Okay… It certainly has been an interesting few months here at the ashram. ‘Few’? Hmm…actually, the interesting times date all the way back to Shiva Rathri (the Hindu new moon holiday dedicated to Shiva, back in early March).
To recap: My partner of 10 years (Stephanie) and I first visited Sri Kaleshwar’s ashram in Penukonda for about 4 weeks back at Shiva Rathri 2006. It was then we decided to go ahead and get an apartment, and to sign up for the inaugural year of the ‘Soul University‘ program, which ran from Guru Purnima (July, roughly) 2006 to Guru Purnima 2007. Although we’d gotten quite a lot of instruction on Sri Kaleshwar’s teachings from two of his senior students, Alx and Jonathan, back in the States, the first year was some repetition on that for us, but also quite a bit more that was new. Plus, we went much further in formal meditation programs (sometimes called ‘processes’) than before.
For our second year (again GP to GP 08), Stephanie and I opted to take the new 2nd year Sadhana (meditation) program — only those who’d completed the 1st year or had equivalent experience qualified for it. We found the experience interesting, but not quite what we’d expected. Plus, we’d both gotten involved with rather more ashram project work (seva) than apparently was expected of sadhana program participants. (More after the break…)
When it was running, the sadhana program consisted mainly of meditation in certain places around the ashram, using certain mantras (prayers), for a prescribed number of hours a day. Unlike the first university year, which was two semesters, the 2nd year was broken into three trimesters. We had the largest number of 2nd year sadhana people in the 2nd trimester, and during this time, we also had a good many ‘satsangs’ — spiritual discussions with the whole group, plus often one or two of Swami’s most senior students. Those meetings were really wonderful, and most helpful.
Then the 3rd trimester came along, and due to various reasons, we were down to just four in the sadhana group. At one memorable point in May, one of our group went back to Germany for a while, and the last three — myself, Stephanie, and one other lady — took a group trip to Singapore and back (for visa requirements). We called it "the first ever Sadhana Group Field Trip." Then it turned out that all three of us were also meditating at the same time, the evening of our flight back to Bangalore — and I called it, "The Mile High Sadhana Club."
Our group was small, but our ‘group-ism’ strong, and we thought we’d get back into the swing of our daily meditations together — but it didn’t stay that way. Swami had a talk one night, and before we knew it, everyone at the ashram — 1st year ‘knowledge university’, 2nd year ‘sadhana university’, and the seva yoga folks (those who are staying, but mostly helping out with work tasks) — were all thrown in together to begin a huge series of meditation processes.
Some days, we’d start well before dawn and wouldn’t finish until 10pm. When some of our guest visitors came during this past GP and commented they’d heard how busy we all were and how tired we must be, Stephanie quipped, "We passed ‘tired’ two months ago."
A busy, crazy time, full of activities — including helping to get the ashram ready for the biggest Guru Purnima program ever — but it was also an amazing time for developing group relationships. To really pull together like a big family, a community of mutually supportive souls.
I’ve had good, close friends before. But for example, if I disappeared into my room to work on some project and didn’t really get out for a few days, people would ask after me. When I’d finally venture forth, I’d actually hear, "Hey, we missed you!" — and be touched by the honest affection and kind regard. The last time I remember anything even remotely like this was back in the mid 1970s, growing up in a small suburban neighborhood north of Pittsburgh, where everybody knew everyone else on the street. Where the one or two neighbors who refused to interact with the others were seen as oddities…only later, in my own adult life did that ‘non-interaction’ become the norm for American culture, at least in the places where I was living.
Yes, absolutely, it’s a pure adventure being here in India, immersed in this way of life so very different from what I knew before. It is also a huge blessing and privilege, being able to learn directly from a spiritual master like Swami, especially when so many others have to make do with what they read in books or hear secondhand or even further down the line from the men and women who really knew what they were talking about. But one of the best and most unexpected benefits has been — for me anyway — a solid sense of community, of friendships. I know, not everybody has that experience here, but I have, and so has Stephanie. Sure, we also know that when the time comes and we all head our separate ways back into the world, it’s quite likely I’ll never speak to some again. Our paths won’t cross. However, that does not in any way detract from the ‘now’ of having that connection, soul-to-soul, with fellow seekers of spiritual truths. Every relationship is temporary, an unavoidable truth. My life here, on this planet, this lifetime, has been deeply enriched for having known these people, in this place — the Sri Sai Mandir ashram in Penukonda.
So… Stephanie and I were super-busy, as I said. Me, especially, helping with a number of video and photography projects, which chewed up an unbelievable amount of time. And writing projects. Then Guru Purnima 2008 came and we were even busier. The ashram was pretty much filled to capacity for about ten days.
