Who is God, really?

‘All your life you long to meet God, but you have no concept of God. What type of God will you meet? Everyone says, “I want to see God, I want to see God.” Someone is doing chanting, someone is meditating, someone is talking of Gita, someone is talking of Upanishads. Nobody sees God, it’s all mere talk. Why? Because you don’t have a clear concept.’ — Swami Rama

god

On the spiritual path, many of us claim to be on the ‘search for God’. We want to connect with the Divine, be one with God, attain God – but what does that actually mean in real terms? I’ve been pondering this question for a while now, especially lately since many outer forms of worship have been falling away for me. The more my worship internalizes and the more I connect with my own truth, the less I realize I actually know. So the question I want to pose in this article is: who or what is God to us? And how do we know?

There is a lovely story about the young Swami Rama. After performing sadhana for some years, he told his Master, a great yogi and sage from Bengal, that he finally wanted to see God, since he hadn’t yet been able to. And so his Master responded that he’d show him God the next morning. That whole night Swami Rama was restless and couldn’t sleep with excitement – tomorrow he’d finally meet God! So, when Swami Rama appeared all groomed and devout in front of his Master the next morning, he was asked, ‘Tell me, what kind of God do you want to see?’ Swami Rama was taken aback and replied, ‘Are there many kinds of God?’ The Master said, ‘No. I want to know what is the concept of God in your mind?’ Swami Rama wasn’t able to answer that question – he didn’t know. And he also realized that because of that, he might not recognize it if God actually appeared to him – his Master could have shown him anything.

And so it is with most of us. We grow up with certain concepts and we are told by our parents that this is what God is. For some, it’s Jesus, for others Allah, for yet others Shiva or Krishna or the Divine Mother. Some believe in God with form, for others God is formless, for some God is within and for some, without. Some people see God in nature or indeed in everything. And according to certain scriptures, everything, absolutely everything is pure consciousness and therefore God. But do we actually have a direct experience of all these concepts and/or deities or are we simply repeating what we have been told?

Divine Mother

I started thinking more about this subject when I studied the Upanishads. In these most illuminating Vedic scriptures, the rishis of olden times speak of ‘the thumb-sized being in the cave of the heart.’ For those sages who spent their lives meditating on the ultimate Reality, God is within; God lives inside our hearts. God, or the Self as they call it, is beyond the mind and thus beyond mind-created concepts, which makes it so hard to grasp. Meditation as well as the presence of an illumined Master, they say, will help us remove the veils that cover this reality. And yet, to those of us who are not enlightened, this is still just a concept. We hear the sages’ reports that sound like travel logs into extra-ordinary realms and we think, ‘how wonderful. If only I could travel there and experience all this.’ It’s like they have given us a road map, though of course, not everybody agrees or resonates with what is being said in the Upanishads.

I am not an illumined sage and so can’t say with authority who or what God is. I can only go with what resonates with me at this stage of my spiritual journey. And to me, the reports of the sages make sense, in particular because there is a tried and tested method of realizing the Self on this path. I’m encouraged by the belief that anyone can reach the goal of Self (or God)-Realization through a combination of hard work and grace. In many religions, this self-responsibility is not encouraged.

My Master Sri Prem Baba, alongside many other Masters, keeps saying that God is love, and that this love can be found in the depths of silence. And indeed, one thing that strikes me is that realized Masters all seem to have one thing in common: they are overflowing with love, joy and compassion. I think because they are always connected with the ultimate Reality and because life as we see it is an optical illusion for them, there is only joy left. For who is hurting whom if everything is one vibrating Self? Would we get angry with our own leg if we broke it? When we no longer see a difference between our Self and other Selves, then the veil of separation has disappeared and that unity, I believe, is God. I remember once seeing a video of Amma in which she licked out the putrid wounds of a leper with joy and thus cured him. She could only do this because she did not see a difference between this man and herself – his Self was her Self and thus only love remained.

Along those lines, yesterday I was talking to my dear friend Swami Ramaswarupananda about the Bhagavad Gita. We were speaking about the incident in which Krishna shows Arjuna his true form, and that awesome form overwhelms Arjuna so much that he begs Krishna to assume his previous form as Arjuna’s friend. And so Swamiji said that life is like this: ‘when you sit in front of me, I see your human form and I completely forget that you are the Divine Mother. I look at the walls and they are just stone, but really they are pure consciousness and thus God.’ If we could always stay connected to this reality that everything is actually consciousness, we’d act completely differently in the world.

Lord Krishna

I’ve also been thinking about worshipping God in the form of a deity. In Hinduism, it’s a really big thing to worship idols representing God with offerings of flowers, incense, light and food. It is said that worshipping a form is necessary for many people, because it’s so hard to connect with a formless God or Reality. The devotee prays to have a vision of this deity, and sometimes, if devotion and longing are strong enough, this happens and this in itself can bring liberation. Adi Shankaracharya, for example, has had such magnificent visions of the Divine Mother that it turned him from a rational Vedantic scholar into an ecstatic devotee. Perhaps this type of transformation happens because the energy of love is so strong that it burns through all the veils of separation. The form of the deity catalyses the love that is inside of us all along, just like a lover has the ability to ignite the passionate love in our hearts that is really the essence of who we are.

Ultimately, we will only know what or who God really is when we reach the stage of Realization. Until then we have to connect with the philosophy that rings true to our inner Being and walk in the footsteps of the mystics who have had this direct experience. For me personally, I love these words by Adi Shankaracharya, which validate the importance of outer worship alongside the notion that everything is ultimately on the inside:

‘Forgive me, o Lord, for three mistakes. First, I know and feel that You are all pervading and omnipresent, and yet I have walked all the way here to worship You within the confines of this temple. Second, I know there is only one non-dual truth, and thus there is no difference between You and me, yet I worship You as though You are different from me and outside of me. Finally, I know that this ‘mistake’ is simply my own mind-created concept – and yet I’m asking You to forgive me.’

