May She, Manonmani (the state of mind/no-mind), place herself down in me! Then the eye ceases opening and shutting, exhalation and inhalation are abandoned, and the mind [is] empty of firm resolution and flights of fancy
By holding the Mind of the senses fast for a long time while the breath’s cycling has been pacified, the master meditators, [their] limbs motionless like a lantern flame in a windless space, become wisdom submerged in Manonmani.
Wise one! We indicate only one means of success for your gaining the state of Unmani. The attentive [seeker], uprooting his desire, sees the infinite, kaleidoscopic diversity of existence’s forms by sitting apart from them
The last newsletter ended with me promising to clarify whom Adi Śankaracarya was talking about at the end of śloka 16. “She” is Manonmani, among some other names. Here again we have a term that’s pretty vague even in Sanskrit and so therefore is typically left untranslated. As you see I put the translation in parenthesis. No-mind/mind. This should sound familiar to any reader who has practiced martial arts, especially Japanese ones. In Japanese the state of no-mind/mind is called mushin no shin, and it is the ideal place to be if you have to fight. Alert, but calm. Focused, but with expansive awareness. Ready, but not antsy. Calm, but not torpid. New-age hucksters and sports psychologists like to call it “flow state,” or “the zone.” Of course, one needn’t be fighting or on the free throw line with the season at stake to desire the arrival of Manonmani. It’s a good thing in an of itself. Something to seek at all times.
It is also worth nothing that in Śloka 17 we find a rather abrupt change of tone. Here Adi Śankaracarya beseeches Manonmani to arrive, to “place herself down” into his own mind/heart/soul. Up until this śloka his voice has been that of an instructor, an omniscient voice of authority. Here he pivots to the personal, and one might even infer a sense of vulnerability. As if the Samadhi experience hasn’t really happened for him yet either, and that he longs for it. I make the inference of vulnerability from hindsight because in a few more of the ślokas to come Adi Śankaracarya uses a more personal voice again, and the sense of longing is expressed more explicitly. The rest of the śloka is more descriptive than hortative with the usual dualities to be transcended.
I believe that Śloka 18 describes the mysterious, oft-mislabeled āsana known as śavāsana. For many years Yoga practitioners of all stripes and lineages have called the rest at the end of practice śavāsana. We all know it: you lie on your back, eyes closed, palms face the ceiling, feet flopped out. I once had a student with an eerie internal clock who when taking rest would fall asleep, replete with snoring and for as long as half an hour, but would wake up unaided by any alarm precisely five minutes before he needed to leave. Many more students skimp on their rest though, and don’t do it nearly long enough. I digress. Some time ago my teacher Sharath stopped calling this posture śavasāsana and started referring to it as taking rest. My Sanskrit teacher Lakshmish called it sukhāsana (pleasant posture). Either way the title śavāsana, at least in the Ashtanga system, is reserved for a posture in the Advanced series (fifth, if memory serves). I don’t practice it myself so I can’t say for sure but apparently in śavāsana one enters into a truly deathlike stasis with all the limbs rock-hard and rigid as if in rigor mortis. Adi Śankaracarya describes it more appealingly as having the limbs as still a flame in a windless space. The image of a steady, unflickering flame in a windless place is quite common throughout Hindu and Buddhist literature. The word nirvana, for an example from Buddhism, means “no wind.” And here’s a śloka from the Bhagavad Gita: “As a lamp in a windless place does not flicker, to such is compared the yogin of controlled mind, performing the yoga of the Self.” [Translation by Winthrop Sargent, which to my knowledge remains the gold standard.]
Śloka 19 introduces still another name for the transcendent state. Unmani. Or just “no-mind.” Not to fear, there are more yet to come. When discussing things or concepts (e.g. transcendental states of consciousness, or Brahman) beyond the scope of language to express Hindus use a scatter gun approach. By which is meant knowing that no one name or word will get it exactly right, they use many names to describe the concepts. One of the most famous verses in the Rg Veda says: “God is one, but the wise know him by many names.”
Because it illustrates, to me, how lovely and poetic Sanskrit can be, I want to single out one word from this śloka for special analysis: prapañca. I’ve translated it grandiosely as “the infinite, kaleidoscopic diversity of existence’s forms.” That may seem like a lot to extrapolate from such a small word. It is merely a combination of a prefix, or upasarga, and a number. Pra+pañca. Pra means onwards, forth, forward. It can also mean prior to. Both English prefixes pre and pro have their root in pra. Pañca (cognate with penta) means five, and in this word it refers to the five elements: earth, water, wind, fire, and ether. Ancient people across cultures (or at least including Greek and Roman civilization, I can’t really speak to East Asian, African, Meso-American, etc. people) believed that all of existence comprised some combination of these five elements. So a more sparse, literal translation of prapañca might be “forth from five.” Or maybe “forth from five [elements]”. [An aside, in brackets, (again): the brackets keep turning up in this and other translations like the parenthetical statements in country music song titles (e.g., “My wife left me (again),” or some such). There’s really nothing to be done for it. So often words or concepts that are understood to be there are just left out of the text, and unless some blanks are filled in the text just won’t make sense on in its own.] In this case I opted out of the literal translation and made the artistic choice to flesh it out some.
Finally, Śloka 19 urges the reader to see the world by, or perhaps while, sitting apart from it. This is another concept that crosses time and cultures. The notion of being in the world but not of the world is often associated with Christianity although that statement is never expressed exactly as such in the Bible. However, here is a verse from Romans 12-22: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Although they are all ultimately discreet, sometimes the similarities between Scriptures are quite striking.
Stay tuned for the next edition, in which we delve deeper still into the effects of meditation….