Who is God, really?

‘All your life you long to meet God, but you have no concept of God. What type of God will you meet? Everyone says, “I want to see God, I want to see God.” Someone is doing chanting, someone is meditating, someone is talking of Gita, someone is talking of Upanishads. Nobody sees God, it’s all mere talk. Why? Because you don’t have a clear concept.’ — Swami Rama

god

On the spiritual path, many of us claim to be on the ‘search for God’. We want to connect with the Divine, be one with God, attain God – but what does that actually mean in real terms? I’ve been pondering this question for a while now, especially lately since many outer forms of worship have been falling away for me. The more my worship internalizes and the more I connect with my own truth, the less I realize I actually know. So the question I want to pose in this article is: who or what is God to us? And how do we know?

There is a lovely story about the young Swami Rama. After performing sadhana for some years, he told his Master, a great yogi and sage from Bengal, that he finally wanted to see God, since he hadn’t yet been able to. And so his Master responded that he’d show him God the next morning. That whole night Swami Rama was restless and couldn’t sleep with excitement – tomorrow he’d finally meet God! So, when Swami Rama appeared all groomed and devout in front of his Master the next morning, he was asked, ‘Tell me, what kind of God do you want to see?’ Swami Rama was taken aback and replied, ‘Are there many kinds of God?’ The Master said, ‘No. I want to know what is the concept of God in your mind?’ Swami Rama wasn’t able to answer that question – he didn’t know. And he also realized that because of that, he might not recognize it if God actually appeared to him – his Master could have shown him anything.

And so it is with most of us. We grow up with certain concepts and we are told by our parents that this is what God is. For some, it’s Jesus, for others Allah, for yet others Shiva or Krishna or the Divine Mother. Some believe in God with form, for others God is formless, for some God is within and for some, without. Some people see God in nature or indeed in everything. And according to certain scriptures, everything, absolutely everything is pure consciousness and therefore God. But do we actually have a direct experience of all these concepts and/or deities or are we simply repeating what we have been told?

Divine Mother

I started thinking more about this subject when I studied the Upanishads. In these most illuminating Vedic scriptures, the rishis of olden times speak of ‘the thumb-sized being in the cave of the heart.’ For those sages who spent their lives meditating on the ultimate Reality, God is within; God lives inside our hearts. God, or the Self as they call it, is beyond the mind and thus beyond mind-created concepts, which makes it so hard to grasp. Meditation as well as the presence of an illumined Master, they say, will help us remove the veils that cover this reality. And yet, to those of us who are not enlightened, this is still just a concept. We hear the sages’ reports that sound like travel logs into extra-ordinary realms and we think, ‘how wonderful. If only I could travel there and experience all this.’ It’s like they have given us a road map, though of course, not everybody agrees or resonates with what is being said in the Upanishads.

I am not an illumined sage and so can’t say with authority who or what God is. I can only go with what resonates with me at this stage of my spiritual journey. And to me, the reports of the sages make sense, in particular because there is a tried and tested method of realizing the Self on this path. I’m encouraged by the belief that anyone can reach the goal of Self (or God)-Realization through a combination of hard work and grace. In many religions, this self-responsibility is not encouraged.

My Master Sri Prem Baba, alongside many other Masters, keeps saying that God is love, and that this love can be found in the depths of silence. And indeed, one thing that strikes me is that realized Masters all seem to have one thing in common: they are overflowing with love, joy and compassion. I think because they are always connected with the ultimate Reality and because life as we see it is an optical illusion for them, there is only joy left. For who is hurting whom if everything is one vibrating Self? Would we get angry with our own leg if we broke it? When we no longer see a difference between our Self and other Selves, then the veil of separation has disappeared and that unity, I believe, is God. I remember once seeing a video of Amma in which she licked out the putrid wounds of a leper with joy and thus cured him. She could only do this because she did not see a difference between this man and herself – his Self was her Self and thus only love remained.

Along those lines, yesterday I was talking to my dear friend Swami Ramaswarupananda about the Bhagavad Gita. We were speaking about the incident in which Krishna shows Arjuna his true form, and that awesome form overwhelms Arjuna so much that he begs Krishna to assume his previous form as Arjuna’s friend. And so Swamiji said that life is like this: ‘when you sit in front of me, I see your human form and I completely forget that you are the Divine Mother. I look at the walls and they are just stone, but really they are pure consciousness and thus God.’ If we could always stay connected to this reality that everything is actually consciousness, we’d act completely differently in the world.

