Monday, 7 November 2011

SERIOUS SADHANA: 3 KEY QUALITIES



The great yogi Shri Shri Shri Shivabalayogi once told a devotee who wished to pursue intense spiritual practice (tapasya), to "Go into that room, meditate, and don't come out again until you are a Yogi or you are dead." To the disciple's great credit, he did as he was told and eventually emerged over 5 years later - transformed. On another occasion a man said rather feebly to Shivabalayogi "I want enlightenment," to which the Yogi replied "Go hit your head against the wall repeatedly and when you are done with that, carry on hitting your head with a shoe." Everyone took it to be a joke including the person. But after a short while the Yogi said words to effect of "See, you didn't even follow that command. To do tapasya you have to be THAT dedicated that you do whatever is necessary no matter what." Methinks there's a teaching there...

So, here are three indispensable qualities you need to perform serious spiritual practice, assuming the time and the place are appropriate and that you are not breaking anyone's heart by so doing.

1) STUBBORN DETERMINATION
It boils down to this. You are VOLUNTARILY going to be doing something your body, mind and senses will not want to do. You are not being forced into it by anyone else. You are going to be going against the flow of nature at every step of the way. It is far far easier to float downstream than wade, painful step by painful step, upstream. All this you will know and you will feel. So given the apparent insanity of this, you need an absolutely dogged determination that "No matter what, I'm going to do this. No matter what. No matter what."

2) COURAGE
The world measures courage by acts - saving lives, daring feats of battle etc, but in the spiritual life courage goes unnoticed by the world. But it's absolutely key. Courage has nothing to do with showing off... there is no audience. Courage is facing disappointment and failure, mistakes, awful moments, and then getting up from the ground and pressing ahead. Have remembered for many years a Yogananda quote which always struck me: "A Saint is a sinner who never gave up." (Another Yogananda favourite: "If you lack will-power, try to develop won't-power.")

If you have ever had the fortune to be around great or even not so great spiritual teachers, you will have recognised that tests come to you in their presence and in the whole circus that surrounds powerful personalities, mostly when you are not ready and knocked off balance anyway.

Did you ever hear the story of the Japanese youth who wanted to be a master swordsman. He did it, because the only training he ever received was probably the most ferocious you could get... his master used to hide and spring out at him, just when he least expected it. Asleep? Thwaaak? Cooking? Thwaaak... after a while he developed extraordinary reflexes just to avoid the beatings. And thus he became an extraordinary warrior. But it took courage to continue. There's a sweet echo of this training in the surprisingly good remake of the Karate Kid staring Will Smith's son, which you should check out.

3) DETACHMENT, DISCRIMINATION
In meditation, your mind will be struggling to create any and every sensation, be it good or bad. It knows how to be busy. So when you meditate the intitial stages are to do with settling down and dealing with thought stream after thought stream. At a later stage the mind gets a little craftier and can construct many wonderful illusory visions, many great works of the imagination - all this channeling of spirits and so called divine messages reflect the mind up to its tricks at a subtle levels. Discrimination at this point is absolutely necessary, along with detachment. Don't ever get fooled. Only when the mind twinkles to a stop does anything more elaborate unfold. Before that, the great visions are just you twiddling your thumbs and creating drama.

I remember as a TM teacher teaching this disturbing couple of elderly women with a particular unpleasant aura around them - they were witches. "How was it?" was my standard question after their first meditation. One replied with this lengthy stream of total imagination: "I was on a boat in a lake and the great masters were there, throwing petals at us and etc etc etc." TM teachers were supposed to stick to a simple script so the only reply I could come up with was "It was easy, yes?" She looked at me as if I were mad.  She came from that generation of people who were obsessed with channelled messages from supposedly higher beings who normally ended up with the vaguest of platitudes (to the tune of "Be Ye kind to one another"). Forget messages. Forget all that. Don't build your own empire. You are heading beyond such silliness. You are not the Chosen One!!






Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Shiva Bala Yogi: Extending meditation time



Love this picture, as it shows the great Yogi's hands, crippled by his intense tapasya - and kept that way after his Self-realisation as proof of the 12 year tapasya he went through.

TAPASYA VERSUS DHYAN
Tapasya has a very specific meaning for the Yogi: what happens when you enter samadhi. This sets you on to the path of the final merging with the Divine, but it takes many years to achieve and a total withdrawal from the world.

Otherwise, when you sit to meditate, however long you can last, but not lose awareness of your body, mind, senses, you are performing dhyan, and the two should not be confused. Dhyan is what us in the world can do. Grace is needed for tapasya.

