Freedom from certainty

By Suma Varughese

July 2014

Poet and art curator Arundhathi Subramaniam shares with Suma Varughese some snapshots of her life post spirituality



You were a card-carrying intellectual before spirituality happened. How different are you now?

Was I?! Perhaps I was. But honestly, I don’t think my journey has really been from ‘sceptic’ to ‘believer’. It’s been more from ‘product’ to ‘process’, from a frozen sense of self to a being with more fuzzy, amorphous boundaries. It’s been about coming to terms with some of my fears, shedding some of my rigidity, my resistance to change, and arriving at a greater sense of peace with ‘not knowing’.

I’ve been a seeker for many years, and after a near-death experience of 1997, I became a somewhat desperate seeker. After meeting Sadhguru in 2004, one phase of the journey came to a close, and another began. There is now a deep sense of guidance and direction, as well as a reclaimed sense of wonder. But the journey is far from over.

Am I different? Well, perhaps more open to surprise, more open to bewilderment. And more aware of the heart as an address – a dangerous address, perhaps, but an authentic one. And there is a deepening trust in the world, a greater buoyancy,

At the same time, it’s not been about renouncing the mind and embracing the heart. If anything, there’s been a growing understanding that faith and reason aren’t incompatible. Faith can show up the vested interests and hidden agendas of reason; and reason can bring rigour to the self-delusional excesses of an unexamined faith.

Can you share the differences in your understanding of life and yourself?

I feel lighter, less encumbered by the dead weight of the past, old opinions, beliefs, investments. There is more gratitude. And yet, the confusion is not replaced by certainty. There’s just more breathing space, less psychological clutter, more inner space. I realise that deepening faith is not about an acquisition of new knowledge or a new set of verities. If anything, I am more aware than ever of how uncertain life is, how unsettled, how fragile. But there is a deeper sense of existential anchorage. I think that’s the enormous difference that a spiritual guide brings to one’s life.

When I wrote my earlier book of poems, Where I Live, I said that the poems explored the gap between where I live and where I belong. I didn’t know where I belonged, but I knew where I lived – physically, geographically, culturally, politically. Now, with my forthcoming book of poems, I’m more aware of where I belong, but less sure of where I live! Life is, on one level, more unsettled than ever, and yet, I feel more deeply guided than before. That makes the world of a difference.

How would you define yourself today?

As a work in progress, more aware of myself as a porous being. And more trusting of that porosity than before.

How would you define spirituality?

In different ways at different times. For now, I’d say, it’s an awakening to the daily wonder of life. It’s about learning to see it less as a puzzle to be cracked, more as a mystery to be experienced. And it’s also about realizing that I can be a participant in that great, miraculous, unfolding dance of the life process, not a detached outsider. It’s also about realizing that matter and spirit aren’t oppositional categories; spirituality is about deepening one’s engagement with life, not turning away from it.

What has changed about the way you approach your poetry?

I think my poems are more riddled with holes now. There are more gaps, more pauses, and perhaps less of an anxiety to be understood. I realise that those blank spaces on a page of poetry mean. They may not mean something, but they mean. They are the source of a poem’s octane.

I also trust the poem to lead me to its heart centre, the dark place of its origin, and am less in a hurry to impose my agenda on it.

In what ways have you grown since the advent of spirituality in your life? Have you blossomed in some ways?

I’m happier. And it feels like there’s more of me participating in my life than before. I feel I consciously inhabit more spaces within myself than before – not just in my mind, but also in heart, and in my body.

Additionally, for me, as a writer, there has been the empowering realization that I don’t have to write from a fraught interior space, that I can write from a more expansive place within myself. This has also meant the relief of relinquishing the subconscious notion that one has to suffer in order to be an artist.

When you become more acutely aware of the pain and the perishability of life forms, you also begin to become grateful for life’s preciousness, its fleeting pleasures, its fragile beauty. I enjoy going dancing, meeting friends; I laugh more, listen a lot better. I think that’s a kind of blossoming.

Briefly, can you share how you entered the path of spirituality?

I was always an avid reader of philosophy, and I think I gravitated towards poetry early in life because it seemed to be an ideal vehicle for the expression of wonder. But in 1997, on a train journey to Mumbai, after a particularly relaxed vacation in Nepal, I underwent an inexplicable near-death experience – one for which I had no ready physical or psychological explanation. It lasted a week. And when I emerged from it, it was clear to me that I needed guidance.

