Wednesday, 23 October 2013

An Interview with Swami Nishchalananda

1.     When, and how, did you discover Yoga?
I first came to Yoga when I was backpacking in different parts of the world. I ended up in Israel in a kibbutz and became friendly with a man from South Africa.  He knew some yoga and invited me to practice with him.  It was great; a few simple postures and then sitting quietly and focusing on the breath.  Twenty minutes everyday, that was all, but I still remember how it stilled the mind.  Then I moved on in my travels and returned to the UK where I took on a job with a consulting engineering company who then transferred me to Northern Ireland.  It was in Belfast that I really started to look more seriously into yoga. This was in 1971 and in those days, unlike today, yoga teachings were not so widely available. But anyway I asked around in Belfast and eventually I discovered a yoga centre mid-way between the catholic and protestant quarters of the city (at that time there were serious confrontations taking place).  It was called the Satyananda Yoga Center and I quickly became very friendly with the people who were running it.  In charge was Swami Atmananda, an Indian lady with whom I became great friends.  I also became very friendly with an Indian man called Swami Satchidananda and an Irish man called Swami Satyamurti.  At that time, Swami Niranjananda was a young boy and he was also living there.  I used to go there every Monday night for simple practice and I loved it. The sessions included simple postures, pranayama, a short yoga nidra and meditation. I discovered that Yoga was a practical way to influence one's mind, emotions and behavior and I had never discovered this practical approach in any other system.    When I used to meet my friends after the class they could see that somehow I was in a completely different space.  Swami Atmananda somehow adopted me because whenever a teacher came to town to give a Satsang she would always telephone and insist that I drop everything I was doing and come.  I always did and I never regretted it because I met some really interesting people.  
Swamiji near Bangalore, India


One day I said to Swami Atmananda that I wanted to go to Indian to study Yoga full time, she said that it was a great idea and that I should talk to her guru, Swami Satyananda, who was coming in a few weeks time.  Well to cut a long story short, this was what I did.  I met Swami Satyananda and I told him of my wish to come to Indian and study Yoga and he said; "no problem, come when you want."  So a few months later I was on my way to India and the rest is another story. 

2.     Can you describe your Yoga practice (what aspect of yoga most touches your heart)?
Over the years my practice of yoga has changed enormously.  In the early days I was very much into Hatha yoga.  I used to love to spend time trying out all kinds of postures, pranayama and bandhas.  In the early part of my stay in the Ashram in India I practiced karma yoga and in fact karma yoga continues to be an important part of my yoga practice.  After a very short time in India I became enamoured with Mantra yoga. 
Photo of Swamiji at Satyananda Tapovanam, Bangalore.



At every opportunity I would find a harmonium and chant all kinds of mantras.  
Furthermore for a few years I underwent rigorous and sustained practice of Kriya yoga.  I used to get up at 2 o’clock in the morning and practice until breakfast.  It gave me enormous insight into how energy flows through our system.  Over the year Gyana yoga and Bhakti Yoga have become very important aspects of my practice and continue to be so until the present day.

3.     Can you describe how yoga affects your daily life?
For me Yoga is as important as breathing.  Every breath and every thought, feeling and action are a process of Yoga in the sense that they are a continuous reminders of my spiritual roots.

4.     Has there been a moment in your years of Yoga that stands out (or a peak experience & how did you integrate this experience?
Over the years I have had so many peak experiences and it is difficult for me to say that one is more important than another.  All of these experiences have been important in that they have revealed deeper qualities of my being.  I was very lucky that in India I was sharing with many like minded people; indeed it is still the case as I live in Mandala Yoga Ashram.  As such it has always been easy for me to integrate these experiences with my daily life.  Many people do have problems integrating these inner revelations with there daily life.  This is why it is so important to share with others in Sangha- that is, sharing with like minded people in your locality, coming regularly to the Ashram (or any Ashram for that matter) or keeping in touch via the internet or telephone.