My book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now on Changemakers Books and BPI India

 

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What stands between you and enlightenment? Some reflections on the importance of spiritual purification

The yogi casts his human longings into a monotheistic bonfire consecrated to the unparalleled God. This is indeed the true yogic fire ceremony, in which all past and present desires are fuel consumed by love divine. The Ultimate Flame receives the sacrifice of all human madness, and man is pure of dross. His metaphorical bones stripped of all desirous flesh, his karmic skeleton bleached by the antiseptic sun of wisdom, inoffensive before man and maker, he is clean at last.’ – Paramahansa Yogananda

fire

A few days ago, I meditated with Swami Veda Bharati of the Himalayan Tradition. After the meditation, he gave a small satsang in which he said that somebody had asked him how to attain siddhis (yogic psychic powers). Swamiji’s response was that he wasn’t interested in siddhis: the only thing he is interested in is purification. His Master, Swami Rama, had once asked him what yogic siddhis he wanted. None, he replied, the only thing worth attaining was Samadhi. Now you have to consider that if anybody possessed yogic siddhis in this world, it was Swami Rama, and such an offer coming from him would be very tempting indeed to many aspirants. Nonetheless, Swami Veda knew that siddhis are a mere distraction on the spiritual path, and that to really grow spiritually we have to purify our minds and emotions. Only when we are free from our pasts and are able to keep our hearts open with pure love at all times have we attained anything.

Then what actually is this spiritual purification, and why is it so important? Purification is a strange word at first and may even trigger reactions in some. It sounds as though we are somehow impure or even sinful, right? I therefore think that first we need to clarify what the concepts of pure and impure really mean in this context. In my understanding, purity is divine love – a selfless, unconditional love that is not bound by expectations of any kind, and related values such as compassion and kindness. This is our true, ‘pure’ nature. On the flip side, impure are all of the emotions and actions that come from a different place: selfish ‘love’ that is motivated by attachment and need; dishonesty, and anything that is obscured by the veil of maya which tries to tell us that we are not loved and that we therefore have to manipulate others to receive that love, or punish them for not giving it to us.

All of this ‘impurity’ can be traced back to our pasts. There generally comes a moment in our early lives when we lose our trust because we don’t get what we need. As my Master Sri Prem Baba says, that is the moment during which we learn how to hate. We stop trusting that our needs will always be met; we learn how to be jealous, competitive, manipulative, insecure and so on – all with the motivation of receiving the love we need as children. Veils of separation start covering our Being, and this is how our conditioning grows and thickens.

In addition, our emotional bodies carry the impressions and wounds of past lifetimes, something we call samskaras in the yogic world. They consist of everything that has ever happened to us, in particular traumatic events. All these impressions and karmas are what we are not, yet they are very powerful because they are what drives us on an unconscious level. And it is exactly these mental and emotional ‘impurities’ or however you want to call them, that stand between us and the ultimate Truth, that means the realization of who we truly are – because they are an illusion.

The interesting thing is that we are often not even aware of the storehouse of pain we carry around with us – until we get involved in a romantic relationship with somebody. Intimacy with another person can be the best mirror for where we are at spiritually. We can often live in the illusion that we are blissfully happy and have healed our past, and then somebody comes along and we realize just how much stuff we have merely suppressed because nobody has had the opportunity to trigger it. And unless these issues are cleared completely from our systems, we cannot be free.

OK, then how do we purify our emotions? If we’re on the spiritual path, it tends to happen automatically. Life will bring us what we need – the trick is to actually recognize it as such, get out of our victim mentality and not blame the other person for our discomfort. When we can stay present and take responsibility for everything that happens to us, purification will be a given. This process accelerates incredibly once you have found your spiritual Master, because his or her interest is to bring you to the goal of realization in the quickest possible way. Once you give your Master permission to work on you by taking initiation with him or her and you sincerely practice the methods s/he prescribes you, a lot tends to happen.

People often think they find their Guru and things are going to be bliss from that moment onward. We will fly towards Samadhi on wings of ecstatic joy. I smile as I write this because when I first met my Guru, I was one of these people. He was so beautiful and so full of light that I instantly surrendered at his feet, and the first months of our ‘spiritual courtship’ were just like when you fall in love with somebody – filled with bliss, joy, ecstatic love and connection. And then…. when I was deeply in love and committed to him, he took out his knife and started his work in earnest. And it became hell at times, because what Guru’s energy does is to bring our stuff to the surface rapidly. The love and devotion we feel for our Master is actually only a tool that keeps us committed to doing the work even when it becomes absolute torture – not dissimilar to a romantic relationship where we go through all sorts of uncomfortable things because we love the other person.

Sri Prem Baba

Sri Prem Baba

But the difference is that in the Guru-disciple relationship, there is no expectation from the side of the Guru. All s/he cares about is that you do your work and reach the goal of liberation as soon as possible. The relationship therefore isn’t messy because both Guru and disciple are (ideally) very clear what they’re in this game for. So when s/he metaphorically ‘beats you up’, you smile and bow with gratitude because you know one more karma is dissolving. (I know this statement may sound uncomfortable to many because some Gurus have abused their status and power, so be discerning about who you choose as your Master. You will soon know in your heart whether he or she is authentic and whether the work is truly liberating you.)

