Feeling Lightness of Heart

I would love to start a complete blog entitled something like,  “Beautiful Things to Make You Feel Good.”

Imagine that:  a whole compilation of beautiful things, ideas, etc., to bring joy into people’s hearts, etc.

Today was a bit of a hard day.  But, there was one thing that made me feel extraordinarily wonderful.

I was listening to something upon first waking up, a kind of audio on the “Insight Timer” app,  and it exhorted me to “… Feel freedom.  Feel a lightness in your heart, a lightness in your body, and know that you are free…”

This incredible idea:  — “A lightness in my heart?”  I thought,  “What on earth does that feel like?”   I could imagine feeling light in my body, but not feeling “lightness” in my heart.    (Maybe warmth of heart… heaviness of heart… but for some reason I could not remember ever feeling “light” of heart)

In any case, I tried then to viscerally feel what it would feel like to feel a lightness in my heart…

And, lo and behold,  what an incredible feeling!  And what an accompanying Memory!  I HAD felt this way before!   

Indeed, it brought me back to when I was in Dharamsala in 2013,  a beautiful town (home of the Dalai Lama, etc.,) in the foothills of the Himalayas (India).

That Lightness of Heart!  That was something I used to feel almost continuously and every day while I was living in India at certain times,  relatively free (studying, not working in a kind of daily grind as a teacher day in, day out).     It brought back that lightness and I felt —  I hoped, I felt, I was sure, that I could get back to there and feel that lightness again.

I hope to be recommitted.  (shall I be committed for writing this post?)    I hope to be recommitted to go back to India and to feel that lightness again.   To get out of the daily grind, and get back to a life of study and writing (more or less) at my own pace.

To be Free (again) is a goal I have.   What a blessing to be reminded, that it is possible to Feel Light of Body and Light at Heart.    Thank you.  

Ayurveda on Napping, Vedanta on Sleep

Ayurveda, the ancient Indian study of medicine, suggests that taking a nap during the day (“daysleep”), is best done under certain conditions.


Ayurveda recommends that napping should not happen on a full stomach.  Better to nap on an empty or semi-empty stomach, and then one wakes up light and fresh.


Ayurveda generally holds that napping is not a problem in the hot summer months or hot weather.  However, it warns against napping during cold seasons, for people of certain constitutions.

Specifically, “Kapha” people should avoid napping during winter months (and frankly, Kapha should avoid napping during summer months as well, unless completely necessary).  As Kapha already has a tendency to slowness, docility, and the risk of lethargy, a nap may exacerbate these traits.


That said, for Vata and Pitta types, naps can be extremely beneficial.


Advaita Vedanta on Sleep 

The Indian non-dualist philosophy of Advaita Vedanta actually holds up “deep sleep” as a particularly important state, in some ways privileging it over the other two states — the waking state and the dreaming state.


This is because, in deep sleep we are “reconnected with our source,” and no longer subject to the illusions of the ego and the external world.


That said, the ideal of Advaita Vedanta, is that one can become cognizant of one’s identity as source, not simply in Deep Sleep (when one is not really cognizant, frankly), but also in the waking state.

That is true liberation, when one can be one with one’s source, and not deluded by the apparent ego or individuality, while awake and alive.


Sages such as Ramana Maharshi are said to have achieved this state — of constant awareness of the True Self.

Nature of the Energies generated by Karma Yoga at Amma’s Ashram


I wanted to write today to share the latest on my experience at Amma’s Ashram, Amritapuri.

I am aware that I have been blogging from here nearly every day. This might seem like a lot. But I interestingly feel a great drive in me to write, to blog, to put my experiences down in typing.

In any case, there is a huge amount going on here — so it seems.

There seems to be a lot going on, both externally and internally.

Karma Yoga, and Increased Energy 

What I wanted to write about was the interesting phenomenon that many here who are part of my Seva (my Karma Yoga job — see previous posts for more details on what this means; I am in compost!), have also spoken to me about, and which I am experiencing viscerally to an increasing extent these last few days.

This is a feeling that I am if anything, gaining in energy, gaining in focus and in positive energy to get things done — viz, “being more productive” — the more Seva (selfless service) work that I do.

I have not been working a huge amount — only about 2.5 to 3 hours per day of work in compost.

But that said, while it is (at times) a highly physically draining and exhausting bit of work, I find that if anything my days seem to be more productive than they might be were I not doing this work.

There are a number of dedicated “Karma Yogis” among those who work with me, many of whom work 6, 8, or 10 hours per day. Again, they are doing this entirely without pay or compensation (besides, for a few of them, a waiving of the paltry accommodation fee (only a few dollars)). They are generally doing this out of devotion to Amma, and out of a desire to maintain this ashram and community.

Their work also, in a way, benefits even materially, the world outside at large.

(I say, “even materially,” as there is a strong tradition of belief in the Indian spiritual tradition that doing spiritual work, even if it does not have an apparent material impact, actually is of great benefit to “others,” or a benefit to the world. That is to say, that even Yogis or Monks meditating in the mountains, are benefiting the world. That raising one’s consciousness has a greater benefit beyond one’s own limited organism (e.g., to some collective consciousness, we might speculate).

I say “even materially”, as the work of this ashram is actually also supporting a huge range of humanitarian projects sponsored or organized by Amma worldwide.)

