A Scientist Goes to an Ashram for a Personal Retreat – Part 1

by Norman Costa

(Note: I do not use the real names of people, nor do I identify the specific Ashram. I changed a few details. The purpose is to protect the privacy of the individuals. Readers who are familiar with this Ashram will probably recognize it.)

What the Heck is an Ashram?

Ashram is a Sanskrit word denoting a spiritual community in the Hindu tradition. It is a place of religious retreat where knowledge and spirituality is pursued. In ancient India it was a hermitage or monastery where sages lived in peace and tranquility amidst nature, usually in a forest. It is a secluded residence where a spiritual Master (guru) lived alone or with disciples. It was a place of instruction for the guru's students and aspirants. There they led a communal life of meditation, simplicity, discipline, quiet and solitude. They engage in spiritual practices and study the sacred teachings of yoga. The Ashram is a sanctuary.

I was not looking for a religious experience and practice, let alone simplicity, solitude, and discipline. Nor was I looking forward to a vegetarian diet. I smuggled a small amount of contraband food items with me. What if the housekeeping staff finds my stash, I thought. Will I be summarily discharged and be spat upon as I left? Upon taking my first meal I realized it was a vegan diet. That meant there was not even yogurt with fruit on the bottom, along with high fructose corn syrup. Last year I hired the daughter of a faculty colleague to do some administrative work and light housekeeping for me. I didn't know she was a vegan, and I had nothing in my pantry that I could feed her. Shopping for a vegan was not easy the first time around.

What I was looking for was a sanctuary of quiet and seclusion. As a young man I spent two years in a Catholic monastery. Although I did not stay, it was the best two years of my life. But why was I looking for a repeat performance for one week in a tradition that was not part of my heritage? Why go to a religious community when I do not believe in a personal God? True, I am more comfortable with Spinoza's God and Einstein's Cosmic Consciousness, but, I maintain an ecumenical and tolerant attitude. I enjoy comparative religion, speculative theology, and studying religion as a natural phenomenon.

I wanted to find a place where I could focus on some important decisions I had to make. I didn't want to be distracted by my main file server that was down, paying my bills, crying over split milk (huge paper losses in my very modest portfolio), and avoiding all the work I had to do to cleanup my apartment. So how did I pick an Ashram in the south, you ask. Well, I'll tell you. I visited friends, a couple at the Ashram, over 15 years ago. Swami Giri and his wife Yukteswar had been with the Ashram for a number of years. Yukteswar was completing a Masters Degree in Nursing (a mid-life career change) at a State University. Giri was the administrative director and personnel manager for the Ashram. They had a small house near the Ashram property, as did many devotees and their families. I was more a tourist than participant, although I did join an evening circle of joining hands and giving response chants to the Master and founder, Swami Ramananda, and watching the children of the community do a May pole dance. I came away with a good feeling about the place and liked the members of the community.

I can't pass up the opportunity to tell you about Giri and Yukteswar. Giri was an Italian kid from Brooklyn, NY. Italian was the primary language in his home. In his youth he was a drummer in a rock band. He's a little heavy with long hair and full beard. If he wears Indian garments or robes he is the iconic image of a Swami or guru. If he wears jeans and a sport shirt, he is the spot on incarnation of Jerry Garcia. Today he's a licensed acupuncturist and massage therapist. He teaches and lectures on Yoga. Recently he published an original book of commentary on the sutras. They now live in Manhattan where Yukteswar supervises a hospice service.

Getting There

I made my reservations for one week in January, this year, when the prices were reduced by 20 percent, and reserved a private room in one of their motel-like facilities. I am too old to adjust to an eight person bunk bed dormitory room and share one bathroom with seven young people. They were terrific people, some as poor as church mice, and, besides, I'm a late sleeper. The last time I slept dormitory style with bunk beds, no privacy, about 40 other guys, turned lights out to 'taps', and rose with 'revele' was a long time ago in the military. I took Amtrak to a station about forty miles from the Ashram, and by prearrangement they sent a car to pick me up. Amarananda, a member and employee of the community, had transportation duty that day. Since I was the only arriving Ashramee, I sat in the front seat and had a great conversation with Amarananda. I thought she was French-Canadian, but she's from France. She came from Rennes, on the Atlantic coast of Brittany. I had been to Rennes so we started with that small speck of 'something in common'. It turns out we had a lot more in common.