Guru is an annihilating fire that burns everything away, most of all your identity. All you have been holding on to for so long, the things that have ‘made’ you into who you are, or believe you are, including your attachment to your nationality, your society, your beliefs, even your personality dissolve in the transformational fire of the Divine. I’ve recently been going through a process in which everything I believed defined me started to melt away. Not just the undesirable things, like old patterns, but also all the things I loved and with which I had identified myself for so long. Even things like rituals I had practised for many years started to lose their meaning because there was the realization that everything is inside of me and that I didn’t need these outer expressions any longer. But it was unsettling also: suddenly, there seemed to be nothing to hold on to any longer. Without all of these things, who was I? And what is the personality, in fact? A collection of samskaras, nothing more and nothing less. Underneath these samskaras and veils, we are nothing but pure energy and we are all the same.

Let’s not kid ourselves, emotional purification is tough. It’s arguably the toughest thing you can ever do, because this letting go and expansion of consciousness can be incredibly painful. So many old, repressed emotions that we have carried around for lifetimes are stuck in our systems, and this defrosting brings them all to the surface for us to look at and let go. It’s not comfortable and it can be utterly humiliating when we see how many people we have hurt or how many dramas we have created under the spell of illusion. And often, many other symptoms, physical, mental and emotional, such as insomnia, energy shifts, increased sensitivity, fatigue etc. appear at the same time.

But if we want to be free, truly free, then there is no other way. Because our samskaras are exactly what stand between us and enlightenment. And with every one of these emotional sheddings, we feel lighter. We see things with more clarity, and patterns and insecurities that have blocked us for years suddenly transform and fall away. And without these toxic emotions and distortions of reality, we remember who we truly are and we see things as they actually are. We regain our trust and become spontaneous again. This is grace, and it makes it all worth it.

The following poem from Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’ has become my prayer in recent months and gives me strength when it gets too much sometimes. It reminds me of why I am doing this work and that I am willing to do what it takes.

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

‘Give me more pain, more pain

Give me more consciousness

Tear open all doors, smash down all walls

Give me more pain, more pain

Give me more consciousness

Tear open all doors, smash down all walls

Give me more release, more release

 

More love, more love,

That the ‘I’ in me may drown,

More love, more love,

That the ‘I’ in me may drown,

Give me more, more, more streams

Of nectar to drink

Give me more, more, more’

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Here’s a great website with advice on spiritual awakening: http://www.spiritualawakeningprocess.com/

My Master Sri Prem Baba’s website: www.sriprembaba.org

My book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Himalayas’ is out now on Changemakers Books and BPI India

Beyond the mind lies the ecstasy of pure bhakti

How deeper than deep he is

How deeper than deep he is

My pain, my awareness owe their existence

to his fathomless touch

How deeper than deep he is

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He brings enchantments to my eyes,

plucks my heart’s veena-strings

He brings enchantments to my eyes,

plucks my heart’s veena-strings

He awakens such rhythms

of joy, pleasure, sorrow, delight

How deeper than deep he is

.

How magical the robe he weaves

from gold, silver, green, blue

His feet stretch out from beneath it

When I touch them I swoon with rapture

How magical the robe he weaves

from gold, silver, green, blue

His feet stretch out from beneath it

When I touch them I swoon with rapture

.

Many days, many ages pass

as he secretly charms my soul

Many days, many ages pass

as he secretly charms my soul

Many are the ravishing names and identities

he constantly showers

How deeper than deep he is

How deeper than deep he is

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(from ‘Gitanjali’ by Rabrindranth Tagore, translation by William Radice)

Why yogis are the real pleasure seekers: The age-old battle between spirituality and sexuality

‘What is experienced in sex is only a tiny taste of something infinitely more full. Go to that, and you will have eternal union of the male and the female within you. The split is healed; the prime One is re-discovered. An eternal ecstasy ensues. It is for that reason that the yogi becomes celibate and lives in ananda.’ – Swami Veda Bharati

swami veda

Swami Veda Bharati

Those of you who have read my book ‘Meeting Shiva’ will know that I’ve contemplated the seeming opposites of spirituality and sexuality for a long time. Coming from a traditional tantric path, I’ve always been a defender of sexuality – provided that sexual energy can eventually be sublimated and made into a meditational, devotional practice that has the potential to further our spiritual connection. Having said that, as I have delved deeper into my spiritual path and spent more time with my teachers, I have come to understand and appreciate the art and science of celibacy as well.

Why celibacy? What is the point of denying yourself one of the greatest pleasures in the world? There are so many different concepts and ideas about this subject in spirituality, and it has caused a lot of confusion over the ages. Some of the common questions are: Is sex good or bad? Should spiritual people indulge in sex? What happens if they do, and what happens if they don’t? Does sex really distract us and hinder our spiritual progress, as many spiritual teachers say? If celibacy is necessary for enlightenment, then how come there are enlightened householders?

According to Swami Veda Bharati, the word celibacy comes from the Sanskrit word Kevala, which means solo, i.e. to enjoy solitude. In this case, ‘the soul is solo, it has divorced and left behind maya.’Kevala is a non-dependence on matter, and this ultimate solitude, this internal freedom is the goal of yoga. There is no need for or dependence onanything from the outside; our need for projection has disappeared and we have recognized that everything we need is already inside of us. The yogi is so full of freedom within and so filled with the power conserved that s/he has immense riches to contribute. In celibacy, the flame of passion goes inwards towards consciousness, rather than outwards where it gets dispersed.

When you look at it from the yogic point of view, then the reason we should abstain from sex is because it wastes our vital energies. In yoga, it is believed that the vital fluids of male sperm and female menstrual blood are where our power resides. To expend it through ejaculation or menstruation drains valuable life force from us. To experience this for yourself, just see how you feel after sex (males) or during menstruation. Hence, yogis are keen to preserve their semen either through celibacy or by learning to have sex without ejaculation, and yoginis often learn how to stop their menstrual flow and circulate the blood through the body instead to nourish the internal organs.

