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

The power of mantra: how repeating simple Sanskrit phrases can change your life

Chetana web

I recently went to a mantra chanting event with one of my favourite teachers, Jana Runnalls from Glastonbury. We chanted various Sanskrit and Tibetan mantras that vibrated through our bodies and minds with a subtle charge that had the power to silence all thoughts. This caused me to reflect on my journey with mantra and how practising them changed my life completely.

I was introduced to Sanskrit mantra about a decade ago. I’d started to study Kundalini yoga then, a path of yoga on which mantras play a big part. Yet, it wasn’t until I visited India for the first time that things really began to fall into place for me. Within days of being there, I met Yogi Vishvketu and Chetana Panwar at Anand Prakash ashram, who practiced Agni Hotra fire ceremonies every morning as part of their spiritual practice. In this practice, many elaborate Sanskrit mantras are chanted while ghee and sacred herbs are offered into the fire for healing, purification and spiritual advancement. I began to participate daily, as well as chanting other, simpler mantras we were taught in class, and soon noticed profound shifts taking place in me. I started to feel more peaceful, more aware and more sensitive to myself and others. (You can read about this on my Travelling Priestess blog here).

However, one of the best and to this day most astonishing experiences of my life was taking mantra diksha (initiation) with my Guru Swami Satyasangananda (Satsangi) Saraswati. It is often said that mantras work best if they are ‘charged’ by a Guru who has walked the path to self-realization to completion and can thus give you a transmission of their spiritual powers. The person who has walked the path before you knows its pitfalls and dangers, and will also know the full meaning and potential of a given mantra. S/he is therefore able to select a mantra that is right for you and can lead you, too, to realization in time. This is because, through intense practice, the Guru has developed inner vision that allows him or her to see who you truly are at soul level. Therefore, the mantra, it is believed on many yogic paths, is the most important tool for moksha, liberation.

So, several years ago, I felt it was time to dedicate myself seriously to my spiritual path and put out an intention to meet the right spiritual teacher who could help me to do so. Just a little later, Swami Satsangi visited England and I was drawn to taking initiation with her. Before the actual initiation, my friend Rama slipped a little encouraging note into my hand. ‘Mantra is the bridge that connects’, it read. Connects us with what, I wondered then? Later, I understood that the mantra is the bridge that connects us with the Guru, but moreover, with the higher teachings, with our higher Self and ultimately, with the direct experience of the Absolute.

Before this happens, though, a purification process has to take place. We hold so many negative patterns and conditionings in our bodies and minds, and for energy to flow freely through our system, these need to be dissolved. Practicing mantra and other spiritual practices help us to eradicate the tensions that obscure our vision. Mantra thus aligns us with our true Self, with the person we are meant to be.

‘Everything will come out’, my Guru said during initiation. ‘Your jealousy, your rage, your anger, all the negative patterns you have suppressed within yourself will come out when you repeat this mantra. If you don’t want this to happen, then don’t practice it.’ Weird, I thought then, that repeating several syllables can cut through your personality and dissolve your karmas. I didn’t even know what that meant back then, or how it would affect me. I just decided to take the leap and trust.

And it worked.  Looking back, I know now that by taking this first mantra initiation, something in me changed forever. At the time, it felt like something exploded in my head when my Guru touched my third eye. But it wasn’t really until years later that I realized how much it would transform me.

Swami Satsangi

Swami Satsangi

Mantra diksha aligned my entire life with my spiritual practice, and it is always bringing me closer to who I truly am – beyond the personality, the false identity, the karmas. Since I regularly practice mantra, I have become more creative, always more open to trusting and flowing with life, and less fearful.  It has allowed me to see worldly life as a cosmic game – important in some way, but not important at all in another, bigger way. It has also brought more ‘difficulties’ into my life at times: it’s said that when we perform spiritual practices, our karmas come to resolution faster because the karmas ‘stand in our way’ to realization. If we recognize this, we can regard every perceived adversity as a blessing.

One funny side-effect of my mantra practice is that some things just ‘disappeared’ from my mind. I can only liken it to erasing a hard drive of a computer – it’s like mantra has done that to my mind and replaced the previous content with something else. More precisely: films, music, books, activities that meant so much to me before I went to India have just ceased to exist. In many cases, I don’t even remember them anymore, and when I do, it’s like a different person used to enjoy them. So be careful, for mantras really work: if you’re not ready to let go of your old identity, you might be in for a surprise! 🙂

I find the Maha Mrituyunjaya mantra particularly effective when I suffer of a physical or emotional pain – it tends to ease it within minutes. I recently suffered for hours of a migraine headache and then finally remembered to recite the mantra and very soon the pain was gone.

Even if you don’t take mantra diskha, mantras can still be helpful. Deva Premal and Miten recently offered a 21-day mantra challenge online, in which they introduced many mantras together with their meanings. This is really great if you don’t have much experience with mantra and would like to find out more.

Here are some of my favourite mantras (click on the links to find out more about them – you can also find them on Youtube for correct pronunciation):

Om Namah Shivayaa universal mantra to awaken higher states of consciousness

Maha Mrityunjaya mantraespecially effective for healing

Gayatri mantraancient Vedic prayer that demonstrates the unity that underlies creation

Kali mantraa powerful mantra for letting go

Ganesha mantragreat for starting new ventures and for removing obstacles

Durgapath a wonderful mantra that keeps us aligned with our spiritual path

To find out more, you can also read ‘Mantra and Yantra’ by Swami Niranjananda Saraswati

Enjoy the magical process of mantra sadhana!

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