Michael Fischman is an author, founding member and current president of the Art of Living Foundation in the United States. The Foundation is a non-profit educational and humanitarian organization whose programs have touched the lives of more than 25 million people in over 140 countries. Michael is also CEO of APEX Course (Achieving Personal Excellence) the corporate training division of the International Association for Human Values an NGO founded by spiritual leader and humanitarian His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Kumbh Mela 2013

Saint sitting on metal spicks over a hot open fire
I knew I would be taking a risk if I went to Kumbh Mela, the largest religious and spiritual gathering in the world. I’d have a hard time adjusting to the rustic accommodations. Living in the open air under potential freezing weather and poor hygiene would be a challenge for my delicate stomach and compromised immune system. But with just a few of us in the car, and Guruji saying yes to everyone that day, I had to ask. Without hesitation he nodded his head and invited me to go.

I was told by one of the swamis at our international center in Bangalore that this Kumbh Mela, which happens once every 12 years in Allahabad, when Jupiter is in Aries and the sun and moon are in Capricorn, is considered to be the largest and holiest of all the four destinations where Kumbh Mela takes place and is believed to be the most auspicious. And that the Maha Kumbh Mela happening this year takes place every 144 years! More then 80 million people were expected to bathe in the Triveni Sangam, the place where the three most sacred rivers of India — the Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati — converge.

Naga Babas by the side of the road in their pavilion 
I was excited that in just a few days I would be joining the sadhus, the wandering monks who mostly live in caves, and the naga babas (long-haired ascetics who never wear any clothes and are always smeared in ash), for a holy dip in the Sangam. It’s believed that bathing here frees one from all past sins, liberating one from the cycle of birth and death.
A sea of saffron-clad seers

Staying at the Art of Living camp with Guruji was fairly tame. It was like being at the ashram in Bangalore back in the early 1990s. A crew of volunteers arrived at the Kumbh several weeks before to build a temporary camp for Guruji and his guests. Five of us from the U.S. squeezed into a makeshift room with no place to store our luggage or to hang our things. Fortunately, no one got electrocuted using the king size emersion coil we were given to heat our bucket of water to bathe. There was no end to the noise that surrounded us. Every group blasted Vedic chants or sermons throughout the day and night from their temporary pavilion or ashram. If it wasn’t for my super heavy-duty wax earplugs, I don’t think I would have gotten any sleep.

Guruji’s accommodations were very basic as well. Fortunately, it was slightly quieter where he was, and he was able to have meetings with numerous visiting swamis and devotees who came to be with him.

After the first night’s satsang, a few of us gathered in his room. As usual, Guruji was giving out prashad (blessed sweets), to the devotees. Guruji is well aware that I’m very strict about what I eat and that I’ve been on a wheat-free, sugar-free, taste-free diet for some time. Nevertheless, he offered me a ladu (a kind of sweet), and said, “At Kumbh, we’ll just celebrate and take a vacation from being on our diet.” And with that, he placed half the ladu in my hand and popped the other half in his mouth. I ate it without hesitation, which was completely uncharacteristic of me. Whether sweet, fried, or spicy — puris, jalebis, samosas, and more — for the next five days, I ate everything that was served to me. And much to my amazement, I was fine, completely fine.

Guruji with the Shankaracharya of Govardhan Math, Puri
More fantastic than the miraculous digestive enzymatic fluids in my intestines, was driving around the Kumbh with Guruji, visiting swamis and saints from various branches and traditions. Several times a day, we drove through a sea of people, down bumpy roads, watching exotic saffron-clad seers who looked like they were lured out of their forest hideouts and caves for a dip in the holy river. Guruji introduced us to numerous renowned saints, including Swami Sri Nischalananda Saraswati (the Shankaracharya of Govardhan Math, Puri). The most blissful and endearing saint we visited was Shri Rambhadracharya Ji, who lost his vision when he was 2 months old. He’s the founder and chancellor of Jagadguru Rambhadracharya Handicapped University, and has written more than 100 books. He blessed all of us, and held Guruji’s hand and lovingly said,  “Sri Sri is my brother. No — we are one soul in two bodies.”

Shri Rambhadracharya & Guruji
Besides visiting saints and taking our own dip in the river, we had an opportunity to serve food to thousands who came to our camp for satsang and darshan with Guruji. On the final day of our visit, we were forced to abandon camp due to the unseasonal torrential downpour that flooded everything at the Kumbh. Electricity went down and the Allahabad airport was closed. The only way to get back was to reroute our flight through Varanasi.

I always wanted to visit Varanasi (Benares), considered by many to be the spiritual capital of India, and the India’s oldest continuously inhabited city . But I never expected that I would be going with Guruji to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, considered the most holy Shiva temple in the world. Many famous Hindu saints (including Shankara and Tulsidas) have visited this temple, and Hindus consider a visit to this temple and a dip in the Ganges to be acts that will lead to liberation. Standing near Guruji in the inner sanctum watching the pundits do abhishek to the ancient Shiva Lingam felt familiar and ancient. A tremendous amount of emotion welled up inside, and I felt privileged to be there. 

