Saturday, September 13, 2008

Come Together

A spiritual community dissolves the sense of separateness that causes so much of our suffering. With a few friends, create one of your own.

By Sally Kempton

Perhaps it's due to the residual trauma of being the last girl chosen for my seventh-grade softball team, but I have always been ambivalent about groups. Even during periods when I've been an enthusiastic member of various spiritual organizations, I've remained uncomfortable with certain group behaviors—the tendency that groups have to create their own self-referential culture and jargon, the sheer unwieldiness of making group decisions.

Yet, all that aside, the fact remains that nearly every great spiritual or inner-growth breakthrough of my life has in some way been inspired, triggered, or supported by practicing in a group. Ever since I sang "We Shall Overcome" at my first peace demonstration, I've adored the feeling that contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber calls the "we-space"—that state of unity and love that arises when a group of people give themselves over to selfless emotions. At such moments, the pain of separateness melts away, egos stand aside, and we are able to enter into a shared heart-space that is the deepest possible evidence of our interconnectedness. "Consciousness, which exists as all things, becomes contracted due to the differences generated by our separate bodies," says the Tantric sage Abhinava Gupta in the Tantraloka, "but it expands into oneness when [individual consciousnesses] are able to reflect back on each other." This mutual self-reflection, he goes on to say, happens when a group focuses as one—particularly in spiritual practice, but also during a performance of music or dance. (Haven't you always suspected that certain rock concerts or Mozart performances were spiritual events?)

This is a no-brainer, of course. As social creatures, humans benefit from turning our sociability to higher ends. The Buddha, after all, did make the sangha, the spiritual community, one of the three cornerstones of his path, just as Christ told his disciples, "When two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." As his words imply, a group practicing together creates a mystical field, a field of grace. The Sanskrit name for that phenomenon is satsang—usually translated as "truth-company," or being in the company of the wise. And satsang, according to several texts of yoga, is one of the great doorways to inner freedom. In the Tripura Rahasya (The Secret of the Three Cities), Ramana Maharshi's favorite Vedantic text, the sage Dattatreya tells his student, Lord Rama, "Listen! I will tell you the fundamental cause of salvation. Satsang, association with the wise, is the root cause for obliterating all suffering!"

By "association with the wise," Dattatreya meant keeping company with sages. Nowadays we use the word satsang as shorthand for any kind of program in which teaching and meditation take place, but when the yoga texts speak about satsang, they mean being with someone who is enlightened, someone whose very presence reminds you that a single wise and radiant Presence lurks inside every atom of the world. I've had teachers like that, and I have to say that there is no faster way to elevate your consciousness than hanging around with someone who knows who he or she is and who you are, and who won't let you get away with being anything less.

Best Friends

It's a lot to ask of a group that it carry the wisdom and conviction of an enlightened teacher. On the other hand, when you spend time with people committed to seeing each other's intrinsic greatness, you might be amazed to discover how enlightened we ordinary, garden-variety humans can be. In the past few years, I've had, and read about, so many powerful experiences of peer satsang that I'm beginning to accept that we bozos on the bus—to quote activist Wavy Gravy—do have the power to create situations that will support mutual awakening, much as the "official" wisdom teachers have historically done. In traditional Buddhist lore, the Buddha is supposed to make one more appearance in the form of a teacher called Maitreya. Maitreya means friendly or benevolent. Several contemporary writers have suggested that the Maitreya Buddha may have already appeared—in the form of the spiritual friends who come together to help enlighten one another.

Here's a small example of what I mean: Last year, meeting with three other teachers who'd never worked together before, I was awed to see our group shift in 30 minutes from mutual misunderstanding and chaos to a state of inspired synergy that let us put on a spontaneous program without a glitch. I'd often had this experience working with members of my own spiritual community. To have it with virtual strangers amazed me.

But friends who do organizational development tell me that this is not uncommon once a group agrees to put away egoic agendas in favor of finding solutions that truly serve the situation. One result, I'm told, of the infusion of spiritual values into mainstream culture has been a phenomenon called "the magic in the middle," where in the midst of a discussion, wisdom begins to surface spontaneously and people find that the group can make quantum leaps of insight.

Longtime spiritual practitioners committed to making their spiritual insights part of their secular lives have seeded a yeasty mix of contemplative practices, group dynamics, and basic yogic principles into the culture. As veterans of countless meditation or yoga-based workshops and retreats, they've come to see that satsang is both life changing and portable—that it can become a vehicle to transform the workplace as well as the family.

