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Talking Stick

The Dark Night of Separation:
The Talking Stick Colloquium # 69





I wring my hands, burning up with a fever, twisting in pain,
Madly looking for my Beloved
Who has turned away; the fault is mine. || 1 ||
I took You for granted,
Youth wasted, I am filled with regret.
O Black Bird, why are you so dark?
Burnt black by the flames of separation!
How do I find fulfillment without my Beloved?
Pray turn back, have mercy. || 2 ||
The world is a scary place
Frightened and alone - I am without companion or friend.
The Merciful One anchored me in Sadh Sangat
When I look again, my help is here. || 3 ||
Uphill is my path, sharper than a razor's edge.
Start early, don’t delay, O Farid || 4 ||


We had a newly married Sikh couple over for dinner the other night. Both were raised in North America - he in Columbus (Ohio, U,.S.A.) and she in Toronto (Canada). The subject turned to Punjabi.

She is fluent and he is a bit challenged. She wants him to learn the language and perhaps he does, too. They turned to me knowing that I was largely self-taught in Punjabi.

There must be desire, first and foremost, I told them, thinking of my own experience. All else will follow.

No sooner had I spoken that it occurred to me that I may have possibly touched on the two questions that we considered last week, namely, “Why aren’t we practicing naam in our daily life?” and “Why do we continue to walk down the beaten path?”

Desire or hunger is just as important for Naam.

Readers had attributed a variety of reasons - habit, distraction, following the path of least resistance and, of course, maya - but all appeared to describe symptoms rather than the root cause.

The Punjabi expression, “pehloN vichoRa, pher vasila, pher vissal,” implying that desire, or hunger, is a pre-condition for spiritual union (vissal) makes the same point.

Desire fuels the need to find a way (vasila) and the way, in turn, leads to the destination, in this case, consummation.

Consider physical hunger for instance. Losing one's appetite or even a diminished interest in food is viewed as a symptom of a deeper physical illness. Similarly, when our body is ill or running a fever, we tend to loose our sense of taste, which returns only when health is restored.

And so it is in matters of the spirit. Gurbani calls our loss of appetite for naam a dhiragh rog, or a chronic ailment. The real question is, “How do we restore our spiritual health?”


I would like to turn your attention to Baba Farid - please see the verse above, from Raag Soohee.. I picked this passage because it evokes the kind of hunger, pain and longing that we must feel for naam.

It is impossible (at least for me) to convey the exquisite beauty of this passage in English and I am afraid none of the translations that I know of are even close; if anything, they have only diminished it - as has my rendition.

Raag Soohee in gurbani contains a good many passages where the metaphor of a bride longing for consummation with her beloved have been used to convey the theme of spiritual marriage.

The passage from Baba Farid is an outpouring of intense regret and even more intense longing. We rarely think of regret as a transforming agent, yet it has to be the basis of change. Here one is speaking not of regret in the ordinary day-to-day sense of the word, but rather broadly, as in reflecting over the sum total of one's life.

Baba Farid speaks of a wasted youth and an opportunity lost.

Have we stopped to take stock of our lives?

Baba Farid also expresses “birha” or pangs of separation and an intense longing brought on by the absence of Love or the Beloved. Gurbani speaks of various shades and levels of “birha” - necessary steps on the path to consummation.

Please note that desire and love are twin terms with different connotations. In the context of our discussion, desire can start with a hunger to consume or devour but lead to love, which seeks preservation and care.

We started out on this discussion several weeks ago by evoking the 14th stanza from Guru Nanak’s Japji, recognizing that religion, to quote William James, is not a “dead habit,” but a “fever.” But the fever that burns us is not the regret or the twinge that Baba Farid feels.

How do we restore our appetite?


December 12, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Ravinder Singh (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), December 12, 2011, 7:58 AM.

Reading my own piece above, I realize that regret, or "pacchtawa" in Punjabi, even in its ordinary sense, can be a powerful tool for spiritual change. It all depends on how we deal with it: do we cling on to regret over some infraction, no matter how minor, and get buried under guilt? I know many people who cannot get over a mistake; it keeps haunting them, interfering with their ordinary enjoyment of life. We could use regret as a self-convicting tool and come away a better person. Please share with us how you deal with regret. What regrets are weighing you down? Have you reached out to Akal Purakh, like Farid?

