My New York Experience

“Flight staff, please prepare for takeoff” crackles the Captain's voice over the speaker system as we taxi into final position. Seconds later there is a roar from the engines of our Boeing 747 and we are soon racing down the runway – the buildings, grass and sky visible through my tiny window rapidly merging into a magical blur of shapes and colours. As we become airborne and the metropolis of Johannesburg slowly shrinks away into the distance, my mind tries in vain to take stock of the journey ahead and the experiences that await me at my final destination. This is not just a holiday or business trip. I am on my way to New York for a two week long spiritual pilgrimage. Home of spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy and many of his students, New York holds treasure of a different kind for me.

Nearly twenty four hours later, feeling a bit jetlagged and in need of a shower, my brother and I are sharing a cab from JFK airport with another student of Sri Chinmoy's from Switzerland who was on the same flight from Amsterdam . After a rather longer than usual trip, our taxi driver pulls up beside a stretch of familiar stores – we have arrived. These are the divine enterprises – shops run by students of Sri Chinmoy that serve the local community. As I step out of the air-conditioned cab into the 30 ° C heat, I look around and notice a handful of familiar faces. Arms are waved and hellos exchanged and I somehow feel as though I am home again.

Soon we are settling into a very simple, but spotlessly clean apartment, which we will be sharing with several other seekers from around the world (Sri Chinmoy's students come from all walks of life and from more than 50 countries). After a shower and a short rest, we make our way to the meeting place of the Sri Chinmoy Centre. As I sit for meditation on one of the many white bleachers that provide seating for well over a thousand people, I immediately feel uplifted. Like the soul-stirring consciousness one feels in a great cathedral or sacred temple, this simple, but beautiful meeting place, adorned with majestic towering trees and flowers of every colour and variety, offers such welcome rest and nourishment to my weary soul. Seeing the serene and smiling faces of the other one thousand or so people, who, like me, have made the pilgrimage to come here from all corners of the globe, I sense that we are all here for the same reason – to nourish the burning spiritual hunger that has been ignited within us.

About half an hour later Sri Chinmoy arrives wearing shorts and a light shirt. It is a mid-summer's evening and the air is still warm after a hot and humid day. I unexpectedly feel something inside myself, a sacred and deeply fulfilling expression of inner recognition that flows spontaneously from within. It is as though an inner language of silence is spoken and the heavy burdens carried by my soul are suddenly cast aside.

The evening programme commences with a haunting performance of devotional singing by an international group of fellow students and is soon followed by several more. As my mind struggles to understand this new reality, I cannot help thinking back to my life before I became a member of this spiritual community. Trapped in a world of inner turmoil and depression, I struggled to find any real happiness or purpose in my life. Wherever I looked I saw futility and hopelessness. Seated in this open-air cathedral, my quest for self-discovery is now the only thing that is truly real for me – feeling peace and joy here seems so easy. I am reminded of how Sri Chinmoy has often told us that for a spiritual seeker the ‘real' world is not the world of outer events and experiences, but rather the inner world where we discover our own divinity inside the peace and joy of inner silence.

As I gratefully climb into bed later that night, I lie awake for a few minutes in sheer amazement of how much has already happened. Deep within I feel an inexpressible joy, a kind of inner music. In spite of my jetlag I sleep well and rise early the next morning at 5:15 a.m. to begin the day with an hour of prayer, meditation and singing. At 6:30 a.m. I change into running clothes and together with everyone else in the apartment, make my way through the early morning light to a nearby high school, a 10 minute jog away. Today is Saturday, the day of our weekly 2 mile race, a tradition of the Sri Chinmoy Centre for well over 20 years. A great runner himself, who has completed twenty marathons, Sri Chinmoy encourages his students to include running as a part of their daily spiritual practice. He often calls meditation the “the inner running”, as the obstacles one encounters are in many ways the same as the obstacles one has to face in the “outer running” (lethargy, fear, doubt, etc.).

The race is thankfully soon over. I am grateful for the extra energy I feel from training at Johannesburg 's high altitude, but at the same time am not yet acclimatised to the uncomfortable heat and humidity that are already apparent even at this time of day. We are all suddenly delighted with a surprise visit from Sri Chinmoy. He meditates for a few minutes and then offers a short prayer which we soulfully recite with him several times. He then sets the prayer to music. It is a rare and wonderful moment to see a human being of such spiritual depth, one who has realised the highest, spontaneously composing melodies, as if allowing an inner divine music to flow through him. Uplifted and purified by the experience we gratefully head off to our respective apartments to prepare for the rest of the day's events.

Over the next two weeks, I find myself involved in a myriad of outer events and experiences: morning and evening meditations, singing performances; meetings with humanitarian organisations; visits to Manhattan and the United Nations; daily runs; chats with fellow students about recent experiences; selfless service shifts to help prepare meals, or setup for special events; and most important of all, personal encounters with Sri Chinmoy. There are times when I feel like everything is magnified with an intensity that I rarely feel when I am not with Sri Chinmoy. My meditation experiences are far more profound, but I am also aware of how weaknesses in my nature on occasion come forward to be transformed. I painfully experience them for a few days and then suddenly, as if by magic, they are gone. This is where the real beauty of the spiritual life lies – in our personal growth and in the transformation of our weaknesses into strengths. In the Hindu Scriptures there is a famous verse that declares: “The soul cannot be won by the weakling”. I am ever aware of the truth in these words and of the need to be an inner warrior, to constantly challenge the lower forces within myself that resist this process of transformation.

As the day of my departure looms, I find my memories of events in Johannesburg , both joys and disappointments, somehow magically silenced by the depth of my inner experience in New York . Soon I am on my way home. I am sad to be leaving the support of this wonderful community, but glad to be returning so uplifted and with such renewed energy and enthusiasm. Perhaps most important of all, I feel in awe of the power of spirituality and meditation and of Sri Chinmoy, the person who has awakened this inner treasure within me – it is a rare and wonderful gift.

Article by Balarka
South Africa