Monday, 22 June 2015
There's a recent American movie called American Sniper that has popularised a metaphor which has been used by all sorts of people for all sorts of purposes. In the movie, the hero recalls when young a conversation he had with his dad where the father explained about the problem of bad people and the role of guardianship.
The father said words to this effect: "Son, there are always bad people in the world out to harm the rest of the population. These are the wolves, and ordinary society are the sheep. The wolves will destroy the flock, but one thing stands in the way: the sheepdog. The sheepdog may be rough, but will stand up and be counted and protect the flock at all costs, even at the cost of his life."
This has been duly taken on board especially by military forces, or those with guns, and the "maybe rough" bit as an excuse and justification for the kind of brutality that modern warfare brings in terms of the massacre of the innocents. And, if you are a soldier or policeman, it's a heady thing to think "i am the sheepdog, even if i break a few heads here and there."
But the metaphor is missing something. What do you think it is? What is not expressed? Why is it not a true picture?
Well, of course, if there are sheep, a sheepdog... there is always, too a shepherd. It is the shepherd who really guards the flock. It is the shepherd who saves sheep caught in impenetrable tangles, or stuck while giving birth, or hurt in a ravine, not the sheepdog. It is the shepherd who really scares the wolves away. The sheepdog obey the shepherd.
Often in the line of spiritual teaching the question comes up time and time again: why are there bad people in the world? Why are there fraudulent scamsters, greedy Gurus, cheaters and swindlers of all kinds who hurt and terrorise others, sucking the life blood from whole groups and societies? Well, in this Kali Yuga, that's simply the way it is. In our age, evil flourishes given half a chance, and the bad seem to prosper at the expense of the good. The wolves exist, and they are real enough.
But luckily in spiritual life, we have not just sheepdogs - spiritual teachers - but shepherds - the inspiring example of the great Yogis, avatars and spiritual geniuses. In the Lord's promise found in the Bhagavad Gita, he promises to take form time and time again wherever unrighteousness appears to be dominant.
We may be all expecting some gigantic godly form to appear and set the world to rights - a very tempting Messianic prospect. But in truth, this reappearance of dharma, or righteousness, comes from a thousand different portals in a thousand different ways on any given age in history.
Consider, for example, the extraordinary appearance of a number of key spiritual figures last century just when things were at their darkest and nuclear extinction threatened: Great Gurus like Vivekananda, Shivabalayogi, Anandamayi Ma, Sivananda, Nityananda, Neem Karoli Baba, Meher Baba, Yogananda and a strong Pope - John Paul II. All expressed dharma, righteousness. All were enormous forces for goodness and righteousness, all expressing the same effusion of energy. All were shepherds.And they did not abandon their flocks.
The analogy of sheepdog, sheep, wolves, is also incomplete in other ways: There are not just sheep, but goats and all kind of creatures that make up "normal" and need to be safeguarded. There are ferocious wolves, certainly... but also a whole variety of deadly critters out to harm the sangha, the community: snakes, jackals, foxes. Jackals in particular - smiling people out to trick all and sundry - are particularly attracted to spiritual groups. There are monsters so terrifying you would never want the flock to know about them, we could call them huge stinging insects, merciless and pitiless.
Equally, there are all sorts of sheepdogs: the ones who tend to keep the flock in line by terror; those who live comfortable with the flock and rule gently; then sheepdogs we could call lions and lionesses - equipped to do some gigantic, awesome service such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela - all four of whom met their earthly challenges in their own way with enormous bravery and courage, safeguarding entire populations and races.
Think of what spiritual shepherds do. Perhaps the most famous, because he used the analogy so often and subsequently passed it on to his disciples - Jesus Christ. There are many wonderful sayings about the shepherd and the sheep that he spoke. One of my favourites is "the sheep know their shepherd" - a saying I've often thought about in connection with the whole topic of "Who is my Guru" which so many ask. This is a deep spiritual truth. When your Sat Guru comes to you, it is unmistakeable. The sheep instinctively know their shepherd. This sense is not something you can imagine or make up.
You may certainly decide "I like the look of this fellow, I will follow him as my teacher" and have a satisfying time learning the spiritual basics. But when the Sat Guru appears, you will know it. You will instantly feel a bond - a little bit like falling in love, a little bit like a flash of recognition beyond the ordinary mind. This is not a matter of imagination, of conforming to what everyone else is doing. And, to be brutally honest, it is also a matter of prarabdha karma, of your destiny. You may never find that Sat Guru this time around, it may not be on the cards.
This is why the scriptures stress that finding a Guru is a matter of supreme good fortune. The sheep is safe, when the shepherd appears.
How do you know whether you are a sheep or a shepherd?
