Thursday, 29 August 2013

SADHANA: BUILDING A SPIRITUAL ROUTINE



A quote from the late great Robert Kennedy, assassinated in 1968 and one of the greatest US presidents who could have been: "Some people see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never where and say why not".

Designing a life based on spiritual principles is truly a noble endeavour, but also can be challenging if, like most of us, you have to pay your way in the world and still have responsibilities. In fact the crafting of a Yogic life can be a lifetime's work, and we can find along to way that our motivations will be tested time and time again.

When I started on the spiritual path around 40 years ago as a young man of 19, I did not expect to be stuck out in the world, but things happened as they happened. It has taken many years to try and formulate some Golden Rules for living the spiritual life that works best. File this under the broad heading of "my experiments with truth" (Great title of Mahatma Gandhi's rather terse autobiography) and like all experiments, not always achieved. But this is how I aim to live my life as a brahmachari out in the world, and as soon as you aim for this kind of life you will pretty quickly run into your own worst enemy - which is of course yourself!  

The idea, I believe, of an incarnation where spiritual yearnings emerge but life circumstances tie you down with responsibilities and obligations is to bite the bullet and simply calmly accept you are exactly where you need to be, even if that place seems dismal and disastrous. This earth is a plane of reality where we learn lessons. It is the school of hard knocks, but it also has a rhythm and dance to it, and the trick is to learn absolute flexibility because life will throw you off the saddle time and time... and time... again.

Life is the most amazing ride, isn't it. Now at my advanced age I can see how brief it is, how time so rapidly flows by like a swiftly running river. I see it with my own children, now grown up and with kids of their own... almost in a blink of an eye. I see it in the gradual diminution of bodily strength and youth. And I see it in culture, the amazing way that famous figures and events get so quickly forgotten about, how things that matter when you are young do not become concerns when you are old.

So, everything changes, everything is transitory and mutable. This is a basic truth of life and can be a source of pervasive melancholy. Is there anything you can hold onto in this world of changes and endings? Yes. Your search for the divine. Your dedication to the great cause. Your determination to follow the path so many others have trodden before you. Your courage, commitment and reverence. With a smile... and not taking yourself so seriously.

Why not do something amazing today and get a bit of paper... or a word document.. and spend some time creating your own rules/guidelines for an ideal golden life dedication to your god? This is not a punishment routine, it's a way of having fun, of being creative and letting in the light. 

I can only speak from my own experience and all the ways I've tried out what works and what doesn't in life. There have been many failures, many moments I have taken 3 steps back rather than 1 step forward, yet somehow, with the grace of the Queen of the Universe, I get up from the floor and carry on in this strange experiment: the Divinisation of Life.

The simplest Golden Rule is one I've found very difficult - the rule of moderation. It is enshrined in the Bhagavad Gita, and many a wise person through the ages has found that not too much/not too little has been a great way to steer through the shoals of life. If you are a naturally prudent, moderate person, well done... it's a great blessing!

But I wanted to share my own Life formula, in the hope that it might help you, the reader, in your own efforts. We are brothers and sisters, all of us, and what works well, what works best is simple stuff. But here goes...

Brahmachari Sri Tapasyananada's Daily Golden Rule of Spiritual Life


1. Loving Kindness to self and Others

2. Practice of Yogic discipline (Yamas/Niyamas) especially

a) Principle of active peace in thought, word and deed (ahimsa)
b) Celibacy (Brahmacharya) in thought, word and deed

3 Daily Spiritual Practice especially 

a) Swadhyaya, recitation of sacred texts
b) Japa, remembrance and recitation of names of your deity
c) Silent communion/prayer

4 Care of the body, especially

a) Vedic or Vegan or Macrobiotic diet: Sattvic and wholesome food 
b) No evening meal
c) No intoxicants
d) Plentiful fresh air
e) Kaupina/Tilak

5) Care of Resources, especially 

a) Cleanliness in living quarters
b) Self-reliance, not being a burden on others
c) Care of others and kindness to others
d) Prudent Stewardship of your finance and assets

6) A joyful time

a) Something that gives you joy while living in the world which harms neither yourself, others or the environment... a hobby, a creative pursuit.
b) Some down-time, just for you.


That's the rule of life. There are no punishment for any monastic infractions. You are the jury, you are the judge. It's a voluntary set of life rules that should all subtly blend together into a seamless and supple armour that protects and uplifts you and guards you from harm.

