Seeking God

Fundamental darkness

Gosh, it’s been a long time since I wrote here. Surprisingly, it has also been a time that my spiritual life has been rich and vibrant, with plenty of reading, discussing and assimilating going on. But how difficult it is to apply all that knowledge!

A term that I have been wrestling with, and which comes up every day these days, is ‘fundamental darkness’. It is used in Nichiren Buddhism to represent all those fears, insecurities, and emotional demons that reside inside us and keep pulling us down whenever we try to rise above them.

To fight these demons, I pray, I work and write, I read a lot of spiritual literature, and inspire myself every day to keep my head up. I collect quotes like this one:

Quote-20.jpg

And yet, day after day, morning after morning, despite everything else being so fine in my life, I wake up with a sense of insecurity and dread. On some days I feel like the brave Arjuna in the Mahabharata who demands that Krishna be by his side as he sets out on his life’s mission. On most others, though, I feel like his enemy-cousin Duryodhana, who says:

I know what is right, but I don’t have the strength to do it.
I know what is wrong, but I don’t have the will to resist it.

The spiritual journey is surely a difficult one! Most of the time, it feels like I’m taking one step forward and two steps back. The more aware I become of my mental demons, the more helpless and dejected I feel in their absolute control over me. It’s like a surgeon operating a mole on the skin, only to discover a network of malignant tumours underneath.

The best thing to do — I can say from my layman’s experience — is to just DO. There is no substitute for action taken in the right direction – whether it’s a vibrant round of chanting or a determined long session of writing at the computer or a visit to a friend who needs a shoulder to lean on. Even if I’m at a very low point inside my head, I refuse to let my demons paralyze me and hold me back from taking affirmative action, even if it’s just a little bit at a time. I must keep operating.

The best we can do is to do our best in the present moment.

Finding God

Crochet contemplations

I learnt crochet in high school, and by the time I was in college, it was an addiction. Every winter, I would churn out a couple of caps for the men in my family (the women in my family didn’t wear caps, and I don’t know why. Maybe they used dupattas or scarves to cover their heads back then). Interestingly, every time I got down to making a cap for myself, winter got over and the woollens were put away.

Marriage and motherhood made me cast my crochet needle aside for 20 years. This winter I took it up again; I started with a cap for my husband and then a second one for my sweet, strong mother-in-law. It has been a deeply de-stressing activity at the end of hectic workdays. Here is what’s been going on.

Unweaving karma: I bought unrolled yarn from a wool wholesaler, so the first task was to make balls of it. Since I was doing it for the first time, I had no clue how to go about it and ended up with a pile of knots on the first evening. I nearly gave up in helplessness — it was 11 pm and I wanted to sleep but here was this big pile of wool on my mattress and my cap was nowhere near beginning. But then I decided to finish what I’d set out to do. Slowly, painfully, I unravelled one knot at a time, and had the idea that I could use the next hour to visualise myself evolving spiritually, unravelling the knots of my karma. Each knot taught me a lesson that I accepted with gratitude and humility, moving patiently further without giving up. Patiently, patiently, persevering, persevering, as if I was living out all the karmic debts of this lifetime. Until finally, I got to a point where the going became smooth, the lessons stopped and the act of winding up began, and I went faster and faster, only a hiccup here or there, and then it was all done. I had a smooth, unknotted ball of wool in my hands, and it was over.

Stilling the mind: Then, of course, the real task began. On day one, I could not sit still for more than 15 minutes. It was as difficult as meditation: the monkey mind would jump from one point to another. I was restless and fidgety, my fingers were clumsy and cold. But within days, I was able to build up to 20 then 30 minutes of continuous crochet, and then over an hour. In the process I noticed that if it was as hard as meditation, then it was just as rewarding. Every time I would put down the needle, I was at peace, still, my mind an ocean of calm. The day’s worries and anxieties were wiped clean. I began sleeping better, and I am more rested now than ever before.

