Monk Stuff

2019-06-01 • life spirituality

I stayed at Ananda Ashram from April 25th to April 29th and it was absolutely amazing.

Why go?

De-conditioning

My desires are contextual. They're affected by time and place.

Me on a Friday night laying in my childhood bedroom in a secluded suburb wants different things than me on a Friday night in a degenerate college town listening to my roommates blast Lil Pump through the living room speakers.

I live in NYC right now. The ambient, social, and cultural pressures sets my desires to:

  • stay out as late as possible (routine is for losers, take advantage of the city that never sleeps)
  • buy things (many 'things to do' are just pop-up shops, interesting stores, and food markets)
  • buy experiences (this is the place for performance art, stand-up comedy, themed parties, and concerts)
  • make enough money to fund the above desires

When I first moved, this was great. I used to be hedonism's biggest proponent. But now that I want space to explore other more traditional, spiritual, and natural lifestyles, I'm constantly battling my location-based habits.

My New York desires are the antithesis of what I want. They're a revolt against nature. Slamming pizza and cocaine at three a.m. when every sane mammal is peacefully asleep, simply because you can, simply because it gives you a small, fleeting, joy to disregard the constraints of schedule and discipline, will not lead to stability and inner peace. Working a menial job eight hours a day to bankroll your bougie tastes in brunch, linens, and excercise bike classes will not lead to self-actualization.

Friday Nights

I'm starting to value my energy over everything. I'm not willing to jetlag myself multiple times a week by passing out at five a.m., then spending the rest of the week recovering, and on Friday, when I'm finally beginning to feel good again, when the fried cheese has been digested and my neurotransmitters have regulated themselves and my over-taxed liver has scrubbed the last bits of Svedka out of my system, I call up my friends to fuck it all up again.

I want to wake up with the sunrise. I want to be one of those insufferable people who jumps out of bed excited about their rolled oats and morning jog, not someone who pulls their crusty eyelids apart at two p.m., tangled in a mess of blankets, and spends an hour intermittently groaning, browsing reddit, and deciding what to Seamless.

Saturday Mornings

But it's hard to make dramatic lifestyle changes when you're entrenched in your habits. If you're a stoic with boundless self-discipline you can fix yourself whenever you want, but I am not a stoic with boundless self-discipline. To enact change, I needed a forced break of habits, and in that malleable state free from my normal life script, I'd be able to write myself a new one.

Desires are contextual so the setting would be important. Leaving my routine to fly to Vegas would leave me even more degenerate than before. I needed to go somewhere austere, somewhere wholesome.

So, after some research, I booked a stay at an ashram two hours upstate, looking to chant sanskrit and study the Vedas in a small nature town.

Experiential Philosophy

Now there are a lot of wholesome places besides ashrams to make major life changes. I chose Ananda and not Wyoming, because, as part of my transition away from pleasure-seeking materialist, I was looking for some spiritual insight.

Western philosophy is contained by the intellect. It's built on logical arguments and conscious, directed, thought. Eastern philosophy, on the other hand, is mainly experiential. There's a lot of non-verbal understanding required (I want to write a longer post about this). You can read all the teachings you want, you can conceptually understand that everything is one, that the self and the ego are artificial constructs, but if you aren't meditating for hours a day or devoting yourself to selfless service, none of this will change you.

I hoped that with five days of genuine practice and dedication, I could get at some experience that'd convince me that the Vedic path is worth pursuing. It wouldn't have to be seeing God or hearing voices, maybe just a fleeting but unique feeling of expansive love or happiness.

The Setting

Lack of stimulation

If you've ever gone camping, you know that prolonged lack of stimulation settles the mind. Growing up playing twitch shooters and watching frenetic cartoons makes you restless. But in just twenty-four hours of quiet nature, you can go from dopamine addicted tweaker to peaceful sage, savoring the fresh air, bluebirds, and pine smell with a child-like wonder.

The ashram lacked stimulation. There was nothing to do there besides yoga, prayer, meditation, reading, and looking at trees. So it was perfect.

Vibes

As part of my transformation from techie hyper-rationalist to new age quack doctor, I've started to believe in vibrations. Not Physics Vibrations-- I've always believed particles can move back and forth really fast. I'm talking about "Good Vibes Only" kinda vibrations, the hippie stuff.