Varanasi and the Kumbh Mela were deeply moving experiences. Seeing multitudes of people who journeyed to the Kumbh, spending their hard-earned money on train tickets, walking endless miles with their improvised camping gear and meager possessions on their back,s and sleeping under the stars just for an opportunity to dip in the Sangam, put life in perspective for me. It was another lesson, a reminder of how much I had, and how little I needed to be happy; how every moment in life can be filled with the divine presence. Gratitude and devotion are amazing gifts, and being at the Kumbh ignited that in me.

Perhaps you were at this or another Kumbh Mela, or had a similar experience elsewhere. I’d like to know how it was for you and what inspired you.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Building a Community on the Level of the Heart

A great yogi from another tradition, Yogi Berra (the greatest catcher in baseball history) once said, "If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” I think this happens to many of us, as we float through life without much awareness or purpose. Well, at least that’s how it was for me for most of my early life.
In 1991, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar invited me to live at the Art of Living Foundation’s new international center in Bangalore India, which everyone there referred to as the ashram. Not having much of a clear direction in life, except for my great zeal to grow spiritually, I was off on a grand adventure. Before long, I became the ashram manager, a new position in the startup organization. The only people I had to manage, though, were a cook who had no culinary talent, a bus driver who had no sense of direction, the occasional plumber, and an electrician who charged a lot of money for work half done. The ashram staff consisted of a handful of Western volunteers who where constantly threatening to leave and a few local Indian devotees who came and went whenever they pleased. 
It was frustrating living without a proper staff, telephone service, and basic creature comforts like a hot shower or a comfortable bed. Yet I was lucky to interact with Sri Sri daily and to watch him magically transform barren land into what is now considered one of most flourishing spiritual centers in the world.
Now, twenty years later, I’m still at it. I’m no longer an ashram manager, but I’m at another startup. This time it’s the Art of Living’s International Center for Meditation and Well-Being, in the breathtakingly beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Boone, North Carolina.
Although Brahman, the Supreme Self, is felt throughout the campus, there are still many obstacles to overcome. Not having a clearly defined position, I question why Sri Sri has asked me to live here. How I can contribute?
When I lived at the ashram in India I was more concerned about finding solutions to the physical challenges, but as I ponder my role in Boone my attention is on something subtler — learning the skill of creating a real sense of belonging, creating community.
Everyone at the center has a common bond, of course. We are all on the same spiritual path and committed to sharing a lifestyle that is enriched with human values and knowledge about the Self. Yet everyone has a unique perspective on what this means. If dealt with unconsciously, these differences can sometimes lead to disharmony or conflict. Before you know it, alignments form and politics begins. 
Sri Sri has said, “When belongingness expands to include everyone, spirituality has grown.” For this wonderful spot in Boone or for any local center to become a thriving spiritual oasis, we need to create an environment where the sense of connectedness with each other is stronger than our differences of the moment; where people feel free enough to share and secure enough to get along. Otherwise our community will be limited to just eating meals together, group meditations, and working on service projects. The old ways of immediate self-gratification, personal recognition, and adhering to fixed opinions cannot coexist in an environment where people are committed to building community.
I want to see the same miracle that happened in Bangalore happen in Boone. Not only on the physical level but also on the level of the heart. All that is needed is for each person to be willing to live with a high degree of personal integrity, openness, and vulnerability. It means being sensitive and considerate of other people’s feelings and expanding ones perspective by being open to feedback and being more cooperative with others. And it’s all very possible.
The higher our prana, or life energy, the easier it is to act with this kind of feeling and awareness. So as obvious as it may sound, being regular with meditation and Sudarshan Kriya, eating properly, and all the other things we do that naturally make our prana and energy high are underlying secrets and advantages we can appreciate. 

I’d like to know what skills you’ve used to create more coherence in your community, how it has worked, and what has changed.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Fastest Man

My South Indian wife is more eclectic than traditional. She finds delight in rummaging through antiques to decorate our apartment in what she calls shabby chic. She looks enchanted as she taps her foot to bluegrass music and the blues. Most recently, her obsession has been watching Olympians compete for the gold.

Between the races, we watch the sports casters report about the life of the athletes. Oscar Pistorius, the South African Olympic contender who runs on prosthetic legs, had to overcome many obstacles before the Olympic association would allow him to compete. American weightlifter Sarah Robles was determined just to get to the London Olympics while surviving on a $400-a-month award from USA Weightlifting the group that oversees Olympic weightlifting in the United States. She barely had enough money to eat. I’m touched by their stories, I feel raw and bare.

“Aren’t you going to stay to watch the race? To watch the fastest man in the world?” I enjoy my new life with my wife, the many flavors, what we share. I want to stay and watch, but I don’t.

It’s not a lack of interest in the superhuman ability of Usain Bolt as he speeds across the finish line that causes me to shrug my shoulders and retire to another room. Nor is it the rekindled feelings of inadequacy I had during my childhood for not being very coordinated or athletic. The constant teasing from the other kids forced me to shy away from almost all organized or competitive sports. I feel self-reflective as I watch these athletes compete. I need some time to be alone, to go within. 