5.     Is there a text/ book that you find inspiring?
Over the years many books have inspired me.  When I lived in India I was very inspired by the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads and I reflected on there teachings.  Then I came in touch with the Yoga Vasistha and the Ashta Vakra Gita, which for me, are unsurpassed in the depth of there teachings.  When I returned to the UK I also became inspired by the teaching of the Vigyana Bhairava Tantra because it was so pertinent to daily life and how we can make our daily life a process of Yoga.  I think the beauty of the teachings of yoga, tantra and advaita is that they all give us very different perspectives on how we can go deeper in our understanding.  Recently I have been very inspired by the teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj and Ramesh Balsekar among others.

6.     Can you tell us about a favourite retreat of retreat centre?
My favorite retreat centre is Mandala Yoga Ashram but being director it is perhaps not an easy place for me to retreat.   

Photo of the Ashram Reception
There are so many places to retreat in the western world and in India.  A few years ago I went to a Christian retreat center in Wales for a few days because it gave me lots of space to be quiet and no-one knew me.  I was very touched by the love and respect in this centre.  Otherwise in India, a place I like very much is the Ramanashram in Tiruvannamalai in South India which is where Ramana Maharshi used to live.  Actually it is not a place to retreat because it is very busy but I find the Ashram and the Aruna Chala Mountain very conductive to insight.
                                              
7.     Could you share one of your favorite quotes?
My favorite quote used to be "reality is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is no-where."  This is a hermetic statement, though it is variously ascribed to the medieval mystic Giordana Bruno and the French philosopher Blaze Pascel.  This is a beautiful aphorism which indicates the oneness of the world we live in. I feel that reflection on these words may lead to deeper insight.  But recently I came across a re-interpretation of this statement by Renee Guenon which was pointed out to me by a Spanish friend (Mumuksha- Javier Casado).  It says: Reality is a sphere whose circumference is everywhere and whose centre is no-where.”  When I read this my mind nearly exploded because I realized that this statement was coming from the perspective of Consciousness whereas the previous statement was coming from the perspective of matter.  So this is my new favourite quotation.  Though, of course, I could give you thousands of favourite quotations from the texts I have previously mentioned and the many sages who have existed in the past and who exist on planet Earth today.

8.     If you could practice/study with any yogi (dead or alive), who would you choose and why?
Well of course I have been blessed in that respect because destiny decided that I would study with Swami Satyananda, who of course is not alive anymore.   
But the teachings I received from him are still alive in my heart. 

I think we can learn from everyone on the planet and I can not really say who I would like to study with because destiny has always been very kind to me and I always met those people who I needed to meet.  I have such trust in life that I'm sure that if I need to study further with anyone that person would present themselves and he or she will be the person I will be delighted to spend time with.

The above photo shows Swamis Nishchalananda, Niranjananda, Amritananda, and Paramahamsa Satyananda at a Kriya Yoga course, Munger 1978.
(Our thanks to Amarnath Mukherjee for the photo).

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Meditation extracted from Swamiji's new book "Insight into Reality"

Dharana 12  The channel of Awareness

The channel of Awareness is situated in the middle and is like a slender lotus stem.
Meditate on the spaciousness within to thereby reveal essential being.
Verse 35

 Photo of a Lotus Flower from the Ashram Lake
In yogic and tantric terminology, the channel of Awareness is known as the sushumna, or the sushumna nadi.  It symbolises the subtle channel along which flows the transformative energy of the kundalini which awakens us to Awareness. In other words, we can say it is a subtle channel which connects our limited personality with Consciousness. Symbolically, it is said to be located midway between the ida and pingala nadis which symbolise the dualities of
our personality and of life itself .

Practice

Sit in a comfortable position with the eyes closed.

Feel as though your body is an empty vessel.

Be in touch with the inner space.

Visualise a lotus, or a water lily, growing in the spine.

The roots are in the region of the mooladhara chakra (or, if you prefer, in the area where your physical body touches the ground).

The flower bud is in the region of the crown of the head (the sahasrara).

The roots symbolise our material roots in nature.

The stem represents our passage through the waters of life: all the different experiences that we have in our lives, and the gradual unfoldment of the understanding which is indicated by the
chakras.

The bud symbolises our innate potential which, when it flowers, represents the blossoming and fulfilment of our life as our Awareness opens up to the light of the sun Consciousness.

