Monday, 7 November 2011


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.

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."

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.

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 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. :-(

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.

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.  

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.........

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...