by Rolf Sattler
“The greatest way to reduce suffering in our lives and the lives of others is to take care of our bodies, along with our speech and our thoughts” (Thich Nhat Hanh).
“Body, speech, and mind are considered the three doors to enlightenment” (Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche).
I gleaned the title of this essay from Tibetan Buddhism where it refers to the three vajras, meaning the three secrets, or the three mysteries, or the three doors or gateways: “Body, speech, and mind are considered the three doors to enlightenment” (Wangyal Rinpoche 2011). If they are not seen and used as doors to enlightenment or a more enlightened state, they may become pain body, pain speech, and pain mind, which may lead to much suffering, conflict, and war. However, with practice “pain body dissolves into stillness, pain speech dissolves into silence, pain mind dissolves into the spaciousness of pure nonconceptual awareness” (ibid., p. 11).
Although the trinity of body, speech, and mind is characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism, the same or similar trinities can be found in other traditions. In the West we may talk about thought (mind), word (speech), and deed (body). In this article I will deal with body, speech, and mind in a general way that will allow me to incorporate my scientific, philosophical, and spiritual background and experience. Thus, this article is about human existence, experience, potential and healing.
Body, speech, and mind are one, but it seems useful to first deal with each of them separately. Several levels can be distinguished for each. Following Ken Wilber (2006, etc.) and others, I refer to three levels as indicated in Table 1.
Table 1. Explanation in the text.
For the body the three levels are the physical (or gross) body, the subtle body, and the very subtle (or causal) body that is also referred to as the body of light or clear light. For speech the three levels are ordinary speech, in which words and sentences have a meaning, speech as sound (vibration), and silence. For mind the three levels are the thinking mind, the observing (witnessing) mind, and the divine or kosmic mind. Following Ken Wilber (2000, p. 45), I write ‘kosmic’ with a k to indicate that it does not only refer to the physical cosmos of physicists but to reality in its fullest entirety.
Beyond the three levels is the nondual, which includes and transcends all levels.
Although it seems convenient to distinguish levels, they are not necessarily distinct and separate but may be continuous with each other. Therefore, I consider the so-called levels only as markers within a continuum as the names of colours in a rainbow function as markers in the colour continuum.
“Within this fathom-long body, subject as it is to old age, sickness, and decay, nevertheless I show you the coming into being and passing away of the universe” (The Buddha according to Namgyal Rinpoche 1983, p. 207).
The Physical Body. - I begin with the physical level of the body, which is also referred to as the gross body. Mainstream science and our mainstream culture seems very much focused on this level, often to the exclusion of the other levels, which leads to a greatly impoverished science, society, and personal life.
In my personal life, because of cultural conditioning, my initial focus has also been on the physical level. However, due to the influence of a dear friend and subsequently the encounter with other friends, teachers, and spiritual masters, I learned to appreciate the other levels of the body, speech and mind.
In our mainstream culture we tend to perceive the body as material and separate from its environment. This can lead to much alienation, which seems to be a common affliction in our culture. Many people, especially if they don’t have close friends or partners, feel alienated and lonely. Loneliness, many students at McGill University in Montreal told me, is one of their major predicaments, which is not too surprising if one’s body is seen and experienced as separate from the bodies of other people and the environment.
“For Bhagavan [the founder of Oneness University in India], there is only one cause for human problems: the strong sense of a separate self, the sense of separateness, the feeling of me and not-me…This is what causes problems in the home and in relationships between people. And this is what causes problems between two nations or religious conflicts or any kind of other problem" (Anagiri in Ardagh 2007, p. 168).
This root problem of separation is addressed in many spiritual traditions and practices (see below). However, as holistic science, which operates at the neglected fringe of domineering mainstream science, has shown rather convincingly, even at the physical level the body is not separate from the environment, including the bodies of other people. There is much evidence that our body is continuous with the environment. For example, we exchange air with the environment; we exchange heat; we are electromagnetically continuous with the environment, etc. In other words, we are integrated with the environment, we are one with the environment, we are not separate from it. Awareness of this integration and oneness could go a long way to overcome the widespread malaise of alienation and loneliness and solve many other problems and conflicts (see, for example, Hutchins 2015) .
