Eyes blazing with the fire of transformation: The benefits of tapasya (austerity) in spiritual practice

swami satyananda

‘When my Guru, Swami Satyananda, performed the panchagni tapasya (austerity of sitting amidst five fires) at Rikhiapeeth for nine long years, his eyes developed such immense tejasa and brilliance that it was often difficult to look him straight in the eyes. One had to lower one’s eyes in respect and surrender to the beauty and brilliance that his eyes would emit.’ – Swami Satyasangananda

I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Gangotri, high up in the Indian Himalayas. Gangotri is one of the most sacred pilgrimage places for Hindus, as it is here that the river Ganga was originally received by Lord Shiva. Out of compassion for the condition of humanity, the Goddess Ganga decided to descend upon earth to help alleviate suffering – however, the impact of the river’s descent would have been so great that it would have destroyed the planet. Therefore, Lord Shiva offered to receive Ganga on his head first to soften the blow and to make a graceful descent possible.

Gangotri is a hotspot for sadhus, saints and sages. Bitterly cold most of the time, as it is a valley that doesn’t receive much sunshine, it attracts only those who can handle a bit of austerity. Sure, thousands of people visit for a couple of days and trek up to Gomukh (where the source of Ganga is now located due to the receding glacier) and even higher up to Tapovan, but the people who stay more permanently tend to be the sadhus. Some (very few) even stay throughout winter, when the road closes due to heavy snowfall, causing Gangotri to be cut off from all services, including electricity, phone and food supplies.

Near Gomukh

Near Gomukh

During my visits to Gangotri, I’ve been blessed with the company of sadhus who have lived there for years. This time, I was fortunate to spend time with a sadhvi (female sadhu) who has lived in a cave about an hour from Gangotri for the past thirteen years. She has also lived at Tapovan (a high mountain above Gomukh at an elevation of 4500 m) for three years under a rock. Mind you, this sadhvi is not a young lady – she is almost sixty years old and did not take sannyas until she was in her early 40’s. However, when I met her for the first time, I was blown away by her radiant face and blazing eyes. This meeting took place at Gangotri temple, and I watched her as she gracefully descended the stairs towards me in her geru robes, with long grey hair framing her delicate face. She was so beautiful and full of light that I couldn’t take my eyes off her for the entire time we were talking.

I’ve seen this glow on the faces of a number of Himalayan sadhus. Another sadhu I visit from time to time is Nirmal Baba, a Bengali sadhu who has been living in Bhojwasa (near Gomukh) for the past twenty-six years. It is a severely cold place, and he lives there all year around in his stone house by the Ganga which he has built himself – without a fire place or heating of any kind. As part of his seva (service), he offers kirtan chanting twice a day during the pilgrim’s season – and he sings some of the most haunting, beautiful bhajans I’ve ever heard. The atmosphere in his house becomes so magical that I don’t feel cold or hungry and that it doesn’t matter to stumble to his house in the snow before dawn.

Nirmal Baba has the same glow on his face, the same blazing eyes. I am convinced that this has to do with the intensity of devotion and trust in God with which these sadhus live – their hearts are so alight with love of God and Truth that it outshines the cold and other hardships they encounter in this forbidding environment. And of course, add to that the high prana in the Himalayas and the peace that a solitary lifestyle in nature can bring.

Nirmal Baba of Bhojwasa

Nirmal Baba of Bhojwasa

Yet another sadhu I’ve met lives even higher up in a cave in Tapovan all year around, where temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius in the winter. He lives there without fire and keeps warm by pranayama breathing exercises. This sadhu is young, twenty-seven years of age, and has been observing silence since he was nineteen years old. Last year he was caught in a snow storm and sat under a thin door frame for three days before he could start to dig himself out. And yet, he is one of the happiest, energetic and radiant people I have ever seen.

Tapovan Mouni Baba

Tapovan Mouni Baba

You may ask yourself (as I have done in the past!): what exactly is the point of all this? Does one have to live in such austerity to love God? Surely there are easier ways than living in a remote cave and eating a mono-diet of rice and dhal surrounded by snow and ice?

