Lecture Six: Witnesses 6.3

6.3 The yoga of contemplation

A core teaching of several classical Upaniṣads points towards a form of intransitive experience as the manifestation of an all-encompassing and absolutely unitary ultimate reality. This sort of experience can be compared with states of dreamless sleep, but it can also be deliberately cultivated through methodic practice (yoga).

The Kaṭha Upaniṣad starts with a moving dialogue between a young brahmin, Naciketas and Death itself (the Vedic Yama).[1] Death grants Naciketas three wishes, and as the third one, he asks Death to explain what happens to a human being after the body dies. Death is reluctant to answer and tries to offer Naciketas all sorts of other alternative prizes and riches. But the young brahmin is steadfast in his request and eventually Death has to teach him the truth:

Satisfying desires is the foundation of the world;

Uninterrupted rites bring ultimate security;

Great and widespread praise is the foundation—

These you have seen, wise Naciketas,

and having seen, firmly rejected.

The primeval one who is hard to perceive,

wrapped in mystery, hidden in the cave,

residing within th’imperishable depth—

Regarding him as god, an insight

gained by inner contemplation,

both sorrow and joy the wise abandon.

(Kaṭha Upaniṣad II.11-12, trad. Olivelle 1996, 236)

Satisfying desires, holding on to rituals, and seeking fame are commonly sought goods, but they do not lead to the imperishable. The now familiar trope of brahman as the one who cannot be found among the contents of experience is thus restated, and Death stresses that this insight leads to an overcoming of both joy and sorrow, and it is gained through ‘inner contemplation.’[2] What does this sort of contemplation entail?

The answer comes a bit later in the same Upaniṣad. The general idea has to do with a deliberate and methodical control of the senses aimed at withdrawing attention from sensory stimulations. Using the metaphor of the chariot, the wise is compared with the one who holds firmly onto the reins (the mind) and controls the horses (the senses):

A wise man should curb his speech and mind,

control them within th’intelligent self;

he should control intelligence within the immense self,

and the latter, within the tranquil self.

(Kaṭha Upaniṣads, III.13, trad. Olivelle 1996, 239-240)

Putting the senses at rest (inducing an-aesthesia, non-perceiving) is a way of drawing attention inward. The true self is the one who cognizes, and in the ordinary process of cognition it is the object situated at the foreground. But in order to know the true self, this ordinary scheme must be reverted, the object dismissed, so that the pure knowing could shine. Anaesthesia is thus necessary in order to fully turn the gaze of one’s attention inward (Kaṭha Upaniṣads IV.1, trad. Olivelle 1996, 240). And this is the sort of yoga that leads to discover brahman:

When the five perceptions are stilled,

together with the mind,

And not even reason bestirs itself;

they call it the highest state.

When senses are firmly reined in,

that is Yoga, so people think.

From distractions a man is then free,

for Yoga is the coming-into-being,

as well as the ceasing-to-be.

(Kaṭha Upaniṣads, VI.10-11, trad. Olivelle 1996, 246)

These passages refer to a precise practice (yoga) of disciplining cognitive activities, through which sensible stimulations and thoughts are completely stilled and the meditator somehow withdraws from the external world. In fact, this is not dissimilar to what happens in the process of falling asleep, when the cognitive process becomes increasingly more introvert and insensitive to external stimulations, until (in dreamless sleep) any dual cognition ceases altogether.

Sometimes this withdrawal is achieved by a sustained (most likely inner) repetition of the sacred syllable Oṃ. A substantial portion of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad is devoted to extolling and reflecting on the deeper meaning of this sacred syllable. In the Praśna Upaniṣad (VI.7), it is stated that: ‘by OṂ alone as the support / Does a man who knows it attain / that which is serene, beyond old age and death, free from fear, the supreme’ (trad. Olivelle 1996, 286). And the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (I.14) iterates: ‘when one makes one’s own body the bottom slab and the syllable OṂ the upper drill, by twirling it constantly through meditation one would see God, just as one would the hidden thing’ (trad. Olivelle 1996, 254). In the same Upaniṣad, this practice is also connected with the calming of the breathing process:

When he keeps his body straight, with the three sections erect, and draws the senses together with the mind into his heart, a wise man shall cross all the frightful rivers with the boat consisting of that formulation (brahman).

