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 )

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

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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

Growing from the inside out: why healing yourself has the power to change the world

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‘We must remember that trying to solve the world’s problems through a primarily external focus is not very effective, either. The world is full of people attempting to find solutions to community and planetary problems with little success and much struggle, because they are not fully confronting deeper levels of the issues. As well-meaning as we may be, if we try to ‘fix’ things outside ourselves without healing the underlying causes of the problem in our own consciousness, we simply perpetuate the problem.’ – Shakti Gawain, from ‘The Path of Transformation’

Many years ago, I worked in the prison service as a pagan minister, a post which involved talking to and leading rituals for prisoners of pagan faith. As a priestess of an ancient Goddess tradition, it was my quest to bring long forgotten Goddess archetypes into the grey, male-dominated prison environments for the purpose of healing and transformation. The Universe, known for its terrific sense of humour in all situations, took my mission seriously, because it placed me in a sex offender’s prison and made sure I wasn’t aware of this fact until I had accepted the position. Needless to say, I was quite shaken when I found out. Me, a feminist priestess, working with rapists and paedophiles?! What?! I hadn’t bargained for that!

Most people I talked to told me to stop working there at once. There was concern for my safety, as well as criticism and judgement, even from some of my friends. The general consensus seemed to be that these men were monsters who’d committed the most despicable crimes and thus didn’t deserve attention or spiritual guidance. How could I even entertain the thought of working with them? After some serious soul searching, I decided to stay in the job and give it my best. Something inside me told me that it was the right thing for me to do, and that the reasons would become clear later on. And so it was. I worked in this particular prison for two years, and my time there turned out to be one of the most rewarding and enriching periods of my life. What I experienced during that phase, no book or degree would have been able to teach me; and I learned just as much, if not more, from the men I worked with as they might have learned from me. Through my interactions in the prison, I learned how to listen with my heart and understood that there is always a reason for why people act in the way they do.

It is so easy, and also quite natural, to judge ‘the rapist’, ‘the criminal’ or even ‘the other’ without understanding the big picture. Definitely, rape is one of the most horrendous crimes, in particular where children are involved. I think we probably all agree on that. However, the point I am trying to make is that we have to try and understand why these things happen, and what occurred in the person’s life that caused him/her to act in such violent ways. To seek answers to these questions, I began to read the case histories of the men I worked with. Many of them were filled with the most unimaginable childhood abuse, and upon reading the files, I wasn’t really surprised any longer that the men became violent in turn. Violence appeared to be a way for their wounded, raging unconscious to take control like others had seized control of them when they were children. Pain, powerlessness and violence were what these men had known since birth, and the hatred and abuse they had experienced turned into hatred and abuse for others. Again, I repeat: I am not trying to condone or excuse acts of violence by any means. Not everyone who had an abusive childhood becomes a criminal, and many complex individual and societal factors contribute to why a person becomes violent. What I am saying though is that we have to try and understand the root causes if we want to find an effective way of eliminating a problem.

For society, the problem of crime may appear solved if criminals are locked up. But, my years of working in prisons have shown me that being in the association of other criminals in a punitive environment rarely works. The people I have seen change are the ones who had an inner transformation, be this through religion, spirituality, art or education, and, perhaps most importantly, who had a mentor or contact person that respected them as a fellow human being. A single human contact with somebody seeking to understand rather than judge often had the power to help a person to start respecting himself again, regardless of what he had done.

Something we all seem to do in this externally-focused world is to seek the root causes for our problems outside of ourselves. But the outer is always a reflection of the inner, and vice versa. We start to see that when, through our spiritual practice, judgment begins to fall away and we get glimpses of the big picture. We have an ‘aha’ moment and recognize that not everything is as it seems on the surface. Rather than thinking with our minds that holds conditioned concepts of what is right and wrong, we begin to see with the heart and try to understand why.

We all have a potential rapist and murderer inside of us. We are all capable of violence and aggression, given the right (or rather, wrong) circumstances, and this is what many of us, especially if we believe ourselves to be spiritual, try to deny. Shakti Gawain puts this aptly in her book ‘The Path of Transformation’: ‘If we are identified with love, light and peaceful energies, and we project our disowned aggression onto others, then our attempts to create world peace, or even peaceful lives of our own, will most likely fail.’ We need to recognize that we are all a composite of dark and light, of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ qualities, and only when we have come to peace with that can our lives start to transform and become truly holistic.

We have to accept all of our thoughts and emotions, including our feelings of revenge, anger, jealousy, rage and sadness, without censoring and judging anything. We have to feel it all if we want to be free, and channel this energy in productive ways. When we do this, we no longer need to judge others ‘out there’ –we can then come from a place of compassion, permissiveness and understanding that can transform ourselves and those around us. And the beauty of spiritual practice is that by accepting and integrating them fully, we eventually transcend our negative emotions.

What then, is the answer to the world’s problems? I believe it’s inner growth, first and foremost, which can then flower into wholesome action. Meditation has the power to melt our filters and conditionings into understanding, compassion and love. This is why I think it’s wonderful that Vipassana meditation (a very effective 10 day silent meditation course) is available for free in some prisons. The film Doing Time, Doing Vipassana illustrates this perfectly by showing what happened when Vipassana meditation was conducted in some of India’s largest prisons. The result is very moving: hardened criminals broke down in tears after the course and embraced their jailers, because they had finally started to see the root cause of their actions. It is only when we see why we do something that we can understand what to do about it. Most importantly, this shift from the unconscious to the conscious gives us the power of choice and the key to a truly liberated way of life.

‘There is a simple universal principle: Everything in the universe wants to be accepted. All aspects of creation want to be loved and appreciated and included.’ – Shakti Gawain

How can we learn to listen with our hearts more? Here are some tips:

  • Meditate, meditate, meditate 🙂
  • Travel and/or expose yourself to different cultures and religions. Travelling as well as having relationships with people from different cultures has really helped me to appreciate the differences as well as the commonalities we all share.
  • Spend time with people whose views you find difficult to understand or accept. Instead of judging, keep an open mind and keep asking ‘why’. Allow others to express themselves so that you can begin to see where they are coming from.
  • Practice empathic listening – listening with intent to understand. This doesn’t mean agreeing with the other person; it means that you fully, deeply, try to understand that person, instead of projecting your own autobiography, opinions and assumptions onto them. Focus on receiving the deep communication of another human soul, rather than on having to be right.
  • Read the book ‘The Path of Transformation’ by Shakti Gawain, which talks more about how healing ourselves can change the world.
  • Read ‘Flight’ by Sherman Alexie, a novel with some great spiritual truths about what we’re all capable of hidden in its pages

If you enjoy my writing, my book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now.