Monday, 25 November 2013


The opportunity and ability to practice spiritual discipline is not easy if you live in the world. You have to be shrewd, resourceful, take the opportunity when you can to carve out some regularity of spiritual practice. Your responsibilities may be many and daunting, your available free time limited - especially if there are young kids involved, or you have to work long hours to make a living. Sometimes, to be frank, you simply have to admit defeat and wait for a better opportunity at a later period in your life. Sometimes particular challenges simply overwhelm your careful discipline, and the storms of life overwhelm all your protective barriers, and sadhana becomes just a memory. Yes, life is never easy and only a fool would think that sadhana will be a simple, unchallenging process - a bit like brushing your teeth or going to the gym each day.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras point us to various impediments that face spiritual practitioners, and sickness is a biggie. I'm a kidney donor but also missing two discs in my back from a mishap over 25 years ago now, which in turn has led to many intriguing health issues, so I have my own story to tell about sickness. And death? The spectre of death has been all around recently, including a dear friend at work dying in his sleep suddenly (his funeral was last week) and my twin brother being suddenly diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour just a few weeks ago. The death of others always brings a message to us - that we are mortal, our life span limited in this incarnation, and that very few have the foreknowledge of when we will die. 


In my long life I've seen many people involved in spiritual groups who show a huge fear of death, a fear so overwhelming that it spills into every day life as well - but one which they cannot honestly acknowledge. In the modern cultures of developed economies death has no place in the scheme of things - it is taboo, never to be referred to, an aberration, a mistake in creation. After all the mighty Ego always thinks it will live forever as the centre of the universe. In other cultures death is a far more immediate presence, and in intense yogic spiritual practice, death is something to be deeply contemplated. 

You'll find death also little referred to in most spiritual schools, especially those that have ended up teaching Hatha Yoga for profit. Death does not fit neatly into the world of yoga mats, leotards and tidy rooms. But a fear of death manifests a number of ways which you might not have considered. The first is that it brings an impatience to the seeking soul: you want god realisation NOW, special siddhis NOW, the Guru's exclusive love NOW.

Why the haste? Behind it is a fear that you have to grab on to as much as you as a sort of barrier between you and death. Another sign: obsessive neatness, obsessive desire to control every little aspect of your life, with the primal feeling that in this way you can "control" even death. This desire to control can make you a petty tyrant, or even a Saddam Hussein. And we know what happened to him. 

The Tantric path of Shatka worship, the traditions of Shaivism, encourage the yogi to meditate in charnel grounds and near funeral pyres with all their grisly reminders of the transitory nature of life. Such a practice is for the very few renunciates way out on the edge of society. But you can find similar practices in other faiths. Some different religious orders in the Catholic Church, for example, encourage introspection of your own death, of your bodily fraility. Some monks used to have in the separate cells, for example, their own coffins in which they would be buried. The same exercises appear in different Buddhist traditions, careful meditations on the dissolution of the body, of its basic constituents.

The other aspect of death is the death of others, particularly  the ones you love the most. With advances in medicine our general life expectancy has vastly increased. Yet here in London, there are many old graveyards especially from the Victorian era which show how present death was in society before antibiotics transformed medicine. Pitiable stories - written on gravestones - of whole families mown down by diseases. Victorian society held a morbid fascination with death that seems alien to modern culture. 

And talking of graveyards... in cities they are the one essentially empty space you can find. If you are up to it, if the sun is shining and the summer is there, the cementeries of London offer a surprisingly good location for meditation, and a vivid reminder of how transitory life is. 

Yet the whole issue of death is exactly where we who practice spiritual discipline should focus. We deal with it every second of the day. We witness thousands of breaths die.. we witness our thoughts be born, live and die... we witness seasons change, flowers wither, fruit spoil, yesterdays papers thrown in the bin. Death is just one part of that fantastic, ever-changing, mesmerising wheel of manifestation that the eternal Self witnesses. We can only witness it by transcending body consciousness - in one sense voluntary letting our body awareness die.

I hope that when my turn to die comes, I shall be aware that I am not the body. I am not the thoughts. I am not the senses. I am the Atman, part of Paramatman, I am unbounded, infinite, shining in dazzling splendour as part of the ocean of Shiva. Death reminds me to wake up, to contemplate what is really going on, to see that this illusory existence is not the ultimate home for any of us. 


