Wednesday, 28 March 2012

TAPASYA: THE SECRET FIRE


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The above picture is of Lord Dattatreya, one of the most hidden of Hindu deities, especially to the West. He is an avadhut that is still said to be alive today, always practicing austerity. He is truly the Lord of Yogis. The four dogs you see are representations of the four Vedas. He was created out of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Blessed and beloved soul!

If your wanderings around the internet have brought you to see what you can find about that magic word Tapas and Tapasya, you have a rare fortune. but beware! Reading about austerity is one thing. But tapas, tapasya, is the one key spiritual topic that can truly only be put into practice.

Do you want to wade upstream from the normal currents of life? Are you yearning for something deeper and more meaningful about existence, or indeed wondering what's missing in your spiritual life? Perhaps you already realise, on a deep level, that at some point in your life it is time to:

a) Gather all the separate strands of your spiritual experience together.
b) Go boldly forth and become what some Buddhist traditions call "a stream enterer".

Spiritual practice should not be some cosy hobby you pick up and drop at your convenience, or do once a week at a gathering of like-minded souls. Nor is it you do once a year on a retreat. Otherwise, it just becomes something like another set of clothes for you to wear and discard. And what would be the value in that?

Tapas (the word loosely translates as fire from austerity) is the practice of restraint of the mind, the body, and the senses. It is most definitely not business as usual.  It is the deliberate setting alight of your soul.

But for many involved in yogic practice, it has become something confined to the history books or the story of an ashram/monastery - woven into the myths of the Hindu faith as something the great Rishis of long ago did for an impossible number of years which has no possible relevance to modern life. Or else it is the kind of freak show that has sadhus binding their genitals, sitting on beds of nails etc etc... wearing ash, waving tridents and shouting at people.

How wrong this is! And yet how complex the whole subject matter. As Lord Buddha famously found, if you wind the guitar string too tight, it snaps, and too loose, it won't produce a true note. He practiced intense austerity before enlightenment, only to find the Middle Way. In this day and age, is it truly possible for any follower of the Yogic path to practice tapas, or is it all a waste of time?

Well... I reckon it is. Try the exalted example of my guru Shri Shri Shri Shivabalayogi who practised the most intense tapasya for 12 long years, from a very early age. Or Swami Sivananda and his disciples. Or Shri Maa, Or Baba Muktananda. Or Neem Karoli Baba... the list goes on. The famous disciples of Sri Ramakrishna all caught fire from tapasya. It's doable if you are a householder. One of Shivabalayogi's most exalted devotees was a very senior Indian army officer who found time,  day day out, to meditate intensely between duties. It's doable, just takes a lot of committment.

Restraint means that you are making a decision to catch fire inwardly. It is part self-denial, part something far more pro-active. Austerity is perfectly possible living in the world, but only as long as circumstances permit - and common sense allows. You can hold down a job, a relationship, a family, and still be a tapsvin, one who practices tapas. But the fire is real enough, and you can sometimes almost hear yourself popping and crackling away. What gets burnt up are what are known as samskaras or tendencies often from former lives, skeins, strands, gobbets, chunks of subconscious impulses, memories, aversions, attachments.

Why do it? Because you might feel at some point in your life a call, a pull, the sound of Lord Krishna's flute beckoning you away from daily life. If you have a desire for tapas, it can be down to past-life tendencies, samskaras, making themselves felt in your awareness in a good way: you feel the urge to do it in a way that is hard to explain to anyone else.

Once upon a time i had a brief vision lying down after meditation - a mental picture that sprang from nowehere. But in this vision I was sitting on a grassy hill, overlooking a beautiful summers evening chant by thousands of devotees (don't know what was being chanted) when my Master Shivabalayogi appeared, with a trident and just wearing a loin cloth. He gesticulated to me in silence. I followed him and left that serene scene. He led me to what looked like a huge chimney stack stretching darkly up intothe night sky, with this pulsatinng blue light at the the top. Then, with another prod of his trident and no words said, he motioned me to start climbing up the tower, iron rung by iron rung. That is for me a neat picture of tapasya. You get up, you leave where you are, where it is comfortable...and you do something which seems so difficult at first.

What kind of tapas can you do in the world without harming yourself and others?
Here's a quick simple list of possible approaches which won't turn you into a mad person...