So it’s not really that yogis think sex is bad – there is a scientific reason for their abstinence. To advanced yogis, sex is a bit of a joke. Why spend time doing this, i.e. indulge in this energy-draining activity for a few moments of sexual enjoyment, when this powerful energy can be reversed and internalized into meditational bliss, which is a million times stronger and more sublime than anything else on earth? Looked at like this, yogis are the real pleasure seekers for they want the ultimate, true joy rather than the fake diamonds of fleeting sexual excitement.

Swami Veda once said that all gender attraction is a form of narcissism. Because of the illusory nature of maya, we don’t understand that what we are looking for from the other person is actually inside of us. ‘That which is within me I do not clearly see, yet I long for it, I want to love it, I cannot find it quite clearly, I project it onto others – and that is a convoluted way to make oneself feel complete.’ I think he hits the nail on the head here. It has been said that once upon a time, every person was male and female in one body, like the Hindu deity Ardhanariswara. Later we became separate, and that is why we now keep looking for our counterpart and completeness in another person, our so-called ‘soul mate’. What many of us don’t understand is that the goal of realization is the sacred marriage between our masculine and feminine parts within.

Ardhanariswara

There are some other motivations for abstinence in spiritual traditions. Again, in yoga, liberation is the ultimate goal. We are trying to free ourselves from the six passions of mind: kama (lust), krodha (anger), lobha (greed), moha (delusion),mada (pride) and matsarya (jealousy), the negative characteristics which prevent us from realizing the atman. If we are ruled by these instincts, we can never advance in our sadhana.

Another big reason as to why yogis and other spiritual people often abstain from sex is its great power to distract us from everything else. If you have ever felt sexual arousal, you will know what I mean. Once aroused, it is near-impossible to keep your mind on anything else. So how useful is this when a calm, detached mind is required for meditation? If your goal is to realize the Self, and your mind continuously goes outwards to an object of sexual arousal, surely that’s not conducive. Unless, of course, you can convert that sexual arousal into meditation – Swami Veda has said that the best moment to enter meditation is at the height of sexual desire. But that’s not always easy, not even for renunciates. So to not get tempted, monks and nuns often stay away from the opposite sex altogether.

Desire is something that draws us deeper into maya, the illusory nature of the material world. There is a saying, ‘When a fly tastes and sits on jaggery (coarse, dark liquidy sugar), its wings get stuck to it.’ The fly continues to enjoy the jaggery, unaware that it is unable to extricate its wings and fly away. So it is with raga, the Sanskrit word for attraction and later attachment to the object of attraction. Raga prevents us from moving forward in life because we so often get stuck in the attraction. We forget ourselves and the attraction becomes our objective in life, when turning away from raga or attraction should really be the objective.

Of course, vairagya, dispassion, will arise automatically in those in whom the burning desire for Self-Realization is stronger than everything else. But even so,distractions are always there, and heaven has always sent tempters and temptresses down to test us. The scriptures are full of stories of sages who allowed themselves to be distracted by the opposite sex. Even Lord Shiva, most austere of all yogis,was charmed by yogini Sati and eventually got married. One moment of weakness is often all it takes for a life-long (or temporary) celibate to become undone. The sexual energy, synonymous with our kundalini energy, is that powerful.

Shiva and Sati

Shiva and Sati

For those of us who are not renunciates but on the spiritual path, there is always the question: to indulge or not to indulge? Is it better to have your mind burning with unfulfilled sexual fantasies, or to indulge once in a while, be at peace and then forget about it? It depends on what your goal is and how serious you are about it. It will also depend on your temperament, and how much sexual contact will disturb your mind and cause yet more desire.

Moderation is probably best for the householder, i.e. those who are married or in a relationship. And, there is a huge difference between lustful sex that is a mere physical exercise and the art of making love. Lust only begets more lust, is based on selfish satisfaction of primal needs, enslaves us and doesn’t do anything to further our spiritual growth. If however, you can learn to make the act of lovemaking into a meditational practice and a prayer in which you see your lover as an embodiment of the Divine, it can lead you to an experience of devotional union that can, it is said, lead to liberation itself. The even more refined way of making love is to join with your partner in your subtle bodies, so Swami Veda, and realize that the ecstasies experienced in the union of physical bodies were a mere foretaste of the far more powerful pleasure in the subtle world.

So, of course sex isn’t bad. If there was no sex, there would be no enlightened people. It’s the very thing that creates us, and it can be a beautiful expression of love. But because it is so amazing and powerful, we get attached to it and that is the problem. Lust often makes us act out of tune with our common sense and do some very foolish things indeed. But, on the other hand, pleasure can also be something very sacred, and after all, the rishis, India’s great seers of the Vedas, were all married.

In any case, celibacy in spirituality often backfires. This is very evident when you live in India, as I do, and meet many yogis and sadhus who claim to be celibates but either have girlfriends (often multiple), clandestine sex or even get married, often to a Western woman.In the West, we have similar issues: Catholic priests are notorious for abusing young boys or having affairs with their domestic helpers; nuns are known for their sadism towards school children; and overall celibate monks often become ill-tempered and grumpy old men. Why is this? The easy answer would be that celibacy isn’t natural and that the sexual energy needs an outlet.

This is true, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that these renunciates should go and indulge in sexual affairs. Celibacy, which can actually be a really valuable practice, is not to blame. This warping of energyhappens simply because nobody has taught these renunciates what to do with the sexual energy that we all possess. Simply suppressing and pretending it doesn’t exist, as is the case in many ashrams and monasteries, won’t work. It makes the problem of desire worse and if not handled properly, can actually turn into overwhelming sexual fantasies, excessive masturbation or perversion.

