Shalini Bahl – “…what was left, was the most profound silence I had ever experienced.”
In many ways, Shalini Bah, the founder of The Mindful Universe, is like myself. She is like so many of you. She pursued a conventional path until she faced an awakening of sorts; within a shaman’s circle in the jungles of Costa Rica.
It was, as she put it, “a pivotal point in my life. It is where I started breaking down my barriers and discovered my true calling.”
Shalini grew up in a very loving space, and a very comfortable environment in Kuwait. She got married and started on the path that was expected of her, but not one she necessarily chose for herself. Her marriage was not what she thought it should be, and increasingly dissatisfied with the life before her, she asked for a divorce – something a woman in India simply did not do.
After her divorce she began to question what she had grown to accept in her world. It was at that time that she, by her own admission, came out of a very dark place in her life. She moved to the United States to pursue a PhD. It wasn’t until several pauses occurred in her life, that she began to reflect upon all that she had gone through.
She remarried and began following a traditional path, when she had an opportunity to travel to Costa Rica with her second husband and son to take part in a Shamanic ritual. Upon arrival there they were explained that the ritual involved drinking Ayahuasca and would last all night long.
As someone who grew up in a culture where alcohol was shunned, let alone hallucinogenics, she was skeptical about trying it. Her husband decided not to participate. She remembers thinking that she “should not” drink a hallucinogenics when a small voice in her asked, “says who?” She felt that she was there for a reason and had to go through it, even though it was the most frightening thing she had done in her life – sitting with 100 strangers in the middle of the forest for an all-night ceremony that involved drinking Ayahuasca.
The first time she joined the Shaman’s circle and drank the Ayahuasca, she felt her senses open up for the first time. It was enough of a taste that she decided to attend the second ceremony. On the second night she received a larger amount and within minutes could feel the energy being pulled out of her body. She felt like she was being asked to jump off into the unknown at the end of a dark roller coaster ride. As she put it, “I could hear my very academic voice, my parental voice, giving advice that this was not real, but the fear was real. I could feel my fear of death, my fear of life, echo within me. I resisted all night and eventually in the early morning hours I gave in and surrendered to it. What was left was the most profound silence I had ever experienced.”
“I realized the noise of my mind, a noise I had relied upon my entire life, that everything I had prided myself on was meaningless. I realized how so many of the conversations that we have are there to show how smart we are. I was always an “A” student, and suddenly here I was in a place where a lot of that was without importance. As were a lot of my ideals – right or wrong.”
It left her feeling shaky and ungrounded. She knew her experience was not real, but then she began to ask, if that was not real, then what is?
When she returned to the United States and to U Mass, she used her experience as a subject for her dissertation. It was during the writing that she realized what the various voices were. They were the same voices we all have, that compete for our attention.
The title of her dissertation was; Multiple Selves and The Meanings They Give to Consumptions
Her dissertation was published in a top marketing journal. It led to a job on the faculty of a well known university. All was going well, but her changed perspective on her experience kept coming back to her.
She was somehow changed by her experience in a way that others began to notice. Even her son, at one point, commented on her new ability to remain open and say “that’s interesting. Let’s explore that,” instead of shooting a new idea down.
“When things are going fine, you don’t ask. It is only when things begin to turn upside down that you begin to explore the source of your suffering and very often you are the source.”
It was not long before her second divorce was finalized, “when I wondered what I should do, I realized it was not my husband, it was me who had changed. I was not trying to be a rebel, but realized that the choices I had made in the past lacked awareness of who I was and what I wanted in a relationship,” she recalls.
“I was stuck on a track I had been set on by society and by my family. Never once did I ask what I wanted in life. It was only after leaving my job as a tenure track professor to marry and this time with more awareness, did I ask myself, if I could do anything, what would it be and the answer was clear, it was to teach mindfulness.”
Because of her academic training and business experience she chose to bring mindfulness to business and academia and started to look for a training that would be secular and accessible to these audiences. “The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program was ideal for what I had in mind and was only 45 minutes away from where I lived, so I underwent my training there. I remember the first time trying the choiceless awareness meditation and finding it so clinical and boring. Immediately something within me realized that all along I had used my practice to find bliss and get into a particular state rather than be ok and fully present with what ever is arising. In that moment I was able to see my striving even in my practice.” It opened a new door – a level of peace and calm, away from all the striving – and allowed her to just feel what was.
Earlier on she had explored Zen and different forms of Meditations. Neither really fit her life or her style. Neither aligned with her views, or her need for a less dogmatic approach. After leaving such a formal growing up, she did not want to be tied to any specific doctrine. Like many of us, she wanted a touch of spirituality but she also needed to fulfill the scientific approach she had grown with, to create a solid foundation from which to launch. The mindfulness meditation gave her the freedom to explore each experience for what it is with curiosity and compassion and has been her practice of choice since then.
