Ashramas, Coming and Going, Exhausting the Body, and Mindfulness

July 26, 2023

Shambhavi and the Jaya Kula community gather for satsang and get real about all the questions we humans want answered. Intimate, courageous, heartfelt spiritual talk about pretty much everything. So happy you are here! A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

I was thinking earlier about the phase of later middle life and how different it feels. And it made me wonder about the ashramas in Hinduism and especially the forest, while I'm on it.

The ashramas are different stages of life in Vedic culture. This is based on a view of life that finds value in every stage of life, first of all. But it also sees the natural denouement, or the natural conclusion of a life well lived, as one that is spent in spiritual practice.

So in a sense, even though in the brahmacharya, the earlier stage, the earlier ashrama, is that you're learning from a householder guru. It's very common, even these days for Indian families to have a wise person advising the family on everyday matters and doing ritual with people.

This is like a householder guru. It might not necessarily be the guru you end up with as your satguru, your main spiritual preceptor. But it might be, also. So, brahmacharya the idea is that you are learning just the lifeways of being a good person and being a good Hindu.

Then you have grihastha, which is householder life. When you get married and you have kids and you do your duty and you have your job and you send your kids off to do the same thing you just did.

And then you have these two other phases. One, when you go into the forest and do meditation and you're in solitude because you just had it up to here with being around people so much. [laughter] And then you take orange robes and what do you do?

My idea of sannyas is very different. Because I took the Saraswati name in a lineage where sannyas was not considered to be the same kind of renunciation that it is in the traditional ashramas.

And also, the traditions that I am studying, and now I'm teaching and I'm practicing, are householder traditions. So there's no idea that you would need to go go off somewhere. We're trying to realize in the midst of everyday life.

I don't know how they relate to later middle age. But certainly I think as we get older, if we're lucky, because this doesn't happen to everybody, we have more sense of what's important to us and what's not.

And we have more sense of how we're spending our time and how we don't want to spend our time. And we suddenly realize that there's a finite amount of time left, which was always true. [laughs] What are we going to do with that supposed time that we have?

So there's a gravitas, but also a lightness. Because the image of the crone, this really applies to women a lot, which is someone who just no longer really gives a flip what anyone thinks and just does what they think is important.

I think it's a fun way to come into late middle age or middle age, being less concerned with what other people think of you. So it is a kind of detachment.

I mean, you could say that there's some flavor of going into the forest and renouncing. Because you just care less what other people think about what you're doing. Hopefully that might not be true, but that would be the best thing.

I feel like I'm between phases where there's this odd feeling of lack of ambition about work. I don't know. It feels like there's a slackness in that area, but some relaxing and opening also.

Well, I think this could happen in any phase of life. We all come in in a different place. We all come in as this assembly of different streams of karmas.

And, however we're bundled together, we might recognize this from very early age, or we might recognize this never. I don't think that it's necessarily a product of age. Although, again, if we're lucky and we have some contemplative practice, we will realize more what's important to us as we go along.

If we're just generally self-reflective and have a little bit of clarity and some tools to apply, then as we get older, we are going to recognize more what's important to us.

And we are going to adhere to that more closely. And be less likely to be blown off our perch. Or blown out of our seat, by some passing criticism or some cultural karma that's telling us we shouldn't be doing what we're doing.

But the fact of the matter is there are people that come into this world already understanding that spiritual life is their most important thing. I didn't come in with that understanding.

But I came in with this absolute conviction that there was something here to be discovered that I wasn't seeing with my ordinary senses. And as I've said so many times before, just with this desperate drive to find out what's really going on here.

Although I didn't label it spirituality at the time when I was five. Because I wasn't in that kind of context. But now I look back, and that's exactly what really motivates spiritual practice in the end.

To find out what's happening. To see what's really going on. To experience things as they really are. I think it's possible to come in with that drive very early or even from moment one.

It's also possible to never discover it. Of course, the teaching in the direct realization traditions is that you don't have to go anywhere to discover this.

You don't have to go to a mountain. You don't have to go to the forest. You don't have to wear funny clothes. You don't have to dress in any kind of robes or do anything like that. Because God is here.