Beginners Tapasya
1) MEDITATE without fail for 1 hour every day.
2) Practice SILENCE for an hour.
3) No TV at all...forego the mobile phone
4) Forgo ONE MEAL.
5) Do a prescribed number of JAPA Malas.
6) PUJAs, PUJAs, PUJAs.
7) Tackle SWADHYA and stick to a long long text.
8) WAKE UP AT THE DAWN
9) BRAHMACHARYA: Celibacy for a prescribed period
10) Begin with a resolve - a SANKALPA

More advanced Tapasya
1) SPEND A WEEKEND in seclusion, no going outside
2) SPEND A WHOLE DAY chanting and meditating
3) FAST
4) Try 16 rounds of JAPA a day
5) Chant the CHANDI PATH for 108 days straight or commit to recitation of some text.
6) Meditate for 3 hours at a time

Tapasya as a way of life
Restraint of the senses is the clue to a noble life. But the ultimate focus is restraint of the mind. When the mind is fully gathered in, and only then, will the light of the Self dawn.

These are the two main reasons for tapasya, and unfortunately if you live in the world, that same world will be calling your senses and your mind with urges that are extremely hard to resist, especially if you are surrounded by the noise and bustle of family life.

What to do, how to keep the spark alive? Tapasya as a way life does involve doing disciplined tasks which may not be pleasant at first. The path will not be sweet when you start off. It will be tough. Furthermore, if you get it wrong, and go too tough too quickly, your mind body and senses will rebel... you'll experience an inner palace revolution.

So the key thing is start small, in tiny step by step increments. Then build. Be flexible, daring, joyful and patient. Limit your tapasya project to one small period, a weekend, a half day... repeat the sankalpa given below.

Beware excessive Pranayama
Perhaps the one real warning is over Pranayama: Be very very careful about doing this more than 10 minutes at a stretch. A day spent in pranayama will ultimately has serious consequences, so don't mess around with it.

There are cautions, of course. Something in you will kick up a huge huge fuss when you decide on a period of tapasya, will struggle like an eel in a bucket. Your Ego will think of a 1000 reasons why not to do it. psets, dramas, might suddenly appear before you. You may even get flu or a cold or some other light sickness that gives you an opt-out clause. Ignore it! Be courageous.

If you decide on tapasya, you will be on your own. There will be no applause from the sidelines. You will not get a special club card with benefits. You will against the flow of the entire world-river.

But, equally, something WILL dawn in you, some brilliant light WILL be unveiled. Miracles, marvels, wonders await for the tapasvin. True joy dances in your heart. You will stand tall and proud, and have the inner strength of a 1000 people. Your light will be seen in heaven. All auspiciousness will start to gather round you. Above all, you will be coming home... and it has been a long lonely journey so far, hasn't it?

Go boldly forth! Light those matches...

Tapasya according to the Bhagavad Gita

You can find the most wonderful discourse on tapasya in Chapter 17 of the Bhagavad Gita, and these are instructions to remember. We start at verses 14-19, and there follows the sequence.

We learn that tapasya is threefold, of the body, speech and mind:

 Tapasya of the body
  1. Worship of the Gods, the Gurus, the teachers and the wise.
  2. Purity (Saucham)
  3. Uprightness/straight forwardness (arjavam)
  4. Continence (Brahmacharya)
  5. Non-violence (Ahimsa)
Tapasya of speech
  1. Causing no excitement (anudvegakaram)
  2. Truthfulness (satyam)
  3. Pleasant and beneficial (priya hitam)
  4. Study of the Vedas/sacred recitation (Svadhyaya abhyasanam)
Tapasya of the mind
  1. Serenity of mind (manah prasadah)
  2. Good heartedness(saumyatvam)
  3. Silence (maunam)
  4. Self-control (atma vinigrahah)
  5. Purity of nature (bhava samshuddih)
Practising this threefold tapasya with faith (shraddha) and desiring no fruit from the practice, this is sattvic tapasya. Then tapasya practised with the object of gaining respect, honour, reverence and ostentation, that's Rajasic tapasya and "unstable and transitory". Tapasya practised out of foolish notions, with self-torture or for the purpose of destroying another, that is tamasic tapasya.

