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.


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.

Become an observer of your life and watch miracles unfold

Paying attention to synchronicities is very important because they are the voice of your intuition or the voice of God coming from within. However, I see that many of you are unable to perceive these signs as you are attached to a particular outcome for situations, filled with expectations. This is a limitation because you predetermine a way for things to happen and hope that life will fit into your plan. But life brings infinite possibilities, and it may offer something that is beyond your own plans.”Sri Prem Baba

I don’t know about you, but my life has turned out completely different from what I thought it would when I was a child. As a young girl, I had dreams of becoming an actress. But just when I was about to enter acting school in my early twenties, a place I’d really fought for, I was offered a job as sub-editor and writer for the hottest music magazine in London (and the whole world, in my opinion then!). I dropped acting school in favour of this job, and it was something I never regretted – for this move led me to start my own record label shortly after, and this again led me to the life I am leading now.

Fast forward a few years. After several years of working in the music industry, I had enough of the glamour, money and stressful lifestyle. I quit my job at the height of my company’s success because something deep inside of me was unfulfilled. I decided to study psychology and become a forensic psychologist. Yet, parallel to starting my degree, I was suddenly led to Glastonbury, a small town in the UK, to study the rituals of ancient priestesses of the Goddess. Three years on, instead of working in prisons as a psychologist, I actually started to work there as a pagan priestess. Instead of psycho-analysing the prisoners, I performed rituals with them and taught a course in paganism. Again, fate had gently nudged me into a different direction to where my little self had planned to go.

This sort of thing has happened to me quite a few times, usually when I was about to take a major decision, and I can only shake my head with splendid disbelief when I look at my life now. How on earth did all this happen – how did I end up living in the Himalayas for most of the year, performing fire ceremonies with yogis, meditating in caves, writing books and teaching courses on spirituality? None of this had ever, ever been in my plans or even in my wildest dreams.

So how did all of this manifest? I think it’s mainly been a matter of going with the flow, listening and accepting what wanted to happen, rather than what I thought should happen in my life. Not always, mind you, for at times my self-will was extremely strong, even when life showed me a very big sign post which read ‘THIS WAY!’ And those were without doubt the occasions during which my greatest suffering occurred– caused by my own stubborn efforts of doggedly swimming against the current or running up an escalator when it’s clearly going downwards!

This doesn’t mean of course that we shouldn’t work hard for our dreams or that we should do away with all effort. That’s not what I mean. Hard work and effort are part of life, but what I am talking about here is learning to read the signs. For example, writing my book ‘Meeting Shiva’ was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was an incredible slog at times and it took me over three years to complete it. However, the thought of giving up didn’t enter my mind (mostly!) because I knew the book wanted to be born and because I’d received enough signs in the way of synchronicities that told me that I was doing the right thing – an offer of a publisher I’d ‘randomly’ met at a conference to possibly publish the book before I’d even written it being one of them.

So what I’m talking about here is the subtle difference between self-will (‘this is what I want’) and universal will (‘this is what is good for my growth’). How do you make that distinction, and how do you know whether your mind is not playing tricks on you? You learn to read the signs – the language of the universe. And you learn to get out of the way. For, when you want to live the life that’s truly planned for you and thus reach your highest potential, you have to learn to get out of the way and let go. And most of us aren’t really good at that. In this society, we are trained to map our lives out from an early age. I remember thinking how absurd it was that at the tender age of 15, I was supposed to tell a vocational advisor at school what ‘sensible career path’ I wanted to take. Most of us haven’t got the slightest idea about who we are when we are teenagers, so how can we decide on a career at that age? And hence we think that’s the way it’s supposed to be: we pick a career, we work in that job for life, and then we retire in our sixties. We plan the next holiday, we get the mortgage, the new car, the new iphone, and we think that this is what life is all about. Nobody really questions it or wonders whether there is another way. And then we are surprised when we suddenly suffer of depression, stress, burn-out, mid-life crisis, serious illness or even go as far as wanting to kill ourselves.

