Review: Rohini Ralby’s new book “Living the Practice – Vol. 1”
Rohini Ralby’s new book “Living the Practice Vol. 1: The Way of Love – Essays, Poems, Paintings” has been available as an e-book since June 2022 and was released as a paperback in October 2022. The author is a contemporary mystic teaching in the Kashmir Shaivist lineage of her Guru, the late Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa (1908-1982), a disciple of Bhagawan Nityananda (1897-1961). This book is an extensive collection of her shorter writings and poems that are grouped around several central themes: Tools for practice; the relationship between Guru and disciple; humility, acceptance, and surrender; and Love. In sum, they provide a wealth of detailed instructions, thoughtful comments and insights on the spiritual practice she has received from her Guru, with whom she studied from 1974 until his passing in 1982. Besides having instructed many international students in spiritual practice, meditation, and scripture studies for the past few decades, Rohini Ralby is an accomplished visual artist and poet and is at the same time professionally active as an analyst and strategist on international security issues.
The author’s spiritual background and previous writings
Rohini Ralby’s own spiritual journey and close personal discipleship with Swami Muktananda – whom she calls Baba – have previously been described in the autobiographic chapters of her 2012 book “Walking home with Baba”. To appreciate the teachings she presents in the collected writings of “Living the Practice – Vol. 1″, her previous book should ideally be read first, as it provides a systematic, yet also very practical introduction into her spiritual tradition. About half of the chapters in “Walking home with Baba” are parts of a spiritual autobiography. They contain a candid, straightforward account of sometimes challenging experiences she has encountered and worked through – some before meeting her Guru, others while studying with him, and some during the period following his passing. They alternate with interwoven chapters of comments and explanations on the foundational text of Raja Yoga, the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali. The autobiographical parts don’t shy away from reflecting on how the author wrestled with some harsher lessons that were designed to break down what one could call the problem of I-identification, which is seen not just in Hinduism, but also Buddhism and other mystic traditions as the root cause of the human predicament. They describe how she received her Guru’s teachings sometimes through words, sometimes through actions or occasionally by a direct transmission beyond verbal communication, which is a fascinating read, as this type of instruction will likely fall outside the personal experience of many readers. By giving the readers of “Walking home with Baba” glimpses of her own spiritual education and by being transparent and authentic in recounting her discipleship and later the path towards mastery, she allows the reader to develop trust in her hard-won expertise and competence as a representative of the lineage of mystics in which she is teaching. Building on that basis, Rohini Ralby’s new book “Living the practice – Vol. 1” offers the reader of “Walking home with Baba” a chance to delve yet more deeply into the concrete contents of various teachings.
Implementing the practice
What is the core work constituting the spiritual practice that Rohini Ralby is teaching? In her own words, it is an “internal” practice in which one should aim to simultaneously “be with our experience, let whatever comes up from that experience come up, and function appropriately on the physical plane” (p. 4). This internal practice needs to be done continuously, not just during meditation sessions; essentially it is to be practiced during every single conscious moment rather than intermittently or at particular times only, such as when meditating in a formal setting (p. 37). Following such a deceptively simple set of instructions requires not a small degree of discipline, in addition to devotion to the goal of the practice. It also requires from the practitioner a willingness to face and then surrender to one’s actual momentary experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant, rather than trying to suppress, sugarcoat or analyze it on an intellectual level. Further, as the author challenges the reader to note in what reads like a disclaimer, her instructions can feel “harsh” and “boring”; she warns that this is not a “friendly” nor an “easy” practice, and that it will end up “ruining” the practitioner’s life (p. 228f.; 242). That which is ultimately ruined, however, are rather the entrenched yet erroneous narratives that habitually constitute a person’s notion of their self-identity, or what the author calls one’s “shrunken self.” Inevitably, if those are being dismantled, one’s life accordingly changes as well.
This internal practice will not sound unfamiliar to people who – such as this reviewer – are used to following mindfulness practices as taught in some Buddhist schools, where the goal is likewise to become increasingly aware, through constant attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience (whether on a bodily, mental, or emotional level), how what one conceptualizes as a “self” or “I-identity” is actually only a conglomerate of constantly changing sensations and concepts – and through that awareness, to gradually release one’s identification with it. Done correctly and diligently, Rohini Ralby asserts, the internal practice that she teaches will lead a practitioner to shed their wrong identification with that which is not real, and to uncover, as she writes, “who we truly are: fully human, universal Love” (p. 301). It is therefore a practice that has the potential to transform one’s way of relating to the world and to other beings, by becoming centered firmly in the Heart.
