Is your spiritual practice working in your daily life? A reflection on patience, equanimity and compassion off the meditation seat

shiva 2

Lord Shiva in meditation

‘Spiritual work is not something practised only on remote mountaintops or isolated monasteries. The inner work I practice is marketplace yoga, or as Rudi once called it laughingly, ‘Survival yoga’. It is a spiritual work that bridges between our everyday life and our inner life. There is no separation in this work. We don’t punch a time card at the end of our day and move on to meditate. Our life is a meditation and a deepening of our consciousness.’Alik Elzafon

Has it ever happened to you that you felt very peaceful and full of love during your meditation session, and then lost your calm completely a little later in a traffic jam, during an argument with your partner or upon receiving an uncomfortable e-mail? If so, worry not – this is actually quite normal. Until we’re enlightened, we’re bound to lose our temper from time to time. And perhaps that’s even the case after enlightenment.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to observe the distinction some of us make between our spiritual practice (in meditation, during yoga class etc.) and our ‘normal life’ at work, with friends or at home. A friend of mine once said ‘you can see how spiritual somebody is by the way they treat other people.’ And there is some truth in that, for what good is our spiritual practice if it doesn’t carry over to the rest of our lives and instead makes us self-centred and insensitive to other people’s needs? A good sadhana should have the ability to open our hearts wide with compassion, to help us see life’s situations and ourselves clearly and with equanimity, and to promote happiness, joy and peace inside of us. This ideally will then also have an effect on how we interact with the world around us.

But it’s not always as simple as that. Our conditionings and samskaras often surface in situations that push our buttons. Old fears and unprocessed emotional wounds surface and lead us to react in stressful situations, and it’s often the case that we watch ourselves doing it as though we’re watching a movie. However, a good spiritual practice will at the very least alert us to what we’re doing and shorten the process of reaction drastically; and at best it will stop us from reacting altogether, no matter how uncomfortable the situation, because we have gained control over ourselves.

Uttarkashi in the Himalayas

Uttarkashi in the Himalayas

For me personally, I struggle with being patient. No matter for how many years I’ve practiced yoga and meditation, lack of patience is still an issue for me in certain situations. At the moment, my great test to see if my sadhana is working happens every week when I leave my peaceful abode in a tiny Himalayan village for the market town of Uttarkashi. Now, Uttarkashi can hardly be compared with big metropolitan cities like London or New York, but nonetheless – it’s India. Those of you who’ve visited India will know what I mean by that.

First of all, there is the journey to get to Uttarkashi, which is an adventure by itself. Here, we travel by ‘share jeep’. In India this means: as many people as humanly possible will be crammed into a jeep (if it is designed to hold nine people, at least twelve or fifteen people will be made to fit into it) which then has the task of reaching Uttarkashi on something that used to be a road once, but is now a succession of precarious landslides. You will then have the joy of bopping up and down in the jeep in a tight embrace with your neighbours while seeing steep cliffs on one side of the road and vertical landslides on the other.

Share jeep in India

Share jeep in India

At this point, in the early morning, I am usually still happy and calm and can even enjoy this bumpy ride. Then I reach Uttarkashi with a list of things to do and purchase, and usually one of the following things happens: 1) all the ATMs have run out of money and I might have to return back home as I don’t have enough money to buy what I need, 2) there are power cuts that prohibit me from doing my work on the Internet, or 3) shop keepers have decided that it’s a holiday but haven’t announced it to the rest of the world. This, together with the chaos, dust and kamikaze motorbike riders that are a part of most Indian cities, make it a great opportunity for me to see whether my meditation practice actually has any effect in the ‘real world’.

I sometimes fail dramatically, especially at the end of the day, when it’s time to go home and the jeep driver simply won’t leave, even though the vehicle is already piled up to the brim with people, but he’s waiting for yet one more person who can sit on somebody’s lap before he wants to start. But for every time I’ve lost my temper, I’ve been interested to observe the Indian reaction to such delays. Indians stay curiously calm most of the time – no matter what the delay or the annoyance. They may not be meditators, but they are simply used to this and don’t waste their energy getting annoyed – they wait and know that at some point, the wait will be over. It’s as simple as that.

I have to admit that I’m not that far advanced in my equanimity and patience skills, but I am learning something every time here. I use all of these delays and obstacles as an exercise in practicing patience, for, if I’m not going to learn to be patient in India, then where else? I’ve also developed a few strategies to remind me of my sadhana and to keep calm. One of the most important ones is the silent and constant recitation of my Guru mantra as soon as I set foot into Uttarkashi. Apart from keeping me connected with Guruji, it reminds me to remain calm and that everything is perfect as it is. If the ATMs have run out of money, then that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and I need to find another solution. If there is a power cut, I need to take a breath and use the time to do some purchases instead until the electricity comes back.