So it is vital that our spiritual teachers show us what to do with these energies. In yoga, tantra and in Taoist traditions, there are very specific practices that reverse the flow of sexual energy and take it upwards to the higher chakras, rather than downwards to the lower energy centres. There are bandhas (internal body locks), breathing techniques and meditations that can help us with this process. If we make the decision that internal freedom and the conservation of our vital energies is important for us, then we have to learn how to do these techniques to stop us from going crazy. Otherwise, we can have a situation in which we climb the spiritual mountain, so to speak, and easily fall off it if a tempting sexual proposal comes our way. And then, instead of concentrating on our spiritual goal, we can easily spend our time trying to regain the spiritual energy we have just wasted in a senseless sexual encounter.

Celibacy is a blessing if understood properly and if sexual energy is sublimated. This requires a retraining of mental conditioning, together with intense longing for spiritual purification and for meeting the greatest lover of all – God.’ – Swami Veda Bharati

Practices that can help you to sublimate sexual energy (please note, these should all be learned from a qualified and experienced yoga teacher. The Himalayan Tradition are experts in these types of practices.):

  • Sushumna breathing
  • Moolabandha (the root lock, in meditation and indeed, at all times. One who is accomplished in the root lock can be a perfect celibate.)
  • Ashwini mudra
  • Silence of speech combined with mantra and celibacy
  • Agni sara, a practice which, if perfected, becomes a condition of svadhistan chakra
  • Chakra work (unblocking, opening, entering)
  • Understanding the moment of arising of desire. Become a neutral observer of your body and learn to postpone the indulgence of desires. It is said that it is very powerful to meditate when sexual desire is most intense – in this way, inner absorption of the energy can happen.

To further understand this subject, I recommend the book ‘Kundalini’ and the audio talk ‘The Art and Science of Celibacy’ by Swami Veda Bharati. Please see Ahymsin publishers for more details. 

Perennial joy or passing pleasure: Why it is so easy to fall off the spiritual path

Sharp like a razor’s edge, the sages say,  

Is the path, difficult to traverse.’ —  Yama to Nachiketa; Katha Upanishad

 nachiketa

You’ve probably heard the saying that the spiritual path is ‘just like a razor’s edge’. Already the Upanishadic sages spoke about the difficulties of negotiating the spiritual path, and I’ve heard numerous teachers talk about this, too. In the past, I’ve always taken this to mean that it’s a hard path, but without necessarily understanding why or without having a direct experience of the razor’s edge. I’d also often heard that Gurus test their disciples rigorously before bestowing higher teachings and often wondered what these tests actually consist of.

Recently, towards the end of a three month long anusthan (intensive practice of a particular sadhana), I had a first-hand experience of such a test by a spiritual Master and it truly and perhaps for the first time made me fully understand the famous saying. Without going into too many details, let’s just say that my resolve and my commitment to my spiritual path were rigorously tested with a life situation that had all of the abilities to distract me and throw me off-balance. This experience led me to reflect on the spiritual path as a razor’s edge and why these tests are posed to us by the Masters.

Indeed, why are the Masters testing us? Shouldn’t it be enough that we’re already on the spiritual path and shouldn’t they support us rather than throwing tests and obstacles our way? Alas, it’s not that simple. The Masters, in their boundless love and commitment to seeing us grow, are doing this to test our focus and our ability, to see whether we are serious and actually worthy of the higher teachings. To be worthy means having developed sufficient willpower to withstand the many distractions and temptations that flank the path and that can so easily destroy all of our spiritual attainments. In yogic terms, this is called vairagya, and it literally means dispassion. Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad demonstrates vairagya par excellence when he refuses everything that Yama, the Lord of Death offers him – riches, beautiful women, fame, a long life – in order to learn what really matters to him: the secret of death. Yama tries to dissuade him with many worldly temptations until he is finally satisfied that Nachiketa is a worthy student filled with nothing but the burning desire for liberation, and thus agrees to teach him.

A Master has to be really sure how strong our commitment to achieving our goal of Self-Realization is. Without one-pointed commitment and focus that border on desperation, the goal is almost impossible to attain. The path is tough as it requires incredible amounts of inner purifications, and living in the world can be so much easier. The tests also ensure that we are not going to abuse the spiritual powers that eventually come with success in sadhana. Many aspirants get seduced by the siddhis, the supernatural abilities that come to them with intense practice: clairvoyance, charisma, ability to attract wealth or the opposite sex, and so on. All too often, a sadhaka or spiritual leader falls off the path because they still harbour latent desire for power, sex or money (which really needs transcending), and this can lead them to manipulate and even abuse others. This must never be done – spiritual powers must not be used for selfish purposes, but only for pure and selfless motives such as helping others.

The more advanced we get in our spiritual practice, the harder the tests become. The good thing about this is that you notice that you’re actually making progress. So what might such a test look like? You can be sure that it is your Achilles’ heel, i.e. your greatest weakness. For some people this might be money, for others it might be sex, yet for others it might be power or fame.It will be the very thing that you haven’t yet transcended and that which has the potential to make you sway from your path if Yama came and offered it to you.If you don’t like chocolate, the test is hardly going to be a chocolate cake!

To use an example, when Swami Rama of the Himalayas was a young man called Bhole Baba, his Master assigned him a practice which consisted of repeating the Gayatri mantra 2.4 million times in the course of sixteen months. The Master drew a line charged with protective spiritual energy around Bhole’s hut and instructed him not to cross it except to perform his morning and evening ablutions. Bhole began his practice, and soon the people of the city came to know about him and began to visit him, impressed by how calm and tranquil he was, and at the same time how vibrant and energetic. The less attention Bhole paid to visitors, the more impressed they were. But there was also a group of hecklers who came to visit him, determined to disturb him.

bhole baba

The young Swami Rama

One day, after he’d been doing his practice for eleven months, they challenged him to a debate. Bhole remained silent, but they persisted. Finally he lost his temper, crossed the boundary line, caught hold of someone’s neck, and pushed him toward the Ganga. The hecklers dispersed, but soon afterward the pandit who supplied Bhole with food appeared and handed him a telegram from his Master. It read: ‘You have ruined your practice. Start over.’ A similar incident happened a second time after many months of Bhole having done the same practice, and it was only at the third attempt that he managed to complete it. Anger was his weakness, and only with a lot of practice he managed to control it.

