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


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



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


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’


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

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

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.


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.


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.


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.

Why self-responsibility is so important in sadhana, healing, and just about anywhere else

hummingbird 2

The tendency of the world is to drag you down. The objects stimulate your senses and call your attention to the outside. This produces thoughts, which may or may not be in alignment with your internal drive, whether you are driven by a belief, an image, or even the Being’s yearning itself. Therefore, the first step towards uncovering love is to withdraw the mind, even if it is only for short periods of time throughout your day. Unplug yourself from the sensory world to connect yourself with the internal world. Only in this way will you be able to hear your heart.”

Sri Prem Baba

I just finished translating a wonderful book called ‘Simply Love’ from German into English language. Written by German psychotherapist Katja Sundermeier, it is one of the best books on healing I have ever come across. Though on the surface it is a book that investigates why so many people end up with failed relationships and how to change this, it’s really so much more than that. Katja proposes that everything in our current reality is but a reflection of the beliefs that are already inside of us.

Just pause for a moment to take that in. Everything in our current reality is but a reflection of the beliefs that are already inside of us. When I first read this statement several years ago, I thought it to be quite radical – but it also made total sense. If we constantly have problems with people in our lives who don’t appreciate us, then this is merely a reflection of an old belief system that tells us that we are not good enough. If we keep attracting unreliable people, this might just reflect back to us our ingrained belief and old wound that we are not important. So everything we are currently unhappy with in our lives is a reflection of these inner, often unconscious beliefs – and we can change this by becoming aware of them and re-writing our ‘script’, as Katja calls it. Every conflict in our lives is an opportunity for healing and growth.

This philosophy goes hand in hand with the yogic concept of avidya: not seeing things as they truly are because we are seeing them through the filters of our limited perception, based on the experiences we have made in life.The reason I am writing about this here is that Katja proposes one key ingredient to the healing of such faulty beliefs, and that is self-responsibility. Taking responsibility for our belief systems, for the injuries we have experienced in childhood, and for healing them. Healing, once we have awareness of where our misery comes from, can actually be very simple, if we are prepared to go deep within and do the work that is required. It’s not always easy, that’s for sure, and it often takes time, but it can be simple nonetheless. In ‘Simply Love’, she proposes an easy method that involves paying attention every time we find ourselves in an uncomfortable situation or with ‘bad’ feelings, in order to find out where it originates (often in childhood). Once we have that piece of information, we can then ‘re-parent’ it: a metaphor for taking responsibility for ourselves and giving ourselves what we need now. This very swiftly takes us out of the game of blaming another person or situation for our misery.

But we don’t always like to take responsibility for ourselves. It’s so much easier to blame the other, the angry boss, the nagging wife, the distant husband, the spouse who cheats on us. That this may have anything to do with us, and that we may be able to heal the situation if we take responsibility, is often only a strange concept at first, and an uncomfortable one at that because it requires us to take a good, honest look at ourselves.

With sadhana, it is similar. We may find a spiritual Master and then hope for him or her to take all of our bad karmas away from us. While Guru’s grace is very much possible, it’s likewise also true that Guru’s grace tends to descend upon students that are deserving of that grace. It’s like the aphorism of ‘God helps those who help themselves’. Swami Rama, one of the greatest yogis of all time, once said about this subject: ‘I was instructed by my master not to drink from or bathe in the water of the Ganges with any idea that by doing so my sins would be washed off. He taught me the philosophy of karma and said, ‘One has to reap the fruits of his karma. The law of karma is inevitable and is accepted by all the great philosophies of the world. Learn to perform your duties skilfully without aversion or attachment, and do not believe that anything can wash off your bad karma. Taking a bath in the river and making pilgrimages from one shrine to another will not free you from the bondage of karma.’’

One of the main things our spiritual Masters tell us all the time is to do our sadhana, our spiritual practice, because it’s this – the practices that help us to still the mind and thus access the flow of intuition within us– that can help us more than anything else. A good Master leads us to the path of self-responsibility: s/he doesn’t want us to be dependent on him/her, because s/he knows that the Guru is only a catalyst that helps us to find our own truth within: the deepest truth and divinity that is already inside of us, covered by layers of avidya and the glamour of maya. But how many of us do our sadhana regularly, on time and with sincerity and dedication?

It is easy to get distracted in life, especially when we are busy and live in the world, and personally I have only found one way out of this: tapas. With tapas, austerity, I mean discipline in this context. Making our sadhana, whatever that may mean for us, a priority in our lives, can work wonders. If we do our meditation haphazardly and always at a different time or skip it when we don’t feel like it, we mustn’t be surprised if we don’t yield results. But if we set an intention and do our sadhana no matter what, the rewards will come to us sooner or later. It’s like with anything you take up: the more your practice, the better you will become at something. It’s easy to stick to this intention once you have had a taste of the sweet nectar of the Divine and realize what the purpose of life is. Then sadhana is no longer a discipline: it becomes pure joy. But until that happens, a certain amount of tapas is important.

It was similar when I was writing my book ‘Meeting Shiva’. When I sat down to write it, with no idea of how to accomplish such a mammoth task, only one thing kept me going: repeated sankalpas (vows to myself). I said: ‘I am going to sit down at this desk every day at 2pm and will stay there until 6pm, no matter what happens.’ And this tapasya really helped me. It became ingrained, even though sometimes I would literally just stare at the screen for four hours and perhaps write one sentence. However, on other days, the words simply flowed from a place beyond my little self, and I learned that you never know when grace comes to you – but that you have to show up for it to happen! It’s the same with meditation: you may sit there day in and day out and think you are wasting your time, but then one day you might enter samadhi and realize that all the ‘pointless’ sitting has prepared you for this very moment.

This concept can also be applied to healing modalities. As an Ayurvedic lifestyle & diet consultant, I have generally noticed one thing: everybody wants to be healthy, and many people come to me who’d like to improve their health. When, however, they find out that for this to become a reality, they might have to change their diet, start exercising, practice yoga and/or meditation and let go of some destructive lifestyle habits or relationship patterns, the interest often wanes rapidly. We all want a quick fix, and best if that fix is in the form of a pill or herbal formula (or shaktipat from our Guru, right? :)). But the problem is that this is not sustainable and causes yet another dependency.

One of my teachers, Tony Crisp, always drummed into me: ‘Everything we need is inside of us already. We only need to learn to access our own inner wisdom.’  And I found this to be true: when we really take responsibility for ourselves and our well-being and take the necessary steps, our lives begin to transform. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t get support when we need it, because that can be very important, but we must equally realize that we are powerful beyond our wildest imagination and that we are only using a fraction of our true abilities. Spiritual practices, and most particularly going deep into silence and solitude, can remove this avidya and help us to see who we really are. We need to empower ourselves and access that wisdom within us. Each of us is an aspect of the Divine – it’s just that we have forgotten it momentarily.

I realize that discipline is very hard for some people. Some of us may have been disciplined in childhood and therefore now resist anything regulated. But what can really help is to tell yourself what you are doing it for. Is it your goal to write a book? To become happy? Healthy? To become a good meditator? Then focus on that, and tell yourself that the discipline (or self-responsibility, if you like this word more) is only a route to achieving your goal. Promising yourself treats at the end of each small goal along the way can work wonders, too; as can making a commitment to another person, such as a friend, a coach, to your Guru or a favourite deity that you will stick to your intention for a set amount of time. As with anything, don’t be hard on yourself and try to have fun with it, too. Everything is a process.

And remember: