All religions at their base level - the level at which they intersect the plane of ordinary citizens - are merely civilizing media. They post their Commandments, Precepts, Yamas and Niyamas; and through the nearly foolproof means of threatened punishment and promised reward, impose law and order on a community. Nobody has ever improved on the system.
While we notice many differences between the participants and practices of various religions - especially at the fanatical extremes of the base level - we also see that each religion has a mystical ladder by which individual members may ascend to spiritual heights. And, astonishingly, the people who climb and the methods they use to ascend are strangely identical. On mystical ladders, all saints are saints and all holy books holy.
Why, we may wonder, are the people at the bases so dissimilar while those who attain spiritual goals, those exalted mystical states, are so similar - indeed, identical to the point of being interchangeable? The answer is simply that geography and culture have everything to do with religion but nothing to do with spirituality. A human being's ability to experience divine grace is genetically encoded.
And the methodologies for attaining such spiritual exaltation are predicated upon the same universal physiologic facts.
An old Hasidic tale illustrates the point:
It happened that a great Rabbi was scheduled to visit a small town. As was the custom, the religious elders would meet with him and present him with their spiritual problems and he would answer all their questions. The Rabbi's visit was regarded as a great honor and so, feeling the pressure of so significant an event, each elder struggled with the daunting task of formulating a proper question, one that would not only help him to overcome an obstacle but would also reflect his piety and maturity and intelligence and scope. What question should he ask? What question? And how to phrase it?
On the appointed evening, into this agony of competitive self-doubt came the great Rabbi. He was used to situations like this.
He entered the temple's library and allowed himself to be seated in the place of honor at the head of a large table. The elders sat around the table, but after the scraping of chairs and the adjusting of robes, there was silence. They stared at him not knowing what to say.
Suddenly, the great Rabbi began to hum an old Hasidic song. The elders looked at each other quizzically, and then courteously they began to hum, too. And then the great Rabbi began to sing the words of the song; and they, too, began to sing. Soon the great Rabbi stood up, and as he sang he began to stamp his feet and clap his hands to the rhythm. And so did they. And then he sang and raised his arms and snapped his fingers and danced in little circles around the table; and they merrily followed him dancing and singing and snapping their fingers as they circled round and round.
And after they had all sung and danced so joyfully together, they returned to their chairs.
The Rabbi cleared his throat. "I trust that all your questions have been answered," he said.
If we ignored differences in architecture and dress, would we have seen anything different in a Sufi meeting of Dervishes, whirling to the music in a transcendental moment? No, and not with the Spinners of the Grateful Dead, either. And if we looked at the participants of an Amerindian Pow Wow, wouldn't we find the same rhythmic beating of the feet and turning round and round to the drum's demand? Yes.
The engaging power of a humming sound we have many times heard when "Mu" or "Om" is chanted in our ashrams and Zendos.
As to the song, there, too, we find the same exhilarating cadence of breath and phrased tempo when, for example, the great Dharani to Guan Yin is recited in unison by temple congregations. A group of monks singing a Gregorian chant may sing with seemingly less verve, but always with the same depth of emotion.
And the clapping of hands and stamping of feet, and arms and voices raised in song… this could just as easily have been a Revivalist Meeting or a choir of Gospel singers.
People are people and when they seek to unite their spirit to God's, there is a limited number of ways they can proceed. The question is, why do these ways work at all?
The late and much missed Itzhak Bentov, a mechanical engineer by profession and an observer of spiritual expression by avocation, gave the problem some thought. He studied and measured the effects of self-generated harmonic motions upon the meditating body. Using as his subject a person who is sitting in an apparently motionless posture while practicing deep, controlled breathing, Bentov identified five separate wave motions which, through rhythm entrainment, beneficially amplified their effects, conducing to the meditative state.
The principal resonating oscillator - the pulsating heart/aorta system, entrained four other systems and produced a fluctuating magnetic field around the brain.
