Today we remember George Harrison on the 80th anniversary of his birth.
“Everything else can wait but the search for God cannot wait.”
In the Service of the Divine Mother
Today we remember George Harrison on the 80th anniversary of his birth.
“Everything else can wait but the search for God cannot wait.”
By Brian 2 Comments
When we sit to meditate, we attempt to still the fluctuations of the mind. Sometimes we do this by placing our attention on an object of meditation, which can be a physical object like a candle flame or murti, or something more subtle, like a mantra or even our own patterns of breathing.
Simply placing our attention on the breath as we inhale and exhale can be a powerful meditation technique. Part of the power of this practice is that it goes beyond “quieting the mind.” As we watch the breath rise and fall, we are actually working with our life’s energy pathways. This is called “pranayama.” Although this term is often translated as “breath work” or “breath control,” attention to the breath is really just the vehicle for direction or influence of the life force energy, prana.
In the West, we tend to think of the “nervous system” as something materially tangible, like the wiring of a house. In India, the emphasis goes beyond the physical structure to the flow of energy itself. It’s as much about the electrical current as it is the wiring.
Our patterns of current or life force energy can be thought of as pathways, roughly corresponding to the structure of our physical nervous system. The representation of these patterns or flows of energy are called the nadis.
What are the Nadis?
Nadi is a Sanskrit word for “channel.” The tributary channels of pranic energy in our system converge in patterns that form three main channels which weave around what we know as the Chakras (our seven major cerebral and spinal energy centers).
In Kriya Yoga practice, much attention is given to the Sushumna Nadi, which is the central, spiritual energy channel that corresponds most closely in location with the spinal cord, and represents the most direct journey of energy between the first chakra and the crown.
For energy to flow effectively through the central channel, the other two channels must also be balanced and free of blocks. These channels are:
1) The Ida Nadi, which flows to the left from the Root Chakra, weaving around the chakras until it terminates in the left nostril. This nadi is considered the left channel, and rules the left (or lunar) side of the body; and,
2) The Pingala Nadi, which flows to the right from the Root, terminating at the right nostril, ruling the right (solar) side of the body.
At the very beginning of nearly every meditation session, I spend some time breathing in a strategic way to clear and open these twin energy channels. This pranayama technique is called Nadi Shodhana. The phrase means “channel clearing” but it is often rendered in English as “alternate nostril breathing” (for reasons that should become obvious as you read the description of the technique). Some traditions call the practice “purifying breaths.”
Nadi Shodhana Technique
Sit quietly and relaxed with your spine straight. Close your eyes and take a few soft, deep breaths.
This four-step process of breathing in left, breathing out right, breathing in right, breathing out left is considered one cycle of Nadi Shodhana. Most of the time I will do twelve cycles at the beginning of a meditation session (although for Green Tara Sadhana instructions are specific to do nine purifying breaths at the beginning). The cycles can be counted on your free hand, using the twelve finger bones in that hand as if they were mala beads. Move your thumb to the next bone as you complete a cycle. When you reach the tip of the last finger, you’ve done twelve cycles of Nadi Shodhana.
Benefits of Nadi Shodhana
From an immediate, practical standpoint the practice of alternate nostril breathing as described above brings an almost instant sense of calm and centeredness. Respiration and heart rates decline, anxiety dissipates, cortisol and cytokines are reduced, oxytocin is released. Even five minutes of practice can reduce stress and increase mental focus. Over time, longer or more frequent practice (and incorporating other techniques such as mantra meditation) can quell inflammation, reduce blood pressure, relieve depression, enhance memory and mental clarity, promote optimism, stimulate creativity and generally improve one’s outlook and quality of life.
Beyond the immediate benefits, for the committed yogi, clearing these channels is essential preparation for more intense practices such as Kriya Yoga Pranayama, where the life force is directed to the higher cerebral centers in search of awakening, liberation and consciousness of God.
Here’s a great, short demonstration of the practice from Banyan Botanicals.
There’s also a good thread on the Nadis from V Shuddhi on Twitter.
My teacher, Ryan, also speaks about alternate nostril breathing in this video about preparing for Kriya Yoga Initiation as he describes the Kriya Meditation that he was taught by his guru, Roy Eugene Davis.
