By Life Positive
Meet sri madhava ashish who ran an ashram for many years in the himalayas teaching a blend of meditation, seva, dream work and self-inquiry
– by Rajeev Tandan and Pervin Mahoney
Wise, compassionate, inspiring and, because his teaching challenges many of our preconceived notions, often unsettling, Sri Madhava Ashish is a fascinating figure whose books deserve to be better known by anyone interested in the spiritual path. Integrating the Eastern wisdom traditions with Western analysis, he was for many years the head of a small ashram, Mirtola, near Almora in the foothills of the Himalayas.
His teaching stresses the path of direct inner inquiry, but his “Way’ transcended conventional religious categories, encompassing meditation, seva, psychological self-examination, and the harmonious development of one’s physical, emotional and intellectual nature – which includes paying attention to dreams. His latest book, An Open Window, Dream as Everyman’s Guide to the Spirit, has just been published, ten years after he left his body, and is reviewed in the box alongside.
As unusual as his teaching is his life story, like many of those archetypal tales about the journey of a man finding his spiritual home. Born in Edinburgh in 1920 into an aristocratic family – he was the great-grandson of a Scottish laird and his father was Lord Kitchener’s aide-de-camp – he trained as an aircraft engineer in London. During World War II he was sent to India to repair Spitfire engines at Dum Dum, Calcutta.
In the lull after the war, an inner prompting led him to postpone returning to England. His travels in India led him to Tiruvannamalai, where he received darshan of Sri Ramana Maharshi and a spiritual experience which made him realise the supreme importance of the inner quest. Not long after that, his search crystallised. In Almora he met the man, by birth also an Englishman, who was to become his guru, Sri Krishna Prem. Sri Krishna Prem is an equally fascinating figure. He had had a near-death experience when serving as a fighter pilot during World War I, and when studying at Cambridge University was drawn to Buddhism and Theosophy. Krishna Prem, or rather Ronald Nixon as he was known then, had come to India to serve as a professor of English at Lucknow University, met his guru Sri Yashoda Mai, there, and a few years later, together with her, founded Mirtola Ashram.
At Sri Krishna Prem’s death, nearly 20 years later, Ashishda (as his friends and disciples call him, ‘da’ meaning ‘elder brother’ in Bengali) became head of the ashram and guide to an increasing number of seekers from India and abroad. Over the years he came to believe that the inner mystical quest had also to be integrated with one’s ‘outer’ work in daily life. With his successor, Dev Ashish, he transformed the ashram farm and forest, making it a model for environmentally sound rural development. He served on several Planning Commission committees for hill development, and his path-breaking work on environmental education led him to be awarded the Padma Shri in 1992 – the same year as Mark Tully.
Those people fortunate enough to be Ashishda’s shishyas or friends were able to glimpse a life that glowed with dedication to the Bodhisattva path, a man who clearly never ceased working on himself even as he helped others. Disciples included the odd maharaja and minister, bureaucrats and professionals, NGO workers and anyone troubled with the question, ‘What is life for?’ A typical day may have seemed to others to be more like a week. It included writing letters in answer to questions from disciples from all over India and abroad as well as giving one-on-one personal guidance to visitors and residents. Additionally, he also attended to countless hands-on tasks ranging from mending the jeep and cleaning out septic tanks to gardening, sowing and harvesting, baking bread and doing his own laundry!
This was a life at once joyous with love and yet calm in its detachment – a living example of his teaching that sadhana is not confined to the hours spent in meditation (or puja, satsang and bhajan) but that the ‘taste’ of that awareness has to be carried into every hour of one’s daily life.
Who am I?
Initially, people whose energies have always been turned outward find this a trivial question; of course we know who we are! However, a little reflection shows how difficult this enquiry is. If I answer the question in terms of my gender (woman), or my roles (wife, daughter, writer), or by personal qualities (empathetic, extroverted, impractical), it still does not define who I truly am. For my thoughts and emotions constantly change, every cell in my body changes, my attitudes undergo change, so how can I search for an answer within aspects of me that alter? What is that underlying core to whom these changes occur? Who is that ‘someone’, the unchanging ‘I’?
Sri Madhava Ashish believed the clue to this mystery lies at the root of our being, somewhere within our awareness: an awareness that allows me to look out at the world and participate in life, and yet can also observe myself. Or, as Krishnamurti said: the observer can become the observed.
Ashishda felt that any person, anywhere, at any time, can take the plunge into the source of their awareness and discover for themselves what is there. The less we believe what we ought to find, the more likely we are to see with undistorted vision. When self-awareness is traced to its inner source, only then can the true identity of the individual be found.
The various ‘spiritual schools’ aim to provide a discipline whereby the potential within anyone may become an actual Self; yet Ashishda averred the best school is life itself. From ordinary activities and everyday emotions a secret needs to be coaxed, a new awareness discovered that would lead to the mystery of being. The ‘work’ requires that nothing be rejected. The body, the mind and the emotions all have to be harnessed to serve a single intent – to find yourself. However, as Ashishda argued: “Your only point of certainty, and even that is uncertain, is that you are. Follow that awareness back, beyond your own identifications with name and form. And when you pass beyond ‘yourself’ [you will discover] what is there.”
