Saints, sages and spiritual teachers throughout the centuries have known about the power of visiting places where enlightened beings have lived.
The holy ones leave a vibrational imprint that is spiritually uplifting and carries special blessings.
This is why I encouraged Stephen Dinan and Devaa Haley Mitchell, the co-founders of The Shift Network, to create A Sacred Pilgrimage into the Soul of India, one of the first organized trips for our community members.
Stephen and Devaa had envisioned “Shift Trips” as an exciting way for Shift Network members to learn about and from peoples and spiritual traditions of other cultures.
As with all of our programs, Shift Trips would focus on personal spiritual awakening, taking meaningful action and connecting with a larger global community of inspired people.
We decided our first trips would be India and and Iran.
Given that Stephen, Devaa and I all had traveled to Rishikesh, India separately earlier in our lives, it was an ideal place to launch this venture. Being on the banks of Mother Ganga had catalyzed profound shifts in each of our lives and deepened our spiritual practices.
We also had grown to love and greatly respect Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji and Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswatiji of Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh.
We organized the pilgrimage to India in early 2016 to coincide with Parmarth Niketan’s International Yoga Festival, a week-long event taking place on the banks of Mother Ganga.
It’s hard to put into words the transformation that happened during this journey….
Sadhviji likes to say:
People come to the International Yoga Festival thinking they are here to study with world-renowned yoga teachers. Yes, that is part of it. And, then, they experience the spiritual vibrations of Mother Ganga. That is why they are here: to be blessed by Mother Ganga and the spiritual energies left by so many holy people.
For thousands of years, saints and sages have lived in caves and walked the banks of Mother Ganga.
The first time I returned from a visit to Rishikesh, an Indian corporate consultant told me, after a long silent pause, “You have no idea how fortunate you are. It can take hundreds of lifetimes to be able to even visit such holy places.”
When the Shift India Team of 14 people traveled to Rishikesh this year, we went with the intention of being on a sacred pilgrimage.
One great Indian yogi once said that when you go on a pilgrimage with a devotional heart, the spiritual energies are even more accessible.
While each of us had different spiritual practices, we were all committed to personal transformation, deepening our relationship with Spirit, and taking meaningful action inspired by soul wisdom.
Together, the Shift India Team co-created a safe container for each of us to dive deeply into the experience of India. For the first week, we participated in the International Yoga Festival, which had over 1,200 participants from 85 countries.
The festival was particularly meaningful because Rishikesh is considered the birthplace of yoga, an ancient science dating back over 5,000 years (Some scholars even speculate yoga is over 10,000 years old!).
The yoga teachers at the festival were exceptional and the live sacred music was intoxicating. (We even danced during an impromptu kirtan concert at the vacated ashram where the Beatles had visited in 1968.)
Being at the festival with people from around the world helped us realize why the United Nations has declared June 21 as the International Day of Yoga. The ancient science of Yoga is truly transforming the world, one person at a time.
At sunset each day, we participated in an ancient Aarti fire ceremony on the banks of Mother Ganga conducted by Swamiji, Sadhviji and young “Rishikamaris” (students) of Parmarth Niketan.
There were often hundreds of people and special guests, including great swamis and swaminis. The American Ambassador to India and his family were guests of honor one evening as they paid tribute to India’s deep spiritual roots.
While we had group activities and daily check-ins, each of us had our own personal spiritual experience. For me, I would go to the banks of Mother Ganga each morning before sunrise to meditate. It was there that I experienced what Sadhviji described as, “Even amidst the moving water, there is always stillness.”
On the banks of Mother Ganga, I could feel the deep stillness and presence, along with hearing the movement of the water. The stillness was ever present, ever blissful, and seemed to be arising from every cell of my being and everywhere at the same time.
This stillness felt like an intimate experience of Source, Spirit. While I have experienced this stillness in meditation before, it was ever more accessible in the amplified spiritual vibrations of Rishikesh and Mother Ganga.
Each day, I dove deeper and deeper into the stillness while fully experiencing India’s incredible cultural diversity, spiritual ceremonies, colorful marketplaces, yoga classes, exotic foods, etc….
It was clear that India’s rich spiritual traditions was shifting our very DNA, helping us take one more step in awakening to our own divinity and oneness with all of Life.
I was touched by the devotion that was part of everyday life of people, as demonstrated by holy shrines adorned with flowers and images of Yogis, Lord Shiva and various Goddesses in shops and restaurants.
Following the International Yoga Festival, we traveled to Haridwar to visit the Yoga Kumbh Mela and holy temples to the Divine Mother.
Haridwar is revered by people of India as an ancient holy site. The Aarti ceremonies were attended by thousands of people, all praying and chanting along the banks of Mother Ganga.
It was exquisitely beautiful to share the sacred ceremonies with friends in the Shift India Team, all of us being transformed, ceremony by ceremony, adventure by adventure, breath by breath.
When we went to the Mansa Devi Temple in Haridwar, I felt an immediate recognition, as if I have been there before. I found myself drunk with Mother’s presence. It was a temple to Durga and goddess Mansa Devi, the aspect that reads our thoughts and desires and fulfills our desires.
Mother India was doing Her magic, shifting our hearts, minds and souls while we celebrated and relished in Her richness.
Following the visit to Haridwar, we focused on Karma Yoga and Seva — selfless service.
We joined Parmarth Niketan staff in introducing water filters to an elementary school, visiting the ashram’s organic farm and traveling to a village that is serviced by the ashram’s mobile health clinic.
It was touching to meet the people at the programs and to learn about their daily lives. I also was deeply inspired by the way that Swamiji, Sadhviji and the Parmarth Niketan ashram staff and volunteers approach Seva.
The moment I awaken even a little bit … service is going to be a natural byproduct. Not because you want to win some humanitarian award, or because you’ve got a sticky note that says ‘Remember to do random acts of kindness.’ Not because compassion is the word of the day. But because the borders and boundaries between the self and the rest of the world dissolve.
My service to you is going to be the most natural outcome, because I no longer see you as other, I see you as Self.
Spiritual awakening and meaningful action, or selfless service, are at the core of The Shift Network’s mission. This India Trip was a profound way to explore practical ways to embody this vision and way of being/doing.
The Shift India Trip was more than a sacred pilgrimage into the soul of India, it was a journey into our own hearts and souls. As Swamiji said when we arrived at Parmarth Niketan, “Welcome home.”
To find out more about Shift Trips, I invite you to watch this special video:
PS - Stay tuned, as our next Shift Trip to Iran, takes place this Oct./Nov (2016) and designed with the intention of helping participants gain a better understanding about the people and rich culture in Iran; and, in the long-term, play a positive and more informed role in promoting peace with Iran. We’ll also have another pilgrimage to India next Feb/March (2017).