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]

Listen, contemplate, meditate

Spiritual practice requires of us an inward journey. Much of it takes place in solitude, within us, in the cave of our innermost being. This necessitates withdrawal from the external world, even if it is for a short while every day for those of us who lead worldly lives otherwise. Even when we attend teachings and listen to discourses, the real work of understanding happens in silence, after the words have been spoken and imbibed. An enlightened guru’s words can be potent pills with layers of meaning. To unfold them and reach their essence can be a multi-step process.

According to Vedanta, this process has three steps – sravana or careful listening, manana or deep contemplation, and nididhyasana or complete absorption. Each of these steps is in itself a comprehensive internal practice. Just to listen carefully requires us to harness our attention away from distractions, including mobile phones and our seemingly nonstop internal chatter, and focus it entirely on the act of listening. Some people find it easier to write or record a discourse, to be listened to later at leisure. While it is a good idea to do so, I would suggest an attempt at deep listening. It can be a meditative exercise on its own, and hone one’s practice of steering the mind away from tangible and intangible distractions and training it towards one particular task.

Manana is repeated contemplation of what has been heard and understood through sravana. The nature of the mind is such that even if it has heard the most profound truth, it is liable to push it aside the minute the experience of listening is over. So habituated is the mind to its monkey-like prancing from one branch to another, one thought to another, that the memory of a teaching recedes with the passage of time. Merely having listened is not enough. It must be brought into the mind’s conscious focus again and again for it to have a lasting impact. A lot of inner spiritual work lies in this category of effort, where we attempt to remain mindful of the content and meaning of the teachings that will act as one’s guide on the spiritual path.

The processes of listening and reflection must lead to something more, a higher state of consciousness or realization. This is nididhyasana, which has been variously defined by scholars of Vedanta but in simple terms, it is meditative absorption. It still involves some effort, in terms of holding and perpetuating a state of meditation, and there is some content of knowledge in it as well, even though self-conscious knowing has been transcended in favour of a more direct perception. It is a familiarization, if you will, of a higher truth, perhaps even of ‘the truth’, qualified as truth of the Self, or Brahman. Adi Sankaracharya says in the Vivekachudamani that this process of listening, contemplating and meditating can lead to nirvikalpa samadhi, where dualism ends and one is established in a direct experience of consciousness.

Anatomy of Awakening

The term “awakening” has long been used to denote the experience of spiritual realisation — of self, reality, God, emptiness. It has been described as a point of transition, where a limited way of seeing and being is altered because of an immense opening up that happens in one’s consciousness.

Conditioning, barriers, perceptions — filters and masks through which one normally responds to the world — are knocked off and consequently whatever one experiences feels raw, direct, deep and true. Distinctions between self and the other and self and the world cease to exist, leading to a profound experience of interconnectedness. There are no thoughts in the conventional sense. Whatever arises naturally subsides without causing the mind to ripple after it. There is peace and stillness, and often, bliss.

The analogy of death is often used to describe an awakening. For the “old” way of being dies forever, one is no longer who one used to be in the moment before the awakening. Something dies so that something new can arise. In the case of awakening, it is the blinkered, afflicted self that dies, even as one is born anew into a radically changed way of experiencing oneself and the world. In some cases, this “death” seems to become mirrored in the individual’s body through physical pain and a loss of control. The mind, shorn of the crutches it used to manoeuvre its way through the world, appears to have collapsed. Mystics have at times been mistaken for madmen simply because they are liberated of the conditioning and social graces with which we “sleepers” operate.

Herein lies a dilemma for the awakened one. How to integrate their awakening with their worldly lives? For, the transformation of awakening appears to be so total that there is no going back to what one was prior to it. It is as if one’s eyes have been blown open and one can never go to sleep, to unknowing, again. Some find the balance in taking on the responsibility of sharing their journeys with others, becoming gurus and teachers. Others might continue to live everyday lives, their awakening informing every aspect of their being and conduct.

What about awakening itself? Is it like a thunderbolt, direct and immediate, or is it gradual? On close examination, one finds that it is really a process, a river that unfolds and undulates through the individual’s experiences. The actual realisation might occur in a flash, but often it is part of a process that includes questioning, perhaps working with a teacher, or self-study, and chipping away at emotional and mental blocks.

Even if an initial awakening happens through a thump on the heart or the activation of the point between the brows by a master, it often needs to be backed up with inner work. At times, the awakening might happen in stages, spread over a period of time, assisted by circumstances and teachers. And while the ultimate realisation might be similar, the paths through which people have arrived to it are myriad and many-hued, as varied as humankind itself.

[This article appeared under the title ‘Be the Awakened One’ in The Asian Age, October 20, 2011.]