Articles September 5, 2017

The Nine Bodies: Explorations in Consciousness

Phillip Moffitt

My new book Awakening through the Nine Bodies: Explorations in Consciousness for Mindfulness Meditation and Yoga Practitioners—and the programs based on it that I am leading at Spirit Rock—represent my understanding of a set of teachings about the nature of consciousness. These teachings were transmitted to me by the Himalayan yoga master Swami Sri Premvarni Balyogi, to whom I refer in my writing and teaching simply as Balyogi.

Nine Bodies is a book with three primary offerings. First, it is an exploration of the Nine Bodies, the interactive levels of being within each of us that make up the multidimensional aspect of our human experience. Secondly, it is a detailed description of the nature of consciousness and how to explore in meditation the various qualities and energies of consciousness. And finally, it offers a series of teachings in the form of twenty beautiful, mysterious illustrations that reveal the subtle aspects of consciousness along with instructions on how to use the illustrations in your meditation practice.

Over fifty years ago, during a time when he was immersed in intensive samādhi (deep concentration and absorption) meditation practices, Balyogi had a series of revelations and visions about the structure of consciousness and how nonspecific energetic potential manifests in both the mind and the body. He saw that there are multiple, interactive “levels” or “bodies” of being within each of us. Gradually, it became clear to him that all our experience is composed of nine such bodies and that exploring these “Nine Bodies” yields insights into the nature of body and mind, which in turn bring “happiness, joy, bliss, and the peacefulness and stillness of realizing emptiness.”

Balyogi says that these teachings are not instructions for realizing full spiritual awakening (nibbana), but rather they are a means for accessing, understanding, integrating, and balancing the Nine Bodies through meditation. They are instructions for clearing obstacles from your path to full awakening and for fully utilizing the meditative states and insights that occur during your journey to freedom.

Supporting his teachings of the Nine Bodies is a series of beautiful and mysterious illustrations capturing the nature of consciousness, which Balyogi says he created during his time of intense samadhi explorations. These drawings are reproduced in my book with Balyogi’s blessings. He refers to these drawings as “scientific illustrations of consciousness.” In these images, you can literally see one man’s inner experience of the relationships between mind, spirit, and consciousness. When he uses the word “scientific,” Balyogi does not mean that his drawings belong to the world of medical anatomy, but rather that they capture dimensions of inner experience that can’t be identified by neurological science with tools such as magnetic resonance imaging.

When Balyogi first showed me his drawings, I was captivated by their insight and originality. As a long-time practitioner and teacher of meditation, I immediately saw that the illustrations reflected certain aspects of the inner experiences which occur during meditation that are almost impossible to express with language. These inner experiences are manifestations of various energetic dimensions of consciousness that are “felt” but not “thought” at times during meditation. I discovered subsequently that the illustrations have the power to elicit some of the energetic dimensions that arise when meditating, even among people who do not have a meditation practice.

I have worked fruitfully with the Nine Bodies teachings since 1999. For half this time, I have shared the Nine Bodies teachings with experienced meditation students on a limited basis. Many students find them to be of great value and ask for more in-depth exposure. Due to this student response and at Balyogi’s urging, I resolved to write a thorough explanation of my own understandings of consciousness that have arisen from working with these teachings.

My primary goal in sharing what I have learned from Balyogi’s Nine Bodies teachings is to make them available for meditation students from all spiritual traditions to use as gateways for exploring the nature of mind. While the Nine Bodies teachings are intellectually stimulating (particularly in light of recent scientific studies about the brain and consciousness), I find that their greatest value comes from utilizing them to explore consciousness through meditation.

The Value of the Nine Bodies to Students of Mindfulness Meditation

If you practice mindfulness meditation, the Nine Bodies teachings offer you an additional means for tracking and classifying meditative experiences, which can help you stay present with whatever arises. These explorations may also increase the clarity and specificity of your mindfulness, which can help you gain insight into how you may be causing suffering. They may also help you see the truth of anicca (the constancy of change) and anatta (not-self). However, in no way are these teachings a substitute for your lineage practice. Rather, they may help you be more effective in your lineage practice.

