(Written October 20th, 2011)
Yesterday, for the first time in my life (that I am at least consciously aware of) I spent an entire day from waking to bedtime, without uttering a single word. This was part of a day of silence in the Ashram, so almost everyone participated. Although, most people began speaking again after dinner, I continued with the practice.
The practice of silence has been part of yogic traditions for probably as long as there has been yoga. I will admit, even in my daily life, I prefer as much silence around me as possible. I would rather sit in a silent room than watch TV on most occasions. I would rather not speak at all than to force a conversation of pleasantries. And I have even become pretty sensitive to the types of music I listen to on a regular basis. (Spending hours a day with massage and new age music played at low volumes will probably do that to most people.)
So, I welcomed the practice. I went to bed the previous evening, having already turned my “silence” practice on, and when I awoke, I was already in the mode. The first thing I noticed, was that it was very comfortable for me. During the morning meditation, having already turned my awareness away from speech, I became aware of the inner realm of thought very easily, and it was also easy on this particular morning to direct my awareness into the silence within as well.
I also noticed I become more sensitive to other sounds. The sounds of birds chirping, or any little bit of racket that may have been in the outside environment. I was present to new things. Within the meditation, there were times when something in my mind let go just enough, that it felt like the outer world merged into my mind, and the sounds of birds and the wind blowing were like thoughts arising within my own mind.
After morning asana practice, I spent some time outside connecting with nature. I discussed this in a previous post called “My Tantric Nature.” And then the flow of the day began. People going about walking from place to place, without speaking. And I began to notice something very odd. People, having adopted a practice of silence, seemed to enter their own private world. People were looking at the sidewalk instead of saying hello. It seemed that without words, most people didn’t know how to connect, or perhaps thought it was inappropriate to do so. No eye contact. No smiles. No winks of joy shared. Just blank faces, looking any where but an another person.
In Tantra, there is a practice called Eye Gazing, or Soul Gazing. It is sitting in silence, sending your awareness deep into the Soul Essence of another person, and allowing yourself to feel, to connect, to experience another Being without words, as they also connect into your deepest Self. This practice, at least in the beginning, is often met with discomfort. It is normal for people to laugh or giggle, or to close their eyes. It is normal for obvious discomfort to come across their face and body, and to see them squirming. I explain over an over to new groups of people, that these reactions are a part of our conditioning. It is rare in our culture for us to be so intimate with another. Even with the ones that we love such as friends, family and significant others.
Most of us say we want love, to feel it, to know it, to give it. But when given the chance to sit, and honor the Essence of the other people with love and reverence, something stirs within us that pulls us out of it, that causes us discomfort. The reality, is that for most of us, this fear of deeper connection is always there, just below the surface, but we don’t feel it because we distract ourselves with thoughts, with TV, with activity, and of course, with words. We don’t allow there to be enough silence, enough stillness to acknowledge it.
The same is true for many people with regards to their own thoughts and feelings. We find ways to distract ourselves, and never get still enough to feel or connect consciously to our own inner world. The moment silence is imminent, most people will jump up, turn on the TV, grab a book, begin to talk about anything that comes to mind: anything to not have to feel what is happening in our deeper experience.
As I watched the blank faces parading through the ashram, and the gazes away from each other, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of sadness. Sadness for not having an opportunity to connect, and sadness to see so many unable to make the connection without words. Without words, they seemed to have nothing to share. It never occurred to share their silent Essence. That same silence which pulses beneath Creation lives within our own Beings, ready to be tasted, touched and felt. That silence contains the Love we are seeking. It is not the words that convey love, but the Essence of a Pure Heart.
As I continued my day, I enjoyed the silence. I watched for moments when I might ordinarily speak, and then questioned whether speaking was necessary. In most cases I found the answer to be no. When a desire to speak would arise, I would watch as I reminded myself there was no talking today. And I witnessed the desire for whatever pass through, unspoken, and not responded to. And after the moment passed, I realized I was no worse off. I was still content, even joyful in my silence, and the thing I thought I wanted to communicate, or thought I wanted to ask made me no less joyful for not being shared. I was content to experience what was around me, without commenting, or feeling a need to inquire deeper into it with words. I was content without feeling the need to request something else to make it more or less “satisfying”.
What are these words we speak? And why do we speak them at all? How much of what is said is really useful to our deeper happiness, and how much is just habit and social convention and expectation?
The Tantric traditions describe three primary stages of speech. There is the gross speech of our everyday lives. This is the speech we use to share ideas from person to person, and vibrates at the most dense level. We then have a more subtle form of speech that we call thought. This is the speech that continues the dialogue in our own inner world. And beyond that is the most subtle form of speech, which exists as the arising impulse of vibration, that eventually becomes the thought, which then becomes the words spoken.