This great Master hinted a number of times that real tapasya - which only a few of his disciples actually managed to achieve - could not be possible to achieve without the Guru's grace and blessing. Tapasya is a serious business. Two of the tapasvins were actually murdered before completing their tapas, and the only westerner to start this path, an American, had to abandon it after breaking some rules while in India. So, tapas is not easy, not something you can just do on a whim, and needs a whole lot of support - which an ashram can usually provide. Ultimately, the opportunity depends on parabdha karma, your past karma or destiny... and no one can slip through the karmic net. It generates intense heat in the body, it generates tests, it is a life changing endeavour only for the most courageous and strong-willed.

But here I am, with a zeal for extended meditation time, living mostly on my own (family grown up and out) - but with also financial committments and the need to work for a living. Unless someone waves a magic wand and the committments are fulfilled, it looks like there is no way in this lifetime I can ever do tapas. :-(


WHY DO IT?
So I'm trying to construct a life where extended meditation is possible, given certain limits of commuting and travelling. Why? Because I feel compelled to do so. I am now 57 years old, I have seen and done really all that can be seen and done in this world. As a journalist I've travelled the globe, met many famous people, known many millionaires, known beautiful women, had children, met with disasters and mini triumphs... and it has all been ultimately empty. Without the light of the supreme Lord shining through this wonderful illusion, life has ultimately been unsatisfactory, full of sorrow and suffering. But with that light, life is a dance, a journey, a constant wedding. And meditation seems to me the main way out of the maze, the way to "follow the gleam" (great poem by Tennyson on this) . I started to meditate back in 1975, and have never regretted it.
Here's a bit from the Tennyson poem btw:

For thro' the Magic
Of Him the Mighty,
Who taught me in childhood,
There on the border
Of boundless Ocean,
And all but in Heaven
Hovers The Gleam.



BUILDING MEDITATION TIMES
Growing meditation per session up to one hour is no stretch for any serious meditator. Extending it to two, three, four hours is a whole different ball-game. And for me this is really only possible on the weekend.

Bramhacharya, celibacy or sexual restraint, is vital.  You need the rocket fuel of very subtle currents which course through your body. Brahmacharya gives you virya, a Sanskrit word that can variously be described as vigour, strength, enthusiasm.  

MEDITATION TECHNIQUE
1) You need a special place or room to meditate in, in which the shakti can build. Through good fortune I have a small puja room entirely for this purpose. One wall is covered by a giant photo of Swamiji which I enlarged, bigger than life-size with a wonderful smile.

2) My own meditation takes place usually after chanting the Sandhya Vandanam, a long collection of prayers and mantras to Gayatri and the Sun God which has previously been used by Brahmins who tend to jealously guard the privilege. The prayers are beautiful, though. I cannot resist them. And as they contain specific prayers of protection, they are, for me and my busy mind very necessary. They also contain prayers to bless the meditation seat or asana.

3) Each meditation always begins for me with a simple request to the great Yogi "Swamiji, please bless my meditation".

3) Then comes the application of ash, vibhuti, across my forehead. I have a dish of vibhuti before a picture of Shiva Bala Yogi, and perform arati (Ie wave lights etc) before both. As I never met Shiva Bala Yogi in life, there is no way to have "officially blessed" vibhuti, but I believe the vibhuti is blessed in this way.

4) Then, I sit. I settle comfortably and have a number of cushions and scarves which I use without too much regard for aesthetics!

5) I also perform about 5 minutes of pranayama as well.

6) Then... we are away! In the beginning days of meditating with the great Yogi, he would unfailingly come and possess my physical body, such that I felt myself to be actually in his body. And in this way he taught me how to lock into the bhrikuti, the spot between the eyebrows, easily and skillfully.

7) No mantras! Just concentrating... a little bit like how Nandi, Shiva's bull, is always placed staring fixedly at a Shiva lingam. It is that undeviating concentration, that "one point philosophy" as the Yogi once described it, which esssentially short-circuits the mind and stops it.  

8) All visions, all thoughts, are ignored. They may come and go but so what... your job is to be a Nandi.

9) Then the hours pass. The mind gradually settles down with your having much to do about it, thoughts get finer, thinner, more fleeting, and you begin to sense something without form, quality, but with the overwhelming light and an inherent quality of bliss, of ananda.

10) If you are like me, you will have to deal with so much garbage from a life lived in such a noisy culture. Samskaras, tendencies, whirlpools of repetitive thoughts (vrittis), gusts of emotion, the whole works. It  is quite a show. Expectation kills meditation: so ignore everything. Ignore it all. "Neti, neti", or "Not this, not this"  is a brilliant tool to use when you start getting carried away.

