The Benefits and Joy of Selfless Service

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If we want to find real and lasting happiness in life then first we have to realise that this will come not by grasping things purely for ourselves and our own enjoyment but from the insight that nothing in reality belongs to us and that trying to cling to possessions, pleasure or relationships brings only suffering in the end. When however by contrast we are able to cultivate an attitude free of attachment with the clear understanding that time sweeps all away, our minds turn to how we may contribute to the happiness and well being of others.

A mother’s love for her children illustrates this principle. Before the mother retires for the night she first makes sure her children are fed and comfortable and safe. Only then will she think of her own rest. She takes her youngest into her room and stays with the child in case something is needed during the night so that she can be close at hand. With this in place she is able to sleep soundly.

The Guru’s love for the disciple follows a similar path. It is not that we can appoint a Guru in the wrong belief that if we fulfil certain conditions we become entitled to the Guru’s teachings. “See, I have done a yoga teacher training course, I wear a japa mala and have shaved my head, now give me the initiation to which I am entitled.” No, we can never earn the Guru’s grace just as a child does not earn the love of the mother. It is the mother’s nature to love her child and the Guru’s nature to impart the teachings to the disciple when the disciple is ready to receive them.

Thus it is said that three things are rare and precious. The first is a human birth. We come to this human birth after many thousands of incarnations and with human birth comes the opportunity for self consciousness, self realisation. The second rare and precious thing is to have the yearning for spiritual life, a sense of curiosity, self enquiry into the nature of life. “What is this life, why am I here, what is the meaning of it all?” The third and most precious of all is to find the loving grace of an awakened and enlightened teacher. So how do we prepare ourselves to receive the grace, the teachings and transmissions of the Guru? We have to reach the point described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras Chapter II verse 32.

śauca santoṣa tapaḥ svādhyāye ‘śvara praṇidhānāni niyamāḥ

Translation: In the light of intelligence illumining the life-style, arise the following observances: purity of body, mind and environment, contentment, psychic fire that simplifies life and purifies the heart, self-study or constant vigilance, and surrender to or worship of the indwelling omnipresence.

Self surrender is needed. We have to realise that we are unable to progress any further on our own strength alone. Just as we undertake a pilgrimage to visit the holy Mount Kailash and may  hitchhike from Lhasa undergoing all manner of difficulties to arrive there, being tossed around in the back of a truck amongst luggage, and then setting out on the journey we may encounter a fierce snow storm and be unable to see ahead thus losing our way, perhaps even lose our shoes and at that point when we are close to despair and stumbling blindly we are found by some local people who out of compassion for our suffering take us in to their home in a nearby village and place a blanket around our shivering shoulders and offer us hot tea and comfort. In that moment the Goddess is revealed to us in the form of unearned loving kindness, the Lord is revealed to us in the generosity of others. We cannot repay them fully for their kindness. We may offer them some money but even so it does not recompense them. Loving kindness is not for sale, the mother’s love is not for sale, the Guru’s grace is not to be bought, entitlement to it cannot be earned or demanded.

How then do we thank our Guru once the teachings have been received?  It is through putting the teachings into practice. It is through cultivating loving kindness in our own lives and living a life of selfless service to the well being and happiness of others. In this way, unintentionally and without motive we find our own true happiness and peace of mind and a quiet and thankful heart.

Salutations to the great Masters and adept Yogis whose lives are themselves an illustration of this timeless truth.

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Space and Awareness

IMG_7066When you create a building, when you build a room and so create a space within that room you may think that you have made something new but the space is always there. Putting the walls and the roof and the floor around the space hasn’t changed the essential nature of that space at all.

It’s the same with our bodies. Our bodies come into being and we think that we have somehow created a space within ourselves, an inner space that we regard as our awareness, our consciousness, but that awareness, that consciousness has always been there. The fact that a body has wrapped itself around that consciousness doesn’t change the nature of that consciousness one iota.

When the building eventually dissolves, the space remains, unaffected. Even the space temporarily occupied by the walls and the floor doesn’t change. It is as it was before. So our bodies are like a house that we build around space, around consciousness and when our bodies dissolve that consciousness remains.

