Not my guru
For months now, I have been wanting to visit Amritapuri, the saint Amma’s ashram in India, and finally got the chance about a week ago when I met one of her devotees on a random city bus. It turned out to be a whole ordeal that will make a great story for another time, but the general outcome was that I met Amma, also known as the “hugging saint”, received a hug from her, and felt absolutely nothing. I felt nothing as I waited in line for two hours, watching the people before me receive “darshan” as they shuffled on and off the stage where she sat. I felt nothing as I watched the women playing music and chanting on the floor in front of her. And I felt nothing when Amma smiled at me as an ashram volunteer pressed my face into her bosom so she could say something I didn’t understand into my ear before I was ushered away five seconds later.
I was disappointed, to say the least. I knew I shouldn’t have had any specific expectations, but I’d felt that many signs (as well as many friends) had been telling me to go there and had been hoping that I would feel something special when it finally happened. I could see that many people living at the ashram were totally absorbed in her teachings and felt very powerful things in her presence, but it just wasn’t for me. If Amma herself didn’t inspire me at all, then what was it that had been drawing me there? What was I supposed to learn from this experience?
I left Amma’s ashram feeling somewhat disheartened and confused. I reminded myself that just because I didn’t find what I thought I would didn’t mean it wasn’t a valuable experience and there were still lessons that I took away from it. The main one being that I was pretty turned off from the idea of just blindly following any one person and doing whatever they say, even if they seem like mostly good things. The woman I had met on the bus, a California native who called herself “Anjali”, was under a year-long vow of silence and was also fasting for the day because she said – or rather, wrote – that Amma had told her to do so. When I asked her “Why?”, she said she didn’t know. Again, that’s a story for another time…
Obviously there are a lot of amazing leaders out there, both spiritual and non-spiritual, who have a lot of good things to say. There are certainly plenty of people in my life whom I really admire and whose advice I value, even if I don’t know them personally. Tony Robbins, Marie Forleo, Dan Savage, Brene Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, Oprah, Amy Poehler, Jim Carrey…the list goes on and on.
But just because these people are doing amazing work and have lots of great things to say doesn’t mean I am going to deify them and start living my life according only to them and their ideals. I think it is healthy to have a variety of people from whom you seek guidance and to recognize that nobody is perfect.
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with following a particular guru and wanting to emulate the way they live their lives, especially if it is someone you feel you really connect with. Many gurus are living good, simple lives and are great examples for people to follow. But the more ashrams I have visited and people I have seen living this way, the more I have realized it is just not for me. I like the idea of having many many gurus in my life, from defined spiritual leaders to the person who is a jerk to me on the bus – all the people I interact with are my teachers because I can learn something from all of them.
Locking yourself away
My friend Willow and I recently took a day trip from the city of Coimbatore to this magical place called Isha Yoga Center. After weeks of being overwhelmed by the trash, the smells, and the huge crowds of people that cover most of India, Isha was an absolute heaven. It was a harrowing 1.5-hour bus ride outside the city, but the moment you stepped inside the gates, all the noise and busy-ness of the outside world seemed to vanish. Beautiful sculptures and artwork were spread about the compound and the overall energy was so much calmer and more peaceful – it was an amazing transition.
We wandered around aimlessly for a little while, admiring the buildings and the statues, before sitting down to lunch at a table with three residents of the center. They were from Italy, Australia, and Canada and had all been living there for several years. They told Willow and me a bit about the center and the philosophies of Sadhguru, the main spiritual leader of Isha. They were sweet and funny and knowledgeable and were clearly leading fulfilling lives. They seemed happy.
The Australian girl proudly told us that even though she’d had a well-paying job and a good life in Australia, she had left it all behind to come live here at Isha and continue her spiritual practice. The three of them all seemed to feel that it was a pretty impressive thing to renounce the material world and live out your days in an ashram, developing yourself spiritually and living simply. And I certainly agree that this seems like a very nice way to live and to improve yourself. Indeed, renouncing material possessions and living without giving in to cravings and a desire for more and more things is something I really aspire to.
But here’s the thing: locking yourself away in a beautiful oasis and spending your days meditating, doing yoga, eating delicious foods, and socializing with other yogis isn’t that difficult, as my friend Willow pointed out during our conversation later that day. The real challenge is doing all the spiritual learning and bettering yourself while still being involved in the real world and doing work that is beneficial to those around you. I mean, I can’t really blame them – living at the ashram seems like an awesome life and I am all about spiritual growth and development. It is certainly not a bad thing to want to live a simple life away from all the drama and violence of the “real world”.
But at some point, if you are not taking these lessons and improvements and sharing them with those outside your bubble, it just seems kind of selfish. I think we all have an obligation not only to better ourselves, but to make life better for those around us as well. Certainly, we should not be giving up our own happiness for the sake of others. But we should be using the skills and the knowledge that we have to serve those who are suffering, who are less fortunate, or who just need a little help. If we spend our days somewhere completely removed from the outside world, we lose our ability to share our light with those who may need it the most.