Each Buddhist lineage or yana (Theravāda Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) has its own means for identifying the progress of insight and measuring the degree of realization in a student. In general, Buddhist teachings don’t focus on the phenomena of energetic levels or bodies in the manner that Balyogi’s Nine Bodies system does, although they are a strong focus of some Tibetan Tantric teachings. However, extraordinary and altered mind states do occur in all forms of intense meditation practice, and Balyogi’s teachings can add perspective and orientation when such experiences arise.

For instance, sometimes you may have experiences during meditation that are confusing, alarming, intoxicating, or captivating. When such experiences occur, you may become stuck or fixated on the experience as you try to understand it, or make it happen again, or make it go away, or prevent it from happening again. Many of these seemingly mysterious and exceptional experiences can be examined and understood utilizing the Nine Bodies map. Additionally, the perspective of the Nine Bodies creates a container for your intense meditation experiences that normalizes them and breaks your fascination or your fear of them. Once you have some means for normalizing an exceptional experience, you can move forward in your insight practice. Likewise, in doing jhāna (concentration) practice or even concentrated mettā (lovingkindness) practice in the Theravāda tradition, very powerful experiences can occur, which these teachings can help put in perspective.

My Encounters with Sri Swami Balyogi Premvarni

My first encounter with Balyogi occurred in 1999. Having learned about him from a friend, I planned to visit the Yogant Foundation briefly to ask Balyogi a question about how to release an energy blockage in my throat chakra that had caused me discomfort and restricted my speech. I brought fruit as an offering, looked at his scrapbook, sat in meditation under the tree as he directed, received an answer to my question in the form of a mantra, took a tour of the ashram, and then left a donation on the altar. Just as I was preparing to leave, Balyogi reappeared and told me I needed to spend the next couple of days there. I had plans to be in another part of India, but I let those go, for how often will a teacher take this kind of initiative? (In my forty years of practice with wonderful Buddhist and yoga teachers, this has only happened twice; both times were life-changing.)

The teachings that Balyogi transmitted to me over the next two days inspired me to return numerous times over the ensuing years to study with him. (Ironically, the energy blockage in my throat that first brought me to him persisted and continues to persist to this day—perhaps because I was not consistent in working with the mantra that he gave me. However, I did learn to work with it much more precisely so that my throat is less of a problem.) During one of my visits, Balyogi locked the ashram gate some days, thereby making me the sole recipient of his teachings on those occasions. This immersion was instrumental in helping me develop insights regarding the teachings. Other days I had to sit and wait several hours for him to be ready to teach. I assume the delays were the result of the pain he experienced because of his brain injury. If he was interrupted or distracted during one of our sessions by some other commitment, then hours of my precious few days at the Yogant Foundation would appear to be lost.

It was in this context that I came to receive the teachings of the Nine Bodies. The context is important because Balyogi does not teach in a linear style; his style is elliptical, scattered, turns back on itself, has many interruptions and cross-references, and is laced with stories that don’t seem to be related to anything, but later prove to be relevant to what is being taught at the moment. He is often interrupted by daily ashram activities and will stop in the midst of making a crucial teaching point to do a task; he may not come back to that point until days later and then do so in a manner such that you have to figure out for yourself that he has returned to the earlier subject!

The natural environment itself is part of Balyogi’s teaching—the animals, the jungle sounds, the hot sun or cold wind, the activity of the ashram, and the exotic vegetation that is now being studied by the India Department of Agriculture for its healing powers. Once when a tiger appeared at the ashram and had to be chased off, that became the illustration for a teaching about the dangers of desire. (Amazingly, it was Balyogi’s then nine-year-old daughter who hit the tiger to chase it away from threatening her beloved dog—but that’s a story to hear from her.) Another time, when I encountered a small herd of wild elephants on my way to the ashram, that too became a teaching on not giving in to strong emotions. I was often given plants or berries to eat or to apply to my skin. I participated in his “eco-therapy” activities (ecological healing practices involving trees, herbs, plants, water, and sun) during which I was given various kriyas (cleansing practices) for my eyesight, sinuses, and overall rejuvenation. Balyogi would sometimes prepare meals for me and the food would become a teaching analogy.