Consider a car, when you are in a car and driving along and it feels as though the space inside the car is moving along with you but really, the car is moving through indivisible space. The point in space you occupy is changing all the time. The car is like the mind. We have thoughts in the mind and somehow assume that the thoughts are essential to the existence of that awareness, to the existence of that space and that awareness exists because of the presence of our thoughts. However when the thoughts are not present, when the car is not there the space, the awareness, remains unchanged.

So even though the body comes into being, even though the mind experiences different phenomena, the essential nature of consciousness remains always the same, undifferentiated. It is whole, complete, it never changes. This being so what is there to gain and what is there to fear. Everything is, changing form constantly it is true, but nothing is ever lost and there is nothing more to be gained.

Through our meditation practice we remove the sense of separateness and limited individuality. We may think that space is empty but we know that it is not. The atmosphere is filled with oxygen, carbon di-oxide and nitrogen. Even when we move into deep space, out beyond the atmosphere, something there still exists. Scientists have approximated the mass of the universe and measured the rate of acceleration of the expansion of the universe and conclude that there must be something else there, an invisible force that our instruments cannot yet measure or perceive. It is called dark energy and dark matter because it is hidden from us. In the same way, consciousness without thought still exists, always present, everywhere, unchanging.

Before this body was born, now that the body is grown and when the body eventually dissolves as it must, consciousness remains unchanged. So through our meditation we remove the veil. Just as when you visit an optometrist the glasses you get improve your already exisiting vision, the glasses don’t create something new. In the same way our yoga and meditation practice is not creating something new, it is just polishing the surface of the mind, removing the illusion that somehow our bodies and our minds make us seperate isolated individuals.

Consciousness remains unaffected, whether within that awareness there is pleasure or pain, light or dark it remains as the eternal witness. We discover this, we realise this through our practice. We experience that consciousness without thought is not blank, it is not empty. Thought arises in consciousness like waves arise on the surface of the ocean when the wind blows but underneath the surface there is something else for us to discover in the depths of that stillness. The Yogis describe it as Satchitananda. Truth, Knowledge and Bliss.

When you dissolve into your meditation and all thought of ‘I’ disappears and the illusion of ‘my’ disappears what is left is Satchitananda, Truth, Knowledge and Bliss. We can all experience That in this very lifetime.

The Fruits of Self Enquiry

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In order to integrate ourselves, in order to become whole, to bring together various aspects of our being, our physical bodies, our mental being – our thoughts, our emotional being – our hearts, we need to practice what in yoga is termed Vichara. Vichara means self enquiry. Our process is one of constant examination of our lives and of our selves in all its various manifestations and aspects.

We start with an examination of our relationship with objects. We accumulate objects, possessions in our lives from our clothing to our cars, our houses and all the clutter we surround ourselves with. Unless we are practicing Vichara we can easily suffer the illusion that our relationship with these objects is permanent and that we are therefore entitled to become angry when they are taken from us or feel distressed when we lose them. Our relationship with objects requires us to constantly enquire into the absence of permanency of that relationship. For example, this shawl I am wearing was not mine before we went to Kerala last year and in five years time it may be gone. My relationship with this shawl can not be one of clinging, of grasping, of possession, thinking that if I lose this I would also be losing part of myself. Enquiring into the nature of our relationship with objects is liberating because we stop trying to hold onto something that by its very nature is transient.

Next, we examine our relationship with others. We examine our relationship with those people in our lives with whom we come in contact, those people who are there to help us on our way, whether through loving and nurturing us or whether through conflict that reveals some aspect of ourselves that would otherwise have remained hidden in the shadows. The Dalai Lama puts is so succinctly by explaining: We are all going to die one day. Those who realise this, settle their quarrels with others. We want a peaceful heart, we want to feel at peace with ourselves, but when we are holding on to a sense of self-importance and righteousness and  the thought that I know better in our relationship with others we are constantly defensive. We need to settle our quarrels with others, in order to be at peace with others in our lives. Through the process of enquiry Vichara, we examine those relationships that cause us to feel indignant and self-righteous and examine our own part so that we can see how our own sense of self importance, our own ego has helped create that conflict. We take that away and see what’s left. If we can find a sense of humility then very often the conflict we believe was created by someone else, evaporates. It’s gone.