11) Samadhi: there are different levels. But when the mind truly is jammed, you are getting there. When you are no longer aware that you even have a mind... that's what it's all about.

My weekend programme I end to try is probably pushing the extreme outer limits of dhyan, assuming samadhi never does come, which is FOUR HOURS in the morning (7-11) and FOUR HOURS in the evening (3-7). What you eat at lunch will either kill or help your meditation for such extended times... and I haven't actually done this yet. But a free weekend is approaching, so.........

UPDATE:
I've been building up the meditation, this weekend was three hours morning, three hours evening. No great wonderful experiences, just settling down. But I'd forgotten the downside to all this - and regrettably there is one.

The problem, is, of course that when you stir a pot full of sediment, well, the water gets very muddy very quickly. Basically, out comes the vasanas, the tendencies, supressed and hidden parts of the psyche which can in the wrong place and time explode with great force. I saw this myself when young, working on staff on long TM meditation retreats. The  seclusion, the long hours were simply too much for some to handle and occasionally a few people were hustled away after losing a grip on sanity.

My own experience for what it's worth is far milder than that. But nevertheless, living in the west has left me with a lifetime of stresses, urges, obsessions, fears, you name it... and the 3 hour am/3 hr pm discipline ended up with me feeling sore, restless, and bad-tempered.

This is why the great souls don't kid you when they warn that the path of sadhana takes great courage, detachment, endurance - and why actually sometimes the ones who make it aren't the overly pious but the fiercely ambitious. You need to have an exceptionally strong will to keep going. No one else is going to do it for.

See a later blog about this...

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Shivabalayogi: Contemplating Swamiji's Treasure


Devotees of this great Yogi will I hope have come across this massive book, available from Handloom Press (who do a great job of dispatching it as soon as the order comes in). If not, buy it immediately!

The title refers to the core of the book, a continuous garland of reminiscences strung together with great care, stories of those whose lives were so deeply touched by Swamiji. Many are refreshingly candid, especially from the early Indian devotees, and you get a sense of the great wonder - and bemusement - that His appearance must have caused when the tapasya began in a tiny weaver's village off the beaten track nearby the Godavari river.

Then there are the tales relating the great power he had as a Yogi, the palpable force that surrounded him, especially in the first years of his teaching. When he first emerged from 12 year's tapasya, Swamiji looked divinely beautiful, with his matted locks and benevolent gaze. Devotees relate how that powerful aura became less intimidating as the years went by, after so much service, illness, and travelling. And some of the lucky devotees were extremly intimate with him, fluent in his dialect. Their stories show that particularly Indian mixture of groundedness and respect about a Guru - whereas we in the West tend to regard Gurus as china dolls to be carefully wrapped in silks and placed on an inaccessible altar.

Glimpses of the strong-willed boy he once was come through the reminiscences - his stubborn defiance in the face of  rigid authority; his outspoken attitude to religions and spiritual leaders and the whole Guru business; his dislike of lying or cheating. His sense of fun, too.

To Swamiji's great credit, he was never corrupted by travelling to the West, as so many teachers from India were. He never charged for his programmes. He avoided organisational empire building. Ashrams only began in India organically. He was, therefore, a shining star which only the lucky few in the West saw him at the time, and then largely by accident.

The book is so magnificent. And it made me write a poem to the young boy before he began his tapasya, and here it is. It will make sense to those who know Swamiji's story:

Beware! Beware! Beware young boy
Do not pick the fruit off the ground!
Do not split it open!
You will be bitten by snakes and rats
If you do!

Neighbours will burn you
They will beat you
You will nearly die of thirst!

You will know no earthly lover
Or the sound of your children’s feet on the floor
Of your earthen home.

You will no longer sell bidis
Or weave cloth.
You will make your mothers cry.

Stay away from the canal bank
Stay far away, young boy!
Run back to
The village of weavers.





Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Anandamayi Ma: Tale of a Guru and a disciple





Lost as I am in the presence of my own Yogi, Shivabalayogi, I love reading or hearing stories about devotees and their own spiritual masters. There's a massive and truly excellent book written by a learned American devotee on Shivabalayogi called Swamiji's Treasure which  is replete with the most wonderful tales from devotees, especially from the early days when the force around the great realised yogi was so strong it was almost unendurable. I never met him in life, but he is with me every day.

