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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sri Prem Baba

Sri Prem Baba

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

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

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

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

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

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

‘Give me more pain, more pain

Give me more consciousness

Tear open all doors, smash down all walls

Give me more pain, more pain

Give me more consciousness

Tear open all doors, smash down all walls

Give me more release, more release


More love, more love,

That the ‘I’ in me may drown,

More love, more love,

That the ‘I’ in me may drown,

Give me more, more, more streams

Of nectar to drink

Give me more, more, more’


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

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

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

The issues are in the tissues

So it’s that easy? You do a few yoga postures and suddenly, you’re charging towards enlightenment? Or worse, you want to renounce everything and go live in an ashram in India?

Not quite. But there is a logic to the mysterious process of yoga, though I can’t claim to fully grasp it myself. This is how I understand it through my own experiences. Asanas, or yoga postures, release tensions in the body and balance the nervous system. When we thus cleanse and balance the body, we start to get a glimpse of who we really are and where our challenges lie. Most things we perceive as problems, such as difficult people or situations, are really a result of our conditioning and wounding we experienced earlier on in life. Because our vision is not clear, we tend to either blame these ‘opponents’, resulting in anger and victim consciousness, or  we blame ourselves, resulting in depression and self-pity.

To use an analogy, imagine a window that’s really dirty and hasn’t been cleaned in decades. Can you see the beauty of the world behind it accurately? You can’t. Everything will seem ugly, dark and distorted. But once you wipe it clean, and this can take years depending on how long it hasn’t been cleaned, suddenly you can. You realize that the sun shines brightly and that things aren’t dark at all. This is what yoga does.

My Ayurveda teacher, Dr Vasant Lad, always used to say ‘The issues are in the tissues’. He said this in reference to our bodily tissues. In the human body, every event, especially the traumatic ones, is recorded by our bodies. We store these unconscious memories as tensions mainly in the tissues of our bodies. We call these psychic tensions samskaras, or mental scars.Often, we are unaware of them, because the whole reason they have been tensions is that we have suppressed them because the event was too traumatizing for us at the time of experiencing it.

Our body is made up of these samskaras, and in Vedic philosophy, it is said that we carry them from lifetime to lifetime. The way we look now, and the ailments we have in this lifetime are a direct result of our actions in the past. Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, this theory makes sense: whatever you eat actually becomes your body. In Ayurveda, we have seven bodily tissues, and the food ingested matures into all of them in a matter of days. So whatever food you eat or action you perform in this lifetime is likely to have a reaction at some point of time.

When we practice yoga postures, these tensions are released. The muscles relax, and the energy flows more freely through the body. Our nervous system relaxes through the calm breathing, and this in turn relaxes our mind and emotions. Hence, the system cleanses itself and a clear vision can emerge. With a sattvic vegetarian diet, the more advanced yoga practices like the shatkriyas cleansing methods, fire ceremonies and extended sadhanas, this process is aided along. And before you know it, the window is getting cleaner and cleaner, and your whole outlook of life changes.

In Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science, it’s very similar. Through the process of Panchakarma, a cleansing method that may involve purgation, vomiting therapy or medicated enemas, years of accumulated toxins are removed from the body. I always find it interesting how much emotional baggage comes out together with the physical toxins, and how much clarity there is in the mind afterwards. It’s incredible how closely related body and mind are. I recently heard that the ultimate aim of Panchakarma, just like sadhana, is enlightenment, and it made total sense. If your body is clean, but your mind full of dirt, you can’t be enlightened. Likewise I would argue, if you practice a lot of yoga and think positive thoughts, but eat at McDonald’s every day, the path to realization might be quite arduous, too.

It’s still amazing to me how precise and vast the system of yoga is, and how it addresses every single challenge a human being could ever face. And it seems to be never ending: first you get over the physical challenges, then the mental/emotional ones, and suddenly you find yourself immersed in spiritual challenges and in vast dimensions that you never believed existed when you went to your first yoga class. You’re like ‘How on earth did this happen? I didn’t plan for this!’ But worry not. Many people who only practice yoga once or twice a week for health reasons will never get to or even know about this stage. For most people, myself included, unless they already come to the planet highly evolved, it takes years of arduous and sustained practice to free themselves of the shackles of conditioning. But everyone will benefit nonetheless, whether you practice once a week or every day. Harmony slowly weaves itself into the lives of all, depending on where you are at on your journey.

So it pays to keep the body clear, whether you do it for physical health reasons or for reasons of elevated consciousness. Both feed into each other: you can eat the most healthy, organic diet and yet still be full of toxins if you have an excess of unprocessed mental tensions such as anxiety, anger and rage. On the other hand, I have a friend who lives on a diet of frozen potato chips and chocolate sandwiches but is pretty healthy as he practices two hours of Vipassana meditation a day. So it can work both ways, and as has been shown by research studies, some of the causes of serious illness such as cancer can be wrong diet as well as unprocessed emotions and relationship stresses. So it’s always good to keep a check on our mental as well as physical health.

And it doesn’t have to be yoga. Any process that detoxes the body and facilitates a smooth flow of energy can do the same – whether it’s Tai Chi, Quigong, meditation, energy work, fasting or cleansing. See what resonates for you.

Wishing you bliss and joy on your journey!