So, I suspect that we may be experiencing a time when the kind of deep satsang the sages referred to—the wise company that we have historically associated only with enlightened teachers—may be available in any group of practitioners who are willing to be true to their intention to grow toward a truly awake, Self-less, or God-centered state. I say this with a few strong caveats: Such peer satsangs work best when they're formed around an awake teaching—that is, around the insights of the truly wise. They work even better when there are elders in the group, people who've done enough practice and study to be able to tell the difference between group wisdom and group autosuggestion. The elders don't necessarily have to be teachers or obvious leaders. They do need to be willing to stand in what they've learned, and to speak from that wisdom.

Many of us know this from having done group meditation or yoga practice. If even a few people in the room can meditate deeply, their presence lends strength to the others. Practicing asana with someone who can do deep backbends always improves my own arch—even if the other person isn't giving instructions.

The same principle also holds true in a group that forms to discuss teachings. I'm presently leading a group of about 30 people in a nine-month course that involves several retreats and ongoing study and practice. Between retreats, members of the group meet in subgroups of three or four, either in person or by teleconference. They discuss the text we're studying; they talk about their practice and how it's affecting their lives. In several of these groups, the members have become such clear mirrors to one another's processes that just being with the group helps the members see where they're stuck in old assumptions or mental fabrications.

One woman shared that on the night her group discussed a Tantric teaching about the mind, the group created such an accurate mirror of her that she was able to see her tendencies to make negative assumptions about her son's behavior or to create her own anxieties by projecting worst-case outcomes on various situations facing her family. Since then, she says, she's been able to notice the tendency when it crops up, and she uses the wisdom of the teaching to shift out of it. She hadn't asked for advice or discussed her problem. The insight simply arose through the clarity of the group process itself.

Truth in Numbers

As is the case with meditation and asana, the more you practice satsang, the more likely you are to experience its power, and you don't have to join an existing community in order to do this. Some of the most powerful satsangs are the ones we create informally.

An informal satsang group should be small—five to seven is a good number, and you can easily form one with two, three, or even just one other person. All it takes is (1) a decision to have a spiritual dialogue, (2) some sublime and true words to spark your insight, and (3) a shared agreement on the ground rules.

Basic ground rules might be to allow no gossip, no discussion of news or sports, no replay of arguments with lovers, no blow-by-blow dissections of personal problems. This doesn't mean that members shouldn't discuss personal issues with the group, only that they do so in the context of applying spiritual insight to a life situation. However, satsang is different from therapy. In satsang, the commitment is to awaken, uplift, and enlighten yourselves and to unmask illusions. In short, the commitment is to know truth.

Start by creating a shared intention to be together in the service of spirit, for the sake of experiencing the deepest possible level of truth for a given period of time. The time commitment is important if you want your group to evolve. It's helpful, at your first meeting, to take time to discuss your shared intention, write it out, and periodically revisit it.

Then, find a teaching to study together, something that opens you up and invites truth to be in the room with you. Though chanting and meditation are satsang activities and will enhance the experience, satsang deepens through discussion.

Do-It-Yourself Satsang

Here's how a satsang program might go:

  • Light a candle, representing the Witness, or divine awareness.
  • Chant mantras or meditate together for a few minutes.
  • Read your chosen passage aloud, contemplate it, and then discuss it. (See "Passage to Truth" to learn how to contemplate a passage.)
  • In the conversation, aim at allowing wisdom to surface, instead of giving opinions. You might take the attitude that the wisdom inside the text is calling forth inner wisdom from each of you, and that it will reveal itself as you invite and allow it. Understand that each of you has a natural intelligence that can help bring it forth, and that wisdom can arise through any of you.
  • Allow each other to speak. Listen carefully to what the other says. If an insight arises in your mind while you're listening, write it down rather than interrupt the speaker to blurt it out.
  • As you listen, notice any judgments that may be arising and let them go. One friend of mine says that in listening, he tells himself that God is speaking through the other person. I find that this works well.
  • Don't be afraid to challenge each other, but do it from a state of feeling connected to your awareness.
  • When something is said that feels powerful and true, pause for a moment to let it sink in.
  • Close with a brief meditation—perhaps simply sitting with an awareness of the movement of breath, or meditating with an insight that arose during your discussion.

Through all this, open yourself to the feeling-space of satsang, the openness or tenderness that will arise. Treasure it. When it does arise, say "Thank you." Satsang is a rarity. Some people say that it's the reason we take birth.

Sally Kempton, also known as Durgananda, is an author, a meditation teacher, and the founder of the Dharana Institute. For more information, visit

Friday, September 12, 2008

Pair sentenced over India insects

By Amitabha Bhattasali
BBC News, Calcutta

Peter Svacha (left) and Emil Kuchera
The two men were arrested in June (Photo by Mrinal Rana)

A Czech scientist has been fined and a colleague jailed for three years after being found guilty of illegally collecting rare insects in India.