[One can read more about Amma’s humanitarian projects here: http://amma.org/global-charities and here: http://www.embracingtheworld.org/]

In any case — these Karma yogis have also spoken about an increased feeling of energy from doing their many hours of Sefless service work (in their cases, working most of the day).

And I have to say, though with just a few days of experience, my experience has been largely the same.

As another girl who works here said to me [a shorter-term inmate like myself], “I feel like I am getting so many things done”….

For me, I am not sure if my list of things getting done sounds concretely very impressive. What do I do in a day? I meditate and try to be more mindful; I do my physically taxing compost work; I write blog posts nearly every day; I handwash all my laundry (as I do anyways; but here I am much cleaner than I have been for awhile…), and do a variety of other little things.

But for some reason, though these are not a great deal of things to be doing (I realize), I do feel that I have more energy than I would otherwise in my life, keeping to a similar agenda of tasks.

One explanation for this is the good vibrations and positive energy (“etc.”, “so to speak”, — choose your apologetic rider), that are generated by doing charitable activity.

The explanation that the Karma Yogis (all of whom are quite dedicated devotees of Amma, of course), is that it is the powers of Amma that imbue them with this increased energy.

Though initially I might be skeptical of this, I also see some truth and beauty in their explanations. To be sure, I have experienced a lot of powerful energy, whenever I have been around Amma.

I also —

(And here I reach what I suppose will be a significant junction — this is where a few things may occur. (1) Family and friends who I may choose to refer to my Blog, may feel a bit alienated. Or think that I think weird things. Mind you, that latter thought is not particularly novel, and is probably true. But of course we all wish to be felt sane, and reasonable, and well-understood, and so on. This leads to (2) — Some general readers may also be alienated. Or think me not 100% sane…. Again, though, there could be worse things than merely that ;))

This reminds me of something that the spiritual teacher/guru Ram Dass (nee Richard Alpert), used to say in his talks: “If this is getting too weird, or doesn’t make any sense, then there are two explanations: Either I’m insane, or you’re insane…” (!)

In any case, maybe I am insane. Actually, despite this build up, perhaps what I am about to write, is not too too weird. Maybe just a bit.

So… what I was going to write was that: I can certainly feel the presence of Amma at times — not really Amma as an individual, but more I would say I experience again the feelings of peace and tranquility, which seem perhaps to reflect the facet of Universal consciousness that she embodies.

I feel I can in a sense step back and return to the presence that I have felt around Amma at times. That there is a peace there, associated with being in Amma’s presence, that I can return to.

This feeling seems to have increased, to a greater or lesser extent, from being in the vicinity of Amma, and seems to be something that also comes and goes.

Maybe this should not be surprising — that the peace of a saint can come and go and remain with us. And that perhaps, acting in service, should encourage and enable these feelings of peace to come more frequently and reliably.

Sending Peace your way. Love.

Gandhi’s Better Angels: A Vision for a Non-Violent Future

Gandhi’s Better Angels: A Vision for a Non-Violent Future

Maxwell Cooper, University of Ottawa (Canada) (International Gandhian Conference, Delhi University, Delhi, India; January 2013) [https://uottawa.academia.edu/MaxCooper]

Amongst the scores of letters he attended to every day, Mahatma Gandhi responded to one V.N.S. Chary, on April 9, 1926. Chary’s original letter does not survive, but we may reconstruct from the Mahatma’s response that he raised a particular existential question that has long troubled many practitioners of nonviolence: Is overcoming violence really possible? Is violence not simply an ineluctable feature of embodied existence and human nature? Questions in this spirit have a long history, having been explored by thinkers such as Heraclitus, Freud, Nietzsche, and others, who have often emphasized the essential duality of worldly existence – of the mutual necessity of opposites – for good to exist, so must evil; to know peace, perhaps we must know violence.

In his letter, Mr. Chary appears to have cited examples from the animal world: Hawks eat snakes; snakes eat lizards; lizards eat cockroaches, who themselves eat ants. This violence is simply natural; and it occurs perhaps for a greater good. If beings did not eat other beings, life on earth would not be possible. Beyond Chary’s points, we might also reflect that even our own human bodies are unavoidably violent; besides periodically crushing or inhaling insects unawares, our own white blood cells are constantly exterminating malignant bacteria; if they failed to kill these bacteria, we would die. Is violence not necessary for life, and should we not see it as unreasonable, or indeed impossible, to hope for a renunciation of violence?

In his response, Gandhi felt otherwise. He wrote, “I too have seen many a lizard going for cockroaches and have watched cockroaches going for lesser forms . . .  from watching these very operations, I learn that the law of the beast is not the law of the Man; that Man has by painful striving to surmount and survive the animal in him, and from the tragedy of the himsa (violence) which is being acted around him he has to learn the supreme lesson of ahimsa (non-violence) for himself.” Gandhi thus believes that a renunciation of violence is possible, and indeed is necessary for us if we are to become fully human.

While many of us find this message inspirational, we also tend to see it as unrealistic. It would seem that our world today is equally, or more, violent than it has ever been. News media constantly report to us new and upsetting acts of greed and hatred, and the latest murders and rapes. Most of us agree that humanity seems to be moving in the wrong direction. A recent article in the Times of India asked, “In moments of seeming social collapse, what gives you hope?” Most respondents tend to be extremely pessimistic.

