Photo: Howie Le
Years ago, when I first started walking the spiritual path, I had the fortune of spending 10 days in silent meditation with my teacher.
The retreat was located deep in the forested mountains behind the lovely seaside town of Santa Barbara, California. There was a small, dedicated group who joined me. We all couldn’t wait to close our eyes.
As part of the organizational team, I arrived early to set up the kitchen and survey the retreat site—an old boy scout camp. The first thing I noticed was that the land was covered in poison oak. It was everywhere! And it was in its most potent form having freshly sprouted from a recent blessing of rain.
All I could imagine was the disaster that awaited the innocent participants— a mass outbreak of poison oak while they were expected to sit for meditation at least 8 hours each day. It seemed absolutely unavoidable to me. I voiced my concerns to my teacher.
Throwing his head back and laughing, he observed, “At least the poison is accounted for. This will be a great retreat!”
I gathered that what he meant was that since the poison was outside of us, we wouldn’t have to deal with it coming up in our thoughts and emotions. Still, I wasn’t going to take any chances. So I put on protective gear and cut back as much of it as I could manage.
Then, the retreat participants started to arrive. It was getting dark, so I led them to their bunks. Being a boy’s camp, the beds were designed for children. Being just barely over five feet myself, I hadn’t realized that it was a problem. But it was! The complaints started pouring in.
The beds were too small. The roof leaked. People were snoring. To use the bathroom—which were outhouses—they had to walk in the dark precariously near the poison oak. And it was cold.
My teacher expected us in the meditation hall at 4:00am and he gave me the job of waking everyone up.
We had all taken a vow of silence at that point, so no one could yell at me. But their eyes said it all. Everyone was grumpy.
It only got worse. The cook mistakenly put coriander in the oatmeal along with cayenne pepper that she thought was cinnamon.
There was no hot water. Someone caught a cold and everyone started coughing.
Soon we all had fevers. Yet each day we sat together in silent meditation watching the sensations, as my teacher advised.
I couldn’t believe how difficult and painful it was to just sit with my eyes closed. Thoughts and emotions bombarded my mind. My hips ached. Minutes felt like hours. Hours felt like days. I just wanted it to end.
Finally, on the fifth day of silence I let go. None of it mattered. My awareness drifted deep inside my Being away from the external environment. I loved not talking. I noticed everyone else had become calm and still. We moved together like silent stalks of reed swaying in the breeze—chopping vegetables, serving food and washing dishes.
On the last day of the retreat when my teacher asked us all to speak about our experience, no one opened their mouth. We could have stayed there forever in that beautiful peace.
When I returned to my life, I noticed everything. Light appeared brighter. Smells smelled stronger. I couldn’t believe how noisy the world was—and how unaware. The transition from the retreat was much harder than the poison oak, the small beds, the cayenne pepper oatmeal and the woman snoring in the bunk next to me.
I was different, but the world was the same. And yet, I carried within me an exquisite presence that allowed me to maintain my peace in the midst of the stress. It stayed with me a long time—until the next retreat.
These days we tend to regard spiritual practice as a spa treatment. We attend yoga classes, workshops and festivals to feel better. These are social events filled with fun yoga routines, loud music, parties and hula hooping, but they aren’t sadhana.
Tapas is burning.
It’s something you have to withstand—painful hips, uncomfortable environments and annoying people.
Tapas comes to mean austerity, but if you break apart the Sanskrit syllables—ta (“that,” Being) and pa (“to drink”) – it means “to drink in the presence” of the present moment.
The annoyances arise so that you can realize them as annoyances. They are what prevent you from experiencing the sweetness of your inner being by causing you to burn. The irony is that as soon as you are aware that you’re burning, it stops.
A retreat is not transformational without tapas.
Svadhyaya means focus on the Self.
It is not reading texts for the sake of philosophy. It is sitting with your Self without distraction. If there are sacred writings to help you keep your mind inspired and free from wandering, then they are useful.
Otherwise, svadhyaya is meant to culture your attention, the most powerful aspect of your conscious awareness. Where you put your mind in every moment is so important and yet unless we develop svadhyaya, we waste our most precious human asset.
A retreat doesn’t expand your consciousness without svadhyaya.
Ishvara-pranidhana comes to mean devotion to God.
Ishvara consists of the syllables – i, sha, va, and ra. I is the feeling of your heart’s deepest longing. It is the sound that embodies the desire that abides in your very core. Sha is the peace that can only be obtained by the fulfillment of the desire that fuels your life. Va is the recognition that your desire is in everything you see, like when you’re in love and you can only perceive your beloved’s face in everyone around you. And ra means to burn, like the burning desire that can’t be quenched by any ordinary human fulfillment.
Together the syllables mean “god,” because we have no other word in English to connote the profound experience of burning with an omnipresent desire within, the attainment of which is the only thing that could bring you peace.
Pranidhana means the wealth you cherish above all else that you place before you as an offering.
It comes to mean “devotion” in English.
A retreat doesn’t inspire and ignite your desire to accomplish a higher purpose in devotion to “God” without ishvara-pranidhana.
When all three are present together in a focused program that removes you from your ordinary life and concerns, then it is sadhana. Sadhana is your innermost wealth that can never be taken away from you, but allows you to endure anything that life has to throw at you. It keeps you from falling into the traps of craving and aversion. It protects you from debilitating fear.
For this reason, as fellow travelers on the path we all need dedicated periods of time for true sadhana. It’s the single most important thing you can do for your growth and happiness.
Dr. Katy Poole. Yogini, Sanskrit scholar, and Vedic astrologer, Katy (Katyayani) Poole, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. In addition to her academic studies of the Vedic, Yoga, Tantra, and Bhakti traditions, she lived in India for five years apprenticing with masters of Yoga and Sanskrit, as well as enjoying the transformative company of India’s most cherished saints. She is the author of Awakening with Sanskrit, Feeling the Shakti of Sanskrit, andSanskrit for Yogis, and has innovated online courses and educational programs pertaining to Sanskrit for Yoga that are designed especially for yoga and meditation practitioners. For more information about Dr. Poole, please visit:http://www.SanskritforYogis.com.