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.