Who is God, really?

‘All your life you long to meet God, but you have no concept of God. What type of God will you meet? Everyone says, “I want to see God, I want to see God.” Someone is doing chanting, someone is meditating, someone is talking of Gita, someone is talking of Upanishads. Nobody sees God, it’s all mere talk. Why? Because you don’t have a clear concept.’ — Swami Rama

god

On the spiritual path, many of us claim to be on the ‘search for God’. We want to connect with the Divine, be one with God, attain God – but what does that actually mean in real terms? I’ve been pondering this question for a while now, especially lately since many outer forms of worship have been falling away for me. The more my worship internalizes and the more I connect with my own truth, the less I realize I actually know. So the question I want to pose in this article is: who or what is God to us? And how do we know?

There is a lovely story about the young Swami Rama. After performing sadhana for some years, he told his Master, a great yogi and sage from Bengal, that he finally wanted to see God, since he hadn’t yet been able to. And so his Master responded that he’d show him God the next morning. That whole night Swami Rama was restless and couldn’t sleep with excitement – tomorrow he’d finally meet God! So, when Swami Rama appeared all groomed and devout in front of his Master the next morning, he was asked, ‘Tell me, what kind of God do you want to see?’ Swami Rama was taken aback and replied, ‘Are there many kinds of God?’ The Master said, ‘No. I want to know what is the concept of God in your mind?’ Swami Rama wasn’t able to answer that question – he didn’t know. And he also realized that because of that, he might not recognize it if God actually appeared to him – his Master could have shown him anything.

And so it is with most of us. We grow up with certain concepts and we are told by our parents that this is what God is. For some, it’s Jesus, for others Allah, for yet others Shiva or Krishna or the Divine Mother. Some believe in God with form, for others God is formless, for some God is within and for some, without. Some people see God in nature or indeed in everything. And according to certain scriptures, everything, absolutely everything is pure consciousness and therefore God. But do we actually have a direct experience of all these concepts and/or deities or are we simply repeating what we have been told?

Divine Mother

I started thinking more about this subject when I studied the Upanishads. In these most illuminating Vedic scriptures, the rishis of olden times speak of ‘the thumb-sized being in the cave of the heart.’ For those sages who spent their lives meditating on the ultimate Reality, God is within; God lives inside our hearts. God, or the Self as they call it, is beyond the mind and thus beyond mind-created concepts, which makes it so hard to grasp. Meditation as well as the presence of an illumined Master, they say, will help us remove the veils that cover this reality. And yet, to those of us who are not enlightened, this is still just a concept. We hear the sages’ reports that sound like travel logs into extra-ordinary realms and we think, ‘how wonderful. If only I could travel there and experience all this.’ It’s like they have given us a road map, though of course, not everybody agrees or resonates with what is being said in the Upanishads.

I am not an illumined sage and so can’t say with authority who or what God is. I can only go with what resonates with me at this stage of my spiritual journey. And to me, the reports of the sages make sense, in particular because there is a tried and tested method of realizing the Self on this path. I’m encouraged by the belief that anyone can reach the goal of Self (or God)-Realization through a combination of hard work and grace. In many religions, this self-responsibility is not encouraged.

My Master Sri Prem Baba, alongside many other Masters, keeps saying that God is love, and that this love can be found in the depths of silence. And indeed, one thing that strikes me is that realized Masters all seem to have one thing in common: they are overflowing with love, joy and compassion. I think because they are always connected with the ultimate Reality and because life as we see it is an optical illusion for them, there is only joy left. For who is hurting whom if everything is one vibrating Self? Would we get angry with our own leg if we broke it? When we no longer see a difference between our Self and other Selves, then the veil of separation has disappeared and that unity, I believe, is God. I remember once seeing a video of Amma in which she licked out the putrid wounds of a leper with joy and thus cured him. She could only do this because she did not see a difference between this man and herself – his Self was her Self and thus only love remained.