The very pervasiveness of this attitude makes all the more shocking the findings of the American researcher Steven Pinker, who in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature (an encyclopedic tome supported by 800 exhaustive pages of research and analysis) came to a surprising conclusion: that rates of violence between humans are actually not on the increase, but in fact have steadily declined throughout our history; we may in fact be currently living in the single “most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Pinker provides a wealth of evidence; I will cite just a few statistics here: In pre-historic times, fossil evidence indicates that about 1 in every 9 deaths came at the hands of another human being; in every society today the number is a small fraction of that. “The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions,” while comparatively rare today, “were unexceptionable features of life for millenia.” “Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the numbers they did a few decades ago. [Rates of] Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals” are all substantially down.

So maybe we are in fact beginning to fulfill Gandhi’s aspiration that we can, in this embodied world of constant and unavoidable violence, gradually as a race begin to transcend this pattern, and realize the ideal of ahimsa for ourselves. Pinker has provided substantial concrete evidence that, to our own surprise, over the past thousands of years, this has actually gradually been happening.

Intriguingly, Pinker’s primary attributions of what have allowed humankind to do this also fit with Gandhi’s description that this must be done “by painful striving.” Pinker identifies four principal “better angels of our nature” as the leading factors in the decline of violence: Self-Control, Morality and Taboo, Reason, and Empathy. It is only through hard work and painful striving, over the centuries, that we have gradually become less violent. While Pinker makes surprisingly almost no mention of Gandhi in this compendious work on violence, one may note that all four of Pinker’s “better angels” represent some of Gandhi’s most essential concerns.

Pinker’s first better angel is self-control: Pinker notes that “violence . . . is largely a problem of self-control” and that “Self-control has been credited with one of the greatest reductions of violence in history, the thirtyfold drop in homicide between medieval and modern Europe” (592). Anyone familiar with Gandhi’s life knows that self-control was for him a central principle. Well-known is his strict vow of brahmacharya (celibacy), which he maintained without compromise for over 40 years until his death. Brahmacharya meant for Gandhi far more than simply sexual chastity. He increasingly promoted as years progressed what he called brahmacharya’s “wider definition,” as “control [of] all the eleven organs.” He wrote, “I have defined brahmacharya in a wide sense and described even idle thoughts as violation of it.”; “The brute by nature knows no self-restraint. Man is man because he is capable of, and only in so far as he exercises, self-restraint.” Gandhi thus sees self-restraint as what differentiates humans from brutes; as we saw in our opening quotation, it is an emphasis of precisely this distinction upon which he founds his belief that humans can transcend violence. Pinker’s finding that self-control has been one of the principal factors in violence’s decline appears to validate Gandhi’s intuition.

Pinker’s second pacifying better angel is what he calls “Morality and Taboo”: this refers to the shifting senses of societies regarding conventions of morality, and practices which are considered taboo. For instance, in the American South during the early 1800’s it was not considered taboo or immoral to have one’s slave flogged for an act of theft; indeed, it would have been taboo for a slave owner to have foregone punishment. Pinker emphasizes in particular that movements towards recognizing the rights of oppressed segments of the population have been a major factor in the historical decline in violence.

These types of reform were also primary Gandhian tenets. We may note his vociferous campaigns against untouchability. “What I want and what I should delight in dying for, is the eradication of untouchability root and branch,” he declared. “Harijan service,” he said, is “the breath of life for me, more precious than the daily bread.” His repeated fasts for this cause prove this statement not to be hyperbole.

Another widely oppressed group that Gandhi stood up for were women. Recently here in Delhi many have mobilized to protest violence against women. Interestingly, Pinker himself was interviewed for a Times of India piece on this issue just two weeks ago. In the interview, he noted that changing attitudes towards women in the West – women beginning to be treated as equals with men, and jokes about rape and sexual violence, for instance, becoming unacceptable – had led to the precipitous decline of rates of rape. These were shifts in conventional morality and what was considered taboo. Pinker suggested India could take heart from the success of the U.S. women’s rights movement. The interview’s headline proclaimed that the U.S. movement for women’s rights should be an inspiration for India. However, India need not look only to the West for inspiration in this area. Gandhi himself was far ahead of his time in advocacating womens’ rights. As members of his ashrams, women were equals with men; here, as Judith Brown writes, they were “not subjected to patriarchal authority as they would have been in family homes in most of India.” Gandhi devoted an entire section of his Constructive Programme to women, wherein he wrote that “Woman has been suppressed under custom and law for which man was responsible and in the shaping of which she had no hand. . . . woman has as much right to shape her own destiny as man has to shape his”; “Women have been taught to regard themselves as slaves of men. It is up to Congressmen to see that they enable them to realize their full status and play their part as equals of men.” If Pinker and others are correct, Gandhi’s suggestions for changing societal norms regarding women are precisely what are necessary to reduce gender violence.

