By Catherine L. Schweig
Throughout my childhood, I wasn’t the kind of little girl that was often scared of the dark.
Instead, darkness piqued my curiosity, much to my mother’s dismay, especially because many persons were afraid of it. But I didn’t like being afraid, and I think I intuitively determined that in understanding—and even befriending—the darkness, we’d no longer have to fear it.
In the yoga tradition to which I belong, the first person to befriend the dark was the four-headed demigod, Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman, “absolute reality”), who sat alone—as the first created being in the physical universe—on the enormous, dew speckled lotus flower that grew out of the navel of the eternal divine.
As per the story found in the Bhagavat Purana, Brahma anxiously contemplated his lonesome existence atop the lotus. Surrounded by total darkness, Brahma felt confused and overwhelmed, similar to the way Arjuna—the protagonist of the Bhagavad Gita—first felt on the battlefield. So, in an effort to investigate his origin, Brahma slid down the lotus stem into the water, hoping to reach the root. Overcome with fear before he could do so, Brahma crawled back up to the flower; his explorations of the dark in vain.
Having no one to turn to in the midst of his existential crisis, and unable to see anything around him in the darkness, Brahma lost himself in the tapping sound of the water dripping off the giant lotus petals he was sitting on. This rhythmic sound then comforted and calmed Brahma, inspiring him to go within, and enter a meditative state. When his external explorations were futile, the darkness, Brahma found, facilitated his inward ones.
When I first read the ancient story of Brahma’s existential crisis, I identified with his lonesome, defeated existence. I was sixteen then, and feeling overwhelmed by my life with no one to turn to. Like Brahma, I felt I had already exhausted my explorations on the outside to relieve my anxiety: I journaled, started therapy, took long walks in the canyon, expressed myself through paintings and collages, poured my heart out in dark poetry, volunteered for organizations dedicated to saving the trees, to nuclear disarmament, to ending animal cruelty, etc. But it wasn’t until I went inward, and began my meditation practice, that I began feeling peaceful.
Brahma’s inward journey and meditation became known as tapas, a Sanskrit term derived from the tap, tap, tap sound of dripping water that inspired it. For all sounds have a primordial origin that is intimately related to the effects those sounds have on our awareness.
Sounds in nature—like the dripping water Brahma heard—have the effect of naturally drawing our awareness inward. This particular sound of tapas in English, carries the meaning of “austerity,” the third niyama, or practice, in the Yoga Sutra. In the Bhagavat Purana, Brahma’s meditation practice, or samadhi, is said to have lasted 100 celestial years, and when he emerged from it, he created the cosmos!
Although my mother introduced me to the asana part of yoga when I was just a child, I did not take up the mantra meditation limb of yoga in earnest until I was a teenager.
While attending a peace convention in Balboa Park, my younger sister and I ran into a young couple that had been initiated into a meditational lineage that descended from Brahma himself. The ancient tradition—they told us—revolved around the power of sound to affect our state of being. They described it to us as “the austerity for this age.” This is how I was first introduced to mantra meditation, or japa, as it’s called in Sanskrit.
Japa is essentially the sonic recitation of an ancient mantra. It is a solitary practice in the sense that the mantra is not being chanted in unison with others, as in a kirtan. Instead, in mantra meditation we aim to enter into a very private, personal relationship with the mantra itself, allowing it to affect our minds, our awareness, our whole beings. As with any relationship, the more time we spend on it—and the more we intimate ourselves to it—the more the mantra will enlighten us, as it helps us see our way through the dark.
So, it was, that in my late adolescence I found my way to an ashrama, where life sweetly revolved around the tapas, or austerity, of mantra meditation. Like Brahma—the head of our yoga lineage—we began each day in the dark, two hours before sunrise, immersed in japa. Amidst burning incense and ringing bells, we dove into ancient prayer rituals and the chanting of Sanskrit texts for four hours before breakfast, setting the peaceful tone for the rest of the day.
This pregnant darkness before dawn is known in the yoga tradition as the “creator’s time,” or the Brahma Muhurta.