Science and Spirituality. – The recognition of oneness in holistic science such as quantum physics and ecology connects at least to some extent with discourse in spirituality in which oneness often plays a central role. This connection has been pointed out by many authors such as Capra (1975, 2014), Capra and Luisi (2014), McFarlane (2002), Luisi (2009), etc. However, keep in mind that the oneness recognized in holistic science is not exactly the same as the oneness in lived spirituality (Sattler 1999). Oneness in holistic science remains third person experience, that is, experience of the investigating scientists, whereas oneness of lived spirituality implies subjective experience beyond words. Mystics who often refer to oneness seem to agree that mystical experience or the mystical state of being cannot be adequately described by words. Therefore, “To say “One” is to utter one word too many” (Feuerstein 2006, p. 89; see also Wilber (1984) and below the section on Speech).
The Subtle Body. - At the subtle level of the body, integration appears even more profound than at the physical level. Unfortunately, the subtle level is pretty much ignored in mainstream science and our predominant culture. But there is scientific evidence of subtle energy or energies that characterize the subtle body (see, for example, Swanson 2011, Tiller 1997, 2007, Piacenza 2015, Church 2018). Albert Einstein intuited such energies when he wrote: “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable” (see Vallentin 1954, p. 157).
How do we become aware of the subtle level? To some special people it may happen spontaneously. For the majority of people, including myself, certain practices such as Yoga, Qigong, or Taiji may be helpful. Perhaps such practices may even lead beyond to the very subtle level. Standing meditation as practiced in Qigong gives me a taste of these levels. Other exercises and meditations such as those proposed by Debra Greene (2009) can also be helpful.
The Body of Light, which represents the very subtle level, is considered the highest attainment according to Tibetan Buddhism such as the Dzogchen Teachings and Mahamudra. In it we “recognize that space is light, that light is space, and that light and space are energy – there is no separation. This recognition of no separation appears as clear light. Clear light is not white, yellow, blue, red, or green. It is pure awareness. The moment you realize that light, you are liberated” (Wangyal Rinpoche 2011, p. 43).
How can one develop the awareness of clear light, the body of light? “To get a taste, think back to the first time you met a key person in your life, someone with whom you became very close. The instant of your meeting was pure…[but then] you began to cultivate attachment…The bond grew stronger, denser, stickier, and grosser” (Wangyal Rinpoche 2011, pp. 37-38). And thus the initial glimpse of the body of light reversed to the gross body with its root poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion. However, we need not resign. We can create more openness, spaciousness, and lightness through a regular practice of various types of meditation such as mindfulness meditation (see below) or sky gazing where the clear blue sky is used as the object of meditation (see, for example, Lama Suria Das 1999). Ray (2012, Session 31, 4), in his Mahamudra training course, presents a guided meditation called “Exploring the Unborn Light.” Osho (1974, pp. 699-702) recommended a Shiva meditation called “Remember yourself as light,” which means knowing yourself as light in waking, sleeping, dreaming, and beyond.
Ken Wilber (2006, etc.) insists that in one’s personal evolution levels cannot be skipped. I think, however, that at least occasionally a level might be skipped. For example, I consider it conceivable that one might reach the very subtle level without passing through the subtle level or without experiencing it in great detail. Shinzen Young (1997, session 14) pointed out that special powers through subtle energy mastery are not necessarily a prerequisite for enlightenment. According to Shinzen, one can become liberated without going through the realms of power of subtle energies.
In any case, I consider the subtle level and the very subtle level increasingly more profound than the physical level. For this reason I could have placed the very subtle at the very bottom of Table 1, followed by the subtle level, and finally the physical level, which seems the most superficial. From this perspective, Vivekananda referred to scientists who deal only with the physical level as “surface scientists” (Killingley 2014, p. 30).
However, often we tend to see phenomena as indicated in Table 1, which means that matter is thought to be the lowest level and the very subtle the highest (see, for example, Wilber 2006). This means one has to go increasingly higher to reach the subtle and very subtle, whereas according to the opposite view one has to go deeper and deeper to attain the very subtle. In any case, the very subtle is the most inclusive, and the subtle appears more inclusive than the physical level. What is the evidence for this contention? Besides personal experience, alternative medicine provides some clues. For example, healers who can see auras may be able to detect a cancer in a person’s aura before it manifests in her body, which seems to indicate that the subtle energy body, which includes the aura, is more fundamental than the physical body (see, for example, Brennan 1988). Furthermore, some spiritual healers seem capable of affecting the physical body through subtle and very subtle energy (see, for example, Gerber 2001).
