What stands between you and enlightenment? Some reflections on the importance of spiritual purification

The yogi casts his human longings into a monotheistic bonfire consecrated to the unparalleled God. This is indeed the true yogic fire ceremony, in which all past and present desires are fuel consumed by love divine. The Ultimate Flame receives the sacrifice of all human madness, and man is pure of dross. His metaphorical bones stripped of all desirous flesh, his karmic skeleton bleached by the antiseptic sun of wisdom, inoffensive before man and maker, he is clean at last.’ – Paramahansa Yogananda

fire

A few days ago, I meditated with Swami Veda Bharati of the Himalayan Tradition. After the meditation, he gave a small satsang in which he said that somebody had asked him how to attain siddhis (yogic psychic powers). Swamiji’s response was that he wasn’t interested in siddhis: the only thing he is interested in is purification. His Master, Swami Rama, had once asked him what yogic siddhis he wanted. None, he replied, the only thing worth attaining was Samadhi. Now you have to consider that if anybody possessed yogic siddhis in this world, it was Swami Rama, and such an offer coming from him would be very tempting indeed to many aspirants. Nonetheless, Swami Veda knew that siddhis are a mere distraction on the spiritual path, and that to really grow spiritually we have to purify our minds and emotions. Only when we are free from our pasts and are able to keep our hearts open with pure love at all times have we attained anything.

Then what actually is this spiritual purification, and why is it so important? Purification is a strange word at first and may even trigger reactions in some. It sounds as though we are somehow impure or even sinful, right? I therefore think that first we need to clarify what the concepts of pure and impure really mean in this context. In my understanding, purity is divine love – a selfless, unconditional love that is not bound by expectations of any kind, and related values such as compassion and kindness. This is our true, ‘pure’ nature. On the flip side, impure are all of the emotions and actions that come from a different place: selfish ‘love’ that is motivated by attachment and need; dishonesty, and anything that is obscured by the veil of maya which tries to tell us that we are not loved and that we therefore have to manipulate others to receive that love, or punish them for not giving it to us.

All of this ‘impurity’ can be traced back to our pasts. There generally comes a moment in our early lives when we lose our trust because we don’t get what we need. As my Master Sri Prem Baba says, that is the moment during which we learn how to hate. We stop trusting that our needs will always be met; we learn how to be jealous, competitive, manipulative, insecure and so on – all with the motivation of receiving the love we need as children. Veils of separation start covering our Being, and this is how our conditioning grows and thickens.

In addition, our emotional bodies carry the impressions and wounds of past lifetimes, something we call samskaras in the yogic world. They consist of everything that has ever happened to us, in particular traumatic events. All these impressions and karmas are what we are not, yet they are very powerful because they are what drives us on an unconscious level. And it is exactly these mental and emotional ‘impurities’ or however you want to call them, that stand between us and the ultimate Truth, that means the realization of who we truly are – because they are an illusion.

The interesting thing is that we are often not even aware of the storehouse of pain we carry around with us – until we get involved in a romantic relationship with somebody. Intimacy with another person can be the best mirror for where we are at spiritually. We can often live in the illusion that we are blissfully happy and have healed our past, and then somebody comes along and we realize just how much stuff we have merely suppressed because nobody has had the opportunity to trigger it. And unless these issues are cleared completely from our systems, we cannot be free.

OK, then how do we purify our emotions? If we’re on the spiritual path, it tends to happen automatically. Life will bring us what we need – the trick is to actually recognize it as such, get out of our victim mentality and not blame the other person for our discomfort. When we can stay present and take responsibility for everything that happens to us, purification will be a given. This process accelerates incredibly once you have found your spiritual Master, because his or her interest is to bring you to the goal of realization in the quickest possible way. Once you give your Master permission to work on you by taking initiation with him or her and you sincerely practice the methods s/he prescribes you, a lot tends to happen.

People often think they find their Guru and things are going to be bliss from that moment onward. We will fly towards Samadhi on wings of ecstatic joy. I smile as I write this because when I first met my Guru, I was one of these people. He was so beautiful and so full of light that I instantly surrendered at his feet, and the first months of our ‘spiritual courtship’ were just like when you fall in love with somebody – filled with bliss, joy, ecstatic love and connection. And then…. when I was deeply in love and committed to him, he took out his knife and started his work in earnest. And it became hell at times, because what Guru’s energy does is to bring our stuff to the surface rapidly. The love and devotion we feel for our Master is actually only a tool that keeps us committed to doing the work even when it becomes absolute torture – not dissimilar to a romantic relationship where we go through all sorts of uncomfortable things because we love the other person.

