Living In An Ashram
A Western Man’s Journey To The Heart Of India.
I had a holiday window of about three weeks, and an ashram in Pune, India was clearly the likely choice for a young man who’d spent most of his life in a small town on the northeast corner of Italy. However, there was a method to my madness. Meditation, which I’d been practicing for over a year, impacted my life so positively that I felt I needed to embark on a full immersion adventure. I would head to Pune, being the city in the Maharashtra region where Osho, the Indian holy man, had lived.
I’d never visited India prior, nor been to the East, with its sacred lands known throughout the world as the bedrock of meditation, yoga, and other esoteric spiritual practices. Yet, here I stood at the precipice of what was sure to be the journey of a lifetime.
Before meditation, I’d been at odds with spiritual life, I’d harbored a growing animosity toward the God of my youth and religious institutions in general. Being born and raised in Italy, a country where the long arm of the Vatican is palpable, I believed spirituality and religion were synonimous, and I didn’t care much for religion. With my backpack filled with a few changes of light clothing, and my mind filled with skepticism and curiosity, I flew from Milan. The sixteen hour flight on Air India, landed me safely in Mumbai (once Bombay) with a brief stop in Brussels.
I considered myself a person versed enough in the ways of the world, and thought that when I landed in India I wouldn’t be all that surprised. Culture shock, I assumed, was for other, more cloistered people than myself. How wrong I was. As I disembarked and made my pay to the streets of Mumbai, I realized how my knowledge was mostly theoretical, acquired from television ads and books. I knew something about Indian culture- food, astetics, and the like. I had textbook ideas about the history of the country- the cast system, for example, but that was the extent of it.
I arrived in Mumbai at 1 am. I still remember the gigantic airport and the excitement. I was far away from Europe, in what felt like the other side of the world; a mysterious country all my own.
To go from Mumbai airport to Pune I followed the advice found on the Ashram website. I booked a “official luxury taxi” that costs roughly 50 euros for a journey of 4 to 5 hours, to avoid the scams I’d read about on the internet. While I was waiting for my backpack the adrenaline started to run through my veins and I felt like screaming: “Yeeha!”. This was the first time I’d ever had a taxi driver waiting for me at a airport before, so how he was supposed to find me. In my country taxis are really expensive, only business people and the upper class seam to use them. I felt important.
I looked around for a while and then found a young man holding a paper with my email address written on it. Unusual but effective. The kind man escorted me outside to where the car was parked. It was hot, and painfully humid. The driver insisted on carrying my luggage, and I have to say, I felt a little uncomfortable. I’m a person used to doing things for myself.
The “luxury cab” was a 1980s-ish Range Rover. The first reaction was disappointment, but I was so tired from the journey and the jetlag than I didn’t care much. My only was for a quick and comfortable trip. I thought, “at least I didn’t choose the cheap cab”.
A restful 5 four trip into the Indian darkness soon turned into anything but…
Driving on the highway to get out from Mumbai toward Pune, we crossed the periphery of the city. For the first time in my life, I saw real poverty. In fact, the highway goes through the Bidonville (slums), a city built out of carton boxes and tin. In the words of Warren Buffet, I’d realized I’d won “the ovarian lottery”. My heart sank and my throat closed tighter. I thought how I’d often complained, envying school mates from richer families, or for what I thought were injustices. How shortsighted I’d been.
Curious to know more about India, I started a conversation with my driver. He was cordial, about my age at the time, and had a wife and two kids. It was a pleasant conversation at first. Seated in the backseat, I began to relax, and quickly realized jet lag was kicking in. I was unbearably tired. Yet, through my stuper, I became aware of a potential danger- the driver seamed at least as tired as I was. He was yawning repeatedly. With a mix of panic and confusion, I realized I had to be awake at all costs to make sure he would stay awake, too. I had to keep this conversation going; our lives depended in it. I learned, the driver had started his work day at 5 am the previous day. By what was then about 3 am, he hadn’t slept in almost twenty-four hours.
To make matters worse, the highway was in disrepair. To me, it seamed more like a large country road than a highway. Pot holes littered the path. We also had to contend with continuous honking, speeding and passing on the left, sometimes on the right, and trucks moving from one lane to another without any apparent logic. I even witnessed a truck with no doors careerining down the roads while limbs bounced from one exit to another. Was I in Grand Theft Auto? To avoid the ultimate “game-over”, my mission was clear- keeping the driver awake. After an endless barrage of questions about his family, Pune, the ashram, and a ceaseless monologue about my own life- we arrived, unscathed.
It was nearly 5am when the taxi dropped me just in front of the Ashram. It is was closed, but there was an older gentleman, maybe sixty, keeping guard at the entrance. The Ashram and the hotel next door were still closed, so he offered to wait with me. He had the long gray beard I imagined a guru of myth might have, and a long purple robe covered his legs up to the ankle. I’d soon be wearing the same rob, as would everyone else beyond the entrance gates. The ashram uniform, as was later explained to me, would help everyone to feel equal in social status, as a way to ensure the holy atmosphere of the ashram.