There are certain locations and orientations in the world, where, for reasons I don't understand, you feel differently just by being there. And before you say "obviously you feel happier on a beach in Bali than in a sewer in Detroit", I want to say it's more subtle than that. You will feel different in an all-white, windowless room next to the Ganges River than in an all-white, windowless room next to a cemetery. Even if you have no idea what's outside the room, you will feel a difference in 'vibrations'.

I don't yet have the vernacular to describe energies well. All I can say is the ashram had a strong, relaxing, energy. A molasses energy. In certain rooms, such as the shrine of the ashram's founder, you felt like you were in a peaceful dream, and meditation became effortless.

Chanting also modulated the energies. My first morning of meditation, I decided to sit cross-legged on the floor. I'm very inflexible, but no one under the age of sixty was sitting in a chair. It was a pride thing. After four minutes, my hip flexors were screaming at me to stop being a cross-legged try-hard and sit in a chair like the office worker I am, but that just made the whole ordeal seem like a challenge, and 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, thinking about what would be for lunch, and thinking about what the train schedule would be like when I left. No meditation was done. After twenty minutes of frustrated thought, we ended the sitting with a Vedic peace invocation. For some unexplainable reason, when everyone raised their hands and began to chant "Ommmmmmmm saha naavavatu", a wave of peace and tranquility silenced my negative thinking, if only for a minute.

That experience got me down the rabbit hole of energy work

Study

A large component of ashram life is studying spiritual texts. Ananda offered daily Sanskrit classes, so each morning we read and discussed passages on anything from the Upanishads to J. Krishnamurti.

This is the one aspect of the ashram I couldn't get into.

I could understand the more modern, practical, relatable writings like those of Krishnamurti-- they sounded more like self-help than spirituality-- but I couldn't see the point of the more hardcore spiritual study. It seemed over-intellectualized. We'd spend an hour dissecting ten sentences from the Upanishads, discussing "I-AM" vs. "I-Am" vs "I-am" and "the Self" vs "the self" and other permutations of capitalization. How is that helpful? Isn't the philosophy all about experience, all about the non-verbal, all about that which cannot be described? Why spend so much time trying to describe it?

It seems like the usual recommendations for spiritual development are:

  1. Experience the non-verbal transmission of undeniable truths from an enlightened guru
  2. A fuck-ton of meditation and service

I'm no expert, but all the frameworks and theories just seem to create a common language that enables people who have already glimpsed enlightenment to be able to talk about transcendental experiences with others who have glimpsed enlightenment. If you haven't had these experiences, you can intellectually absorb their framework, but it will be meaningless, since language is built on common experience. When someone says 'happy', you need the experience of happiness to map the world to a feeling. When someone says 'the Self', I can take your word for what the experience of the connectedness of the universe is like, but I can't truly understand what you're saying.

Service

In pursuit of the complete yogic experience (and cheaper housing), I signed up to volunteer in the kitchen for three hours a day.

I naively romantacized the idea of "working in a kitchen". I imagined lovingly putting together a delectable, sattvic, meal with a team of monks. Everyone would hold hands and bless the food and we would then share and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

The reality was I just scraped at leftover oatmeal crust with rusty steel wool for three hours a day.

I definitely didn't enjoy it, but it was a good excercise in staying in the present.

Discomfort is all mental. At least that's what I told myself.

With enough focus and relaxed appreciation, any task that seems trivial, uninteresting, or uncomfortable can be transformed into a rich and absorbing challenge (see The Myth of Sisyphus).

As I've previously written, being totally mindful of the task in front of you and assuming a mindset of relaxed appreciation is the best way to take the shittiness in stride. I used to think I could just daydream through shitty activities and let my body move on autopilot, but manual dish-washing is just annoying enough to periodically demand your actual attention. You'll be happily caught in some reverie where you're a famous DJ when all of a sudden a pot slips from your hands and -CLANG- hits the concrete floor. You're jerked from your daydream and the repressed fatigue and frustration over this life-wasting tedium comes rushing in and now you have to start all over again on building an imaginary world absorbing enough to hide in until the next cacophony.

