How to perpetually stay in Bliss:
An Interview with the founder of Bhakti FestSridhar and his daughter Mukti
Image, courtesy of the Bhakti Festivals
Do you wonder what the secret to happiness is, or at least, what contributes to human contentment? How do those folks who appear joyful all the time pull it off? What is their magic formula? During an hour long conversation with Sridhar Silberfein, the founder of Bhakti Fest, I was struck by the simplicity and power of his insights.
If you’ve never attended a Bhakti Fest or a Shakti Fest, check it out – the next one is September 6-9 in Joshua Tree, California.
Sridhar, a self described rebellious son of a middle class Jewish family from a small island called Long Beach near Long Island New York, graduated from C.W. Post college in 1962. He was fortunate to travel extensively in Europe and beyond during the early 1960’s. When he returned, his cousin introduced him to his first spiritual teacher; “Rudy” who was the only western disciple of Swami Muktananda’s teacher, Bhagawan Nityananda. Clearly, Sridhar is a seeker and a pioneer. He organized a world tour for Swami Muktananda with Ram Dass and wrote a sweet little book, as he put it, called Baba in America. In the early 1970’s he opened the first health food store in Topanga Canyon called The Food Chakra – he rented an 8 x 10 foot space for $50.00 per month.
Not content with simply selling health foods, Sridhar invited his spiritual teachers to visit and bless the store, he opened the Center for Spiritual Studies upstairs and taught yoga and meditation. Ram Dass and many other early adopters of East Indian yogic spirituality frequented Sridhar’s establishment, they called themselves Amazing Grace and went on to develop their own following and carved out a significant presence in our culture. These early life transforming experiences in the 1960’s and 70’s inspired Sridhar to create The Bhakti Fest retreats. Devotional by their very nature, Sridhar wants everyone who attends to have a transformational experience. He contends that the power of divine love changes lives.
Here are a few choice words of wisdom from Sridhar:
BW: What were your early inspirations?
Sridhar: When Peter Max sponsored an American Tour of Swami Satchidananda in 1968, I was inspired by his visit and became one of his early yoga instructors. I was also hanging out with Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld at that time. As they were planning the now legendary Woodstock Concert, they asked me what I thought was missing, as if I had any idea (he chuckled). At that moment, however, a light bulb came on and I realized it would be amazing if there could be a spiritual component to the Woodstock event. Imagine thousands of people singing Kirtan together in a beautiful setting all feeling the love of devotion. Well, it took me 40 years, but that was the original inspiration for the Bhakti Fest, I like to think of it as a Spiritual Woodstock.
BW: What is the most important quality we can embody?
Sridhar: I feel that my association with these spiritual teachers, at an early age, showed me that it’s all about service and helping and taking care of people. I’m an advocate of the importance and value of spiritual guides and teachers to help us discover deeper meaning. We have to step out of our egos and learn how to notice what needs to be done and just go and do it. Our egos are such an overpowering force. People don’t realize what they have, what their own empowerment can be, people are just afraid. We are consumed by technology and entertainment, people are just hooked on computers and TV and cinema and not going into themselves. We’re afraid of letting go to dive deeper into our own path.
BW: In a mundane practical sense, what do you recommend?
Sridhar: Well, we have to heal our wounds. We are all conditioned by our mothers and fathers, we all come from the same background, it’s been going on for thousands of years. In this age, we must break the patterns and heal the wounds with our families and all of our relationships, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers and go for forgiveness. Forgiveness is the breakthrough that enables us to be of true service to humanity.
BW: What are the core guiding values that will help us achieve a happy and healthy culture. A society that honors and respects something more than money?
Sridhar: I have to go back to the service aspect, the concept of SEVA. I learned that from a very early time from the gurus. They were very hard teachings. Selfless compassion in action. Washing pots and cleaning toilets, I still look in the porta-potties during our festivals to be sure they’re clean.
BW: What are the deepest sorrows or sufferings that you or others need to address in order to move beyond our self absorption?
Sridhar: A big aspect on the spiritual path is the sexual dysfunctionality of mixing spiritual understanding with the sexual desire. It is the most difficult of the ego affiliated desires. There is a long list of ego pacification challenges from food to many others. But the sex drive is the most difficult. I’m ashamed to say, it has been the most difficult for me and it has been sorrowful for me in my life. My own transgressions have caused pain in my life and my relationships. At the same time, these experiences have provided many hard and deep teachings which have helped me grow.
BW: Have you discovered any antidotes?
Sridhar: It comes down to telling the truth. We have to be truthful warriors. When things come up, we’ve gotta go for the truth. We have to be truthful beings. We can’t keep hiding behind this illusion. Yeah, of course, we all have desires, O.K., fine. You know, but how are we going to get through them? If you don’t start to break through with truth, we’re going to create a never ending bundle of stress for our whole life, it just goes on and on and on—it’s never ending.
A really key element to all of this is forgiveness. It’s like a prayer, so to speak—I’m saying to you:
“I forgive you for any actions that you have done to hurt me in your words or deeds – I forgive you. Please forgive me for anything I have done to you that hurts you in any way, physically, mentally or emotionally from my words or actions”.
We have a whole litany of associations to do this process with, our mothers and fathers, our families, our past relationships, our children and all of our relationships. We have associations with all of them. This is how we got to be who we are today. We’ve got to start someplace.
“It’s great to hang out with the gurus and get Shakti and it’s great to sit in those divine enlightened states, singing Kirtan – it’s wonderful to get those glimpses. I’ve gotten them and still do, but I’m far from a thousand miles away from being in a permanent, divine enlightened state – there are very few who ever achieve that, Ammachi was one, but they are very rare, you read about them.
That’s why I’m very big on this forgiveness stuff. I push it and I stress it. I still have my moments, but I do my best, maintaining my meditation, my yoga and my vegetarian diet”.
We continued our conversation about the current conditions in our society and what will be required to move beyond separation, fear and greed. We agreed it’s time for as many of us to wake up and take action as possible. Sridhar has a special relationship with his daughter Mukti, she is the producer of the Bhakti Festivals and he refers to her as his “Rock”. Without her, the Festivals would not be what they have become. He believes it is her generation and even the young children of today that will see us through. He appreciates his responsibility in this process of societal transformation and the importance of being a supportive and positive energy to encourage change.
Sridhar went on to say: All the countries in the world are facing very difficult circumstances and people must have the courage to resist the lies inherent in our modern system of government. Right now, the governments have us nailed. Corporations are way too powerful, asserting narrow self-interest. We must react and demonstrate our resistance to this trend. We must be less accepting of what is coming our way.
That is why Sridhar created the Bhakti Fest; to give people a taste, an experience of a loving community based upon kindness and compassion. People come to get a glimpse of how it could work. The festival demonstrates how we could actually live together in peace and harmony. People “get it” at a level well beyond the mind. Clearly, we all need places and events to recharge our determination to bring joyful aliveness back to our families, our communities and our world.
Onward with Courage