Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer and my guest today is Swami Khecaranatha, whose nickname is Nathaji, we might be referring to him that way during the interview. Swami Khecaranatha has been teaching Kundalini Mahayoga since 1972. With a mastery etched from more than four decades of inner practice and selfless service, he is an authentic adept of Tantric Shaivism and an initiated carrier in the Shaktipat lineage of Bhagavan Nityananda and Swami Rudrananda, Rudi. Khecaranatha is the spiritual leader of the TrikaShala and director of Rudramandir, a center for spirituality and healing located in Berkeley, California. So thanks for joining me today.
Swami: Glad to be here.
Rick: Yeah. For those who have listened to a lot of my interviews, I also interviewed Stuart Perrin, who was a disciple of Rudrananda and who was actually in the plane when it crashed when Rudi died, and he wrote a nice book about that. So usually the way these interviews work best is if we do a mixture of your biographical history, the story of your own spiritual odyssey, mixed in with what you actually teach and what Kashmir Shaivism is and what Shaktipat is, and all the sort of knowledge aspects that I’m sure you have to impart. So we don’t need to do those sequentially necessarily, but it might be good to start with the historical thing and then we’ll kind of play it by ear as we go along. I think you were born… where were you born? Some unusual place.
Swami: Well, I was born in the Midwest.
Rick: Oh, that’s not so unusual.
Swami: No, no, yeah. And my family kind of hailed from Texas, my father was in the oil business, so I spent most of my life overseas.
Rick: Oh yeah, I remember you went to Puerto del Fuego or some such thing, and then…
Swami: Yeah, Puerto del Fuego, bottom of the earth.
Rick: …all over Africa and all over the place.
Swami: Exactly. So yeah, I spent basically, from the time I was about 5 years old through my senior year in high school, mostly living overseas. We would come home to Texas for our summer breaks.
Rick: It must have been kind of fun in a way.
Swami: It was great, you know, and I feel like I matured a lot as a person because of being exposed to lots of different cultures, and so I appreciated that experience a lot.
Rick: Pick up some languages?
Swami: Well, I picked up a little Spanish when I lived in South America, then when I went to Libya and learned French, I lost the Spanish, and then I lost the French pretty fast.
Rick: Especially in Texas.
Swami: Yeah, exactly right.
Rick: So then, as I understand it, when you were a teenager you were pretty much an atheist and then some things happened to wake you up out of that.
Swami: Right. Yeah, you know, my family were Methodist, which really meant they went to church every few months and sang some nice hymns, and that was really kind of the extent of my religious upbringing. And I think through the normal difficult experiences that teenagers have as they’re growing up, I began to think, “Man, life isn’t so great here, you know, so there can’t be a God that’s creating this and making me suffer, etc” So I stopped really believing that there was some higher power that was here to really give us an extraordinary life. And it was really a belief system that I kind of overlaid over myself, as opposed to something that I deeply felt in myself. And then it just becomes your story, right? But I did not pursue any kind of religion through those high school years, etc, and really disbelieved in it, and then that changed, so I’m fortunate about that.
Rick: Yeah, I guess I heard you say some friend had gone to see Rudi and told you about this big guy with a bald head that really had a big effect on him, and that piqued your interest.
Swami: Yeah, that was right. You know, probably in one of the, if you probably would say, kind of the deepest and darkest part of my 17th, 18th, 19th year, I guess I was about 19, one of my friends went – I was living in West Texas at the time – and he went to East Texas to do some business. And when he came back, he hadn’t done the business that he had gone to do, but he said, “You know, I went to this meditation place and I sat in this room with this enormous man with a bald head, and there was all this energy in the room, and people were having these powerful experiences”. And he said, “Yeah, it was really pretty cool”. And that was kind of the extent of what he said to me. And at the time, you know, okay, fine, glad you did it, now why didn’t you do business, right? But the amazing thing, Rick, was that literally within a week to two weeks after that, I woke up one morning and all I could do was think about God. Just all of a sudden there was this place in me that was saying, “I want to know that, I need to know that”. I went from becoming, being a meat and potatoes person all my life, literally potatoes and green beans were the extent of my vegetables, and I became a vegetarian overnight. I started doing Hatha Yoga about four hours a day, and just started kind of turning myself inside, just I think in response to something that I didn’t really know what I was responding to.
Rick: I always think of past lives when I hear stories like that, like you had built up a lot of spiritual momentum and it was time for it to resume.
Swami: Exactly right, and I describe it, it really is… it kind of coincides with that, but it really is just the grace of some higher power, and that really is what I felt happened. So my friend said this, I started kind of penetrating, looking into spiritual work, lived in West Texas at the time. Shortly after that, moved to Colorado. Whole time I’m in Colorado, people are saying to me, “You ought to go to Indiana, it’s the greatest place on earth”. Okay, well, after about 50 of those people telling me that, getting tired of Colorado, I went to Indiana, and three days after I’m there, I’m walking down the street, I look up and I see this poster, and it’s this large man with a bald head and these penetrating eyes and I said, “Oh, that’s who my friend was telling me about”. He never knew the person’s name, he didn’t know anything, what his name was, anything like that, and it just clicked, that’s who it was. And the next night he was giving a lecture in Bloomington, Indiana, and I went, and as they say, the rest is history. But it really was for me, in a sense, that grace, just dropping enough nourishment on that seed inside for it to start to grow, and it took about a year, year and a half for that to kind of emerge out of me enough that I was able to then meet Rudi. So that was wonderful for me.
Rick: I often, I mean it may seem a little esoteric, but in my own life I sometimes think of incidents that happened, things I did when I was a teenager and I think, “I should have died then, you know, that was so crazy what I was doing”. And I sort of feel like, based upon what I’ve done with my life since then, I was being saved for something, you know, there was some kind of contract or pre-arranged, maybe this is just imaginary, but pre-arranged sort of destiny that I had to fulfill and I was protected, so that I could fulfill it.
Swami: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I describe my life as BR and AR, before Rudi and after Rudi, because my life before I met Rudi was a lot of pain, a lot of suffering, a lot of confusion, and from the moment I met him there was a light that went off that started to dissipate all that confusion and I’ve done my best for the last 42 years to try to allow that light to show itself. And again, I really understand that was just the grace calling me back to myself and the important thing is that we respond to grace.
Rick: Yeah, nice. And for those who don’t know much about Rudi, he was a Westerner, right? I think he had a business as an art dealer or something in New York City?
Swami: Yeah, Rudi was an American, he lived in New York, he was Jewish. He had an art business of importing Oriental art from Asia, probably was one of the original key people who really began to import antiques and stuff out of India and Tibet and China. You know, he grew up through the Depression, had a really very difficult life, but early on began to have some spiritual calling in himself. And then he studied with Pak Subuh for a while, and Gurdjieff, and Rudi died when he was 45. So his spiritual practice really became in earnest when he was late, early to mid-20s and stuff. And then kind of the most pivotal time for Rudi was around 1961. He went to India again on a buying trip and someone told him about this saint named Bhagavan Nityananda who lived about 60 miles outside of Mumbai in a little town called Ganeshpuri. And he went there and he met Rudi and he defines that as the defining moment of his life.
Rick: And people may recall that Swami Nityananda was Swami Muktananda’s guru.
Swami: That’s right, Rudi was in fact… So Nityananda passed away in ’61, Rudi met him in 1959 and probably only was in his presence two or three times. And then after ’61 when Nityananda took Mahasamadhi, Rudi became a student of Muktananda for about 10 years, and in fact was the person who brought Muktananda to the United States – the first two world tours that he did.
Rick: Why is Muktananda not mentioned much when you read the history, your history and your lineage and all that? Did Rudi consider Muktananda somehow just a… I don’t know, maybe you can answer the question.
Swami: Well, the reason that he’s not mentioned is that in 1971 Rudi broke from Muktananda. There was an official break, if you will. Rudi… his relationship with Muktananda was very powerful and Muktananda had enormous energy and Rudi took a lot from him. His primary relationship with Muktananda was because of the amazing relationship that he had with Nityananda, mostly after Nityananda died, and in a sense he was using the energy of Muktananda to gather strength in himself to further that relationship with Nityananda. And the relationship with Muktananda was difficult, and there was a certain point where he made a break from that. So that was before I ever met Rudi a couple of years, and in every set of organizations, every student-teacher relationship, there’s always the dynamics, and so Rudi stayed with him for about 10 years and then felt it was time to make a break from him. So that’s why he’s not really part of our history.
Rick: Okay, and I wouldn’t personally have a problem with that. For many people, an association with a particular teacher is a transitional thing, it may serve its purpose for a certain number of years and then at a certain point it doesn’t serve its purpose anymore. Lifelong commitment is not necessarily the name of the game, and you’re not necessarily flaky if you move on to something else at a certain point.
Swami: That’s right, because really the role of the teacher is to support the freedom that’s trying to take place in the student, and so the student has to know in themselves whether that support is there, and at a certain point that freedom expands to the point where, as you said, that particular relationship doesn’t really serve that anymore. And so it’s never about a teacher holding on to students, it’s about freeing them to find themselves.
