Thursday, March 11, 2010

Introduction to the Ashram, Running away, and Jewish guilt

Dear Friends,

It's hard to write about the Ashram. Every once in a while I start thinking I understand what's going on here, and, well, you know how that goes...

I got to hang out with Rodger Kamenetz for a couple hours in New Orleans. He made a career, for a while, meeting spiritual leaders and writing about their work. My father is featured prominently in one of his books, and Rodger wrote most of a biography about him that may never be published. They're friends.

Rodger's advice for writing about important things was to start physical, then go biographical, and end mystical if you get there at all. So let's try that with the Ashram and see what happens.

Physically speaking, we've got a few acres here, kind of meadowy fields interspersed with a forest/swam blend they call "wetlands." (Do people know this? I'd never head of it before.) It is Florida, so you've got bright green grass, a bright blue sky, and bright yellow sunlight. When it rains, like today, you've got a bright grey sky instead. At night, when it's not raining, the brightest stars I've seen in a long time. We're right up against a river to the west, and sometimes I brave the mosquitoes to watch the sunset.

About 80 or so people live on the Ashram, and most of them work off-site. We gather for common meals four times a week, and for Darshan (teaching and guided meditation from Guru Ma Jaya) three nights a week. The rest of the time, most folks just live here. A couple dozen, maybe, work in the office or the yoga studio, or maintain the grounds.

I work in the kitchen as needed, mostly chopping, peeling, and washing whatever needs it. My boss there is a smart, funny, enthusiastic guy who has lived here since he was 13 (he's 44 now). He's got a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and a BA in computer science, and he cooks and takes care of Ma and travels with her anywhere she goes. I started calling him "boss," 'cause he's my boss, then he started calling me "boss," 'cause he's just cool like that. Working in the kitchen with Swami Rudra Das is the most fun I have all week.

The food is pretty healthy, I'm often outdoors, and I go to the occasional yoga class, so I'm already buckling my belt about two inches tighter. That feels good, but I'm trying not to pay it much attention.

I thought I would see Ma every day, or every other day, or some kind of regularly. I expected a spiritual training regimen, learning to see with my 3rd eye and be one with the universe. Instead of a montage, I've only had two encounters with Ma since getting here, outside of Darshan.

The first encounter was right after I arrived. She called me in to her private rooms and kinda looked me over. She told me I have a gift, and I'd be selfish not to share with the world. She also told me I was limited by my pride and jealousy and I had to shape up. I told her "I just want to know what I'm doing," and she said "Right now, what you're doing is running away from life." . At that moment, exhausted from two weeks of travel and adventure, halfway through a nasty cold, I probably was. Ma told me that when a woman tries to get close to me I put a wall up between us, and that's why I'm lonely. She told me to meditate sometimes on the question "Who am I?" without really attempting a definitive answer. She asked about my father and step-mother's health. She asked whether I have good friends, what I was doing in Los Angeles, and what my plans are for the future. I'd been crying from nearly the moment I entered the room, just overwhelmed by her presence.

Ma told me to look into her eyes, and then she did something. She calls it "taking me in." I don't really remember what she said while this was happening, but I felt a great flow of energy passing through me. It felt like a wedge of my skull was opened up, and my head was immersed in a warm river. I felt the presence of God, and told myself that no one has died this way. A couple times I closed my eyes, which Ma had said to do if I got scared. When I did, Ma asked me what my guilt was about. I said I felt like a bad Jew for the many rules I don't follow. When it was done, she said I was brave for how much I had handled.

Ma gave me a hug, told me she loved me, and sent me on my way. She said we'd do more (I assumed, still, that meant soon and often) and to think about everything she'd said. She told me to meditate sometimes by dwelling on the question - but not trying to answer it - "Who am I?" On my way out the door, she said that we need to get me past crying. "By the time you leave," said Ma, "You'll be a laughing fool."

I went for a walk and cried some more, kind of swimming back into normal reality. I went to sleep early that night.

I knocked down "running away from life" pretty quickly. Once I got over the "No I'm not. Shut up!" hurdle, it only took me a day or so. I had been in comfort-seeking mode since I got to the Ashram, and Ma made me see that. I'd lost sight of the purpose-seeking that carried me out of LA. So I got over my cold, reminded myself this was serious business, and spent a while breathing into my belly and stoking the fires there. That one felt like a throw-away, an easy one, just to make sure I was listening.

Feeling like a bad Jew was a bit harder, but I happen to know an authority on good Judaism. I called up Rabbi Father and asked what being a good Jew is about. He listed a few things. One is engagement with the calendar, which I can buy into. The Jewish calendar guides and structures our spiritual lives, and I'm hardly an expert, but I think I get what it's about. Two is loving the Torah, and I do. I don't understand why, honestly, but holding a Torah scroll, or just being near one, is always powerful and inspiring for me, and it feels like love. Considering the text, instead of the object - I don't know who wrote it, when, or why, but I sincerely believe that the Torah contains more wisdom than I can understand. Three was covenant. I'd always thought, on some well-hidden level, that a covenant with God mean there was some set of rules I should be following (although maybe not the Orthodox ones, exactly), and not following them made me a bad Jew. My father's interpretation of covenant is that I should be studying the traditional rules, letting them point me toward God, and earnestly seeking to know what God wants of me. So I'm a good Jew, but being a good Jew is a process.

The difference might sound like semantics, or like an excuse for lazy Judaism, but it was a big shift in thought for me. Wrestling with the commandments is being a good Jew, not evidence that I'm a bad one. Accepting that let me open much more deeply to God and Torah, and lightened my burdens. When it hit me I cried less and laughed more, and I take that to be a great sign.

This is a lot for one night, so I'll leave it there and go to sleep now. Some Pride, more laughing foolishness, and my second encounter with Ma coming up soon. Hopefully it won't take three more weeks for me to post again, but I'm making no promises. This is a crazy place, and it took a lot of false starts to write anything.

You are loved by the Universe. Isn't that wonderful?



  1. I laughed and cried a little while reading this. I'm so thankful for you that you were able to feel God and all that goodness. I'm joyous for you.

  2. "You are loved by the Universe. Isn't that wonderful?"

    Yes it is! Happy to read this post and looking forward to more, whenever it feels right to write.

  3. i love every part of this entry, and all of it together.

    if i had read this before i saw you this past weekend... i would have missed my flight for sure.

    this doesn't sound like real life -- i am in awe of you for finding it, doing it, the progress you're already making, and all the progress you will make.

    turning you into a "laughing fool" is especially striking... i won't look too hard at the "fool" part because a foolish yotam is just too hard to fathom. making you even more a laugher -- wow. that will be something.