you know when people say, “you just had to be there”? it applies to this post in its entirety. in all honesty, you had to be me to truly comprehend this experience. regardless, i’ve tried and retried six times over the span of one month to capture its essence in words. i’m unsure how it will translate for you, the reader, but maybe that’s the essence of a spiritual experience – it’s open to interpretation. enjoy :] – sherrie
no agenda, no concept of time
every day at the ashram at least one person asked me what my plans were for the day. my usual response, “absolutely nothing” always made me smile as it sunk in. i had two scheduled yoga classes and a philosophy class that i had to attend, but the rest of my day was pretty much open to whatever i felt like doing. for the most part, this meant enjoying a few hot cups of chai, drying my hair under the sun in the garden, walking around the market, taking photos, writing, reading, thinking, and meeting random people. in fact, i tried to use the clock tower in the ashram garden as my method of keeping time, but it broke the third day i was there.
observations of rituals
i attended the aarti ceremony daily. i witnessed people praying, singing, chanting, worshipping, making puja; i didn’t understand how people were so openly devoted. i made a conscious decision to continue going every day, and i couldn’t quite understand why. i even felt guilty the one day i skipped it. eventually, i learned the hindi songs and even participated in the chanting. an observer later told me that i looked completely in my element.
i went to satsang, or discourse, every day too. this was an opportunity to sit with the guru in an intimate small group setting. people from all over the world came daily to see pujya swamiji. they asked questions like “if you do good things, why do you still suffer” and “how do you know you are on the right path to enlightenment”. his disciple often shared her thoughts. she was a western woman from california with an impressive pedigree. i thought the questions were a bit ridiculous, too high level for anyone to act upon practically, and a bit too religious. i also couldn’t connect with her. i decided to keep going every day because pujya swamiji was funny and gave off good vibes, but i sat there as a detached observer.
notes from my journal written in my first few days at the ashram –
“people keep to themselves and seem at ease, peaceful. aarti is the only time people open up in a group setting and let go. (look into this more)”
“i came here for yoga and meditation but don’t feel a sense of religion or spirituality. should i be doing something more?”
friends i hadn’t met
i met a woman from france at the ashram who had traveled to india twice before, each time for 5-6 months. she taught me the names of hindu gods, accompanied me to temple, explained how to make puja, and showed me the art of bargaining. we spent days learning about each others lives, discovering the town, and eating. a lot.
the first time i met guruji, my yoga instructor’s guru, he smiled and asked me how i am. i said i felt great – the sun was shining, i had a hot cup of chai, and had just finished an hour and a half of asanas. he told me i look happy.
a guy named sergi introduced himself while i was sitting alone having tea at a cafe. i wasn’t really looking for conversation, but within a few minutes, i found myself sharing my pakora, my life philosophies, my fears, and my experiences with meditation. he told me he had recently picked up tarot cards, and we both scrutinized the meanings of the cards i laid down for my first tarot reading.
i learned yoga from rupesh every day. he lent me the ramayana, which i read cover to cover. i began to recognize some of the gods’ names in the hindi songs and understand their significance. we discussed indian culture, tabus, and society’s influences. he told me that to teach, i must first experience.
i found out through an email from my brother that my grandmother passed away. i couldn’t make it back for the funeral or participate in the buddhist rituals. so i went to a hindu temple and received a blessing (moli, or holy thread worn on my left wrist) from the priest. i made puja at the aarti ceremony every night. maybe it’s because her death was expected, but i felt a strange peace in knowing she was in a better place.
i told andy about my reactions to religion at the internet cafe. i couldn’t understand why people came from around the world to meet the swami. i didn’t get their questions about life, god, and finding the right path. i wasn’t able to see what i was witnessing all around me. he told me to not think of it as “religion”, to just hear the message.
i said a bittersweet goodbye to my friend at the rickshaw station on a sunday afternoon. an immediate fear clouded my mind; i worried that i would become aimless, feel lost, or worse, lonely without her. i walked quickly back towards the bridge and saw the man who owns the shop near the ashram where i bought my clothes. we sat and talked for a few minutes, and when he invited me for tea, i politely declined. i could hear the mantras beginning and wanted to make it to the aarti ceremony on time. when i arrived, the quiet man from reception asked if i wanted to participate in puja, usually a ritual reserved for the ashram’s honored guests. i joined a few others around the fire pit. i was a bit confused about which hand to use, almost caught my pashmina on fire, spilled the wood chips, and got smoke in my face from the wind. it was a pretty clumsy attempt, but i finished successfully and was blessed by pujya swamiji before joining the devotees back on the steps for singing.
i attended satsang afterwards as usual, this time with just his disciple. she was telling someone that the problem many people face is that they set goals and then break them, only to set more goals and break them. the continuous climb leads nowhere because there’s nowhere to go. what we should focus on is going about our daily lives and look for the signs that guide us along our path. as i listened to this, i felt an overwhelming urge to speak up: “how do you continue going through your daily life without having ‘the next thing’ to focus on and not become complacent?” this idea had been stewing in my head for weeks before i arrived in india. i had been feeling jaded and uncertain for awhile. the idea remained tucked in my mind the whole time i was there, but i couldn’t confront it.
her response: choose a fundamental value that’s important to you, like compassion or generosity. focus on living this value every moment, every day of your life. if you choose to live wholeheartedly in the moment and always focus on these core values, you can’t become complacent. life should be exciting. it should be hard. know that you are perfect and already have everything you need for life within you at every moment. your fears, ego, desires, and other superficial feelings just layer on top and distract you from seeing your perfect soul. focusing on your core and staying true to your nature will help you move past these distractions. if you can achieve this, you will be happy.
i discovered tears streaming down my cheeks; my heart felt completely open, exposed, and full of love. i’m not sure if it was the strange sequence of events earlier that day – from saying goodbye to my friend, declining tea, and the fateful timing that resulted in my participation in the aarti ceremony – that allowed me to completely let go. i let go of my judgments about religion and my prejudices towards this woman so that i could wholeheartedly receive this message and hear what it meant for me. and at that precise moment, i experienced profound clarity.