“How did a nice Jewish girl like me end up at an Ashram like this?” These were the words I thought to myself as I attempted to make it through a thirty minute meditation session without falling asleep and disturbing the other ashram goers with my snoring. It’s been a few years since I’ve traveled (I mean really traveled), hence, the silence of this blog. I recently took a trip, though not geographically, but certainly spiritually, and, once again, off the beaten path. Something drew me to the search for spirituality and through that search a whole world I never knew existed opened up to me. One day out of existential confusion, or perhaps just boredom, I decided to look for meditation retreats in the New York area. Surprisingly, I found an Ashram- which shall remain nameless due the events that would occur- through my good friend Google. I just typed in meditation plus retreat plus NY, and up she popped. Wow, a real, live Ashram right here in New York! I thought those only existed in India and other exotic places. Each weekend, the website explained, the Ashram hosted a different themed retreat, such as yoga, connecting with your inner child, and other self-help titles you would normally be embarrassed to be browsing through at the local bookstore. I was most drawn to the one hosting a guru named Babaganush or Babaji Shwami something or other, whose biography described him as a guru from India who spent several years meditating in a cave below the Himalayas. Pretty impressive, I thought. Plus I never met a real live guru before so I said, ‘what the hell!’ -Perhaps wrong choice of words? Nonetheless, I signed up for the weekend retreat in a semi-private room, forgoing the option to sleep outside in a tent. (I tried that once before…. didn’t go so well.) I had meant to do some preliminary research before my trip, perhaps reading up on this guru and gaining some idea of what I was about to get myself into, but alas, my busy city life took over and I never had the chance. So, I would go in, not only a spiritual virgin, but totally clueless.
I headed to the Ashram on a Friday afternoon with nothing more than a bag and an open mind. At the train station, I found myself shuffled into a cab by a young, white, female taxi driver- (now I knew I wasn’t in Manhattan anymore), along with one Ashram veteran named Rio, whom I quickly latched onto and made into my involuntary friend. In his hand, Rio held a fresh bouquet of roses, an offering for the guru. “Oh shit”, I said, “I didn’t know we were supposed to come bearing gifts!” Oh well, strike one against me. And I should probably stop cursing.
We finally arrived at the main house where we checked in and were given our allotted towel and sheet (singular) for the weekend. We were not given a key, as apparently criminals do not attend meditation retreats, and were told that both Rio and I would be staying in the ‘Panini House’, one of the residences just down the road. I immediately had a flash of an IHOP shaped structure with men making sandwiches all day and my stomach began to growl. Rio and I headed down the road, arriving at our destination, which, unfortunately, did not serve Panini’s, but did enforce a strict no-shoes policy. So I parked my flip flops at the door and began looking for my room as I noticed a young, somewhat disheveled and disgruntled looking boy of about 19 or 20 years old walking down the stairs. When I asked him if he knew where room 2A was, he just looked at me dumbfounded, finally grunting, “I dunno. I just got here!” Okay then. I wasn’t aware that there would be grumpy, obnoxious adolescents here at serenity central. As he walked past us, a sudden chill went through my body and I had a strange premonition of talking to someone at the end of the weekend saying, “I knew there was something off about him”. I quickly shook the feeling off and reminded myself to lock my door at night…. until I remembered there weren’t any locks.
After unpacking and settling in, Rio and I took a walk to the main hall where, there sat the man of the hour, Swami Babaganush. After a quick introduction to the guru, the new attendees were inducted into his circle by having a piece of gray ash-like material placed on our foreheads by Baba. Oy vey, is this sacrilegious, I wondered, as I had a sudden flash of my grandparents watching in horror. After the induction, we were led through our first meditation session of the weekend, which, we were told, would last one hour. What?? The longest I have ever meditated was 15 minutes and I think I fell asleep. Well I made it through about twenty minutes of sitting on a pillow, breathing through my nose, – until I, and my ass, couldn’t take it any longer. So we (my ass and I) tiptoed out of the hall and down towards the pool, where I happily meditated under the sun for several hours. Thankfully, it seemed, I wasn’t the only one who felt the need to escape, as I noticed one other woman there when I arrived; although, curiously, fully dressed. As I removed my clothes to reveal my leopard-print string bikini, I began to wonder if I was appropriately dressed for such a holy venue. The dirty looks from sister cover-up next to me didn’t help matters. But then I mumbled to myself, ‘fuck it, it’s a pool, what the hell is one supposed to wear?’ Oh shit, I cursed again. Strike two. Fuck!
