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.

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View from my cottage

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

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

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

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View to Ganga from my cottage

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

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

One of the many Himalayan birds

One of the many Himalayan birds

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

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

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

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Om Namah Shivaya

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

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

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

Guru Purnima havan

Guru Purnima havan

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

Hari Om Tat Sat.

Some tips on designing your own silent retreat:

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

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

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Melting like frozen butter in front of fire: Reflections on the Guru-disciple relationship

The lotus feet of the Guru

‘What chance does frozen butter have in front of fire?

If the fire is real, the butter will melt automatically.

The right guru, with the fire of truth in his heart,

with the warmth of compassion in his being,

with the heat of tapas, penance,

and his direct knowledge will melt you in no time.

He will leave you with no option.

Let alone just surrender, you will find yourself willing to do anything for him.

He can inspire you to give up your life for a cause,

with his mere presence he can empty you so you may be filled,

he can soften you so you may be molded,

he can transform you,

with his one glance, he can wash ashore all your bottled up negativity, anguish and pain.’

 — Om Swami

Inevitably, there comes a point in the life of the spiritual seeker when surrender becomes an important subject. I’d go as far as saying that at a certain point, surrender comes to be the greatest spiritual practice.  I have written about the subject of surrender on this blog before, but what I want to talk about specifically today is surrender to a Guru, as seen from the yogic perspective.

First of all, what or who is a ‘Guru’, and why do we need to surrender to him or her? In the yogic tradition, the Guru is a spiritual Master who has realized God, i.e. the ultimate Reality, and has thus become a flow of unending love and compassion. Because of this compassion for the human condition, the Guru works ceaselessly to help others reach this state of divine realization, too. A realized Master has the ability to enlighten the mind of his/her disciples, and this often takes place through an initiatory mantra. The Guru is thus seen as the one who ‘dispels the darkness of ignorance’.

In Hinduism, the Guru is actually believed to be God in human form and is often worshipped as such with offerings of flowers, lights and pranam (bowing down to the Guru’s feet that are said to transmit powerful energies). This is because it is hard to relate to a formless God which we can’t see – it is much easier to have a divine incarnation that we can see and touch in front of us. In India, serious disciples surrender themselves, heart, soul, body and mind, to their Guru. Ego, self-will and the limited self are all offered to the transformational fire of the Guru. By doing so, the Guru’s grace can start to flow through the disciple: by surrendering, the disciple becomes an empty vessel for the Guru’s work. This surrender on behalf of the disciple is portrayed beautifully in Swami Satyananda’s poem that I posted a few days ago.

Coming from a Western background, it has taken me quite some time to comprehend the mysteries of the Guru-disciple relationship. About six years ago, I was living in a Hindu ashram in the remote Indian Himalayas, teaching English at the ashram school. This ashram was presided over by a Guru who was no longer in his body, and Rudra, the sannyasi in charge of the ashram, was completely surrendered to him and his mission. At that point, though I was living in the ashram, I found it really hard to understand this level of devotion. Rudra had given up everything – his job, his family, his possessions – at a young age to follow his Guru into the Himalayas and to serve him for the rest of his life. Guruji was everything for Rudra, even God couldn’t reach his status. I remember looking at the picture of Guruji during the twice-daily arati and wondering about the great love and trust that exists between Guru and disciple, and about the level of sacrifice and surrender it often entails. With my Western mind, I found it hard to fathom and even thought it was a bit extreme.

Until it happened to me.

In recent years, before I met my spiritual Master, I’d been pondering the Guru-disciple relationship with a mixture of curiosity, resistance and inklings of desire. Why was it important to give up one’s free will? I used to wonder. I read a few books on the subject and they all seemed to say the same thing: a) that a Guru is absolutely necessary for the more advanced stage of sadhana (spiritual practice) and b) that once you had found this Guru, surrender to him/her was just as important. I had been initiated into a spiritual lineage several years ago by a Guru and loved the tradition – but devotion and surrender? Not really. I felt respect, admiration and gratitude–but that was about it.

Still, slowly, slowly through the use of mantra and other spiritual practices, a desire to surrender myself to a Guru grew in me almost unnoticed. It felt almost as though I had gone as far as I could go in my sadhana without this element of surrender, but I didn’t know how to. It even seemed absurd to me: surely one couldn’t surrender at will, just like one doesn’t fall in love at will: it just happens when the time and the circumstances and the karmas are right.

