Interview with Dr Callum Livingstone
Welcome Callum. Good to have this opportunity to speak with you and it’s great that you agreed to share some stories with us. Could you tell us about yourself?
I have spent most of my working life in the south east of England but am originally from Scotland, having been brought up on the south side of Glasgow. It was certainly not a religious upbringing. Our parents encouraged me and my two brothers to pursue scientific studies and all three of us ended up following scientific careers.
Both my parents were hard workers and, as such, set a good example to their children. My father started out his career as a Christian minister but, when I was still an infant, he decided to leave the ministry and train as a psychologist. He spent the rest of his working life as a child psychologist and family therapist. My mother, who worked as a primary school teacher, also had a connection with the Church in that she was the daughter of a Minister but, like my father, she lost interest in religion during early adulthood. My mother did have an interest in Hatha Yoga however which she did for many years and, as a child, I remember her teaching me some asanas – looking back on this and other events over the years it is as if the divine was beckoning me in some way. One thing I will never forget about my mother is that she taught us the importance of effort, something that I think I have stayed true to all my life.
During my university years in Edinburgh (1981-87) I investigated religion but never really felt comfortable with it. Having always had a scientific outlook on the world, I struggled with the notion of believing in something for which there was no objective evidence. Despite my admiration for science however, it also had a way of leaving me feeling slightly cold. I had a nagging feeling something else was needed in order to fully explain the nature of reality but unfortunately, this feeling never prompted me to investigate what that something was. At university I recall my good friend Hagen talking to me about meditation and giving me a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi but sadly, I wasn’t open to all that back then. After leaving university I focused practically to the exclusion of everything else in life on furthering my medical career, ending up as a specialist in clinical biochemistry in 2001. On leaving university I also abandoned religion and lapsed into atheism, remaining that way until middle-age.
What led you to become a Kriyavan?
It happened unexpectedly. In early 2017, at the age of 54, I went through a period of work-related stress which forced me to reconsider my priorities in life. In an effort to cope – I started mindfulness practice, not really expecting that it would help. However, some months into the practice, I did start to experience benefits, including feeling calmer, happier and more relaxed, present and self-confident. When this happened, it ignited an interest in spiritual matters and I became increasingly curious about where spiritual practice might lead. At this time I recall also feeling a slight sense of regret about how much of my life I had wasted pursuing worldly aims but, rather than dwelling on this, I remained positive and focused on practice. At around one year into practice, when I was speaking with Hagen on the phone, he told me that there was a Kriya Yoga initiation planned for the autumn and that a Kriya Master was travelling over from India for it. He asked if I would be interested in being initiated. At that time I didn’t know anything about Kriya Yoga and was characteristically skeptical about the whole thing but, after some consideration, I decided to go ahead.
So could you tell us about your initiation?
I was initiated by Paramahamsa Prajnanananda (Guruji) in October 2018 in London. He delivered a lecture on Kriya Yoga on the Friday evening prior to the weekend initiation. The moment he entered the room was a life-changing moment for me. I remember momentarily making eye contact with him and feeling humbled thinking about the amount of practice that he must have put in over the years.
I started to think that‚ even though I was well on in life, Kriya Yoga was what I must do. Guruji kindly invited some of us to lunch, during which I remember exchanging a few words with him. I finished the weekend on a spiritual high and resolved to practice diligently, making Kriya Yoga the central focus of my life.
Do you think practising Kriya Yoga has benefited you? And if so, in which ways?
Yes, undoubtedly it has had a remarkable effect on my life. The benefits which I experienced following the mindfulness meditation practice continued to accrue. It is a bit of a cliche but I can now appreciate the small things in life such as a bird singing – something I was last able to do about at about the age of 9! – and I can stand and admire a beautiful scene without feeling relentless pressure to rush on and do things. It has become much simpler to let go of negative thinking, to the extent that rumination has become a thing of the past. At about one year into Kriya practice, colours suddenly became brighter. More recently, I have experienced remarkable synchronicities and coincidences. If I had known that life would be this interesting, I would have started Kriya Yoga decades ago!
