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Japa, Silence and Atma-tattva-avalokanam

Part 4

by Stephen Parker (Stoma)

[This is from a transcript of a session with Stephen Parker (Stoma) at the 2019 Sangha Gathering at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama. This is Part 4 of 4 parts. To read Parts 1 2 or 3, please click on the appropriate link: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3]

Question: What is the distinction between atma-tattva-avalokanam and ishvara- pranidhana. Is it a matter of perspectives?

Stoma: The distinction is really just the words. Ishvara pranidhana is a particular aspect of it. If you are watching for the essence of atman everywhere around you, of course you are going to be placing your mind close to divinity which is the real definition of ishvara pranidhana. And in response to that meditation on your part, Patañjali says or Vyasa says ishvara does its abhidhyana, its responsive meditation, in your mind. So it isn’t that we do meditation, we prepare the seat, and then the Guru comes and meditates our mind. That is really how it goes most of the time, at least for me.

Question: You said something about going from vibration into pulsation into point and silence and beyond. How is that connected to this time lapse, this time sensation becoming very slow? How does the process of making japa subtle relate to the perception of time slowing down?

Stoma: Any time you concentrate your mind, your perception of time changes. This is something that we play with all the time during hypnosis with therapy clients for example. When I have done a process with someone in hypnosis, towards the end of the session, as it is getting time to wrap up, I will say to them in a trance state, “Take all the time you need in the next two minutes to understand this in your own unique way to take it forward in your life.” Because they are in a state where their processing is happening at a different rate than it does when they are conscious, and they are able to do a great deal more in a short period of time and that really changes your perception of time. Time is really pretty flexible thing. It is not real, and it is something that our mind can alter by how concentrated it becomes. And the more scattered it becomes, the more the time drags. Sometimes you concentrate in your mind and when you are really enjoying yourself, “time flies when you are having fun,” as we say, so it can go both ways. But it does tend to get longer when you are suffering. When your mind is more distracted, when you have difficulty maintaining your concentration for whatever reason, time seems to drag and drag and drag. I think as you make progress, all of a sudden, it starts to feel like life is moving along at such a pace that there will never be enough time to do everything that you want to do. I am starting to feel that now as I get a little closer to seventy. There is still a lot left to be done. I don’t know the neural mechanisms of it.

Question: You said that Kashmir Shaivism answered all your questions. Why then were you told to wait decades before you should have a class on it?

Stoma: Great question! I always tell the story of coming to India for the first time in 1974. I was a Sanskrit student at that time. I had this odd sense that this was my home. Not this place, but the country and the culture. Of course, I explained this to myself at that time as just being a function of being a Sanskrit student. Here you are in India, the motherland of Sanskrit, and of course, you are going to feel this way. Except when I came back twenty-two years later, it was five times stronger, and I hadn’t done much with my Sanskrit for quite a while. During that first trip, I went to the great book store in old Delhi at Motilal Banarsidass. It is a scholars’ dream. Books everywhere. And at that time, they had the back rooms full of all kinds of old books that hadn’t sold or were just kind of hanging around for years and years and years. So, I went digging through there. And I found an almost complete series of the Kashmir Series of Texts and Studies that were published by the government of Jammu and Kashmir back between about 1918 and 1930. And I bought the whole lot because they were very inexpensive at that time. I got this great big duffle bag to carry them back and lugged them all the back to the United States.

So, I had all these books about Kashmir Shaivism. In the department that I was studying, all the PhD students were doing dissertations on Kashmir Shaivism, and they were all trying to find time to go over and study with Lakshman Joo in Kashmir. So, I went to Swami Veda at one point when it was time for me to write my final paper. I said to him, “Should I write something about Kashmir Shaivism? That is what everybody else seems to be doing.” And he said, “Don’t do it.” In fact, he said don’t touch those books for twenty or thirty years. Wait until you have twenty years of experience under your belt with meditation then they will mean something to you. So, I left them alone, there was plenty of other stuff to study.

In 2009, we were sitting around with Swamiji at dinner one night and he asked some of us at the table, “I need to give a seminar next fall. What shall I do a seminar on?” And so, all of a sudden it popped up in my mind: Shiva Sutras! I said, “Swamiji, you never talked about Kashmir Shaivism at all. How about doing a seminar on the Shiva Sutras?” And he said, “Oh no, that is too hard for people. They will never get it. It’s too much. I think I’ll just do something on Prashna Upanishad.” And he left it at that, so I dropped it. About two months later, I’m sitting at home and I get an email one day announcing a workshop on Shiva Sutras so I thought “Oh, boy, he took my suggestion! Great!” And sure enough in fall 2010, we had this really, really wonderful seminar.

Again it was one of those guiding hand of the Guru situations. I went to Hungary before I came to India and my friend Lazlo handed me this bio and CV for Bettina Bäumer and said, “Do you know this Bettina Bäumer who teaches Kashmir Shaivism?” So I looked at the CV, and it was very impressive. I said, “No. I don’t know her but she certainly is interesting and I’d like to meet her someday.” And that was that. From there I came to Innsbruck, and I was sitting around with Michael Kissener in the office one day, and he comes to me with the same CV and hands it to me and says, “Do you know Bettina Bäumer?” and I said, “No, but I get the idea that I might be about to meet her because this is the second time in two weeks somebody has said this to me.” Then, when I got to Sadhaka Grama and went up to pay my respects to Swamiji, it happened to be dinner time, so I came and sat down at the table and he came into the room with this CV in his hand, and before he even says hello, he hands me the CV and he says, “Do you know Bettina Bäumer?” and I said “No, Swamiji, but when is she coming?” He said, “She is coming tomorrow and I’d like you to introduce her from this CV, so take a look at it and say a few words.” So I said “OK, fine.”

