Guruji forming a heart with his hands
Amsterdam,  Blog,  Warum

Counting my breath in Amsterdam

A harbor area in Amsterdam. Not shabby, not yet chic. I am exhausted from walking all the way from my (gorgeous!) hostel, a kingdom for a bike. Tomorrow. I feel a kind of jumpiness, curiosity. Will I be attending a session of a dubious cult? Will I see a man whose aura feels like that of a maestro or that of a brain hunter? And what else could I have done with all that money? At least it flows into some idea of peace, non-violence, a stress-free society, and social programs.

At the entrance I get a yellow bracelet and tokens for three drinks. I concentrate on just being there. I do not want to find anybody, I let people find me. And they do. I meet two women from the Netherlands. They are excited to meet „Sri Sri Ravi Shankar“, whose biography is indeed outstanding. As for me, they are almost confused that this is my first encounter with the „Art of Living“. The ladies have already completed what the organization calls the „happiness seminar“ and they regularly practice meditation, days or weeks of silence and breathing techniques such as „Sudarshan Kriya“. Sudar-what? I feel like a total amateur who has by accident stumbled into a master’s course. But, as one of principles has always been: Be a sophisticated beginner, always. Wear the label with pride.

I confess to be a soul seeker, a spiritual tourist, a meditation newbie. What I do not confess: I am skeptical when it comes to gurus. But: I am ready any minute to be surprised, overwhelmed.

A gong starts ringing and people go find their seats. Unexpectedly, it is an ordinary theatre. No meditation benches or cushions – instead, fluffy red seats, proper for a movie night. How can anybody fall into deep meditation here? Better have a good portion of abstraction with you. The guru’s seat on stage is a neatly prepared throne, all in white, a mantra is played from tape and after that a band strikes some chords and sings, like a supporting act. We seem to be waiting for a pop star. The décor rather suggests a show in a planetarium. But it seems to reflect the title of Sri Sri’s road show: “Unveiling Infinity”. The Indian couple next to me came all the way from Oman. The man translates the mantra for me, he knows it by heart.

Ajai Alai –
Invincible Indestructible

Abhai Abai
– Fearless Unchanging

Abhoo Ajoo
– Unformed Unborn

Anaas Akaas
– Imperishable Etheric

Abhanj – Unbreakable Impenetrable

Abhakkh – Unseen Unaffected

Dy-aal – Undying Merciful

Abhaykh – Indescribable Uncostumed

Anaam Akaam
– Nameless Desireless

Adhaah – Unfathomable Incorruptible

Pramaa-thay – Unmastered Destroyer

Amonee – Beyond birth Beyond silence

Na Raagay
Na Rangay – Beyond love Beyond color

Na Roopay
Na Raykhay – Beyond form Beyond shape

Ajai Alai Mantra

“Throw your hands in the air”, says the ambassador of peace

Finally, Sri Sri arrives, half an hour delayed. In two days, he will never make it on time. Gosh, worldly pettiness. Nobody cares. They all stand and clap until the man in white has taken his seat behind the microphone and urges us with his hands to sit down. We are invited to greet and introduce each other, show respect. „I belong to you“, a man on my right says to me and shakes my hand. What did he say? I am too puzzled to respond and finally realize: This is the typical phrase that is expected. Well, I am reluctant to offer myself to complete strangers and stick to a polite smile.

The uneasy feeling vanishes the longer Sri Sri, or „Guruji“ as the participants call him, starts with his lectures and his exercises. He truly has an aura of a sage, his Indian accent is just lovable and he has this slightly rogue kind of humor. Some of his wisdoms seem a little mystical, many convince me:

Be a child, sometimes

Guruji says that we have, sadly, often lost the ability to be truly astonished, like a child. Can you remember the days when you just threw both arms in the air out of pure excitement and joy? So whenever routine and doubt rule, try to stop your breath deliberately for 5-15 seconds. Maybe throw your hands in the air and make a sound as if somebody has very suddenly scared you. Wonder at something, anything! We have unlearned that ability. Learn it again.

Visualize a skull

Consider everybody, who annoys you, as a skull. Because this is what we all come from and go back to: A skull.

Speak it out loud

If something worries you, speak it out loud. Break it into small pieces, words, syllables. And the worry loses its grip on you.

Make some space

We are more than our physical body. In meditation, imagine yourself as a sort of glowing body that is 12 inches wider and taller.

Listen to sounds

Take a sound bath. Listen to or watch flowing water or use a Tibetan sound bowl. Or in general: Listen to instrumental music to avoid to be crammed with words.