Sri Prem Baba

Sri Prem Baba

But the difference is that in the Guru-disciple relationship, there is no expectation from the side of the Guru. All s/he cares about is that you do your work and reach the goal of liberation as soon as possible. The relationship therefore isn’t messy because both Guru and disciple are (ideally) very clear what they’re in this game for. So when s/he metaphorically ‘beats you up’, you smile and bow with gratitude because you know one more karma is dissolving. (I know this statement may sound uncomfortable to many because some Gurus have abused their status and power, so be discerning about who you choose as your Master. You will soon know in your heart whether he or she is authentic and whether the work is truly liberating you.)

Guru is an annihilating fire that burns everything away, most of all your identity. All you have been holding on to for so long, the things that have ‘made’ you into who you are, or believe you are, including your attachment to your nationality, your society, your beliefs, even your personality dissolve in the transformational fire of the Divine. I’ve recently been going through a process in which everything I believed defined me started to melt away. Not just the undesirable things, like old patterns, but also all the things I loved and with which I had identified myself for so long. Even things like rituals I had practised for many years started to lose their meaning because there was the realization that everything is inside of me and that I didn’t need these outer expressions any longer. But it was unsettling also: suddenly, there seemed to be nothing to hold on to any longer. Without all of these things, who was I? And what is the personality, in fact? A collection of samskaras, nothing more and nothing less. Underneath these samskaras and veils, we are nothing but pure energy and we are all the same.

Let’s not kid ourselves, emotional purification is tough. It’s arguably the toughest thing you can ever do, because this letting go and expansion of consciousness can be incredibly painful. So many old, repressed emotions that we have carried around for lifetimes are stuck in our systems, and this defrosting brings them all to the surface for us to look at and let go. It’s not comfortable and it can be utterly humiliating when we see how many people we have hurt or how many dramas we have created under the spell of illusion. And often, many other symptoms, physical, mental and emotional, such as insomnia, energy shifts, increased sensitivity, fatigue etc. appear at the same time.

But if we want to be free, truly free, then there is no other way. Because our samskaras are exactly what stand between us and enlightenment. And with every one of these emotional sheddings, we feel lighter. We see things with more clarity, and patterns and insecurities that have blocked us for years suddenly transform and fall away. And without these toxic emotions and distortions of reality, we remember who we truly are and we see things as they actually are. We regain our trust and become spontaneous again. This is grace, and it makes it all worth it.

The following poem from Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’ has become my prayer in recent months and gives me strength when it gets too much sometimes. It reminds me of why I am doing this work and that I am willing to do what it takes.

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

‘Give me more pain, more pain

Give me more consciousness

Tear open all doors, smash down all walls

Give me more pain, more pain

Give me more consciousness

Tear open all doors, smash down all walls

Give me more release, more release

 

More love, more love,

That the ‘I’ in me may drown,

More love, more love,

That the ‘I’ in me may drown,

Give me more, more, more streams

Of nectar to drink

Give me more, more, more’

.

Here’s a great website with advice on spiritual awakening: http://www.spiritualawakeningprocess.com/

My Master Sri Prem Baba’s website: www.sriprembaba.org

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

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Why yogis are the real pleasure seekers: The age-old battle between spirituality and sexuality

‘What is experienced in sex is only a tiny taste of something infinitely more full. Go to that, and you will have eternal union of the male and the female within you. The split is healed; the prime One is re-discovered. An eternal ecstasy ensues. It is for that reason that the yogi becomes celibate and lives in ananda.’ – Swami Veda Bharati

swami veda

Swami Veda Bharati

Those of you who have read my book ‘Meeting Shiva’ will know that I’ve contemplated the seeming opposites of spirituality and sexuality for a long time. Coming from a traditional tantric path, I’ve always been a defender of sexuality – provided that sexual energy can eventually be sublimated and made into a meditational, devotional practice that has the potential to further our spiritual connection. Having said that, as I have delved deeper into my spiritual path and spent more time with my teachers, I have come to understand and appreciate the art and science of celibacy as well.

Why celibacy? What is the point of denying yourself one of the greatest pleasures in the world? There are so many different concepts and ideas about this subject in spirituality, and it has caused a lot of confusion over the ages. Some of the common questions are: Is sex good or bad? Should spiritual people indulge in sex? What happens if they do, and what happens if they don’t? Does sex really distract us and hinder our spiritual progress, as many spiritual teachers say? If celibacy is necessary for enlightenment, then how come there are enlightened householders?

