Awareness in Ashram Life

Janice Codron

A few days ago I realized with a shock that I had been living unconsciously and for meals alone. Eight months in an ashram (as a Diploma Course student) and I was displaying the exact tendencies that I used to whilst working in my nine to five job at home. So I caught myself thinking, "OK, get through this morning's asana class then reward yourself with breakfast." "Oh boy, then it's meditation class but then lunch straight afterwards." "Then get through that lecture, then free time, then dinner, evening program, then over - phew!" "Breakfast tomorrow . . ." What a way to be! However, had someone asked me what I thought about the meditation classes or the lecture topics I would have replied without hesitation, "Oh great, really interesting, very inspiring," and that would be a truthful answer too. So where does this contradiction come in? I enjoyed my previous job as well: working in a bookstore, learning a lot, being exposed to so many different people and new fantastic authors . . . but my day often consisted of a similar pattern. "Ho hum, wake up, coffee, work, lunch break, work, come home, yoga practice (quite an effort sometimes), then dinner - thank goodness - I really look forward to that."

The patterns are the same in both cases yet here I am at Ganga Darshan Ashram - doing the course I have been working towards and dreaming about for two years. Why is it that I am displaying the same tendencies? The answer, for me, is a simple but wonderful re-realization (I say 're' because I often realize things, forget that I've realized them, and carry on much the same as before). The realization is that it really isn't about where you are and what you are doing, but rather who you are and how you are doing it. It is a wonderful realization because we don't need to be in an ashram or spiritual environment in order to feel a sense of fulfilment. In fact, it is not possible for any environment to grant sustaining fulfilment without the cooperation of one's mental and emotional spheres. I am not at all undermining the importance of something like an ashram environment however, it is just that my experience has led me to this understanding.

When I first arrived at the ashram I drank in every single detail: the gardens, the people, the lizards, the huge moths, the food, the kirtans, the classes, the desks, quirks in people's language, etc. This slowly faded and I noticed that when reading through my diary. The first few months are punctuated with 'wows', 'amazings' and 'incredibles'. It then gets progressively less adjective-based and then there are longer gaps between diary entries. Of course, the diary does show incredible growth in learning and understanding, but that element of newness is lost, and there is no reason why it should be. It is like a child; the newborn child with the big eyes and clutching fingers and squirming toes. Sucking grabbing and taking it all in because it's all new and very interesting. Then, as we know, we grow up and this sense of experiencing gets less and less. That's where the problem arises. I read recently that a central aspect of the witness (drashta) is one of a curious onlooker, a detached but interested observer - just like a newborn baby.

Where did I lose my witness? Why, all of a sudden is a morning asana class something to be 'gotten through' before I can eat a breakfast that I'm only physically present at because my mind is thinking of something else? It seems that I was typically doing what Krishna warns Arjuna about in the Gita, what several Upanishads have underlined, and what Patanjali and Buddha have mentioned. I was running after my senses, especially that of taste gratification. What an endless process! "A few more hours until lunch and then I must plan what to have for dinner." "Look at that dress she's wearing, that gives me an idea to make something like that for myself" etc., etc. We have all these mechanisms which allow us to receive such a wealth of information, but we become so bound to it. Patanjali has written about 'raga' and 'dwesha', attraction and repulsion - both sides of the same coin. We see something, want it, acquire it, get bored with it and it loses its appeal, so we move on to the next shiny object.

There comes a time when we feel so tired by it all and we just want to escape it, or to use a more positive word, transcend it all. So we do things like go to an ashram! It's not as if the buck stops here - that's for sure.

For eight months I can honestly say I have put my all into being here. I am training my awareness and trying always to be fully and totally in the present. The ashram environment has certainly helped this because I am in a place that constantly reminds me to be aware. A typical day here consists of 1½ hours of asana, pranayama, mudra and bandha class where every second sentence is laden with phrases like "be aware of your breath," "watch how you feel," "notice any sensations," and "take your focus to . . . ." Meditation class is, of course, much the same. In karma yoga it is constantly emphasized - "do your cutting, cleaning, sorting, lifting, etc. - with awareness." Our lectures are wonderful: talks about the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, spiritual life, the physiological effects of yogic practices - all with the underlying connective thread of awareness. So one would think that there is no way to forget ourselves and become complacent here - but it happens. Of course, there is nothing like a satsang with Swami Niranjan to whip you back into shape - but those are definitely hard to come by. The maintenance of this state therefore needs to come from within.

This is my re-realization. The mind is the deciding factor in everything and if you are not aware of it, it does things like pass up a unique opportunity (such as being here) for thoughts of future plans and acquisitions. Be these positive or negative thoughts - they are not pertinent and are of absolutely no use to the present moment. I almost let my last two months here pass me by! I'm so grateful that I recognized what was happening. This all may seem simple, but it is profound for that very reason. Getting through a day with a mind following the past or discerning its future causes suffering. By simply realizing that I was negating every aspect of my day except for my meals, as a hassle, I unleashed a scary discovery. Why do I do this? Am I afraid to live in the moment? It takes effort to live in the present. We are habituated to zooming in and out of past or future 'what ifs' and 'remember whens', and being aware takes effort.

Once I had accepted my position I decided on a simple course of action that I am really enjoying and that is working wonders. Rather than make the resolution to be aware every second (which I have experienced leads to extreme frustration when you have forgotten your resolve the next minute because you were too busy thinking about it), I have chosen to do a brief review at the end of each day. I do this review with a positive slant. I look at my day and see what was good about it, and it is amazing how many things I find. If I look back on my day today I find: asana class was great - we had a tutorial where a few class members took over the teaching for the morning and I noticed how differently we all see things. Everyone came up with a new and different slant on an asana that we have been practising regularly for months. Breakfast was good; someone gave me a flower; I laughed at one of the dogs in the garden; I had a cup of coffee; I ate a wonderful lunch; I read two very interesting chapters in my library book; we celebrated a class mate's birthday; in yoga nidra I was fully alert and had wonderful visualizations; we will be learning about the lives of various saints; I found a whole new cupboard in the library; I finally understand immunology; I can do one push up more than yesterday; I was inspired to write this article . . .

The list is endless in fact and I've found the resulting feeling left over after this practice carries though to the next day. So this positive awareness is coming to me naturally now without my having to be aware of being aware. My enthusiasm is stable in the sense that it is not bubbling over with excitement that may burn itself out. Rather it is enjoying from a witness standpoint - sitting back and enjoying the ride.

Two more months left of this wonderful place. If I think about the future I'm not worried about 'losing' something that I've 'gained' here. It is a realization that the mind is what you make it, it is where you take it, so it is up to us not to let the tables turn and let the mind be the leader. And it all boils down to awareness . . .