So as I sit waiting in the early morning (although a good three hours later) listening to the blackbirds singing in my garden while the connecting call comes through from London, it strikes me as perfect timing to be speaking with Sister Jayanti, perhaps the best known face internationally of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, the world's largest spiritual organisation led by women (the name means "daughters of Brahma", the Creator in Hindu mythology).
Memories come flooding back…. when I last heard her speak in public it was October 2008 and the world's financial system was teetering on the brink. Iceland's banks had just collapsed and world stock markets had gone into freefall - it was the beginning of the GFC.
We were at the organisation's annual Peace of Mind Retreat at Mt Abu in the Aravali mountains of Rajasthan and Sr Jayanti provided us all with a calm but authoritative reassurance that all would be well. Among the hundreds of guests from 55 countries was a small group for Iceland who faced the dawning realisation that they would go home to financial ruin, if not for themselves at least for their country. It was a time to sense how close to the brink we had allowed our greed and materialism to push us.
How could Sr Jayanti possibly have had this calming effect upon us all so that we came away feeling quietly empowered rather than overwhelmed with fear? How could she and the Brahma Kumaris have seen the way through the darkness?
Our Inner Power
Her answer then, and still now, is that each of us has the power within us to create our own destiny. Regardless of external circumstances - and in so many ways our world is just as confronting today as it was back in 2008 - it is in cultivating our inner world that we find the strength to master our difficulties. As Sr Jayanti explains it: "I think people who have been looking for something that is going to give them inner strength and who have been sincerely practising have been able to find that. And so as the world gets more and more into a state of upheaval, what they finding is that they are able to deal with the situation in a different way than they would have otherwise.
"Although it's crazy out there, when you turn within you are able to come to the centre of your own being, the core of your own being and you discover the peace that's there. Once you've had a taste of the sweetness of this peace and realise you can get it wherever you are at any time of day, you don't want to let go of it."
This search for inner peace and the self mastery it leads to so that we can shrug off life's difficulties is at the heart of the organisation's rapid growth around the world. Back in 2008, it was already 600,000 strong and now, Sr Jayanti tells me, one million people come daily to practise meditation in the Brahma Kumaris' 8500 centres in 130 countries and many more "come whenever they can". In Australia, they have had a presence since 1975 with centres in most major cities and three retreat centres. In her role as director of activities for Europe and the Middle East and also for their International Coordinating Office in London, she has overseen much of this growth and is a keenly sought after public speaker and broadcaster, a bridge between the ashram on the mountaintop and the daily stresses of city life in the West and the East. It's a punishing schedule that sees Sr Jayanti, Indian-born but a resident of England since the age of eight, travelling nine months of the year - "and this year has been almost nonstop." As an example, she's just finished a five country tour of the Middle East in six days, laughing that it was a "bit crazy", but managed a stop off in her spiritual home of Mt Abu before heading back to London. And in early December she is embarking on a speaking tour of Australia's east coast capitals with two private retreats in the Blue Mountains and the Mornington Peninsula. (see www.happinessevents.org.au)
While her travel seems to energise her, one senses it is because of the increasing acceptance of the Brahma Kumaris philosophy, one that must surely surprise the mainstream. "I think it is because people have come to the point where they see that materialism and consumerism isn't bringing them the happiness they had expected or wanted," says Sr Jayanti. "Also they are feeling the impact of the stress of today's world in terms of their own thinking, state of physical health and well being. And so they are looking for an antidote to all of this. Usually it is one of these factors that leads people to search for meditation and they find us. "Maybe it is the conditions of the world that are leading people to turn to something that's going to build their own inner capacity and their own resilience to whatever it is that is going on outside.
"It's only when I begin to practise meditation that I realise that I don't just simply have to react to whatever it is outside. I can actually be the creator, the generator of my thoughts, my feelings and my attitudes. As a result of that I can actually take charge, not only of my own inner world, but also when I do that I can begin to see the impact of that on the world outside."
