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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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.

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

Living your purpose: reflections on the meaning of karma yoga in modern times

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‘The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachment of results.’ – Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita

I have to admit that during my yogic journey, I’ve wrestled with the concept of karma yoga for a good while. The first time I came across karma yoga was in India. A few years ago, I’d landed in an ashram in Rishikesh where I wanted to study yoga. To my surprise, all residents were asked to clean the ashram, serve food or help with building work in their free time. This was called karma yoga, Sanskrit for ‘selfless service’. We were told that altruistic work, carried out without attachment to the fruits of one’s deeds generates good karma, purifies the mind and ultimately leads to moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

Interesting idea, I thought then. My resistance kicked in almost instantly. Karma yoga?! Surely that’s just a clever way devised to get cheap labour. It was evident that karma yogis worked hard. They cleaned, cooked and built and didn’t receive compensation of any kind, other than the promise of karmic benefits somewhere down the line. Moreover, in many modern ashrams karma yogis were expected to pay for room and board in addition to working all day long. It seemed a bit absurd to me, and I resolved that I wouldn’t fall for this.

A few years and a few ashram living experiences on, my views and understanding of karma yoga have changed considerably. I understand now that in traditional ashrams, the practice is used to generate an attitude of equanimity, surrender and non-attachment to likes and dislikes. It’s actually a valuable tool that helps us to work through our resistances and to observe our minds. Do we always want to do well? Do we expect praise? Do we always want to do what we enjoy, or can we generate the same joy while cleaning the bathrooms?

I think one of the problems is that many ashrams nowadays are commercial enterprises, and this can overshadow the purity of karma yoga how it was intended. If you can clearly see that an ashram is not a non-profit organization and that the owners are doing very well from running it, then the question of karma yoga becomes redundant. Volunteering there can still be a valuable experience, but this volunteering shouldn’t be called ‘selfless service for God’.

But there’s still something that puzzles me. In the Gita, it says that actions must be free from all attachment of results. ‘Do your duty, always; but without attachment. That is how a man reaches the ultimate truth; by working without anxiety about results.’ That, in my opinion, is a very interesting point. Karma yoga in ashrams aside, how does this apply to the modern world? A good friend of mine, the writer Tony Crisp, always used to laugh at me when I went to ashrams to clean and cook. He spends his days writing books and articles and answering people’s queries about dreams and the inner life – for free. ‘That’s my karma yoga’, he used to say. He writes because this is what is natural to him; he uses this innate gift to share it with the world and as a tool for transformation. He doesn’t care whether he earns money from it or not; he does it because he loves it. Sometimes he earns money and that’s fine; at other times he doesn’t and he lives frugally, that’s fine, too. He trusts that his needs are taken care of as long as he is sharing his gifts with the world freely.

I have yet another friend who takes this attitude to an even higher level. Beth Forster of Mosaic Magazine in the UK not only publishes the magazine because of her love of spirituality, she actually pays for all of the printing costs herself and doesn’t use advertising to make up for them. For a long time, the magazine was available for free; now she sells it at a very low price and has the shops who sell it keep 100% of the sale price. Crazy, a commercial-minded person would think. And Beth is not a millionaire: she has used her own savings, and just when they ran out and she wasn’t sure whether she could afford printing any more, she inherited some money that secured the future of the magazine. Recently, people have come forward voluntarily and offered donations to pay for further printing. Such is the extent of her trust – producing the magazine is Beth’s gift to the world, and she believes that she will be supported for as long as she is meant to do so.

Maybe this is the modern interpretation of karma yoga. As you may know from reading this blog, I am very fond of Sri Prem Baba, a Brazilian Saint, who fuses the wisdom of East and West and puts it into a contemporary context. In his book ‘From Suffering to Joy’, he says: ‘Each person brings certain gifts and talents to this world. You have to give what you came here to give. You brought the gifts – are you going to hide them away in the closet? Karma yoga, the path of service, means giving your gifts away with love and tenderness. In this way you fulfil the purpose of your birth. This love takes you to God.’

