“I” is The Obstacle

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"I" is The Obstacle

What is the obstacle to discovering Ultimate Truth?

There is a beautiful Sūfi poem in Hindī:

Ek Bastu, Ek Biṁb Hai
Main Dono Ke Bīc (Beech)
Jab Main, Main Se chūṭ Gayā
Sāhib Rahyo Samīj

Translation

Everything is one. All matter is the same. When we look behind all matter, still, existence is one.
Because I am here surrounded by all matter, when “I” look at it, everything looks different,
But when I come out of the grip of the “I” (ego)
Only God, pure existence, remains there in front of me.

What exactly is this poet talking about?

We can’t see the forest for the trees!
There is only one truth. Everything else in the world is just “matter”. Matter; that, quite frankly, doesn’t matter. Essentially, all matter is the same. Things may look, smell, taste, sound, or feel different from one another, but that is just because our senses are limited. When everything is distilled down to its pure essence, everything is exactly the same. To put it simply, everything is energy.
Because we are surrounded by matter and we depend on our senses and mind to experience our surroundings, everything we see around us seems to be unique. Even when we try to look more closely, dissect what we see, and examine the components of our surroundings, everything looks different. Through our senses we cannot identify the oneness that surrounds us. It is only when we allow ourselves to separate ourselves from our mind and our senses and experience the world through our TRUE self, the Ātman, self, that we can see that everything is part of the same oneness. And it is at that time that we can see and understand that this Oneness, this same existence, is God; Ānand ; Bliss; Truth.
The mind doesn’t even have the ability to register Oneness, because the mind can only see things in parts. The mind is just like a computer screen. It actually creates thoughts and images in a similar way to putting together millions of pixels. So because of this, the mind is always dissecting everything that it gets from the senses into pieces, labeling those pieces, and filing them in our database for future reference. This is the job of the mind, and it serves a very useful purpose in our day-to-day existence!
What we all need to remember is that fact that you are NOT your mind. Every person is a unique soul, a pure soul that is temporarily occupying a particular body and mind. When you can learn to separate your true Ātman self from your body and mind, you can begin to experience this Oneness.
This is what is meant by removing the “I”. This is in reference to the “I” that we imagine ourselves to be; our ego. When we remove the ego, remove the mind, and remove the body, then all that remains is the observer, the experiencer, the pure soul: the Ātman self.
Therefore, everything that you think of as “yours” is not yours. If you are holding “your pen,” you are not “a pen”; you are yourself, and you possess a pen which is a separate entity. The same is true when you talk about your mind and body! So when you remove everything that can be declared as “yours” (which as we’ve seen is not synonymous with “you”), then you are left with the Ātman self. This is your true ‘I’. It’s simple deductive reasoning!
So what the author is saying in his poem is that everything is one, but being entrenched in the worldly matter that surrounds him, he interprets everything as being different. But when he removes the ego and mind from his true existence, all that remains is the Oneness that is God or Ultimate Truth.

