Interpreter Of The Guru Gita, Artist, Teacher
Through evocative words and onscreen adventures, and an intersection of mainstream pop culture and ancient spirituality, Eat, Pray, Love introduced millions to ashrams in India, the practice of meditation and to the seemingly esoteric yet powerful and purifying selection of Sanskrit verses known as the Guru Gita. The Guru Gita is familiar to people who spent time with Baba Muktananda or his students, and it is a text taught in both English and Sanskrit by spiritual teacher and artist Mark Griffin. In fact, when the filmmakers were looking for a copy of the Guru Gita to feature onscreen, they contacted Griffin, who lives tucked away in a Malibu Canyon. For decades now, he’s been inspiring people to explore the subtle nature of the spiritual self through his school, the Hard Light Center of Awakening, which holds regular classes and satsangs in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, on retreat, online, at a retreat center in the Ganeshpuri River Valley in India and in powerful geographic locations worldwide.
In addition to his years of personal study with Baba Muktananda, Griffin studied with Tibetan teachers in the Kagyu tradition, Kalu Rinpoche and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the different perspectives that uncover the same truth all inform his teaching – as well as his artistic creation.
The work of the Hard Light Center is not limited to spiritual concerns, or even to the search for God through art. In the tribal areas surrounding the Indian ashram, the nonprofit foundation’s efforts are focused on compassionately and effectively being of service to the community through cooperative teaching programs in sustainably growing cash crops to sell in markets in Mumbai as well as raising funds to provide water filters for families to reduce the amoeba and parasites in drinking water, which negatively impacts the health and well-being of the people. Griffin understands that true well-being, living our fullest potential comes from interacting positively with our environment, with each other, beauty and aesthetics, our search for God and understanding and managing the subtle energies within the self.
LA YOGA recently had the opportunity to sit with Griffin, and two of his students, Lee Schwing and Alyson Dutch. We spoke about the Guru Gita, its appearance in Eat, Pray, Love; the intersection of creative art and spirituality and the role of the teacher on the path.
Felicia M. Tomasko: Have you noticed an increased interest in your work since the release of the film or the book Eat, Pray, Love? You’ve been teaching meditation and working with the Hard Light Center of Awakening for years now with dedicated groups of students.
Mark Griffin: I’ve been teaching in Southern California for twenty years and there has been a slight increase of interest since the movie. One of the key elements of the story is when Elizabeth Gilbert is in India in an ashram and dealing with the Guru Gita, an ancient mantra that is 108 slokas, or verses, long. It emerges from the fifteenth century Skanda Purana; The Puranas are a form of scripture that are records of what happened, like a journal. That mantra specifically deals with Shiva. I first came into contact with it when I studied with Baba Muktananda.
All the mantras in Sanskrit are matched up to subtle vibration centers in the central nerve or shushumna. These subtle vibration centers are called seeds or bindus; that stream of energy is called the guru’s path or the guru’s margana. A powerful throb of pure energy of kundalini and the guru shakti goes through the central nerve just by reciting the verses. The English meanings of the verses are a description of the methodology of awakening the shushumna.
There is a scene in the movie where Julia Roberts is reading the Guru Gita. The filmmakers wanted to have an actual text in the film and they asked if they could use my text and I said absolutely yes. In the movie it’s a very flash cut. If you don’t know it’s the book you wouldn’t recognize it. But they do say the phrase Guru Gita many times.
FMT: Culturally we have a tricky time handling spirituality and finding the balance among taking it too seriously, viewing it as a joke, being dogmatic or seeing it as goofy or a threat. Really, spirituality fits all those.
MG: Worldwide, and throughout history, many of the ideas of advanced spiritual training are on the fringe. Genuine spiritual force and power threaten to the social order because all of a sudden everyone becomes independent thinkers and then what would happen next?
FMT: Whether it’s the Guru Gita or other teachings, it’s about diving into the subtleties. The teacher may show you how to navigate the subtleties of subtle energy and find balance.
