Monday, 24 February 2014

SADHANA INTERVIEW: WHEN YOU FEEL GOD HAS ABANDONED YOU









The Blogger interviewed on the crises you face in sadhana when even God appears to have abandoned you

So let’s begin with what to do when you are in such trouble that nothing works, and you feel even God has abandoned you?
Ah: The moment in life when we feel utterly alone. It can be grim. And we have to face this aspect of life fairly and squarely. There are moments of intense suffering in our destinies, when everything seems to come together in a dreadful way to overturn us and reduce us to a desperate state. As they say, “there are no atheists in the middle of a battle”, but even when we pray desperately help seems absolutely to not be available. There is no emergency help flown in to land at your feet, and life can become absolutely unbearable. At such times, most of the wisdom we may think we have tends to fly out of the window. We become desperate like a drowning person and become incapable of thinking or behaving wisely.

God sometimes seems to be a tyrant, or is that a false view?
There are so many aspects to this kind of disaster scenario and the very first thing we need is what most of us do not have in a crisis – keeping a cool head. It is fatally easy for most of us to feel a sort of vindictive anger towards what seems to be an actively hostile Divinity and blame all our woes on someone or something else. But this is not true.

There are two aspects about what influences each life in the world that we tend to forget. The first is destiny, prarabdha karma from previous incarnations or earlier parts of our life that ripen under particular circumstances, about which you can get a rough idea when you study your own Jyotish astrology chart.

The second is that there are negative and hostile forces on this earth plane that can create havoc in the life of a seeker, if that seeker is susceptible to particular behavioural weaknesses — things like food, sex, alcohol, gambling, cheating and so forth. These Asuric forces are the bitter enemies of the good. Mostly they are impish, malevolent but of limited power, appearing to be far more threatening than they really are. But when the mind turns negative under stressful situations, be careful about this kind of influence. Mantras protect you, absolutely. Only, we may forget this in a crisis.

The force of God, the Divinity, the Immanence, the Brightness, all this is distilled of Love, the basic truth of manifestation. These are not simply pious words. Goodness has an awesome, immense, super-brilliant power that absolutely destroys all negativity in an instance. And Seekers always attract protection. In a crisis, we learn whether we really are people of faith.

But what if you don’t feel this?
Sometimes it’s a matter of timing. In a crisis we want everything over in a second, we want suffering destroyed immediately. We don’t want to be uncomfortable a moment more than is necessary. Yet crises can unfold over months, sometimes years. Then you can think that protection is a kind of fairy tale, absolutely untrue. But you are so wrong. Often when we sleep the help comes to our tormented mind, and there’s one clue to handling a crisis: dealing with the mind. One great teacher once said that if you careful note your actual thinking, pretty much most of your thoughts are entirely negative. The mind will amplify and churn around a crisis and create a closed loop of worry, excessive anxiety and so forth. So, the mind has to be shut down a bit like a malfunctioning computer, and rebooted. In a crisis, often the only way the forces of light can help (because of course you stop meditating) is when you finally fall asleep.

Don’t we all want a “magic bullet” to help us?
Yes, most of us do want that. So, let’s assume we don’t get it, we don’t get a hand from the sky plucking us to safety, what then? Then we have to do some work. We might have to face painful truths and admit that our own actions have led us to this awful time. We have to think that maybe our sense about life is actually wrong – and at this point we may lose our childish notions of fate and this is normally where people stop believing in God. But we can also wonder, “Well, what have other people done?” Because there are some wonderfully inspiring examples of how human beings have overcome dire crises. A real help at this point is actually to approach Buddhist teaching and wisdom, which strips out Divinity altogether and points us to basic truth: life is suffering. But the real brave person will somehow say “Lord, Thy will be done,” even in the middle of the worst case.

In our Hindu universe, we have one particularly well-loved story which is all about crisis — the Ramayana. A King loses his kingdom and his wife is kidnapped by a bloodthirsty tyrant. This is the King of the universe, Raja Rama, we are talking about. What happens next? Help begins to come from the most unlikely places, a motley collection of forest animals and of course the endearing invincible Lord Hanuman. What a wonderful story to contemplate! Often we might want god to help in one particular way, and ... bang... help comes from an entirely different way.

