Vikalpa! The “Fantasy” of Self-Identification

We understand that reality is experienced according to stories and narratives that we ourselves create and identify with. These stories through which we establish values, habit and personal culture, and further the more refined opinions that we formulate to both describe and support these recursive, subjective experiences of life, form a broader worldview and ultimately establish a so-called identity.“I am” this and that – a father, a teacher, a democrat, a Buddhist. “I am” happy, anxious, knowledgeable. “I am” identified with this trait or that, this interest or that, this concept or that – these self-identifications literally create “me”, cover me and smother me. I have become so much that I can hardly recognize what I was before all the words. And yet “I am” still ‘that’, too. ‘That’ which the yogin refer to as ‘original nature’, or ‘the’ Self beyond all the stories. This dichotomy of so-called lower and higher self-identification is at the heart of the yogic practice.

Vimarsha – The Sacred Feminine

If Shiva is the Seed of Consciousness, the Light and the Seat of Realization, then the Power that is Perfect Self-consciousness and reflection on that “I am” principle (Prakasha), in the Divine Light of Awareness, is His Bride, Shakti, the Goddess Nature and Force of His Source. Through this power of self-reflection, we know ourselves as but emanations of an Original, and are able to associate and identify with concepts such as Love and Beauty in Absolute rather than as finite terms. A fundamental practice of the Tantrik yogin is one of immersion (Samavesha) into this Absolute. Using tools like breath regulation, sensory withdrawal, meditation, and inner attunement through chanting mantras, we may transcend the mundane story-lines to establish an equanimity only found when all labels have found their reconciliation at that center point where all opposites must ultimately meet.

In Chapter 3 of the Tantraloka, Abhinavagupta states:

“The supreme subject is that state of consciousness that experiences the supreme “I am” in all the modalities of existence. Even the limited individual operating from the level of thought (Vikalpa), has a reflected awareness of self, which is the same essence as the Supreme Speech, which is Light.”

Pratyabhijñā – Spiritual Practices

Utpaladeva, in his timeless work Īśvara-pratyabhijñā-kārikā, outlines specific spiritual practices to modify consciousness through the energy artistry of Shakti, in order to coax the Recognition of the Siva Nature of the world and oneself. Shakti is thus the link between the finite human potential and the Absolute (Shiva). The ‘Awakening’ of Shakti, physically, is addressed through a central psychic channel visualized along the spine. Through control of the upward and downward breaths the two opposing tendencies meet in the middle and (become) fused in a state of non-differentiation thus initiating the ascension of Kundalini (Shakti). This practice is known as the ‘unfolding of the middle’. In the middle, we come to a point of emptiness, no longer called to mentation in duality. We’ve entered the void.

In the body, the void is understood to manifest in three locations – the heart, the crown and the central channel. Entering the void(s) successively through such meditative practices as sustained focus upon and surrender to the space between thoughts (vaha-ccheda) is key to the evolution of the unfoldment of pure awareness and leads ultimately to an apprehension of the true nature of mind. Traditional practices such as vikalpa ksaya (dissolving the dual thought construct), śakti-saṅkoca (withdrawing cognition into the heart), śakti-vikāsa (expansion of non-dual awareness) firmly establish that environment in which the true Self is apprehended.

Bhairavi, the ‘awe-inspiring’, representing 3 stages of consciousness

Vikalpa Ksaya (Dissolving the Dual-Thought Construct)

Neti Neti – Not this. Not this. Ceasing to identify with all thoughts as they appear before the mind’s eye, recognizing, affirming and disavowing in the moment all the story-telling that hinders you from true Self-realization – this is vikalpa ksaya. The focus is rigorously maintained on the substrate rather than the objectified until the light of pure awareness shines through.

Compare with Patanjali’s definition of Yoga viz. citta-vṛtti-nirodha or the cessation of the mental fluctuations (modifications). There are 5 vrttispramana (Right knowledge based on inference, direct experience or scripture/testimony), viparyaya (incorrect knowledge or misconception), vikalpa (fantasy, imagination), nidra (blankness, inertia) and smrti (mindfulness of the path, recognition, remembrance). Patanjali suggested in his Yoga Sutras that the five mental fluctuations were the source of the endless cycle of joy and suffering, or painful and non-painful states, but that these could be overcome by recourse to Yoga.

Vikalpa is our own private NetFlix, our drama factory, our story-telling machine. And it’s powerful! It’s the source of our overthinking, our micromanagement, our daydreams, our indulgences, white lies, anxieties, delusions, obsessions – and the worst part of it – it’s uncontrolled. The Bagavad Gita is an epic tale set on the battlefield of this mind run amok in its own story. Central to the tale is Krishna’s giving the secret of Yoga to Arjuna. The mind is not the problem at all! Vikalpa can be an ally as easily as an enemy. Visualization can be a tool. Where is creation without imagination? Vikalpa may be sublimated, like Excalibur, it can take us beyond, to that place where Avalon meets the mainland, out of our mental constructs and deep into a direct experience of a reality beyond the limitations of the stories “I am” to the heart of the truth I Am.

Three Kinds of Discrimination

The Dharma-saṃgraha (135) refers to Vikalpa (विकल्प) as three kinds of discrimination:

  1. anusmaraṇa-vikalpa (discrimination through recollection)
  2. saṃtīrana-vikalpa (discrimination through investigation)
  3. sahaja-vikalpa (innate discrimination)

In this sense we find some overlap between Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Tantrik Buddhism and Saiva Tantra in so far as the Śakti-vikāsa spiritual practice designed to help us extricate ourselves from the clutches of duality is necessarily one of keen discrimination and one that makes proper and impeccable use of the vikalpas.Śakti-vikāsa instructs the yogi to engage in activities of the senses, from a position of heart-centeredness. In other words, operate with the will of the true self. (Recall Krishna sitting behind Arjuna in the chariot). Firmly stationed at the center s/he adopt a mental attitude (as opposed to the hand gesture) of Bhairavi Mudra and proceed with harmony and equanimity of action, recognizing the non-dual nature of the Absolute within the observation and action of the day to day.

In this way the yogi remains innocent and attains Yoga.