So how do you get off this treadmill? There’s no one answer that fits all, but my spiritual practices helped me a lot to get out of the way. For me, this means practicing yoga, meditation, journaling and spending time alone in nature. For you, this may be something else – but it tends to be something that brings you back to yourself, something that makes you feel joyful, alive and at peace. One thing that I find very helpful in this process is to cultivate silence and listen deeply within. Start to look at the synchronicities that happen in your life, the little signposts that show us which way we are supposed to be heading. If something flows with grace and ease, and seems even magical and unbelievable, it’s usually a sign that you’re on to something. Doors that seem locked suddenly open for you; you meet a person who has just the right piece of information for you; you overhear a conversation in a café that gives you the answer to a burning question; your trip gets delayed and you meet the love of your life as a direct result… you get the picture.

When we become silent and start to listen, we get in touch with our intuition. Our small ‘I’ disappears and we are making room for our Higher Self that’s filled with infinite wisdom. For that to occur, we have to forget about our plans and goals and achievements for a while, in fact, we have to forget about ourselves completely. When we listen deeply, we become observers. We make space for that which wants to happen for our highest good and for our fastest growth. Life is intelligent and its aim is to evolve in the quickest way. It knows what is good for us. Our small ‘I’ often doesn’t and is led by the basic desires of survival, food, sex and sleep. We are hypnotized by the things that we crave and that feed into our need for approval, status and so on. Hence, we are unconsciously driven to make choices that are not really taken independently, but that are driven by those basic needs and society’s expectations.

When we stop striving to make something happen all the time, we begin to understand which actions are wise to take. These actions can then be taken in a very relaxed, calm and grounded manner, because there is no attachment to the outcome. Then the question of ‘what if this doesn’t happen or work out?’ doesn’t arise, because we are in the flow and we trust that whatever happens to us is for our best. Even taking a deep breath and cultivating one minute of silence before every major activity of our day can help us to become more aware. The more we go inward, the more we are silent, the more we meditate – the more we will be in communion with the deepest reality of who we are – that part of us that loves us infinitely and wants us to be all we can be.

‘Listening is one of the basic secrets of entering into the temple of God. Listening means passivity. Listening means forgetting yourself completely – only then can you listen.’ – Osho

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:




On Love



When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.

But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

(Kahlil Gibran – excerpt from the book “The Prophet”; shared by Sri Prem Baba in a letter to his sangha on the last day of Navaratri )

Focus on the road – some wisdom from Mooji


An encounter with Mooji

‘A man has been taking driving lessons and can now tackle the main road. One morning, he is driving on the highway alongside his instructor and it begins to rain. The instructor advises the man to switch on the windscreen wipers, but as soon as the wipers start moving, the driver’s attention begins to follow them and the car is now swerving from side to side along the road. Other drivers begin tooting their horns thinking the driver is drunk!

‘Can we turn the wipers off? They are distracting me,’ asked the learner.

‘Keep your eyes on the road alone and the wipers will not distract you,’ the instructor advises.

‘I think I need to go at least to the slow lane,’, requested the driver.

‘No,’, says the instructor firmly. ‘Only focus on the road.’

‘I can’t!’ says the man frustrated. ‘My eyes go involuntarily with their movement. Could we switch them off?’

‘No. You must learn to drive with them on,’ the instructor points out. ‘Focus only on the road.’

‘But it’s too dangerous! I can’t keep the car straight!’ says the man.

‘No. Stay focused on the road only, ignore the wipers.’

‘But it’s too dangerous! I will crash!’ the man exclaims.

Other drivers are now shouting and swearing at the man, ‘Get off the road, you drunk!’

The rain is now torrential, and the instructor pushes the wipers up to full speed. ‘Simply focus on the road. Relax.’

The driver, although very anxious, trusts the instructor’s calm voice. Gradually, the car straightens up as the driver is somehow able to hold his attention on the road despite the wipers swishing at full speed. The driver relaxes; now there is no distraction caused by the moving wipers.

It is the same here with you. Focus on the road means to stay focused as the neutral observer rather than focusing on your thoughts, surrounding conditions or apparent problems. Remain as the observer. Don’t follow the mind flow. You are not this mind flow. Keep the attention inside the awareness.’

‘What a beautiful example!’

‘The driver did not learn to focus by adopting a technique, by chanting mantras or by practising  yoga and meditation. He simply trusted his teacher’s advice, applied it, and focus simply happened. Initially, trust, effort and grace are all required for the attention to remain merged in the Self.’

Mooji, from ‘Before I am – The direct recognition of Truth’