Tag Archives: sadhana

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.

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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?

 

 

Spiritual Urgency: Have you felt the burn?

I’ve been reading “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English”, a great book by Bhante Gunaratana. (He has also written “Mindfulness in Plain English”, a classic and essential book for those looking to initiate or energize an existing meditation regime, and the foundational book for the Four Foundations.)

This short book takes the concepts of mindfulness meditation (also known as insight or Vipassana meditation within Buddhist circles) and expands them – via the Buddha’s four foundations – into tools and techniques to develop mindfulness “off the cushion”. It’s worth a read. Anyhow, the author defines a unique feeling he calls “spiritual urgency”:

As we meditate, certain special feelings may arise. One of these is called “spiritual urgency”. We see clearly that pain arises and pain disappears; pleasure arises and pleasure disappears. As we watch this repeating pattern, an insight arises that as long as we take birth in any form, we will continue to suffer. This insight inspires us to accelerate our spiritual practice and find a way to end this vicious cycle of birth and death right now, once and for all.

Ever since I began my journey into spiritual practice, I have been followed by a sensation of immediacy – anything from a gentle inner challenge to an earth shattering, un-ignorable, apocalyptic urgency .When I was previously involved within spiritual community, dedicating much time to meditation and mindfulness, I felt a comfortable level of spiritual urgency. This might manifest as a desire to maintain a sharper mind through my sadhana, or an urge to wake up earlier to meditate longer. I felt a gentle inner challenge to move towards mindfulness.

BUT – all this changed when I came back from my initial stay at the ashram and re-enrolled in university. I was in a different world, with old friends to catch up with, new people to meet, love interests to pursue, clubs and sports, and a plethora of other attractive options. Within half a year, my practice was faltering and inconsistent. [Note: This is not an excuse. Meditation needs no special consideration – it can be done in anyone’s life, no matter how busy/exciting. I dropped the ball.]

This is when I began to learn a profound insight: Once our spiritual urgency has been deeply felt and sincerely followed, we must not turn back.

It’s too late. You are down the rabbit hole. You have realized that the only Truth, and the only permanence, lies within union to the universe. To try and make any attempts towards satisfaction in any other realm – no matter how initially appealing and productive – will never quell the fire of spiritual urgency. They may, perhaps, cover the flames and even reduce the fire to smoldering embers, but eventually whatever distraction placed over top of the True Desire will be converted into fuel for a raging inferno churning upwards into the Infinite.

The thing is, this spiritual urgency is not something suddenly awakened through deep meditation. It is present – and has been present – in every human on this planet. We are all trying to fill this void, whether we know it or not. We’re all on the same path, whether we know it or not. As the old Japanese saying goes, “There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view of the moon from the top is the same.” The main point separating our universal desire for liberation from “spiritual urgency” is that of awareness. If we happen to be at a point in our journeys where we can recognize spiritual urgency for what it is, then take action now, because rest assured we are destined to keep feeling the inner inferno burn until we take action and deeply integrate spiritual practice into our lives. You now know this path you are on is going to be summiting that mountain over there. May as well get prepared for the hike.

You are never alone or helpless. The force that guides the stars guides you too.

-Shrii Shrii Anandamurti. 

Coming to terms with our essential helplessness and lack of control in this life is to begin a long-term spiritual journey of self discovery. In the end, understanding our helplessness at a core level is to realize that we have never been helpless, after all. 

This is post #1 in what (I hope) will be an insightful blog into my upcoming adventures. I can’t think of a more suitable way to start everything off than this quote – the “christening of my e-journey”, so to speak.