Category Archives: Spiritual

Conclusion: Blogging takes up time I’d rather spend elsewhere.

Howdy from Arizona!

Long time, no see. Instead of the cliche wordpress blog apology, I’d like to share something: I have no regrets. Life is being lived, fully. Be assured that the adventure started in this blog is still continuing, vandwelling and all, and that things have been completely mindblowing during the summer and still now as we enter the fall.

The stoppage of this blog coincided, non-coincidentally, with a return to journalling on my part. Now, learning to mountain bike, learning the banjo, journalling, reading, working my practicum, and finding time for meditation and spiritual practices… the blog was lowest priority.

Huge kudos to all of those people who maintain their blogs under the heavy pressures of life. Some of us have it, some don’t. Peace out!

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Who Am I? The YogaZen of Ramana Maharshi

Until very recently I’ve been in the midst of a meditative fustercluck.

Long story short, what used to be a consistent sadhana practice has become a unsure, experimental and twitchy mental movement that cannot seem to settle on one type of practice.

 

Mantra? Zazen? Open eyed? Close eyed? Chakra? Expansiveness? One-pointedness? Breath? Nothingness? Candle? Flower? Up? Down? In? Out? …Are some of the ideas popping into my mind multiple times every minute after I sit. Perhaps there is lesson in this, dear reader: If you have found a practice that works for you, just stick with it. Don’t bother with all this confusion. All paths lead to the same destination in the end, anyways.

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These have become my favourite types of flowers — psychedelic succulents that love the sunny rocks. Totally unrelated to spiritual philosophy. Or are they? Sacred geometry abounds.

 

Over the last week, I had the pleasure of spending four nights in Satsang, listening to the spiritual teachings of a man named Ramana. His guru, Papaji, was a direct discipline of the great Indian sage Ramana Maharshi.

 

I am still in the afterglow of the teachings – this came at the right time for me. Something within the teachings of Ramana Maharshi (as conveyed by Ramana) speaks to me. I have found that when something resonates on a deep level, the messages received don’t even seem profound – we simply remember the place of Truth, right where it’s always been. Since the Satsang evenings, my morning and evening sadhana has been — get this — a consistent process! That is not to say the sensations and experience has been consistent (recall the impermanent and transient in all constructed things), but the process of withdrawing the mind and observing my thoughts has stayed remarkable consistent. 

 

Ramana Maharshi was very spartan in the realm of philosophy. It is said that a disciple, unsure of how to practice, approached Ramana Maharshi asking for direction, advice, and techniques to go deeper in meditation. The response: “Close your eyes… and go within.”

Later on in the same darshan, another pupil spoke up. He wanted to perfect the skill of maintaining mindfulness and awareness of God when moving about in the world, not in meditation. Could he offer any tips, tricks or suggestions? The repines: “Open your eyes… and go within.”

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A bed of Russian Poppies in the flower garden at SSCY.

 

From my very limited perspective, it appears that the teachings of Ramana Maharshi are at the blurry crossroads between Yoga and Zen philosophy. He has a pure, minimalist approach that brings to mind the complete lack of abstraction seen within Zen, but seems to use Yogic terminology in his discourses. I think it would be more correct, though, to say that Ramana Maharshi doesn’t really fit into a “philosophical compartment”. 

 

Here’s another gem, passed along to you from Ramana:

“I have three words, and I have two words, and I have one word.

Make No Effort.

Do Nothing.

Stop.”

 …Just think about that for a minute.

 

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Our lives are perpetual doingness. What if, for just half a second, we discard aversion and desire — even releasing the desire to be calm and slow the mind? A chill dinner under the Maple tree at SSCY.

You might want to know – what exactly is this process of withdrawal I mentioned above? It’s as minimal of a “process” as I’ve ever done. Sit. Close the eyes. Watch the thoughts. Eventually, after a few minutes, the mind will slow down — even if only a tiny bit — due to the lack of external stimulation. After one thought ends, and before the next begins, there is space. It might only be for half a second before being trampled by the mind, but take note of it between thoughts. Try again. Being very soft, very patient. Become that which is perceiving the mind thinking.

Remember –> Make No Effort. Do Nothing. Stop. Striving and pushing to slow the thoughts is an action, a doingness. Abandon doing. Choosing to follow the motions of mind (i.e.; becoming lost in thought) is also action, is also doingness. Strange – to try and focus is to make effort, and to engage in thought is also effort. So, where lies the stopping of effort?