Along those lines, yesterday I was talking to my dear friend Swami Ramaswarupananda about the Bhagavad Gita. We were speaking about the incident in which Krishna shows Arjuna his true form, and that awesome form overwhelms Arjuna so much that he begs Krishna to assume his previous form as Arjuna’s friend. And so Swamiji said that life is like this: ‘when you sit in front of me, I see your human form and I completely forget that you are the Divine Mother. I look at the walls and they are just stone, but really they are pure consciousness and thus God.’ If we could always stay connected to this reality that everything is actually consciousness, we’d act completely differently in the world.

Lord Krishna

I’ve also been thinking about worshipping God in the form of a deity. In Hinduism, it’s a really big thing to worship idols representing God with offerings of flowers, incense, light and food. It is said that worshipping a form is necessary for many people, because it’s so hard to connect with a formless God or Reality. The devotee prays to have a vision of this deity, and sometimes, if devotion and longing are strong enough, this happens and this in itself can bring liberation. Adi Shankaracharya, for example, has had such magnificent visions of the Divine Mother that it turned him from a rational Vedantic scholar into an ecstatic devotee. Perhaps this type of transformation happens because the energy of love is so strong that it burns through all the veils of separation. The form of the deity catalyses the love that is inside of us all along, just like a lover has the ability to ignite the passionate love in our hearts that is really the essence of who we are.

Ultimately, we will only know what or who God really is when we reach the stage of Realization. Until then we have to connect with the philosophy that rings true to our inner Being and walk in the footsteps of the mystics who have had this direct experience. For me personally, I love these words by Adi Shankaracharya, which validate the importance of outer worship alongside the notion that everything is ultimately on the inside:

‘Forgive me, o Lord, for three mistakes. First, I know and feel that You are all pervading and omnipresent, and yet I have walked all the way here to worship You within the confines of this temple. Second, I know there is only one non-dual truth, and thus there is no difference between You and me, yet I worship You as though You are different from me and outside of me. Finally, I know that this ‘mistake’ is simply my own mind-created concept – and yet I’m asking You to forgive me.’

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

 

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Neti neti, or the freedom of being nothing

nothingness

‘Many do enter upon the great inner journey. But what happens when fear comes? Will you be impressed and will fear define and dominate your decisions? Are you willing to feel everything? Is freedom what you want, more than anything? Do you allow love everywhere and to permeate you totally? Are you prepared to be nobody?’Prajnaparamita

One thing that often amazes and amuses me on the spiritual path is how we seem to have turned everything on its head in the modern world. Spiritual truths tend to inform us that how we believe things to be is exactly the opposite from how they really are. For example, take the spiritual aphorism which suggests that you have to die to yourself to become who you truly are. Dying to yourself? Wow. I never understood this fully until I was in India last winter and looked back over the last few years. I noticed that gradually, many things in my life – things I had previously enjoyed and deemed important – had fallen away like overripe fruit, together with ideas, belief systems and the conviction that I knew something. This pruning was coupled with a growing desire to spend as much time as possible in silence and stillness, away from any external stimulation, and an internal subtle happiness that came from being in that state.

Something seems to happen with sustained spiritual practice that melts away our old personality and identification with who we believe we are. It’s like going through an invisible purification process which takes everything that no longer serves our growth away and replaces it with something far more sublime. It can be almost scary because I’m recognizing always more clearly that who I thought I was isn’t who I am at all – and in fact, being ‘me’ is always becoming less important.

Listening to satsangs of spiritual masters has confirmed that I am not going mad and that what I am experiencing is actually quite normal. Being nobody, indeed, being nothing seems to be a prerequisite for progress on the spiritual path. If we’re not empty, empty of our conditionings, cravings and aversions, then there’s no room for the Divine to enter. ‘To live authentically’, the philosopher Heidegger wrote, ‘is to live in the full awareness of the nothingness of one’s self.’