Rick: Yeah, I was in the TM movement for many years and at a certain point Deepak Chopra was in the TM movement and he had a very close relationship with Maharishi and at a certain point it just didn’t fit anymore. He was too independent in his thinking, kind of too creative and so on, to fit into the mold of an organizational hierarchy. And so he struck out on his own, not with any sour grapes, but it was just, “Okay, it’s time for me to move on”, and obviously he’s done a lot of things he could never have done had he stayed in the context of that organization.
Swami: That’s right, yeah, that’s right.
Rick: So you met Rudi in ’72, I believe you said?
Swami: It was, let’s see, I always forget. It was late ’71, yeah, in actually October 10th of 1971.
Rick: Actually, before we get into that, so did Rudi’s spiritual practice consist of, I mean, mainly Shaktipat and being in the presence of Nityananda and Muktananda, or did they advocate a particular practice that he engaged in for so many hours a day or something?
Swami: Both. Basically, Rudi, the work that he gave us, which was an internal meditation practice, which was focusing on the awakening of the Kundalini within our psychic bodies. And so Rudi taught that. He actually developed a couple of different breathing techniques, meditation practices that seemed to be, if you will, of his own creation.
Rick: Which were conducive to awakening the Kundalini?
Swami: Which were conducive to really bringing our awareness into the psychic body, channeling that through all the chakras and allowing it to rise back up through and out the center of the head. And I would say that he taught what he called the “double breath”, which is simply using two breaths, but mostly it’s the internalization of the energies of our life and our mind, etc, putting it back through the psychic body and becoming aware of and establishing ourself in a flow of energy inside, to feel that intrinsic shakti that moves through our system. And I would say, probably that was one of the really key gifts of Rudi, was that very powerful focus on finding and establishing that flow in ourselves, in our meditation, but then also as we move through our day, as we walk through our day. So meditation wasn’t something that we sat for three hours and then went about our business. We meditated for three hours and then as we move through our day, he taught us that we can have the capacity to feel our heart open, to feel this energy moving through us, and to feel, if you will, a vertical flow within ourselves, so we’re connected to that higher spiritual force. And we can also extend that flow from our own center and connect to the people, the dynamics that we’re engaged in with life, so he described that as vertical flow and horizontal flow. And that emphasis on flow and the importance of you being aware of that flow at every moment of your day was a powerful, powerful experience for people, and not to be honest, not something that a lot of practices emphasize. You meditate and then, okay, go away and then come back tomorrow and meditate, right? Nothing wrong with meditation, but in a sense it’s saying, “Meditation is about consciousness and being aware at all moments”. So that was one of the real fundamental strengths of Rudi’s practice.
Rick: Did you find that in doing something all day, in addition to your regular meditation, it was perhaps slightly distracting? I mean, if you had to run a business or do something that demanded a lot of focused attention, was there a sort of division of the mind if you’re trying to focus your attention on your job and at the same time maintain awareness of your breath or whatever the nature of the technique was?
Swami: You know, that’s a question that I get often, as I teach and stuff. And I think what takes a while for people to understand is that we function within multiple dimensions of consciousness within ourselves. And so our mind, our brain, is there to function and engage the world and make decisions and type and all that stuff, and we can do that while at the same time, be aware in a different place than ourselves, in our psychic body, and those can go on simultaneous without conflicting with each other. So we don’t have to stop meditating in order to focus or stop focusing in order to meditate, and that’s a very powerful experience when you begin to really understand and experience that you can function from both places, because it starts to really give us insight that life is energy. And all these energy – different frequencies of energy, if you will, one frequency that functions from the mind, another that functions from the heart, etc – those are all a matrix, a weave of energies that are happening. And the practice of Kundalini Yoga is to become aware of all those energies and to function within all of them at the same time.
Rick: So is there a bit of an ebb and flow? So for instance, like if you’re driving down the highway and there’s not much going on, you could pretty much be very much aware of this energy thing, but then all of a sudden if some guy cuts in front of you and you have to deal with an emergency situation, you’re going to forget about that because your attention is demanded?
Swami: Yes, because one doesn’t counteract the other, and ultimately the experience that people want to have is that you can be in the deepest, most profoundly still place in yourself at every moment and deal with the truck coming at you on the highway, without losing that contact with yourself. So again, it becomes a juggling… not a juggling act, you’re juggling all the balls at once and you don’t have to lose one in order to deal with the other.
Rick: What I find actually is that sometimes in the more demanding situations, the inner silence becomes more noticeable. Like if you’re running through an airport or something and it’s all crazy, the contrast between the silence and the craziness is more obvious than if you’re just sitting at your desk doing an email or something.
Swami: That’s right. And the power of really that is that we start to understand that that presence, that stillness, is the source of all that noise, if you will, it’s the source of all that energy. And so by maintaining our contact with that source, we can then engage with all the resonance that that creates, because they’re not separate from each other. We don’t have to separate one in order to deal with the other.
Rick: In addition to teaching the kind of practice you described, did Rudi do Shaktipat?
Swami: Yes, Rudi’s… So that meditation practice of the double breath and really focusing on that flow was really the discipline practice that he gave to us, “You do this”, right?
Rick: And you give to your students still?
Swami: Yeah, and I still give to Rudi. That double breath is the foundational breathing meditation technique, if you will, of our practice.
Rick: And if somebody wanted to learn that, I mean, we haven’t really provided adequate description just now, right? They’d have to do something more formal to…
Swami: Yeah, they would want to go to a class with somebody who teaches this, and we give an introduction where people learn that before they come to class. So before they come to our, what we call “eyes open” class, which is transmission of Shaktipat, then they have to come to the intro, learn the breathing exercise, understand that they’re basically going to be sitting, looking, facing the teacher, he’s going to be facing you with his eyes open, and that’s an interesting experience for some people just inherent in that. But so that meditation technique is the technique we use in our private meditation. And it’s the same technique that we use as we’re sitting in class and receiving Shaktipat, because there are… Shaktipat translates as the descent of grace. It’s the transmission of a spiritual force, and there are four ways that Shaktipat is transmitted – through the eyes, through the touch, through word, or thought. And depending on the mastery of the teacher, those may have different power held within them. But the open-eyes class, the open-eyes transmission and the touches, is the strongest, because there’s more of a direct experience, particularly the student can be more aware of it, right? And so, Rudi’s class, what we call “open-eyes class”, is sitting in class with the students facing the teacher, and that eyes-open transmission of that spiritual force. And then after the eyes-open part, then the teacher would move around the room and place his hands on the forehead or the heart chakra, and again transmit that energy. That was, I would say, that is Rudi’s teaching, the transmission of Shaktipat. And that’s not particularly common, even though historically, through Tantric Shaivite practices it’s understood, it’s not something that there’s that much of going on at the moment, and particularly when Rudi started teaching it.
Rick: Right. And obviously, a person has to be really qualified to do it. Any old guy can’t just go start doing Shaktipat, he’s got to have the Shakti to do it.
Swami: Well, you would think so. You hope so, yes.
Rick: Right. I would say, I can think of a couple of examples. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, I think, probably did it through his words, he was an eloquent speaker. But in his presence there was a profound influence, your whole consciousness would shift. And you know, Amma, the hugging saint, does it through touch.
Swami: Exactly, because ultimately, yeah, you’re right, it is that grace, that presence that’s being transmitted, so whether it’s look or touch or thought, or even reading a book, somebody’s words… To be honest, that is only limited by the student in the sense of their state of preparation to receive.
Rick: Yeah, in fact, I just got an email from somebody this morning who said that her first Kundalini experience, which was apparently quite profound, was… she was working at an office in New York and somehow or other. She picked up a copy of Muktananda’s book and just looked at his picture and she totally got zapped. I don’t even think she knew who Muktananda was at the time.
Swami: Right, right, right, here’s this guy on the back of this book. That’s right, it happens a lot, you know, because it’s that inherent power that’s ready to spring forth, if you will, and to… In a sense, grace finds its own recipient, right? And so when a person, when some higher awareness is trying to awaken in a person, it calls forth to itself the energy that it needs to awaken, right? And that’s grace.
Rick: So you started doing this with Rudi back when you first met him, you did it for a year and a half until Rudi passed away, but he also qualified you as a teacher early on.
Swami: Yeah, I met him in October and I actually started teaching the following May.
Rick: So just six months or something.
Swami: About six months, and I still scratch my head at… Clearly he could see more about me than I could see about myself at the time. So I was very fortunate to receive that initiation from him, and he of course initiated a number of people at that time, and we all had different ashrams. There was a group of ashrams in the Midwest, ten or twelve of them, and another eight to ten or so in Texas. Stuart Perrin was the person who originally started the ashram in Texas, and a man named Chetanananda was the person who started the ones in Bloomington, Indiana, and that’s where I met Rudi, right? So Rudi wanted to develop ashrams and develop teachers, and so he started a lot of us when we were young.
