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.

Do you need to renounce the world to advance spiritually, and is it selfish to do so?

Paramahansa Yogananda

Paramahansa Yogananda

‘Solitude is necessary to become established in the Self, but Masters then return to the world to serve it. Even Saints who engage in no outward work bestow, through their thoughts and holy vibrations, more precious benefits on the world than can be given by the most strenuous humanitarian activities of unenlightened men.’ – Paramahansa Yogananda

‘I was directed by my Master to visit various Swamis. At first I thought, ‘I am wasting my time; these are useless people. They are withdrawn from the world, sitting under trees. Why do they do that?’ – Swami Rama

Himalayan cave dwellers get a bad rap sometimes, I feel. People who withdraw from society to dedicate their lives to realizing the ultimate Truth are often seen as escapists and accused of being idle and antisocial. In a way, this is understandable, because when you go to India, you soon realize that not everybody who wears geru robes is a noble sadhu or Saint-in-training. Quite often, according to a sadhu friend, Indian men become renunciates because there is some problem in their families, because they don’t want to work any longer, or because they simply want to be free of rigid societal demands. Life as a sadhu can be quite easy in certain places: in Gangotri, for example, a sadhu eats three very nice meals a day provided by the local bandharas. In India, it’s also seen as auspicious to feed and donate to a sadhu and hence the whole cultural set-up supports those who leave the world in search of loftier ideals.

Sadhu in the Himalayas

Sadhu in the Himalayas

But, fake sadhus aside, what about the people who genuinely renounce worldly life to find union with the cosmic Beloved? People who may have fulfilled their obligations, have had families that are now grown up, or who simply don’t feel the need for marriage and family life? Is it really selfish to renounce society and spend your days in prayer and meditation, as some would have us believe?

Let’s look at this more closely. I’ve often heard spiritual leaders say, ‘You don’t need to withdraw from society and live in a cave to lead a spiritual life. Be in the world, but not of it.’ Ironically, some of these Gurus say this after they themselves have spent many years in solitude and spiritual practice. This is a bit like telling a poor person that he doesn’t need money after you have earned lots of it and then realized that it doesn’t bring you happiness. Sometimes I get the feeling that spiritual leaders only say this so that society doesn’t fall apart.

Mind you, the Gurus are probably right; you don’t need to live in a cave to become enlightened as we have seen in the example of many Saints such as Ammaji, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Lahiri Mahasaya, or my dear Guruji Sri Prem Baba. In history, we’ve seen many householders who became realized and turned into great Gurus. I believe though that this depends on previous karma and auspicious samskaras from past lives. And, at the same time, we also have many examples of sadhus and yogis who lived in caves or in extreme renunciation and attained the same goal of liberation: Swami Rama of the Himalayas, Swami Satyananda Saraswati or Mahavatar Babaji, to name a few. Cave-dwelling or not, those who become liberated seem to have one thing in common: a one-pointed focus on their goal, discipline, inner renunciation, and/or complete surrender to their Guru and/or God.

Ramakrishna Paramahansa

Ramakrishna Paramahansa

We may not need to go to the mountains to attain realization, but from my own experience I can say that sustained periods of solitude and silence are very good for strengthening one’s sadhana and focus. The world, with all of its charms and beauties, has the enchanting ability to distract us from our sadhana, often simply due to time constraints. Yes, we can use our families and our work as sadhana, but in a way, I feel that’s a different sadhana altogether. Ideally, you should be able to do your sadhana in the market place, but how many of us can really do this without having practiced in solitude first?

