A Gracious Cycle: A Conversation with Swami Apoorvananda

The Guru's teachings are essential to seekers of liberation. They give us all that we need to reach this goal, if we conscientiously contemplate their meaning. In this interview, Swami Apoorvananda, one of the Siddha Yoga teaching monks, speaks about his love for the teachings and why it is important to study them. Swami Apoorvananda plays a key role in creating and facilitating courses around the world in which Siddha Yoga teachings are studied.

Q : Why is it necessary to contemplate and study the Guru's teachings?

A : Baba Muktananda said that he lives in his teachings, that a person who follows his teachings follows him. The teachings are one of the main ways that the Guru can introduce us to the state in which the Siddhas dwell. Ultimately that's what we want. We want to be able to see the world and ourselves as supreme Consciousness, as God. We want that unity-awareness which, in my understanding, is no different from the state of pure love. Yet we find that we're not in that state right now. Through their teachings, the Guru shares with us what it's like to be in that state and how to get there. By studying those teachings, by honestly trying to perceive as the Guru perceives, we are led to that state.

There's tremendous grace in studying the teachings, in studying every word the Guru offers us, because the Guru's intention, the Guru's will, is for us to be happy and fulfilled, as she is. That sankalpa, the Guru's will, is what is behind all the teachings. We tap into that sankalpa for ourselves when we study the teachings.

There's also a synergy between our intellectual understanding and our experience: they inform, support, and build on one another. As we study the Guru's teachings, we get better insights into our own experiences; and as we get better insights into our own experience, we have more and more profound inner experiences that we can examine in the light of the teachings and thus understand them more fully. It's a gracious cycle that keeps taking us higher and higher. They work so beautifully together.

One great illustration is from Baba's life, which he described for us in his spiritual autobiography, Play of Consciousness. When Baba received shaktipat from Bhagavan Nityananda, he began to have amazing inner experiences, but he didn't understand them. He hadn't read anything about kundalini and shaktipat diksha, or initiation, and he became very confused and upset. He started wandering, not knowing where he would go. He ended up at a farmer's house where he stayed the night. The farmer led him into a little unused room, and there Baba felt an inner guidance to go to a cupboard and open it. Inside was a book, and in the book was a description of exactly the experiences he had been going through. He began to understand that what was happening was okay, it was the purifying work of the kundalini. You could say these teachings saved him at that point. This is a perfect illustration of the synergy of intellectual understanding -- studying the scriptures -- and experience.

An example we can use for ourselves is the annual Siddha Yoga message. Gurumayi Chidvilasananda gives us this contemplation at the beginning of the year, and we can continue to inquire into it throughout the year. There are a couple of steps in this. One is to try to understand exactly what it is Gurumayi is telling us about our lives and what she is inviting us to do. The other is to ask ourselves, how do we take that instruction, that teaching, that guidance, and put it to work in our lives? What difference does it make in how we live our lives, in how we think about ourselves, about the world, our relationships, and so on? It's an ongoing contemplation. What I found myself doing last year was playing the audiotape of Gurumayi's message often. I found that, as I've found with all of the Guru's words, the message is like a scripture that keeps revealing deeper and deeper levels of meaning to me.

Q : What constitutes the teachings?

A : Everything the Guru says can be a teaching. In fact, everything the Guru does can be a teaching. The teachings are also the scriptures that the Guru refers to or indicates as part of our path and our lineage. The Guru Gita is certainly central; so are the Bhagavad Gita and Jnaneshvari, which is Jnaneshwar Maharaj's commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.

Baba felt very drawn to the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, because it so completely and accurately described his own experience of the highest states and the way to achieve them. The Shiva Sutras, the Spanda Karika, the Pratyabhijnahridayam -- all of these Kashmir Shaivite texts are very helpful for us, as are, of course, Baba's and Gurumayi's commentaries on them.

Q : What would you say are some of the more effective and less effective ways to study the teachings?

A : What's less effective is when we read a passage once and we have the feeling "Oh yeah, I've heard that before." Or we hear Believe in Love -- and think, "I got that." That obviously short-circuits the whole process of self-inquiry and leaves us thinking we know when we don't know. Or it leaves us with an abstraction that's of no particular use in our daily life. When we have the feeling that we know something already, that we understand it as well as we need to and we don't need to go deeper to come to a finer understanding, then sadhana tends to become dry. We lose that beginner's mind.

