Ever wondered what real-life masters of mind & body look like? Who they are? What do they do with their lives? How do they think, speak and act?
Well clearly, a lot of you have! We got an unexpectedly large response to our previous blog post, Enlightenment Train(ing). Thousands saw it, many commented upon it, many hundreds gave it their precious Facebook “likes”. Bouyed by all this, we decided we should keep going with a good thing – bring to you inspiring stories of contemporary mind-body masters.
But not just that, we really want to show you how they “think differently”. And so we have determined to ask each person we interview two unusual questions – “What makes you laugh?”, and “What do you do about mosquitoes?” Why these two questions? Laughter is the closest approximation to the sense of bliss that gets talked about so much in these circles. And mosquitoes? Well, they are a small, irritating, daily problem faced by a majority of humans – rich or poor, old or young. So it would be fascinating to know how the best amongst humans deal with them and in so doing, get a glimpse into how they might handle larger provocations and conflicts.
We met at his first floor apartment in Kankhal, the ancient part of Haridwar (a northern Indian town). As we got out of our car, we didn’t need to guess from where the soothing meditation music was being piped loudly and on-loop. “Good on him!”, I thought. There is so much mindless, frankly offensive noise pollution in every Indian city that this was a welcome relief. It was loud and incessant, and I am sure the neighbours weren’t pleased, but at least it was good!
I will admit I didn’t know quite what to expect from this meeting. As many of you know by now, we (wife, parents, three kids and yours truly – one of the co-founders of Imageryworks, the company behind the Mindbody Mastery program with the other co-founder being the legendary Dr. Ian Gawler OAM), are an Indian-Australian family that has based ourselves in Haridwar for all of 2014 in a quest to re-acquaint ourselves with my country of birth. This country is finally on the move, and set to play a big role in the global political and economic stage in the coming decades, and we wanted to see it for ourselves.
But I harboured another secret desire – to witness the other India – the fascinating land of self-realised spiritual masters. Men and women who have achieved the final goal of all life – a state of permanent bliss and profound intuitive knowing from having experientially realised that they (and each living thing for that matter) were divine, spiritual beings having a human experience. Perhaps it was no coincidence that we had ended up in Haridwar, a town with which we had no historical connection, except that it happens to be as I have come to call it, the “Bollywood of Yoga & Meditation”.
In fact that’s not a bad metaphor. Glamorous actors and actresses? Tick (substitute Yoga & Meditation Gurus/Showmen). Villains, charlatans and ruffians? Big tick (just walk along the ghats of the Ganga and see what the “priests” and “sadhus” get up to…in fact one of the urban myths around Delhi is that most petty criminals escape to Haridwar in Sadhu-getups!). Money? Yes, plenty – just witness the grand Ashrams and temples around town. Power? Oh yes. Where there is money and religion, there is also invariably politics and power. And most importantly, hapless Extras? Well that would be the millions of people who feel compelled to come here every year to cast away the ashes of their recently deceased loved ones in the Ganga river (as according to Hindu mythology, this was one of four spots where the elixir of immortality had been accidentally spilled by Lord Vishnu as he wrested it away from the demons), and to be ridiculously extorted by the aforementioned “priests” and “sadhus” in the process.
But admittedly this is a modern phenomenon. Haridwar and Rishikesh – its twin town upstream the Ganga, have historically been the epicentres of Hindu spirituality, with many an enlightened spiritual master over the eons having called them home. So since I got here, I have been on the lookout for someone who might be the real deal. Call it professional curiosity!
My hopes were recently emboldened by the aforementioned unexpected encounter on a Haridwar-Delhi train. That sanyasi had categorically said that there were indeed still enlightened masters in Haridwar, but mysteriously left the door open for me to find them. So I cast the net about, and in another one of those “chance” meetings, found someone who knew someone who in-turn knew someone that he thought fit the bill. He confessed to not even knowing his name, but said that he liked to go and sit with him and hear him speak – it gave him peace and succour. And so here we were, in Kankhal, walking up the steps of his modest but elegant apartment block.
We were ushered into the sitting room and told that Swami Ashutosh-ananda would be with us shortly. A brief word on these titles and names: “swami” is a title that literally means “master of self”. As many of you would know, most renunciates in the Hindu tradition have a two-part name, with the second part usually being “ananda” which means bliss. Together the name signifies their chosen path to bliss. Therefore “Yogananda” denotes a chosen path to bliss through Yoga (which actually refers to meditation rather than the physical exercises!), “Vivekananda” denotes a chosen path to bliss through compassion. And in this case “Ashutosh-ananda” denotes a chosen path that is the fastest path to bliss! But titles and names are just that. There is obviously no objective “certification” process for who is a Swami and who has actually reached the state of Sat-Chit-Ananda (eternal consciousness of bliss), so it’s prudent to proceed cautiously when you come across any swami “xyz”-ananda!
