Sharada’s November Update

The water is rushing in the creek and the pond is very full. The deer are eating the last of the windfall pears that lie outside the farm fence – and occasionally managing to get into the garden; the farm team is working on closing all possible entry points. Our program season is almost over and the Centre’s residential community will soon shrink as it does every winter. We are grateful for the amazing people who end up finding their way to the Centre as karma yogis. Thank you all! We couldn’t do this without you!

On the first of this month we held an appreciation dinner for Shankar to thank him for his commitment and service to the Centre over his four years as director. Over forty people came for the fabulous dinner prepared by the kitchen team, and stayed for the circle that followed. People shared their gratitude for the many ways Shankar has touched their lives. There were more toasts than roasts, along with a few jokes and songs. People were happy to hear Shankar isn’t going far away and will remain an important part of our satsang community.

We are delighted to welcome our new Centre director, Paramita Meredith Knox. Please read Greetings from the New Centre Director to learn more about her connection to Babaji and the Centre. Paramita has slid into life at the Centre with ease, having been welcomed by everyone and supported by Shankar in this transition. Given her familiarity with the workings of this community and her communication skills, honed by her years as a social worker, Paramita has a solid foundation to stand upon as she moves forward in her new role.

The Centre School will be holding its 29th annual Advent celebration of light on the 27th of this month. The school children walk, one at a time, youngest to oldest, through a labyrinth of cedar boughs and stars to light their candles from the one central candle while they and all the adults who are gathered – parents, grandparents and friends from the island community – sing songs of light. Usha, the school’s founder, who initiated this celebration in the first year of the school, continues to bring her special touch to the gathering as she leads everyone in song.

In the dark days of winter, may we all keep our candles lit, remembering that the light is always there. Keep on shining!

Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
Gotta keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
For this old world is almost done.

In peace,
Sharada

Greetings from the New Centre Director, Paramita Meredith Knox

Paramita

New Centre Director, Paramita

I feel so very honoured to be offered the position of Centre Director, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to serve in this capacity. My connection to the Centre began shortly after I moved to Salt Spring Island in 1994, as it did not take me long to find my way to the asana classes and occasionally to Sunday satsang. I have always felt very drawn to the beautiful, peaceful setting here, and to the wonderful people who make up the satsang.

In 2002, I was a student in the first Yoga Teacher Training program, an experience that deepened my yoga practice and strengthened my commitment to my spiritual path. I returned the next summer to assist with the second YTT and at that time became a student of Babaji. He gave me the name ´Paramita‘ and told me that it means limitless and vast, a name that challenges me to look beyond the obvious and to allow my spiritual practice to guide my life. I continued to assist with YTT each summer and moved to the Centre in 2004 as the Karma Yoga Program Coordinator. I stayed in this position for two seasons, when I left to explore my ancestral home of Iceland and discover the part of myself that is Icelandic.

My six-year stay in Iceland was an amazing journey of self-discovery, and my sadhana practice strengthened and supported me through the challenges of learning a new language and culture in a small, isolated town on the arctic circle. I return now to Salt Spring Island to be closer to my family, and to continue to serve my teacher and my satsang, as well as all of the seekers who are drawn to the teachings and practice of yoga offered at the Centre. I look forward to meeting and connecting with all of the satsang members.

Founding Member Feature: Shankar

Shankar, part of the Centre family

Was there a spiritual side to your life before meeting Babaji?

I was raised in England in an Irish Catholic family, and in my early teens began to immerse myself in various devotional practices of that tradition. However, after three years at a Christian Brothers school, I rejected formal Catholicism, and with it organized religion in general. Looking back at that period I see that the spiritual seeking took other forms such as non-Christian prayers and even the creation and use of a mantra, though I knew nothing of such things at that time. After emigrating to Canada in 1965, I went through the existential phase that was fashionable at the time, though it was always more agnostic than atheistic. In 1967 a friend asked if I was interested in taking up zen practice and took me to a series of early morning meditation sessions with Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a Japanese zen master, in one of the many unused warehouse buildings in Vancouver’s derelict Gastown. (Joshu Roshi, now 105 years old, is still the abbot of the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California.)

