A Scientist Goes to an Ashram for a Personal Retreat – Part 2

Part 1 of “A Scientist Goes to an Ashram for a Personal Retreat” can be found here:

(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.)

I Make Contact

My first few days at the Ashram were filled with a good deal of uncertainty. Where do I sit in the dining hall? Will I violate some standard of etiquette among people pursuing a serious religious practice? What if I say hello to someone who is spending time in silence? I know I'm going to get a stern look if I upset someone's spiritual practice. My predilection is to do nothing, say nothing, and hope I do not trip over my own feet with a monastic faux pas.

The first evening I walked up to the building that housed the dining hall to make sure I was there at the start of the dinner period. The building is like a visitor center, with a small shop selling books, CDs, DVDs, gifts, and items of religious significance. It also houses the media center. I looked in through the door to the dining area and into a large common area. It's very much like a multipurpose room in a small high school: auditorium, lecture stage, gym, and dining. There was a decent size commercial kitchen , off to one side. Tables were set up for a buffet service. Tables and chairs were arranged around the auditorium. There was a sound proof control room in a corner opposite the stage, and was part of the media center. I could see an access to a patio for eating outside. This is January, so we stay inside. I walked over to the food and toured around the two buffet tables. I was alone and didn't know if I should begin eating or not. I returned to the hall outside the dining area. There were a few people there but no one seemed to organizing themselves for dinner. I went back into the dining room and saw a lone gentleman filling up a plate. I started doing the same. Then it happened. I made my first breach of monastic etiquette. The gentleman politely told me I had to wait for the gong to be sounded, enter with the others, and wait again for a communal prayer to begin the mealtime. He had to be elsewhere and was taking a plate of food so he could make his other appointment.

OK, that wasn't too embarrassing. After a few more minutes about a dozen or two people gathered. An aproned cook opened the door, and sounded a small hand held gong. We filed in and stood together around the food. Someone started a Sanskrit prayer that was sung by everyone. The feeling they projected was communal, happy, relaxed. and enjoying their prayer as a prelude to eating. I was feeling more comfortable. With the end of the singing, the group recited a prayer, in English, the words being in a large framed poster on the wall. Eventually, I learned to follow and recite the prayer, along with a shout of “Ji!” in response to another incantation. It was like an affirmation, an “Amen” if you will, that ended the prayers and gave everyone permission to “dig in.” I was pleasantly surprised at the variety and presentation of the vegan food. In addition to recognizable salad items like greens, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots, there were all sorts of middle eastern and Indian dishes. Of course there was lots of tofu cooked this way and that way. It all looked very good and it was great tasting, as well.

Not knowing where to sit, I went to a table further out from the food, facing back toward the food and the other diners, and started to enjoy my dinner. I was recognized for what I was, a brand new visitor who didn't know up from down. A woman monastic, Swami Learananda, came over and invited me to sit with her and several others. I met a couple of monastics and visitors like myself. The visitors tended to be friends of the Ashram who come periodically for the spiritual practice and experience. A few were newbies like myself who were referred by others. Swami Learananda said I looked familiar and that we met here before. I told her she looked familiar, and that I met her more than fifteen years before when visiting Giri and Yukteswar. “Of course,” she said. Learananda was wonderful to talk to and made me feel comfortable, relaxed, and very much at ease. She was raving about the homemade bread and organic homemade jam, so I had to try it. It was wonderful. For a few moments I was considering applying for life long study as a Swami-in-training just for daily access to that homemade bread and jam. Although I enjoyed every bit of the plentiful food, I was afraid I would be very hungry between meals. At home I'm frequently hungry between meals, and tend to nosh a lot. Never, not once, did I feel hungry between meals at the Ashram.

Settling In

I went back to my room and studied the schedule for the week. There was guided meditation at 5:30 AM and 'open' meditation at 6:30 AM. Guided meditation didn't appeal to me for two reasons. It was too early in the morning, and I was sure I would be a distraction to the 'guide' and the more serious participants. I didn't want to make another monastic faux pas. Besides, a whole hour of meditation might be more than I can handle. So, 6:30 it is. I didn't have any trouble getting to sleep. I was exhausted from the trip. My room was large, with a small kitchenette, and the bed very, very comfortable. For the entire week I never made any early morning meditation. I must have been in need of a lot of sleep because I slept late every single morning. That was OK, though, because one of my reasons for coming here was to get some rest and quiet. I wasn't hassled by anyone to adhere to a schedule. I was treated like the guest I was and I could set my own schedule. Usually, a visitor will ask for a spiritual guide and be assigned to one of the senior staff. I didn't ask. Instead I chose to follow my nose and spend time with different members of the Ashram.