This – the knowledge that I had certain gifts to share – has always been my struggle with the karma yoga of the ashrams. I thought – if I already know what my gifts and talents are, then why should I spend all of my time cleaning and gardening? What happens to these talents if I am too busy to share them? Of course, these thoughts came to me when I was considering living in ashrams for a long period of time, not just a visit of several weeks or months. And I am aware that cleaning and gardening have to be done, but there should be a balance between the tasks that are necessary and the task that we came here to do.

I truly believe that we all have a purpose in life and certain gifts to share. Many of us don’t become aware of those gifts until later in life, unless we are very lucky. And many of us, though we may know what our gifts are, can’t live them out fully because we have a family to support and are dependent on a steady wage. But for those of us on the spiritual path, for those of us whose human self has submitted to the will of a deeper truth, of a calling, nothing else can work. We have no choice but to share our gifts with the world, no matter what, because that’s the truth of our existence. And I also believe that in cases of such surrender, the Universe will create ways for us to have abundance as well. Prem Baba says that ‘the spiritually mature person knows that their actions are governed by the heart’s intent, and that money is a natural consequence of their actions. Work, often perceived as a burden, now is transformed into service and becomes a precious gift given to others from the depths of one’s being.’

There’s yet another aspect to ‘fruit of one’s labour’ – and that is success and recognition. For many people, money may even be secondary as long as they are recognized and admired for their work. Maybe this is even more seductive than money. In the yoga world, there are suddenly so many ‘stars’ – affluent, beautiful, famous people with a large following. I find this to be an interesting phenomenon. In the old days, the yogic teaching tradition was mostly 1:1. An accomplished yogi did his or her best to stay anonymous, and the students had a hard time finding him/her, and an even harder time to get accepted as a student. The yogi didn’t really care about having students or fame. This way of teacher-student relationship has always appealed to me, both as a student and as a teacher. The teaching carries much more depth in this way, and if I can transform just one student’s life with my teaching, isn’t my purpose fulfilled? But this type of teaching is hard to sustain in our reward-driven society, and requires a huge amount of surrender.

Of course, everything ultimately depends on what your goal is. I once read an interesting story in a book about Amma. It talked about a filmmaker who wanted to make a documentary about Amma. Amma in turn had him do all sorts of tasks – cleaning, milking the cows, chopping vegetables and so on – until he was completely transformed. He arrived at a stage where he wasn’t attached to filmmaking any longer: he enjoyed all tasks equally. And that is liberation, of course. If we think that our desires and thus our talents are karmas, then it is liberation if we are released from those karmas. But I do remember thinking upon reading this story: ‘oh, what a pity about the filmmaking talent. He could have enriched a lot of people’s lives with his films.’ Yes – he can also enrich people’s lives through cleaning, but I’d say that the main result from his interaction with Amma was the loosening of his attachments and karmas.

So, it’s all good and valid. For me, until I am enlightened, Prem Baba’s view currently makes the most sense. Share your gifts and talents generously without attachment to rewards and results. Do your work dutifully, to the best of your ability, and surrender everything else – financial gain, success, recognition – to the will of the Divine.  What matters is that the love flows through you. When you live your truth and are centered in your heart, the lives of those around you are enriched and transformed automatically.

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu: Thoughts on meditation in action

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‘In dark night live those for whom

The world without alone is real; in night

Darker still, for whom the world within

Alone is real. The first leads to a life

Of action, the second to a life of meditation.

But those who combine action with meditation

Cross the sea of death through action

And enter into immortality

Through the practice of meditation.

So have we heard from the wise.’

– Isha Upanishad

There is part of me that would quite happily live in a cave in the Himalayas. Few things in life are more blissful to me than disconnecting from the realities and pressures of modern society and spending my time in contemplation of the Self. Late last year, I was really inspired by reading Tenzin Palmo’s ‘Cave in the Snow’, a wonderful book about a young British woman who became a Buddhist nun and later spent twelve years living in splendid seclusion in a small cave in the Himalayas. There are other such books which bring forth a similar yearning in me to leave everything behind to spend the rest of my life in meditation and devotion.