Entomologist Peter Svacha was called a victim of circumstance by the judge in the north-eastern town of Darjeeling.

But Emil Kuchera was sentenced to three years in prison.

The pair were arrested in possession of dozens of species of beetles, butterflies and other rare insects. They denied planning to sell them.

'Renowned scientist'

The two men were charged with collecting the specimens from Singalila National Park after their arrest in June.

They were found guilty on Monday of violating India's Wildlife Protection Act and Bio-diversity Act.

Sumita Ghatak, the forest official in charge of the region, told the BBC: "They neither had permission to enter and collect rare insects and larvae from the national park, nor did they get clearance for carrying out scientific studies."

Both men said that they had not collected the insects for commercial purposes and that they had not entered the national park.

Svacha's arrest caught the attention of the international scientific community. Kucera, a forester, has a website offering to sell insects.

Awarding sentence, Chief Judicial Magistrate UK Nandy said that he was not jailing Svacha as he was a renowned scientist and a "victim of circumstances".

Svacha was fined 20,000 rupees ($500), while Kucera was also fined 60,000 rupees.

Scientists from all over the world had launched an internet campaign seeking release of the two Czechs.

Priyadarsanan Dharma Rajan, a Bangalore-based scientist who launched the campaign, told the BBC: "If the scientists were let off with the collections, the knowledge produced would have been a great asset for the data-deficient North Eastern Himalaya Biodiveristy Hotspot."


But forest officials said the scientist had committed a crime by not getting the required permission and documents. Even wildlife activists supported the forest department.

Animesh Basu, president of the Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation, said: "The law should not make any difference between a scientist and a commoner.

"Being a scientist they should know the forest law better. And in earlier occasions, foreign nationals have been found guilty of smuggling rare species of wildlife out of this region."

Lawyers on both sides said they might appeal to a higher court once they get the full judgment.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Nano car plant protest suspended

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Mamata Banerjee at the protest outside Nano plant
Opposition groups described the agreement as big victory

Opposition groups in the Indian state of West Bengal who have been blocking construction work at a Tata Motors plant have suspended their protests.

The move came after the state government promised to return some seized land at the plant site.

Tata Motors stopped work last week on the plant where it plans to build the Nano, the world's cheapest car.

However the firm said that it was still reviewing the deal and work at the site was still suspended.

A Tata spokesperson said the company is "distressed at the limited clarity on the outcome of the discussions between the State Government of West Bengal and the representatives of the agitators in Singur".

But reacting to Tata Motor's statement, West Bengal industry minister, Nirupam Sen, said the Tata motors plant and the vendors park for the ancilliary industries would remain intact.

"This is an integrated project and we have done nothing to change that," said Mr Sen.

"We have only agreed to give some land in the project area to the land-losers, the land that the government has, but the rest of the land for the land-losers will come from outside the project area," he added.

The company said it was obliged to continue the suspension of construction and commissioning work at the Nano Plant.

"The government has taken the decision to respond to the demand of those farmers who have not received compensation," said Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the governor of West Bengal.

'Big victory'

Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the main opposition Trinamul Congress party leading the protests, described the agreement as a big victory.

"We have withdrawn our agitation because the government accepted our demand on principle," she said.

A committee is to decide the details of the land return next week.

Tata did not take part in the talks between the West Bengal government and the protesters.

The government agreed to return the maximum possible land within the plant site outside Calcutta to "unwilling farmers" who were against acquisition of their farms.

The opposition groups, led by the Trinamul Congress party, agreed to the government's proposal to provide the rest from around the plant site.

Nano car

Tata Motors, India's biggest vehicle makers, will retain 650 acres of land for the plant. The ancillary factories for the plant will get the 290 acres allotted to them.

West Bengal chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya said that the government had some land inside the plant site where it had planned some commercial parks and a green patch.

"That land may be given to the farmers," he said.

The West Bengal governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi said the agreement was a "victory for all, for industry and agriculture, for the government and the opposition".

Tata had faced violent protests and political opposition over the acquisition of farmland for the factory in Singur in the state of West Bengal.

Tata's owner, Ratan Tata, has said he will consider moving production of the Nano out of West Bengal if unrest around the plant continues.

Tata plans to launch the Nano later this year, priced at about $2,500 (£1,370) from the plant in West Bengal.

India's rapid industrialization in recent years has been the backbone of the country's strong economic growth.

But this process has provoked a backlash since the majority of Indians still earn their living off the land.