Swarūpa- Your Inner Form

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Swarūpa- Your Inner Form

Your inner form is called swarūpa. Nothingness is the true form of our nature as human beings. Because our nature is nothingness, it means that there is nothing there. Our true form is always in a very peaceful, or paramaśānt, state. Vices are all a result of thought. We need a tool that can help us manage and control our thoughts. That tool is meditation. If we did not need to learn how to control our thoughts, we wouldn’t need meditation. Meditation is a system that can help you rediscover your true form, your true swarūpa. How can this be done?
You unknowingly lost your swarūpa. This is because of ignorance. Let’s investigate these concepts more deeply.
Because of ignorance, you live in a state of “doing” rather than a state of “being”, and because of this, your ego comes into play. Because of ego comes attachment, because of attachment comes greed, and because of greed comes anger, and as a result, we wrap ourselves in negative layers like a cocoon. Your paramaswārūpa, your true form, gets covered by all of these layers, and this is the root of suffering.
Because of ego, there exists duality. You perceive Nature and Creator as different, while in actuality they are one. Nature is the body of the creator. Everything that you see, you see as nature, or as matter. But you need to see the pure existence behind the matter! But you don’t know how to see nature as a pure existence. Rather, you see things as separate, confined by names and forms. Because of this approach of looking at things, all forms of the same true existence appear differently. The question is: How does one go back and recognize their own True form? Somehow, we have become detached from our true form. How do you mentally shift from a “doer” state to a “viewer” state?
The connection we have to our minds is the main limitation. The mind by nature is limited because it is matter; because it is matter, it has no capacity to unite with a limitless state. Mind, in the sense used here, is the same as the “ego”. We understand our mind through thoughts, thoughts produced by our ego ‘I’. This is what creates confusion. You are considering your ego ‘I’ as your real ‘I’, your real Self, True Self, or ātman Self. But this is false. That eternally peaceful divine Self that you want to experience is there, but you have to make an effort to come out from the ‘I’ that is ego. One way to do this is through deductive reasoning. By removing everything that you are NOT, you can isolate the True you. I am not the body. I am not the mind. I am not ‘thoughts’. I am not ‘breath’. Whatever you can say is “mine” can not be the True Self.
Just like a tree, the True form may be obscured behind all of the branches and leaves. All of these little branches and leaves will shed and regrow and change, but they are not the Real tree. You have to look at what is behind everything.
It’s as if you are learning and playing tabla compositions in Teentāl / Tīntāl (16 beats). If you just learn the compositions, your focus will only be on the mechanics of the music and you will not understand what is behind them. If you want to have a deeper experience, you will understand that there is one continuous nāda behind it. [pure sound] That is the True beauty of teentaal. The composition is like a movie playing on the screen that is nāda. We have a habit of focusing on the moving pictures projected on the screen rather than the actual screen itself. The screen is what is real. This habit is due to ignorance. If you learn to see the screen, your mental confusion will lessen. The films may change––today’s Tīntāl is tomorrow’s rūpak taal (7 beat rhythm cycle)––but the screen always remains the same.
The screen that remains the same is akin to your True Self. However, we focus all of our attention on our thoughts which are always changing. Often, we are not even aware that there is a screen! The mind is like a factory of mass produced thoughts. These thoughts have you running here and there in search of worldly pleasures. And because of ignorance, you perceive your thoughts as part of a sequence. But thoughts are not actually moving in sequence. Rather, they are still frames played in sequence. In between all of these thoughts, or all of these still frames, are small spaces of nothingness. That gap is where you need to focus. If you focus on these gaps, you can see the screen. This is the place where your Self is sitting forever. As you learn to focus on the gaps rather than on the illusion of a continuous sequence, over time, you’ll no longer focus on the moving pictures. If there are no pictures, then you are in a paramaśānt state.
It is only because of habit that we look at the pictures and fail to see the gap or the screen. Once you can train yourself to have a habit of focusing on the gap, you will no longer see the pictures. This is the process for coming out from the grip of the mind and reconnecting with the True Self.
When you come out from the grip of your Ego I state, you will immediately connect with the True I state that is a viewer state, not a doer state. The viewer state is there by default, but the cloud of your Ego ‘I’ is covering it with a dark shadow. This prevents you from seeing your True ‘I’. As you remove that cloud, you will be showered in the light of your True Existence, your True Self. And the nature of that True Self is ānand . This is where you find pure bliss.
When we do the experiment of neti, which means the deductive reasoning of what you are not, what do we find? When we take away everything that is not I, it allows us to find the True I. But it can never take you farther than “I am not my breath”. Why will it never take it beyond your breath? Because our intellect cannot go further than the breath. The process of neti is dependent on your intellect which is what is saying “I am not this, I am that.”
So with your intellect, you can deny everything that is not “you” until you get to your breath. But when you state that you are not your breath, the ‘I’ that makes that statement is the Ego, and that Ego will remain. The thought of your Ego ‘I’ is the first thing that corrupted you when you began in your True Form. That must be the first thought of your Ego ‘I’. And from that Ego ‘I’ come all your other thoughts. When you reach the last level of your Ego ‘I’, what needs to be done? You have to understand where that ego came from.
So we know that only the Ego ‘I’ remains, so how do we get rid of that? In order to do that we need to understand where it came from and how it was created.
Was it created in the brain? No. It was born in your heart. The first thought always comes from the heart – not the physical heart, but the Mind Heart. Today’s science is beginning to speak a lot about the Mind Heart. So the first thought of your Ego ‘I’ was born in your Mind Heart. We get confused by words and semantics, and because of words, we don’t know how to see things properly. You may think that Existence is Truth and that the world is māyā . At the same time, you say that whatever exists has existence and is Truth. This means that the whole concept of your māyā came from nothing. If you just see each and every creature as a being with Existence, then it is no longer māyā. If you see each creature as matter, then it remains as māyā. This duality comes from ignorance. Otherwise there is no point to have two names for the same things. Everything is pure existence; Oneness. But because of ignorance, you have made everything into two; Duality.

Death (Lecture Excerpt)

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Death (Lecture Excerpt)

Death is a mystery for human beings. Man always tries his best to understand death. All religions, scriptures, and philosophers have struggled to understand death. The failure to understand death is the reason we fear it.
The man who believes in rebirth has a fear of death and the man who does not believe in rebirth also has a fear of death.
We have always viewed death with fear. We need to change that attitude. Once you change your attitude towards death, it will no longer be a feared subject. We fear death because it is not an experience of this life. In fact, it is the beginning of a new life.
The way you end your present life is very much connected to the way you begin your new life. If you end this life in fear, your next life will begin with that fear. For death and life are the two banks of the same river.
If we don’t understand why we have a fear of death, that fear will not cease. The topic of death is a very serious topic. Society stands upon the fear of death. Man is always trying to ignore death.
There are four pillars of philosophy: wonder, doubt, criticism, and death. Greek philosophers consider wonder as the primary source of philosophy. Decartes considered doubt to be the primary source. Philosophers like Kant consider criticism as the primary source of philosophy. Death is also considered the primary source of a vast number of philosophies.

The Secret for Growth

The Secret for Growth

It is always my wish and prayer that my students and all those that I know will grow with each passing year. As we begin 2010, I would like to share a small story that illuminates a secret for growth, whether in your spiritual life, professional life, or personal life.
Tānsen had been appointed as a musician in Akbar’s court. In his times, to become a court musician was a major accomplishment. You were given immense resources – a palace to live in, an elephant to move around on, etc. It was a musician’s dream. Upon receiving this news, he made the long journey to visit his Gurū Swāmī Haridās deep in the forest. After sharing the news, he bowed at the feet of his teacher and sought his blessings.
“I am very happy that you have accomplished so much. Always stay like this,” his Gurū said, “if you want to continue to grow.”
Tansen rose and asked him to explain.
“Observe the posture of one seeking to climb a mountain. He is always leaning forward, keeping his head bowed. Observe the posture of one going down a mountain. He stands tall with his chest out. If you want to reach great heights, you must keep your head bowed and keep your ego in check. When you stand tall, you will no longer be able to go higher.”
Tansen got the message.

Mantra (Lecture Excerpt)

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Mantra (Lecture Excerpt)

Mantra is a sound formula. It is a vibratory composition. Commonly people understand stutis and ślokas as mantras, but real mantras do not carry any dictionary words.
A mantra is just a sound graph.
There are three types of mantras,: female, male and eunuch. Each type of mantra creates its own effect.
What will you realize by mantra? First, it will take you out of the torments you suffer from due to your thoughts and you will have a new vision. The new vision will be that the cosmos is not anything but Śiva and Śaktī; sat and cit; station and motion.