The theme of her Australian visit, one that echoes the message of the Dalai Lama, is that happiness is a power we create within ourselves, one that is completely independent of external circumstances.
"I will be teaching that it's important to realise the power I have within myself to be the creator of my own thoughts and feelings, my own life, my own actions - my destiny. I can learn to actually create thoughts that are going to generate feelings of happiness within myself. And so I can be the one who is able to give happiness to others.
"No it's really nothing to do with what others are saying and doing or not doing. It's me recognising the responsibility of being the creator of the right thoughts and the right attitudes within myself so that I generate happiness within. And through that, I am able to give happiness to others and, of course, there is a boomerang effect. If I have given happiness then happiness is going to come back to me. It's going to come back in a way that's very powerful and it's going to stay with me."
For those unable to attend one of Sr Jayanti's events, she offers an insight into her own daily routine - one that clearly works as she generously gives me her time at the end of another long day.
Moments of Silence
She tells me that the Brahma Kumaris observe a system called "traffic control" where on the hour, every hour, they stop whatever they are doing and take a moment to turn inwards in silent reflection. Sister Jayanti finds the discipline is so imbued within her that it holds true wherever she is in the world and however many time zones she may have crossed in her constant travels. After early morning meditation, the hourly moment of silence allows one to recharge and reconnect with one's innermost self. "When you do this as a discipline it is very, very helpful. It means that by the end of the day you're not in a situation where you feel totally exhausted - you have been generating energy not just expending energy. "Otherwise when we are just using energy through our thoughts, our words, our actions, we are just draining ourselves. And when I am in that vulnerable state I am more likely to absorb whatever is happening around me.
"Maybe I am fortunate that I happen to be in a very pure powerful atmosphere and I benefit from that. But maybe most of the time I'm not in such a powerful atmosphere and so I become vulnerable to the influences from out there. "The way I have described that every hour just checking and turning inwards, generating energy within myself through my own awareness and the connection with the Divine, then I am able to create that vibration that protects me so that negative forces don't impact me."
Given Sister Jayanti's growing profile on the world stage as a spiritual leader able to bring the wisdom of the East to a hungry Western audience (significantly, she opened the first meditation centre outside India in London in 1969), on close terms with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I ask her if she is optimistic about the world's future. "Optimistic? Oh yes, yes, yes. I don't think I'd be doing this work if I wasn't."
A Vision of Hope
While it's easy to be overwhelmed by focusing on the litany of tragedy and desperation that fills our news on a daily basis, Sister Jayanti and her fellow Brahma Kumaris have never lost sight of goodness and hope and beauty.
"The vision that I have is that because the original state of the human soul is one of goodness and the original beauty of the human soul is intrinsic, this keeps me going. I know that what we have to do is exactly what we are doing now - to talk about these matters of spirituality and our own inner world and we are able to again emerge that truth, that beauty, that goodness. "If we can do that for ourselves and within small groups of people, that spark will reach others and the wave begins to spread. That change is the only thing that's needed. Never mind what else is going on.
"As soon as a person realises that beauty within and begins to express it, then in that state what they are able to do is really create things that are right and beautiful and so I see a world of beauty just ahead of us.
"We are now in that period of transition where, on the one side, you can see the huge forces of negativity that are the descending energy. But on the other side you can see the ascending energy."
And, once again it's Iceland, the first domino to fall in the GFC, that provides an example for us all to follow, says Sister Jayanti. Since those dark days in late 2008, she's returned "pretty frequently", three times last year alone, to help restore a sense of spiritual balance. The financial breakdown has brought about a "whole rethinking" among the country's small population of three to four hundred thousand. "They are all very closely linked but it is also a society that began to look closely at what had gone wrong. They realised that they had gone outside into the whole thing of materialism and consumerism and so they decided they needed to rediscover their own values and start working with those. And Iceland today is on the rise."