Wisdom is here. Wisdom is at the cafe. Wisdom is in the kitchen. Wisdom is at work. Wisdom is on the mountain. But you don't have to look a certain way or do anything special with your appearance or your location to discover that.

And that's the beauty of these traditions. If somebody wants to do something like that, they can. There is absolutely no prescription about what form of life someone would live in this tradition. Absolutely none.

The only thing is that we would recognize living presence and remain in that recognition. And immerse ourselves in that recognition. That's the only instruction, no matter where we are.

And of course, we get very distracted. And so we have a lot of practices and we have special little circumstances and we go on retreats and all this thing. But we only do that because of our limitation, not because there's some ultimate value in it.

I always thought in the times I've been in India, it's so noisy and people live in such big households. So busy and everyone's working so hard that you had to go to the forest just to get a moment's peace. [laughter]

So you also have to attend to the fact that we're practicing now in a very different circumstance. In fact, many Tibetan teachers, including the Dalai Lama, have said that the United States is the best place to practice now. Because it's where you can get the most time and space to do that.

Recently in sitting, I find myself getting in a loop or distracted. So what I'm trying to do is un-mind the mind, and then go into the body.

First of all, this coming and going between distraction and presence is completely normal. And everybody goes through this process to some degree or another.

I like to think of us when we get distracted as a little puppy that's running all over. And then you're the puppy master, and you just like, Okay, puppy, come back. There's a gentleness in it.

We don't want to be like, Oh, my God. I was distracted. It's horrible. I'm a horrible practitioner. We don't want to have any this attitude because that isn't helpful.

We have to be friendly toward ourselves. And also just recognize this is part of the process. It's inevitable. It's unavoidable. So you just want to gently lead yourself back to whatever practice you're doing.

And if you're doing things that involve placing mantra on the body somewhere, fine. If it's some other practice, fine. But every single time you notice it, just gently rein yourself in and just come back to the practice.

Another thing you can do is just be aware of yourself in a room practicing. This is a trick that Chogyam Trungpa talked about. Remember, you're a person in a room, doing practice.

And not just ground yourself in the actual sadhana that you're doing, but also in your environment. This is a very direct realization thing to do, to not forget where you are, not forget what you're doing.

The idea that you could be so simple as to say to yourself, I'm just a person in a room practicing, really is like, it really brings everything down. Until the next time you get distracted.

But you can keep doing that, just bringing yourself back to your ordinary, real circumstance. And this is a practice of ordinary presence.

When we get lost in thought, we're in fantasy. We're planning, we're rehearsing conversations with people, we're worrying about things. We're reinvoking old emotions and feeling them over and over and over again. Or projecting things in the future.

These are all fantasies that we're having. And we have them over and over and over and over again in whatever our favorite emotional flavors are.

Just being an ordinary presence, I'm a person in a room practicing. Just bringing yourself back to the literal technique of your practice is how you do it.

And the more you do that, the less distracted you're going to be, but over a long period of time. Don't expect this to be resolved in a few weeks. [laughs] It might be a few years or a few decades.

You don't know because you're in a mandala of circumstance and you're collaborating with God, and you don't know when this will be significantly resolved. So you just keep doing it. But the more you do it, what you're really doing is you're redirecting your energy.

You're taking momentum away from your karmas and putting them into your sadhana. And that's what you want to do. You want to form a new samskara. That's why we're doing things so many times, over and over and over again.

The other thing is even more basic, which is your diet and the way that you're living. Getting lost in thought has different flavors. Sometimes vata flavors, windy flavors, sometimes pitta flavors, sometimes kapha flavors.

You can look at the quality of your thought and—okay, most of the time when I'm fantasizing, I'm yelling, I'm being angry, I'm expressing my frustration. You know, there's some pitta imbalance going on there.

Or most of the time I'm having anxiety and worrying about what's going to happen. You have some vata distractions happening. Or I'm lost in sexual fantasy and I just want to be comfortable and I'm distracting myself.

One fellow said that he went to a retreat for a month, I read this in a book, and he just went through the plot of every movie he could think of to avoid being in this uncomfortable situation of having to do meditation. That's a very kapha thing to do, right? To just find something that will make you feel comfortable and try to stay in that.

