I have what you might call an open relationship with religion. Raised Catholic, I attended parochial school until tenth grade and mass every Sunday for as long as I lived under my parents' roof. But as a teenager, I started questioning it all. The more people I met who'd had different religions foisted upon them at birth, and the more I learned about those religions, the less plausible it seemed that there was one right answer. By my twenties, I'd left the rituals behind, though I held on to my faith in some type of higher force. Something that exists both outside and within me, and helps me along in life in ways big and small. Sure, it's vague. But it feels about as close to the truth as I can believe.
So when I showed up at Shoshoni Yoga Ashram in Rollinsville, Colorado for a four-day yoga and meditation retreat, I wasn’t looking for a religious experience. I'd been practicing meditation for a few months using an app called Headspace. The app keeps things strictly secular; meditation isn't a form of prayer, but a path to mindfulness and mental clarity. My plan for Shoshoni was simpler: clear my mind, stretch my muscles, hike a few miles and savor some of that good old Rocky Mountain majesty.
HOUSES OF THE HOLY
I arrived on a Thursday afternoon and had a few hours to tour the property before the evening programs began. There were three meditation temples, each one dedicated to a different Hindu deity and furnished with gilded statues of the gods. Inside every common room hung at least one gigantic painting of a robe-clad monk, the master who founded the ashram and guides its teachings. The staff consisted of fifteen or so twenty-somethings, serenely smiling guys and girls of every color who looked like they would be named Debbie and Mike and Nate, but introduced themselves as Devananda and Matrea and Nava.
Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, maybe it’s because I’m a Virgo, maybe it's simply the way of the world these days, but I live in a state of constant documentation. I can't experience something without simultaneously thinking about some clever way to describe it to people. My verdict on Shoshoni:
Beautiful, but a little heavy on the holy.
That evening's meditation took place in Shoshoni Temple, the largest and most ornate of the three. It was a silent meditation, led by a pretty young brunette whose Buddhist name escapes me. I sat cross-legged on my floor pillow, trying unsuccessfully to keep my eyes from darting around the room and my mind from wandering around everywhere else. But for every minute that I spent "resting in my breath," I wasted several more wondering what our vegan dinner would taste like, or whether the ladies I met in the lounge earlier were actually Hindu or just wearing bindis to be festive, or trying to remember the name of the actress in Lost who looked a little like our teacher.
Quieting my mind is going to take a little more practice.
Practice I would get. The daily schedule included three meditations and three yoga sessions, with free time for hikes around the 8,500-square-foot mountain property. By the end of day two, with limbered up muscles, two more silent meditations under my belt and a few hours spent with only the crunching leaves for company, my mind felt a little more settled as I headed for the final meditation of the day. This time it was a chanting meditation: three Sanskrit mantras repeated 108 times each over the course of an hour.
Sounds kinda churchy.
A young girl named Gita was passing out prayer books at the temple door. "The mantras for tonight honor Shiva the destroyer, calling on the god's divine intervention," she whispered, pressing a book into my hand. Then, I'm not sure if it was my expression or her regular spiel, but for whatever reason, she clasped her other hand around mine with a warm smile and added, "But if you don't believe in that sort of thing, you can think of it as calling upon your own highest potential. Calling forth the god within you."
When our teacher rang the bell to end the session, I was surprised at how quickly the sixty minutes had passed. I opened my eyes, feeling crisp and alert, like I'd just woken from a long and restful sleep. I walked back from the temple energized, listening to the dirt under my heals and repeating the final mantra in my head.
Om namah shivaya. Om namah shivaya.
The next day, a local college group came in for a half-day retreat. I didn't see them much since they followed their own schedule and attended separate classes just for their group. But right before dinner, I was on the front porch catching up on some writing when the whole group reconvened to wait for the bus and discuss their day. They sat a few tables over, but remained well within my eavesdropping zone.
"I had visions during meditation. It was like I was transported to this moment of very intense pain in my childhood. I was just...there. But it wasn't painful. It was like...cathartic."
"I've been through a lot of shit in my past relationships. So I have a lot of trouble trusting people. But this place makes me remember that are good people in the world."
Deep-seated fears. Crippling insecurities. Every shaky-voiced admission was followed by an emotional revelation. I felt compassion for these kids...but a little twinge of disappointment for myself.
I am not fucked up enough to have one of those breakthrough moments.