There are lots of other inspiring stories, such as the life Jnaneshwar Maharaj, the great saint of Maharastra, whose childhood could not have been more cruel and deprived, and yet both he and his siblings were enlightened beings. Similar situation, different time, produced however great fearsome tyrants like Shaka Zulu.

As for faith in times of trouble, One particularly grisly but memorable example is of a guy who lived in Elizabethan England. He was a Catholic priest named Edmund Campion, a brilliant scholar who found himself the wrong side of religious persecution, was imprisoned in the infamous Tower of London, tortured and then executed horrifically. But despite this, even to the end, he kept his faith, and described before he died how even though his thumbs were being crushed by the torturer, a sort of beautiful sweetness came from his heart such that he felt no pain at all, just waves of Divine love. Do we have such faith? For Divinity really is interwoven in every part of our soul.

What would your advice then be?
Again, simple and basic stuff. Fresh air is one helper. Water is the great healer that we all overlook because it is so familiar. But the water deities will always cleanse, calm and sooth the seeker who is attuned to them. Flower remedies and homeopathy also are a great help. Cry those tears, lay yourself at the feet of your Deity. Cry it out at first.

I remember in one really awful moment of my life, sitting in a chair and feeling how difficult it was to even face the next breath. I closed my eyes, and a strange vision popped up, that of a matted hair yogi by a stream, laughing away. The metaphor was clear – this awful crisis had in fact removed a log-jam in my life, and with the benefit of hindsight led to an entirely different way of living. But it did not really seem so at the time.

Perhaps the lack of help will force you to grow up a bit and stand on your own feet. That, too is a vital lesson to learn. A great example from the movies is the character development of the famous heroine Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. In the face of ruin, she changes from a spoilt and manipulative girl to a woman who saves her entire family and estate.

What about tragedy, the death say of dearly loved ones?
This is such a shattering experience, and changes us for ever. There are no easy words, no easy solutions. One of Ramakrishna’s women devotees lost her child and husband and was deranged by grief.. this ultimately turned into great dispassion for the world and she turned her grief to a desperate search for God which led her to the Lord’s feet. There is a real beauty in sadness which is perfectly expressed in some of the Madonnas worshipped in the Catholic Church, for example. Destiny is destiny, and sometimes we all must drink from the cup of sorrow, even Kings and Queens.



And in your own life?
Well the other day as I was contemplating this theme of crisis, I happened to mislay my wallet with all the vital details in, credit cards, driving license, membership cards and so forth. At least I remembered to say "Thy will be done" and have a laugh at Divine Mother's lila. She loves to play! I found it, eventually...

But miracles of help? Have you ever experienced that?
There are miracles great and small happening all the time in all our lives. But one I remember was really odd. This was when I was living a householder life and with my young family was on vacation at the Spanish resort island of Majorca. The rest of the party decided to go on a boat trip to a nearby port. I decided to get to it by land, which involved a hike on the bare hillsides. Now this was in 1989, one of the hottest summers on record and I only learned later that a holidaymaker had died of heat exhaustion the day before doing a similar thing. But my aim was to get to the port before the rest of the family got there. I started climbing the hills and the sun rose in a cloudless sky. After a while, about half way into the journey, I realised I was in serious trouble. The heat radiating from the bare hillside was immense, like a giant grill oven, and there was no shade anywhere, and I had no water. I grew fainter and fainter, hotter and hotter, and things began to mist over for me. At this point, I kid you not, a tiny cloud came racing overhead, just one cloud in the sky, and began to rain water on me! With just that small rain fall, I cooled down. Was this a natural coincidence, or a miracle? As I said, there were no other clouds in the sky!

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

HOUSEHOLDER SADHANA INTERVIEW: "A SUPREME PRACTICE FOR THIS AGE"


The Blogger interviewed on the goals and challenges of pursuing sadhana as a householder in this modern age.