Sickness has a major impact on sadhana and forces us to be really clear-headed about practice. Meditation is particularly affected, but here is where japa can come into play, because it is easy to practice and also helps keep mind, body and senses bathed in the currents of sacred endeavour. There are three aspects to the problem which we will look at in turn:

1) Impact on sitting/asana

Severe sickness often involves resting in the bed, or lying on a sofa/couch etc, or in turn squirming to find the most comfortable or least painful position you can. Yet spiritual practice depends a lot, especially meditation, on being able to sit up with your back straight. Meditating lying down maybe your only option, if you are sick, but it is a hard thing to pull off. Recitation of japa, however, has no such restrictions. Remember the inspiring words of Mahatma Gandhi, who as he collapsed dying kept repeating the sacred name of Rama. So, if you have to lie down, feel generally really sick... japa could be the only lifeline you have to spiritual practice. Don't get too wound up on "missing" some great secret. In life you will face many practical obstacles that can take years to resolve. Be patient.

So however sick you are, try sitting up, prop yourself up in bed, on a couch, and keep your spine straight. This is important for all sorts of reasons, both obvious and subtle.

Pranayama, the conscious regulation of breath in the shushumna,ida and pingala subtle spiritual channels, comes in very handily if you are sick, as well, and this too depends on a straight back.

2) Painkillers/Medicine

The unfortunate corollary of being sick is the prevalence of western medicine to kill the pain... which in turn dulls the senses and makes meditation very difficult and concentration of any kind. Your mind clouds over, your concentration scatters, and you can end up in a state of torpor and exhaustion where you lose your bearings entirely.

It's a very difficult task to deal with chronic pain, but from my own experience I would urge minimal use of any painkillers. They are not conducive to meditation at all. Sometimes pain has its own stories to teach you as well - contemplating physical pain intellectually is one thing. Contemplating pain when you are feeling it is a whole other spiritual exercise. You will find, if you are very quiet about it, that it is perfectly obvious that you are not the pain, you are witnessing it, and it can become amazingly cl;ear and obvious that you are not the body, not the cloudy mind either, nor the refined intellect that watches the pain. Behind all this, even more intimately, is a mysterious vast experience of utter silence, beyond any naming. Pain can help give you this realisation. But it takes courage and self-mastery to actually allow this experience.

Another aspect of pain is that our breathing can become very irregular - in moments of extreme pain we can forget to breathe (some dentists know very well). But, again, regulation of the breath is a great way to disperse tension.

There are other aspects to sadhana and the experience of pain. Do you make everyone else's life a misery by constantly referring to it? By playing the victim? By demanding that others serve you because you are so ill and delicate? Sick people can become little monsters, and the Ego can often clutch on to sickness as a way to control and manipulate others.

Luckily there are many examples even in mundane life of people who bear sickness bravely, without complaint, without bitterness, and even thanking God for it. This is difficult. There is no need to be sentimentally pious about your troubles. But nevertheless, seen from a high spiritual perspective, there is Shakti in sickness just as there is in health. There are the same broad patterns: the arising and cessation of sensations, which in turn remind us of the impermanence of all phenomena. So, be brave, don't make a spectacle of your illness.

I've known some individuals who experienced an extra dose of caring when they were sick as children, and so make a habit of constantly complaining about their health. This can create a sort of spidery vortex in your subtle energy, which seeks to entrap others and draw the energy from them. Not really a spiritual practice! Your ultimate fall-back position if you want to pursue sadhana is service for others, not manipulation of others.

3) Permanent Disability

Perhaps the most famous testament to the power of spiritual practice to overcome all adversity is the Ashtavakra Gita, an astonishing teaching work from Ashtavakra a saint crippled "in eight places" who taught the famous Royal householder Yogi King Janaka. This is such a powerful testament to spiritual teaching an is essential reading and you should be able to find the text somewhere on the internet.

Have a read of it, if you suffer from permanent disability, and be comforted. God can be realised at any time, anywhere, by anyone. You are immortal, deathless, supreme, not the crippled body you may inhabit.