All of this teaching was presented as a pastiche; therefore, I was sometimes unsure whether I understood the point Balyogi was making or the specific meaning of the words he was using, which in the ancient texts often have multiple meanings. Balyogi says that the purpose of these activities is to induce “neutralization” of the physical being in order to prepare for the transmission of the teaching.

In this style of teaching and learning, transmission is key; the understanding evolves within you in response to the energetic field of the teacher. The mind has to let go of trying to interpret or bring order to what you’re hearing, and you have to surrender control of the learning process. It is a style of teaching and learning that involves transmission of knowledge via osmosis, and spontaneous realization comes from certain conditions having been created. This style of learning is not reinforced by a sense of cognitive completion or by relating to a cognitive whole. Nor are there step-by-step rewards and reassurances along the way. You simply keep going until an understanding of the whole arises. Then you can go back and fill in the conceptual parts yourself.

This meandering and non-structured teaching method is certainly not my favorite way to learn. That I have continued to study with Balyogi for all these years reflects the great respect I have for him and his knowledge. Learning in this way forced me to stretch how I learn and to conquer my frustration. Fortunately, my intuition often served me when I felt cognitively limited, but this required me to keep my mind alert and focused.

Since in many ways I was not an ideal student to receive Balyogi’s teachings, I repeatedly had to let go of my unease by reminding myself that I did not choose him, he chose me. He has often said happily, “Now you get it,” or “I knew you could understand.” My inner response to such reinforcement was that I was glad he thought so, because I did not share such confidence! I simply had to trust his evaluation since I lacked an overview. At no other time in my forty-five years of studying yoga and Buddhism have I ever felt so lost for so long.

After each visit to Balyogi, I would discover that I had gained a new piece of knowledge. Upon recognizing this, Balyogi began to urge me to teach what I had learned from him. As the years went by, he began to voice impatience with me because I failed to do as he asked. But I always replied that there was too much that I did not understand and it would not do his teachings justice for me to merely parrot what I had heard him say.

Finally, after much study, I have arrived at my own relationship to Balyogi’s material and feel ready to share his teachings. This is not to say that I fully understand his teachings, but rather that I have reached my own understanding of them, can apply them in my meditation practice, and am able to utilize them in working with meditation students. In some instances, I have had different insights than those Balyogi was pointing toward in his teaching.

A Day Studying with Balyogi

One day during a two-week period I spent studying with him, Balyogi announced that the following day the two of us would go to a deserted cave several miles away for an extended period of meditation without interruptions. I was thrilled at this news, as I always found meditating with him to be very powerful for collecting and unifying my mind. So the next day we hired a taxi and traveled along a treacherous road for more than an hour, arriving finally at a location that had no outward sign of being anything. Balyogi explained that the cave was on the site of an abandoned monastery. He told me that the cave extended over a mile, but most of it had been blocked off because there were poisonous snakes in the deepest parts of it.

We proceeded on foot down a hill and around a bend, and then came upon the monastery, which unbeknownst to Balyogi, was being rebuilt. There were workmen everywhere pounding nails and pouring concrete. There were also numerous Indian tourists milling about because the monastery had recently been written up in a magazine. As we walked toward the cave entrance through the throng of people, I became increasingly disappointed because I thought we would not have a chance of finding any solitude. We entered the cave, which became very dark quickly. After a few moments we rounded a corner where a teacher sat on a rock ledge leading a group of about ten people in a chant.

We proceeded further into the cave until we were in complete darkness. Balyogi reached out and took my hand to guide me. Seconds later, I brushed up against something and realized it was someone seated. A few more steps, and I could see nine or ten people sitting in a chamber of the cave. The room was dimly lit by a candle, which sat on a three-foot wide stone altar that had been carved out of one wall. Along with the candle were some icons. The chamber was still and silent. No sounds filtered through from outside, not even the sound of the students chanting in the previous chamber.

