In our continued investigation of the process of inner union, we have looked at the meaning and practice of uniting our left and right sides. These could be expressed as our male-female polarity or rationality and intuition. We also began to examine the union of our upper and lower poles, the literal unity of heaven and earth, spirituality and embodiment, mind and body, depending on nomenclature or tradition. Thus we have spoken of two dimensions of top to bottom and side to side. But beyond the vertical and horizontal, our three dimensional being also has an “anterior-posterior” reality, a front to back. Our side to side polarity is fairly symmetrical and complementary. Our vertical polarity is about two radically different poles, but that are anatomical variations on the same theme. Our upper limbs and lower limbs, their bones and muscles, are different versions of a pattern, one designed for maximum stability and locomotion (our legs), the other made for flexibility and extremely fine motor skills.
There are many other correlations in internal organs, with the heart at the center of the upright span. Plants are quite different, with root and flowering tops not being at all analogies of each other. When it comes to our front-back polarity, the differences are not variations on a theme like either the right-left or up-down contrasts. They do not reflect each other, mirror-like. The back of the head really is the back, and the front the front. All sense organs face forward, even though we like to think that some people seem to have “eyes in the back of their heads.” The heel and the toe move in one direction and were designed for a single orientation. We may come to understand why this is so by looking at the union that is necessary between the two.
Back to Front
In the transformative methods of Chinese qi gong practice, the “back-to-front” union is accomplished through the important “microcosmic orbit.” Visualized energy is sent down through the front meridians of the body, and then up through the back meridian, through the brain, across the bridge formed by pressing the tongue against the palate—and down the front again. The benefits of this technique are enormous, both in terms of overall vitality and as a requirement for later transformations. In Vajrayana, this process takes place during the visualizations of karmamudra, where there is a real or imaged sexual union and energy flow between lovers. The circular motion is the same, though the location of the visualized “loop” moves forward six to ten inches. In karmamudra, the forward flow is in front of one, as a real or imagined partner. The returning backward flow is not up the back, but through the central channel within the spinal cord. In a number of deity and protector practices, as well as during empowerments, the flow of mantras makes a similar circuit. In this case, the deity is in the sky, far in front of our own form. Now the energy must fly through the air before re-entering oneself. Also, the direction of the flow can go either way, forward or reverse. Mantra chains enter our mouths and circulate down into our heart or navel during empowerments. In certain meditation practices they will travel to the navel plexus of the deity, up through their heart and back out of their mouth. It is an extraordinary process of spiritual transmission, exchange, and unification itself.
In all of these cases, this front-back integration is a profound process with many symbolic and actual meanings. Most commonly spoken of is the union of self and other, of inner and outer worlds. This really means the coming together of awareness (the self) with the experienced phenomena. This dual-worldly integration is also called the union of skillful means (Tib: thab) and wisdom (sherab). Vajrayana tells us that this is the most basic error of pure awareness: to split experience and experiencer into “it” and “I.” This turns pure knowingness (rigpa) into ignorance or mistaken, illusory experience (ma-rigpa). It is where all the trouble of experiencing oneself as an actor in the world, a “stranger in a strange land,” begins.
Past & Present
Our back is where we have been, not where we are going. It is the past, while our front is the future. In the middle, we are meant to be fully present. We actually lie on our backs to let go of our intellectual experience and sink into imaginal and pre-verbal realms. This union is the synchronizing of the unconscious and conscious, but also the coming in of life energy (up the back) and manifesting that energy into the world. This process helps one live in both those worlds, either of which alone can consume one, preventing true liberation.
Conscious and UnconsciousAnother clear division between our front and back haves, is that in the person facing you “what you see is what you get.” Facial expressions, the depth and connection of the eyes, the forward gestures, all have to do with a full presentation of the person. Of course there is much unseen and unknown, and that is precisely what is “behind the eyes.” The back is tantamount to the interior, the unknown or unknowable, the subconscious (a theoretical construct) or the unconscious. Our back is what even we don’t know about ourselves, or what is creeping up on us. Integrating back and front is a reconnection of biology and psychology, of something primal and mechanical with something very advanced and aware. Small wonder that the practice of microcosmic orbit or karmamudra has a strong sexual connection. This too is the ultimate union of unconscious or preconscious being, pure awareness, with the mundane intellectual version of life.
Within the Central Channel
The yogic practitioner has gone to great efforts to guide the body’s energies toward the center, having corralled, controlled, and forced them to enter into the core pillar of the energetic pathway called the central or middle channel (Uma). This is where union can take place. It is possible to enter the central channel through other means, and specifically through other chakras. For example, meditation on symbols, sounds, or feelings of love and devotion in the heart charka have been used by Christian, Sufic, Hindu, and Buddhist meditators for millennia. However, meditators can get into trouble if energies become stuck in the head, heart, or throat charkas, or if they are too forcibly engaged. The abdomen tends to be the most robust and safe area to secure entry.
The Lower Gate
Every spiritual tradition, and many related health systems, recognize the navel area to be a special accumulator of energy, and indeed a source of the life force itself. In Japan, it is called the hara and is considered the source of vitality and physical prowess that is also central to the practice of martial arts. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is known as the emanation wheel or chakra (trulpai khorlo). It is taught that this is the place from which the whole of creation or phenomenal appearances arises. This is graphically portrayed in the Shangpa practice of illusory body, where one visualizes all beings of the six realms as emanating from that center.
The navel is the center of gravity of the upright human form, the balance point of posture and weight distribution. It is a hub of another magnificent polarity in the body—the two parts of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic is the “yang” or masculine functions of reaction, drive, defense, and attack. The opposing parasympathetic is the “yin,” passive, nutritive, nourishing, relaxing. These are constantly working in tandem to maintain the appropriate tone for whatever is going on in our body and mind, controlling respiration, digestion, cardiac function, blood flow, and so on. These nerves pervade the entire body, from the smallest of blood vessels to the contraction of the large muscles of the colon, bladder, and heart. We have already seen the sympathetic chain on the right and left sides of the spine. Here in the lower abdomen, the mesenteric plexus is part of the “second brain,” the massive neuronal matrix that lives in and around the gut.
The Missing Alchemy
Once at the threshold of the central channel, the journey toward the upper pole, the apex or nadir, must take place for ultimate union. But how can this be carried out, especially since Western science truly abandons us at this juncture. To understand the next phase, we rely instead on ancient science. And that leads us to the Five Elements—earth, water, fire, air, and space—the basic substrata from which all is created. It is in the crucible of their transformative powers that we can emulate death and have our poles give birth to a new cosmic self, where the word “self” losings its usual meaning. And this is what we undertake in next month’s article.