Therein lies the fun, the play of this meditation. It is bringing awareness to the non-thought realm — consciousness/Self — and that’s it.

It is not about stopping thought. Adyashanti’s Zen teacher once said to him, (~)”If you are waiting for your mind to stop thinking, you’re going to wait forever.” The mind creates thought. That’s what it does. Trying to change this reality is a recipe for frustration. By coming to the space the perceives thought, that which perceives the sense of I, we engage in total non-doingness. The perceiver simply… perceives. There is no aversion, no desire here. Just beingness and Truth. This is the Self. 

I imagine this state of non-doingness — which, by the way, underlies every moment of our life — to be a gentle balance. I imagine a razor sharp katana sword, delicately balanced on a finger. The breeze slips over and under the blade without upsetting even the subtle balance on the sword. Within this meditation, space is discovered, not so much held as much as regarded. This fine blade of of awareness is not perturbed by the thoughts created by the mind. Like a river dwelling plant that bends with the strong current to remain steadfast at the root. We regard the current, noticing its pull, but staying steadfast at the root.

 

There’s another method to noticing that which perceives thought. Ramana Maharshi was a master at Self Inquiry. Going within, the practitioner of Self-Inquiry will question the arising thoughts to try and seek any truth within them. (Hint: There is never absolute reality within thought form.) Try it yourself. As thoughts arise, ask:

– Where did this thought arise from?

– Where did that thought dissolve into?

– What is the “I” this thought concerns? Where does the “I” reside?

These questions cannot be answered by mind. Mind cannot understand that which has no concept. The doingness of thought cannot comprehend the state of non-doingness. Thus a silence may be found in the period after a question – in the case of the water plant, this silence is the firm rock to act as our anchor in the strong current of mind. These questions lead into the maha-question, the basis of Self-Inquiry: 

– Who Am I?

 

Who Am I, when asked piercingly and ceaselessly, is said to be the water which erodes the “egoic mountain” of “me, I, and mine”. To go deeper into the power of Who Am I and self-inquiry in general, I highly recommend finding a Ramana Maharshi book to dig into. For me to try and explain any deeper would be a bastardization of a beautiful revelation.

 

So, let us go forth and meditate. May we all achieve clarity and consistency with our practice, and may our efforts be effortless.

 

Peace.

Full Moon & Solstice Weekend: Finding Spirit in All Places

A reality has become apparent: Life is beautifully busy at the Salt Spring Center of Yoga.

This isn’t the “hectic busy” of the working parent or the swamped university student. This busy is more like… fullness, and wholeness — the full, plump belly of a satisfied lifestyle. This is the type of busy in which I know I will not have time to write a blog today, because I can’t miss Qi-gong and still want to attend the Yoga Philosophy class. After a long day working the earth under the island sun, the internet is but a distant thought.

I’d love to be writing long rants and discussions about aspects of yoga psychology and such, but in order to balance my time here at the Center, I’d like start smaller little blogs — with lots of pictures. The following are scattered photographic highlights of my last week.

A little buddy who chilled with me for a while under a bush in the meditation garden.

A little buddy who chilled with me for a while under a bush in the meditation garden.

Being outdoors most days brings a plethora of gifts from nature. While working in a flower bed, this medium (3ft) garter snake casually slithered up to see what was going on. He was a mellow snake, allowing me to lay down on my belly with only 40cm or so between our eyes. We hung out for a while. I grabbed my camera and came back, but of course he didn’t enjoy being approached by the mysterious electronic device. Snake energy is radical — very Shiva. It amazes me that these creatures are eternally on their bellies slithering through the dust and the muck, yet I’ve never seen a dirty snake. They are always pure and clean.

The view of Fulford Harbour from the top of Mt. Maxwell, Salt Spring Island.

It hasn’t gotten old yet – every time I see the ocean, I get this trippy sensation: I’m on a freakin’ island! (Obvious prairie origins of author become apparent here.) Something about this place being physically isolated from the mainlaind is awfully romantic. No one can simply wander onto Salt Spring island. There needs to be an intention of some sort: I am going to that piece of land over yonder. Perhaps that factor helps to create the island wide sensation of community I feel here.

A big pile of wood, chopped by the finest artisan wood workers on the island.

A big pile of wood, chopped by the finest artisan wood workers on the island.

Before enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. Two full days of splitting some gnarly trees — with a full gamut of sledgehammers, sledgeaxes, wedges and axes — was a great exercise in mindfulness. Also great anger therapy. There’s no room for anything but total concentration when swinging a 20lb sledgehammer for a few hours, unless you want to sprain your spine or pop a toe.