So check out your own intentions using these merciful words and instructions...



Suggested Tapasya Sankalpa
Here's a resolve, a sankalpa that you could repeat if you serious about pursuing tapasaya:

Come rain or shine
Whatever my mood
Whatever the circumstance
I will pursue serious sadhana
To unite with
the Divine in me!
Hari Om Tat Sat



Wednesday, 21 March 2012

SADHANA RETREAT TIPS 2: TIMETABLE FOR WEEKEND



This post follows up the Sadhana Retreat preparation blog, so read that one first to get the general gist of the idea, which is to spend a weekend on your own do it yourself meditation retreat.

Below follows the timetable I try to keep to on a do-it-yourself weekend retreat. It might look a bit daunting, but it gives you an idea of the time you can allot to various activities. For me, the whole purpose of the retreat is the meditation, and this particular meditation I do (concentration on the bhrikruti, the space between the eyebrows, in a particular subtle way)  can be a toughie. It is, I believe the real royal road of meditation because it really does still the mind, far more than the mantra meditation (which is really mental japa) which is far more common among western spiritual practitioners. Why still the mind? As the Yoga sutras so clearly describe, when you still the mind something else is revealed in splendour and glory. Call it the atman, the self, the light of God, the Silence, whatever you decide, but it is a spaceless formless vastness and it lies outside the mind's apprehension. Mantra meditation does not get you there - and I spent 35 years meditating using mantras...

Apologies for the potential brutality of this timetable! It is austerity, tapasya, But it really can generate an extraordinary fire which burns away your impurities if properly and sensibly applied.

The chanting and swadhyaya are the means to stabilise the meditation. Sankirtana, if you have the right CDs/Tracks, is perfectly possible on your own. I still chant along to Siddha Yoga chants which are often truly divinely beautiful.

The other thing about this timetable is the stabilising work done, call it Seva, selfless service, doing some mundane task but with real one-pointed concentration. Cleaning is one task. Do it in an ashram and you'll probably grumble at being so harshly treated. Do it in your house and it becomes wonderful.

If you do hatha yoga or tai chi, or something similar, build it into the retreat. I have unfortunately a crippled back but am lucky enough to be able to sit in half lotus without any problem. Other Yoga is often beyond my ageing body's capabilities! I go the gym instead, but not on a retreat weekend.

One real secret for me about the retreat is preparing and cooking food from scratch, as an offering to the guru and the divine. I'm a cook anyway, but on retreats i always try to make my own bread or chapatis, plus a simple dahl, light on the spices, while chanting mantras. Food prepared in this way has a taste and exquisite prana that other food lacks. Don't eat too much!

See if this timetable is of any use and remember to adapt it where you want to. Remember: On this retreat, you are the course director, the course participant, the course support staff. So be creative...

Timetable
5.30
Wash etc
6.00 - 9.00
Meditation 3 HOURS
9.00 - 10.30
Swadhya
10.30 - 12.30
Cleaning Seva
12.30 - 1.30
Lunch
2.00 - 3.00
READ
3.00 - 3.30
Bath
3.30 - 6.30
Meditation 3 HOURS
6.30 - 7.00
Light dinner
7.30 - 8.30
Guru Puja
8.30 - 9.30
Sankirtana
9.30
Bed, read
10.30
Lights out

TIPS FOR A HOME SADHANA RETREAT: 1) PREPARATION



One of Anandamayi Ma's western disciples, the Frenchman Swami Vijayananda (he died in 2010 but check him out on the internet, very saintly and wise guy) made a very interesting comment in an interview once, saying that there was so much depression and psychological upset in the West because many had a deep longing for renunciation, not just spiritual practice - and yet could do nothing about it or even express it, as the traditions had fallen out of awareness in society, unlike in India or southeast Asia. Is that what's calling you? You don't have to go the whole hog, but I believe that in every one of our spiritual journies we need to be alone at some points.


Maybe its time for you to spend just a little time apart and dive deeper into your practice. For that you need a retreat. You know what? You don't have to go on a course, you don't have to pay oodles of money to some dubious teacher, you don't even have to fall into the expectations or dictates of others. How do you do this? You set up your own home retreat.