Rick: When you started teaching at that young age, after having only been with him for six months – when you look back on that now, do you feel like you were pretty green by comparison with the way you are now? I started teaching very young too, I became a TM teacher when I was 21, and when I look back at that, I was just like this crazy kid, you know? I had something, but there definitely was plenty of room for maturation and deepening and what not.
Swami: Yeah, of course, and thank God, because I wasn’t even a green apple that was waiting to ripen and turn red, I wasn’t even the seed yet at that point. One of the wonderful things about this particular practice is that because of the transmission of Shaktipat really being… that is the teaching, right? So even as a young person, you know, that seed is installed, that energy is released in you, you’re given the instruction on how to set and, if you will, transmit that energy. And from that moment to this moment and 30 years later, it’s all about the deepening of our capacity to surrender and allow that vital force, that spiritual force, to move through us. So in a sense, being a 21-year-old didn’t limit that on one level, because it wasn’t my energy that I was trying to transmit, my wisdom I was trying to transmit. It was really trying to get out of the way, and of course, 42 years later, then fortunately I can get out of the way a little more, so that it does grow. I guess when you’re young, that young, you don’t really think you’re young, there’s not as much self-reflection as you probably should be. So I never really sat around, “Oh, I don’t really know how to do this”, or “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this”, or “I’m limited”. But A) I was grateful for the explosion of my heart when I met Rudi, and when he asked me to teach, all I could do was of course say yes and try to do what I could to honor that.
Rick: So in retrospect then, after having been with him for six months, you were starting to do Shaktipat of some kind – some transmission, eyes-open thing – and you feel that there was definitely some benefit to people, even then, after such a short time of study, that you were actually transmitting something.
Swami: Yes, yes, because I think anybody that would initiate somebody like that, certainly I’ve initiated people, you have to see some capacity for them to let go of themselves, to get out of the way, right? And certainly, obviously Rudi saw that in myself, where he wouldn’t have done it. So yes, in a sense… in some ways I would say the experience that people had with me, as I said in class 42 years ago and now, is only different by the degree of intensity. The energy was still there.
Rick: Same thing.
Swami: Yeah, exactly.
Rick: Usually when you hear Kundalini, you hear all sorts of horror stories about how difficult it is and how people are screaming and writhing on the floor and fire going up their spines and ending up in a mental hospital, and it’s scary. And we hear stories of misdirected Kundalini and prematurely awakened Kundalini and without proper guidance and so on and so forth. In fact, just this morning again, I get a lot of emails from a friend of mine who knew I was going to interview and who went through the whole Kundalini thing and fortunately came out smooth and clear on the other side, said, “It can be dangerous. One needs close guidance if on that trip and most don’t get it, they’re playing with fire and depending on the sensitivity of one’s nervous system, physiologically as well as psychologically, it can be a disaster. Even if it does result in Shiva meeting Shakti, which is rare, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one lands in the true self, as Ramana said”. And she goes on, but you know, the point she’s making is that it can be difficult and dangerous and I’m sure you’ve heard all that and taken it into account and maybe you yourself went through some difficult periods, I don’t know. So can you address that?
Swami: Yeah, and you know, it is a question that I get a lot and people say to me, “Oh, should I be afraid of my Kundalini awakening?” and I say, “I would be afraid if it doesn’t”. In ancient Tantric Shaivite practices, of which the practice of Kundalini is the goal, the purpose, right? It is, within its own exposition, is that our freedom to know God is only achieved through the awakening of that Kundalini, of that Kundalini which is, we are dormant to its force within us and we awaken it and allow it to move up through the psychic body and to, if you will, to burn through the impurities, the levels of misunderstanding within us. And so it’s understood that as that energy rises back through the psychic body, through our psychic body, burning away those blocks, etc, that in a sense it’s returning back to its source, which is Shiva, which is consciousness, right? Yes, as it is released, you are infusing a powerful force into, again, every dimension of yourself. It’s awakening inside this psychic body, but it has to impact our mental and emotional states etc, and it can be challenging and it can be scary for people. And there are instances where people have a spontaneous awakening, if you will, but here’s the thing that you have to – a couple of things that I’d say about that. There is no spontaneous awakening of Kundalini. Kundalini decides to awaken in us, right? That is Shiva’s own creative force, which creates us as a universe, as an individual, and sustains us as a universe, and it decides that it’s going to awaken. It’s not like some teacher decides, “Okay, I’ll awaken their Kundalini”, right? Even going to be in the presence of a teacher who might be able to do that, is that innate energy already calling forth from itself. In the process, what happens is that our limited perspective, our limited views, our limited understanding of who we really are, definitely gets challenged, definitely gets challenged. And so the lucky people in that process are people who understand that that intensity is part of the process, that it’s part of the process of, if you will, having our own misunderstanding burnt out of us. And that’s why Kundalini is referred to as fire. Having said that, without guidance, it becomes a challenge for people. And we certainly know that, particularly in the 70s and 80s, there were a lot of people who were diagnosed as not quite sane, that really was a Kundalini awakening in their body. And of course, traditional medicine knew nothing about that, and so they couldn’t do anything except try to drug them.
Rick: I think it’s happening even now. I get emails from people because this show is out there, and people in various stages of realization of what’s happening to them. Some of them realize that something good is happening and they just need to find a teacher to help them deal with it, and others, it’s like, “What’s wrong with me? Do I have some disease or something?”
Swami: Yeah, so you know, you reach your finger into a socket – an electric socket – it’s going to affect all the different systems within you, that power. And if we don’t have the mechanism to open and channel that energy through us, then what happens is, as this energy is released in the psychic body, if we don’t really understand how to keep it flowing within the psychic body, then it immediately infuses that energy into the mind, into the emotional state, and it’s a big impact, and most people can’t handle that kind of elevated strength into it. So the answer is, when that’s happening, hey, I would always just go find somebody who knows how to guide you through it, right? Find somebody who can not only guide you emotionally and mentally through it, but can give you the techniques to channel that energy back in yourself. And you know, that’s what’s really… I mean, I think in one sense that’s the only solution, is to be able to learn how to channel that energy back into the psychic body from which it’s being released. Because as soon as it gets into the mind, it gets into the emotions, it’s just too powerful and it presses against the boundaries of the mind and the emotions.
Rick: And what would the symptoms of that be? What would a person be experiencing if that were happening? Like fear and emotional volatility and stuff like that?
Swami: Exactly right, exactly right. And you’ll still experience all that, even with the guidance, right? But you’ll understand it as part of the process, and most important, you have a mechanism for channeling that, for transcending that level in ourselves that’s being pressed by the whole thing, right? Because again, in Shaivite practices, it’s understood that the mind, the emotional states are limited states of consciousness within a human being, right? And that again, this awakening of Kundalini is awakening us to higher levels of consciousness. And whenever – it’s called “resistance”, right – the ego resists being changed, it resists having its own boundaries being broadened, and that’s where most of the suffering really happens. And so people begin to learn that they can, if you will, they can burn with the process, they can burn with their emotions, they can burn with their fears, they can still find some place of clarity and stillness, even in the midst of all that. And it doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s much more possible when we hold clear to what we’re really trying to accomplish in our life.
Rick: I think just the knowledge that something good is happening can go a long way to making it easy. Because if you don’t think that, you’re struggling against it, you’re recoiling and reacting and so on, but if you’re convinced that, “Ah, this is a blessing, something good is happening here”, then you can begin to cooperate and can make a world of difference.
Swami: Yeah, I think that’s really well said, and unfortunately, some people, this happens to them and they don’t know that, they don’t know what’s happening at all, so they don’t even know to ask if it’s good or bad, it feels bad, etc and…
Rick: Run to a doctor.
Swami: Run to a doctor, right, and they unfortunately don’t know how to deal with it.
Rick: Well that kind of loops back to something you said a few minutes ago, which is that you don’t decide to awaken Kundalini, it decides when to awaken, which implies that it’s intelligent. It’s not just some abstract energy, and hopefully it implies that it’s benign. It’s not going to awaken in someone who can’t handle it, but we’re kind of alluding to situations in which it does. So why would it awaken in someone who hasn’t a clue what’s going on and who may not have undergone enough purification to be able to deal with it?
Swami: Well, it doesn’t happen.
Rick: Very often.
Swami: Well, ever, it never opens unless maybe through a series of past lives, etc, a person is ready for that. And in this particular incarnation, they kind of forgot enough blankets have been thrown over the light, they didn’t really get it, and so, if you will, there’s a saying, “Shiva never gives you more than you can handle”, right? And that’s really true. We just don’t know it, we don’t know that we can handle it, right? And so, because look, Kundalini, the way you would define Kundalini is that Kundalini is the individuated expression of the Divine. We are alive because of that Kundalini. There’s Kundalini, there’s three fundamental levels that we understand, that Kundalini, which is the Prana Kundalini, which is the life force of our breath that’s giving life to our physical bodies. We all know, you stop breathing, boom, you’re gone, right? That’s called Prana Kundalini. Chit Kundalini is the life of our mental and emotional states, right? So we have a body, we have a mind, we have an emotion, all different dimensions, and what’s called Para Kundalini is that life force of our spiritual self, right? And so, they’re never separate from each other in that sense, but that triad of understanding of how the Kundalini creates an individual is the understanding that the practice of Kundalini is attempting to happen. And so over time we begin to understand we are not who we think we are, we’re not alive because we have a body, we’re not who we are because we have a mind. We are simply Shiva incarnate, in that sense. We are an individuated expression of that Divine force. How could that Divine force that created us ever harm us? It created us and it created it out of its own expression of freedom. Coming to that place of understanding, okay, a few years of sadhana is necessary, right?