When you think about it, this is exactly the opposite of how we live in modern society. We grow up wanting to be someone, and have professional, financial and personal success. Indeed, this is what everyone expects from us, and we don’t seem to have much of a choice in the matter until we, insha’Allah, wake up. We want to be admired, special, clever, amazing and thus prove to ourselves (and really, if we’re honest, to our parents) that we are worth something. Surprisingly, even in spiritual circles, this is the case. Spirituality has become a multi-million business, full of workshops, magazines and books on how to be happy, successful, wealthy and healthy, in short, on how to fulfil all of our material desires. And there is nothing wrong with being happy, successful, wealthy and healthy – if we can see it for what it is and don’t get identified with it. But the truth is, most of the time, all this is really distracting us from who we truly are: something we have yet to discover.

There is an incredible freedom in letting go of all that. What can look like a failure in the eyes of modern society is often quite closely related to being a huge success in spiritual terms. If a spiritual Master like Sri Ramakrishna had lived in the West, going into ecstatic trances all the time, he would have been locked up and drugged in a psychiatric institution. So would a great number of spiritual aspirants like the Aghora or Naga Babas, who perform corpse sadhanas on cremation grounds and roam around the forests naked, smeared with ashes. Thankfully India has always recognized and supported these spiritual Beings from whose wisdom we now benefit.

The question is: what does success mean to us? Is it what society deems to be successful, or is it something far more humble and modest? Is it what we, deep down, believe is expected of us, or is it what our soul is really calling for? Only introspection and intuition can give us the answer to that. In any case, there’s a price to pay for everything. If freedom and Self-realization are what we want, then we have to learn to surrender and be prepared to die to who we think we are. This may involve letting go of all of our material goals, desires and even talents to be in service of something greater – for when we are empty, we are not self-directed anymore. We become Self-directed, and personal ambition has no place in such a life any longer.

This, to me, is what freedom really is. If material desires still dominate, then we can enjoy wealth, success and all the joys that this brings – but quite often the price is our precious time that we need to give up to pay for a mortgage and to fund our lifestyles. And in the middle path, the path that many of us tread, where karmas still have to play themselves out, we can do what needs to be done, but keep our minds and hearts fixed on the Divine, knowing that we are neither the body nor the karmas.

Ultimately, it seems that realization of the Self is very similar to the experience of death. I recently read a description of a spiritual experience Swami Vivekananda had in the presence of his master, Sri Ramakrishna: ‘My eyes were wide open, and I saw that everything in the room, including the walls themselves, was whirling rapidly around and receding, and at the same time, it seemed to me that my consciousness of self, together with the entire universe, was about to vanish into a vast, all-devouring void. This destruction of my consciousness of self seemed to me to be the same thing as death. I felt that death was right before me, very close.’

We often say that freedom is what we want, more than anything else. But when it’s there, right in front of us, and we fear losing our individuality, things can look very different. I had an experience like this during a ten-day Vipassana course several years ago – I felt my entire physical structure dissolve into particles and there was no separation anymore between me and anything/anyone else – and became so scared that I brought myself back. Later I realized that my ego was afraid of losing itself, of losing the ‘I’, the perceived separation, because I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Vivekananda experienced similar fears, and begged Ramakrishna to stop because his parents were waiting for him!

Yet, we have to be prepared to die to all that is familiar to us if we want to be free. In the words of Meister Eckhart, ‘we have to become pure till you neither are nor have this or that; then you are omnipresent and, being neither this nor that, are all things.’

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If you enjoy my writing, my book ’Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ was just published by Changemakers Books.

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/

The doorway of death

When a person dies, there arises this doubt: ‘He still exists,’ say some; ‘he does not,’ say others. I want you to teach me the truth.  Nachiketa to Yama in the Katha Upanishad

An old teacher of mine died last week. Franz Wellek, so his name, was an unconventional character, a free thinker who was involved in environmental activism already back in the 1980’s. I remember him as a creative man true to his own beliefs, unperturbed by the opinions, gossip and ridicule of others. Through his living example, he inspired many to live a fulfilled, authentic life. Even in death he continues to inspire. While still alive, he wrote his own death notice that appeared in the local newspaper with the headline:

I am dead.

