Sunday, 25 January 2015

Living the Dream

There seems to be a tension between comfort and aspiration in our lives. We seek to explore, to grow, to achieve, yet we also desire security, safety and certainty. It’s clear, however, that we often have to sacrifice one to get the other. If we opt to remain in the comfort-zone, we may have to live with the inevitable feelings of being humdrum, run-of-the-mill and unexciting. On the other hand, if we dive for our dreams we’ll have to ready ourselves to brave the rocky road of uncertainty and opposition. Every significant achievement has its price tag.

In reality, we usually go for something in between. Decisions on where to pitch our life are largely based upon the prevailing social mood of the day. What is everyone else doing? What are the expectations of society? What will keep everyone happy? Breaking free of such barriers and pursuing our ‘inner calling’ is a tough job. As life responsibilities increase, it’s easy to get boxed in, sealed tight and shelved up. Shifting the daily routine becomes more and more taboo. Doing something different may be seen as unintelligent, rash and irresponsible. And even when there are no grounds for such accusation, we conveniently accept those opinions just to reinforce our comfortable life and maintain the status quo.

Life has its way of grounding us down. Very few people have a dream, even fewer seriously consider how to fulfill it, and only a rare soul actually has a decent shot. In an age where security, establishment and balanced prosperity have become the guiding beacons for our comfortable life, a pause for thought may be worthwhile. The Bhagavad-gita reminds us of a broader vision that needs to be etched into our consciousness. The inevitable laws of nature mean we come to this world empty-handed and we leave empty-handed. Everyone, without exception, is guaranteed to lose everything. Although our temporary constructed situations of life seem so real, they are all washed away by the ruthless waves of time. We’re building castles in the sand. It sounds counterintuitive, but I’m trying to invest quality time in developing this “vision of eternity”, hoping that it will make me a whole lot more dynamic in this temporary phantasmagoria.

As I wander around in the spiritual hub known as Vrindavana, I’m reminded of a local saying which is beginning to make more and more sense to me: “All reality outside of Vrindavana is actually a dream, and all dreams in Vrindavana are actually a reality.”

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Good Old Days

I couldn’t imagine winter in India would be colder than London. I was wrong. The misty chill of a Vrindavana morning penetrates your bones to the core. The stone floors and absence of heating systems mean there is no respite – inside is usually colder than outside! Nevertheless, the devotional fervour and busyness of Vrindavana never diminishes. Pilgrims stream in every day, each with a spiritual goal in mind: most visit for personal inspiration, others come to engage in some austerity and rigorous vow, while the elderly usually come to live out their final days in preparation for death. We’ve come for the first, we’re involuntarily doing the second, and he third… well, that’s not in the plan for the time being at least…

Every day I do my early morning chanting in the courtyard of our temple. It was a 3.00am start today. Although it’s early for my standards, every day I’m blessed with the company of the same elderly faces, who, tightly wrapped up in multiple shawls and scarfs, wholeheartedly prostrate themselves, circumambulate the temple, offer prayers and settle into rapt meditation. This is their life. Their dedication is unwavering, steady as a rock, seemingly oblivious to all obstacles which come their way. Despite their ailing health, the severe lack of material conveniences, and the seasonal climatic attacks, they are determined to end their days in complete spiritual absorption, diligently preparing for their imminent journey to the next world. After a lifetime of jobs, family, responsibilities and social interaction, they live as lone mendicants in this holy land, probably with a vow to never leave. They have realised this is the business end of life – this is where it’s make or break. After all, the Bhagavad-gita confirms that the consciousness with which we leave this world determines our next destination.