State of Today’s Indian Classical Music Concerts

State of Today’s Indian Classical Music Concerts

A musician needs two types of people in the audience – those who really understand the depth of the music and those who may not understand its full depth, but offer financial support for the musician.
Commercial music concerts of Indian classical music have changed over the last two to three decades. On the good side, it is becoming more financially possible to be a classical musician; on the bad side, audiences with a deep understanding of music are decreasing.
There was a time when the first five rows of commercial concerts were reserved for people who deeply understood music. Rich people in suits and expensive Kurtās were actually seated behind these rows. Only then did the artist get into the mood to play real music because there were people who understood it.
I remember one concert that happened in Ahmedabad 20-30 years ago. It was a concert of a well-known musician who was travelling abroad. A short time into the concert, the audience had stopped the concert. Five people were on stage. They asked the musician not to play Palṭās. If he was to play, he had to play real music or there was no need for the concert. This was the strength of the audience. There was no room for gimmicks. The audience understood Indian classical music and did not accept anything less than true playing.
Today, things have changed. Today, in many commercial concerts, the financial supporters, who often do not have a very deep understanding of music, are the ones who occupy the front rows, while those who understand music, the students and connoisseurs, end up sitting in some corner. The demand for high-quality has decreased, and the artist consequently does not play that kind of music because it is not expected of him.
You can clearly see the changes in commercial concerts. Commercial concerts of a single artist used to begin at 8pm and end at least 3-4 hours later. Now, they finish in a span of 45 – 90 minutes. The ālāp alone used to last 1 – 2 hours. Now, we hear perhaps a 5 minute ālāp and 2-3 Rāgas in that time period. This is not necessarily because the artist is incapable of performing a long concert. In the younger generation, there might not be as many who can (as the concert demand has changed), but we still do have artists who can perform these “real” concerts. However, the general audience is not ready or trained to listen to and enjoy these concerts.
The training of an audience will not happen overnight. It requires regular exposure to high-quality musicians. Those who have an understanding should not be afraid to demand high-quality music, while those who are developing an understanding should not simply accept whatever the market is giving them to be the best.
The development of an audience takes time and commitment, but if it is not done, there will be a very small chance of hearing a real Indian classical music concert in the future.

Rhythm in Plants, Laya in Everything

Rhythm in Plants, Laya in Everything

I always tell my students that music has to be digested. Laya (variations of rhythm) has to become a part of you. The experience that one gets when music becomes a part of their being is incredibly beautiful.
Today, I was re-designing the layout of my garden. I have over 200 potted plants in my garden. As I worked with my gardener to sort out the plants, I was examining each of my plants and was mesmerised by the rhythm that each plant had.
Each plant was unique, each had its own laya. One had a straight branch that had three offshoots at the end; in it I saw ādi-laya. On another plant, there were seven leaves, a flower, and then seven leaves again; in it I could see a laya of 8 beats. The leaves represented the laya and the flower represented the sum. The cycle of 7 (leaves) came to the sum (flower) and continued on. Each branch of one of my palms was split into 13. The plant had a laya of 13. In this way, I saw the rhythm in each plant.
Everything has its own natural rhythm. The disruption of natural rhythm leads to things breaking down, but when something runs in its natural rhythm, it is in harmony with itself, with its surroundings, and with nature.
Music and rhythm are to be digested. When it is, one can see it in everything.