According to Swami Veda Bharati, the word celibacy comes from the Sanskrit word Kevala, which means solo, i.e. to enjoy solitude. In this case, ‘the soul is solo, it has divorced and left behind maya.’Kevala is a non-dependence on matter, and this ultimate solitude, this internal freedom is the goal of yoga. There is no need for or dependence onanything from the outside; our need for projection has disappeared and we have recognized that everything we need is already inside of us. The yogi is so full of freedom within and so filled with the power conserved that s/he has immense riches to contribute. In celibacy, the flame of passion goes inwards towards consciousness, rather than outwards where it gets dispersed.

When you look at it from the yogic point of view, then the reason we should abstain from sex is because it wastes our vital energies. In yoga, it is believed that the vital fluids of male sperm and female menstrual blood are where our power resides. To expend it through ejaculation or menstruation drains valuable life force from us. To experience this for yourself, just see how you feel after sex (males) or during menstruation. Hence, yogis are keen to preserve their semen either through celibacy or by learning to have sex without ejaculation, and yoginis often learn how to stop their menstrual flow and circulate the blood through the body instead to nourish the internal organs.

So it’s not really that yogis think sex is bad – there is a scientific reason for their abstinence. To advanced yogis, sex is a bit of a joke. Why spend time doing this, i.e. indulge in this energy-draining activity for a few moments of sexual enjoyment, when this powerful energy can be reversed and internalized into meditational bliss, which is a million times stronger and more sublime than anything else on earth? Looked at like this, yogis are the real pleasure seekers for they want the ultimate, true joy rather than the fake diamonds of fleeting sexual excitement.

Swami Veda once said that all gender attraction is a form of narcissism. Because of the illusory nature of maya, we don’t understand that what we are looking for from the other person is actually inside of us. ‘That which is within me I do not clearly see, yet I long for it, I want to love it, I cannot find it quite clearly, I project it onto others – and that is a convoluted way to make oneself feel complete.’ I think he hits the nail on the head here. It has been said that once upon a time, every person was male and female in one body, like the Hindu deity Ardhanariswara. Later we became separate, and that is why we now keep looking for our counterpart and completeness in another person, our so-called ‘soul mate’. What many of us don’t understand is that the goal of realization is the sacred marriage between our masculine and feminine parts within.

Ardhanariswara

There are some other motivations for abstinence in spiritual traditions. Again, in yoga, liberation is the ultimate goal. We are trying to free ourselves from the six passions of mind: kama (lust), krodha (anger), lobha (greed), moha (delusion),mada (pride) and matsarya (jealousy), the negative characteristics which prevent us from realizing the atman. If we are ruled by these instincts, we can never advance in our sadhana.

Another big reason as to why yogis and other spiritual people often abstain from sex is its great power to distract us from everything else. If you have ever felt sexual arousal, you will know what I mean. Once aroused, it is near-impossible to keep your mind on anything else. So how useful is this when a calm, detached mind is required for meditation? If your goal is to realize the Self, and your mind continuously goes outwards to an object of sexual arousal, surely that’s not conducive. Unless, of course, you can convert that sexual arousal into meditation – Swami Veda has said that the best moment to enter meditation is at the height of sexual desire. But that’s not always easy, not even for renunciates. So to not get tempted, monks and nuns often stay away from the opposite sex altogether.

Desire is something that draws us deeper into maya, the illusory nature of the material world. There is a saying, ‘When a fly tastes and sits on jaggery (coarse, dark liquidy sugar), its wings get stuck to it.’ The fly continues to enjoy the jaggery, unaware that it is unable to extricate its wings and fly away. So it is with raga, the Sanskrit word for attraction and later attachment to the object of attraction. Raga prevents us from moving forward in life because we so often get stuck in the attraction. We forget ourselves and the attraction becomes our objective in life, when turning away from raga or attraction should really be the objective.

Of course, vairagya, dispassion, will arise automatically in those in whom the burning desire for Self-Realization is stronger than everything else. But even so,distractions are always there, and heaven has always sent tempters and temptresses down to test us. The scriptures are full of stories of sages who allowed themselves to be distracted by the opposite sex. Even Lord Shiva, most austere of all yogis,was charmed by yogini Sati and eventually got married. One moment of weakness is often all it takes for a life-long (or temporary) celibate to become undone. The sexual energy, synonymous with our kundalini energy, is that powerful.