INTO THE FIRE
On my last night, everyone gathered in the Yajna, or Fire Temple, for a special ceremony honoring Ganesh, remover of obstacles. A large square room with windows across three walls, the Fire Temple felt sparse compared to the ornate Shoshoni Temple. A small altar occupied one corner, adorned with paintings and statues, but the focal point was the giant sunken firepit in the center.
Upon entering the temple, I received a small bowl of rice and made my way to one of the cushions encircling the pit. The fire was already crackling and all of the staff were there, along with seven or eight other guests staying for the weekend and eight yoga teachers in training. Our ceremony leader was Matrea. Tall and lean with shaggy brown hair and soft blue eyes, I might have pegged him for a surfer if he wasn't dressed in a white robe at the head of a fire pit. He gave a gentle smile around the room and began instructing us in a soft voice.
"Our mantra for tonight, om gam ganapataye swaha, calls on Ganesh to free us from our obstacles. The struggles of our past. The pain and negativity we may be living with today. With each repetition of the mantra, take a little bit of the rice and make a small circle over your heart." He took a pinch and demonstrated. "Think about these obstacles as you make the circle. Then, throw the rice into the flame." He threw. "It's like your karma being cleansed and renewed."
That seems way easier than confession.
"This is a powerful ceremony," he continued, speaking into the flames. "Some of you may get very emotional. Many people say they feel physically lighter afterwards."
Sure, but it depends on how much heavy shit you're dealing with.
STOP IT! I finally interrupted my running commentary.
This is my last night. I came all the way here, the least I can do is try to fully embrace the experience without the shackles of my inner skeptic. So what if I didn't have a dark and tragic childhood? I have fears and weaknesses and insecurities. I have pain, and hurt, and sadness and baggage just like everyone else. Just admit it. Admit that maybe, just maybe, I could use a little help from whoever or whatever is out there.
I didn't go so far as to identify my fears and insecurities in detail, even to myself. But as I touched the rice to my heart, I imagined them, a nebulous gray cloud, flowing out of my heart and into the rice. Then I threw. And threw. And threw.
om gam ganapataye swaha
om gam ganapataye swaha
om gam ganapataye swaha
After about twenty minutes, we all rose and proceeded to walk around the fire in a circle. Some members of the ashram took up instruments. The music started off slow, but picked up speed with every revolution. Gita, dressed in a beautiful red sari for the ritual, began handing out various props. A fan of peacock feathers. A yellow umbrella. What appeared to be a feather duster on a heavy metal handle. The recipient would dance with the item for a few turns, then pass it to someone else with a bow and a smile.
I felt preposterous at first, as did many of the other guests, judging by their sheepish smiles and hesitant shimmies. But something happened as the music sped up. The dancing grew freer. People spun out of the circle, losing themselves in a dance of their own, jumping and twirling and passing props with smiles that radiated joy. My own limbs loosened as I stopped thinking about my "moves" and just started to move, however the music told me to. When a girl in a flowing skirt handed me the peacock feather, I was thrilled, and incorporated it into my motions with a flourish. Raising my gaze from my own feet, I looked into the eyes of those around me, offering a smile and feeling a sincere, profound connection as they smiled back.
It reminded me, of all things, of being on the dance floor at an after hours nightclub when the song, the big hit song of the season, the one the crowd has been waiting for all night, finally comes on over the speakers. The whole place would erupt with energy, sending fists pumping and voices howling and bodies dancing with new vigor. By the time the song reached its crescendo, we were longer merely dancing, but communing. We became brethren. Bonded by the beat. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you’ve never been under the influence of a really great DJ (and maybe some other stuff).
But back to the temple. There I was, mid-step, twirling the feather duster, when out of nowhere, a flood of emotion welled up in me and I came thisclose to bursting into tears.
What the fuck?
I had no idea what was happening, but kept smiling and dancing and trying not to cry until it was time to sit back down for silent meditation.
"Now let's close our eyes," Matrea instructed. His gentle voice, barely above a whisper, tamed the energy drummed up by the music and dancing. "Breathe deeply into our hearts. And just allow ourselves to feel whatever sensations the ritual inspired. No need to fight, or analyze. Just...feel."
I spent the next fifteen minutes in blissful silence. Meditating. Resting in my breath. Feeling the tears stream down my face.