Sunday 6 December 2009

Satyananda Saraswati Founder of the Bihar School of Yoga has died

Yesterday Satyananda Saraswati, the founder of the Bihar School of Yoga died. He was born in 1923 and founded the School in 1964. His book on Kundalini Tantra is a classic. The Bihar School is the closest to a large tantric teaching foundation that was possible in modern India with its puritanical dislike for some of the aspects of tantra. In reality his teachings cross between tantra , and Vedanta. They are actually very different teachings, with opposing principles but sometime a blend is as close as we can get. He gave us many practices to do with energy and was a great yogi. His mahasamadhi can remind us to find our own inner, and perhaps outer Gurus for we need all the help we can get on the path of tantra.

Tuesday 12 May 2009


To the military and in common parlance, "surrender" means you have been defeated and have to give up. In spiritual practice it means to let go and to allow something other than our usual selves to guide us. The difference between giving up and letting go is huge. Letting go is of course all about trust. Trusting in something to look after us, or that the process is benign. Such trust and surrender is a feature of the higher chakras in the body. The first three chakras (the base, the sexual and the belly) are mostly to do with survival in the world. To do that in evolutionary terms it is better to fight, never surrender and not trust anyone or anything very much. Moving up the body, the heart, as usual is the transformer to higher states and connections to others, nature, the universe and the divine. For all of these we have to let go of some control, we have to allow in the other or even immerse ourselves in it. The raindrop surrenders to the ocean.

Thursday 16 April 2009

India - some final thoughts.

I'm back home! I left England in the depth of a January winter I have come back to the miracle of Spring - greener and with more flowers than I ever saw in India. 

So how can I summarise India? It is more of a continent than a country and inevitably I only saw a little of it.  I spent very little time in large cities, but I did travel from the very southernmost tip of India, up to the foothills of the Himalayas in three months.

It has changed in the twelve years since I was there last. It is more crowded. Everyone seems to have a mobile phone - there are 350 millions mobiles in India. Bottled water and the resulting plastic bottles are everywhere along with plastic bags.  Often, with no bins or means of rubbish collection, plastic lies everywhere, and is eaten by cows or burnt releasing toxins. 

It is a country without atheists where spirituality suffuses everything. A sense of the sacred is everywhere. It is also a country full of contradictions; I saw a woman perform her sacred Ganges worship and then throw her bag of rubbish into the river. It is impossible to separate deep spirituality from habit and superstition.  The line between politicians, Bollywood film stars and Gods is blurred.  By the side of the road there can be a coloured concrete statue of a local politician complete with sunglasses. Motorcycles can have five or six people on them without any sign of a crash helmet. Traffic is so chaotic that it is a wonder that the very high death rate isn't even higher (at present about 140,000 a year killed). Air pollution in cities is awful and getting much worse as more families get cars.  Of course this chaos is also vibrant aliveness with the  vivid colours of the saris and the flowers alongside the dilapidated paintwork and rubbish. 

However, I wasn't there primarily as a tourist. In the South I was mostly learning mantras, attending satsangs and seeing Shiva temples. In Varanasi I was meditating, performing pujas and learning more of Kashmir Shavism; and in Rishikesh I was learning and practicing tantra-yoga.  All drawing from the vast spiritual heritage of India. The Dravidian culture in the South going back perhaps over 7,000 years; Varanasi having been a spiritual centre by the Ganges for over 4,000 years; and Kashmir Shavism, only being written by Abhinavagupta a thousand years ago is a compliation of spiritual  pratices and wisdom developed and elaborated over  many thousands of years.  

The high point of India tantric culture was about a thousand years ago. Society then was positive about sexuality and women, there was a vibrant culture. All civilisations rise and then decline and for India the immediate cause was the Muslim invasion, followed by the Portugese and finally the Puritan British colonisation.  Temples and statues were destroyed, women had to wear saris and finally the India middle class became more puritanical than the British campaigning to ban devadasi, the temple dancers. 

There is a sense of a culture in decline now which industrialising and having call centres and more computer programmers than America won't arrest.  If I had to put my money on India or China, I would choose China despite it having an aging population whereas India has a population where three quarters are under 40. The pressure of overpopulation and pollution together with the pervasive poitical corruption and administrative inertia is everywhere. It is a beautiful country but behind it all I feel a sadness at the lack of interest and curiosity most Indians have in their own cultural heritage. Perhaps it is only through foreigners' interest that they can re-learn what a precious jewel they have. 

