Thursday, 24 September 2015

ONLINE LECTURE SERIES 13: HAPPINESS AND HOW TO KEEP IT



The other day I woke up from a dream so sweet and funny that I had a smile on my face. The happiness then continued and intensified and manifested as something increasingly felt in this idiot's life - a sort of wonderful electric feeling of bliss lying underneath everything. It's a sort of mild intoxication and intensifies every time I do some aspect of sadhana. It comes and it goes. But this underlying bliss is so alive, so simple, so all-encompassing that sometimes I think "Enough, already!" In fact it's so strange that even when some moment of depression or anger appears, underneath that is this sense of bliss, which is kind of... unexpected.

When this subtle bliss appears, it not a result of anything. It is not achievement based, or process-based. It is just there, our birthright as human beings. It is as different as the fleeting bursts of joy we feel as humans as anything could be, yet also bears some similarities. Both are felt in the body/mind. But this bliss is also at the very outer or inner edge of individual consciousness. It is in fact the apprehension of one of the koshas or sheaths of which our soul/body is made up, the ananda-kosha

All this experience has started me looking again at the basic problem of happiness that bedevils us human beings. we all want to be happy, right? Our egos and minds are set up to create subtle layers of  capturing happiness, spurring us on to do this, that or the other just so we can get as much happiness as we possibly can out of any given set of circumstances.

Worldly happiness

So lets ask ourselves that very simple question. Or maybe two questions: what is happiness, and what makes me happy?

The dictionary definition is not too helpful, running to "the feeling, showing, or causing pleasure and satisfaction". 

There are many broad cultural agreements about what reliably makes humans happy. Probably top of the list is not getting drunk, or drugged, or enjoying the high from exercise endorphins, but a far more simple source: family, especially young children. 

All this implies that you do something, that happiness is a result, not a condition that needs no result. You eat a great meal, you are happy. You make love to your gorgeous partner. You are happy. You get that job at long last - again, happiness. Someone praises you in public... you pass the exam... your child says something sweet... a situation makes you laugh. You look handsome, or pretty, and heads turn... Happiness, seen this way is a little like a farmer smoking his pipe at the end of a rich harvest, looking out at his fertile land. 

But there is a downside to it all: happiness does not last! Anyone with young kids knows that this sweet angel with the funny words will then go and repeat them ad nauseam and throw a tantrum on the side. Even the greatest summit of earthly happiness (coyly described in some spiritual texts as "mutual pleasure in love making") is just that: a summit. And after that, it's downhill from there.

Worldly happiness therefore contains its own seeds of destruction. Nothing lasts, nothing at all. Happiness eventually crumbles. Then comes the shadow side: the search to repeat the happiness, to intensify it to the max, to build a sort of fortress where nothing untoward can penetrate, where you are safe from that dreaded moment when happiness vanishes.

This is the sorrow of earthly life. Happiness from things, from doing something or other, from the outside, it is all temporary. It will not last. Humans can become ugly and ruthless to make sure happiness stays as long as it can. One of the most extreme ways is, for example, heroin addiction which creates such a blanket of comfort that it is almost impossible to pull out of the dive. Addictions of every kind arise from a desperate search to keep as happy as possible for as long as possible.

Religions also have sprung up in whole industries telling us "well, if you missed out on earth, this paradise awaits you" which has got so twisted these days that everyone who dies in the west seems now to be called "an angel" or is living "in heaven". Why? Because they died! Were they these angelic figures when alive?  

Now most people in the world spend an entire life caught up chasing their own tails, scurry around like squirrels to build up their stores of happiness, giving great cries of lamentation when someone steals their stores of nuts, fighting, chittering, preening as they keep on that search. Old age comes, and suddenly the greatest happiness resolves into one thing: life itself. This is clung onto with a desperate ferocity.

The Spiritual version of happiness

If this is all that life is about, it's a very sorry and shabby thing. We are born, we scurry around, and then we die and everyone starts calling us an angel. Then we get born again, and the process repeats itself. This in Vedic terms is the magic power of Maya, the primary illusion of the Mother that has us blindly play our parts in a gigantic cosmic drama, led by the nose by basic urges and absolutely unremarkable in any way.

But, you know, not everyone is convinced! Through the ages, time and time again in every generation - including yours - people have woken up and thought "This cannot be all there is."