Shiva and Sati

Shiva and Sati

For those of us who are not renunciates but on the spiritual path, there is always the question: to indulge or not to indulge? Is it better to have your mind burning with unfulfilled sexual fantasies, or to indulge once in a while, be at peace and then forget about it? It depends on what your goal is and how serious you are about it. It will also depend on your temperament, and how much sexual contact will disturb your mind and cause yet more desire.

Moderation is probably best for the householder, i.e. those who are married or in a relationship. And, there is a huge difference between lustful sex that is a mere physical exercise and the art of making love. Lust only begets more lust, is based on selfish satisfaction of primal needs, enslaves us and doesn’t do anything to further our spiritual growth. If however, you can learn to make the act of lovemaking into a meditational practice and a prayer in which you see your lover as an embodiment of the Divine, it can lead you to an experience of devotional union that can, it is said, lead to liberation itself. The even more refined way of making love is to join with your partner in your subtle bodies, so Swami Veda, and realize that the ecstasies experienced in the union of physical bodies were a mere foretaste of the far more powerful pleasure in the subtle world.

So, of course sex isn’t bad. If there was no sex, there would be no enlightened people. It’s the very thing that creates us, and it can be a beautiful expression of love. But because it is so amazing and powerful, we get attached to it and that is the problem. Lust often makes us act out of tune with our common sense and do some very foolish things indeed. But, on the other hand, pleasure can also be something very sacred, and after all, the rishis, India’s great seers of the Vedas, were all married.

In any case, celibacy in spirituality often backfires. This is very evident when you live in India, as I do, and meet many yogis and sadhus who claim to be celibates but either have girlfriends (often multiple), clandestine sex or even get married, often to a Western woman.In the West, we have similar issues: Catholic priests are notorious for abusing young boys or having affairs with their domestic helpers; nuns are known for their sadism towards school children; and overall celibate monks often become ill-tempered and grumpy old men. Why is this? The easy answer would be that celibacy isn’t natural and that the sexual energy needs an outlet.

This is true, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that these renunciates should go and indulge in sexual affairs. Celibacy, which can actually be a really valuable practice, is not to blame. This warping of energyhappens simply because nobody has taught these renunciates what to do with the sexual energy that we all possess. Simply suppressing and pretending it doesn’t exist, as is the case in many ashrams and monasteries, won’t work. It makes the problem of desire worse and if not handled properly, can actually turn into overwhelming sexual fantasies, excessive masturbation or perversion.

So it is vital that our spiritual teachers show us what to do with these energies. In yoga, tantra and in Taoist traditions, there are very specific practices that reverse the flow of sexual energy and take it upwards to the higher chakras, rather than downwards to the lower energy centres. There are bandhas (internal body locks), breathing techniques and meditations that can help us with this process. If we make the decision that internal freedom and the conservation of our vital energies is important for us, then we have to learn how to do these techniques to stop us from going crazy. Otherwise, we can have a situation in which we climb the spiritual mountain, so to speak, and easily fall off it if a tempting sexual proposal comes our way. And then, instead of concentrating on our spiritual goal, we can easily spend our time trying to regain the spiritual energy we have just wasted in a senseless sexual encounter.

Celibacy is a blessing if understood properly and if sexual energy is sublimated. This requires a retraining of mental conditioning, together with intense longing for spiritual purification and for meeting the greatest lover of all – God.’ – Swami Veda Bharati

Practices that can help you to sublimate sexual energy (please note, these should all be learned from a qualified and experienced yoga teacher. The Himalayan Tradition are experts in these types of practices.):

  • Sushumna breathing
  • Moolabandha (the root lock, in meditation and indeed, at all times. One who is accomplished in the root lock can be a perfect celibate.)
  • Ashwini mudra
  • Silence of speech combined with mantra and celibacy
  • Agni sara, a practice which, if perfected, becomes a condition of svadhistan chakra
  • Chakra work (unblocking, opening, entering)
  • Understanding the moment of arising of desire. Become a neutral observer of your body and learn to postpone the indulgence of desires. It is said that it is very powerful to meditate when sexual desire is most intense – in this way, inner absorption of the energy can happen.

To further understand this subject, I recommend the book ‘Kundalini’ and the audio talk ‘The Art and Science of Celibacy’ by Swami Veda Bharati. Please see Ahymsin publishers for more details.