Simple to create, but very difficult to maintain! But lets go through these pointers and the logic behind them.

The first important overarching principle is the Practice of loving kindness to self and Others, because all else flows from this.Create a rule because of some masochistic impulse and you'll be terrorised by a stern internal voice telling you that you cannot possibly succeed. Notice the lower case "s". The idea is to treat your own self with respect, not with narcissistic self regard, but treat others with such loving kindness that your love simply flows out to them. This is a lifetime's work. The closer you live with others, perhaps the harder this is. But persist, time and time again. Resolve to be a good person, humble as a blade of grace and as unobtrusive. Don't make a big public spectacle out of this practice. Just... do it.

Yogic Discipline 
Is simple common sense. The ancients have worked out what to do and their advice is invaluable and very sensible. The Yamas/Niyamas, the dos and don'ts of spiritual discipline, are neatly laid out for us in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. In this rule of life,the two key practices are peacefulness or ahimsa, and celibacy or brahmacharya. Both involve the heart of the matter: the gentle control of the speeding horses of the senses that pull our chariot along. Brahmacharya in the western world is almost impossible... or just barely possible. But the "just barely" is the great opportunity. Try it! Try it even if your mind habitually boils with desires, images, urges... It's a tough struggle but keep at it. Count your victories, even if 3 days, 5 days, 15 days, 30 days... aim for 108 days and see if you can do it. But only with the consent of your partner, if you are in a relationship. Good luck, it's such a noble battle.

Daily spiritual practice 
Is what your life should be geared towards, and it will demand sacrifice. There is no getting around this. It's not easy to carve out the time, the space, the practice. But think it over. You've wasted life after life. Are you going to waste this one? Life is brief, as brief as a troubling dream. Born again, dying again, born again... it needs tremendous grit and determination to achieve escape velocity. But do it, try it, repeat it. Constant repetition makes the difficult easy. What seems to be bitter gall (especially if you are missing out on accustomed pleasures) turns into honey. This is the promise of all great spiritual teachers. Your unfailing weapon in this struggle for life mastery is humble prayer. Pray in your own words for help. The energy will come for you, will help you, uplift you, give you wings you never knew you had.

Stewardship
Is what life in the world is really all about: A real failing of mine, I've been careless so many times. But clean house, financial oversight, prudent judgement: You are a steward looking after the functioning of a great temple, your own soul. Sweep it carefully. 

Joyful Time. 
This is also vital. Life should make you smile, it's so inherently ridiculous. Find something that gives you joy - playing with your kids, pursuing a hobby, something some practice where you can relax, otherwise you'll explode.

Guide dogs for the blind get let off the leash for walks, it's so sweet to see them joyfully revel in their freedom, so give yourself time as well. If you live in the world you will need some down-time. Family get togethers, evenings with friends, music... whatever it is, life needs a bit of sweetness.

Gardening... music... painting... it's your choice. For me, the relief valve is painting, music... and cooking. I was the sole cook for 200 hungry meditators for many months when I was young, living in ashrams high in the Swiss Alps, and the discipline of preparing vegan food every day, 3 meals a day, never left me, a great great grounding in the beauty and appeal of Sri Annapurna, the Goddess as food.

Marriage
This blog might give the impression that marriage or partnership is an obstacle to spiritual practice, but in fact it can be the greatest blessing of all.  If the marriage is harmonious and love and tolerance rule, then Mother Saraswati has come to stay in your house. If the marriage is prosperous, why the beautiful Mother Lakshmi comes too! If you do not think brahmacharya is for you yet, and you are full of vigour, why that's also OK. Do not be guilty about the physical side of the relationship, it, too can be a great tonic, relief and joy.

A marriage with children is a wonderful crucible for understanding what life is all about. Raising kids is a celestial experience because it is so utterly, deeply grounding. Changing your kids diapers/nappies (as we say in the UK), watching them grow, surviving their teenage rebellion, connecting as adults, it's all an engrossing drama, and the Devi is there at every turn with you. That, indeed, can be your chief spiritual practice - making the path of the householder a golden, golden path.