Next we examine our relationship with ourselves. Are we using these precious moments of life to best effect? Soon, one day we will be taking our last breath. Have we lived our lives well? Our yoga and meditation practice provides a framework for treating ourselves with respect. Not only our physical being through the practice of asana, intelligently enquiring into the causes of any aches or pains and practicing with a sense of constant self examination, but more subtly enquiring into the nature of our thoughts. Are our thoughts positive and helpful? Our meditation helps us to examine our mind and to calm and still the thoughts which in turn allows our hearts to open.

What brings joy to our hearts is simply love. You spend time with your partner who cares deeply for you, without asking anything of you, when you are in their presence you feel love. You come to the feet of the Master who is a channel for the teachings and you feel unconditional love. That love leads you to care for your own body and care for your thoughts and care for your heart. The practices are described to lead us in this direction. To help make our lives a manifestation of loving kindness. Not only because our lack of grasping possessions makes us less selfish and so more loving, less inclined to take what we want without regard for the happiness of others but also through enhancing our relationship with others. When we are peaceful and calm and we know our purpose in life we bring happiness to others, automatically, without trying, as a natural product of existence. And so also to our relationship with ourselves so that when we go to sleep at night our minds are at peace and our hearts content and happy.

Patanjali puts it very beautifully in one short sutra, Chapter 2 verse 42:

saṁtoṣād anuttamaḥ sukha lābhaḥ

From contentment there flows the most excellent happiness and delight.

This delight, this bliss or Ananda is the great gift bestowed on us by the teachings that come to us through the blessed souls that the Divinity choses to manifest the teachings

May we ever remember our beloved teachers with gratitude and appreciation.

May we find refuge at their lotus feet.

May we imbibe the essence of their message and realise it in this very lifetime itself.

Your Real Home

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Living in the body is like living in a rented house. It’s okay, it meets your basic needs. You have a nice kitchen, a pantry full of food, warm water, you can have a nice shower. All your things are packed away there. You have your routine set up nicely. You do know in the back of your mind that it is not permanent, that it belongs to someone else, but it feels like yours while you are there.

Discovering meditation or yoga, whatever your spiritual practice, is like being given the keys to another beautiful house somewhere close. Situated high on the top of the dunes along the sea with clear space all around you. The design is very minimalist, very Zen, ceiling to floor self cleaning glass windows overlooking the ocean where you can sit quietly and watch the sunset, the play of light on the clouds and the sky, the ripples on the ocean as the wind changes. It’s completely yours, and free, no need to pay any rent, no need to do any maintenance, it all looks after itself.

It’s very simple. All there is in the house is maybe a little Japanese tea set so that when you go there you have a cup of tea but nothing else. In the beginning it feels slightly unfamiliar. You think, hmmm, this is nice but what about everything that is going on back at home? Who is feeding the budgie and the cat and the dog? After all, that is my postal address where all the bills come to and I have to go to work on Monday morning so my clean socks and ironed shirts are there.

So your mind takes you back to your rented house and your everyday routine continues but you remember, Oh I have the key to this other beautiful place that I can go to any time I like. Gradually more and more, you spend time in this other place that you have been gifted, that you have been granted and you find that your interest in what is left behind at the rented house becomes slowly less and less. Still you carry on your life, you know you have responsibilities to fulfil, you have your karma to work through but now even when you’re at the rental house part of you remembers this beautiful place that you can go to at any time you like and just be still and peaceful.

As time goes by you realise that you need less and less to be happy until one day the landlord tells you, sorry, your lease is up. You may if you are lucky get a bit of warning, some time to put your affairs in order, but possibly not. However it doesn’t matter because even in the rental house you are now always aware of the other place, the calm, beautiful, empty, clear space that you have. All the while that you have been continuing your duties, feeding the cat and the dog and the budgie, part of your mind is still there in that beautiful clear empty space.

