Self-inquiry: the Personal and the Impersonal

Self-inquiry: the Personal and the Impersonal

What follows is an excerpt from Part I: Personal Inquiry in Swami Shankarananda’s book “Self-inquiry: Using your awareness to unblock your life. His method of Self-inquiry bridges the gap between the inner and outer worlds. Swamiji teaches that when our lives are blocked or confusing we can investigate, recognise and uplift the tension and stress that shows up in four chakras. If practiced with the intention to become free of negative emotion, there will be a return to peace and harmony. 

All paths end in inquiry. Why not pursue inquiry from the beginning?
Sri Ramana Maharshi

Real inquiry marries the head and heart. Thought, which has been wandering in its own bloodless world, feeding on itself, is connected to feeling. And like two wires touched together, a spark of energy occurs. Inquiry is also the conjunction of the personal and impersonal. The ancient yogic paths emphasised the impersonal. They insisted that this world does not exist and you are not a separate person.

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Swamiji speaking at a program.

In Indian culture, you are expected to fit into your particular role in life, your caste, your stage of life. You are to do your duty and any deviation is tantamount to insanity. The single social option to the non-conformist is the possibility of renouncing the world and heading off to the Himalayas to be a wandering monk.

In the West, on the contrary, we hear everywhere the cry, ‘What about me?’ We are obsessed with our individuality and our individual expression. The West is totally focused on the person. In India, the yoga is impersonal, connected to the highest truth, caring little for the person. One must maintain an appropriate silence about personal problems and simply do sadhana and one’s duty.

Yoga says that within each person, in the subtle body, are seven yogic centres, seven chakras, which have to do with different aspects of life. The three lower chakras govern the physical life; the heart chakra is the locus of emotional life; the fifth chakra, in the throat,has to do with communication; the third eye, the sixth chakra, is the place of intellect and higher wisdom. Here we have insights and visions but we are still within the personal realm. When you go beyond the sixth chakra to the seventh, at the crown of the head, you contact a different aspect of yourself. It is transpersonal; the dimension of the impersonal Self.

Western psychology was traditionally unaware of this dimension. In the past 30 years, however, a ‘transpersonal psychology’ has developed, acknowledging that divine, impersonal aspect. Jung knew of it but Freud did not. It exists within all of us, represented by the seventh chakra. What should we make of this knowledge of a higher reality? The first impulse is to try to override the person with the impersonal. A noble goal, but significantly difficult to attain. I tried to achieve it: I threw myself on the altar of impersonality again and again. Each time, the person returned. That the higher power does exist is beyond doubt, but the mystical play between the personal and impersonal has to be discovered.

My Guru seemed to me to be a man who was in cosmic awareness. He was always connected to the Self, and never unconnected. Yet, he was also very much a person. He wasn’t like some of the mind-borne ‘holy men’: ‘Hello my son, at last you have come . . .’ He wasn’t like that at all. He was completely vibrant and immediate and totally himself—to an alarming degree, in fact. He was a unique combination of the personal and the impersonal. He was a force of nature, all right. Like a stone rolling down a hill, and loving it.

Self-inquiry connects the personal with the impersonal. It respects the person. It doesn’t try to kill the person, but it also acknowledges the transpersonal. It seeks connectedness so that the person flowers within the impersonal and discovers the impersonal within. A life without the impersonal is dry and empty. You want the universe to flow towards your personal advantage, but, alas, the universe is indifferent. What chance does the poor little person have? The whole universe is arranged to frustrate or be indifferent to your desires. There is no joy in being merely a person.

You are so blinded by what is personal,
that you do not see the 
universal.
The blindness will not end by itself—
it must be 
undone skillfully and deliberately.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Sometimes we feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. It might be a political movement, or even a crowd cheering for a team at a football game. It is a rewarding and liberating feeling. Our individuality dissolves in the group, and, at the same time, participates actively. But when the event is over or we leave the group for some reason, we feel a kind of loss—we’ve returned to the merely personal. Such an experience is only temporary, but it is a taste of something real and intrinsic to our true Self. We are actually part of something greater, and when we live in harmony with it, our stress and fear fade away.

Through the process of inquiry, we recognise the dynamism running through us. We become liberated from doubt and concern when we no longer try to hold the universe at bay, but surrender to it, and welcome it. Our actions become effective and powerful, because they are aligned with this great impersonal process. And we have the delightful experience of playing our part in a larger drama.

Self-inquiry seeks to unblock all areas of life: health, career, relationship and spirituality.

Some more thoughts on Self-inquiry:

  • Blocks are tensions in our inner world.
  • Desire and fear create blocks.
  • There is one subject and many objects.
  • First force initiates, second force resists, third force enables.
  • Second force as blocked inner feeling is the main focus of inquiry.
  • Right method increases third force.
  • Self-inquiry harmonises our thinking, feeling and doing.
  • Wisdom power is where thought and feeling merge.
  • Everything undergoes five processes: creation, sustainment, dissolution, concealment and grace.
  • Concealment is the universal principle of separation.
  • Grace is the universal principle of oneness.
  • Our encounters in life are marked by emotion.
  • Our negative reactions are stored inside and may reappear later.
  • A yogi burns negative reactions to sameness with Consciousness.
  • Truth has a feeling of harmony and peace.
  • Self-inquiry is the main instrument in the wisdom path, yet it includes devotion.
  • Shiva Process Self-inquiry focuses on the higher Self.
  • Emotions are starting points for inquiry.

Think from the work; not from life.

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GI Gurdjieff

Western sages are few and far between. One of Guruji’s favourites from the last century, is the mystic master GI Gurdjieff. His teachings dovetail beautifully with meditation and yoga. Gurdjieff has many yogic practices but one unique articulation is, ‘think from the work, and not from life‘. To keep your spiritual values alive means to keep a ‘truthful focus.’ When we think from life then we live in fear of loss–our possessions, our relationships, our security. We are anxious all the time.

Gurdjieff encourages us to avoid letting the mind become absorbed in mundane matters that bring up ego–likes and dislikes, jealousy, tearing thoughts, anger, self-preservation, pride, and other emotions. Most sages agree that it is our negative reactions to outer events that create our experience of life. Our painful reactions are ego, manifesting as negative emotion. Ego separates us from the heart, from love and from the Self. The first step in shifting the mind from the mundane to the mystical is to look within.

Gurdjieff called on his students to ‘work’ on themselves. He encourages them to evaluate all choices and decisions against the highest choice, Self-remembering. If we can hold to the highest we make choices for love, for peace, for kindness and wisdom. When we work against ego we are less likely to be led astray into painful encounters and situations. Gurdjieff has said:

“I will tell you one thing that will make you rich for life. There are two struggles: an Inner-world struggle and an Outer-world struggle…you must make an intentional contact between these two worlds; then you can create a new world.

Epictetus

The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, born a slave, had a uniquely surrendered attitude to the outer world. Epictetus gave teachings similar to Patanjali in that he encourages his students to avoid negative thinking and habits. He said that there is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.

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Perhaps this is why so many great sages and saints guide us toward compassion. We all, at times, ignore, disregard and reject the most wise counsel when we shouldn’t. Epictetus said that every difficult event has two handles. For example, say your brother betrays you. If you hold onto one handle you walk down the path of betrayal, anger and vengeance. If you choose the other handle you walk toward peace, forgiveness and love. Which one are you going to hold?

Satsang

Guruji places great importance on Satsang and has often said, ‘if you can hold a Satsang then create one, if you cannot create one, then join one’. In Satsang seekers unite in a common goal to know the Self, to contemplate the Self, to meditate on the Self. The energy created by a united spiritual purpose is a dynamic power that is loving and wise.

The other night in Satsang Guruji drew on the aphorisms and teaching of Epictetus. Epictetus also talked about the value of keeping good company, or keeping the company of the highest truth. Guruji has often said, ‘the great beings are humanity’s greatest treasure’. Epictetus agrees when he says:

The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best. Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.

Attach yourself to what is spiritually superior, regardless of what other people think or do. Hold to your true aspirations no matter what is going on around you.

The teachings of Epictetus are pure jnan, a breath of fresh air. I felt my mind enter a wide space of mental clarity. I was surprised to discover that I preferred them to Patanjali, who often seems like hard work. Epictetus sweeps away useless thoughts and leaves behind a sweet peace.

Guruji summarised his teaching by saying ‘Think in such a way as to promote your own happiness’. To live fearlessly is to live in the Shakti. No matter where we live or what we do, creativity, inspiration and dynamism arise from a state of remembering the Self not forgetting it, not sacrificing it for the sake of the material world. To remember our highest values is to live in the state of oneness and peace. This is what sages both East and West want for us.