4) And back to Japa again

When you are sick, you don't have to tie yourself to targets or deadlines for japa. Just simply, when you can, recite one of the names of the Lord or the Devi... even a simple "Mother" can do it! I find some of the sayings said to come from that great Yogi Jesus to be beautifully appropriate: "Thy Will be Done," sums it all up.

5) Insomnia from sickness

How lucky is the soul that never experiences insomnia, and it often accompanies sickness. In my work life I have to travel a lot between time zones and sooner or later experience the mixed blessings of sleepless nights. Of course, a sleepless night can, if you have to courage and means, be a wonderful opportunity because it allows you to meditate at the most auspicious time of the morning, what is called the Brahmamurta. This is the time before dawn when monks and religious people wake up, when there are particularly pure and sattvic influences in the atmosphere, when meditation can become epic adventures of diving into silence, unencumbered by the usual noises of the world. What a blessing! And far better than lying anxiously in bed waiting to sleep. So, if you can, meditate. Or pray.

I remember a truly wonderful experience that came unbidden to me when I was suffering from jet lag and insomnia, in a hotel near Houston, Texas. I went for a walk pre-dawn on a golf course by the hotel, tired and irritable. Then the sun slowly, majestically, began to rise. Within the sun I saw threads of embedded mantras unwrapping themselves, spreading across the sky. I heard cosmic voices, angelic voices accompanying the dawn, and my hearty just melted. Before I realised it, tears streamed down my face as I saw the incomparable beauty of the Sun, Lord Surya, ascend the heavens. I have only fleetingly since then felt that same beauty from the sun, and then only at sunset. But getting up to watch the sunrise can be an experience that remains with you all your life, it is so sacred and special. That sunrise healed me of my worries at the time. It bathed me in light, in the glories and mastery of the inner spiritual light which is of an entirely different order than the ordinary light we see: it is completely white, this spiritual light, and it was in this instance hidden behind the gold of the sunlight.

6) Natural healers

In sadhana we work with  nature, not against Her. And there is wonderful healing wherever you look. The greatest natural healers on this earth are not, however, found in doors, in stuffy rooms, or in artificial darkness. Especially powerful natural healing agents are:

The sun at dawn
Natural running water
Salt water, the sea
Cold mountain air

These are all free. And it is so important to stress: do not stay indoors all your life. Do not live, if you are sick, tied to an electronic device like a phone, ipad, TV, computer screen. All have harmful and damaging influences on your own vibratory patterns and are not conducive to spiritual practice, and will not heal you. The prevalence of electrical devices is one of the great challenges of our modern life. Many studies have shown the harmful effects of having a mobile phone constantly in your vicinity... and they in turn can bring insomnia. This may sound like superstitious pseudoscience, but the delicate apprehension of higher states of awareness depends on certain patterns of brain wave coherence which get disturbed by electrical consumer goods. 

The parable of Puranjana

One of the greatest teaching stories from the ancients, in this case the great Sage Narada Muni can be found in the Srimad Bhagavatam, Canto 4, and this immediately came to my mind when I heard my twin brother had an inoperable brain tumour.

The text below is from a another site, so not my words, but it gives you the basic narrative. Study this carefully, read the original if you can. It contains such key teachings about life, suffering, and death: Unusually for teaching stories, we are told right from the start that this is an allegory and should be interpreted as such, and the very name of the character, Puranjana gives the key to it all, ie Pura, city, Anjana, nine, nine gates. The embodied soul. Read the story and my comments at the end:

In days of yore there was a king by name Puranjana. He had a friend known as Avijnata, the Unknown. The king parted company with this friend and wandered about seeking an abode. He rejected many kingdoms and arrived at a city which had nine gates and which was heavily guarded by five walls. In this city he met a beautiful lady surrounded by ten attendants and a five hooded serpent, that guarded her. Puranjana approached her and asked her to accept him. She, too, was happy beyond measure and married him and made him the ruler of her kingdom. There Puranjana ruled for a hundred years.
Puranjana went out daily through the nine gates of the city and brought back various objects and experiences. He was lost in sense-enjoyments and had so thoroughly identified himself with the queen that he seemed to have no individuality of his own.