This seemed to have been the catalyst for an inner shift to a more positive outlook, and over the next few years I explored other spiritual paths and sat with various teachers such as Kirpal Singh, and also took a three-month intensive Sufi training in San Francisco. Shortly after that I met Girija (then Gwen) who shared my interest in natural foods, alternative medicine and spirituality. We spent time with a variety of spiritually-minded natural healers, including Dr. Christopher from Utah, Dr. Bernard Jensen from California, Norma Myers, a first nations herbalist and Ella Birzneck of the Dominion Herbal College. After many travels and adventures we arrived in 1973 at Swami Vishnudevananda’s ashram in Val Morin, Quebec, where we stayed for six months. We worked in the kitchen and also were very fortunate to be able to take the teacher training program with Swami Vishnu. There we met Janaki and Ragunnath who were also to come under Babaji’s influence in the following years.

Shankar and Girija, summer 1974

We returned to BC and the following summer, 1974, Girija heard that Babaji was coming to Vancouver to visit Anand Dass and Ravi Dass, and we were fortunate enough to spend several weeks just hanging out with him. RD asked Babaji for names for us and that’s how we both got our Sanskrit names. We also attended our first New Year’s retreat at Camp Swig in California in 1974.

How did meeting Babaji change your life?

There were no dramatic experiences, rather a kind of love, respect and trust developed. That early group formed the core of what is now Dharma Sara. Most people have heard how DS evolved from there. Babaji told us that if we held a retreat the following summer (1975) he would come. We formed a loose group and tasks got distributed. With our experience cooking for large numbers at Dr. Jensen’s Health Center and at the Sivananda Ashram, Girija and I took on the task of overseeing all the kitchen activities. We were extraordinarily naïve. For example, this was a ten-day retreat with no pre-registration, people simply showed up – about 200 of them! Amazingly, everyone was well fed though our understanding of the sattvic diet was very basic (note from Babaji to Shankar: “Cut back on the onions!”). Despite the mud caused by nine days of rain, somehow everything worked out fine.

After that we opened a Centre on West Fourth Avenue in Vancouver and those of us who had completed teacher training taught the basic principles of ashtanga yoga. We continued to run the annual retreats and also opened Jai, a natural clothing store. Babaji then suggested that we buy land for a centre and the search was begun. We looked at land from Vancouver Island to the Okanagan, but had not found anything that everyone could agree on. After Girija and I went our separate ways, I had moved to Salt Spring Island in 1978 and in 1980 long-time friends Matthew and Phyllis Coleman mentioned a piece of land on Blackburn Road. Everyone including Babaji liked it so, with Jai helping make the payments, the land was purchased in 1981, and the work was begun.

Poster for yoga classes, about 1976

Around that time I moved back to the lower mainland to complete a PhD in Kinesiology at SFU and subsequently pursued an academic career, which took me to several western Canadian universities. During this period I kept in touch with Babaji and occasionally returned for the annual retreats. My last faculty position was at UBC and I took early retirement, bought a house on Salt Spring and moved there with my partner Vivian in 2001. Immediately Babaji told me to get more involved with the Centre and put me back on the DS Board. “We like to squeeze the oil out of retired people” he told me, somewhat ominously. Vivian had also retired from her accounting career and was soon working long hours at the Centre.

What was your impression of the Centre at that time, and how did you fit in?

It was a very busy place and like most charitable organisations, there always seemed to be a shortage of staff. Anuradha was the de facto Director and kept a close eye on most things. Abha was also a strong influence, albeit in subtle fashion. At that time, Babaji told me: “Abha is a power at the Centre.” Over time I became familiar with most areas of operation, with a particular interest in farming, building and maintenance. Under Kalpana’s guidance the Yoga Teacher Training Program began in 2002; I taught anatomy and physiology for the first five years and then moved more into yoga philosophy. Vivian continued her deep commitment to the Centre contributing her exceptional financial and organisational skills, her problem solving ability and her strong work ethic.

Due to complex circumstances that to this day are difficult to fully understand, Anuradha’s last year at the Centre, 2008, was a time of major change. In the middle of this Babaji asked me to serve as Director: “Look out for the Centre’s interest over self-interest,” was his main instruction. It proved very difficult and when I mentioned to Babaji how hard it was he simply said: “It is selfless service. I never told you it would be easy.”

Because of the long hours each day it proved difficult to maintain a private home as well, so moving to the Centre was the only feasible option. It quickly became clear that living at the Centre was very different from commuting there to work; indeed it is not possible to understand life at the Centre without spending some time living there.

