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]

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A Meditation on Time

I take this opportunity to wish you all a happy new year!

On new year’s eve, we celebrate our collective passage from one year to the next. Birthdays perhaps serve a similar function, but their significance is restricted to the individual. Each culture has its own version of a ‘new year’, when the old year is declared finished and a new one as having begun. In farming communities, this event was often tied to the beginning of an agricultural season. Though we continue to celebrate those new years as well, such as Vishu, Ugadi, Baisakhi, Bihu and so on, most of us avidly celebrate the yearly transit as deemed by the Gregorian calendar – from December 31st to January 1st.

Time’s passage can be measured with clocks and calendars at the level of linearity, but at another level, it has been understood as being cyclical. In Indic wisdom traditions, time, or kaal, and its nature is explained using the metaphor of a wheel, chakra. Jain philosophy divides this wheel into two equal parts, denoted by two serpents facing one another. The ascendant part of this cycle of time is called utsarpini, while the descendant part is avasarpini. As the wheel begins to turn, during utsarpini, it is believed that there is a proliferation of goodness and happiness, while it all goes downhill in the downward aspect of the wheel, avasarpini. Any guesses on where we are placed right now according to this view?

There is no concept of an absolute beginning of time, and therefore of a definite end, in the Kaalchakra doctrines of ancient India. There is no Big Bang, in other words. Time always was, is, and will be. One rotation of the chakra would be followed by another. Within a chakra rotation, of course, there is a beginning, middle and end. Creation, destruction and renewal are inbuilt in this view of time. Every beginning has an end coded into it, and every end is followed by a beginning. Nothing is static. Everything is dynamic, everything flows. The Hindu view of the expansion of each cycle comprises its division into four yugasatya, treta, dwapar and kali. There is a comparable concept of a general decline that sets in as each cycle progresses, perhaps to justify its coming to an end.

This view of time encompasses both eternality and change. Time itself always is, though it never is in stasis. It is always on the move, and we who are governed by it have no choice but to move along with it. Its dynamic passage is in evidence in our bodies and in the world around us. When we detach from our being and concerns and sink into meditative absorption, we can experience a point where time seems to expand or ‘come to a standstill’. It is not actually standing still, but because the mind has stilled, so has the point of contact with time. In this stillness, there is a possibility of accessing the part of us that is beyond time. What has been called akaal – timeless, unbound, eternal.

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.

Ennui and the Search for Meaning

According to Newton’s first law of motion, an object at rest, or in motion, remains so unless an external force is applied. This ‘law of inertia’ can sometimes afflict us in the form of a human condition, rendering us unable and unwilling to head into challenges, begin something new, or even engage fully with ourselves and our lives. Nothing that we say or do seems to have much meaning, and we can easily get stuck in a vicious cycle where we do not do anything for lack of motivation resulting in inertia, which in turn leads to further inability to act and engage.

Another word, of French origin, used to describe such a state of stasis is ennui. Ennui is closer in meaning to boredom than inertia, though they might appear to be interrelated issues. Inertia indicates an unwillingness to act. It is a kind of passivity in which we remain stuck in the ruts that have come to define the physical, emotional and spiritual content of our lives. Ennui is boredom that might be experienced due to an absence of appropriate stimulation.

Today, so many of us exist in an environment of hyper-stimulation. Easy access to the internet, social media platforms, mobile phones and tablets mean that we can be “connected” all the time. We consequently experience another kind of ennui, that of over-stimulation. All kinds of stimuli exist at a click or a swipe, and yet, it is still meaningless because it does not have the power to draw us out and make us experience something beyond ourselves, if we are not open to it. Ennui often leads to inertia. If nothing has any meaning, why bother?

From a spiritual perspective, cultivation of gratitude and reorienting one’s motivation might come in handy when we are trapped in an ennui-fuelled inertia. His Holiness the Dalai Lama suggests that, “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.” Just this very thought has the potential to immediately change our perspective towards ourselves. If life is precious, we will regard it as an opportunity, a blessing, and focus on all the things that are going well in it as opposed to all that which is not.

After shaking off the torpor of ennui, we need to get out of the inertia of meaninglessness as well. According to the Dalai Lama, we must think, “I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.” While enlightenment might be far from our minds, by getting out of our restricted personal bubble and contemplating a goal that is bigger than us will help reorient and revive our internal energies. This could in fact become the “force” that must act on a body to end its state of inertia, as per Newtonian law.

Seekers of Truth

The wisdom traditions of Asia, and particularly the Indian subcontinent, are originators of some of the most interesting, and varied, models of spiritual seeking. One such model is that of the sadhu, who is a free-spirited wanderer who has set off, penniless and homeless, on a quest. A sadhu can also be part of an organised monastic system, nested within a community that takes care of his needs, and provides guidance for serious spiritual practice.

The term ‘sadhu’ derives from sadhana, which refers to the practice of something with complete dedication and a single-pointed focus. Sadhana is used for spiritual practice, though it could be used for intense engagement of any kind, provided it is done with the intention of honing and deepening.

Embedded in the term ‘sadhu’ is another meaning, of renunciation, sannyas. Literally, sannyas means ‘laying down’, or ‘letting go’. It is an understanding the individual comes to – that the ties that bind him to home, family, community, and in a sense caste and creed too, need to be severed in order to become completely free to pursue the sadhana demanded on a spiritual quest.