So when your lease comes to an end, you happily give that up and you pass it on to somebody else who moves into the rental house and makes it their own. Your socks and shirts will go to the second-hand market. Someone else will feed the cat and the dog and the budgie. Your awareness, your consciousness, your reality has become entirely absorbed in that new place.

So heaven, if there is such a place, is a state of mind, not a physical place up in the sky. We don’t need to wait until the lease is up on our body to experience that. We can start to become familiar and comfortable with needing less and being happy in a place that is simple, at any time during our life. The body is finally dropped when the karma is complete, when the work is done. When the body’s tasks are finished we can go to that place where we are free and empty and light, permanently.

We are all given the key to this beautiful place within ourselves and we can visit there and stay there as often and as long as we like. Our salutations and prostrations at the feet of the holy Masters who through their pure compassion and selfless love grant us this most precious gift.

Freedom is kindness to others

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If we are to take anything from our spiritual endeavour it is that we practice kindness towards others.  We learn this from all the traditions, not just yoga. In the Christian tradition Jesus instructs us – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, again in Corinthians, There are three things that endure: Faith, Hope and Love, but the greatest of these is Love; the Jain tradition, Ahimsa, extends the concept of non violence not only to humans but to all animals, plants, micro-organisms and all beings having life, they sweep the path in front ahead lest any insects should be injured, Ahimsa a strong tenet in the yoga tradition, do the least harm possible, may all be happy peaceful and fulfilled. All the great teachers tell us this. Why? Because they know that loving kindness is the only quality that matters, it is all that endures, and when practiced removes all  obstacles to our liberation.

A life spent in accumulating wealth means very little during the last moments. If you have time to reflect and look back on your life you won’t be thinking, thank goodness, I managed to put that extra thousand dollars in the bank, you will remember the love that you shared. The times that are most precious to you are those moments you have experienced closeness and love with others. When you remember an ancestor of yours fondly, perhaps a parent or grandparent, you don’t remember just the things they gave you, you remember the way that you felt when they cared for you, when they nurtured you and helped you.

Practicing loving kindness towards others is a way for us to become happy. It’s not selfishness to want to be happy, everyone wants the same. In order to find happiness we have to be free. Free from anger and jealousy and hatred and envy and greed and all those things that eat us up and so rob us of our peace of mind. So to be free we can practice loving kindness.

We start with someone we like, we start with someone who is kind to us. They give us a packet of kindness and we give them a packet of kindness in return. It’s easy to be kind to someone who is kind to you. Swami used to call it market place kindness. Exchange. More difficult if someone is neutral towards you. You do something good, you let someone into the traffic in front of you, they don’t acknowledge you, they are neutral towards you, maybe something is going on for them in their own head and you think Hmmm, you are offended. You have this subtle sense of entitlement, they need to give you something back for your kindness. So the next step in our practice as seekers after truth is to practice loving kindness towards those who are neutral towards us with out expectation of reciprocation. We rise a level up.

What about those people who are hostile towards us? Our boss doesn’t treat us fairly, an invading force comes into our country and kills our people, we have to flee across the mountains. Or imprisoned for twenty years for standing up for what is right. Can we practice loving kindness towards those who are hostile towards us? This is the real test of an awakened seeker. If we allow others who would harm us to force us down the path of anger and revenge and hatred we continue to do to ourselves what they have done to us. If we somehow find a way to practice forgiveness and loving kindness, Lord forgive them they know not what they do, to those who wish us harm, we are free.

At the end of our lives, they may have collected the wealth and the karma but we have the love and that is the only treasure our souls can carry when we depart this life. The rest of it ihas no substance, it falls away. Only love endures.

Now watch for circumstances in your life where you can repay kindness with kindness, where you can repay neutrality with kindness and even someone who wishes you no good, try to repay them with kindness too. Kindness to those who are hostile does not mean allowing yourself to become a victim or pretend to like them or wear a mask. It can mean standing up for what is good and right, speaking your truth, that too is loving kindness. This is the greatest gift we can bestow upon ourselves because it leads to freedom.