According to Bentov, the beating heart and the standing wave produced in the long "stretched" aorta create an oscillation of about 7 Hz in the skeleton, including, of course, the skull. This movement causes the brain to accelerate up and down, actions which generate acoustical plane waves that reverberate at KHz frequencies. These waves drive standing waves within the brain's ventricles which in turn, noted Bentov, "stimulate the sensory cortex mechanically, resulting eventually in a stimulus traveling in a closed loop around each hemisphere. Such a traveling stimulus may be viewed as a 'current', and, as a result of these circular currents each hemisphere produces a pulsating magnetic field. These fields are of opposing polarities."
He illustrates the pathway of these stimuli as follows:
After citing his experimental results, Bentov concludes, "Thus by meditating in a quiet sitting position, we slowly activate five tuned oscillators. One by one these oscillators are locked into rhythm. This results eventually in the development of a pulsating magnetic field around the head. When this occurs one may simultaneously observe other characteristic and automatic changes in the functioning of the nervous and circulatory systems. It is the purpose of meditation to bring about these changes…"
We get an image of these circulating waves engulfing the brain and immediately we recall the term "vritti" to which Eastern meditation literature so often refers. Vritti is a whirlpool, a little brainstorm that produces an idea and has a purifying, clarifying effect. And indeed, anyone who has experienced Satori speaks of the sensation of his brain revolving backward in his head, turning half-way round, as the ego is engulfed, totally submerged beneath the weight of a divine hand, or shriveled to nothingness by the scintillations of a divine glance. Chakra activation is likewise experienced as whirling energy.
There, too, is that peculiar sensation of the soft light at the back of the head gently pulsating, and the tremendous glare of the frontal white light that stops the breath and obliterates everything except itself.
But the great Rabbi danced as our beloved Rumi danced and now we wonder to what degree forceful rhythmic movement affects the spinal cord. Can this vital pathway be entrained to produce spectacular transcendence - the euphoria that leads to rapture and ecstasy, to Samadhi or Divine Union? Hmmm. How do the body's various rhythmic activities resonate with this celestial harmony?
We know that there is a runner's high. After ten minutes or so - even on a treadmill - a person may enter a zone in which time is cancelled and mundane thoughts vanish and there is only the feet's rhythmic beating on the hard surface, a percussion wave that travels up the legs and spine to the brain. Many runners run only for this reason: to recapture again and again those moments of entry into eternal, "outside of time," precincts.
And the sexual charge of Samadhi, the exquisite delirium in which the pleasure centers of the brain are clearly and unambiguously accessed, this, according to ancient Chinese lore, is connected to the activation of the Kidney Meridian, the beginning point of which lies immediately behind the ball of the foot. In the marvelous Chinese film, Hang The Red Lantern, when one of the wives is chosen to join the master in his bedroom, a servant comes into her room and gently beats the soles of her feet, stimulating that sexually critical point. This, too, is the rhythmic sole-beating of the dance.
The repeated striking of the buttocks such as a yogi may practice when he takes the Mahabheda posture, or the little man tou cushion's anal pressure which exaggerates the blood's pulsations at the base of the spine - it all seems magically to tie together, the foot fetishes, the flagellations, the rhythmic recitations of mantras, the cadenced breathing -all comprising an array of methods which human beings of every culture may employ to ascend to spiritual heights.
Bentov scientifically explained why sitting in meditation works. We turn our attention inward; we concentrate on the beating of our heart or the pulse in our Hara - that point deep in the abdomen where the aorta bifurcates; we mentally repeat the Buddha's name or intone "Om" holding the "m" as our lips gently close and vibrate; we measure the inhalation and exhalation of our breath; and one by one the systems rhythmically entrain and gather the strength to carry us up, rung after rung, to the final step of Unity.
This kind of communion is best attempted when we are alone; and then it is indeed sweet beyond description.
But for gatherings or for overcoming obstacles in the meditative path, there is the great Rabbi's advice: to hum, to sing, to clap our hands and dance, to circle round and round as the Dipper circles the Pole Star. There is the divine gift: music.
Perhaps the last Psalm, 150, says it best:
Praise ye the Lord.
Praise God in his sanctuary. Praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts. Praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the sound of the trumpet. Praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with tambourine and dance. Praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals. Praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.
Praise ye the Lord.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts