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Travel Diary: Three Days at an Ashram

Dear Friends,

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Sivananada Yoga Ashram on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. I had been invited to be one of the presenters at an interfaith symposium, “Prayer as a Path to Bliss.” What a lovely opportunity this was – pretty blissful, I must say! (And many thanks to Elena Erber for making this shidduch (match) for me.)

The ashram is part of a worldwide network of Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers, founded by Swami Vishnudevenanda (1927-1993) and named for his guru, Swami Sivananda. Swami Vishnudevananda left India in the late 1950’s and became one of the influential teachers and promoters of Hindu philosophy and practice in the West. During the 1970’s and 80’s Swami Vishnudevanda came into the public eye as the “Flying Swami”, as he piloted his small plane over conflict zones all over the world, challenging all man-made borders and promoting peace. He would drop flowers and peace pamphlets instead of bombs. He flew a plane painted by Peter Max from Boston to Northern Ireland. He flew an ultra-light glider across the Berlin Wall. He even flew over the Suez Canal in 1971 during the height of tensions between Israel and Egypt.

The ashram in the Bahamas occupies land donated in 1967 by the family of a grateful devotee. The setting is magnificent. Paradise Island is a sliver of land just off the island of Nassau. The ashram is bounded by a bay on one side and the open Caribbean on the other, no more than a 2 minute walk apart. The site is crowded with beautiful plantings and trees and many humble buildings, shrines and open-air platforms. The atmosphere is quiet and calm, even subdued. Every day begins with morning satsang (services, one might say) at 6:00 am with silent meditation, followed by chanting, then a lecture. The day continues with yoga classes and study of Hindu scriptures. At 8:00 pm everyone gathers again for the evening satsang of meditation, chanting and a lecture. I would be one of the lecturers.

As I explored the site, in addition to the sounds of Sanskrit chants I was amazed to hear Hebrew conversations everywhere. The swamis who run the ashram are all Israelis! Many of the guests are too. There is a Sivananda center in Tel Aviv that has developed a very strong relationship with the center in the Bahamas. It was wonderfully incongruous for me to share meals with the ashram staff clad in their orange robes in the staff dining room while happily chatting away in Hebrew, asking them about their hometowns in Israel. The cuisine was a mixture of Indian and Middle Eastern: rice and curry and homemade burekas. These folks are secular Israelis who are spiritual seekers. They have found their path not in Judaism but in Hinduism. And they are very committed and serious practitioners. They have chosen a path of asceticism and renunciation to pursue their spiritual goals. They pray and meditate and study intensely. I thought of them as frum Hindus. (Frum is the Yiddish word for “very religious.”)

On the one hand, I felt some sadness that these Israeli Jews had been unable to find a spiritual home in the Jewish world. On the other hand, I also could see – especially for Israelis – the appeal of finding a path that cultivates a sense of detachment from the ups and downs of daily life, with the goal of inner peace. As I have described many times, life in Israel is fueled by adrenaline, a veritable emotional roller coaster, vibrantly alive but also driven by anxiety. On yet another hand, the boundaries between cultures and spiritual traditions are dissolving. Who knows, that might be a good thing. The elderly Sufi sheikh who presented before me was originally from Chicago – maybe even born Jewish (I didn’t ask, but my Jewish radar was beeping!) The marvelous devotional Sanskrit singer who followed was a Jewish woman from Massachusetts who might drive over to our tent this year for High Holidays. And there I was, teaching about Jewish prayer to my Israeli kin. In the words of a Pete Seeger song, “I think that this whole world soon gonna be getting’ mixed up!” (You can watch Pete sing this great song of his by clicking here.)

As you may know, I am not an ascetic type. I need stimulation and thrive on joyous expression. I could tell I would need a break from the calmness of the ashram, which sometimes edged into solemnity. Well, to add to our mixed up world, and in stunning contrast to the ashram, a very short walk down the beach is the Atlantis resort, a behemoth of a hotel, opulent and jaw dropping in its over-the-top architecture. Walk in an underwater glass tunnel and look at sharks? Check. Pitch down a water slide from the top of a faux Mayan Temple? Check. Starbucks? Check. I decided to check my judgmentalism at the door and be a happy tourist. I bought a pass to the water park. What a happy combination for this camper: yoga and calm in the morning, water slides in the afternoon. And in the Starbucks I met the lovely Indian swami from the Himalayas who for the month had been teaching Hindu scriptures at the ashram – asceticism has its limits, I suppose!

Back at the ashram, I listened carefully to the Hindu spiritual teachings that were being offered. I am of the conviction that all spiritual paths are indeed climbing the same sacred mountain, albeit by different routes. I hold the opinion that we humans are wired for the experience of cosmic oneness, that that experience cuts across all cultures, that some of us are especially compelled to seek out this experience, and that each culture develops its own vocabulary and techniques for achieving this awareness. The goal is the essentially the same, but I was very struck by the differences between the Jewish path as I understand it, and the Hindu path as I was trying to grasp it (and I may not have grasped it well.) One of the key phrases repeated over and over during my stay was “non-attachment.” As I heard it, our attachments to earthly pleasures and achievements are in fact distractions from remaining aware of God at all times, and to devoting ourselves to the service of God. Hence a monastic path makes sense. On this path, we renounce the ordinary striving of life and remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle so that we can discipline ourselves and continually loosen ourselves from the web of attachments that block our experience of the pure light of God.

I can analogize this language to Jewish teachings: when Judaism commands us not to worship false gods, it is a call to disentangle ourselves from the worship of the material and from worshipping the works of our hands as some be-all and end-all of life. But the Jewish way does not want us to detach from this world, not really. In fact, I think I can generalize to say that Judaism wants us to find God precisely through our attachments.

This insight came to me as I offered the morning teaching at the satsang. It was shacharit time (time for the morning prayers) so I had put on my tallit and my tefillin. My topic was “An Introduction to Jewish Prayer”, so it seemed useful on many levels for me to demonstrate the Jewish prayer paraphernalia and describe their purpose as spiritual tools to make us aware of God’s presence. I described my tefillin, how they were a gift from my Bar Mitzvah, and all the memories that were bound in them, and the richness that added to my wearing them. I described my tallit, how it had belonged to my grandfather, and how I remembered my grandfather and his love and wisdom every time I wrapped myself in the shawl. I realized that I was deeply attached to these objects, and that attachment provides me with a sense of place in my life, in my history, and in the chain of generations. This is a rich, sustaining, layered attachment to life through which I experience the shimmering light of the Divine. Yes, the tallit will one day wear out, the tefillin might God forbid get lost or destroyed. I’ll be sad, and I will move on. I know that the object itself is not important, but rather the meaning it holds. But the Jewish way might be described as finding God in and through the world. The world is not a distraction from God but the actual doorway to God’s presence. Perhaps that is why there has never been a Jewish monastic practice.

I suppose this makes Judaism a rather messy path – finding God right here, in our family and our community and our work. Looking for the Divine sparks hidden in all the nooks and crannies of our lives. Messy, but I like it.

I deeply appreciate the opportunity for these interfaith explorations. We each have fabulous trail maps to share with one another, and it is wonderfully mind-expanding to explore each other’s paths, crisscrossing along the way. I genuinely do not think that one path is superior to the other. At the same time, I find that I am deeply attached to my Jewish path up the Holy Mountain. I walk it with wonder and gratitude, happy to offer travel tips that I have learned along the way, happy to lend a hand to those who stumble, happy to get my own guidance from others, happy just to be on the journey. I’m glad my journey took me to the Sivananda Ashram, and I wish them well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler