Wednesday, 9 July 2014


Every year, when the moon is at its fullest point in the Vedic month of Ashada - the fourth month of the Vedic lunar annual calendar -  normally in July in the western calendar, millions of devotees turn to thoughts of their Guru, or worship of THE Guru, the ultimate teaching principle in the universe. 

The day falls this year (2014) on Saturday 12th July. And on this day devotees offer pujas, worship and other observances to say thank you to all the help received and all the protection offered by Gurus. It is also the day of the birth of one of the greatest Gurus of all, Veda Vyasa, who tradition tells us gave order to the Vedas so that they could studied by humanity, among many other extraordinary achievements.

A day to show gratitude

This is definitely a day to think carefully about what you have received from the universe, rather than complain about the problems you face. It is a day of gratitude both thought and expressed, a day of weaving a garland of prayers of love in the heart. You don't have to shower Gurus with cash, donate rolls royces or costly diamonds. That is not the point of this day. No, the idea is to celebrate one of the truly extraordinary connections that transform mundane existence.

There are many billions of people on this planet who either do not know or do not care about the way to enlightenment or self-realisation. It is simply not a concern. Life, if it is thought of at all, is merely an often grim struggle to get the basic necessities, look after the family, and grab as much as you can before the final curtain falls, and the universe is a hostile place out to get us and harm us unless we somehow take control and defeat everyone else. This is one of the characteristics of the Kali Yuga age in which we live, where the way of dharma is lost to all but a few, and where society is dedicated to pleasure and comfort above all other considerations. 

The uplifting grace

But there are moments in life when a light unexpectedly shines in the darkness, when our habitual thoughts and fears and obsessions momentarily give way to something brighter; when a word, a phrase, a dream, a vision, reminds us that life has a remarkable habit of upliftment. The great sages of Vedic India indeed tell us that God has many powers, but one of the most remarkable often gets overlooked - Anugraha, the power of grace, or the merciful teaching to bring a seeker back to Godhead.

This Anugraha is embodied in the Sat-Guru, the dispeller of darkness, the fully-realised saint who lives in the full awareness of the omnipresence of the silent ground of the universe, Brahman. Now such sages are rare at the best of times, and even more so in Kali Yuga - and are not easy to spot. Although Indian culture reveres each and every guru, not so many are the truly liberated avadhuts or liberated Yogis, like Sri Sri Sri Shivabalayogi, Bhagawan Nityananda, Neem Karoli Baba or Anandamayi Ma. 

Nevertheless, the teaching principle of the universe, that part of God which uplifts us through no virtue of our own, can and does manifest in any time, any place, and through anything. Many people get hung up on the Guru question, about looking for that one perfect Guru who can read our every thought and appear in a puff of smoke, a sort of glorified magician figure. And they get peeved if such a figure fails to appear. But this grace is falling like rain around sincere spiritual aspirants in every second of every day.  We just don't tend to notice it or value it.

Dattatreya's gurus

There is a remarkable passage in the Srimad Bhagavatam in which an avadhut (or Lord Dattatreya in this case)  details what he says were the 24 Gurus who taught him the way to Self-realisation, and the teaching is profound. He lists many entirely natural objects:  The earth; air; water; fire; the Moon; the Sun; the pigeon; the python; the ocean; the moth; the bumblebee; the elephant; the honey collector; the deer; the fish; a prostitute (esoteric meaning); the hawk; the baby; the young unmarried girl; the arrow-maker; the snake; the spider and the wasp. He explains just why in a brilliantly simple few verses which you should read for yourself.

In our own lives we, too, may get our greatest moments of graceful upliftment not from people we think are gurus, but from life itself. The first smile of your children contains as much a teaching about life as you will ever need. There again, the most difficult and testing events, such as illness or deaths of loved ones, are also containing truly profound truths which we can utilise if we have the strength to pierce through the cloud of illusions.