Perhaps one of the most famous figures is Lord Buddha himself, born into a life pretty much fine-tuned to keep him as happy as possible: the son of a king, in a beautiful palace, given everything he could possibly want. And yet when life began to seep in through the edges - and it always does - he was alert enough to recognise that the perfect world would always break down. And off he went to seek another way. 

Even if all you are after is happiness, then that can be a sufficient spur to action. Because what you really want is happiness 24/7. It may take you many years to realise how impossible this is to achieve by the normal routes of life. But the Vedic tradition, along with Buddhism, Jains, the Sikhs, brings us a startling discovery: there is a way out the maze. There is an entirely deeper happiness available to us, which is simply hidden from view. All we have to do is find the route to living at this deep level. There are so many ways to it, so many different versions of the royal road to bliss, and they are there to suit different temperaments, cultures, ages. But in essence, these great traditions tell us:"Look Brother, look Sister, there is a way to ensure that happiness and bliss can flood your life."

The spiritual version of happiness is expressed in the famous phrase "Sat-Chid-Ananda", most often applied to the form or presence of great deities. But this is goal of Self-Realisation. Sat, eternal, Chid, consciousness, Ananda, bliss. This bliss is ever new, ever fresh, static yet moved by strange inner tides and winds.  It is all pervasive. It is complete in itself, it is eternally resolved, eternally satisfied, eternally true - and eternally the birthright of us humans.

Ok, no one ever suggests it is easy to get to this state and live in it permanently. There again that whole worldly process of "doing", "achieving" does not apply either. You cannot force yourself into it. Only the purified soul has enough translucency, enough inner cleanliness,  to feel this dazzling presence of eternal, true, bliss consciousness. When it is apprehended, even fleetingly - and it will not last in the beginning - then   suddenly the shabby versions of fleeting happiness offered by the world lose their appeal. 

And what is the way to get there? Why, sadhana of course. now that might seem to be "doing" but it's not really, it's more "undoing". If you do sadhana, you will instantly grasp the point. You are undoing an entirely false set of notions, one by one. This is cleansing the inner windows of perception, wipe by wipe. Sadhana if followed with persistence will bring you to the threshold of mighty inner re-discoveries. 

Questions

The thought of how much work might be involved just to get to this level of unchanging happiness is really daunting. Sometimes it feels like struggling against impossible odds.
Yes, I agree. It's a giant undertaking seem from one perspective. It is doing nothing at all, from another. But there are many simple ways to help this process along. Meditation and japa might seem dull and silly, but they are brilliant inner cleansers. 

But is this for everyone?
In this age, not at all. It maybe our birthright, but very very few people will ever have the opportunity or courage to search for permanent happiness. and even if they do, they will be walking the opposite way to a vast, hurrying crowd. So, only a few. 

I'm happy enough, I guess, knowing things come and go. Like, you know, a meal that I enjoy, but I wouldn't want to sit at the table forever.
Knowing that things are impermanent doesn't have to mean misery . The art of living well includes this ability to enjoy, and then let things go as they need to be let go. So indeed the dinner is great, but you know it has come to an end, and that's as it is. The damaging attitude, in terms of sadhana, is to say "Well, its nothing I can do, what a horrid world.." and kind of obsess about missed chances, bad luck, grievances. It is amazing how many people in India, for example, seem absolutely obsessed by anger about injuries done to them by unscrupulous people. Let it go. Drop it. Move on.

I'm a great believer in human misery...
It shows (laughter).

... and what I mean is that, well the Buddha says life is suffering. Try as we might we cannot escape it.
Well, that's not the whole of what Lord Buddha taught. Time and time again, he pointed to suffering, and pointed to a way out. Sitting in a prison saying "Well, its dark, miserable, lots of rats, no food, but hey that's the way it goes" is to me living a coward's life. There is a way out of this prison.

