Thursday, 12 April 2012

In Search of a Guru

Guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
With the project complete and my body healing from the latest round of illnesses, I was eager to move on. Auroville had been an incredible experience for me but the heat of south Indian summer was beginning to be unbearable. One of the most important lessons I had learned in Sadaha Forest was to understand and take care of my own needs. The other I learned at the Shiva temple: the importance of creating space, a gap for the universe to manifest. Up to this point I had committed to a plan to continue to travel north India with Liz. Post Sadhana, something was telling me to go it alone. So I took a deep breath, wrote her a long email setting out my intention to take a solo, unscheduled path up through India for the remaining time I had. I already knew that too much planning equated to too much ‘control’ over the situation - entirely in contrast to the ‘surrendering’ purpose of my trip. And it had already been proven to me that if I stepped back, released the reigns and allowed the universe space, it would provide me with everything I needed.

Then along came Lynda.

Lynda posing in our little bedsit
A fellow Sadhana volunteer, this beautiful creature first came to my attention in one of the community sharing circles where she had described a delightful example of living in the moment – watching dragonflies flitting on the surface of the pool. I felt kinship with her in the forest and now that she was out she had found me and Sunshine. I had previously felt called to go to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s ashram, having discovered quite by chance a book of his words in Jaisalmer and been told that I would love the Art of Living, way back in the Sivananda ashram . Lynda was also compelled to go and so we met in Bangalore.

All dressed up for Sri Sri
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s ashram is way out on the outskirts of the city so we took a room in the nearby house of a local Indian man.  It was an interesting dynamic – he slept outside in the communal area and had no respect for our privacy whatsoever, wandering in and out of the bedroom despite whatever de-robed state we may be in, even clambouring aboard the bed to fix the fan while I slept. You have to love Indian concepts of personal space. Keen to see the ashram and attend one of its legendary satsangs, Lynda and I made our way to the vast grounds on our first evening there. We were greeted with large scale sculptures of swans, a meditation hall in the shape of a many tiered wedding cake and the obligatory devotees wandering around in white. Disturbingly, several of these men had started an interesting physical transmogrification in taking on the physical attributes of the Guru. This meant that we kept seeing Sri Sri lookalikes everywhere wandering around the Disneyland esque dreamscape. At times I felt as if I could be in a David Lynch movie.

The concert of 1,000 veenas
That first night we were coerced into taking an ‘Art of Living’ course but it didn’t go smoothly. In order to take advantage of the cheaper rates (the ashram-stay courses were in in excess of $200), we had to commute into the city. Cue enormous amounts of stress, the obligatory rip-off by rickshaw drivers and a physically exhausting late night journey that culminated in us trudging along the busy roadside in pitch dark, avoiding the blare of buses and trucks. Our patience was worn down to the thinnest thread. We both agreed that the stress of the commute outweighed any happiness of doing the course and resolved to get out of it. 

Close up of the veena players
But in order to extricate ourselves from the course, we had to contend with the self-righteous and rather pushy attitude that I have come to realise characterises guru worshippers. We engaged in several length and exhausting conversations with one volunteer in which he tried every trick to pursuade us to stay on the course. Ignoring his pleas we instead negotiated another ridiculous 3hr trek across town to watch a music concert ; however, this time it was worth it. We got to see 1,000 veenas (one of the oldest stringed instruments in the world) being played simultaneously. And better still Sri Sri was there. Zephyr-like in white robes, he was ensconced on a throne at the top of the hall- but the minute we arrived he spirited himself away out of sight, evading our stares. We felt that he was teasing us.

Sri Sri in satsang
The unique musical experience, combined with our actual sighting of Sri Sri marked a turn of events for the better. The following day things began to run smoothly - I managed to procure a much-sought after train ticket up north. Lynda and I couldn't help thinking that we had been tested by Sri Sri and passed. He approved. On that day we were actually able to take darshan with him, which means that we met him face to face. After an hour or so queuing and sitting around with 1,000 other expectant Indians, Sri Sri was ushered out, surrounded by attendants who batted off the uber-devotional who  were assaulting him with a barrage of gifts. Unsure of the protocol, I simply bowed my head and allowed him to touch it with a white rose as he passed, saying 'Jai Guru Dev'. Lynda was much more fortunate. Kneeling quietly on the floor, she had touched his feet as he passed. As she did so she felt an electric current pass through her - afterwards when she looked at me her eyes were wide, astonished. She clasped both my hands in hers and I could feel the electric energy entering my hands. They stayed like that for the entire evening. Although I was sad that I had not managed to touch Sri Sri him myself, I was grateful for the divine experienced that I had received through Lynda. 

Inside the wedding cake: devotees in satsang
That night we dressed for satsang - making ourselves look gorgeous for the guru - as I'm sure many devotees have done before us! After the experience of feeling God through sri Sri's feet - my focus was sharper. I could see the beauty of the flowering bouganvillea in the pinky dusk of the setting sun. The world looked new and fresh again. Satsang in the meringue wedding cake building was a lovely experience. 