Looking for Self
To ‘follow that awareness back’ is, Ashishda clarified, as do all real teachers, what constitutes the practice of meditation, which begins with trying to stop the chatter of the mind and bodily sensations, so that the personality is silenced, allowing one to ‘see’ beyond the psycho-physical complex. One could think of oneself as an ‘experimental laboratory’, trying all sorts of methods to still the mind. The novice should watch the flow of thoughts, and, if possible, stem them. However, after a while, this ‘Stop’ exercise may not continue to succeed in quietening the mind. Then let your thoughts run, except that now you should dispassionately watch the river of your thoughts flow, like a person sitting on a hill seeing the meandering course of a river below. On realising this distinction between you, the watcher, and the thoughts, their flow may stop. However, the mind will gradually begin to chatter again. Then try and remember what you were thinking prior to this thought, and what before that, and prior to that… till the mind comes to a rest.
But we all know how difficult it is to meditate – no matter what you try the mind does not stay silenced. Ashishda cautioned against hungering for quick results; the key lies in persistence and regularity. He, however, also suggested checking out one aspect of the wayward mind. In all this chatter, do thoughts repeatedly come back to one or two themes? Over time you may be able to identify a common thread, or a compulsion to dwell on something specific. Once located, this should be attended to. It may represent a lack, or something denied that is demanding attention from you. When this next disturbs your meditation, firmly tell that part of yourself that you will pay attention later, but not now. And then, do attend to this problem; accept that it exists; understand its dictates without nursing its compulsions. As you make space for it in your life, you may find that the quality of your meditation may alter. In this way meditation is not restricted to the mornings and evenings, but what you do during the whole day will have an effect on your meditational effort.
Wholeness inside out
Ashishda did not believe that the problems of life (and one’s compulsions) can be resolved this easily. For example, we may not be able to identify any pattern in the turbulence of our thoughts, nor may we know how to grapple with our compulsive traits. He therefore recommended that we watch our dreams. Dreams are not only about wish fulfilment; they also tell us things about ourselves that we may not care to hear from other people – our blind spots and what we don’t know about ourselves. Thus, introspection during the day and dreaming at night can aid our attempt to meditate.
Using an image for the disciple to visualise the process, Ashishda gave the analogy of a craftsman making a copper bowl. Each hammer blow forms its final shape, but the raw shape has many bumps and dents. Working from both sides, the inner work of meditation crafts the bowl from within, while the psychological work (of dealing with our personalities) gradually defines the hemisphere from the outside. The circumference of the circle takes its being from the centre, and the disciple has always to attempt to live in harmony with that inner centre.
Another practical suggestion was to create ‘reminding points’ in the day, so that something in the outer world could serve as a reminder of the inner – simple acts like ‘offering’ food before one eats, or remembering the Lord when the first light is lit in the evening, or whenever you cross a threshold. There can be many such points of self-remembering.
In Ashishda’s Way, every aspect of the work is interrelated, and combined, they would further the disciple’s search. Introspection draws the disciple back to ‘self-remember’ and question his or her compulsions. Dream analysis unravels the dictates of the emotional nature, which would help in stilling the internal chatter of the mind. The effort to quieten the mind affects the quality of our outer existence and our ability to self-remember. And a ‘centred’ day (full of self-remembering) helps one to withdraw during meditation. This ‘chain reaction’ may provide the momentum that helps us to escape from the tenacious hold of the personality and discover who we are, beyond name and form.
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The subject of dreams and what they mean is of ine hau-stible inter- est to all of us. We disc- ern that these shadowy nightly visitations are imp-ortant mess- engers, but few agree of what or from where. Are dreams the royal road to the unconscious as Freud maintained, or signs from the Collective Unconscious as CG Jung said or merely the psyche’s attempts to make sense of the jumbled impressions of the day? For Sri Madhava Ashish, dreams are an open window into the inner kingdom of the Soul. Dreams are clues that help the dreamer unlock and resolve his inner dilemmas, complexes and traumas, eventually healing him of all that comes in the way of Self-realisation.
This book is directed at the seeker, and although he advocates making use of Freudian and Jungian dream interpretations, the attempt, as he makes clear, is not the limited motivation favoured by schools of psychology to equip a person to fit into society and achieve success, but to help him transcend the developmental tasks of the psyche to attain to the ultimate goal of human life – enlightenment. Thus he displays a refreshing ability to weld together psychology and spirituality, both so necessary for anyone to understand them completely.
In this erudite and penetrating work, Sri Ashish sets forth his views, insights and experiences of dreams and why they are so important. It is an original vision, stated with no-nonsense matter of factness, as when he dismisses the concept of chakras as illusory. He exudes a deep understanding and compassion for the almost inhumanly difficult task that seekers are engaged in – which he calls the process of becoming completely human.
In the chapter on traumas, he talks about how sensitive the newly born infant is to the manner of his reception, and unless received with love and care, can be inhibited from forming a relationship with its parents, or indeed from anyone.
The book delineates various kinds of dreams – the ones that refer to social conditioning, trauma, anxiety, out-of-body, and reincarnation. Of particular interest to the seeker is the chapter on Big Dreams which refer to dreams that have spiritual intent and whose purpose may be to illumine the larger purpose of life. All of us dream of having such dreams but as he rightly points out, they may only occur to curb our ego, not to add to it.
There clearly is no getting away from the fact that dreams are too important to ignore. So read this book and let it illumine this part of your life, even though the compressed style may make the reading heavy going.
- Suma Varughese