MG: The guru is the teacher. If you want to learn to play the piano or the violin, the teacher is going to hook you up with all the basic information. The guru is the intermediary, the bringer of light who awakens that potential condition within you, moving across the dynamic of your being as you go through the process. In the relationship between the teacher and the student, the third thing that emerges is the truth.
Baba Muktananda was a Siddha Guru; he goes directly to the truth, the advanced states of consciousness, the samadhis, and expressed them totally through his entire being. That was the essense of the relationship. How do we really learn? If you want to play the violin the fastest way is to hang out with somebody who knows how to play the violin, and watch them, listen to them and do what they do.
In spiritual training it’s not any different. It’s not so much about ideas; it’s not about a belief system. I was never aware the entire time I studied with Swami Muktananda or with Kalu Rinpoche that there was any kind of belief system being aimed at me. It was always upadesha, sitting close to the truth. They’re not being poetic; it’s like being in the same room with a guy and you watch him closely. There are moments when you see him go into formal states of power and it’s a mind-blowing experience of what those capabilities are. There are other times that we’re just hanging out drinking coffee and cracking jokes and everything in between. Just being close is the essence of the educational system.
In India that’s how everything is done; that’s one of the uses of the term guru. If you want to learn to play an instrument there you just go live with your teacher, and you become a member of the family and you play your instrument 18 hours a day and he talks to you about what he heard you do and the mistakes you made.
Spiritual training when you’re dealing with a true teacher is much the same way. It’s not a philosophy or a belief system that’s being exchanged; it’s the demonstration and explanation of a direct method, the ways and means of awakening.
FMT: The spiritual path, like playing music, is experiential and the instrument is all the subtle and physical bodies of the human form.
In Eat, Pray, Love, she talks about her resistance to the Guru Gita. Have you noticed people’s resistance to a particular text or teaching? The way we wrestle or grasp with something? Do you think there is something particular in this text that creates resistance or is it because it is kind of a dismantling of our own preconceived notions of who we are?
MG: I think it’s both; the text of the Gita is very profound and direct. It sets up the guru as the authority figure and teacher, the source of awakening and spiritual training but also kindling the spark of awakening that is subtlety and spiritually transmitted. It says pay attention to that relationship and great things will happen.
It is a mantra in terms of the vibration of the syllables. If you read the text you will have the experience of a lot of energy moving inside.
The meaning of the text contains seven or eight profound ways of awakening and meditations to set up the body-speech-mind matrix to generate the impact of awakening. It’s very complex: there are at least seven complete teachings that are condensed inside these 108 versus interwoven through the text. If you follow them you will generate very powerful results. It’s an all-purpose sadhana in one mantra.
Lee: Some of the difficulties that some people experience are because it is a chaitanya mantra. It is alive, awakened, it has the ability to bestow some of the effects of awakening on the person who chants it. Purification sets in; all the petals of your chakras are being vibrated by these mantras. That is why Baba would have us chant every single morning. Mark put it in English and so for the first time here’s a teacher that says to recite it in English.
MG: We chant it in Sanskrit but I put the English up front because in America, it’s our main language. We recite in both English and in Sanskrit and the Shakti of the mantra did not decrease in switching from Sanskrit to English.
The spirit of the guru shakti is in the mantra. It’s an idea that we haven’t really gotten used to in the West. What is the guru? They think the guru is a person, a place, a man, a woman. It’s not really; the guru is an eternal spirit that exists to reveal the truth that’s what it does is brings darkness to the light.
Darkness and light rise simultaneously to the point of equilibrium where darkness is destroyed by light. It exists in the equilibrium of creation and is sometimes manifest in profound teachers. A principle in spirituality is that what you think about, what you meditate upon, you become. If you think about the guru a lot that energy comes into you and talks to you.
You’re not just sitting on your mat. Neither I nor my teachers allow people to just withdraw from the world. A lot is learned by dealing with your responsibilities in the world and being the kind of person that you want to be.
