Earth Mind, Sun Mind, Sky Mind: A Meditation

Printed in the Fall 2012 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Bakula, Joan S. "Earth Mind, Sun Mind, Sky Mind: A Meditation" Quest  100. 4 (Fall 2012): pg. 147-151.

By Joann S. Bakula 

Joann_BakulaThe earth, the sun, and the sky are like three layers of reality that make up the world we live in, our shared environment uniting us experientially as one life. Can the mind be a reflection of this simple everyday picture of earth, sun, and sky? The earth is a world of countless varieties and a myriad of forms, which the sense-processing mind of earth processes. The sun is the distant and single life-giving point, like the heart, but visible to us only some of the time. And the sky is ever-present and mostly empty, the space in which all else lives; it is formless and limitless. Each is dependent upon the next in one living whole.

Visualizing these within as three levels of mind, each with a different nature and function, can be a powerful yet simple meditation. The function of earth mind is to register the myriad of sensations. Sun mind is the power that radiates, giving all life, and sky mind is formless and limitless and contains all else. Visualizing and meditating on these three levels of reality is simple to do, yet can yield a depth of understanding and experiencing that can become a lifelong study and practice.

The writing of this meditation began when I taught courses on transpersonal psychology; death, dying, and grieving; and existentialism to college students. I searched for metaphors from nature, rather than mysticism, that would suit secular students as well as those studying the meditation traditions of a particular religion. Much was inspired by the practical psychological aspects of Sogyal Rinpoche's the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

Recently I gave a seminar at Krotona Institute of Theosophy called "Stories from the Ultimate Edge" on these subjects, including what it is like to die as reported by those who have had near-death experiences, and on the first two bardos of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The course included a version of this meditation, which was quite popular and which Quest readers might also find useful. The version here has been rewritten so that the language is inclusive of some Western religions and may also be appealing to those who are primarily secular in philosophy. 

The Near-Death Experience 

Whether we care to philosophize about them or not, the states before birth and after death are experientially unknown to most people. Today, however, we are aware of the near-death experience (NDE), in which a person has been declared clinically dead, is revived, and has memory of the sequence of events that occurred. Accounts of such experiences have been famous since Plato's time. According to his account in the last pages of the Republic, the warrior Er was thought to have been killed in battle, but after some days he came back to life with a memory of what he had experienced. He told of his incredible journey through the afterlife, where he saw the whole process of life, death, and rebirth in two streams of being, one passing away and the other coming in to be reborn on earth. Er's account was more descriptive of the bardo experience or deep NDE than of the basic NDE experience, but serves to anchor speculation both about life after death and about rebirth in the Western tradition.

Plato's myth is known as the first near-death account, but today the large numbers of recorded NDEs give us the opportunity to investigate the phenomenon scientifically. Since Raymond Moody's first book, Life after Life, opened up the field in 1975, the International Association for Near-Death Studies, or IANDS, has published accounts of NDEs in its journals. A summary of research has also been published in Bruce Greyson's Handbook of Near-Death Experiences. The largest cross-cultural study ever done has also been published in Jeffrey Long's Evidence of the Afterlife. Long's Near-Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) has a Web site in many languages. Here people who have had NDEs may fill out a forty-eight-question form, from which statistical analyses are made. The results of this research are available on the Web sites and

The Spacious Mind of Buddhism 

What is it really like to die? This age-old question arouses fear in most people. Many of us feel, as Woody Allen said, "I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens!" This is not the case in Buddhism, where much has been written on this subject. Indeed Buddhists begin their spiritual path with the recognition of impermanence and the acceptance of death as a natural occurrence. They have written some of the world's finest commentaries on the mind in meditation and in the life/death process. They see these two as one mind.

From the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of meditation we learn phases like "spacious mind" and "sky mind," which figure in commentaries on the Bardo Thadol (better known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead) and the Kalachakra initiations of the Dalai Lama as well. Perhaps we already may have the intuition that, as H.P. Blavatsky wrote, "space is an entity." The basic Buddhist worldview is often portrayed as a wheel of life and death called the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. Ignorance of suffering is the first cause, followed by ten links progressing around the wheel and ending with the conditioned existence resulting in birth and death. When the two meet and life becomes death, there is a dissolving of awareness of the phenomenal world, called "natural liberation." This can be compared to entering the sky mind, clear and free of all sensory apparatus and phenomenal perception, with no boundaries or separateness. This is called naked awareness.

Tibetan Buddhism teaches techniques for the psychological dissolution of awareness, in which phenomenal, conventional reality fades into nothingness, yet something permanent remains. What is it? Lama Chagyam Trungpa, in his commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, described the experience of the first bardo (after-death state), the chikhai bardo, as immortal light. It is also called the "primary light" or "mother light." The Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism calls this layer of mind rigpa, the ground of reality, naked awareness, the limitless space in which all else has temporary existence. What remains after the dissolution of ordinary, conventional reality is this ultimate reality, luminous and open.

"You will die successfully, I promise you!" says lama Sogyal Rinpoche. "You will all die successfully no matter what you do." This is often the way Rinpoche opens his seminars, evoking a chuckle from his audiences, and cutting through the fear surrounding the topic. From a detached point of view, we can entertain the possibility of meditating on the mind beyond death, psychologically preparing ourselves by exploring the layers of mind that are with us here and now. 