Time-Out. Another break. The theatre spits me out on the streets. I take my bicycle and try to keep up with the Amsterdam Saturday afternoon crowd on the bike lanes. Jesus, how fast and chaotic do the Dutch cycle? In fear of death, I make my way to several second hand stores: Episode, Rumors Vintage, Zipper, Marbles Vintage and Bij Ons Vintage (my absolute favorite, reasonable prices and a shop assistant who sings). After a ginger soda at Brandendzand I make my way back to outer space.

Hello, my self, is anybody h-OM-e?

Guruji also teaches us how to chant „OM“ properly so that it fills your whole body. Form an „A“, then an „O“ and finally press your lips together and hum (Aaah, Oooh, Mmm)  – as long as your breath allows. What an experience to chant it in a theatre, with hundreds of people. Some of his wisdoms linger: Be a giver, not a taker. If the void in your life is not filled, shake hands with it. All you need to calm you down, is already within your nature – and there are not less than 112 techniques (called Tantra. And by the way, only two of 112 have something to do with sex).

After two days of Sri Sri I have an idea of the „Art of Living“. Whether it is my haven, I am not sure. But I feel a warm shower of confusion. Have I seen a pop star or a saint? Are his followers nuts or enlightened? Maybe both. In the end, Sri Sri invites us to have the last word. A young guy hops on stage and gives us a beatbox session. Well, why not. The spark that touched me the most, though, was a conversation during one of the breaks. Note to myself: Go on with stopping unnecessary noise. Attend a silence retreat. This is my modest achievement of “unveiling infinity”. I realized, that though I am not fond of worshipping, this small, slim, grandpa-like guy with the charming smile can move people. And sometimes that is all that matters.


Why becoming conscious is a step out of the comfort zone

The “retreat note” I wrote in Amsterdam was not the first one. Aside from a little warm up in September, there will be a huge experiment in November. As far as I know, there will be no guru involved but “Kate Middleton”. I will talk about that some other time, but anyways: I have to do some studying to get ready, to – let’s say – not make a complete fool of myself. So far, the reading has been a challenge which is a good sign, I figure. Because it touches realms I do know nothing about and one message is omnipresent: Step out of your comfort zone.

So far, I have read more about this pledge than done anything. But maybe that is part of the game. Take the time you need. Sharon Gannon and David Life as well as Sally Kempton demand a lot – physically and mentally. As for the athletic part, I might train but there are some limits I might have to accept. When it comes to the mental part, I feel there is no excuse. You can go deeper, bend further, focus more – there are no boundaries that cannot be mastered. At least, all the seeds are put in fertile ground. The art in it is to not let them dry out.

Yoga itself stands for the synthesis of body and soul, the unity of your tiny little separate self with the universal self. Jivamukti Yoga means something like “soul liberating”. It aims at combining a fulfilled life in the world with spiritual progress. As the authors claim, you cannot “do” Yoga because it is who you are, it your natural state, it is pure bliss, love joy, and: a school of practical philosophy based on the Sanskrit scriptures from thousands of years ago. And without meditation there is no attainment in Yoga possible. There are five basic obstacles that hold you back from “Samadhi” (the highest state of consciousness Yogis strive for):

  • Ignorance or unreal cognition
  • Egoism
  • Excessive attachment to pleasurable things
  • Excessive aversion, hatred
  • Fear of death

Yoga is regarded a selfless service, to mankind, to God. Who that is? Decide for yourself. The authors’ demand is radical: Any yoga practice has to be a labor of love. It has to turn your heart on or it is just not worth doing.

The guru said to the disciple: You have three jobs. Your first was to find me. Your second is to love me. Your third is to leave me.
Indian proverb

If you want to learn, be empty, say: “I do not know.” Otherwise you are a tea cup that overflows when the teacher tries to pour some more tea in it. Yoga is freedom from chitchat, too. The hard part is, to figure out how to remove clutter and confusion.

So far, I am easily convinced. Although I see the grace of a sun salutation and postures like tree and warrior, I still cannot bring it all together. Why should I become a different person by standing headfirst in a down dog? How does it transform me if I control something as abstract as the “Bandas” or twist my body awkwardly into almost acrobatic positions? Yoga should not be about control anyway, should it? A teacher ones told our class: “You have to feel Yoga from the bottom up, not from the top down. Meaning: You will never be stable in an Asana and become one with earth, if you are fighting gravity or pushing yourself further and further by pure will because you want to compete. Do not feed your limitations but breath into them, wait and see. Patience. Discipline. A discipline that feels easy, that is fun to stick to. Be ready to meet your demons, things that hold back again and again from what is good for you.