Reflect on this symbolism.

On a practical level, we are usually more concerned with where we are now in our life and how it can be transformed (or, at least, how our attitude can be changed); therefore, let us focus on the stem.

Bring your attention to the slender green stem between the roots and the bud.

Visualise it in the spine.

Imagine that you are in the middle of the stem and, contrary to logic, that it is spacious.

Feel this spaciousness pervading your whole being.

This spaciousness is always there in every action, perception, thought and feeling in our lives: we just have to realise it.

Living in this spaciousness helps us to realise our essential being.

Remain absorbed in this spaciousness for the rest of the practice.

Be open to insight.
Image of the Front Cover of Swamiji's Book

Friday, 11 October 2013


Tuning into the Present Moment of Now

Extract from the book the Vigyana Bhairava Tantra, recently written by Swami Nishchalananda.


He  who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy
BUT he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.
By William Blake

Photo of a Sunrise over the Welsh Mountains By Janak

Generally we are obsessed by the past or the future.
Meditation is intended to bring us into the present moment – into the Now. It can be rightly said, as William Blake has implied in the above quote, that ‘the present moment is the gateway to Eternity’.

Why is the present moment so important? It is important because each moment is pregnant with potential. Thinking or ruminating on the past and anguishing about the future are mental states which take us away from direct conscious contact with what is going on Now. The constant chatter of the mind acts as a veil preventing access to deeper layers of our Being. Obsessively dwelling and brooding on the past and the future is unawareness. Awareness is about being present, Here and Now. Only in the present moment can we realise Awareness as the ground of our being.  It is only in the present moment that we can tune into a more fundamental level of existence – our own existence and of existence in general. Transformative experience and realization cannot arise in the past, because the past is finished and is but a memory in the mind. Equally, it cannot take place in the future – because the future, or rather our anticipation of the future, is just a projection of the mind. Realisation of our innate conscious presence, as Awareness, can only arise Now as a ‘flashing forth’ of insight. We can only awaken to our essential nature in the present moment.

It is true that much of what we do in the present moment can be quite boring or even painful. It is quite natural, therefore, that we often try to escape into ‘sweet’ anticipation of the future or ‘sweet’ memories of the past. Sometimes, traumatised by negative or painful experiences and events, we live in the past. Or, fearing the unknown, we obsessively dread the future. This escapism does have its place in that it can help us to keep reasonably sane. However, this ‘escape’ tends to become a habitual pattern of behaviour, even when situations don’t demand it. We are always ‘lost in our head’ and this becomes an obstacle to going deeper.

We feel that somehow this present moment is not quite right. We start to move away from it towards what we imagine will be a better present. In modern society there is an obsessive pursuit of securing future happiness. We never get future happiness because when the future arrives, our attention is already fixed on the pursuit of some other future where we will be really secure and blissfully happy. BUT real happiness, though perhaps ‘real fulfilment’ is a better way of putting it, can only be found Now. Only the Now has the potential to reveal Awareness in its pristine glory.

The moment we resist the world of present experience, we divide the world. By resisting the timeless present, we reduce it to a passing present. The passing present is sandwiched on one side by all the experiences we have had in the past, and on the other side by all the future moments we are moving towards. Thus, moving away from the present moment, we create a before and an after. Our present is reduced to the desperate running away from the present moment; and our precious moments pass inexorably.


Thus in Yoga, Tantra and other mystical systems, we endeavour to focus on the present moment. But it is not so easy.  By trying to be in the present, we are actually escaping the present. The mind desperately tries to be in the present and so we miss what is, the reality of Awareness, by a mile. Yet the realisation of Awareness is only a hair’s breadth away!  For it is Now and exists before we try to grasp the present moment. It is what we are before we become. Trying to avoid the present moment or trying to grasp it, both require effort. This effort is ego-centred and keeps us away from realisation of what we are beyond the ego.