Are you then saying that all worldly forms of happiness are to be shunned like the plague? that seems a very joyless sort of life!
Not at all. it is just appreciating worldly happiness from a deeper inner level. in this, the Gunas come into play. There are many sattvic forms of happiness that keep life joyful - happiness that is full of light, such as good and wise companionship, giving to others, doing tasks meticulously and skillfully, playing music, loving someone with respect and honour. Lovely ways where goodness, kindness and tolerance come into play. And there are many wonderful, unlikely combinations that produce happiness. Some people have a calling to, say, serving the elderly; or cooking wonderful feasts, or simply dancing for the fun of it. The skillful mastery of a task can be a real source of joy. I always love the seemingly odd combination of some of the strictest monastic orders in Europe producing with great skill strong beers and licquers for the general public. At first sight this might seem ridiculous, but there is a joy in that, too.

The things to avoid are the behaviours that you know lead to either your own pain and suffering, or the sufferings of others. Killing others, killing animals, waging war in the name of some cocketyed version of religion all spring to mind. Cheating, lying, deceiving... it's a long list.


Tuesday, 22 September 2015

A BHAKTA'S LOVE FOR KRISHNA (2)



PART 2 OF STORY: READ PART 1 BELOW!


Relationships

All the Bhakta texts speak of the different ways you can relate to God - and you can find the same in a few mediaeval Christian mystical texts as well.  The key word is "relating". The Bhakti Marga, the way of the Bhakti, embraces a basic duality - there is the jiva, the soul, and there is the Paramatman, the Divine Lord, and that is all there is to consider. You look out at the Lord, the Lord looks out at you. This is the basic primal relationship of most religions.

But how, then, do you label this relationship? Is God your Father, your Mother? To most, this is the way that makes most sense. But others relate to God as the Lord's servant, the Lord's lover and so on. Very few are actually friends with God. This friendship, though, is one that will stand you in very good stead through troubled times. 

Perhaps the most prevalent approach in this Kali Yuga, where the seeds of quarrels are constantly in the air, is to turn the relationship into a negative one - to curse God for the sufferings laid on your shoulders, for the apparent lack of support, for the seemingly relentless indifference of God when you call out for help. Some of the brutal aspects of modern life can be so dismaying that people in the end walk away from God, muttering words of stinging reproach along the lines of "how could you?!" And it is certainly true that the ways of the Lord can be hard to fathom.

But if you manage to pierce through these clouds of bitterness, things will resolve themselves. The link between you and the Lord will always be tested. 


In the world

In my case the tests came thick and fast after I became a meditation teacher. Trying to earn a living in the late 1970s teaching meditation in England was pretty much impossible, and in order to survive I had to get a job. Once that happens, along comes everything else. Soon came a wife, kids, and the climb up the very slippery slope of a career ladder. God was not lost, but other things took precedence which any parent would instantly understand - washing babies, making sure they had food and shelter, working, travelling to work, negotiating very testing marital relations. I could no longer meditate for hours or even teach people. The world in all its brightness and glitter caught up with me and whirled me away.

Now that should have been that as far as my relationship with the Divine was concerned. How would I ever emerge from the world, with so many obligations and responsibilities? But it did happen. At the time I was a crude oil broker, dealing with a busy market where millions of dollars changed hands over the phone in frenetic transactions, where the rich were super-rich, lavishly, obscenely rich, and where greed, aggression, and rage fuelled global oil price direction.

But during one business trip in Germany, something woke up again in me. I cannot even remember what it was, but a brightness, a little flame of love for God began to re-emerge. By this time I was in my mid 30's, with some life experience under the belt.  I began to meditate again. At some secret point I  whispered to the Lord "Let me serve Thee."

Now just that little recommitment brought life immediately tumbling down. My then wife, bless her, had conceived a strange fear and loathing of anything to do with meditation, or maybe just of me - and to cut a long story short, in the matter of 3 short months I was homeless, penniless, divorced, away from my children, It happened so blindingly fast and savagely that it took my another 10 years to process it all. I lost everything - but I had that link with God again. And a whole heap of trouble.

Bit by bit, life began to re-emerge from the rubble. I managed to see my kids very regularly. I found a place to live. I got another job, much more sympathetic to what meagre talents I possessed - and many years later I  still work at the same company. Above all, I had freedom to think and freedom to practice spiritual disciplines.

During these harsh times was when God as the Mother really showed Her grace and mercy. I leaned on Her. Krishna had danced away again. I associated Him with the pain and upset. But when the heart is touched by the Lord, flames will eventually burst out.

