Taking the Easy Way
Surrounded by ten other cross-legged and deeply breathing bodies rooted still in the thick India morning air, I felt a sense of triumph. I, the buzzing, over-stimulated American, was meditating.
My screaming hips and lower back quivered in resistance as I focused on the gentle rocking of my long breaths, silently repeating “Hong Sau,” as the monks directed. Swaddled in a red felt blanket under the swaying mosquito net of the Ananda Ashram’s makeshift temple, I had won. That’s how I saw my dip into the spiritual world—something to check off my accomplishment list.
I pray to no religious leader, nor do I seek guidance from a higher power. I am a disciple of the great American religion of ambition. It hasn’t always been that way. Two very loving, comforting, metaphysically aligned parents brought me into this world and I thank these people for my unique, spiritual childhood. Parents who often meditated against the trunk of an ancient oak tree shadowing our home because of its “powerful energy,” or gathered with their handful of spiritual friends who opened chakras and performed healing treatments. At breakfast my brother and I discussed last night’s dreams from our booster seats. Crystals and worn, ripped copies of the Kabbalah were my playthings. Everything smelled like incense. I sang Hebrew blessings over my pre-school lunches, attended Hebrew school, was bat-mitzvahed, and later dabbled in Christian youth groups and momentarily found Jesus.
“Meditate, it will save you,” is what I grew up hearing. But I couldn’t.
When I was six, my parents asked me to draw the hurt in my soul because, as my mother says, I was born with a painful wound burrowed into my being. They kept the drawing—one of a gray, black mass resembling a cave that lived inside my giant red, lopsided heart.
My mother calls me a machine, a robot wrought of skin and bone that can always push harder, do more, be better.
My unrelenting quest for perfection often produces debilitating panic attacks and pitfalls of depression. The number of times I have spent trapped in my car, hyperventilating, sobbing, trying to breathe into the phone while my mom on the other end of the line tries to calm me begs the question: “What am I chasing?” Pausing, forcing myself to pull back the restless, insecure pieces of myself and look deep inside is a task I have been running from, fearing that if I do, I will get lost.
“You’re already lost,” is a thought that often rings far off in my consciousness. But ambition is still my accepted method of self-torture.
So when I learned that my journalism class would be spending almost three days at the Ananda ashram in Pune, India, before our reporting week in Mumbai, I silently cursed everything. Meditation, which had haunted me my entire life, would put me on lockdown. In rural India, surrounded by grey shrubs, slow, shriveled cows, and red mountains, I would not be able to escape.
I stepped off the bus onto the simple, soft acres of the Ananda ashram. There, unlike the pulsing Los Angeles grind, the days were calming. There were oddities of course. Chanting affirmations and songs before each meal, and marching in place yelling, “I am awake and ready,” before yoga practice produced many mental eye rolls. But it was a space so foreign to my usually seething days that I willingly let myself unravel.
We ate breakfast in silence in a shaded courtyard, and drank tea at 4 p.m. I looked at flowers and took relaxing, gentle yoga classes every afternoon before dinner.
And then the monsters came back.
Even in a remote, serene place of self-love and appreciation, nestled oceans away from achievement-ridden America, I aimed to prove. That’s because, I realized, the Ananda Ashram was not so removed from America after all.
The first Ananda Ashram was founded in 1968 by a group of Westerners led by Indian guru Swami Kriyananda in Nevada City, Calif. The Ananda spiritual communities movement then spread across California, Washington, Oregon, and Italy, and finally returned to its homeland, India, four years ago. The dusty grounds of the ashram were littered with Westerners like me—and hardly any Indians. Most of the monks and the guests were Americans, with a few Europeans and one Uruguayan thrown in.
Short spiritual journeys like these are fleeting for most of us. In Los Angeles, I see so many people grip onto this notion that a spiritual discovery, or journey, must happen when you are completely removed and isolated from the real world. Every year, thousands of us flee our daily lives for places like India to find ourselves—and check that experience off the bucket list.
Watching the peaceful, ever-smiling monks glide around the grounds in yellow uniforms, I knew theirs was an unobtainably peaceful existence for me. I said this to one of the monks. His answer—you could abandon the unnecessary stresses of your life and seek out a community like Ananda.
Is this the answer? Seriously? Do I have to be completely removed from the harshness, violence, pain and suffering of the real world to perpetually remain spiritually enlightened, blissful and centered?
To me, the achiever, this would be taking the easy route. What about the elation that comes when you work hard for a job, a promotion, or a goal, and achieve it?
These yellow monks won’t ever know the trials of marriage, of building something vulnerable and risking everything against the chance it might crumble. These yellow monks opted out of the game of Jenga that is life—making one wrong pull and watching the entire thing unfurl in failure.
Wandering around the rocky paths cupping Ananda’s sparse, green painted wood buildings I realized that these monks and gurus’ battles, their accomplishments, are mostly internal—quiet triumphs the outside world would never see.
I, on the other hand, needed to scale so many different mountains. Meditation became one of them. Which is why I am so turned off to the idea of living in a spiritual colony of brotherly love, because there is nothing for me to attack there—you just, “be.”
As the bus lurched away from the little ashram, I knew I would forget the peace and the monks’ teachings quickly. The ashram didn’t save me. I had no spiritual awakening or revival. It was just…nice. I am aware that the only thing that will save me, is me, and there is not a monk’s lesson or quick “how to” guide for that.
I sometimes think about my six-year-old self. I remember drawing the gray mass so clearly. It’s still there. I feel it most when I pause and let myself breathe “Hong Sau” so the spinning stops, just for a second. Then I run.
Brianna Sacks is a second-year graduate student at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Journalism, and is the Editor-in-Chief for Annenberg's award-winning digital news site, Neon Tommy. Brianna will be starting at the Los Angeles Times as a business reporting fellow. She is an avid photographer, traveler, education reporter, writer, runner, yogi, chocolate chip cookie connoisseur, and a lover of all things Francais.