Louise Elisabeth Abbott-Alberts says she has always sensed the presence of the divine in her life. When asked for pictures, she says her favourite is a photo taken at Kamakhya under a sign “Adi Shankara”, which she is trying to recover for this interview.
Do yoga, meditation, chanting mean a lot to you in your daily life?
Very much indeed! This was not always so, as I came to yoga, meditation and chanting very late in life. However, looking back at the experiences in my life from childhood, the undercurrent of love of the Divine seems to have always been there.
As a child, I would watch with fascination and curiosity my Indonesian Muslim great grandmother going through her daily spiritual rituals in her little room. One day, I asked her what she was doing. She took me to a river in the village where we lived, and first taught me how to cleanse oneself following a certain ritual. We then walked back and she took me into her little room. “You sit there in that corner. You are not to move or be heard” were her instructions. I was 8 years old, but sat throughout her prayers in silence, watched her intently in her beautiful long white gown that covered her hair, her shoulders, her arms and down to the floor covering her feet. With her old body, she stood tall, perfectly erect, then she bowed, went all the way down to touch the floor with her forehead. This was repeated a few times. Finally she sat down with beads in her right hand and her mouth quietly moving. I sat throughout her prayers in silence as I was told. She was my first spiritual teacher, “Mimih” as I called her.
Louise's great grandmother Mimih who was her first spiritual teacher
My father was Dutch and my mother Indonesian. I grew up initially in the mountains where my father had his post, far away from cities and villages, and later with my great grandmother in that village by the river. Together with a group of children from the neighborhood, I was taught the rudiments of Arabic, enough to read the Koran under the guidance of a teacher, until I returned to my parents who by then had moved to the city of Bandung in mid-Java. As I still had no school at 11 years old, my parents, concerned about my education, took a most courageous and probably a most sacrificing decision to entrust me to the care of the Dutch Royal Airlines KLM and sent me to the Netherlands, alone, for school. I met my Christian family then. Barely speaking the language, my Dutch family sent me to Sunday school and I was promptly chosen to participate in a Christmas play, receiving the part of an angel: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people...” *) (with a strong Indonesian accent!). What a message to pronounce in front of a large audience for a young girl who had barely settled in her new country and still learning to speak its language! Even though I did not understand the message, the experience stayed with me, the words remaining in my memory.
My childhood was happy in the care and protection of first my Indonesian family and later in that of my Dutch family. Both families gave me the spiritual gifts that were available to them. But then came the adolescent years with all the challenges of the world as I stepped into that wider world. Bewilderment about life’s challenges, confusion about myself and my place in that world set in. Carrying a mix of Eastern and Western “DNA” had its own challenges during those adolescent years, but it was in my late twenties that it became acutely disorientating. Questions to which I found no answers came up: “Who am I? What am I? What am I doing here?”
A friend took me to the School of Philosophy in Brussels where I then worked and am still domiciled, with the teaching based on Advaita Vedanta. I had no idea what it meant but I went anyway. It was here that I heard the sound OM for the first time. And that sound felt so natural to me, I was hooked! My confused mind gradually came to rest, cleansed and given new hope and vistas. It was like a healing session, and I felt very much at home there. It certainly was a grounding experience and the beginning of a journey on a path that I have never left since. The introduction to Advaita Vedanta took away my biggest quest: being East/West, Muslim/Christian no longer posed questions, I felt ‘whole’: a-dvaita. I learned Sanskrit, an unknown language to me until then. I came to love its sound and fascinated by its beautiful but intricate grammar. I learned to meditate, and much more.
The journey continued when friends took me to meet Swami Rama of the Himalayas who was then on a visit in Germany. “Swami? What’s that?” was my first reaction, but I went with them without further questioning. It proved to be an auspicious week-end and meeting, although its effects were felt only some years later. I still remember vividly his gaze and smile. Later on, I joined the Himalayan Institute, which he founded, and I am still with them today.