A most excellent wood burning sauna.

A most excellent wood burning sauna.

Chop wood, feed stove, heat sauna, enjoy sauna. Working without attachment to the fruits of one’s labour is a key aspect of Karma Yoga, which I dare say I was practicing as I chopped wood a few days ago. However, had I known the wood supply was going to fuel the healing warmth of the sauna, I might have been pretty attached! I capped off my Saturday with a late night sauna. It was glorious. When I emerged to cool down, I was greeted with a massive and luminous full moon.

The massive June full moon lighting up the midnight sky.

The massive June full moon lighting up the midnight sky.

My wee camera had no hope of capturing the majesty of the silhouetted cedars and silver clouds. Use your imagination — we’re at a yoga center on a big island at midnight, staring up at the stars and moon, the internal body warmed by the dry sauna, and cool air tingling the skin…  And then imagine all the other people on the planet reverently enjoying that same moon. Wow. What an incredible way to kick off the summer. Whatever you were doing on the 21st, happy solstice to you. And a happy full moon to you, too. 

The “gist” of The Salt Spring Center of Yoga

There is gem being nurtured within the confines of the Salt Spring Center of Yoga.

A beautiful and multifaceted crystal composed of land, spirit and human beings — humans, being. It is a blessing to return to a thriving and dynamic spiritual community. A week has not yet passed, but I am already beginning to feel at home here.

A nice Iris growing beside a greenhouse

Although I have been feeling inspired and creative in recent days, after finishing a tiring day of weeding the gardens I am feeling tired and logical. Today’s entry is being created as a resource to anyone interested in participating in this community. I will be going through the practical aspects of life at Salt Spring Center of Yoga. Knowing the general layout will be helpful for later blogs, I think.

The Salt Spring Center of Yoga, front entrance.

The Salt Spring Center of Yoga, front entrance.

The days are full at SSCY. I have gotten into a flow of early morning meditation followed by some outdoor exercise and asanas before eating. There are separate spaces dedicated to individual asana and meditation practice from 5-7AM each day.  There usually a yoga or pranayama class to join at 7AM, which takes us until breakfast. The food here seems to be gluten-free & vegan by default; foods outside of this range are labeled accordingly. Food quality is amazing, amazing, amazing. The bulk of the day is more or less Karma Yoga, with more interesting programs offered in the evenings. There is never a shortage of things to do!

The "Farm Yogis" doing their thing on a small section of the 69 acres of land.

The “Farm Yogis” doing their thing on a small section of the 69 acres of land.

Practicing selfless service is a key purpose of my residence here, and we are all given a great opportunity to try it out. I’ve been assigned to the Landscaping & Maintenance team – yay! Being outdoors and doing repetitive tasks is the perfect opportunity to apply mindfulness, mantra and grace to the task at hand. Keeping mindful during the work day also means being conscious of the body’s needs. I am encouraged to take a break whenever I need one, whether it be for a snack or just to rest for a few minutes. Timeliness is important to the extent that it shows respect for my fellow workers and the task at hand, not simply for the bottom line of worker productivity. It’s all a gentle cycle of ebb and flow, a fluid and harmonious balance of graceful seva (work).

The landscaping and maintenance HQ.

The landscaping and maintenance HQ. (My “office”.)

Most Karma Yogis here work about 6 hours per day, five days per week. Although that doesn’t sound like a huge time commitment, fun stuff abounds and the days fill fast! Obviously, there are lots of yoga asana classes, but a visitor to SSCY will also be able to try qi-gong (similar to tai chi), learn yogic philosophy, learn and practice breathing and meditation techniques, and experience satsanga (spiritual community gatherings) with devotional songs, chanting and meditation. We’ve also found some time for informal music jams and acro-yoga fun.

"the mound" -- a great place to play in the sun.

“the mound” — a great place to play in the sun.

The facilities are excellent. There is a main house with a stunning and spacious satsanga room, complete with a stained glass yantra and glistening hardwood floor. (I haven’t felt so bold as to photograph in there yet.) A dining hall attaches to a well equipped kitchen that is capable of providing food for the hundreds of guests that the facilities can hold at max capacity. There is a separate dish cleaning room.

The dining hall at the Center.

The dining hall at the Center. The kitchen extends behind the door at the back.