This very simple discipline is surprisingly neglected in the West. We feel we need permission to do such a daring and unusual thing. It seems even an unnatural thing to do, so conditioned are we to the idea that we must be active and out there in some way or other. And we will be alone! Gasp! Or maybe as a couple or a family we will do this retreat.

But let's assume you are deadly serious in intent, and you have a weekend to spare, but have to work on the Friday and the Monday. So, ideally, your retreat will maybe begin in earnest on Saturday morning with a preparation on Friday evening, and end Sunday afternoon - just as a course would. The only thing is that you will not be exhausting yourself by travelling anywhere and, as I said, your pockets will not be lighter as a result!

This first post will outline what I've found works very well as a basic retreeat structure:

RETREAT PREPARATION

1) BUILD IT ROUND MORE PROLONGED MEDITATION PERIODS
This will be the core purpose of the retreat. You will not reflecting on your every thought, you will aiming to still your mental activity.

The very minimum to try to aim for is to meditate an hour at a time, and preferably at least twice in a day. But if you feel able, try and extend this up to 2hrs a time or 3hrs a time, as much as you can. Over 3 hours will leave you seriously out of synch with the world, and so you will have to be careful. But the idea generally is not just to dip into and out of a meditative state for 20-30 minutes. You will NOT go crazy if you extend meditation, but do this with common sense and remember that if you have problems sitting in one posture, change posture as often as you need. But don't lie down to meditate... and keep your spine erect.

2) IF YOU CAN, STAY IN YOUR HOUSE AND GARDEN FOR THE RETREAT
I've learned through trial and error that planning this kind of weekend inadequately, and rushing out to go shopping in the middle of it to get food etc, is a recipe for disaster. The staying in the confines of your house and garden is a surprisingly tough restraint, but it pays fantastic dividends. So get all the food you need on the Friday. 

3) NO TV, NO PHONES
Aha... that also will be part of the retreat. Deep meditation followed by hours of watching people with guns or scantily clad bodies creates a dissonance and upset that you do not want. Retreats plus 100 text messages is also a no-no. You are aiming not to divide the mind and focus intently.

4) JOURNALLING IS OK
If your energy bubbles over to such an extent and you need an outlet, write it all down... but NEVER act on some insight or imagined message you think you may have received on a retreat.

5) HATHA YOGA/TAI CHI/GARDENING/HOUSEWORK etc OK
You are going to need to do something physical for a scheduled period of time to ground all that silent activity. But ONLY for a strictly allotted period (see suggested timetable in post #2). Don't go crazy and spend the retreat polishing every bathroom tile until midnight. But do this activity in the spirit of conscious quiet awareness, as a meditative practice.

6) WAKE UP EARLIER THAN USUAL, SLEEP EARLIER THAN USUAL
Waking up late on a retreat probably means that what you need is simply rest from a busy week, and if that's what's calling you, wait for a time when you are not so exhausted.

7) LOWER EXPECTATIONS
You are simply on a little break, so do not expect to have angels dancing outside your door and the Lord bowing at your feet. Your mind will be whining constantly and you may even feel tearful and full of self-pity that you are being denied your usual customs and opportunities for indulgence. That's OK, but don't fall for the tricks of the mind. Stick to it.


8) EAT LIGHTLY
A huge big blow-out meal in the middle of your retreat will be a disaster, and means you're going to fall asleep in the afternoon. If you must eat expansively, do so at the end of the retreat for your Sunday evening meal.

9) CHANT/SWADHYAYA
This is an indispensable part of my retreat schedule, but it might be sdomething you've never done or don't really know how to do. In which case, make up your own prayers, or recite something of meaning, in front of your altar/puja. the idea is to do this kind of activity for at least half an hour.

10) CREATE A SACRED SPACE WHERE YOU WILL MEDITATE
I am lucky enough to have an entire room for spiritual activity... a 21st century cave (with central heating). If you have a room, use it and create a wonderful sacred atmosphere where the chitti rays will build up and up and up. Or maybe outside in a place you will not be disturbed, but make sure you will not be plagued by insects wherever you sit.


11) USE COMMON SENSE AND BE FLEXIBLE
If an emergency arises, deal with and abandon the retreat if necessary. Don't make a religion about this. It is a voluntary exercise and if conditions are simply inauspicious, be gentle and bend with the wind.