New doors opened: I took yoga classes, followed by teacher’s training at two schools. As a yoga teacher, I enjoyed thoroughly putting at the disposal of the class all that I had learned and experienced for the class to take out the parts useful to them. Indeed, isn’t it that every human life is a journey and a story of experiences of every shade and colour? Each one is unique. And as one treads a path of spiritual unfoldment, one continues to explore as new questions arise. There are, I believe, as many aspects to spiritual life and to a spiritual journey as there are human beings, finally merging into one final path: the path of Satyam Shivam Sundaram..... Truth, Goodness, Beauty.
In meeting Shantala Sriramaiah, founder of Veda Belgium, I was recently introduced to Vedic chanting. Despite my basic knowledge of Sanskrit, I do not find Vedic chanting anywhere near easy, but it is mesmerising! Its vibrations seem to work in mysterious ways as I simply feel well after each practice. It blends perfectly with all that I have learned and taken on board along this Journey, deepening its experience. I wish to pay tribute to Shantala for her teaching par excellence!
A long answer to your question! In summary: yoga in its broader sense, meditation and chanting have become a daily practice.
In India many of us learn yoga in school or from a teacher and practise it regularly or irregularly in our daily lives. I notice that most non Indians take it up very seriously and also wish earnestly to be teachers. Is that your experience of how yoga is learnt.
India is home to yoga. Here, to non Indians, it is an ‘acquired’ practice. It is not such a long time ago that great Indian masters brought the gifts of yoga to the West. Many recognised yoga’s universal appeal for its overall healing benefits to body, mind and soul. It is perhaps not surprising that many took it up with great enthusiasm, and then wished to share these gifts. Teaching is one way of sharing – and further learning in the process. That was the reason why I took teacher’s trainings.
What inspired you to take up chanting? How are the Vedic sounds different from what you have heard before?
My biggest inspiration to take up Vedic chanting, and to continue with it, is its teacher, Shantala: knowledgeable, generous, compassionate. Having been introduced to Classical Sanskrit in the West, I did make some new discoveries in some of the Vedic Sanskrit sounds. It is enriching.
You quote Satyam Shivam Sundaram, what does it mean to you?
Its meaning is its appeal to me. I first came across it in the book “At the Eleventh Hour”, a biography of Swami Rama of the Himalayas by Pandit R.Tigunait. The then very young Bhole Baba, in training to become the later Swami Rama, was staying with that great sage, poet, philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore. When the time came for Bhole Baba to leave the sage’s ashram, he asked Tagore “please bless me with the gift of a lesson, which I may treasure here and hereafter”. I herewith quote from the book: “Tagore reminded him that the whole universe is one living consciousness and that everything that exists in it is a manifestation of this consciousness. Satyam, Shivam, and Sundaram (truth, goodness, and beauty) are its intrinsic attributes”. As I read this, it struck me with a similar feeling as when I heard the sound Om for the first time. Its appeal is still the same as when I first read it.
What are your thoughts on Tantra and what are the activities of the Himalayan Institute?
I have no clear thoughts about Tantra, it is a too big question for me to answer as Tantra is so complex. I tend to believe that the whole universe, life and its energies at its core is Tantra, the Shakti that encompasses the universe and makes it all alive and moving with qualities in every form, of every shade and colour, viz the expansion of the One Absolute.
Please can you share your experiences with chanting. Which are your favorite mantras?
I am still very much a beginner in Vedic chanting. It seems so simple: only three notes, but I have to work hard to get the pronunciation right. My favourite mantra currently is the Durga Suktam, which I now know by heart.
Have you been to India? Please share your memories with us.
I have been to India but only once, staying at the H.I. campus next to the Ganges in Allahabad. It was a pilgrimage journey in North India with the Himalayan Institute. We visited various tantric temples: Chinnamasta, Citrakut, Banaras, etc. The highlight was a visit to the Kamakhya temple in the state of Assam. The whole pilgrimage to the various temples made a deep impression on me, particularly the visit to the Kamakhya temple. However, contrasting emotions were also raging inside me. Profoundly stilling and spiritually enriching mixed now and then with tears of pain when I sensed and smelled an animal being sacrificed for spiritual purposes. I knew about this practice from my childhood years in Indonesia, but I was still pained by it. This brings me back to your question about my thoughts on Tantra. From my personal point of view, I can only bow and pray to Mother Divine - Om paramaatmane namah.