Can you provide an example of a coincidence?
Of course. Until recently I have not spoken to anyone about the above experiences, for fear of being considered a crank, but I began to think that perhaps it was time to speak up. Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I went into a bookshop to buy a map. On passing the new books section a book happened to catch my eye called “Speak your truth” by Fearne Cotton, which I bought, hoping that it might provide some useful guidance. A day or two later an e-mail arrived inviting me to do this interview. What better an opportunity to speak my truth!
Has Kriya practice changed your view on whether or not there is a God?
It is probably most accurate to say that I am now agnostic, as I have an open mind on this and other spiritual matters. Whilst I am still struggling to understand what the synchronistic experiences mean, they have led to the feeling that there is an organising force or universal intelligence – call it what you will – working behind the scenes of the reality we know. I no longer hold the view that we live in a chaotic indifferent universe, a view which I had held all my life prior to having these experiences. I also have a sense that something is trying to guide me through this, though again, I don’t really understand what it is. It is difficult to overstate what an enormous step forward this is from atheism. I did not anticipate that spiritual practice would help me at all, let alone that it would change my view of the universe!
I am grateful to everyone and everything that has brought me to this point in life, Guruji and whatever it is that seems to be guiding me. In retrospect, I am even grateful for the stresses I encountered in 2017 that led me to begin spiritual practice. I now have a sense that whatever happens will ultimately be for the best. What distinguishes spiritual practice from all other endeavours that I have pursued in life – and I have pursued many to exhaustion – is a sense that there is no turning back. The only direction is forwards – forwards into the unknown. All this must sound magical, and it is, but I can’t pretend that there haven‘t been difficulties as well. For example, whilst the awareness side of practice seems to come relatively naturally to me, the devotional side – prayer, reverence and worship – certainly does not.
Could you say something about your meditation practice?
Currently my formal practice consists of two short sessions per day, about 20 minutes each. I also do informal practices, such as watching the breath, whenever possible. Increasingly, I try to consider my whole life a spiritual practice, being mindful of thoughts and interacting mindfully with other people as best I can. It is challenging, of course. I must admit that, following initiation, I initially made the mistake of overdoing meditation practice – patience is not my greatest virtue and I have a tendency to try too hard at most things – Kriya Yoga was no exception ! At one point I ended up having to take a break for some months after which I returned to practice with a rather more patient and serene outlook on things. This experience taught me that the spiritual journey cannot be rushed.
Have you visited any of our ashrams or been on Kriya Yoga retreats?
No, not yet, but I hope to attend a retreat next summer. Sometime I would also like to visit an ashram and some of the places Yogananda wrote about in his book.
Have you been involved in any other Kriya activities? And if so, are there any occasions which spring to mind which were significant in some way, perhaps amusing or perhaps creating an inner change or major stepping stone – anything?
Since initiation I have attended two other Kriya initiation weekends in London. Because I do most of my practice alone, it is always a great privilege to have some guidance from an experienced instructor and to meet other Kriyavans. Practising along with other people helps to validate what I am doing on my own. These events boosted my enthusiasm and on both occasions I left on a spiritual high.
What advice if any would you give new initiates?
Develop a regular practice routine and also try to build some informal practice into your day. Don’t overdo it! Try to practice daily whether or not you feel like it or have as much time as you would like. Aim to let go of expectations about how the practice should go. Feed your interest in spiritual matters in any way you can – personally, I find spiritual books to be a great source of inspiration. If you are an atheist, I can reassure you that belief in God isn’t necessary in order to embark on spiritual practice. An element of trust is required but this doesn’t have to be trust in the divine. In my case, it was trust in the outcomes of the mindfulness meditation studies that was enough to get me started and thereafter trust snowballed as I experienced benefits. If you are unable to see any evidence for God in the world just remember, as it says in Yogananda‘s book, that God is hidden from us because it is His desire that we seek Him of our own free will. In other words, waiting for God to reveal Himself will not work – we have to make the first move. I wish you well.
Thank you for sharing, Callum. I can see that others could benefit from your experiences and how you’ve interpreted them and put them into practice…