By Suma Varughese November 2000 His robust message is one the MTV generation would love. 'Enjoy,' he says. 'If your wife nags you, simply enjoy! If your boss fires you, enjoy!' Meet Swami Sukhabodhananda, who teaches Vedanta in an experiential workshop setting The man of enlightenment is nothing if not integrated. At any given time, he contains the past, the present, the East, the West, the good, the bad, the high, the low. In short, the all—within himself. And he does so with the lightness of a flower dancing in the wind. His followers would say that's a pretty fair likeness of Swami Sukhabodhananda, the ebullient founder chairman of Prasanna Trust, Bangalore, India, which runs the popular LIFE (Living in Freedom—An Enquiry) program. Particularly if they had caught him in the midst of teaching break dance to a group of youngsters one minute and intoning the mahamritunjaya mantra in the next. In the LIFE program the Swami whips up a soufflé of wisdom made by blending together Vedanta with Gestalt, NLP , reiki , Zen Buddhism, Sufism and even Scientology. He quotes not just Lord Krishna or Shankaracharya but J. Krishnamurthi, Osho and Ouspensky (Gurdjieff's Boswell). Such a nonsectarian, eclectic approach makes him a hot favorite even among nontraditional participants of personal growth workshops such as the corporate world or teenagers. Swamiji has done programs for blue-chip companies like ACC, Asian Paints, Godrej, German Remedies, Hoechst, HPCL and ICICI. And his workshops abound with bright young people looking for answers to life sans the sectarian baggage. With a secular education in commerce and a spiritual one in Vedanta, the Swami seems particularly equipped to straddle both streams and to synthesize them. And indeed, to do so is his dearest mission. When he started his ministry at age 24, after learning Vedanta in Rishikesh under Swami Chinmayananda and later with Swami Dayananda Saraswati, he found young people uninterested in his discourses. 'They wanted dialogue,' explains Swamiji, as we sit together in his dressing room at the end of a long day of conducting the LIFE program in Mumbai, India. Accordingly, he stitched together a workshop deliberately broadened to include other wisdom traditions and with enough processes and games to break inhibitions and make the participants feel good about themselves. 'When they feel good about themselves they get bigger than the problem,' he explains. A similar practical approach couches all his talks and lectures. As he himself says, what he teaches is not philosophy but applied philosophy. His talks are beautifully structured, logically arranged and presented with enough catchphrases and points to ensure recall value. 'When bad things happen to good people, they become better, not bitter,' he says amidst applause. Or again: 'The perceiver in you pollutes the perception and perceives the perceived as an extension of the perceiver.' When freed of its she-sells-seashells connotation, it is a profound recognition of the human tendency to impose personal points of view on the truth. He talks about the six Rs of people management: rapport, recognize, recall, rethink, retrain, relook; and the three Es of coping with fear: experience, enjoy and explore. Many of his terms are borrowed from Western experiential workshops such as The Forum and NLP. 'To deal with difficult people, see where you are coming from. Is it from commitment or complaint?' he asks, much as a Forum leader would. At the same time, he relates all these concepts flawlessly to Vedantic ones. 'Operate from sankalpa, commitment,' he says. Whatever the subject, the perspective is essentially Vedic. For instance, in managing people, he advises listeners to operate from the fullness of emptiness, a paradoxical way of referring to the annihilation of the ego. The key to having a successful married life, he says is to move progressively from the stages of maithuna (sex), whose center is lust, to prema (love), whose center is caring, to maitri (friendliness), whose center is non-domination, to bhakti, whose center is sacredness, to karuna, whose center is compassion. The ultimate aim of any partnership, he says, is to move from dvaita (duality) to advaita (non-duality). Lofty ideas made accessible by the many techniques, processes and meditations he strews his workshops with. 'Swamiji gives at least 500 points at each workshop. One has difficulty deciding what to choose and what to leave,' says Gopinath Raghavan, 33, a member of his Mumbai center. Above all, his message is one the MTV generation would love. 'Enjoy,' he says with relish. 