The act of renunciation is the beginning of a spiritual adventure. The nest of family, home and community that we are born into provides us with a sense of identity, of who we are. These form our natural comfort zones, where we are accepted, held, taken care of. The spiritual quest must begin by learning to look within, understanding the identity that we have built about ourselves, and deconstructing it brick by brick.

The identity we think we are, which includes the body, mind and the ego-personality, is understood in spirituality as being a veil upon our true self. When we can realize that there is an aspect of us that underlies what we usually experience as our personality, which has to do with consciousness rather than the mind-body continuum, we begin to get a glimpse of what this true self might be. Though we might get it intellectually, to actually realise it requires a different practice and commitment, which for some might begin with the act of renunciation.

Sannyas is structured towards enabling us to unlearn whatever we have learnt in the course of our lives. It is wiping the slate clean and beginning afresh, this time with a radically different orientation. To engage in the spiritual quest requires us to begin taking off layers of our ego-personality, so to speak, like soiled clothes, to reveal our true nature in its pristine purity. The essential true nature does not become soiled with the content of one’s thoughts or personality. It is merely overlaid and hidden. To uncover it is the sadhu’s greatest challenge.

Take off the Blindfolds

 There are so many misconceptions and misunderstandings prevalent about spirituality that I thought it necessary to explore what it actually is.

As I understand, and I am no guru, just a seeker on the path, spirituality is a way of seeing things radically differently from what we have been used to, from birth until now.

It is an uncovering of layers, a peeling away of blindfold upon blindfold, in order to begin seeing things as they actually are. To get as real as possible, which is why viewing spirituality as some sort of an exotic, other-worldly pursuit, is to completely miss the point.

Since the goal is an unconditioned knowing, of the big truth that underlies everything, if you wish, the process of getting there is not only seminal to the endeavour, it is its very heart. This is the reason why spirituality is often described as a path, a search, a seeking or a journey. Many who have walked this path have come to the conclusion that the path is the goal, the destination is implicit in the journeying, that we have reached when we realise that there is no reaching. Only walking.

The reason for this is, spirituality is about constant, unrelenting practice. Not the popular clich� of passive navel-gazing, but a deep commitment to and a persistent engagement in the task of clarifying one’s perception and purifying one’s being. Anyone who has ever tried to not retort with anger when provoked, or find compassion for anybody other than oneself or one’s loved ones, can imagine how mammoth a task it might be to completely root out all afflictive emotions and replace them entirely with positive and wholesome mental states.

Why is it so difficult, though? Most of us have heard often enough that we must be good, we mustn’t be mean, we mustn’t lie, we must help others. And yet, how many of us can truly say that all the choices we make are governed by selflessness, humility, compassion and love, especially if it involves people who are not our loved ones, and who might have even harmed us or harboured ill-feelings towards us?

Even if we think we are all of the above, good and kind that is, how many of us can truly say we are completely and absolutely happy, that we don’t need another thing or person or circumstance to make us feel complete and fulfilled? My hand will certainly not rise in response to this question!

So, one could say that spirituality and its practice is not just about “doing good”, it is also about being good, in the sense of being happy, balanced, peaceful and fulfilled. And to get there, we need to realise the reality of ourselves and of life. We’re back to the blindfolds. They need to come off.

What are these blindfolds I keep referring to? They are limited ways of seeing and relating that one might attribute to individual conditioning, the habit patterns we have developed over time, the memories, emotions, desires and revulsions that drive us for most of our lives. As a result, what is known as “original mind”, our basic nature, becomes clouded, and we live in ignorance of our own potential for clarity, goodness, joyousness.

Over the centuries, different wisdom traditions have shown different ways of taking off the blindfolds, perhaps to cater to the diverse needs and abilities of humankind. Some paths have made use of the energy of our emotionality, like the bhakti and Sufi traditions, some of the physical to refine mind and being, like the branches of yoga and tantra. Still others, like Buddhism, have focused on the mind and its cognitive and imaginative capabilities. And there are many more, all of which have acted as rafts to ferry us to new shores of knowing since times immemorial.

Whatever be their prime path of practice, most wisdom traditions emphasise recognising and eliminating the “ego”, for this might just be the tightest blindfold of all. It does not quite mean the dictionary meaning of ego as in “pride”. Rather, it refers to an erroneous perspective that identifies too tightly with our body-mind-personality, and blinkers us to the larger truth of who we are, like a frozen wave that believes it is independent of the ocean. It only needs the warmth of the sun for it to realise the truth that it is one with the ocean.

In the same way, we are all waves in an ocean of “interbeing”, to borrow an exquisite term from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Even as we create our worlds around ourselves, we remain inextricably interlinked to everyone and everything. The way we live, what we consume, how we behave, what we buy — every action affects the ocean of consciousness we inhabit with everybody else. This is why spiritual practice can never be about “I” alone.

As the wave merges back into the ocean, or at least realises it is not separate from it, it has found a way of being that is vast, open, free. All blindfolds are, finally, off.

——

The author has written Women Awakened: Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India, Buddhism: On the Path to Nirvana and Dharamsala Diaries. She can be contacted at www.swatichopra.com.