I stayed at Ananda Ashram from April 25th to April 29th and it was amazing.
My desires change with time and place.
Me on a Tuesday evening, hidden in my childhood bedroom, quiet in calm suburbs, has very different desires than me on a Friday night, in a degenerate college town, Lil Pump rattling the walls of my beer stained apartment.
Right now, I live in New York City, and the atmospheric cultural pressure sets my desires to:
I'll spend $14 for a CBD infused fried eggplant ice cream, and, every time, as I'm handing over the money, I know it's a mistake. Here's your stupid smoothie are you happy now? Is this what you're working for? But the city activates the lower parts of the soul: the mimetic reptile brain, ravenous, drooling at all the sparkling colorful ads, willfully giving in to the fleeting tastes of the crowd. This reptile brain takes the reigns, gorging itself on fried eggplant ice cream, the higher conscience watching horrified from the backseat.
It is only when alone within lame white walls that the reptile brain, with nothing to chase, returns to it's cave for rest, and the higher aspect tiptoes around the slumbering beast, takes the wheel, and assesses the damage.
"Karthik, why do you live like this? Why do you slam pizza and cocaine at three in the morning, when every sane mammal is peacefully asleep? Is it simply because you can? Simply for that small, fleeting, joy of revolting against the constraints of discipline, duty, and natural law? This cannot bring any lasting happiness. Half-alive, miming the motions of a job you don't care about, eight hours a day, just to bankroll a life of useless consumption and drinking-friendships, this is not healthy nor sustainable.
It's not pleasure you want. You need health, energy, life. Stop treating work as something to be avoided. Stop destroying yourself every weekend. Wake up with the sunrise. Be one those people who lives simply, who jumps out of bed, smiling at the sun, excited about their yoga and their oatmeal and their work."
It was this pursuit of energy that first led me to Ayurveda, then Yoga, then general esoterica. Not because it's necessary to live a vital life, but because I tend towards extreme over-intellectualization of my problems.
But, like the man who starts working out to get girls, and ends up falling in love with powerlifting, my relation to mystical practice changed over time. I still wanted the energy, but I found myself in love with the magical worldview of mysticism and mythology, in awe of the brilliant sages and seers before us, and increasingly skeptical of our ridicule of the past and its intricate metaphysics.
Mystic practice, like yoga and meditation, demand care, persistence, and discipline. You can read all the books you want, you can think to yourself "everything is one", "god is love", "the ego is only a tool", etc, but if you aren't meditating, praying, serving or practicing for hours a day, internalizing these ideas, making them physical, slim chance it changes you.
So I needed care, persistence, and discipline, but I could not trust my flaccid resolve to resist the temptations of the NYC egregores, the disembodied spirits of desire, competition, and a materialist pop culture, swimming through my skull, tickling my ears.
Desires are contextual, so what if I checked myself into a peaceful ashram upstate? Would that reptile in me then mimetically desire God? Would each part of my soul then align to the mystical project? I'd try and see.
Lack of stimulation "Do you have the patience to wait, till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?" - Lao Tzu (t. Stephen Miller)
The mud never settles if you're constantly scrolling. It just keeps piling up and you get less and less coherent. I see absurdist TikTok humor as a consequence of algorithimically muddled minds.
If you've gone camping, and just sat in the woods, not doing anything, not talking, barely thinking, but not tired, you know that beautiful feeling of the mud-clearing. And it's so accessible! A day or two in quiet nature-- all you need to go from e-tweaker to Uncle Iroh.
Spiritual centers, devoid of easy dopamine, aid the mind in a similar way. And there's a bonus: consecration, aka good vibes.
A key component of my transformation from tech-brain hyper-rationalist to new age 'whats your moon sign' mystic, is my belief in vibrations. Not Physics Vibrations, like, particles moving back and forth really fast. But "Good Vibes Only" vibrations.