The wise counsel of Epictetus

  • The universe is but one great city, full of beloved ones, divine and human by nature, endeared to each other.
  • In our power: our opinions, impulses, desires and aversions. Not in our power: bodies, possessions glory, and power.
  • Be not swept off your feet by the vividness of an impression, but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Leet me see what you are and what you represent. Let me try you.’
  • It is not death or pain that is to be feared, but it is the fear of death and the fear of pain.
  • When you close  your doors and make darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your genius is within. And what need have they of light to see what you are doing?

Books By Swamiji

Happy For No Good Reason

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A best selling guide to meditation, this book explores the practice and philosophy of meditation including traditional techniques of mantra (the repetition of the phrase) and witness-consciousness (watching the thoughts). You will see how to apply these teachings in every day situations, by developing a moment to moment awareness of the love, joy and peace that unfolds from the center of your being.

The book comes with a CD that, after you read the first two chapters, will have you meditating for the first time within 30 minutes.

 

Buy online at Ashram Bookstore

Consciousness Is Everything

Conciousness-200x300Consciousness is the most intimate experience of life, the essence of life itself. Among the many spiritual traditions born and developed in India, one ancient philosophy–Kashmir Shaivism–has explored it completely. Until now, Kashmir Shaivism was an esoteric filed accessible only to a few scholars and other specialists.

Here, for the first time, Swami Shankarananda, a Self-realised spiritual master, presents the wisdom of this powerful tradition in a form that will delight and inspire all spiritual seekers. He explores the teachings in rich detail, elucidating ideas and meditative practices while drawing upon a vast canvas of many great beings, wisdom traditions and personal experience. This is a book that will transform you.

Consciousness Is Everything is a book that will transform you. It is a resource and guide towards investigating and deepening your experience of your own Consciousness.

Buy online at Ashram Bookstore

Self-inquiry: Using your Awareness to unblock your life.

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In this groundbreaking book, meditation master Swami Shankarananda adapts the ancient path of Self-inquiry to contemporary life.

The Shiva Process method of Self-inquiry engages your awareness to effectively remove blocks and enliven the Shakti in the areas of career, relationship, health and spirituality. Building on the teachings of Kashmir Shaivism and Sri Ramana Maharshi, Swamiji provides the tools to reveal  your true nature.

The accompanying CD guides you step by step though a series of inquiries to help you connect with your inner wisdom. You will be transformed and empowered in every aspect of your life.

Buy online at Ashram Bookstore

I Can’t Hear You I Have A Carrot In My Ear

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Swamiji responds to questions from seekers about life, spiritual practice and philosophy. It is a guidebook to the inner experience, offering insights and techniques to dissolve ignorance and live with energy and awareness.

Topics include: the Self and Consciousness, meditation, Self-inquiry, mantra, the Guru, Kundalini, Shakti, the mind, relationships, work and career, money, communicating with truth and compassion.

 

Buy online at Ashram Bookstore.

American Veda

This book is by Philip Goldberg, an ordained interfaith minister, and founder of Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates who has thoroughly researched Hinduism’s impact on North America from the 50s until now.

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American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation
How Indian Spirituality Changed the West
Philip Goldberg
Publisher: Harmony Books, Random House
ISBN: 978 0 385 52134 5

This book fills a unique niche as a commentary on the rise of Vedic teachings, and the Gurus who transmitted them in America. Philip Goldberg is a wonderful writer and spiritual analyst who examined the Vedic exodus from the East to the West, and its considerable influence on American culture.

He writes:

Vedanta-Yoga is a kind of empirical science of the inner life; its postulates can be tested in the laboratory of one’s own consciousness, using the test tubes and Bunsen burners of yogic disciplines. And the goal does not have to be union with God, or Self-realisation; it can be something instrumental, like reduced stress or a clearer mind. In other words, what some saw as theology, others saw as testable hypotheses. What some viewed as spiritual practices, others viewed as therapies.

Even though Goldberg focuses on America, he addresses a dilemma a lot of Westerners face. Buddhists call themselves Buddhists, Christians call themselves Christians, and Jews call themselves Jews. But what do Westerners who have a Guru and have embraced Hindu teachings like yoga and meditation, call themselves? Goldberg made a choice to move away from calling the teachings ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism’ and instead calls the movement by the book’s title ‘American Veda’.

Goldberg eloquently discusses the evolutionary relationship between East and West as a kind of cultural ‘transmission,’ which is seeping into every aspect of American thought and life. He relates stories and anecdotes of the most influential Gurus, practitioners and students of Eastern thought. He traces the spiritual history of Vedic teachings in America, from the first hatha yoga teacher, to the present teachers.

