The early ’70s was the emergence of many spiritual groups and Miami was a perfect place for many of them to set up centers. The Hari Krishna were there with their wonderfully spicey free meals and the overly sweet desserts.
There were the Essenes, who wore white clothes with long flowing hair. I liked their idealistic commitment to living a pure life. Since they only ate what was donated, their diet could be very odd. Once they were given ripe avocadoes, enough for weeks of eating. At other times they received a case of peanut butter and a case of Vienna sausages. They liked making up their own mantras. Our favorite was Baaaa Naaaaa Naaaaaaaa.
Arika was a group that stressed equality. The men and the woman all looked the same with similar hair lengths, similar clothes, and similar ways of speaking. We did not spend much time with them.
Then there was the Moonies, named after the founder, Reverend Sun Moon. It was a path of devotion and all devotees were expected to give their possessions to the Reverend. It was said he had warehouses full of stereos, toasters, vacuum cleaners, cars, jewelry, and everything else. It was the Moonies who lived in the old house our ashram moved into, complete with a bright red shag carpet. Not such a practical floor covering in humid Miami.
Saraswati Maha Shakti Sadan, a long name for a small ashram. Over the three years I lived there we had between 6 and 14 students living at the ashram. Many more students would visit for evening classes and weekend workshops. There were 80 guests present when Yogi Bhajan came to perform my marriage ceremony.
The ashram was in an old neighborhood quite close to the heart of the city near the Miami River. With many large old trees, it was like an oasis with some exceptions. Across the river was the famed Orange Bowl stadium, home of the Miami Hurricanes college football team. On game nites, the smell of cigarette smoke, beer, and the mass of people were detectable inside the ashram.
But this was nothing compared to the other exception. Roaches. I once went down to the kitchen late at night, turned on the light to observe hundreds of large prehistoric-looking roaches on every visible surface. I jumped in shock. I then got two cans of roach spray, returned again, flipping on the light, and began spraying with both hands, killing roaches gunfighter style. I cleaned up the mess and returned a few minutes later to check. When I turned on the lights, there were the same amount of roaches running around. I decided to let them be.
Ashram life was intense. Most days started at 3.30 in the morning. We began with the morning prayer, then an intense yoga set, followed by a long meditation, and finished with a religious service using the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. This involved reading a passage from the holy book and finishing with prayer. We would be done at about 7.00. Thankfully I was young then and could manage with only about 4 hours of sleep a night.
Ashram living is filled with challenges. By its nature, it is a harsh reflection of one’s weaknesses, neurosis, fears, struggles, and pain. These were the fuel for our desire to change. Eventually, another type of devotion was needed to get up every day and do this challenging spiritual practice. This came through experience. Over time we began to know of our strengths, courage, compassion, and capacity for service. It is a transition few manage.
The time for ashrams has been replaced with a need for community. Places where people come together with common values based on respect, inclusion, kindness, and trust. These communities can be structured, but most are less formal. This more relaxed approach is harder to keep things in focus. But the effort produces important experiences to keep improving what people can achieve in a conscious community.
The entire planet seems to be attempting to create a more loving human experience. Collectively we crave freedom, choice, safety, the basic human needs for a healthy existence. According to the latest research, we have made gains in all these areas. Yes, more is needed, but I am encouraged by the progress we have made. It seems the internet and ease of communication, is having a positive impact.
Find your community by being clear about what is important in your life. Write it down. Talk about your values and beliefs with friends. Then meet together and support each other. Over time, your group (a relaxed community) can plan an activity to benefit some part of the neighborhood, town, or an institution where you live. Do something that can have an impact. Then do it.
In those early days in the ashram, we had many inspiring slogans to help guide us. My favorite was, “Idiots think. Saints do!”
photo of me from time in ashram in Miami 1972-3