On the second day I went to the visitors office to announce my presence and pick up information about activities, schedules, a few rules, and a map of the property. The head of the visitors office is an 80 year old woman monastic, Swami Mataji. Mataji is not her Sanskrit name. It is an honorific, a term of respect and affection, and reserved for older women. As the senior woman monastic, everyone calls her Mataji. I recognized Mataji from my earlier visit and she recognized me. I can understand that I would remember some of them , but how they would recognize me is incredible. Mataji is a former Catholic nun who found her spiritual center at this Ashram, many years ago. She was smiling, energetic, and nice to be around when I first met her. More than 15 years later, nothing has changed. Mataji was also a reader during the silent period of lunch, each day. The first 45 minutes of lunch was the only compulsory time of silence for visitors at the Ashram. She would read from varied texts, and from writings of the founder. This is not unlike practices at Christian monasteries, to this day. She had a wonderful voice that I could listed to, all day.

Two Lessons in Humility

On my second after noon, I ran into Amarananda outside the media center where she worked. I thanked her again for the drive from the Amtrak station. Then I told her that I had 3 CDs of Tibetan ritual chants on my laptop. I had the .mp3 files and would like to give them to her. I told her I knew she would love them. We made arrangements for me to transfer the files to her home computer after the workday. Later, she drove me to her house, less than a mile away, and let me at her computer. I build and maintain my own computers and my own network. For friends and family I am the de facto 24/7 in-home IT service technician. For the record, Linux rules and Windows (especially Vista) sucks. As usual, nothing goes right the first time and I had to return to my room to download other software, drivers, codecs, etc. I think I finished the next day and manage to debug and fix a couple of problems with her computer. Some people fly remote control helicopters. I play with computers. She loved the Tibetan Buddhist ritual chants, just as I knew she would. Amarananda was very appreciative, I was happy, and we settled down to some tea and resumed our conversation about Buddhism, the Ashram, and a host of other related topics.

At one point she asked me if I believed in reincarnation. I said no, but that I am always open to listen to views of other people and traditions. I won't go into the details, but it was a very central belief for her, and gave a great deal of meaning to her life. This is true for all Buddhists. Then I thought I would be very clever and ask her a question that would demonstrate how much I understood about Buddhism. I asked, “How does belief in reincarnation inform you as to what constitutes a good life?” “What does reincarnation tell you about why you should lead a good life?” Of course, I knew the correct answer. Scientists are oriented to finding the correct answer. Within the span of about 20 seconds, the time she took to give me an answer, I realized I didn't know diddly squat about Buddhism, and I wasn't that clever, after all. My correct answer about being good in this life so you don't come back in the next life as a 3-toed sloth, was totally irrelevant. I decided I had to drop all pretenses, do a lot of listening, and take the opportunity to learn as much as I could.

That evening I sent a email to a few friends and told them about my trip, some of the people I met, the food, uploading my Buddhist chants for Amarananda, and my Karma Yoga. Karma Yoga is the notion of doing good as a consistent practice, so as to help you 'earn' successive steps in the cycles of death and rebirth as your strive for ultimate enlightenment. My Karma Yoga was volunteering for kitchen clean up after dinner that night. The last time I did kitchen duty was in a monastery when I was much younger. I hated every minute of it. The worst job was scrubbing pots and pans. At the Ashram, however, I enjoyed every minute of it. Once I finished inside the kitchen, I cleaned all the tables and chairs. The food service manager came out to tell me the tables and chairs had never been this clean. In my email to my friends I was trying to be clever, again, telling them that on the great Karma scorecard in the universe, I added three points to my plus column. The next morning I got near identical responses from two friends. They went something like this: “Norm, we know you better than you know yourself. Stop adding up points on your score and LET GO!” They were right. Two lessons in humility in two days was sufficient. I decided to let go. This is not a place for a quantitative scientist who is trying to impress people with cleverness, and wit. I thanked my friends for telling me what I needed to know. I thanked Amarananda, as well.

The next day I met Swami Raneananda, another woman monastic, outside the dining hall. We struck up a conversation and she said she recognized me from before. I didn't remember her. This is really uncanny. Raneananda has an incredible sense of humor. We hit it off the first day. We would tell each other real life humorous stories. It got to where we agreed to take turns. I couldn't get another story out of her until I told her one of my own. Here's one of Raneananda's stories. Some time ago, she met another woman visiting the Ashram who was an avid skier. The other woman was an active practicing Catholic who went to Montreal to see the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, later to be Pope John Paul II, at a conference. The woman approached the Cardinal, while everyone else was standing back and reserved. She introduced herself and said that she and the Cardinal had something in common. “What's that?” he asked. She said that both of them loved skiing. She asked, “How many Polish Cardinals like to ski?” He replied, “Half. The other one doesn't ski.”

