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.

Keeping it simple, or why the heart is the most important ingredient

Goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati

Goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati

In India, we have just celebrated the festival of Navarati. Navaratri, which means ‘nine nights’, is a spiritually auspicious time that celebrates the Divine Feminine in the form of nine Goddesses, the three main ones being Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Each of the Goddesses symbolizes a different energy which is worshipped with prayers, rituals and ceremonies.

As I was preparing for this year’s Navaratri, I came across a programme led by a nearby ashram that listed all of the different ceremonies it offered during the festival period. One sentence struck me in particular. In the description, it said that the Divine Mother would not accept any offerings from her devotees unless the Bhairavi puja (a particular ceremony dedicated to the Goddess’s fearsome aspect) is performed first. Really? I thought. What kind of Goddess would this be, if she didn’t accept simple offerings that come from the heart of her devotees who may not even know what a Bhairavi puja is?

This led me to reflect on the subject of simplicity. As a pujarin, I often come across different types of havans (Vedic fire ceremonies) performed for all kinds of purposes. In India, it is not unusual for a fire ceremony to take several daysand you will see all types of imaginable items, including large amounts of food and clothing, being offered to the Gods via the medium of fire, together with thousands of ancient Sanskrit mantras. Admittedly, it is impressive and often very powerful;especially if the ceremonies are performed and chanted by pandits from Varanasi who really know their stuff.

Swami Niranjan performing a havan

Swami Niranjan performing a havan

But, and that brings me to the point, what often seems to be lacking in these huge ceremonies is the heart. I’ve frequently seen pandits perform long havans while texting or speaking on their mobiles, talk to each other about unrelated subjects and even watch TV on their phones. And that’s not just the pandits – at a recent Indian wedding I attended everyone was drinking coffee and chatting while the pandit recited the betrothal mantras; even the groom’s father was on his mobile phone for the entire time his son was getting married. As a lover of Vedic rituals, I often feel sad when I see this. If we don’t understand and most importantly mean the rituals, then what is the point in performing them?

Over the years, I’ve moved more and more away from complexity in worship. Gone are the days when I tried to get every little detail of a ceremony right and thought that the more complicated the better. Now I simply tune into my heart and ask myself what my intention is. It is my belief that the Divine Mother, or any deity, will accept our offerings if they are heart-felt, no matter whether they are ‘correct’ according to the scriptures or not. Of course, it’s good to know the rules before you break them, but it’s just as important to believe in what you are doing and that it is making sense to you. I really feel that the heart is the most important ingredient in bhakti yoga, and a simple prayer offered with pure devotion can be worth more than a thousand costly puja items.

Keeping it simple makes our lives easier in other areas, too. For example, I’ve recently moved to a small village in the Himalayas. Life cannot get any simpler than this really – I am still getting my head around it actually. We’re about seven hours drive from the nearest airport or train station, and amenities are few. There are daily power cuts, and I’d say that we have electricity perhaps 50% of the time if we’re lucky; in bad weather it can happen that we don’t have electricity for days. So we learn to adjust and cook with gas by candlelight and do the things that require electricity once it comes back. And forget about washing machines; all laundry is done by hand in buckets.

Internet is not available in the village, and to use it I have to travel to the nearest town. This is actually really interesting as it has made me acutely aware of how much time I spend online in my other life. Now, I go to town once or twice a week and do my e-mailing in a focused way in an afternoon (if there is electricity!). And suddenly there is so much more time to meditate, to read, to sit or walk by the river, and to be with other people.

Food, like everything else, is really simple, too – mainly because choices are limited. We eat modest, fresh food that consists of rice, dal (lentil soup) and vegetables pretty much every day, with some variations in the type of vegetable used. It can be boring sometimes, but it also frees the mind – especially when, like me, you come from an affluent Western country where people have a hard time deciding on which nutritional supplement is the best. Here, the people don’t have this luxury – they are simply happy to have enough to eat.

The mountain people overall lead very simple lives. I often see old women fetch leaves for their cows with big baskets in the mornings; and in the process they climb up steep mountains in their colourful saris. When I look into their sun-burnt faces, I am amazed by their radiance and spirited eyes; when I look at their strong, wiry bodies, I almost feel embarrassed that I don’t have the same strength though I must be half their age. These people may not have many luxuries – many of them live in stone houses without running water, electricity or bathroom – but they live in tune with nature and their faces show it. Most elderly people in the West nowadays have difficulty climbing up stairs, let alone mountains. This is not to say that this basic lifestyle is better than ours or that the people here enjoy poverty or lack of amenities, but living simply can be a very good way of learning to decondition our minds, practice acceptance and assess what’s really important.

Another aspect I often notice is how dependent we are on mod cons. Winter is coming up and of course houses here don’t have central heating or even a fire place. You could use electric heaters but they are of little use due to the electricity shortage. People here are just used to this, and it’s made them strong and resilient. It reminds me of something I once heard about Swami SatyanandaSaraswati, who in his later years decided to live as a simple naga (naked) sadhu in a mud hut. No matter what the season, he remained naked and would pour freezing cold water over his body early in the morning every single day. He wanted to live in tune with the elements again – as, really, we are designed to.

It is in this way that we can gain control over our minds, become strong and face challenges and adversities with equanimity. It’s fairly easy to sit in our heated or air-conditioned apartments and practice meditation; it’s much harder to do so when the icy mountain winds blow around us. I’m often fascinated by the sadhus here who live on the high peaks near Gangotri, sometimes naked, sometimes with nothing but a thin dhoti, in all weathers.

Mastery over our mind is ultimately an aspect we have to face in our sadhana if we want to be truly free. We need to learn to accept everything with equanimity: heat and cold, sunshine and rain, silence and noise, gain and loss, and so on.Though I am often being pushed out of my comfort zone here, part of the reason that I have come to the Himalayasis to face myself and learn how to live joyfully in all conditions. Such challenges are all part of the practice of pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, one of the eight limbs of yoga.

But really, when I walk out of my front door in the mornings and see the beautiful river Ganga rush through the wooded valley ahead of me, a big smile manifests on my face and I feel so deeply blessed to be here and have the opportunity to live simply.

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Ganga beach near my home

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