What is it like to live in an ashram? Many books and articles are available on this topic but the following is my personal experience of ashram life.
Living in an ashram, is, for me, primarily about living in a place that each day, at some moment, I want to leave. If this is so, why did I stay in one for so long? This is not an easy question for me to answer, as it is an answer, to be honest with you, that I am still waiting to hear. However, in the time I lived at Satyanandashram Hellas, Greece, I do believe I found some partial answers. These answers are not absolute. It is only the eternal truths that are absolute. These answers are true only in that they are relative to the point in ashram life where I am now. In five minutes, tomorrow, next month, these answers could be different, because ashram life, like all ways of life, is governed by an enormous energy called CHANGE. Change is both a curse and a blessing. It is a curse because if you feel serene and comfortable, you will soon find yourself tossed upside down; and a blessing because if you are having a rotten day, you know that if you can just keep on in there it will change. Everything passes. Joy follows sorrow and sorrow follows joy, and they follow each other like the seasons. Each person is allotted the proportion that is most suited for their individual growth.
I have found that the partial answers to the question 'what is ashram life?' are all words that begin with H. Some of these words come from the Latin root HUMUS which means fertile soil, that soil we no longer notice because we are so used to it. It is soil that is dumb and dark, and capable, over time, of making good use of the rubbish we tip onto it. Humus is rich soil that transforms rubbish into compost, which gives nourishment to the tiny seeds we plant, and causes them to grow tall and eventually provide us with food.
Now the chief H words that come from humus are 'humble' and 'humility'. Unfortunately, both of these states of being I have not yet had the good fortune to experience. However, I have some knowledge of two other words from humus and they are 'humour' and 'human'. The other H words that describe ashram life are: HEAT, HELP, HOPE, HIDE, HELL, HABIT, HAPPINESS, HARD, HATRED, HEALTH, HOLE, HANG, HONEST and HEART.
I woke up one day in the ashram and realized that I was actually living in a washing machine. This is what the ashram is for me: a giant washing machine. People who come to the ashram for a long period of time are really bags of dirty, smelly clothes that need a good wash. They are not highly evolved spiritual beings, but bags of dirty laundry. They are placed in the washing machine to be cleaned, and when the washing machine stops they are taken out all soggy, wet, limp, vulnerable and shaken about, to be hung on the line to dry in the sun. And when all that is over they smell squeaky clean, they are soft and shiny and nice to touch, and someone comes along, sorts them out, folds them up and places them in their rightful place.
So what happens in the washing machine with all these H words? First of all you experience HEAT, because only HOT water will get rid of ingrained dirt and grease. Heat leads to HELL and the essence of hell is other people or the other clothes in the washing with you. As you spin through the machine all your good and bad HABITS are loosened up and you are forced into encounters with other people. These encounters with other people are not there to enable you to find your soul mate or your best friend. No! Other people are there to HELP you see the dirty marks or stains on yourself as well as the nice patches in between. Each person is in the machine to reflect back to you both your virtues and, above all, your blemishes, and this they do very efficiently.
The guru is the detergent, and this detergent is guaranteed to get the whites whiter than white, and the colours as radiant as a rainbow. In a washing machine no one can escape the detergent, and it gives everyone a bumpy ride at some stage, especially on those stains or HABITS that we have managed to HIDE, not only from others, but also from ourselves. On those difficult stains one is scrubbed HARD with soap and soaked in chemicals overnight. These stains are usually related in some way to HUBRIS, which is a colourful word that means excessive pride or arrogance.
The smell that has to come out of the dirty clothes can be any of the seven deadly sins, but in my experience the bad smell in me that has to come out is HATRED. Hatred is disguised by two non-H words called anger and resentment. My entire body of dirty washing often reeks of this toxic odour.
So those are just a few of the negative experiences. What, you may ask, are the positive ones and why place oneself in a washing machine to start with?
For me, what is the most positive experience of this giant washing machine is the water. The water is a non-H word. The water is grace. Water or grace is present with you in the washing machine every step of the way. Sometimes its temperature is too HOT or too cold, but it's always there, and so much so that most of the time you are unaware of its presence. And yet it is not really the detergent, it's not really the washing machine, it is the water or grace that really cleans you. The water is flowing through you all the time. It supports and caresses you, but it also wrestles with you. It wrestles with that part of you called the ego and it doesn't stop wrestling with the ego until the ego allows itself to dissolve in the water. And that is when HUMILITY begins to be experienced. I haven't got to that stage yet, but I've read about it.
As you go through the experience of the ashram washing machine, you start to understand the process, and this understanding comes through awareness. Awareness is the password to both survival and that other important H word: HAPPINESS. Awareness of the process removes fear and to the degree fear is removed, one begins to truly comprehend what the state of happiness really is. In the process of washing, the measure of awareness, or happiness, fluctuates, but it is experienced and it provides faith and inner peace. With peace one also experiences HOPE. Faith and hope are two of the three main virtues in the spiritual life. The third virtue and the greatest is that much over-used word which, in English, is spelt backwards: E V O L. And 'evol' is the first two syllables in another much used word these days, and that is EVOLUTION. It is that four letter word spelt backwards, E V O L, that is the power that makes the washing machine work, and that is the driving force behind the whole process.
The other positive qualities that you begin to experience in stages are HEALTH and HOLE. As the washing removes one dirty mark after another, you gradually begin to lose some of those peculiar aches, pains and traumas that you have experienced for many years either in your body or in your mind. Those unruly passions that tormented you begin to subside. Slowly, slowly, because it is a very slow washing machine, the anger blows away, the lust evaporates, the hatred melts, the resentment and jealousy burn themselves out. If you're like me you can't really write a left hemisphere, rational, analytical report, in point form, of what all those passions were about, but one day you wake up and they are no longer there. And what you find in their place is a HOLE, an empty hole.
This experience usually comes as one by one each article of washing is taken out and HUNG on the line in the sun. As you HANG there drying in the sun you realize that that turbulent pain of yours has become an empty HOLE. But not quite empty, because if you listen gently to that part of you that has become a HOLE you will HEAR something. And what you HEAR, as you dry in the sun, is a sound that is both new and yet old. It is a sound that is very vulnerable, sensitive, gentle and genuine. It is HONEST. That sound you begin to hear is the sound of your open HEART. It is very faint; it is very frail; but it is there. And the more dirty clothes you allow to be washed, the stronger and louder and more awesome that sound is: the sound of your open HEART. It is the memory of that faint sound that sustains me in the ashram.
My sound is hardly audible; only on rare moments have I heard a whispering murmur of my HEART. But when I get to that point where I decide this is it, I am leaving, I am going home, I've had enough, it is the brief flash of that sound that each day strangely enough provides me with HUMOUR to rise slightly above the whole crazy mish-mash and get a quick but real insight into what it is to actually be a HUMAN being. And that, for me, is what ashram life is ultimately all about and nothing else, just learning what it is to be HUMAN.