So whatever it is, you want to adjust your diet. You want to adjust your lifestyle to have your doshas be more balanced. That will help enormously.

One of my favorite choreographers was talking about exhausting the body to the point where you can transcend to then be non-performative. And that is that place where this spiritual thing happens. That sounded really nice, but it sounded really exhausting.

This is not a wrong technique, but it is only meant for very specific, narrow circumstances. When someone's way of being in the world is defined by hard struggle.

And when someone has a self-definition that requires them to perform strength and certainty. And to always have their thing together. And to always be winning. That's a really overly strong, invulnerable position to take in life.

And so in that circumstance, very strong Titan Realm, we would say. In that circumstance, sometimes spiritual teachers will exhaust people on purpose. So that their defenses get lowered.

So that they can just enter into a more natural relationship with their sadhana. It's like wearing out one's defenses so that you no longer have the energy to keep them going. [laughs]

It takes a lot of energy to produce a certain kind of personality construct. The personality constructs that are very, very strong and rely on a self-image of strength and certainty and performing perfectly. And all these things that Titan Realm is involved in.

If they are really strong and there's not really a chink in the armor that the teacher can get into, sometimes the teacher will say, okay. Do 300 million mantras of this while circumambulating all of India [laughter] for the next 19 years, nonstop And don't talk to anybody you don't know while you're doing it.

But it's really almost a joke because, of course, a person in that Titan-y condition is going to think, yeah, man, I'm so special. Teacher's given me the sadhana. And then they'll be like, oh, [heavy breathing sounds] by then.

And finally, they'll relax. It's really basically just a ploy to get someone to relax. And not everybody needs that. In fact, not very many people need that to happen. Don't try this at home.

Can you talk a little bit about the difference between mindfulness and what we do?

Well, mindfulness has been completely coopted by the capitalist machine. So all the different uses of it, I couldn't possibly know. But I do think that in general, it's based on some notion of either the present moment, or what Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche calls ordinary presence.

In the best possible instance, it would be something about ordinary presence, where you're aware of what's going on around you. You're not lost in fantasy of past, present and future.

And the practice of ordinary presence is one that Namkhai Norbu gave some hints about how to do. Which is just to narrate silently to yourself what you're doing.

I'm reaching over to pick up my water bottle. I'm opening my water bottle. I'm lifting it to my lips. I'm taking a sip. I'm putting my water bottle back down. So it's this very neutral narration just to bring you into your actual circumstance and out of fantasy.

Other mindfulness practices are more like focusing on something. Your breath or some visualization or something like that. Or focusing on what is called the present.

We don't do any kind of practice that involves focusing on the present. Because that is a kind of engagement with something that we already do enough in our fantasy life and is a reinforcement of that experience of linear time. And it doesn't have a wide enough view. It's like some kind of narrow focus.

We also don't very often do one-pointed focus on small things like your breath or something like that. We'll occasionally do that to help someone to just seat their prana or feel a little bit calmer so they can do something else.

But in general, we are trying to open our senses, our body, energy, mind, and have a much wider perceptual experience of things. We're not trying to narrow our focus. Our focus is already extremely narrow. So we're trying to open it up and open up all of our senses.

Not shut them down into some narrow point. And we're also trying to have a perception of living presence, which is different than the present. We're trying to notice through our senses the livingness of everything, the awareness of everything.

That just requires a different set of techniques. Although we do do mind training and there is some focusing on things. But it has a very limited application in this kind of tradition.

So in our tradition, we are experiencing, and we might have an experience of observing our condition, but it's not something that you want to get stuck in? Yeah. Can you talk about that?

Yeah. So this isn't just modern mindfulness movements, but a lot of other kinds of traditions will have you take up the position of an observer. And we actually would find that to be counterproductive to what we're doing.

There's only very small applications where we're noticing things. But noticing is not the same as taking up a position of a watcher or an observer. The reason why traditions give that instruction is because they're trying to create some kind of detachment.

And usually, those traditions define detachment in a very gross way as somehow this lack of involvement in what's happening. Or lack of immersion to step back and be the watcher and not be immersed in life.

Because there's a denigration of ordinary manifest life. A lot of these traditions that encourage that are transcendental. There are ideas that we would not be affected by anything.