The authors also talk about vegetarianism, cleansing and Ayurveda – things I have either never tried or ruled out from my portfolio. In this respect, I very much liked their quote from Hugh Romney: “We aren’t what we eat. We are what we don’t shit.” Apart from the fecal wisdom in it – this makes total sense to me in a metaphoric dimension. Still, reading all the rose-colored advice, I have doubts that I could ever devote all my worldly deeds to unconditional love and harmony all the time. Who are these people who manage that? They must be flying at least one foot above the ground.

Calm down the dancing monkey without putting him in chains

There we go again. Meditation always finds me even though mostly in books. So far. Meditation is not prayer (thank God!) and it is not contemplation (like reflection, musing about something) but just: listen within. The bad deal with meditation is: You cannot make yourself meditate. You can only make yourself concentrate, invite a situation in which meditation is likely to emerge. I do not know whether I have ever crossed that bridge. Why does it seem so undoable to just sit for one to five minutes per day? Even with my crazy job hours are no excuse.

“Art of Living” preaches similarly. One of the representatives of their Cologne chapter showed a small group of soul explorers how to start. Do not try to fight or get rid of thoughts, but be aware that they have three notions:

  • Thoughts are either in the past or in the future. What could I have done differently or where will I work next year? Honestly: It does not matter. There are only two days in life
  • Thoughts doubt the positive and overemphasize the negative. Imagine: A day might be just perfect, everything went fine, and then there is this tiny little nuisance like stepping into a chewing gum – and suddenly all the wonders seem forgotten and you pity yourself for stepping into a chewing gum. So what!
  • Thoughts persist in resist – meaning if somebody forbids you to imagine a dancing monkey, you will – definitely – visualize a dancing monkey

In order to calm down the mind try to: do nothing, think nothing, want nothing. Ha, easy you might say. But once you start watching yourself you notice: If your head is empty you might feel like you need something do drink or eat. If you do nothing, your thoughts start to wander. And if you want nothing you might be watching a movie or do the dishes.

3 hours per day for 3 weeks – how can that be effortless effort?

Where Jivamukti Yoga ends, Sally Kempton starts. She promises not less than the most important travel guide I will ever encounter, written by a nomad of the mind. And she lowers the bar: There is no such thing as good or bad meditation. There is only your relationship with yourself. Make effortless effort. Sometimes it is right to push through a feeling of discomfort, sometimes it is right to back off. The best reason to meditate is: to like it. What a relief. So, no pressure to “cross the bridge”. But if you manage, Kempton promises sweet fruits: More trust in your inner experiences and your intuition, more real relationships, more spontaneity. Sat – Chit – Ananda. It sounds familiar. It is how the sages of old India call the qualities or stages of the self: It is permanent, aware and, finally, joyful. The latter is intrinsic, it is already in us, no matter when and where. If reached, it is self-sustaining. No external trigger needed. But she also says: Do not expect spiritual progress to be linear.

Let go. Let go of the content of feelings, the plot of your internal drama and focus on the feeling itself and its energy. A “mantra” I often repeat in tricky situations is this: “This, too, will pass.” What I came across in Yin Yoga is also one of Kempton’s suggestion: Surrender. Finally, she has some very pragmatic tips in store: Do not rush into meditation, experiment with different techniques, have a notebook handy to write down ideas you might have during or after practice, you might even keep a meditation journal. Stay tuned. “This month’s strong resolution becomes next month’s malaise, unless we keep renewing the resolution.” She says that meditation on a retreat is relatively easy, the artwork is to fit time-outs into your normal schedule. Her approach: a contract with yourself to have a new routine, including meditation, for three weeks. Her promise: a “breakthrough”. I already try to find immediate excuses: too hot, holiday, demanding time at work. I just cannot image sitting in silence every day for one and half up to three hours!  Even one and half sounds totally challenging.

All that said, there is one key question that has come up again and again in my mind. If you have grabbed a tiny fraction of that peace in your practice, how do you come back to the “real world”? Because: I feel like I do not like it any more. It is all noisy and cruel. The answer the “Guruji” had: Yoga and meditation are no escape routes. Be convinced that the world needs you, in one way or the other. And that nothing is permanent. Allow one state to give way to the next. Everything in your ordinary life can be a lesson, a test, a gift and, ultimately, a subtle spiritual experience with significance.

To conclude this (way too long ;-)) post, I want to share an anecdote. I purchased a meditation bench online, on the German equivalent of craigslist. They guy who posted the classified ad sent me the payment details and I asked for the tracking number of the package and the mail firm. His answer puzzled me. He kindly asked to call me “Yvi”, told me that he had to bury his wife lately, that he lives in the “beautiful Alsace-Lorraine” (all alone), likes sports and apnea diving and has spent his holidays on the Maldives six times.

The world needs more meditation. The package arrived two weeks later. I haven’t used the bench since.

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