All three of the factors have traditional spiritual practices associated with them: zazen, mantra, self-inquiry, bhakti, loving compassion, etc. However, the ability to reduce our ego’s control and to open our hearts to all of life is not confined to these traditional practices. For some people, some of the time other techniques are actually more efficient.
For example, direct work with sexuality through neo-tantric practices can often be much more effective at accessing and releasing deep trauma, as well as opening the heart (factors 2 and 3). Tantric practices are basically of three types: healing, ecstatic, and awakening. Healing practices focus on removing blockages to the natural normal flow of our energy. They have the effect of reducing the thickness of the egoic/identity barrier; dissolving energetic blockages and fixed behavior and emotional patterns (factor 2). Ecstatic practices focus on increasing the capacity for bliss and ecstasy. Opening our channels to the flow of bliss tends to make the egoic/identity barrier more permeable and easier to move through it (factor 3). Awakening practices focus on cultivating a deep observer and moving into the space of no mind. These are about dropping into a deep witness consciousness and resting in stillness without or with minimal thought or internal commentary (factor 1).
Seeing the diversity of different types of practices and how each one has a unique benefit can help one be spiritually efficient. Each practice helps one move into more wholeness getting release from the limited ideas we have that create a separation between us and the rest of life. Once this false separation dissolves a door opens to an ecstatic experience of Oneness.
The first time this breakthrough happened for me was over 40 years ago after an intense love making session (an ecstatic tantric practice, factor 3) where I completely let go and moved into the experience in a way that was deeper than I ever had in my life. The second time I had that experience of expanded, infinite awareness was about 12 -13 years later when I accidently had an extremely painful situation develop with a tooth. It was the most intense sharp pain that I’ve experience in my life and it totally focused my attention. And, that focus expanded the attention into this vast void that was pregnant with everything (factor 1, focused awareness).
It was about another 12-13 years later when I again had another experience of completely letting go into the experience of making love in a way that deeper than I had ever done before. This also produced a singularity of attention which opened awareness into an infinite indescribable ecstasy.
I found these experiences very interesting because several times during this time period while sitting in meditation the awareness would start to concentrate and focus and would start to go into an expanded state. However, what would always happened was that I would notice that this expansion of awareness was finally starting to happen and I would get eager or want to move towards that space of expanded awareness, and that desire would always throw off or derail the process.
There is something about the focus that is generated by intense pain or pleasure that creates such a strong movement of the awareness that it would over ride the witnessing part of the mind that in meditation would want to grasp at the unfolding experience. When sitting in meditation the movement of awareness did not have the same force behind it. The experience unfolded more slowly than when the awareness was being moved in response to an intense external stimulus.
Once I learned not to cling to these expanded states, there were a number of other tantric sexual experiences where I was able to completely and totally move into a total focus on the experience, and that focus opened up awareness to access that vast infinite indescribable space. As I opened more, softened my heart more, and let go of more habits and thoughts about my self, the full release experiences became more frequent. I had five more full releases and five more near full releases (a near full release is a very expanded awareness here the sense of a separate self is starting to dissolve, yet a witnessing still remains, as does duality) before other portals started to open for me. One of these other portals was chanting. So far, this portal has opened to the full release level twice, once during an intense all night kirtan. And, a couple of other times to the near full release level. This was again the result of an intense focus on the chanting combined with the heart opening practice of bhakti. Around the time these portals were opening more regularly, I got introduced to the TOAD sacrament. (Prior to Jan. 2011 TOAD or 5-MeO-DMT was NOT listed as an illegal substance. All experiences with this sacrament occurred prior to Jan. 2011.)