For systematically progressing in meditation or pranayama, a lot of time is needed, which is hard when you have to take care of a million other things in your life, such as small children, work, cooking, cleaning or simply surviving. As the musicians or writers among you will know, to master anything, you have to invest many hours in it. Psychologist Dr. K. Anders Ericsson talked about a ’10.000-hour rule’ in his research that suggests that it requires at least 10.000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in any given domain. Add to this that some places are also more conducive to sadhana than others. Sages haven’t flocked to the Himalayas for the mastery of spiritual practices for nothing over the ages – the mountains are rich with spiritual vibrations and a peaceful atmosphere that can propel your sadhana to different heights.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s really important to share what we accumulate. Especially the spiritual blessings and insights we gain. It’s vital in this age. But who is to say that the Himalayan cave dwellers don’t do that? They help many people from afar by increasing the spiritual vibrations of the world and raising the collective consciousness. Sages send out prayers and blessings with every breath they take, though they may do so anonymously and the world at large may never know about it. And after many years of solitude, once they have actually attained their spiritual goals, many sages decide to come back into the world to help others to become liberated, too.

And just look at what we received from all those cave-dwelling rishis of India: if they had not sat in meditation channelling universal wisdom in their mountain caves for years, would they have been able to bring us the wisdom of the Vedas? I doubt it very much.

The sacred Himalayas, abode of sages

The sacred Himalayas, abode of sages

I don’t think that this question is so clear-cut that you can divide it into ‘selfish’ and ‘selfless’. First of all, before we are realized, our actions are always going to be of a selfish, ego-centred nature. This is simply because the ego motivates us in all we do, even though we’d like to believe otherwise. We may be engaging in wonderful humanitarian work, but it will always come from a place of ego: because it makes us feel good or important, because we want to right old wrongs, and so on. A humanitarian can be selfish, and a sadhu can be selfless, and vice versa. Some may need to live in the mountains, others may need to live in the world.

But I don’t think that it’s fair to label those who choose a reclusive lifestyle to further their sadhana as selfish. Samadhi, the highest state of wisdom, actually shows us the union between all that is, thus stripping us of selfish desires and the feeling of separation. It is when liberation is attained that the practitioner actually realizes that all is One, which then automatically leads to authentic selfless service. At this point of Oneness, it’s not even ‘service’ any longer, as there is no difference between you and anything else any longer. Everything is you, and you are everything. So why would it be selfish to aspire to attain this goal, if the goal brings us the ultimate union?

Beloved Master Swami Rama sums it up beautifully in this video, shot in the solitude of Gangotri’s forests. One of the most accomplished yogis ever, he came to the West to fulfil his Master’s mandate of helping humanity through spreading the wisdom of yoga. But before he did so, he spent around forty-five years in the Himalayan cave monasteries 🙂

Hari Om Tat Sat.

If you enjoy  my writing, my book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now on Changemakers Books and BPI India.

Tasting the sweet nectar of silence: Reflections from a 40 day silent retreat in the Himalayas

The sacred mountains

The sacred mountains

‘Once upon a time, a student of meditation went to see a sage. The student began discussing philosophical concepts, such as God and the divine existence, but the sage didn’t say anything. The aspirant talked on and on about God and asked many probing questions, but still the sage kept still. Finally, in frustration, the aspirant inquired why the sage wouldn’t answer his questions. Then the sage smiled and said gently, ‘I have been answering you, but you are not listening: God is silence.’ – Swami Rama

In 2012, I read a book that stirred me deeply: ‘Cave in the Snow’ by Tenzin Palmo. It describes the life of a young English woman who went to India, became a Buddhist nun and spent twelve years living alone in a Himalayan cave to meditate. Her descriptions of the depth of her spiritual practice brought forth a strong longing in me to retreat into these sacred mountains, too. At around the same time, a friend told me about a forty day silent retreat she’d completed in South America, and how healing this experience had been for her. As my spiritual practices intensified in the last two years, I resolved to find the time to do the same in the Himalayas, a place I have a strong connection with. What interested me particularly about this retreat was the solitude. I’d done ten day silent Vipassana courses before, and though they are very strong, one is never alone. There is always the safety net of the teachers and the other students; one sometimes even shares a bedroom. I wanted to know what would happen if I’d spend a good amount of time in silence and solitude in an energetically strong place.