Esoteric Initiations 

In addition to meditation, ancient myths, and near-death research, we have a similar process described in the psychological initiations of consciousness familiar to esoteric groups. There are notable similarities between the process of natural life and death and the ending of an old value system and a rebirth into a new perspective.

Transpersonal psychologists love to look at this process of death and rebirth in consciousness. One of first of these was the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, who observed: "Initiatory death provides the clean state on which will be written the successive revelations whose end is the formation of a new man...This new life is conceived as the true human existence, for it is open to the values of spirit" (Eliade, xiii-xiv). The process of initiatory death wipes the slate clean so that a new chapter in the book of life may begin fresh, open, and unprejudiced by old cultural and social values and views. Initiation breaks down old patterns of behavior. It allows people to begin again and to see with new perception. The new values become the principal values of the new life.

At each initiatory death and rebirth we begin with a new view from a higher elevation. We see more, know more, and can relate to whole systems more readily. Seeing and accepting life as a process of birth/death instead of regarding life as the opposite of death is an initiation into reality. This allows for a greater vision of what life and nature are. The Dalai Lama has said, "The dissolution of all ordinary appearances in a manner that mimics dying is necessary for rebirth on new principles," and the "subsequent life is formed, not out of distorted knowledge of nature, but out of distortionless knowledge of the nature of things" (Dalai Lama, 1999, 487-88). The initiate sees nature as it is, as opposed to the distorted view of the previous perception. Consciousness works both ways: toward truer perception of both beingness and nature. It sees within and without. As the Buddha reminds us, ignorance is the main cause of samsara, the wheel of life, or rebirth in this world. Initiatory rebirth is the road to freedom from yesterday's limits and distortions.

 In an effort to extract something useful for both the casual and the serious student of meditation, and for people of any faith or none, I hope that this brief meditation might serve to reveal something of the incredible nature of the mind, imagination, and intuition. This visualization relates the natural world, the mind, and nonphenomenal reality in the metaphor of earth, sun, and sky as universal, observable, empirical realities. It seeks to see the macrocosm of the universe reflected in the microcosm of the human mind.

 A Meditation 

Begin by turning the data-perceiving mind around to examine the nature of mind and the subjective world within. Take refuge in the teaching, the teachers, and those meditators who have found wisdom and compassion for use in world service. Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma (teaching), and the sangha (community). Christians may take refuge in the Christ. Western seekers, including those in the Theosophical tradition, may take refuge in the truth that runs like a golden thread through all the traditions, in the Masters or enlightened ones, and in the community of spiritual seekers.

We can experience something of the three minds or levels of reality now by using this visualization and meditation. Realization may take place at any time. 

EARTH MIND body   everyday reality   appearance/phenomena   outer
SUN MIND heart, soul, mind,   realtive reality   quality of consciousness   inner
SKY MIND spirit   absolute Reality   life; pristine, primordial Mind   other


Earth Mind. Starting where we are in the world of appearances, we see the myriad of forms, from our time and place of seeing, from our point of view and perspective. We are the subject registering objects.

This is my world, my life, my things, my roles. Fear and desire. The mask of persona. The consumer. Habits. The everyday world. The world of natural living. This is the flat world; the sun revolves around us. This is the data storage mind. Calculating mind. Taking care of business. This is the earth world. The outer world. The subject-object awareness dominates.

Sun Mind. We see a point of warm sunlight, its rays reaching out into us. We are that sun and those rays. We are consciousness, the warmth and radiance around which our outer life revolves. We are the deep consciousness that resulted in birth. We are the sol and soul in calm abiding. We are the face behind the mask. We are the heart within the soul.

We are integral consciousness, the next higher holon of life. This is the systemic mind. We are the sun to the planets of our body, feelings, mind, perception, persona, and consciousness. Intuition. Direct perception.

This is the center of radiant mind. Contemplative mind. The inner world of Being directed to the world.

Sky mind. Beyond earth and sun is the vast spacious Reality in which both exist. We are that spacious mind, the womb of all phenomena and qualities. All forms that exist are within our space, yet we have no form. We are void, limitless, spacious, luminous Reality. Boundless, lucid, timeless.

There is no separate existence; all other states are contained within this mind.

We are rigpa, the pristine naked awareness, the primordial true nature of mind; we are the ground of reality, lucid and clear. We are the indivisibility of space and awareness.

We are neither existence nor nonexistence. We go beyond relative mind to no mind. Mind beyond the subject-object dichotomy. Nothing exists outside. There is no inner world nor outer. One vast reality remains.

We are peaceful, silent Being. Inner, outer, other are all one.

We are the spaciousness of all there is. Nondual. Synthesis. Being. Space Mind. Life. Void. Pristine lucid awareness. Luminosity. The one Reality.

Conclude by turning the mind back to the world of sentient beings, retaining the sky or space mind in which all else takes place, and shedding the light of the luminous heart mind onto all sentient beings in the world, as the radiant sun shines on all.


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Joann S. Bakula, Ph.D., is a transpersonal psychologist who specializes in end of life awareness, meditation, and near-death studies. Semiretired now, she taught undergraduate and graduate courses for twenty-five years and is still on the faculty of Akamai University (online). She continues to give seminars, writes a monthly on-line meditation commentary at the Web site, and is review editor of the Esoteric Quarterly, a peer-reviewed on-line periodical. She has written many articles for esoteric periodicals, including "How Death Changes Life" (Quest, Fall 2009), and is the author of Esoteric Psychology: A Model for the Development of Human Consciousness.

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