People: From Music to Meditation
(Photo: Suresh K. Volam, Sri Photos)
Joshua Pollock hails from rural Maine and now lives in India. A Western classical violinist, Pollock is also a member of maestro A. R. Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory, a meditation instructor, and the co-author of The Heartfulness Way.
As a Western classical musician, Joshua Pollock has had an enviable resume. He was only twelve years old when he made his debut with the St. Petersburg Chamber Orchestra of Russia. He has performed at landmark concert halls such as Symphony Hall, Jordan Hall, Carnegie Hall, Mariinsky Theatre, and the Barbican. He has been featured on NPR, BBC, CNN, NDTV and other media. Through his association with A. R. Rahman, Pollock has provided music in films like Ghajini, Delhi-6, Raavan, and Blue.
As fulfilling and exciting as his musical repertoire seems, one suspects Pollock finds his avatar as a leading meditation teacher and a spokesman for the Heartfulness Way even more meaningful. “The more I meditate, the less I listen to music,” declares the sagacious soul during our interview with him.
I got a glimpse of his simplicity, serenity, and equanimity when I went to interview him during his recent appearance in Atlanta to launch The Heartfulness Way, the book co-authored by him along with Kamlesh Patel, the global leader of Heartfulness meditation, a part of the Sahaj Marg system of spiritual practice. Despite having just travelled from India, he was fully engaged in our long chat.
Now residing in Delhi, India, with his family, Pollock is the quintessential example of assimilating the best of both cultures, Indian and American. Following are excerpts from our interview, moving from music to meditation.
As a Western classical musician who also has good exposure and experience with Indian classical, how would you compare or contrast both?
They are both based on sound, so we call them music. But somehow their purpose seems to be different. I would say that Western music is more about drama. It’s like going to a theatre—but its musical version. Whereas, the purpose of Indian ragas, as I understand it, is to create a spiritual condition in the listener.
How would you compare the violin with the Indian sitar? What moods or applications are each of these instruments better suited for?
I think a real master musician will be able to transcend the instrument and achieve moods which may not be so natural to the instrument itself. I mean look at the pianist. Every note in a piano is a decay. It starts with a hammer hitting the strings and then the vibration gradually stops, but when a singer is singing a note and building to the next, instead of having a decay, you have a crescendo. An expert pianist can create a seamless line, though technically, it seems impossible. So every instrument has its limitation, but a master musician will be able to transcend all those limitations and achieve things which are beyond what is generally associated with those instruments.
What do you feel about Rahman’s dream of creating an all Indian orchestra?
That would be great. I would love to see it happen. That’s his dream, and I support it, and I also worked towards it. I also feel that India itself has such a wonderful heritage in music, and its own tradition is just magnificent. Anything I would say about it would be an understatement. I guess because of its vastness and depth and the profundity of its music itself, I don’t think India is musically lacking in any way. This [all Indian orchestra] would only be to enrich it further and not to fill any gap.
Of all the musical offerings in the world what genre do you gravitate towards? What do you most listen to?
Actually the more I meditate, the less I listen to music. The more content you become, the less you require external things. When I was younger, every night I couldn’t sleep in the silence, without listening to music. Anytime I was doing any work, I would be listening to something. These days I never even think of turning on the music. Occasionally when I do, there is no particular genre that I seek. All of a sudden my mood will cause me to listen to this or that, and I will comply. Most recently I had one song, that I just kept listening to, when I was on the book tour in UP in Lucknow and Allahabad. There I kept wanting to listen to Salil Chaudhary’s song “Rajnigandha.” [And we both broke into humming the tune of that evergreen song]. I kept on listening to this as it seemed to resonate, especially on the road between those two cities and all the countryside. It just resonated perfectly with the environment.
What drew you to the Eastern spirituality?
I don’t think we can say spirituality is Eastern or Western. Everyone has a soul, and therefore spirituality is universal, irrespective of whether a tradition emerged in East or West. Of course, you can say yoga emerged in India, that’s a fact. But zero was also discovered in India, and that doesn’t mean that zero is Eastern. Zero is a universal value. Similarly, I feel that practices like yoga and meditation are universal and therefore applicable to anybody, not tied necessarily to culture.
That was a brilliant response, but let me rephrase the question: What drew you to the Eastern influence of the spirituality practices?