Another common example is that of (often male) spiritual leaders who end up having sex with their students. We’ve all heard these stories, and my Gurudev once said ‘at some point, lust is going to come knocking at your door.’ Just when you think you’ve made progress and you’re about to become enlightened, a huge temptation or a highly negative situation will come your way that will push you to the very edge. And to stay on a razor’s edge or on a tightrope, you need incredible amounts of focus, concentration and skill. If you’re on it and your attention is even slightly diverted by a beautiful woman or sparkling diamonds, you are going to fall. You might even break your neck. At the very least, it is going to take some time for you to get on the razor’s edge again.

So we have to be very aware of what Swami Rama calls the ‘four primitive fountains’, the driving forces of humanity. These fountains are food, sex, sleep and self-preservation, and they determine most, if not all of our actions. Sure, we all have these drives and they are natural, but on the spiritual path our goal is to become free of them to the extent that we are not ruled by them. We still have to sleep, but do we have to sleep eight hours a night? Could we not instead learn to sleep five hours of better quality sleep without all of the tossing, turning and dreaming that is actually unnecessary? We still have to eat, but we can also learn to increase our intake of prana, the life force, and therefore eat less – and most importantly, not eat motivated by greed, boredom or lust. Yes, the sexual drive is a very strong force, but how about learning to sublimate it and taking the kundalini force upwards to sahasrara chakra rather than downwards to mooladhara chakra where our vital energies get wasted? Or alternatively, making the sexual act into a prayer and meditation that helps rather than hinders our spiritual practice?

The question for me as a sadhaka is always: ‘does this help or disturb my spiritual practice? Does it distract me from my goal?’ Of course, spiritual practice is not the end in itself – the goal of realizing the true Self is. But sadhana is the means to realizing this goal. And at this stage, whatever distracts me from this goal has to leave my life, unless I can learn not to be distracted by it.

All this doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy life- not at all! But whatever we do in life, we have to learn to keep our minds focused on what matters. The trick of inner renunciation is to keep our minds fixed on the ultimate Reality while living in the world, though this can be hard and it is all too easy to forget who we truly are while entangled in worldly enjoyments. Sadhana keeps bringing us back to our centre, it shows us what is right for us and what isn’t, and that is why it is important to keep a regular meditation schedule.

I can now vouch for the sharpness of the razor’s edge. Let’s just say that I failed the test that my Master posed me. Though I knew in my heart that I was being tested and had great moments of clarity during meditation, I still fell off the razor’s edge. Admittedly, it was a tough test, but still I failed it. And I might even fail it again. But on the positive side, I realized my mistake immediately. I recognized my weakness clearly, which has brought me more humility, caution and a better understanding of what to look out for in the future. So, even though it can be hard sometimes, don’t become disheartened or beat yourself up when something throws you off the path momentarily. It’s normal. We’re human. The important thing is to pick yourself up again and to start over with greater zest. The moment we don’t repeat a mistake, we are free.

‘Perennial joy or passing pleasure? This is the choice one is to make always.’ – Yama to Nachiketa in ‘Katha Upanishad’

My book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now on Changemakers Books and BPI India

Is your spiritual practice working in your daily life? A reflection on patience, equanimity and compassion off the meditation seat

shiva 2

Lord Shiva in meditation

‘Spiritual work is not something practised only on remote mountaintops or isolated monasteries. The inner work I practice is marketplace yoga, or as Rudi once called it laughingly, ‘Survival yoga’. It is a spiritual work that bridges between our everyday life and our inner life. There is no separation in this work. We don’t punch a time card at the end of our day and move on to meditate. Our life is a meditation and a deepening of our consciousness.’Alik Elzafon

Has it ever happened to you that you felt very peaceful and full of love during your meditation session, and then lost your calm completely a little later in a traffic jam, during an argument with your partner or upon receiving an uncomfortable e-mail? If so, worry not – this is actually quite normal. Until we’re enlightened, we’re bound to lose our temper from time to time. And perhaps that’s even the case after enlightenment.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to observe the distinction some of us make between our spiritual practice (in meditation, during yoga class etc.) and our ‘normal life’ at work, with friends or at home. A friend of mine once said ‘you can see how spiritual somebody is by the way they treat other people.’ And there is some truth in that, for what good is our spiritual practice if it doesn’t carry over to the rest of our lives and instead makes us self-centred and insensitive to other people’s needs? A good sadhana should have the ability to open our hearts wide with compassion, to help us see life’s situations and ourselves clearly and with equanimity, and to promote happiness, joy and peace inside of us. This ideally will then also have an effect on how we interact with the world around us.

But it’s not always as simple as that. Our conditionings and samskaras often surface in situations that push our buttons. Old fears and unprocessed emotional wounds surface and lead us to react in stressful situations, and it’s often the case that we watch ourselves doing it as though we’re watching a movie. However, a good spiritual practice will at the very least alert us to what we’re doing and shorten the process of reaction drastically; and at best it will stop us from reacting altogether, no matter how uncomfortable the situation, because we have gained control over ourselves.