The flute of Vrindavan

The next real meeting with the Lord was a sweetly agonising period. Now we fast forward to my mid-40s, studying under the Siddha Yoga Guru Gurumayi, and setting up a regular sadhana. In a little room in London, I would chant the Sri Guru Gita in the morning (disturbed by planes flying low overhead on their way to Heathrow airport), go to work, come back, meditate, chant some more - and attend the Siddha Yoga satsangs and retreats. This gentle discipline began to have an impact. I was without any girlfriend or partner, was celibate, had the kids up at weekends, but otherwise was free to deepen sadhana bit by bit. A visit to London by Gurumayi was the catalyst for a huge leap in focus. 

Matters boiled over in a few months - and there came into my life many different Yogic states and moods. But behind all of this grew a longing for Lord Krishna. It became ever more maddening. I would find myself crying out for God, and when this state really dawns it is almost impossible to live. You don't know where to put yourself. You can rest, cannot do anything. 

I felt as if on the edge of a beautiful forest, just always too late to see Krishna. But I could hear that haunting flute. I could actually physically hear it, far away. This was the state of the lover pining for the beloved - symbolised by the Gopis and their mad attraction to the All-Attractive Govinda. In that state no words, no formal methods of worship, nothing neat or tidy or controlled exists: you blindly run to wherever Krishna has been seen or heard. It is accompanied by a great bliss, but the bliss, too, is painful. You are wounded by love, and all you can really do is cry piteously. But the Lord hears, and the Lord smiles. The climax to this stage in sadhana was living in Silence, living in the effulgent light of the Atman. The flute of Vrindavan in the end resolves into this living spring of great mysterious silence.

Travels

Along the way, my life began to feature a lot of travel because of work. I went all over the world, including India on occasions, and living for a while in Singapore - going to the temples there and immersing myself in the rhythms of worship. travel really does broaden the mind: it shows the best and worst of humanity. It reveals how so many people live in utter dirt and poverty which in the west is unthinkable. But travel, too, obscured the sound of the flute. And the next phase of my life saw a lessening of spiritual discipliner. No more came tears of longing for God.

Instead, I learned, I read, I practised. Sadhana often has these spells, a bit like an in-breath and out-breath, when everything apparently comes to a halt and the intensity of the search lessens. But such phases, also, pass. 

The Great Guru

The story of Sri Sri Sri Shivabalayogi Maharaj and this idiot is told elsewhere in the blog. But this gift of God reawakened spirituality once more in a major way. Now, with the passing of the years, something now has developed. Through so much spiritual practice centred on the Devi, it seems like a door has been opened once more to Krishna - but in a very odd way. These days, especially recently, I feel like my spirit inside is being loosely anchored in the body, sucked out of it by a magnetic force. And the bhav of devotion has turned to an odd turn: worship of Krishna as little Gopala, relating to Krishna as a father to a son. There are plenty of instances of Mothers worshipping Krishna ass their child, but thjis is new territory. There are many strange symptoms of this new madness, too... The feeling of Krishna's tiny feet dancing on my head, with the sound of ankle chimes. His playful naughty presence in life. An aspect of the Lord In never really thought to experience has become clearer - Krishna the playful, the stealer of sweets. Where did this come from? It is odd! 

Still, oddness and wierdness seem ultimately the lot of a bhakta. The relationship with God is one determined by the Lord. He shows himself in any way He wants.  This all-powerful one, this beautiful bright Master of my soul... as a boy? How very strange it is. 

Maybe it is the beginning of senile dementia. Maybe not. But at least I can keep myself amused with this inner feeling, this blanket of joy woven around me. I am sure the relationship will change, yet again. But for the moment, Love is in the house - in this dirty, dusty, ramshackle house of the body and spirit. And still I go out an work for a living, carrying the love around. Frankly, I think that Krishna could do far better - I am grumpy, sarcastic and arrogant in the extreme. But who can command the Lord? 

Love, love is the link that lasts. Every spiritual text on bhakti will tell you the same thing: treat the Divine as a living presence, and that presence will be enlivened. It may take lifetime after lifetime. So what? Most people on the spiritual path complain that nothing ever happens to them - and they will be all of 27 years old. Live a little longer. Keep focus. Keep sensible, and then make space for the Divine because surely God knows all about your every little bit of woe and suffering. Just enliven the link. Anyone can do it! 