What to do? We are caught in a contradiction: all the practices of Tantra and Yoga ask us to be aware, to try to be in the present moment. Yet, all practice is ego-centred: how can it be anything else? After all, we are practising for some motive; few of us practise for the sake of it. In this sense, practice can reinforce our self-centredness. But, somehow, if we are sincere then the attention that we invest in practice can lead to the realisation of deeper identity as Awareness. By being available, even vulnerable, as we are by practising Yoga and any form of meditation, we are open to insight. And it is insight which allows us to see beyond the ego to reveal Awareness as the ground of our being.

The sense of self, or ego, is itself in time. Almost by definition, the sense of ego is an escape from the Now, the Present. The feeling of self or ego separates us from the ‘the rest’ and this takes us outside the reality in the Now. And so our false sense of identity continues to project us into time, destiny and death.

This feeling of ‘me’ against ‘them’, this feeling of separation, will continue until we come to the realisation that the self, the separate ego, does not really exist. Though it seems so real in our everyday affairs and preoccupations, fundamentally it is an illusion. This profound realisation changes our attitude to our own life and to that of others. We realize that our essential Being, Awareness, was never born.... and therefore will never die.

How can this realisation arise? All the practices of Yoga and Tantra, including the dharanas of the Vigyana Bhairava Tantra, help by making us more sensitive and more receptive. We cannot make realisation happen; we can only be spacious, open and available to its spontaneous expression. And through spaciousness, we can be open to the realisation of our essential identity as Awareness.
Insight Arises More in ‘Being’ than in ‘Doing’

It is the middle path that leads us to insight. There is a well known maxim: “Yoga is not attained by trying, neither is it attained by not trying”. We should try and we should practise, but without the expectation that what we are doing will necessarily bring results. This is a difficult attitude for all of us who live in, and have been moulded by, a goal-orientated society, but the spiritual path demands that we let go of this conditioning, no matter how difficult it may be.

Realisation of our identity as Awareness is like a beautiful sunrise. If we are preoccupied then we miss it even though it is there; if, however, we are more open, in the present moment and available, we will see the sunrise in all its glory. Yoga practice help us to be less preoccupied and more available. However, as we mature in our understanding, we realize that everything we do, even sadhana (spiritual practice), can actually keep us away from going deeper. We can be so occupied in practice, in doing, in having an agenda, that we miss what IS.

Yoga practices are more about ‘being’ than ‘doing’. They help to take us away from the presumption that by lots of ‘doing’ we can realise the ground of our being; from the obsession that through lots of effort we can ‘achieve’ spiritual awakening. But spiritual realisation is not about the ego; it is about going beyond the ego; and fundamentally, all practice is concerned with the ego. It is true that in our daily affairs we put in lots of effort and consequently we reap the benefits. But we should not presume that this same approach applies in spiritual practice. 

Yoga practice shows us the way to surrender. And real surrender means that we understand clearly and without doubt that insight cannot be made to happen; insight happens in its own way and in its own time, when a situation, or a person, is ripe. We cannot bully it, nor bribe it, to happen. Insight happens spontaneously.

In surrender, we unconditionally accept all the experiences which arise in the present situation and in the present moment. Yoga practice encourages us to surrender to the dynamics of the present moment; taking each situation as it is. Being passive, if this is appropriate, and being pro-active, trying to change things, if this appropriate. But basically, surrendering to whatever is happening NOW. Accepting people, events and experiences as they are in the ‘suchness’ of everything... moment to moment. In Sanskrit the word for ‘suchness’ is tathata; it implies ‘things are as they are’.

Then, in a moment of ‘magic’, our sense of separation dissolves – the ego-self and the world are experienced as a single, organic whole. We realize that there is really nothing but the present moment, no beginning and no end, no past and no future, nothing to regret and nothing to anticipate. Everything is, and always has been, as it is. Even if we endeavour to correct something, this is merely part of the ongoing dynamic and need of the present moment. There never was, nor ever will be, any time but Now. The medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart summed it up perfectly:

The now-moment in which God made the first man, and the now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the now-moment in which I am speaking, are all one in God, in whom there is only one Now.