2: Devinder Singh (India), December 12, 2011, 11:09 AM.

The prevalent belief that the best way of seeking the Divine is through sorrow, vairagya and pain seems to me to be a misconception. It is not possible that there should not be stumbles, failures, etc. in the work of self-purification and change, but to feel upset or remorseful over them is less than helpful; it easily brings depression, and depression brings clouding of the mind and weakness. We must not let the depression depress us, rather one must stand back from it, observe its cause and remove the cause; for the cause is always in oneself.

3: Harpreet Kaur (Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A.), December 12, 2011, 11:26 AM.

I quite disagree with Devinder ji: Looks like you have mixed up things you have read in different books, and are having difficulty in sorting them out. 'Sorrow' and 'pain' as perceived paths to salvation are Hindu practices, and a definite no-no in Sikhi. Vairaag is a different kettle of fish because it is not self-inflicted, nor is it a 'technique'. It is an emotion which reflects a state of mind. And vairaag - and associated terms - is what Ravinder Singh ji is talking about. I find, Devinder Singh ji, that you tend to drag in the very Hindu concepts into these discussions which are anathema to Sikhi and have no relevance to these discussions.

4: Kirpal Singh (DaytonaBeach, Florida, U.S.A.), December 12, 2011, 12:47 PM.

My personal life has been full of many regrets. My technique usually has been: first, ardaas before the Guru, followed by the hukam and its interpretation in reference to my particular dilemma or predicament or issues, with research for insight from Sikhi as to how our Gurus they may have dealt with similar situations in their lives and subsequently in the history of the Sikh community. Somehow this has always helped me during the most critical periods of my life.

5: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), December 12, 2011, 2:02 PM.

One goes unmindful of consequences so long as one does not understand one's own shortcomings. It is only in suffering that love, courage, patience and sympathy are called forth in a person. God has his own way of opening the eyes of persons because He knows our wants and gives accordingly. Japji Sahib: "aapay jaanai aapay day-ay." Again in the Japji Sahib: "kayti-aa dookh bhookh sad maar ayh bhi daat tayree daataar". That is - 'Many ever suffer from pain and hunger. O God, this too is your grace." The only course left to a person is 'Sikhi Daan' which is simran, earn an honest living and share the fruits of your labour. This daan sets up a prayer for communion with God which may in turn stimulate the soul in a person.

6: Ravinder Singh (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), December 13, 2011, 7:27 AM.

Thank you, Harpreet Kaur ji (#3) for making an important distinction. Vairaag is actually a sanskrit term derived from "raag" or love/attachment and vairaag suggests an absence of it. In Hindu practice, vairaag involves withdrawal from or renunciation of the world. Not so in Sikhi. Here, we are discussing "pachhotawa" which can take different forms - regret over having done something that one shouldn't have done, or allowing an opportunity to slip away, for example.

7: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), December 13, 2011, 7:43 AM.

Ravinder Singh ji (#1): That harping on minor infractions usually becomes the holy subtle ego that is most difficult to eradicate. To quote Bhai Gurdas: "apni kirni kar narak hu na payo thor/ tomaray birad ko asro samar hu" - "According to my deeds I won't even qualify for hell; I at the mercy of Your Grace". Again, in the Guru Granth Sahib: "laykhaa chod alaykhai chhoctah ham nirgun layho ubaree" [GGS:713.17] - "Only if my account is overlooked can I be saved. I am worthless, please save me." That is ... gurpasad.

8: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), December 13, 2011, 10:17 AM.

Gurbani says that all other loves are transitory, as long as people do not love God [GGS:83].

9: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), December 13, 2011, 10:23 PM.

The book - "The Art of Loving", by Erich Fromm, gives some insights into the anxiety, the guilt of separation. A good read and thank you, Ravinder Singh ji for sharing this particular topic - so close to everyone's heart.

10: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), December 14, 2011, 9:55 AM.

All the bani in Guru Granth Sahib is based on our relationship with God, through examples of the ideal married couple. The Guru knows the best of human beings as well of God. If one follows the directions of true love of God as that of an ideal married couple, one will be always happy and blessed.