The text reads: I thank all those who have contributed to my ripening. Don’t mourn too much for me, live your few days consciously and enjoy life!  

His wife is throwing a party to celebrate his life at the end of this month. I was really energized after reading this ad. It’s so refreshing in its contrast to the usual mournful obituaries.  Since I was a child, I’ve wondered why death is seen as something so terrible in Western culture. Death is inevitable and it’s natural. Unless you die peacefully in your sleep or are an advanced yogi, dying itself may not be overly pleasant, but everyone has to go through this gate. So why scorn the inevitable?

Poor old death has a very bad reputation indeed, and most of it is due to our lack of understanding as to what death really is. If we believe that we have only one life, that we are this body and this mind and nothing else, then the certainty that all will be over soon may be distressing. But even if we believe in only one life, wouldn’t the knowledge that we will die sooner or later make us live all the more consciously? The certainty of death can’t be changed, so why are we crying about it? Or worse, why are we not living life with more enthusiasm, gratitude and joy, knowing that our days are numbered?

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 In yoga and many other Eastern philosophies, death is but a doorway and an inevitable step on the long ladder of transformation. ‘As a caterpillar, having come to the end of one blade of grass, draws itself together and reaches out for the next, so the Self, having come to the end of one life and dispelled all ignorance, gathers in his faculties and reaches out from the old body to a new’, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad say. This statement sums up yogic philosophy pretty well. Here, our individual souls are part of one supreme soul, the Paramatman. The body is viewed like a set of clothes: when it is worn out, it is shed and a new set, or body, is taken. This happens until the individual soul realizes that it is really part of the supreme Soul, which it has forgotten due to the distractions of Maya, the illusion of our material world.

In yoga, all our practices lead towards this realization: realization that we are part of the Self whose true nature is bliss. Life is a spiritual journey, a cosmic game, and our only purpose is to grow and realize that we have forgotten our true nature. This realization, which can take many lifetimes, is called enlightenment, and once we are established in it, we are free from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. We then dwell in realization of Brahman, the supreme consciousness. We may however choose to take another body in the form of a realized Master who returns to Earth to help others find their way back to Truth.

Yogic philosophy proposes that we experience so much struggle and pain in life because we live in ignorance of how things really are. We don’t see the purpose and wisdom of life, and hence we struggle against it. When we start to practice the methods described in the scriptures, our vision becomes clearer, our awareness more refined and it is then that we experience liberation. ‘When you hear about the Self, meditate upon the Self, and finally realize the Self, you come to understand everything in life’ Yajnavalkya said to his wife Maitreyi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad – sound advice indeed.

Even if you don’t believe in Hindu or Buddhist philosophy, acquainting yourself with death makes sense. The only thing to fear is fear itself, and we often lose our fears when we understand something. Of course we feel sad when somebody we love leaves the earthly realm. That’s only human. But if we understand that this person has only concluded part of their journey and is now progressing, parting from them can become a bittersweet affair. In many tribal traditions that live closer to nature than we do, death is actually celebrated. Yes, the community is inevitably sad to say goodbye, but is at the same time wishing the deceased well with a big celebration. In rural Tamil Nadu in India, they even sit the dead person on a chair in the middle of the celebration!

Whatever your beliefs, death is inevitable. If you are afraid, face that fear and look death in the eye, like our hero Nachiketa. And most importantly, live consciously and with gratitude for every breath and the gift of life.

 

‘Nachiketa learned from the king of death          

The whole discipline of meditation.                                                                                       

Freeing himself from all separateness,                                                                                        

He won immortality in Brahman.                                                                                                  

So blessed is everyone who knows the Self!’

 

I recommend the following books if you want to learn more about the mysteries of life and death:

The Tibetan book of Living and Dying’ by Sogyal Rinpoche

‘The Upanishads’, translation by Eknath Easwaran

Books by Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross, who wrote extensively on death and dying