And energetically strong the Himalayas certainly are: sages and aspirants have performed tapasya (austerities) and sadhana (spiritual practices) there for thousands of years, and thus the spiritual vibrations are very high. Sure, you can perform a silent retreat anywhere in the world, even in your home, but there is something special about these mountains and the mighty river Ganga that emanates from them. There is something very ancient and magical in the air, and you can perceive this very well when you are still. This becomes stronger the higher up you travel, for example in the area of Gangotri, the place where Ganga first descended upon earth. Here, I constantly had the feeling that otherworldly Beings were watching over me as I meditated in the forest and by the river. I was later told that these are the ancient Masters who watch over the space and rejoice that you are doing these practices and thus add to thousands of years of spiritual tradition. I certainly had the feeling that the Masters were with me and guiding me lovingly on this journey of sadhana.

Firstly, of course, the question arises in the minds of many people as to why do something like this? Why lock yourself away for forty days with no contact to the external world, no phone, no internet, no conversations, no music, no books, no distractions of any kind? What is the point? For me, the point was to conduct a very fine study. If you really want to know yourself, your mind and its modifications and all the things that still hold you back, then silence is a superb tool for achieving this goal. In silence, the mind attains a very subtle and sensitive state in which you can realize many things you normally distract yourself from. There comes a point in sadhana where you understand that the answers to all questions lie in silence. I wanted to immerse myself in that silence.

I had a strong guidance to do this retreat in the Uttarkashi area, though I had not been there before, and set out to find a small, secluded cottage. As I live in the Himalayan foothills for much of the year, this was not too difficult – Swami friends gave me a couple of phone numbers and I found the perfect cottage in virtually no time at all. It was part of a small ashram that is run by a beautiful Swamini (a female Swami) who was very supportive of what I was trying to do. She availed a small cottage to me that was right at the banks of the Ganga and also had a covered terrace which allowed me to perform fire ceremonies even when it rained. The cottage was set amidst a beautiful garden full of flowers and trees and had an exquisite view of the mountains and forests. The roar of Ganga below was so loud that this was all I could hear, apart from the occasional bird song. As I thought it would be too distracting to buy and cook my own food in this retreat, I arranged to partake in ashram meals, however in solitude in my cottage. For this purpose, I gave the ashram cook a tiffin container into which she filled my food at meal times, which I then collected.

My little tapasya kutir

My little tapasya kutir

As I had decided to perform two havans (Vedic fire ceremonies) a day, I arrived at the cottage in late May with about ten kg of dried cow dung, five kg of home made ghee, bags of samagree and other paraphernalia in tow. High maintenance sadhana for sure! 🙂 After settling in for a couple of days, I went to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple in Uttarkashi to ask for Lord Siva’s blessings, and was promptly invited by the priest to help him wash and decorate the 4000 year old Siva lingam – a wonderful blessing indeed!

My sadhana began on the same evening at 6pm with a blessing from the Swamini and my first silent fire ceremony. I felt that it would be important to have a fixed daily schedule of spiritual disciplines in the retreat, a routine that I committed to for those forty days. For me, this was a mix of meditation, japa, pranayama, havan, asanas, contemplation, yoga nidra, baths in Ganga and at times a meditative walk. Mainly, I wanted to focus on my meditation and make systematic progress in it, and many of the other practices served to support this intention.

My days started at 3.30am and ended at 9.30pm, and during this time, I did around ten hours of practice per day. I had some free time in the mornings, during which I cleaned my cottage, did laundry and so on, and after lunch, when it was very hot. In the afternoons, I practiced the Pawanmuktasana series 1 from Bihar School of Yoga. These are joint-freeing exercises that focus on making the ankles, knees, hips etc more flexible. Though arguably the most tedious exercises in the world, they aided my ability to sit still in a meditation posture greatly.