It was a total surprise that the TOAD sacrament could open up the same place that the intense pain and the intense pleasure and the deep meditation had also opened or moved towards opening. This was surprising because I had previously worked with good results with most of the other psychedelic substances, but every substance facilitated an experience where I did not have the clarity, did not have that sense of the vastness of the infinite void, the indescribable ecstasy, that was there with the non-substance facilitated full releases, there was always something that was not as clear. Although they did not support a full release these experiences with other psychedelics were mind-expanding and helped me to detach from a rigid sense of self and all the conditioning that had formed when I was growing up. So, none of the other substances opened up a full release portal. That only occurred with TOAD (5-MeO-DMT).
Another portal into the non-dual that I have experienced is ecstatic dancing. So far it has only happened once, and it was a near full release, but there was the taste of what was possible from an ecstatic dancing practice. Again it was a matter of fully entering into the experience. I was directly experiencing the quote at the beginning of this article from the Vijnanabhairava Tantra sutra: “Any experience when fully entered into, can open a portal.”
Even though most of my awakening experiences have happened off the meditation cushion, it feels like the decades of meditation practices I have done supported opening and orienting consciousness towards a release from the egoic identity. And, even though the full release experiences did not happen during the sitting meditation practice, I consider the meditation practice to be a strong catalyst and a powerful way to cultivate receptivity to these expanded states.
When I started looking at what changes inside of me helped to produce the readiness or openness to move into these expanded states of awareness I realized it was not just the meditation practice that I was doing. The meditation practice was very helpful for resting in my center, in the stillness, and for getting a sense for who I was not – not all the habitual behavior patterns and emotions, thoughts, and desires. The meditation practice actually did a lot to lighten the load of the ego and reduce the thickness of the identity/egoic barrier (factor 2), even though it was a focused attention style of practice (factor 1).
Another factor that seemed to be significant in the opening to the expanded state was the opening to the heart that happened as my sexuality was deeply embraced. As I opened to an intimate, vulnerable connection with another person, I accepted myself in a deeper way than ever before.
In a way similar to working with sexuality and tantra, careful conscious work with consciousness-altering substances can sometimes provide just the right push at the right time to facilitate release from the grips of the ego, or habitual unhealthy behavior patterns. The internal mindset with which one approaches these types of experiences, as well as the setting one is in are critical for successful work with these entheogenic substances. (an entheogen (“generating the divine within”) is a substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context. Entheogens have been used in a ritualized context for thousands of years; their religious significance is well established in anthropological and modern evidences. Entheogens can supplement many diverse practices for transcendence, including meditation, yoga, and prayer, visionary art, chanting, and music.)
One of the benefits of having this Model of Awakening is that we can see the role different practices play in our movement into the infinite Light. Often there is a synergetic effect by combining different practices. When we have hit a block or a plateau with one practice or style of practice we can invest our time and energy into a completely different type of practice with a very productive outcome.
An important concept that comes out of the Spiritual Cross Training approach is that of finding the optimal set of practices for a specific individual. Just as there is a great variety of different types of people, there is a great variety of different types of practices that can be bundled together to optimally support each person’s awakening. One size does not fit all! In addition to the practices discussed above, some other practices that one might use include: deep emersion in nature, martial arts, seva/karma yoga, pranayama, walking meditation, etc.
The broader we build the base for our sadhana or spiritual practice, the easier it is to reach the infinite heights. And, this works a little like cross-training does for physical athletics. Just as a mountain climber may find training with weights improves their ability to climb, conscious work with tantra or a consciousness expanding substance may be a great aid to the spiritual warrior. By including multiple aligned practices in our spiritual work, we may find that we are more effective.
A final point to consider is about breath versus depth. The concept of spiritual cross-training emphasizes the benefits of appropriate breath. The value of drawing on the uniquely different benefits from different types of practices to create a more balanced and effective way of engaging in spiritual practices. The danger in this approach is in spreading ones energies so thin that the deeper work is never engaged. It is good to never lose sight of ones main practice. And, to periodically question if the alternative practices we are working with are continuing to be beneficial. Just like the physical athlete has her main sport she competes in and her cross-training helps her to perform at a higher level.