“Just call me Satpal, says Bhai Satpal Singh. He does not like the paraphernalia that comes with the word ‘bhai’. He insists he is just someone who is happy to share what little he knows about spirituality. As modest as he may sound, but Singh is a lecturer in Gurmat spiritual philosophy specialising in mindfulness practices with a large following on YouTube and social media. He believes there is the relatability factor between him and his followers as he engages them with discourses on the basic issues of life through knowledge derived from his own spiritual and internal journey.
Singh, 38, was born in the south of India to devout Sikh parents and when he turned eight, the family moved to England. “My parents have always been dedicated to ensuring that we learnt Sikh values, Sikh history and that we had regular access to the Guruwara or Punjabi schools. Fortunately, I had a normal Sikh upbringing,” he reflects. Singh grew up feeling comfortable in his skin and never questioned his Sikh identity or why, for instance, he needed to grow his hair.
But during his late teenage years, Singh found himself exposed to friends who had different interests and different concepts of Sikhi, which made him realise that Sikhism has a range of interpretations. More than anything, it fascinated him. “All of a sudden, the thing that I thought was completely normal to my life now had variations and there were differences of opinions on where and how you do things.” It led Singh to dig deeper. He started going to a lot more Sikh programs and kirtan events independently of his parents.
By 19, Singh was the first person in his family to receive Amrit Sanchar, the baptism or formal initiation ceremony. Having been brought up in Sikh culture, taking Amrit was the next step to commitment.
However, meeting his spiritual mentor at the age of 21 was what changed his trajectory of how he started to look into Sikhi. He was introduced to a very spiritual outlook on understanding Sikhi, one he had never come across. “It was a deep, meditative practice within Sikhi that was no longer from a religious aspect but from a very personal and introspective view and one that connected you to this oneness of the universe.”
From that point onwards, Singh’s interest in Sikhi grew exponentially. He could no longer subscribe to the standard orthodox view of Sikhi as he saw it but as a deeply, spiritual, meditative practice. “It became a way of life.” It made him really study spirituality as a subject over several years and then he casually started to give talks at universities and youth camps. He started introducing people to this spiritual side of the religion because it was “ground breaking” for him.
“I really questioned why nobody else was talking about this. I felt this was the interpretation of what all religions are about, of personal journey that all the spiritual masters had gone through. My interest was, therefore, to share something that inspired me and changed my life,” says Singh.
Where it turned into what it is now began in about 2010-11. Singh was coming up against this challenge where the gurudwaras were constantly asking him to help solve the puzzle of youngsters not coming to the gurudwaras. “That’s probably the same in all religious traditions, there was no real interest from the youth,” he rues. Singh’s question was: if the youth weren’t coming to the gurudwara, then where were they?
2010 was also the time when social media was just starting to pick up including YouTube. Singh researched on what online Sikh studies were available on YouTube but found very little and felt there was scope for more. So by 2011, on his train journeys to work he started developing on a list of ideas to make videos that the youth could identify with and relate to.
His first video ‘What is God’ went online in 2013. His next videos were on ‘How Do I Find Happiness?’ and ‘Do I need religion?’ He started to question fundamental deep-held beliefs within the religion. Singh says, “Where everybody understood it as religion, I looked at it as far more personal, so I was almost questioning this whole idea of formalised religion.”
It just picked up from there. Except for the fact that this became a hobby, Singh never really thought anything of his videos or for them to become a phenomenon.
As the videos became very popular, he started running more and more classes at the local gurudwara. The classes became so impactful; it got to the point where he wanted to leave his lucrative career in IT especially when he was told the whole world needed to hear what he was speaking.
Coincidentally in 2016 with one of his projects coming to an end, Singh decided it was time to formalise what he was doing. He named his charity Nanak Naam (which is also the name of his YouTube channel) and registered it as a not-for-profit organisation in the UK. Backed by his background in IT and digital marketing, he started to produce a lot more online content. “One of the key things I did was to shift my focus to create short five-minute videos tackling just one question at a time and that’s when it really took off. People responded really well. What it also meant was that short videos became very shareable.”
Since having established Nanak Naam in 2016, Singh has been touring the world delivering lectures. He has no regrets leaving his IT career. “The money I was earning gave me no sense of purpose in life. Now it is lots of purpose, satisfaction and no money,” he laughs.
Singh was in Melbourne recently to talk on ‘What is Religion’ at Swinburne University. “That is the question of our time, for the younger generation,” he says. In an exclusive conversation with the Indian Weekly, Singh talks at length about the importance of spirituality, mindfulness and meditation, and more.
What is the most common question you get asked?
I get asked: ‘how do I apply spirituality in my daily life’. Where I think people relate to me specifically is in the examples of how I use this wisdom in my daily life. For instance, one of the major lessons I teach is on how the nature of suffering works. A lot of times we use blame as a way to justify why we emotionally feel sad, but I teach that suffering is always never to do with the other person; it is always to do with your own perceptions. I teach people about a well-known Sikh concept called ‘Hukam’ but I change it to make it more relatable when I talk about it as a reality. Hukam means command and the Gurbani is very heavy on this idea of accepting Hukam, accepting how life is. I interpret that as living in the moment and accepting reality no matter what. That is, again, a subject that people conceptually understand, it’s only when you start giving real life examples – and it could be the most trivial things from how to deal with smashing your phone screen or how you blame rowdy children when you feel stressed – that you are able to comprehend.
What to you is the Sikhi way of life?
