Wednesday, 25 November 2015

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 relish 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, and other times it feels like a mystical 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 marathon. This year it’s a special effort, and everyone’s invited to get involved (Facebook:

Thursday, 5 November 2015


Someone recently referred to me as a 'man of faith'. I detected the condescending tone in his speech. It was, I’m pretty sure, a subtle put-down. Faith is often frowned upon in today’s society – savvy people consider it unscientific, sentimental, primitive and a sign of weakness. Believe in what you see, they say, and take charge of fortune by shaping life on your own abilities and strength. It’s a psychological approach developing from reductionist science, which aims to explain everything in mechanistic, empirical and routine terms. It’s quite apt that the net result of ‘reductionism’ is to severely limit and impair our experience of life.

Faith is, without doubt, the most beautiful, extraordinary and empowering quality in existence! Without it, the world would be dull, dull, dull – life would be restricted to the boundaries of our own logic and rationale. Pretty limited indeed. People say faith doesn’t make sense, but that’s exactly why it makes miracles. Someone believed there was something beyond “the odds.” Someone knew there was a power and inspiration more profound than his own. Someone had the humility and wisdom to tap into a higher source of strength. Time and time again, we see how faith opens doors to the unknown.

This placement of faith is indeed a part of our natural psychology. In cultured societies it actually grows organically. Unfortunately, regular exploitation and abuse of faith has promoted scepticism and suspicion as the orders of the day. To live by your own judgement and discrimination is seen as safe and secure. Yet even that is a farce, since everyone, regardless of their ontological worldview, is impelled to put faith in something lest we're rendered entirely dysfunctional. Thus, the great saint Visvanatha Cakravarti states adau sraddha“in the beginning there must be faith.” Faith is the foundation of our spiritual life, and the Sanskrit word for it literally means “to put your heart into something.” As we deepen our faith and endeavour with heartfelt conviction, an ordinary life morphs into a transcendental drama of magic and miracles. Gradually, we begin to realise how much we've limited ourselves over the years! It’s actually incredible how one can be so close and yet so far, simply because we couldn’t take a small leap of… faith.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Acid Test

Sometimes I pause for thought – “what is motivating my spiritual journey?” The fact that one continues on with a seeming enthusiasm, year after year, may not tell the full story. When we receive appreciation, respect, encouragement and a plethora of impending opportunity, it’s somewhat easy to carry on with a gusto and drive. There is, after all, an immediate sense of achievement, value and purpose. The defining moments, however, often occur when that reciprocation is not so forthcoming. That’s the acid test to measure the sum and substance of our spirituality. In those difficult times we witness where we are actually drawing our enthusiasm from. Is the driving force a genuine spiritual connection or more based upon material gratification? What happens when all the results are taken away?

Periodically, we'll all be confronted with situations where people are oblivious to our sacrifices, unappreciative of our endeavours, and seemingly unimpressed with our contributions. People may even misunderstand our purpose and cuttingly criticise us. Swami Prabhupada talked about a period of his life where he was "crying alone in the wilderness." Few who heard, even less who genuinely appreciated, and scarcely anyone who actually helped. He nevertheless continued on with no loss of enthusiasm. In such testing times, the level of our spiritual purity is exhibited and developed. One must be fixed in the consciousness that there is divine appreciation for our sincere endeavours, even if the individuals around us aren't so forthcoming. When Mother Teresa scribed her poem entitled "Do it Anyway," she concluded with a poignant reminder - "in the final analysis its between you and God, it was never between you and them anyway."

Thus, in the rollercoaster journey of life, the ‘good times’ and ‘bad times’ all have their part to play. Whatever encouragement we receive is being willed by providence because it’s the ‘need of the day’ in our spiritual journey. Those times of stability, prosperity and recognition, should be utilised for spiritual immersion so we can build up assets of inspiration, gratitude, strength and unbreakable faith. And when the acid test comes, when we’re stripped of that encouraging support, crying alone in the wilderness, then we exercise the internal muscles by practicing resilience, humility, patience and tolerance. The test will expose us, educate us and hopefully inspire us. It’s a learning curve and I’m trying to remain alert – surprise tests are always around the corner.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Free Speech

We live in an overcommunicated world. The prevailing culture insists we reply to all text messages within 10 minutes, be mindful of the mountain of emails building up in our inbox, and religiously return random ‘missed calls’ on our phones. Don’t forget to regularly post something witty on Facebook, follow your best friends on twitter and utilise all the free airtime minutes on your contract! It is, after all, good to talk. But what is the net result of this web of exchange? Does it foster a greater sense of relationship and community? Is it a case of more connected, but further apart?

Silence, it’s said, is the art of conversation. You may have noticed how we struggle with a quiet moment. When it does arise, most will instinctively grab their smartphone in a desperate attempt to engage their mind. Think about the last time you saw someone, under the age of 30, sitting down and doing absolutely nothing. Rare indeed! Even more unusual is to be with another person and not utter a word. It feels awkward and uneasy. Alien and unnerving. Yet silence is imperative – it forces us to understand, assimilate, reflect and think deeply about what is actually going on. Often times, however, in order to frantically fill those vacant moments, we end up generating substandard content to share with the world: meaningless, inconsiderate and shoddy communication.

Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely room for chitchat, niceties, and light-hearted exchange between humans. It would be unnatural to jump to the other extreme of strictly regulating our every word. The Bhagavad-gita, however, offers the over-arching model to guide speech. Words, Krishna recommends, should be truthful, pleasing and beneficial. How much of our written and verbal communication would make it through this filter? Along with freedom of speech, it may be worthwhile to remind people of their longstanding right to freedom of thought. Think once before you act, twice before you speak, and three times before you post something on facebook.

“Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something” (Plato)

Wednesday, 16 September 2015


I’d like to make a confession (nothing major). While driving on the M25 last week, I sped ahead on the main carriageway and then abruptly cut into the junction exit road; a convenient way to avoid the huge tailbacks and get to my destination pronto. As you can imagine, I got quite a few angry horns and unsavory looks. It prompted me to think about whether spiritualists need to worry themselves with worldly morality. How important is it to follow social niceties? Is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ simply a subjective and relative worldview based on the prevailing cultural milieu of the day? Isn’t a spiritualist automatically moral? Does following such ethics contribute anything to the divine journey?

Although following a transcendental path, a healthy amount of down-to-earth morality may not go amiss:
  • It helps the world - morals, ethics and conventions govern human interaction, creating peaceful and progressive civilization for everyone. Spiritual or not, we’re all living in the world and it helps to keep things in order
  • It helps us - following moral codes fosters a more considerate consciousness within ourselves. We develop a sense of respect, empathy and thoughtfulness, which supports our spiritual endeavours. 
  • It helps our purpose - Although the average Jo may not value profound philosophical understanding, they will likely be impressed by a ‘good’ person. Immoral spiritualists may find that their lofty presentations only go so far.
Yet is seems that this innate sense of morality, an inherent sense of right and wrong, has a deeper spiritual drive behind it. We have a sensitivity and selflessness programmed into us, which instinctively checks us from madly pursuing what we want and completely disregarding others. It seems there is someone within, prompting that sensitivity and selflessness, reminding us that cultivating these qualities will bring us to a higher state of consciousness and a deeper sense of happiness. The repeated message reverberates loud and clear - "we find ourselves, by thinking of others."

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Divine Grace

On this day (13th August), 50 years ago, an unassuming mendicant stepped onto a cargo ship with practically nothing, and set off for America. It was a humble but historic beginning.

Dear Srila Prabhupada,

You were the local sadhu, the unassuming resident of Vrindavana, humbly residing at your simple but tranquil quarters at Radha Damodara Temple. Then you journeyed to the godforsaken Bowery and lived alongside buzzing acidheads, bearded bohemians, ruined alcoholics and disillusioned dropouts. People were shocked at your strategic relocation to the skid row of New York, but in those alien surroundings you were completely at peace. You were always living with Krishna, living with the order of Guru, and therefore everywhere was home for you. Who can understand your consciousness?

You were a streetwise manager, practical and bold, one step ahead, and as sharp as a saw. “In two things never be shy” you often said, “business and eating!” Yet you were simultaneously a complete saint, generous and kind, fanning the spark without calculation and compassionately bringing out the best in others. You extended yourself beyond the call of duty, regardless of mistakes, weakness or deviation. Who can understand your heart?

You unflinchingly called rich industrialists ‘thieves,’ established scientists ‘rascals,’ and influential politicians ‘demoniac.’ Your speech was often harder than a thunderbolt. Yet you embodied deep humility, offered all credit to your guru, and shed tears of gratitude while thanking your disciples for their sincere endeavours to help. You were, without a doubt, softer than a rose. Who can understand your character?

You lived such a public life – thousands of lectures, hours of meetings, streams of interviews and endless conversations. You were followed, recorded and videoed for most hours of the day. In the glaring spotlight, and found to be completely spotless. Yet your internal life was profound beyond comprehension. In the solitude of the morning hours you bathed in the scriptures, availed of the saintly association of our predecessors, and connected so deeply with the holy names of Krishna. You were in constant communion with God. Who can understand your devotion?