The normal world conditions us to focus on Gross speech. And over time, we come to identify with and give great importance to the Reality of this outer form of speech. Most of us also give, even without realizing it, great importance to our thoughts.
When one takes up the practice of silence, the outer speech is given up. This initially leaves us with our thoughts, and the opportunity to contemplate our relationship with gross speech. It gives us the opportunity to experience life without outer words, so that we might see how we have come to identify with them in a way that keeps us looking into the outer world. It gives us a chance to see how the words themselves are associated with our desires, attachments and aversions, and the way that words reinforce the same as “reality”.
When the inner thoughts become the primary world, and outer speech is stopped, then the next step is to get beyond even the thoughts themselves, and into the arising vibrations which are pre-thought. A realm of feelings, and intuitions, and knowledge that really has no “word” as we call it, just vibrations. And dissolving even those vibrations, we are taken into the realm of the practice of silence: inner silence itself. This Silence is the Holy Grail of meditation, but it is not just emptiness and nothingness, but is great peace, joy and love.
This is the basic general idea of meditation, and practicing silence gives you an opportunity to explore these levels of meditation in your daily living. To discover this peace and silence within the world around you is a goal of Tantra. We practice meditation so that we can transfer the depth of experience into our daily lives, not just to escape for a few minutes of peace.
Throughout the whole day, my voice only made one sound: the sound of laughter. After dinner, there were a few people speaking around me, and a story someone told made me laugh. So even Gross speech has its place. It caused me to laugh.
It is not that gross speech is “wrong” or bad. It is not that it should be given up entirely forever by everyone, but practicing silence should hopefully help us put it in perspective, so we don’t make it the “great reality”, and so that we see its limitations. So that we see the ways it can distract us, and become mindful so we don’t use words in this way. To become mindful of the ways words can harm, so we don’t use speech for negative purposes. So we learn to harness what, when and why we speak into conscious choices which enrich our lives, rather than just allowing mindless chatter to fill the silent space around us. So that we connect the words “I love you” with the deep love that arises within the Heart of our deepest Essence upon recognizing the Sacredness of the Being in front of us. And so we can learn to connect with others is this heart felt way even without words. So that silence gives us more presence to connect with others through smiles, honoring and love.
As I flowed through my day of silence, many moments of deeper love, gratitude and joy arose, as I touched into spaces of deeper silence within my own Being. This brought me to one other point of sadness: I will never be able to convey the experience of that Love and Joy with words.
(Written October 17th, 2011)
In an Ashram setting, certain rules and regulations are expected. In Part 1, we talked about the ways this experience can show you your attachments, your expectations and your habits.
Following the Ashram lifestyle will likely follow in a few different paths. You may find yourself getting into the routine, and allowing the new lifestyle to simply become your “norm”, adapting your expectations to the meet what will happen. A level of adaptability is a good quality, and shows flexibility and a less attached mind.
You might also adapt in a way where you “try to fit in”, and thus are really more forcing a match, perhaps even becoming attached to it, or using the lifestyle as a way to shift your awareness away from dealing with the life you have or had outside of it.
You may also adopt this new lifestyle, and have a genuine epiphany of the value that it brings to your life, your happiness and your spiritual growth, in which case you may stay in it or continue to return because it feeds you so deeply.
You may also rebel against the structure of it, and revolt or simply get out of it as quickly as possible. This could be a way of avoiding developing a deeper awareness of yourself, or perhaps it just feels too restrictive.
Any number of situations could happen, but a common theme in a conscious experience will be that is takes you out of your normal experience, and it churns your heart and mind. Like the churning of butter, the Ashram experience has the potential to separate out that which is important to your from that which is not, and taking what was into an entirely new form. To allow your deeper longings, desires and values to float to the top to be savored for their richness.
A traditional Ashram is designed to remove temptations from sensuality in all forms. Simple food, conservative dress to prevent body parts being exposed, and many activities focused on daily living and spiritual practices. Reduce temptation and occupy your mind so it won’t wander. This approach comes from the notion in Yoga that we need to reduce our desires and cravings, because they are distractions from our spiritual life.
The basic idea of them being distractions to our Spiritual Nature is fair enough, but Tantra also says that we should not repress our desires. We must acknowledge them and make peace with them in some way or another. In the Ashram, this may mean witnessing and contemplating our desires without being able to act on them. Allowing ourselves to witness what happens within our bodies, minds, awareness and our energy when we are not able to directly touch into the object of our desire, be that a big juicy steak, a beer, the smell of our favorite perfume, or an erotic encounter. It gives us a chance to explore the nature of desire itself as an energy that arises within us, and to make peace with it. To see it for what it is. To see that even the most urgent of cravings can be witnessed and moved through. We will not die if we don’t get what we are desiring.