Finding a Tablā Teacher

Finding a Tablā Teacher

Today, a young man and his father came to my music school. The son wanted to take tabla lessons at our institute because he had been referred to me by a music friend of mine. At Rhythm Riders, we take very few new local students as a measure of quality control. I told him this, yet the father persisted in saying that his son wanted to learn more seriously. His son had been learning from someone else for 4 years, but now, finding a tabla teacher who could take him forward was very important. I could see that the boy was talented and very interested in music, so I conceded and gave him a chance to play.
Once our general class had thinned out, I called the boy to me with a pair of Tablā. On one hand, what happened saddened me, yet on the other hand, invoked no response, as I had seen this so many times over the years.
The boy’s basic hand was incorrect, meaning that his hand placement and movement to play basic bols was incorrect. Four years of carelessness or incompetence on the part of his teacher, and now, the boy had potentially formed bad habits that were irreversible. If I were to have taken this boy as a student at our school, we would first ask him to forget everything he has been taught and start from the absolute basics. But even with that extreme measure, it wouldn’t guarantee the development of a perfectly set hand (like those of students who start their training with us), as it is near impossible to forget what has become ingrained in the hands over the course of 4 years.
This scene is not new to me. I have experienced it time and time again. The lack of effort and research that is put into finding a Tablā teacher both saddens me and angers me.
Indian classical music has the potential to spiritually uplift the musician and the listener. It is a vidyā (art/ knowledge) whose learning is said to carry forth from one birth to the next. It has the ability to heal and empower and do so much more, yet when someone seeks to learn this art, they often spend less time on finding a teacher than they do on buying a shirt.
For example, I have seen people start learning from a particular teacher simply because their neighbour also learns from them. They start without asking any questions and doing any research. When we choose what school to send our child to, we look at the quality of the education, the caliber of its graduates, etc, so why don’t people do the same for training in Indian classical music?
Quality should not be excused for the sake of convenience. I understand that in today’s day and age, time is viewed as an increasingly limited commodity, but does that extra 30 minute drive take precedence over you losing the opportunity to reach a certain level of mastery? (Recall the young boy I mentioned at the start, who now has a very low chance of learning from a genuine Tablā teacher because his hand is damaged).
The caliber and qualifications of a teacher are crucial considerations. One does not necessarily have to begin learning from a maestro. (In fact, most maestros do not take beginner students. They only take on new students once a certain level of competency is displayed). Maestro or no maestro, one has to look at the level of competency the teacher has in their own playing and/or knowledge. The caliber of a teacher can be gauged by the caliber of his students. If a teacher does not have any (or very few) students that play well or have a good grasp of the art, this is clearly a reflection of the teacher’s poor skills.
An often overlooked question – How long have they been learning?
In my years abroad, I have seen countless Tablā players come to me who learnt Tablā? in India (or elsewhere) for a few years (most likely, not seriously but as a hobby) and then migrated abroad. One of the first things they do upon migration is teach Tablā. Why? Because with a few hours of work in the evening, they can cover their basic expenses at the least. To me, this is an absolute crime. They are not necessarily even qualified performers, let alone qualified teachers. But they do it and get away with it because they can find the students – people who did not do their research and decided to learn from the person closest to them.
How long have they been teaching? If they don’t have many years of experience, do they have someone who is monitoring their teaching? Teaching Indian classical music is not an innate capability, but one that has to be developed.
Who did they learn from? If they have learned from 5 unrelated teachers in a period of 3 years, a question should arise in terms of the teacher’s grounding in the art as their own learning has been “all over the place”.
Is there a potential for growth? Once you have reached a certain level, can you access a more knowledgeable teacher – for example, the teacher of your teacher? This question is particularly important if you are considering learning Indian classical music seriously. The concept of lineage loyalty, while diluted, still exists to a certain degree.
It is important to note here also that a great performer is not necessarily an equally qualified teacher. Teaching and performing require different qualities to be successful. For example, the smartest student in the class may not be the best tutor. Well-renowned artists also pose a general disadvantage to the student with regards to time.
Time and level of attention or love are also important considerations. How much face to face time will your teacher give you? A frequent performer may not be able to sit with you every week, but when they do sit with you, do they give you their full attention with love and affection? The feelings of love and affection are very important in Gurū- śiśya paramparā, which is the way that Indian classical music is supposed to be taught. Also, if the teacher is not able to give you regular attention, does a senior student of his/her sit with you on a regular basis? Regular contact/supervision is important, as that is the only way to prevent bad habits from developing. I know of many people who took lessons for some time and then practiced on their own for a period of time. That unsupervised practice led to damage in their hands because no one was correcting them.
The level of supervision must also be considered. Even if you sit with a teacher regularly, are you being corrected or simply given more and more material and minimal corrections? By watching videos of maestros, even a beginner, without understanding the complicated patterns, can get a sense of basic practices. You can see how basic notes are played, where hand placement is, etc. For example, in terms of tabla, you can get an idea of how Tīntāl is played, as it is played with similar movements by all maestros, regardless of gharānā. You can make out the difference between tin and tun just by watching videos.
For Tablā students, you can find countless videos of maestros in order to get an understanding of basic bols and hand positioning. I call this “standard playing”. Some names include: Ustad Allarakha (Abbaji), Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Swapan Chauduri, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, Pandit Sharda Sahai and many more.
There are many other things one can consider, but I have covered the major points here. In short, learning Indian classical music or any vidyā is a lifelong journey that can open up many beautiful worlds. When embarking on this journey, your guide or teacher is of utmost importance, so do take the task of deciding upon a teacher seriously. Please do your research and find a good teacher. A good teacher can unlock the doors to these beautiful worlds. A bad teacher can potentially bar the chances of the doors to these worlds opening. If a good teacher is not available to fit your convenience, I would not suggest learning that instrument or art form at that time from a substandard teacher. At the same time, once you have found a teacher, it is your responsibility as a student to follow their instructions very carefully. Carelessness on the part of the student also leads to poor or slow results.