Alternative holistic medicine spans the whole range form the physical to the subtle levels and perhaps beyond. For example, herbal medicines often address the physical level and have been tested using the methodology of mainstream science (see, for example, Mowrey 1986). However, they may not exclude the continuum to the subtle level. Acupuncture seems to work mainly at the subtle level, but interacts with the physical body (Gerber 2001). And some forms of spiritual healing might even reach beyond the subtle level. What has been called Vibrational Medicine (Gerber 2001) includes the continuum from the physical to the subtle level and perhaps beyond.
Refinements – As I mentioned at the beginning, distinguishing three levels of the body is only one common way. Another way involves the following distinctions: Physical body, etheric body, astral body, mental body, and causal body. Greene (2009, p. 18) uses the terms vital body instead of etheric body, emotional body instead of astral body, and universal body instead of causal body. Brennan (1988) distinguishes between the emotional and the astral body; the latter is higher than the mental body. And all together she distinguishes seven or nine bodies as layers of the human aura. Each of the bodies can be seen as a corresponding energy. According to Greene, everything is energy that is vibrating at different frequencies and thus takes on different forms that can be perceived as the different bodies. Etheric (vital), astral (emotional), and mental energies constitute the subtle energies, whereas causal (universal) energy is the very subtle energy (see, for example, Gerber 2001, p. 160; Tiller 1997, 2007). Greene (2009, pp. 17-21) emphasized that the different energies form an energy continuum. The energy corresponding to the physical body has the slowest frequency, whereas the universal body has the highest.
As in the body, in speech we may distinguish three levels that appear interconnected in a continuum. The lowest level, with which we are most familiar, represents speech that consists of words and sentences with a meaning such as, for example, the sentences “This apple is green,” or “Body, speech, and mind are important aspects of human existence.” Depending on how we define or understand the words we use, our speech may be more or less precise, more or less inclusive, etc. And depending on the kind of grammar, syntax, and logic we imply, our speech may be more or less restricted or open, etc. For example, speech that relies heavily on nouns and implies a noun-verb structure appears more frozen than a more verb-based language that conveys more directly the fluidity of reality. Whether a purely verb-based language is possible seems controversial. Some linguists such as Benjamin Whorf claimed that among some Native American tribes such as the Nootka on Vancouver Island such a purely dynamic language structure exists. For a long time I have been interested in developing a process language that avoids nouns. But I have not made much progress in this endeavour (see my essay on Process Language). In my morphological research on plants, I have, however, developed a process morphology that understands the form of plants not as structures that have processes but as structures that are seen as processes or process combinations. Hence, the structure/process dualism is overcome. Structure appears as process (see my essay on Plant Morphology).
Regardless of what kind of language we use, we have to keep in mind that language abstracts from reality and therefore cannot represent reality as it is. Thus, language can be seen as a map. And as Korzybski has so convincingly demonstrated through his Structural Differential, a map is not the territory it represents. A map represents at best some aspects of reality that have been abstracted - to abstract means to select. Therefore, when we use language we inevitably lose much of the richness of reality. But we can at least try to avoid grave and misleading distortions. Korzybski’s extensional devices help us in this respect and this can be highly beneficial for our behaviour and actions in the world (see my essay on Healthy Language-Behaviour and Spirituality). Much tragedy could be avoided by following Korzybski’s extensional devices, and much tragedy could be avoided by employing what I call healing thinking or healing logic (see below). Unfortunately, even in science, especially the life sciences, including medicine, Korzybski’s extensional devices and healing logic are used only to a very limited extent.