How has your relationship with Babaji changed over the years?

The early years were definitely different. It was an extraordinary privilege to be able to spend time with Babaji then. He combined an unwavering commitment to yoga with a surprising playfulness, and so we learned easily from him. In those days he answered every letter that was written to him, even by strangers, and since he lived in California, this was the only way we had to communicate. Though he directed my sadhana, I did not write to him frequently and even after becoming Director I only occasionally felt it necessary to ask his advice. He invariably treated me graciously and was very supportive in difficult times.

Shankar with Babaji, 1975

I was attracted to the study of the Yoga Sutras because of my scientific training, but after some time Babaji directed me to study the Bhagavad Gita. Looking back, some of the best memories are those times spent reading the chalk board at Gita class. Again, Babaji was very gracious, overlooking my errors and poor Sanskrit pronunciation; it seemed that just sitting beside him was enough to deepen spiritual understanding. It could be disconcerting too, as Babaji had demonstrated on a few occasions his ability to read thoughts, so around him one had to be quite conscious of the content of the mind.

In spiritual matters Babaji was usually simple and clear. In the very early days he had said to me: “Your path is jnana yoga.” It seemed exotic and special, which appealed to the ego, but the truth was that I had no idea what this meant. Only much later did I begin to understand the different paths of yoga. Once someone asked him: “What is the difference in the relationship between a guru and two of his devotees, one on the path of jnana, the other on the path of bhakti?” He replied: “The bhakta surrenders, the jnani understands.” This was very helpful, and as part of this understanding Babaji helped me discard many complicated ideas to reveal the utter simplicity of spiritual truth. Some may see Babaji’s main teaching as karma yoga, while others may point to his devotional side, but Babaji is equally at home with the path of knowledge, and teaches that the other paths lead to jnana.

As you now step down from the role of Centre Director, what are your thoughts about the last few years, and how will your life change?

Looking back, the aspect of Centre life for which I am most grateful has been the opportunity to share life with so many wonderful selfless young people. Many thanks to all of them but also to those longer term karma yogis whose contributions have been considerable but perhaps less easy to see. Noteworthy among these is Vivian whose contribution to these changes is difficult to overstate.

In recent years I have sacrificed time with family and friends because of the all-consuming nature of the task at the Centre; I hope to make amends for that. It has been a year of great change, of letting go of major parts of my life. This has left a peacefulness of the mind and a deep sense of contentment. There are no concrete plans for the future and I am enjoying the spaciousness of life. But, there is still some oil left to be squeezed out, so probably some work will present itself, and I am curious to see how it all unfolds.

Shankar competes in the 2011 Hanuman Olympics

How to Live from The Yellow Book, the sayings of Baba Hari Dass

Babaji, 1975

When someone asked Babaji a question about the right way to live, he said, by lessening our demand, adding that demand increases desires and desires make demand, which creates dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction makes pain. I don’t say cut your demands altogether. There are some essential demands to live in this world, like food, clothing, place to live, friends, etc. A carpenter can’t work without his tools.

Nobody wants to live in pain, and to live in peace we need four important things: 1) equality, 2) contentment, 3) right thinking and 4) good association.

Equality means to keep the mind in balance while getting sensual pleasure or pain – or we could say, remaining equipoised in any situation, no matter what happens. It also means to deal with others equally without having any selfish motive, recognizing that we all are one though in different shapes and forms like a potter makes different kinds of pots but the clay is the same. The intention is to remain unattached while living in society.

“Unattached” is not something we usually think of as a positive thing, so let’s look at it more closely. It does not mean keeping one’s distance from others, being unfeeling or uncaring. Rather, it means being unattached to having things turn out the way we want them to. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t; can we remain at peace either way?

Contentment means to be okay with what is. Neither desire anything for your enjoyment nor reject a thing which is already coming to you. Enjoy it as it is. What if what is coming to us is not safe or does not promote our well-being? Does this teaching mean we simply have to be content with it and not do anything? The answer goes back to what Babaji said earlier, that there are some essential demands, or what might be called life-serving needs or values. These include safety and well-being. We do not become resigned (and possibly resentful); instead we are free to make wise choices when we accept what is, in this moment. In another darshan Babaji told someone, You know you can’t have a younger body. You can accept this fact either painfully or cheerfully.

