The Inner Way of Pilgrimage

by J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda) (excerpted from the book: The Promise of Immortality)

The meditator should begin by understanding that the spine even physically is the route by which energy passes between the brain and the body. The human will – both consciously and subconsciously – sends energy to the body through the nerves in the spine, commanding movement, tension – even the breath. Breath sets into motion an inner astrology. For the breath is intimately connected with the movement of energy in the spine. In meditation, it is relatively easy, by inner awareness, to sense the energy in the spine flowing upward and downward: upward with inhalation, downward with exhalation. Indeed, this energy-flow is the actual cause of respiration. Without it, the body itself would be unable to respond to the need for oxygen. The spine is also the pathway to spiritual awakening. The higher our center of energy in the spine, the happier we feel. And the lower that center, the more we are depressed. Even the words we commonly use to describe those two states reflect this truth. We speak of feeling high or low, “up” or “down,” elated or depressed. Again, happy people tend more to look upward, to sit up straight, and to square their shoulders, whereas people who are unhappy tend to look downward, to stand and sit slumped forward, and let their shoulders droop. The inner pilgrimage of awakening is a process of raising one’s energy and consciousness through the subtle astral channel of the spine to the brain. This end is accomplished by controlling the breath, deliberately bringing the energy upward and downward in the spine in conjunction with the breath. The spine is thereby magnetized, the energy of the body drawn within, enabling it to raise ones entire awareness toward soul-consciousness within, and to free one from the outer influences of the universe.

There are subtle centers of energy in the spine that correspond to the neural plexuses through which nerves carry energy to and from the spine and the parts of the body. From the lowest plexus, the coccyx, nerves pass to the legs. From the next plexus above that, the sacral, nerves pass to higher portions such as the sex organs. From the lumbar plexus located opposite the navel, they pass to the digestive organs. From the dorsal plexus, opposite the heart, they nourish the heart and lungs. From the cervical plexus, opposite the throat, they affect the vocal cords, throat, and neck. And from the medulla oblongata they reach the brain. At the medulla, indeed, they divide and become the two currents of energy in the spine, taking the energy upward and downward with the breath. The medulla oblongata is, indeed, intimately connected with the heart and lungs.

Each of the subtle energy centers above (chakras, they are called in Sanskrit) corresponds to the outer universe and its constellations, twelve of which are along the zodiac. The inner world mirrors the outer, in a sense. The twelve zodiacal signs, as they are called, represent in combination the whole nature of man. By bringing these inner correspondences into balance, we achieve our eternally allotted task: self-perfection. With soul-awakening, the energy ceases its upward and downward flow, and rises in outer breathlessness through the center of the spine to the brain. There, perfect inner union is achieved at last. This union carries the consciousness beyond delusion’s veils to union with God and with all creation.

At the end of every outward pilgrimage there is usually a temple or some other shrine where movement ends (ideally, at least!) in meditative stillness. The same may be said of the soul’s pilgrimage within. The upward journey of energy and consciousness in the spine ends in the perfect stillness of Self-realization.

To become conscious of the inner energies of the body, it is necessary, first, to withdraw the mind from its identification with the world of the senses. This withdrawal is accomplished by first sitting upright and motionless, the spine straight, the gaze directed upward with half-closed eyes (indicative of the superconscious state, halfway between consciousness and subconsciousness), the mind focused at the point between the eyebrows. When the body is still, awareness awakens of the subtle flow of energy in it.

How long ought one to sit in meditation? A good rule is to meditate as long as one can do so with enjoyment, or with keen interest and alert attention. Never sit for long hours merely to test your endurance. And don’t sit long, if in doing so you meditate absent-mindedly. Far more important than the duration of a meditation is its intensity. Absent-mindedness, and what Paramhansa Yogananda called “lackluster devotion,” are the greatest barriers to spiritual progress. Even five minutes of deep meditation would be preferable to sitting a whole hour “in the silence,” if all one did during that hour was watch the clock!

In fact, a good practice is to sit as if your time for sitting were indeed only five minutes. From the very moment you assume your meditative posture, enter immediately into your spiritual practices. Resolutely set aside all attachment to restlessness. Refuse to move even a muscle. Discipline your body, mind, and emotions, that you may offer them all up to God. Concentrate your whole being on your upward flow of aspiration.

In any case, let your taste for meditation grow naturally. Never force it. The more deeply you experience joy in the soul, the more you will want to meditate long hours without urging from anyone. Once you can meditate deeply, remember this: the longer, the better. For the mind is like a glass of water, clouded by the particles of restlessness that float in it. It takes time for the clouded water to become clear, as the particles in it settle to the bottom.

Even the novice finds, after meditation, that he can relate better to other people, and is more able to understand and help them. Meditation even intensifies sensory enjoyment! After deep meditation, the world seems filled with wonder and delight. Colors appear more beautiful; music, more exquisite. On return to outward awareness, one feels far more refreshed than after a long, deep sleep. Even the food one eats tastes more delicious! All things seem vibrant with joy, and thrilling because they are manifestations of your own self. As far as “practical” life is concerned, the mind of someone who meditates regularly gains increased clarity and power of concentration. Problems that, for most people, require days or months for solution are solved easily, often in mere minutes.

The first step toward divine union is to spend a little time every day alone with God-“sequestered,” as the Bhagavad Gita puts it, ones thoughts controlled, one’s passions stilled. Yogananda would often say, “Seclusion is the price of greatness.” This is inward pilgrimage: the “straight and narrow” path to liberation. Here we find the hidden meaning of the words of John the Baptist, quoted from Isias: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” (John 1:23) The spine is the true highway of pilgrimage. It is the way to your own liberation. Keep it straight always, even during activity. Strive to direct the energy of your body to the brain. As an aid in this direction, mentally chant always to God.