But even if extensional devices and healing logic are incorporated into our speech (and writing), it remains limited - limited because it entails meaning, which entails abstraction. Meaning remains, of course, important for our orientation in the world. But it seems desirable to go beyond meaning so that we can come still closer to reality. How is this possible? Shinzen Young (2016) and others have suggested to experience words, phrases and sentences as sound and its rhythm (that is, as vibrations). In this way we can directly relate to or even merge and become one with the vibrations or dynamics of the universe. We can overcome the inevitable separation that is created by the meaning of words and sentences. We can listen to the sound “without interference from words, ideas, philosophies, or other concepts” (Wangyal Rinpoche 2011, p. 128). “We can thus learn to listen to our own thinking as we would listen to a stream of water, a splashing fountain or a chorus of song from a flock of birds...It’s only the murmuring brook of the mind... No big thing - nothing to get excited about, nothing to get disturbed about”(Amaro 2012, p. 17) “just a long, continuous, murmuring stream of vibrations”(ibid.).
Singing, chanting, and music can also transport us beyond meaning and abstraction. Berendt (1983) published a book entitled “The World is Sound: Nada Brahma” that explores how sound unites everything in the world and thus overcomes the separation and alienation I referred to above.
And beyond or at the root of sound is silence. “Silence means: inside you, you are just spaciousness, uncluttered spaciousness. Silence means you have put aside the whole furniture of the [thinking] mind – the thoughts, the desires, the memories, the fantasies, the dreams… You are just looking into existence directly, immediately. You are in contact with existence without anything in between you and existence” (Rajneesh 1984, p. 204). “And that silence is the door to the divine” (ibid, p. 209). After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music (Aldous Huxley).
Mind spans the continuum form the thinking mind to the observing witnessing mind (mindfulness) to the kosmic mind, which is also called divine mind (in Yoga) or undeluded mind (in Tibetan Buddhism) or no-mind (in Zen Buddhism). In our culture many or most people seem to be stuck in the thinking mind. Although occasionally they may have glimpses of mindfulness and the kosmic mind, they seem to be pulled back into the thinking mind due to our strong cultural conditioning. Plato, Aristotle, and subsequent philosophers, who took the prime importance of the thinking mind for granted, have shaped our culture to a great extent. Descartes, the highly influential French philosopher, went even further when he declared “Cogito, ergo sum,” which means I think, therefore I am. If one has at least an inkling of mindfulness or the kosmic mind, one could turn this statement around and say: I am and I can think and feel and partake in the observing and kosmic mind.
In our culture and mainstream science thinking is often based on Aristotelian either/or logic. We have, however, also non-Aristotelian both/and logic and fuzzy logic that unites what either/or logic has torn apart (see my essays on Healing Thinking through Fuzzy Logic, through both/and logic, and through non-identity).
Due to increasingly stronger influences of Eastern spirituality that emphasizes the cultivation of higher (or deeper) states of consciousness, an increasing number of people in our Western culture seem to realize that the thinking mind, although very useful and important, represents only the lowest (or most superficial) level in the mind continuum. Nonetheless, they find it difficult to turn off the activity of the thinking mind when it is not needed. There are, however, some helpful methods such as gibberish, laughing, dancing, etc. When we practice gibberish, the thinking mind becomes so confused that it gives up, and when we really laugh we cannot think at the same time. Dancing and other activities also may involve us so much that the thinking mind loses its grip. The practice of mindfulness can also be helpful.
Practicing mindfulness (mindfulness meditation), which is not easy for most people but highly rewarding, creates a distance from the thinking mind and thus leads to calmness and peacefulness. However, thoughts may still arise. We don’t suppress them – that wouldn’t work – we just observe them in a detached way, and thus they lose their grip on us because we no longer identify with them: we are no longer our thoughts, we are infinitely more than these thoughts. In that spaciousness they cannot possess us. They are no longer the master, we have become the master in the infinite spaciousness that surpasses any identification with thoughts, emotions, and feelings.
Mindfulness meditation does not only create spaciousness and distance, it also provides insight, and for that reason it is also called insight meditation. In the vast spaciousness it allows us to observe and investigate how we experience the world and ourselves: we may notice that what often appears solid such as our sense of self and objects actually changes. The change may occur through two fundamental forces: contraction and expansion, which in Daoism are referred to as Yin and Yang, or in other traditions as negation and affirmation, no and yes, etc. These forces create waves or vibrations that interconnect everything. Thus, the universe appears as an interconnected field of vibrations. We are integrated into this field. Even when we die we remain within this field, and in this sense we are immortal. Thus, both life and death are contained within the universal vibrational field.
