I have lived in an ashram for 35 years and am often asked what it is like to live with a group of people in community.
When I sit at dinner and observe my community, what we call satsang, I marvel at our differences. I have compared us to the animals aboard Noah’s ark, but even then there were at least two of each kind. Dissimilar when we arrived with different occupations, economic strata, personalities, we are still outwardly dissimilar. I think of how strange we first seemed to each other, personalities sorely rubbing against each other in frustration and anger, eager to assert our individuality, unwilling to relinquish a piece of it no matter the cost of preservation. Through the years I am grateful we have become kinder to ourselves and to each other. Now when I look into my fellow traveler’s eyes, I see something very familiar. I see myself.
So even though I have railed against the apparent unfairness of having to live with these strangers, they have become family to me. They seem to know me better at times than I know myself. They don’t fall for my ego and they neither believe my self-aggrandizement nor my disparagement of myself. They even have the nerve to laugh at me at times and not always behind my back. It is something that family does.
There is one thing this family does demand, however. Not ever verbalized, but yet it exists: a
demand to be “real.” So even though I can seem to be a model of spiritual perfection to people who don’t really know me, my true test appears when I return to the ashram, responding and reacting to my fellow gurubais at any moment. I see in their eyes the same question I ask of myself: Is this the time I will choose my spiritual self over my reactive, personality self. Sometimes I even like to think they are rooting for me to do so.
This ashram family is like a Sherlock in spotting phonies; they are what I call “ego allergic.” There is no pretense here, and when I feel “together”, I unbelievably appreciate this aspect of my community. When I am disheartened and discouraged at myself, I feel sorry that that I have chosen this hard road of evolving.
Like most people who are spiritual, I have bought into a mental construct of some illusory perfection and expectation of myself and everybody else. This is sometimes the most painful part of the spiritual journey, the non-acceptance of oneself, the non-acceptance of others. At times I don’t know which one hurts me the most. But I do know they are companions to each other.
People say to me, “How can you follow a guru? I don’t ever want to be brainwashed.” I think that one is funny, because if it were possible, I’d like to take out my brain and wash it. I am weary of the judgment, the criticalness, old thoughts of the past haunting me. I pray to Hanuman, the God of service, that the mirror of my mind is cleansed. I wish like the 23rd Psalm, to dwell in the house of my Lord forever.
However, there is one thing in the midst of our disparity that our community has agreed and relied upon. And that has been our love and devotion for our Guru, she who loved us through the dark night of the soul, saw our failings and encouraged us to surrender this useless ego that only brings pain. Not through blind faith but a knowing born of long association with our teacher, we have come to see that that it was her heartfelt desire that we swim in the same water and essence that she drank; that we renounce what only brings us pain; and that we too experience the inner joy of connection to ourselves and to God.