I first heard of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda in my late thirties. She migrated between several ashrams, one in India, one in New York and one in Oakland, California. An acquaintance told me about the ashram in Oakland, bordering Berkeley. In search of a spirituality that my Catholic upbringing didn’t offer, one spring day I visited the ashram.
When I think back on this time, I remember myself as a questing young woman. I was married and with children. I was in search of deeper meaning, spiritual solace and a community. There were things that stood out about the ashram. There was the indoor garden, like an arboretum, with fragrant Jasmine climbing trellises. The Chanting Cave was a sequestered room that was pitch dark. Being in a totally dark space, sensory stimulation was lessened. The constant was the recitation of the mantra “Om Namah Shivaya” as chanted by Gurumayi. This mantra played repeatedly over 24-hours. Anyone could go there at any time and find comfort and serenity. It felt like a womb to me, protected and cushioned.
Seva, meaning selfless service, was a participation in making meals and cleaning up afterwards. It could mean cleaning the bathrooms or whatever else is on the list to keep an ashram running efficiently. The meals were vegetarian and they were nutritious and delicious.
Although it was communal, it felt like a private experience to me–quiet, respectful, and non-intrusive–as we walked through the halls or prayed or chanted together.
I did spend one overnight there. I had a little room to myself until a woman walked in late in the evening to share the space. She emphasized that her given name was Barbara but she had taken a spiritual name which I can’t remember. She methodically took her stones–they traveled everywhere with her–from a pouch and placed them on the little shelf behind her bed. They were her companions and support. She told me that she snored. All I needed to do if it got loud was to call her by her given name and she would stop snoring.
That evening, settling down for a night’s rest, the sounds rose up from the street below. There was a bus stop and voices congregated and they seemed to be aggressive. Finally, they moved on. Barbara also settled in for the night. Within minutes, she was snoring. Not a soft, easy snore…but a loud and grating one that couldn’t be ignored! After several minutes, I called her name softly. And then again, softly. “Barbara, you’re snoring.” She woke and thanked me, turned on her side and continued to snore loudly throughout the night. In the morning, she thanked me for being “so gentle” in waking her. She got up refreshed and went downstairs for the morning service. I declined and stayed behind in the little twin bed for a few hours more.
The thing about the ashram was that it felt like a safe place to be. Your personal needs were met–food and shelter, if I wanted it…but the spiritual talks, the music, the atmosphere was permeated with a deep feeling of peace.
One very auspicious day, Gurumayi was coming to visit this ashram. When a holy person comes to visit, it is called darshan. I parked the car blocks away and walked to the ashram. The line to get into the hall wrapped around the building and down several blocks. I couldn’t even count the number of people in line and wondered if we would all fit inside the hall. Food was being served. I remember standing in another line to get a tray of delicious food. I walked into the hall. On the floor, there were little mats to kneel or sit upon. I sat with my tray of food. I looked around the room at this sea of humanity. A sudden insight of our separate unity washed over me. We were all unique individuals and here we were, bound together by a common purpose, need, desire or just a shared meal. Whatever it was, it felt profound–that we could sit there together, peacefully, respectfully and connected in a deep way as we anticipated the blessing of Gurumayi.
What did this separate unity mean to me? We live in isolation in so many ways. There are those of us who live alone and perhaps far from family. We think that no one else feels or thinks as we do. We protect our isolation because we don’t want to be too vulnerable. Yet, that day, sitting among strangers, I felt that deep thread of connection to all of humanity, to all of life. Each one of us is unique and we bring our gifts to the life we are living. And yet, it is so supportive to realize that I am united with others as I walk this pilgrim’s path.