As I become aware of my participation and integration in the universal activity or vibrational field, my sense of self changes. I am no longer exclusively identified with my thoughts, emotions, and feelings (body sensations). Even in distress and in pain, even while dying, I remain connected with the all-encompassing universal activity. I might lose this awareness and then distress and pain resurfaces. However, regular meditation practice may reinforce the awareness of our universal connectedness and oneness and thus lead us toward the kosmic mind.
In mindfulness a separation of the observer and the observed (or the witness and the witnessed) might still be present. However, this separation may be overcome when one experiences the witnessed as arising within the witness. This leads to the kosmic mind, the highest level in the mind continuum, a state that is often referred to as samadhi. One cannot describe this state through language because it remains unnamable; one has to be it…
Although I have dealt with body, speech and mind separately, they are not separate. They are intimately interconnected, and for this reason, following one of Korzybski’s extensional devices, it would be appropriate to refer to body-speech-mind. Thoughts of the thinking mind are expressed through language, and both thoughts and language influence the body and our actions. The mindful observer witnesses the thinking mind, language, the body, and its actions, as well as the sound of speech and the subtle body/energy. The kosmic mind and the body of light are one in the silence of the unnamable.
With body, speech and mind in perfect oneness
I send my heart along with the sound of the bell
May the hearers awaken from forgetfulness
And transcend the path of anxiety and sorrow.
(Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation of a part of a Buddhist poem)
Although samadhi may often be considered the highest spiritual state, if it does not embrace the lower levels of existence, it appears incomplete. In other words, nirvana remains incomplete when it excludes samsara. For this reason in Tantra and other spiritual traditions, nirvana has to be found in samsara, and the two are therefore not opposed to each other: samsara and nirvana are one, the relative and the absolute are one. The well-known Ox Herding Pictures that represent the Zen path to enlightenment also convey this insight. Reaching enlightenment on a meditation cushion is not considered the final stage. The final stage is pictured as the return to the market place, to society. “Enlightenment deals with everything; nothing is excluded”(Namgyal Rinpoche 1983, p. 344). It is, however, recognized that one may have to retreat first from society to become awakened before one can practice enlightenment in society. But for some a total retreat might not be necessary.
According to the mechanistic and materialistic worldview of Newtonian physics, bodies of different dimensions such as stars, planets, rocks, organisms, cells, and molecules are material and separate from each other. They may interact but nonetheless they remain separate. This belief creates many problems, one of which is alienation and loneliness. However, although the materialistic and mechanistic worldview is still widespread in our culture, holistic science (such as quantum physics and deep ecology) has gone beyond the dogma of separateness. Quantum physics has shown that so-called subatomic “particles” may manifest as particles or waves depending on how they are observed, which integrates the observer with the observed. Since waves interact, an integration and oneness results that surpasses separateness. These and other findings of quantum physics allow us to conclude “that material bodies are no longer the basic objects of physics.” (Michel Bitbol in Luisi 2009, p. 41). Thus quantum physics offers avenues that are far beyond beliefs and attitudes of mainstream culture and mainstream science such as mainstream biology and mainstream medicine.
In the last decades holistic science has advanced even beyond quantum physics that recognizes only four fundamental forces in nature: the strong and weak nuclear force, electromagnetism and gravitation. We have now scientific evidence for an additional force or forces, referred to as subtle energies. Tiller (1997, 2007) has shown that subtle energies may change matter. He considers this breakthrough as “A Second Copernican-Scale Revolution” (Tiller 2007).
Beyond subtle energies, the liberated person may become very subtle energy (also referred to as causal energy).
Speech as words and sentences, although very useful for communication, appears rather limited because “whatever you might say something "is", it is not.” (Korzybski 1958, p. 409). To render speech more universal we may focus on the sound of words, phrases, and sentences. Silence - the unnamable - provides the background from which sound and speech arise.
The thinking mind, although very useful, has also limitations, especially if it is restricted to Aristotelian either/or logic that is still the predominant logic in our culture and much of science, although more inclusive ways of thinking such as both/and logic have been available for a long time, and more recently fuzzy logic has been developed. Witnessing our thoughts in mindfulness reminds us that we are more than our thoughts; and the awareness that the witness and the witnessed are not two can be referred to as the kosmic mind.
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