The Paradox of Personal Growth

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

If you are interested in spirituality, you must have heard of terms like ‘Personal Growth’, ‘Personal Development’ and ‘Wellness’. You might even wish for these, your aspirations guided by a multi-billion dollar industry that spans the globe. Once a strictly Western phenomenon, supposedly guided by materialistic fatigue, Personal Growth is now much wanted in India too, once considered the font of “authentic” spiritual practice, now another wannabe in the “want-take-have” consumerist rat-race.

I have nothing personal against Personal Growth. Rather, I see it as a good sign when people begin spending on courses, books, CDs, and such paraphernalia that they believe would calm their minds, make them happy, lower their blood pressure, make their children and pets behave, and so on. Rather that, than another pair of Christian Loboutins, right?

What I question, and I am neither the first nor hopefully the last to do so, is the reductionism that lies at the heart of the Personal Growth industry. What it does is reduce spiritual values and practices to a bunch of items or services that can be easily packaged and marketed. That is what consumerism does. It commodifies everything – experiences, people, cultures, literatures – into something it can stick a price on and make available on the global marketplace.

Take yoga, or mindfulness – the Personal Growth industry’s flavor-of-the-decade. These are derivatives that have been neatly isolated from philosophical systems that are a few thousand years old, and which have spawned complex ways of living and being and spiritual adventuring.

In their current avatars, they stand stripped of their contexts, reduced to a bunch of physical exercises and breathing techniques that will, of course, “work” at the superficial levels they are challenged and expected to. Exercise will help you lose weight and calming yourself will bring down your stress levels, and so on, some of which will also, lo and behold, be measurable on the brain fMRIs of an equally reductionist science, much to the delight of the Personal Growth industry.

Only, it feels a bit like burning down a complex rainforest ecosystem because you want to use the land it stands on for industrial farming.

We in India are faced with a double colonization – the richness of our philosophies and their integrity destroyed and fragmented by a consumerist culture hungry for inner peace, even as it shatters our inner peace and replaces our equanimity with materialistic dreams that will further lead us into restless and ruthless grasping and wanting. We gave up our systems of learning, forgot our dualistic and nondualistic philosophies, and began dreaming in tongues other than our mothers’. We exchanged Banarasi woven-in-Banaras for Banarasi made-in-China.

We forgot who we were, are, or could ever possibly be, so much so that we have no option but to believe bigoted, fanatical, monocultural voices that purport to show us their own interpretations of our roots, our selfhood, our collective consciousness.

So, welcome, International Yoga Day. You herald India’s official embrace of the Personal Growth industry.

Body, Mind, Spirit….and Device!

picjumbo.com_HNCK1308Driving through a busy road, I saw a huge billboard with a seductive promise – freedom from shopping in the heat. Order everything online. For a moment, I was tempted. I already paid utility bills online, bought books online, and had recently trusted omnipotent online retail to home-deliver an expensive electronic item. Surely buying aloo-pyaz was the next logical step?

But then, where does it end? The electronic bubble that began with hesitant, sputtering dial-up internet connections now engulfs every aspect of our lives. There is nothing we cannot do online – chatting, sharing, buying, selling, dating, loving, working, knowing, being. The digital-human interface sees revolutions every quarter, a recent one being when ‘smart devices’ began connecting us not only with others, but ourselves as well!

Strappable devices, often doubling up as phones, watches and whatnot, dutifully calculate the calories we eat and burn, the number of steps we walk, our sleep patterns, our heart rates, and so forth. They nag at us when we overeat, don’t exercise enough, or have a bad night’s sleep. A recently launched ‘smartwatch’ even pokes us to move when we have been sitting for too long. How did we ever manage to live in that pre-internet Paleolithic Era?

For many of us, our devices – phones, tablets, activity trackers, smartwatches – can become extensions of our selves. Not just literally, as in they are always at hand, but at a deeper level of being, in terms of their participation in our continuum of consciousness.

Soon, the individual self might come to include body, mind, spirit, and device. And the Universal Self might become another name for the omniscient Cloud, within which we all compute?

With our minds constantly hooked to digital interfaces, it is no wonder that we cannot seem to do or know anything about ourselves without e-intervention. What if we were to turn off device notifications, and gradually disengage our senses from external entanglements? And try a Vipassana technique known as the ‘body sweep’, which involves bringing awareness to each part of the body sequentially, and observing it without judgment or reaction. If a sensation becomes palpable, just watch it arise and dissipate. Observe, let go, and move on. If the mind wanders, bring it back gently. Move through the entire body, sweeping for sensations, with ever-present attention and non-attachment.

