The Grace of a Spiritual Teacher
It has been a pleasure to share here some of the spiritual gifts and yogic insights I have received from whales. I have also been blessed in my life to experience the grace of a realized master, Amma, who has guided me into a fuller understanding of yoga than I ever knew possible. But even before I had the fortune of meeting her in a tiny village in India in 1993, I began to see that yoga was being taught to me through the light in the leaves, through the wind in the air, through the way the waves would lap along the shore.
Prior to meeting Amma, I would say that my guru was my body. Within it I found an intelligence that moved through me, to which I could surrender, in which I could fully trust. I experienced this quickening in nature all around me. Then I came to realize this force as the essence of my beloved Amma, who I feel flows through my every cell, my entire existence.
THE FIRST TEACHER
Our many previous births cultivate the foundation of our personal spiritual awakening. The various experiences we meet in our day-to-day lives activate and put to the test the teachings we carry at a soul level.
It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher will come. Yet, we are unable to assess where we are on a spiritual path before we have completed it. So I cannot say whether I was ready to meet my teacher. I only know that she appeared and changed my life completely. In Sanskrit, the word satguru (literally meaning true guru) refers to a fully realized master, one who is without any trace of ego and as such is able to guide others on the perilous path to enlightenment.
Though I feel deep gratitude to have first-hand experience of the grace and potency of a satguru, I know that we are all blessed to learn from others who may or may not be spiritual masters. For the sincere spiritual seeker, everyone we meet has something to impart to us that benefits our journey in some way. Most of us know, for example, that our immediate family and primary caregivers help us learn and grow. I feel thankful that I had parents who introduced me to spirituality and encouraged me to explore it. The Sanskrit word for this type of teacher is upaguru (teacher nearby).
Along my journey in the years before I met Amma, teachings came my way in several forms. The first teacher I can point to is my maternal grandmother, the beautiful and soulful Doris Surbeck.
My grandmother visited from Edmonton for several weeks each year at Christmas, bringing our Montreal home into a new light and vibrancy. Being around her was a chance to observe the choices and actions of a wise soul and be inspired by her luminous presence. We engaged in deliciously enlightening discussions. She had found and exuded a spiritual fluidity and grace that was notable to anyone who met her. I wanted to know how I too could experience that lightness of being. Year after year, we had longer and more in-depth conversations about choice, prayer, service, meditation and spirituality.
A deeply connected being, my grandmother helped me turn my attention to what she simply called “otherness”. Though she was raised in a Christian home in the harsh pioneering days of Western Canada, she was not an active church member. She had long since found institutional politics dissonant with her innate and effortless joy of mysticism. Instead, her way to connect to source was through an hour-long quiet sit each morning. I now know that she was practicing a form of meditation. But when I asked her about it, she would simply say that she began her day by “connecting with her Maker”, to provide her with clarity and guidance.
She spoke about our power of choice to tune into the different channels available within us. She said there were two channels in particular: one which led to suffering for all, and the other to greater love, service and interconnection. Which channel we listened to was entirely up to us.
She also encouraged me not to not take myself too seriously, a tendency I am still softening to this day, and to develop an inner “quiet assurance” that rested in the present moment. She said these qualities were important to bear in mind, even in the face of severe adversity.
Her own life was full of challenges that summoned her to rich faith and willing receptivity to whatever the moment brought. She would tell me repeatedly that we cannot impose our will upon life. We must learn to listen within for guidance and welcome what the day brings.
A pivotal period that infused into her being the wisdom she would exude for the rest of her life came at the end of World War II. She had lost her young husband and faced a debilitating, disfiguring disease that confined her to bed rest for a year, all while relying on a sparse war-time pension to care for her three young children, the youngest of which was my mother. My grandmother told me that despite adversity, she had a deep faith in a loving universe that would provide. Faced with a disease doctors called incurable, her inner voice guided her to go to bed and move her awareness inward, while giving her whole life over to God. As nature would have it, as soon as she made this surrendered choice to heal, there was a knock at her door. A woman who had also lost her husband in the war was without a place to live. This newcomer became the guardian for my grandmother’s children. Within a year, my grandmother regained her health, which doctors considered miraculous.
Her daily meditation practice would evolve to eventually include physical hatha yoga exercises, which she took simply at a local community center in Edmonton. On her winter Montreal visits, I would watch her practice her bendy moves and breath exercises, and often giggle in delight or have an ear-to-ear smile, as I tried to practice alongside her. There was little discussion at that time about the meaning of the poses. It was as though her body was simply speaking to mine. I was immensely comfortable with the exercises, while a knowing of yoga stirred within me.
Just before my grandmother died, I was able to ask her the million-dollar question: “What is the meaning of life, grandma?”
She replied, “It is about being naturally yourself. It is so simple that most people miss it.”
She made no claims to know anything, and exuded a vibrant humility. On long walks in nature during her last days, she would often look up, mesmerized by the light in the trees. It was as though her own luminous being sparkled in recognition. She told my mother that she knew she would fly away soon. She was ready. A few days before she died, I had a powerful dream in which I saw her in her light-body. She came towards me and placed her forehead on mine. A gold, blue and violet light from within her flooded my being. I woke up with a deep sense of peace, knowing she was universally well, that we are infinitely connected, and that our time together in this form was complete.
My grandmother had sown in me seeds of spiritual knowing that have grown throughout my life. I learned to see that whatever happened, we were part of a much greater whole. I was taught from a young age that we were all always close to the divine, something we can embody when we open to this moment, in sincere humility. My life has since flowered in reverence to the sacred, to that which flows through all things, not limited to physical form or intellectual understanding.
Beginning next week, as we move towards International Yoga Day on June 21 and Guru Purnima on July 9, I will share what it was like for me to (re)discover yoga in this lifetime. I will also share some tips on how you can benefit from this wise and ancient art and science of life that, thankfully, is gaining popularity worldwide.
Love our world.
We are one Earth family.