But somehow I feel that this isn’t the sole purpose of my life this time around. True, the ultimate purpose of life is self-realization, and meditation is a big part of realizing our true nature. Yet, whenever we see a realized Master who walks this Earth, it is likely that we see them engaged in alleviating the suffering of others. With the merging of the Self, compassion for the condition of mankind springs forth. Saints like Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Amma, Mother Meera or Prem Baba are great examples of realized souls who are engaged in work that helps to elevate the lives and consciousness of others.

Of course, meditation is important work, too. Some yogis sit in caves for their entire lives, for it is only in seclusion that spiritual heights can be attained. These renunciates merged in meditation develop cosmic awareness and become generators of cosmic radiation which they send out to different parts of the Universe. But this leads us again to the same point: whether in seclusion or not, meditation always leads to compassion for the condition of mankind and thus to action to alleviate suffering, whether this action is visible or not. Swami Satyananda Saraswati summed it up perfectly with ‘I have certainly become aware of the purpose of my life – I have a definite twofold mission. The first is to become a means of alleviating the deep-rooted suffering of humankind, and the second is to be one with the highest existent reality.’

Now, I am not a realized Master but this philosophy of karma yoga really makes sense to me. What good is realization if we become indifferent to the pain of others in our bliss? I am touched by the words of Sri Prem Baba who said that ‘I have noticed that spiritual seekers are often fascinated with the search for enlightenment as their sole purpose, to the point where they forget that enlightenment means becoming love itself. Often stubbornly focusing on the discipline involved in practicing their sadhana with the one goal of becoming enlightened, they become blind to the plight of the person sitting next to them. Sometimes their neighbour is needing a bit of attention, perhaps just eye contact and a smile. Maybe we need to re-define the goal: if enlightenment means realizing our true nature – which is love and light – it’s a sign that we are nowhere near our goal when we behave with disrespect or indifference.’

And indifferent is something I hope I never become. Yes, we are bombarded from all sides with pictures and stories of war, catastrophes, starvation and crime. It’s easy and sometimes even necessary to shut down to not get overwhelmed by all the negativity in the world. But at the same time, if I feel unease because the world is imbalanced then I also feel it’s my responsibility as a human being to contribute to rectifying that imbalance. We’re all here for a purpose, and I believe in these times of change, it’s more important than ever to become a channel of light. The outer disharmony in the world only reflects our inner disharmony, which we can redress internally through meditation. And through our internal work, our outer actions become more wholesome and compassionate, which will create more harmony in the outer world.

Whatever the spiritual reasons for our current situation may be, it simply doesn’t feel right to me that there are people in the world that are starving to death while we are throwing away tonnes of food in the West every day; that there are girls who aren’t allowed to go to school on the basis of their gender; that women are being sold and trafficked as prostitutes for the financial gain of others; that indigenous tribes in the Amazon have their lands and livelihoods polluted and taken away because of mining and cattle-ranching.  Mahatma Gandhi put it aptly when he stated that ‘there is enough in the world for everyone’s need; there is not enough for everyone’s greed.’

I’ve often wondered what we as individuals can do on a grassroots level about this inequality in the world. It’s not everyone’s dharma to become an activist and set up a NGO, but how can we do something to re-dress the balance?

One thought that recently came to me is this: how would it be if every single one of us in the West (or anyone who is reasonably well off) decided to help empower one person who is less fortunate? A type of partnership between two individuals in which the one who is more empowered helps empower another less fortunate person. Then later the newly empowered person can help another, and so on. These type of partnerships could go a long way, especially if there is personal contact involved.

One way of doing this is by helping out a person in a crisis country. For example, I’ve been sponsoring a little girl in Afghanistan for her school fees for the last few years. In Afghanistan, girls as a rule aren’t encouraged or even allowed to go to school, which leads them with little hope of escaping a life of poverty. A girl will usually have to marry to a man much older than her and spend her life under his control.  By enabling an Afghan girl to go to school, something which her parents (if they are still alive) would not be able to afford, her life and that of her family suddenly has different opportunities. The cost of doing so? 20 Euros a month. Really not a lot for me, but it can completely change the course of somebody’s life over there. And this knowledge is as enriching for me as it is for the child.