Rick: Yeah, and I think you can even broaden that to say that in the big picture, if you zoom the lens back far enough, everything that’s happening to everybody – Kundalini or anything – is ultimately part of a grand evolutionary scheme. Getting hit by a bus might not seem like such a good thing to have happen, but in the biggest picture of things it’s all is well and wisely put. Either God is omniscient and is permeating every iota of creation, or He either doesn’t exist or He’s isolated off in some corner, and is more or less helpless. I prefer the first scenario.
Swami: That’s right, and He’s not just sometimes omniscient, right? He’s not just omniscient when we like what He’s doing for us or to us, right? And that’s really part of the challenge of sadhana, of spiritual practice for people, is to get past the duality of our own mind enough to be able to see the perfection in life even in the intensity, the challenging moments, all the adversity, that in fact that adversity is created from within us, projected on our own screen of consciousness to show us our own misunderstanding, right?
Rick: Yeah, and when you say something like that someone might think, “Well that sounds awfully cruel, I mean, what about the people in the Holocaust? What about a child who’s sexually abused? Did they create that to show them their own misunderstanding?” But again, if we feel like ultimately there’s an evolutionary momentum that is governing and motivating all life towards a final awakening or realization, then how could anything be outside of the realm of that?
Swami: That’s right, so it all has to be perfect, and so then the reality is that we experience difficult situations, we die before we’re supposed to die, etc, for a number of reasons, karma being one of them, right? But even stepping back from karma, it is our own, it is the evolution of consciousness itself and us as individuated expressions of that, and our own individuated expression has one goal, you know, it’s the salmon swimming upstream, it’s to get back home. And so people die, the good they do die young, well all that means is they’re moving to the next life so they can keep going, right?
Rick: Yeah, might be time for an upgrade.
Swami: Exactly right, I mean, you know, Rudi died when he was 45, we’re all thinking, “Hey, what’s going on here?” Well, he had freed himself, he was done, and it was time, so I always say to people, Rudi, the two great gifts he gave to me was living and dying, right? Living and letting me know him, and then the moment of his death, for 30 seconds, man, I was ready to go with him, and you just never thought you’d survive it. And in the middle of it, and again, it was just great, in the middle of this intense anguish, right, something said to me, “He’s free! Why are you unhappy? How could you be unhappy for your own teacher? This is what he worked his entire life for!” And so you’re right, it’s a question of how zoomed in the microscope is, and the problem is, we believe this is our life, instead of understanding this is God’s life, right? And God has a plan, you know, which is to express his own freedom, and our individual lives is just part of the evolution of that.
Rick: Nice. I’m reminded of that Gita verse, “You grieve for those for whom there should be no grief, yet speak as do the wise. Wise men grieve neither for the dead nor for the living”.
Swami: That’s wonderful, yes, yes, exactly right.
Rick: So you said a few minutes ago that Kundalini awakening is part and parcel with God-realization, so I suppose we could presume that anybody who was God-realized – Jesus or Buddha or whoever – must have had their Kundalini awakened, even though they may not have spoken in those terms, but it’s sort of a universal procedure, you would say.
Swami: Yes, in the sense that ultimately a fully-realized, awakened Kundalini is really the samavesha, the union of consciousness and the energy that expresses itself out of itself. And that oneness is that experience, really, that ultimate Kundalini leads us to. And even the tantrics who practice Kundalini, they’re not saying, “Okay, open this tracker, do this, feel this flow, do that”, they’re saying that it is the return of our individuated life force, which is the Kundalini, back to its source, which is consciousness. That is the awakening of Kundalini, right? And so that can happen, for many people, that can happen without a lot of arduous practice and feeling this flow and that tracker, that’s more rare, right? And in tantric practices there are what are called the upayas, that also exist in Buddhist practice, and the upayas mean the means of liberation, right? And there are four, and they typically are talked about from the top down. Anupaya, right, means “no path”. That means, we’re born – we open our eyes, we’re born that way. Many great saints, this is the case, right? Certainly Nityananda, who was the wellspring of our particular current lineage, was considered to be an avadhuta, a person who was born free, if you will. That anupaya means “God is just manifest as an individual and they know they’re God”, right?
Rick: Like an avatar.
Swami: Like an avatar, yes, right. Avadhuta is the same word, yes, exactly. The next level down is called sambhavopaya, which is the path of awareness, right? Which means, through our practice – sometimes just spontaneous – but through our practice we merge back to that clarity of awareness that we are simply God expressing himself, right? And that’s a real practice. Dzogchen, the highest practice in Dzogchen, when you hear people say, “Do nothing”, well, they’re really saying, “You’re not doing anything, God is doing all this stuff”, right? And that’s a powerful, a real understanding we all want to come to, and for some people, they weren’t just born to it, but just beginning through Shaktipat, through some point of grace, some practice, all of a sudden that awareness just shines forth, right? So that’s the next level down, if you will. And the next one is called shaktopaya, which is the path of energy, which is, again, that’s really beginning to… that we’re understanding life as energy, we’re understanding life as a dynamic flow, and we’re understanding life as a dynamic flow, being expressed out of consciousness, but the way back to that consciousness is through engaging ourselves and life as energy, and in a sense, consuming that energy and allowing it to rise back to consciousness. And then the last one is called anavopaya, which is the path of effort, the path of the individual, right? And this is where mantra and practice and service and all these things fit into that, right? So typically, those aren’t linear, exactly, even though one may be more prominent than the other at a particular given time, they’re a progression even though they’re not linear. So most people come to a practice, some teacher gives them a breathing exercise and this and that, and they’re making an individual effort. That individual effort ultimately connects them to the power of life, which they begin to function from that power, and that power begins to function through them, and they begin to understand that consciousness is the source of that power. And that’s in a sense, that’s kind of the simple version of the upayas.
Rick: Seems like there must be a pyramid in which the first upaya is at the peak and very few people fit there, and then the pyramid broadens as it goes down and the majority of people would be on the fourth one that you mentioned.
Swami: Exactly, perfectly stated, it’s the food chain, right? The food pyramid, yes, that’s exactly right. And so we come into this life, again, through our own evolution, right, through our own karma, and as that awareness, as that consciousness begins to waken up in us, in a sense it awakens to its own level, right? You know, somebody who just really, through a few years of practice, all of a sudden they just really function from that higher consciousness, if you will, that’s sambhava upaya, right? And you know, the next person may come in and have to dig ditches for 25 years just to be able to be in the presence of the guru, you know, traditionally that’s what happened. You know, in the old days of India, you come, you want to practice with a guru, “okay, fine, go out there and I’ll see you in 12 years, go out there and dig some ditches”. And what would they do? They were really giving that person the opportunity to make an effort in themselves to feel qualified to receive, because so many people don’t feel qualified, right? So then that simple effort qualifies people.
Rick: And maybe to burn off karma. I was just reading a story the other day about Ramana Maharshi and he had some disciple and he just worked the guy really hard for about a dozen years and one day he just said, “Okay, you’ve burned off your karma, now you can relax”.
Swami: Right, right. And for those of us that did know Rudi – I always say I knew him for two years, the reality was about 16 months – but the last two years of Rudi’s life, everybody that was around him, our experience was like it was 20 years, right? And everybody said, “You look up, ‘Well, I’ve been doing this for 20 years,’ and it happened to be two years”. And that was the kind of acceleration of growth that happened for Rudi and therefore the people around him that could really take it and receive it. Of course, when he passed, a lot of people, it was aborted because they couldn’t hold on to it, understandably.
Rick: It kind of reminds me of when we’re little kids and a year can seem like a really long time, because you’re changing so fast, you’re growing so fast during that period. And then a year goes by and it’s like, “Yeah, nothing”.
Swami: Right, yeah, right, yeah. That’s right. And you know, our experience of being around Rudi was timeless. I used to go, typically I would go on a Friday night, I would fly to New York from Indiana, and I’d get there about 7 o’clock at night on Friday, and I would leave Monday in the evening. And by Sunday morning it’s like, “I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but it’s just forever”. And there was just no time around him, because both the speed of the acceleration and the stillness in which it happened, and that was always an amazing experience. So all of us, you know, knew Rudi, always say, “Well, yeah, that two years, that was receive so much from him.
Rick: Right. Well, see the kind of guy when you’d sit in his presence and just the room was saturated with Shakti, and you’d walk in there and you’d just feel a transformation just from sitting there, he just kind of radiated and filled the room with energy. Was that the nature of the experience?