There are certain locations and orientations in the world, that, for reasons I don't understand, hit different. And before anyone says "obviously you feel happier on a beach in Bali than in a sewer in Detroit", I'll say it's more subtle than that. I'd feel different in an all-white, windowless room next to the Ganges River, than in an all-white, windowless room next to a cemetery. There's some metaphysics to it, subtle forces at play that we can't yet observe through scientific instruments.
Ananda ashram had a strong, relaxing, energy. A molasses energy. In the shrine of Ramana Maharishi, the saint who established the ashram, you felt as if you were in a peaceful dream, and meditation became effortless.
Chanting also affected vibes. The first morning meditating, I sat cross-legged on the floor. I really shouldn't have, but no one under the age of sixty was sitting in a chair, so I had to, out of pride. In four minutes, my hip flexors were screaming at me to stop being a cross-legged try-hard and take a chair like the office worker I am, but that inner conflict just seemed like a challenge to be transcended, so my dumb ass kept torturing myself under the illusion of spiritual progress. My mind would oscillate between thinking about how much longer I could last before my knees tore, how hungry I was, and what train I should take out. No meditation was done. After twenty minutes of frustrated thought, we concluded with the shanti mantra, a sanskrit mantra for peace.
For some inexplicable reason, as soon everyone raised their hands and began to chant "Ommmmmmmm saha naavavatu", this wave of ease washed over me, and I forgot all my discomfort, if only for a minute or two. Yes, it is possible to distract yourself from pain, no metaphysical explanation needed. If the meditation room burst into flames, I wouldn't be thinking about my hip flexors. BUT, to have such a strong reaction to this mantra, a mantra I'd usually find uninteresting, would never otherwise care about... it's interesting.
Reading scripture seems to be a big part of monk life. Ananda offered daily Sanskrit classes, so each morning we read and discussed passages on scripture, like the Upanishads, or books by contemporary spiritual thinkers, like Jiddu Krishnamurti.
This is the one aspect of the ashram I couldn't get into.
I see the point of reading more modern, practical, relatable writings, like Krishnamurti. It's like self-help, but with more depth. But I couldn't see the point of hardcore spiritual study. It seemed over-intellectualized. We'd spend an hour dissecting ten sentences from the Upanishads, discussing all caps "I-AM" vs. semi-caps "I-Am" vs "I-am" and the capital S "Self" vs the "self".
When someone says 'I'm angry', you need to have felt anger to really know what they're talking about. It's difficult to describe anger to someone with no reference. When someone says 'the Self', they can explain it to me all they want. "So everything is one, got it." I can literally understand the verbal definition, but I can't feel it, I can't empathize, which is what matters.
If I could already feel the difference between the Self and the self, then it might be fun to talk about in the monk group chat using our monk language. But without the experience behind the word, isn't language useless? Maybe not, if the sounds of the words themselves have vibe power. But if that's the case, discussing sanskrit texts in English loses the vibe power.
Maybe it's about building a map for yourself, so when you do experience something divine, you can handle it better. You'll be like, oh yeah, this is the Self, nice, I made it.
In pursuit of the complete yogic experience (and cheaper housing), I signed up to volunteer in the kitchen for three hours a day.
I thought it'd be something like this, delicately plating flowers around a beautiful meal. But really I just frantically scraped crusty food off an endless stream giant clanging pans.
I definitely didn't enjoy it, but I think it was good for me. A reminder that discomfort is all mental.
With pure focus and a relaxed appreciation, a boring task becomes rich and absorbing challenge (see The Myth of Sisyphus). At least that's what I tell myself. And of course I never do boring tasks this way.
I normally do boring tasks, eg laundry, by daydreaming through them, letting my body move on autopilot, living two lives in parallel. But industrial dish-washing with all it's clanging and rattling and high pressure hoses and the piles and piles of dishes, gets the stress going, and is more demanding of attention. I couldn't daydream well with all this raucous, so I had no choice but to do like Sisyphus, taking pride in each newly polished pot.