You know. Life circumstances put you in a position where you will be safeguarding others, teaching others. But the main qualification is that you absolutely must practise what you preach. A false sheepdog is even worse than a wolf. As the great Dasbodh puts it, "One must first develop the best qualities in oneself first and then speak about those qualities to many people. One who speaks first without practicing speaks falsely." Without living a dharmic life, spouting wise words about dharma is going to have no lasting effect on anyone. So: put in the spiritual work, God will use you, believe me.
All I seem to see around are the wolves. Why are they so strong?
The way the drama of this life is set up, there are the baddies and yet in the end, righteousness, dharma is victorious every time. This earth plane is a particular testing ground in the universe, it is a teaching school where each soul faces very tough challenges - but never more than they can endure. In this way, our inner strength and virtue grows enormously. Thus, it is said even the Devas are jealous of an earthly incarnation because it allows for this extraordinary spiritual growth. You can go from murderer to saint in one lifetime - this is what sadhana gives us. As for the wolves, they do get their come-uppance and often in surprising ways.
Lets say we have no Guru, no money, no prospects, no good reputation, no respect... how is life supportable?
Well, the sheep tend to complain very loudly and very often when distressed. That is what a sheep does, it makes a tremendous noise, normally in the company of others. The sheep's view is always that everything is either OK, food is plentiful, or that everything is disaster, doom and gloom. There are many ways to change this tiresome insistence that misery is everywhere all the time, that evil triumphs, that nothing will ever get better anytime.
The simplest solution? Faith in God. This faith when you have it tides you through every horrible challenge. Perhaps it is what you came down in this incarnation to learn? Perhaps you, too, were a wolf once and cheated and hurt others, and now you are paying that back. Faith in God.
Is there anything beyond the shepherd?
Yes, a great question. Absolutely. That is the secret: there is the real owner of the flock - after all the shepherd always works for someone. That is God, the Divine. We are all owned by God. Now, are we prepared to do God service?
There is a famous 13th century English lady recluse called Dame Julian of Norwich, who had a near-death experience and vision of her Beloved deity. And God told her many things, including the fact that at the end of the life of a faithful servant of God, he would personally say to them "Thank you for your loyal service". Wouldn't these be words you would like to hear on your deathbed?
Real service is a delicate thing involving enormous self-effort, a magnificent revolutionary secret adventure. Sadly, all too many young people these days appear to have absolutely no sense of it whatsoever. We are witnessing a slowly unfolding generational tragedy of youth that is addicted to electronic media, self-gratification, not even knowing the basic language of spirituality. The flock in lots of ways is showing signs of toxic poisoning from dangerous waters that should not have been drunk.
Thursday, 18 June 2015
Same place, almost the same time of the year - for a second year in a row it was off to Devon, UK, this month to a solo meditation hut in a patch of pristine forest. The hut, or Kuti (Kutir in Vedic terminology) belongs to a Buddhist retreat centre in the southwest of England's beautiful rolling countryside by the river Dart, which leases the hut out for those committed to solitary practice.
The hut itself, a masterpiece of simple design and construction (plastered straw bales for the walls, and an earth roof filled with wildflowers), was pretty much as last seen it in the previous year (see blog post June 2014), the inside you can see ... the cosy meditation area. Here are some more pictures of the general design and shape and surroundings - note the strange construction of hooped branches that someone had made:
This year the aim was the focus mostly on meditation rather than mostly japa, which involved a daily schedule of about 5 hours meditation and 3 hours japa, 2 hours of seva, a walk, meals (not just one this year), swadhyaya (mostly the Sri Lalita Trishati) and a whole new activity - banging the kirtala (cymbals) enthusiastically while sitting out on the verandah, serenading the forest with tuneless renditions of various chants.
By about day 3, matters had finally cleared up to see how fatigued the body and mind had become over the year, with responsibilities, the need to still earn a living in a noisy polluted city while living a radical spiritual life, and so much foreign travel - the vital elements, the doshas of prakriti, were out of kiltre a little and needed rebalancing.
Usually I have little fear about staying the night in a forest in a hut miles from anywhere - but that first night, there was a surprising sense of fear, even terror. An alarming wake up that first night from a nightmare in which some dark shape was trying to get in through the hut door, while I roared the Nrsimha mantra "Kshraaaaaum" loudly to keep the presence out. Quite a dream! After the first night, fear provided no trouble at all.
Luckily, sitting in a hut, standing in the sunshine in the stillness of a forest, having a forest shower (a bucket of cold water from the nearby farm tap), matching activity to the steady moving hours of the day, all this helps calm the most agitated doshas down, restore and reboot the system. With a rebooted system, meditation then can become clearer and stiller at every session. And so it proved.
This year the decision was after a day to forego the lunchtime tiffin box journey up to the main retreat centre, cutting off all human activity. This fool had no inclination to see anyone. Silence was the urgent necessity. The place is free of car noises or planes, or industrial sounds - so when a tractor appeared at the edge of the forest one late afternoon, the noise became so jarring, this became a meditation in itself - how mechanical human sounds miss one obvious thing compared with most natural noises: they have no pause!
