I am convinced that awareness of the impact of Climate Change is not enough. Awareness requires to be rooted in a spiritual tradition that honors the Earth Mother. Then action will ensue to mitigate and better anticipate Global Climate Change. Kindness, graciousness and discernment take the place of greed, corruption and neglect. In this collection of essays – Our World is Burning – I refer to this personal necessity in Essay 9: Healing Journeys, Essay 12: Shattering of Concepts and Essay 15: Guidelines to Reconstruct our World. I reveal my own spiritual training and place Essay 12 in this blog.
Essay Twelve: Shattering of Concepts
Huddled on a bed in an ashram in Mumbai, India, I opened my eyes to see a visiting Swami sitting beside me. The small ashram was reserved for saints and holy men. I did not qualify for either category but felt their grace close at hand. One tangible and humorous manifestation of that grace was this visiting Swami beside my bed. He smiled broadly and helped me to sit up, then surprised me with his words:
“We are so happy Ian that you have decided to die with us in India. And we will be most happy should you live.”
He just beamed love and understanding to me. My reply as best I remember was to smile back and just say, “Me too!” The Swami made me some tea with herbs, provided a blessing and then left. When I went to sleep that night I felt very calm about letting go of my bodily existence. I knew that the experiences of joy and freedom flooding through me at this time were dissolving my many mistakes and bodily pain. I felt truly like me, very peaceful, no longer a maverick standing alone. Lying close to death, the lack of fear provided a sense of freedom and strength.
I had been invited for guru training in India by Rishi Prabhakar after meeting with him several times in Canada. He recognized something that I certainly did not. This adventure proved to be new territory for me. I had traveled to India in 1996 to teach and train in Siddha Samadhi Yoga. This Vedic tradition was ecumenical in character, a wisdom tradition totally relevant to the modern day. By November of 1996 I had become seriously ill in India. As I observed my bodily systems crashing one by one I knew there was a distinct possibility of death. To this day I am still amazed by my calmness and lack of fear. While in India I was privileged to have many treasures of wisdom made available to me. There were two circumstances that opened so many doors. One rested on Thich Nhat Hanh’s book of meditations, The Blooming of a Lotus. Before leaving for India in 1996, at the last moment I picked up this book and placed it in my backpack. As I observed in November and December of 1996 my body’s systems crashing one by one I knew this was serious. My companion for this passage with death was Master Hanh’s book of meditations. I was astonished by my calmness and hope to find a similar equanimity for death’s next visit.
In my family and culture there is very little discussion or clarity about death and dying, though as a child I had an intuitive understanding. I remember when my grandfather died when I was a small boy. I felt him as a tangible presence even when he was in his coffin and quietly whispered to this gracious, gentle being: “Go to Heaven now grandpa.” I also remember at his wake how upset I became by my relatives drinking, arguing and being disrespectful to one another. In tears I sought out my grandmother and complained that everyone was making it hard for my grandpa to go to Heaven. She wiped my tears away with her handkerchief and listened carefully to me before walking into the living room of her house. With quiet authority she asked everyone to be quiet and to go home. It was much later in life, once I was exposed to Buddhist teachings on death and dying, that I realized I was not such a crazy kid after all. I had cared for my grandfather’s consciousness after his physical death. From that turning point I knew clearly that preparation for death was also training for life, though I did not always pay close attention to this insight.
The opportunity for liberation at the time of death was an intriguing notion. I could see that my obstacles of ego and habitual patterns of behavior were in the way of a sound preparation. I did want to merge my consciousness at the time of death with what the Sufis call “The Great Magnificence.” Or if I got confused or fearful, to be able to receive guidance to do so. From my understanding of the Tibetan bardos I felt that if my death was an aware one, then in the bardo of “becoming” my consciousness would take a form that would serve all sentient beings. That struck a recycling chord, which appealed to the ecologist in me! The retraining of my mind was done fitfully, not in a consistent manner, until just before I left for India to take up the life of a yogi. There the preparation became a daily practice of being aware of universal consciousness totally prepared to merge with my pitifully weak and not-so-awakened mind. My leap of faith was that understandings about death and dying were all in the mind. This meant that in everyday living I could use my mind to take steps to prepare for that final moment of merging with the wisdom mind of the universe and just perhaps be able to do this while I was alive. Perhaps the “alive” piece of the puzzle is the whole point!