Great teachers

My own list of great teachers in my life do not just include the great gurus I met or who met me, but a host of unlikely catalysts for self-discovery : a humiliating divorce; love affairs in my youth; the wise dogs I grew up with; forests; unpleasant people; death; serious operations; my mother's senile dementia when it manifested; worldly success and worldly failure; my daughters - especially their teenage incarnations! Every once in a while we seem to meet some difficult knot in life that, once the worst is past, shows how a true understanding of it reveals some profound force at work, a voice telling us to wake up to who we really are.

And this voice need not be harsh. Not every wake-up call is unpleasant! I've travelled round the world and its sheer variety and beauty is also a great teaching lesson. Life is so endlessly inventive, so replete with a special thrill, a joy which young children so easily and naturally express. The sheer joy of being alive is a wonderful teaching, too. And I will never forget the beauty, when young and dressed like a hippie, of being treated with consideration in a shop full of people staring at me with hostility and suspicion. Simple acts of kindness are also profound teachings.

A great thing to do on Guru Purnima is take stock of how far you have come, of who has helped you, of the unexpected aid you may have received. This is the real thing to celebrate. You are alive, you have been helped time and time again. So, if nothing else, be thankful for the hidden hand, that support that has enable you to live another day. And realise that when you embark on spiritual practice, that help becomes a living constant presence in your life, bit by bit, day by day...

2014 celebrations:

Above: The Guru's paduka after bathing 
Below: Various food offerings for the Guru and for Serious Sadhana Course members

Below 1: view towards the Tantric altar
Below 2: The main altar including Mata Hasiddhi Ma, and Lord Hrishikesha Keshava 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014


Once in a while we all need a break, but what happens when you deliberately aim to cut off from the world and dedicate yourself to very intense spiritual practice, or serious sadhana? 

Usually our choices of where do such a retreat are pretty limited, because it is extremely hard to actually find the right conditions, unless you happen to be a wandering sadhu sleeping in the wilds in India.  What are the right conditions? Well, freedom from disturbance and noise is one key element. Freedom from the usual demands and responsibilities of life is another. Basic amenities like food, shelter, warmth and washing facilities are also crucial. All this might seem simple to organise — for example a retreat in your own home. But how long before the phone rings, before the noise of cars and people intrude? Before you eat just that little bit too much, or turn on the TV, and before you know it your good intentions have got nowhere and you are slumped on your bed, snoring away?

Now I've spent many years trying to find the perfect spot for a solitary retreat. Ashrams, monasteries, and religious institutions really don't do it: most ashrams these days take an almost gleeful delight in forcing visitors to work and do voluntary seva, so you can find your retreat consists of washing, scrubbing, cleaning for hours at a time in the company of other grumpy people, fearful of infracting various rules and regulations. The sheer mass of humans in ashrams can also be offputting: meditation halls full of coughing, snorting and exhibitionist people; petty tyrants ordering you around; so on and so forth... I had my fill of that kind of life some years back and decided if I did a proper retreat, it would be in somewhere beautiful, somewhere solitary, somewhere safe and somewhere not polluted by the incessant noise of our modern civilisation. That took most of India out of consideration! (joke... or maybe not). 

The perfect spot

By extraordinary good fortune, I found such a place in the southwest of England, in a beautiful county called Devon, near a town called Totnes. There is a place called the Barn Retreat, run by Buddhists, which offer for a reasonable fee what the Buddhists call a "kuti", or Hindus a "kutir". Same word, meaning meditation hut.

This hut was set in its own little forest, and some way away from the main Barn, where in fact a course was being held. The deal was that I would not be disturbed at all, and could collect every lunch my one meal a day in a tiffin box, left outside for me to pick up. I could also use the shower facilities in the barn at a time when everyone else was busy. 

The kuti itself was a masterpiece of simple, elegant construction, built on a slope in the forest, and meticulously clean and orderly. It was built with a wooden frame, with straw bales for walls then covered with white plaster cement. This made it beautifully snug and warm. The picture above is of the meditation area, and the pictures below give you a better idea of what it looked like inside:

As for the location, the forest was like a temperate jungle, bursting with vitality and wildlife, set in a valley near a river, the river Dart.