12) BUT BE DEADLY SERIOUS OF PURPOSE!
Flexibility, yes... but have an inner core purpose saying "I'm going to dedicate this time for a retreat... I'm going to do it." Begin the retreat with a formal sankalpa, a little ceremony in which you outwardly express your desire and your aims...

ON TO PART TWO....





Thursday, 15 March 2012

SADHANA: 10 HANDY APHORISMS FOR SPIRITUAL SUCCESS



File these in your back pocket and I hope you find these useful! They are gleaned from many different scriptures and are more or less exact translations from such sources as the Yoga SutrasUpanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Shiva Sutras and other classics of Vedic literature.

1) Restraint is the means
Remember. No spiritual progress is really going to be possible without some kind of restraint of the senses. Faith alone does not work. Good intentions alone do not work. Restraint, that most difficult of achievements, is crucial and there's no way around it. So if your yoga/spiritual life consists of business as usual, reconsider your activities.

2) Beware the fat sannyasin
Realised Masters are one thing (often they have enormous, Ganesh-like bellies), but Swamis and renunciates who look like Friar Tuck should  be avoided, if only for the simple reason that they have failed to take on board the first aphorism!

3) Yoga is union with no-thing
We tend to think at the start of our Yogic journey that we are going to be joining with a something as tangeable as we consider ourselves to be, but of course, as the great Ramakrishna puts it, "the salt doll dissolves in the ocean". Until you experience the pervasive quality-less silence of the Self, it is hard to appreciate this subtle point. But if you are struggling to conceptualise this, let alone experience THAT, why not read an excellent book called Collision with the Infinite by a now dead woman called Suzanne Segal, who I met once. Suzanne got more than she bargained for when she started meditating intensely in a TM advanced course in the 1970s, and gives one of the very best descriptions of the pervasive "no-thing" of the Self, the atman,  I've ever read. If you are a Buddhist, of course, this point is easy to grasp: There is no Self. Not, anyway, as we imagine it with our senses, because it is utterly beyond our senses.

4) If you step out of the way, you will still act
We think we are the actors in our life, but as a famous aphorism from the Shiva Sutras, "the Self is the actor". Some of us fear that if we do not ferociously cling on to who we think we are, we'll simply grind to a halt like robots without a power-pack. But your life will continue, unfold,  progress even if your small "self" is blitzed. This odd experience happens as you evolve spiritually, where you witness a wonderful silent commanding actor in your every thought and deed. God plays through you, absolutely directly every second of the day. And it has always been that way.

5) Krishna: the Master of Time
One of the more intriguing labels of God as set out in the Bhagavad Gita is that the Lord is the "master of time". What does this mean? We are in time, and our lives are minutely constrained within time and space unless and until the grace of God sends us a way out. We cannot ever cheat time. And why would we want to? This also means that spiritual development unfolds at God's time and pace, not yours. This is an important point. It can take a lifetime for the unfolding of spirituality, years which will include arid patches, times of seeming stagnation. Don't write the process off if you think you are getting nowhere! Trust that the Lord of Time WILL unfold in your awareness... in time.

6) We cannot stand on our own shoulders
But that, as the wonderful disciple of swami Sivananda, Swami Krishnananda, wrote once, is exactly what we consider our spiritual Sadhana is about. We have to turn ourselves inside out. We have to do the impossible, go against every instinct of our mind and body. What makes this impossible task achievable? Grace, anugraha, manifesting in the form of a realised Master.  (Krishnananda's books are free to download so get in touch if you want to read more of his great wisdom).

7) Practice is the magic key
Ramakrishna Paramahansa once used a lovely analogy about life. He said we are all caught like fish in the great net of Maya. But as the net draws in, a few of the fish jump out (the realised souls and great masters). Still others are small enough to slip through the net after long exhausting struggles (sadhakas). The rest are doomed to be hauled away by Yama-Raj, king of death. Practice, abhasya, is what those of us who have not the wisdom to jump away from the net have to do to reach the goal of spiritual practice. Practice, practice, practice: through thick and thin, through storms and sunshine, through the changing drama of life. Easy to say, of course. Not easy to do, especially out in the world. Even more challenging: don't turn practice into a dry and meaningless habit. One of the most chilling things I ever saw in my spiritual life was a group of Hare Krishna guys in one of their temples very early in the morning reciting their japa as fast as they humanly could to fulfill their requirements to chant at least 8 mala rounds a day. What on earth was the use of that kind of mindless gabbling? So practice, but keep open. Quality, NOT quantity.