Still, I was surprised by my lack of panic in the face of death. As December drew towards its close I totally surrendered. I will always remember Saturday, December 21, 1996. On that day I let go of all attachments to my body and surrendered to a sense of freedom never before experienced. Throughout the day and evening I read The Blooming of a Lotus from cover to cover, practicing meditations that spoke to me. I felt at one with all my spiritual ancestors. I felt Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom, love and gentleness as a tangible presence watching over me. The meditations in The Blooming of a Lotus carried me over many thresholds, some of which I was aware of at the time, most, however, I did not discern their significance until much later. The meditations took me deeply into my roots of being and I felt very calm about the impermanence of bodily existence. My heart opened very wide and I thought about my many mistakes and chose not to deny them or brush aside the bodily pain. I knew that the experiences of joy and freedom flooding through me were dissolving both. During this whole period of time I felt very simple, that I was living properly. I was without panic, present with whatever was happening or arising. I did not fear death. It just did not compute. This lack of fear gave me a sense of freedom and strength. It opened a huge door to send love and joy to all. I felt truly like me, very peaceful, not pulled in any direction. Despite all that was going on I was solidly with each second of time in a totally timeless way. Whatever gifts, skills and energies I could contribute to bring joy and love to others was there to freely share. That is the only manner in which I can describe what was happening. I finally understood the significance of the Buddha’s Five Remembrances Meditation:
- Knowing I will get old, I breathe in. Getting old
Knowing I cannot escape old age,
I breathe out. No escape
- Knowing I will get sick, I breathe in. Getting sick
Knowing I cannot escape sickness,
I breathe out. No escape
- Knowing I will die, I breathe in. Dying
Knowing I cannot escape death,
I breathe out. No escape
- Knowing that one day I will lose
all I hold dear today, I breathe in, Losing what I hold dear
Knowing I cannot escape losing
all I hold dear today, I breathe out. No escape
- Knowing that my actions are my
only belongings, I breathe in. Actions true belongings
Knowing that I cannot escape the
consequences of my actions, I breathe out. No escape from consequences
- Determined to live my days mindfully
in the present moment, I breathe in. Living mindfully
Experiencing the joy and the benefit of
living mindfully, I breathe out. Experiencing benefits and joy
- Offering joy and love each day to my
loved ones, I breathe in. Offering love
Easing the pain and suffering of my
loved ones, I breathe out. Easing suffering
By looking into these major fears I personally experienced all of them. It made exquisite sense and carried me into a state of non-fear. There was nothing overlooked or pushed to one side. My mind was very clear. The Five Remembrances were not located in the depths of my consciousness. They were my existential reality. I neither welcomed them in nor rejected them. They were just there, my own personal gang of five. There was no internal battleground or struggle. To be with myself at this time, happy and content with the existing moment, was all that I had. And it was enough.
I smiled quietly at the first five stanzas guiding me to let go and was totally refreshed by the last two stanzas about living my days deeply in mindfulness and offering love and joy to loved ones to alleviate their suffering. I felt the universal nature of this wonderful benediction for both living and dying. The Five Remembrances brought my attention to impermanence; on growing old, getting sick, dying, losing loved ones, and realizing that my only possessions are the consequences of my actions. The final two stanzas of the meditation show the way; to live mindfully in each moment and offer joy to loved ones. As I practiced this meditation I felt that each moment of life was absolutely precious. Somehow I was communicating this to all that I connected with. Before I slept that night I felt my teachers and guides throughout lifetimes gathering together inside and around me, without boundaries. They stayed there while I slept. I was content and happy.
The next morning, to my surprise and joy I woke up. Over the next six months I slowly recovered my health. Friends in North America who tune in to me very closely had in December booked airline tickets to take me out of India to recover in their home. I was touched by their love, but gently said “No” after thanking my friends for their loving concern. Whatever the outcome of this particular journey, it was to be in India. I had written countless Christmas cards to friends and loved ones all over the world and signed them: “Blessings and Love from Ian”. That is what I wanted to send out before my death. Then I lived, and was happy that the cards were sent.
The second circumstance that opened so many doors had to do with the shattering of my concepts on an almost daily basis. I would have perceptions and judgments about a situation, person or event and would rapidly discover that my perceptions were without foundation. I allowed my concepts to shatter. They were replaced by further perceptions and judgments. But I allowed them to also shatter. I felt a depth not previously known. This is something I call upon when perceptions and judgments crowd into my consciousness. This willingness not to hold on to concepts or to even hold on to being with my body put me into a different orbit. In this orbit, doors opened wide that otherwise would not have opened. I felt unseen hands guiding me through a stupendous year of initiations, mind training and transformations. I felt very privileged to receive the wisdom traditions of India.
Yet how difficult I made it for myself, with self-doubt, struggles of purification and stringent endeavors to get it right. It was actually so much simpler than that. It is to just be present with what is there. My happiness and delight came through Being with humanity, the planet and the universe, and Serving the same with joy. Yet I did get caught at times in the process of struggle and purification. Then for no apparent reason the veils of illusion dropped away. A natural, overflowing delight in Being and Serving arose spontaneously. I know I can never be as I was, nor do I wish to. I am simply grateful for all the gifts of transformation received. I also wonder about sharing these deeply personal experiences. I do not hold on to them and simply observe their effects on particular steps I took to tame my wild mind. The sharing is to illustrate that my approach to life comes about through experience, crises, difficulties and joys that may have common ground with many readers. That if I can take steps along the spiritual path then surely anyone can.