Pinker’s third better angel is reason. Reason allows us to look at things impartially. Where an unreasoned view might hold to old prejudices – that one race or gender is less worthy than another – a rational approach shows there is no truth to such a judgment. The rise of reason in societies has tended to correlate with substantial reductions in violence. Some may think that perhaps this better angel does not well fit Gandhi. To be sure, Gandhi was known for often acting based on his ethereal inner voice, rather than discursive rational thought. However, Reason was still quite important for Gandhi. He famously maintained that “Faith . . . must be enforced by reason . . . When faith becomes blind, it dies . . . The more intense one’s faith the more it whets one’s reason.” That his faith whetted his reason we can see in his writings. Gandhi’s style is always carefully reasoned, and there is a thread of calm rationality running through all of his work. In any case, though he often lived from the heart, certainly Gandhi applied reason more than any of us in the Socratic spirit of constant self-enquiry, following the dictum that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’; self-examination was as routine for Gandhi as prayer. Gandhi’s constant soul-searching epitomises the application of impartial inquiry into one’s own motivations, which is precisely the aspect of Reason that Pinker emphasizes.

Pinker’s final better angel is empathy. The first sense of empathy Pinker highlights connotes the exercise of “perspective-taking” – “walking a mile in another’s moccasins.” Pinker surveys an array of studies to conclude that “exercises in perspective-taking do help to expand people’s circle of sympathy,” and that “the cognitive process of perspective-taking and the emotion of sympathy must figure in the explanation for many historical reductions in violence.” Seeking to experience life from others’ perspectives (admittedly a difficult task) was very important for Gandhi. One goal of his spinning work, pursued often for many hours each day, was to experientially align himself with India’s peasants. He was not only a spinner, but also a cleaner, sweeper, and scavenger. Wherever Gandhi stayed, a frequently heard complaint of the sweepers and latrine cleaners was “the guest has taken away my work.”

Pinker notes that empathy, instrumental as it is for counteracting violence, is somewhat fickle: we usually tend to feel empathy only towards certain people. “The problem with building a better world through empathy,” he writes, “[is that] depending on how beholders conceive of a relationship, their response to another person’s pain may be empathic, neutral, or even counterempathic.” If I see someone as my enemy, I am more likely to feel counterempathy, which means that rather than wishing to spare them pain, I may actually take pleasure in causing them pain. Pinker notes that our society’s overall inclination towards this has thankfully declined to some extent. Only a few hundred years ago, public executions were a popular form of entertainment, where crowds used to cheer enthusiastically as criminals were hanged. Today we are less likely to cheer on than to be offended by this kind of macabre display.

However, the desire to inflict pain on one’s enemy still persists to a great extent. We may recall the celebrations in the U.S. after news of the death of Osama Bin Laden. Often crime victims’ families express a desire to take vengeance on those who have harmed their loved ones. Gandhi’s example can perhaps show us here the next step in realizing a less angry and hateful world. Gandhi never wished ill of his enemies for a simple reason – he saw no-one as an enemy.

His entire active life, he converted would-be enemies into allies or friends. This began in South Africa in 1914, when he managed to win the sympathy of the hard-nosed General Smuts, until then an avowed enemy of the local Indian population. Years later, Smuts called Gandhi “an inspiration to us not to weary in well doing. . . . It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect. . . . He never forgot the human background of the situation, never lost his temper or succumbed to hate.” As Gandhi himself wrote: “It is a mean desire to wish to kill an enemy . . . dharma consists in winning him over to our way of thinking and converting him to a friend.” In Hind Swaraj, he argued that the English were themselves victims of their own passions and their mechanised society: “If you will sufficiently think over this, you will entertain the same opinion and cease to blame the English. They rather deserve our sympathy.”

Pinker further outlines that the relationships in which people tend to feel most empathetic are family relations. This too Gandhi seems to have anticipated. He wrote of harijans, for instance, in familial terms: “the removal of untouchability means treating the so-called untouchables as one’s own kith and kin.” Beyond this, Gandhi often enjoined his correspondents to “regard the whole world as one family.”  When a reporter once asked Kasturbai how many children she had, she responded, “I have four. But Bapu, my husband, has four hundred million.” Gandhi sought to see the nation and world as his family; and if the studies Pinker cites are correct, this is the most reliable way to induce empathic feelings, and in turn further reduce violence in the world.

Pinker, however, does not believe this kind of what he calls “expanding the circle of empathy” to be feasible: “To hope that the human empathy gradient,” he writes, “can be flattened so much that strangers would mean as much to us as family and friends, is utopian in the worst . . . sense, requiring an unattainable and dubiously desirable quashing of human nature.”

We have noted that Pinker unfortunately pays little attention to Gandhi in his book. But we might ourselves look at Gandhi’s example to see if his life belies Pinker’s assertion. Did Gandhi’s attempts to vastly expand his circle of empathy result in an undesirable quashing of human nature? One argument that it did may call on the examples of his sons. Gandhi had a notoriously difficult relationship with his eldest son, Harilal, for instance; Harilal could never live up to his father’s great expectations for him, and by most accounts lived quite a bitter and tragic life. Harilal’s younger brothers also often had difficulty meeting their father’s demands. This appears to be a failing on Gandhi’s part, but also one that he readily acknowledged. He presented this as evidence for one thing he insisted on throughout his life – that he was merely human, not a divine avatar or perfect being, and that his life’s projects were experiments, not guaranteed to turn out perfectly.

However, while he failed in his experiments with Harilal, his relationships with most others also living closest to him on a daily basis were by almost all accounts extremely affectionate. Easwaran gives the following description of Gandhi’s relationships with his fellow ashramites:

“There is no more beautiful aspect of Gandhi’s character than his loving relationship with each one of the people who were part of his ashram family. He was concerned with every detail of their lives, and while he demanded a great deal from those close to him, his treatment of them was filled with love, humor, and tact. His relationship with each person was individual. He was conscious of the needs of others even to the smallest detail, and often overwhelmed people near him by observing and attending to some minute need of theirs in the midst of his own busy schedule.”

This description shows Gandhi to be a loving and affectionate companion to all of those around him on a personal and individual basis. He had not at all the manner of the distant and disinterested mystic, but that of the sensitive and caring guardian. Fully cognizant of worldly matters and everyday humanity, he appears to contradict Pinker’s certainty that the attempt to broaden the circle of empathy so widely must result in an undesirable “quashing of human nature.”

To tell the whole truth, we must acknowledge that Gandhi sought sympathy even more broadly than with all of mankind. Gandhi’s oft-stated goal was to transcend his individual ego and to “identify himself with all that lives”; “we cannot [fulfill “the purpose of life”] unless we learn to identify ourselves with all that lives”; “I want to realize brotherhood or identity not merely with the beings called human, but I want to realize identity with all life.” Gandhi is here following an important thread in the Indian spiritual tradition. The Isha Upanishad speaks of the fearlessness of “Those who see all creatures in themselves / And themselves in all creatures”; and in Gandhi’s beloved Bhagavad Gita, Krishna recommends that the yogi “see the Self in every creature and all creation in the Self” (6.29); and elaborates that “When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of [yoga]” (6.32). Gandhi hoped to transcend his egoistic desires and attachments – to “make himself zero,” as he put it. Through the renunciation of selfish individuality, and an identification with all living creatures, he hoped to realize universal love and compassion.

Though Pinker’s work gives so much cause for optimism about our race’s progress towards the renunciation of violence, Pinker unfortunately misses a chance to show how this work could be taken further. Maybe the impact of religious or spiritual aspirations is what Pinker needs to take into account: our not merely becoming less violent due to more oblique, socio-political factors, but through spiritual striving that many great souls have urged us towards throughout history.  Pinker unfortunately gives quite short shrift to religions generally. As reviewer Ross Douthat notes, “despite the book’s title . . . the treatment of religion in ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature is astonishingly glib.” Pinker unfortunately neglects the hope that Gandhi’s practise of radical empathy and broader identification can help map a blueprint for the future. That this might be an effective strategy is suggested both by its correspondence with Pinker’s findings about what factors have actually led humanity to become less violent historically, and also by Gandhi’s own example of being able to feel boundless love and compassion for all beings, while maintaining exemplary relations with the beings closest to him.

Perhaps the next step in mankind’s evolution can be to further transcend violence, not simply by restraining ourselves or observing more progressive societal norms, but by seeking to cultivate Gandhian feelings of universal, undiscriminating, love and goodwill. This might be very difficult. But perhaps we do not need to do it all at once. Just as the reduction in human violence to today’s comparatively peaceful era has been a long, hard, and gradual process, so too the gradual change in consciousness to a more undiscriminating love will probably take a long time. We can take hope, however, that even small progress counts. As the Gita says, even “a fragment” of this work can be very efficacious, and “No effort in this world / is lost or wasted” (2.40).

A bit more on Amma’s Amritapuri Ashram – Meals, and Karma Yoga or Seva (Selfless Service work)

[Dec. 19, 2014]: I was not planning to write this post, but as dinner was relatively late, and I do not like to go to sleep so soon after eating, thought I would take down some further notes on staying at Amma’s Ashram (Amritapuri).

I wanted to add some of my experiences here, for the reading pleasure of those interested, or for the guidance of those thinking of coming to Amma’s.

In brief, my recommendation is: come here! It is a place you should really experience. In this post I commented briefly on the food, and then wrote about the practices of Seva, or Selfless Service/Karma Yoga.

Cuisine at Amritapuri

Three meals a day are included along with the accomodation fee.

I mentioned late dinner – (free) dinner time is around 8 pm (though on certain days – such as today which was an Amma “Bhajan” day (when Amma is part of the Bhajans, and sings herself, in a very enthusiastic and devotional way) – on days like today it is usually not until at least 8:15 that the Bhajans end, when the mad rush of Indians and foreigners clamber over each other for the metal plates, for receiving the free rice, subji, and sambar).

One has a choice of about three places to eat at most meals. First, there is the free meal, which is usually rice, with plenty of Kanchi (rice water), and some slight variations on spicy subji (vegetables) and sambar etc.

The free meals are not bad – I partake of them often. Though sometimes I feel like something besides white rice.

If one is thus looking for something different, there are also various foods available at the “Indian canteen” and at the “Western canteen”s, respectively. Here for a moderate fee (e.g., 50 to 100 rs. for a meal, depending of course), one can add a bit of variety to one’s diet.