To avoid this, I took pride in each newly polished pot. I mindfully arranged bucket lids into neat stacks and perfectly angled the kitchen F.L.U.D.D. so that the jet stream wouldn't ricochet of the bottom of ladles and hit me. All of this was unnecessary, of course-- who cares if I got a little wet or if the stack of re-usable plastic lids was a little wobbly? But thinking about stacking lids is a lot more pleasant than thinking about your hatred for stacking lids.

On the second to last day of my stay, I woke up with a craving to to hike. The sun was shining and the birds were chirping and it felt like the universe was inviting me into the forest.

I finished my last minute of service for the morning, hung up my apron, and stretched my fists to the sky. I smiled, basking in happy anticipation for the hike in front of me (this sounds exaggerated, but after four days of heavy meditation, lack of stimulation, and no career-related thoughts I actually turned into a sixty year old man who lets out happy groans just because the weather is nice).

Before I could take my first step onto the trail, one of the ashram workers came running from the kitchen.

"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 was: god damnit, shit, fuck. I'm not nearly as zen as I thought I was. More dishes? Should I just straight up say no? I can't say no, that's not monk-like. But if I said yes, would I be saying yes because I genuinely care or because I don't want her to think I'm a dick? Is it worse to say no or is it worse to lie and say yes and be inauthentic? I think it's better to say no, honestly. That's the honest move. I should just accept selfishness and say no. It's so FUCKING nice outside. Why me? Why now?

She looked confused as I stared blankly, yelling in my head.

I finally spoke. "Yeah, no problem at all."

There were many problems, but service seemed like an important component of this new life I was testing out. Also, some solipsistic part of my brain was telling me that this was a lesson. This would be the ultimate test for all the unsubstantiated theories about how intent focus and appreciation equalizes all actions.

Washing dishes is the same as hiking. Washing dishes is the same as hiking. I repeated this to myself as I walked back into the kitchen. I extracted a fork out of a pile of grime, tomato juice, and burnt rice, picked up my rusted glob of steel wool, and let my attachment to hiking slowly dissolve. I made myself smile and got to work, watching the sun fall in the sky and the birds stop chirping.

At the end of the shift, I felt completely fine. Not sad about missing the opportunity to hike, not upset about having to work more than required. Just as tranquil as I did before. This lesson alone was worth the trip.

The People

"So, how did you end up here?" That's a terrible bar conversation starter. What's the most interesting response you're going to get? "Oh I was at a friend's pregame before this." Where are you supposed to go from there?

In the ashram, though, it's perfect. "How did you end up here?" is a totally loaded question. It asks for someone's spiritual path, what drew them to meditation or Vedic studies or simple living, and this will tell you their motivations and world-views. I would sit down with people for lunch and ask them this seemingly innocent question only to be thrust into their alcoholic past or mid-life crisis or carefully developed epistemology. All surface level conversation was glossed over since our situational commonality wasn't soccer or Game of Thrones, but mindfulness, religion, and intellectual curiosity.

Most of the long-time devotees volunteered in the kitchen as well. I'd interview them when washing dishes and they were happy to oblige my questions. There was a documentaryist who lugged his camera on treks through the Himalayas and was trying to crowdfund a new documentary on an Indian classical singer. There was an ex-graphics programmer turned "ethereal artist" who meditated throughout the night instead of sleeping. There were a few people that seemed to treat life as a moving meditation, bringing relaxed appreciation to all activities whether it was yoga or brushing their teeth and I learned so much listening to their advice, their life paths, and their pivotal moments.

Conclusion

This was the perfect trip and it was just two hours from my apartment.

I didn't have any transcendental experiences. I think I'd need to meet someone legitimately enlightened, do one of those ten day silent Vipassana retreats, or volunteer full-time at an ashram for many months to be able to validate the more mystical claims of spiritual practice.

But I did experience a new kind of real, persistent, peace and happiness. If only for that week.

On my last day, I stood still and watched rain falling into the lake by the dining hall, the thousands of little circles expanding into nothing, and while I still didn't feel awe or see a deity's reflection in the lake, I did feel this serenity emerging from a feeling of connectedness with the scene in front of me. I wonder if that's the Self.