To the best of my ability I endeavor to follow Gandhi’s principles of ahimsa and the teachings on mindfulness. These are the guidelines and foundations for my peace and environmental activism. I am vegetarian, well mostly, and live very simply as a planetary activist. So are there seeds of anger in my consciousness after all of this process? Are they still there? Of course they are. It is simply incumbent upon me to take care of them when they arise, to surround them with mindfulness and transform their potential to cause harm. It is my job to ensure that I am not overwhelmed by their energy, that I embrace the seeds of anger with the tools and practices I have received from my teachers. I observe how seeds of anger manifest in my thoughts and know that my thoughts are capable of doing damage to myself and to others. But my practice has changed somewhat over the past three decades. It is not so much a focus on anger and violence but an observation of the tricks of ego.
My daily practice now is to observe how my ego attaches to specific mental formations in order to take my consciousness into separation and illusion. That is the job of the ego. It cannot do anything else except attach to negative mental formations and drive them to distort and manipulate in order to separate me from my true nature. When I catch this happening in a train of thought and I do not always catch it, but when I do I say:
Hello my dear ego. Are you here again? Are you not tired of attaching to these old mental formations that you have used so often before? Why don’t you come and have a rest? Why not rest in the consciousness of my heart?
The ego really has no answer to this. That is what I do when I catch a train of thought filtered through anger and ego. I am not always successful in catching it, but when I do I feel happy, really good, as the excesses of my wild mind are not translating into actions that can cause harm.
While in India I also undertook two twenty eight day retreats, six months apart. They were the high points that the rest of my training built up to. My cultural and religious background was not the same as my two cohorts, yet the experiences we shared were remarkably similar. I would observe my mental states, compare them with reports from my peers, and then discuss them with the Swami overseeing the training. Prior to the training retreats I had months of preparation with attention to specific meditations, dietary regime and sexual abstinence. I learned how to chant the Gayatri Mantra and co-ordinate it with the four components of breath: inhalation, holding the air inside, exhalation, holding the emptiness. There was a mathematical precision in tone, pitch and resonance of the mantra, as it was exactly co-ordinated with the different components of breath and hand movements over the body. It was complex and overwhelming. I frequently wondered if I would ever get it right but benefited enormously from the encouragement of my cohorts who were determined that I not be left behind. I also had skilled and patient teachers who made the effort to transmit this oral tradition, thousands of years old, to a westerner not used to this form of education.
The second training period in a different part of India, Karnataka as opposed to Andra Pradesh, was with a new cohort made up of experienced meditation teachers and exceptional gurus. With this powerful group of beings the sunset ceremony was conducted by running water to deepen the silence, stillness and penetration of the mantra. The chanting of the Gayatri took place with all of us standing up to our waists in the water. When it came to the point of suspending thought and allowing the Gayatri to arise spontaneously, to my total astonishment it did just that. At the same time I could feel and identify the particles of mud between my toes, see minute electrons in the air and look down on my wisdom buddies from a great height. I felt encompassed by the evening sky and at the same time I encompassed the sunset, the evening sky and everything beyond it. This experience was repeated with varying intensity during every sunset rendition of the Gayatri Mantra. I never felt it necessary to communicate this to the Swami or to members of my second cohort. I went into total silence and do not recall talking to anyone, as everyone very carefully left me there.
In my diaries I recorded my experiences in poetry and art, a totally inadequate exposition for something that cannot be fully expressed in either. I persist with this inadequacy, through words, to convey some semblance of the experience. Before I took my leave from the ashram the Swami asked to speak to me. He described my experiences in complete, precise detail and arranged a parting ceremony, an initiation to acknowledge the grace of a guru now recognized with the name bestowed upon me: Prem Chaytania. My wisdom buddies were delighted by this. Training with Gayatri had major life changing effects, not the least being that I became a better and more skillful teacher, both to meditation and university students.
What I can say from personal experience is that once my wild mind was reined in, clarity and compassion were suddenly there in greater compass. This provided a different basis for how to be with the planet and others in a new way. This partial account of my journey in India is to demonstrate that my activism for peace, planetary care and social justice now come from a different place as a result of the internal work. Steadiness, clarity and compassion are there rather than ego posturing from the lunatic fringe. Though there was a “rush” from the latter, I prefer the still-point, uncolored by the excess of ego and desire for kudos-seeking. Such a still-point permits me to be free in my own sovereignty, no matter what I am doing. It also propels me to serve the planet and humanity in a way of creating bridges and pathways of harmony that make sense. As for the rest of my life, that it is still a work in progress!