The next day, Bettina came for the first time here and I gave a little five minute talk about her CV. She is really an extraordinary woman. She was the first woman ever to be granted a PhD in Theology by University of Salzburg. That is a pretty big accomplishment right there. But her work in scholarship in the Indian traditions is not even just on Kashmir Shaivism. She is a real expert on the Hindu temple, an expert on several aspects of Indian art, really a very deep scholar. I gave a nice little five-minute introduction, and then Swami Veda took over and he talked for another thirty-five minutes because he was so excited to see her. He had wanted to meet her for forty years, and this was his first opportunity, so he gave this flowery, way-over-the-top introduction that I’m sure embarrassed her. She sat there, listening to all of this, and when he finally gave the floor to her, she just looked out at the audience quietly for a moment and said, “Our only qualification is our master.” Perfect! It was just beautiful. And as Swamiji lectured on the Shiva Sutras, it was as if with every paragraph there were some little light coming on in my mind about something that was relevant to my experience in meditation. At that moment I understood why he said wait twenty years. So it’s been exciting to go a little deeper into those things with Bettina and with people at The Meditation Center. It’s been a real opportunity to learn especially how much our tradition is from that tradition. I don’t know if I am somehow breaking some kind of a rule that Swamiji had about this, but nobody has poked me yet for saying so. So I guess I’ll keep saying it.

This fall I was doing a program at Loyola Marymount University in California; they have a wonderful graduate studies program in yoga, in the Theology Department at a Catholic University, which I think is a great thing. One of the students is an initiate of the Yogananda tradition, and I have been to some of the Yogananda places in California, but I had never been to their headquarters at Mount Washington Estates. He agreed to take me and showed me around. We had a lovely tour with the assistant to the current head of the order. We sat down afterwards in the garden, and he said, “You know, I was actually sitting on this spot the first time I came here after I had my tour of the place, and I was just kind of a rebellious kid at that time, and I did not think too highly of it. So, a friend of mine called me, and he asked, “How did you like Mount Washington Estates?” and I said, “Well, I don’t know. It does not look like a very good organisation to me,” and he made some other critical comment. The moment he said those critical things, something or somebody out of empty space slapped him and knocked him out of the chair. So be careful what you say. Sometimes you might get a slap.

(Observing the audience) Just that lovely natural silence.

Question: You lecture on something and then time goes by and you lecture on it again later, and you have a whole different perspective. How is that?

Stoma: I change. You know that is really an interesting point. Because I find myself saying to people some of the same things Swami Veda used to say. I’ll start telling a story, and I know this is something I have told a million times before, and I’ll say “You know, I have told this story a million times before, do I really need to say it again?” People always say, “Oh. yeah, please. please tell the story!” and we used to do this with Swami Veda. He would start telling a story out of the Mahabharata or something, and he’d ask us if we have heard it before, and we had a policy to always say “No, Swamiji. I don’t think you ever told that before.” Because each time, it comes out in a little different way. And you are right, things do change over time. I think that is a good thing because otherwise I might get bored. And, frankly, I think it is a sin to be bored.

There is a way that how I am talking to people these days is so different from before. Back in the days when I was first coming to Sadhaka Grama, I would  come in here with a pile of papers and a pile of books, and everybody would go, “Oh no... What’s going to happen now?” I find these days that if I pay attention to the people in the audience, if I really pay attention to my connection with people, then whatever needs to be said comes out of me somehow. Very often it is completely different than I planned. And I can tell you this is a different talk from the one I had in my mind coming in the door tonight, and that is just fine. I think that is a really important part of the process. For those of you who are teachers, it takes a while to learn that skill, but if you really pay attention to your connection with the students, it changes what you have to say and how you say it and it selects the right material. Sometimes you even end up saying things you didn’t even know you knew, which is always really interesting.

So it is one of the ways which the Guru teaches you. And I love that process because when it is really goes flowing sometimes, both my nostrils open up, sushumna is open, and I just float on a cloud. A lot of times I am in countries where I don’t speak the language so I very often have an interpreter. And there is also a process that goes on with an interpreter, a kind of sharing a common mind. And so very often that wave that comes in a seminar when it is really flowing beautifully carries us both along. I always make sure I check with the interpreter afterwards to see what their experience was because that is often really interesting. So yes, it really does change from time to time, and I thank God for that, for everybody’s sake.

The most important thing is this is what we all love about Swami Veda. He said marvellous things, absolutely, and we make beautiful books. But what was really remarkable and miraculous about him was his presence, with the quality of his lovingness in how he spoke to people, and so for all of you who are teachers, that is the thing to shoot for. The minute I start worrying about the content of what I have to say, it all falls apart, it is terrible. Obviously, if you have been teaching for a while, and you have some experience, you know the material, so let it kind of sink down into you and then arise in this wonderful organic way based on how you relate to the people in front of you. That is what I think really makes the difference there. If we were a different group of people tomorrow night, it probably would be a different lecture even on the same topic.

(Observing the audience again) And in between there is just this lovely silence.

Let’s leave it there. Let’s leave it in a natural place. So, thank you all for paying attention, that was a beautiful evening, and of course, we will have some opportunities to talk in other ways as the week goes along and I look forward to that.

Editor's Note

Swami Veda Bharati’s Lectures on the Shiva Sutras, Volumes 1 and 2, are available for purchase as a download from CD Baby.



The Himalayan Tradition of Yoga Meditation

Purification of Thoughts     Dhyana    Mindfulness
Japa     Dharana     Shavasana
Breath Awareness     Qualified Preceptor
Guru Disciple Relationship     Unbroken Lineage
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