And then the unexpected happened. At end of 2012, I was in Rishikesh, India for my YTT500 yoga teacher training. For years I had been hearing about a Brazilian Guru called Prem Baba who comes to Rishikesh every year to give satsang, but had never felt the urge to go and see him. This year was different somehow, and I decided one fine December morning to go to see him, out of sheer curiosity.

At the satsang, a beautiful, slight man with long curly hair and a long white beard entered the hall in white robes. Seeing him instantly brought a warm glow to my heart – he had a radiant smile and his eyes literally sparkled with love and light as he took time to look at everyone who had come to sit in his presence. Sitting in satsang with my eyes closed and listening to his gentle voice, my heart suddenly opened, and I started to cry from a very deep place within me. A sweet feeling of recognition and the exquisite pain of the heart melting took hold of me. It was as though I was in the presence of a divine Being, like I was sitting in the very presence of Jesus or Krishna. My mind became calm and peaceful. I had never felt like this in the company of anyone else before.

When Prem Baba stopped speaking, I opened my eyes and saw that some people lined up to speak to him and to do pranam (bow down to his feet). Something very strong pulled me up from the floor, too, and still with tears streaming down my face I staggered towards Prem Baba, literally fell to his feet and remained there sobbing. When I pulled myself up again, he looked at me with so much love and compassion that my heart wanted to tear.

I went back to my seat and meditated for a while. Something huge had just happened. Who was this man? What was my connection to him? What had he done to my heart? I had never bowed to any human person like this before, so what was this?

Just as the inherent sweetness of honey never fails to draw bees, Guru, by the magnetism of his personality, never fails to draw people to himself. In the presence of such a personality, the seeker has no option but surrender. When we approach such a person, a spontaneous link is established. It is something like love at first sight. Once magnetized, the disciple discerns a transformation within. If you have felt this way in the presence of anyone, then you should know that this is your Guru.’

— Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati, in ‘Light on the Guru and Disciple Relationship’

This is what happened. I had met my Master.

Nevertheless, it still took me a year to surrender fully to him. I wanted to be absolutely sure that it wasn’t just my mind and my emotions playing tricks on me, as after all, I was already initiated into a tradition, and spiritual initiation is not something to take lightly. It is the most important thing in a person’s life. So I returned to India the next year to spend time with my first tradition and Guru as well as with Prem Baba. Things became very clear soon. With his mere glance, Prem Baba melted me. After a few days in his presence, there were simply no questions left in my mind. Surrendering to him was not a decision any longer. It had already happened by itself, and I was soaked in an ocean of nectar sweeter than anything I had ever tasted before. I was intoxicated with the bliss of his darshan.  I had never felt so much love for anyone in my life, nor did I know that I was actually capable of that much love. His unconditional love acted like a mirror in which I recognized myself, my own divinity and that of all creation. I started to understand that surrender to the Guru is the ultimate freedom.

With my beloved Master Sri Prem Baba

With my beloved Master Sri Prem Baba

It is said that sometimes, a Master sends you to another Master. I feel this to be true in my case, and I am very grateful to my first Guru for preparing me and transforming me sufficiently to meet the Master I could surrender to. The connection to her and her lineage will always be strong and present in my heart.

I can see clearly now why this devotion we feel to the Guru is so important. Without it, we would not trust him or her sufficiently to help us cross the ocean of samsara. Without it, we would never do what the Guru tells us. Only when somebody melts us like this, only when Krishna makes his lover’s flute heard in our hearts and bestows us with the intoxicating sweetness of his divine nectar, will we be able to surrender to him/her and say ‘May thy will be done.’

The ‘being in love’ with the Guru and the reverence for him/her is actually not important in itself. It is just the initial stage which ‘binds’ you to the Guru. Obedience is, for the spiritual path is razor-sharp and full of dangers. The Guru has walked this path before you and knows its pitfalls. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that you follow all his/her instructions without question – because if you can’t obey the Guru in simple things, how will you obey him/her on the path to enlightenment?

Though my understanding of the Guru-disciple relationship is still limited, I experience it as something very subtle and sublime. It is almost impossible to understand and even harder to explain. It takes place on a transcendental level between your soul and the soul of the Guru. The personality of the Guru is irrelevant here, as s/he communicates with you through his/her unconscious mind, and you need to develop an inner connection that is strong and sensitive enough to hear the instructions s/he transmits. The Guru often communicates through dreams and intuition, even though sometimes s/he will communicate through words, too. Therefore it is important that we practice our sadhana as instructed by the Guru and strengthen our connection and trust in that way.