To study the Guru's teachings as intellectual understanding and philosophy without looking at how they apply makes them less effective in our lives. To look in a book of Gurumayi's or Baba's in order to find evidence to support our own particular bias would not get us deeper in our understanding.

This relates to another quality of a Siddha Yoga student -- the quality of taking personal responsibility for our sadhana. In the Viveka Chudamani, Shankaracharya makes a point that while others can help relieve some of our burdens, if we are hungry we ourselves need to eat some food; no one else can do it for us. In the same way, the Guru presents us with these life-nourishing teachings, but if we don't take them in, if we don't assimilate them, if we don't take responsibility for our own learning, our own evolution, then they don't benefit us much.

An effective way to study the teachings -- there are many different ways and each person has to find his or her own effective way -- usually involves revisiting the teachings many, many times. Guru vada, the words of an enlightened master, are scriptures, and they have infinite levels of meaning for us. We can keep penetrating to deeper and deeper levels of meaning, as we go back to them over and over again.

Take, for example, Gurumayi's book of poems, Smile, Smile, Smile! I find I can read a poem once and get a certain understanding of it; then I read it again and get another understanding. I can read it with different attitudes or different points of view; I can read it trying to understand Gurumayi's bhav or feeling, the attitude from which she's writing the poem; I can read it seeing what strikes me that I want to pursue, seeing which words seem like she is saying them directly to me; I can read it looking for instructions. There are many different ways. There's the scholarly approach where you take each word and say, "What does she mean by smile? What does she mean by destiny? What does she mean by resolution?" I found that approach very helpful at the beginning of the year, because the first thing I notice about the New Year's message is that Gurumayi thinks about subjects in a very different way from how I usually think about them. Before I can refresh my resolution, I had better understand what resolution really means. Before I can believe in love, I need to have a new understanding of what love really is.

A good way of studying the teachings is to have an attitude of trying to step into the Guru's world -- to see the world as the Guru sees it. That requires an incredible amount of detachment, a willingness to admit to being wrong, a commitment to the Truth above everything, an openness, flexibility, and willingness to change. It can be extremely uncomfortable at times, because we can see that a notion that we've cherished for years is completely off: it's not the way the Guru sees the world. If we hold on to that wrong notion, then that's what we'll be left with. But if we're open to going through the process of giving up what may be comfortable, then we find that there's always this newness, this great opening that happens.

Q : Isn't meditation, chanting, or seva equally as important as studying the teachings?

A : I think they work together. My own experience is that there are times in sadhana when one practice may be predominant. It seems that I'm called, from either outside or inside, to devote myself more to seva or more to meditation or more to the teachings themselves, but there's always a thread running through. There's always some meditation every day; there's always some seva; there's always some practice of self-inquiry and studying the teachings. Each person can find out for himself or herself what the balance is. Again, it's paying attention to the results, to what's happening, to our own state. If you find that you're especially drawn to a particular practice, you can follow that inner direction and pay close attention to what happens in your sadhana, to your inner state, when you do so.

I noticed from the beginning that Baba emphasized study. Even before I became a swami, we had study groups on each of the scriptures, and together we spent several hours each day studying the Pratyabhijnahridayam or the Shiva Sutras, for example. Baba's emphasis on the teachings was enormous. It came from his own experience as well, because Baba continued to study. He was always reading books and getting inspiration from them. He continually got new intellectual understandings that explained or elucidated his own experience of the highest Truth. It's fascinating to me that he continued to study right to the end of this life.

Even when my focus was almost exclusively seva, I still took refuge in the teachings. I couldn't spend hours a day studying, but I would spend five minutes a day reading the Guru's words. As I continue in my sadhana, this impetus to study more -- to return to the Guru's teachings and to dive deeply into their wisdom -- is something that keeps growing. I have received so much from Gurumayi, from Baba, and I haven't even really begun to scratch the surface of what they've offered. There's so much more in everything they've given us. We have these amazing books. I've read them, perhaps reread them, and yet I know there's so much more.

When we take the time, when we put the effort in to really try to understand what the Guru is saying, what guidance the Guru is trying to give us, it opens up new vistas. No matter where we are, no matter how much we think we know, we come to know and experience more. It is a wondrous process.

It's so exciting working with the teachings and being guided by Gurumayi. This is what's so magnificent about having a living spiritual master. Even if we're not able to sit in her presence or live in her ashram, she's still guiding each one of us. She knows what we need to move forward in our sadhana, and that's what she offers us in the teachings.

Adapted from Darshan magazine #147