“When I feel that I am tight, I can contemplate what is going on around me and understand how that relates to what is within me. Once I identify the dominant thought in my life, I can then choose what I want to do with that thought instead of the thought dictating my actions on autopilot.”
Today, it is these times of mindfulness that bring her back to a sense of balance. It affords her a point of balance with which to calm herself and enhance the quality of her awareness. Creating the quality of her awareness so that she can understand what she needs in that moment.
She laughs, “I still get triggered in certain situations, but I find I now step back to pause, so that I can return to a state of objectivity. This can happen before sending an email or enjoying a true dialogue. I find that I bring my practice of non-judgment and of curiosity so I can respond more skillfully to the world and the people around me. It is amazing to see the mind – and realize how you still cannot be objective.
“I realized at one point, that you can live your life without seeing past the blind spots, without even seeing the blind spots. They are blind spots, so by definition you cannot see them. But with the training of meditation we can confirm our own experiences. So when an experience triggers the wrong response, we can create a change in the actions that we take while being kind to ourselves.”
“Only 5% of decisions are made consciously. The rest are made based by our subconscious mind, which is very often in a fight or flight mode, which can lead you down the wrong path, to make the wrong decisions. But this is nothing to be afraid of. In the end we can be relieved to know that we all make mistakes. We are all human. It is how we learn.”
This is one of the lessons found within her new project and her new website – The Mindful Universe.
[learn_more caption=”Click to See The Full Interview”]
What drew you to yoga and meditation?
What drew me to meditation was my suffering. There were personal transitions in my life in India that I didn’t take the time to process at the time. Once I moved to the US I found myself in a new country without my usual support system – family and friends – that left me feeling empty and void. This feeling of emptiness was the start of my search for answers to questions I didn’t have. I naturally fell upon meditation as a way of quieting my mind to access answers that were beyond my usual thinking mind.
Soon after I experienced my first spiritual breakthrough at a shamanic journey in Costa Rica, where I experienced complete silence of the mind after going through a night of near death experience. That broke away many beliefs I had held all my life as reality and opened me up to experiencing life in an entirely new way. I came back from that looking for a formal meditation practice and teacher. This was way back in 2002 and have been meditating since then, albeit more regularly in the past 8 years.
How have they changed your life?
Mindfulness practice has touched every aspect of my life.
The most important discovery for me has been to see the limits of my thinking mind and how mindfulness – a curious and compassionate attention to what is – helps me expand my lens to get a bigger perspective and choose more skillful responses even in challenging situations. And when I fail, this training has taught me to learn from my failures and be kind to myself.
Being an academic and researcher by training I love the inquiry based framework it offers to view my experiences with open curiosity and kindness so I continue to learn each day about places I am still stuck in autopilot, very often without my conscious knowing. It is such an aha moment every time to see that – I had no idea that I was living that aspect of my life in a limited and reactive way. We are blind to our blind spots and this practice is helping me see my blind spots.
The other thing I am working with is how can I have impact while living with ease. I am finding that once I have clarity around what it is I truly value then all I have to do is align myself with that vision and get out of my own way. Breaking away from dogmatic principles and practices.
How should a practice make someone feel?
Mindfulness meditation is an exploration into what is going on for you in this moment. When we explore with an open, gently and curious mind we reconnect with our mind, body and emotions with clarity. With this clear seeing we have access to more information about us and can make more skillful choices indtead of running on autopilot. The practice is a little counter intuitive in that we come closer to even the negative sensations and discomfort without trying to push it away. In learning to be with whatever is arising, we see our own reactivity and how we might choose differently to be a little kinder, a little more aware, toward ourselves and others.
There are times when you want to retreat to your own comfort zone, but the practice is there to see if there are any attachments you are holding onto or striving for, that can hold you back, or push you away.
People often talk about whether they are a good or bad meditator. How does this resonate with you?
There is no wrong way to meditate. Just your intention to sit is the practice. That will help you develop the tools to be more present, more curious, more kind. You should always ask yourself if you can be more kind, more gentle, more quiet. It is okay if your mind is racing, and when you notice that you come back with kindness again and again. It is all about coming back to the present with the quality of compassion and equanimity.
The practice is about showing up each day. At a macro level, mindfulness is not a panacea for all of our problems. However, it offers a foundation for exploration in all sectors of our society. It is a broader lens for people to see the bigger picture and interconnectedness of all our actions so we may work toward finding solutions to make this a better world for everybody.