When we walked into the chamber, the people seated there began to bow to Balyogi. He proceeded to the altar with me in tow and then indicated with a hand gesture that I was to sit on a stone directly in front of the altar. He then boosted himself up onto the altar, which was about four feet off the ground.

I closed my eyes and we sat silently for about twenty minutes, until the people in the group who had been sitting there when we arrived started to whisper among themselves. “Quiet,” Balyogi boomed, “no talking!” Shortly after, I heard the others leave the chamber and the two of us continued sitting for a while. Then I heard Balyogi rustling around on the altar, but I kept my eyes closed. The next thing I knew, he had hopped off the altar. I opened my eyes and started to stand as well, but he indicated that I was to continue sitting. He handed me a small tin, the type that sardines come packed in, and said, “Put this in your backpack. Whatever you do, do not open the lid of the tin.” I dutifully put the tin in my backpack and resumed sitting. Balyogi then left without further instructions.

He had not told me how long to sit nor given me any direction for continuing my meditation. Not long after he left, Indian tourists began trickling into the chamber. They ignored me sitting in silence and spoke to one another, sometimes going up to the altar and touching their foreheads in a sign of respect, talking all the while, and even stepping on my feet! But since my assignment was to just sit, I continued to do so.

I’ve sat in stillness for many hours in even more uncomfortable situations, so I was not flustered. On the other hand, it was not how I thought the day was going to turn out, and there were only three days remaining before I had to leave India, so it did not seem like a good use of my time. Still, I sat there without many reactive thoughts—when you practice meditation you learn to let the circumstances be in the background and pay attention to the present moment. I trusted that Balyogi would either return for me or rejoin me in sitting, or at some point I would know it was enough.

Finally, a feeling arose inside of me that it was time to move. I left the cave and found Balyogi standing outside surrounded by a group of people listening to his explanation of some spiritual topic. He left them, came over to me, and asked, “Do you still have the tin?” I told him that I did. He nodded his approval and then directed me to go sit by the Ganges, which was about a five-minute walk from the monastery. Again, he offered no explanation as to why I should do this or how long it would be before he rejoined me. I dutifully went and sat by the river.

Soon a group of French “spiritual tourists” arrived and their guide began teaching them Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as they stood or sat by the river. The guide’s interpretation of the sutras contained some major misunderstandings, in my view. Despite their presence, I continued to sit there. Was this what Balyogi wanted me to reflect on—the danger in clinging to anyone’s version of a teaching? Again, after a certain point, I knew I’d sat there long enough and went back to the monastery where Balyogi stood waiting for me. “What took you so long?” he asked. I said nothing. What could I say? In this kind of learning situation, you simply assume that there is a teaching in the moment, whether or not the teacher intends it.

Balyogi then announced that we were going somewhere else and the hired car mysteriously reappeared. We drove for fifteen minutes and stopped again at an unmarked location. We walked down a hill and over a small rise to where an oarsman sat in a small rowboat. Balyogi announced that we were first going to meditate sitting in the middle of the great Ganges and then we would go to the other side. The oarsman rowed us out to the middle of the river, where we sat in silence for a short while, and then Balyogi directed him to take us to the far shore.

Once we reached the shore, we walked half a mile down the rocky beach and sat down. “Give me the tin,” Balyogi directed, and I took it out of my backpack. “It is a good thing you did not open it,” he says. Then he very carefully opened it and out fell one very mad scorpion! “Look how upset he is,” Balyogi said. “This scorpion was where he was not supposed to be, and getting to his right place has been very unsettling for him.” I asked where it had come from and Balyogi explained that when he was sitting in the cave he had seen the scorpion moving around on the altar. “I had to remove the scorpion,” he explained. “With people placing their foreheads on the stone, someone could easily have been stung.”

Keep in mind that Balyogi at that point was in his seventies and had almost died from having his skull bashed in. Yet in the darkness of the cave, he observed the scorpion and found a way of safely dealing with it. I said that I didn’t feel that we had done our job leaving the scorpion out in the open. So we scooped it back into the tin, and released it in a pile of rocks further from shore. “Look how he is completely settled now,” Balyogi said. “He is no longer a danger to himself or anyone else.”