One day Puranjana went out on a chariot of two wheels drawn by five horses. He killed many animals to satisfy his appetite for sense-enjoyments. On his return, though his wife was angry with him for thus abandoning her for a brief while, was soon pacified and once again she clasps the king in love. Thus Puranjana lived, without noticing the passage of time.

Old age assailed Puranjana. Chandavega, chief of the three-hundred and sixty-five Gandharvas (half of them fair and the others dark) repeatedly attacked Puranjana. But the great five-hooded serpent guarded the city. For full hundred years this battle raged and the serpent was successful in repelling the attack of Chandavega.

The daughter of Kala (Time), sought a husband; but no one accepted her. At last she approached Bhaya and wooed him, Bhaya offered her his army and also his brother Prajwara and induced her to destroy all beings. This army, accompanied by the daughter of Kala and Prajwara attacked Puranjana's city. Embraced by the daughter of Kala, the king underwent untold agony.

When Prajagara.s own home was attacked by the powerful army, this serpent was unable to withstand the onslaught and after a little struggle fled the city. In the meantime, Prajwara set the city ablaze. Though intensely attached to it, the king had to quit the city. Even at this moment, on account of his intense sense-craving, Puranjana was unable to remember his old friend Avijnata. While he was leaving the city, the animals which he had killed in the forest surrounded him and tortured him.

He was again born as the beautiful daughter of the king of Vidarbha. Maharaja Malalvadhwaja married this princess. In due time, they got one daughter and seven sons. The Maharaja after entrusting the kingdom to his sons went to the forest to meditate upon God. The Maharani, too, followed him. After intense penance, he obtained Darshan of the Lord; he entered into Samadhi and was oblivious of the surroundings. He realised his identity with the Supreme Brahman and was established in the Turiya State.
When the Maharani discovered that only his body remained on earth, while his soul had attained union with the Supreme Soul, she prepared the husband.s funeral and made up her mind to ascend the funeral pyre, to follow the husband. At that moment, her old friend the Avijnata appeared before her and reminded her that he was her friend birth after birth. He reminded her how, leaving him, she in her previous birth had gone over to the city of nine gates and underwent much suffering. He reveals that he and she are One and One alone.

The soul of Vidarbhi awakened and attains union with the Supreme Brahman. This parable illustrates the life of a Jiva here. Puranjana is the Jiva. Avijnata, the Unknown, is the Supreme Soul. After discarding many births as mineral, plant, animals, etc., the Jiva enters into the human body, the Navadwara-Puri. There are five Kosas that surround the Jiva here. The princess in this city is none other than intellect. The Jiva is wedded to the little human intellect. Residing in the body, it enjoys the pleasures of this world through ten various sense-avenues. Riding the chariot of the body with its two wheels of good and evil, the Jiva performs many actions such as sacrificing animals in Yajnas, etc. The intellect gets reconciled to such actions and thus the Jiva and the intellect pass the time.

Chandavega represents the year, with its three hundred sixty-five days. Years attack the body; but the five-hooded serpent Prajagara (which is the five Mukhya-Pranas) repels all attacks and protects the city. But in due time old age overpowers the man.

At this time, a powerful army attacks him. It is the army which is led by Kala (Time or death), Bhaya (Great Fear) and Prajwara (mortal fever). The sensuous man who revelled in various objects of the senses now has to embrace cold and cruel death. The Prana is unable to face this new enemy. It departs. Mortal fever sets the body ablaze. Though unwilling, the Jiva has to quit the body. But on account of Moha, the Jiva is unable to recognise his kinship with the Great Unknown Being, God. As he departs from this world, the various beings whom he harmed during his life here, pursue him and torture him.

Puranjana.s rebirth as a girl is intended to show that the Jiva is beyond sex and takes birth as male or female in accordance with Karma. In this birth, however, the Jiva renounces all desires for sense enjoyment, meditates on the Lord and eventually meets the Great Unknown Friend, God, who awakens the soul to its pristine glory. The Jiva realises its identity with the Supreme Being.


The allegory reveals how overwhelming death is, an enemy that can be entirely ruthless. The passionate love of Puranjana for the beautiful maiden is also a neat way to explain our utter attachment to every whim of the body, which makes us forget that silent friend - the Divine. Study this, remember it, contemplate it...