When I first used to tell friends or colleagues that I was going to see my spiritual teacher, many would assume an epic journey to India or Tibet was on the cards. Others would think I was planning a trip to somewhere closer to home, like the spiritual centres of Glastonbury or Totnes. When I revealed that the destination was going to be New York City, the news was often greeted with raised eyebrows or quizzical looks; why would one go to New York to practise meditation?
New York has been my spiritual home, my place of pilgrimage, since 1994 - that was when I first visited renowned meditation master Sri Chinmoy.
I can trace my experiences of meditation back to my teens, though at that time they seemed to happen "by accident"; a feeling of peace and mental stillness coming over me when I heard music, when I gazed at the same point for a long time, or when I saw an expansive view from a hilltop. In my early twenties I traveled to India, more to get away from it all than to pursue some spiritual quest. It was here that I had my first conscious experience of meditating, alone on a hilltop in Rajasthan, and resolved to learn how to do it properly. On my return to the UK I found a meditation class that was being given for free and went along to see if it was what I had been looking for; within a few months I had begun to meditate daily and have some really transforming inner experiences. The time had come to seek a real teacher, one who could guide me expertly along the inner road. Sri Chinmoy' guidance and example subsequently have been a constant source of inspiration for me ever since.
I have travelled to the global gatherings of Sri Chinmoy's students twice a year every year since April 1994. These meetings are simply known as "Celebrations", and attract spiritual seekers from every corner of the world. I may meditate alongside Slavs and Czechs before helping Canadians in the kitchen, preparing food that I eat with my friends from France and Australia. I meet aspirants from Zimbabwe, Japan, Nepal and Mongolia. There are numerous Brits, including some very inspired seekers from Wales!
Meditating as a group is always powerful, and all the more so when it is led by someone like Sri Chinmoy whose meditation is so deep it seems to radiate to all present. Who is a spiritual teacher after all? Not a scholar or academic with a vast mental knowledge of religion or mysticism, but someone who has experienced the most sublime heights of consciousness and acquired the ability to help others do the same. Sri Chinmoy rarely gives outer instruction; he has already written over 1500 books that cover every possible angle on meditation and spirituality, so there is little need. His method of teaching those who travel to see him is more simple and more profound. He simply meditates before them and somehow those present receive whatever they need in their own meditation. To have a calm mind in order to be be receptive is all that the student has to do, but of course this in itself requires constant practise!
A typical day will not consist entirely of silent, seated meditation. With each hour comes something new and different to inspire and uplift. Music plays a central role, as groups from all over the world perform devotional amd spiritual songs. Sri Chinmoy himself plays over a hundred instruments, and to hear him perform on the flute or esraj (a cousin of the sitar, played cello-style with a bow) is always one of the high points of celebrations. In the evenings the assembled visitors are regaled with plays, songs and recitations of poetry, all on spiritual themes.
Sri Chinmoy's students meditate on the "Spiritual Heart", or "Heart Chakra". Our way is a path of the Heart rather than one of the mind, so spontaneity and sincerity are valued more in each performance than technical expertise or mental knowledge. We have all discovered through personal experience how a truly soulful, spiritual song, even when inexpertly sung, is the most sublime accompaniment to meditation. That said, we are blessed with many performers who combine the purity and simplicity of meditative consciousness with amazing musical or dramatic talent.
Another surprising facet of Sri Chinmoy's path is his enthusiasm for sport, particularly for distance running and other endurance disciplines. An athlete in his youth, Sri Chinmoy experienced first hand how sport can be used to transcend mental and emotional barriers and further one's spiritual progress. He has run many marathons and ultra-marathons, and encourages his students to do the same. For some this philosophy is expressed with daily exercise such as walking or jogging, while others like to go further and attempt marathons or even longer races. At August Celebrations the "Self Transcendence Marathon" takes place, and in 2004 about eight hundred of Sri Chinmoy's disciples completed the course. A worldwide organisation called the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team organises hundreds of races each year, ranging from one or two mile races in city parks to the Self Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, the world's longest certified footrace, which takes nearly two months to complete!
All this is such a far cry from the spiritual life I expected to lead when I first began to read about meditation and mysticism in my youth. Instead of austerity, I have found abundance. Instead of arcane and esoteric knowledge, I have found purity and simplicity. I have found profound silence within music, inner stillness while running. And in New York, of all places, I have found my Spiritual Master and my spiritual home.