Opportunity to give gratitude: Those many minutes of keeping one’s hands busy have been a wonderful opportunity to give thanks: I take Krishna’s name with each stitch as often as I can remember, before the monkey mind begins roaming again. I imagine filling the cap I am making with loads of blessings and love. These are sacred caps, like our lives are supposed to be.

Seeing better: A few days into my hobby, I noticed that I was able to see much clearer with my husband’s glasses. He has a number for reading, and his glasses made the stitches appear larger. Assuming I had also developed near-sightedness, I went down to the optical store in the neighbourhood and allowed myself to be duped into getting new expensive glasses with moderate reading power. But when I came home and used them, I realised things were pretty clear even without them; they merely enhanced the crochet stitches like a magnifying glass. I made a resolution to myself: I should not make up issues when they don’t exist. Stop creating unnecessary knots in life.

Falling down and waking up: The best time to crochet for me is on a weekend morning, sitting on top of the steps leading down to our verandah in the pleasant winter sun. The light and temperature are wonderful, and having my dogs sitting calmly next to me is soothing and cute. This Sunday, a couple of stray cats took turns sleeping at the foot of the stairs near me as well (and surprisingly, the dogs weren’t bothered). I was able to go into something of a trance out there with the animals and my wool. I spent almost two hours in vivid gratitude and peace, moving one stitch at a time, in awe at how beautiful life is. Then, suddenly, my ball of wool rolled down the steps. Absently, I reached out for it, and since my eyes were out of focus (I was using my husband’s glasses then), I lost my balance. I took a tumble down the stairs, landing (thank God) safety on my bottom, completely unhurt. The cats took off in a flash, the dogs stood up in excitement wagging their tails ready to play, the peaceful moment was gone. I laughed. God was telling me: “Keep your balance. See things clearly before reacting. Don’t be so lost, and don’t drift away; you are still bound by the laws of life.”

I am on my third cap now, this time for my daughter, and the winter is going by in a daze of peace, other-worldliness and newness. Every time I look up, I feel like I am seeing the world for the first time, a world full of wondrous things. I feel old as if I have lived a lot, and I feel like a baby who takes joy in the smallest of things, finding something to marvel in the way the wool moves through the hook, the way a cap takes shape out of nothing but a string. I am in deep gratitude for discovering crochet again.

This time I will make myself a cap.

UPDATE, 27 March 2016: I have made 22 caps this far, besides a scarf, and all my colleagues and family members have one. Nope, I still haven’t made a cap for myself.

Seeking God

Yoga of works

Arjun is a man who doesn’t like to think too much. He wants clear instructions on what to do. The subtle layers of meanings in Krishna’s words are getting too much for him. He is perplexed. In Verse 1 of Chapter 5 of the Bhagavad Gita, he asks Krishna, “Which is the better way – renunciation of works or the yoga of works? Tell me clearly so that I can just follow your orders.”

Like Arjun, I am perplexed. So I thought I’d write it down for clarity.

Up to this point in the Gita, Krishna has talked about two paths. The path of yoga is the path of ‘desireless works’. One does whatever one has to in a spirit of ‘offering’ it to God. The other path is the path of Sankhya philosophy, of the renunciation of works, of giving up desire completely, and letting nature do what it must.

Both of these come from different world views (of course, everything always leads to the same destination).

According to the yoga of works, in apparent action there is inaction, explains Sri Aurobindo in The Message of the Gita. While we may be doing some action – writing, reading, eating, walking – when we dedicate every activity to God, we are also in a sense inactive and are allowing ourselves to be mere instruments of the action. The school principal of one of the Mother’s International Schools explained it to me thus: “It’s the difference between the active and passive voice as in English grammar. ‘I am eating the apple’ versus ‘The apple is being eaten by me’.” When we remove the ‘I’ as the doer, we allow the ‘universe’ to do the doing through us. This is yoga of works.

