The Art and Practice of Listening
by Nayaswami Sabari, October 15, 2014
Many years ago, when I was working at the East West Bookstore in Menlo Park, California, I was assigned the task of creating a display with a line of colorful aromatherapy candles that just arrived. I was new at the store and didn’t have a clue where to begin. My friend who was in charge of gifts and display simply offered me a puzzling suggestion, “Ask the candles how they want to be displayed.” Rejecting the idea immediately as ludicrous, but having no other idea of how to start, I gave it a go. It turned out to be a very valuable lesson for me that I’ve always remembered. No matter what it is in front of me, first tune in and listen. George Washington Carver said, “Anything will speak to you if you love it enough.”
Charles Evans, a very intuitive gardener here at the Meditation Retreat, finds that often people can’t listen to nature because they don’t think they can. His training in the Findhorn tradition has helped him tune into and listen to the spirit in the plants and trees; and the stories he shares are often an important part of the visitor’s experience here.
Ten years ago, all the eye could see in any direction was a dry, thick forest of manzanita, spotted with oaks and pine. His effort to try to get flowering and non-native plants to grow in what is now a
lush garden sanctuary, was not easy. In the beginning, all his efforts to nurture new plant life were ever-completing with the neighboring oak tree’s roots that invaded the new plants and absorbed their nutrients.
One day, Charles, who is also rather psychic, got the message- “I need to ask the oak trees if I can plant a garden! I never asked permission!”
Inwardly he prayed, “Divine Mother in the form of your oaks, manzanita and pine, may I plant a garden so that others can appreciate your towering beauty?” He said he then felt a definite presence in the two largest oaks trees in the garden area and it was to these elder trees he felt he should address his query. “Could you draw your roots away from these new plants so we can have garden?” As soon as he made this plea, he felt Divine acquiescence from the towering oak guardians.
The habit of listening to nature is the basis of Joseph Cornell’s work in helping people to become centered in themselves by carefully listening and observing nature. By becoming very still, one can easily feel the flow of Divine Mother’s creative power in everything around us, and even speaking to us from within our own heart.
Since that time, the garden has become rich in many varieties of plants that adorn the serene meditation sitting areas linked in a labyrinth of paths. It is now an extraordinary devotional garden. Visitors often stop by to visit the garden and meditate.
One my personal favorites, is siting upon the rock placed next to the Grandfather Tree; the patriarch oak spirit to who Charles appealed for permission to grow a garden. The Grandfather Tree has become so friendly, that the rough bark that creates the back to a rock chair that sits next to the tree’s broad trunk is covered in moss. The other day, a guest was sitting there against the Grandfather Tree and said, “I felt instantly comforted, and then…acutely aware of every sound- bird calls, wind, squirrels, flowing water. I felt so much love.”
Trees standing firm, hold the secret of inner power. Give us when tested, strength to endure.
—from the song, Channels by Swami Kriyananda
The End of a Sweet Seclusion
by Peter Goering, Ananda Village December 19, 2012
It is my last night of seclusion and I am a little sad that it is ending. I look forward each year to my seclusion with great anticipation. Seclusion not only renews body and mind in ways no ordinary vacation can, it also renews my faith in the promise of Self-Realization. It gives me glimpses of what is possible on the spiritual path, what levels of consciousness are within my grasp. Seclusion is a blessed, joyful time.
Paramhansa Yogananda recommended periods of seclusion to all spiritual aspirants. Seclusion, simply put, is time spent alone and in silence focused on deepening one’s attunement to the Divine. The thought of spending an extended period alone, with only the chattering, pesky, ego for company, can be daunting, and it takes courage to undertake such a journey. Because seclusion is such a joyful experience for me, and so essential to my spiritual well-being I find it tragic that people tend to put off seclusion….sometimes indefinitely. Seclusion is a very personal thing and everyone’s approach is slightly different. What works for me may not be a good fit for others. My purpose in writing this blog is to share my enthusiasm, pass on a few things I have learned over the years that might perhaps demystify the practice, and hopefully inspire people to take seclusion.
Even though I have been doing this annually for 20 years, and it is a highlight of my year, I always forget just how hard it is to get into seclusion. One has to extricate oneself from job, family, and other pressing worldly responsibilities (and diversions.) There is packing to do, food to buy, endless decisions about what are appropriate comforts or inspirations to bring along. I inevitably arrive to my place of seclusion, later than planned, and quite exhausted. My first meditation is usually below average at best and I inevitably awaken fears of failing at seclusion. By the next morning I remember that it takes some time to shift gears and my fears are allayed slightly. My first day of seclusion usually involves several (sometimes feeble) attempts at meditation interspersed with a nap or two.
I always try to take my seclusions at the Ananda Meditation Retreat because I have had many profound experiences there and it is a place with a deep spiritual vibration. Choose your place of seclusion wisely, a place where you feel inspiration, peace, calmness…in short where the vibrations will help you. Many people seclude in their own home. I find this very difficult as there is too much to remind me and of and draw me back into my normal existence. The purpose of seclusion is to go beyond the quotidian routine, to reach new levels of practice.