Further down the path is another big building that houses a space for morning meditation. During the day this building, the Garden House, is a functioning wellness center that provides Ayurvedic treatments to interested visitors. Across a soft raised grassy mound lies a small wooden yurt for classes or individual practice. The energy in there is sattvic and it is a great place to finish the evening with personal sadhana. 

The Garden House

The Garden House

Garden House - interior. The Wellness center is in a separate room to the left.

Garden House – interior. The Wellness center is in a separate room to the left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The yurt, tucked away across the mound from the main house.

The yurt, tucked away across the mound from the main house.

The inside of the yurt.

The inside of the yurt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Right next door is yet another cool space – a giant outdoor fountain (affectionately called the “mountain fountain”) that flows through a beautiful meditation garden. There are simple and clean temples to Ganesha, Hanuman and the Virgin Mary around this area, referred to simply as the “meditation garden”.

The Mountain Fountain, looking nice.

The Mountain Fountain, looking nice.

Two small temples and a glimpse of the tiered gardens surrounding the fountain.

Two small temples and a glimpse of the tiered gardens surrounding the fountain.

Oh, yeah, there’s a huge pond over yonder as well, across the field and gravel road. Tons of frogs, dragonflies and interesting plants hang out there. This pond is the picturesque object of focus of the “Pond Dome”, a huge plastic covered quonset-type building where massive groups of people can do yoga or listen to lectures during summer retreats. [No pics.]

Further down into the grounds is a school. A legitimate, fully functioning elementary school with a playground and everything. This was surprising to me. Apparently it’s the Salt Spring equivalent of a Waldorf, and being located on the grounds of a yoga center has got to be good for the kids. Our staff and theirs do not have a lot of overlap, although some karma yogis in the past have gone over to do reading and such.

The Salt Spring Center School.

The Salt Spring Center School. I think that’s just the coolest idea ever.

And finally, continuing all the way down this path into the forest are the camping sites. With raised, level tent beds and pre-strung rain tarps overhead, it feels like utter luxury. Super clean outhouses and ultra hot outdoor showers complete this perfect forest retreat.

A lovely and clean tent set up.

A lovely and clean tent set up.

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A cute tent with prayer flags

My weekend begins tomorrow, Sunday and Monday, so I’m ready to relax after five big days of learning the land and working hard in the fields mowing lawns. I’ve been getting a lot of great thoughts and realizations bubbling up, so you can expect something more exciting and less business-oriented for next week’s update!

Flanking the stairs to enjoy the weather and community during lunch.

Flanking the stairs to enjoy the weather and community during lunch.

 

 

Many Paths. Same Destination. Let’s cut off the excess.

As I begin to write this, I am on the ferry from the mainland to Vancouver island where I will be spending a few days in Victoria, BC. Recalling her last ferry ride on a single level open-air boat, it is no wonder that Luna is a bit overwhelmed at the size of this behemoth!

300+ cars and trucks on this big boy ferry from Vancouver to the island. Scary stuff for a naive Alberta van!

300+ cars and trucks on this big boy ferry from Vancouver to the island. Scary stuff for a naive Alberta van!

The first ferry - a couple dozen cars and a comforting view of the sky.

The first ferry – a couple dozen cars and a comforting view of the sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And speaking of overwhelmed, my brief drive through Vancouver was intense! We dropped off a friend in the middle of downtown and he took us on a little tour of the city core before departing. Three weeks encapsulated in the Buddhist retreat centre within the dense mountain rainforest was calming to the senses. After resetting my system a little bit, it came as quite the shock to be surrounded by metropolis. Vancouver felt kind of like this:

[pupils dilated] Harbours! Bridges! Skyscrapers! Lights! Crowds! Wow! Cool!

Quite the reminder that it requires a certain amount of desensitization to natural rhythms to be able to live within the urban jungle. Perhaps I’m missing a key understanding, but it doesn’t seem especially healthy to have to dull the senses stay grounded within the energy of a big city. Any thoughts? Is there a way to stay aware of our physical connection to earth within the intense excitement of a busy metropolis? Or must we forget a bit of our human nature to stop from going crazy?

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As predicted, my time at Sea to Sky flew by in a flurry. Three weeks is no time at all! Yet, I feel that in these three weeks my partner and I were able to contribute positively to the daily tasks and labour required at SSRC. In my free time I chose to do some reading and learned much about the core teachings of the Buddha. I was not surprised to learn that the essence of the Buddha’s teachings are, in essence, no different than those of core yogic philosophy — they bud from the same ancient branch. Non-violence, love, control over the senses, seated meditation practice, samadhi and enlightenment are key points in both Buddhism and Yoga. (I’m no scholar, but I would bet there are countless other similarities espoused in literature that could be easily found.)