The practice

I decided to give as much dedication to the moment in time as I could, which involved a very detailed schedule. This might sound a bit daunting, but it gives you an idea of the daily routine that was quickly established - all entirely voluntary.

5am                              Wake up
5-6                               Sandhya Vandanam (prayers/Gayatri mantra)
6-7                               Meditation
7-8.30                          Japa recitation
8.30-9.30                     Coffee and clean up
9.30-11                        Japa recitation
11-1                             Outside work, Seva, chopping wood etc
1-2                               Meal
2-3.30                          Japa recitation
3.30-5                          Meditation
5-6                               Shower, reading
6-7.30                          Japa meditation
7.30-9                          Meditation
9-9.30                          Metta (loving kindness meditation)
9.30                             Lights out

Serious stuff as you can see! As I'm in the middle of a long vow to perform japa of my mantra 1.6 million times in a Japa puruscharana, the retreat gave the perfect opportunity of just me and the mantra. But don't necessarily try such a punishing schedule if you have not ever done it before. If you are unused to meditation etc and do all that, your head will explode... or to be more accurate your samskaras, unconscious mostly negative karmic tendencies will boil up and you will feel pretty lousy pretty quickly. You will experience great fluctuations and vrittis, strong bursts of raw emotions and passions. And this is why for most people the simple option for retreat is to do it in the safety of an ashram with a teacher there. But, heck, I'm 60 and have been meditating since the beginning of time, it seems. I've earned solitary confinement!

The experiences

The retreat brought such overwhelming experiences, most of which are too difficult to communicate. But the Buddhist setting of thew area definitely helped focus the mind, and bring an attitude of dispassion and indifference to all the mental states that come up, as the mind settles down and withdraws into the infinite. 

Visions come with such a schedule. The Divine inside you is awakened and will manifest in many kundalini symptoms. For me, being a shakta, a worshipper of Divine Mother, and practicing Her mantra so continually, the retreat soon became all about Her presence, Her presence both in the outside environment and inside me, leading to incredible sustained experiences of ecstacy, and the most awe inspiring manifestation of Her as the awakened Sri Mata Kundalini. 

Precious, unrepeatable spiritual wonders! The picture below I took after one fierce day when everything seemed bursting with the fire of Divine Shakti, my eyes felt they could pierce through walls with laser energy (and I look pretty crazy come to think of it!)

But on a retreat, you have to be searingly one-pointed and completely honest, and not take visions for anything other than mind-stuff. The real prize is the living of the all-encompassing Silence, the Absolute, the ground of everything, Brahman. Then when this is recovered (for it is an experience we all have, we just do not know how to recognise it) everything is resolved, everything perfectly clear and plain, and the union of Shiva and Shakti is revealed. You live in silence, breath it, move in it, and in silence observe the wonderful play of the Divine through you and for you.

By the end of the retreat - which was relatively short at 8 days - the rain came down. I remember writing in the journal, "All I desire now is to hear thunder", and I kid you not... the sky blacked over and just ONE clap of thunder happened it seemed almost directly overhead! Such is the Mother;'s limitless grace, such is Her wonderful, magnificent playfulness. Such is Her glory! That thunder clap broke the walls of a dam, and love just poured out after that.

The view

One thing I decided not to do was take long walks, which is what most previous occupants of the Kuti seem to have done, mainly because there was little time in my own schedule, and I thought it would shift the focus from sadhana to vacation, which I wanted to avoid at all costs. But it was certainly an object in dedication not to go tramping over meadows in the sunshine and get some serious sunshine! On the very final day, however, I did decide to go down the fields to the river (I'm a sucker for rivers of all kinds) and there sit and ponder the mysteries of life.

Of course it all ended in a slapstick farce. To get to the fields you had to scramble over wire fences and negotiate a steep clay slope, and these days I'm very arthritic and not the young man I once was. I duly managed the scramble bit, started walking to the river, when i heard this mighty sound of what i thought was a concealed stream. It wasn't. It was the start of a 5 hour deluge, a torrential almost monsoon-like summer storm! Reluctantly I had to make the decision to turn back.