8) Drop by drop the pot gets filled
This is a very useful Indian proverb. Maybe we can also remember that old adage "Rome wasn't built in a day". Yes, you can achieve enlightenment at the click of a finger...  but true progress is mostly very painstaking indeed. Learning lesson after lesson and truly imbibing those lessons is a protracted affair. Anything done hastily in the world of Yoga normally means it will be undone just as hastily.

9) The path of Yoga is full of wonders
This is a very famous sutra from the Kashmir Shaivism text the Shiva Sutras, and it might seem a sort of ho-hum so-what kind of statement. But truly, each step along the way can suddenly be lit in dazzling, unexpected, glorious experiences.

10) Remember your death
Obvious, so blindingly obvious that we file this away. The other day I saw an interview with the long dead UK playwright Dennis Potter, who was dying at the time. Far from his death being a sentence for gloom and misery, he related that each day had become glorious, his perceptions of the evanescent beauty of creation never sharper. We die all the time, minute by minute by minute. Why not die consciously, by bowing to spiritual discipline in a serious way, one-pointed, brave and courageous?

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

5 HEALTHY SIGNS FOR SPIRITUAL MOVEMENTS





This is a companion piece to the earlier blog 5 WARNING SIGNS FOR SPIRITUAL MOVEMENTS.

So... we've looked at what NOT to join, but how do you spot a healthy spiritual movement or organisation? Because, mingled within the general dross of frankly dodgy organisations, big clashing egos, and cruel inflexible dogmas, you can find some wonderful golden groups of spiritual practitioners.  

This is my list, it's only a personal view but it comes from around 40 years of experience in and around groups of every spiritual persuasion. I hope this list helps.

1) SPIRIT OF LOVE
Don't confuse this wonderful quality with the spirit of manic enthusiasm and self-advertising of a movement promoting a perfect Master.  What do we mean by love in this context? There's the Greek word "agape" which hints at it: a quality of selfless love for others that is clearly manifested in the behaviour of the devotees and the spiritual leader.

If you think this is simply an abstract intellectual quality, you might not have actually experienced what I mean. This love is a tangible atmosphere, which if your senses are very subtle you can actually perceive as a very subtle pervasive aroma. It comes from the selfless dedication of those in the spiritual movement and just means that you can be healed in the most astonishing ways, simply by the "vibes" of the place or the movement. It is as if the beautiful flower that is that movement or its leader cannot help emitting an intoxicating perfume. Ashrams can be places absolutely filled with love, a testament to the qualities of the devotees and the ideal. Whole places can also hold this aura - Lourdes in France and Rishikesh in India, for example.

2) HUMILITY IN THE LEADERSHIP
Spiritual leaders work best when they serve as servants of God, and inculcate this attitude in a genuine, heartfelt way. Hypocrisy is easy to detect. Humility needs a bit of detective work.

One wonderful example of the power of humility is the life of Jesus. Another in recent times was the life of the mystic indian known as Papa Ramdass, who created a school and shelter in India and died about 30 years ago, a wonderful man beaming with love of service. Another was the warm presence and example of Swami Sivananda, founder of a mighty school of Yoga. Anandamayi Ma was another great saint without any pretensions. And then there's the example of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion. Leaving aside their question of the state of enlightenment - an obsession that western yoga devotees sometimes have, what's the thread that connects truly great souls? Humility.

The leaders with red warning signs attached are those who claim to be this that or the other, surround themselves with riches or consort only with the most famous and influential disciples. Those who "bend to tie your shoelaces" - who help others, teach and uplift... They are the great ones.

 
Humility, again, is a subtle quality and if our lives are in the world we don't tend to value this, going gung-ho for individual self-empowerment. But a humble spiritual leader is truly a joy, a rare adornment for the human race.

3) FLEXIBILITY
Life is is a matter of dealing with constant change. When change meets rigid dogmatism, spiritual movements can become surprisingly hidebound. But a healthy spiritual movement has the ability to bend in the wind. It has a springiness, an adaptability, a way of expressing itself that allows the mundane world in through the door.