In this way, quality of awareness is deepened and the body-mind connection enlivened. Though the technique must be learned at a Vipassana retreat, it can be used as a tool for awakening awareness at any time. Sitting at our workstations, we might spend five minutes every couple of hours watching our bodies, perhaps focusing on points of contact, like feet on the ground, or arms pressed on to armrests. Simply watching, knowing, letting go. Provided we can get to them without smartwatch reminders, these moments of awareness could refresh our technology-glutted minds, and bring us back to our selves, in the here and now.

The Goddess Spark

 

 I am reminded of one of the Goddess’ greatest devotees – Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. In the initial phase of his sadhana, not only did he have a woman, Bhairavi Brahmani, as his guru, he worshipped Ultimate Truth as feminine in the form of KaliThough he would eventually move towards a nondualistic, and therefore un-gendered, perception of reality, Truth would never lose its femininity for Sri Ramakrishna.  

In a radical, and feministic, interpretation of the Advaita perspective, he said, ‘When I think of the Supreme Being as inactive — neither creating nor preserving nor destroying — I call Him Brahman or Purusha, the Impersonal God. When I think of Him as active — creating, preserving, and destroying — I call Him Shakti or Maya or Prakriti, the Personal God. But the distinction between them does not mean a difference. The Personal and the Impersonal is the same thing, like milk and its whiteness, the diamond and its lustre, the snake and its wriggling motion. It is impossible to conceive of the one without the other. The Divine Mother and Brahman are one.’

 

While worshipping ‘the Supreme Being’ as feminine, so deep was his absorption that hwould see Her everywhere, even in his own wife, SaradaOnce, on the night of the ritual worship of Kali as Phalaharini, one who ‘destroys the fruits of actions’, Sri Ramakrishna conducted a secret puja where he asked Sarada to take the place of the deity and worshipped her in the form of Shodashi, the Devi as a sixteen-year-old, also known as Tripura Sundari

 

During the Shodashi Puja, Sri Ramakrishna consecrated Sri Sarada Devi’s body by placing mantras on various parts of it, making it mantramayi, encasing the Goddess in human form. Was it because he wanted to manifest the special characteristics of Tripura Sundari in the Mother of this age?’ writes Pravrajika Vedantaprana in her essay ‘Sarada Shodashi’ (Eternal Mother, Ramakrishna Sarada Mission 2004).

 

A way of looking at Sarada’s Shodashi Puja is how it acted as a trigger for her own inner transformation. Once Sri Ramakrishna invoked the Goddess in her, she felt inspired to grow into her role by consciously cultivating the qualities of the Devi within herself. It is said that we all have enlightened nature, the pure atman – the point of spiritual practice is not to create it, but uncover it and bring it into conscious being. The essence is present, but it has to be roused and set in motion. This is what I believe happened with Sarada, under the watchful guidance of Sri Ramakrishna. 

 

When we conduct the ritual puja, it might be useful to keep in mind the powerful psycho-spiritual trigger such an event can be. If done with complete absorption and inner connection, it might well present us with a precious opportunity to expand the boundaries of divinity by igniting the Goddess’ spark in the human feminine.

Colours of Transcendence

IMG_7895

In the collective unconscious of the Indian subcontinent, Holi is intertwined with the youthful, playful aspect of Krishna. I recently came across a myth about the genesis of the festival that I had never heard before. It has to do with a dark-skinned Krishna smearing the fair-skinned Radha with colour, thereby erasing the difference between their complexions. The colour of skin, that sharp and contentious dividing line between human beings that exists till today, is discarded and a step taken towards transcending outer form in favour of deeper truths.

In its erasure of all kinds of boundaries – of race, age, class, and even the otherwise immobile ones of caste and gender – Holi is somewhat akin to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, where slaves and masters exchanged places for a day. It led to a much-needed catharsis, a blowing off of steam, as well as a reminder to all of their essential humanity.

In mystical love poetry such as that associated with Radha and Krishna, being doused with the colour of human love is often used as a metaphor for absorption in the Divine. In this context, a poem by the thirteenth century Sufi poet, Amir Khusrau – Aaj rang hai – comes to mind. In it, he adopts the stance of a woman looking for her beloved, who appears in the form of his master, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.

His master’s rang, literally ‘colour’ but which might also mean his aura of spiritual attainment, is unique, says Khusrau. It exists nowhere else, not in Gokul or Mathura, and it is such that it lights up the whole world. ‘Mohe apne hi rang mein rang le Khwaja ji,’ prays the supplicant, begging his master to dye him, the disciple, in the same rang as himself. This could mean two things – the disciple’s desire to reach the same enlightened state as his master, his rang, so to speak, or the disciple’s wish to surrender his ego to the master and subsume a separate sense of self into his master’s rang, his field of consciousness. Either way, the master is the one who will show the way, who will impart the catalyzing rang to enable the seeker to discard his limited identity and become one with the Divine.