I’d love to hear from you with questions, or your own experiences with Nadi Shodhana and other pranayama practices. Leave a comment below or hit me with an email.
In February of 2019 I began to wake up. I cannot explain it, except for the grace of God. I wasn’t looking for anything, and didn’t expect to find anything, let alone the sort of transformation that has ensued in the four years since.
I found my way, almost by accident, to a daily meditation practice on April 5th of that year. Once that practice was established, I spent a great deal of time researching the subject, learning about the techniques and philosophies of various lineages, experimenting with my own practice, reading, studying, listening and growing.
One of the guru lineages that resonated most deeply with me was that of Paramahansa Yogananda. I began serious study of the Self-Realization Fellowship lessons in the Autumn of 2020. By the time I completed their series of lessons in the Summer of 2021, I was still not entirely sure if the Kriya Yoga path was the one for me. I had a good understanding of the philosophy and techniques of SRF, but practicing within their framework seemed overly dogmatic and prescriptive. I continued to practice and study, but was not ready to commit my remaining years to their discipline.
I happened across Ryan Kurczak’s Kriya Yoga Online YouTube Channel, and began to learn informally from him, eventually reading some of his books and joining his Patreon Community. I briefly considered applying for his Kriya Yoga Apprenticeship last year, but decided that I was not quite yet prepared for the anticipated rigor.
In Mid-December of 2022, insight came. I realized that Kriya Yoga is my path, and Ryan is my teacher. Once this realization occurred, everything else surrounding my spiritual life became clear. I had been holding on to some things out of habit or sentimentality that weren’t serving me anymore. These fell away almost immediately, and I now feel a great sense of peace and order.
You can learn more about this Kriya Yoga lineage at Kriya Yoga Online. I would also highly recommend Ryan’s Kriya Yoga Meditation Beginner’s Guide playlist on YouTube.
It’s been nearly a year since I posted about my daily spiritual activities, so I thought I’d offer an update.
A few significant things have changed with the passing of 2022.
Firstly, I have pretty much parted ways with the Roman Catholic Church. I hold no ill will, and there may come a time when I will return to the practice of the Catholic Faith. For the time being, though, I find little in the American expression of Catholicism with which I wish to be in communion. I do still pray the Divine Office each day, but I no longer regularly attend Mass.
Second, I am spending much less time on esoterica. I took a very deep dive into Tarot practice in 2022. It was one of the tools that first started nudging me toward waking up, but I’m finding it less relevant in this season of my life. I still record a card draw each day, and will read for others if they ask, but I’m not putting any effort or time into study at the moment.
One of most significant additions to my spiritual life over the past year has been daily practice of Green Tara Sadhana, which I began learning in 2021, and began practicing daily on March 11th of 2022.
The other major change is that I have now fully committed to study and practice in the Kriya Yoga Tradition. I had begun formal study of the lessons from Self-Realization Fellowship in November of 2020, and have practiced several of their meditation techniques intermittently since that time. I was still largely experimental in my practice, though. Toward the end of 2022, as I began to assess and evaluate my spiritual progress, I decided that it would be best to direct most of my energy in 2023 and 2024 toward the Kriya Yoga path, and to place myself under the discipline of the teacher I most respect, Ryan Kurczak.
My first activity (after washing my face and taking the dog out and feeding him), every morning, is meditation. Currently I spend about half-an-hour in Kriya Yoga meditation. The full procedure is presented in this video from Ryan.
After meditation, I like to review the Daily Word from Unity, and pray the Office of Readings combined with Lauds. Lately I’ve also been taking a quick look at the apps from Sadhguru, the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, and the Gayatri Sangha.
After making entries into my gratitude journal, I work my way through the daily lesson and writing exercise from David McGrath’s excellent book The Yogi’s Way, which is a two-year survey of Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas.
Several days a week I still listen and chant along with Devadas’ livestream of Coffee and Kirtan from Brooklyn. After that, I being the work day, usually around 9 AM.
Some time either towards the end of the morning or the first couple hours afternoon, I do my Green Tara practice. It helps me keep perspective on everything else that happens during the day, and brings a softness and compassion to even my roughest edges.