To those who like Rohini Ralby herself at the outset of her spiritual path seek to discover what she calls the “bottom line of existence”, the warnings about a supposed harshness of the practice should not appear daunting. But they make clear that practitioners who primarily want to have pleasant experiences of spiritual wellness, or are mainly looking for community, or seek external validation, or want to be “bailed out” by a Guru rather than practicing themselves, or who simply aim to become a more powerful version of their old “shrunken selves,” are at the wrong address with her. Students taking up the practice she teaches should be clear they want transformation and not just a more agreeable status quo. For those who do want transformation and are willing to do the work, she makes clear they will be pointed to an accessible, proven way to achieve it.
Regarding the supposed dangers and harshness, one might consider as an analogy the difference between exercise and training in sport. While exercise is useful for keeping one’s muscles in good working order, exercise only maintains whatever was already there without bringing about systemic change. If one is aiming to transform one’s abilities to a higher level of competence, one needs to systematically train for it rather than exercise only. And while exercising can feel pleasant, highly effective training rarely does, as it is purposefully designed to overtax the current abilities of the body in order to force the system to adapt, a process which typically hurts before it leads to changes in the affected tissues: muscles, nerves, even bones. And because highly effective physical training can be damaging to the body’s structures if done incorrectly, it needs to be supervised by a competent trainer. This analogy suggests that Rohini Ralby’s argument about the transformative potential as well as the dangers of her internal practice is compelling, even if that is directed at the mind rather than the physical body. And quite in line with the sports analogy, a consistent level of discipline, devotion to the goal of the practice and surrender to a competent authority is demanded from the disciple for this internal practice to be both safe and effective.
One further great benefit of this book are its descriptions of some elements of the tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism that are related to energy (or shakti). Extensively discussed are in particular the concept of Grace and the practice of shaktipat (defined as “the descent of power” during spiritual initiation of a disciple by a Guru that awakens their kundalini). An influx of divine Grace is needed for the student to make progress, she writes, and though one can work to prepare oneself for receiving Grace through practice, devotion and surrender, it is not something one can actively attain or receive on one’s own. The central function of the Guru as the vessel through which Grace is transmitted into the disciple is emphasized and explained in many ways throughout the book, but particularly in Chapter 5 which is devoted to this issue. Further, it becomes clear when reading this book that while both Grace and shaktipat are concepts that can be talked and written about, they really must be experienced by the seeker in practice to be understood. They are not exclusive to the tantric traditions, as the author acknowledges: In particular Christian and Sufi mysticism, though using different language to describe it, seem to have many of the same practices and experiences (p. 59). In that sense, the book is a great resource in documenting such practices and their meaning in the concrete context of instruction by a tantric Guru.
“Living the Practice- vol. 1” also explain some of the original tools that the author has developed in her teaching practice for her students. One of these methods in particular, called the “fourchotomy”, is creatively applied throughout the book: it is basically a method for more fully exploring the dimensions of meaning that are connected with one particular concept (or quality) – not just in the usual form of dichotomies that pit one concept/quality against its exact opposite, but by splitting the dichotomies up into four qualities instead of only two opposites: a concept / its direct opposite / the negative (or positive, as it may be) expression of that opposite / the negative (or positive) expression of the original concept (p. 88). Exploring such a “fourchotomy” of any given concept results in a field of interrelated, oscillating nuances of meaning that together help the student who is working on a particular quality to grasp more fully the “vibration” of the phenomenon they are contemplating, and in particular, helps them to avoid blind spots that could result from being in denial of the shadow aspects of a “good” quality that one either embraces or rejects in oneself. This is just one example of the various original methods described by the author that can help a student become more and more independent of the narratives that constitute their “shrunken self”.
Structure, style and presentation
The ideas in this book are sharply defined and expressed, with little room for grey areas, but the book is nonetheless remarkably inclusive in several ways. In a spiritual sense, notwithstanding the author’s warnings against practicing “spiritual promiscuity” (p. 126) – which is defined as hopping from practice to practice without ever sticking with one long enough to make progress – the book shows a great spiritual inclusivity that is evident through multiple instances where inspiration is drawn from, and connections made to other mystic traditions. There are numerous direct references e.g. to Christian, Sufi, Judaist, and Buddhist mystics, and the way their thoughts and practices are presented underlines the essential sameness of the mystic’s goal, no matter the tradition (e.g. pp. 51, 59, 85, 271).