My Visits to the Shrines

One afternoon Raneananda and I were talking about the religious meaning of the concept of Baptism. For her, the meaning was very simple as it was very clear. It was a complete cleansing of the past, and a new beginning to try to lead a good life. This was quite different from some traditions, like Christianity, in which it is a one-time event to remove an otherwise indelible scar, and initiate someone into a faith community. For her, the idea of Baptism could be a recurring ritual. Leading a good life may have many setbacks. Putting everything about a hurtful, unkind, and damaging life behind with a single ritual of cleansing, with a commitment to start anew, is a very powerful idea. In my view, it does not require a belief in a personal God, nor an expectation of reward in an afterlife. For many people and traditions it does require these. Raneananda loaned me a copy of a Hindu commentary on the teachings of Jesus, as written in the Christian testament. There was a discourse on the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. After arriving home, I bought the entire two-volume commentary. For believer or nonbeliever, for anyone who is interested in comparative religions, or the study of religion as a natural phenomenon, it's a fascinating one-of-a-kind source. Raneananda's comments sounded a lot like the experiences of people who have multiple attempts at sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous.

That afternoon Raneananda had trash pickup duty for the monastic residence buildings. Then she had to staff the gift shop at the Shrine, about a mile away. I offered to help her with garbage pick up and disposal. So we hopped into the Jeep Cherokee and I helped bag the garbage and then throw it on top of the roof rack, and she drove a short way to the dumpsters. I accepted an offer to drive with her to the Shrines. Her duties included opening and closing the gift shop, the founder's shrine and burial vault, and the main gates and entrance to the main temple. I could also ride back with her, when she closed, on a road that is all uphill for a mile and a half. The main temple is on a plain that borders a river. The rear of the temple looks out over the river. The temple faces a steep hill. The temple has a long entrance promenade and is set back from the main gate. It looks a little like the approach to the Taj Mahal, on a smaller scale. Outside the front gate and promenade entrance is the gift shop and an exhibit/education hall. Looking up from the temple front, the founder's shrine is about one third the way up the steep hill. At the very top of the hill, and not accessible from the temple, is a shrine to Siva. His dance of the spheres keeps our universe working the way it ought to be working. In the western tradition it was the clockwork music of the spheres.

Raneananda dropped me off at the founder's shrine. It was about the size of a deep three-car garage. There was a floor level area in front of an altar-like structure. As seen in many Chtistian churches, there are a few steps up to the altar level. On the altar was a full size wax statue of the founder. He is adorned with silks and sashes, and flowers. On the altar level is a gentleman, probably in his fifties, in deep meditation. He is sitting cross legged and his spine is bent forward. My initial reaction was disappointment in looking at a realistic image of the founder. Personally, I don't like the idea of, or the hint at, any kind of idolatry. My view is that words, and teachings, and meanings, and the spirit of the message should be the focus of meditation and contemplation. I didn't want to go up to the altar so I took a couple of cushions and sat on the floor. After a short time my back was killing me. I got up at sat on one the chairs against the wall and window that was opposite the altar. Thank God I never went to the early morning meditations because I never would have made it all the way through. After a short while I found myself in a very relaxed, deep, meditative state. I was present, I was conscious, I was not asleep, but I was in a state of … (There is so description of the state). This was not a 'religious experience', nor was it transcendent. I was in NOW. I was in PEACE. I stayed in this state for at least half an hour or more.

Eventually, I got up, returned the pillow cushions, put on my shoes, and walked down to the mail temple. I waved to Raneananda as I walked through the main gate and proceeded down the tree-lined promenade. I entered on the bottom level of the temple. The bottom level is a 360 degree exhibit of the major religions of the world. The exhibits are behind glass, against the outer wall of this large circular space. There are ten major, named religions with their own informative exhibit: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Sikh, Native American, Shinto, Buddhism, African, and Taoism. There are two other exhibits: One for all other named and unnamed religions; and, One for all secular religions. These include science, humanism, capitalism, atheism, etc. The place has a definite ecumenical and inclusive spirit. The upper level is a place of meditation, with subdued lighting and a silence that is deafening. When I left the shrine I thought I would demonstrate some sign of respect. I don't like the idea of bowing to anyone. If I were to meet the Queen of England I would not bow or kneel or whatever. Not a small part of that is being a U.S. citizen, and we don't bow or kneel before anyone, especially a throne we cast off. Then I thought, what would I do if I were a guest in someone's home and it was time to leave? What might be an appropriate way to show respect to your host? I know. I would shake hands. So I decided to shake hands. The form of the respectful handshaking was putting my two hands together, holding them close to my chest, fingers pointed up, and give a bow. I did this when traveling in Thailand. Raneananda closed up the Shrines and the main gates, we got in the Jeep, and she drove us back to the main complex and to dinner.

What Am I Doing Here, and What Does This All Mean?

How does all of this validate the views of someone who does not believe in a personal God, but who has a strong sense of being one with the universe and possibly losing a sense of self in the experience. The transcendent and the numinous can be accessible to the most materialistic of scientists, without positing the supernatural. At the same time, there is no reason to mistrust the same experiences in believers simply because they posit a supernatural source. The question is not, “Does God exist?” It's irrelevant. The question is whether believers and nonbelievers can rejoice in the same experiences and not denigrate the other's explanation as to the origins of very powerful human responses.

Bringing all of this into a coherent, complete narrative will take one more, final part to the story.