Thursday, 27 November 2014

Street Spirituality

High streets are intriguing places; a microcosm of modern life. It’s where people descend in their thousands, searching for something extra to enrich their existence. These urban hubs are a melting pot of entertainers, campaigners, shoppers, beggars and advertisers, a marketplace for the latest commodities and ideas, a space for meeting, sharing and exploring. Here you’ll find people from every imaginable socio-economic background, swarming like bees around a hive.

Enter the monks. Yes, you read it right. Crazy as it may sound, this is where we spend many days and weeks; standing on street corners, speaking to random people, and showing them spiritual books. It’s quite a task to stop someone in their tracks, cut through the myriad of thoughts, penetrate the bubble of their life and begin a dialogue about deeper subject matter. Some people naturally tune in to the concept of spirituality and wisdom, while others are sceptical, uninterested and otherwise-engaged. Either way we always have a laugh, a smile and learn something from each other!

Amongst whatever else I do in life, this simple and sublime activity is what I enjoy most. It’s a humble attempt to positively contribute to the world, and something which reconnects me with my calling. Sometimes it’s agonizingly difficult, other times it feels like a dream-like drama being orchestrated by higher powers. Either way, it’s where I feel at home. My most memorable, magical and moving experiences in life have been in bustling high streets sharing spirituality with people. With the arrival of the festive season, we embark upon another month-long tour. The rough route for this year: London – Birmingham – Manchester – Liverpool – Leeds – York – Bolton – Chester – Worcester – Southampton – Poole – Bournemouth – Portsmouth – Chichester – Winchester – London (and a lot of smaller towns in between!). Maybe see you along the way...

Here are some clips from our summer adventures:

Friday, 14 November 2014

Window Shopping

Help! My inbox is overflowing with self-development quotes! Pinterest, it seems, is the latest online guru, offering digestible, practical and relevant bites of wisdom that make perfect sense. Insightful thinkers like Stephen Covey, Eckhart Tolle, Depak Chopra and Anthony Robbins have shaped a new approach to life, offering a stimulating alternative to the automatous programme of eat, drink, be merry and enjoy. They remind us of the 5 cardinal principles of happy marriage, the 3 ways to diffuse anger, the 4 steps to enduring vitality, and the 7 qualities that will win you the best friends on the planet; all of which help us craft a progressive, peaceful and happy life. Call me a sceptic, but I’m still not convinced. The buzz quotes don’t excite me as much as they used to.

Modern-day self-development promotes the ideals, but how much does it actually equip and empower one to genuinely imbibe this positive mental state? Can we mentally coerce ourselves to forgive others? Does a deep sense of selflessness and kindness towards the universe manifest on the level of the intellect? Will simple determination help us remain equipoised in the midst of the most provoking situations? Next time we’re angry, will we remember the Pinterest jpeg that someone posted on Facebook? A change in our instinctive emotional response must come from a deeper transformation of consciousness. There has to be profound existential awakening. Only when we see our life situation as a chapter in a longer story, when we deeply connect with the divine intelligence who is behind the workings of nature, when we understand that we are spiritual beings on a human journey - only then can we function with genuine and sustained positivity. The 64-million dollar question is how we achieve such consciousness. After all, we don’t want to be window shoppers who are captivated by the products, but have no power to purchase them.

Self-development is a natural consequence of spiritual development. Without practical spirituality, self-development stagnates. Along with describing the character, qualities and persona of a perfect spiritualist, books like the Bhagavad-gita also equip one with the spiritual tools and technology to achieve such an elevated conscious state. It offers information, as well as transformation. Some may doubt that ancient practices like meditation and yoga can actually bring about tangible changes in one’s approach to life, but the practical experience of dedicated spiritualists proves otherwise. Since the calculated procedure outlined by great teachers awakens the spontaneous purity within, the Bhagavad-gita proposes that we need not learn something new, but rather invoke what is already within. This is the ultimate self-development strategy.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Head Space

As it stands, my entire technology inventory consists of a bog standard Nokia, Dell Inspiron laptop and 2GB I-river MP3 player. I’m determined to limit it to that, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult. The world moves at breakneck speed, and we scarper behind trying to catch up. Two houses, two cars, two television sets, two phones… it all seems too much! Luxuries have become necessities, without which, we just can’t function. Modern-day spiritualists, it seems, are faced with a unique challenge: the art of living is not how big we can make it, rather how small we can keep it! Some say we should just embrace technology and engage it in our spirituality. Rather than fighting the digital current, they say, why not just redirect it in a positive way? After all, isn’t it practical to move with the times?

Sounds good, but exercise caution, lest we may lose the plot. It’s great to connect with people hundreds of miles away, as long as we don’t forget to say hello to our neighbors. It’s nice to know what’s happening in every corner of the world, but let’s not forget to make a positive impact in our immediate circle of friends, family and community. It’s a treat to have entertainment and amusement online, so long as we don’t sleep through the exciting opportunities awaiting us in the physical world. It’s empowering to have access to so much knowledge, provided we don’t just memorise stacks of information with little sign of actual transformation.