Another great book on the Guru-disciple relationship describes how an Austrian teacher became a sannyasin, Atmananda, as a result of her wonderful relationship with the great Bengali saint Anandamayi Ma.  I have always loved Ananadamayi Ma, not just because of her astonishing physical beauty, but because of who she was, how she taught, and the joy she spread in her long life.

The book is an edited version of Atmanada's diaries over about 15 years, by Ram Alexander, Death itself will Die, and details what life was like around Anandamayi Ma in the 1940s and 1950s.

http://www.inner-quest.org/Images/Death%20Must%20Die72.gif

She was a self-realised soul of the highest attainment, but part of Ananadamayi's lila was that she observed strict caste rules... and Atmananda as a result had frustratingly limited access to just about everything, being neither a Brahmin or a... well I guess you'd say... being a foreign barbarian, a mleccha.  Her diary records every moment of anger at the petty rules which did not allow Atmamanda access to temples, worship, touching Ananadamay Ma and so forth. It regularly drove her to tears. But in between the storms of emotion, the disciple faithfully began to record her guru's words and actions. She became the editor of the monthly Anandamayi Ma ashram magazine, and highly esteemed. She also became the translator when many westerners began to seek out Ananadamayi Ma in the 1960s.

There are many fantastic exchanges. The best you can find beautifully designed in a YouTube video (Type in Ma Ananadamayi dialogue and you should come across it).

Perhaps the most moving part of the book comes at the end, when the editor descibes Atmananda's own death as a Yogi. She died sitting up, repeating Ma's name, a perfect end for a courageous woman.

She knew Krishnamurti well, met Ramana Maharshi, and many other saints.

What I like about Atmananda is her unflinching honesty, sense of humour and determination to follow spiritual discipline despite every obstacle in her way. If there is a yogic loka to which I can travel after death, I hope to meet her, she's make excellent company!

The dance of disciple and Guru is unique in every case, and it always involves effort and some pain as the disciple confronts the stripping away of what they have previously treasured so dearly - their own self-interest and comfortable narcissistic concerns.  How Anandamayi Ma accomplished with Atmananda this makes  just rivetting reading. That's her below...



This is an official obituary for her:

An official note.

It is with deep regret that we have to announce the passing away of Brabmacharini Atmananda, the Editor of the Ananda Varta (English) on Tuesday, the 24th September, the Shukia Ekadasi Teethi of the month of Bhadra, 1985, at Kalyanvan Ashram, Dehradun. She had been responsible for the English version of Ananda Varta since its inception, and was over 80 years age, having earlier in the year celebrated 50 years of her stay in India.
She originally hailed from Austria, and was known as Sister Blanca during the early years of her life in our Ashrams. Later, Ma accorded her full Brabmacharini rights, and the wearing of saffron robes. As an esteemed and immensely respected samnyasini of the Ashram, her body was brought by road to Kankhal, bathed, anointed, clothed and placed in front of the Samädhi of Ma, before being consigned to the Eternal waters of the Ganga of Hardwar, as is the traditional custom with Sadhus and Samnyasinis.
Atmanandaji had hen first darshan of Ma at Almora in 1943. Later, in 1944 and 1945 when she was teaching at Rajghat, she had more opportunities of associating with Ma, but it was not until 1945 that she became an inmate of our Ashrams.
Atmanandaji's services were invaluable as the official interpreter during the visits of foreigners of either sex as she was fluent in German, French and other Continental languages. Her knowledge of English was profound and she was an adept in translating Ma's original Sad Vanis and utterances from Bengali to English. She was in close touch with the authors of publications on Ma in Europe and America, and had been responsible for printing Ma's diary in the English Ananda Varta from its beginning.
Having been earnestly encouraged by us, she had recently published a beautiful book on her own experiences under Ma's feet, called "As the Flower sheds its Fragrance", in 1983, followed by the first of three volumes of "Matri Lila" covering the period 1952-1962 in 1985. The next volume for the period 1962-1972 has just been completed, and she was to follow up with the final volume for the period 1972-82. She was also actively engaged in editing the English translation of Sri D. P. Mukherjee's excellent Bengali book "Matri Darshan Leela."
She was a singer of repute in her own rights, and from her early days in the Ashram, became an expert at our Ashram kirtans. It was her remarkable strength of mind and stamina, that enabled her to preserve the singing of the "Name" alone, during the lean period of the day from 1-30 p.m. to 3-30 p.m. at big festivals when under Ma's strict instructions, the Holy name was sung Akhand in the main halls of our Ashrams.
She must have suffered incredible hardships without murmur during her earlier Ashram life, but they never left any impact on the serenity and sweetness of her disposition. Her punctuality was a byword among her friends, and she applied herself regularly to all the arduous tasks of editing with meticulous zeal and sincerity.' She never passed anything for publication without authenticating the facts as far as she could, and was a great help and asset to all the foreign devotees of Ma who were keen to learn about Ma's teachings, and reproduce, in their own languages, Her edicts, conversations and sayings in their own countries. She had been suffering from cataract over the past few years but heroically carried in with her never-ending duties whenever she could obtain decent light. She breathed her last after a very brief illness, let us hope that she suffered very little in the end, and is now resting in Eternal peace at the lotus feet of Ma, for whom she gave up everything on earth for the realization of the Supreme Truth. It is up to the rest of us to complete her unfinished work, and continue with the publication of her beloved Ananda Varta and other valuable books on Ma along the prestigious lines established by her.





