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Swami Sivananda continues with part two of his recently published story by Alternatives Journal. In this conclusive segment he speaks of Swami Radha’s encouragement and constant reminder that the power of choice was his greatest asset in taking his next steps.
For a full overview of the making of this article, listen to Swami Sivananda’s podcast at the end of this piece.
Fully committing to a new direction was difficult. Over the years, I had invested myself wholeheartedly in a marriage, community and career, doing worthwhile things in the company of good people. But I’d been planting seeds for this transition for a long time. By then, my yoga studies spanned 20 years, and I had a profound appreciation of the discipline as the science of life.
In the 1980s, I’d found a Western teacher, Swami Radha. Relentlessly, she encouraged me to pull back the veil to find the purpose of my life, free from preconceived ideas, independent of what anyone else thought or said. She constantly reminded me that the greatest power is the power of choice.
I approached yoga with the same intensity that I applied to my work. When serving on Tom’s staff during the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry in the mid-1970s, I was up before dawn to join a Sikh community in their practices. Later, when working for the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee (CARC), I was immersed in a Vedanta correspondence course. When I found myself on the Arctic Islands, I had the pilot tuck my assignments into his jacket to be mailed from Resolute Bay. When I finally returned home to Ottawa after that unsettling Bank meeting, I began to explore the idea of moving to the Ashram permanently. Patricia and I had lived there in the mid-1980s as she recovered from cancer. What the Ashram stood for resonated with me deeply, but it was not an option for her now. We were at cross-purposes, pulled in opposite directions. Then I had a dream.
There is yogic way of working with dreams, similar to the Jungian approach, which is helpful in releasing a subconscious kind of knowing. My dream startled me awake. In it, Swami Sivananda, Swami Radha’s Indian Guru, turned to me as shimmering light, and said, “You did the report. Now move on.” It electrified me for days and was my first confirmation. Others followed.
By the fall of 1992, Patricia and I had agreed to separate. In preparation for my move to the Ashram, I tidied up my affairs in Ottawa. Retaining the minimum amount of cash I’d need to tide me over temporarily, I turned over our home and assets to Patricia. I was sure this was the right course despite the advice of lawyers and friends who wondered what I would do with no income. Moving to the Ashram was a huge experiment with an uncertain outcome. I knew what I was leaving behind, but not what lay ahead. I was aware that something had to change. I would start with myself. This wasn’t a casual idea – something to think about or study further. I had to act. I knew from the bottom of my being that I had to try or I’d never forgive myself.
Even with the support of the Ashram community and the steadying influence of daily practices during those first months, I found that the pull of the past, the emotionally familiar, to be too much. I cut off correspondence with Patricia and others. I had to find something in myself, alone. A rational explanation of this came much later, from Carl Jung, who once wrote, “It takes a lot of courage to take the unconscious seriously and to tackle the problems it raises.”
By spring, I felt the start of a new knowing. Coincidentally, Tom sent a note telling me that the Bank and India had parted ways on the Sardar Sarovar Projects due to the problems we’d identified. It was tragically inevitable, and costly in human and environmental terms. To me, it was another sign of an institutionalized culture that couldn’t listen, even to itself. I had doubts in those first years. But my environmental advocacy days had taught me to persist even when things seemed hopeless. Somehow support always appeared – often in unexpected ways.
Well into my second year, I was in yet another low, facing strong resistance and doubt. No matter how many times I’d been told that getting into and out of these places of bewilderment is a necessary part of penetrating deeper into the mind, I just couldn’t hold this perspective. That changed when I received a letter from my father, one of his last before he died. Until then, he’d been unable to understand my move; my father saw only the abandonment of success.
He wrote: “I’m in the midst of reading Jean Vanier’s Community and Growth. I get a glimmer of his meaning even if his challenges are scary. I thought the attached excerpt spelled out the basis of your own momentous decision with great insight.” I unfolded the photocopy that he had attached.
It read: “To enter into a new covenant and belong to a new people, a community with new values, we have to leave another people – those with whom we have lived – with other values and other norms: wealth, possessions, social prestige, revolution, drugs, delinquency, whatever. This passage from one people to another can be a very painful uprooting, and usually takes time. Many do not achieve it, because they do not want to choose or cut themselves off from their old life. They keep a foot in each camp and live a compromise, without finding their real identity.”
The chanting from the temple softens and fades, leaving only the intermittent wash of water on the stony beach below. Swami Radhananda’s clear voice rises between waves as she leads the Divine Light meditation. She carries on the teachings of Swami Radha who founded the Ashram and died in 1995. With my eyes closed, I follow along, “… tense … relax … concentrate … see … feel … ever growing into Divine Light.”
Reflecting back on those events from almost two decades ago, I asked myself: Am I different? What have I learned? Am I at peace? Good questions that never seem to have a final answer. But who am I answering to in the meantime? Could anyone really understand and does it matter?
Patricia and I are friends in a way that we had never imagined possible. And yes, the Ashram has received prestigious environmental awards that make me proud. I know that an enriched life starts from and ends on the inside, whatever the outward signs of acceptance or accomplishment. It is so simple and so easily forgotten. I remain a beginner, but I can see that by continuing in this way, I will be able to look back over my life from my deathbed and say, “That was just great, I did it!” Is this not part of being at peace with oneself?
Holding the evening’s stillness, I open my eyes and watch the sun set. The rock at my back retains the day’s warmth. Next week, I will lead a 10-day retreat. Many young adults will be looking for something more. They will be passionate about life, relationships and this planet. They will leave enriched, each in their own way. They may learn what Swami Radha taught me: You can’t jump over your own shadow. Mostly, they’ll relearn what it is to simply listen – inside. There is a place that knows. And we can choose.
Interview with Alternatives Journal host Peter Stock on the creation of this article:
Alternatives Journal Podcast – Swami Sivananda
Now the secretary treasurer at the Yasodhara Ashram Yoga Retreat and Study Centre near Nelson, BC, Swami Sivananda (formerly Don Gamble) was a well-known and highly respected environmental professional. He was a member of the Berger Inquiry into the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and director of policy studies at CARC. He joined Berger in Alaska as co-ordinator of the Alaska Native Review Commission before returning to Ottawa to establish the Rawson Academy of Aquatic Science and its spinoff consulting arm, Resource Futures International.