And we would not have emotions about things. And we would not even have thoughts about things. We would just be these neutral observers in some zone that keeps us apart from what is actually happening.

The instruction from the teachers, both from Tibet and from India, in the direct realization traditions is, lose the watcher. The exact opposite.

And again, noticing is different. We just notice things, of course. That's just what we do. There's nothing—even enlightened people notice things.

Otherwise, there would be no life. There would be no experience. But we're noticing them in a way that doesn't set us apart from them. Ideally.

We're living in this culture now where we are so much the watchers. We're constantly watching ourselves and watching other people and measuring ourselves against other people.

And imagining ourselves as we think other people might see us. And trying to adjust how we might appear to other people. So we are doing this all day long, being the watcher.

And I don't notice any enlightened people around here. [laughter] So this is actually considered to be harmful. It is reinforcing dualistic experience.

When we set up the situation of the three poles of duality, the watcher, the act of observing, and the thing observed, we're just basically underlining, over and over again, our dualistic, karmic realm vision. We can see everything and experience everything without that sense of being a watcher.

How would you distinguish between awareness and observing?

Well, when we're not very realized, there's lots of overlap. [laughs] And there are very few moments when we're actually just immersed in presence and just receiving things with our senses in this spontaneous call-and-response way.

The way that I experience it myself is that rather than my mind going to observe things or be mindful of something, I'm just being relaxed and the whole scene is just there. And I'm somehow perceiving it.

But there's not a lot of thinking about it. And there's no sense of separation between me and it. It almost feels like standing at a huge open window and everything's just there.

It's meeting you and you're meeting it. And there's not a gap between you and it. There's no longer a sense of separation. It's not something that can be captured in words, but I'm trying to give you a sense of it.

There's just this freshness to it and a feeling that you're meeting something that's alive and it's meeting you. And there's not a sense of being stepped back and watching or observing or thinking about anything.

So I think for people who aren't yet at this point in their practice, there's a lot of coming and going between this kind of open, call-and-response perception and thinking about things. Me going around like a brain on a stick thinking about stuff.

When our senses aren't relaxed enough, we spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves in relation to everything else. And then there's, of course, reinvoking that sense of separation.

And people have all kinds of questions. How should I be in this situation? What's really happening here? I'm upset about that. I want this. I don't want that.

And we're not meeting it in just an experiential kind of experimental, oh, that. Okay. And having a natural conversation with life. It doesn't feel that relaxed.

And there's a lot of sense of self-protectiveness that's happening in almost all being aware, mindfulness kinds of circumstances in ordinary life. I'm not talking about sitting on a cushion and doing practice, but just in ordinary life.

We're reinforcing separation a lot of the time by trying to quell our anxiety about being separate in some way. Defend ourselves, or find some form of company to assuage our feeling of loneliness and separation.

There's a kind of vigilance to the way that most people are living. On the lookout for something dangerous or something I want. Everything is very much centered on this experience of this individual.

But when you're more relaxed, it's really not like that at all. It's more just like you're not even looking ahead that far. Or at all. It's just what, oh, this is happening. Oh, that's happening. [laughs]

And there's not this sense of defensiveness. We want to notice when we're feeling certain things or notice how we're responding to things. But then we also want to apply something.

Our idea of resolving an anxiety or resolving something that's uncomfortable is to think more about it. We've been trained that if we understand it, it'll be better. Or somehow we can resolve it by understanding it better.

And so a lot of our efforts to experience how we are and what's going on with us have as their end game this mythical, I'm going to understand it and then I'll feel better about it. That's not the goal here.

Yes, we want to notice what's happening and we don't want to run away from it. But we want to apply something that's actually going to directly shift our energy. Or shift something in our experience using the tools of our practice.

So we're not really aimed at understanding it in this narrative, descriptive way. We're not even that interested in telling a story about it.

Western psychology is all based on storytelling, where we try to have a comprehensive narrative of the self or narrative of a problem that we have. Where it came from, how it developed, how it's bothered us, what we've done about it, and how we've resolved it.

This is our story arc about ourselves. And then when we have a complete story, we think something's going to be better. But this is not the method here at all.