The more I learn about the major religions and their core esoteric systems of practices, the more I understand that all paths are leading to the same goal.

This opinion — although not uncommon — can be hard to grasp because of the drastic differences in ritual, ceremony, dress code, methods of worship, personal conduct, and moral and ethical guidelines amounts the major religions. It is precisely these vast differences that I want to touch upon next.

Here’s a thought: I am going to go out on a limb and propose that any aspect of any spiritual path (be it religious or non-secular) that has the potential to vary drastically across belief systems is unnecessary, and further, this aspect can be eliminated without affecting the belief system’s underlying core concepts.

 Fundamental aspects of all belief systems:

  • Remembrance of that which is bigger than us (God, the Divine, the Void, etc).
             … And coming together as community to do so.
  • Cultivating love, compassion and selflessness (and most other “noble” characteristics).
  • Experiential connection to that which is bigger than us, such as through meditation, prayer, trance, etc.
              …And regular practice of this connection. 
  • ??? There are probably a few others

There’s not too much else that does NOT vary throughout today’s spiritual world.

Here is a brief list of some aspects of belief systems that DO vary drastically:

  • Physical garb and appearance of “spiritual” humans (priestly garb, Brahmin string, jewels, bones, ash, blood, etc).
  • Specific dates of worship, auspiciousness, and celebration.
  • Specific words/lyrics/language of devotional music
  • A “spiritually empowered” or “better” gender, age and skin colour
  • Vastness or minuteness of religious empire
  • Proselytizing and conversion techniques
  • Doomsday predictions
  • The use of incense
  • ALL RITUAL
  • ALL CEREMONY
  • ??? There is definitely a ton more of these 

 

[Those last two in caps are obviously the most important. Clearly there are aspects within ritual and ceremony that share in essentials, such as using music to raise vibration, but I am referring to the superficial ways in which these rituals are carried out.]

A simple Venn Diagram.

A simple Venn Diagram.

Right now modern spiritual society is a huge Venn diagram. A common shared core of the important  spiritual essentials is being forgotten due to the spiralling and friction of the surrounding non-essentials. Why not get rid of this?

I feel that the only way humankind will progress into an era of increased harmony and peace will be to recognize the fundamental similarities amongst all major faiths, while simultaneously discarding the non-overlapping components. We are holding onto a diverse portfolio of redundant and outdated methods of finding God, and without pruning down to the agreeable essentials there will continue to be clash between belief systems.

I am not proposing that every being must conform to an identical set of practices. Rather, I am suggesting that it should become a personal endeavour to find the non-essentials that work for you. A large group spiritual following should not force anything unnecessary upon its members. If you are called to pursue Shamanic drumming rituals, please do! And share your healing work with other fortunate souls. After all, personal experience with the divine is a core aspect of all faiths and should be encouraged. All beings should be encouraged to find their own methods of achieving the core aspects of spirituality (as outlined in the first list).

Let’s not let dogmatism restrict the unlimited ways in which a human can pursue connection with something greater — excise the excess within religion.

Thoughts on Western Renunciation

Clouds heavy with rain and an eerie mist have given today an introspective energy and I wanted to share some new thoughts and musings.

As I mentioned in the last blog, I’ve been reading Living with the Himalayan Masters, a collection of Swami Rama’s adventures compiled by his disciple Swami Ajaya.

The book is almost like a collection of biblical parables. The chapters are short, and center upon one or another extremely interesting story from Swamiji’s life. (How one person could experience so many interesting things is beyond me.) He does not bother with hyperbole or poetic language — it is not uncommon for him to reduce a period of two years into one sentence. At the end of these concise yet revealing stories, he tends to finish by expressing the wisdom and lessons learned from that particular scenario. The reader gets the fun and exciting stories of the highlights of a Himalayan renunciate’s life in tandem with profound knowledge transmissions gained from his direct experience. So it’s quite addicting.

…But also slightly poisonous.

“Why poisonous?”, you might ask. Surely a little bit of light-hearted spiritual literature can do nothing but good, bringing a deeper knowledge of yogic tradition and a glimpse into the romantic side of the renunciate lifestyle. But that latter part is a bit of a problem for me. The quasi-escapist notions of wandering the Himalayas, dreaming of spending years in disciplined practice, and sacrificing all physical and emotional attachments for spiritual awakening all seem like a pretty damn good idea. The poison – this beautiful poison – lies in the fact that things are alright at this moment and leaving it all behind would be so very, very hard.