Despite the somewhat late, (non-Ayurvedic in timing), dinners on certain nights like tonight, I have few complaints about the meals situation. The residents and guests at this ashram are really quite lucky to have such a nice little range of food options, for moderate prices or even for free, and the food is of very good quality and generally quite tasty. They do a great job here, and I am very grateful for this nice nourishment situation.

Karma Yoga – Seva (Selfless Service)

Something else that I like about Amma’s Ashram is the opportunity (and the encouragement!) to undertake Seva.

Seva is a Sanskrit term meaning literally “Service,” often expanded to “Selfless Service.” It is work not done for an extrinsic end, and/or for money, estate, or good name, but is intended to be work done in the spirit of voluntarism. It can be work undertaken for the community, or work undertaken for one’s own spiritual growth, or so on.

I actually find Seva to be one of the most enjoyable and important aspects of living at this ashram.

Everyone is encouraged to work at least one or two hours of Seva per day. There are a wide range of Sevas available – from washing dishes, to managing recycling or compost, to putting cards into envelopes (I observe an army of, generally older people, peacefully doing this on the temple balcony every day), chopping vegetables in the kitchen, pushing people in wheelchairs….

I personally have been working with the Compost team, which is surprisingly fun and enjoyable. As it is generally a core group of longer-term residents supervising and working on the compost, along with a mix of those staying for only a couple of weeks, there is a lot of camaraderie amongst the group. And it is a great way to meet people at the ashram, to get to know them, and to make friends while one is here.

Many of the long-term people here are very hard-working in their Seva, and their hours of work and dedication, and spirit of selfless service, makes the contribution of short-termers like myself pale in comparison.

While I have been doing about 2.5 to 3 hours of Compost seva per day, many of the longer-term residents, work 6 to 8 or even 10 hours per day. This, again, is strictly work done in the spirit of Seva, selfless service – it is charitable work, for which they are not paid.

This work is being done to maintain the community, or as these individuals’ personal karma yoga (the yoga of “action” or work) or spiritual practice.

Karma Yoga as Spiritual Practice

One friend of mine in the Compost, Mussam, from Lebanon, has been at the Ashram just four months, but does over 6 hours of Seva work in Compost each day.

He told me that he is at a stage of his spiritual practice where he wants to focus principally on Karma Yoga (the yoga of “action”). He says that in future, if so inspired, he might wish to again partake of other spiritual disciplines (eg., such as the reading of scriptures (an element of jnana yoga, or the yoga of knowledge)). But right now, he wishes to focus exclusively on Karma Yoga, or being of service to the Ashram.

This I thought was quite a refreshing and admirable stance to take.

It is notable how rare is this attitude, or spiritual path, in contemporary Western circles.

That is to say – the vast majority of people doing “spiritual practice” in the West, will sooner take a Yoga class, or practice Meditation, than engage in any kind of Selfless Service or Charitable work.

(This is not to judge those people – people are busy of course, and everyone has their own unique set of circumstances, restrictions, priorities, habits, and so on…
But it is intriguing the extent to which (as we might say this, speaking under the matrices of the yogas), to most practitioners of “yoga” today, Karma Yoga takes a definite back seat to Hatha Yoga (e.g. Yoga asanas) or Raja Yoga (e.g. meditation).

Mussam’s commitment at this “stage” of his Sadhana, indeed reminded me (though he had not been acquainted with these verses himself), with certain verses of the Bhagavad Gita – such as this aphorism at the opening of Chapter 6:

Action is the means for a sage / who seeks to mature in discipline; / tranquility is the means / for one who is mature in discipline. (Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 6 v. 3)

This exceedingly simple suggestion is rather fascinating: Tranquility is important, but first, the Gita suggests here, one would do best to undertake the path of action — in order to “mature in discipline.” Then, once one is thus “mature in discipline,” the time may be more ripe for, and one may derive more benefit from, practices centred on tranquility.

I remember this making intuitive sense to me the first time I had read it.

Say: start out in the world. Learn about this world of action. Once you have got your feet wet (and dirty, undoubtedly), you will have matured in discipline (or not). It will be more appropriate to practice tranquility, once you have thus spent some time in the world.

Reminds me also of C.G. Jung’s interesting points regarding the extroversion and introversion of the individual. Jung suggested (what also seems quite intuitively valuable), that the first half of one’s life, would be useful to spend “extroverting” – until roughly mid-life – and then, once one has thoroughly experienced the world (to a greater or lesser degree), it will be time to turn inwards.

Some notes on my first experiences with Amma

I did not quite know what to expect before coming to Amma’s ashram. I had heard all manner of things. I came here not as a devotee of Amma, not even entirely as a spiritual seeker (though certainly partly that), but largely as someone who had been told a lot about Amma and was “curious.”

I have now been here about 5-6 days or so. It has been an ever-changing, at times quite blissful and peaceful, and at times quite uncomfortable or hectic, experience.

As it is the high season (high season begins, I believe, roughly this precise month of December (the beginning of high tourist season in India)), and as Amma is in the ashram presently (of course, the ashram is far far more busy when Amma is IN), this is shaping up to be one of the busiest times at this ashram.

As it approaches Christmas, I am told that more and more people will come – making having a private room all but impossible. I am actually very lucky to have only one roommate.

Amritapuri ashram
Amritapuri ashram

There are hundreds of people milling around this ashram – perhaps a thousand.