Uttarkashi in the Himalayas

Uttarkashi in the Himalayas

For me personally, I struggle with being patient. No matter for how many years I’ve practiced yoga and meditation, lack of patience is still an issue for me in certain situations. At the moment, my great test to see if my sadhana is working happens every week when I leave my peaceful abode in a tiny Himalayan village for the market town of Uttarkashi. Now, Uttarkashi can hardly be compared with big metropolitan cities like London or New York, but nonetheless – it’s India. Those of you who’ve visited India will know what I mean by that.

First of all, there is the journey to get to Uttarkashi, which is an adventure by itself. Here, we travel by ‘share jeep’. In India this means: as many people as humanly possible will be crammed into a jeep (if it is designed to hold nine people, at least twelve or fifteen people will be made to fit into it) which then has the task of reaching Uttarkashi on something that used to be a road once, but is now a succession of precarious landslides. You will then have the joy of bopping up and down in the jeep in a tight embrace with your neighbours while seeing steep cliffs on one side of the road and vertical landslides on the other.

Share jeep in India

Share jeep in India

At this point, in the early morning, I am usually still happy and calm and can even enjoy this bumpy ride. Then I reach Uttarkashi with a list of things to do and purchase, and usually one of the following things happens: 1) all the ATMs have run out of money and I might have to return back home as I don’t have enough money to buy what I need, 2) there are power cuts that prohibit me from doing my work on the Internet, or 3) shop keepers have decided that it’s a holiday but haven’t announced it to the rest of the world. This, together with the chaos, dust and kamikaze motorbike riders that are a part of most Indian cities, make it a great opportunity for me to see whether my meditation practice actually has any effect in the ‘real world’.

I sometimes fail dramatically, especially at the end of the day, when it’s time to go home and the jeep driver simply won’t leave, even though the vehicle is already piled up to the brim with people, but he’s waiting for yet one more person who can sit on somebody’s lap before he wants to start. But for every time I’ve lost my temper, I’ve been interested to observe the Indian reaction to such delays. Indians stay curiously calm most of the time – no matter what the delay or the annoyance. They may not be meditators, but they are simply used to this and don’t waste their energy getting annoyed – they wait and know that at some point, the wait will be over. It’s as simple as that.

I have to admit that I’m not that far advanced in my equanimity and patience skills, but I am learning something every time here. I use all of these delays and obstacles as an exercise in practicing patience, for, if I’m not going to learn to be patient in India, then where else? I’ve also developed a few strategies to remind me of my sadhana and to keep calm. One of the most important ones is the silent and constant recitation of my Guru mantra as soon as I set foot into Uttarkashi. Apart from keeping me connected with Guruji, it reminds me to remain calm and that everything is perfect as it is. If the ATMs have run out of money, then that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and I need to find another solution. If there is a power cut, I need to take a breath and use the time to do some purchases instead until the electricity comes back.

The Guru mantra also works wonders when I am at the grocery store. There is a curious system in India that I’ve now managed to figure out. The first time I went to the grocery store, a bunch of customers was standing closely huddled together in front of the counter, and everyone was shouting their orders at the same time towards the shop keeper, who then in turn shouted different orders to his assistant at the back of the shop. As I stood there wondering about how to get myself noticed, a man advised me to ‘just push in and shout as well, otherwise you will never get served.’ So that’s what I had to do, and I also had to learn to be patient in this situation because it can take a long time to get what you want with this system! This in turn I learned by looking at the shop keeper, who appeared unruffled and smiling in the onslaught of simultaneous shouted orders from at least ten people.

Another thing I do before braving Uttarkashi’s market is to visit the Kashi Vishwanath temple (ancient and famous Shiva and Shakti temple) on my way in and get my blessing from this powerful place. It works wonders, as the vibrations in this temple are so strong that I invariably exit with a big smile on my face.

Kashi Vishwanath temple, Uttarkashi

There are many strategies that keep us connected and remind us to take our sadhana into our everyday lives. The good thing about a spiritual practice is that it makes us reflect – and very often, that means reflection and awareness of ourselves and our behaviours. When we become more sensitive through meditation and other practices, we not only see ourselves and others more clearly; we also start to understand why we are acting in a given way and what we can do to change it. Sadhana ultimately is a tool for understanding our mind and its modifications, most particularly at an unconscious level, where all these disturbances originate. When we meditate, we connect with Shiva: pure consciousness; the unchangeable, immovable Self. This in turn then helps us to free ourselves from reacting to uncomfortable situations and to leading a more harmonious and joyful life. A bridge between our inner and outer lives is built that allows us to participate fully in life without forgetting its real purpose: realization of the Self.

My book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now on Changemakers Books and BPI India

Eyes blazing with the fire of transformation: The benefits of tapasya (austerity) in spiritual practice

swami satyananda

‘When my Guru, Swami Satyananda, performed the panchagni tapasya (austerity of sitting amidst five fires) at Rikhiapeeth for nine long years, his eyes developed such immense tejasa and brilliance that it was often difficult to look him straight in the eyes. One had to lower one’s eyes in respect and surrender to the beauty and brilliance that his eyes would emit.’ – Swami Satyasangananda

I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Gangotri, high up in the Indian Himalayas. Gangotri is one of the most sacred pilgrimage places for Hindus, as it is here that the river Ganga was originally received by Lord Shiva. Out of compassion for the condition of humanity, the Goddess Ganga decided to descend upon earth to help alleviate suffering – however, the impact of the river’s descent would have been so great that it would have destroyed the planet. Therefore, Lord Shiva offered to receive Ganga on his head first to soften the blow and to make a graceful descent possible.