This is not the first time I’ve considered the renunciate lifestyle. When I was 18, I left home quite abruptly and drove to Oregon without a plan. I ended up discovering a hybrid sort of community that is best described as a “spiritual development center”, and spent the better part of a year practicing meditation and studying Yogic philosophy. I took to the practices so well and with such zeal that I felt I might make a good sannyasi (Yogic monk/renunciate). However, life circumstances brought me back in university, where I vowed to complete my degree once and for all before moving onwards. Now I am once again feeling the pull of some sort of devoutly spiritual lifestyle.

It is extremely easy to “forget” about spiritual aspirations when engulfed in the world of youthful university lifestyle. Parties happen, substances happen, music festivals happen, and slowly but surely practices become chipped away. Now that I am able to spend my days in a karma yoga flow, and spending more time per day in meditation, I am being reminded of that which I love so deeply. I am deeply grateful to the amazing people at Sea to Sky Retreat Center for holding such a sacred space. The influence of community is not to be underestimated. No man is an island. Just like water eroding enormous mountains to the ground imperceptibly over time, so is the influence of those we surround ourselves with. I will be the first to admit that my friends are amazing people, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have such beautiful beings in my life. To all of my friends, I love you. I am in no way implying that my life has been negatively influenced by those whom I choose to interact with; rather, a long-brewing realization is starting to crystallize within me: I truly desire to devote my lifestyle to one of single-pointedness, fixation upon a single direction. It is becoming clearer and clearer that this direction will be spirituality. After experiencing and learning for myself the importance of sangha (community), should I be striving to live a lifestyle in which I am interacting with others who share this goal? Swami Rama says:

I have a firm conviction that no one can be enlightened by anyone else, but sages inspire and give inner strength without which self-enlightenment is impossible. In today’s world, human beings do not have any examples to follow. There is no one to inspire them, and that is why enlightenment seems to be so difficult. Great sages are the source of inspiration and enlightenment.

I don’t live in a world where I can walk to a straw hut outside of the city to have audience with a wise old hermit. Quite honestly, I don’t even know if these sages are to be found anywhere in Eastern Asia anymore! I mean, this book was written in 1978 — India has been westernizing, modernizing and capitalism-ing for over forty years since Swami Rama wandered the Himalayas. But his advice in the above quote need not be interpreted so literally. Taken more generally, Swami Rama is advocating here to spend time with spiritual role models and those who are travelling the same path as you so as to stay inspired and challenged.

Is renunciation possible in the west?

As I mentioned, I am not living in India. Canada and the United States are not known for a rich history of wandering sadhus and hermits. Homeless beggars do not get their bowls filled by citizens here. Renunciation is (or was, at least) honoured in India as a noble path. Here, our society is motivated by free-market economics, and if you are without material possessions and reliant on others’ goodwill to survive, you are an abject failure and deserve nothing. I don’t see any way to clearly discern purposeful renunciation with a “failure to thrive”, and thus do not expect that a hypothetical western renunciate would receive special treatment for any reason.

Even if one was to renounce all worldly goods, grab a bowl and a walking stick and begin trekking, things would be more difficult than in the East. We are young. Spiritual civilization basically began in ancient India — there are thousands of years of wisdom teachings and spiritual paths to be handed down in dozens of languages. In other words, there are more teachers, the sages which Swami Rama speaks about. Renouncing in the West is truly blazing one’s own path. In the Rocky Mountains, there will not be that guru in a cave which you seek. Perhaps a bear. This land has a rich history of Native American spirituality, but a systematic genocide by our predecessors has all but erased that. Now we have nothing ancient.

It would seem that running to the East is the only way to renounce in the traditional sense. But wait — that’s not traditional at all! I am not from Bhutan. I do not speak Nepali. The Himalayas are not my backyard. To travel across the world to chase the stories of a different generation is a romantic idea, but I should not be deluded into thinking there is tradition in this decision. On the other hand, the notion of a westerner travelling to the East for a “spiritual journey” is so common as to be cliched these days, meaning that a hypothetical caucasian renunciate would not be so out of place wandering around. More familiarity and friendliness from the locals would go a long way. And language? Well, English is (was?) India’s official language (thanks to British Colonialism), which seems nice in theory. The small villages, especially those surrounding the Himalayas, are full of many local dialects. Learning the language would be an essential task.

