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Light Body Practice: First Stages

By Asa Hershoff
Buddhistdoor Global | 2020-09-08 |

We have spoken about the biophysical and conceptual aspects of Rainbow Body formation from various angles. But how do we proceed in the actual process? Of course, the whole of the Vajrayana moves in that direction, but certain crucial pieces are missing from the description and application of tantric methods. This may explain why, after some 50 years of Dharma centers and initiations, deity practices and long-term retreats, Western students are not dissolving into evanescent rainbows at any great rate. I believe that the chief reason for this failing is a lack of attention to the very matrix of transformation, the very fuel that makes all the promises of Tibetan Buddhism possible—energy awareness and energy manipulation.

Missing sense

While we talk about five senses, or a psychic “sixth sense,” and science tells us they are really 10 sense fields, there is yet another that is crucial to our spiritual development. I call this the energy sense or, simply, energy awareness. It is indeed a strange artifact of the human condition that although we use this sense constantly, probably second only to sight, it usually lies below the level of conscious awareness. It functions in the background, but remains unconscious until we decide to make ourselves aware of its presence. We are energy beings, living in an energy world. Ancient wisdom and modern physics both describe the sea of quantum energy in which we exist, and our body is composed of oscillating fields within a liquid crystal structure. Consciousness itself is captured within the brain’s matrix of holonomic photons. So why wouldn’t we have the sensory ability to perceive these energies?

When we walk into a room, meet a new person, catch up with an old friend, going into any public space, we have an immediate sense of the “vibes” that are going on. This is quite apart from visual or verbal cues, past experience, inference, neurological processing, or any other concept that dogma-bound reductionist science may have told you. Your energetic awareness is giving you information (because energy and information are inseparable) about another person’s feelings, the negative energy in a particular store or restaurant, or even about the quality of the food you choose in the supermarket. Bringing this natural sensing ability into conscious purview is not only essential, but enriches life in the broadest possible way. Enhancing your life with a whole new sensory capacity is like gaining a different set of eyes, and for that alone it is worth the effort. But beyond the mundane, it is essential to making any spiritual path-work, be it Buddhist, Shaivite, Kabbalistic, Gnostic, or what have you. Let’s see how energy awareness can be enlivened and brought back online from its latent, unconscious position.


Image courtesy of the author

Close but not quite

Although the practice we are about to describe may seem very similar to “progressive relaxation,” it is only a superficial resemblance. Progressive muscular relaxation (PMR) established itself as a recognized therapeutic tool way back in 1929, with Dr. Edmund Jacobson’s book of the same name. While this is certainly a useful and beneficial methodology (and is perfect for falling asleep), the end goal is quite different. Also, within Vajrayana itself, the first stage of tsa-lung, of working with the body’s channels and energy streams, is empty-body practice. Experiencing or visualizing the body as an empty balloon, spacious and open, is an important preliminary. Similarly, in deity practice we see ourselves as a tent of gossamer light, rather than a solid entity. But other than this straightforward dictum, no details are given, and it may not be so simple to directly experience one’s entire form as an open dimension. What we are about to describe could be a way to make this much easier.

Body awareness

The method we are about to describe is a sensing of body areas, in sequence, and in as detailed a manner as possible. But it is not merely a practice of body awareness. Developing sensitivity to the sensory experience of our earthly existence has tremendous psychological value and is an important part of body-centered psychotherapy. It is a staple of the acting profession, dance, and other arts, where full embodiment is essential to developing excellence. Meanwhile, the rest of us, the majority of people, spend most of our time “in our heads,” in our computer’s virtual space, or in a state of reverie or identification with our task, where our body sense disappears entirely. Staying grounded in our physical presence is worthwhile in every way, yet our goal is still different from this.