After the work day, I pray Vespers every evening, and also spend another twenty to thirty minutes in meditation. Some days it will be the full Kriya Yoga procedure. Other days I may do something a bit less elaborate, like alternate nostril breathing and silent mantra meditation.
Study and Exercise
I’ve also been making time for exercise each day for awhile now. My wife and I take a lengthy walk with our little dog, Louie, each afternoon. Lately I’ve been getting on an exercise bike for 25 minutes a day, and during that I listen to a podcast or lesson or something edifying.
There are always several books that I’m working my way through. Some are directly related to the Kriya Yoga path, others not.
If this all sounds like it takes up a lot of time, well, it does. I’m lucky to be semi-retired and able to do it. But honestly, I could have done it throughout my full time working years as well, if I hadn’t burned off all those karmas shaking cocktails, watching mindless TV, throwing darts, playing pingpong, and listening to Dean Martin records. I enjoyed those activities at the time, but I much prefer my current daily routine nowadays. 🙂
I’d love to hear about your essential daily practices, and also any questions you may have.
I did a quick stream on Facebook tonight with an acoustic guitar. This is a melody that I’ve been carrying around for a couple years now, from the early days of my Kirtan practice.
Sing and be happy.
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
Neem Karoli Baba is a great Saint of India who left the body in 1973. This marvelous new book by Parvati Marcus brings us stories of people whose lives were changed by “Maharaji” though they did not meet him prior to his mahasamadhi.
I was first introduced to Maharaji through stories told by Krishna Das, and then became further fascinated while studying Ram Dass’ books. The fantastical tales and heart bending stories of grace, deliverance and downright miracles surrounding him have been a source of guidance and inspiration. He was not only a great Saint, but his influence on an entire generation of American spiritual thinkers and teachers is inestimable.
Like many who have learned of Maharaji since his passing all those years ago, I felt a sense of sadness, loss – perhaps even envy – at not being among those who were able to be in his physical presence. But what the stories in this book make quite clear is that he is still at work in this world, healing, protecting, guiding and changing lives. Sometimes he comes in a dream. Sometimes he comes in an inexplicable coincidence. Sometimes he comes in the guise of another human being. As difficult as this may be to fathom, sometimes he comes in his own recognizable physical form, blanket and all.
As I was reading this book, from time to time I related a story or two to my young adult daughter. One afternoon she asked if I had ever met Maharaji. She knew well that he left the body nearly fifty years ago, but it seemed a natural and reasonable question.
I have not had the sort of dramatic encounter that is described in the pages of the book. I’ve not had a vivid dream, or glimpsed him in a public space only to find out that he had met some urgent need and then disappeared. I’ve not had my heart crack wide open, with the sudden assurance that Baba is my guru. Not yet, anyway.
I do believe that he has changed my life in some fundamental ways, though. It was through his devotees that I learned to “Repeat the Name of God, and everything else is accomplished.”
Love Everyone. Serve Everyone. Remember God. It truly is as simple as that.
Plant based meats have come a long way over the past few years, from the mushy crumbles of yore to something that truly approximates the texture and flavor of beef.
I recently picked up a copy of Cooking With Plant Based Meat from America’s Test Kitchen, and decided to give this dish a try for a weeknight meal. It turned out to be as delicious as the book promised, like a comforting “hug from an Italian grandmother.”
After finely chopping a carrot, a stalk of celery and an onion in the food processor, all three went into a cast iron Dutch Oven to sauté with olive oil and salt and pepper until soft and well browned. Then I added some chopped garlic and 3 tablespoons of tomato paste, and stirred that around until caramelized, then deglazed with half a cup of red wine. A 12 ounce package of the Impossible Burger went in next and cooked with the veggie mixture for a few minutes before adding two cups of veggie stock. I let that simmer for 15 minutes while cooking the noodles.
Finally, I added the noodles to the post of sauce, and let it all cook together for a few minutes before serving.
I truly believe that if you served this to even a discriminating carnivore, they would not know that it’s plant based. The textures and flavors were a perfect mimic.
I used egg white noodles, and Parmesan shreds, so the dish wasn’t strictly vegan, but one could easily use any wide eggless pasta noodle of some sort and vegan cheese (or just leave the cheese out).