It acts like the quiet womb out of which the rest of the day will be born. It is a time to harness our shakti, our own creative energy, and—as Brahma did—connect with our raison de vivre. In doing so, we widen the lens with which we see ourselves and the world around us. Like microcosmic creators in our own little universes, the potential impact meditators can have on the world—and those in the world—is said to qualitatively improve when we rise early to practice: a kind of yogi “activism,” if you will.
In meditating before the sun rises, I honor the dual paradox of stillness as activism, and darkness as a facilitator of light.
Blurring the lines between polarities is as much a theme in the yoga tradition, as in this autumnal time of year, when the hibernating forces pull Nature inward, just so she may emerge anew in the spring. If I’ve slackened throughout the year in my commitment to complete two hours of morning mantra meditation before dawn, I wholeheartedly return to this nourishing practice each autumn.
Honoring the Brahma Muhurta hours helps me feel connected to those in the meditation lineage before me, who have risen early to meditate for millennia! There is something incredibly powerful about this feeling. It’s a sense that my personal, morning-mantra-meditation practice has endured for 35 years—not because of my own puny, little efforts—but because it’s tapped, as it were, into something that exists beyond me. Some might call it grace. My meditation lineage calls it karuna sindhu, an “ocean of compassion.” And each time I rise early to meditate, I feel myself drawing from this ocean—generated by my teachers before me—in very tangible ways.
When we rise before the sun, we are working in synchrony with the element of air, or ether, which predominates during that time of day. Among the other three elements (earth, fire and water), air is the subtlest of them all, and, as such, it carries sound. The more we concentrate on the sound of the mantra, the deeper our meditation will become. This attentive listening is called sravanam in Sanskrit, and it peaks during the dark Brahma Muhurta hours.
In the story of Brahma, he becomes so deeply absorbed in meditation that he is graced with a divine vision. The beautiful vision enters through his ears—via the ether—initially, as a scent! For, in deep meditation, all the senses function as one, in a kind of spiritual synesthesia.
Like Brahma, when our vision is obscured we learn to see in the dark through sound.
The ancient mantra I recite—given to me by my guru so many years ago in a little ashrama overlooking the Indian Ocean— connects me with my inner source of resilience and strength. In Sanskrit, this inextinguishable core reverberates with eternity (sat), knowledge (cit) and great joy (ananda). This inner satcitananda light—according to tradition—becomes more perceivable during the darker Brahma Muhurta hours, which work together with the autumn season we are in now, to boost our meditation practices. Lights, after all, shine brighter in the dark.
In the friendly darkness before dawn, I begin my day with early morning japa, or mantra meditation. Sitting in a lotus posture, or padmasana—named after the lotus upon which Brahma meditated—I light a little candle on my altar, and give myself to my mantra. After doing so, I feel more equipped to navigate gracefully through the hours that follow, no matter how dark they become.
If not gracefully, then at least with the confidence that the day will likely present me with diverse opportunities to further deepen my practice.
In Buddhist and Hindu traditions, this time in history is known as the age of Kali, or darkness. But it’s not the kind of darkness worth fearing. Quite the contrary, the darkness around us provides the perfect condition for meditation—as modeled by Brahma, while he sat alone atop a giant lotus flower, engaging darkness to help embrace his existence.
Catherine L. Schweig has practiced yoga in the Bhakti tradition since 1986. Her regular treks into nature and relationships with others are a valuable part of her spiritual journey. Passionate about inspiring women to honor their voices, in 2012 Catherine founded the Journey of the Heart, a women’s poetry blog through which emerged four anthologies, the latest titled GODDESS: When She Rules (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2018). Catherine is also the creator of the Vaishnavi Voices Poetry Project, the first poetry collection featuring the voices of contemporary women in the Bkakti tradition. As co-founder of The Secret Yoga Institute, with her life partner, Graham M. Schweig, Catherine designs yoga workshops and publishes in various magazines. Catherine and Graham live in Virginia with their cat, where they enjoy a vegan lifestyle and mentoring yoga practitioners. You may connect with Catherine on Facebook, email her or visit her website: catherineschweig.com
Editor: Dana Gornall