Balyogi and I sat in silence for a short while on the beach. He then talked about an aspect of the Nine Bodies teaching. Afterward, we walked back to the rowboat and retraced our journey back to the ashram. We said very little on the way back and the scorpion was not mentioned at all. Nor was it mentioned the next day. But on the third day, Balyogi asked if I remembered the scorpion, and I replied that of course I did. “Well,” he said, “just so with the students you teach. The ego identity is their scorpion; it needs to get to the far shore where it can find a natural home. If the ego does not make the journey, then it can cause harm to the person or to others. But it is not a comfortable journey to the other shore, and like with the scorpion, you have to be careful while carrying it there. The teachings and practices are the tin, the container that constrains the ego while it makes the journey.”

The way Balyogi is using the word “ego” in this instance is different from the way it is commonly used in Western psychotherapy. In his teachings, Balyogi generally uses the word “ego” to mean an identification with the personality—and its desires and aversions—that causes suffering.

When I tell students this story, they often ask, “But what if you had opened the tin and been stung? Why didn’t he warn you?” I am never sure how to reply to such questions. First of all, Balyogi told me not to open it, and it never occurred to me to not honor his wish. I realize this may challenge your modern sense of accountability, but I was not likely to be in danger unless I violated a fundamental precept of Buddhism, taking only what is freely given. In this instance, knowledge of what was in the tin had not been freely given, so I was in danger only if I violated the precept. I did not consider opening the tin, even when I sat down by the Ganges and it would have been easy to do. It was not my tin; I was carrying it for him. Respecting his boundary and not trying to second-guess what he was doing was my protection. In your life, you are sometimes given something to carry that is not yours. If you handle it with this respect, then you are much less likely to cause suffering to yourself and others.

Secondly, yes, the tin could have fallen open accidentally, and that would have put me at some risk when I removed stuff from my backpack. But studying with this kind of teacher is not risk-free. There were many ways I could have been stung by Balyogi during my years of study with him. But even more dangerous is the scorpion-like nature of the ego itself. When you are engaged in spiritual practice, you are constantly in danger of being stung by your ego, but do you acknowledge that risk with the same urgency as being stung by a scorpion?

I have witnessed others being stung by teachers throughout my four-and-a-half decades of practice. There are many risks in spiritual practice. For instance, you may put a lot of time and effort into doing a certain practice or studying with a particular teacher and then discover that it won’t carry you forward. This is where surrender applies to spiritual practice. You surrender any attachment to choosing the right teacher, the right practice, or achieving a particular outcome. You just do the practice—carry the tin mindfully until the conditions are such that you can release the scorpion of your own ego. What makes surrender so poignant is that although you surrender the outcome, you continue to take responsibility for yourself.

At no point in all my time studying with Balyogi have I ever felt less than fully responsible for myself. Any injury to my feelings, my body, or my energy was my business. I trusted his good intentions, but I also knew I was going on a journey that involved risk and that I needed to be awake and cautious. I never assumed that he necessarily knew what was best for me.

It is empowering to acknowledge to yourself that the scorpion of your ego can be contained through self-awareness and reflection. Developing these capacities will enable you to carry the container to the far shore even though it will be challenging and even dangerous at times. In my experience, curiosity, modesty, humor, compassion, loving-kindness, and commitment to know the truth are your best companions on the journey. What I have found thus far in my own journey is that love (not romantic, self-referenced love, but rather the mysterious, interdependent oneness that is beyond the ego) is both the motivator for the journey and its final destination. It can never be said too many times that staying committed to the journey is your responsibility, not arriving at some distant destination. May these teachings serve you skillfully during your journey to the far shore.

Excerpted from a forthcoming book based on the Nine Bodies by Phillip Moffitt with his permission.

Phillip Moffitt

Phillip Moffitt

Residential Retreat Teacher

Phillip Moffitt is a Buddhist meditation teacher and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also the founder and president of Life Balance Institute where he trains leaders and professionals in how to skillfully make major transitions in their lives.