This book is readable, entertaining and immensely interesting. Goldberg is not just a scholar, he is also a practitioner who brings his years of experience and understanding of yoga to the pages.

 

Unfold The Inner Shakti

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Zen Garden in the front of the Ashram.

This morning in the shower I picked up a little wood bug that was struggling on its back to roll over. Many small creatures find their way into my bathroom and I try to save them. I don’t like to see them or anything suffer. When given a choice to kill defenceless creatures or save them, I will try to save them even if some are resistant.

I fed the dogs, sat down and looked out over my courtyard. As I glanced around I realised there are many thriving plants I had saved from death’s door. ‘What is this’, I asked myself. Do I have some kind of saviour complex? If I do it is not like Mother Teresa. I would never go to Calcutta and pick up lepers off the street. I might imagine doing it. That is not my purpose or way of serving but I am grateful to those who do it.

I love to watch people, animals, flowers grow and flourish. To grow inwardly and outwardly is to expand the Shakti. I hate to see things wither and dry up. The garden in the Ashram was a wasteland when we bought it. I have taken great pleasure, along with a whole team of people, turning it into a place of beauty and peace.

This morning a plumber came to quote on a job. ‘What is this place?’ he asked Bhaktananda. ‘It is so beautiful.’

Much more than destroying things, I love to build things and watch them being built. There was a time when the opposite was true. I was filled with self-hatred, doubt and fear, but the Guru changed my vision of myself and the world. Free of self-concern by Guru’s grace, it is possible to make a contribution that feeds my soul.

Over the years many young people have come through the Ashram doors, confused, agitated, broken-hearted, drug or alcohol addicted, lost and without purpose. After some years most have transformed and found their purpose, their life partner, and their career. To provide an atmosphere where seekers can awaken to Guru’s grace and unfold their destiny is the most sublime work.

When students move out of the Ashram to begin their householder lives, Guruji calls it ‘Graduation’ and gives diplomas based on the number of years they have spent in the ‘Ashram Residential Course’. When once the world reflected their negative mind states, now it reflects their growth and essence.

In the beginning of Guruji’s book ‘Consciousness Is Everything’ he quotes from the sage Keshemaraja on how to dispel suffering:

He is a bound soul who has poverty of Shakti. With the unfoldment of his Shakti, however, he becomes Shiva himself.

To unfold the inner Shakti and become Shiva means freedom from pain.

Shaivism says that Shakti unfolds with the grace of a Shaktipat Guru. And so many ashramites have moved from darkness to light, from ignorance to understanding during their sadhana with Guruji. Confusion has become clarity, addiction a passion for God, heartache love of Self, and aimless wandering a sense of purpose.

With the Shakti we will never feel impoverished, never feel a lack, never feel alone, never feel lost, never feel confused and never feel separate.

The other night in study group Guruji said, ‘It is rare to meet a Sadguru. Once you have met the Guru you can find a million reasons to leave him. But, there is only one reason to stay…and that is to know the Self.’

The connection with the Guru’s Shakti nourishes our whole being and unites us with his state of Consciousness. It is a direct line to Shiva, who breathes life into us and sustains grace.

When that connection wobbles we suffer from ‘poverty of Shakti’. The highest priority, whether you are an ashramite or a householder, is to maintain the flow of energy. When we hold to that we discover a love that weathers all storms.

Peace Symposium September 2012

A few years ago I was invited to speak at an Islamic women’s conference at a mosque in Melbourne. What follows are my thoughts on peace.

Thank you to our hosts for presenting this program today, and thank you for inviting me, and my colleagues to participate.

My Gurus have taught me that to welcome another person with love and respect is the true goal of meditation and spirituality. They also say that in order to do that we must first learn to love and accept ourselves, and then we can share that love with everyone.

The issue of Global Peace has become more urgent since the rise of terrorism in the late 70s and after 9/11. For many middle Eastern, and a few European countries terrorism has been a constant threat. 9/11 woke up the Americas in a dramatic way. Now, suddenly, there were terrorist threats in our homes and our loved ones were dying.

The question arises, ‘is peace possible?’

Classically there are two views on attaining peace. One you could call the ‘external’ point of view. If you change the government and you don’t allow selfish, greedy and rich people to run things from their self-interest then you have a chance for peace.