It should be noted that although Impossible Burger is probably not less healthy than beef, if you are abstaining from meat for health reasons it isn’t really an improvement. If, like our family, the reason for eating a plant based diet is more a matter of ethics and spirituality, then using this product from time to time should be fine. It *does* contain some GMO material if that is a concern.
My wife has a recipe for a Bolognese Sauce made entirely from fresh vegetables that is also delicious. I’ll do my best to prevail on her for a copy to post in comments here.
When I was younger, one of the first mantras I ever learned was “Om Mani Padme Hum.” I knew that the literal translation was something along the lines of “I bow to the jewel in the lotus blossom.” I also knew that the mantra was especially sacred to Tibetan Buddhists. Other than that, I was entirely ignorant, but I liked the sound and I liked the idea of doing something that was unusual and exotic, so I got a mala made of Bodhi seeds, and I would sometimes chant with it. I had the Tibetan characters for the mantra tattooed on my upper arm. At that time, the practice of daily chanting and devotion did not become a habit, but as you’ll see if you read on, apparently somehow the Dharma had been planted in my heart and mind.
In 2001, Claudia and I travelled to the Twin Cities for darshan from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I’m not sure what first sparked our interest in the trip, but it was a profound experience to be in the presence of the living Buddha.
Profound as it was, when we returned home, I resumed my “normal” activities as a greying American white guy, attending Mass on weekends, doing my best to lead a more or less respectable life, yet drinking every evening and not paying much attention to spiritual development or anything approaching a path toward awakening.
When I finally began to wake up in 2019, my mala was there, the mantra was there, and I began to use them in what eventually became a daily meditation practice. I was still relatively ignorant about the deeper meaning of the mantra and practice, but I knew that it was good for me, and trusted that it would bring me to understanding of some sort if I just kept practicing.
In May of 2020, I watched a benefit concert for Saving Wild Tigers that featured dozens of Bhakti artists, including Deva Premal and Miten. I became spellbound as they sang the Green Tara Mantra, Oṃ Tāre Tuttāre Ture Svāhā.
Over the next few weeks, casually at first, I began to research and study.
At last I ran across the story of the Compassionate Bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara (who is believed to be incarnate in this world now in the person of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama). The Bodhisattva was near to enlightenment, ready to escape Saṃsāra – the cycle of births and deaths – and step through the threshold to freedom. At that moment, out of deep compassion, he chose to remain in the world to help and guide and light the way until all beings are free from suffering and delusion.
It is said that a single tear from the eye of the Avalokiteshvara created a pond, and in that pond a lotus sprang up, and from its blossom arose Tara, the Mother of all Buddhas.
“I bow to the Jewel in the lotus blossom.” As if in the flash of a thunderbolt, the mantra’s true meaning became clear, tears rolled down, and I felt a connection of the deepest sort.
On July 8, 2020, I pulled The Star in my daily card draw, and wrote these words in my journal.
It is said that one does not find their guru. The guru finds them. I believe that she has, at long last, found me, and gathered me into the fold.
I take the devotional name Shyamatara Das – Servant of the Holy Mother.
Guiding Star, nurture us and lead us to freedom.
Oṃ Tāre Tuttāre Ture Svāhā!
Recently I completed a course of study on Green Tara Vajrayana Sadhana from Tara Mandala Center, and have begun a daily practice. Although my pronunciation is still developing, and I have not yet begun to incorporate the mudras, I suspect that it will eventually become my most essential daily personal devotional practice.
If you’d like to learn more about Tara, there is an excellent article at the World History Encyclopedia written by Joshua Mark. You can also read about the 21 Taras at the Tara Mandala site.
It is worth noting that in Tibetan Buddhism, “deity” means something a bit different than what we take it to mean in the West. Tara is the personification of qualities that we should all desire to emulate, and is, in fact, already not separate from us. In Vajrayana Practice, we seek to experience and recognize more fully that unity which already exists, and to grow in the habits of compassion and service as a result.
This seems to me to be a worthwhile thing to do.
“Ram naam karne se sab pura hojata hai.”
“Repeat the Name of God, and everything else is accomplished.”
