An interview with Dhara Kothari of Spiritual Lounge Magazine – Download the full magazine
What does spirituality mean to you?
Spirituality for me means a process of growth towards greater awareness of our interconnectedness to all people and life, a liberating awareness or truth. It is about dissolving the beliefs that divide and limit. Like the scientific method, spirituality in my approach is about tuning our perceptions so that we can see things as they really are. This often means giving up long held assumptions and going it alone outside of the security of religious dogma or mainstream society, which can be scary for people but I believe it is the only way to experience true liberation.
You have had many life changing experiences, can you talk about some of them?
I would say that there have been four main stages in my life in which I was transformed in some way spiritually. The first took place when I was a small boy. I awoke in the middle of the night and walked into the hallway outside my bedroom. As I did I encountered a tall figure standing at the doorway to the apartment. Not surprisingly I was terrified, especially as I could not have been more than six or seven years old. The figure just stood there looking at me with an intensity that I have never experienced since. It is not an exaggeration to say that that night changed the direction of my life and opened me to the possibility of other levels of reality.
The second major shift took place when I was around twelve. I began to have fleeting out-of-body experiences (OBEs). They didn’t last more than a few moments at that point but they again focused me on the idea of another aspect to the universe. So around a year later I bought a book on OBEs from a local bookshop and began experimenting with inducing the experience intentionally. It took me six months but I then experienced a jolt shoot through my body before I found myself floating in the air looking at an almost foreign vision of myself lying below. Energy seemed to pulse in every direction and the room seemed lit from a radiant light emanating from my floating form. I remained there rotating for a minute or two before I sensed the soft texture of the bed again and opened my eyes to see the moving shadows from the traffic outside subtlety cascading across the ceiling.
There was no turning back after that, my OBEs began to take place on a regular basis and I started researching all I could on the topic. I took up various spiritual disciplines from meditation to committing to abstain from alcohol, recreational drugs and meat. To this day I have never gone back on these commitments and have never drunk alcohol, smoked or taken drugs. I have not eaten meat for nearly twenty years now and I’m now a vegan.
Essentially my OBEs opened up my world and initiated me into a spiritual understanding of life that has defined me since that time. They also led to the next shift in my awareness that took place in 1999. I had arranged to run a workshop with a few friends on some new techniques and ideas. We had booked a space under a railway bridge, as it was cheap and very spacious. I spent the first part of the meeting going through a breathing technique I had developed that I nicknamed the G-Technique as it drew upon a process used by pilots to help them deal with G-force during their training. It was a very powerful approach and within minutes of working with it I experienced the most powerful OBE in my life so far.
I found myself standing on a London street watching the people passing by with the normal energy and life you might expect of a large city. Then, as I watched, an explosion seemed to burst out onto the street leaving broken glass and people running. Emotion seemed to hit me as if it was a tangible physical force. It was like nothing else I’d ever experienced. Once it was over and I was back in my body I had a sense that this was something going to happen in the future and sure enough five days later a bombing did take place in Soho on the same street I had seen it happen in the OBE.
This precognitive aspect to my experiences was only to become more prominent as I was also to witness the Aldgate East bombing that took place in London in 2005 long before it actually happened. But in-between these two events I was to have probably the most personally powerful and transformative experience in my life.
I was away on holiday in Sardinia, an Island off the coast of Italy, when because of a series of chance events I had no money left for the trip except a few pounds to cover very basic food requirements. The result was the holiday became a kind of retreat and I spent my time practicing a form of Zazen meditation and reading. After several days of this I lay on my bed and experienced a sense of liberation. It is very hard to describe, but in a subtle moment I felt as if the universe touched a part of me and transformed me. It was like seeing my life replayed but without fear, only compassion and peace. That day put in motion the process that led me to write my first book and to found the Shahmai Network.
Tell us something about your professional work and how it has helped you spiritually?
Well I’ve always been a person who is inspired by many diverse areas, so I suppose my professional work as an artist, writer and activist allows me to share my understandings with others and also to explore in a deeper way what my life means. Art, especially contemporary art affords a level of freedom that few other areas do. I also always wanted to immerse people in an experience that they might never have in another context. Art allowed me to build and exhibit complex environments that I designed to take people on a meditational journey deep within themselves. I also try to offer guidance and healing to people through my various workshops, courses, retreats and one-on-one sessions. This is a really satisfying way of working for me as I can see directly the impact that my approaches have, which are often very transformative for the people involved.
You are the founder of Shahmai Network, can you tell us more about it?
The network was envisioned mainly as a focal point for my activism, a way of reaching others who support my vision and understanding of the world; with the ultimate goal of putting something positive and life affirming out into society. Our first undertaking in this direction was to become members of the Make Poverty History coalition back in 2004. It underlined to me the importance of working not just for personal growth, but for a fairer more equal world. Spirituality when it is divorced from compassion or a real focus on others is not fully realised in my understanding.
Since the end of the MPH campaign in 2005 I have focused on three slightly diverse areas, these being poverty, animal rights and personal rights such as relationships free from state limitations. These are all areas that I see as causing great suffering. I hope to expand the network as more people become aware of what I do with the goal of making lasting change in the world.