Of course, just like in any relationship, once the initial ‘glamour’ wears off and when the honeymoon period is over, the Master will present you with the challenges and tests you need to grow and leave the limitations of the ego behind. This is why we have entered into this relationship: we give the Master permission to work on us, to chip away on us like a stonemason chisels away on a piece of stone to make us into a masterpiece, to transform base metal into gold. And for that, surrender to and trust in him/her is paramount.

If you’d like to read more about the Guru-disciple relationship, I recommend the following books:

Mere Aradhya – My beloved Guru’ by Swami Dharmashakti Saraswati

Light on the Guru-disciple relationship’ by Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati

At the feet of a Himalayan Master – Remembering Swami Rama’ by Prakash Keshaviah

Guru and Disciple’ by Swami Abhishiktananda

Fire of Transformation’ by Gaura Devi

‘My spiritual journey with Swami Satyananda’ by Vishwaprem

And here is a beautiful article by Sri Prem Baba about the Guru-disciple relationship:

http://www.sriprembaba.org/en/guru-disciple-relationship

If you are interested in reading more about my time in the Himalayas, my book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now on Changemakers Books

Guru’s grace, and the power of surrender

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‘My Guru has shown me the path.

He desired my body. 

I gave it to him unflinchingly.

He asked me for my prana

I offered it, unhesitatingly. 

He said, ‘Will you give me your mind, too?’

I replied, ‘It is yours forever.’

I was left with nothing,

Empty and desolate.

The dark blue sky dotted with stars, and the moon,

That was all I had now.

Then all at once,

The sun burst upon me with a song,

The restless ocean bathed me with its waves,

The thundering clouds burst upon me with rain,

The snow-white swan danced before my eyes,

A flash of lightning illumined my soul.

My Guru came to me once again.

He said, ‘Will you give me the samskaras

You have collected life after life?’

I looked into his deep brown eyes,

Into the dark and deep abyss of his Being.

For what seemed aeons, he stood before me.

Everything else began to dissolve before my eyes,

To melt and fade away.

There was unity within and without.

It is the grace of my Guru,

He who has extinguished my being,

And absorbed me into himself.

My Guru has shown me the path.’

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

 

 

The power of mantra: how repeating simple Sanskrit phrases can change your life

Chetana web

I recently went to a mantra chanting event with one of my favourite teachers, Jana Runnalls from Glastonbury. We chanted various Sanskrit and Tibetan mantras that vibrated through our bodies and minds with a subtle charge that had the power to silence all thoughts. This caused me to reflect on my journey with mantra and how practising them changed my life completely.

I was introduced to Sanskrit mantra about a decade ago. I’d started to study Kundalini yoga then, a path of yoga on which mantras play a big part. Yet, it wasn’t until I visited India for the first time that things really began to fall into place for me. Within days of being there, I met Yogi Vishvketu and Chetana Panwar at Anand Prakash ashram, who practiced Agni Hotra fire ceremonies every morning as part of their spiritual practice. In this practice, many elaborate Sanskrit mantras are chanted while ghee and sacred herbs are offered into the fire for healing, purification and spiritual advancement. I began to participate daily, as well as chanting other, simpler mantras we were taught in class, and soon noticed profound shifts taking place in me. I started to feel more peaceful, more aware and more sensitive to myself and others. (You can read about this on my Travelling Priestess blog here).

However, one of the best and to this day most astonishing experiences of my life was taking mantra diksha (initiation) with my Guru Swami Satyasangananda (Satsangi) Saraswati. It is often said that mantras work best if they are ‘charged’ by a Guru who has walked the path to self-realization to completion and can thus give you a transmission of their spiritual powers. The person who has walked the path before you knows its pitfalls and dangers, and will also know the full meaning and potential of a given mantra. S/he is therefore able to select a mantra that is right for you and can lead you, too, to realization in time. This is because, through intense practice, the Guru has developed inner vision that allows him or her to see who you truly are at soul level. Therefore, the mantra, it is believed on many yogic paths, is the most important tool for moksha, liberation.

So, several years ago, I felt it was time to dedicate myself seriously to my spiritual path and put out an intention to meet the right spiritual teacher who could help me to do so. Just a little later, Swami Satsangi visited England and I was drawn to taking initiation with her. Before the actual initiation, my friend Rama slipped a little encouraging note into my hand. ‘Mantra is the bridge that connects’, it read. Connects us with what, I wondered then? Later, I understood that the mantra is the bridge that connects us with the Guru, but moreover, with the higher teachings, with our higher Self and ultimately, with the direct experience of the Absolute.