That's the retreatant on the verandah, probably trying to keep warm and blessing the decision to bring warm clothes.
The wood burning fire became a major practice, always a pleasure to use and because England has had its coldest June for at least 40 years, absolutely necessary. This year the fire got a puja as well, always delightful to see the growth of flames from a pile of twigs to big logs. the smell of woodsmoke is a favourite smell, now redolent with memories of retreats and sadhana times.
Another practice kept up - the practice of metta, loving kindness. And this led to a very touching incident. The English woods are alive with the sounds and presence of the elusive pheasant, which is bred as a game bird. This beautiful bird is relentlessly shot at, hunted, tracked down, killed wherever it goes, wherever it tries to flourish. The metta was a meditation on such a cruel destiny for such wonderful creatures, and ... you couldn't make this up... after finishing metta for the pheasant, guess what appeared out of nowhere? A pheasant! I was moved to tears! The picture below shows the pheasant, just on the ground below the veranda. Other wild birds appeared in profusion, including a magnificent hawk, that hovered exactly in the line of sight after emerging from meditation. What a noble, fierce creature the hawk is!
As for the meditations.....
There are many things that you have to master before you can sit for very sustained practice, things than can take many years as well. This is why Hatha Yoga postures were revealed in the first place - to enable the seeker to sit for very long periods of time on the asana. So: learning to sit basically on the floor with a mat and a cushion, rather than sprawled on an easy chair etc, this is ultimately vital. The way you sit in meditation has the most tremendous impact on physical health. The postures of half lotus, siddhasana, full lotus etc, these really do confer a very subtle major benefit that is not simply PR rubbish said by yoga schools: these postures have lasted for a reason: they are by far the most beneficial for extended meditation, chanting, japa etc.
One of the very few interactions I had with anyone (at the end of the retreat) was a volunteer who worked at the retreat centre who said he couldn't imagine doing a solitary retreat "because of all that mental chatter". This is a common fear - that the time will be basically an agony of endless mental gymnastics, fears, anxieties, lusts and worries, as you wander from one mental forest of imaginings to another.
The method of meditation that my Guru so strongly promoted - concentrating on the space between the eyebrows persistently, gently, inexorably, and non-physically - is the way to cut out the thoughts, because this particular spot is a meeting point, a sort of terminus, for the subtle body's channels. It is the place to park the mind, as long as the practice is not achieved by strain and physical effort (which is the incorrect way to do it). Once you get into the groove, then firstly thoughts settle down, then the inner emptiness/spaciousness is revealed, and then you are away. Or home. And you can meditate for hours... or sometimes you think it has been hours when it has been only minutes and vice versa. The breath slows, the breath finds samana, even-ness. The breath stops.
These kind of conditions create all sorts of activation of subtle senses, and a level of perception that is deeply true and not connected in any way with imagination or make believe. When experiences come - blinding astonishing inner light; journeys over foggy valleys barely glimpsed and beautiful landscapes, the inner noises... all this unfolds when silence is attained and the mental chatter ceases. But you need the right enabling conditions, and this why Yogis go off to remote caves and huts - to cut to a bare minimum the distractions and noise that the world produces.
Perhaps the strangest and a secret experience, and its still with me as I write this, was the eruption out of nowhere of what feels like this giant blissful hole in the throat, a huge spaciousness, from which is constantly pouring mantras, especially the mantra Gaum. This is an esoteric Shakti mantra that is more associated with the heart - but here it seems resonating strongly in the vishuddhi throat chakra. Why this mantra, how long it will remain, I do not know. But there it is, currently bubbling up like a spring from the throat.
View from the bed (above). The stove pipe is visible on the right...
And the executive cooking facilities:
The days after the retreat were pretty odd.
On the 5 hour drive back to London (that car seat sure felt comfortable after the floor!) I stopped once at a motorway service station and bought a sandwich. Bad decision...
One night later, I had the worst attack of food poisoning I've ever faced - as if struck by cholera. It was so bad, liquids pouring from both ends, that death seemed near! Japa went on... the disease reappeared for a second even more terrible bout. The body still feels very ill indeed, but sadhana goes on relatively undisturbed apart from the endless trips to the toilet or the vomit bucket.
The illness was part of the retreat, a cleansing that had to happen and although this may sound strange, the conclusion came while at home very sick watching a documentary on Ahobilam, the home of numerous Narasimha temples. One of the murtis shows the Lord in his most ugra or fierce form, ripping out the bowels and intestines of the hapless dictator Hiranyakashipu. "Aha!" I thought: "That's what's happening to me... my intestines are being ripped apart!" Well, it's a theory. But illness also is what it is... and so the retreat ended with me giving a great impression of having the strength of a wet dish rag. This human life has its twists and turns...
Spare a thought for pheasants and indeed all animals relentlessly pursued by humanity.