Lord Krishna

I’ve also been thinking about worshipping God in the form of a deity. In Hinduism, it’s a really big thing to worship idols representing God with offerings of flowers, incense, light and food. It is said that worshipping a form is necessary for many people, because it’s so hard to connect with a formless God or Reality. The devotee prays to have a vision of this deity, and sometimes, if devotion and longing are strong enough, this happens and this in itself can bring liberation. Adi Shankaracharya, for example, has had such magnificent visions of the Divine Mother that it turned him from a rational Vedantic scholar into an ecstatic devotee. Perhaps this type of transformation happens because the energy of love is so strong that it burns through all the veils of separation. The form of the deity catalyses the love that is inside of us all along, just like a lover has the ability to ignite the passionate love in our hearts that is really the essence of who we are.

Ultimately, we will only know what or who God really is when we reach the stage of Realization. Until then we have to connect with the philosophy that rings true to our inner Being and walk in the footsteps of the mystics who have had this direct experience. For me personally, I love these words by Adi Shankaracharya, which validate the importance of outer worship alongside the notion that everything is ultimately on the inside:

‘Forgive me, o Lord, for three mistakes. First, I know and feel that You are all pervading and omnipresent, and yet I have walked all the way here to worship You within the confines of this temple. Second, I know there is only one non-dual truth, and thus there is no difference between You and me, yet I worship You as though You are different from me and outside of me. Finally, I know that this ‘mistake’ is simply my own mind-created concept – and yet I’m asking You to forgive me.’

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

 

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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’

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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

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. 

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

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

Goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati

Goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati

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

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

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

Swami Niranjan performing a havan

Swami Niranjan performing a havan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ganga beach near my home

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

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.

Why self-responsibility is so important in sadhana, healing, and just about anywhere else

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The tendency of the world is to drag you down. The objects stimulate your senses and call your attention to the outside. This produces thoughts, which may or may not be in alignment with your internal drive, whether you are driven by a belief, an image, or even the Being’s yearning itself. Therefore, the first step towards uncovering love is to withdraw the mind, even if it is only for short periods of time throughout your day. Unplug yourself from the sensory world to connect yourself with the internal world. Only in this way will you be able to hear your heart.”

Sri Prem Baba

I just finished translating a wonderful book called ‘Simply Love’ from German into English language. Written by German psychotherapist Katja Sundermeier, it is one of the best books on healing I have ever come across. Though on the surface it is a book that investigates why so many people end up with failed relationships and how to change this, it’s really so much more than that. Katja proposes that everything in our current reality is but a reflection of the beliefs that are already inside of us.

Just pause for a moment to take that in. Everything in our current reality is but a reflection of the beliefs that are already inside of us. When I first read this statement several years ago, I thought it to be quite radical – but it also made total sense. If we constantly have problems with people in our lives who don’t appreciate us, then this is merely a reflection of an old belief system that tells us that we are not good enough. If we keep attracting unreliable people, this might just reflect back to us our ingrained belief and old wound that we are not important. So everything we are currently unhappy with in our lives is a reflection of these inner, often unconscious beliefs – and we can change this by becoming aware of them and re-writing our ‘script’, as Katja calls it. Every conflict in our lives is an opportunity for healing and growth.

This philosophy goes hand in hand with the yogic concept of avidya: not seeing things as they truly are because we are seeing them through the filters of our limited perception, based on the experiences we have made in life.The reason I am writing about this here is that Katja proposes one key ingredient to the healing of such faulty beliefs, and that is self-responsibility. Taking responsibility for our belief systems, for the injuries we have experienced in childhood, and for healing them. Healing, once we have awareness of where our misery comes from, can actually be very simple, if we are prepared to go deep within and do the work that is required. It’s not always easy, that’s for sure, and it often takes time, but it can be simple nonetheless. In ‘Simply Love’, she proposes an easy method that involves paying attention every time we find ourselves in an uncomfortable situation or with ‘bad’ feelings, in order to find out where it originates (often in childhood). Once we have that piece of information, we can then ‘re-parent’ it: a metaphor for taking responsibility for ourselves and giving ourselves what we need now. This very swiftly takes us out of the game of blaming another person or situation for our misery.

But we don’t always like to take responsibility for ourselves. It’s so much easier to blame the other, the angry boss, the nagging wife, the distant husband, the spouse who cheats on us. That this may have anything to do with us, and that we may be able to heal the situation if we take responsibility, is often only a strange concept at first, and an uncomfortable one at that because it requires us to take a good, honest look at ourselves.