The method here is notice, feel for reals, but then apply something. So that you can actually shift those karmic patterns directly with some form of sadhana.

And then you can be free of them. Even without understanding them the way that we think of understanding in Western psychology. I really think that explanatory psychological methods only have a minimal efficacy.

I think it is important to have self-understanding. I'm not saying we should just wander around in the dark, do some sadhana, hope for the best. Obviously, we have thoughts about our lives and that's really fine.

But ultimately, those kinds of thinking and narrative ways of approaching things are not going to be as thoroughgoing as actually relieving ourselves of those karmas entirely. Which is what this kind of practice aims at.

I think we can have a horizontal improvement through the storytelling and explanation processes that we do. But I think they deliver a lot less than they promise to deliver.

I'm a person who can find myself overwhelmed by situations or emotions. I can get some peace and relief from that if I let myself be sort of a witness. A compassionate, loving witness that adores that part of myself that is believing and experiencing this thing.

What you're describing is all happening within you and your conception of a self that is just you. So you're dividing yourself into parts, and one part of you is talking to the other part of you.

You're taking your own hand. You're being compassionate to yourself. You're loving yourself. In this tradition, we would have something like, take God's hand.

Be immersed in God's love. Let God be your best friend. And that God is not different from the self. It is the essence of yourself. But it is not the small self being on its own trying to help itself feel better.

So I'm going to elaborate on this more in a minute, but I want to say before I do that, that there is in no way that any of the traditions that I've studied in reject anything that anyone does in any other tradition.

The traditions I've studied in Dzogchen and Trika Shaivism, and my guru, in no way teach that anything anyone else does is inferior or not helpful. So if this is helping you, I applaud it.

I'm not against it. I'm not trying to say what we're doing is superior. But it is very significantly different.

For instance, if you were in that condition where you were feeling you were a horrible person, one of the things we might do would be to go into the heart space, which is called also the cave of the heart. Where it's easy for us or easier for us to contact that big Self, the Self that everything is made of, what has been called the friend.

And we do a lot of practices related to the heart space. That vast intelligence and compassion. Our heart space is just a symbol or an access point for the heart everywhere, for the compassion everywhere.

We would access that. And let ourselves become more immersed in that. We're not trying to do this all on our own. With this sense of like, I have all these different parts in this ipod and one part can be loving to the other part.

We have this sense that there is only one part. It's continuous in all of existence. And this sense of being separate is part of the game that's being played here. But we want to break out of that sense of being separate.

So what we're going to do when we feel horrible about things or ourself, is we're going to try to connect or reconnect or rediscover that continuity with the Self. Which is full of wisdom and full of virtue and full of compassion.

And which is our very best eternal friend. And which loves and is compassionate toward everyone and everything absolutely, utterly equally.

And which does not recognize that there is any fault in anything. We're trying to, for reals, not in an abstract way, not in a spiritual, holy-shmoly way, without any sense of having to believe in anything or have faith in anything.

We are trying to actually, palpably experience that living presence. Which is the Self, which is self-aware and which is absolutely raining down compassion on everything and everyone at every moment of every lifetime.

So we have sadhanas that we do to become more aware of this through our own senses of body, energy, and mind. So that eventually we can just live immersed in this vast Self without any separation between ourselves and that.

The sense of separation that you're describing is really what makes what you're saying radically different from what I was saying. Even though some of the words might be the same.

We have something called transmission. It's this idea that the Self, the Self, our essence nature that is everywhere, is available to be known. To be experienced. To be in conversation with everywhere.

There's this notion that by being with someone who is in contact with or does have an experience of continuity with this, that there's an alchemy that can take place where you can possibly experience this also for yourself. Because that's your real nature.

It's just this magic that happens not for everyone in the same way. But this is why we have satsang and why we gather together so much in this kind of a tradition.

So we're really trying to have an actual, real, undoubtable perception of this Self, our own nature, and then go deeper into it and recognize more and more what it really is.

What does wisdom mean?

Wisdom is when we want the best for everyone. Even when people are mean to us or we don't like them for some reason. We still in our hearts, we want the best for them.

And then our actions have wisdom and we're wise people. We continue to feel love for people and want the best for them, regardless of how they are. That's wisdom.


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