But something else can also happen in this isolation and simple life. We may also have a longing arise which is new to us. We may connect with a new way to appreciate the ways we naturally wish to enjoy life. We may realize the value of having private time alone. We may come to appreciate a simple moment to be naked without having to quickly change so as not to offend roommates. We may learn to appreciate the freedom to speak to a loved one on the phone without having to keep our voice quiet, or feeling we have to censor our conversations.
We may also, in the restricted living, have a deep longing arise which connects us to a deeper sense of purpose. Some part of us that finally is ready to scream to be heard, that wants to live with greater purpose, joy and fulfillment than before. To live in a way that the Ashram life itself will not allow, because it has to express itself in the world. But it could not find its voice in the noise of worldly living. It needed the silent, contemplative space of the Ashram to direct your awareness in deeply enough to see it.
No matter what you come away with, a conscious Ashram experience should reveal deeper layers of yourself as both a human being and a spiritual being. It should churn up your values, showing you what is most important to you. It should help you better understand what you need to feel fulfilled and joyful. And perhaps, it will reveal ways you can more deeply align with a a joyful sense of purpose in your life.
Our desires are not wrong. Some are distractions, and can truly lead us away from the fulfillment that Tantra yoga promises. Many sensual desires run this risk, which is why they are discouraged in Traditional Yoga. But other desires are meant to be savored and joyfully unleashed, especially when it means expressing the core of our Being in a non-attached way. Especially when it leads us into purposeful, fulfilling living.
Most of us are full of desires that do not serve our greater happiness. But often, we also have suppressed longings and desires that reveal our greatness, our talents, our gifts and our abilities. These are the desires that fuel our life with passion and purpose. These are the desires that make us wake up in the morning excited to be alive.
Tantra teaches us to suppress nothing. Acknowledge all desires, from the darkest to the most bright. The secret is to make friends with them all. To see that they do not define the deeper Truth of who you are, and then with non-attached discrimination choose to fulfill the desires that will best serve your deepest fulfillment, and your spiritual growth.
When entering an Ashram, or consciously walking on a Tantric path, we must make room or the unexpected to arise. A lifestyle which intentionally reduces desires may actually awaken you to your deepest desires of purpose and fulfillment. It may even awaken you to the secret desire everyone has: To know your True Self and to live joyfully from that Knowledge of Self.
(Written October 11th, 2011)
All around us, life continues to move. For most of us, there are obligations that pull our awareness. Tasks that need to be performed. And when we become tired, we have certain ways that we use to de-stress. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us have created a series of “habits” which allow us to engage in life. Certain conditionings are there for almost all of us, and they keep us within particular realm of experience that we find “comfortable”
For instance, if we are a person who is not comfortable with confrontation, we will tend to go out of our way to avoid conflict, even if that means ignoring our own values or needs. We may have certain patterns of relaxing such as going to a particular restaurant, or drinking alcohol. We likely keep our social structure within particular limits as well, such as hanging our with particular friends, and doing particular activities.
I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with this. They are, in fact, in most cases things that you simply enjoy. But it is also easy for us to allow familiarity and routine to become so ingrained that the possibility of deviations becomes uncomfortable, or even terrifying. We can become attached to our routines, needing them to feel safe and happy.
The Yogic teachings tell us that we should learn to become “detached”. We should not expect certain results or outcomes in life. They tell us that most of our pain and suffering come from expectations not being met, or attachments being lost unexpectedly.
The simple reality is that it is challenging to change our habits while living in the environment that has helped to create them. Just as they say that an alcoholic should stop hanging out with friends who drink as part of the recovery, for some changes, we often need to get out of our “social” world in order to allow new possibilities to arise.
This can involve consciously choosing a new habit or giving up an old one. It can also be starting a new yoga class, or taking a workshop that will offer you a new perspective on life. These are ways that we can help cultivate growth, healing and change while we are living our daily lives. But sometimes, either out of personal desire for growth or because we realize we can’t do it in our current environment, something more radical is needed.
For the alcoholic who can’t find sobriety in his or her daily living, they seek “rehab”. For someone on the Spiritual Path of Yoga, we head to a retreat, or to the Ashram.
The Ashram is a place which offers a culture based upon Yogic lifestyle. When “everybody’s doing it”, it is easier to fit in and allow “healthier” choices to be part of your experience. Many Ashrams offer the possibility of regular yoga practice, regular chanting and regular meditations. Most will be based upon a particular tradition and will offer those teachings and practices that are a part of that tradition.
For the conscious Yoga practitioner, the Ashram should not just be a place to “escape”, however. It is not a place to avoid worldly responsibility, although it has been used by some in that way. The deeper purpose of the Ashram is to challenge your conditioning and your habitual ways of living, to deepen your personal spiritual practice, to accelerate your spiritual growth, and to learn alternative ways of creating greater harmony of body, mind and spirit.