I do this via a small German NGO called DAI who is run by Afghan and German volunteers. They do wonderful work such as building girl’s schools and solar-powered hospitals, thus helping the people of Afghanistan to rebuild their country sustainably.  The best thing about DAI is that all of the money I donate goes straight to the person who needs it. There’s plenty of these small NGO’s around who work hard to make a positive difference in the world.

Some young people from the USA wondered about the same subject and founded KIVA, a great micro-financing organisation. KIVA is an NGO through whom you can lend relatively small amounts of money to people in poorer countries so that they can set up a small business to support themselves. It’s a really great idea because it empowers the people to work for their own existence in often adverse circumstances – and something as little as $25 can change the live of a person. And you get your money back within a few months, which is great if you’re not that well off yourself.

If you can’t afford to donate money, there are other ways of supporting others. For example, there is a great NGO called ‘Futures for Children’ in the USA that helps Native American children, who are often at risk, through mentorships. The mentor writes to the child and encourages him/her to go to school, offers moral support and so on. The children sponsored by this program are more likely to finish school and build a positive future for themselves.

It’s so simple to make a difference, whether it’s through volunteering, signing a petition, visiting a lonely old person, picking up some litter, or simply smiling at the person in front of you. The smallest act can be incredibly powerful when it comes from the heart. May we never forget this in the bliss of our sadhana.

I close with a mantra that says it all:

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu: ‘May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.’

Wonderful NGOs run by brave trail blazers that have inspired me and enriched my life:

Hindu Kush Conservation Association – a small NGO run by the courageous Maureen Lines who has dedicated her life to helping the Kalash tribe in Pakistan’s Hindu Kush mountains http://www.hindukushconservation.com/

Sea Shepherd – a vessel who helps stop illegal whaling and other environmental crimes in the sea http://www.seashepherd.org/

Kiva Microfinance – as mentioned above http://www.kiva.org/

The Afghan Australian Development Organisation – run by an amazing Afghani lady who is using the proceeds of her restaurant in Melbourne to build girl’s schools in Afghanistan http://www.aava.org.au

Deutsch-Afghanische Initiative (DAI) – as above http://www.deutsch-afghanische-initiative.de/

Eaves Housing for Women – NGO providing housing for trafficked women http://www.eaves4women.co.uk/

Somaly Mam – NGO set up by the brave survivor of sexual slavery http://www.somaly.org

Futures for Children – as above http://www.futuresforchildren.org/

New Internationalist Magazine writes about many issues that affect global imbalance, with advice on what can be done about them: http://newint.org/

Feelings want to be felt: the problem with spiritual bypassing

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‘For imaginary thought to cease, clean up the garbage that clutters your mind. This garbage is composed of concepts, prejudices, beliefs, ideas, and suppressed feelings.’ – Prem Baba

In the last five years, I’ve spent a lot of time in yoga ashrams. Over and over, I have noticed something that used to puzzle me greatly. I came into contact with people, often Swamis, who had been practicing sadhana for decades, around thirty or forty years, and yet were very emotionally reactive. I observed them being rude to each other and to ashram workers, having fierce arguments amongst themselves and generally radiating a tense, unhappy energy. This used to scare me. ‘What’, I thought, ‘if after thirty years of doing my practice I am still emotionally reactive like this?’ and ‘What good is all this sadhana if this is the outcome?’

Over time, I realized that this was the by-product of what is commonly known as ‘spiritual bypassing’. Spiritual bypassing is when we try to transcend our being human before we are ready to do so. In yogic and other Eastern philosophies, there is much talk about the transcendence of emotions, of observing the emotions as they arise and likewise often a disapproval of common human emotions like anger. These are all wonderful ideas and I appreciate the wisdom of seeing things from a spiritual perspective. There is a reason for every difficulty we experience in life and we can learn something from every situation. And of course it would be wonderful to stay calm and reflective in the most difficult circumstances whilst radiating love, light and understanding.

The problem with this approach is, in my view, that it often pushes our emotional body into the cellar. Many of us carry emotional wounds and samskaras that are difficult to look at or feel. So the temptation is ‘I’ll practice yoga and do meditation, and magically these wounds will be transcended. I will be above such human emotions.’ I know this from my own experience. After years of meditation, it’s so nice to think that we’re ‘above all that’. And then we get into an intimate relationship with somebody and all hell breaks loose. We regress into childhood and the calm resolve is gone. If anything, it’s a good lesson in humility.