Friday, 7 October 2011

SHIVABALAYOGI: initial experience













Is there anyone luckier or more blessed? How can I even describe this ecstacy that flows through me? All from the mighty Lord Of Yogis Shri Shri Shri Shavabalayogi, the one absolutely true Guru I've found, the shining source. 

I spent all 9 days of navaratri 2011 duly chanting the different chapters of the Chandi Path, and trying to somewhat ruthlessly cut down all the additional material that the Devi Ma ashram includes in their quirky translation of this series of slokas to the great Goddess, Divine Mother in the form of Durga (which is also known as the Devi Mahatyam.) To chant the whole lot in one go takes 5 hours and leaves you exhausted unless you are used to that sort of thing. But cutting it into bite-sized portions spread over days is an entirely sensible and time-honoured way to go about it.

Why do it in the first place? Well, you can have your own reasons, maybe a wish-list of boons you want. In my case I tried to do it out of devotion, but in fact became increasingly irritated by the practice. It grew harder and harder, almost like a heavy physical burden, a stone i had to carry round which seemed to get larger by the minute.

Finally, this strange process reached a climax of sorts, and produced a manifestation of ferocious will-power, a resolution "I'm going to finish this no matter what," and after that everything got easier. I recited my Chandi Path in the evening following 35 minutes of the Sandhya Vandanam Gayatri prayers and then 1 hour meditation, after I got back from work, so you can imagine it took all the early evening.

The one boon iIdid ask for, sort of formed spontaneously in my heart - the boon of a true Yogi who could help me in sadhana, not just take my money, time and devotion and scarper. I'd been burned too many times. And this was answered in a remarkable way.

I had only known about Shiva Bala Yogi for about a month. Despite being a 35-year long meditator and compulsive collector of all things yogic, i'd never ever heard of him! Odd in itself, as he was widely known in India and even toured the West. But destiny works in mysterious ways.

No sooner had I asked this boon, well... not really asked but it came out, anyway... the next thing I knew in meditation was that this mighty Yogi arrived. He parked himself in my body, in my mind, in my senses, with some insouciance and perfect freedom. I could not escape him! Still can't. He is in my waking state every minute at the moment. When I start to meditate I have to be careful. The current is so strong, his form and darshan so compelling, that the mind gets fixated and I can't get out of meditation.  And I have to work for a living.

What a glorious position to be in! My busy intellect, when it reboots, knows all about this. But what a grace. Just for this time (until I next mess up) a Yogi has come to steer me in meditation. I cannot even form the words of gratitude.

Read all about Him and you'll discover a fantastic wonderful Master, who never charged for teaching, never got into the whole awful Guru business, never really put a foot wrong. And now his foot is literally bathing in my skull pan. You have to experience this yourself...

Friday, 2 September 2011

5 WARNING SIGNS FOR SPIRITUAL MOVEMENTS





Being from a generation that has made just about every mistake in the book when it comes to handing power over to unscrupulous movements or leaders, I have come to the conclusion that serious sadhana is not a group effort. The big spiritual families that sprang up in the late 1960s attracted so many pure, loving souls, who in turn provided the energy and light that made such movements so attractive. But the good also tends to attract the not so wholesome, and the “guru business” really is big business – irresistible to disordered, narcissistic personalities of every shape and hue. If you find yourself a tad uncomfortable in your spiritual group, remember these 5 warning signs:

1) CHECK OUT WHAT GOES ON AT THE PERIPHERY OF YOUR MOVEMENT
This is the simplest thing to do, but worthwhile. What happens when the fixed smiles and public faces of the devotees are turned off? Notice how welcoming the movement is, when it is not on public display. Do people look happy? Do they look icy, remote, stand-offish when they have said their carefully rehearsed patter? Meetings can often be smoothly orchestrated, but what happens at the end, when people relax a bit more? Is there an attitude of genuine service and friendliness or a sort of "we are in on the secret, you aren't, so we will ignore you" kind of vibe.