You were grave and serious, chaste and uncompromising. You never fell short of conveying the absolute truth, exposing the material phantasmagoria time and time again. Yet at the same time you knew how to laugh, a sense of humour which had an appreciation for Charlie Chaplain sketches and the amusing statements of Birbal. Full of joy, you showed how to practice spiritual life with a smile. Who can understand your shining personality?

The list goes on… forever and ever. The typing stops here, but my mind is still churning the paradoxical facets of your remarkable personality.

Where there is substantial service, sacrifice, seriousness and sincerity… that’s where we meet you. The spiritual master lives forever in his instructions, and the follower lives with him. I’m praying for the day when I’ll wholeheartedly serve you without hesitancy or resistance. No holding back. Then I have the firm conviction you will call me, and I will see you… face to face – the perfection of life. When oh when.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Double-edged Sword

The Bhagavad-gita likens knowledge to a sword (jnana-asina). Its sharp edge can lop off our doubts and give birth to firm conviction. Yet, the acquisition of knowledge comes with a great responsibility. If one neglects to cultivate the appropriate devotional disposition, the sword of knowledge can actually be misused in one’s spiritual journey. Ancient sages therefore placed immense emphasis on the development of character, especially for those who were receiving the gift of wise words.

Knowledge without humility can give someone a falsely over-rated notion of their own spiritual status. Complacent and proud, their internal growth is stunted, leaving them highly susceptible to attacks of illusion. Knowledge without compassion and soft-heartedness can render one insensitive, condescending and judgmental. It can impair one’s vision of others, and block them from having the necessary discernment to mediate human relationships. Knowledge without a deep sense of selflessness can lead to exploitation, manipulation and deviation, creating a crisis of faith amongst unassuming followers. A leader is not ascertained simply by how much he knows, but by who he is. Knowledge without practical application can lead one into the deserts of dry philosophizing and mental gymnastics, falling way short of the incredible spiritual experiences that come from walking the talk. Krishna stresses that one who is actually in knowledge gives their heart and soul in the spirit of service.

It was Socrates who said that real education is not about filling up a basket, but about rekindling a light from within. The sages who scribed so many verses and offered the world so much knowledge, repeatedly warned us not to simply read the books in a scholarly or academic way, but understand the spirit and call to action of the divine words. Srila Prabhupada repeatedly stressed that real education is character development. His name reminds us of the balance we have to strike – “Bhaktivedanta: knowledge with devotion.” I'm seeking the company of those who have perfectly married these principles, for I have neither. That’s the winning formula.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Good humans

We recently returned from the annual pilgrimage to Glastonbury. The iconic music festival has a remarkable history. What began 40 years ago with one pound tickets, free milk, and a few thousand people, has now grown to a tented city of 180,000 people, high profile performances and a media spotlight bringing an audience of tens of millions. What has remained, however, is the sense of idealism, activism, counter culture and ‘outside the box’ approach. It’s a refreshing contrast to an otherwise conformist world, and I did indeed have several interesting conversations in my short weekend stay there.

At approximately 2.00am on Sunday morning a fairy entered our tent. Well, he was actually an East Anglian insurance broker and father-of-three who was in costume for the weekend! We sat down and spontaneously began exchanging reflections on life, the universe and everything. He appreciated our spiritual contribution, charitable disposition and jolly approach, but confessed he wasn’t a ‘believer.’ He identified himself as humanist, suggesting that people could live happy and meaningful lives through open communication, strong morals, and healthy criticism, without any need for metaphysical or spiritual belief. He found no grounds to believe in God or religion. But, he said, “I believe man – in man’s creative power, in man’s innate goodness, in man’s endeavour to better the world through discovery, discussion, honest hard work and love.” Passionately gesticulating he ended in a crescendo: “for me, humanity is divine, and divinity is redundant!” I appreciated his heartfelt presentation, but, as you can imagine, I wasn’t quite convinced.

For many, the horrors of the world, the war, injustice, crime and suffering through centuries, can only signal the supreme triumph of atheism. After all, who could believe in God in the face of such horrifying acts of violence and brutality? Many more, however, would argue that it is humanity devoid of genuine spirituality and metaphysical worth that creates such problems. Indeed, humanity has been responsible for moral, social and political catastrophes. Sometimes it was humanity that was supposedly inspired by God, and sometimes it was humanity that was entirely and utterly atheistic. The common denominator, however, in the problem: humanity not divinity. We are innately good, but that goodness is only activated through genuine spirituality. We are good, only when we know who we really are. True goodness rests upon a profound and broad understanding of ourselves, the universe, and its ultimate purpose. History repeatedly shows that the net result of atheism and superficial religious belief, is that we inevitably sink into immorality and selfishness. Attempts to foster goodness and purity on the material platform are neither universal nor sustainable.

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