Aren’t those two words “householder” and “sadhana” mutually contradictory?
Absolutely not! Sadhana, spiritual practice, is not just the pursuit of a bunch of people in orange robes who have renounced the world, or vague holy beings without passions or weaknesses. No, it is a vital concern for us all, and as 99pc of the adult population tend to be householders, that’s where the pursuit of God must occur.

There is a sort of belief that a recluse is far superior in every way to a householder in terms of spiritual practice…
This belief is sadly prevalent. Certainly the great Yogis are a class apart, as are all who have attained God-realisation. But equally there are many monks and recluses who are of doubtful holiness. And the idea that if you live in the world you cannot be holy is just plain wrong. When it is done with care, love and grace then householder sadhana is truly a supreme practice for this current age.

So what does it consist of?
You live in the world, you have families, responsibilities, a job, a house, children, whatever, but you also pursue spiritual practice when you can to the extent it is practically possible. The simplest by far is simply dedicating your actions to God, however you perceive the Divine, and remembering that you are a guest on this earth and that your real home is not what you think it is. But ideally you can set up a meditation practice, or do japa, or perform pujas, or any number of pursuits… and the idea is that you experience Love, you spread Love, you build your house on the foundations of Love. This is no simple thing to do.

What are the main obstacles?
This world is a great drama and play, the play of Maya, of Divine Mother, and it is a play in which we all have a part as actors. To truly accept this great truth is a lifetime’s work, because the main challenge of being a householder is that you are in the world, with your ego and its ambitions, with restless plans to conquer the world, and therefore your unquestioned self-belief and sense of self-importance can absolutely stifle any real spiritual progress. Most people in the world, if they are not utterly bowed down by the blows of circumstances, believe they are the great stars of the universe because this is what the ego dictates. So there is a basic humility that needs to be there, a humility and detachment to the movements of life that swirl around you. You need, in short, to be able to climb off the circus train once in a while – and that’s what sadhana, especially meditation, brings.

Life is never peaceful, is it?
One of the first most obvious challenges to householder sadhana is that we live in the age of Quarrel, Kali Yuga. And wherever you go in householder life you are sure to meet quarrels and disputes… rows with your partner, in your job, between your children, with your neighbours, with lawyers, with everyone. Fire can break out from the most unlikely situations, everywhere you go. This is the spirit of the age but it can be exhausting, because if you start getting serious about sadhana, then what normally happens is that you immediately upset someone or someobody, and the next thing you know, you are quarrelling about it. I vividly remember this in my own life when I went off to become a TM meditation teacher in the early 1970s. My parents promptly hired a cult deprogrammer! My first wife left me many years ago because I wanted to meditate more intensely, and so on and so forth. Quarrel. So be aware of that. The way round it is tolerance and forbearance, but you can run into a family firestorm, and be mercilessly teased and criticised. So, that kind of initial move to the Divine is not easy. But it can be done… indeed must be done.

Why?
Because each of us has inside us a kind of distress signal flashing away begging for God’s help and presence, for the presence of the divine. It is innate in all of us, and sometimes it becomes particularly strong. Yogic scriptures talk about great saints leaving home in a “wave of dispassion (vairagya)” and this sense of dispassion, even disgust for the world can arise. I always remember the Iskcon founder Srila Prabhupada making a decisive break with his wife and family after discovering they had sold some of his scriptural books to buy tea. He was not happy! Sometimes you get a chance to see through the world and realise how it is not as compelling as you think it is.

What are the absolutely key practices?
I would say anything that attains to inner silence, which is different from the attainment of peace and calm. This is hard to explain and can only be experienced, and the best way to do this is to meditate. And the best meditation is to concentrate on the spot between the eyebrows, the bhrikuti. This was the method my guru taught and it is recommended in many great texts of Yoga and Bhakti. Japa meditation, that can work, too, but not as effectively. You need a way to bypass the tyranny of the mind altogether.

I would also add the great advice of Christ: love thy neighbours, or pursue loving kindness in all times and places, be compassionate and ethical. The essential truths of Buddhism and Christianity really complement the Hindu perspective because they add the reality that life can be tough, can be suffering on every level. Your devotion to God can prove inadequate to the storms of life… but keep on going.