It prompted me to reflect on how our spirituality should intensify with each passing year. We have to build momentum, increase the urgency, and eagerly look for more and more opportunities to genuinely go deeper. Gradually, all the empty promises of the world that steal our attention should pale into insignificance, allowing us to focus on the essence of life. An elderly lady told me yesterday – “the good old days are not of the past, I’m experiencing them now, and I’m sure there are more to come!” A nice play on words, with a great meaning behind them. Though so many material limitations invariably arrive with age, the spiritually enthused soul is free to move in the skies of devotion. The later years of ones spirituality can open unlimited doors of experience and opportunity. I’m witnessing the living proof, and its giving me great hope.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Simple Spirituality

Vrindavana is special. I always question my qualification to even approach the most sacred place in the universe. My commitment is weak, my character is flawed and my mentality remains self-centred. The deficiency of purity blocks my vision and appreciation of the situation I find myself in. Still, I have come here as a beggar. I hope I’ll meet the saints, remind myself of what is really important in life, catch a glimpse of Krishna, and reconnect with the voice of inspiration within. I’ll try and keep my eyes, ears and heart open, so I’ll receive what I have come here to get.

A casual stroll through the village streets reveals a depth of wisdom. Holy places are invaluable because they are a living theology. What it written about in pages of books and talked about in hours of discourses, is lucidly revealed in the simple lifestyle of devotion that comes so naturally to the people here. We often relate how spirituality became a part of our life – but here we can see how people’s lives have actually merged into the spiritual reality. It’s a different level of devotion. Everything naturally revolves around Krishna.

Interesting to think of a worldview where we are not the centre. But how can I not think about myself first? It seems alien, unfulfilling and even scary. Ironically, however, that utter selflessness brings one to the most profound level of spirituality. Water the roots, and the whole tree automatically becomes satisfied. Feed the stomach and the entire body is nourished. In other words, when our frantic search for selfish happiness stops, and we absorb ourselves in selfless service to God and His parts, we perfect our spirituality and experience true satisfaction of the soul. Nothing mystical, magical or esoteric – just the simple eagerness to serve. It is that simple. So simple, Swami Prabhupada once said, that we may just miss it.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Soul Searching

After a month of hectic travels across the UK, it’s time to change gears. As I catch my breath in London for a week, I simultaneously prepare for a flight to India this coming Tuesday. My destination is the remote village of Vrindavana, the holy place where Krishna spent His childhood years. Located 130 km south of Delhi, it’s a mystical place which is full of inspiration and insight. They say that nobody returns from Vrindavana the same person, and that’s exactly why I’m going there. Though we act as spiritual doctors, we are undoubtedly patients as well. People accept us as teachers of wisdom, yet we remain humble students. After a month of sharing spirituality with others, now comes an opportunity to do some soul-searching and reflect on whether I’m walking the talk.

These trips are not just a physical journey to a special place but also an inner journey towards transcendence. The great saints of Vrindavana exemplify the pinnacle of spiritual consciousness. Complete absorption in the spiritual reality rendered them indifferent to the external world. Their living quarters were not formal brick or wooden structures, but temporary arrangements like the hollow of a tree, a clearing under a thorny thicket, or an underground cave. In these austere and solitary settings, the great saints would settle into spiritual trance and have their conversations with God, continuing for hours on end. Their spirituality wasn’t a casual activity. It wasn’t a ritual. It wasn’t simply a discipline – rather, it was full of emotion and feeling. It was from the core of the heart.

I doubt that I could isolate myself and go that deep, and neither is it recommended to try. But hearing of such remarkable personalities nevertheless inspires me to intensify my spiritual endeavors. I’m trying to break free of my mechanical and ritualistic approach. I’m trying to rediscover the freshness, enthusiasm and simplicity that I once had. I'm searching for that childlike innocence that is so beautiful. I’m going back to basics. The core spiritual practices and teachings I was introduced to at the onset of my spiritual journey remain the bridge to the eternal reality; they are not to be taken lightly. I’ll attempt to go a little deeper, and hopefully I’ll become a little closer to Krishna. I’m approaching Vrindavana in the mood of a beggar: spiritually impoverished but confident that I’ll find some sacred treasures along the way.

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.

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