The great Masters are living examples of this. They do good to all because that is their nature and they cannot do otherwise. They are forever free and have gone beyond the pairs of opposites. Our salutations to those great souls who light the way for us.

Two Paths to Choose From

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We are recently back from our trip to Tibet and the completion of the Kora of the holy Mount Kailash. It was difficult and challenging but a wonderful experience. What is clear from the journey is that there seem to be only two pathways, the pathway of love and the pathway of fear. At every juncture in our lives we have a choice of whether to choose love or whether to choose fear. It needn’t be something dramatic or universal, it can be a simple event in life that helps to illustrate this truth. I will share with you an amusing example from our trip.

We were walking on a camping trek from Simikot up into the high mountains of north western Nepal, a very remote region. We saw no other travellers, just the local people and our little group of six led by a wonderful guide and two assistant guides and a superb cook and his kitchen assistants. One of the assistant guides, a Sherpa, who led the front of the party kept stopping and taking off his shoes and rubbing his toes. I asked him what was wrong and he explained that his shoes were too small. They were a cheap pair of Chinese made black sneakers about two sizes too small for him and that night when we stopped he pretty much threw them away and was going to do the rest of the walk in beach thongs. Now it is cold and rocky and walking is precarious in sections of the path high on cliffs above raging torrents of rivers that have claimed more that a few pack donkeys over the years.

There I was with my brand new Italian leather hiking boots and had also been shopping the day before we left and bought a second pair of quite expensive lightweight trail shoes for wearing in the camp at night, and I had that second unused pair in my pack. So I agonised over this for a little then realised that it wasn’t right that I had two pairs of shoes and he had none and so decided that I was going to offer him the use of my second pair of shoes until we got to the Tibetan border and then I would need them back. So just an inkling of love but still eighty percent of fear. What if he breaks them? How will I manage without them? I got the main guide to explain to him that he could borrow the shoes because he was struggling but when we got to the border of Tibet and our ways part I wanted the shoes back because I was going to need them in Lhasa.

So on we go and that night we stopped at a campsite and there was a beautiful monastery up on the hill, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is so powerful and rich. We had heard that there was a Rinpoche in residence there, a high Lama, living in the monastery looking after the whole region and we were very keen to meet him. My new boots by this stage were hurting so I took the boots off and was going to walk half an hour up the steep mountain path in bare feet. The main guide was worried for me and told me not to do it because of broken glass and thorns and sharp stones and it was evening and cold and getting dark but love was calling from the monastery and fear was put aside so two of us set off with one of the porters whose relative was a monk in residence there to seek an audience with the Rinpoche. Not one single thorn or stone or sharp object hurt my foot so that was a little hint, an affirmation of the power of love. The Rinpoche blessed us with an audience, non grasping is important he said, and put white scarves around our necks and gave us sweets as prasad which was later distributed amongst the guides.

As we got closer to the Tibetan border the Sherpa guide seemed so happy and in the moment with his shoes, he was striding along, smiling and watching him I thought to myself there was no way in the world I was going to be able to ask for those shoes back. So I said to him on the second last night, I put my hands on his shoulders and said “You keep the shoes, the shoes are for you.” The right thing to do, obviously. So letting go of the fear and attachment, the worry that my shoes are going to come back dirty, maybe damaged and what am I going to wear when I get to Lhasa, letting go of all of that, love expanded in my heart and I felt utterly free of attachment of grasping for the shoes. It led to the most beautiful and moving moment for me of the whole trip when we said goodbye. He was sitting next to me in the small camp kitchen and then he took my hands and he put them on his forehead in a gesture of thanks.

Not to suggest that I was somehow being generous, there was no other course of action possible but just that moment letting go of fear, of the thoughts “what about me and mine”, and allowing love to emerge gave me the greatest joy and happiness of the whole experience.

