Since I’ve been here over five weeks now, and my posts have mainly been about highlights and insights, I thought it might be a good idea to give you an idea of what daily life is like here. Everyone finds their own way here; nothing is compulsory. This is what I’ve naturally settled into.
4:50- 6AM: Archana– the recitation of the 1,000 names of the divine mother. I was very hesitatant to arise this early, but after I tried it, I soon found I loved it. There is a certain tenderness about the predawn hour; I now see why many spiritual teachers have said that the period from 4AM to sunrise is the most conducive time of day for meditation. The recitation takes the form of a chant and is extremely repetitive- all the names (which are just different aspects or ways of addressing the deity) follows the formula “Om [fill in the blank] namaha.” This is precisely what makes it so hypnotizing. I just sit and allow myself to absorb the energy being channelled through the words. And at the end of the 1000th name, there is a palpable presence in the room, very similar to what I’ve felt in the Sufi dhikers after chanting “Allah Allah Allah”. I usually head over to the Indian canteen for a fried banana (fresh and warm at this hour!) and a cardamom chai.
6:30-8: Yoga and meditation. A few weeks ago, I discovered it was possible to do this on top of a 15 story building here. It’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever found for practice. The ashram is situated on a narrow islet between the Arabian Sea and a backwater river system, and standing atop the building, you can gaze down at the endless coconut trees that grow along its length. Giulia and I usually arrive just before the sun rises, and it’s always a magical moment do some sun salutations as the red fireball finally pokes over the horizon. The scene is complemented by dozens of eagles that ride the wind currents and caw above us; it’s amazing to look up, see their wings outstretched, and realize how little effort they make.
8-9: Seva (service). During this time, my job is to haul between 4-6 large buckets of wet laundry across a courtyard on a wheeled platform, load them on an elevator, and then help put them up to dry (again, on top of a large building with an incredible view).
Everyone at the ashram is required to put in a few hours of service every day to keep the place running. This serves many functions: because the huge operations of the ashram are done by volunteers, any money that it takes in (through room fees, food and gift sales, etc.) goes directly to fund the ahsram’s numerous charitable activities. Everyone here contributes his/her labor to help this huge funnel of wealth redistribution, so everyone is contributing (through Amma) to the well-being of others.
There is also the added element of using this as a time to practice karma yoga (the yoga of work), which is one of the yogas that Krishna teaches in the Gita. One of the methods Krishna recommends to Arjuna to attain God-realization is to dedicate all the fruits of his labor to Him. At first, I scoffed at this notion (just like I did with mantra) because I thought that people used this to try and curry favor with an imaginary deity keeping His eye on us all the time. Speaking the divine name while working would be a way of thinking that I’m doing it all for a good reward later on. But after trying this practice out, I’ve found that dedicating each sheet or shirt I put up to Amma (or to Krishna, or to other metaphors for the divine) helps to keep me centered and focussed on what I’m doing. In a way, using the divine name is just a ploy (just like the mantra, or any other technique we use in yoga) to make us present. Any path of yoga is really just like training wheels that “unites” us with whatever we’re doing at the time. So while up there, dedicating the fruits of my labor, I understand that there is only one sheet in my hands at a time, and that is the only reality.
Since it offers up such a juicy arena for practice, as well as helping all of us to help others, I really feel like work here is a privledge instead of a duty.
9AM: Breakfast. Yum! Super good food here. They say that Amma instructed the cooks to make it tasty to give people incentive to stick around longer! I know that if I had to eat the standard Indian fare, I probably wouldn’t have stayed this long.
But it’s interesting to note that the deliciousness of the food is actually a challenge in disguise. This morning, while eating a tasty cinnamon roll, I found it very difficult to focus on the pleasure of the roll itself. Instead, I was consumed by thoughts of wanting to go back and get another one (which I didn’t, since I was full after one). It’s tough to stay present during moments of extreme pleasure, since it seems like the greater the pleasure, the more obsessed we are with holding onto it and wanting to get more. I think this is one thing that Amma designed in a very clever way: we’re working on detaching ourselves from sensual pleasures here, and what better way to do it than by sticking temptation right in our faces! Like licking honey from a razor blade…
10-1: Reading, writing, thinking time. I usually park myself in alovely garden filled with flowers, large trees, and three young cats roaming around it. I take a coffee or a tea, sit back, and dedicate myself to the pleasures of the mind. The cats come by and ask for a little attention from time to time, which I’m happy to give. There’s a fairly good library here, and so far, I’ve read books on a huge range of subjects, anywhere from Thomas Merton’s writings on Zen to a book about a doctor’s medical trials with DMT in the 1990s. Super interesting stuff.
1 PM: Lunch (see breakfast desciption).
2-3: More Seva: This time, taking down the laundry we put up in the morning.
The afternoons are usually unstructured; I sometimes go to internet or take a nap. Often, Amma is on the beach around 5 to lead a meditation and lead a Q+A session. I usually head to the beach around 5 anyway to meditate and watch the sunset into the ocean. Everything there is such a wonderful teacher; I came to understand that the outside world really exist to provide metaphors for describing inner processes.
6:30-8: Bhajans (devotional songs). The main hall at this time is usually filled with hundreds of people listening to a chorus of excellent musicians play traditional Indian songs. Three days a week, Amma leads the songs herself. They conveniently put the translation of the lyrics on several screens, which allows us to recognize how beautiful they are. The dominant theme in them is longing: for the divine, for Knowledge, for grace. It’s expressed so poignantly and powerfully that I can’t help be infected by this longing myself. It can sometimes be maddening to feel the divide between where we are now and how grand this universe is. But by celebrating and singing this out like they do, it gives us permission to fully feel this divine between a limited human mind and the unlimited divine.
8: Dinner, followed by philosophy class at 9. After taking dessert, this is the real icing on my cake! These classes on Upanishads take place four days a week, and are always a nice way to end the day. The teacher is amazing- he is so precise with his language, and has an engaging way of making this very complex subject matter come to life (he also rolls his r’s that makes him even easier to listen to). To give one example of things he’s had us ponder: if you come into a room and are afraid because you think there’s a snake on the floor, but then you turn on the light and realize it’s just a rope, can the snake be said to be the cause of the rope? This example is meant to draw our minds to the fact that we live under certain illusions, and with liberation/ enlightenment, we will come to see the world for what it is. Often times this course raises many more questions than answers, which I guess is sort of the point.
10: Bed! At long last. Only a few hours rest before it all starts again. I lie down and ponder my luck at having been able to practice so many forms of yoga in one day. But I am feeling quite exhausted after weeks of this (I missed archana a few times this week out of utter exhaustion). I’ll be leaving on Wednesday, and am looking forward to moving on to a new environment.