Swami: Yeah, you know, I call, always speak of Rudi as a tsunami of energy, because it was just, you walked in the room and it filled the room, it expanded the room. And after not very long of being around him, you realize, “Don’t enter that room until you’re ready. Don’t enter that room until you’re really open enough to receive it”. And he also let you know when you walked into the room and you weren’t really open enough to receive it.
Rick: Those who are listening, if they’ve never had that experience of being around someone who has that kind of influence, I really hope they find that opportunity, because it’s really precious.
Swami: It is, it is, it is. It is a transformative energy that you can only be grateful for, really.
Rick: Yeah, exactly. So yourself, we haven’t talked much about your own Kundalini awakening, and since Kundalini is sort of central to your whole teaching, did you go through discernible, definable stages of Kundalini awakening, some initial eruption and then various stages and then some final culmination or some such thing?
Swami: That’s an interesting question, and I would say there was, in a sense, there were phases of it, but not very discernible phases. Meeting Rudi in that first couple of years was, it was just intense, and it’s like every day you were a different person. Every day your boundaries were being pried open, and so the two years that he was alive that most of us knew him, it was just like fighting a forest fire the whole time, you know, you’re just there. And so I would say the next 10-12 years after Rudi passed was really the same kind of intensity, but it was the intensity of absorbing what we had received. Because when Rudi integrated, because without his guidance, without his energy to sustain that bigness and that openness in us, then of course we start contracting, we start this and that, and so the work was really holding onto it. And in that process of holding onto it, then all your boundaries get threatened, all your boundaries get pressed, and you have to really learn to let go of your own limitations and who you think you are. And so that was really intense after Rudi died, and to be honest, many people didn’t survive it in the sense that they couldn’t hold onto the practice. Even most of the people Rudi initiated as teachers stopped teaching within a couple years, a few years after he passed.
Rick: That’s true of a lot of practices and teachers and teachings, there’s always an attrition.
Swami: Exactly, right. And I think Rudi knew that. He made a lot of people teachers. There’s probably five people that I know of that are still teaching, right? I always kind of talk to him about his Johnny Appleseed, you know, he just kind of spread all the seeds.
Swami: Through the seeds. And you know, Rudi died when he was 45. He kept telling us he was going to die in a light plane. Why he kept getting in a light plane, we don’t know. Okay, don’t do that again, okay? But then he kept saying, “I’m going to live until I’m 56”. Well my personal belief is that he knew he was going to die when he was 45, and he just didn’t want all of our emotional clinging to stop his process. But because he knew, in a sense, that he was moving on, and he had this incredible energy to share and to transmit and to give, he gave a lot. So he made a lot of people teachers in the hope that maybe it would stick in one of them, but he was not attached to whether it did or not.
Rick: Right. I’m just, yeah, I was reminded of a funny story. A friend of mine was in a small plane like that, a four-seater or something, with Maharishi one time, and they were going through all this turbulence, and the plane was just rocking all over the place. My friend was really scared, and then he thought, “Oh, I’m okay, I’m with Maharishi, nothing could happen”. Then Maharishi turned around and said, “You know, I’ll probably die in a small plane crash”. Of course, he didn’t, but I guess he was just messing with him.
Swami: Yeah, because Rudi kept getting in the planes and he kept saying, “Okay”.
Rick: It’s kind of interesting to think that he could have known when he was going to die. I think that’s one of the siddhis that Patanjali outlines, is knowing the time of your death. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility.
Swami: Yeah, I don’t remember, there’s a Sanskrit term for it, but a person who is understood to be freed of all karma then has the freedom to choose their time of their death. And that’s understandable, because it’s only our karma in a sense that binds us to this life. And so, whether he did or not, when I see him I’m going to ask him, right? “Let’s get clear about this”.
Rick: I’m reading a lot of stuff by David Godman right now, because I’m going to be interviewing him next week. And he’s the guy who wrote biographies of Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta and Papaji and some other Indian saints, spent his whole life doing that. And most of these guys, when asked how many people have actually gotten enlightened, say you could count it on your fingers. Papaji I think said, “Well, I know of two people, Ramana Maharishi and some guy I know who lives in the jungle”. And Ramana Maharishi said, “Well, my cow and my mother”. So what’s your take on that?
Swami: Well, you know, it’s such a depressing thing to admit that most people probably don’t become enlightened, because why bother then, right? In that sense, you know, when Nityananda passed, about three days before he passed, he was clearly dying, and one of his students went to him and said, “Baba, please, don’t go, we need you”. And Nityananda looked at him and he says, “If there were only three who really wanted what I have to give them, then I wouldn’t go”. And this is a person, like many great saints, literally he would see tens of thousands of people a day, in a given month. And so I think it speaks to the incredible opportunity and yet the incredible requirement to truly give our life back to God, so that the possibility of it can take place. Most of us don’t give our life back to God, and so it’s not even in the realm of possibility, right? Only once we’ve done that can I think it really take place. And you know, I guess the solace is that if you believe in karma, if you believe in our individuated expression, moving from one life to another until it ultimately frees itself, then we better do as much work as we can in this life anyhow, right? And of course, many practices, the Tibetans, they talk about merit, etc, right? In terms of building good karma, and so what else are we going to do, right? I mean, otherwise it’s just, we live a depressing life and there’s no possibility to know God, and that’s not a place I would want to live in, right?
Rick: Make hay while the sun shines.
Swami: That’s exactly right, yeah.
Rick: And anyway, you get to a point where even if you would not consider yourself, or truly speaking, are not enlightened, the spiritual practice is born fruit to a great extent, and life is really nice, you know? I mean, you’re not susceptible to a lot of the woes that befall most people in this world.
Swami: I think that’s really a very important point, and ultimately, I always say to people, you’ll never find enlightenment if you can’t find the joy of loving your own life, right? And coming to that place where we simply love our life and live in its perfection without trying to need it to change or stop it from changing, to just live in that place, that’s profound freedom, right? And from that place, perhaps ultimate freedom can take place. But that freedom from suffering, if you will, that freedom from just being beat up by life, and beating back on life, just moving from that place to that simple clarity of joy, that’s a good enough accomplishment, right?
Rick: Yeah, that’s big.
Swami: In that sense, yeah, exactly right.
Rick: So what do you make of all these people who were with Papaji or various other teachers and came back from India or whatever, proclaiming enlightenment or at least some profound awakening? Well, I have more I can say to that, but what would you say?
Swami: That’s an interesting one. I think if you have to proclaim your enlightenment, maybe there’s a chance you’re not. Well somebody once asked Rudi, “Are you enlightened? Have you seen God?” And he says, “I’ve gotten up to his knees”.
Rick: Ah, nice answer.
Swami: Yeah, it’s really great, because look, we know of great saints. Nityananda, for example, is a person, a person who didn’t speak, he didn’t sit around proclaiming any enlightenment or this or that. Ramana Maharshi, Shirdi Sai Baba, many great saints, not even just within Eastern-based religions, but so many great Christian saints, etc, you know, they just were there and they just were loving people and expressing that, and I think only the ego needs to somehow say, “Oh, I’m free of the ego”.
Rick: Maybe that’s what’s meant by that phrase, “Those who say don’t know and those who know don’t say”.
Swami: That’s exactly right, yeah. So I think enlightenment is possible and desirable. And certainly for myself, that union with God is the focus of my life and I at least attempt to make every decision that I make in relationship to that. And you know, the closer we get to God, then the more we know that it’s possible to know Him.
Rick: So, but like Rudi, who said that he was up to God’s knees, you would say, and you’re probably saying right now, that you consider yourself a work-in-progress, like pretty much everybody else on the planet.
Swami: That’s exactly right, yeah, that’s exactly right, because the reality is – and this is, again, from the tantric exposition – is that there is a moment where our individuality is absorbed back into infinite pure consciousness. That’s ultimately enlightenment, right? And so what I always say to people, “Stop worrying about enlightenment, because if you get it, you won’t be there to know it”.
Rick: Yeah, there’s no one there at your graduation.
Swami: Exactly right. We all want to be enlightened, but we want to hear the applause, right?
Rick: Yeah, and we can see examples of people who thought they were enlightened or proclaimed that they were enlightened, and what ended up happening was that their egos went crazy and became so exaggerated, and there’s all sorts of abusive behavior that took place and all kinds of things.
Swami: And it speaks to, really, the extraordinary, incredible power that is inherent within enlightenment, if you will, within understanding our own Source, right? And the problem is, we get seduced by that power, and we somehow think, “Oh, this is my power, look what I can do”, because we have some of that power of omniscience and omnipotence, and it’s flowing through us, and it takes just one-billionth of a second to get seduced by that and to lose sight of whose power it really is. And again, that’s kind of a frightening thing, because you see great saints who fell off the wagon, because you think, “Well, God, if they did it, I don’t have a chance”. Well, I always say to people, “When you get there, deal with it”, right? Get that kind of power and that kind of freedom, then worry about whether you’re going to lose it, right? But get it first, in that sense.
