The word satsang is a compound of the Sanskrit terms sat (‘ultimate truth’) and sangha (‘gathering, or assembly, of truth-seekers’). The term thus essentially means ‘gathering together in the name of ultimate truth’.
When I first encountered the phenomenon of satsang, I was instinctively pulled toward its relaxed structure, a welcome change from other more structured forms of transformational work. I think the first formal satsangs I sat in, apart from the ones set up by Osho’s disciples during his four year ‘silent phase’ of the early 1980s, was with Gangaji in San Francisco in 1996. I later sat with Hanuman, John de Ruiter, and Pamela Wilson in the late 1990s, and Adyashanti around 2002. Andrew Cohen was in there as well, although his meetings are more akin to talks than traditional satsangs. Doubtless there were probably others that I’m forgetting.
Back around 1998 I was running a personal growth school based on an eclectic blend of psycho-spiritual processes, and was in the middle of co-facilitating a six-month program of committed and deep transformational work. At one point de Ruiter came to town (he was, and still is, based in Edmonton, Alberta—a short hop, at least by Canadian standards, from my town of Vancouver). I decided to take the twenty students of my six-month program to see him. This was to be my first experience of him as well. As fate would humorously have it, I met him at a urinal. I’d gone to the washroom prior to the meeting, and a tall blonde man occupied the urinal beside me. He glanced at me, but I didn’t recognize him (I’d not seen a picture of John at that point). We emerged together from the restroom, and entered toward the already filled up satsang hall. I took a seat, and he strode up to the front and sat on the podium. I then realized that I’d just had a mini-pissing satsang with John.
He proceeded to sit and do little but gaze at the audience. This ‘gazing’ was not quite the spaced out look of an aged hippy, however; it was focused, and directed at specific individuals. I immediately assessed that he would not be well received by most, owing to the combination of his lack of reputation (John at that point was largely unknown) and his insistence on speaking very little. He also appeared to be quite serious, with little humor (although with subsequent visits I did begin to note his subtle, though sparing, wit). At one point a child in the audience ventured (comically, in retrospect), ‘Are you Jesus?’ (With his bearded 30-something Nordic looks, he fit the Jesus Sunday School stereotype well enough). ‘I’m not Jesus, but I’m just like Jesus’ he gravely replied. Another person, an Osho disciple, loudly (and pointedly) asked what to do if one became bored in John’s presence. I don’t recall the answer, but the question was telling enough. John’s primary teaching vehicle was via silence, but this is a form that is insufficient for many, as it fails to engage the mind—a mind that most seekers are still very identified with.
People began politely trickling out. By the end of the meeting three hours later (his meetings have always been unusually long) about half of the audience had left (doubtless some of these due to the longing of their bodies for a washroom satsang). Of my own twenty students, almost all expressed a negative assessment—with the exception of one young man, who was completely entranced. He soon after moved to Edmonton, along with his wife, and they became two of John’s closer students.
Satsang is an old and venerable tradition of India, but around about 1990 it began to penetrate into the West, mostly via the efforts of H.W.L. Poonja (as popularized mostly via short-term student Andrew Cohen) who had himself spent some time in the company of Ramana Maharshi in the 1940s. Poonja told some fascinating tales about his early years with Ramana, one which involved Poonja’s devotional relationship with the deity Krishna. Ramana had quietly rebuked him for this, encouraging him to inquire into the nature of the one who was devoted. He was guiding Poonja to move beyond the subtle dualism of devotion to a symbol of the ultimate, into realizing his intrinsic non-dualism in relation to this ultimate. Why bother worshipping Krishna when you can recognize that at your core, you are Krishna?
But of course, we are not Krishna either, as that remains but a mental construct. Poonja eventually deeply realized all this and became a famed satsang-giver in the pure Advaita tradition. By the early to mid-1990s he had begun endorsing several Western men and women to lead satsang meetings themselves in the West in his name.
One of these was a West Coast psychotherapist whose initiate name was Hanuman. Around 1997 one of my own students began sponsoring Hanuman to visit my town, in order to give some satsangs. When he came, I took a large group of people to see him. During his visit I had lunch with him, and he told me an interesting story. He was deeply devoted to Poonja (as many were), but after several years as his disciple began to go through a phase during which he started to believe that he was being ignored by the master. (In those days, the standard means of communication with Poonja was via letter-writing. Poonja himself read and generally replied to these letters in his own handwriting—something that must seem peculiar to today’s youth raised on smartphones and Facebook).
One day, finally convinced that he was being ignored and rejected by his guru, Hanuman wrote a heartfelt letter expressing his pain (I no longer recall the details, but it may also have included a decision on his part to release himself as a disciple). At the exact time he was sending this letter, unknown to him, Poonja was writing to him. Their letters crossed paths. Much to his surprise, the letter that Hanuman received from Poonja was a blessing for him to begin giving satsangs on his own.
Hanuman was a humble man and a strong teacher of the Advaita path. (I lost touch with him over a decade ago, and no longer know whether he still teaches). One of the things that was appealing about him was that he retained a strongly down to earth presentation, and didn’t put on any airs. He never claimed ‘enlightenment’ or any such thing. On one occasion during a satsang at a local church, a man stood up and asked a series of absurd questions that soon established that the man was mentally imbalanced. (And no, this was no ‘Zen manner’ disguised as craziness—it was simple mental disturbance). The man eventually conceded that he was not able to manipulate Hanuman—he had been trying to trip him up in some convoluted fashion, while at the same time revealing his disturbance—and then loudly got up and stormed out of the church. When he left, Hanuman looked down, sighed, and murmured, ‘Ah, Vancouver…’ as a funny comment on the very first questioner in his very first visit to this city. It was such a human, ‘non-enlightened’ response, that one could only warm to him.
In a sense, satsang is the highest possible spiritual practice done jointly with others. It is not necessarily the easiest, though, in that it does not mollify our issues, or give energy to our mental stories by indulging them or reinforcing their apparent reality. Satsang is very uncompromising in its one-pointed focus on truth, and nothing but truth. It is really not interested in anything else and is concerned with evoking the understanding that, ultimately, only truth is really interesting. All else is mere indulgence in story, the story of our life—what Shakespeare called “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Satsang is a shared effort to remember the truth. It is a call to awakening that is simultaneously deeply comforting and deeply unsettling. It is comforting because it is rooted in ultimate Reality. It is unsettling because it constantly addresses the fact that the terms for entering into truth via the satsang process are highly specific and tightly structured.
The structure I’m speaking of has nothing to do with outer form. Actual satsang meetings tend to be relatively informal and most allow people to come and leave as they please. People are also not obligated to participate directly in the question and answer exchanges with the teacher. The structure I refer to is rather of the purely spiritual sort, in that there is just no room for anything other than consideration of the final truths. You either get in tune with the spirit of the meeting (both literally and figuratively), or you will drift off into daydreaming, get bored, irritated, and end up either falling asleep, or leaving in a negatively judgmental frame of mind.
To get in tune with the spirit of satsang involves cultivating an attitude that is curious, open, and humble, along with a deep enthusiasm for enlightenment and a love for the investigation of truth. Satsang is that rare time when all attention is given to a one-pointed resting in the present moment and a direct letting-go of all personal agendas or mental positions. The focus is on ultimate truth, and only ultimate truth.