Letter # 3 - A New Beginning
“That second evening on entering the Old Hall (where Sri Ramana is present to this day!) I was immediately astonished by the overwhelming atmosphere of subtle that pervaded the room. It was as heavy as lead soup. There was no need to even meditate but just to sit and soon the pervasive power would engulf one with its healing brush.”
During the three-day stay at the ashram, I explored the institution. The ashram was quite empty, desolate in fact, at least that is what it seemed to me as I struggled with this new reality so different from the green vibrancy of Java. There was no one to talk with except for one American lady who, unusually for me, I approached and we had a short conversation about Arunachala.
What was unusual during the brief stay in the ashram was the number of hours in which I slept. I woke up around 7.30 or 8 am, stumbled around to take a bath in the men’s bathhouse adjacent to the gosala (cow shed), wandered about in a daze, had lunch at 11.30 am and then promptly went to sleep again until say 3 pm. This somnambulistic state was unfamiliar.
On the second evening around 6 pm, I entered the Old Hall for the first time. It was largely empty aside from a few people. Among those sitting was an older Western lady who I later discovered was Lucia Osborne.
But before proceeding further, we required a short reversion back to Java to give a history of my previous meditation activity. In the course of my time in Solo, Java I studied meditation with a Javanese Hindu teacher, Pak Hardjanta. He was a remarkable person. Scholarly, funny, sharp, kind and naturally inquisitive. A stream of people came through his ‘office’ where he sat all day. He spent the nights awake and would sleep from dawn to midday. He introduced me to Javanese meditation practices of sun meditation and later, moon meditation, based on Hindu tantric practices. One must remember that Java was Hindu until the 16th Century when it was transformed into the Muslim country it is today.
The sun meditation practice nearly killed me. The practitioner was instructed to lie down in an open area for ten days for an hour or so at a time, with a dark cloth over one’s eyes and absorb the sun’s prana through the navel. In my impetuosity, far too much was absorbed in the three days lying there and I promptly fell seriously ill.
After a week of an almost catatonic state, the physical body slowly revived and returned to normal. Pak Hardjanta then sent me to his mountain residence at Tawangmangu forty kilometres east of Solo, to practice moon meditation. This involved being awake in the middle of the night, sitting outside in the cold mountain air with the stars clustered bright as diamonds, and gazing at the moon when it had some substantial shape. The only instruction he gave me was to go through the moon. I had no idea what he meant but for the next two months or more, I tried and tried. Partly puzzled, partly irritated that nothing was happening, and partly fascinated by the grandeur of the night sky and the beauty of the moon, I persisted. And then one night I went through the moon. It is not possible to explain it, however with that achievement there was a concomitant release of positive joyous energy.
I was in seventh heaven. The major benefit of the moon meditation was that the uncontrollable mood swings that hitherto governed my life subsided considerably.
A few days later I returned to Pak Ha’s office at Solo and he confirmed that the meditation was a success. After that, there was a general deflation because there was nothing to do. I felt adrift as Pak Ha had not given me a new instruction. For the next weeks I continued the moon meditation in a desultory fashion for want of anything better to do until suddenly a vision of Sri Ramana Maharshi sent me to India.
During nearly a year in Java and being engaged with Pak Hardjanta and his close followers I picked up without any intention or effort several siddhis. It was possible to read minds in terms of colour patterns, dimly see auras and perceive power centres for want of a better description to explain the accumulation of psychic energy, tejas, in one place. For example, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is a power centre as are the many churches, temples and mosques in the world. In Hinduism a temple is created by one of three ways: a Svayambhū (Skt. self-born), that is, a natural powerpoint; for example, Arunachala or Tirumalai hill at Tirupati; the second is the interment of a great soul; and thirdly, through rituals and prayers.
That second evening on entering the Old Hall I was immediately astonished by the overwhelming atmosphere of subtle energy that pervaded the room. It was as heavy as lead soup. There was no need to even meditate but just to sit and soon the pervasive power would engulf one with its healing brush.
After three days in the ashram, I was obliged to leave and find private accommodation outside. When I did leave, I was like a naked and vulnerable chicken. In the course of those three days, all that I had achieved in Java was stripped from me. Those proud, colourful feathers were gone and never returned. And no matter in the coming days how much those wings were feebly flapped there was no lift to give a sense of accomplishment and I felt crestfallen and bewildered.