Technology often increases quantity, but can potentially end up eroding quality. In ancient times, for example, sacred scriptures were few and far between, hand-copied, and in the possession of only the most fortunate. One saint’s manuscript of Srimad-Bhagavatam, the crest jewel of India’s spiritual wisdom, was blotted, smudged, and rendered practically unreadable due to the tears of love which were shed during his reading. Today, such priceless books are readily available at our fingertips; read them anywhere and anytime on our IPhones, IPads, Kindles and Laptops. Our shelves are lined with the hard copies – big books, small books, deluxe collector’s item and all-in-one version – a veritable library of wisdom! But how much quality time have we devoted to reading them? And when we do, are we in the right headspace to draw the unlimited inspiration which is available? With improved access let’s simultaneously intensify our deep contemplation and absorption in the subject matter. After all, a few short sentences, properly digested, can change our entire life.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Martial Mystics

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – now that was a craze when I was a kid. More than the dynamic turtles, however, the character of Splinter always intrigued me. Although an elderly rat dressed in robes, he was the quintessential calm, all-knowing master of martial arts, his name derived from his proficiency in smashing wooden boards. For the most part he was quiet and unassuming, though he would occasionally spring into action, lending some devastating blows to save his students from impending doom. The young and spritely turtles had a dynamic repertoire of fancy moves, but when the old master came in there was something extra special – though frail and aged, his one hit could destroy everything!

The aged and wise are special – irreplaceable constituents of any family or society, what to speak of a spiritual movement. While many may have knowledge, the seasoned spiritualists bring something special to the table. Their practical wisdom from a life of experience and their inner purity from a life of selfless sacrifice, make their words penetrating and heart-touching. They may not move with the energy of a youngster, but their spiritual potency is as powerful as ever. Such personalities can move the world in a different way.

Swami Prabhupada is the living proof. At the age of 69, homeless, penniless and alone, he relocated to the Lower East Side in search of 'better opportunities' to preach his message. This was Skid row; the lowest of the low. Here he lived, worshiped, studied and taught. In the early evening, his new residence, the rat-ridden 94 Bowery, would fill up with buzzing acidheads, bearded bohemians, ruined alcoholics and disillusioned dropouts. Sex, music, LSD, and meditation is what made them tick. The Swami would nonchalantly step into the ‘temple’ and take his seat at the front, face-to-face with these confused souls who were looking for real love, real happiness and real spiritual experience. The Swami’s expression would exude bottomless depth, not phased in the slightest. In short, straight, basic philosophical discourses, he communicated eternal truths with unparalleled impact. When he sang in unsophisticated tunes with a bongo drum, their heads would spin, and their hearts conquered. His tremendous devotion was irresistible, empowering his simple message to penetrate the core of their hearts. As a martial mystic, he effortlessly smashed the illusion, unrelentingly speaking out in defiance of all materialistic ideology. Absolutely incredible. We follow that teacher in awe, hoping to one day become worthy students.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Good Words

One of my fellow monks is an extremely prayerful person. He has regular stories of the reciprocation and interaction that comes from conversing with God. Though inspired, I personally find it difficult to pray.  It usually feels unnatural and artificial; probably a combination of my impersonal character, hard-heartedness, lack of faith, and general life philosophy of “work hard and be practical.” Someone, however, recently offered me an interesting antidote – “pray for other people” they said. Whether a friend, family member, work colleague, or even a stranger you meet for the first time, just stop for a few moments and sincerely pray for something that will help them in their life. I began to try. Unconventional as it sounded, I could immediately appreciate the power of this approach on many levels:

  • Personal level – Rather than being critical, judgmental or aloof, we evolve into selfless agents of positive change. Since prayer invokes divine intervention, we are not simply observers of the world, but can make a difference, even to people we have very little physical contact with. In such moments of noble prayer, we rise beyond self-absorption and forget our own difficulties.
  • Relationship level – Taking the time to deeply contemplate someone’s life transforms our relationship with them. We learn to see beyond the external chaos, appreciating that everyone is a pure soul trying to break free from material entanglement. Prayer helps one to connect with people on a deeper level. 
  • Social level – When a group of people form, each one sincerely wanting the others to excel, it creates a unique spiritual energy. That unity, fellowship and genuine warmth helps them to achieve their goals and transform the world. Prayer brings people together.

It reminded me of how Swami Prabhupada would sign off his correspondence with “your ever well-wisher.” His prayer was completely selfless; a natural consequence of his incredible compassion and concern for all. Saintly persons are said to feel another’s pain as their own (para dukha dukhi). Just as we spontaneously attend to any ailment in our body, they are spontaneously impelled to relieve the suffering of the general populace. Even if we fall short of that pure stage, we can still institute the process of selfless prayer as a vehicle to developing deeper sensitivity, which is so integral to spiritual advancement. After all, we find ourselves by thinking of others. Try it out this week – take a few quality moments to sincerely pray for the wellbeing of someone else. And if you’re finding it difficult to identify someone, you could always slip in a good word for this struggling soul. :) 

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Mission Impossible

People have a romantic idea of spirituality: escape worldly distraction, access higher states of consciousness, and settle into an internal serenity. The dedicated (and honest) practitioners, however, will frankly admit that it doesn’t always work like that. There are good days and bad days. Sometimes we experience a sweet pleasure from simple and sublime spiritual practices. On other days, however, it feels mechanical, burdensome, monotonous and uninspiring. Thousands of thoughts whiz through the mind and disturb our focus. But if spirituality is so natural, why does it sometimes feel so artificial? If we are connecting with our true nature, why does it seem so alien?