– Neem Karoli Baba
Japa is a word that comes to us from Sanskrit, meaning “to mutter repetitions.” In early Vedic holy books, it was used in reference to repeating scripture verses, or incantations or the name of a deity.
When we do silent mantra meditation, that is essentially a sort of japa practice, as we repeat the mantra to ourselves silently. But most of the time, when someone uses the term nowadays, especially in the West, we mean repetition of a sound, either aloud or silently, while counting the number of repetitions on a japamala (mala, for short). A mala is a string of (usually 108) beads, with a larger centerpiece bead in the middle called the Guru Bead. Sometimes this centerpiece bead will have a tassel or other ornamentation.
Malas (much like Catholic Rosaries) can be made of a wide variety of materials. Some are wooden, some made from seeds or stones or even gems, and some truly beautiful ones are made with no beads at all, using knots in the twine or cord instead of beads. One of the pleasures of practice is to find a mala that suits one’s own temperament, and complements the mantra or name that is being repeated. For instance, I have a Tibetan Bodhi Seed mala that I use when chanting Om Mani Padme Hum. I have a green malachite mala for Green Tara practice. And for the Mahamantra (Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare) I use a Tulasi Wood mala and bead bag from the ISKCON store. The range of styles and materials available is truly astounding.
Japa practice is relatively simple. We start with the bead next to the Guru Bead between thumb and finger, and say the mantra (either aloud or silently). Then we move to the next bead, proceeding all the way around the mala repeating the mantra until we reach the last bead next to the Guru Bead. That is considered one round of japa.
As you’ll see in the video toward the end of this post, some japa practitioners have more elaborate rules for their practice than others. I try to be respectful of the traditions from whence I received a particular mantra or practice, but there are two rules of thumb that seem to follow across most of the traditions, whether Buddhist or Hindu or sectarian within Buddhism or Hinduism. First of all, it is considered best to keep each mala for its own mantra or practice. Although I admit that early on when I only had one mala I did not observe this rule – and sometimes still, when using a little wrist mala on the go I will chant whatever strikes my fancy that day – I agree that it’s a better practice to have a specific mala for a specific mantra or practice if you can. The energy of the repetitions seems to accumulate, and when you pick up that mala, it puts you in a unique headspace for that practice. Do the best you can with this, though, and don’t beat yourself up if you only have one mala and want to practice a lot of different mantras.
The other rule is one that is easy to follow, and really ought to be followed by everyone, regardless of tradition. Out of respect for God and Guru, we never pass over the Guru Bead. Once we reach that special bead, if we’re going to continue japa we turn the mala and begin counting again in the other direction.
As to what sound you should use as a mantra, I would recommend trying a few different ones to see what resonates most with you. There’s an excellent book on the subject by Lily Cushman called A Little Bit of Mantras. The Hanuman Maui store has it bundled with a small wrist mala for practice. You can also do a Web search for something like “list of mantras” and will find more than enough information to get you started.
If you don’t have a mala, you can still do a simple japa practice. Each of your fingers has three bones in it. Begin by placing your thumb on the bone closest to your hand on your little finger. With each repetition, move past the joint to the next bone, then the next finger, etc. By the time you reach the tip of your index finger, that is twelve repetitions. Nine rounds of that (you can keep track of them with your thumb on three fingers on your other hand) is 108. Prety neat, yeah?
Whatever you use to count, remember that this is a devotional practice. If we just repeat the mantra mechanically to rack up numbers, there may still be something positive to come from our practice. If nothing else, at least we’re not out somewhere misbehaving for a little while. 🙂 But if we try as best we can to turn our attention toward the divine while practicing, to “Remember God” as Neem Karoli Baba put it, then the benefits (to ourselves and our world) will increase many times over.
I put it this way in a recent post about my own daily spiritual practice. Silent mantra meditation (in the style of TM) gets us in touch with the unified field of consciousness from which everything in the universe springs. Devotional chanting (such as Kirtan or Japa) gives us a better sense of our own place in that universe.