So what was the retreat like? At first, it was mainly blissful. I felt immersed in the lap of the Divine Mother, Ma Ganga, who was rushing by with great speed just below my cottage. I loved being so close to nature, with the stars sparkling like diamonds in the black sky above me and the many birds, animals and creatures that lived around and inside my cottage. A bird family had made its nest under my roof, and I watched the baby birds hatch and take their first flight. My Being slowed down, and it felt like such a gift to have forty whole days to concentrate on my sadhana without distractions of any kind.

But the bliss, of course, doesn’t last. One thing that happens when you are in silence is that many memories and stored impressions from your life (and even other lives) rise to the surface. All your suppressed emotions, anxieties, desires, doubts and thoughts come up for you to observe. In a sadhana like this, you will really see how much you have forgiven others or processed your anger. It is like seeing yourself clearly in a giant mirror, and you don’t necessarily always like what you see. I, for example, was surprised to see how many old resentments and negativities I was still carrying around – something I hadn’t really been aware of as these things lie so deeply buried in the unconscious mind. Silence brings all this to the surface so that you can see it, feel it, process it and let it go. It’s like a major cleanse.

IMG_1240

View from my cottage

A key question for me in this retreat was: do you want to be free? Truly free? Free of likes, dislikes, samskaras, attachments? Every day I asked myself this question, and to attain this freedom, I knew that I had to go through the fire of transformation. And the Universe certainly brought me many situations to test my equanimity of mind and my desire to be truly free. Of course, in silence, where you can’t even complain, many small things seem like a big deal.

In my case, silence isn’t really tapasya. I enjoy and love silence and anyway spend a lot of time alone in nature. So other things came my way, for example the incredible pre-monsoon heat in a cottage with a corrugated metal roof and no fan. It became so brutally hot in the afternoons that it was often very difficult to perform my pranayama and meditation sessions. Or the many flies that decided to ambush my face and body during meditation and who I suspected were secret agents of the Taliban, as they caused me to wrap my entire body from head to toe in material. However, at some point I realized that it was good that I didn’t have a fan or fly screens in my cottage: with all those things, we control our environment, but we lose all control over ourselves. The flies were teaching me patience, ahimsa (non-violence) and sense control; the heat was teaching me strength of mind and surrender. It is said that everything that happens in such a sadhana is perfect, designed for the growth of the aspirant – and to maintain one’s centre throughout is key. And you can be sure that God and Guru always find new ways to test the sadhaka!  🙂

But the most difficult thing of the retreat was my mind, or rather, realizing how little control I have over my mind. My mind was constantly chattering, distracting and throwing up memories, and all I could do was try to learn to observe it and focus on my mantra or my breath throughout. With time, though, my mind became calmer, stiller and more focused. I spent a lot of time watching the beauty of nature and feeling immense gratitude. When we allow ourselves to surrender to silence, everything becomes clear, and we open in the process. Our inner wisdom can unfold. I became acutely aware that everything around me is alive, singing, playing, celebrating life: the birds, the plants, the rocks, the soil, the flowers, the leaves, the river. In particular, I entered into deep communion with Ganga, often hearing music and songs coming from her waves, at other times mantras, sometimes even voices. I spent much of my time simply listening to her, and became very intimately connected to her.

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View to Ganga from my cottage

I experienced Ganga as a perfect embodiment of the Divine Feminine: sometimes as a compassionate loving mother who gives and soothes our pain; at other times as the lover who is rushing to meet her Beloved; and sometimes even as a violent force that has the power to take life. She’s always different yet always powerful. Being near her is a transformation in itself. Ma Ganga, the river so sacred and important to the people of India, washes away your rough spots, just like she does with the stones who don’t even notice they are being polished and worn away. Being near her is a gentle transformation, one that is so subtle that you don’t realize it at first. Taking a bath in her icy Himalayan waters every afternoon also helped to cool the internal body heat that accumulates when doing intense sadhana.