Bringing it back to the real world
This is a topic I have covered a few times in my blog: bringing the lessons I have learned from things like travel and festivals back into the real world with me. This integration can be challenging, but without it, it seems pointless to have these experiences in the first place. Why go on adventures to learn and push yourself and grow only to revert back to your original state the moment you return home?
I spent the first month of my time in India doing yoga four hours a day, studying Hinduism and the chakras, and having meaningful conversations with amazing new friends while living on a beautiful tropical beach. It was easy to be spiritual and vulnerable and open to learning in such a supportive environment.
But the trick is bringing it back with you once your situation no longer caters to this specific lifestyle. We have to learn to carry these lessons inside of us without relying on the outside circumstances to be just right. It is easy to practice Pratyahara and not react negatively to external stimuli when you are living in a yoga center in India but much harder to remember to do so when you have to go back to your 9 to 5 job in your hometown with constant distractions and responsibilities.
This is why it is so important to keep up small practices, like daily meditation, yoga, eating good foods, etc. It is unrealistic to expect that your entire lifestyle can change overnight, but what we can do is choose one or two things to integrate back into our lives that will help add up to big change over time. I think sometimes, we overwhelm ourselves with thinking we have to make a complete overhaul, but big changes actually come from taking one small step at a time.
So, what am I bringing back with me from my yoga teacher training to bring about positive change in my life back home? Well, at this point I am still traveling so I can’t yet say with certainty what my life will look like when I return, but for now, there are a few things I am working on sticking with.
One is my yoga practice – while I have not given myself any specific number of hours I need to practice each week, I am doing my best to get in a little bit of yoga each day, which is pretty easy at the moment since I’ve got plenty of time and few responsibilities. Another is cutting out coffee – I thought this would be a lot harder but so far I’ve just been substituting coffee with tea and chai. They are equally delicious and do far less damage to my stomach! Third is cutting out alcohol – this one has actually been pretty easy since I enjoy alcohol far less than coffee and have been looking for an excuse to give it the boot for a long time.
One thing I have NOT cut out is sugar. Again, I’m trying to be realistic and not do too much at once. While I did mostly refrain from sugar during the yoga teacher training, I just love it too damn much to keep it up now that I’m back out in the real world. There may well be a day in the future when I finally give up feeding my sweet tooth for good, but for now, I’m feeling pretty great about the whole coffee and alcohol thing and will give those changes some time to settle in before doing a complete overhaul of the system. I would rather succeed at those two things and give them time to become entrenched habits than to try to cut out all three and then feel like a failure because I didn’t stick with it. Plus, I know that success, even small ones, build momentum and motivation so maybe if I feel great after getting rid of coffee and alcohol for a while I will feel inspired to give sugar the boot!
Connecting to the Divine
After our lunch-time conversation at Isha, Willow and I had a beautiful spiritual afternoon experience. We cleansed ourselves in an all-female sacred bathing pool and then had a really lovely meditation is a dome-shaped building known as the Dhyanalinga. I felt a much more profound connection to the Divine in both the bathing pool and the dome than I did when confronted with Saint Amma’s breast. But clearly Amma has touched a lot of people’s lives in a very deep way and I know many other gurus and leaders have had similar effects. I have learned that this is not for me, but who knows, maybe I will find a guru someday that I really do connect with.
For now, though, most of my deeply spiritual experiences have come from being out in nature, in beautiful spaces whose energy resonates with me, or even sometimes when I’m just having a really great conversation with someone I connect with. I have had profound realizations in the middle of the forest (often aided by some form of psychedelic) as well as meditating on my own in my bedroom. For me personally, connecting with the Divine comes more from within than it does from being in the presence of one particular person, at least so far.
All of that being said, this has just been my own personal experience. Truly, there is no wrong way to connect with the Divine. All that matters is that it works for you. And it also doesn’t matter what word you use – The Divine, Mother Earth, The Universe, God, Brahma – we are all really talking about the same thing. Connecting with the Divine means recognizing that we are all a part of some greater universal whole, that there is some energy out there that is bigger than all of us, no matter what you call it.
Sometimes on a super clear night, I look up at the stars and feel infinitely small and meaningless compared to the massive scale of time and the universe. I personally find it equally thrilling and terrifying to realize that my one human life is both the most important thing there is and completely insignificant on a grand level. It reminds me that all the seemingly important minutiae that we preoccupy ourselves with on a daily basis are actually incredibly pointless and that what really matters is enjoying our one precious life and treating others with love and respect, leaving the world a slightly better place than when we found it.
So, how do you connect with the Divine, whatever that means to you? What sorts of experiences make you pause and question your place in the universe? Is there a guru or leader that you personally connect with who helps guide you in your quest for meaning? What activities, people, or places inspire you to be a better person?
Please share your comments below – I would love to hear from you!