Amarananda said I looked familiar. I didn't know how that could be, but I said I visited once before. It turns out, after more than 15 years, Amarananda recognized me, others at the Ashram recognized me, and I recognized them. More on this later. She asked what drew me to the Ashram, and I told her about Giri. Of course, everyone there knows Giri, and he visits every so often to teach a class on the sutras. She said she had been there quite some time and raised her son there. He is now a successful lawyer in the State Capitol. We talked about Obama, religion, sky gods versus earth gods, and her preference for the spiritual practices of Tibetan Buddhism. I didn't say anything to her then, but I thought I had three CD albums of Tibetan ritual chants, in mp3 format, on my laptop. (Yes, I take my laptop everywhere, even to an Ashram.) She dropped me off at my 'motel', and said I would probably see her around since she worked in the multimedia department, in the same building as the dining hall. I rested, unpacked, ate some of my contraband candy, and confirmed that the Tibetan chants were on my laptop. Good, because I'd like to return the favor of her company by transferring the mp3s to her home computer. I knew she would love them. Eventually, that would be the start of a wonderful friendship. But more on that later.

The Scientific Perspective and Scientific Ballyhoo

Before I go further into my experience at the Ashram, I should explain why Western science and some scientists, believers and non-believers, have a problem with Hindu spirituality, and that of other traditions. The problem can be summed up in one word: Energy. To scientists in the physical and life disciplines, energy is the left side of an equation that states the product of mass and the square of the speed of light in a vacuum. It's concrete, it's unambiguous, it's simple, it's powerful, it's elegant, it's beautiful, and, so far as we know, it's complete. Hell, it's damn near transcendent and spiritual. To Hindu spiritual tradition, and others, energy has many manifestations, uses, and explanatory powers; All these have varying degrees of clarity, or lack thereof, in their definitions and uses. The physicist says, energy, or, mass-energy equivalence, and that's it. There is nothing more to say. The spiritual Master has a lot more in the way of usages, modifiers, delimiters, extenders, and synonyms. Here are a few examples: Positive energy; Negative energy; Aura; Life energy; Spiritual energy; Life force; Creative Vibration; Creative vibratory activity; Finite Vibratory Creation; The flow of the life force and consciousness outward through the spine and nerves; The light of the medulla flowing into the eyes; You can give me energy and I can send it back to you; A tree has energy but a stick doesn't. Consider the following quote from Paramahansa Yogananda (1893 to 1952) in his two volume commentary on the teachings of Jesus.

India's yogis (those who seek union with God through formal scientific methods of yoga) lay the utmost importance on keeping the spine straight during meditation, and upon concentrating on the point between the eyebrows. A bent spine during meditation offers real resistance to the process of reversing the life currents to flow upward towards the spiritual eye. A bent spine throws the vertebrae out of alignment and pinches the nerves, trapping the life force in its accustomed state of body consciousness and mental restlessness.”

Lest anyone think I'm mocking the author, let me clear: I am not. In fact, I'm reading Discourse 6 “The Baptism of Jesus”. It's fascinating. For those interested in the study of comparative religions, believers or non-believers, it's a rare chance to see the Gospels of the Christian testament from the point of view of a Hindu mystic. The point I am making is that these uses of the concept of energy drive some physicists, and other scientists, up the wall. It's even enough to give Daniel Dennett apoplexy, or make Richard Dawkins fall out his chair laughing. What it does for their spines and nervous systems, is akin to the scratching of finger nails on a black board. A family member, 35 years ago, graduated from a nursing program that used the concepts of 'positive energy' and 'negative energy' as core elements and foundations in the curriculum. As far as I can tell, no patient received care that was inferior to care provided by nurses from a more standard curriculum.

Some scientists are overly narrow and overly protective about their words when others appropriate them for their own use. We have quantum psychology which is purported to be derivative of some ideas in quantum physics. There are quantum theories of mind, as a disembodied ghost in the machine. My personal view is that they are not extensions of quantum physics, though the progenitors think otherwise. I use the concept of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in my two-semester undergraduate and graduate psychological research methods classes. I draw an analogy to psychological testing to make the point that measurement changes that which is measured. There are physicists that insist it only applies to the velocity and position of subatomic particles, and doesn't apply to opinion surveys. True enough, but, by analogy, I instruct my students that human nature can not be understood in a fully deterministic way. Our predictions of behavior are expressed in probabilities not in certainties. Einstein stated that God did not play dice. I tell my students that human nature plays craps all the time.

Sneak Peek at Part 2

  • Why I really came to the Ashram.

  • I learn a good lesson in humility.

  • I was afraid I wouldn't remember how to meditate from my days in the monastery. It was just like getting on a bicycle, again.

  • Aum made my muscles relax.

  • Amarananda made me the regional dish of Rennes – Les galettes.

  • The founder had a dark side.

  • I like being a vegan – well, almost.

  • The one true path vs. a path to the truth.