The policy of creating special economic zones to attract new investment has provided a focal point for the anger of poorer, rural families who rely on their land for food and income.

Speak Your Mind

Explore without limits the Big Mind within you.

Find a quiet place away from distractions and interruptions. Spend a few minutes breathing slowly and deeply, settling into a calm and spacious awareness.

Sit in an upright posture and ask to speak to Big Mind. Then identify yourself as Big Mind by saying, "I am Big Mind."

Pause for a moment. What does it feel like to be Big Mind?

As Big Mind, look within and see if you can find just how big you are. See if you can find any boundaries, any limits, any borders to this Big Mind that you are.

If you find anything that is beyond or outside of this Big Mind, ask yourself, "What is beyond Big Mind?" and then ask to speak to that. It might be God, it might be the universe, or it might be the whole cosmos.

Then say, "May I speak to the universe; to the cosmos; to that which has no boundaries, no borders, and no limits?"

Look within and see that, as Big Mind, you are completely free and liberated. There is nothing extra, nor is there anything lacking as this vast empty Mind.

Ask yourself, as Big Mind, "Is there anything I have to fear?"

Look within and see that this Mind knows no fear or suffering. It cannot be hurt or destroyed.

It has never been apart from you, and it cannot be lost. Ask to speak to Big Mind once again, and it will be here. It is always here.

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Bhutto's widower wins presidency

Asif Ali Zardari says his win was a victory for democracy

Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has won a sweeping victory in Pakistan's presidential election.

The election was called after Pervez Musharraf resigned rather than risk being impeached.

Mr Zardari faces severe economic problems and a rampant Islamist insurgency that are threatening Pakistan's stability.

During the voting, a bomb killed at least 30 people near Peshawar city.

The president is elected by secret ballots in the national and four provincial assemblies.

Mr Zardari won 481 votes out of 702, far more than the 352 votes that would have guaranteed him victory, leaving his two rivals trailing far behind.

In Sindh province, Mr Zardari won all 65 votes. In North West Frontier Province (NWFP) he got 56 out of the 65 votes. In Balochistan province he won 59 of the 65 votes.

By contrast he only won 22 out of 65 seats in Punjab province, the heartland of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's PML-N party.

The two daughters of Mr Zardari and Ms Bhutto hugged friends in delight in the gallery of the national assembly as the results became clear. Members of Mr Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) declared the result to be a "victory for democracy".


Mr Zardari was thrust into the centre of political power by the killing of Ms Bhutto last December after which he became head of the PPP.

The BBC's Barbara Plett in Islamabad says that in recent months Mr Zardari has shown skill by forging a large coalition and using it to peacefully unseat President Musharraf.

Mr Zardari is one of Pakistan's most controversial politicians.

For years he has been hounded by allegations of massive corruption - although he has never been convicted.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took his PML-N party out of the governing coalition last week, accusing Mr Zardari of breaking key promises.

Many in Pakistan fear the country is facing a return to an old-style politics of confrontation at a time when urgent action is needed to improve the economy and deal with a raging Islamist insurgency.

Juggling demands

Mr Zardari is seen as pro-Western and supportive of Washington's self-declared war on terror. He will have to juggle the demands of the United States, Pakistan's powerful army, and strong anti-American sentiment in the country.

Nawaz Sharif
Nawaz Sharif's coalition with Mr Zardari did not last long

Our correspondent says Mr Musharraf tried to do that and failed. She adds that Pakistanis hope that Asif Zardari will have more success, but they see little in his past to encourage them.

The fortunes of the Bhutto-Zardari family have fluctuated dramatically.

Mr Zardari spent years in prison while Gen Musharraf ruled Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated at an election rally in December. Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged during the military dictatorship of President Ziaul Haq.

A further reminder of the dangers of public life in Pakistan came on Wednesday when gunmen attacked the motorcade of the prime minister. Two bullets hit his car, although he was not in it at the time officials say.

The other candidates for the presidency were Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui, a former judge who had the backing of Mr Sharif, and Mushahid Hussain Sayed, who was nominated by the PML-Q party that supported Mr Musharraf.

In the Islamabad parliament, members of the upper house, the Senate, were due to vote first, followed by the lower house.

Pakistan's four provincial assemblies of Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and the NWFP had a similar schedule.

However, voting in the NWFP capital, Peshawar, was delayed when a 5.6 magnitude earthquake hit the area and neighbouring Afghanistan, prompting deputies to flee the assembly building.

The provincial assemblies are given equal weighting with 65 votes each. In the three assemblies which do not have 65 deputies, the value of each deputy's vote is adjusted by a mathematical formula.

There is only one round of voting and whoever has most of the 702 votes wins.