Before this happens, though, a purification process has to take place. We hold so many negative patterns and conditionings in our bodies and minds, and for energy to flow freely through our system, these need to be dissolved. Practicing mantra and other spiritual practices help us to eradicate the tensions that obscure our vision. Mantra thus aligns us with our true Self, with the person we are meant to be.

‘Everything will come out’, my Guru said during initiation. ‘Your jealousy, your rage, your anger, all the negative patterns you have suppressed within yourself will come out when you repeat this mantra. If you don’t want this to happen, then don’t practice it.’ Weird, I thought then, that repeating several syllables can cut through your personality and dissolve your karmas. I didn’t even know what that meant back then, or how it would affect me. I just decided to take the leap and trust.

And it worked.  Looking back, I know now that by taking this first mantra initiation, something in me changed forever. At the time, it felt like something exploded in my head when my Guru touched my third eye. But it wasn’t really until years later that I realized how much it would transform me.

Swami Satsangi

Swami Satsangi

Mantra diksha aligned my entire life with my spiritual practice, and it is always bringing me closer to who I truly am – beyond the personality, the false identity, the karmas. Since I regularly practice mantra, I have become more creative, always more open to trusting and flowing with life, and less fearful.  It has allowed me to see worldly life as a cosmic game – important in some way, but not important at all in another, bigger way. It has also brought more ‘difficulties’ into my life at times: it’s said that when we perform spiritual practices, our karmas come to resolution faster because the karmas ‘stand in our way’ to realization. If we recognize this, we can regard every perceived adversity as a blessing.

One funny side-effect of my mantra practice is that some things just ‘disappeared’ from my mind. I can only liken it to erasing a hard drive of a computer – it’s like mantra has done that to my mind and replaced the previous content with something else. More precisely: films, music, books, activities that meant so much to me before I went to India have just ceased to exist. In many cases, I don’t even remember them anymore, and when I do, it’s like a different person used to enjoy them. So be careful, for mantras really work: if you’re not ready to let go of your old identity, you might be in for a surprise! 🙂

I find the Maha Mrituyunjaya mantra particularly effective when I suffer of a physical or emotional pain – it tends to ease it within minutes. I recently suffered for hours of a migraine headache and then finally remembered to recite the mantra and very soon the pain was gone.

Even if you don’t take mantra diskha, mantras can still be helpful. Deva Premal and Miten recently offered a 21-day mantra challenge online, in which they introduced many mantras together with their meanings. This is really great if you don’t have much experience with mantra and would like to find out more.

Here are some of my favourite mantras (click on the links to find out more about them – you can also find them on Youtube for correct pronunciation):

Om Namah Shivayaa universal mantra to awaken higher states of consciousness

Maha Mrityunjaya mantraespecially effective for healing

Gayatri mantraancient Vedic prayer that demonstrates the unity that underlies creation

Kali mantraa powerful mantra for letting go

Ganesha mantragreat for starting new ventures and for removing obstacles

Durgapath a wonderful mantra that keeps us aligned with our spiritual path

To find out more, you can also read ‘Mantra and Yantra’ by Swami Niranjananda Saraswati

Enjoy the magical process of mantra sadhana!

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

Freedom from bondage: Do we really need to eat, sleep and lose vital bodily fluids?

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‘A person who has perfect control of body and mind is a yogi in every situation.’ – Hatha Yoga Pradipika

A couple of days ago, I visited a local ashram for a Vedic fire ceremony. Later, I shared a table with an acquaintance who works at the same yoga studio as I. As we were waiting for dinner to be served, she told me that she was waiting for her young daughter to have food before going home. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘you’re not eating?’ ‘No’, she replied, ‘I am a breatharian.’ Breatharians, or Pranier in German, are people who don’t need to eat or drink as they can exist on prana, the life force. ‘Really?’, I asked her. ‘Tell me more.’ The woman told me that the inspiration to become a breatharian came to her during a spiritual practice her Guru had given her. ‘It wasn’t so much a conscious choice to stop eating’, she told me, ‘I just suddenly knew in my meditation that this was the way for me.’