A lot of people come to a spiritual teacher because they’re afraid of the world or the world has hurt them. The world is the tiger. There is an image in spirituality of a yogi as he does his spiritual practices; he goes up the 100 foot pole foot by foot, inch by inch. He gets to the top of the 100 foot pole and sits there saying now I can see everything. Then has to get down off the 100 foot pole and walk into the world. Why don’t we skip the pole and do it all at once? That is my approach.
FMT: The interplay of darkness and light you discussed earlier is interesting.
MG: They rise simultaneously; they are both eternal. You’ll find yourself in the light and you’ll find yourself being touched by darkness. There is no world of total light or darkness.
FMT: How do you feel that between spiritual practice and the understanding of the subtle energy relate to creative expression or music or both?
MG: I started making art as a child and it has only grown throughout my life. I went through an art university. At the same time, when I was about 12 years old, I knew that I wanted to have a guru. I met the guru young, 20 years old. My teacher said: You can’t meditate 24 hours a day; you can meditate for about eight hours in the day. Then you have 14 hours left in the day – what are you going to do with them?
These two energies of art and Yoga have informed each other over the years and have been very useful for me in all the processes of awakening. One of the essences of art is to say the things that things that can’t be touched by words. Essentially the human consciousness invented art to talk about things that don’t fit into words.
I’ve undergone a very intense spiritual training and I’ve gained the ability to access the advanced meditation states of Samadhi, sarvikalpa and nirvikalpa Samadhi, and that’s impacted my consciousness very intensely. As an artist it has affected my worldview. And so I’ve continued to speak using the languages of art and I’ll talk about blending of spiritual energies.
My artwork is human form-based. I use all the mediums of painting and drawing, print making, sculpture, sound. In a puja or fire ceremony when we’re chanting mantras and making offerings, it is like picking up the phone and calling God. You’re using a specific line and you have all the fun of making a beautiful sacred space and the mantras, and the signs and symbols of God like Yantras. I pushed my art into that idea of bringing forth the concept of God which is invisible and inconceivable.
The mind is attracted to beauty, so you bring God and the mind into one place, sitting close, allowing yourself to sit there and quiet your heart and mind and be at peace. I use that idea in art that speak of that collision of awakening mind and awakening spirit with forms.
FMT: The chase of it is the chase for God. It’s a funny conundrum we chase for God and God is here and we don’t see it and yet all of these teachings help us to see this.
MG: When did art and God get separated? You can look all through art history and say this phase of art was about spirit, this phase of art was about God, this phase of art was about the separation of God. Art is a living breathing language.
FMT: In terms of meditation, in your center you sit and meditate in a group and you also encourage people to meditate on their own. Is there a different effect to mediating and being part of the group and meditating alone and is there a benefit to both?
GM: Absolutely. In the center we meet once a week, sit and mediate and talk about the dynamics of spiritual life. It’s always easier to meditate with the teacher because the teacher has access to the advanced samadhi states, a supra-conscious energy which everyone in the room can tie in.
The language of mediation is the language of the spirit, you have to learn how to learn from the teacher and how to sit quietly. I’m sitting with you and showing you how to move through the stages of meditation, from the absolute states of meditation and back out to the waking state.
It’s like the example of the piano teacher who shows you the song. He plays it once, then you play it, he plays it much better than you and then you go home and practice it every day and come back and play it really well.
It’s the same in mediation. You’re training yourself to set up an energy vortex. Meditation takes place in the inner planes of spiritual consciousness. You learn how to move from the waking state and then at will move out of the waking state (which is physical body-centric) and into the body of pure energy, the body of pure mind and finally into the body of pure spirit.
Mediation is the direct apprehension of the spiritual world that’s what it is. And that’s why they call it mediation practice or spiritual practice. You are doing it every day; one of principles of spiritual training is that it is continuousness. If we want to learn anything, we have to pay attention to it continuously. We can’t pick it up once and then months later do it again.