Friday 3 April 2009

The Mind

Part two. The second word that is confusing if you work both in the psychotherapy world and the spiritual world is the word "mind". In the therapy world, it primarily means the brain; even though for the last couple of decades now we have realised through neuroscience that the brain and the mind are not exactly the same. For example there is neural tissue and synapses in the gut to such an extent that some people think of it as a second brain. There are, I believe more neuro-receptors for serotonin in the belly than in the brain. This is why we have "gut instincts". Anyway the mind usually means things to do with thinking, memory and mental processes like projection, transferences, defences. The mind is often contrasted with the body even though now, everyone pays at least lip-service to the idea that they are not just connected but inseparably united.

In the spiritual world the word "mind" is used to include much more than the brain and thoughts. We can easily find texts saying for example; that the ego and the mind are the same thing; that the body is created by the flow of mind; that mind is a blockage. It is a very expanded use of the word mind. It also reminds me of the seventies slogan, "Get out of your mind and come to you senses". Mind is confused with all that is undesirable and is contrasted with a real, authentic natural life of the body, senses and emotions. I was always struck by the contradiction that people who claimed to be wholistic wanted to cut off part of the person!

The problem of couse is that mind is confused with the use of thinking as a defence. It is often, in the west, used this way. How often do you have an original thought? Probably not many each day if you are honest. Thinking is often, repetative, ruminative, a rehersal of what we will say or what we should have said, a way or raking over past hurts or planning future triumphs. On the other hand we get mindless violence and I suggest that those in the crowd at Hilter's Nuremberg rallies could have usefully reflected on what they were part of rather than mindlessly getting swept up in the rhetoric and the emotion. I wish people would think more when they look at TV adverts.

In the splendid sweep of Kashmir Shavism there are 36 tattvas or levels of creation. Manas, Buddhi and Ahamakara are three which translate as mind, intellect and ego respectively. So there are right uses of the mind; curiosity is one. Discrimination is another, the ability to tell the difference between what is true and helpful and what is not; gold from iron. So aside from slogans about loosing our mind we have to discriminate. There is the conditioned mind, similar to the ego which loves distinctions, differences, debate. It can't survive the fierceness of the present moment and is best at separating us from the now and from others - when at a deeper level we need to be present and connect with them. At its best, the mind is designed to serve not to lead. It is not who we are but is definitely a necessary tool to have in the world. It is part of us. But only a part; and in Kashmir Shavism is one or two of the 36 tattvas of Creation. Looked at another way, the highest, chakra (energy centre), in the body is Ajna, the third eye, at the centre of the forehead (the Crown Chakra is above the head). Its balance, balances all the chakras in the body. It is the centre for intellect, discrimination and, with the heart, creates compassion. Esoterically, the centre of the head, the cave of Brahman is where the Kundalini Shakti unites with Shiva. Come to your higher mind!

Choose Both!

Many years ago I heard someone ask the Dali Lama at a meeting in London which was better, meditation or psychotherapy and he said with his characteristic simplicity "Therapy good, meditation good, choose both". I work in the fields of therapy and spiritual practice so I agree. But there is one problem. These two fields; psychotherapy and spiritual practice use the same words in different ways which can lead to huge confusion for people working with both and lots of unnecessary disagreements.

The most notoriously difficult word is the word "ego". Many spiritual teachers and texts both ancient and modern do not have a good word to say for the ego. It is the source of all greed, pride, anger, desire; virtually every known evil! They want their practices to destroy the evil ego. In the psychotherapy world we recognise many people with a weak ego and some therapy practices aim to strengthen the ego. The word ego was what was used to translate Freud's' "Ich" into English. Freud just said "I". The ego is our sense of personal identity, needed for our passport and credit card. At a basic level it starts as a necessary identification by the small baby with its body and its skin as a boundary between I and not-I. If you do not have this in life you are in trouble and would probably be labeled psychotic. The ego also mediates between the internal world and the outer world. It is our ego which allows us to plan a meal, buy the ingredients, consult the cook book and cook it. Without a strong enough ego we can't do these things and deal with life and the world. However, the problem, and why the spiritual camp don't like the ego is that we over-identify with it. We have a body, and senses and emotions and thoughts but we are not them as we can witness them from somewhere else. The problem is the small ego, the limited identification which keeps us from expanding into a bigger sense of who we really are. It is good to think of the ego as one end of a bridge and at the other end is the Self, or essence: who we really are. The job of a teacher, therapist or guru it to recognise the small ego, perhaps to strengthen it enough to then lead it over the bridge to the luminous Self. It is not helpful for many people who are attracted in early life to spiritual practice to keep slagging off the ego. They need it. It is like a crutch for someone with a broken leg; necessary but temporary. It may be best to think of, and treat the ego as a the Self-in-hiding. Ultimately, as Mooji said, "We are all stage-names of the Divine!". In the next blog I will write about the other word that causes difficulties, the mind.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Many monks, many methods

Namaste, I'm in Rishikesh the "Yoga Capital of the World" in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Ganges is still comparatively clean and fast-flowing between forested hills. There's a lot of yoga here...many ashrams and many courses.

In the West yoga has been marketed as a health and fitness for bums and tums and to stay trim, flexible and healthy. A sort of cleaned up version of yoga has been imported into the West for a long time - since Swami Vivekananda went to the West in the 1890's. It has been stripped of its tantric part and then cleaned up and stripped of its central core as a spiritual practice. The tantra had already been pushed well underground from eight hundred years of occupation of India by Muslim, Portugese and then British puritans. For example Vivekananda's guru was Ramakrishna who certainly practised Bhairava tantric rites that your average Sunday school teacher wouldn't approve of.

Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Founder of the Bihar School of Yoga wrote ..."yoga and tantra are in essence the same system......tantra is the mother and yoga is the son......asanas and pranayama form a most essential part of the tantric system."

There are thousands of books on yoga and varities; Jhana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Laya Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Tantra Yoga, Kriya yoga, Japa Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Bikram Yoga and many more. Patanjali was the first to write any of the practices down, about two thousand years ago. In his sutras (which were not text full of illustrations of how to tie your body in knots!) , he makes clear that the purpose of yoga is meditation and the purpose of meditation is to realise Atman; union with the Divine. Manifesting the resonance between the microcosm of your body and the macrocosm of the universe. Its not about health or even about energy. Yoga should therefore be done with eyes closed as an interior practice focusing on the chakra or the internal flow of subtle energy sensations.

The West, of course as a materialistic culture wants material results; a better shaped body, better stamina, more flexibility or a longer life. These may be a by-product of yoga but they are not the point. When westerners came to India they wanted yoga from the predominantly Vedanta-based ashrams. So the ashrams obliged their rich customers; but the Vedantic tradition of India is opposed to tantra. Vedanta is only interested in the top three chakras. Vedanta was religion for generally intellectual Brahmin males. So yoga gets again restricted.

Anyway, back to all these varieties of yoga. It is simple, they all suit different sorts of people. Tantra and yoga are very pragmatic. Jhana Yoga and also some of the Kashmir Shavite practices are best for people who are more intellectual; Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of love and surrender to the Divine is best for people who are naturally centred in their hearts, Karma Yoga is great for those intersted in the social and political world around them Mahatma Gandhi was a great Karma Yogi. Of course the greatest and first yogi was Shiva. Whatever you practice do it fully, regularly and with awareness. The best practices are always the ones closest to your natural interests. From them great bliss will arise.

Friday 13 March 2009

The Shivalingam

It's pretty amazing to be in a city where the lingam is everywhere. Walking by the Ganges, or through the narrow alleyways of the old city of Varanasi; in alcoves, in little shrines, glimpsed through windows and doorways or embedded in the pavement are shivalinga. They do not represent the phallus, or vajra (penis) - it is the other way round. The phallus is a particular form of the symbol (Jung would call it an archetype) of the lingam which represents Shiva and is a reminder of the vertical dimension of life; the connection with Spirit.

Even more amazing is that they are not dusty old relics of a bygone age. Most, are freshly decorated with flowers and colours. In the recent festival of Mahashivaratri they are annointed with Ganges water, milk, curd, flowers, garlands. Some are tenderly dressed like precious children.

In the West anything that could connect with associations to the lingam is either ridiculed, shamed, shunned or analysed in reductive Freudian terms. The celebration of anything like this we have left is the Maypole; not long now till May day!

Friday 20 February 2009

Tantra. Vedanta

As a change from the travellogue I thought I would write a bit about the shastras, the scriptures and the view they give. It seems to me that there is a clear division between the tantric scriptures and those of Vedanta. The situation is confusing as words are translated in many different ways. In much Vedanta teaching there is little good to say about the mind and the ego. Both are the source of delusion and illusion and only serve to separate us from the Divine. They perpetuate maya the illusory world experienced through the senses. The best we can do is withdraw from having anything to do with thoughts or the mind and seeing everything as an illusion, rest in consciousness.
The tantric view, is different. It is developed most fully in the Kashmir Shavite tradition. The greatest exponent was Abhinavagupta about 900 years ago in works such as Tantraloka. For him, the world is not an illusion to be shunned. Everything is real and everything can lead us to God-consciousness. All things are within consciousness and can only be discovered through reflective awareness with the mind. Shiva's power is consciousness which sustains everything. There are some aspects of the mind such discriminating wisdom and curiosity which are important. The problem with the ego is twofold. Firstly, we tend to from childhood identify the ego with the body and secondly take that as a primary identification so we think we are our body or that we are our thoughts. This universe is Lord Shiva's work of art; not maya. Enjoy it.