So she began with a ‘conversion process’ during which she didn’t eat or drink for seven days, and only practiced the pranayama techniques her Guru had shown her. In total, the process to become a breatharian  took her three weeks. Since then, she rarely eats – only when she feels like it, which is about once a week. ‘I eat for enjoyment now’, she said, ‘or when I visit my parents, who don’t know that I am doing this. And I also noticed that the urge to eat comes to me when I am stressed. But the main thing is that I don’t have to eat, which is a liberation.’ Surely it is. When you think about it, most of our time is dedicated to food. We work to acquire food, then we purchase or grow it, prepare it, eat it, and clean up the dishes afterwards. When we travel, we spend a good amount of time looking for food. It’s a time-consuming affair. I’ve often thought that it would be great to eat only through choice, for the experience, and not because I have to.

My acquaintance also told me that since she stopped eating, all of her health problems disappeared. ‘I used to have a lot of pain in my body, terrible back pains, as well as psychological pain’, she said, ‘and it’s all gone now.’ And she looks great: glowing, radiant, and not skinny at all. Her story fascinated me. I’ve heard about breatharians before, but I’ve never actually met one. If you believe the Internet, then more and more people are learning to live on light and air, and long-term breatharian Jasmuheen is giving advice on  how to on her website http://www.jasmuheen.com. Apparently, it’s a mental choice – breatharians say that we erroneously believe that we have to eat to survive, but we can equally choose to live on prana.

From a yogic viewpoint, this is not really anything new. Yogis in India have lived on little or no food since ancient times, because their spiritual practices support them with everything they need. The bodily needs and even functions are considered to be bondage, because they keep us from being truly free and also distract us from our spiritual progress. Likewise, the conservation of vital fluids, i.e. semen and menstrual blood, is recommended in some of the yogic texts, as these fluids contain our life force.

As a woman, I find the idea that our life force is contained in the menstrual blood very interesting. It certainly makes sense, as women tend to feel tired during menstruation, and it is suggested that we rest as much as possible during this time. As Hatha Yoga was traditionally a masculine path, much has been written about the conservation of semen for men, especially during the sexual act, and practices have been developed that help men to do so and thus contain the prana in their bodies. One of these yogic practices is called vajroli mudra, which has to be practiced under the guidance of a Guru and consists, among other things, of learning to slowly draw in air through a tube that is inserted into the urethra of the penis. Perfection of vajroli mudra is said to give a man greater vision, as well as increased vital and mental power. Loss of semen equals degeneration and death.

What is less known is that there is a related practice for women called sahajoli mudra, which instructs women on how to control their rajas, the menstrual blood, as well as suppress ovulation. This practice involves the same muscle contraction by the urethra as vajroli mudra. Note that this practice only makes sense for yoginis who have chosen not to have children, and should only be done under the guidance of an experienced teacher. If a woman wants to reproduce, a rich menstrual loss, just like a high sperm count in men, is of immense value. Likewise, in many traditions, menstruation is seen as sacred, as this is the time when a woman is at the height of her power, in particular spiritually. She is more intuitive and it is a time that is conducive for introspection, seclusion and sadhana.

However, ultimately, for a yogini this is also bondage as a woman’s vital energy is draining from her every month – vital force that she could conserve and circulate within her body to nourish her internal organs. The mental and physical fluctuations that accompany a woman’s cycle bind her to physical consciousness. By withdrawing the bindu (ovum), a woman experiences the awakening of a higher energy force within her body and her consciousness effortlessly expands into transpersonal awareness.

The ‘third pillar of bondage’ in yoga is said to be sleep. Highly advanced yogis are said to sleep just two to three hours daily, or not at all, if their meditation practice has been perfected. As the spiritual aspirant advances, s/he will need to sleep less and less, parallel with prana being increased through practices given by the Guru. This development is also aided by the practice of Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep.

It’s interesting to see how limited our earth-bound consciousness is, and how much we are capable of given the right practices. Of course, if we live in the world, have demanding jobs and families to support, these spiritual attainments may be difficult to master. But we can nevertheless take inspiration from the yogis – and in sadhana, every hour of practice helps. Perhaps the middle path is a path in which we have better and deeper sleep aided through Yoga Nidra; practice brahmacharya and eat healthy pure foods to lessen the flow of menses; and eat moderately but choose foods that have a high content of prana, such as fresh organic greens, vegetables and fruit. In this way, we increase our prana, expand our consciousness and heighten our sensitivity at the same time.

Find out more:

‘Hatha Yoga Pradipika’ by Swami Muktibodhananda (Yoga Publications Trust)

‘Conscious Eating’ by Gabriel Cousens (North Atlantic Books)

‘Yoga Nidra’ by Swami Satyananda Saraswati (Yoga Publications Trust)