I rarely talk about the year I spent living in an ashram. For that matter, I don’t actually even think about it all that often.
It was many years ago, in another incarnation of me, back before I knew that what I thought I could only find in a cloistered life is everywhere and anywhere that I also am.
But of course I would never have known that if I hadn’t first tried to find it there.
How did it come to pass that a 26-year-old would ever decide to move into an ashram? It is a very long story that I will sum up as follows:
Girl develops eating disorder. Girl graduates college. Girl starts working in a corporate job she hates. Girl beats eating disorder (well, mostly). Girl begins trying to “find herself.” “Find herself” goal leads (somehow) to volunteering at a local meditation center. Volunteering part-time turns into volunteering full-time….in an ashram.
Because I don’t often mention my ashram days, I don’t get many questions about what it was like. Perhaps that is by design. After all, I was born in the Bible Belt, where to be un-Christian (that is, not self-identifying as Christian) feels a lot like being un-American.
It is often safer to just skip that topic if and when it ever comes up, which is mostly never. Thank goodness.
But lately I’ve been realizing that is also kind of cowardly.
Reason being, I had the great good fortune a few months ago to meet a writer named J. Dana Trent who had just released a book about death (and life) called “Dessert First.” She was coming to speak at a group I belong to and when I read her biography, I realized right away our paths had not crossed by accident.
Dana Trent is an ordained Baptist minister. And she is married to a (former) Hindu monk named Fred.
It gets better. I did a little more digging and discovered she had also written an earlier book about their story called “Saffron Cross.” I procured a copy for myself immediately and commenced to reading.
I learned many things from reading Dana and Fred’s story. But one lesson stands out from all the rest: that it really is possible for people who have profound religious differences to not just tolerate one another, not just agree to disagree, not just politely get along by shoving the whole “who is definitely going to heaven versus who may be headed to that other place” question under the rug, but to truly and deeply appreciate and even embrace each other with profound respect, interest, and, yes, love. It is even possible to worship together and – miracle of miracles – to appreciate and enjoy that experience.
Fundamentally, this is what it was like for me to live in an ashram, religiously speaking.
No one cared what your background was, religious or otherwise. Everyone respected one another from a higher place – a place that realized the beings gathered together under that particular roof were following the highest call a being could follow – the call to self-evolve.
Not once did I ever experience religious divisiveness or questioning or intolerance or judgement. For awhile, I actually even forgot I originally hailed from the Bible Belt South. It was refreshing. No one ever asked anyone else about it – least of all me.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Ashram life otherwise was hard. H.A.R.D. HAAAARRRRRDDDDD.
Which is really my point in sharing my experiences here. In fact, come to think of it, you could probably just read Dana Trent’s book and get a really good idea of what the day to day was like – rigorous. Exhausting. Nonstop. Early to rise late to bed early to rise repeat.
In this way, it didn’t take long before I had burned my personal candle at both ends and was running on pure fumes, and that was all just in the first week.
Overall, trading life in the world for life in the ashram was a huge culture shock and way more exhausting and demanding and overwhelming and nearly impossible than I ever thought it would or could be.
Here, it bears mentioning that the big difference between Fred (Dana Trent’s now-husband) and me was that I wasn’t an actual monk. He took vows to be a monk – a Hindu religious leader – when he moved into the ashram.
In contrast, I went on staff as a self-funded volunteer to offer service full-time for a year and do whatever they told me to do, which for the first half-year at least was mostly washing dishes and cleaning up the dead flowers in the on-site flower shop. That first half of my year of service was spent living in an ashram in the United States.
The other half was spent living in an ashram in rural India.
Regardless of where I was living (USA or India), I didn’t have to wear special clothes as long as what I wore was very modest. In India I mostly wore punjabis (kind of like long, loose pajamas) because that was way cooler and comfier in 100+ degree heat and humidity. And I was hopeless at sari wrapping so thankfully I almost never had to do that.
We ate a vegetarian diet in both places, which was fine with me because I was already vegetarian long before I moved into the ashram. The meals were served three times per day at set hours. In the USA we sat at round tables and ate with utensils. In India we sat on straw mats on the ground and often ate with our fingers. In both places we cleaned our own dishes after each meal.
Here was the part that was hardest for me.
Initially, when I was accepted as a full-time volunteer at the ashram and was preparing to quit my high-paying corporate job, give away nearly everything I owned and live out of a suitcase overseas, people who knew me were blown away and yet….not.
Not infrequently, people I knew who had much more experience in these sorts of matters than I did told me I was “a natural.” I was often told that I would probably be “a lifer” – as in I would do so well I would move into the ashram and just stay….forever.
So when I finally did arrive, I was prepared from the outside in (in my headspace) to have this experience. I was ready. Ashram life. Go. Bring it on. I felt ready, eager, special, and oh-so-proud to welcome and share the gentle, evolved monk within.
But no monk of any kind ever arose from inside me. Instead, what began coming up almost immediately was a steady stream of yuck. And yuck. And YUCK. AND YUCK.
What I mean is, my head went nuts. It was all the silence, you see. And the rigorous, unbendable, unbreakable, unbeatable daily schedule. And the nonstop chanting. And the meditating (which all too often threatened to turn into napping). And the back-breaking manual labor. Spend all day, every day hoisting big buckets of water filled with stinking dead roses up and down and up and down and you will quickly begin to see your horrid former desk job through warm and fuzzy rose-colored glasses.