What have you learnt about the scientific understanding of consciousness?
Well I have always been fascinated by science, especially areas like parapsychology that seek to answer some of the greatest questions in human experience. Do we survive physical death? What are the boundaries of consciousness? etc etc. So my understanding of consciousness is constantly evolving. Part of me feels that consciousness may be illusory in the sense that it may not really be a consistent whole in the way we experience it. This is because the brain fills in the gaps left open by our senses giving rise to the ‘stream of consciousness’ we experience. This is interesting to me as if it is true that the brain completes the process of sensory perception, what would it look like if the mind was extended beyond the brain or if we could project our awareness to another place such as in remote viewing or an OBE? It seems to me that what we experience in psychical perceptions would appear fragmentary without the filling in process of the brain, we would also expect that we might not have the references of full memory or emotional context. As far as I can tell so far in my understanding psi perceptions do seem to match very well with this hypothesis.
In order to explore these areas more I have worked with Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist and psi researcher, in a series of telepathy experiments and I also support his work challenging the limited perspectives of many sceptics. Sheldrake believes that the brain might be more like a receiver and that our mind might be extended via a morphic field. This idea of the brain being more like a receiver is also popular with scientists researching near-death experiences. For example NDE researchers Pim Van Lommel and Penny Sartori have both put across this kind of understanding, as has Dean Radin a prolific researcher into psi.
Tell us more about your out of body experiences?
This could fill several books as I have now had hundreds of OBEs over some 23 years (as of October 2010). But what I can say is they have allowed me to travel to locations across the world and even to look down at the planet from the upper atmosphere. I have been able to explore the nature of consciousness directly without appeal to theory or dogma. That is the real value of these states of being, they offer us access to non-physical reality and let as ask questions about our spiritual nature. When I induced my first OBE at a teenager I simply wanted to experience something incredible, something life-affirming and that is exactly what happened. I entered a world of exploration and expanded my world view in ways I could never have imagined at the time.
How has astral projection helped you and in what way?
Astral projection is the term favoured in various esoteric traditions, many of which draw their ideas from Theosophy and western occultism, as someone focused on a more scientific approach I tend to use the term out-of-body experience. My OBEs have opened me to everything I now value in my life really. It is no exaggeration to say beginning to explore my OBEs made me look at the world with new eyes and begin to understand that there is more to this world than I ever imagined. I began to learn and educate myself in areas that I literally didn’t know existed before this shift in consciousness. Science, religion, philosophy, poetry and literature all became areas of fascination for me as a result of the desire for knowledge that arose from being awakened to psychical and spiritual potential.
You organize retreats, what do they consist off?
Yes, I run retreats that are focused on personal growth and spirituality as well as teaching approaches to help people have out-of-body experiences for themselves. My workshops usually consist of a one or two day event in which I guide people through a step-by-step process working with their strengths as well as limitations. When the group is focused on out-of-body experiences I use a wide range of approaches including my immersive technology, which I’ve developed since the late 1990s. I realised that most of the techniques for inducing OBEs were very generic and not based on the individual involved, so I started to develop a system that takes into account the psychology and particular strengths of the person I’m teaching. I then realised that most of the traditional techniques used only visualisations, which seemed limiting when we have all the other senses and the possibility to immerse ourselves in a compete sensory experience. I also draw on a much more scientific approach than anyone else I’m aware of, this helps to identify the approaches that are most likely to work drawn from the evidence in parapsychology.
I want people to walk away from my workshops and retreats with a sense that they have made a change, a real breakthrough. That’s my job in a way as the facilitator really, to take someone who is open to explore and grow and offer a genuine and personal teaching that lets them find the resources within the core of themselves.
Tell us more about your first book Avenues of the human spirit that is soon going to be published?
Avenues of the Human Spirit is a poetic journey through my experiences since my early childhood. But more than that it is an exploration of how they have transformed me and led me to a spiritual world view based upon direct experience, compassion and awareness. It was a very hard book to write and took me deep into myself and challenged me in ways that I could not have imagined. It even took me into the harsher sides of growing up in a large complex city like London. But the result I believe is quite unique in spiritual literature and early readers have already commented that they believe it is destined to be a classic. For example I have received endorsements from authors including bestselling Karen Ralls, who said that it is “Searingly honest, real and spiritually inspiring” and Herbie Brennan who said it is “An important, multi-layered work” and William Bloom also called it a “wonderful, entertaining and unique book”.
How do you envisage the future and spirituality?
I envision a spirituality that is grounded in change and growth rather than adherence to the beliefs of the past. This wouldn’t just be science and spirituality coming together in the sense of science supporting what we already believe about spirituality, it would be a spirituality grounded in the methods of science. A philosophy of awareness and human transformation that is interlinked with learning and inquiry in a way that has never existed before. I envision communities of spiritual awareness growing stronger and further reaching, so that the margins of aggression, violence and ignorance are diminished and ultimately replaced with compassion and peace.