In the Sankhya system, in apparent inaction there is action. According to this philosophy, the entire world is a play of gunas (qualities) of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. When they are at an imbalance (which they are all the time in the material world), they manifest as thoughts, actions and matter. The table is a manifestation of tamas quality for instance; it is the nature of tamas to be physically inactive. So even what appears to be inactive to the human senses is actually only playing out its gunas – it is active being inactive! If and when all gunas become balanced, the being is united with the universe and ceases to exist in the material realm. (Sounds like Lucy touching 100% in the movie, huh?) The path of renunciation of works is giving up on action and desire totally, and work towards 100% realization.

But as Krishna says in his reply to Arjun in the next verse, the yoga of works is the better (and, in fact, the only viable) option, only because most of us (unless we are tables) cannot renounce all action altogether. We must do some sort of action in our lives – even the basics of survival require some action; eating something, for example. So one may as well do it in the spirit of ‘an offering’ to God – “I hereby eat this toast for YOU, my Lord”, “I hereby laugh at this joke for YOU, my Lord”, “I hereby decline this job offer for YOU, my Lord” and so on.

Krishna is a big on free will, except he insists we act out of our ‘discriminating wisdom’ (buddhi) if we have to make it anywhere close to Him. Interestingly, the very act (there you go, even intention is an act) of offering your acts to Him helps you put your buddhi to good use. You’ll only do actions you really think are worthy of Him.

So you think you’re acting out of free will but — if you want to achieve actualization — it’ll have to be a filtered sort of free will. Krishna is very clever that way.

I’d left my Gita class earlier this week in a bundle of confusion about the two paths. But I’m feeling better now after organizing my thoughts here.

Thank you for your active inaction in being my sounding board. Have a great day!

Seeking God

Three lessons

Last weekend, I found myself in not one but three different spiritual study classes. Here are selected notes:

Divinity 24/7: The first one I attended was a satsang at an amazing place in the middle of nowhere called the Temple of Inspiration. Peopled by smiling, silent, everyday folks with halos around their heads, the prayers, meditation and study lecture by an awesome doctor there left me with much peace for the whole week. A lasting lesson that stayed with me was when, after her talk about Kriya Yoga, the doctor responded to a query by the lady sitting next to me, who happened to share my name. “How do we keep our divine connection alive 24/7 despite hectic, busy lives?” my namesake asked.

The doctor replied with a question, her eyes closed: “Do you have to make any effort to be the mother of your child?”

Silence.

She continued: “You know it in every cell of your body. It is a deep and all-encompassing knowing that you are the mother of your child. In the same way, when your connection to divinity becomes a deep and all-encompassing knowing in every cell of your body, you will be connected 24/7. There will be no effort required.”

Oh mother: The second talk I attended was at my local Buddhist group, where a group of women’s division members were talking about lessons from a book by Daisaku Ikeda. Just before I had left for this meeting, I’d mourned on the phone to my dad: “I’m so caught up in life’s daily grind, I fear I am not spending enough time on my spiritual growth.”

At this meeting, God answered me through the group’s senior, who suddenly diverted from the topic at hand to say: “As women, wives and mothers, we’re constantly running about fulfilling our various roles. We get caught in the whirlwind of daily activities and go round and round, faster and faster, till it becomes impossible to get out. But we must.”

I stared so hard at her, she intuitively looked me straight in the face and asked, “Would you like to say something?”

“Yes. That’s what I needed to hear. How do we break out of the whirlwind?” I wondered aloud.

“If the whirlwind is leading to growth, there is no problem. But most times for working moms like us, it isn’t. You need to make a special effort initially to invest in your spiritual growth. But soon you will notice that everything else becomes easier, life becomes vaster, fresh energy flows into all the different areas of your life. It is worth it,” she twinkled at me.

Through all of the following week, I noticed.

Non-violent battles: The third talk I attended was a Gita lecture at the Aurobindo Ashram. Our teacher talked about why it’s important to have our sattvic tendencies control our raajsic and taamsic tendencies. “You do not have to completely suppress your negative taamsic emotions or raajsic desires (for then they only lay low until the moment is right for them to exert themselves), but you must control them through your sattvic qualities. Sattvic values are those pertaining to peace, balance, love, compassion, harmony, santulan.”