While there are some Ashrams in the modern age that are more like resorts, a traditional Ashram offers a simplified way of life. It offers you what you “need”, not what you want. It invites you to explore the question “what is it that I really need to live and to be happy?” For those who undertake this experience, many come to realize we need a lot less that we think we do. Food, shelter, clothing are the basics. A supportive community is also helpful.
While we have grown used to, and even conditioned to expect certain things in life, such as nice cars, the latest iPhone, hot and cold running showers, air conditioning and central heat, regular meals at nice restaurants, and two weeks of paid vacation every year, the reality is we do not “need” any of these things.
For our sense of individual self, or what yoga calls the Ego (Ahamkara), what happens when we are faced with conditions in life that we are not accustomed to? What happens when a person used to living alone in a two bedroom house is suddenly faced with sharing a single room and one bathroom with three strangers? What happens when our usual diet may be modified into a purely vegetarian diet, which is served at strict times, and our coffee and alcohol are taken away? What happens when we are asked to get up at 5am, and be ready to meditate with the group at 5:45am?
For most of us, the short answer is there will be some reaction. Even if we gracefully accept the changes, some part of us is witnessing and aware of what is different than our “norm”. And some people may react quite strongly against this. Without realizing it, the ego may revolt. But what this type of experience does for us, the gift of Yogic Ashram life, is it gives us a chance to see the places we are attached.
Yes, I prefer air conditioning, but when it is taken away, I can adapt. I like my private space, but there are some nice experiences that come with getting to know three other people and sharing space with them.
With each change, there is a choice to “surrender” and look honestly at our selves as to how we feel about it. Or, we can not look, and just complain or find a quick way out. Yoga is an invitation to increase awareness, and any place within our own mind that we are attached, conditioned or resistant needs to be examined.
It is not that it is “wrong” to have air conditioning, nice cars and iPods, but Yoga teaches us that these things should not be the source of our happiness. In the Ashram, many of our external attachments are stripped away, forcing us to see ourselves without our worldly distractions. When there is no Tivo to watch for hours at night and we have to engage our own thoughts and feelings or have an actual conversation with someone else, can we still enjoy life?
From another perspective, the Ashram experience can also heighten our awareness of the patterns that are so strong that we actually import them into the Ashram with us. If we pay attention, perhaps some different personality traits will be magnified. We may feel more strongly the need for approval, our natural inclination towards competition, or maybe feelings of inadequacy. We may see whether we are a leader or a follower. We may notice our selfish tendency to take the largest piece of fruit, to not want to share, or ways we justify not following simple rules and requests. Many other traits and behaviors may make themselves known if we are paying attention.
Within an Ashram, we also have a chance to meet other people, often from all over the world. We have a chance to see other perspectives on life, and to have our own judgements revealed and mirrored to us through other people’s actions and our reactions to them.
We are additionally given the opportunity to allow our deeper spiritual inclinations to be expressed and seen, out in the open, in a supportive environment. We have the opportunity to share our musings on life and to be among spiritually like minded community, which can strengthen our deeper spiritual values, and teach us more about how to live them fully.
The Ashram experience is also a chance to simply see and acknowledge the simplicity that life can be and still contain joy and meaning within it. So much of what our Western culture calls “normal standard of living” is really luxury. We can learn ways to enjoy life more simply, and we can also learn to be more grateful for what we have, and not take it for granted.
Many Yogic practices encourage these types of self reflection and awareness. For those that cannot find the time or resources to stay in an Ashram, then go to a retreat or a weekend workshop. If you can’t find the time or resources for that, then take classes, or make conscious efforts to observe your own habits of mind. Make conscious decisions to try new things, and see how you react. Make conscious efforts to do or try something that you know you are nervous about. Push past your limitations, dissolve your attachments and invite a world of infinite possibilities.
Like most things in life, the Ashram experience is what you make of it. If you import all your old habits, and refuse to be self aware, it may simply be a vacation. For some, an Ashram may be a training ground to learn skills of self awareness and self observation. For others, it may take on even deeper implications. For many, this experience, if they are open to it, can change their perspective on life. Even if the external life doesn’t change much, the inner experience of life can be radically altered.
Tantric Yoga doesn’t ask you to give up worldly things. It seeks a balance between both material and spiritual pursuits. Tantra teaches you can and should continue to enjoy that which you enjoy, but learn to be detached from it. Enjoy it, but know that it is not the source of your true happiness. That way, even when the object of enjoyment inevitably is lost (and it will be), your deeper sense of joy which arises from deep within your own Self will still remain, and nothing will truly be lost.
With enough practice and awareness, the world becomes our Ashram, because we carry the Ashram perspective within our own minds and hearts. Tantra teaches that we don’t need to escape from life to find spirituality. Instead we want to awaken our awareness of the spiritual within our daily life and the world around us.
What have been your experiences of Retreat, Ashram or integrating a more Tantric awareness into daily life?