The man had a mysterious aura about him, but what was most striking to me were his eyes. I had never ever seen eyes of such depth, power, and love simultaneously. He seamed to emit pure love around him. There was something special about him, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. Wasn’t he only a simple member of the ashram staff?
In the coming days, the mysterious guard became a fleeting memory from a very long night. I learned various meditation techniques, attended ashram meetings, talked to other pilgrims, and once in a while, went past the gates to explore Pune. I can’t speak for the whole of India because my experience of it was very limited and the country is varied and multifaceted. Never the less, outside the ashram, I didn’t experience the magical India of travelers tales. Outside the ashram doors, was in a place where I had to bargain in each at every shop to keep from paying a “tourist tax”. I was fresh meat, in a land where people are hungry.
Back inside, many meditations were held in what was affectionately called the “Buddha Hall”, a gigantic pyramid room who could accommodate over one hundred people. Meditating and practicing energy healing exercises with other 100 to 150 people was an exciting new experience for me. The presence of other people and the shape of the building enhanced the experience and I could literally feel my body vibrating like a tuning fork.
We also practiced in small groups. In the morning, I’d join a small Tai Chi and Qui Qong group. It was the first time I experienced how the use of fluid and continuous movements developed awareness and clarity of mind, while at the same time reshaping and healing the body and its injuries. I instantly fell in love with these modalities. India is where my love for the ancient Chinese disciplines began. And It was through Tai Chi that, years after, that I’d discover what would later become my passion and career- Yoga.
One day, I decided to attend a small group and challenge myself with a long silent sitting meditation. It was the room where Osho’s ashes where kept. It was a strange room covered in mirrors. It was used only for silent sitting meditation and meditation accompanied by live music. I found my spot, resolute to stay until the end, no matter what. After few minutes, our guide entered: I was so surprised! Entering was the guard I’d first met at the entrance of the commune my very first night. I realized then, he was one of the senior teachers of the Ashram. He was dressed up differently, as was the habit of teachers when leading a meditation, but his energy was the same. Again, he seamed to be beaming love from each and every pore of his body. Meditating in his presence was absolutely lovely. It felt like somebody taking care of you and wrapping you in an invisible hug.
DISAPPEARING INTO THE PAINTING
One day I decided to enroll in a full-immersion three day workshop entitled “Disappearing into the Painting”. I came to learn that the immersion would be led by an Italian, who after many years teaching painting in London, decided to move to Pune and live in the commune. He said that many of his old student in London were missing spontaneity when painting; too absorbed into intellectual and conceptual trips. He’d discovered that he preferred teaching people that had never painted before how painting could be a meditation practice. We were a group of ten people and each of us had a massive canvas (about 3m x 2m) to work on. It was so exciting! We would move from intuitive painting session of about 45 to 60 minutes to meditation exercises, team building techniques, group connection games, guided hypno-relaxation, and trance paint-dancing. Part of the workshop included time to read Osho’s book titled “Creativity: Unleashing Forces Within (Insights for a New Way of Living)”. The book and the workshop was designed to show how real creativity happens only in an alternate state of consciousness, assisted by meditation, which allows ideas to come up from the depth of our unconscious mind. It proved to me that anytime we are totally absorbed into something (like painting for example) the separation among the do-er and the activity disappear, and only the experience exists. At this moment, the individual and its environment are not separated anymore- they are One. It was incredibly liberating. Some members of the group cried and healed through the painting some of their own wounds. This immersion also marked the beginning of me appreciating the act of painting. I always thought I was bad at drawing, so after secondary school, I began to avoid it. This workshop showed me how it’s within everyone’s ability to express through color.
THIS IS GOODBYE
With my luggage already packed in my room, I decided to pass by the ashram bookshop to see if I could find something that would serve as a memory of this experience. I picked up a couple of books and walked over to the cashier. A wave of emotion flooded me. This was “the end”, I thought, “the very end”. I was happy to go back home, but at the same time I felt a weight on my stomach. Something amazing happened there at the ashram. In such a short amount of time, my heart and mind were forever changed. What was three weeks felt like a year. When I raised my eyes, I realized who stood before me- the sweet older teacher who sat with me my first night.
He greeted me kindly, asking if I was enjoying the ashram. I answered that I was going to leave in half an hour and I came to buy a souvenir. He smiled at me and said: “this is a gift for you” and gave me a couple of bookmark as a present. I was speechless. Suddenly my stomach was light, I was happy and I was truly grateful. His presence, his energy, and the atmosphere that he carried around him was pure love and it settled me. I was ready to go. I had the last experienced I needed. Love was finally and forever impressed upon my soul.
I had felt, with my own hands, a different way of being human. I still believe today that one of the main reason I was drawn to Pune was to meet this amazing being. To see the proof that spiritual life can open a door once locked and ignored, and that once opened, a different life may emerge, a life that is not only healthier but also deeper, and happier (most of the time).
In the end India was a personal challenge, which is now a cherished memory. It marked the beginning of a new life and way of seeing the world. I didn’t have the chance to visit more temples and historical site, which I’m sure I’d love. And, yet, there’s always next time.