Sri Sri attended and, after our devotional singing, answered questions from devotees in a frank and open manner - translating his answers into Hindi, English and sometimes even Tamil. All of his words were succinct, perfectly appropriate and good humoured. He told us that we are all flames of light, it's just that sometimes we become covered in ash. The thing to do is to blow away the ash..."phooop!"...he pretended to effortlessly blow the ash away, in delight. When one man asked him: "why did god create the universe?" Sri Sri answered "why do we watch cricket?". " Entertainment" the man answered. Sri Sri shrugged, smiling. What a great answer - we all laughed. At the end of satsang, a wave of playfulness seemed to sweep over the guru as he danced out of the room - impishly and mischieviously... I might even go so far as to say it was camp! This is my favourite memory of that day and recalling it, I am suddenly grinning from ear t ear. For me that is what Sri Sri brings up in me - nothing but smiles, happiness, joy and peace. 

The wedding cake meditation hall in the Art of Living ashram
Although not a great deal actually happened in Bangalore, the effect of it was powerful. Once again my patience and tolerance levels were tested severely and I was proud of the way in which I handled several stressful situations with a new state of calm. In giving myself pause, I discovered a lot about myself. I realised that I was still undergoing healing from past relationships. The connection with Lynda was profound. Lots of things came up for us that was common ground and we whiled away many hours in the one little local cafeteria in the village, ruminating on life, relationships, books and our life journeys. It seemed to me another strange coincidence that Lynda hailed from America (as all of the people who I connected with deeply on this trip have) and we discussed the possibility of my visiting California, to undertake some organic farming (WOOFING) - another theme that keeps coming up. Was I being called there? 

I love the cake
Lynda had been newly initiated into the practice of guided meditation and so one day she led me in a session. I know this is about to sound strange, even to the most open-minded of readers, but please bear with me on this one. In spirit I met with various guides – including a Catholic priest from my childhood and Sir Paul McCartney who told me that I would meet a man called Steven – "writing abroad"...On my second day in Rishikesh, by total chance I met a man in the street named Steve – a journalist, writing abroad. Also a Shiva devotee, he loves khirtan and, like me, is an NVC graduate. We quickly formed a very special connection - not of the romantic variety, but Steven would become my 'sattvic' or spiritual travelling companion for the next 7 days. Yet another step in my journey, another pillar along the path. 

Sri Sri giving darshan - he is in focus, everyone else is blurred! 
And so it was, that, in the space of a week I felt God through a through a guru's feet, met one of the Beatles in spirit and had the most extraordinary affirmation of my spiritual 'abilities' in the form of a 49 year old Shaiavite. Dear god, what would the old Sophie say to all of this madness?? But there would be time for processing. By the banks of the holy Mother Ganga in Rishikesh, the home of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, appropriately enough. And so on that happy note, I'll leave you with one thought that reminds me of Sri Sri (and Sir Paul of course...) All together.. "all you need is love, da da da da daaa, all you need is love, da da da da daaa, all you need is love, love, love is all you need...." 


  1. hi..

    "vagabonding in the far east", "to search for a deeper means of fulfillment" ?? Why only India and not some other 'far-eastern' country as you call it.. and have you been able to 'find' happiness ??

  2. Hi Aman

    Thanks for your comments. I started in India as it had been a lifelong dream to go and as I got a six month visa I decided to make best use of the time. I'm now nearly 5 months in and tired - the season is ending and I have decided to go off to Nepal from here, to meet a man I met in Udaipur.. So as for the happy ending.. I'm not sure yet - watch this space! It is a journey after all. And thanks for bringing up the Far East reference. I wasn't sure of the terminology but thought that it sounded good! Any ideas on a definition? Next Eastern countries on the agenda are Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam. Keep in touch for my progress!


  3. Sophie! Your description of our experience really illuminates and honours the special time we had together! We really seemed to be jumping over some karmic hurdles, preparing us for some future chapters. As you have gone to Rishikesh (can't wait to read about that one and this auspicious 'steve'), I ended up doing the yoga vacation at Sivananda. I've found myself coming into a more positive state and going deeper and deeper in to contentment as many travellers tend to seek. Thinking about you often! Excited to see what happens next. XOX -Lynda

  4. My darling girl

    So great to hear from you, I have thought of you often, also! What did you think of Sivananda? And how was the Samadhi meditation? I have now completed vipassana - it stimulated me to question and challenge a lot of the ideas that I have been formulating in previous months. Would love to catch up with you again, where are you in the world now?

    I've put the Rishikesh blog online now so have a butchers and let me know what you think of the Steve connection! I did another guided meditation and was told I would meet a man called David. Of course I did, a few days later, on the way into vipassana, but he didn't seem to have much significance in my life. I passed the technique onto another girl (a Shaivite, of course) who was interested.

    Sri sri love

    Soph xx


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