2) BE AWARE OF THE IMPLICIT HEIRARCHY
God is freely available to all. We are all equal, we are all loved. But human beings have an innate animal tendency to group around alpha males or alpha females. We are pack animals on some basic level. Movements often come unstuck when they grow very quickly, and push people into leadership positions for posts which only make sense to that movement itself - but which might temporarily give people an overinflated sense of power. One classic case was the "elevation" of 11 western youths as perfect masters in the Hare Krishna movement after their Guru died. The whole thing was a mess, because the leaders were clearly immature and believed their own self-publicity. Is a hierarchy necessary? Is your movement essentially replaying the "You are God, oh mighty one" drama, according divine status to a human being. Are the robes, accoutrements, cars, houses etc of the movement's leader clearly over-ostentatious?

3) WHAT DOES YOUR COMMON SENSE TELL YOU?
This is not the voice of your conscience, but something just as basic... your BS detector. In the West we have bred into us a basic wary attitude to authority through a long history of revolutions, independence, ruinous wars and the like. And that is a good thing. It has been bequethed to us by a long line of ancestors who gave their lives for the basic freedom of independence and equality. If you step outside for air at a meeting of your movement, and it strikes you that something in not right, it probably is not. 

4) DOES SECRET KNOWLEDGE COST A LOT?
Advanced techniques.. the secret mantras... the higher initiations... the expensive private darshans. Do you think the spiritual life works by who can afford the "higher" stuff. No! This is a basic trap many movements fall into - selling access to something apparently wonderful on the ludicrous premise that enlightenment or spiritual awakening can be brought or sold. It cannot. This is a perversion of an ancient Vedic idea, the idea of "diksha", of giving a token something to your Guru, as a symbolic way to open an exchange between you. Most movements when they grow become businesses, which in turn have to generate profits, and these depend on new exciting products which the consumer  wants. Avid spiritual consumers will go crazy for things like photos, shawls, devotional objects. But you cannot buy your way into higher consciousness. You can only bow your way...and not to the wrong focus.

5) DOES YOUR MOVEMENT CUT YOU FROM NORMAL LIFE?
Modern life can be brutally jarring for any serious practitioner of spirituality. But that's the way of it. Don't ever fall into the trap of thinking you and your movement are the only "saved" or good people and that there is no wisdom or goodness elsewhere. Your master is the perfect one. Your technique is fastest, strongest, oldest, best etc etc. This is total rubbish, it's a callow immature attitude that does a great injustice to the world you live in. Some of the holiest and most decent people I've ever met in my life had absolutely nothing to do with spirituality or religion of any kind, yet there were beautiful souls beaming loving-kindness. The rest of the world is not "mud" to be scrapped from your over-holy shoes.


Thursday, 25 August 2011

THE BASICS: SWADHYAYA


Swadhyaya is the sanskrit word for the recitation or reading of sacred texts within the Hindu/Vedic frame of reference. This practice has been part of my life for twenty years, more or less, and is a far more deeply satisfying thing to do than to listen to. Like brahmacharya, it turns up as one of the Yamas and Niyamas  of Yoga described by Maharishi Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.

Why do it? How can I truly describe the glories of this practice? Simplest way to describe it is that it's a filtration system, cleansing and scouring you of a bunch of tendencies and psychic parasites you won't be aware that you have. It's a kavach, a shield and armour. It is an ecstatic exercise, beloved of saints and yogis. It keeps you out of trouble. It is a long love song to the Lord. It is a statement of intent. It is angelic, gandharvic, you name it. And there is something deeply satisfyingly human about the entire process. With it, life sings.

Worthwhile, though, to remember the very basic laws. Remember: WHY are you doing it? WHO are you doing it to? What is the BHAV (feeling) behind your intention? You are not going to be gabbling. You are not going to ask. It's not an exercise in begging or flattery. As a famous abhanga by Jnaneshwar Maharaj says, "the wife of a noble king, should never go begging." You are going to be surfing the waves of spiritual focus.

Bleary recitation of texts just because you feel you have to do it is a recipe for disaster. Just get up and have the courage to stop messing around and stop your chanting. But if you do decide to do this practice, do it absolutely whole heartedly, with focus, grace and at a MODERATE pace. Don't gabble, don't bray, don't show off your skills.

One thing many people forget is just to be silent after a loooong recitation, let it soak in.


