By Tamim Ansary
The summer after my junior year in college, I decided to hitch across Canada. I had virtually no money when I left the house and by the time I hitched back into the States at Niagara Falls, I was down to three pennies. Clearly, I would have to go to ground somewhere safe, sometime soon. I could have headed straight to Washington D.C. where my mother lived, but that felt like a copout–too safe. I had hit the road to experience the sacred, but so far, all I had done was almost starve, almost drown, almost go to jail, and almost get beat up. I had seen a few hallucinations, but those were due to lack of food and sleep: they didn’t approach the level of vision-quest.
I therefore settled on Option B. My oldest friend Ralph had converted to the religious teachings of an Indian guru named Kirpal Singh. According to Ralph, Kirpal taught his followers how to connect to a mystical stream of sound (inaudible to normal human ears) which would carry the devotee upward, as a breeze carries a feather, into a realm known as the astral plane. A group of Kirpal Singh’s followers had set up a spiritual retreat in New Hampshire, called the Sant Bani Ashram. Ralph was living there now, working on wafting himself up into the astral plane where, he told me, he would never again have to cope with pain or loss or disappointment.
I knew I would be welcome to join oldest-friend-Ralph at the ashram. There I would have a place to sleep and food to eat, tempting benefits for a guy with zero money. And at this point I do mean zero. My last three cents were gone. I don’t know where I spent them. I musta’ squandered them.
Hitching to the ashram from Niagara Falls took a day. Ralph exulted to see me. He introduced me to a slow-moving beatific white-haired old woman who presided over the place. Ralph told me it was she who had introduced him to Master (the preferred term for Kirpal Singh, as it turned out.) The old woman assured me I could stay at the ashram as long as I wanted.
The ashram featured peace and beauty. A one-time working farm, it still had a farm house and other old farm buildings , a lot of trees, and several atmospheric cows grazing in the distance. Everywhere one looked, one saw the greenery of a New England summer. Flies and bees buzzed in the tall grass. The devotees called themselves “satsangis”, which meant “worshipful meditators”. One of them, a man named Kent, had built a stained glass studio in a former chicken coop. He taught me how to use his equipment stretch lead, cut glass, and solder pieces together to make artifacts,.
I loved puttering around in that glass workshop, especially because life on the ashram was…how should I put it? Did I say peaceful? Yeah, it was peaceful. But that doesn’t quite capture it. Did I say spare? Yeah, there was a certain spare quality to the physical environment. The rooms had no furniture except mats on the floor. The built-in bookshelves had no books or magazines except for a few slim volumes of Master’s thoughts. No pictures hung on the cleanly whitewashed walls except for a number of framed portraits of Master, a benign looking elderly Indian gentleman with a thick, white beard.
In fact, this Kirpal Singh was a dead ringer for an elderly relative of my own, back in Afghanistan, a fellow named Mahmah who lived with us in Kabul and moved with us to Lashkargah and took care of us kids and told us fabulous stories and killed our beloved dog because he was jealous of the attention we gave it. Mahmah too looked benign and he too had a white beard and a turban, just like “Master.” My mother loved that old man dearly until she discovered that he exploited our trust in him to steal our family blind. I don’t mean to say that Kirpal Singh was a thief, a fake, and a downright criminal. I only wish to make the point that you can’t tell much from looks. Still, to the extent that looks mean anything, Kirpal Singh did look like a very kindly old man. It’s just that his kindly mug was the only image to be seen at Sant Bani Ashram. So yes, spare was another apt adjective for this place, and yet “spare” does not quite nail it either.
Slow, I guess. Did I mention slow? Not much happened at the Sant Bani Ashram. We were awoken each morning at the crack of dawn, we all enjoyed a spare breakfast of banana bread and tea, and then the Satsangis began their meditations which, from the outsider’s point of view, consisted of sitting for hours on end without moving, speaking, or doing anything. Uh…may I please be excused now? I did join the meditations the first morning and the second morning, but by the third morning, I could take no more.
So yes, slow does describe life at the Sant Bani Ashram but even “slow” doesn’t quite get to the essence of the experience. A better word would be…
Ah! Now I have it. Boring! That’s the word I’m looking for. Life at the Sant Bani Ashram was borrrrrrring. Okay, granted: boring to me because I was not on the bus to bliss, not in the process of leaving this world so that I could never again be hurt by love, hate, or indifference. But during those days at the ashram, in fact, I came to realize I would never board that bus because my program was exactly the opposite of Sant Bani Ashram’s, at least in that period. I wanted to feel the embrace of raw life itself. I wanted to experience love and hate, passion of any kind. I wanted to plunge into the thick of the world, to care and to do. I absolutely wanted to be hurt, so I would have the memory of pain for later. I wanted to be a guy who had seen much. I wanted, in short, to know some truth accessible only through suffering—because it seemed to me then that no insight worth having could possibly come easily. The monumental and essential truths couldn’t possibly be sitting by the side of the road or in some booth where all you’ve got to do is sign right here to get them. To me then nothing you could have by signing on the line and doing as told could be worth having except in a small way: a vacuum cleaner is clearly useful, you could put one on your credit card and then you’d have a vacuum cleaner, that was the sort of thing you could get the more-or-less easy way. But it seemed to me then and seems to me now that any spiritual harvest you could get in that way would be on a par with a vacuum cleaner.
To me, therefore, these Worshipful Meditators were busy earning vacuum cleaners and their enterprise didn’t interest me. On the third day, therefore, I decided to check out of the meditation session and go work quietly in the stained glass workshop while the others were doing their thing, which meant: most of the day.
But when I knocked off at noon on that day and went to join the Satsangis for lunch, Kent had an issue to raise. He felt so passionately about this issue that the veins in his temples bulged as he spoke. The issue had to do with the visitor.
He addressed me directly, while all the others watched in scandalized embarrassment. “Tamim,” he said, “I did NOT set up the glass workshop for people to work in during worshipful meditation time.”
Discomfort filled the room like expanding foam, plugging every crack and social crevice. Kent bulged and glowered at my silence. Ralph bristled disapproval of me. I searched for an adequate response but I was so angry I couldn’t speak. I wanted at that moment to punish Kent somehow, make him taste the same humiliation he had just forced on me. But in the end I bowed my head and said, “I’m sorry, Kent. It won’t happen again.”
I felt like a coward and a hypocrite for buckling that way. I felt I should have made some statement; I felt I should have stood up for my beliefs; but there were fifty of them and one of me, and so, contemptibly enough, I bowed my head humbly and held my tongue.
As for the glass workshop, I didn’t enter it again. Someone was driving south that weekend and had offered me a ride, so I had only a few more days to tolerate in the Place Where Time Had No Meaning. After dressing me down, Kent felt pretty good about himself, and forgave me completely, and treated me with gentle understanding because doing otherwise would not have been beatific as befitted a man bound for bliss.
Copyright 2016 Tamim Ansary. All Rights Reserved