Sure. There are easier ways, and I don’t believe it’s necessary for most people to live in this way. But looking at the radiance of these sadhus, at the consciousness and focus they emanate, one cannot discount the benefits of their chosen lifestyle either. There is something about living so close to nature, on Her terms. Some of the sadhus I’ve met don’t keep mobile phones, and obviously there is no electricity in the caves. Their simple food (which they tend to receive by donation) is cooked on fire, or sometimes gas, and they spend most of their time in spiritual practice and contemplation. In such a lifestyle, where one learns to overcome the limitations of the body, the fire of tapas (austerity) burns away many karmic impurities. The glow that stems from such close encounters with Truth in turn shows externally.

Admittedly, this lifestyle is considered extreme even in India, and most likely judged as insane in the West. In India, most people have at least some admiration and respect for this type of austerity, as it is believed that renunciation leads to moksha (liberation). I’d also say that unless it is your karma, generated by lifetimes of spiritual dedication, you are unlikely to renounce everything and live in a Himalayan cave. But how can we apply some of the principles of tapasya into our modern lives? And what are the benefits of doing so?

My Gurudeva, Sri Prem Baba, often speaks about ‘intelligent austerities’. With this, he doesn’t mean harming your body by excess austerity, but renouncing something that you know isn’t good for you. For example, he advocates the practice of mouna (silence). Silence is tapasya for many of us. Our minds are not used to keeping silent and turning the focus inwards. We are constantly looking outwards for stimulation and validation, and the practice of silence (inner and outer) takes all that away. And once we are further along on the spiritual path, silence becomes the sweetest, most exquisite state of Being, as it is in silence that we can hear and become one with God.

Another example of tapasya would be cutting out self-destructive tendencies, such as eating things that aren’t good for us (excess sugar, fat, processed foods), smoking, drinking, drugs, unhealthy relationships, oversleeping etc etc. While we all know that these things don’t benefit us, we often do them nonetheless. So how to change this? In yoga, we make use of something called a sankalpa (intention). A sankalpa is like a vow: once taken, you cannot break it, no matter what. So a common sankalpa would be to recite a certain mantra X times in X days; to get up at 4 am every morning for meditation for the next 90 days; to stop eating sweets for the next three months; to stay in a given place for a year; etc etc. After the sankalpa has been completed, one can take up the old habit again – but one often finds that the body doesn’t want to do so any longer because it recognizes that it feels better without the habit.

These actions are called intelligent austerities because they purify our bodies (our temples in which Spirit dwells) and thus bring us closer to Truth and to who we really are without our conditionings. They may be hard to do initially, but the benefits will soon outweigh the cost. It may not be on a par with living a hermit’s life in a cave, but it’s very much doable and applicable to our modern lifestyles that often include many responsibilities. And you may find that some of the glow of tapas will find its way into your eyes and onto your faces, too.

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

Guru’s grace, and the power of surrender

Image

‘My Guru has shown me the path.

He desired my body. 

I gave it to him unflinchingly.

He asked me for my prana

I offered it, unhesitatingly. 

He said, ‘Will you give me your mind, too?’

I replied, ‘It is yours forever.’

I was left with nothing,

Empty and desolate.

The dark blue sky dotted with stars, and the moon,

That was all I had now.

Then all at once,

The sun burst upon me with a song,

The restless ocean bathed me with its waves,

The thundering clouds burst upon me with rain,

The snow-white swan danced before my eyes,

A flash of lightning illumined my soul.

My Guru came to me once again.

He said, ‘Will you give me the samskaras

You have collected life after life?’

I looked into his deep brown eyes,

Into the dark and deep abyss of his Being.

For what seemed aeons, he stood before me.

Everything else began to dissolve before my eyes,

To melt and fade away.

There was unity within and without.

It is the grace of my Guru,

He who has extinguished my being,

And absorbed me into himself.