Gangotri is a hotspot for sadhus, saints and sages. Bitterly cold most of the time, as it is a valley that doesn’t receive much sunshine, it attracts only those who can handle a bit of austerity. Sure, thousands of people visit for a couple of days and trek up to Gomukh (where the source of Ganga is now located due to the receding glacier) and even higher up to Tapovan, but the people who stay more permanently tend to be the sadhus. Some (very few) even stay throughout winter, when the road closes due to heavy snowfall, causing Gangotri to be cut off from all services, including electricity, phone and food supplies.

Near Gomukh

Near Gomukh

During my visits to Gangotri, I’ve been blessed with the company of sadhus who have lived there for years. This time, I was fortunate to spend time with a sadhvi (female sadhu) who has lived in a cave about an hour from Gangotri for the past thirteen years. She has also lived at Tapovan (a high mountain above Gomukh at an elevation of 4500 m) for three years under a rock. Mind you, this sadhvi is not a young lady – she is almost sixty years old and did not take sannyas until she was in her early 40’s. However, when I met her for the first time, I was blown away by her radiant face and blazing eyes. This meeting took place at Gangotri temple, and I watched her as she gracefully descended the stairs towards me in her geru robes, with long grey hair framing her delicate face. She was so beautiful and full of light that I couldn’t take my eyes off her for the entire time we were talking.

I’ve seen this glow on the faces of a number of Himalayan sadhus. Another sadhu I visit from time to time is Nirmal Baba, a Bengali sadhu who has been living in Bhojwasa (near Gomukh) for the past twenty-six years. It is a severely cold place, and he lives there all year around in his stone house by the Ganga which he has built himself – without a fire place or heating of any kind. As part of his seva (service), he offers kirtan chanting twice a day during the pilgrim’s season – and he sings some of the most haunting, beautiful bhajans I’ve ever heard. The atmosphere in his house becomes so magical that I don’t feel cold or hungry and that it doesn’t matter to stumble to his house in the snow before dawn.

Nirmal Baba has the same glow on his face, the same blazing eyes. I am convinced that this has to do with the intensity of devotion and trust in God with which these sadhus live – their hearts are so alight with love of God and Truth that it outshines the cold and other hardships they encounter in this forbidding environment. And of course, add to that the high prana in the Himalayas and the peace that a solitary lifestyle in nature can bring.

Nirmal Baba of Bhojwasa

Nirmal Baba of Bhojwasa

Yet another sadhu I’ve met lives even higher up in a cave in Tapovan all year around, where temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius in the winter. He lives there without fire and keeps warm by pranayama breathing exercises. This sadhu is young, twenty-seven years of age, and has been observing silence since he was nineteen years old. Last year he was caught in a snow storm and sat under a thin door frame for three days before he could start to dig himself out. And yet, he is one of the happiest, energetic and radiant people I have ever seen.

Tapovan Mouni Baba

Tapovan Mouni Baba

You may ask yourself (as I have done in the past!): what exactly is the point of all this? Does one have to live in such austerity to love God? Surely there are easier ways than living in a remote cave and eating a mono-diet of rice and dhal surrounded by snow and ice?

Sure. There are easier ways, and I don’t believe it’s necessary for most people to live in this way. But looking at the radiance of these sadhus, at the consciousness and focus they emanate, one cannot discount the benefits of their chosen lifestyle either. There is something about living so close to nature, on Her terms. Some of the sadhus I’ve met don’t keep mobile phones, and obviously there is no electricity in the caves. Their simple food (which they tend to receive by donation) is cooked on fire, or sometimes gas, and they spend most of their time in spiritual practice and contemplation. In such a lifestyle, where one learns to overcome the limitations of the body, the fire of tapas (austerity) burns away many karmic impurities. The glow that stems from such close encounters with Truth in turn shows externally.

Admittedly, this lifestyle is considered extreme even in India, and most likely judged as insane in the West. In India, most people have at least some admiration and respect for this type of austerity, as it is believed that renunciation leads to moksha (liberation). I’d also say that unless it is your karma, generated by lifetimes of spiritual dedication, you are unlikely to renounce everything and live in a Himalayan cave. But how can we apply some of the principles of tapasya into our modern lives? And what are the benefits of doing so?

My Gurudeva, Sri Prem Baba, often speaks about ‘intelligent austerities’. With this, he doesn’t mean harming your body by excess austerity, but renouncing something that you know isn’t good for you. For example, he advocates the practice of mouna (silence). Silence is tapasya for many of us. Our minds are not used to keeping silent and turning the focus inwards. We are constantly looking outwards for stimulation and validation, and the practice of silence (inner and outer) takes all that away. And once we are further along on the spiritual path, silence becomes the sweetest, most exquisite state of Being, as it is in silence that we can hear and become one with God.

Another example of tapasya would be cutting out self-destructive tendencies, such as eating things that aren’t good for us (excess sugar, fat, processed foods), smoking, drinking, drugs, unhealthy relationships, oversleeping etc etc. While we all know that these things don’t benefit us, we often do them nonetheless. So how to change this? In yoga, we make use of something called a sankalpa (intention). A sankalpa is like a vow: once taken, you cannot break it, no matter what. So a common sankalpa would be to recite a certain mantra X times in X days; to get up at 4 am every morning for meditation for the next 90 days; to stop eating sweets for the next three months; to stay in a given place for a year; etc etc. After the sankalpa has been completed, one can take up the old habit again – but one often finds that the body doesn’t want to do so any longer because it recognizes that it feels better without the habit.

These actions are called intelligent austerities because they purify our bodies (our temples in which Spirit dwells) and thus bring us closer to Truth and to who we really are without our conditionings. They may be hard to do initially, but the benefits will soon outweigh the cost. It may not be on a par with living a hermit’s life in a cave, but it’s very much doable and applicable to our modern lifestyles that often include many responsibilities. And you may find that some of the glow of tapas will find its way into your eyes and onto your faces, too.