Great Lord Śiva spoke about 125,000 means of absorption into meditation extant in this world; We consider that samadhi achieved by the seeking of the unstruck sound [anahata] to be a most honored means of absorption.
125,000. Now that’s a nice, round number, isn’t it? Not 125,023? Or maybe 124,972? Numbers like 125,000, I think, tend not to exist in nature. For example, I doubt that the number of crows flying at any point in time across the globe is divisible by 5, or 10. So what gives? Ādi Śankara is using a rhetorical technique in which a suitably vast number of a given thing or category is proposed to exist. Out of this vast number only a few, or perhaps even one, are worth investigating or working on. In the Śiva Samhita, for one example, 14 nadis out of 350,000 are important to our well-being, and of those only three are vital. The Hathayogapradipika and the Goraksha Samhita each claim that there are 72.000 nadis but, agreeing with the Śiva Samhita, say that of those there are just three that are of real concern. Another example of this poetic device can be found in the Chinese masterwork the Tao Te Ching. In that work everything, or all of existence, is referred to as “the ten thousand things,” although some translators prefer “the myriad things.” This begs another question: why, if describing everything, use such a relatively low number? You’d think billions, or trillions, or googles would be thrown around. My theory (one that I floated past my brother Dave who, although he is not mathematician or science historian per se, does have a Phd in meteorology and therefore has pretty sharp math chops) is this: back when these works were written exponents and base numbers had not been conceived yet. Furthermore, the real scope of existence, both in its expansiveness (think light years or parsecs) and its smallness (think Planck’s Constant and quantum foam) was not known, nor were numbers to describe it used much. If you count one number per second, though, it would take thirty four straight hours to count to 125,000, which could make it seem like a large number indeed. Dave assured me that although he couldn’t be certain, my inference was perfectly reasonable and thus my theory is plausible.
One word in this śloka that deserves an extra look is laya. In my translation I use the word absorption, but it is useful to keep in mind that it can also mean dissolution. For example the name Himālaya has two parts: 1) hima, or snow; and 2) alaya. Remember that the prefix “a” indicates absence or negation (just like in our modern Latin/Greek-based languages) and you have “the mountains of non-dissolving snow.” That said, which is it, then? When in deepest meditation does one get absorbed, or does one dissolve? It depends on whether the meditator is focusing on a given object (this is known as sabījah samadhi, or absorption with seed) or not (known as nirbījah samadhi, or absorption without seed). In sabījah samadhi (described by Patañjali in Book One, Sutra 41 of the Yoga Sutra) the meditator, the object of his focus, and the act of focusing itself all blend into one seamless continuum in consciousness. Nirbījah samadhi is a little trickier to describe so bear with me with this simplification some may deem criminal, When the mind has been focused on a given object to the exclusion of all others for a sufficient amount of time that object will disappear, leaving the mind in an unmoored trance state. I’m grasping at straws here, but here’s one way to think of it: What would happen if you were to take a sheet of blank paper, hold it at arm’s length, and then slowly bring it closer to your face? You would see less and less out of your peripheral vision, and then only the sheet of paper, and then nothing at all when the paper covered your eyes completely. The sensory input dissolves, so to speak. When the nirbījah samadhi has been mastered and practiced for enough time a final dissolution may occur, in which, like so much Kool-Aid or perhaps Tang on a hot summer’s day, the individual consciousness/soul dissolves and merges into the collective consciousness/super soul. Fingers crossed, here’s hoping that we all get there some day.
In the meantime, it’s best to start with an object of focus. Something concrete upon which to meditate, and thus I chose the word absorption for this translation. In this śloka Adi Śankara has told us that out of just about everything, the best thing upon which to focus is the anāhata, or unstruck sound. So, just what does this mean? What is being described here? We all know that sound is produced by vibration, which causes air (or water, or any fluid) to travel in waves. These vibrations can be produced in many ways: air can blown through a tube, as in a wind instrument; a string can be plucked or hammered, as in a guitar or a piano; vocal chords can obviously do the trick; and sometimes the whole of an object can vibrate when struck or beaten, like a bell or an anvil. Okay. Hold this concept in your mind while we touch on another, related one.
Now, think of music that has been written down on a page but not yet played. A musical score is essentially about numbers which change, modulate, and move in proportion with each other. These changes, modulations, and proportional movements retain great beauty even in this abstracted state before they are given sonic representation. In fact, the Western medieval music theorist Boethius contended that the highest, most beautiful music was produced by the movements of the planets and stars. Since these movements don’t cause fluctuations in the air they are inaudible as such. (Remember the tagline of the Sci-Fi horror classic Alien? “In space, no one can hear you scream.”). Boethius writes: “How indeed could the swift mechanism of the sky move silently in its course? And although this sound does not reach our ears (as must for many reasons be the case), the extremely rapid motion of such great bodies could not be altogether without sound, especially since the courses of the stars are joined together by such mutual adaptation that nothing more equally compacted or united could be imagined… Now unless a certain harmony united the differences and contrary powers of the four elements, how could they form a single body and mechanism? But all this diversity produces the variety of seasons and fruits, and thereby makes the year a unity.”
All the movement of the universe, the dance of the planets, comets, and stars… all of this produces a magnificent symphony which we cannot hear with our ears. This cosmic music resonates most strongly in the center of our chest where the heart resides and that is why the so-called heart cakra is named the anāhata cakra. This is where Adi Śankara urges us to fix our attention when we meditate.
I hope your mind is suitably blown. Stay tuned for next week, with more on the silent sound and how to bring it forth