I grew up in rural Maine, which is nothing but forest—not a lot to do. My parents had so many books, and I used to read them. The books that really inspired me were on subjects like Taoism, yoga sutras, Patanjali, Buddhism, Sufism. What I appreciated about them the most is that there seemed to be a practical approach. It wasn’t just about belief. You can read philosophy, you can study spiritual traditions, but that knowledge that you gain from reading isn’t enough to transform you. It inspires you, but it does not transform you by itself. So in these traditions I noticed the practical element of meditation, and therefore I was drawn to that direction.
How did you come upon Heartfulness meditation? Was there an “Aha!” moment, or did it grow upon you gradually?
I was actually just walking down the street one day in Cleveland, Ohio, when I happened to strike up a conversation with someone who was just standing there. After a few minutes, it came out that they meditate, and it was Heartfulness meditation. Since this person had only just started it themselves, they put me in touch with a Heartfulness trainer. Since I had already meditated using various other techniques, I already had some idea of what to expect. These expectations were instantly shattered in my first experience with Heartfulness meditation. Intuitively, I felt as if I had arrived home—like when you come home after a long journey and everything feels so familiar and you can just relax. The very next day, I came back and had a completely different experience. Then I realized that this meditative state is something that unfolds over time, where we must be prepared for constant change on the way to realizing the changeless!
What inspired you to move to India?
I had visited India in 2005 and 2007 to meet Chariji, who at that time was the global guide for those practicing this form of meditation. During those visits, I felt so comfortable. After that, I had always wished I could go back. In 2008, I was in grad school in London, studying Western music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I was thinking about what to do next, and while India was on my mind, I didn’t see much prospects there as a Western musician. But then I found out that there was a school for Western classical music that was just coming up in Chennai. I enquired about it, and applied. Soon after that, I got a phone call from A. R. Rahman himself, but not being familiar with his music, his name didn’t mean anything to me. I went and met him and then he invited me to be a faculty member there, so I took that job. I went to Chennai and I worked there at his school for two years and also recorded any violin solos that were in his films in that two-year period. So that was the thing that brought me to India first.
Tell us a bit about your life in India. From the amusing to the profound, what are some of your unique experiences as an American living in India?
Needless to say, I’ve had a number of adventures during my 6 years living in both the north and south of the country, and especially in the past few months, when I visited 22 cities on my book tour. What immediately comes to mind is the openness of the peoples’ hearts wherever I’ve gone. This is unique and I think it will always remain an essential part of the Indian character.
From Vipassana to Art of Living to Isha Foundation, there are so many meditation-based spiritual offerings. How is heartfulness different, and what is the profile of the seeker that it is better suited to?
Well, we should judge these things by the experience that we have when we adopt these practices. Fundamentally, an attractive belief system is ok, but meditate in that and see what the results are. See the inner state that develops in you as a result of that meditation.
(Left) A “fireside” chat with writer Chetan Bhagat (left), discussing The Heartfulness Way, the book Pollock co-authored with Kamlesh Patel, the global leader of Heartfulness meditation, a part of the Sahaj Marg system of spiritual practice. (Photo: Suresh K. Volam, Sri Photos)
Now, I will tell you another thing. We believe that spirituality cannot be sold. There is a statement in the book in which Daaji (Kamlesh Patel, the book’s co-author and present global guide of the Heartfulness system) says that God is not for sale. So everything here is offered freely in the spirit just of sharing, nothing else. Our trainers won’t accept money.
There are also two aspects of the practices itself which are clear differentiators. One is yogic transmission. At the physical level the body requires nurturing: you have to eat, you have to breathe, exercise, take medicines sometimes. We also nurture the mind with knowledge, with understanding.
But then there is also another level which is the level of the soul… that we nurture with yogic transmission, or as we say in Sanskrit, pranahuti. There is air around us right now, but generally we don’t feel its presence. Now, when the fan is on, we feel the air that is moving; so we, all of a sudden, become aware of the air. Like that, the presence of divinity is all around us, but we don’t feel it. Yogic transmission is that breeze that helps you perceive divinity. So, when we meditate along with a trainer, the trainer is able to impart yogic transmission, and perhaps for the first time we actually experience that presence that we’ve only previously believed in or disbelieved in. This is a major step forward because we now transcend belief, we are experiencing the truth of it for ourselves without having to rely on any external, second hand knowledge.
The second aspect of Heartfulness which is unique, we call cleaning. So what do we clean? We have so many interactions with others, and with these interactions, there are emotions. So we react emotionally, whether positively or negatively, but we react. These emotions settle inside us, the emotional residue remains within us. Sometimes something will happen externally and someone will come along and trigger an old emotion inside you, which proves that it remained inside you. So our understanding of the world and the way we see others is based on these past experiences in the form of the emotions. If that’s not living in the past I don’t know what it is. People talk about living in the present, being in the now, but how is that possible, if we are seeing through the filter of the effects of the past?
