Settling in at the Ashram
I felt a deep sense of relief when our van turned onto the grounds of the Suddhananda Ashram, and I knew I had arrived safely at my destination – halfway around the world from my home in California.. In contrast to what I had just observed on our drive, from the airport the ashram seemed peaceful and almost luxurious..
I unlocked the wooden door with an old-fashioned key and entered a sparsely furnished room with two twin beds and a bathroom. The beds had thin leaden mattresses over a plywood base, one flat lifeless pillow per bed and thin blue and gray striped coverlets. The floor was dusty and dotted with insect carcasses. The bathroom had an open shower with two large crusty plastic buckets overturned on its plain unpolished tile floor, a small white porcelain sink with a mirror over it and smelly flush toilet. Toilet tissue could not be flushed and had to be placed in a paper bag and disposed of in the trash can outside my dwelling. I had been forewarned that there was no hot water. The room wasn’t dirty, neither was it exactly up to my standards of cleanliness..
Most health information I had received back home about visiting India was somewhat alarming to say the least. Based on cautionary warnings from the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA), I was concerned about -- among other things -- mosquitoes that could carry dengue fever, so I slathered on insect repellent and put on netting that goes over the head and face for protection while I unpacked. On the advice of the VNA, I had taken the precaution of spraying all my clothing with a particular type of insect repellent before I left home.. In retrospect, my initial fears and precautions seem amusing. I was so out of my element!
Within a day, however, I abandoned the mosquito netting altogether. There were no mosquitoes in my room and no way for them to get in so long as I took care not to leave the front door open. I did, however, continue to apply insect repellent when I went outdoors, for the open-air dining area was another matter, where water for washing dishes and standing buckets of leftover food scraps attracted lots of mosquitoes..
I unpacked my belongings, arranging my clothing on built-in shelves in an alcove outside the bathroom, spread my thin inflatable sleeping pad over the mattress on the bed nearest a small built-in table and made up the bed with the sheets I had brought along.. For the first time in about 30 hours I laid down for a rest. After a short while I realized it was fruitless.. I was much too excited, so I decided to explore my surroundings instead. But first I needed a shower. Somewhere along the line I had been informed that there was not hot water, so this was only the first of what would be the fastest showers on record for me.. It was, shall we say, an invigorating experience..
At this point, I was in the grips of fear. I was feeling alone and unsafe and questioning why I had undertaken this journey. The interesting thing about a pilgrimage like this is that you set out seeking to expand your spiritual awareness, but first you get to experience whatever is in your own consciousness that gets in the way.of that. In my case, it laid bare an underlying insecurity and mistrust. I was afraid of doing anything wrong, that if I made a mistake the consequences would be dire.. I've been on a spiritual path long enough to recognize that this was an opportunity to break through some old outworn conditioning, so I just took some time to sit with the feelings and they began to subside.
She took me down a palm-shrouded dirt road that led to a handsome but neglected Colonial style two-story stucco house with a flat red-tiled roof. We went up a flight of external stairs to the rooftop where I got my first extended glimpse of Arunachala, the holy mountain that annually attracts hundreds of thousands of spiritual pilgrims from around the world. This rooftop would become a daily refuge for me and others from our group, who would come to bask in the beautiful, clear energy of this remarkable mountain, the incarnation of Shiva (the Absolute).
I found a plastic chair and sat, drinking in the unbelievable peace and tranquility. This is what I had come for, this sense of being in the presence of the ineffable.. Every time on this journey I would find myself faltering, I would return to this rooftop and gaze in silence at the holy mountain and feel my burdens drop away. This would be only the first of numerous experiences that cannot be explained except to attribute them to the special powers of this extraordinary place where I would find myself for the next 3½ weeks.
Coming next: Getting My Sea Legs