Later that night, we attended round two of Baba’s meditation series followed by a Q & A. As I racked my brain trying to think of something more profound to ask than, “how does one prevent snoring during meditation?”, a distinct, young voice came over the microphone. As I, and the rest of the ashram goers, turned to the back of the room to see whose voice it was, I immediately recognized him as the disgruntled teen from earlier that day. He began, “Um. I hate myself, and I want to know, how can I stop hating myself. I have all of these negative thoughts all the time, and everything is so negative and I just want to stop being negative and stop hating myself”. The room became silent, as we waited inquisitively to hear what the guru would say. I can’t recall his exact response but it was something along the lines of ‘just keep meditating’. Throughout the rest of the night, I couldn’t stop thinking about the boy and about how harshly I had judged him, ignorantly mistaking his pain for hostility. Not to mention how incredibly unhelpful the so-called guru’s advice was. I will talk to him, I thought to myself, and I’ll let him know how brave it was for him to speak up and that he is not alone and that things will get better. I will also give him a hug. I will do this tomorrow.
When tomorrow came, my first thought was to find the boy and give him a hug. Well, my first thought was food, then the hug. So I grabbed a pair of flip flops and headed to the dining hall where my delicious vegetarian breakfast of scrambled tofu and carrots awaited me. As I was walking down the path towards the hall, I noticed a state trooper. This was unusual, I thought. Well, perhaps he is interested in meditating. After breakfast, I decided I will take the 11am yoga class, given by Elias, the charming Mexican yoga instructor (more on that in a later entry), but first, I would make a quick stop to my room to put on my yoga gear and some lip gloss. As I stood in my room changing, I heard voices coming from downstairs and what sounded like static from a walkie-talkie. When I peeped out of the door I noticed a sheriff and two deputy cops walking through the living room. “Hi! Is everything okay?” I greeted them, perhaps too cheerfully. “No, everything is not okay, otherwise we wouldn’t be here!” replied Sheriff Andy Taylor. “Are you staying here?” he asked me. “Um, yes”. The cops continued to question me and I began to wonder if I should ask for a lawyer. My first thought was that perhaps the ashram was violating some code by illegally charging people to stay there. I wasn’t sure how much I should say to the cops as I did not want the Ashram to get into any trouble. I soon realized this was more than a code violation when I heard the words “Rigor Mortis”.
“Do you have ID on you”, asked the female cop. Without thinking, I replied, “Yes, I’ll go get it”, and ran back to my room, trying to control my shaking legs. When I returned to show the cop my ID, she wrote down all of my information and proceeded to question me. How long had I been staying there? Was I in the house last night and did I hear anything? I noticed one of the cops eyeing me suspiciously and whispering to the other. I suddenly felt like I was on a CSI episode and found myself trying very hard not to act guilty, though I’m not sure what I was guilty of. Oh my goodness, am I a suspect?? In…. something? Although I was terrified and curious, I did not want to ask any questions as I recalled a recent CSI episode where one of the witnesses being questioned in a murder investigation was asking too many questions which tipped off the officers to investigate his as a suspect and sure enough, he turned out to be the murderer. So, I just played it cool and acted like I didn’t care. Until I remembered I had to sleep in the house for another night. At this point, I didn’t care if I looked guilty, I didn’t do anything and this wasn’t CSI so I marched over to the one of the officers, almost in tears and said, “excuse me sir, I have to stay here tonight and I’m getting scared so please tell me: Did something violent happen here?” The officer began to laugh, “No, maam, nothing violent happened,” he replied. “Someone just passed away” Oh, silly me, is that all??!
Then it immediately became clear as all of the pieces of the puzzle came together in my mind: The boy; the eerie feeling upon meeting him; his ominous question to the guru. My worst fears were soon confirmed as the coroner’s van pulled up to the residence. The boy was dead. Cause of death would not be confirmed until after an autopsy was completed. Some suspected a possible drug overdose. However, I suspected differently. As I left the scene, and walked back towards the dining hall, dazed and stunned, alone with this on my chest, all I could think was: If only I had hugged him.
Needless to say, the weekend turned out to be a spiritual awakening in more ways than I had anticipated. When bad things happen, I always try to rationalize them- to see the silver lining or the lesson to be learned. There certainly was a poignant lesson in this for me and, hopefully, for anyone reading this: when others are in pain, get over your own fears, don’t mind your own business, just reach out. You never know the difference it could make.