11: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), December 14, 2011, 11:13 AM.

A person has a profound relationship with God in whose heart God lives. It is not possible to live without Him or to ignore Him. He is the source of our life. A person having been born on this earth has to realize his/her true spiritual self through re-union with Him. "bha-ee paraapat maanukh dayhuree-aa/ gobind milan kee ih tayree baree-aa" [GGS:378] - "You have been blessed with human birth and this is the only opportunity to meet Him". A person must seek Him on his/her own. It has to be experienced personally to arrive at the truth.

12: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), December 14, 2011, 11:21 AM.

#10/11 is very true. Guru Ramdas says: those in whom God's Name (Naam) does not abide within their hearts - their very birth is a waste. These souls wander around, forlorn and abandoned, without the Naam; their lives waste away, and they die, crying out in pain. [GGS:697]

13: Ravinder Singh (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), December 16, 2011, 9:06 AM.

Self-disclosure is difficult, I know, because we fear being judged. But I would encourage more personal viewpoints, less quotes from gurbani that sometimes have nothing to do with the price of eggs - so to speak. I will start with myself: one of my major regrets in life used to be that I had spent a large portion of my life not being "fully engaged," not being "available" because of a mis-reading/ misunderstanding of gurbani. My role models were ascetics and recluses and that is the way I saw the world - which, I thought, was to be avoided. It was only when I put aside what I had been taught and began to engage directly with gurbani (through vichaar, as opposed to reading it mindlessly) that I realized the error of my ways. The amazing thing, though, is that as I look back, that sense of regret has also dissipated over time and I am filled with renewed hope. We are truly all specimens of work-in-progress.

14: Ravinder Singh (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), December 18, 2011, 9:43 AM.

Regret can be a useful agency for change; true regret must always lead to change for the better. That entails getting off the treadmill of daily life, even if for a few moments, creating a space (solitude) where reflection and introspection is possible.

15: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), December 18, 2011, 2:26 PM.

If we were never depressed then there must be something wrong with us. Healthy depression and turmoil accompany a turning point. When we realize the purpose of our life, then, at least in the beginning, our life is filled with countless regrets. Just plain living, a breath taken without simran is a breath wasted [GGS:730.8]. Sant Naranjan Singh ji used to say, ``A blank paper has no value but when it is imprinted, it is called currency. In the same manner, breaths imprinted with simran are priceless jewels.`` We are told to do saas-giraas simran. Our effort to mentally repeat gurmantar with each breath and with each mouthful of food (or drink) in gratitude, or when we are in pain, is not a sant-baba ritual. Making this simple effort (whenever we remember to do so) has deep impact on our inner state and it slowly transforms us.

16: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), December 18, 2011, 2:29 PM.

Each couplet in this shabad appears to have a distinct message. Most of us make the mistake of regarding the path to truth as simply a mental state, pious life, or a worldview. Gurbani, on the other hand, insists that the road to Waheguru (God, Allah) requires an extremely emotional state, with plenty of tears, with an intensity that transforms our entire being. We need to interpret gurbani in that light. Each of the five thieves steals this state. They create havoc with our hormones, our emotions, and thus our physical and spiritual health. They even alter our appearance. But the ``normal`` people cannot tell the difference. A realization of this truth creates turmoil. Gurbani also insists that such a true hunger is kindled only in the company of those who have it.

17: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), December 18, 2011, 2:33 PM.

This shabad opens with turmoil from the realization that has occurred too late. Even the black bird has a message: our blackness is due to separation from our beloved. A barren well - vidhann khoohee (fruitless life) - is deserted in the end, we have no companion and we are alone. There is still hope if we start early, each morning (savera). When God has mercy, we then meet a sadhu (an individual) and in the company of such a person we see that God is very close to us. All our puzzles are then solved [GGS:271.6]. The discussion above appears to ignore this vital step as if this was something incidental. We go to the gurdwara for satsangat. The merciful Gurus gave us gurbani and we do not need to follow any individual. But we commit spiritual suicide when we call ourselves the crowd, the satsangat (or Khalsa) that we were supposed to find in this crowd. Most Sikhs have difficulty making this distinction.

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The Talking Stick Colloquium # 69"

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