People think that Arunachala Sri Ramana will give them what they want. It is quite the opposite, Arunachala Sri Ramana takes away from us not only our fears but also our desires. Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi’s yoga is completely safe and does not allow any false complacency or delusion that one is a special person. The possible dangers of kundalini yoga and any other type of yogic practice through say pranayama that can engender say siddhis or powers are nullified. That also includes any fabulous but ultimately irrelevant spiritual experiences unless rightly acted upon.
These visions which are signposts to guide us and reassure us we are on the right path, are nothing more than that and should be let go of as soon as possible once rightly acted upon. Sri Ramana’s yoga may appear dull and slow but hazardous it is not. A follower of Bhagavan who has received initiation leads a perfectly normal life while that subtle invisible process forever engages the deeper reaches of our soul in an unstoppable process of transformation.
Walking out through the front gates of the ashram was the end of my honeymoon and the start of the serious work to destroy all the previous illusions I tensely gripped about myself and the world.
Letter # 4 - Neither Here nor There
“The time spent in the ashram at first was random and unfocused. I felt nothing spiritual either in myself or the ashram temple or the samadhi (burial site) of Sri Ramana Maharshi. It was all rather odd and disconcerting. There was a momentary thought to move on to Goa which I had heard about as a tourist spot, and it was in the general direction of where I had previously intended, but that thought vanished almost immediately and what I was left with was a blank space from which no thoughts could arise. That momentary thought happened on the third night while I lay on the lumpy bed in the cell.
I felt interrogated by some unknown presence and found myself suddenly in despair at the awfulness of my situation, the unresolved conflicts left behind in my homeland, and my sense of inadequacy. There was no way I could dismiss the sudden avalanche of negative emotions and thoughts which vied for attention.”
Little did I realise that after stepping outside the ashram gates, the next months would test my resolution to persevere with this seemingly precipitous change of direction. Though I was calm and meekly accepted all that happened to me, it was not what was originally planned in the greater scheme of events. My initial plan on departing from Australia was to travel to England on the then-popular overland route through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. Yet here I was in a rural setting far from the vistas of the Taj Mahal among other famous sites.
It only got worse with the accommodation which was found for me by Raja, the ashram postman, God bless him. Raja had been a fixture at the ashram for many decades. From Bhagavan’s day, he was a constant presence who helped those visitors who arrived disorientated and needing practical guidance. Raja brought me to Marpillai Bungalow some ten minutes’ walk from the ashram. It was a dark place with some small rooms but at least it had a bed, a toilet, and running water. Raja also found me a place to eat one meal a day with Rajapalayam Ramani Ammal, an extraordinary person. It was all well and good to locate a place to stay but what to do with each day as it passed?
I am not sure how most people managed who first came to Arunachala. The days passed in a combination of bewilderment (what am I doing?) and ennui, coupled with small excursions into town some two kilometres away to eat tiffin of idli and dosa or a meal of rice, at the Udipi Hotel or Vasanta Bhavan Hotel. Food at other times generally consisted of porridge made on a small kerosene stove which I bought.
The time spent in the ashram at first was random and unfocused. I felt nothing spiritual either in myself or the ashram temple or the samadhi (burial site) of Sri Ramana Maharshi. It was all rather odd and disconcerting. There was a momentary thought to move on to Goa which I had heard about as a tourist spot, and it was in the general direction of where I had previously intended, but that thought vanished almost immediately and what I was left with was a blank space from which no thoughts could arise. That momentary thought happened on the third night while I lay on the lumpy bed in the cell. I felt interrogated by some unknown presence and found myself suddenly in despair at the awfulness of my situation, the unresolved conflicts left behind in my homeland, and my sense of inadequacy.
There was no way I could dismiss the sudden avalanche of negative emotions and thoughts which vied for attention. The next moment I found myself flat on the floor in full prostration towards Arunachala on the cold cement floor, crying the tears that evidently had been pent up over the past years when my life and behaviour were far from perfect. What a mess I seemed to have made of my life!
Eventually, the tears dried and I got up, the tumultuous mixture of emotions wiped clean, and calmly lay down on the bed again, There comes a moment in all our lives when we hit a brick wall. Our past seems to catch up with us and the future appears bleak and uncertain. On our journey through life, these are major thresholds where our physical appearance, emotional responses and mental attitudes undergo a transformation if we are open to the possibility of the change that is actively seeking us. Or they can harden if we refuse to heed the potential that life opens for us. Life gives us all types of hints and warnings through dreams, words someone incidentally speaks that happen to resonate with us, and events that compel us into action, sometimes kicking and screaming.