Energy, the missing link

When we focus our thoughts, our imaging, our awareness, on a particular part of the body, it is known that there are immediate changes in the biochemistry, cellular function, circulation, and even photonic activity of that area. But when we fully engage with our hand, our face, or the areas of our liver or kidney, we are also sensing an actual energy. We are directly bringing consciousness to the experience of prana, chi, lung, our the human bio-field. At this point, it is not necessary or even useful to distinguish this matrix of energies as electric (ionic transfer), magnetic, photonic (light particles), or as neurological impulses involved with pressure, touch, fluid dynamics, and so on. The effort is to simply be able to experience our body area in as vivid (and relaxed) a way as possible. The reason for this is simple. Light body creation requires work with shifting, changing, and monitoring body energies over a long period of time. We thus need to learn to pack bioenergy into certain areas, condensing, storing, and distributing these finer forces. The alchemical refinement of our subtle energy systems and purification of the five elements demands these same skills. The entire enterprise is predicated on being able to let our awareness move within our body field with ease. Skipping over this step makes the practice of advanced inner work less successful and eventually frustrating.

The process

Starting with the feet, we sense this part of our anatomy in a gentle but focused way. Progressively, we move up the body, area by area, finally reaching the head and face. How detailed and thorough you make this process depends on yourself. The best plan is usually to start in a more generalized way: feet, ankles, lower legs, knees, thighs, and so on. After a while, it is good to do both sides individually: right foot, left foot, right ankle, left ankle. The fun really begins when we become more and more detail-oriented, which requires of course a better sensing and focusing ability. This comes naturally with practice. So in this more precise way, we sense the sole of the right foot, then the sole of the left, the top of the right foot, then the top of the left and so on, upward. We are trying to feel “inside” the area, or the entire part, not just the skin or outer surface. As it feels right, we can begin to explore into the deeper recesses of the body. For this it seems essential to pick up a textbook of anatomy. Get to know the location and feel of the liver, stomach, spleen, bladder, lungs, the orientation of the physical heart, and so on. It is fascinating to focus in on areas of the brain: frontal lobes, lower brain, and to become as conversant with neuroanatomy as you wish.


Image courtrsy of the author

Activating awareness

But we haven’t yet talked about what we do in each of these locations, or for how long. A good starting point is to name the part and give it some direction, such as: right foot, relax, relax, relax. As we have noted, the purpose is not mere relaxation, but by doing so, energy can stream into the area and we hone our skills. It also gives us about 10 seconds or so in each area. Later we can use mantric sounds, such as Om Ah Hung or Om Ah Hung So Ha. One could even use the five colors that go along with these five syllables, that express the five elements. But keeping it simple is good too, as otherwise we lose the thread of simple energy awareness. It is also possible and useful to spend a longer time in any particular area, guided by our inclination, intuition, or inner wisdom. I, myself, having a very Air (vatta or lung) constitution, prefer to keep moving, as there is less opportunity for becoming distracted, “bored,” or restless. For those with lots of Water or Earth element in their make-up, moving also keeps one from falling asleep at the switch!

As with any meditation, when the mind has wandered, whether for a moment or 20 minutes, we gently return to the area where we left off. This practice is a good way to fall asleep and in fact is an excellent cure for insomnia. Also, as a three-year retreat graduate, several post-retreat teachers have advised me to use short bursts of meditation integrated into daily life and this is my modus operandi. Taking time out for 15 minutes or even five minutes is very useful and begins to bring this new faculty of energy awareness into everyday experience. 

Laying the foundation

These efforts begin to pay off in a very short time. Both basic and higher practices such as pranayama or breathwork, mantra recitation, tumo, dream yoga, illusory body, or any form of healing work on oneself or others, demands this preparation. The greatest failure that occurs in Vajrayana in the West is simply not having learned to sense and contain our core energies, to get to know intimately what the energy flow feels like within us. Eventually we begin to experience how emotions and thoughts all ride these energies as well, and we begin to amass a storehouse of force within the bones, the abdominal plexus, the gonads, and other tissues. With energy awareness we may also begin to see, from a practical, not just moral point of view, how useless it is to waste precious and limited energies on hatred, ill-will, jealousy, frivolous speech, and meaningless engagement. With our tanks full we can propel the rocket ship of transformation. Without that this preparation, we have a priceless bioenergetic missile, possibly unique in our galaxy, ready to launch, but with no fuel to power it. Increasing our treasury of refined energy and containing it within our alchemical crucible is the groundwork. Only then can the flames of refinement and distillation ignite and illumination take place.

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Dr. Asa Hershoff
Asa Hershoff

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