One of Kabir’s couplets expresses this beautifully: ‘Lali mere lal ki, jit dekhoon tit lal / lali dekhan main gayi, main bhi ho gayi lal’ – the crimson glow of my Beloved is everywhere, so much so that I am completely imbued with it. Here, too, the metaphor of colour is used to indicate the stages of spiritual seeking – as a supplicant, the seeker looks upon the beauty of the Divine and marvels at it. The more she becomes absorbed in her efforts to realize Truth, the closer she draws to the source of that beauty, until a point comes where there remains no separation. From a seeker and appreciator of beauty, she becomes beauty herself.

Autobiography of a Contemporary Yogi (book review)

Given the fact that authentic, experiential accounts of the lives of spiritual seekers and adepts, especially those written by their own hand, are so rare, If Truth Be Told: A Monk’s Memoir by Om Swami is a unique book. I am tempted to compare it with that spiritual classic of the twentieth century – Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi – simply because it covers similar ground in telling the story of a young man embarking upon a quest that takes him to gurus and teachers, but ultimately within, into his own self.

As the title indicates, this is a memoir of the author’s journey into not just monkhood, but more importantly towards self-realization. As the author discovers during the course of the book, these two are not synonymous. The act of renunciation, the donning of a sannyasi’s robes, even the performance of rituals and austerities does not automatically lead to realization of the truth about one’s self. Then how can self-realization be achieved? This is what the author attempts to find an answer to.

Om Swami begins life as Amit, whose sainthood is predicted by a sadhu even before his birth, reminiscent of the prophecy made at birth about Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha. While Siddhartha’s parents did their best to keep him away from anything that might encourage him towards renunciation, Amit’s parents really do nothing of the sort. The child grows up in a middle class home devouring books, playing with older siblings, and imbibing some of his mother’s religiosity. He develops an intuitive faculty that enables him to correctly read people and learns how to cast astrological charts. His quest, however, runs deeper than that.

The time for opting out of the rat-race is not here as yet, and the book’s narrative follows Amit as he flies out to Australia in search of a wider horizon. Once there, he proves himself to be something of a prodigy, creating complex software code even as he struggles to find tuition money for college. His sadhana takes a backseat, but the ten years he subsequently spends setting up his company and working on various lucrative projects, create the necessary conditions that lead up to the moment of his renunciation. Writing with the benefit of hindsight, the author is able to lend a note of inevitability to his entire entrepreneurial journey. He says he will renounce the world at 30, and he does in fact do so.

One cannot help but find parallels with the Buddha’s story here too. Like the prince in his palace who was dissatisfied amidst all his luxuries, having driven the latest models of cars, worn high-end branded clothes, and generally lived the good life as defined by material success, Amit is not really fulfilled. Sure, there is joy and fulfillment in the material world, but it is transient and ultimately meaningless. The call his spirit feels towards knowing the reality of life never leaves Amit. His restlessness amidst material success cements his resolve and he sets a date when he will leave everything behind. As Siddhartha sneaked out of his bedroom at night while his wife and child slept, Amit leaves his entire life behind without telling his family. He later sends them emails detailing his decision and then deletes his account. That very act has a ring of finality to it that most of us hooked on to electronic devices all the time will resonate with. In today’s times, renunciation would also entail deleting our electronic identities!

Though he has finally given himself over to the inner quest, any sort of attainment is still far away. Through his struggle to find a guru, we glimpse the kind of deception and exploitation a sincere seeker might have to face. For the path of spiritual seeking passes through the chaos of the world. It does not automatically take flight into some realm of pure consciousness. Getting there requires diligent, patient and incessant hard work, and at times a touch of grace. The time he spends in tough living conditions with an indifferent and exploitative teacher is also not time wasted for Amit. All the while, his ego is being worn down, as is his attachment to his body. He is being toughened up for the sadhana that still remains, and which soon unfolds in the Himalayas.

There is a strong undercurrent of fate in this book. From the initial prediction of sainthood to the meetings with certain key teachers and companions, to journeys that trigger important insights or happenings, it all seems predestined. Of course, this does not detract in any way from the enormity of Om Swami’s experiences, which include a face-to-face with the Goddess, whom he calls ‘Mother Divine’. What it does is make for predictability and inspire jadedness in the ordinary seeker who might think, ‘If all this is predestined, what might I hope to achieve? Should I first find somebody to tell me whether I am destined for the spiritual path and then embark upon it?’ This book, then, is not a manual that offers a blueprint of the spiritual path to other seekers. It is one man’s journey, an extraordinary one at that, and must be read and valued as such.

[Published in The Asian Age, Sunday, March 1st 2015 edition. Link here]

The Shiva Detox

IMG_8085

As gods go, Shiva is difficult to slot into any easy category. He is the lord of yoga and dance, a dreadlocked rebel smeared in ash and adorned with snakes, an all-powerful warrior whose army comprises ghouls and ghosts. He can reveal depths of knowledge with a single, diamond-edged glance, and yet grieve like a man. His third eye can incinerate when he is enraged, and his tandava can end time. For those who pray to him, he is the ‘auspicious one’. For those who try to understand him in his entirety, Shiva can appear as an enigma coiled in contradictions like the snakes around his neck.