So courage is needed?
Absolutely, together with clear-headedness, what we can call viveka, discrimination. When you start pursuing sadhana more intently, there is no need to turn into a simpering idiot. Be clear and watchful, observe what goes on, how desires rise and fall, how events pull you this way or that, and as the saying goes “be as wise as serpents and as harmless as a dove.” Sometimes life, your prarabdha karma or destiny will bring the most awful situations right to your front door — death, illness, losses of every kind. It is difficult to perceive things clearly when such crises break, but with the benefit of hindsight you may see that even in the worst situations, a light shines and a way through becomes visible. At one time in my life I was jobless, homeless, even without glasses. At another I was hob-nobbing with millionaires as an oil broker in the financial worlds. The pull of the glittering world of riches can be very strong. But the push of karma can knock every pretension out of you. And that is the time to meditate intensely, precisely when hopes are shattered, life is bleak, times are almost impossible for you. Divine Mother will save you, even when you cannot save yourself.

What are the joys of the householder life?
Family, partner, children, all are wonderful sources of strength and love. There’s a great poem by the American poet Carl Sandberg written in the 1930s I think where he tells how he wondered what happiness was… then one day he saw a party of Hungarian immigrants having a joyful picnic by the side of a river, and he knew. The simple joys of togetherness, the ability to laugh and joke – these are the great gifts of the householder life. Above all, a loving partner and loving children. And if you can carve a meditation life around the events of this kind of life, it can be heaven on earth. As the saying goes, "marriage halves sorrow and doubles joy", and you get an awareness of life as a householder that the monk will always miss. Having children especially can be a supremely spiritual practice, as it is an effective ego dissolver, dealing with a 2 year old's tantrums! 

Are there any examples of successful sadhana householder yogis?
Perhaps the most famous are part historic, part mythic. The greatest in Vedic history must be King Janaka, who I said to have maintained a perfect balance between his royal duties and self-realisation. But there are many other figures from the Mahabarata, and we could also include Lord Rama and Lord Krishna, in one sense, although both are avatars. When you look at modern times, Sri Ramakrishna had many less well known but vital householder disciples, and even in his young recluse monks, it is interesting to read how many had particularly unusually saintly mother or fathers. Basava, another great householder saint. Tukaram Maharaj, another. Then there are all the Vedic Rishis. Which reminds us that householder sadhana was always part of the four stages of life, a chance for a soul to experience the world, resolve karma, and help nurture a young generation.

Is it more difficult to be a householder yogi in the west, or in India?
India certainly has the deeply rooted cultural instincts to understand a person’s turning to God — this has not yet been totally lost and there are many inspiring stories of householders diving very deep. In the West, however, comparative affluence created in the 1960s and 1970s conditions for many to dive deeper to find the truth. In the West, there is greater mobility and freedom, no caste restrictions and such like, and conditions can be ideal in supporting an individual’s sadhana — but it costs money! With money can come the opportunity for pilgrimages, retreats and such like which are all of great help. No one will feed a Yogic recluse who does not work for a living and who otherwise has no funds. The problems are ultimately the same throughout the world, though. This is the problem of “doing” spirituality superficially, what you could call “yoga mat” spirituality where it’s a sort of experience like eating out, going to the gym or visiting the cinema. In other words, the temptation is just to do things idly as an entertainment or distraction.

So how does householder sadhana shift into higher gear. What are your tips?
You will have to be prepared to do something difficult which can run against your instincts. And you may have to be alone to do this, even if not physically. You will have to get up from your normal seat and move somewhere unknown… it may be a spare room, a corner of the house… wherever, and then begin sadhana more intensely. There are many pitfalls and challenges. Don’t fall for money grabbing Gurus. Don’t let your family squash you. Don’t think that you alone can achieve it, but with the Mother’s help all will be achieved, and that’s your only weapon: helpless prostration before god, to help uplift you with Grace, with opportunity. True teachings will come to you. True wisdom will emerge. Patience, delicacy, good humour, but above all – humility. You will get the help you need, which may different from what you want. Start slow, start with gentleness and don’t make a grand sweeping thing out of it, or you will invite ridicule. But help always comes.

