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

Don’t worry. Everything is perfect. Always.

‘Running through these changes is one single theme: all our desires are coming together, merging in one intense, wholehearted, undivertible passion for Self-realization. This unification of desire is the very essence of sadhana.’Eknath Easwaran

If you would have told me fifteen years ago that one day I would have a Guru, spend my time in Indian ashrams and consider renouncing everything for my spiritual path, I would have laughed at you. I was extremely ambitious, and my idea of success was built all around worldly achievement. What I did was who I was and this was how I defined myself. Later, when I started to practice yoga and become more self-aware, I realized that the driving force behind all of this was insecurity. I didn’t feel good enough or lovable just ‘being’ – I had to earn that recognition, not only from others, but especially from myself. Looking back, it was a very stressful existence.

An emotional breakdown at the age of thirty-two changed all of that. That was the junction at which my journey into spiritual life really started, hence I call that period my breakthrough. Life became calmer and actually more creative because the creativity started to come from a different, more authentic place. Creating is as natural as breathing to me, but I don’t have to prove myself anymore. What a relief!

Inadvertently, yoga has changed me from the inside out, without my planning for it or even noticing it while it happened. Like most people, I started yoga for physical reasons. Now, some eight years later, my life has changed beyond recognition and become yoga. Not yoga in its somewhat limited, physical sense of asanas and pranayama, though this is part of it, but yoga in the way of union. Union with what? Union of our limited small self with the vast limitless Self. Union with the paramatman, the ‘Supreme Soul’, with the Divine, with everything there is. I have understood and, more importantly, experienced that this is really what all yoga practices lead towards.

Yes, asanas bring us peace of mind, relaxation, ability to deal with the world in a calmer way. But if you really delve deeper into the practices, especially those of meditation and the more devotionally inspired sadhanas such as kirtan chanting and fire ceremonies, something else happens. The veil of ignorance that surrounds our vision starts to lift. We begin to see things as they really are, and the filter that is made up of our experiences and conditionings starts to melt away. Maybe for glimpses at first, but then, slowly but surely, for longer sustained amounts of time.

And then, at least for me, something else started to happen. So many of my desires and ambitions started to fall away. Things that were important for so long just didn’t matter anymore. Not in a negative sense, but in a liberating way. It was all replaced by the overwhelming desire to delve deeper into my spiritual path, to surrender myself completely to the Divine because I have realized that this is all that really matters. To me, the purpose of life is this ‘union’, the realization that we are in fact not the small drop but the big ocean. That bliss is our true nature and that we are caught in an admittedly very beautiful web of illusion. And when we understand this, peace, joy and boundless freedom start to  replace fear, anger, anxiety, insecurity, judgement and all the other culprits that so often make life a misery. We begin to understand that everything is perfect as it is, whether we perceive it as ‘good’ or bad’, but that we simply can’t see it most of the time.

And when that happens, it’s like a big ‘aha’ moment. Like, wow! I am THAT and not this? How could I have forgotten? What a divine comedy! And indeed, when I look back now over my journey that has often been so filled with pain, struggle and illusion, I just want to laugh with delight. How wonderfully perfect everything is and always has been! Sure, I still forget from time to time and my mind gets caught up in the illusion. But it doesn’t last as long now. When I sit down, breathe in and out for a few times, I soon remember again that  everything is perfect, divine grace.