Monday, 21 September 2015

A BHAKTA'S LOVE KRISHNA (1)


PART 1 OF A 2 PART POST

Everyone who follows the path of Devotion to the Divine, in whatever form or religious context, has a story to tell of that relationship. And in each case, it is wonderful tale to tell, as the devotee learns through many painful mistakes, many long years, how to get closer and closer to God. If you worship God, in whatever form you choose, you too, will have a story to tell. If you are young, then wait a while - see how the years produce all manner of twists and turns in your own narrative.

Young people these days are always impatient and think in terms of "results", but the link with God is a link forged from love, and love doesn't deal with results, targets, accumulations, Love deals with love. And love is tenderness, a melted heart, not a busy and calculating brain. Love is born from bliss and gives birth to bliss as well.

The most sacred and innermost part of my life is the link of the heart to my Lord Krishna, a link barred by knots and doorways which only the Divine Shakti can and does graciously unlock. Both are aspects of God, united and intertwined. But, I think to anyone else except the Lord and me, it is pretty small stuff and full of boring details that no one in their right mind could possibly relish. Nevertheless I've been asked to write about it, so here it is. 

This relationship of a soul to the Divine is no more or less special than anyone else's. It has caused no ripples on this earth. Angels did not sing at my birth, the sky did not become filled with light and wise men definitely stayed away from the appearance of this fool. Nevertheless in some remarkable way, marked by odd coincidence and happen-stance, a fool born in a very distant country grew to love God in a form worshipped by an entirely different culture thousands of miles away. That form is Lord Krishna in all the many ways it has been reflected in scripture and Indian culture.

Birth in the West

So, if you are Indian born or of Indian descent, the first thing you have to factor in is that not every country in the world knows about Krishna. This is part of the story! You might have been surrounded by colourful pictures of Sri Gopala since birth. But for those of us who appeared on the earth in the early 1950s, after the Second World War, born in a very run-down England that was busy losing all of its empire and was still subject to rationing... well, Krishna did not appear anywhere! In fact, nor did God. God was an angry man with a white beard locked away in gloomy, grime covered churches.god was worshipped by singing hymns written in the Victoriam era, most of them with deeply dodgy lyrics.

So, I grew up under another religious umbrella. But society was changing fast, and by the late 1960s, suddenly every young person in England knew, briefly, about Krishna.  This was because rock music at the time had an extraordinary influence on youth culture, and whatever the kings did - the Beatles - everyone sat up and took notice. So really the first time Krishna hit the headlines in the west was through George Harrison's music, and his support of the fledgling Hare Krishna movement. He produce the Hare Krishna single in 1969 which unexpectedly became a major commercial success especially in the UK. He also had many huge commercial hits in which his interest in Indian religions was up-front and very clear. The UK press made fun of this, dubbing him "Hari Georgeson"

Suddenly, the west became alerted to Krishna - in a very playful way. In this brief honeymoon period even the Hare Krishna movement was welcomed - before its intrusive harsh dogmatism raised fears that it was a cult. Krishna was seen as a cool figure, a figure related to ecstacy, freedom, music and so forth, which was all appealing to the youth movement of the time.

So I was certainly aware of the figure of Krishna when I was a teenager, but knew little more than that. Nevertheless, the very first time I  heard a street sankirtan, I think I went briefly mad. It happened like this. I was in central London, along with my mother, grandmother and brothers and about 14 years old I guess. Suddenly there was a commotion. There seemed to be shock waves along the crowded street - people fleeing some horrible accident. But it wasn't an accident at all. It was in fact one of the UK's very first sankirtan Hare Krishna processions, weaving its way through the crowd of shoppers, about as alien as you could look in late 1960s England. My mother was horrified, as was everyone else. This was not what English culture was all about! But me? The teenage me felt a most painful tug, a burst of some memory I could not recall, some very desperate, blind urge, overcame me. I was drawn to that my procession like a magnet... just a few feet more... and then my brothers tugged me to keep moving.

That was the first time I  felt the attractive power of the Lord.

Oxford days

Now we fast forward to about 7 years later, and we find ourselves in the privileged old stone courtyards of Oxford University, where I  was lucky enough to be a student. But things were not going too well. I  was bored by academia, had no interest in what seemed to be the life ahead for me of a job, a career, kids, family, obligations, something was majorly missing.