Compressing his breaths in here and curbing his movements, a man should exhale through one nostril when his breath is exhausted. A wise man should keep his mind vigilantly under control, just as he would that wagon yoked to unruly horses.

Level and clean; free of gravel, fire, and sand; near noiseless running waters and the like; pleasing to the mind but not offensive to the eye; provided with a cave or a nook sheltered from the wind—in such a spot should one engage in yogic practice.

Mist, smoke, sun, wind, fire, fireflies, lightning, crystal, moon—these are the apparitions that, within yogic practice, precede and pave the way to the full manifestation in brahman. (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, II.8-11, trad. Olivelle 1996, 255-256)

Notice that breathing is usually regarded as a vital function deeply connected with speech and visualization. Originating in Vedic times, brahman is the act of uttering sacred hymns that through their sound visualize and craft reality. Hence, the practice described here is more than simply ‘breath meditation’ conceived as a purely physical discipline, although manipulation of the coarser and physical manifestation of the breath is part of the practice. By disciplining and controlling the breath, one actively takes control of any cognitive activity as well, directing it towards its ultimate ground. The passage just quoted also mentions that after having found a suitable secluded spot and established a proper bodily posture, concentration on brahman (including a form of breath control) leads first to a number of seemingly scattered visions (‘mist, smoke, sun, wind, fire, fireflies, lightning, crystal, moon’), which in later traditions (including the Buddhist commentarial tradition) are sometimes mentioned in meditation manuals as the ‘sign’ (Pāli nimitta) that concentration is deepening. They seem analogous to the sort of scattered images that characterize the hypnagogic state. This phase is then followed by what might be called ‘absorption,’ in which external sensory stimulations are discarded and cognition is unified by ‘the full manifestation in brahman.’

The opening of the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad names these practices ‘dhyāna yoga,’ which can be translated as the ‘method of contemplation’ or ‘discipline of meditation:’ ‘those who follow the discipline of meditation have seen God, the self, and the power, all hidden by their own qualities’ (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, I.3, trad. Olivelle 1996, 253). However, one might also interpret yoga more literally as the act of yoking something to something else, and dhyana as the activity of clearly knowing a certain reality. Hence, dhyāna yoga is the action of yoking oneself to the activity of knowing as such, which can be understood as a refinement and stabilization of attention on the nature and quality of conscious experience as such. Instead of looking at this or that particular object, one begins to observe the very activity of knowing objects, and eventually let go of any particular object and remain with the knowing itself.

The text quoted so far might were composed later than the Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad or the Chāndogya Upaniṣad. However, we already saw that brahman can be connected with meditation practice since the composition of the Vedic hymns themselves, and the core focuses of practice mentioned so far (the sacred syllable or the vital breath) are pervasive elements throughout the Vedas. In this sense, later Upaniṣads seems to make slightly more explicit the sort of meditative training that likely underpinned earlier teachings as well. What does change, however, is that in earlier times, the seer sought these methods as devices to excite vision, which by its very nature is manifold and diverse, and unfolding in a narrative. On the contrary, the sage in the Upaniṣads exploits the potentially anesthetic function of these methods of concentration in order to withdraw from sensory perception and eventually reach a state of intransitive awareness. This is adumbrated in the remark mentioned above: visions might arise at some point as a result of practice, but they are now interpreted as just preliminary signs of a deepening of concentration; one should not get distracted by visions. Instead, one should focus on practice, so that concentration can deepen even further and visions can ultimately fade away. We can thus spell out the divide on this issue between older Vedas and the Upaniṣads in terms of a shift from a poietic practice in which trance is used to excite vision, to a stilling practice in which trance is used for the sake of anaesthetizing the perception of diversity and thus uncovering the more fundamental absolute unity that underpins it.