Flexibility is surprisingly easy to spot. It is not the same as relentless and chaotic change which constantly unsettles the spiritual seeker - like chairman Mao's brutal cultural revolution. Some Gurus often deliberately create upsets, just to stir the pot of our samskaras, but then you notice that in all the activity they are the still centre.

You won't find flexibility when every programme follows the same dreary format (something that sadly happened to Siddha Yoga). But you will find it when a movement embraces creativity, expansion, and inspiration - and laughter. The Master suddenly decides to hold a picnic; The evening chant takes unexpected fire and before you know it, a conga line of devotees is dancing to the sankirtan; a storm in the sky is the cause for celebration; life with all its complexities is celebrated joyfully.

This is not to say that rules and regulations are abhorrent in spiritual movements. They are not. There is always a core of teachings and practices that define a movement and form their sacred vocabulary. But... life is Divine play in action. Life is a wonderful flowing river, and a movement that shuts this out (I keep thinking about the Catholic church) essentially bars the Lord of the Dance from turning up.

4) INNER SILENCE IS ENCOURAGED
"Be as soft as butter to everyone else, and as hard as a diamond to yourself" is one Zen saying. The core of a spiritual movement is shared experience, a journey to wholeness, but that journey must involve some kind of rigour in spiritual practice, or it descends into mere clapping,  shouting and banging of cymbals.
 
The truly great and useful spiritual movements ultimately point to the pathless path of minimising mental activity so that the light of the Inner Self, the Indweller, Paramataman, shines out in your life. A movement without silence is just half a movement - and I'm thinking especially both of born-again Protestant Christianity and the very noisy Hare Krishna movement. Both for different reasons are immensely suspicious of silence.
 
But the numinous, the transcendent is only found when thoughts are stilled, it's as simple as that. So look for how a movement deals with silent practice, especially meditation. If it's not on the agenda what are you really going to change about yourself? The mind is so tricky it can construct an entire fantasy delusion about spiritual growth and stature.
 
5) THE SEEKER IS NOT FINANCIALLY DRAINED
This should be self-evident, but it is amazing how many people in so many movements end up by being cheated and stolen... in a number of quite sophisticated ways. One movement I know went so far as selling at enormously high prices bits of an old carpet that their leader may or may not have walked on. God always provides for movements. My own Master Shivabalayogi never charged a single penny for his courses, even when he travelled to the West. Furthermore every chant and photo is freely available even now on websites. Now that IS unusual.
 
The West has become bedazzled by the idea that if you go on a "course" then you learn or experience. So out have come the wave of courses that are now an indispensable part of spiritual materialism. Courses? Rubbish. What really happens spiritually is not confined to courses or programmes or anything like that. A true Master does not just turn the tap on and off like that. So think very carefully about the money you are being asked to contribute or that seductive course you want to attend.
 
Spiritual movements may have mostly become businesses - but this is nothing new. If your movement is gentle with the principle of dakshina, of giving to the Master and the the cause, then that is a cause for celebration. If it urgently claims that it will collapse without more funds, what exactly is it relying on? God will always provide. Always. So don't be fooled.



Thursday, 1 March 2012

SADHANA AT SHIVARUDRABALAYOGI ASHRAM



I spent one  uncomfortable - but enlightening - night at the small Dehradun ashram of Shivabalayogi, now the main ashram of his disciple Shivarudrabalayogi, who was away at the time.

The ashram was virtually deserted, staffed by the affable Swami Tanmayanada but with no other visitors, with parts locked up and access generally limited. It is by a main road, and looks onto a valley in which new blocks of flats are being constructed, so it was relatively noisy - in a typically Indian way. 

But the main puja room, with an ornate four-poster throne for the picture of Swamiji Shivabalayogi was gorgeously carpeted and very conducive to meditation. 

I began the Yatra part of a short India trip at this ashram, taking a long crowded train ride from Delhi to Dehradun, and leaving behind a life of 5 star hotel luxury, which was where the conference I was attending took place. So, at a stroke, the contrast between 5 star and a very cold, deserted ashram, was stark!