At what point did you decide to teach others?
This was a natural happening. It is not something I thought of doing but was natural to who I am in that situation. I was an assistant professor of marketing at a business school and ended up speaking with many stressed out students. At some point it became inevitable bringing in what I know about meditation and started organizing the Science of Breath seminars on campus and helped introduce the Art of Living classes on campus and in the community. Interestingly, at the time I was told by my colleagues it wasn’t my job to teach mindfulness or worry about the students’ stress and now it is my full time job. I changed my career from being a full time academic to part time and my main focus now is in bringing mindfulness to business, academia, and my community.
What do you find most rewarding about working with others?
Every time I teach I am touched by the experience of our shared humanity. It is in these moments I see how we are all one and the same no matter where we come from and what our personal history is. It has made me more empathetic in how I see people now. It is a rewarding feeling that no matter how challenging my day was, when I go in and let go of my strivings, which is an essential aspect of teaching, we all come out of the class feeling just a little more open or compassionate, in very small and big ways the difference it makes in our lives when we do this work together. It is humbling and empowering.
The other aspect of this work that energizes me is bringing mindfulness into corporate and academic settings because that’s where the rubber meets the road. Now we are not just talking about finding inner calm but how that inner calm can help us make better decisions. Exploring and seeing how mindfulness opens people up to finding their potential when they were feeling stuck or making decisions with more empathy and clarity to come up with creative solutions that maximize the well being of all stakeholders is very encouraging. It gives me hope that we can bring empathy and wisdom to make more skillful choices in education and business and now even in politics and other sectors of society.
What is your advice for someone just starting on their journey?
I know there are many self help books and programs but I recommend finding a teacher and a class that resonates with the person when they are starting out and then using the books to compliment and deepen their learning. This work and knowledge is subtle and many nuances can be missed when trying it on your own. It can leave people disillusioned or with the wrong impression that this is not for them simply because they didn’t know that what they are experiencing is normal and expected. So having a teacher who can guide through these misconceptions and the rich experience of learning from others in class and sharing in an open, authentic way is as important as the practice itself.
What should someone look for in a studio or an instructor?
I recommend trusting your intuition if the teacher’s style resonates with you. Try a free intro class with the teacher and see if it is the right fit. I would also add that humor, ease, and authenticity in the teacher typically are telling of the teacher’s embodiment of the practice. When checking out a teacher you may want to see where they got their training from since I am finding many people starting to teach mindfulness without sufficiently immersing themselves in the work. A final thing to look out for in a teacher is if they hold the interests of the participants up front or are their behaviors self-serving.
What does the term Modern Meditation mean to you?
To me modern meditation means a practice that is neither dogmatic nor prescriptive but works for every individual taking into account where they are and their personal needs. There is personal discipline involved even within modern meditation but the approach is fundamentally kind and flexible to accommodate the needs of the individual. The important question to hold gently is if the meditation is making you a little kinder, a little less reactive, and more aware in your life.
How have you adapted traditional meditation and yoga in your life outside the studio?
My formal practice of attending to the present moment with the attitude of kindness and curiosity is what I bring into life outside of the practice. It is not a striving kind of focus but a gentle awareness and presence that I remind myself to bring in my work, interactions and all activities.
How has expanding and deepening your practice, improved your life?
I lived the first half of my life without this practice and know that I lacked self awareness and agency to create a meaningful life. I ended up hurting others and myself, even when I didn’t mean to, because of my lack of awareness. This practice has changed my life and I cannot imagine living without it.
Research tell us that 99% of our DNA is shared. How can we use this concept to further humanity and the world?
The science of genetics and evolution is useful to remind us of our shared humanity. But I am always blown away with the authenticity of the connection that we feel when we come together to practice together. We all tend to judge, but at the end of an eight-week class we realize that we are all the same, we have all experienced the same emotions and want the same thing in life, to be happy.
There is an exercise I use all the time. It is to look into each other’s eyes, to acknowledge that this person across from me is just like me. They have suffered just like me. They have laughed and cried, just like me.
When I see people participate in this exercise, it is common to find people break down their barriers and cry, being moved by this person across from them. It is worth trying it. We call it Just Like Me. It can be a very profound experience to bring out the natural state of empathy and compassion within everyone in addition to the intellectual knowing that we are connected.
What is your Simple Truth?
My simple truth is to live with open awareness, gentle curiosity and compassion. This reminder helps me to stay open to what is and notice where in my mind, body and thoughts am I holding on or resisting. What can I let go of so I may access the wisdom in this moment to choose skillful actions for the highest good of all involved? [/learn_more]