You need to know two simple things:

1) How to pronounce Sanskrit.
2) The melody of the chant.

That's it...

Regarding pronounciation, you nowadays don't have to read it in the Devanigri script as in the leaf above, as most chants/texts are written in a slightly genetically altered western alphabet. The best simple guide can be found in the beginning of the Siddha Yoga Nectar of Chanting book. But the Hare Krishnas also have some good clear guides hidden in their many books.

One thing to remember, which needs to be borne in mind: Sanskrit places pretty much equal emphasis on every syllable of a word UNLESS the vowel has been lengthened. Thus sanskrit is not exactly like English, where we might stress one syllable over another (ie LONdon... whereas Sanskrit would pronounce it LONDON). Dang, that's a little confusing... anyway, follow the guides and you'll be fine.

Re the melody... use tapes and CDs but you can just wing it as well.

My own practice of swadhyaya over the years has centred on the following texts:

1) THE GURU GITA
Well known to a whole generation of Siddha Yoga, this became staple morning chanting fayre of the movement from the mid 1970s. On one level it seems to be a disquieting "bigging up" of the Guru, which is why it ended up repelling westerners. But its real meaning is truly magnificent: the unfoldment what the Guru ... ie the teaching process of the universe... is all about. The Guru is not a single human. The Guru is God as teacher. The Guru manifests in everything, everywhere, ready to teach you, lead you, instruct you.

A few simple restrictions about how to perform the Guru Gita are contained towards the end of the chant, but its simple stuff.

I've chanted the Guru Gita in so many places across the world, on so many ocassions. Precious memories: of sitting at dawn by a river bank in England; of chanting it with Gurumayi while the ashes from a yagna fire settled on the pages; of early mornings blissfully chanting in a small room while the airplanes roared overhead, one after the other; of sitting at a big temple in Singapore by a massive statue of Shri Ganesh; and of being in Ganeshpuri, India itself - the home of yoga -  trying not panic as a big rat scuttled towards me and over my feet!

2) SHRI RUDRAM
This chant is ancient... it is so old it dates from the time of the pyramids. And it is so hypnotic and beautiful. It is virtually impossible to learn unless you can hear the melody and follow it with a guide. Siddha Yoga publish a great little Rudram with the necessary marks of when to chant higher or lower.

Rudra is an older form of Shiva, fierce and wild, and the chant bubbles along like a fast moving mountain stream... or maybe a runaway horse would be a better analogy. If you can master it, the Rudram is truly intoxicating. Chanting it 11 times in a row (takes about 45 minutes per chant) is especially beneficial if you are in a time of trouble.

My best memories of chanting the Rudram again come from Ganeshpuri... used to be chanted at noon each day in the temple, by 2 Indians and a tiny gaggle of westerners of which I was one.

3) CHANDI PATH
Also known as the Devi Mahatyam, this is the Queen of  the Chanting Scene, and takes up to 5 hours to complete... leaving you rung out like a wet dishrag. Time to chant it is during Navarartri (usually in October) and true devotees of Sri Devi, the Divine Mother, do it every night for nine nights.  I'm going to try and attempt this over navarartri, though my pronounciation can be pretty dire.

The first time I chanted it, I literally crawled out of my puja room and thought 'never again'. The chant promises to deliver prosperity in every way (not that I was after prosperity). The next day, 24 hours later, a new car was sitting in my driveway, a possession that came to me through sheerest accident. Jaya Ma! That's the power of that chant.

Shri Maa, who lives in the states, has published a great guide, great CDs, and a clear concise version so if you want to try this out, go toher movement's Devi Mandir website. She's a lovely, humble, saintly being.

4) KAVACHAS
These are protective mantras that you chant if you wish, to guard you in the face of any kind of trouble. But you have to be sincere. Two of the best known are the NARAYAN KAVACA and NRSIMHA KAVACA. Both involve a bit of preparation, but are a great focussing tool, and unlike other sacred texts are quick and easy. I try to recite the Nrsimha Kavaca every day.

5) THE VISHNU SAHASRANAM
Wikipedia has a really good explanation of this chant,  which interestingly is said to be only one of three scriptures that produces benefits in Kali Yuga. It is the most widely chanted text in all of Hinduism, and is the central text for the Vaishnava faith. Sahasranam means "1000 names" ... and this is indeed a recitation of the 1000 names of God as Vishnu. Worth reading, extra worth chanting! A beautiful, beautiful practice.