The only people who seemed to talk about death in a way that resonated with me were the mystics. So, my reading now shifted from metaphysics to mysticism. I read widely, dipping into various traditions, from Buddhism to Sufism, from Ramana Maharishi to St John of the Cross. I also did a slew of workshops and meditation programmes, many of which helped. But it’s one thing to intellectually ‘know’ the right answers and another thing to live them. I wanted a path that could help me make that shift from the cerebral to the experiential.

Just when I’d begun to give up hope of ever meeting a live master, I met Sadhguru (Jaggi Vasudev). That happened 10 years ago. It was a momentous advent in my life. There were several personal indicators that I had met my guru, but I took my time over trusting those. In time, that trust grew. I relaxed, grew to recognize his integrity as a human being, and was filled with awe, as I still am, at his capability as a guru. Above all, I saw that the path he was offering was a real one. What took my breath away was that it was a path that started from exactly where I stood – a personal path, as it were. I understood then what he meant when he said that a live guru mixes the spiritual cocktail in a way that suits the temperament of each individual seeker. He did just that. And I began to experience myself and my interiority differently.

Since then, there’s been a shift: a shift from seeker at large to committed seeker, which is qualitatively different.

How has spirituality changed the way you handle relationships?

I think I’m less judgmental about people, primarily because I’m happier with myself. I also expect less from people, and am less anxious to extract anything from them. People relax with you so much more when they sense that you’re not trying to make a deal with them. And you relax with people, learn to enjoy them with all their idiosyncrasies, because you’ve made some peace with your own.

What about its impact on the way you deal with money?

Personally, I’ve never made life decisions predicated very much on money. I always valued my freedom more than anything else, so I’ve always opted to freelance and earn less, if necessary, than make money and be bound to a boss or an organization. My friends always told me that I actively shunned money, and perhaps they were right. Maybe there was a certain reverse snobbery there!

In the past 10 years, honestly, I’ve probably been even less anxious about my material circumstances than before. I do believe that if you fix your sights on the goals that represent the highest to you, the means to achieve them finds its way into your life, without your having to try very hard.

How do you cope with health issues today? Is there any particular health routine you follow? Have you made any changes to your diet and eating habits?

Health matters, of course, and I guess there’s always an element of uncertainty about the body; one has to keep listening to its diverse demands in the changing phases of one’s life. I’m aware that my body in my 40s is quite different from the way it was in my 30s; it speaks another language now.

I do my practices, kriyas and meditations more or less daily, and try to keep some measure of physical activity in my life – walking, gymming, or basic hatha yoga. I’ve never been a big foodie, but I think I actually enjoy food a lot more since yoga happened in my life. Even so, I’m a reasonably moderate eater. I’m not a zealot about health: I just try to make sure there’s some measure of awareness about my activities through the day, and that includes eating and exercising. I don’t fetishise either very much.

Have the things that made you happy changed?

Well, I suppose so. Or more accurately, let me say that while I still enjoy the things that made me happy in the past – whether it was my work as cultural curator or as poetry editor – they just seem more irrelevant than before. I cannot see them as the ultimate aim of my life.

Writing – whether it’s poetry or spiritual literature — is a pleasurable way to spend one’s time, but I’m aware that I write primarily because I want to, because I enjoy it, not because the world needs me to.

What are your priorities in life?

Love, self-expression and self-discovery. I’ve always wanted to craft a daily regimen for myself that allows for all these. That was behind my early decision to freelance: I wanted the freedom to spend a day writing, if I chose, or looking into the eyes of a loved one, if I chose, or cuddling my cat, if I chose. I didn’t want to live according to someone else’s diktats.

How do you view work?

As pleasure, primarily. I’ve been lucky to have almost always done what I enjoyed – whether it was poetry, or the other things I did to earn a livelihood, whether it was as arts journalist, columnist, curator, or poetry editor. All of it has been part of the larger journey of self-discovery, so I’m grateful not to have had to divide my life – as so many have to – between day job and night job.