The other the ‘internal’ says that as long as there is violence in the individual heart, aggression is translated into domestic violence, social violence and global violence.

We cannot have peace in the world when there is a lack of peace in the hearts and minds of individuals. The mystic GI Gurdjieff used to say: ‘external consider always, internal consider never.’

Internal considering is when we imagine how others see us and we react to that imagining. When we internal consider we worry about how we look to others, what others think of us, whether we are more intelligent, more beautiful, richer, or more successful, have more or can do more. We can become obsessed with ourselves. We are so concerned about ourselves that we are blind and deaf to others. There is no friendship, no communication, and no understanding when we are caught in self-concern.

External considering is the opposite. We focus our attention and awareness on the ‘other’ and speak to the listening of the other person. A wise person always hears first and speaks second. They are free of self-concern, self-pity. External considering creates oneness. It is from this place that solutions, negotiation, agreement can be found.

The great sage Sai Baba of Shirdi said about his devotees, ‘I give them what they want until they want what I have to give.’ In other words if they came asking for a blessing to have a baby, he gave it. If they came looking for a dowry for their daughter’s marriage, he gave it. If they came looking for money, he gave it. He did not lecture them on what they should or should not want or, that they should be asking for spiritual enlightenment. But when they asked for that, he gave it.

tumblr_ma5130UznZ1qg2xvoo1_1280I was an activist in the 70s for a short time. I was working for a Youth Hostel funded by the Canadian Federal Government. When the funding ended the residents took to the streets in protest. The riot police showed up ready for battle. It became violent and I began to question the effectiveness of political activism. As I watched the police brutally beat my fellow demonstrators I understood that if I was going to work for peace it would not be in politics. Fortunately I was dragged away by a friend and was not arrested. That day my spiritual search began.

A few years later I was fortunate to meet a Guru whose teachings resonated within me, and whose energy woke me to a spiritual life. I began to do ‘sadhana’, serious work on myself. I learned to meditate.

Meditation has shown me all the good and not so good things about myself. It has taught me that Divinity is within me but it also taught me that I had unconscious fear, anger and sorrow that needed to be addressed. I learned to recognise negative emotion when it arose within me and to not speak or act out of it. As I meditated I began to understand myself and accept myself. As I accepted myself and learned to love myself my anger, fear and sadness lessened.

To commit to non-violence within one’s own heart is an act of great compassion. It is not easy.

My teacher Swami Shankarananda says: ‘Tell the truth don’t get angry’ meaning that we need to find the razor’s edge of truth and kindness in our communication. We can say what we have to say if we have compassion.

He also says: there is no good situation that a bad attitude cannot ruin, and there is no bad situation that a good attitude cannot improve. It is important to examine whether our attitude or understanding is contributing to peace or inflaming conflict.

One of the major blocks to inner peace and good communication within an individual is blame. When things go wrong the mind automatically asks, ‘Who is responsible? Who’s at fault? Who can I blame?’

Blame and finding fault can destroy love, can destroy relationships, destroy family unity and creates enmity where there was friendship.

In the Hindu Trinity of Creation, Sustenance and Dissolution, love is the sustaining power. When we give our love and devotion openly and freely to our nearest and dearest, to our work, to our friends, to our lives, we have peace in our lives. If we withdraw our love from the life we have built then we create instability, confusion, separation and uncertainty.

The poet saint Rabia wrote:

I have two ways of loving You: one is selfish and the other is worthy of You. In my selfish love, I remember You and You alone. 
In that other love, You lift the veil
 and I feast my eyes on Your Living Face.

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The Islamic tiles in our Interfaith Garden.

As Rabia says, the minute we give our attention and our devotion to that which really matters we see and feel divine love. The power of our heart to love is perhaps the greatest power we have. Rabia inspires us to overcome the blocks to our love, our connection to the Self and to the Divine. Is your heart available? Is your heart open? Is your heart generous?

Women particularly feel the burden of violence. We do want those we love, our children, our husbands, our fathers or mothers going off to war to die at the hands of terrorists. We also want to protect them from the temptations of a worldly life that separates them from the family unit. And so the task of educating children to think and feel responsibly falls to mothers.

A few years ago I was on pilgrimage in India to visit the samadhi shrine of Bhagawan Nityananda, the spiritual source of the divine energy of my lineage. One afternoon while meditating I silently asked him if he had a teaching for me. As I listened for an answer I heard a voice, ‘Always return to love, especially when you do not want to.’

The famous guitarist Jimi Hendrix said: When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.