With sadhana, it is similar. We may find a spiritual Master and then hope for him or her to take all of our bad karmas away from us. While Guru’s grace is very much possible, it’s likewise also true that Guru’s grace tends to descend upon students that are deserving of that grace. It’s like the aphorism of ‘God helps those who help themselves’. Swami Rama, one of the greatest yogis of all time, once said about this subject: ‘I was instructed by my master not to drink from or bathe in the water of the Ganges with any idea that by doing so my sins would be washed off. He taught me the philosophy of karma and said, ‘One has to reap the fruits of his karma. The law of karma is inevitable and is accepted by all the great philosophies of the world. Learn to perform your duties skilfully without aversion or attachment, and do not believe that anything can wash off your bad karma. Taking a bath in the river and making pilgrimages from one shrine to another will not free you from the bondage of karma.’’

One of the main things our spiritual Masters tell us all the time is to do our sadhana, our spiritual practice, because it’s this – the practices that help us to still the mind and thus access the flow of intuition within us– that can help us more than anything else. A good Master leads us to the path of self-responsibility: s/he doesn’t want us to be dependent on him/her, because s/he knows that the Guru is only a catalyst that helps us to find our own truth within: the deepest truth and divinity that is already inside of us, covered by layers of avidya and the glamour of maya. But how many of us do our sadhana regularly, on time and with sincerity and dedication?

It is easy to get distracted in life, especially when we are busy and live in the world, and personally I have only found one way out of this: tapas. With tapas, austerity, I mean discipline in this context. Making our sadhana, whatever that may mean for us, a priority in our lives, can work wonders. If we do our meditation haphazardly and always at a different time or skip it when we don’t feel like it, we mustn’t be surprised if we don’t yield results. But if we set an intention and do our sadhana no matter what, the rewards will come to us sooner or later. It’s like with anything you take up: the more your practice, the better you will become at something. It’s easy to stick to this intention once you have had a taste of the sweet nectar of the Divine and realize what the purpose of life is. Then sadhana is no longer a discipline: it becomes pure joy. But until that happens, a certain amount of tapas is important.

It was similar when I was writing my book ‘Meeting Shiva’. When I sat down to write it, with no idea of how to accomplish such a mammoth task, only one thing kept me going: repeated sankalpas (vows to myself). I said: ‘I am going to sit down at this desk every day at 2pm and will stay there until 6pm, no matter what happens.’ And this tapasya really helped me. It became ingrained, even though sometimes I would literally just stare at the screen for four hours and perhaps write one sentence. However, on other days, the words simply flowed from a place beyond my little self, and I learned that you never know when grace comes to you – but that you have to show up for it to happen! It’s the same with meditation: you may sit there day in and day out and think you are wasting your time, but then one day you might enter samadhi and realize that all the ‘pointless’ sitting has prepared you for this very moment.

This concept can also be applied to healing modalities. As an Ayurvedic lifestyle & diet consultant, I have generally noticed one thing: everybody wants to be healthy, and many people come to me who’d like to improve their health. When, however, they find out that for this to become a reality, they might have to change their diet, start exercising, practice yoga and/or meditation and let go of some destructive lifestyle habits or relationship patterns, the interest often wanes rapidly. We all want a quick fix, and best if that fix is in the form of a pill or herbal formula (or shaktipat from our Guru, right? :)). But the problem is that this is not sustainable and causes yet another dependency.

One of my teachers, Tony Crisp, always drummed into me: ‘Everything we need is inside of us already. We only need to learn to access our own inner wisdom.’  And I found this to be true: when we really take responsibility for ourselves and our well-being and take the necessary steps, our lives begin to transform. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t get support when we need it, because that can be very important, but we must equally realize that we are powerful beyond our wildest imagination and that we are only using a fraction of our true abilities. Spiritual practices, and most particularly going deep into silence and solitude, can remove this avidya and help us to see who we really are. We need to empower ourselves and access that wisdom within us. Each of us is an aspect of the Divine – it’s just that we have forgotten it momentarily.

I realize that discipline is very hard for some people. Some of us may have been disciplined in childhood and therefore now resist anything regulated. But what can really help is to tell yourself what you are doing it for. Is it your goal to write a book? To become happy? Healthy? To become a good meditator? Then focus on that, and tell yourself that the discipline (or self-responsibility, if you like this word more) is only a route to achieving your goal. Promising yourself treats at the end of each small goal along the way can work wonders, too; as can making a commitment to another person, such as a friend, a coach, to your Guru or a favourite deity that you will stick to your intention for a set amount of time. As with anything, don’t be hard on yourself and try to have fun with it, too. Everything is a process.

And remember:

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