My Guru has shown me the path.’

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

 

 

Freedom from bondage: Do we really need to eat, sleep and lose vital bodily fluids?

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‘A person who has perfect control of body and mind is a yogi in every situation.’ – Hatha Yoga Pradipika

A couple of days ago, I visited a local ashram for a Vedic fire ceremony. Later, I shared a table with an acquaintance who works at the same yoga studio as I. As we were waiting for dinner to be served, she told me that she was waiting for her young daughter to have food before going home. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘you’re not eating?’ ‘No’, she replied, ‘I am a breatharian.’ Breatharians, or Pranier in German, are people who don’t need to eat or drink as they can exist on prana, the life force. ‘Really?’, I asked her. ‘Tell me more.’ The woman told me that the inspiration to become a breatharian came to her during a spiritual practice her Guru had given her. ‘It wasn’t so much a conscious choice to stop eating’, she told me, ‘I just suddenly knew in my meditation that this was the way for me.’

So she began with a ‘conversion process’ during which she didn’t eat or drink for seven days, and only practiced the pranayama techniques her Guru had shown her. In total, the process to become a breatharian  took her three weeks. Since then, she rarely eats – only when she feels like it, which is about once a week. ‘I eat for enjoyment now’, she said, ‘or when I visit my parents, who don’t know that I am doing this. And I also noticed that the urge to eat comes to me when I am stressed. But the main thing is that I don’t have to eat, which is a liberation.’ Surely it is. When you think about it, most of our time is dedicated to food. We work to acquire food, then we purchase or grow it, prepare it, eat it, and clean up the dishes afterwards. When we travel, we spend a good amount of time looking for food. It’s a time-consuming affair. I’ve often thought that it would be great to eat only through choice, for the experience, and not because I have to.

My acquaintance also told me that since she stopped eating, all of her health problems disappeared. ‘I used to have a lot of pain in my body, terrible back pains, as well as psychological pain’, she said, ‘and it’s all gone now.’ And she looks great: glowing, radiant, and not skinny at all. Her story fascinated me. I’ve heard about breatharians before, but I’ve never actually met one. If you believe the Internet, then more and more people are learning to live on light and air, and long-term breatharian Jasmuheen is giving advice on  how to on her website http://www.jasmuheen.com. Apparently, it’s a mental choice – breatharians say that we erroneously believe that we have to eat to survive, but we can equally choose to live on prana.

From a yogic viewpoint, this is not really anything new. Yogis in India have lived on little or no food since ancient times, because their spiritual practices support them with everything they need. The bodily needs and even functions are considered to be bondage, because they keep us from being truly free and also distract us from our spiritual progress. Likewise, the conservation of vital fluids, i.e. semen and menstrual blood, is recommended in some of the yogic texts, as these fluids contain our life force.

As a woman, I find the idea that our life force is contained in the menstrual blood very interesting. It certainly makes sense, as women tend to feel tired during menstruation, and it is suggested that we rest as much as possible during this time. As Hatha Yoga was traditionally a masculine path, much has been written about the conservation of semen for men, especially during the sexual act, and practices have been developed that help men to do so and thus contain the prana in their bodies. One of these yogic practices is called vajroli mudra, which has to be practiced under the guidance of a Guru and consists, among other things, of learning to slowly draw in air through a tube that is inserted into the urethra of the penis. Perfection of vajroli mudra is said to give a man greater vision, as well as increased vital and mental power. Loss of semen equals degeneration and death.

What is less known is that there is a related practice for women called sahajoli mudra, which instructs women on how to control their rajas, the menstrual blood, as well as suppress ovulation. This practice involves the same muscle contraction by the urethra as vajroli mudra. Note that this practice only makes sense for yoginis who have chosen not to have children, and should only be done under the guidance of an experienced teacher. If a woman wants to reproduce, a rich menstrual loss, just like a high sperm count in men, is of immense value. Likewise, in many traditions, menstruation is seen as sacred, as this is the time when a woman is at the height of her power, in particular spiritually. She is more intuitive and it is a time that is conducive for introspection, seclusion and sadhana.