Once we crossed the border into Tibet I thought I had better get some other shoes. We were at the Chinese border town and I was looking for replacement shoes, walking around every single shop in the town. Chinese feet are generally small, so the shopkeepers would take one look at my huge boots and turn their backs disdainfully shaking their heads. I was looking for a size 45 but there was nothing bigger anywhere than a size 41. I was just about to give up when I saw a rack of shoes outside a toy shop and asked the owner if he had a big pair of shoes. He got very animated and told me to wait, not to go anywhere and then disappeared for at about half an hour. Finally he came back beaming with a large box in his hands saying “one pair, one pair only!”. He had found a pair of slip on shoes that were just the perfect size. Another reminder that the universe looks after you when you let go of fear.

Choosing the path of love over the path of fear doesn’t mean that everything is always going to be rosy but what it does mean is that we say Yes to life, that we open ourselves to both the pain and the joy. We can’t have one without the other. Fear means we contract, we shut down, hide away, we say No to life and nothing happens, we stay stuck in our selfishness, we don’t progress. When you have the courage to say Yes to life, to choose the path of love, life becomes mysteriously enriching.

The great ones, the Masters,  show us the way by living their lives in a way that shines as an example to us all. They are ever engaged in service for the wellbeing of all with no hint of selfishness. Salutations to that Sat Guru whose life is an embodiment of pure and selfless love.

Satyam, the search for truth

 

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Truth is a beautiful thing. The beauty of truth is not that it is a rule, a commandment that states if you don’t speak the truth you willhave to bear the consequences, you will be punished in some way nor that you will be rewarded every time you speak the truth but truth is in itself immensely satisfying and its own reward.  Whether you are an advocate representing someone who has been falsely accused, getting to the truth of the matter so that you can ensure justice is not compromised, orwhether you are working with numbers as an accountant and the satisfaction when all the numbers align correctly or whether you are a writer seeking to express some more abstract truth through the interaction of the characters you create, or an artist expressing your own truth through the manifestation of your own creative efforts, truth is a beautiful thing.

It is known as Satyam in our yoga texts and it applies not only on a micro level, in that every situation has its inherent truth that we can come to and discover through the application of right enquiry but there is also the macro truth that affects us all. The big questions. Do we have a soul? Is there a God? What happens when we die?

This search for truth is something that brings joy to our hearts and minds. The Yoga Vasistha, the wonderful text containing the teachings of the Sage Vasistha helps us here. Some of you have been with us to Vasistha Guha, the cave north of Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges River in northern India where Vasistha is said to have meditated and written the texts that have been preserved for us to study. He describes the Sage Valmiki instructing Rama in the search for truth. Rama asks Valmiki, “How will I find this truth, how can I discover truth?”

Valmiki replies that there are four gateways to truth. The first of these gateways is self control. It is satisfying when you are with someone who is able to exercise self control. They don’t take the last piece of food from the plate, they can hold back, they can restrain their needs and desires. They are measured in their words, they consider carefully before they speak. There is something inspiring about that. The first gateway to the discovery of truth in our lives in every situation.

The second gateway Valmiki describes is a spirit of enquiry, a hunger for the truth. If we think we know everything there is no room for truth to reveal itself to us. The spirit of enquiry, known as Vichara in yoga is very important.

The third gateway described to Rama is Santosha, contentment. Similar to self control. When the mind is always racing after the next thing there is no stillness. The truth can only reveal itself to you when the mind is still.

The final gateway to the discovery of truth is good company. Satsang.

In the texts Valmiki goes on to describe to Rama what truth is and that truth is not something static. Not something that can be contained exclusively and comprehensively in a single book or a manuscript. Truth is dynamic. Every situation we encounter has its own essence, its own truth. So in order for us to be seekers after truth we need to maintain those four attributes and an open mind in realising that we do not know it all. That there will be situations where we will need to pursue this enquiry to come to the truth of the matter.

When we come to the truth of the matter our hearts are still. When we are practicing our meditation all four of these are automatically included. Self control, enquiry, contentment and good company. Our practice is a celebration of truth as revealed to us by the holy sages who are beyond the mind, one with divinity , immovably established in truth and the witness to our innermost thoughts. Solutions to those great souls that preserve and share this universal self consciousness with us seekers after truth.