The Pot
Contemplate on the analogy of the pot.
Reflect that desire, pain, pleasure and so forth do not only happen to me, but to all beings. Reflecting in this way, realize that which is all-pervasive.

dharana (practice) 82

In Gyana Yoga, or Vedanta, there is the well-known analogy of the ghata, the clay pot or jug. The jug, let us say, is full of air. The sides separate the air in the pot from the air outside. What happens when the pot is broken? Automatically the air inside mixes with the air outside. What was considered separate is now known not to be so.

So it is with the ego and personality which can be compared to the pot. In the classical Gherand Samhita, Hatha Yoga is also known as Ghata Yoga, literally ‘Pot Yoga’; that is, ‘the Yoga which works on and through the pot-like body.’ The ego creates separation and difference between what is considered ‘me’ and everything else, a difference between the inner (the personality) and the rest of the universe. When the ego dissolves, as it can in Meditation, there is the realisation of non-duality where there is no difference and no separation. Without doubt the ego is necessary for there to be individual life, but on a deeper level, it is an artificial construction which divides ‘us’ from everything else.

This dharana also draws our attention to an obvious fact, which we nevertheless seldom consider: every living being has desires, suffers pain and enjoys pleasure. Though it may be rather rudimentary in the case of a worm, for example, these characteristics are still there; after all, there must be some kind of desire which drives it to seek food and to mate. Every being enjoys pleasure and suffers pain in some way or another. Not only ‘me’!! In this sense, we are not unique. Each and every human being, as well as each and every life form, experiences the pleasures and pains of living.

Practice
Let us bear this dharana in mind and apply it, moment to moment, in our daily life.

Let us also regularly practise the following formal meditation:

Sit quietly with the eyes open or closed.

Imagine that your body is a clay pot which divides the inner and the outer.

Suppose that the pot shatters.

What is the difference between the inner which we take to be ‘me’ and the outer, which is the rest of the universe?

Reflect in this way for as long as you have time.

Then reflect on the fact that all beings have desires, suffer pain and enjoy pleasure. In this sense, we are no different to anyone else. Why do we take ourselves so seriously and why are we so selfish?

Be open to spaciousness, which unifies everything.

Be open to that which transcends even spaciousness.

Spaciousness in Nature
Gaze at bare, rocky mountains or at a place where there are no trees.
In so doing, the mind is deprived of support or things on which to hang on to.
Mental patterns and fluctuations are diminished and the mind dissolves.

dharana (practice) 37

This dharana encourages us to become more concerned with space and less with the contents or the objects contained therein. The mind is constantly looking for preoccupation – something to hold on to. This is, of course, why it is often so helpful to give the mind some object on which to focus in meditation practice (even though the mind doesn’t easily stay there!). When the mind is stilled, however, it is possible to just watch its empty nature without a reference point.

The mind doesn’t easily allow spaciousness or stillness; these are almost an anathema to the mind. And yet when mental patterns cease, perception is automatically transformed: the mind dissolves and one opens up to that which underlies it.

The ashram is located on top of a hill. There are trees everywhere. Despite the specifications of the dharana (i.e. a bare rocky place with no trees) it is still an ideal place to practise this kind of dharana. The sense of spaciousness is easily evoked when looking over the surrounding countryside onto the Brecon Beacons, the mountains across the valley. One automatically has a tremendous sense of spaciousness that puts things into perspective. Seeing the tiny villages and houses below, one’s daily preoccupation seem to be less important – not irrelevant, but just part of a wider picture. We are more easily able to realize that we are just small cogs in an unthinkably large process of existence.

Practice
Sit in an elevated place: on a hill or a mountain, on top of the ramparts of a castle or a high building; most important, there should be no obstructions in front.
Gaze at the panorama in front of you.

There may be trees, or houses, in the distance – it doesn’t matter.

Whilst acknowledging their presence, be more concerned with the spaciousness in which they exist, in which they are all located.

In this kind of situation, spaciousness automatically impinges on our perception.

Allow the spaciousness of the present moment to penetrate your being.

Photo of the View from the Ashram towards the Beckon Beacons

Have a wider perspective: feel that, as embodied beings, we are small parts of a large drama of life that is unfolding.

Open up to a wider vision of existence and our own place in it.

Allow the mind to dissolve in the spaciousness.