During the course of the retreat, I became so sensitive that I started to communicate with the flowers, plants and animals in my mind, and literally saw that the Self is present in all of them. The connection with all that is around us becomes very strong in silence – the veils of illusion begin to melt away and we see things as they truly are. I particularly remember one day about halfway through my retreat when I heard the most beautiful ‘Om’ resounding from Ganga, sang by soft angelic voices. I heard it all through my asana practice, and in my meditation that day I vividly saw the core of who we are: concentrated energy, and everything else is just surface: the karmas, the personality, events. It is not us. We are that energy, the immortal Self. I was in such bliss and sweet joy that it almost made me cry. Shortly after I saw a butterfly and I felt its wings ecstatically flapping in my heart.

One of the many Himalayan birds

One of the many Himalayan birds

I also developed a very strong intuitive connection with my Guru. My Guru and other Masters were guiding my retreat constantly. I often heard Guruji’s voice in my meditation, instructing and guiding me, revealing and explaining things to me, even scolding me when I was becoming lazy, ungrateful or too whiny. ‘If you want me to bring you to the final goal’, he’d often say, ‘you have to let go of all conditioning. Just get over it.’ The mind needs to be peaceful in all situations, whether we like what’s happening or not.

In stillness, I’d often have deep insights and intuitions. And at times, I had sublime experiences in meditation that I previously only experienced in the physical presence of my Guru. I’d lose bodily consciousness, my breath would become subtle and effortless and I’d be fully alert and yet full of flowing bliss. A quiet joy would fill my heart. This wasn’t often the case, but I realized that sadhana is about showing up every day, practicing and being ready to receive grace when we’ve done all we can. Tapasya is sitting through the practice even when it appears fruitless. When the body aches and screams, when the mind wanders, when it’s impossible to focus on the breath and everything is sheer resistance. Then it’s the observation of exactly this state that matters: sitting through resistance, knowing that it will change. This realization was useful when at other times, especially in the heat, my meditation was terrible and I couldn’t focus at all, which brought me a lot of humility as well as patience with myself.

Another side effect of the retreat was a reduced need for sleep. Swami Rama once remarked that sleep is just a concept. In fact, in yoga, sleep is seen as one of the five vrittis, the main fluctuations that affect our outer consciousness. People who have realized the Self don’t tend to sleep more than two or three hours a night because they are constantly plugged into the vast storehouse of divine energy. Though I am far from such a stage in my sadhana, I certainly noticed my need for sleep decreasing. This, I feel, was mainly due to the pranayama exercises I was practicing twice daily, a daily yoga nidra as well as the fact that I wasn’t wasting any energy through talking and other external distractions. Though I needed around eight hours of sleep before, this decreased to about five or six hours and I managed to get up at 3.30am in the mornings without difficulty.

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Om Namah Shivaya

There is something special about doing a retreat for forty days, too. Forty day retreats are common in the Himalayan as well as in Christian traditions, as of course, already Jesus retreated to fast in the desert for forty days. Why forty? It is believed that forty represents a time of testing and trial, and that on the grand scale forty represents the experience of spirit in the physical body. Forty is a traditional number of discipline, devotion and preparation for confronting the ego. Certainly, what I noticed is that the first thirty days of my retreat prepared me for the last ten days. The last ten days were a thunderstorm of emotional and karmic releases and insights that weren’t very easy to sit through. But as in any purification, the revelations brought about great healings and led me to a point where my heart opened wide with compassion, forgiveness and gratitude.

When the completion of the retreat approached, I spent as much time in japa and meditation as possible. Though the last ten days were tough, in the end, I didn’t really want to come out of the silence. It had become so nourishing, like a mother’s loving embrace. But Guruji spoke to me and said ‘the important thing is to keep the peace and silence in your heart.’ And that’s true: when we can keep that peace within us when the world around us is falling apart, then we’re really getting somewhere with our practice.