Sifting through the myths that surround Shiva, one that catches my attention combines his legendary yogic prowess with a spiritual lesson relevant to us all. A popular myth, it has to do with how Shiva received one of his many epithets – Neelkantha, or ‘blue throat’. Most of us know how the story goes. It unfolds during the massive endeavour of churning the primordial ocean – samudra manthan – in which gods and demons come together in an unprecedented collaboration based on mutual greed. As the ocean throws up its spoils, the collaborators fight with one another to claim them. What each side is actually waiting for is the ultimate prize – amrit, the nectar that bestows immortality.

As is the nature of life, where there is pleasure there is also pain, tears chase smiles, and before one can find nectar, one must deal with poison. In fact, the nectar of inner bliss can only be accessed after one has dealt with the poison of negative emotions and habit patterns. So, before amrit could emerge from the depths of the primordial ocean, there appeared halahal, a powerful distillate of all the poisons in existence.

The churners who had been clamouring for the gifts of the ocean, fled in horror when they saw what their efforts had unearthed. Shiva was petitioned, who in his great compassion, decided to take care of the problem. Since the poison could not be returned to where it came from, nor could it be disposed off anywhere where it could pose a danger much like nuclear waste, Shiva decided to absorb it in himself. It is believed that through his yogic prowess, he was able to restrict the poison to his throat and prevent it from spreading through his body, thereby defusing its impact. The presence of this potent poison in his throat turned it blue, hence he also came to be called ‘Neelkantha’.

What is inspiring about this story is Shiva’s ability to not only absorb poisonous negativity within himself, but also to successfully deactivate it. This is a skill we need to develop in terms of our emotional lives. Too often, we absorb negativity and allow it to create havoc in our inner environment. If someone says anything negative directed at us, we are ever ready to swallow it and react with anger, violence, and so on. What if we were to arrest the passage of poison by using the power of awareness? By not allowing it to spread into our mind and vitiating our quality of consciousness, we would be more in control of our emotional responses than if we were to absorb it unchecked. This is a lesson we could learn from Neelkantha on this Mahashivratri.

Moksha and the Modern Indian

IMG_8067

For centuries, the Indian subcontinent has been a cradle for journeys into the inner worlds of the human mind and spirit. Though never a mass pursuit, spiritual adventurism has existed for several millennia, emerging in the form of individual seeking, texts and manuscripts, as well as the birth of religions and wisdom traditions.

What is the enlightenment that these seekers sought? It has been called by different names in different eras and by different teachers – moksha, nirvana, kaivalya, self-realisation, liberation, and so on. Essentially it is a state of transcendence, characterized by stepping beyond the boundaries of the human condition. Interpretations might vary, but enlightenment is undoubtedly the Holy Grail of all spiritual paths, the point where seeking ceases, and something happens to transmute the human into the possibly divine.

Whether it is an actual tipping point or a cumulative process, resulting in a cataclysmic inner event or a gradual realization, seems to be subjective and determined by each individual’s experience and journey. The end result, however, seems to be similar – an opening up, a falling away, a boundlessness, a liberation. Just like one who has never tasted honey can neither describe its taste nor understand it wholly, those of us who have not experienced the bliss of enlightenment cannot hope to understand it in its entirety.

To give credence to this search, there exist enough examples in spiritual literature of the enlightened ones, some universally acknowledged and others lesser known and understood. Just the fact that there have been actual human beings who have attained enlightenment and have spoken about it, like the Buddha among many others, holds out hope for the rest of humanity that indeed, this is not only the stuff of myth. It is a real and reachable state of existence.

As India hurtles towards ‘Project Development’, and a materially affluent lifestyle is what everybody seems to be intent on, what is the state of the enlightenment quest in India today? Gurus of various persuasions seem to abound, but what are they offering, and what are their followers interested in imbibing from them? Is Indian spirituality about enlightenment any longer, or has it become a purveyor of quick fixes to relieve urban stress and angst?

Dharma, artha, kama, moksha – roughly translated respectively as righteousness, prosperity, pleasure and enlightenment – were traditionally placed as the four goals of human life in India. A well-managed pursuit of all four was the measure of success. If we were to evaluate our lives today according to this yardstick, I think most of us would find that we focus inordinate amounts of time and energy on one or two of these, while neglecting the others. How do we find a path that includes a consideration of moksha, alongside achieving appropriate amounts of artha, kama, and of dharma as well? This is the creative challenge of the modern spiritual seeker, and one that each of us must grapple with in the battleground of our individual lives.