Now, going down a steep slippery slope is one thing, but climbing back up a now rain drenched slippery slope is a whole other thing, and predictably disaster struck. I got up nearly to the top when i lost a handhold in the treacherous soul, and wham, slid precipitously all the way back down, cutting my stomach and knee pretty badly in the process and covering myself with wet earth.

I tried again, somehow managed it, and limped back to the kuti, roaring with laughter. The playful Mother had reminded me in her own way of my previous resolution! I never did get to see the river...


Of course, karma is karma and I have bills to pay and a mortgage to keep up. So all good things come to an end. And the end of the retreat was itself a meditation on death, on decay, on ending. One big fault of mine is untidiness and leaving loose endings, but this time the retreat was ended right with proper ceremony, and the place kept scrupulously clean at all times. What a blessing, what sweetness to be free of any intrusion, to watch the wild animals at play, to watch the mysteries of death and birth all around, to forget about cars, engines, electricity, noise, responsibilities. By the very final day, I could hear celestial voices in the torrential rain. Were the voices causing the rain or the other way round? It seemed to me they were. The mind had settled down to such an extent, it was attuned to finer and finer states of the senses, like gazing into the depths of a lake, only possible if the waters are still.

The final drive back to London, 5 hours of travel, I did still repeating the mantra and without a single break, through storm after storm and truly magnificent cloud displays (including by-passing the famous Glastonbury music festival). Another miracle to this soul - just as I got nearly back, a fantastic cloud formation took the shape, just for a few seconds, of a leaping tiger and a figure seated on it. The final blessing of an extraordinary retreat!

The picture above shows how the sun shone in a perfect arc of light at 5am as I said the Sandhya Vandanam and the prayers to Lord Surya, the sun god.

And in case you were wondering the severely practical details... the kuti had its own private wood composting toilet with a great view!

After effects

So, the retreat was over and done with. Luckily I had a weekend to re-orientate myself before heading back into work. That next day I was so filled with this pure, wonderful energy I think I could have climbed mount Everest! This is always one of the great benefits of a serious retreat - you come back slightly wild-eyed, but immensely clean inside and immensely clear. This fades of course, it always will. But the great bits remain. For me the Japa puruscharana has been immeasurably strengthened, the mantra has a life of its own which is like stepping up to a whole other level of joyful union. I bless the time. And like all of us, move on carried by the great river of Time and life.

And more...

More time has slipped by since the retreat, it has slipped round the bend in the great river of time, and other events have unfolded. The physical scars from the disastrous slip down the slope have healed rapidly.

Somewhere in my heart is locked up that precious sense of having been one-pointed with an undeviating purpose, not looking for any outcome, happy with the coming and going of life, but always tuned to the presence of the primordial Shakti.

It has not been my destiny to be able to spend years in such solitude, only various times and junctures in my life. And perhaps when younger I needed the structures of ashrams, always fearful of going too far on my own. But the most wonderful thing about such experiences is that the mind actually does want to naturally settle down! It wants to find its natural roost, it is the natural tendency of the mind to do so. And once this does happen, that's when a retreat becomes not an endurance test but a celestial slice of life as it should be lived.

If I could sum up the main theme of the retreat, I'd actually put it in both Buddhist and Hindu terms. The Buddhists would say "not clinging," the Vedantists, Vairagya,  "non-attachment." However you couch it, though, what you really doing in such a sacred time is experiencing/letting go, experiencing/letting go, breathing in, breathing out, experiencing/letting go... and so it goes. If I ruled the world (and thats a scary proposition), I'd make such retreats compulsory for all...but I also remember the conversation I had with a work colleague before I left who said "My friend went on a retreat... yes. He was getting over a girlfriend. He took a large supply of whisky and tissues..." Maybe in this case, you need to be clear before you start about what you will or will not do!