Before reaching spiritual maturity, one goes through the stage of anisthita bhakti – unsteady devotion. Here, the ebbs and flows of enthusiasm and dry patches are inevitable. The great spiritual preceptors therefore recommend that one take vows, committing themselves to a regime that will sustain their progress over a lifetime. Honouring vows in the early stages is easy since there is freshness and novelty. Honouring those promises in the mature stage is effortless since there is natural attraction and relish. In between, however, spiritual life can feel like a taxing struggle - freshness has worn off, and the ‘higher taste’ is a distant reality. This interim zone is the proverbial graveyard of numerous sincere spiritualists; they started, but just couldn’t continue.  Fear not, however, since this is also the zone where the beautiful principle of commitment can shine through. The depth of any relationship is proportionate to the commitment shown – husband and wife, friend to friend, parent and child, guru and disciple… and also the individual soul and God.

Spirituality is about experience, taste, inspiration and feeling. But another major aspect is too often neglected – discipline, duty, determination and doggedness. There is much to be said about “getting on with it,” despite how you feel. If we could fortify this unglamorous aspect of our spiritual life we could grow to unimaginable heights. The vows of the great saints were like lines in stone; once uttered, there was no question of retraction. Their vows were planted in the heart and watered for many years, eventually manifesting wonderfully sweet fruits. Thus, this point of commitment should become a deep meditation. Spiritual life is undoubtedly a joyful process, but, uncharacteristic as it may sound, we may have to shed some blood, sweat and tears to make it work. Difficult, but not impossible.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

i-Gnore

Good advice is easy to give but hard to take. As soon as we’re offered those words of wisdom, the defence systems kick in and the mind reels off a thousand justifications. A man is seldom corrected without significant resistance. A shame, since the critical feedback of others is an invaluable component of spiritual growth. Developing an unapproachable character and persona, making it difficult for others to offer correction, is one of the top causes of spiritual inertia and internal dry-up. By repeatedly ignoring good feedback and advice, we send a clear message to our constructive critics – just leave me to it. And more often than not, they will.

So why is it so hard to humbly receive the sincere feedback of others?

We can’t see – it’s difficult to see the picture when you’re inside the frame. Entangled in our own emotions, perceptions, habits, and opinions, we struggle to go beyond. A neutral observer can clearly see things that we are completely oblivious to. Our modes of functioning, however, become so engrained that we convince ourselves we must be right, and conveniently disregard any opinions to the contrary.

We don’t want to see – success, we feel, is to be ‘perfect,’ and when that perfection is questioned, our pride awakens to defend. More important than perfection, however, is progress. A spiritually successful day is one where we improve, refine and develop ourselves, and how is that possible if we’re unaware of our shortcomings? Stagnate in the illusion of perfection or progress in the reality of struggle – the choice is ours.

Constructive critics actively craft our spirituality. Why not take their words seriously and embrace the opportunity to improve? Even when their feedback is out-and-out wrong, we’d do well to avoid disregarding it completely. Can we still learn a principle from what is being said? Even if the details are wrong, could the feedback apply to us in a different way? Can we see it as a warning of what not to do? Can we use their seemingly inaccurate analysis as an opportunity to exercise humility? All high ideals, I know, but that’s what makes a sincere spiritualist so special. The great saints demonstrated how even the harsh criticism of a faultfinder can enrich our spiritual growth, what to speak of the earnest words of concerned friends.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Spirit Secret

Seven years after its first release and people are still talking about it. ‘The Secret’ that Rhonda Byrne felt she had discovered was the ‘law of attraction’; whatever you think about and focus on, eventually becomes reality in your life. The universe, she says, is essentially energy, and all energy vibrates at different frequencies. Since each person also vibrates at a certain frequency, they attract the same within the larger energy field. Thus, we attract objects, fortunes, people and situations that are of a similar ‘vibration’ to ourselves.

It’s a mouthwatering concept – the possibility of attracting anything you desire. While Eastern teachers would agree with the general notion of designing our destiny, there is more to the story. Philosophical exploration and practical observation clearly shows that forces beyond our control are also influencing our fortunes. It’s called karma. We may desire different things, but without the karmic credit, those things will remain elusive. Unfortunately, the secret is not as simple as it sounds.

The Bhagavad-gita, however, reveals a more profound secret to life. While Rhonda’s book is about attracting, the classic Sanskrit text encourages one to first establish what is worthy of being attracted. Most people hastily draw up their shopping lists of life without significantly considering this point. Our basic problem is that we are attracted by the wrong things; things that won’t bring us what we are ultimately looking for. When we reconfigure our desires, turn our attention towards the right things, spiritual things, those things which allow us to connect with our very essence, then everything falls into place perfectly. This is the secret behind the secret.

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