Not disturbed by the muffled sounds of cheering crowds from the TV my wife watches in the other room, I huddle behind my computer screen. It has been a long time since I have attempted to write. I doubt my abilities. I’ve been in a slump for a while now. “I have too many responsibilities,” “I just got married,” “My stars aren’t right,” were some of the excuses that played in my head. I allowed fear to overshadow me too long. It turns out that what I write is not so important. The act of typing itself opens possibilities for creativity to flow. It’s like winning a race; I feel enthusiastic, fresh, and alive.

It’s only a few paragraphs, but I’m pleased. The experience is sweet; a sense of surrender, being present. The Big Mind is in control again. I’m reminded that my life is for others and that we are one and the same. 

My Guru once told me that the Divine orchestrates the experiences we go through in life so others can learn, be inspired, and forge ahead. It seems like it doesn’t matter if you are committed to winning a marathon or just taking a few baby step to get started again. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Endings & Beginnings

Endings and beginnings are inevitable. They are what our life is all about - transitions from something old to something new. Sometimes these transitions can be mysterious and exciting, and at others they can be fearful and regretful. Yet so often they are predictable and even boring. Saying goodbye to the old and hello to the new is a time for celebration. This is a time for learning, a time for introspection.

As I reflect back over this past year, I see so many transitions have taken place in my life. Most notably has been wearing the new and unfamiliar costume of a published author. Looking back, when I submitted the final version of my manuscript to the publisher I was overcome by a certain sadness. It was as though I was parting from an old friend. One who had been a source of much solace through all those years. I would sit down to write while having my morning tea and then stay up late into the nights working as I lay in bed. Now it was complete and would belong to the world. I could relate to the experience of postpartum depression that many mothers feel after giving birth. Creating the manuscript was so much a part of me and then, as if in a flash, it was gone.

Still, I had no time for nostalgia. I had to focus on the book release and my upcoming book tour. Thanks to countless dedicated volunteers who believed in me and in the message of the book, I was soon to embark on a fourteen-city tour. Surprisingly, after being a teacher for so many years and training others in public speaking, I was at a loss for words. I could not speak at my first event. Although I was able to pen down my life story, I felt uncomfortable articulating it publicly. To find my voice while standing before a crowd felt like something of an ordeal. I was so conditioned to sharing knowledge in a particular way, I wasn’t sure how to speak about my own journey.

I was in a mini crisis. Yet it wasn’t unfamiliar to be in this situation. I realized that once again I had to let go of something old to embrace something new. Of course I was able to move through it. I learned to be more intimate, open with the audience, and at the same time teach and inspire them.

Reflecting on all this as the New Year approaches, I see there is a false sense of security in clinging to what I know or what I have done. Unless I let go of the past, I’m unable to move forward and allow new gifts to come. In this spirit, I would like to invite you to share what is happening in your lives. Maybe you’re thinking of some resolutions to uplift yourself or those around you. What are your plans for the New Year? What are you holding on to that you need to let go of? What do you need to do to help yourself grow?

Wishing all the best for the year to come.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Finding Purpose

The journey to find one’s purpose is very personal and different for everyone. It gives expression, depth, and meaning to life.
One thing that may help us find our purpose is to recognize that we are all similar while also very different and individual. Like snowflakes, under a microscope, each one of us has our own unique pattern.

Most people feel they are unique and have a special role to play — a purpose. It’s natural. Yet this feeling can be a double-edged sword. It can unfold hidden talents and we can become more creative. Or our uniqueness, the feeling of being special, can swell our ego and cause us to feel separate, competitive, and stressed. Perceiving oneself as being different can also lead to feeling imperfect and incomplete, not good enough as we are.
The ego’s remedy is to pursue the path of action. By acquiring or accomplishing things, “then I’ll be OK, I’ll be happy.” It’s similar to being in kindergarten looking for approval after making a finger painting. We would run to our mothers with such anticipation and say, “See what I made, Mommy!”

In the pursuit of fulfillment, many people become more frustrated, restless, and dissatisfied. And they believe that they will be fulfilled when they finally find their true purpose.
I think it’s the other way around. Purpose is what we do in the present, not a goal to strive for in the future.

I’ve found that I’m more creative and peaceful when I’m aware that there can be no other purpose than to do what I am doing. During these times I’m not looking for fulfillment or joy, I’m just being — relaxed, alert, and in the moment. When I’m engaged this way my intellect stops. I’m not searching for something more. In such moments, I can glimpse the unbounded consciousness that I am. I observe how this same consciousness has taken physical form to express its divinity through me, through the creative impulses that flow in and out of me.
We are the unique expression of the Divine consciousness. We are here on this planet to contribute to others in our own distinct way. It could be through writing computer code, saving the environment, or writing a spiritual memoir. Still, our outer purpose should not be confused with what is within. Our inner purpose is the same. To just be.