It is definitely not a religion; it is a method of happiness. People rely on society to tell them how to find happiness and that usually goes down the path of – get education, get a job, get married, get a house, buy material things and then hope for some happiness at the end of it. I think Sikhi is a method of happiness devised by people who realised the fallacy of materialism and realised that happiness actually comes from something far more intrinsic within them. It is a deeply, meditative spiritual way of looking at life in a very connected yet detached way. So you live within the world but you are detached from the day-to-day struggles of the world within your mind.
So is the method to happiness living a simple life?
It is about a frame of mind, of not taking life so seriously; it is about looking at life as a temporary game for you to enjoy and not get so caught up in. You don’t look at anything in life as belonging to you; you see everything in life as borrowed and temporary including your thoughts, body, and family – all your possessions.
You mean attachment causes emotional complications?
It causes suffering and it is the root of suffering.
Why is meditation important?
Meditation sounds complicated but it is really a way for you to know yourself and to know that you are more than your body and more than your thoughts. Most of the time we don’t understand ourselves to be more than a body. What we call the body-mind complex is a mind within a body. Meditation is to understand that both our body and mind is temporary and, in fact, we are something far more permanent than that. So within all of us there is this permanent divine essence, a life spirit, a life force that you, me and everyone in the whole world can have access to.
Is there a soul then that is permanent?
You can call it a soul but we are not waiting for anything after we die. It is something you can find and connect with now. And meditation is what you use. Again, meditation is a word that is so loaded that it becomes difficult.
How does one meditate?
When we think of meditation, the world thinks of a very formal Buddhist-like practice. And what is great about the masters of the Sikh tradition is that they said you could meditate at any time. It is not a formal sitting down practise; it is a frame of mind that you get into even while you are having a conversation with someone. It is a state of mind, the opposite of concentration, it is letting go. It is the state of mind of being detached from every single moment of life. And in that detachment, there is a lot of freedom and bliss.
It is not bad that your mind starts getting busy when you start meditation; it is the first stage. What it is actually doing is, for the first time, you are aware of how busy your mind always is. The act of letting go is a practice. I use the analogy that it is akin to learning how to swim, if you fall in the water the first time, it’s not that swimming is wrong or difficult, it just means that you have not practised it.
Is there God?
God is a very loaded word. When we talk about a God the image that comes is of an old man with white beard sitting in the clouds. That God does not exist. That is an image that human beings have tried to create to try to explain, what I would call, the essence of life. In order to explain this, I choose not to use the word God so that you don’t think about that mystical character. For me, asking if God exists is as obvious as asking does life exists. We are not trying to connect with a metaphysical character called God, what we are trying to do is awaken to the reality, to be in alignment with the universe as it is. So for us, the universe is God.
Does one need a guru?
Yes because in order for you to go where the guru wants you to go, you need someone to hold your hand, someone to show you the way.
But that is attachment?
If I take the swimming analogy again, you need a trainer to show you how to swim. You could learn on your own but you’d learn a lot better and faster with a trainer. It’s like having a personal trainer. For us, the guru is not limited to a person, wisdom is guru. Within the Sikh tradition, the wisdom of the oneness is the guru. So why would you let go of that wisdom? We don’t believe in aligning ourselves with one particular person, which is why the great thing about the Sikh tradition is we have 10 gurus. But in reality we don’t have 10 gurus, we have one wisdom that is permeated through 10 different individuals. We never bow down to a person; we bow down to the wisdom. You always want to hold on to that wisdom. It is like a scientist whose knowledge is his practice. Even though you learn everything you still never leave that knowledge that is intrinsic to who you are and how you practice.
One of the things you talk about is depression…
I always say that I am not an expert on mental illness. If there are specific clinical cases of mental illness then you should seek the advice of medical experts. I prefer to talk about mental well-being. I am not trying to treat a specific mental illness but I am trying to show human beings the opposite of that, which is mental wellness. In today’s day and age, are more people mentally ill or are more people waking up to the realities of the difficulties of the mind? I don’t believe there is more mental illness these days; it is just a lot more acceptable to talk about mental illness than it was a generation ago.
How does one attain mental well-being?
First and foremost, it goes back to what is your understanding of life. If your understanding of life is to exploit and get as much out of life as possible, then you are setting up yourself for a fall. If your understanding of life is that of a momentary existence where you do not hold on to anything and the very idea that everything that you can see, smell touch and hear is going to go away, it goes back to you now refocussing your idea of what life is about, and what is possible in life. We live through life as though it is permanent and when things don’t go our way, that is because of mental suffering. So the very first thing in this spiritual tradition is to reshape your understanding of life. Just step back and get a wider perspective that nothing is going to last, that is the fundamental truth.
So is ambition a vice then?
The great thing about our tradition is that you are not restricted from anything. So you are not discouraged from having a job and earning money and owning nice things. But knowing that you have to give things up is very different to ambition. Ambition is not the issue, it is the attachment to it that is the issue.
In terms of identity, are you a Sikh first?
I am the essence of this universe that happens to exist in this body. That is my true answer. I am not this body, not the person sitting in front of you.
Is it important to wear the turban and have this appearance to affirm your identity?
No. I describe the Sikh form as the flowering of this wisdom. It is not the style of the wisdom; you don’t need the hair or the turban to start a spiritual practice. The very practice of letting go of all attachments is what ends up looking like this. If every human being left their body alone, if you left it as nature created – they would all look like Sikhs.
Your message to our readers?
That’s a tough one. I would say my message is: go and discover who you really are, and if religion helps you to do that, then great! And by that, I don’t mean go and find out what you are interested in, say, bungy jump or something like that. It is about what is the very nature of ‘who am I?’ That question alone should be able to start you on this journey of introspection. Sounds philosophical, I know.
(As told to Indira Laisram)