Preoccupied with events from my life, I asked, “But if we must operate from our sattvic values alone, then how does one stand up to a bully, for example? Isn’t some kind of aggression required sometimes?”

Our teacher removed his glasses before replying, “The entire Gita is about Krishna urging Arjuna to fight a battle that goes against his peaceful tendencies. Operating from your sattvic state does not mean suffering injustice. On the contrary, you have to fight it, it is your duty, said Krishna to Arjuna. The key is to do it without attachment to the reward, to do it not out of malice but out of neutrality and non-attachment to ego. If you must fight, do not fight with your anger or pride. Fight with fearlessness, detachment.”

***

Last weekend I took three steps towards God. And God sent three thousand love notes to guide me.

Finding God

Battlefield body

Two nights ago, I sat in bed sniffing, sick of my allergies, seeking an answer and relief from it all. “What is an allergy essentially,” I mused out loud to a skeptical husband. “It’s the body on overdrive, hyper-alert, always fighting invisible monsters in the environment. I sleep so light that even a whisper wakes me up and then I toss and turn all night, adding to my body’s immunity dysfunction. What does all this essentially mean?”

“That you need to take some medication?” he offered.

“No, it means I am a highly stressed personality, always sensing danger in the environment though there is none really. The body is merely obeying my mind’s signals to be crazily alert. But it’s been going on too long and it’s killing me.”

“So how do you give your body different signals?” he asked, humouring me.

“I don’t know,” I sighed. “I don’t know how to change my pattern of thinking. I need to connect with God. There’s too much noise in the head, I am disconnected from the stillness. How do I stop fighting?” We slept.

The next morning, God replied by email as I sat sipping a coffee on the sofa, the house still quiet. It was a quote by Eckhart Tolle: “When you lose touch with inner stillness, you lose touch with yourself. When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world. Your innermost sense of self, of who you are, is inseparable from stillness. This is the I Am that is deeper than name and form.”

A voice in my head said: The key to stop fighting is to surrender. I sighed.

To make sure I had heard correctly, God sent me an angel in the form of a beautician at the local salon the same afternoon. I had never met her before. She looked young, calm, ethereally composed as she went about the business of waxing my arms. As I gazed dreamily at the jar of wax, she asked, softly, “What are you thinking?”

Just to put it in context, no one ever asks anyone this, not in Delhi where everyone is always in a rush, not in salons where time is of essence and a quick turnover of customers is key to profit, not in today’s day and age when everyone too self-obsessed to make meaningful conversation.

“Nothing,” I said, taken aback, then adding, “I was wondering where wax comes from. Nature or chemicals?”

She gave me a lesson in wax-making (sugar-based or jaggery-based, depending on the season), and we got talking. She was careful around a small fresh burn on my hand, sharing tales of the indoor and outdoor accidents she’d had in the past, stoic even about major ones. She spoke slowly, a constant smile on her face as she told me about her son who had just turned 20 and wanted a bike. “Wow,” I said, “you look 25 yourself.” She then added in that gentle way of hers, “I have two more sons. The second one is 15, the third is 8.”

“That’s a sensible gap between kids,” I marvelled.

“And it’s all natural (kudrati),” she replied.

“What? You guys didn’t use contraception?”

“No,” she said, laughing modestly. “It was all natural. Everyone would ask me, what do you eat?”

I gazed at her unlined face, this woman whose name I still don’t know, and sought out the depth of her eyes. A warm, humorous, wise old soul twinkled back at me. Krishna? I thought to myself.

Of course it was natural. She was the kind of personality that had surrendered. The kind who could take both sadness and joy with similar equanimity. The kind who wore a gentle smile on her face all the time, and who didn’t age. The kind who stayed calm and whose immune system worked in harmony with the universe. The kind who had no battles to fight.