The group of friends at Oxford were all as close as brothers. We formed a ramshackle band, we partied together, fell in love, argued, and did what most students tend to do - sleep very little and live a wild life. Part of this, unfortunately, involved doing what everyone else was doing a the time in the west, experimenting with drugs. This was still an age where people in the west seriously thought that higher consciousness would soon be available in pill form. After all, the Beatles supported it...

Ah, naive youth! 

Anyway, I, too, got swept up in the drug craze, taking LSD on just a few occasions. But all this stopped after one extraordinary experience. Now you might think that hallucinogenic drugs simply give you visual pretty pictures etc, but their impact is far more profound and unsettling. They remove the barriers that our nerve endings normally have to filter out the universe,  and suddenly your inner vision is set free, and what is secret in life gets revealed. A torch is briefly shone in the darkened cave of wonders that is life - whereas proper spiritual discipline actually makes sure the journey is done step by step.

What happened to me was entirely unexpected, outside any frame of reference. In this one drug voyage I was catapulted into a state of completely inner silence, from which welled the most wise utterances. I could clearly see what others were thinking, knew the answer to every spiritual question you could ever ask, and in this state I felt I was wearing a white robe, seated on a dais, with thousands in front of me. Of course... the experience quickly faded.

The very final experience, though, began as I was lying with a female friend on the floor of her apartment, looking at the ceiling above. The mind began to speed up rapidly, making connection after connection, each with a "Yes" attached to it... the pace grew inhumanly fast, connection after connection, yes after yes, until the ceiling began to glow. First with a normal but intensely bright light... and then with a silent explosion, a light of an entirely different quality. This was the light of the Paramatman. And there, in front of my astonished vision, I saw the universal Lord in countless manifestations, countless figures of glory, all in one impossibly grand and sweeping cosmic dance, and all bathed in this unearthly light. As the Lord danced, he spoke secret words to me and I to him.

The experience faded. I was back to earth. And a grubby earth it was. I could not explain what had happened, I had no context for it. Then a week or so later I happened to find a slim poetic translation of the Bhagavad Gita - and there read for the first time Lord Krishna's universal form revealed to Arjuna on the battlefield. I was astounded, because I recognised that vision intimately. 

Then and there, drugs went out of the window. I started to meditate properly. I ate properly. I purged myself of bad habits and bad relationship - all because of this vision. How could I get such a state back again was my question. What did I need to do? Well the Bhagavad Gita provided the answers.

The Dream that changed my life

Life can turn a 180 degree angle sometimes, and for the next meeting with the Lord we need to fast forwad another 4 years. Now I was training to be a meditation teacher under Maharishi, and had lived a very austere life for three years, long years of celibacy, pure food, pure service, long meditations. The wild hippie days were a distant memory. In this particular phase of the course we were meditating about 3 hours in the morning, and 3 hours in the evening, month after month.  Everything was silent in me, everything cooled down, like a boiler that had been switched off.

But that night, I could not easily get to sleep. There was a storm outside our ashram. I remember that much. The next part was falling asleep, having normal dreams - and then becoming instantly alert and clear, and realising that my body was asleep, but this was not a dream. In this vision, I saw a procession of big blue figures with long trumpets, a crowd of celebrating people, and the walls of a city. clearly some triumph was going on. But who was coming? I knew already - Lord Krishna was coming into this city!

The vision shifted so that I was in a hut, a sort of military hut, just outside the city walls, and Maharishi gently introduced me to the the Lord. He was tall, of a beauty that no earthly artist can ever capture, filled with such majesty that all bowed before him. He came to me, looked me in the eyes, and gently and affectionately slapped both of my cheeks with his hand.

What happened next I can unfortunately never remember.

Next thing I knew, it was morning, but my body felt like it was made of liquid gold. I was filled with bliss from head to toe. as I recounted the vision to myself, I could not believe such good fortune. Lord Krishna! And what did the slaps on my face mean? I tried to tell others on the course about what happened, but they were not interested - Maharishi's movement was very science-based. 

But hardly a day goes by without me remembering Krishna's beauty and that vision. it took many days after for the bliss to die down and become manageable, and eventually normal life reasserted myself, and off I went into the world to teach meditation. But I truly felt I had met the Lord. What did that slap mean? This was and still is a puzzle.

END OF PART 1