However, ultimately, for a yogini this is also bondage as a woman’s vital energy is draining from her every month – vital force that she could conserve and circulate within her body to nourish her internal organs. The mental and physical fluctuations that accompany a woman’s cycle bind her to physical consciousness. By withdrawing the bindu (ovum), a woman experiences the awakening of a higher energy force within her body and her consciousness effortlessly expands into transpersonal awareness.

The ‘third pillar of bondage’ in yoga is said to be sleep. Highly advanced yogis are said to sleep just two to three hours daily, or not at all, if their meditation practice has been perfected. As the spiritual aspirant advances, s/he will need to sleep less and less, parallel with prana being increased through practices given by the Guru. This development is also aided by the practice of Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep.

It’s interesting to see how limited our earth-bound consciousness is, and how much we are capable of given the right practices. Of course, if we live in the world, have demanding jobs and families to support, these spiritual attainments may be difficult to master. But we can nevertheless take inspiration from the yogis – and in sadhana, every hour of practice helps. Perhaps the middle path is a path in which we have better and deeper sleep aided through Yoga Nidra; practice brahmacharya and eat healthy pure foods to lessen the flow of menses; and eat moderately but choose foods that have a high content of prana, such as fresh organic greens, vegetables and fruit. In this way, we increase our prana, expand our consciousness and heighten our sensitivity at the same time.

Find out more:

‘Hatha Yoga Pradipika’ by Swami Muktibodhananda (Yoga Publications Trust)

‘Conscious Eating’ by Gabriel Cousens (North Atlantic Books)

‘Yoga Nidra’ by Swami Satyananda Saraswati (Yoga Publications Trust)

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu: Thoughts on meditation in action

himalayas

‘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/

On Freedom (by Swami Satyananda Saraswati)

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‘Let my life go on as it is, in the direction it yearns to follow. Keep your knowledge, your philosophy, your spirituality, your science, your social conduct, your religion. Let my life flow splendidly as a child’s. Let me fly like the carefree birds, let me remain innocent and unknowing. I don’t want your wisdom or knowledge. I don’t need your scholarship or your books. I wish to roam in the jungles and mountains. Let me sing along with the birds, do not stop me. Let me run on paths covered with dry leaves, feeling them crunch under my feet as I run among them. Do not stop me. Let me gaze at the wondrous scenes of nature that unfold at sunrise. Let me live on the leaves of the forest, the water of the streams and the air of the vast sky. Keep your civilization, your pride, your reputation and your religion. Don’t tie me down, let me go wherever I want to. Do not bind me with the fetters of social norms and rules, do not misguide me with your religious beliefs, do not defeat me with your scientific arguments. Do not lead me astray.’

A Free Mind

‘Often, the search for meaning does start with a sense of restlessness, which can carry us all over the world. But sooner or later every serious student of life sets aside passport and visas and settles down to look within.’Eknath Easwaran