To write More Than A Life, the biography of Sadhguru, for instance, was a chance to spend four years neck-deep in the subject of my deepest preoccupation. My forthcoming book of poems, When God is a Traveller, is, in many ways, a reflection of the life I have chosen to lead. I’ve also edited a book of Bhakti poems, entitled I Eat God, which should be out this September, which has been licence to spend the past couple of years among the medieval mystic poets – that bunch of ecstatic crazies — and I cannot think of better company. The dance and Bhakti poetry festival I curated at the NCPA last year, Stark Raving Mad, was also a wonderful chance to hang around with this lunatic and lovable gang of literary outlaws.

Have your friends changed since you got into spirituality?

Well, the circle has certainly expanded. I enjoy my older friends in a different way now; earlier, I wished they were different, less content with what I saw as their small worlds, their self-limiting behaviours. Now, I enjoy their quirks, and am less impatient with them – probably because I’m less impatient with myself as well. I have also, of course, met many new people on spiritual journeys all over the world, and have benefitted enormously when they’ve shared their personal journeys of self-transformation with me. Above all, I enjoy the incidental and random conversation. The world seems full of interesting people. When one listens to anyone long enough, there are invariably insights of value that surface. I do, however, find it easier to talk to those who respect other wisdom traditions. It’s difficult to talk to blinkered dogmatists on any path, spiritual or otherwise.

What spiritual practice do you follow?

I’m a practitioner of Isha yoga, which entails a combination of kriya and meditation on a daily basis. But, as we all know, it’s possible to turn anything into a spiritual practice if you do it with a level of awareness and intensity. In that regard, writing is also a spiritual practice for me, at times. Relationships can be, as well.

What kind of books, music, films do you like? Has that in any way changed after spirituality?

Well, for many years, after my death experience in 1997, I couldn’t read novels at all; watching films was difficult too. Narrative of any kind seemed like an escape. Poetry was different; lyric poetry demanded that I inhabit time more vertically than horizontally, and that made sense to me. And of course, I also read spiritual literature of every kind – from the sublime to the ridiculous, anything I could lay my hands on, from classic texts to obscure mystics to all manner of crass self-help.

Now, that’s changed. I am still a junkie of spiritual literature of every persuasion, and poetry remains vital, of course, but I’m less compulsive. I can enjoy British crime fiction and romantic comedies, and I could spend long hours revisiting the 19th century English women novelists. I enjoy a good laugh much more than I did earlier. It’s fun to let one’s hair down, and enjoy trivia every now and again. Life feels less solemn, in many ways.

How about the way you make your decisions? Has that changed?

Good question. I think I trust the decisions I make when I’m happy, decisions that feel right, rather than decisions that merely make practical sense. If it doesn’t resonate with a hunch, I’m uncomfortable with it. That doesn’t mean I make impulsive decisions. It’s just that there are two kinds of decisions: those born of a sense of alignment –inspired decisions, as it were – and those born of judgment, or calculated decisions. There’s nothing wrong with the second; it’s just that if you’re lucky enough to be seized by the first, you know you’re on the right track.

How is life as a single woman?

I have a poem that goes, ‘Living alone/ is about learning/ to believe/…that every day has no/ ulterior motive…/ about learning not to ask for more/ than those long afternoons/ gliding through rooms/ and rooms/ of vacant mind/ recovered after years of subletting.’

Love is wonderful, of course, but any long-term committed relationship now can only be with someone walking the same path. Otherwise, one runs the risk of subletting hard-won inner spaces and energies, and it can take forever to reclaim oneself again. I’d be happy to be ambushed by love, but I don’t feel incomplete without it.

You move from Mumbai to Coimbatore to Chennai. How does it feel to be living in so many places?

I was just reading a lovely Sufi text (A Hadith of the Prophet): ‘Be in this world as if you are a traveller, a passerby, with your clothes and shoes full of dust. Sometimes you will sit under the shade of a tree, sometimes you will walk in the desert. Be a passerby always, for this world is not your home.’

Right now, my vagabond life suits me because it addresses different aspects of who I am. The shifting of gears from one context to another can be challenging, but it can also be exhilarating. It keeps me on my toes, and can be a spiritual practice in itself, if I remember to approach it right. It’s a constant reminder that the point of integration between these diverse, shifting landscapes lies within me and nowhere else.

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