Hall of Mirrors

yajnacropBy Tadiya dasi

With the encouragement of my guru I recently opted to experience ashram life in his Northern California monastery, Audarya. Looking back at my experience and myself then, I find much to think about. One part of me wonders: What was I thinking? A city-girl trying to be a cow-girl? And another part of me – while admitting that my decision to pursue monasticism was probably based more on hope and high ideals than reality – is thankful. It is the blessing of a generous spiritual tradition that I have room to make such ‘mistakes’, and furthermore, learn from them.

There are, in my experience, two principal ways that people tend to see the ashram: one is the so-called rational and critical view that sees the ashram more like an asylum where the troubled people of this world seek solace whilst avoiding the real world and it’s work. Conversely, there are the idealists who see the ashram as a paradise on earth, full of enlightened, soft-spoken saints, where transcendence is immanent and existence is nothing but bliss at every moment. What is common to both of the aforementioned groups is that they consist mostly of people who have never actually set a foot in an ashram.

If you live in an ashram, perhaps even for a day, you quickly see that neither of those notions are very accurate. It is certainly not an asylum where the weary get their rest and sanity back. The ashram setting is so stripped down of all distractions and so full of work that unless you are well, both in the mind and body, you won’t last long. And I might add that in an ashram it’s mostly pray and work, not pray or work. I have never seen people work harder than those whom I encountered in this setting—a setting that is usually conceived of as having less activity than other lifestyles. So there goes the ashram-is-for-the-slackers and the psychologically dysfunctional notion.

The decision to move to an ashram takes faith and trust in yourself and in your spiritual tradition. An ashram is a place that is built on the ground of faith, a place where the reality of spiritual life is taken seriously. It is in this world but not of it.  It seems to me that faith, especially if it’s seen as ‘blind’ or irrational, is one of the few things in today’s world that can be openly scorned or challenged. A little faith is seen as a good thing but too much faith— – is just crazy. Surely I must be insane if I want to lock myself up in a convent?

It is not only other people’s expectations and judgments that you subject yourself to when you decide to enter an ashram lifestyle. You also put yourself to the test. “What if I fail? Is there life post-ashram?” The prospect of becoming an ashram drop-out is not appealing and there are unfortunate cases  where people have become so disillusioned with themselves and so burned out with their spiritual practice that they end up leaving their faith entirely.

In ashram life, there  are there are the uplifting, inspiring, great days, when you feel peaceful and focused in your service. And there are the days when you feel like your insides and outsides don’t match and you are painfully aware of how removed you are from your ideal surroundings—your  supposed God-centered life revealing itself as more self-centered than anything else. Even when it becomes apparent that there are more bad days than good ones, it’s not easy to walk away from your high hopes and admit that you could not live up to your ideal. It may even seem that you are taking steps back in your spiritual journey when you finally decide that living in an ashram, full time, is not for you. I know I felt like that. However, as they say, you can only start where you are.

As you live in the world as a spiritual practitioner, it’s easy to think that the monks and the nuns of this world have it easy and ‘if only’ you had their circumstances, you too, would be on your way to sainthood. However, I soon realized that when you live in the ashram you not only give up your worldly ‘luxuries’, you also give up the luxury of excuses. When you find yourself in the most helpful and favorable of environments for spiritual culture and you still struggle, you soon realize that it was you—yourself—that was the problem all along, not your outer situation. I had to come face to face with my own unwillingness, conditioning, and selfishness. No more excuses. At this point the ashram felt to me more like a hall of mirrors than a monastery. Where my self-identity (“I am spiritual! I want to serve the Absolute more than anything else!”) got challenged and suddenly all the roles I had picked for myself throughout my life no longer quite fit, or were of no use. It can be terrifying, not knowing who you are, and feeling like you are losing the very foundation you have built your life and sense of self on. I began to glimpse the humbling enormity of the process in which I was involved. After all, you cannot think yourself to samadhi and going beyond the mind is no small task.

It’s tempting to turn away from the spiritual path when this happens. Nobody likes to see the ugly truth about themselves reflected back at them.  But the grace available at this stage is the realization that you cannot do it alone. You need the help of others on the path, and that is ultimately what the ashram is: a community of people joined together for a common cause.

The simple fact that there are ashrams in the world is encouraging to me since it means that there are indeed people in the world who keep the fire of faith burning, so to speak. That there are places in the world where the reality of transcendental pursuit is lived out and shared with all whom care to experience it. And that is the great thing about ashrams: you can always visit one!  At the end of the day, what makes an ashram is the state of mind and consciousness of its residents, not it’s mere physical existence. So as much as it’s possible to ‘live’ in an ashram but in reality be elsewhere (like in your distracted mind as in my case) it’s also possible to learn to make the whole world your ‘ashram’.  This, I am still working on.

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3 Responses to Hall of Mirrors

  1. There are many good insights here that I am sure pertain to any monastic situation, regardless of tradition or lineage. Having lived in the ashram for 11 years I can attest to the contortions one’s mind can go through, the identity crises, the environment reflecting back one’s own petty desires and selfishness. Having left the monastic environment due to such desires I have first hand experience of how hard it is to walk away after having invested so much in an identity as a monastic. There is life after the ashram, no doubt, but the fact remains that the mind goes with us wherever we go. There is no escape, and it is ultimately only through grace that we have any hope of learning to see the whole world as an ashrama. I’m still working on that too.

  2. It is a great article and it gave me insights about the challenges which one faces in monastic life. I always introspect to find my readiness for going in that direction. I am taking only small steps in moving there, seeing the amount of selflessness required in monastic life.

  3. What a nice article Tadiya… Im sure every monastic can resonate with one part or another of your experiences. In times of crises old defense mechanisms can pop in most unwelcomingly giving us even more lessons to learn from. Thanks for the great article

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