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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sri Prem Baba

Sri Prem Baba

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

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

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

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

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

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

‘Give me more pain, more pain

Give me more consciousness

Tear open all doors, smash down all walls

Give me more pain, more pain

Give me more consciousness

Tear open all doors, smash down all walls

Give me more release, more release

 

More love, more love,

That the ‘I’ in me may drown,

More love, more love,

That the ‘I’ in me may drown,

Give me more, more, more streams

Of nectar to drink

Give me more, more, more’

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

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

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

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

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

Sri Prem Baba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And remember:

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On Love

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When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.

But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

(Kahlil Gibran – excerpt from the book “The Prophet”; shared by Sri Prem Baba in a letter to his sangha on the last day of Navaratri )