I  want to share with a reply to the only letter I ever sent to a Guru, in this case Gurumayi Chidvilasanda, Baba Muktananda's successor. Words I have always cherished and pondered for over 20 years now. Perhaps today you are meant to ponder them too:

"You live on a very precious planet, so give your happiness to someone else, and then it will come back to you a thousand-fold. You plant a seed of happiness, then you will have a tree of happiness. Fruit, flowers... a huge tree of happiness. Then so many people can come and sit under this tree. You will smell the flowers of happiness... such trust and faith will give you everything."




Thursday, 15 August 2013

CHANTING THE SRI GURU GITA


My Master, the Sat Guru and Enlightened Yogi
Shri Shri Shri Shivabalayogeshwar


The Sri Guru Gita forms part of a conversation between the Father of Yoga, the Teacher of mankind Lord Shiva, and Divine Mother in the form of the Goddess Parvati, Shiva's wife, and it is authored by the great Rishi Vyasa. It is a serious and exalted text to be chanted in the practice and discipline of Swadhyaya.

There are 182 verses to the Guru Gita, of which the last quarter of the text is devoted to explaining the benefits of reciting the verses under various conditions including  "in a cowshed... or in some lonely place" - a relatively standard requirement for sacred Vedic texts. 

The Guru Gita  is essentially the one main scripture that extols the worship of the illumined Guru, and forms part of a wider text, the Skanda Purana. It is a sort of instruction manual on how to approach the Guru, how to view and value the Guru. But also it always carefully stresses that the Guru we are talking about is not some kind of power-man on the make, but the real deal — for an enlightened Guru really is Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, being a spotless mirror reflecting the powers of the Divine Paramatman.

So we are from the start placed in some transpersonal landscape, on the slopes of Mt Kailash, in the eternal now, listening to a dialogue which is taking place every moment between the unenlightened part of ourselves and the enlightened. We, indeed, are the stage set to this drama.

There are therefore four main elements to consider: Lord Shiva, the Inner silence of the oversoul; Parvati, She who serves the Inner Self; the flow of knowledge between the two; and finally the position of ourselves, witnessing this entire drama. It describes, in mythic form, the process of sadhana, of spiritual practice.

So many verses of the Guru Gita are universally applied in other liturgical contexts and backgrounds that they will be surprisingly familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Hindu ceremonies. The puja used in the TM movement, for example, is mostly derived from the far longer Guru Gita. It turns up in Guru Puja or abishek ceremonies as well. Or in arati ceremonies. 

I got to know the Guru Gita well during ten years spent studying in the Siddha Yoga Gurukula, Baba Muktananda's organisation, which recited it every morning in their ashrams and expected anyone staying there to do the same. Wise choice! 

We used to chant the verses divided by the women in the congregation and the men, which added a lilting, homely vibration that further mirrored the two key players in the drama — Shiva and Parvati. It was a way of cleansing the group dynamic, an exercise in joint community endeavour. A doughty harmonium player would repeat the simple melody, plus a tamboura player if one was around. There are two versions of the Siddha Yoga Guru Gita available on CD which capture this practice very well... available from www.syda.org I think.

A mangled memory of this routine turns up in the best selling book — subsequently a movie —  Eat, Pray, Love. The author spent time at the Siddha Yoga mother ashram in Ganeshpuri, India (in between eating meals and having love affairs ) and describes her boredom at chanting what seems like incomprehensible gibberish while sitting with aching knees and thighs on a hard stone floor. It was certainly not for the faint-hearted, and represented the farthest most westerners wanted to go with their recitation of sanskrit. 

The morning recitations were also subtly comic occasions, where you could see a sort of arms race develop over who sat the straightest, who knew it by heart, who had the best shawl, the most up to date asana blanket — and the most eclectic collections of photos, beads, trinkets which chanters would spread on the floor as a guide to concentration. There was always the potential misfortune of sitting next to someone tone-deaf, or with a particularly loud braying voice...or the tamboura being just slightly out of tune, which can get irritating after 182 verses.

I preferred chanting the Guru Gita without the dramas and outside the confines of any ashram. I used to recite faithfully every day at my home early in the morning before going off to work. Then, occasionally, on a bus, plane or train. I've chanted it in temples, by rivers, in forests, in a rainstorm, up a mountain, in a country graveyard and each occasion has been something to treasure. The chant after only a short while becomes very easy to do, and compared with some other sanskrit texts it is indeed easy to pronounce. I have great memories of that magical moment when the chant ends, and the sounds of a beautiful surrounding seeps back into awareness, and like all such texts, there are particular verses which I love, old friends really..