FMT: In this paradigm, teaching comes with a transmitive aspect as well as the experiential one.
MG: You touched upon the transmitive aspect. From the standpoint of spiritual life, if you’re born as a human being, you have all of this circuitry within you. There is the un-awakened condition where you’re in a state of potential. The moment of awakening is called shaktipat, which translates as a descent of grace where the energy of the spiritual life actively triggers the latent potential in the architecture of your innate human form.
That’s the essential move of the spiritual teacher, the guru. It’s not that something is given away or given to you that you don’t already have. It’s more like throwing a light switch or taking a candle and lighting another candle. Then you have two candles; no light is diminished no light is transferred, it’s just spread.
FMT: Is shaktipat a necessary part of spiritual awakening?
MG: Human beings are split. They live in a psychological identity, the experiences and dynamics of their own minds, this egocentric formation fueled by intellect and formed by the senses and experiences recorded in memory. A person will often think of themselves as the assembly of their experiences, but at the same time there is a part of them characterized by the soul that is pure spirit, with no egocentric identity, no experience of the senses, that does not respond to memory. It is the constant absolute of the spirit and if you’re human you exist on both planes simultaneously.
In some cases you’ll see human beings who are aware of a power struggle of the psychology and spirit. It’s the fruit of an incredible amount of art, literature and music, the struggle between heart, mind and spirit.
If you were born as a human being it is your destiny to awaken to your spiritual potential. Simply by awakening the energy-based forms of the human architecture, you can accelerate evolution. That’s the idea of shaktipat. It’s in a phase now where it’s an experiment. It used to be that you would come to a teacher and live with that teacher for ten or twenty years and then they would give you shaktipat, but now it’s on-site.
FMT: Some people talk about how this time in history we don’t have the time to wait around for it.
MG: We have this compression in time and space; more demands on our time and more of the afflicted emotions now dominate society. We don’t have the situation where we can systematically sit and meditate; we have to be radical about it.
When Muktananda carried the thunderbolt and released it into America, it had a very strong response. The beings of western culture have incredible spiritual potential. Yet there is so much competition for people’s attention that it’s hard to cut through all the noise.
This inspired the creation of the Hard Light Center of Awakening. I gave the center the kind of structure of a school because that is the form we are comfortable with in the West. It has a curriculum and meeting dates. We meet in class once a week and once a month is a daylong meditation intensive. We have three to ten day meditation retreats in our ashram in India or traveling around the world doing meditation in places where there is a powerful vortex of energy. If you’re interested in this subject, Hard Light Center is a place where you can learn; it’s a high tempo curriculum.
FMT: Is shaktipat ever inappropriate?
MG: I have not seen a person where it’s inappropriate yet. There are some people who are dealing with mental or physical challenges and the shaktipat helped them. It is an incredible wave of spiritual force that enters your life. It is complete and total transformation of the self.
It’s best to get that from a teacher. You’ll hear every now and then of someone awakening their Kundalini spontaneously, no guru, no one present, it just awoke. They often go through a wild experience and may feel like they are going insane. The energy will feel like they are being consumed by this spiritual fire.
That’s where the teacher comes in and acts as a transformer regulating the energy appropriate for the person. The teacher will always push a little more than what you think that you’re capable of, because you’re capable of a lot more than you think.
For more information about Mark Griffin’s life and teachings as the Hard Light Center of Awakening, visit: hardlight.org.
For more information about the cash-crop plant giveaway in the Tansa River Valley, visit: indiaisbiglove.blogspot.com.
For more information about the Fire Mountain Retreat Center, Please visit: firemountainretreat.org.
Mark Griffin’s work will be showcased in two upcoming Southern California art shows; a group show November 1 - 30 in downtown LA and then a solo show February 2 - 27, 2011, featuring 11 bronze figures, seven large-scale photographs and boxed portfolios. For more information on his art, visit: laartcore.org.