At the age of twenty-two, I faced a new crisis precipitated by the proximity of Arunachala – though I was not aware of the power of this sacred hill until much later – and it appeared on reflection, the hidden presence of Sri Ramana Maharshi. From an escapee of the atmosphere in Australia that I could no longer make sense of, to a tourist on the hippie trail to Europe enjoying the new sights, to a beginner in meditation and the spiritual life, to a dazed occupant of a dingy room wondering what would happen next, I was on the verge of a commitment to an unknown future over which I seemingly had no say, let alone control. And what of that strange moment on arrival a few days before when my heart murmured, “I have come home’? Was there another ‘person’ inside me of whom I was not in the slightest bit familiar? Who said that and just as pertinently, who is this everyday person I call ‘I’?
Though we may think we are alone in the world I cannot but conclude after so many years on the path of Sri Ramana Maharshi, that there are higher forces at work in our lives, guiding, cajoling and protecting us. In the Christian world, we call them angels. In Hinduism and Buddhism, there is an emphasis on lineage. Once a soul has been accepted into an authentic lineage that bond is never broken, birth after birth. This in part explains why we may be drawn to a particular tradition or teacher. It may happen that we ‘accidentally’ come across a book in a library or bookshop that catches our eye, which starts us off on the path.
We may see a photograph of a teacher who immediately holds our attention which has often been the case with respect to Sri Ramana Maharshi. These are not accidents but deliberate, inevitable encounters. Our dream life too precipitates new physical conditions conducive to the enrichment of our lives. But this can also be haphazard and can lead to nothing significant as I discovered on reflection after puzzling about events in my past. There were opportunities that were lost because of not paying proper attention or being wilfully stubborn. It seems a miracle at times that we ever do make the right decision and embrace the opportunity presented to us. However, that higher power, or whatever you may wish to name it, is patient and insistent. There is no sense of failure and like water that runs down a mountain, that power will find a way to reach us even in the darkest moments of our lives. In fact, it is in those moments that our best opportunity arises, for with all the suffering we endure, we ask that fundamental question, why? This single question can open the gates.
'Why’ is that knock on the door which will spontaneously open if we but ask with our whole, sincere heart. It is when we are so full of ourselves that we arrogantly think we can do it without help. We cannot. And until we realise this, we will go round and round in circles repeating the same mistakes again and again. For a moment I had stopped running around on the treadmill and that made all the difference.
Letter # 5 - A New Beginning
“In essence, what we eat we become, what we think we become. The choice is ours whether we eat or think with discrimination or consume whatever is in front of us regardless of its impact on our well-being."
The trauma that saw me prone on the cold floor lingered as a sobering reminder that who I thought I was and who I really was were not the same. Scoured and somewhat humbled I returned to the ashram with a determination to do something about my predicament. At the least, I could sit quietly and do what others appear to be doing, that is, sit in the Old Hall and meditate. This new type of meditation was quite foreign to what passed for meditation in Java with its powerful psychic ambience. Here in the spartan hall shorn of all but the necessary, meditation was quite abstract and unyielding in its intent. There was not the possibility of a vision or a pleasant emotion.
The black cuddapah stone (slate) floor refused to relinquish its hardness and just when one got comfortable and thoughts started to slide away into oblivion, the occasional but inevitable mosquito made its presence felt with a sharp sting.
It was hard work and it was not possible to maintain for long any degree of equanimity or strength of attention. Eventually just sitting quietly for an hour was an accomplishment, never mind whether it was efficacious in curbing the thought process. Meditation is a skill like any other and just as the athlete trains for a marathon bit by bit, it takes determination, time, patience and renewed effort each time one sits to build up the appropriate mental and physical muscles to prolong the period of quietude. Usually, all one’s early efforts result in a sense of frustration. This is normal. All one can do is persevere.
Slowly and eventually, that unique peace of mind will develop. But just as the fresh sprig of a plant requires protection, we too need to carefully nurture the growth of this new awareness. With the water of attention and the nourishment of undaunted action, it will grow. " Perseverance furthers.”
In the Old Hall, there is the couch on which Bhagavan sat and half reclined for so many years. There is a large-scale photograph of him stretched out reclining on the couch with a large bolster at the back supporting his upper chest and head. He is by then in the last years of his earthly existence and his compassionate eyes are alert and wise. He has seen it all before, yet he is still there for us.