So why do it? Why go through all the bother?

The nub of the issue is, of course, the fact that it is a song to and about the Guru. We in the west are brought up to believe in the powers and virtue of rugged individualism, but in the East, it is recognised that we only climb the steep steps of spiritual endeavour with a helping hand - the Guru. So actually sitting down with a text that says "Yup, this is the way it is: you need help," can be like pulling teeth. Having said that, the Guru Gita does not encourage us to leave our common sense at the door.

If we follow an all-too fallible Guru with clear foibles and weaknesses, chanting the Guru Gita can after a while seem like pulling teeth, a painful abasement to a character we know is deeply flawed. The more we chant, the less comfortable we might feel. Easy to see how it can be blamed as a tool for coercion, for a personality cult by an unscrupulous teacher, because the Guru Gita pulls no punches about how low you should bow, or how much you should reverence the Guru. 

There's an interesting observation by Adi Da, an American who studied with Muktananda before forming his own strange spiritual group, about how one year Baba had the ashram chant in the morning a much wider choice of texts, but when he subsequently visited Ganeshpuri, it was the Guru Gita or nothing. Was this a kind of a power play? Divine play? Yogic coincidence? By the time I got to Siddha Yoga, the Guru Gita's authority was unquestioned. 

With the right Guru, the enlightened Guru, the text finally makes sense and the practice becomes joyful. And what exactly is the "Sat Guru", the "True" Guru? The human frame of the teacher? No, it is  the teaching principle of the universe, embodied in the form of Shiva as Lord Dakshineshwar, the God who with great mercy taught us humans the ins and outs of spiritual practice. This principle is ultimately our Self, our atman,  that part of us which connects to the cosmic ocean of sac-cid-ananda, the part that wakes us up and guides us. It is Lord Dattatreya manifested. The enlightened teacher may have a human body, but what shines out of him or her is something Divine - and is embodied within ourselves, too. The Guru dispells our darkness in an astonishing number of ways, most of which we will never notice.

The Guru Gita explains what the Guru is very thoroughly. It is therefore a cornerstone in the system of spirituality found in Hinduism. It enshrines the true Guru, not the false Guru. It  reminds us that the process of spiritual endeavour can not be ultimately successful without help, except in the rarest of cases. The Guru is the Inner Self, it reminds us again and again.

If this becomes part of your practice, you don't need an embodied Guru. By chanting the Guru Gita a Guru will manifest for you, when it is neccessary. This is undoubtedly true for I've known it to happen. 

For a Shakta like myself, this is not necessarily a core text, and Vaishnavas will tend to shun it, too, given the primacy of Lord Shiva. But all comes right when you have the feet of the true Guru to contemplate.

Perhaps it is the one text, too, that I've chanted in my life where I have been truly grateful I did. There was a six month very pure period in my life many years ago when it formed the bedrock of my spiritual practice. I remember one morning simply looking at Baba's smile in the photo as I chanted and being unable to stop laughing. The laughter went on and on until it did not sound like laughter at all. My head burst into inner flame, the laugh became very fast pranayama over a long period of time and still the noises came from my body. Everything was made of tiny mantras.  And still Baba smiled from the photo! Another time, I remember sitting in the bath afterwards, overwhelmed by waves of bliss to such an extent I thought I had been dosed by some powerful drug. We do not chant such texts just get high and have flashy experiences, but something shifts everytime we do chant.

Another little saga was a 5 week period I spent in the Ganeshpuri ashram in India, determined to do everything by the letter. I found a comfortable place by a wall, started to recite... when i noticed a large rodent sniffing along the wall headed my way. The first day I escaped the inevitable. The next, the rodent appeared, came along the wall and walked right over me. The day after that, I sat in a chair! Even then my mind was more on the rodent than the text. 

Great practice, strongly recommended: Chant the Guru Gita as a song of love to your Guru, or a song of love to Lord Shiva, or simply with no great intention. Dedicate its benefits to others... it is truly a wish-fulfilling tree.  If you have a guru and want to express your love for him or her, this is a great practice to do. Don't make it a harsh punishment for yourself, but a song of love. Best to chant early in the morning. But you of course need the text. And the melody... after that, go for it!