In the weeks proceeding the winter solstice light is diminished and the natural world is dormant. I too am called to go inward and I have the habit of taking seclusion in early December. It is a wonderful preparation for the holiday season. I love being in nature and beautiful warm days tend to draw me outside away from my meditation. At this time of year this is not usually a problem and my focus stays with meditation. I plan my seclusion to coincide with an 8 hour meditation led at the Ananda Meditation Retreat as part of the celebration of the Christmas season. I enjoy having the structure of a long, led meditation. The energy produced by group of devotees making an effort to meditate long and deeply is tremendous, and being in seclusion some time before the long meditation allows me to “get in shape” and be ready to truly enjoy the deep vibrations of the day.
One of the conflicts in my seclusions that I have come to accept, although not necessarily to put to rest definitively, is the tension between using will power to push my self to meditate longer versus just relaxing with a flow. I know relaxation is fundamental to meditation and we are counseled to meditate only as long as we feel joyous inspiration. However, for me, seclusion is also about longer and deeper meditations, and I know myself well enough to realize that if I don’t set a schedule with
some goals I could end up sleeping away my seclusion. My experience has been that with a little conscious effort each subsequent day’s meditation becomes easier. Of course my meditations never chart a straight-line course. Just when I am going more inward, slowing the breath, feeling expansion, the next thing I realize I am drifting along in some subconscious miasma. Whoa, wake up, pull out, and refocus, back to techniques. Whatever happens in meditation it is best to just offer it back to God as a form of selfless service. In the end it is not the experiences in meditation that matter, but overcoming the ego to let God’s grace flow in.
Chanting is rarely a profound part of my daily meditations. It seems I am always hurrying through a chant, to get to my meditation proper, so I can finish meditating, and get up and go to work…..or some similar absurd excuse my restless mind is unconsciously spinning. In seclusion I find chanting is a wonderful interlude to silent meditation. No job to get to, no certain number of techniques to get through…just endless time stretching before me. I can let myself go and just chant. Yogananda recommends chanting a chant until you feel a Divine response. Something of the Divine response can then be accessed every time you come back to that chant. Inevitably the chants where I feel the most devotion are ones that I was able to take to a deep level during seclusion. Often I can even remember the place I was sitting or the particular moment of a previous seclusion when a chant took on a new meaning.
Food is another interesting part of seclusion. Eating sattwic food in smaller quantities is an important requirement for me to achieve my meditative potential. I usually eat one meal in the early afternoon and then, if I feel the need, something lighter like a piece of fruit in the evening. Kitcharee (rice and split lentils cooked with ghee and Indian spices) and steamed vegetables work best for me and that’s what I eat everyday. It is easy to pack, simple to prepare, balancing and nourishing, and I never seem to tire of it. The quantities I prepare diminish as the week goes on.
Energization and yoga postures are part of my sadhana routine but I also find I need to either do some physical karma yoga, or go for a long walk in the woods to balance long periods of sitting. I enjoy improving things at the retreat and there is always a lot to do around my cabin or on a nearby trail. Whatever the task, I try to work with a spirit of karma yoga, remaining inward and focused on God as the doer. But I have found that I need to be vigilant that habits from everyday life don’t come creeping in. I have gotten carried away at times and found myself making huge burn piles and exhausting myself cutting and dragging brush to do a really nice clean up job.
Likewise out walking I can get into hiking mode instead of nature communion mode. As fun as it is to explore new areas, scout new trails, and cover great distances, I have found it is better for my seclusion if I try to tune into Divine Mother in the natural world around me. I try to chant as I walk; O God Beautiful is a favorite. Over the years I have gotten to know the Retreat very well, a benefit of returning to the same place to seclude. The forests at the retreat are magnificent: full of huge, centuries-old oaks, and towering pines. I enjoy wondering off the trails deep into the forest where the vibrations are untrammeled by the intrusion of human egos. I have regular routes I wander and certain spots and trees have become old friends that I go back and greet each year. I often just sit and soak in the silence and stillness.
Seclusion is something one does alone, but it is not bereft of satsang. That is, company of fellow truth seekers through books and recordings. As I cook I often listen to one of Swamiji’s talks, or to him reading one of his books. When I have tired myself out at the end of the day diving into a book is a nice relaxation. I bring a variety of spiritual books with me because I never know what subject will inspire me any given evening. Sometimes I read one book throughout the whole seclusion, other times I dip into a wide variety. Listening to uplifting music helps keep the energy high or renews it when it flags a bit.
I have found it is important to consciously set aside all the worries and problems of my daily life when I go into seclusion lest they constantly intrude on my attempts to meditate. However, by the end of seclusion my clarity has increased, and my ability to find intuitive solutions to problems that have been plaguing me is greatly improved. I usually take some time near the end of my seclusion to consciously seek guidance with difficulties I know I will face when I return to the world. I have often found new directions and inspiration. At the very least, by the end of the seclusion I am more in touch with the reality that God is in charge and all my problems are really quite unimportant.
Seclusion is usually a profound experience, if for no other reason than it helps me see what is possible. At least some of the time during seclusion I feel much greater peace, joy and expansion than I usually touch in my everyday meditations. I usually start to lament, yes this is the way meditation is supposed to be. Some people probably feel this all the time. How come I don’t? Then I realize, wow I could too, I just need to keep practicing and drawing the grace of God and Guru. But the rewards are not just for some time in the future. After months of perhaps listless meditations preceding my seclusion I have experienced again what meditation can be…not for some advanced soul I read about in a book but for me. I can do this…I am doing this, and that experience and knowing carries me forth back into the world ready to do battle with my egoic desires and the vicissitudes of the material world.
Make the effort, take a seclusion. The benefits will be great. May your seclusions be blessed.