In those first days when I entered the Hall, I saw the photograph as a nice touch and thought nothing more. It was only later, years later, the realisation arose that though the photograph was an inert object, nonetheless it indicated the power of Bhagavan’s Presence and by some mysterious alchemy that inert picture was a gateway. From then on, I entered the Hall with considerable circumspection knowing my every movement and thought was noticed.
The Old Hall has a unique atmosphere. The only other place in my experience that came close to replicating it was strangely enough the chapel or cell, adjoining the Church of St Julian in England, where the medieval anchoress, Julian of Norwich resided. 1
Each type of yoga, be it raja yoga, shabda yoga, ashtanga yoga, kundalini yoga, bhakti yoga, all have their methods, and consequently, the results may be different. Certainly, if say, one practices the bhakti yoga of one of the many schools of Vaishnavism, one can gain a vision of Lord Krishna, while a person who practises yoga techniques of the Tamil siddha tradition may find themselves encountering Lord Murugan in a subtle vision.
Broadly speaking Sri Ramana Maharshi’s yoga may be classified as jnana yoga. One of Sri Ramana’s disciples Lakshmana Sarma named it maha yoga in his commentaries of Sri Ramana’s teachings. Whatever the name may be, the yoga of Sri Ramana Maharshi is distinct.
It does have a close affiliation with the Advaita teaching of Adi Sankara, the great proponent of Advaita who revivified Hinduism, in the eighth century CE, it is said. Sri Ramana’s yoga differs more in the question of emphasis than metaphysical and philosophical disparities. Sri Ramana was not interested in theorising but rather constantly brought those who sought him out for guidance, to the concrete practice of vichara, self-enquiry.The practice of self-enquiry starts with asking oneself, ‘Who am I?’ There is no answer to the question in rational terms. Rather the question is meant to focus one’s attention on who is asking the question. Who is asking the question? By taking one’s attention back to the source of the question-thought, there is the opportunity to hold onto that consciousness.
Perhaps for a nanosecond, one can focus on the pristine consciousness shorn of all thought, but quickly the mind produces a stream of new persistent thoughts which cloud one’s awareness of that pure consciousness. Again, one retrieves the attention and takes it patiently back to that point.
By again asking the question who am I? the mind is once more brought to a halt. But this should not be construed as chanting Who Am I? Who Am I? like a mantra. With practice, it probably needs to be stated but once and one automatically dives below the layer of the everyday mind factory. Those familiar with the technique know all too well that moment when the chatter vanishes and one enters a thought-free state. It is like entering an ocean where the water is clear and has a tranquil, unhurried quality, and the feeling is pleasant.
At that moment of stasis, there can arise the insight that when a particular thought, like a bubble, rises to the surface of consciousness, it is simply an objective, impersonal thought, nothing more. In the past, we may have identified with it and said that is mine, but now we see with the advantage of a silent thought-free moment that we are not that passing apparition. That thought then loses its power of identification.
With each passing thought which is observed, it is seen to be other than oneself and there slowly grows in one’s self an increased power of discrimination. With time and patience, our centre of equilibrium is not rocked by ephemeral thoughts whose nature is to trap our attention and eat up our energy.
Just as we clothe our bodies to keep warm or to be civilized, so too, we clothe ourselves with a variety of thoughts and feelings which we often quite randomly acquired because they seem to fit or were ‘given’ to us. Fashions change not only in clothes but also in ways of attitude and expression, and we adapt to them, as well drop those that are quaint or obsolete. We may laugh at the way people dressed in a previous generation or we think their expressions and behaviour were primitive. But we are much the same. Our language and expressions will change with time. Andour thoughts will change according to the prevailing winds of fashion or the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. In other words, thoughts are interchangeable. They are not solid and imperishable. To get along we identify with common or acceptable thoughts.
The same occurs in our inner world. We constantly pick up thought patterns, some of which are healthy and we like them, and some we reject as being ugly and objectionable. There are subtle cunning thoughts that slip below the radar of our attention and bury themselves in our unconscious. There are thoughts like viruses which feed off our attention and make life hell.
In atma vichara meditation, we actively learn how to close the door to the undesirable elements that cause us suffering by focusing on that pure sense of ‘I’. In essence, what we eat we become, what we think we become. The choice is ours whether we eat or think with discrimination or consume whatever is in front of us regardless of its impact on our well-being.
1. We do not know Julian’s original name and it is accepted that it was taken from the Church of St Julain to which her cell, now a chapel, was attached. However, Julian was also a girl’s name in those times and may have been her Christian name.
(The Journey continues - More Letters coming soon)