Jakarta Post – Saturday, October 27, 2007

Harried, unhappy and in a huff, some of us exist in a constant state of agitation. The path to greater spiritual awareness starts with little steps. Sarasvati reports.

Before I took up meditation, a near-miss with a reckless motorist would lead to me unleashing a torrent of expletives.

The subtlest hint that a waiter was giving foreigners at the next table better service was enough to send me into a huff for the rest of the day, griping about how some of us are still stuck with the mentality of a colonized people.

These days, I am a little more adept at handling my temper, employing a mental trick to calm my prickly ego and easily agitated nervous system.

While breathing deeply, I mentally recite this mantra: “(inbreath) I am aware that I’m  angry, (outbreath) I am aware that it is not a pleasant feeling, (inbreath) I am aware that this feeling is impermanent, (outbreath) I am aware that this feeling will go away”.

After repeating this mantra a few times, my anger will already seem like a thing of the past.

Taught by Vietnamese-born Zen master and author Thich Nath Hanhthe technique teaches people to be completely aware of their thoughts and emotions through deep breathing to transform their destructive nature into simple mindfulness.

The mindful training that was developed during the time of Buddha is the practice of being truly alive and present, bringing the body and mind into harmony with everything that we do.

Some may sneer at the method as pop-psychology or New Agey hocus-pocus, or they may dismiss its effectiveness as the placebo effect.

Still, more people are putting their faith into practices related to ancient teachings of Buddhism, yoga or other Eastern religious traditions to manage the workings of their mind and navigate life’s ups and downs.

When people say they have taken up a spiritual practice these days, it does not likely revolve around a crystal ball or the presence of a nonliving entity, nor is it likely to involve an organized religion.

Spirituality is an increasingly popular contemplative discipline to attain total awareness or awakening. It is a journey of personal transformation that connects individuals to something greater than themselves. Some may call it God, others see it as the ultimate truth, yet others identify it as the divinity or the light within.

The more secular prefer to think of their goal as liberation from their lesser self — their ego. On a practical level, they want to free themselves from mental fluctuations, chasing after that elusive peace of mind.

In Indonesia, there are more than a dozen spiritual movements bringing together people from various ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds.

They range from organizations like the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University and The Art of  Livingboth of which originated in India, to a number of  locally founded movements, such as Subud, Anand Ashram or the Sirnagalih.

Their systems and philosophies may vary, but all use the same tool to achieve their lofty goals: meditation, that age-old practice of stilling the mind.

Although some movements teach their students to meditate with their eyes open while reflecting on a specific concept, most meditation is taught with eyes closed and body in a state of stillness.

There are also practices of moving meditation by walking or dancing, and some also perform puja or ritualized worship through chanting or singing of sacred Sanskrit verses.

Even the highly popular yoga of physical exercise can be categorized as moving meditation because it requires considerable mental focus.

“Meditation enhances concentration, helping people focus and relax at the same time,” says Mala, an Australian native who has been teaching at Brahma Kumaris in Indonesia for 17 years.

“When a situation becomes really stressful, they will have the ability to tap into the calm inside them.”

Founded in India in 1936 by Dada Lekhraj, Brahma Kumaris entered Indonesia in 1982 and now runs three centers in Jakarta, one in Surabaya and two in Bali.

Every year about 200 people — from 20 to 60 years old and including stressed-out office workers, curious housewives and the aged — join the basic Raja Yoga course. They learn meditation and conduct discussions on fundamental spiritual laws and their application in their daily lives.

Anand Ashram is a multifaith spiritual center founded in 1991 by a Central Java native of Indian descent, Anand Krishna, now a leading spiritual guru and author. Here beginners must take stress management classes before moving on to other lessons or spiritual activities.

Anand says about 40,000 people have taken meditation classes at his centers in Jakarta Bali and Puncak, West Java.

Advertising executive Dadi Santos, 41, says her practice at Brahma Kumaris has given her a new lease on life.

The advertising executive was first introduced to the group five years ago at the suggestion of her boss in her hometown Manila after feeling persistently miserable.

“I had everything anybody could possibly want – my parents, a good job, good friends, good relationships and no debts – yet I didn’t know how to be happy and I kept complaining over every little thing,” she says.

Two and half years after she joined the group, when she was to relocate to Jakarta, the first thing she inquired about was whether the organization had a center here.

A typically busy day at work does not prevent her from practicing meditation in the early morning and at night. In addition, she does mini meditation every chance she gets, during breaks or in a traffic jam.

Her spiritual practice has not only made her feel calmer and more peaceful but also has helped her work more effectively, she says.

Many people are drawn to the spiritual path after they face a life crisis.

Singer and TV actress Yayuk Suseno was going through a rocky marriage when she was introduced by her sister to a former Muslim cleric from West Java, Haris Suhyar, who founded the spiritual learning center Sirnagalih.

She took meditation and philosophy lessons, and since then has incorporated meditation practice into her everyday life.

“I look at meditation as a cleansing process of our inner selves,” she says.

“Guru taught us that the earth is bountiful but that human beings have been wasting it, dispensing negative energy with their mouths and thoughts.”

This “cleansing practice” has not only given her peace of my mind, but also a sense of security and health, she says.

Meditation has been scientifically proven to induce an altered state of consciousness and calm the nervous system, making a perfect antidote to today’s stressful lifestyle

While their motivations may be diverse — to still a restless mind, cope with a crisis or find a holistic approach to a healthy body — many spiritual seekers are drawn to spiritual practices because they offer a perspective on life that is less laden with dogmatic baggage.

They testify that the practices that focus on individual internal experience are more transcendental than any religious doctrines they have been exposed to, even if they profess to still being a believer.

While exploring fundamental questions like the meaning of life, the teachings also advocate a set of universal values that transcend religion, ethnicity, nationality, socio-class and gender.

At Sirnagalih, students are taught about the concepts of karma or the law of causations, and reincarnation or the belief of the soul being reborn in a new body after death – both of which are central tenets within the majority of Indian religious traditions.

But Yayuk, a Muslim, says this does not contravene her religious beliefs.

“I can separate the spiritual and the religious teachings – I pray regularly and sometimes after I meditate, which makes the prayer feel so much better.”

Similarly, Dadi still refers to herself as a Catholic.

But Anand says practices like meditation are only the beginning of the spiritual journey.

The practice is supposed to open people up to themselves, to see their flaws and their failings so they could amend them.

“We start with ourselves and then go to our family, our neighbors and our environment, but many people are just stuck in their so-called spiritual path instead of doing what they could be doing.”

The former businessman, whose recovery from leukemia inspired him to study under various spiritual teachers, says he judges his teaching’s effectiveness by how engaged his students are in making their world a better place.

“I find spirit in what I’m doing, in living, because all the practices that we do are just preliminaries,” he says