Thursday 19 February 2009

City of Light

Its five thirty in the morning and for the first time in India, I feel cold despite a fleece. The crescent moon is still high in the night sky waning towards the New Moon for the festival of Mahashivaratri here in Kashi (also called Varanasi and by the British , Benares) in a few days time. A few bright candles float down the Ganges in front of me. To my right a fire flares as a chai stall wallah lights his fire for the first brew of the day. In the distance I can see the fires of the main burning ghat as more bodies are dispached, fortunate enought to be burnt next to the Ganges at Varanasi - every Hindu's wish. This city of Shiva is where he traditionally appeared as an infinite pillar of fire to win the contest between Shiva, Visnu and Brahman. It is called the shining city and is full of shivalingams every few yards in the street. Nearly allways with some fresh flowers or bel leaves on it. We are more used to associating fire with Shakti as the fire of kundalini than Shiva the fire, from his third eye which can turn opponents to ash. The boatmen are coming now, looking for trade. The dobhi wallahs are starting their day of thrashing the dirt out of clothes in the river. The sky ahead becomes redder, soon the sun will rise it will warm up and I can chant the Gyatri mantra to start the day.
Namaste. Sat, Chit Ananada; truth, consciousness and bliss.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Who Am I?

Ramana Maharshi's basic method for realising the Self was one of Self-Enqiry. It was how he at the age of 16 became enligthened. With any experience we have from out mind - a thought or a feeling we can do one of four things; we can suppress it, we can express it, we can witness it or we can ask the question, who is it that is experiencing this? For many people suppressing feelings is how they were brought up and it is a great liberation when they give themselves permission to do the opposite and express. This permission may come from therapy or from being in an environment which supports them. More energy is liberated this way.

But tantra is always about the dance of energy and awareness. Eventually we realise that just expressing can lead to personal chaos and more stuckness as we can easily become addicted to the dramas. So we move towards the witenssing of feelings and thoughts; more like a meditation. However the more we sit as a witness the more things there are to witness (Mooji said that the actors only come on stage when the audience is there! ). The process of true liberation comes when we turn from the seductive play of phenomena, as if a mirror is put in front of our face, and ask, "Who is it that is experiencing this?". If this is done the mind quietens and a spacious sense of "I am" arises. It is a spaciousness that is not empty but full of bliss. Finally the "I AM" expands as AM, loosing the personal sense of I. Only Existence remains. This is it. Thre are many ways of quietening the mind and coming to a space of being. Using mantra is one way. Of course I like using the energy of the body through touch and breathing to do the same. In erotic trance and expanded orgasmic states we can experience this dissolving in to Existence and it can open up the question Who Am I?

Namaste from India. Next week I am in the City of Shiva - Varanasi.

Tuesday 10 February 2009


It's twilight and above me the sacred mountain of Arunachal is becoming a silhouette against the sky, a mountain older than the Himalayas, dedicated to Shiva. In its caves over thousands of years many have realised enlightenment or samadhi. Ramana Maharshi lived on this mountain in modern times. It is the eve of the full moon and hundreds of thousands of people are walking aound the mountain, though it feels more like walking though a long funfair of stalls with small temples every few yards. Some walk in silence, many are in groups chattering excitedly. At other times, some even roll around the mountain for all of its 14km circumference. I walked alone a week earlier in the early morning chanting all the way Om Namah Shivaaya and singing Arunachala Shiva. The cave where Ramana lived for several years is particularly powerful and we were able to chant in there, the vibrations of the chants filling our heads and bodies shaking out thoughts to create luminous space to dissolve in to. All spiritual practices require some way of stilling thoughts to allow the spaciousness of being to a recognised and mantra is a particularly powerful way to do this (see . Ramana at the end of the ninteenth century experienced sahaja samadhi (spontaneous awakening) when he was sixteen years old and from that experience developed Self-Enquiry as a method to realise the Self. It is simple to enquire in the identity of the experiencer. Can the seer be seen? We so readily get caught up in the experiences or try and become the witnesser of the experience and never enquire into the nature and reality of the expereincer.

India is a great place to practice this. Old distractions are muted and the sheer intensity of the experiences in the present moment make it easier to stay present and then, as if putting a mirror in front, look for the reality of the experiencer. So who walked around the great mountain of Arunachala? And were they separate from the mountain and the crowds.?