This is a chant that at present I'm trying to do every day. There is a long intro, and the "benefits" bit after the 1000 names. It's lilting, poetic,  and the most widely used version comes from the Mahabarata, also on the very battlefield in which Lord Krishna revealed the Bhagavad Gita - and mentioned in the Gita. Amazingly, despite my love of Lord Krishna, I've only recently started chanting this. In Siddha Yoga circles, this was included in the Nectar of Chanting book, but somehow was never actually used... wierd or what.  


 

THE BASICS: BRAHMACHARYA



What's a mouse got to do with it? Well, simple, really. In Hindu iconography the "vehicle" of Lord Ganesh is a mouse, or a rat. And Lord Ganesh is in turn the lord of brahmacharya, among other fine things. 

Brahmacharya is a Sanskrit word that essentially means "continence", specifically sexual continence or celibacy. That's the way it is described in Patanjali's famous Yoga Sutras which are the core text for Yogic spirituality. It is one of the "Niyamas", or restraints - ways of behaving and acting that cleanse and purify and make the spiritual aspirant fit for samadhi. Through brahmacharya, all sorts of benefits accrue, especially in terms of meditation energy, contentment,  sobriety and focus.

The word is also the term used for the second of the Vedic stages of life - traditionally from the ages of 12 to 25. This was the period of study, traditionally in the Gurukula, the school  of the Guru, before a child grows up to then marry. The study was not as we know it in the modern western world - it was more to ground the youth in the understanding of life and its relation to the Absolute.

Traditionally the brahmachari wears white, though in some traditions - such as Vaisnava sects - the brahmachari wears orange. A person who is a life-long brahmachari is also sometimes descibed as a "bal" brahmachari.

Robes, Ganesh, Vedas... colourful stuff but the basic core of being a brahmachari in the developed world, far from a cozy ashram nestling by the foothills of the Himalayas, is that it's a tough call to make at first. You will be wading upstream in a fierce, strong current.

Step outside the door, turn on the TV, open a magazine and the colourful appeal of the world will sweep you away in an instant.  Sex is everywhere, sells most things, and the cultural norm in the west is to regard sexual expression as a need, a right, and a necessity.

But is it?

That's what the practice of brahmacharya helps us find out. The first surprise is that you don't drop dead when you restrain your sexual impulses. You don't collapse in a welter of tears or plunge into a fathomless depression. Certainly skewed sexuality can manifest in strange ways - look at the problems faced by the Catholic church, priests and child abuse scandals. But actually that isnot the real story of what happens when you restrain your sexual expression.  

In fact, wonder of wonders, the opposite is true. Brahmacharya keeps you gloriously filled with light, with virya, the fire of enthusiasm. It is like having a glowing candle inside of you day in, day out. Sweet contentment dawns in your life. It is truly a glorious thing to aim for. It is a treasure. And, it must be said, it is far easier for a woman than a man!

The best actual book on brahmacharya I know is one freely available on the internet, written by the great Guru Sivananda, the "father" Guru of many brilliant schools of yoga, who died in the early 1960s. It's a short book and I first came across it, and the term,  back in 1976. Perhaps the most famous modern practitioner of brahmacharya was none other than Mahatma Gandhi, who also wrote movingly of the practice.

That was the period in my mid 20s when I kept an uninterrupted state of brahmacharya for nearly 3 years, at a time when young hormones are at their strongest. It was a wonderful gift and proved indispensable to spiritual practice. There again, it was relatively easy because most of the time I was in exceptionally supportive environments - TM ashrams in the mountains of Switzerland, segregated by sex.

The world eventually intervened in the form of marriage and children, and brahmacharya largely slipped away for years.

But here I am again, able to return to practice in its fullest sense... and it is like sipping the sweetest nectar. Truly wonderful.

If you want to meditate properly, I'd only say this: keep as celibate as you can, using common sense and skill and not going overboard about it. Yoga is above all, skill in action, with a close attention to time, place, opportunity. Sometimes your intention may be good, but the time simply not right.

Brahmacharya will provide the fuel for your journey. It  is a gift to God, too, a self-offering. A brave thing to do. But if you are serious about Sadhana, about the spiritual journey...

And in the words of Gandhi:

"An aspirant after brahmacharya will always be conscious of his shortcomings, will seek out the passions lingering in the innermost recesses of his heart and will incessantly strive to get rid of them. Involuntary thought is an affection of the mind which is even more difficult to curb than the wind.

Nevertheless, the existence of God 
within makes the control of the mind possible. Let no one think that it is impossible because it is difficult. It is the highest goal, and it is no wonder that the highest effort should be necessary to attain it."