The Guru mantra also works wonders when I am at the grocery store. There is a curious system in India that I’ve now managed to figure out. The first time I went to the grocery store, a bunch of customers was standing closely huddled together in front of the counter, and everyone was shouting their orders at the same time towards the shop keeper, who then in turn shouted different orders to his assistant at the back of the shop. As I stood there wondering about how to get myself noticed, a man advised me to ‘just push in and shout as well, otherwise you will never get served.’ So that’s what I had to do, and I also had to learn to be patient in this situation because it can take a long time to get what you want with this system! This in turn I learned by looking at the shop keeper, who appeared unruffled and smiling in the onslaught of simultaneous shouted orders from at least ten people.

Another thing I do before braving Uttarkashi’s market is to visit the Kashi Vishwanath temple (ancient and famous Shiva and Shakti temple) on my way in and get my blessing from this powerful place. It works wonders, as the vibrations in this temple are so strong that I invariably exit with a big smile on my face.

Kashi Vishwanath temple, Uttarkashi

There are many strategies that keep us connected and remind us to take our sadhana into our everyday lives. The good thing about a spiritual practice is that it makes us reflect – and very often, that means reflection and awareness of ourselves and our behaviours. When we become more sensitive through meditation and other practices, we not only see ourselves and others more clearly; we also start to understand why we are acting in a given way and what we can do to change it. Sadhana ultimately is a tool for understanding our mind and its modifications, most particularly at an unconscious level, where all these disturbances originate. When we meditate, we connect with Shiva: pure consciousness; the unchangeable, immovable Self. This in turn then helps us to free ourselves from reacting to uncomfortable situations and to leading a more harmonious and joyful life. A bridge between our inner and outer lives is built that allows us to participate fully in life without forgetting its real purpose: realization of the Self.

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

Eyes blazing with the fire of transformation: The benefits of tapasya (austerity) in spiritual practice

swami satyananda

‘When my Guru, Swami Satyananda, performed the panchagni tapasya (austerity of sitting amidst five fires) at Rikhiapeeth for nine long years, his eyes developed such immense tejasa and brilliance that it was often difficult to look him straight in the eyes. One had to lower one’s eyes in respect and surrender to the beauty and brilliance that his eyes would emit.’ – Swami Satyasangananda

I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Gangotri, high up in the Indian Himalayas. Gangotri is one of the most sacred pilgrimage places for Hindus, as it is here that the river Ganga was originally received by Lord Shiva. Out of compassion for the condition of humanity, the Goddess Ganga decided to descend upon earth to help alleviate suffering – however, the impact of the river’s descent would have been so great that it would have destroyed the planet. Therefore, Lord Shiva offered to receive Ganga on his head first to soften the blow and to make a graceful descent possible.

Gangotri is a hotspot for sadhus, saints and sages. Bitterly cold most of the time, as it is a valley that doesn’t receive much sunshine, it attracts only those who can handle a bit of austerity. Sure, thousands of people visit for a couple of days and trek up to Gomukh (where the source of Ganga is now located due to the receding glacier) and even higher up to Tapovan, but the people who stay more permanently tend to be the sadhus. Some (very few) even stay throughout winter, when the road closes due to heavy snowfall, causing Gangotri to be cut off from all services, including electricity, phone and food supplies.

Near Gomukh

Near Gomukh

During my visits to Gangotri, I’ve been blessed with the company of sadhus who have lived there for years. This time, I was fortunate to spend time with a sadhvi (female sadhu) who has lived in a cave about an hour from Gangotri for the past thirteen years. She has also lived at Tapovan (a high mountain above Gomukh at an elevation of 4500 m) for three years under a rock. Mind you, this sadhvi is not a young lady – she is almost sixty years old and did not take sannyas until she was in her early 40’s. However, when I met her for the first time, I was blown away by her radiant face and blazing eyes. This meeting took place at Gangotri temple, and I watched her as she gracefully descended the stairs towards me in her geru robes, with long grey hair framing her delicate face. She was so beautiful and full of light that I couldn’t take my eyes off her for the entire time we were talking.