TM-style meditation practice is valuable almost beyond estimation in terms of benefits to our health and well being. For me, though, without some sort of devotional practice to compliment it, it misses the larger point. Just as the practice of yoga asanas merely for health benefits ignores (and perhaps distorts) the devotion which is at the heart of the Yoga Sutras, using a mantra merely for benefits such as stress management and enhanced creativity ignores the larger purpose for which we ought to be getting calm and clear in the first place. Surely, we want to be more than just fit and less stressed. At least, I believe that we ought to.
For me, devotional chanting brought my life to an entirely different level of clarity and purpose. Perhaps that would have come in the long run with just the standard twenty minutes twice a day of TM-style meditation anyway, but somehow I don’t think so. Look out there at some of the high-functioning, creative powerhouses who tout TM as a key to their success, and you’ll find at least a few folks who have been practicing for decades, whose lives one might not want to emulate.
Part of the appeal of yoga and TM in the West has been the non-religious, non-sectarian nature of the practices as they are often presented here. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but there is a larger, richer, more beautiful context from which these practices have been ripped. Devotional practices such as japa can help us restore that context, and with it, the wonder and joy and love and healing that our lives and our planet so desperately need.
“The Lord is Awaiting on You All to Awaken and See
By Chanting the Names of the Lord, and You’ll be Free”
– George Harrison
Here’s the video I promised, demonstrating how to chant “Hare Krishna” ISKCON style, from our friends at Hare Krishna TV.
Do you chant with a japamala? What’s your favorite mantra? New to the practice and have questions? Hit me with a comment!
It’s been more than a year since I last wrote a summary of my daily spiritual practices, and they have evolved a bit, so I thought I would post a quick update.
Meditation and Scripture
I still begin the morning with a card draw, which gives me a suggestion concerning the energy patterns afoot for the day. Currently, I’m using the Thoth Deck, and finding it to be especially helpful in navigating life’s schedules, encounters and activities.
A morning silent mantra meditation is next. Of late I have been using an alpha wave audio from BrainSync along with repetition of the mantra for twenty minutes each morning and evening. I have also been doing some pranayama at the beginning of each session (usually four rounds of box breathing and a couple minutes of breath of fire). The morning meditation helps to clear my mind and calm my spirit for the day to come, and the evening meditation acts as a “reset” from the stresses of the work day, helping me to be more present for study or time with family.
Next is scripture reading and reflection. It is now a firm daily practice for several years to pray with the Catholic Office of Readings and Lauds in the morning, and Vespers in the evenings. I also read Unity’s Daily Word each morning, and take a few moments to reflect and make an entry into my gratitude journal.
Nearly every morning I still tune in to Devadas with his Kirtans from Brooklyn. I have also taken up the habit of chanting a round of Mahamantra japa in the morning, and one in the afternoon or evening. Lately, I’ve been using a Tulsi Mala and bead bag that I received from the ISKCON store in Florida.
It might be good to include a quick mention here of something I have found to be true, at least for me, at least at this time. Although all of the practices that I keep each day are important to me, there are only two that I would consider to be absolutely essential. I would find it hard to function without the silent mantra meditation and some sort of devotional chanting (either Kirtan or japa). If I did no other spiritual practice, I would hope to at least practice these every day, and preferably at the beginning of the day. Meditation gets us in touch with the unified field of consciousness from which everything in the universe springs. Devotional chanting gives us a better sense of our own place in that universe.
I think that a good “starter program” of spiritual practice for anyone would be five or ten minutes of meditation and one round of japa of some sort. If using a small wrist mala of 27 beads, these two practices would only take about fifteen minutes a day, and the positive changes that can be brought into one’s life with the investment of those fifteen minutes are inestimable.
Reading and Satsang
Throughout the day, I find it helpful to keep in touch with others who are on a spiritual path. This can be through inspirational music, or the vast array of websites and social media groups focused on religion, philosophy and spiritual practice. One of the most beautiful online communities is Deva and Miten’s Gayatri Sangha. There are lots of sweet souls, inspiration, mutual support and virtual gatherings to be found there.
I also enjoy the online Satsang of Krishna Das, and his Yoga Radio station on SiriusXM.
Reading spiritual classics and wisdom literature is also an important part of my own spiritual development. If you’re interested in what I’m reading and studying, I post occasional reviews or updates here.
Do you have thoughts or questions? Would you like to share your own favorite practices or daily routines? I’d love to read your comments.