Shedding the big attachments

Renouncing, by definition, involves leaving behind all material possessions. The car, the tent, the drum, etc. All things. Meh – no problem! What are things, anyways? The physical aspect is the easy part, though. What about the emotional attachments?

Yogic sannyasi renunciates take a vow to forget their past lives, and are told not to talk about the past life before their renunciation. They even get a new name — they have been born again into a new section of life. Could you leave your significant other behind? How about your mom and dad? Your brothers and sisters? All your friends? Could you do this forever? I don’t know if I could. There’s not much to write on this, but a lot to think about.

The romantic notion of renunciation is also the most superficial aspect. Although wandering between secluded mountain caves and developing esoteric powers from deep meditation is all well and good, there is much hardship. Much. It is truly a difficult path. The lowest rung of Mazlow’s hierarchy — our most basic needs — are dependent upon the flow of the cosmos. With even the slightest doubt in the earnestness of one’s path, it could quickly become dangerous. Unflinching determination and clarity on the goal — tuning fully in to one’s dharma — results in all vital needs being fulfilled. Or so I am told.

Alternatives

Many people have reached enlightenment without needing to subscribe to the lifestyle of the renunciate. (Adyashanti, Gabriel Cousens and Eckhart Tolle come to mind.) For that matter, renouncing is not a pre-requisite for any spiritual attainments. This is vitally important to keep in mind when considering such a drastic path. As always, there is a spectrum of options. One rung down the ladder of austerity is a monk in a monastery. In such a situation, there is minimal material attachment, but food and shelter are not a daily concern. On the other hand, the environment is geographically constricted, and usually goes in tandem with quasi-religious ceremony and ritual, and the daily schedule must be followed (as opposed to created by you). It obviously makes more sense to stay within society while striving to deepen one’s practices, although this task is no easier than any other route to awakening. There is also the route of householder — working in the world while striving to stay unattached to it. The idea of working a job and having a family while successfully practicing non-attachment and selflessness in one’s actions seems incredibly daunting. To me, it almost seems harder than the sannyasi lifestyle!

Hmm. Lots to ponder.

This kind of stuff has been ruminating in my head lately, but I don’t think I’ll be dropping out of school or selling Luna the wondervan anytime soon. (i.e; Don’t worry, mom.) Despite the urgency I am feeling about doing things right now, I am fairly certain I will survive if I wait one more year before doing anything drastic. Hopefully. But I will be moving forward throughout the summer and paying attention to how I could see myself pursuing spirituality in a major way.

– The Silly Sadhaka

Karma Yoga at Sea to Sky Retreat Center

It was awfully hard to leave the wonders of the hotsprings, but we somehow managed to peel our relaxed bodies out of pools and back into Luna for the continuation of our journey. Then we had a unexpected one-day stopover in Revelstoke when Luna decided to reject her alternator. Finally, after a mildly stressful drive through the epic mountain passes of Highway 99 — which Luna actually did quite commendably — we arrived at the Sea to Sky Retreat Center in Garibaldi Provincial Park, British Columbia.

Wow -- The view from the lakeside at SSRC. Cloudburst Mountain + Daisy Lake + Tibetan flag.

Wow — The view from the lakeside dock at SSRC. Cloudburst Mountain + Daisy Lake + Tibetan flag.

The way of life here is one of Karma Yoga.

Here, our work becomes a spiritual practice of selfless service. We are challenged to remain mindful of the task at hand and to stay in the present moment. Mundane tasks — take, for example, the quintessential ashramic event of chopping wood — become unexpected opportunities to tune into the Self. In the distracted wood chopper, the ego swings this way and that, thoughts roil and churn through the mind. The task is a chore, laborious and uninspiring. The axe swings through the air as the wood chopper thinks of what he wants to eat for dinner. In this manner, thoughts unsynchronized with the task at hand, neither the chopping nor the thinking is done to the fullest potential. Both are unsatisfying and the wood chopper is discontented.

The mindful wood chopper is chopping wood with body and mind. The mind is focused intently on the physical act of aiming the blow and moving the axe in a smooth arc. Chopping wood becomes the object of meditation — just as the breath is during seated practice. The mindful wood chopper trains himself in selflessness, thinking, “I am chopping wood so that the people who dwell here are able to warm and comfort their bodies during winter’s cold. I hope that all beings who suffer coldness of body or spirit find contentedness.” In this way the act of chopping wood transcends “chore” and turns into a beautiful opportunity for awareness of Self and selfless service.