The ashram dormitory had no heating or way to close the windows, and as the day turned to dusk, I quickly realised that this westerner's pampered body was going to face the difficulty of trying to keep warm. I was too embarrassed to ask for extra blankets, seeing that Swami Tanmayanda wore the bare minimum of clothing and looked perfectly comfortable. Being a kidney donor, I feel the cold intensely.

As I lay in the dark trying to get to sleep, I reflected how all the grand spiritual hoopla my mind had constructed around this stay was baseless. Part of me, the hypercritical part, felt unwelcomed, a little paranoid, left to my own devices. My ego looked for someone to blame... anyone... Where did all that come from? I ruefully reflected that my mind had fancifully projected this sort of ideal Guru welcome ("You have come at last, my son!") which had not materialised. And as the long hours of that sleepless night passed, minute by painful minute, I found it was too cold to do anything but roll up in a ball and contemplate what was really going on.

For some months I'd been carrying this cloak of bitterness, reflecting some painful life circumstances. And I'd begun to lose touch yet again with the magic of yoga and spiritual practice, and most importantly had somehow lost that inner connection with Shivabalayogi which had begun so dramatically and overwhelmingly last year.

There I  was, sitting in the dark, and I could not feel a thing! Not one ounce of warmth from the heart, reverence, or even acceptance. Just the irritation of a spiritual tourist put to inconvenience due to different cultural expectations. At that point, I felt the whole trip was completely useless and that my link with Shivabalayogi had been nothing more than a fancy.

But, of course, the great Yogis do not dance to anyone's tune.

What unfolded next was a fascinating mystery. When dawn came, I decided to leave and find some warmth at a hotel, and admit defeat. The ashram was just too cold and too bare, too alien in its ways.

But, having admitted defeat, with a bruised Ego, and a chastened mind, expectations dashed, something at last could be revealed. And it was. That awful night turned out to be the turning point for the entire trip. When I turned to meditation again, I was quickly overwhelmed by the inner presence of the Guru, sitting twinkling just above my head as before, only this time with a trident that he thumped into my skull again and again. And this created an intense inner bliss hard to describe. The experience was as real as could be.

I found myself plunged in meditation. All my doubts were swept away by this burst of inner light, shining brilliantly in the crown of my head and forehead. Without even realising what was happening, I found myself filled once more with this yearning love, this link of the heart. I was on fire!

It was so strange: a night of apparent failure was in fact a necessary purgative, a time of painful removing of blocks. A time, indeed, when the Guru's grace gave me not what I wanted, but what was needed.

And it reminded me of a well known teaching story that Baba Muktananda and Gurumayi often used, that of the proud seeker who came to visit a Guru's ashram, filled with his own self-conceit and in clean white clothes.

The story goes that the Guru arranged for one of the cleaners at the gate to "accidently" sweep dust and dirt all over him. Of course the seeker was enraged and left the ashram in a huff. After reflecting, some more spiritual practice, he went once more... same thing happened. Same reaction. Only on the third visit, some years later, did he have enough wisdom to bow to the sweeper, and proceed to the Guru and be in a proper frame of mind to accept teachings and darshan.

How often had I heard that story! But I only made sense of it after the SRBY ashram visit.

The rest of the India Yatra you can read about in this blog, but it was a blissful, holy experience. Somehow that night in the ashram had helped me shed a brittle, festering exterior. Grace had come in a way I could not control and certainly did not expect. I could only be thankful, from the bottom of my heart. And I still am. The inner connection with Shivabalayogi and indeed all the great teachers I've been lucky enough to study with has been reforged. Or did it ever go away? Was it simply obscured by clouds and clouds of samskaras, of mental impurities?

Truth of the Guru and disciple connection is hard to grasp. A true Guru plays by no one's rules, conforms to no one's expectations. Avadhuts... like Bhagwan Nityananda and Shri Shivabalayogi, Shirdi Sai Baba, Allakhot Swami, all these are rare, rare free beings. And yet the disciple will ALWAYS try and do a number on them, corrall them, co-opt them, tame them, brand them, own them. What a waste of time... something has to give and it invariably is the fragile mental projections of the seeker. Great Yogis are like lions, free and wild, and they work in extremely subtle ways.

So I felt I had a lesson to learn from the visit, and some reverence to rekindle. Thankfully, the torrents of grace were mightier than my most contracted heart.