It might be interesting to stress the connection already emerged between this sort of anaesthetic trance and a death-like state. The idea of engaging in this practice (aimed at a rather extreme form of concentration, akin to dreamless sleep) might have well arisen out of the idea of finding out what death really is, or how it feels like. This concern resurfaces throughout the Vedas, older and newer (cf. for instance Kaṭha Upaniṣad). Anticipating the process of dying in meditation is a practice that is still part of various traditions.[3] While some ordinary people might be horrified at even the thought of deliberately playing with death in this way, this might not have been the case for experienced yogi. We also saw that in shamanic cultures (Lecture Three), death is often presented as a key turning point in the process of initiation to shamanic or possession rituals, and adepts are somehow resuscitated from death. In extreme forms of meditation, the state of composure reached by the practitioner makes the body look like as if it was dead. The ability to enter and exit this state at will might thus have been regarded as a significant achievement of extremely proficient yogis, who could then use it to claim their superior knowledge about the nature of death, life, and consciousness.

The Upaniṣads are esoteric teachings, which are not aimed at publicly divulging their secret methods. Nevertheless, we can recover some further indirect information about the sort of meditative practice that underpinned the Upaniṣads from the early discourses of the Buddha, which date back to the fifth or fourth century BCE and are thus close in composition to the classical Upaniṣads. Although we shall discuss the Buddha’s own views only in lectures Twelve and Thirteen, we can (even at this point) anticipate that the Buddha not only grew in close contact with the Vedic culture of his time, but he also spent some time with teachers that can be connected with the Upaniṣads. In one account of his own path to awakening (MN 26), the Buddha describes the meditation methods practiced under these teachers as aimed at the ‘domain of no-thing’ and the ‘domain of neither perception nor non-perception.’ Leaving details aside, both these meditative attainments are classified as belonging to the ‘formless’ realms of experience, in which all empirical and sensory objects have been left behind and cognition first relinquishes any positive object (domain of no-thing) and then goes even further, to the point that it becomes impossible to establish whether one is cognizant or not (neither perception nor non-perception). Regardless of the Buddha’s interpretation of these meditative states, their description matches with the sort of states that are pointed to in the Upaniṣads and that seem likely to underpin their overall worldview. Both these states can be compared with dreamless sleep, and in both of them experience is completely emptied of sensible contents, so that there is nothing there to be cognized.

Alexander Wynne, in his The Origin of Buddhist Meditation (2007) (especially chapters 3 and 4) has carefully analyzed the relevant textual sources on this point. He shows that early Brahminic meditation is very much connected with the sort of views defended in the Upaniṣads and matches the cosmology that arises from them. In this cosmology, an original non-dualist principle (brahman) is posited at the beginning of any phenomenal differentiation. Liberation can be achieved by yogis that manage to reverse the process of creation by re-ascending towards the original principle. This is done through sustained concentration on progressively refined objects. One common list consists of six objects: earth, water, fire, wind, space, consciousness. These objects are taken in their macrocosmic meaning and experienced as boundless realities. Moving from one to the next, the content of experience becomes increasingly more refined and emptier, until one leaps into a sort of intransitive or non-dual consciousness, where there is no more any differentiation between the cognizing subject and the object cognized. This state is akin to deep dreamless sleep, and it is interpreted as the expression of the original condition of brahman, hence, the landmark of liberation. Interestingly, brahmin sources show debate and disagreement about the exact interpretation of this ultimate state: whether it is an utter cessation of any cognitive process, or rather the absence of any objectification. This might be reflected in the different names given to this state by the two teachers encountered by the Buddha, who taught ‘no-thing-ness’ (absence of any positive object), or ‘neither perception nor non perception’ (acquiescence of cognitive functions) as the nature of the ultimate goal.

  1. A Vedic precedent for this dialogue might be find in The Rig Veda, X.135, engl. transl. by Wendy Doniger 1981, 55-56.
  2. The Sanskrit reads adhyātma-yogādhigamena, literally: ‘be means of (instrumental case) mastering (adhiga) the practice (yoga) about the (adhy-) self (ātma).’
  3. See for further details Thompson’s Dream, Waking, Dreaming, Being (2015), chapter 9.


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