Time passed very slowly, silently, in the little cubicle when I was with her; I was sure we’d been in there a couple of hours at least, but my watch insisted it had only been one. I stepped out feeling very blessed, as if I had just been touched by a great presence.

Surrender, I said to myself the rest of the day. The battle isn’t with the external environment; it is with my own tendency of creating monsters where there are none. Krishna says life is a balance of stillness and movement. Be still and flow.

Surrender to the process of life. Surrender, and win.

Seeking God

We got a drooling kinda love

I have been reading a lot lately, and one of the books I read extolled the virtues of meditation (not that I was difficult to convince). So I sat down the very next morning at 4.30 am to enjoy 30 minutes of silence while everyone was asleep.

Surprise, surprise. It was a cacophony in my head. Doesn’t matter how quiet the house is, I realised, when the space between the ears is noisy.

Still, I forgave myself since it was day one of meditation after a very long time, and tried again the next morning. This time, I didn’t make it past even a few minutes, so difficult was it to sit still. I became so disillusioned, in fact, that I gave up meditation completely.

Today, though, my perspective shifted.

Doggy love: When it comes to living in the moment, you gotta hand it to dogs. They probably pioneered the concept. If I leave home even for 30 seconds to go get something from the car, they jump all over me as if they’re seeing me after years. When I come out of the shower every morning, they drool all over my feet in happiness to have me back after a mighty long time, unconcerned that — hello?! — I’ve just washed myself squeaky clean. If I scold them for barking too much from the balcony at the neighbourhood strays, they put their heads down for precisely three seconds before they’re wagging their tails and expecting me to do something exciting (like tickling their ears) instead.

They’re never sad for long; they never hold grudges; they are quick to forgive and always ready to receive adoration. There’s no ego or shame or pride in their relationships. It’s just pure, unadulterated, unconditional LOVE ME RIGHT THERE BABY.

Why yoga: Then today, at my Gita class, the topic came up about Krishna extolling yoga as the path to achieving Him (or enlightenment). The teacher elaborated that one of the key lessons in the tome is: “All of life is yoga. There is no part of it that is more or less important than others. Everything that happens, all activities, all relationships, all events, can be used for yoga.”

In other words, yes, yoga is the path. But whatever path you are on is also yoga.

I considered my sweet dogs and their mindfulness meditation of being 100 per cent present in every moment of their lives. I considered my restlessness as I sat down to meditate in the silent darkness a few days ago. I looked at my cravings, my habits, my fears that drew me in directions I didn’t really want to go any more. I dwelt on the changing landscape of my desires, always wanting something more, always seeking something new, always in a state of flux.

And I thought to Krishna, “This, too, is my path, isn’t it?” All these colours, too, are what life wants to paint through me.

My dreams, at the moment, have got drool all over them. I can mourn the mess, or I can use this opportunity to turn yikes to yoga, and tickle Life’s ears back.

Love me right there baby.

Seeking God

Clarity despite the white noise

So it’s been ongoing, this discussion with the Voice in my head.

***

“Things have been really great around here,” I said. “All’s really quiet and calm and peaceful. Life is good.”

The best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life, the Voice replied. The economist JR Hicks said that, not me. So enjoy yourself.

“But is this the purpose of life? To quietly enjoy oneself as time goes by? To sit here reading all day, writing all day, doing a bit of laid-back work and being paid for it?” I probed.

And why not?

“Because it’s too easy,” I said. “I thought life is a struggle, that we have to fight for our happiness.”

But you’re happy, so what do you need to fight for?

“Precisely. Aren’t I supposed to be fighting for something?”

Who says so? Who made up these rules?

“I don’t know. I just thought that’s how things worked. That we are supposed to do our samsaric (worldly) karma and all that. Fulfil our social obligations, get a gruelling job, make a lot of money, take our kids on foreign holidays, all that. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?”

Think of the Gita class you attended today at the Aurobindo ashram. What did Krishna say to you in that? About your Swadharma?