As I took my seat and looked up, I was stunned to see on the wall across from me, a large picture of Mahavatar Babaji, the legendary said-to-be-still-living saint who re-introduced Kriya Yoga to the world in the 19th century, which is the meditation form that I practise. In fact just some months ago I had trekked up to the cave nestled high in the Himalayas (pictured) where Babaji had miraculously beckoned his disciple Shyam Charan Lahiri, through whom the Kriya Yoga technique was then widely propagated. You can read further here of Paramahansa Yogananda’s famous account of Mahavatar Babaji in his spiritual classic, “Autobiography of a Yogi” (Note: “Paramahansa” is another title given to Yogis, and literally means “the supreme swan”. Unlike the others, this is a rare title given only to those who have demonstrably achieved enlightenment.. and so this one is fairly “quality-assured”!).
Swami Ashutosh-ananda greeted us warmly. A well presented and young-looking man (he looked to be in his twenties though he was well into his forties), he spoke in polished, highly stylised Hindi. When told about why we were there, he laughed and said “I am so sorry, you appear to have been mislead. You’ve come to the wrong person. I am not enlightened. I am probably this town’s most daft lunatic”! “That’s a good start”, I thought to myself. “One who considers himself a lunatic is a much more likely candidate than one who thinks otherwise!”
What emerged was the story that you so often hear of such personages- a precocious, unusually curious child born into a well-to-do family; bewildering paranormal experiences throughout childhood that would simultaneously frighten and marvel the child, a “chance” meeting with a venerable Himalayan Yogi (Paramhansa Nikhilananda), who reassured the child and explained what it was that he was experiencing, and lo and behold, an eleven year old child finds the courage and maturity to set his sights on what he believes to be the ultimate goal of life – enlightenment. And he resolves to single-mindedly follow the difficult path of renunciation and meditation to achieve this goal. I usually imagined this sort of thing happening in bygone eras, so it was a jolt to see someone of my own generation having taken such a path at the same time that I might have been playing Tetris on my early model ZX-Spectrum!
Anyway, in due course he follows his Guru (the aforementioned Himalayan Yogi) to the mountains and spends years there learning and meditating. And what finally emerges is a young man ready to give to and serve the world, and wanting nothing from it. But that’s not to say he is naive to the ways of the world. He understands what he is up against – he seeks to help those who don’t know that they need help! “Souls who are undoubtedly and inherently divine, but so blinded by illusion that they are unable to simply let go and come to the most natural of all states – a restful, blissful self-realisation”, as he puts it. Those few that do step forward have to overcome the glitz and glamour of the high priests and Star-Yogis of this Bollywood of Yoga & Meditation. And that perhaps explains his own persona, call it his mark of differentiation – the well groomed appearance and the stylised, “Krishna-from-the-popular-TV-religious-soap-operas”-like manner of speech! But underneath the “packaging” undoubtedly lurked a wise soul.
We peppered him with questions – how do you tell if someone is enlightened? “By that person’s natural ease at all times and in all circumstances”; Is everything pre-destined? “Ultimately yes – all that has emerged out of cosmic consciousness will one day go back into it, and at all times nature is striving to do exactly that”; Are religious rituals important? “NO – for God’s sake, forget those things and turn inwards! If it was up to me I would raze all the temples, mosques and churches as they have become merely instruments of propagating ignorance and exploitation in the name of religious virtue!”.
He was equally emphatic about a few other things – “I am not a Guru and I don’t want to be one. I am a (lunatic) friend who wants to help. Even if you do consider someone to be your Guru, never idolise or try to emulate that person. Your task is to be the most perfect “you” that you can be. You are your own Guru. And meditation is the ONLY path to yourself. So waste no time.. just meditate”.
For me the highlight of our interaction was when in the midst of answering a question, he abruptly turned to me and said “I apologise for being blunt, but what you really need is to experience death as I have. Once you have done this, all your questions will be answered. You will know the world as the beautiful haven of bliss that it is. You will understand that you are not this body. You only live in your body. The same as you are not your house, you merely live in it. And I am not referring to any ordinary death of the body. I am talking about consciously leaving and then re-entering your body through the deliberate process of meditation”.
And finally we came to the two aforementioned questions – what makes you laugh? what do you do about mosquitoes? His unexpected answers are in this video.
In parting, Swami Ashutosh-ananda promised to introduce us to the one or two others around town whom he regards as “fellow-lunatics” .. and so onwards and upwards on this quest to chronicle the daily lives of contemporary mind-body masters!