Rick: Yeah, probably that’s the significance of the story of Jesus fasting for 40 days in the desert and the devil tempting him, “Oh, I can give you all this and I can make you so great”, and all that stuff, and he was tempted by that thing you just said.
Swami: That’s exactly right. You see the same thing, you see the Buddha who sat down under the Bodhi tree and he put his finger on the ground, “I will not move until I know my own source”, and you see every kind of seduction happening around him and you just have to sit there in that stillness. That’s exactly right.
Rick: So, personally, I think, and this is apropos of what we’re talking about, I think that it would be valuable as we progress as a spiritual culture or subculture to get a clearer and clearer understanding of what enlightenment really is and what awakening really is and what the stages of it are and so on. Because what I see happening is so many people having fuzzy ideas about it, like if it were a trip from New York to California, being still in Indiana and thinking they’re in California or vice versa, there are rarer cases where someone really does have some genuine realization but thinks they’re nowhere, that’s probably the more healthy and safe one. But again, I was reading David Godman, he was saying there was this guy who would come to see Nisargadatta and the minute he would walk in the room – he was some Dutch fellow who was spending his time running around Europe teaching Advaita – and the minute he would walk in the room Nisargadatta would start screaming at him, “You’re not enlightened, you shouldn’t be teaching, sit down and shut up!” So on the one hand it’s valuable to have all these people out there, I think, a lot of people I’ve interviewed, it’s valuable to have many voices and many points of contact. It’s sort of like when someone said, “The next Buddha is the Sangha”, the thing is becoming decentralized and wider spread. On the other hand, there’s a danger, a pitfall, where someone can be misled or mislead themselves into what we might call “premature immaculation”.
Swami: Right, right, that’s exactly right. And you know, clearly that happens, and that all happens ultimately within the dimension of individuality, of ego. Only an ego says, “I’m enlightened”, right? And I think that the problem is, there’s not a roadmap, right? And there’s thousands of roadmaps on how to get to God, and everyone of them tells you to do something different or whatever. Each individual certainly has their own path to move through it, and I think that’s part of the challenge, is you can’t exactly describe it, and even if you could describe it, most people who haven’t had some insight to that couldn’t really understand it. The entire tantric exposition is an attempt to do that, right? And a man named Abhinavagupta, who is considered the greatest saint within the nondual Shaivite tradition, the 11th century saint, and he wrote an epic called the Tantraloka, right? And basically, it was 6,000 verses, and it’s called a manual for practice. And in that he attempted to take a lot of the kind of diverse tantric practices of the time and kind of codify them into one pathway, if you will, and in that process he describes what we can do as we move through the path and the stages of experience that we should be able to go through, right? And again, ultimately leading back to the experience of unity, of God-consciousness, and that’s a text that’s in the process of being translated by a number of people around the world. It’s still not really available, but enough of it has come out that we can begin to get some insight into it.
Rick: So even though, to stick with this map analogy for a minute, it’s like there are thousands of different ways to go from the East Coast to the West Coast, or even from the East Coast to one particular spot on the West Coast, Rudramandir, depending on where you’re starting from. And in this day and age, when the continent has been mapped so precisely, we have a pretty clear understanding of what our route is and what road marker, milestone we’ve reached in that process. But back in Lewis and Clark days, it was all very vague, we didn’t really know what was out there. So I sort of feel like, at least in our Western culture, we’re kind of in Lewis and Clark days in terms of understanding the whole road map and all the possible scenarios you’re going to encounter along the way. But these ancient traditions, perhaps such as Kashmir Shaivism and that text to which you just referred, have it mapped out pretty clearly. And we need not only the translation but the kind of adaptation of that understanding into our Western psyche, because there’s going to be a whole lot of terminology that’s unfamiliar to us and without a lot of experience, a whole lot of things that are said that we won’t be able to clearly relate to. We’ve never made the journey, so to speak.
Swami: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right, and that’s why it isn’t just a matter of translating the words, because there’s a lot of, if you will, esoteric hidden meaning built into it. And part of the problem with a person like that was such a master that his writing assumed a certain level of knowledge or awareness on the path of the people reading it. And it wasn’t until he wrote that in the 11th century, there was a man named Jayaratha, who in the 13th century did a commentary on it. And that’s one of the things that’s given people access to what Abhinavagupta was really trying to say in it. And so that’s really right. So from their perspective, this is the road map, right? Set your GPS here, right? Do this, do this, do this, right? Experience this. And ultimately, what it’s really saying is that we are moving back through the levels of consciousness back to its source. And if I had to define what Shaivism is really saying, that’s what it’s saying – is that we are freeing ourselves from limited consciousness, moving back through higher and higher levels of understanding, so that that becomes our understanding. And the only way we can do that is to really surrender our own limited understanding. And that’s the biggest challenge for people, is to let go of what they think they know, and who they think they are.
Rick: And so this actually had its origins back in Kashmir?
Swami: Yes, this being my practice, you mean?
Rick: Yeah, Kashmir Shaivism, I presume it’s from Kashmir, and of course, that’s a long distance from South India – where Shankara was – and yet there seems to be a lot of similarity between the teachings. Was there a collaboration way back then, or did these things spring up autonomously?
Swami: A little bit autonomously. Shaivism did start in Kashmir. Abhinavagupta lived in Kashmir, and really, in essence, all tantric practices really arose out of that region of northern India at the time, right? Over time, it spread throughout India and Asia. In southern India now, the most common practice is called Sri Vidya, which is the worship of the goddess Tripurusundari, the goddess Kundalini.
Rick: That’s interesting, that’s what Maharishi Mahesh Yogi said that his teacher practiced was Sri Vidya.
Swami: Right, yes, exactly.
Rick: He was a Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath.
Swami: Uh-huh, right, yeah, I didn’t know that. So that practice really reached its prominence around the 13th century, that was in a sense a maturation of the earlier practices. And the primary distinction in non-dual tantric practices, between that and dualistic practices, is the presence of shakti, the presence of energy, right? That consciousness isn’t just an inert energy, that it is shakti which is the expressive power of that consciousness, and which all manifestation takes place from. That is probably the fundamental distinction between non-dual tantric practices and other practices, is the awakening to and the palpable experience of shakti, of energy within ourself, and to be able to follow that energy back to its own source. Because before those practices became prominent, that was not a discussion that was happening, it was just about consciousness.
Rick: Right, right. So it was more of an abstract thing rather than a practical thing, I get the sense.
Swami: In a sense, you could say that, because if we don’t have the capacity to just grasp consciousness, we’re kind of lost, but we can all feel energy, we all know we can feel energy, right? And so, actually my latest book that’s about to come out is called “Shiva’s Trident”, and it’s really a discussion about becoming one with the emission of the powers of consciousness, which is energy, right? Penetrating back through that emission in order to find source. And so that’s what tantric practices are really saying, is that it is shakti that gives consciousness its own power, but also gives itself its own power, and that’s how manifestation etc, creation takes place. And that as individuals, we are that individual expression of that power, and so we follow that back into ourselves, again, awakening the psychic body etc, and allowing it to move back to its source that brings us “realization” or enlightenment. Sounds pretty simple.
Rick: It does, in a way. But it’s a nice expression because if there was a path or a course of manifestation or expression then it should be possible to do a 180 and follow that course or that path back from whence it sprang.
Swami: Exactly, and in fact, in Kashmir Shaivism there are what are called the tattvas, right? Tattvas means “thatness”, it really means levels of consciousness. And so tantric exposition says that infinite consciousness descends through 36 levels of contraction, right? And as it moves through these levels of contraction, then it’s creating within itself those levels of awareness within itself, right? And ultimately that’s even how physical manifestation takes place. So they’re describing infinite, pure consciousness all the way down into inner matter, and none of those things ever being separate from each other, and every level of consciousness having the consciousness above it inherent within it, right? And so that’s called the descent of consciousness, and the spiritual sadhana is the ascent of consciousness back to that source. And so that is the awakening of Kundalini, and that’s, again, Abhinavagupta, the book Tantraloka, that’s what he was really talking about, right? So it’s talking about that consciousness descends, right, and we can ascent to that. So I always say, “What comes down has to go up”.
Rick: Yeah, I’ve seen some physicists, one in particular I can think of, who have done a nice job in terms of mapping the correlation between what you just said, the manifestation of consciousness into more and more denser concrete forms, and the manifestation of creation as physics understands it from the sort of unmanifest, abstract field of pure potentiality to the initial sprouting of diversity and then more and more complexity and diversity until you eventually get to the concrete.
Swami: That’s exactly right, and it’s incredible to see how those two things are merging, how these modern scientists with all the microscopes and everything that they can do to discover that, how these ancient inner scientists have understood the same thing just through their own inner inspection, and it’s amazing to see how they’re coming together. Because, you know, particularly Westerners want proof.
Rick: Right. That’s an interesting point. The physicists get their proof through things like the Large Hadron Collider, which costs billions of dollars to build and uses half the electricity in Geneva to run and so on, but even then they’re only looking at little squiggles on a chart or something and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they personally are experiencing that ground of being, that ultimate reality. It means they’ve kind of, in a roundabout way…
Swami: Some mathematical way of defining it.
