as a synonym for Knower. I was unsure how to edit it without breaking the flow of the sentence entirely. If you have an edited version I can insert, go for it!

      Or hopefully this post clears it up.

    • Arpan says:

      Not three.
      “split into two parts: the Doer and the Knower (to borrow from from Ajahn Brahm), or the Prakriti (Nature) and the Manomay Purush (the mental self).”
      Here Doer and the Knower is one set of names for the 2. Prakriti and Manomay Purush are the other set of names for the 2.
      To clarify, since I am combining Ajahn Brahm’s terminlogy with yogic/hindu one I left of nuanced differences out of the picture. Ajahn Brahm’s terminology is not exactly Theravadin in this case. It comes closer to Mahayana Buddhism’s or Hindu terminology, AND people here have heard him, which is why I brought it up in the first place.
      To go into depth:
      I didn’t say Purush(self/being) but Manomay Purush(mental self/ being) since Hindu systems make a distinction between soul/Self and mind. But that is a metaphysical point where philosophical differences irrelevant for the immediate purpose of practice would crop up here. When I say that the mind splits into two, the part that assumes the role of the witness/purush gives you a glimpse of the nature of the True Self in the fabric of your mental consciousness, much like stillness in the vital being(emotional/energetic layer) can give it to an animal, since it is the vital that leads all other parts in nature, like the mind does in humans.

      As this process of stillness and deepening goes on you realise that even in your “knower” aspect there are tiny “doings”, so subtler layers split off front the knower. Ultimately you reach the true self. As an analogy that occurred me at this moment: take your mind as the sea, the soul as the sun and your perception like that of the fish. As you swim towards the surface, there comes a layer of water where there is much more light than in the layers you were used to live in. Infact, near the surface, but just below the water, you get almost as much sunlight as you would get above the surface. However, if you break out of the sea(i.e. mental consiousness, as some ancient Hindu imagery indeed describes it as), you enter a completely new world. It cannot be described to your fish-brethren, nor even to your former self. You don’t think it can even be reduced to a language. This is what true emergence into the Purush means. As I stated in the post, the post was not meant to go into metaphysical intricacies, so I skipped a lot of points which have little to no bearing on practice. Quantum theory with its “there and not there” probabilities comes closer to these things, rather than discrete mathematics which reduces things to siloed objects, which is why the former is used(and abused) in spiritual context so much. In English: There are no airtight boundaries between different aspects of the being or states of consciousness. That is what I tried to convey when I mentioned that mind and body are not 2 fundamentally different entities.

      @Ed: I included the term “Witness” just to round up more words that are used for the same thing, before I move on.

  4. James says:

    “Focusing with perfect discipline on the powers of an elephant, or other entities, one acquires those powers”

  5. Jajaru says:

    This may not be that related to this post but: Should I keep my spine and head erect when I do non-directive meditation or let them fall/do as they like?

    • Illuminatus says:

      The short answer is: Keep your spine and head erect, and stay still like that.

      The longer answer is that over time (i.e. a few years, perhaps), the body will sort itself out on a fine scale, the result being that the spine is straight anyway, without requiring any effort.

      In the meantime, you are going to have to put up with things like staying straight being effortful and eventually tiring; you will probably end up switching position a few times per hour, which is fine. Sometimes you may find you can relax and yet you still stay upright; this is a result of the body “settling” at the start of the meditation, and is obviously a good thing.

  6. mmuira says:

    Really great post, thank you for pointing out the link with magick and all that.

    Funny enough, I’m halfway through the book “Atomic Habits”, and one of the things mentioned is how Identity -> Habit -> Goal/Outcome (but most people try to do it backwards, pick a goal and try to work towards it).

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