The reality is, we have to walk before we can run. First we need to cleanse the emotional body, and then we can begin to start thinking about transcendence.  Like my teacher Yogi Vishvketu from Rishikesh always says: ‘First you need to clean your house, then you can put nice things in it!’ This of course doesn’t mean that we can’t do yoga and meditation alongside emotional healing work – it just means that we have to be more aware to not bypass the emotions that need to be felt in their full extent before they can be transcended.

I used to be a prime contender for this spiritual bypassing, and still am sometimes. It’s so nice to be in the calm spheres of meditation. It’s soothing and it gives me great balance, and I wouldn’t want to miss it. But thankfully I’ve also done a lot of work that focuses on the emotional body, too, such as bodywork and authentic movement.  And this work has shown me that emotions, especially those we have repressed in childhood because they were too painful to feel, need more than just calm observation. A bodywork therapist recently put it aptly: ‘Imagine how you would have felt as a child if your emotions had just been calmly observed.’ Exactly. The emotions need to be felt, understood – for there is usually a good reason as to why we have them -, accepted, and then we need to learn to take responsibility for them. And that is key.

The other side of spiritual bypassing is emotional indulgence. We can be in danger of slipping into a victim role and get stuck in our emotions. But the middle path is the golden one once again. What we didn’t get as children because our caretakers were unable to give it to us, we now need to learn to give ourselves. But what happens more often is that we act our emotions out because we are unable to contain and fully experience them, and project those unfulfilled needs onto our romantic partners. And so we spend the best part of our adult lives trying to win an old battle by engaging in relationships that don’t give us what we need either and hoping to get those needs met by a partner who can’t meet them because he’s likely as wounded as we are. And that’s where meditation gives us the awareness to see the ‘big picture’.

In my experience, too much emphasis is placed on transcendence in many spiritual institutions when emotional maturity hasn’t yet been reached or even attempted. There are no tools available for those aspirants who need this maturation. Hence we see monks with alcohol problems, yoga teachers who sleep with their students, emotional reactivity and so on and so forth. We can be highly advanced spiritually and yet still in infancy emotionally.

Last year in Rishikesh, I came into contact with a wonderful Brazilian Saint. His name is Prem Baba, and to me he represents the perfect combination between spirituality and psychology. He recognizes the need for integrating our shadow self. And yet, he is a realized Master whose mere presence opened my heart and calmed my mind. His work is a perfect fusion of East and West, and he uses spiritual wisdom and traditional methods together with a mixture of psychological and shamanic tools to help his disciples to clean their garbage that clutters their minds.

I feel that in this changing world, this fusion between East and West, between tradition and progress, is the way to go. We need to become autonomous beings on all levels: mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And we can only become autonomous if we heal our emotions and de-condition our thought processes. If we don’t do this first or alongside our more transcendental work, we carry the risk of having a nice shining exterior house that is cluttered and dirty on the inside. And then our work to liberation can take twice as long because philosophical systems can condition us, too.

One cannot be autonomous as long as one is driven by relationship dynamics, by guilt or attachment needs, by hunger for success, by the fear of the boss or by the fear of boredom. The reason is simple: autonomy is impossible as long as one is driven by anything. Like a leaf blown by the wind, the driven person is controlled by forces more powerful than he is. His autonomous will is not engaged, even if he believes that he has ‘chosen’ his stressed lifestyle and even if he enjoys his activities. The choices he makes are attached to invisible strings. He is still unable to say no, even if it is only to his own drivenness. When he finally wakes up, he shakes his head, Pinocchio-like, and says, ‘How foolish I was when I was a puppet.’ – Gabor Mate, ‘When the Body says No’

For more information on the healing of emotions, I found the following books useful:

Prem Baba ‘From Suffering to Joy: The Path of the Heart’

Chris Griscom ‘The Healing of Emotions’

Diana and Michael Richardson ‘Tantric Love: Feeling vs Emotion’

Tony Crisp ‘Liberating the Body’

Gabor Mate ‘When the Body says No’