Self- Realization (Lecture Excerpt)

Self- Realization (Lecture Excerpt)

Man is alienated from himself. He has become that which he is not and that creates confusion. This confusion is the biggest hurdle to his spiritual growth.
Before he begins his struggle to realize God, he must first realize himself.
When man realizes his own self, he will automatically find a way to realize the paramtattva – Supreme Reality. That experience will drive him to realize paramānand – Divine Bliss. But you have to prepare yourself for Divine Bliss.
The problem is that man leads two lives – an external life and an internal life. Compared to what he does in his external life, he does three times more activity in his inner life. As such, his real life is his inner life. Every moment, you have to choose, make a decision. Generally, this decision is taken by your mind. Until you realize the difference between the mind and the self, there will be continual conflict between the two. This is why self-realization is so important.

A Mango Tree

A Mango Tree

There was a full-grown tree, a mango tree. It was standing alone, being nice to everyone. One day, a young child from a nearby colony came to play under the tree. The tree fell in love with the child at first sight. The tree was happy watching the child play in its full innocence. After some time, the child returned home. Once he was gone, the tree happily recounted the memory of the child and waited for him to return.
The next day, when the child returned to play, the tree bowed down its branches to reach the child so that the child could eat mangos. Love blossoms between a “big” person (be it of age, fame, wealth, or size) when the big person does not see a difference between others and themselves. (Moral: love teaches you to bow down and surrender, regardless of one’s size, stature, or importance.) The child too fell in love with the tree. Slowly, he began to climb the tree, hug the tree, and sleep in the branches of the tree. In this way, the tree and child happily spent time together.
But naturally, the child began to grow. It started going to school and had less time to spend with the tree. The tree was still happy, the child was growing and learning. The tree only wanted the child’s presence, no other expectations. He found contentment in the smaller periods of time they spent together.
As the child continued to grow, his studies increased. He began to spend even less time with the tree, but occasionally he still would come to see the tree. Again, the tree was happy. The child was growing. During mango season, he would keep the best mangoes to give to the child. (Moral: real love always delights in the beloved’s growth.)
The child continued to grow and became a young man. He fell in love with a woman and stopped coming to see the tree. The tree would wait patiently, thinking of the day when the boy would come and sit on its branches, but the boy did not come for a few months. Once, the tree saw the boy passing on a nearby road.
He called out to him. “I am always waiting for you. Why don’t you come to see me?” he said to the boy.
His answer shocked the tree, “Why should I come to see you? What will you give me?”
The tree replied, “I’m ready to give you everything.”
“Can you give me a million dollars?,” the boy responded.
“Money is a human invention, I cannot give you that. I can give you everything I have: my fruit, my flowers, cool shade, peace, my branches to sit on, a place to be at one with nature – everything I have. The day that trees have money, that day, we too will have to sit in the temples or search the world to find peace.”