We waited until the 25th before heading to Bangalore for much-needed rest. If you’re a regular reader of my blog here, you might note my posts about the terrible bombings… In a way, because we wanted to be cautious, that actually led to us getting more rest-and-relaxation time staying at the Ballal Residency hotel than would be normal for us while in the city. Usually every day we’re running here and there to take care of errands, shop for this or that, run down some hard-to-find item, and so on. Instead, we sat, did a whole lot of nothing and quite a lot of just talking about our future.
As ever, we know that with our lives, making super long-term plans tends not to be a good idea. We thought we were going to settle into our lives and our house in the woods in Boulder Creek, CA, for a number of years. Decades even. But no — we sold it (at a really good time), banked the proceeds as a nest egg, and decided to see what the wider world held for us.
Now, already starting our 3rd year at the ashram, we’ve shifted gears again. The first year was getting settled and learning the knowledge. The second year went deeper into the meditation. Now, for this coming year, we’ve decided the thing to do is to throw ourselves more into the ‘seva’ — the work here. Both of us are finding our place, trying to offer what we do best and love doing most. In Stephanie’s case, it’s teaching and photography. Me, I prefer writing (if you hadn’t guessed by now…), and I don’t mind helping some with technical issues, but unlike the last year, I’m hoping now to make it maybe 80% writing and 20% technical help, as opposed to 5% and 95% respectively.
As a tentative plan, it seems to make sense anyway, and subject to change should the conditions require it, of course. In addition, I’ve gotten the notion that I should try very hard to set aside some time for my own projects. Blogging, perhaps — but more of what I have in mind is actual projects. Like maybe poetry, essays, or even get a book manuscript going. If I can get the discipline to work steadily on a project here, despite all the distractions and demands on my time, I figure I can do it anywhere.
Somewhere along the way between now and this time next year, maybe we’ll know what’s right for us, going forward. One thought we’ve had is that it might be time to start the ‘resettling’ process, back in the States. That is, to think about finding a place to settle down again. Someplace where Stephanie can teach and help heal the wounded souls to whom she’s drawn. A place where I can ponder and write, and write some more. Maybe we’ll get a dog.
So…back here in Penukonda though…what’s it like now? Well, we went from the hyper-busy time to a brief "catch our collective breath" time — but that was only about a week or two. Now, all of a sudden, it’s as if so very many of us here have regained our energy, our "can do" optimism about getting things done. Many, many new projects are underway, and I’m hearing people speak with a renewed sense of purpose.
The new year of ‘soul university’ is once again about to begin, and it’ll be interesting to see it this time from a different angle — not being a participant but rather as an observer (and helper). At the moment, despite all the projects getting started, it’s also still rather quiet around here. Once again, it’s possible to go into the Baba temple (mandir) and see only two or three people in there, or none at all. I can sit in the garden (provided it’s not raining, as it has been doing heavily at times the last week) and be completely alone. Have to admit, I think August is one of my favorite times here — partly because the temperature is so much more reasonable for folks like myself, but also partly because it’s so quiet and peaceful.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: There’s a whole world of difference between being at the Penukonda ashram during a program (Shiva Rathri, Guru Purnima, Navarathri, or Christmas) and being here during non-program times. Perhaps this metaphor might work: Being here for a big program is like having a huge truckload of roses dumped on you, and then you have to go back home and try to remember what happened, what the experience was like. "Oh, I remember a flood of crimson red, soft petals hitting my face, and an intense sweet perfume…then it was over. It’s all a blur."
When you’re here for longer than just a week, ten days or two weeks — well, there could always be that deluge of roses, but more often, it’s like there’s just a few, and you have the time to stop and savor them. "Ah, this rose, just so. The petals curled around each other — I remember exactly the shape. And the gorgeous fragrance…" To really imprint the sensations deep in your memories. My own single most intense recollection of my time here at the ashram was one afternoon in June of last year, when I was alone in the main garden. Everything was 1000% perfect, yet it was also a perfectly ordinary day.
If you visit a place, for the first week you’re just adjusting to arriving there. For the second week, you’re used to it, but finding a routine, a pattern to your daily schedule. By time you get to the third week, you can really enjoy the fragrance, the beauty of it. You start waking up to expect to be in that place, rather than in your bed back home. And by the fourth week, the experience is changing you irrevocably Rather than remembering a brief trip — a ‘spiritual vacation’, really — instead, for the rest of your life, you’ll remember it and describe it to others as "my time at the ashram" or "my time in (fill in the blank)". It stops being a ‘visit’ and becomes something else entirely.
If you stay even longer…well, it starts providing fodder for endless stories to tell. Like lately, our epic battles with the packs of monkeys… For the moment, let’s just say that a Super Soaker water gun can be a gal’s best friend. With that, I’ll end for now. It’s nearly time to head over to the temple for bhajans.