The book is also inclusive in the sense that it presents minimal hurdles for understanding to readers of various types. The writings have an almost conversational tone, much like lecture notes that could be handed to students after a class to aid their memory. They are arranged around a number of key themes that appear and re-appear again throughout the book in different ways; this means that unlike the previous work “Walking home with Baba”, this book is not necessarily intended to be read in a linear fashion (although that is what this reviewer did, to avoid overlooking any content), and the author herself even recommends to read sections out of sequence if that feels right (p. 3). A third type of inclusivity is further evident through the way in which the book uses several different ways of instruction – one through prose, in the form of verbal teachings, logical explanations, illuminating anecdotes, or reflections on the author’s own experiences whether as a disciple or as a teacher; another through Rohini’s abstract paintings, many of which depict visual expressions of “fourchotomy” explorations, offering an additional artistic, intuitive and non-verbal approach to these reflections; and a third one through poetry – word art that accompanies all the chapters, with many of the poems directly playing on particular teachings that have been explained throughout various chapters of the book.
The aim of this approach could well be to build as many bridges as possible for various types of readers, whether they can absorb spiritual teachings better from a logical, visual, or poetic vantage point. As a result of this multi-pronged approach, readers are not confined to using only their intellect as the tool for engaging with the content of the book, they are invited to rely on their intuition and even their sense of artistic enjoyment. This is a key difference to many spiritual books that typically do not attempt to engage readers in several ways simultaneously. As someone used to reading scholarly texts, this reviewer found the intertwined poetry and visual art surprisingly helpful for bypassing the intellect’s tendency to stay firmly in the head and on the level of verbal logic. And as an aside, the presence of the visual art and poetry also has the effect of illustrating to the reader how all the creative activities that the author pursues form strands of a whole spiritual life journey. This is an inspiring example, in the sense of demonstrating how one can integrate one’s spiritual practice into a productive daily life in such a way that it ultimately informs and suffuses every activity.
The book’s engaging and inclusive approach is also evident in the remarkable clarity of its language. In that context, one might remember that Albert Einstein is said to have remarked that being unable to explain a thing simply means that one does not understand it well enough. And indeed, while sophisticated-sounding jargon can sometimes allow a writer to mask their lack of understanding, this is not possible when writing clear and simple prose, because that will invariably expose whatever unclarities of thought exist. In this book, every paragraph is crystal clear, and in particular when communicating the author’s more complex ideas. Therefore, when encountering a passage where the intended meaning may not be obvious, this should be taken as an invitation to ponder more deeply. Sometimes there are creative uses of language that are able to convey complex meaning in a humorous, yet highly effective way, such as when in a list of behaviors used for exercising power over others (p. 296), there appear exhilarating coinages like “sneakretive” (meaning ‘sneaky and secretive’) or “conering” (defined as ‘isolating and cornering someone so as to con them’).
Only in very few instances will some readers stumble over a particular technical term, mostly from the Hindu tradition, but these can be easily deciphered with the help of a very useful glossary at the end of the book (from pp. 338). All in all, the author has taken great care to present the reader with as few linguistic obstacles as possible to understanding her meaning. Nonetheless, this is not a book that should be read in a hurry nor quickly thumbed through in search of some easily absorbed crumbs of wisdom. Rather, to gain the most benefit from it, one would do well to read it rather slowly, taking time to reflect on passages as needed when they challenge one’s understanding. Sometimes, the meaning of a passage might only become clear after sitting with it for a while. There is a lot of practical wisdom to be found throughout the book that is directly applicable to daily life.
This book explains and illustrates in an accessible and clearly formulated form some key teachings transmitted to the author by her Guru, Swami Muktananda Paramahansa. Though the instructions, teachings and admonitions in the book are expressly not intended by the author to replace the competent supervision of one’s practice by a living teacher, they are nonetheless so detailed that they can inspire readers and spiritual practitioners from various backgrounds, for instance helping them implement a stable spiritual practice in their life even if they should be following a different path of practice. But naturally the book will be the most useful to students practicing in a tradition that is the same or similar to the one Rohini Ralby teaches. For them, it can serve as a repository of essential knowledge and provide both guidance and inspiration to them. The admonitions in it are particularly useful for overcoming some common fallacies and misconceptions that are typically encountered by students and can hold them back. The author carefully lays out the dangers of going astray in one’s practice, thereby showing great concern for the ability of seekers to make meaningful progress on their spiritual path. This caring spirit shines through the entire text. Needless to say, I very much look forward to the second volume of Rohini Ralby’s collected writings.
Dr. Sarah Kirchberger is Head of Asia-Pacific Strategy and Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, Vice President of the German Maritime Institute, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.