Published on July 17th, 2009 | by Harmonist staff27
Recently the New York Times published an article titled “Hard Times Are Jamming the Ashrams,” explaining how the current state of the economy and job market is causing a rise in ashram popularity. The article starts with a glimpse into the life of one such person who has taken to ashram life in the wake of the economic crisis:
Shortly after Steven Odnoha lost his job at Intel, he drove three days from Rio Rancho, N.M., to the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pa. For months, Mr. Odnoha had been wondering how he could get the time off to join a yearlong meditation program at the nonprofit yoga retreat. His pink slip, in September 2007, provided the answer.
The article then goes on to explain that Odnoha’s hopes to reenter the work force were met with defeat and subsequently his “yearlong program” continues—going on 22 months now. It is interesting to read of western professionals abandoning their lifestyle and ‘heading for the hills’, but as the title of the article suggests, this is more about people whose lifestyles have abandoned them, and thus they turn to a spiritual (and cheap) alternative. Initially what comes to my mind is that spiritual life should not be embraced merely because one’s facility for material enjoyment and sustenance have been unwillingly removed by the march of time or the hand of circumstance. But then again, few among us can honestly deny owing a debt to negative impetus, for it so often speaks louder than positive experiences. Psychologists have demonstrated, for example, that in a relationship it takes about five positive interactions to counterbalance one negative one. So I suppose negative impetus deserves some respect. Doors close only for others to open.
Those ashrams that open their doors to those driven more by the loss of a paycheck than interest in monastic life do arguably risk compromising their monastic environment. Monasticism is after all a lifestyle that is neither for the rich and famous nor for those that want to be. We may lose our paycheck but the desires that fueled our employment don’t disappear as easily as one’s boss can lay one off. “If you’re applying because you can’t deal with life, that’s not a good motivation,” says the coordinator of one of the ashrams covered in the piece. Monastics keep close company with one another because they derive strength from those of similar resolve to walk a road less traveled, and one could also argue well that they need to once and for all shake off the lingering reputation born centuries past of being a place for those who could not make it in the world.
That said, considerable negative impetus can be the final drop that breaks the dam and takes one out of the stream of worldliness and into the oceanic depths of inner spiritual experience. The poetry of the Bhagavata comes to mind, and the life of a great saint as well. A.C Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada was fond of citing this verse spoken by Sri Krishna in relation to his own life:
I gradually take the wealth of those whom I favor. (SB 10.88.8)
Thus one never knows who may walk through an open ashram door. Monastics should be compassionate, and they themselves know well the truth of the age old adage “nothing risked nothing gained.” They are also for the most part a work in progress themselves. I am not suggesting a wide open door policy that gave ashrams of the sixties a bad name, but if someone knocks, answer the door. And apparently more are knocking these days. Furthermore, although ashrams are ideally thought of as a place that once entering one never leaves, the truth is another thing. Few come and many go, but hopefully they all go away a little wealthier.