There's also another way to do it, which is kind of "back into" sadhana, where you dont scare your mind with rigid routine, just gently lead it to a situation wherte sadhana starts unfolding... like sitting in front of a sacred photo, not with the stern intention of "I'm going to meditate all day or die" but just much more gentle... there you are, just sitting, and then... a little impulse comes "why don't I close my eyes" and "why don't i recite this mantra"... just simple, flexible, but this is how profound change can happen, bit by bit over many years. As a householder, the world will always come crashing in, you will always ultimately get interrupted, disrupted, dragged back to earn a living, or cook, or clean, or pick the kids up, or deal with your own relatives... the list goes on and on. So you have to develop a sort of sattvic flexibility and just bend with the wind. an opportunity will come... it will not last, but that's the game of householder sadhana. Expect disruption, absolutely.

Then there is that old problem about sexuality and spirituality…
The human condition. But what is denied to monks is something that can and should be part of a householder relationship in this age, and there should be no guilt about mutual sexual expression. What is definitely not good for sadhana is if you force yourself on an unwilling partner, or find yourself in impure and addictive behaviour patterns. But getting the physical aspect of a relationship right is a whole sadhana teaching in itself. Don’t be ashamed, but remember that sexuality is about communion and sharing. It can be a very spiritual pursuit if done right.

What if one person wants to devote themselves to spiritual practice and the other doesn’t?

All is the work of destiny, but this can definitely happen. In my early years of teaching meditation I remember a simple working class couple in England, and the wife began to have exalted experiences, almost out of nowhere. She radiated immense Shakti. Her husband, a simple working man, had no idea what was happening and did not like the result, either. I lost touch with them many years ago, so don’t know how the story ended, but I do remember the hurt and upset he felt. People can grow at different rates, and it can undoubtedly be testing. Somehow, grace works it out. But often the apparently “unspiritual” partner may really the one who exhibits the most humility, loving-kindness and so-forth, while the “spiritual” one can get arrogant, holier-than-thou and a pain in the butt to be around. So, things are not always as they might appear. 

Isn’t there a whole other class of seeker who might not be in a relationship, but is still out in the world?

Yes, absolutely, and from my experience I would say that the vast majority of those of us attracted to spiritual groups tend to be single, especially in the west. Many join spiritual groups for reasons of companionship, loneliness, and the subconscious desire to find a mate and that’s the way it is. Few want to renounce the world, but many are also struggling in life in some way, and it always struck me from my days in organisations how very few people in satsangs had jobs, or partners. Groups also act as a magnet for the marginal fringes of society, people with personality disorders and such like, who can end up disrupting the group entirely, especially if they rise to power in the spiritual heirarchy. This is the way of the world, and the advice is don’t leave your common sense along with your shoes when you enter satsang halls and so forth. Be aware of the games people play, consciously and unconsciously. Always remain just that little bit separated from organisational games and psychodramas, or you will get sucked into to something not that great for the soul.

A final question about money and sadhana, in the sense of "paying for enlightenment, or mantras" and so forth..
Sadhana should not cost you money. As householders we are used to commerce, to paying for things, and it seems on the one hand perfectly obvious that we should pay for sadhana like we pay for yoga classes. But the reality, the deep truth is different. You cannot buy your way into enlightenment. I remember one very rich friend telling me the astonishing story of a bunch of people who each paid $1 million to have a private interview with a well-known spiritual teacher, only to find that the so-called interview was not private, and conducted over an intercom! They were understandably enraged. But sadhana is not like that and never has been. Back in the Middle Ages in Europe you had the phenomenon of rich and wicked people paying for monks to pray for them day and night to balance out their misdeeds. No: you do sadhana as a gift, as a love-offering, or as a search for the truth. If you do sadhana to gain siddhis, or become rich and powerful, what a waste of an effort. But what everybody does find is that sadhana begins to change your character in remarkable and beautiful ways. Within everyone is an inner King and inner Queen, not a spoiled brat, and sadhana brings out this nobility in all of us.