So that is the principal downside, or negative (for me) aspect of being here that I have experienced – the sheer busy-ness of it all. I am someone who is not fond of crowds.

That said, almost all of the people are generally kind, peaceful, and good natured (relatively speaking); so despite the great numbers of people, these are largely happy people; which is a good thing.

Why are they happy? A strong intuition, might suggest to me that a not-un-important reason is that they are here with Amma.

There is a strong current in the Indian tradition (and indeed, in a wide range of traditions involving saints and mystics worldwide), maintaining that: simply being around such holy persons, makes us feel happier. That we become more “spiritual,” more “in touch with ourselves,” more connected (with our deepest self? With others? With the source?) – and often, just happier.

Stories of this abound. Gandhi spinning

Visitors to Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha used to note the remarkable fact that all of the people working there seemed singularly happy. One journalist asked one of the ashram’s ladies why she was always singing. “Because I am happy,” she answered; to his “Why are you happy?,” she replied simply “Because I am near Bapu [Gandhi]!”

Visitors to Ramana Maharshi’s ashram used to come visit (from nearby towns, or from cities hundreds of kilometres away in India, and even from places thousands of kilometres away worldwide), simply for the chance to sit close to Ramana.

Ramana Maharshi
Ramana Maharshi

Often Ramana did not speak at all (for an entire day, he might say very little, besides answer a few questions at his leisure). Pilgrims often came just to be close to him.

There is the fascinating account by Paul Brunton, who logged his ever-beguiling travels in India in the early 20th century. Brunton arrived at Ramana’s ashram, far more of a skeptic than a believer.

And indeed, Brunton was rather unimpressed and a bit baffled by the scene greeting him there – a nearly naked man sitting silently, staring apparently into space (or into the depths of his own Self), with a handful of Indians sitting around the room doing apparently very little also.

As Brunton recounts, he sat there for a good amount of time, feeling the scene increasingly odd. “But,” he writes,

it is not till the second hour of the uncommon scene that I become aware of a silent, resistless change which is taking place within my mind.  One by one, the questions which I have prepared in the train with such meticulous accuracy drop away.  For it does not now seem to matter whether they are asked or not, and it does not seem to matter whether I solve the problems which have hitherto troubled me.  I know only that a steady river of quietness seems to be flowing near me, that a great peace is penetrating the inner reaches of my being, and that my thought-tortured brain is beginning to arrive at some rest.

(Paul Brunton, “A Search in Secret India” (on his experience with Ramana Maharshi)).

Brunton, originally a skeptic of such silent gurus or saints, within a couple of hours found his thought-tortured brain beginning to arrive at some rest. He went on to spend significant time at Ramana Ashram, and wrote with enthusiasm about his experiences in his books.

My experience with Amma

I hope you will excuse this digression from my discussion of Amma’s presence. But I could not resist drawing attention to just a couple of the many many historical antecedents to this concept – of Darshan, or of the efficacy of just being near a Spiritual person or teacher.

In any case, my experience with Amma, while perhaps not quite as striking as Brunton’s with Ramana, I have felt to have a few shared characteristics with these.

Frankly, as I noted at the outset, I was initially quite put-off by the busy-ness, and Rajas and so on, of this ashram. One of my principal thoughts during my first two days (before I was able to meet Amma) was – “When can I get out of here?”

But that thought pattern changed, I would say, upon my first coming close to Amma.

I have had two darshans now. The intimate act of Amma’s very unique darshan itself (hugging) – (or rather, being hugged – or rather, having my head and shoulders hugged, while she whispers, “My Darling, My Darling, My Darling!” quite urgently in my ear, amidst all the hubbub on the stage!) – has tended to be rather quick, and pleasant, but not exceedingly memorable. I think there is a lot going on during this act, and it is hard to fully understand it yet (for me personally).

(Though a good friend of mine, Meera-ma, from Dharamsala, has told me that often the effects of the darshan, even the very quick ones, will come to fruition afterwards (?). A very interesting thought. I want to blog more on some of the apparent “miracles”, or simply “acts of grace” surrounding Amma, sometimes later.) amma smile small

But for me what was the most visceral and noticeable experience, was: as I came closer and closer to the stage on where she sat, something very much like Brunton’s “Steady River of Quietness.”

I experienced (and the man sitting next to me during our progressive musical-chairs approach, testified to always having precisely the same feeling), what felt like a collection of powerful energies flowing through the body (or my own “energy field”). This was accompanied by a great quantity of peace and happiness. I felt what I might term a significant “softness” inside, and all around (for lack of a better term — for some reason “softness” is the term that comes to mind repeatedly…) (and actually this softness was felt from first being in the darshan hall). A great amount of peace and happiness.

And I found that meditation of any kind came extremely, extremely, easily… Closing my eyes, my attention seemed to go to my breathing – “in… out…. in…. o—u—t…..”

And I noted that my breathing had been shallow and somewhat quick (as it probably often is during typical days)…. And as I became aware and dropped into it, I became aware that I was slowing it, that it became slower and more peaceful.

Much like a typical practice of breathing meditation, but this seemed to come so spontaneously.