“Our Swadharma (supreme duty) is to follow our Swabhava (inner calling),” I recalled. “Our purpose in being alive is to follow our nature, our calling, our inner voice. Even if it comes at a cost to our social obligations or our ‘shoulds’ and ‘supposed tos’.”‘

So what does that tell you? Are you following your Swadharma based on your Swabhava?

“I am tranquil by Swabhava. This quiet life suits me wonderfully. I can spend time with my loved ones, I can sit and read books all day, this is nirvana. But is this my real Swabhava or is this an escape? Is this my real Swabhava or sheer laziness?”

What else did Krishna say? What do you do if you don’t know your real Swabhava?

“He said that then there is only one Swadharma and that is to find our real Swabhava and thus Him,” I said, with wonder as realisation dawned on me. “The entire purpose of my life is to find my real Swabhava, to find Krishna within me. And then to dedicate the rest of my life to that.”

Will getting back in the corporate rat race or fighting for someone else’s definition of happiness take you closer or further from that mission?

“I don’t know yet. I suspect not. But I am too happy and comfortable right now to bother to find out.”

So do then what comes most naturally to your Swabhava. Don’t fight for the sake of it. Don’t expend energy for the obligation of it. Seek your Krishna, your real calling. That’s all Life wants from you. Everything else is white noise.

***

So it’s been ongoing, this discussion with the Voice in my head. I noticed today, though, that it all happens in silence.

Seeking God

Naked

One of the folktales about Krishna relates an incident when the teenage god, wont to flirt with the young women (gopis) in his village, hides amongst the trees when they’re bathing. Naughty as ever, he snatches up all their clothes and runs away to a corner. When they’re done with their bath, they look around for their clothes and realise what he’s done. They plead with him to return their clothes, but he just sits there grinning wickedly, his eyes dancing in merriment. Finally, he challenges them to come and collect their clothes from him one by one, their arms up above their heads so that he can watch them walk towards him, dripping wet in nakedness and vulnerability. He returns their clothes, one bashful woman at a time.

When I first heard this story in my youth, I was chagrined at the blatant sexism and sexual harassment evident in the epic parable. I was shocked that Krishna, my favourite god, could do this to any woman. I hated him for it.

Many years later, after some episode in my life that I’ve now forgotten, I finally understood what this story meant. Since Krishna was not just any man but the Supreme Being Himself, the gopis were not being harassed, they were being blessed. They were being taught the art of surrender, and the divine gift inherent in vulnerability. They were forced to strip themselves of not just their clothes but their ego and their sense of ‘I’, the identity we all create for ourselves. The bathing was symbolic, of course. In Krishna’s merry all-knowing gaze, they were cleansed of their self-delusion and self-importance. In his benevolent smile, they became immortal, their imperfections converted to perfection in the eyes of God, their beauty sealed for eternity.

Nakedness and surrender come together in this ancient story. When we are stripped of all labels and trappings, we can either grapple to recover some clothes and sense of assumed dignity, avoiding humiliation. Or we can surrender and liberate ourselves. In our innocent nakedness, we free ourselves of shame.

Suddenly, I find myself without labels, without the trappings of fame and fortune. In one fell swoop, a major role in my life has been rendered void. Like the gopis in the water, I initially cry and mourn and beg Krishna for cover. Then I see Him sitting there, atop the hill of my salvation, grinning like an imp, beckoning me to walk over in all my naked glory. “You can either cower there in the water forever,” He challenges, “or you can surrender to me, washed of all illusions and delusions of self, and allow me to save you.”

“This is just a game for You,” I say, angrily. “You will do as your whim, how do I trust You? How do I know what further harassment awaits?”

He lays back, His head behind his head, crosses His feet and blows bubbles in the air. “Do you have a choice?”

I grit my teeth in frustration. “I do not,” I call out. “I am forced to trust You.”

He rolls over on one arm, and grins wider. “So who’s blessed now?”

It is time, I realise. Gingerly, I rise above and take a step – in faith and in surrender.