(Ideally.)

The big staircase leading up to our lodging. Note that the steps are set upon one huge tree trunk!

The big staircase leading up to our lodging. Note that the steps are set upon one huge tree trunk!

In real life (outside of the wisdom texts), mindfulness is a constant challenge. It is a great assurance to know that all of the staff here at SSRC are vigilantly striving for mindfulness with limited success. This is not an easy task and nobody will ever say it is! But the location is ripe for encouraging spiritual reflection. The intimate connection with Canada’s thriving rainforest ecosystems acts as community within itself. I feel peaceful here, surrounded by seemingly infinite lifeforms, and it all acts as a continual reminder to keep present in the moment.

The main house of the center, with a kitchen, lounge and bedrooms.

The main house of the center, with a big kitchen, living room and bedrooms.

Nature is our friend. Nature is humanity. And to combine a human spiritual community with the sentient depth of the forest is a potent combination. The pictures on this post capture a few of the facilities on the property at Sea to Sky Retreat Center as well as the natural features of this land. Daisy Lake is totally astounding with Cloudburst mountain behind it. To the south is the Tantalus mountain range, looking rugged and aloof.

Heavy afternoon rainclouds crowd in upon the majesty of Cloudburst Mtn.

Heavy afternoon rainclouds crowd in upon the majesty of Cloudburst Mtn.

So far this place is really great.

There is an ideal work ethic here; it seems to be a blend of personal initiative and responsibility with structure and form. Every day, I know what I have to do and how to do it, but am given the ability to accomplish tasks with a bit of creativity. The staff here are totally open to suggestion and comments about how to build, clean and maintain the facilities and every opinion is considered — this builds confidence and trust within the center.

I was surprised that there are no scheduled meditations here at the center. It truly is karma yoga and the entirety of the spiritual practices here are work-based. One must do their meditation practices independently. Personally, I find immense value in group meditation. There is a saying that my acharya once passed on to me: To truly grow together as a functional community, the members must eat together, work together and meditate together. I don’t think a busy schedule is a valid excuse for not sitting every day. Perhaps I have been biased by my previous experience within community — but I think it’s a good bias!

The center's secondary house, fully equipped for quite a few people. Tucked away gently amidst the forest.

The center’s secondary house, fully equipped for quite a few people. Tucked away gently amidst the forest.

Sustainability and Spirituality

The Sea to Sky Retreat Center is a very low-impact center environmentally. A microhydro system from a strong mountain stream powers the electricity for the whole center. All water consumed here comes from up the hillside from a spring. The buildings are small and efficient, without wasted space. Buddhists from across Canada have volunteered and even donated money into the center, meaning that there is very little expenditures needed to cover labour and work costs. There is even a extensive library of spiritual literature, donated entirely by members of the sangha over time.

A lack of reliance on industrial and metropolitan influences has preserved a delicate and simple energy on this land. The creation of electricity on-site and the local water source provides a deep grounding trust in the giving nature of the land, bringing all people here closer to the source of creation. It is a humbling experience to be surrounded by the rainforest, drinking water from up the hill, warming up by a fire made from an local tree, reading by a lamp powered by water.

The pathway to our lodging crosses this beautiful mountain stream. This same stream is also, via a micro-hydro system, the source of the center's electrical power.

The pathway to our lodging crosses this beautiful mountain stream. This same stream is also, via a micro-hydro system, the source of the center’s electrical power.

Speaking of reading, I have begun reading Living with the Himalayan Masters, a compilation of Swami Rama’s writings and lectures regarding his time as a sage wandering the sacred mountains of northern Asia. THIS IS A MUST-READ! (Do not read if a spontaneous journey to the other side of the world for a few years might do irreparable damage to your life.) To read about the majestic Himalayas is even better when I can look across the lake at our very own mountain range and dream of wandering the hillsides with a staff and a robe…

I may have had a previous life of a renunciate. Or maybe it’ll be this life. Who knows 🙂

We have about 25 people coming in today for an 8-day long Yoga Teacher Training, so the next week will be full-on retreat engagement mode. I like the daily flow during retreats – there are very specific roles we all must do, and it keeps me busy. But not too busy. I will continue to find time for morning sadhana, hopefully evening as well. I keep on thinking of inspiring thoughts I’d like to share on this blog, but when I sit down to write they flutter away.

I have a question: Have any of you experienced mindful labour like the ideal karma yoga I described above?