I neatly stacked bucket lids and finessed the angle of the kitchen F.L.U.D.D, so that the jet stream wouldn't bounce of the bottom of ladles and get me wet. All of this was unnecessary, of course-- who cares if I the water hit my clothes, or if the stack of re-usable plastic lids was a little rough? But when I gave up trying to dissassociate, and paid attention to the mundane tasks at hand, I found it impossible to NOT try and do a good job. Time went by much quicker. Thinking about stacking lids beats thinking about my hatred for stacking lids.
The morning before I left the ashram, I woke up itching to hike before my shift. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and it felt like the universe was inviting me into its forests.
As soon as I finished my morning scrubbing, I hung up my apron, stretched my fists to the sky, and basked smiling in happy anticipation for the hike in front of me. This is what four days of no stimulation will do to you. You get off on sunlight, fresh air, and birds.
But alas, as I left the kitchen, an ashram worker came running after me.
"Hey! Hello! Could you please come back and help for another shift? The person that was supposed to be here didn't show up and we are so understaffed!"
My first thought: god damnit, shit, AHHHH, no, more dishes? Can I say no? Should I say no? No, no, I can't say no, that's not monk-like. But if I said yes, would I be saying yes because I genuinely want to help or because I don't want her to think I'm a spiritless asshole? What's worse, an honest no or a dishonest yes? I need to be my true authentic self, alright, I've got to set boundaries, I should say no. Whatever, your selfish, you hate dishes, The Myth of Sisyphus is stupid, washing dishes sucks, go hiking, life is short. It's SO NICE OUTSIDE. I'm trading songbirds and sunlight for oatmeal-crust and pan-clanging. Why me? Why now?
I finally spoke. "Yeah, no problem at all."
Of course, I had many problems, but I had to. To fully test-drive the monk life. Also, some solipsistic part of my brain told me it was a lesson. A divine test. Do you really believe this relaxed appreciation nonsense you keep talking about? All tasks are the same huh? Show me then.
"Washing dishes is the same as hiking. Washing dishes is the same as hiking. Play with it. Relaxed focus." I walked back to the kitchen repeating this mentally.I excavated a fork out of a pile of unidentifiable grime, tomato juice, and burnt rice, picked up my rusty glob of steel wool, and let go of my attachment to hiking. I forced a smile and got to work, watching the sun slowly leave without me.
With no other option, I put this idea to the test, and at the end of the shift, I felt... peaceful. Not ecstatic, but not at all sad about missing the opportunity to hike. Not upset about the extra work. Just calm. The same calm I feel at the end of a hike.
"Uh, you come here often?" Terrible bar icebreaker, but great for ashrams.
I'd sit down with new people at lunch and within minutes be thrust into their alcoholic past or mid-life crisis or transcendental experiences. I'm an open book who loves open books, so this was perfect.
In the kitchen, I met a gray haired documentary trekker-filmmaker, who lugged his camera equipment through the Himalayas, now working on a movie about an Indian classical singer. I met an ex-graphics programmer turned "ethereal artist" who meditated throughout the night instead of sleeping. I met a few people that really seemed to treat all life as a moving meditation, bringing relaxed appreciation to all activities, whether it be yoga or brushing teeth-- and I learned both through the example they set and the stories they told.
I returned to the ashram a few months later. I piling up my plate for dinner, burnt out from scrubbing, when one of the long-time employees looked at me and said 'are you feeling it?', a total non-sequiter. The next minute, I felt this beautiful sensation, like I was swimming through the world, so vivid and smooth. It was impossible not to smile, impossible not to be joyful, it was psychedelic, almost, I was pulled way out of my mind. I don't know what it was (the seLF? the sElf?), but in the three years since 2019, I've felt a similar experience a rare few times. Each was a result of Ramana Maharishi's Who Am I inquiry. Special place, special person, I truly believe it.