I’ve seen this glow on the faces of a number of Himalayan sadhus. Another sadhu I visit from time to time is Nirmal Baba, a Bengali sadhu who has been living in Bhojwasa (near Gomukh) for the past twenty-six years. It is a severely cold place, and he lives there all year around in his stone house by the Ganga which he has built himself – without a fire place or heating of any kind. As part of his seva (service), he offers kirtan chanting twice a day during the pilgrim’s season – and he sings some of the most haunting, beautiful bhajans I’ve ever heard. The atmosphere in his house becomes so magical that I don’t feel cold or hungry and that it doesn’t matter to stumble to his house in the snow before dawn.

Nirmal Baba has the same glow on his face, the same blazing eyes. I am convinced that this has to do with the intensity of devotion and trust in God with which these sadhus live – their hearts are so alight with love of God and Truth that it outshines the cold and other hardships they encounter in this forbidding environment. And of course, add to that the high prana in the Himalayas and the peace that a solitary lifestyle in nature can bring.

Nirmal Baba of Bhojwasa

Nirmal Baba of Bhojwasa

Yet another sadhu I’ve met lives even higher up in a cave in Tapovan all year around, where temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius in the winter. He lives there without fire and keeps warm by pranayama breathing exercises. This sadhu is young, twenty-seven years of age, and has been observing silence since he was nineteen years old. Last year he was caught in a snow storm and sat under a thin door frame for three days before he could start to dig himself out. And yet, he is one of the happiest, energetic and radiant people I have ever seen.

Tapovan Mouni Baba

Tapovan Mouni Baba

You may ask yourself (as I have done in the past!): what exactly is the point of all this? Does one have to live in such austerity to love God? Surely there are easier ways than living in a remote cave and eating a mono-diet of rice and dhal surrounded by snow and ice?

Sure. There are easier ways, and I don’t believe it’s necessary for most people to live in this way. But looking at the radiance of these sadhus, at the consciousness and focus they emanate, one cannot discount the benefits of their chosen lifestyle either. There is something about living so close to nature, on Her terms. Some of the sadhus I’ve met don’t keep mobile phones, and obviously there is no electricity in the caves. Their simple food (which they tend to receive by donation) is cooked on fire, or sometimes gas, and they spend most of their time in spiritual practice and contemplation. In such a lifestyle, where one learns to overcome the limitations of the body, the fire of tapas (austerity) burns away many karmic impurities. The glow that stems from such close encounters with Truth in turn shows externally.

Admittedly, this lifestyle is considered extreme even in India, and most likely judged as insane in the West. In India, most people have at least some admiration and respect for this type of austerity, as it is believed that renunciation leads to moksha (liberation). I’d also say that unless it is your karma, generated by lifetimes of spiritual dedication, you are unlikely to renounce everything and live in a Himalayan cave. But how can we apply some of the principles of tapasya into our modern lives? And what are the benefits of doing so?

My Gurudeva, Sri Prem Baba, often speaks about ‘intelligent austerities’. With this, he doesn’t mean harming your body by excess austerity, but renouncing something that you know isn’t good for you. For example, he advocates the practice of mouna (silence). Silence is tapasya for many of us. Our minds are not used to keeping silent and turning the focus inwards. We are constantly looking outwards for stimulation and validation, and the practice of silence (inner and outer) takes all that away. And once we are further along on the spiritual path, silence becomes the sweetest, most exquisite state of Being, as it is in silence that we can hear and become one with God.

Another example of tapasya would be cutting out self-destructive tendencies, such as eating things that aren’t good for us (excess sugar, fat, processed foods), smoking, drinking, drugs, unhealthy relationships, oversleeping etc etc. While we all know that these things don’t benefit us, we often do them nonetheless. So how to change this? In yoga, we make use of something called a sankalpa (intention). A sankalpa is like a vow: once taken, you cannot break it, no matter what. So a common sankalpa would be to recite a certain mantra X times in X days; to get up at 4 am every morning for meditation for the next 90 days; to stop eating sweets for the next three months; to stay in a given place for a year; etc etc. After the sankalpa has been completed, one can take up the old habit again – but one often finds that the body doesn’t want to do so any longer because it recognizes that it feels better without the habit.

These actions are called intelligent austerities because they purify our bodies (our temples in which Spirit dwells) and thus bring us closer to Truth and to who we really are without our conditionings. They may be hard to do initially, but the benefits will soon outweigh the cost. It may not be on a par with living a hermit’s life in a cave, but it’s very much doable and applicable to our modern lifestyles that often include many responsibilities. And you may find that some of the glow of tapas will find its way into your eyes and onto your faces, too.

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

Goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati

Goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati

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

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

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

Swami Niranjan performing a havan

Swami Niranjan performing a havan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_1156

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.

On Love

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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 )

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