Rick: Yeah, of figuring out that it’s there. But if you think about it, I mean, the human nervous system is a far more sophisticated instrument than the Large Hadron Collider, and if we can learn how to fine-tune this instrument then that can be our path to direct living experience of that reality.
Swami: That’s right, that’s right. And fundamentally, it’s never a discovery of something outside of ourselves, never a discovery of something, “Oh, I just discovered a new galaxy”. It’s already inherent within it and really it’s just the opening to and allowing that to shine forth and enlighten us, if you will, that that’s really the work of sadhana, right? Get out of the way, right?
Rick: Yeah. And the physicists would say too that they’re not discovering anything that hasn’t always been here, you know, they’re just finally coming to terms with it. And in our own case there’s nothing to be developed, in a sense, there’s just something to be discovered which has been lying dormant, without our having been able to take advantage of it.
Swami: Yeah, exactly right, yeah, right.
Rick: I don’t mean to be doing so much of the talking, but this is kind of inspiring me.
Swami: No, please, yes, no, that’s great. And you know, each tradition has their own approach to that and a different name for it, etc I always quote the Dalai Lama who says, “There are thousands of paths to God, find one and become a master of it”. How wonderful, because who cares what religion, whatever, what we really all seek is the experience of knowing our highest self, of knowing God, if you will. And it’s just been amazing and shows just the limitation of human beings, that we fight wars over God.
Rick: Yeah, it’s crazy.
Swami: Yeah, it really is.
Rick: It’s like, I sometimes think of the analogy of two guys arguing over religion, or like two people sitting outside a restaurant, both starving, arguing over what the food might taste like.
Swami: Exactly right.
Rick: Just go in there and have a meal together and then they smell a little milk.
Swami: That’s exactly right, yeah. We always stop at the outside and eat the peanuts and wonder why we don’t get more to life than having the feast inside, we get filled up on the peanuts, so back to the right.
Rick: Now you’ve alluded to a couple of practices that you teach and that I guess are traditionally part of Kashmir Shaivism. You’ve also mentioned the word “tantra”, and of course a lot of times when people hear the word “tantra” they think of sex. And I know that there’s a whole wisdom to tantra which has little or nothing to do with sex, so could you explain a little bit what tantra is and how that fits into Kashmir Shaivism as a practice?
Swami: Yeah, well, yes, the tantric scripture are derived from what are called the agamas. Agamas are revealed texts, you know, it’s Moses finding the tablets, right?
Rick: Cognized, sort of.
Swami: Cognized, right. And so the ancient tantric exposition scripture was the expression of that revealed awareness, if you will. And so there’s lots of different traditions that emerged out of the expression of the tantras.
Rick: And what does the word “tantra” itself mean?
Swami: That’s a really good question, how do you answer “tantra”. One way you understand it is it would be defined as a continuous thread, right? And so what they’re really saying is there’s a continuous thread of knowledge or of consciousness that moves through life, right? And so then every kind of tradition interpreted by gurus and different traditions kind of took their own spin on the stuff and had their own teachings. And there are, within tantric tradition, the tantric scripture, the discussion of sexual union as part of a spiritual practice. And so there’s no exactly denying that that’s part of it. It’s always discussed as – I don’t know what the right word is – as one of the techniques, but certainly not a primary technique. And the problem of course is that as it came into America, that was the main thing that was picked up on.
Rick: Would it be correct to say that since that’s part of life for most people, then it needed to be put in a spiritual context and the evolutionary way of going about it needed to be taught. And so, fine, here’s this teaching to turn this into a more evolutionary thing, but obviously it’s not the totality of life, so there’s all this other teaching to pertain to all the other aspects of life.
Swami: Yeah, I think that’s very well said, Rick. And I think one of the things, the distinction I think would be also with this is that for most people sex is about desire, right? The tantra’s sexual activity, sexual union within the most authentic traditions is about union, right? About recognizing, so there’s no desire left, there’s only the fulfillment, the fullness of union, right? And so, to be very explicit, tantric sex is, there’s no ejaculation, that inner energy is resurfaced back inside, all strictly for the purpose of sending it back home, if you will, sending it back to its own source, right? So it wasn’t different than any of the other practices, the different meditation practices or breathing techniques, it was all one type of thing. So okay, you’re generating this life force in you, right? But instead of expressing it, right, to fulfill some limited desire, you’re reabsorbing it back into yourself to know its source.
Rick: Right. You became a Swami about 10 years ago or something, as I understand it?
Swami: Yeah, 2001.
Rick: And Chetananda didn’t make you a Swami, as I heard in that radio interview I listened to. You can tell me why or not, it doesn’t really matter. So you became a Swami by virtue of some woman in New York?
Swami: A woman in New York named Ma Yoga Shakti, who actually, after… when I moved to Berkeley in 2001, I actually came here and started my own center, and I did make a break with Chetananda around that time, and it was after that that I had wanted to take sannyas for a long time, and that was not something that he, up to that point, had conferred on anyone, right? His reason, that’s his business etc, but it was important to me, and so about a year after I moved here, it’s the miracle of modern-day technology. To be honest, I just kind of Googled “sannyas” and etc, and ultimately found this woman named Ma Yoga Shakti , who lived in New York City. She actually had met Rudi a long, long time ago, and I wrote her and said, “Look…”, I explained who I was and what I had done in my practice and why I wanted to take sannyas. And I was really clear, “I’m not looking for a teacher, I’m looking for somebody who can confer that on me, because it’s something that is my kind of final, formal way of declaring my service to God. And only a swami can confer sannyas, swamihood, on another person, so you can’t just say, ‘Okay, now swami’, right?” So she said, “If you come, I’ll meet you, if I feel this is something that you’re worthy of, then I’ll make that come, you know, I can confer that”.
Rick: Well I respect that you took it seriously and respected the tradition. I mean, there are all these people who came out of Osho, you know, calling themselves swami, and I thought, “How are they swamis?” You know, I mean, it seemed to kind of water it down a bit.
Swami: Yeah, and you know, the thing that mostly amazes me is people who used to be swamis. I mean, all these people, “Oh, I was a swami”, well, how do you give your life to God and then take it back, right? But yeah, so just like with the whole sex thing, and even becoming swami was just something that you did, and it was in a sense, unfortunately for most people, certainly not everyone.
Rick: The roads are kind of attractive.
Swami: Exactly, right. And when Rudi was teaching, and really the strength of the last few years of his life, we were all these kids coming out of the drug phase, etc, and while Rudi taught what he did, he brought none of the container of India with him, right? He was allergic to it because he knew the kind of superficiality of what he saw, what was happening in America, everybody was shaving their head, and Hare Krishnas, you know, etc, and so he was – we didn’t chant, we didn’t do anything like that, you know, and it was intentional on his part, because he saw the – he was interested in the content and not the container, and he recognized how quickly people can get hooked into the superficial aspects of whatever. And so, even with Shaivism, that was not something that Rudi studied. In fact, it was really a few years after his death that it really became to light. All the translations had been lost, so it was only in the early ’70s that we became more aware of it. And the extraordinary thing for me is how clear and in concert Rudi’s teaching were with Tantric Shaivism, even though he never read the scripture, he never used the language, you know, it’s just extraordinary. Even now, 40 years later, I’m reading and studying some of the highest Tantric texts that are available, and I’m reading and I’m saying, “Oh, that’s what he meant”, right?
Rick: But that was the Nityananda and Muktananda tradition, wasn’t it?
Swami: Well, it was the same thing. Nityananda certainly didn’t speak of Shaivism or anything like that. It was Muktananda who, again, in the early ’70s, began to be aware of these ancient Tantric Shaivite scriptures as they were being translated. Of course, he could read the Sanskrit, right? And he was the person who was saying, “This is our practice, this is what Nityananda gave to us”, even though Nityananda never used the term. So you have to credit Muktananda, from the spiritual teacher point of view, as one of the key people who introduced Shaivism to the Western world. There was a man named Swami Lakshmanjoo who lived in Kashmir.
Rick: Yeah, he was a good friend of Maharishi’s.
Swami: Yes, exactly right. And he was considered part of the living tradition, the last of the living tradition of Shaivism, and Muktananda spent some time with him. But he was one of the persons – again, not a Westerner – who was instrumental in this text, the scripture beginning to be brought out. And Muktananda recognized the same thing, that this practice that he was now the lineage carrier of was in fact Tantric Shaivism, even though Muktananda never said a thing like that.
Rick: It just kind of fit with their particular experience in teaching. It articulated it nicely, so they just discovered this mother-load of wisdom.
Swami: That’s right, it’s a very sophisticated framework, but having said that, what’s important is that the practice of Kundalini yoga, of awakening the Kundalini, is intrinsic to Tantric Shaivism practices. That is what it’s really describing. So even though Muktananda, Rudi, these people didn’t talk about it from that perspective, they talked about the awakening of Kundalini and Shaktipat. The Tantraloka that I mentioned, there are 37 chapters. One of the key chapters is about Shaktipat.