So in order to actually be present you have to remove those effects from the past and the residual emotion. In Sanskrit, those residual emotions are called samskara. Through the cleaning method we remove samskara within us, and we are able to respond with the heart, instead of reacting with the mind. We go from a reactive mind to a responsive heart. We are able to do so because we are not reacting from our biases, formed in the past. We are able to respond to the situation, as it is, because every situation is unique. Which means these are original, creative responses.
This cleaning technique is something I have discussed with one very senior sanyasi back in Delhi, who has assured me that nowhere in the shastras, nowhere in the yogic literature, though they have mentioned samskara so much, nowhere is there a system wherein you can actually remove them in bulk—which is one of the revolutionary things about Heartfulness. This speeds up evolution towards Liberation because the perpetuality of life caused by samskaras has been removed. Attaining Liberation is good of course, but most of the spiritual journey comes after that.
This is one of the initial steps in Heartfulness, and then there is much, much more after that…all the other famous states like Aham-Brahmasmi, Satchitanand…those come after, and those are not the end either; there is more after that. So it’s a very long journey, but this journey is made quick by two things: removal of samskaras and the effective yogic transmission which pushes us along this path, rather draws us on this path. Those two things put together are like magic because we come to direct contact with the source.
Does your commitment to Heartfulness constrict you or withdraw you from other forms of yoga and meditation or other lineages of spirituality?
Well, if I am going to take a journey, say from Atlanta to Washington D.C., there is a highway. There are other cars on the highway. But if I ride mine to my destination, will I regret the fact that I didn’t have the experience of riding in others cars? The point isn’t the car; that’s the way I feel about it. If something is working, go with it.
The reason I asked you this, is because some traditions and institutions become very monopolistic, while looking down on other paths.
Our attitude is different. Here we say whatever your religious tradition may be, whatever your spiritual movement or journey is, whatever is it that you practice or whatever it is that you believe, stay with that. We are not after people to come and be followers; you stay in your religion whether it is Islam or Christianity or Hinduism, whether you practice this kind of meditation or other. What we suggest here, is take this as a supplement. If you like, this will help you to experience the truth that you are seeking. If that is something that you are craving, then try this and don’t move away from the other things. We are not looking for converts, because this is about opening the hearts no matter which religion you belong to.
Devotion is part of that. Don’t you think your devotion to Christ, your devotion to lord Krishna or whoever it is, will be more meaningful if your heart is open?
So anyone can partake in it, everyone can experience it. They can experience it regardless if they are willing to practice this or not. That’s why we have an app called ‘Lets Meditate’ and with that app, people can connect remotely with their trainer from the comfort of their own homes. The trainer can impart this yogic transmission to them. They can be complete strangers. A lot of the time people want to experience something higher, but because of cultural reasons, because of family reasons, they don’t seek. They are not allowed to experiment or go on a search. Let’s allow them to be able to have an experience they are looking for; that’s really our mission here.
(Left) Joshua Pollock conducted a live meditation session for an audience of about a thousand people during his recent book launch event in Atlanta. (Photo: Suresh K. Volam, Sri Photos)
In closing, do you have any words of advice for those seeking to bring meditation in their lives?
There is a line from the book: “Experience is greater than knowledge.” I would like you to remember that. Every day we use things like computers, phones, GPS systems, etc.—knowledge that someone discovered and made available for others to use. We couldn’t make that ourselves, and we are benefiting from their knowledge. But spirituality is different. You can’t benefit from someone else’ knowledge. You really have to step into the field—you can’t sit back and think about things. I encourage people not just to step in but to dive in, and I promise them that there is a journey of wonder, joy, and discovery waiting for them.
Meeting with Joshua Pollock at length and later hearing him at the event in Atlanta gave me a good understanding of what the combination of intellect and yearning for happiness can bring to a person spiritually, especially to one who does not have the Indian shastra heritage. Joshua’s pursuit of learning our centuries-old traditions of yoga and meditation and the natural way of life, impresses me beyond bounds. His uncontained enthusiasm and energy, combined with utmost humility inspires me to better myself—and if this is the cumulative result of what one can achieve through any of the similar practices including Heartfulness, then one certainly needs to subscribe to it.
Viren Mayani is a senior contributor at Khabar, specializing in people, music, entertainment, and more.
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