I saw Amma’s eyes as the line drew very close – the spaciousness, the luminousness, the joy of those eyes – they were so empty; the vast space somehow reminded me of “outer space” — such as galaxies, with the odd planet occasionally coming into view…

I am not sure precisely what Amma is — but she certainly seemed to me at least, to be some sort of very special being.

(Of course, anyone who could sit for 15+ hours, five days per week, embracing an endless line of people well into the night, never stopping to use the bathroom, to eat, or for any other reason at all — well, those, besides a mundane explanation of a very strong nervous system, would seem to be some very strong siddhis or powers indeed. This lady, saint, or avatar, or whatever she is, does indeed seem to be a boundless, upwelling source of love, joy, and compassion…)

I am feeling tired at the moment, and feel that the quality of my descriptions are suffering. But I want to get outside and walk for a few minutes, and further expand on these notes later.

In short, I had not known what my experience of Amma would be like, but yes — I feel there is something subtly powerful occurring around this special being… I still feel happy when I manage to get near the stage.

Thanks for reading. Peace and Love.

Early Impressions of Amma’s Ashram (Amritapuri) — “Rajasic” Spirituality, of Energy, Love, and Movement, and perspective of an HSP

Here I am at Amma’s Amritapuri Ashram in Kerala. For some reason, my first inclination was to blog  this from the perspective of an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) – for perhaps, it seems to be largely my psychological constitution which has coloured much of my experiences and my perceptions, over the last couple of days.

To begin with, practically all HSP’s can relate to the notion of having difficulty sleeping, in unusual or unfamiliar circumstances (or, for some HSP’s, the circumstances do not have to be particularly unfamiliar).

For me, it usually takes a change of setting, or stressful circumstance to affect my sleep.

That said, I have usually had pretty good success sleeping on Indian trains.

The night of my travel to Amma’s Ashram, however, was an exception. Through various factors (not enough exercise? Excessive Idli’s and Chappatis close to bedtime, leading to “frustration and irritation”…), I became quite discomposed, and slept only a couple of hours during the night – perhaps 2 hours.

That said, during those two hours I had some wonderful dreams.

In any case though, despite the nice dreams, I was quite tired on my first day at Amritapuri.

 “Rajasic” Spirituality

The place, I would say, partakes quite strongly of what Ramakrishna once referred to as “Rajasic spirituality” – a spirituality that is based on movement, energy, passion, fun, love, joy, or, etc., etc., etc. – Rajas can be translated using a family of terms, (“passion” is a favourite one), but in this case I might refer to the Rajas of Amma’s Ashram in terms of its Energy, its Excitement, its Noise, its Movement, its Love, its Joy, its Busy-ness.

(the characterization of Love and Joy as “Rajasic” rather than primarily Sattvic, comes to me from a book I have been reading lately, Peter Marchand’s The Yoga of Nine Emotions. This is a really fascinating book which I recommend highly – would like to blog on it in more detail perhaps in future.)

In any case, I see the activity at Amma’s as quite exemplary of Ramakrishna’s characterization of “Rajasic” Spiritual Practices.

The quotation from Ramakrishna where he speaks at length about these types of Spirituality, is quite candid and humourous actually – I believe I found it in the beautiful book Sayings by Lex Hixon…. Can’t find it online at the moment but want to see if I can find it in the near future.

Amma’s Ashram and Rajasic Spirituality

Why do I speak of Amma’s in terms of Rajas?

It may be useful, for discussing this, to draw a contrast with Sattvic spirituality.

Sattvic, would generally mostly partake (if we decide to carry on using the matrix of the nine emotions described by Peter Marchand) of the Rasa – the “taste” (literally), or Emotion, of Shantha, or “Calmness.” (Shantha being the noun, clearly, affiliated with the well known Sanskrit adjective-cum-Indian-backpackers-and-hippies-phrase “Shanti”!)

So Sattvic spirituality, calm and quiet spirituality, is more inclined to keep to itself; one might say, to remain introverted…. In Ramakrishna’s description of the various spiritual aspirants, the description of the Sattvic spiritual aspirant I remember being described as humourously introverted. (Something to the effect of, “While others are going to the temple, parading about with powder, robes, and prasad, the Sattvic aspirant might feel a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing, and simply rise early and do his prayers quietly in his own room…”)

“While others are going to the temple, parading about with powder, robes, and prasad, the Sattvic aspirant might feel a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing, and simply rise early and do his prayers quietly in his own room…”  (Ramakrishna)

Spirituality containing more calmness or shantha, may be more conducive to Introverts and HSPs. Or at least Spirituality that is a bit more quiet – as compared with the sound and excitement here at Amma’s while she is around.

But this is leaving too many things out, and is too quick a treatment.  But I wanted to begin putting this out there, in case the discussion might be of interest to any HSP’s or Introverts – including perhaps followers of Amma!

I am aware, come to think of it, that I believe the well-known writer on HSP, Ted Zeff (Who has written various HSP “Survival Guides,” which are quite good little books), is himself a fan, perhaps even a devotee, of Amma-chi. So while my mind has gotten a bit tired now (it is quite early, before breakfast here, and blood sugar has dropped), I would like to try and expand on this further, hopefully later today.

(If I am not overwhelmed by the wonderfully Rajasic spirituality of Amritapuri!)

Om Shantha Hasya Shringara (Om-Calmness-Joy-Love)