On the morning of day 41, I broke the silence with the chanting of ‘Om’ and later chanted kirtan for an hour to liberate my voice. It was strange to be speaking again after nearly six weeks of being perfectly silent. The sadhana, however continued: the actual boon of the retreat didn’t happen until three days after I had concluded it. It was the day of Guru Purnima, the Full Moon day in July on which we honour the Guru. I’d decided to stay longer in the Himalayas and to celebrate Guru Purnima in my cottage with an early morning fire ceremony. A friend from the ashram joined me. It was during this fire ceremony that I had a huge karmic opening that showed me the background to my sadhana in the Himalayas. I was shown one of my past lives in this area and why I had to come back to do this tapasya in this life. This piece of information released a huge block and grief I’d carried around inside of me. The process was very emotional as the issue was brought to resolution through the fire ceremony. This state of remembering my past life continued for a couple of days after Guru Purnima when I was synchronistically led to places in which I had lived. This revelation helped me to better understand my deep connection to and yearning for the Himalayas and sadhu life. It’s incredible what intense sadhana can set free; it really has the ability to burn karma.

Guru Purnima havan

Guru Purnima havan

In conclusion, a 40 day silent retreat can be challenging at times but at the same time it’s incredibly rewarding. The spiritual path is a tough one, one of constant deaths and rebirths, full of thorns and dangers, and yet there is this light that guides us on – the light of love and freedom. We have to die to who we are to become our true Selves again, and immersing in such a sadhana can greatly aid this process. I really recommend it, whether you do it alone or as part of a group. Because, as Albert Camus already said, ‘In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.’

Hari Om Tat Sat.

Some tips on designing your own silent retreat:

Have a goal. What is the purpose of your doing this sadhana? What do you want to focus on? What would you like to get out of it?
Write out a daily schedule of spiritual practices and resolve to stick to it for the time of the retreat. This will help your process greatly. Be realistic, and at the same time remember that you are doing this retreat to progress in your sadhana.
Rise early. The best time for meditation is before sunrise. In yoga, the time between 4am and 6am is often considered best for meditation; in the Himalayan tradition it’s as early as 3am.
Be moderate with your sleep and your food. Eat sufficiently, but don’t overeat and especially stay away from stimulants such as black tea, coffee, sugar, garlic, onion, spicy and heavy foods. These will hinder your meditation progress. It’s also good to not oversleep; 5 to 6 hours should suffice in such a sadhana.
Keep a journal of your experiences. Many insights and spiritual experiences will come to you in a long retreat. It is good to keep track of them, as you are bound to forget them later.
Be prepared that big things can be triggered. Don’t undertake such a sadhana if you are mentally unstable or on medication. It is best to test your ability to be silent first in a guided silent retreat, such as Vipassana. Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama also offers great silent retreats and support for your designing your own retreat.
Organize everything in advance. Make sure you have everything you need before you enter silence – especially food arrangements need to be sound. If you cook for yourself, have a reliable person supply you with fresh fruit and vegetables once or twice a week and write out shopping lists in advance. You don’t want to be distracted by any organisational issues once you enter the retreat.
Give an emergency number to somebody. If you have family, you might like to give the number of the ashram you’re staying in to them – just for cases of extreme emergencies. This will put your mind at ease.
Consider studying a sacred text in the retreat. Though traditionally, one doesn’t read during silent retreats, scriptures like the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita can actually deepen your experience by reading a page or so every day and contemplating on it.
Incorporate a loving kindness meditation towards the end of your sadhana to ensure that the spiritual blessings you have accumulated are shared by all.
Allow enough time after the retreat to integrate what you have experienced – one week is minimum before you enter back into the world! If you leave too early, you risk dissipating the spiritual energy you have so arduously gained.
Feel free to contact me for advice on designing your own retreat – I’m happy to share!

If you enjoy my writing, my book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is available now via Changemakers Books and BPI India.