Right thinking means truthful thinking, and asking “Who am I?” It is contemplating how the illusion of the world is growing inside me. One who thinks on this never gets attached to any person, place or thing. ‘Not getting attached to any person, place or thing’ does not mean leaving relationships or avoiding society. It’s an internal practice, regardless of where we live and what our work in the world is. We can take care of all of our responsibilities in the world while remaining focused on our aim of living in peace. When we do that, all our relationships benefit. Babaji instructs us to be in the world but not of the world.

Good association means keeping the company of those people who are trying to be free from the illusion of this world created by the eight chains which have bound the jiva (the individual self) to this ignorance. 

The eight chains are: 1) fame, 2) attachment, 3) affection, 4) hate, 5) suspicion, 6) fear, 7) timidity and 8) reproach. When these chains are broken, then the jiva gets eternal peace. It’s difficult but we have to practice it because we want to live in a right way.

Babaji has said that fame is the biggest trap and the hardest to get free from. Why? Because our egos thrive on praise and adulation. We tend to think of fame as something that only celebrities deal with, but it’s not so. Fame doesn’t have to be on a grand scale to dig in its talons. We love being recognized and praised for something we happen to be good at – and we take ownership of it. It’s a golden chain because it’s so alluring, so we have to watch these minds of ours closely.

Attachment can come in different forms. We can be attached to things, to our partners and families and to our identities. It’s very easy to fool ourselves by calling our attachment love. There may very well be love there, but love is unconditional whereas attachment has specific requirements: Love is open and flows from our hearts with no strings attached; attachment says, (although perhaps not so blatantly): Here’s the deal. I love you, but this is how I want you to be and what I want you to do………(fill in the blank), and if that changes, the deal is off. Of course this is a very big and complex topic –we need boundaries and agreements in relationships, otherwise we cannot function well in the world. As Babaji says, philosophy is not practicality!

Attachment to our identity is very subtle because we’re often not aware of it. The big test comes with death. How attached are we then? Regular sadhana can help prepare us for this transition.

Why is affection on the list? Isn’t affection a good thing? Affection supports healthy relationships, and Babaji talks frequently about developing positive qualities, so why is it one of the chains? It’s difficult to separate affection from attachment, and may be seen as one face of attachment, yet with its own flavour. It is problematic when it becomes obsessive or causes us to create attachment to some and separation from others.

Hate of anyone or anything clearly separates us from others, except perhaps for those who agree with us. We can feel so self-righteous! The one who hates another is convinced of his own rightness, naturally making the other wrong. That kind of rigid thinking harms us more than it harms the other because it seals us off in our private compartment of negativity and suffering.

Suspicion is a variant of both fear and hate. Living with a lack of trust, one is alone and fearful of what might happen. It brings pain from the past into the present, where one may suffer from a sense of scarcity, and be constantly on the lookout for enemies. Suspicion manifests visibly in the political arena, but it can also show up in our day-to-day lives on a smaller scale. Whether global or personal, suspicion is a kind of poison that keeps us from connecting honestly with others.

Fear shows itself in thousands of forms, from stage fright all the way to fear of death. In fact, all fear is based on the fear of death. All the little ego deaths – when someone criticizes us or even looks at us in a funny way, doesn’t answer our emails or phone calls, forgets our birthdays – bring up fear. ‘Does that mean the other person doesn’t like me?’ We may feel angry – even assuming it’s the other person’s fault – but that’s another face of fear – defending these egos that are terrified of extinction.

Timidity is a variant of fear, but it has its own flavour that distinguishes it from fear in general. Timidity is an attitude of walking through life in fear of making a mistake. When we are afraid to make mistakes – or be seen to be doing something wrong – we are less likely to stand up for our convictions. ‘What if someone doesn’t like what I say? Maybe I shouldn’t say anything.’ This timidity keeps us trapped, afraid to speak up for what’s important to us.

Reproach means expressing disapproval, judging someone as wrong. The damage comes from seeing ourselves as better than the other person, judging the person rather than the deed. It is speaking to another from a place of superiority, and therefore hurts both the speaker and the one hearing the words of blame. In both cases, the result is separation.

All these chains, whether obvious or subtle, bind us in our illusory reality, and the goal of spiritual practice is to wake up from that illusion.