'If your wife nags you, simply enjoy! If your boss fires you, enjoy!' This active appreciation of all that life brings is once again a Vedic concept called ananda lahiri (waves of bliss). For Swamiji, the underlying malaise of the human condition stems from our 'greed to be somebody and the fear of being nobody. People are so busy trying to achieve that they have no knowledge of their own identity'. He continues: 'The glamour of being successful is portrayed so powerfully in the media that it is mistaken for happiness.' What seems to give Swamiji the edge over other workshop trainers or programs is the sound conceptual and experiential wisdom provided by Vedanta. There is a profundity and clarity in his words that can only come from living them. Says Raghavan: 'Swamiji walks his walk and talks his talk.' 'Everything is perishable. That is the beauty of existence,' affirms Swamiji with the certainty of one who has penetrated to the ground realities of life. Little wonder then that the LIFE program impacts participants at a deep level. No workshop, however profound, can transform a participant (alas for instant enlightenment!) but it can offer insights and perspectives that can turn around attitudes. Says Sriram Athri, who has been involved with Swamiji since the inception of LIFE in Mumbai and is presently the head of the Mumbai chapter: 'I discovered that one needs more than intellect to live life. The intellect is basically an extension of myself. There are other centers in me that draw in wisdom.' He adds: 'Earlier I used to condemn my weaknesses and feel small about them. Today, I see my weaknesses as greater strength and use them as instruments of change. Today, I am undisturbed by the uncertainties of life. Whatever the circumstance, I am anchored to the moment. This enables me to work powerfully.' Says Seema Prabhu, editor of the Trust's newsletter, Prasanna Dharanna: 'I did the program because it brought about an amazing change in my introverted husband. I told Swamiji that he had done over one weekend what I had not been able to do in 13 years of marriage-bring a permanent smile to my husband's face.' Ask the man himself about his program and he says: 'I try and bring in a model of Indian culture. For instance, the model of navrasas (nine emotions). I see these as energy fields that need to be balanced and applied to a person's life. How is adhbuta (wonderment) useful to you as an executive? I say that if your boss is firing you, instead of being a victim, experience the wonderment of the situation. Or take gratitude. If your mind is sacred with gratitude, it opens up higher centers. Or veera, courage, which is the heart of good parenting because it is about helping the child live with increasing doses of risk. Courage is also essential in spiritual life. Without it you get caught up in tradition rather than truth. I come from a conventional background, but I teach break dance in my children's program and t'ai chi in my post-LIFE program called Existential Lab.' This is not the Swami's only break from tradition. Despite his close association with the Chinmaya Mission, he walked out to carve his own path. 'I see him as a revolutionary,' says Raghavan excitedly. 'He could have easily stayed on in the Chinmaya Mission, but he left to stay true to his spirit of inquiry. He has often told me that the highest value for him is freedom.' Sure enough, ask the Swami why he does what he does and he says: 'To teach people to be happy and to free themselves.' LIFE program, he says, can be used as a basis for self-realization, while rooted in contemporary life. Certainly, it provides answers at the existential plane to even unconscious seekers. Says Raghavan, who did the program soon after his father's death: 'I felt I had come home. The workshop made me understand that there was a larger purpose to life than merely the material.' For those wanting to go beyond LIFE, Swami Sukhabodhananda has created a four-day Existential Lab, which is considered to be far more powerful than LIFE. Beyond that is training for those who wish to run an ancillary program 'Not LIFE, which is tailor-made for me alone,' says Swamiji regretfully, 'but others such as workshops on the value of mantras om namah shivaya or the gayatri mantra.' It is this restriction of faculty to one man alone that comes in the way of its growth. At a time when the movements created by fellow Bangalore gurus— Rishi Prabhakar and Sri Sri Ravishankar—are expanding at furious pace, his organization is relatively small. But is this necessarily a drawback? As one who views largeness with suspicion, I don't think so. He also runs what he calls with typical innovation, a Yogic Linguistic Program, which presents NLP from the yogic point of view. Incidentally, Swami Sukhabodhananda was a guest participant at Richard Bandler's NLP workshop in Bangalore, India. He even teaches yogic reiki, which he says is the recognition that higher qualities such as gratitude and service open up your centers and you experience a mysterious energy flow. Beyond the programs, the Swami runs various charitable organizations—home for homeless girls called Prasanna Jyoti. Says Raghavan: 'He is like a father to the children. And they get the best of education. One is studying to b
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