Rick: Not to jump around, but as a Swami does that imply that you are a recluse, a single man, or are you married?
Swami: No, I am not married, but I’ve lived with my partner, Sonia, for 25 years. There is a term called “grahasthya sannyas”, which means “householder”, and that is what my formal title would be. In some circles, that would be one step down from the highest level of sannyas. The reality is that there are five levels of sannyas that most Hindus would go through. The ultimate sannyas is the leaving of the family, the leaving of all worldly goods, not necessarily even correlate to spiritual advancement, right? And so that’s part of the confusion around the whole thing as well, right?
Rick: You’d be living in the jungle and be a lot more attached to things than some guy who’s running a business, you know?
Swami: Exactly right, yeah. So celibacy, vegetarianism, all these things are different parts of different levels of sannyas. And to be honest, in the Tantric tradition, sannyas was not a big deal. It wasn’t even part of the discussion, because they’re saying there’s nothing to be rejected, etc, right? And so sannyas is in a sense a rejection of something, it’s a giving up of something, and yet Lakshmanjoo became a swami. And I think for those of us in the Tantric tradition understand that really it is the surrendering of our limited self that really is what sannyas really means to us, and I think that’s an important thing to do, and that’s why I’m always scratching my head when somebody says, “I used to be a swami”, right? It’s called being an Indian giver, right?
Rick: Right, “I want myself back”.
Swami: “I want myself back”, exactly right. Yeah, yeah.
Rick: And of course, you know, a person can become a swami without really having surrendered their self to God, and they can also surrender their self to God without being a swami. I mean, external appearances really are pretty… they can be pretty meaningless sometimes.
Swami: Yeah, and you know, the reality is you can go to India and for five bucks on the corner, you can become a swami. Just find somebody that’s gone through it and, you know, pay them a little money and they do it, and it’s like everything else. There’s levels of authenticity and levels of superficiality within everything, right? But I personally took the vows and tried to live those vows as the tether to myself, the tether to my commitment to trying to serve God. And so, it was an important thing for me.
Rick: What are the vows?
Swami: Well, they’re lengthy, right? But fundamentally, and to be honest, I’m sitting there with this Indian woman, she’s throwing all this stuff out, right? And most of it, you don’t understand it. And I basically, all of a sudden, just started hearing this mantra in myself, what I kept saying every time, “You’re supposed to repeat what she’s saying”, well I kept repeating, “I surrender myself completely to you God, do with me as you wish”. And in a sense, that was my vow that I was repeating in myself, because I didn’t understand a lot of what she was saying.
Rick: Right, okay, that’s good. I mean, that pretty much takes care of everything.
Swami: Yeah, exactly right.
Rick: “I surrender myself completely, do with me as you wish”.
Swami: That’s right, yes.
Rick: Everything else would just be details of the same thing.
Swami: Yeah, because ultimately, I mean, taking sannyas, I believe, from my perspective, is about serving God, and you have to surrender yourself in order to do that.
Rick: So, is there anything we haven’t covered in terms of Kashmir Shaivism, or anything in your teaching that you feel we should cover?
Swami: I don’t think so, I think you’ve done a really good job of navigating through it, and we could spend days talking about it in detail, but I feel like you’ve asked really great questions and gave people an insight into it.
Rick: So you’re out there in Berkeley, and this Rudramandir looks like a pretty neat place. I mean, it’s a 20,000 square foot building and you’ve got all this stuff going on there, not all of which is directly related to what you do, but you kind of rent out the space to help pay for the building, and it sounds like a real lively scene.
Swami: Yeah, it’s a wonderful thing. Again, it’s 20,000 square feet and we acquired the building as the home for our own meditation practice for TrikaShala. Like most places, Berkeley is very expensive, and so part of the way we pay for the mortgage is we created this spiritual and healing center, and 99% of what goes on here is not our particular practice, right? And it was very important to us that people coming to Rudramandir not think, “Oh, I’m going to an ashram”, or “I’m getting involved in that particular practice”. In fact, most people who come here don’t really know about me or about the kind of underground practice that goes on. I did name it after Rudi – Rudra, Rudrananda was his name. Mandir means “temple”, it means “the place that Spirit takes up residence”, right? And so we have every kind of activity – massage therapy, psychology workshops, you name it, it happens here.
Swami: And it’s wonderful, and it was part of my vision when I first moved to Berkeley was to have a center like this. And I think we’re very pleased because Rudramandir has become a very important place in the East Bay for people to get in contact with themselves, whatever modality they use is not that important.
Rick: Yeah, I just got some email from Terry Patten, I’m on his mailing list, I noticed he was giving some kind of workshop there.
Swami: Yeah, they’re here all the time.
Rick: So that’s quite an accomplishment, I mean, it must have been no small feat to pull that off.
Swami: It wasn’t, and it was a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice, and we bought the building right, and then basically the economic crash kind of took place, so that was a challenge. But the amazing thing for us is that as everything else was going down, our business at Rudramandir was just edging up, and it hadn’t stopped, and it just speaks to the authenticity of what’s going on here and the need. And so we were very pleased that with a very large mortgage we were able to make it by the first few years, and there wasn’t a lot of salaries or anything like that in the first few years, but just the opportunity to do it and provide a place for people to know themselves is a big part of what’s important to me.
Rick: Well, I hope it continues to thrive, it seems like such a wholesome and valuable thing. It must be preventing the next big earthquake from striking California by its very existence.
Swami: Well, let’s hope, yeah. Let’s hope. Yeah, we enjoy it, and we’re very pleased and we’re part of it. One of the really great things we always hear is that people who come in, say they come in for a three or four day workshop. I mean, inevitably the leaders come to us like the second day and they say, “You know, everything I planned that I needed to do the first day in order to kind of get people in contact with it”, see, man, we just move right through that stuff because, if you will, the spirit is so strong, the energy is so strong that people can settle in really fast, so that’s wonderful to hear that like that.
Rick: I’m sure it is. I mean, there are ancient temples in India where people have been doing this intense worship for thousands of years, and the Shakti in those places is just so lively, so potent, that it’s transformative just to be there, so I’m sure you’re building something like that there.
Swami: And a lot of people are contributing to it, so we’re pleased, and it’s a nice way, another way for me to honor my teacher and have something like this in his honor.
Rick: Yeah, it’s really cool. So in terms of your specific activity there, if people want to get in touch with you, I’ll be linking to your websites, and it’s probably obvious on your websites how to get in touch with you and what kind of things you have going on. They’re very nicely designed websites, by the way.
Swami: Thank you very much. Yeah, they can either go through the Rudramandir website or https://www.heartofc.org/, and they’re both there. Yeah, it describes what we do in terms of our daily practices, and I do a number of retreats here in Berkeley at Rudramandir each year. I go to Hawaii for four weeks each year and do a long-term immersion there. So lots of different ways that people can engage with us here.
Rick: Great, what I found with doing this interview show is that very often people resonate with a particular teacher that I interview and they’ll come from all over the place. Like I have this lady in Atlanta just went up to British Columbia to do a retreat with a fellow up there. So hopefully that will happen. I will be linking to your several books that you’ve written from your page on batgap.com, and a little description of you there and so on. So hopefully you’ll experience the BatGap bump.
Swami: Well, we appreciate it and really enjoyed this discussion. What you’re doing is really wonderful. You’re bringing a lot of insight to a lot of people. That’s really wonderful.
Rick: I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’s very enriching for me.
Swami: Very good.
Rick: Let me make a couple of final concluding remarks. So speaking now to those who have been listening or watching, this has been an interview in an ongoing series. There are nearly 200 of them archived now at batgap.com. You’ll see them listed in the right-hand column alphabetically. And there’s a drop-down menu under “Other Stuff” where you can see them listed chronologically in terms of the order that I did them. And so in addition to being able to watch videos of them, which are embedded there, and incidentally, just in case you don’t know this, when you watch an embedded video, there’s always a little button that looks like a gear that you can click on and it enables you to bump up the resolution to higher quality. And then there’s another little thing that usually looks like a little square, and if you click that it expands it out so you can watch it full screen rather than just in a little window, in case people didn’t know that. It’s good to know. There’s also a link to an audio podcast there. All these interviews are available as an iTunes podcast. There is a “Donate” button, which I appreciate people clicking if they feel inspired to do so. And there’s a tab that you can use to sign up to be notified by email each time a new interview is posted. There’s also a discussion group in a forum there, and each teacher that I interview has their own little page set up for discussion, and there’s sort of areas for general discussion or whatever. So feel free to check all that out, and thank you for listening or watching. Thank you again, Nathaji, and we’ll see you all next week. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be interviewing David Godman next time, who’s written a lot of well-known and really voluminous books about various saints, including a 1200-page book about Papaji entitled “Nothing Ever Happened”.
Swami: Wow, sounds like fun. I really appreciate your time with me and honored to be on your show.
Rick: Good, thanks a lot, and thanks to Ellen who set this up for us.
Swami: Yes, very good, thanks a lot. Take care of yourself.
Rick: Okay, thanks Swamiji.