This morning, I read a chapter by the great Swami Satyananda Saraswati, in which he talks about what having a free mind means. ‘The mind remains free whether you live amidst pleasure or pain, wealth or poverty, young people or old. The mind must not identify itself with the external circumstances and think, ‘I am poor’, ‘I am rich’, ‘I am in pain’ or ‘I am very unfortunate’. As sannyasins, we live a life of poverty by choice. Why? Because our minds must be free. Wealth, name, fame, passion, all these things hold down this great energy of man. We are trying to simplify our lives on the physical, mental and emotional planes so the mind will remain free. If we can keep the mind free, awakening will take place automatically, even without any sadhana.’
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This is a subject close to my heart, especially now, having just returned from India. India is always transformational on many levels. In the last few months, I have been contemplating the real meaning of freedom. Freedom, like most other things, is a journey. When I was younger, I thought that freedom meant financial independence and the freedom to do what I wanted. Doing only work I am passionate about. So I went forth and did just that – I founded a record label in my early twenties and became successful beyond my wildest dreams. I bought a beautiful house, a nice car, expensive clothes, flew business class, and I had a certain ‘name and fame’. I admit, it was a great time, being barely twenty-five. But slowly, or perhaps not so slowly, dissatisfaction crept in. A certain emptiness. Was this really freedom, to be able to buy what I wanted, to have ‘made it’? The uncomfortable feeling increased, and by the time I was twenty-seven, I was clear: this wasn’t it. I couldn’t live like this anymore. This wasn’t freedom: I felt imprisoned, in a golden cage of my own making. To the disbelief of many people, I closed down my company at the height of its success, took a year out and then enrolled at university to study psychology.Fast forward seven years from there. I’d sold my house, downsized greatly, and was living a much more satisfying life. I wasn’t earning much, but felt fulfilled doing projects I loved. I worked part-time as a spiritual advisor in prisons, performed pagan rituals in the community, and worked on creative projects. Admittedly, this was facilitated by the money I made with the record label and which I had invested wisely. And yet, still, I did not feel free. I still had rent and bills to pay, shopping to do, a car to maintain,appointments to keep and so on. So though my life was more pleasant because I was actually doing what I loved, I felt shackled. So I decided to take it a step further. I sold my car, gave up my apartment, gave away most of my possessions and decided to travel the world by train. Perhaps this would give me the sense of freedom I craved.At first, it really did. Sitting on the different trains crossing continents, I felt free as a bird. No appointments, no schedules, no bills. Just me, my backpack and the ever-changing landscapes of Siberia, China, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan and India. Being so high up in the Himalayas added to the freedom I felt in my heart. This was five years ago. I have not settled down again since, living in different countries and still moving around a lot, though at a much slower pace.Lately, however, freedom has taken on a very different meaning for me. Yes, it’s great to have (relative) financial independence, to be able to travel, to do work that I like and not be answerable to a boss. It’s what many people aspire to, and I was blessed enough to experience all this early on in life. For this I will always be grateful. But what has come into the forefront for me now is something very different. Freedom of the mind, freedom of our conditioning, our likes and dislikes that really imprison us, whether we are aware of it or not. This has been inspired by my love and practice of yoga and meditation (a result of my travels to the East). I started to realize that actually, I am not free at all. As long as my mind does its own thing, as long as I am influenced by my early childhood conditioning, by anger, by things my society or parents or friends deem as ‘acceptable’, as long as I react in ways that are not fully autonomous, I am still a prisoner. Making autonomous choices is key: choices that comes from my inner being, my soul, choices that are not my mother’s or my father’s or my grandmother’s, or heck, my neighbour’s choices. As long as I am driven by anything, be that insecurity or hunger for recognition or ambition or an old chip on my shoulder, I am not free.

Seeing this so clearly has been a revelation. It has put everything else in the background. It doesn’t mean that I can’t travel or do what I enjoy. But it has made those things optional. What we have to liberate and purify is our mind that is so full of unconscious patterns and conditionings. Then we can truly be free. We can be in any situation, good or bad, we can be rich or poor, cold or hot – whatever. But we will be at peace. Right now, most of us hanker after pleasure and run from pain. This is what all our actions lead towards. This may be fleetingly satisfying, but it doesn’t bring us true freedom and peace. True freedom is a state of non-duality, of being at peace with all there is at any moment.

How to achieve this? Meditation and yoga are a good way to start. At the very least, meditation gives us an experience of being in the moment and of watching ourselves. It slowly removes our veil of ignorance and helps us to see things as they truly are. We begin to wake up from the dream. We begin to see that there is more to life than what we perceive with the five senses and that there is a deeper purpose to it all. And: meditation shows us that we have a choice. We have a choice to not react and we can learn to control our minds and emotions through purifying the mind. And this, in my view, is true freedom.

If you are interested in yoga and meditation, I can recommend Satyananda Yoga at http://www.yogavision.net/and Vipassana Meditation at http://www.dhamma.org/