The food disrupted my digestion. The rest of it disrupted my sanity.
And I was never, ever, ever, EVER alone.
As a lifelong introvert, it drove me nearly insane to have zero privacy. Even when we were meditating, or chanting, or changing, or sleeping, there were others nearby. In the bathroom, in the shower, in the dining room (even while seated at the “silence please” tables) – at one point it got so bad I would lock myself in the closet-sized fax room next to the flower shop just to remember what it felt like to be in my own company…and only my own company.
I had no idea women could snore as loud as men (louder, actually) until I moved into the ashram. The corner store was always out of earplugs for this exact reason. We slept in bunk beds and if the occupant in the upper or lower bunk even took a deeper-than-normal breath it would shake the structure and wake me up. If by some miracle I was actually asleep to begin with.
Did I mention I am a very light sleeper?
Before long, there was little about ashram life that didn’t feel crazy-making.
I craved all the foods that were noticeably absent from the daily menu. I fantasized about activities I hadn’t even much liked back when I was “out in the world” until it felt like I couldn’t last another moment without a rousing round of miniature golf or a trip to the shopping mall.
Everybody around me had huge, glaring, unforgivable flaws. Why was everyone else so annoying? One talked too loud. The other talked too softly. That one over there chanted off-key. And this other one was forever wearing colors that clashed. The person to my left was too negative. The person to my right was too happy. Too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, too spiritual, not spiritual enough….all day and all night it went on and on and on.
It was all stupid stuff. But it was 24/7 stupid stuff. It was just me, alone with my turbo-charged mental ruminations and a thousand total strangers, some transient, some permanent and some perpetually in between. And I hated every. single. last. one. of. them.
But most of all, I hated myself.
I hated my wardrobe. I hated my hair. I hated my voice. I hated my body. I hated my face. I hated my disposition. I hated my guts. I hated my life. I hated me.
After all, I was supposed to fit in here. I was supposed to be “a natural.” I was supposed to love ashram life so much I would live there happily ever after.
About a month after I moved in, one of the elders in the community said to me, “You know, you don’t have to stay. You can leave if you aren’t happy.”
But I couldn’t. I had quit my job. Shut down my life. Given away my things. I had no future plans. No idea who I was. She probably didn’t understand when I said to her, “No I can’t leave. I have to stay.”
I had nowhere else to go and no one else to be.
Now, things did ease up some once a bed opened up in India and I was cleared to go there instead. India was much quieter. The ashram itself was quite small and self-contained and much more manageable overall (since all the main teachers and staff were in the American ashram, that was where most of the people went too).
The staff living in India were mostly long-timers and there was very little “day traffic” apart from the local villagers who would visit for special occasions. They were mostly quite shy and sweet. And they never ever complained.
India was a much better fit for me overall. Instead of hundreds of shifting, sneezing, snoring roommates, I had three mostly permanent roommates, one of whom became a lifelong friend. We went on occasional trips together, which was both a requirement for our visas and a welcome break from the rigors of ashram daily life.
I had sustained a serious back injury previously while working in the ashram flower shop, so my work assignment in India was to manage the call center – a sedentary role that at least didn’t aggravate things further. I also got slightly more sleep in India – if you count “more” as “more than none” and you factor out the bedbug-infested mattress, the noticeable absence of air conditioning and the persistent 100+ degree heat and humidity.
My six months there were gentler in many ways and more rigorous in others. I got homesick a lot even though I was no longer sure who or where “home” even was. Most of all, by then I knew I would be leaving at some point and I still had no idea where I would go or what I would do “after.”
But at least by that point I knew there would be an after. I was not meant to live in the ashram forever. My path lay elsewhere, somewhere, anywhere but inside any set of ashram walls.
Looking back now, one of the clearest memories I have is of a conversation that took place before I quit my job and right after I received my acceptance letter to live and serve full-time at the ashram. I still remember vividly how full I was of doubts. Was now the right time? Should I wait? Would later be better?
One day I found myself talking with an older woman who had a lot more experience in such matters. She asked me what my life situation was like – as in, did I have any debt? No. Dependents? No. A significant other? No. A burning desire or dream to do or be somewhere else? No.
She said it sounded like my life was wide open. So if I did want to try living in the ashram, then now was probably the right time. Reason being, she explained, “later” might never arrive. I took her advice to heart, called the volunteer coordinator back and gave her the two thumbs up, submitted my resignation at work and set things in motion to make the move.
Today, I am glad I made that choice. I am glad I gave myself that experience of living in the ashram, offering service, immersing myself in a path that interested me far more than anything else that had crossed my life’s path up to that point in time.
And I will be honest. Sometimes I imagine that if I went back now and did it all over again, as who and how I am today, I would do better. I would be different. I would adapt more smoothly, pace myself more healthily, perhaps enjoy it, even.
But I also know that today I would not choose to go. Not a chance.
Today I know that what I was personally seeking to find inside the walls of an ashram can be found anywhere I choose to go – the chance to grow, to evolve, to refine, to improve, to soften, to open, to reach out, to reach in.
Today, the place where I feel the most “spiritual,” if you will, is in nature, in the company of my precious animals, right smack dab in the middle of my average, ordinary, everyday life.
That shoe fits. And I wear it gratefully.
With great respect and love,