Spiritual Cross-Training, Part 1/2

image by Mishel Breen

Any experience when fully entered into, can open a portal. – Vijnanabhairava Tantra

There was a time when the idea of a baseball player or a pole vaulter doing yoga would have seemed weird. But in physical sports it does not take long for something that works to be embraced. There is a constant search for anything that can give a competitive edge.

The encyclopedia Wikipedia describes cross-training as:
“Cross-training refers to an athlete training in sports other than the one that the athlete competes in, with a goal of improving overall performance. It takes advantage of the particular effectiveness of each training method, while at the same time attempting to negate the shortcomings of that method by combining it with other methods …”

In a sense spiritual cross training is similar. The spiritual aspirant trains in other areas with the intention of utilizing the unique effectiveness of those methods. The idea is that the combined effectiveness of all the different methods will ease the opening to experiencing the ultimate state of Oneness, samadhi, ego-death, God, etc. The other areas that the spiritual aspirant works with help to detach and dis-identify awareness with the ego or identity.

I got interested in the concept of cross-training when a friend asked me to describe my own experiences and process of spiritual growth. When I looked back at my life and I looked at the major or significant spiritual experiences in my life, mostly they were not in a formal sitting meditation practice. They seemed to arise just spontaneously. Usually out of some sort of intense experience that focused attention.

These deep spiritual experiences created a fundamental change in me, they created an awareness of another way or state of being. They were undeniable and made me aware of what I was experiencing most of the time was only a small part of the whole picture. There was something much more vast and powerful at work. These experiences were key portals for me. They seemed to provide a way of expanding awareness that I could not access in a sitting meditation practice.

Most of us are familiar with meditation as a practice that can lead to awakening, but what other areas can productively support the expansion of awareness? To answer this question it is useful to examine the process of awakening.

In the awakening process our awareness goes from being stuck in duality and separation to an experience of infinite oneness and love. It is our ego and our identification with it that keeps us limited and separate. The aim of our sadhana or spiritual practice is to support our letting go of that attachment to ego. Our identity has been described as a knot of delusions. The delusions are what we think are important and if death occurs before the realization that they are not important, we are born again. It is the dissolution or untying of that knot of delusion that happens in a full release into non-duality.

Often the awakening experience has been described as this sudden bursting forth into the light. Practices that create a single-pointed, highly concentrated focus of attention like Zen, mantra, and Vipassana meditation have historically been seen as the primary vehicle to support the emergence of an awakening experience. These practices tend to create a powerful concentration of our awareness that then penetrates or breaks through the confines of limited egoic thinking. But anything that helps one to be less caught in the illusion of separation helps awareness move closer to the ultimate state of Oneness.

In my experience, what I focused my attention on did not matter so much, it could be extremely pleasurable or extremely painful. It did not seem to make a difference if it was something I liked or something I did not like. But if there was an intense single pointed focus of awareness, then awareness responded by breaking through the barrier of ego to a more subtle expanded awareness.

There is a large collection of practices that help release the ego’s tight grip on our awareness. The teachings of Ramana Maharishi and the practice of self inquiry support the freeing of awareness from all the illusionary stories and thoughts we have about ourselves and who we think we are, in other words, our identity. For some, psychotherapy is an effective means for identifying and releasing such erroneous beliefs.

For me, my main practice was self inquiry in the first few years of my spiritual practices. That practice was very beneficial for lighting or reducing the false delusions I had about myself or the attachment to the particular ways of being or thinking, and created a lot more spaciousness and curiosity about what was possible.

Another area that helps reduce the illusion of separateness deals with opening the heart and feeling our connectedness with everything. Some classic spiritual practices in this area include the Buddhist loving kindness meditations, bhakti yoga, selfless service, and chanting. Non-traditional practices for opening the heart and letting everything in, include neo-tantric sexual practices and journey work with certain substances. More will be said about these below.

To summarize, the three main areas that impact the awakening process are:

1. The focusing force generated by the practice. Traditionally, these are the more classic spiritual practices that focus awareness. But, any practice that generates a high level of concentrated attention is associated with this factor (e.g., intense pain or pleasure).
2. The thickness of the ego/identity barrier. This influences our ability to let go of our erroneous beliefs about ourselves, and our ability to surrender our identity
3. The permeability of the ego/identity barrier. The openness of our hearts and our ability to rest in open stillness, remaining neutral or welcoming towards whatever arises. Connecting with the Oneness of all of Life.

These three factors are represented in Figure 1. A Model for Awakening.Models of AwakeningThis Model of Awakening is a way of looking at various practices that support our ultimate liberation. When approached consciously every experience in our lives can be a support for moving into greater freedom from our delusions and past conditioning and traumas. Different practices emphasize different aspects of becoming free, and by skillfully combining them we make optimum use of the time and energy.

Table 1. Examples of Practices Related to the Three Factors of AwakingExample of Practices tableWe have discussed how classic meditation practices can generate a concentrated focus, and they are associated with the first factor. Practices that tend to focus on untying the knot of delusion or in reducing the number of delusions we identify with are associated with the second factor in the model. These practices are about seeing through the delusion and letting go of the false, that which is not our true Self. As we bring the light of awareness to these false beliefs we have about ourselves they naturally fall away. Ultimately we can unhook from enough of our false ideas about our self that the barrier between self and Self becomes so thin we can move into our higher Self and the infinite.

Practices that tend to soften or dissolve the walls of ego are associated with the third factor in the
model. These practices open the heart and generate a sense of connectedness with all of life. As we open our hearts the shell that confines our awareness becomes more permeable. Eventually enough of the shell dissolves that awareness is able to move through it to the infinite.



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