Over the years these scenarios, or consciously designed opportunities to create new habits, in the face of familiar difficulties, would take a wide variety of formats and were designed very differently for each of the members of our community, depending on the person. Each of us had our own unique baggage, or “stuff” as it was commonly called, so each of us had very unique paths and scenarios that MD designed for us. In some cases there would be a group scenario with multiple components and these were very interesting and could be extremely challenging.
The reason these scenarios could be so challenging is that they had to be real in order to work. You can imagine that if one didn’t believe what they were experiencing was real it would just be a farce, or a game, and wouldn’t have the power to evoke real change in the person. In many ways these scenarios were just the same as what any of us undergo in our ordinary life, the same as the trials and frustrations that we encounter every day, but the main difference was that these were created with the specific purpose of changing some negative and unloving part of ourselves, and done in a controlled and consciously directed situation by MD, and could, in effect, speed up the rate of transformation in our lives many times over what we might achieve on our own just living out our ordinary lives.
This was a spiritual training course at least as much, if not more so than a spiritual community. We lived in community, and served one another, and learned to love one another, but all of this was context and environment for the primary goal of our own individual transformation and growth. But through this individual growth we were bound to transform the group as a whole and ultimately have a more joyful and healthy community as a result of our collective individual efforts.
The training course, or community had few overarching rules, however one thing, which MD often repeated to us, was that if one wanted to leave the training, they were of course always free to do so, but to do so with forethought, and to let others know ahead of time; to never run away in the heat of an inner struggle. He explained that this was to our benefit because leaving in a rational and well-thought out way was conducive to health and a balanced life; but to run away in the heat of an inner struggle, when we are losing to some negative aspect of ourselves, when we are overcome with anger or fear or some other inner disturbance, to leave in this way would be damaging to us. Just as victory over these elements within us engenders a feeling of freedom and joy, losing to these elements will usually lead to feelings of sorrow, resentment, unforgiveness or other things that cause us harm throughout our lives.
Over the four plus years that I took the course and lived in the community, I experienced a number of stages in the training. These stages weren’t overtly stated, nor did I pay them much attention at the time, but in retrospect I can see them. In the beginning, we all went through a sort of initiation or introduction to the work, which also included shedding of our old lives and becoming new and refreshed. I can’t speak for others who took the course, as it was certainly complex, and unique for everyone, but my sense is that this progression was generally true for the few that began and remained in the program for the duration. The initial year or so was a time of strengthening, and healing, and preparing for greater challenges that would come later; it was a time of almost constant joy, with laughing and adventure and excitement. Later stages maintained a great deal of this initial joy and humor and lightness but increasingly the scenarios and challenges became more serious and difficult as we delved into deeper layers of our inner lives and these tested us to, or perhaps beyond our limits at times; or at least we felt like they were beyond us at times, whether they actually were or not, is beyond me to say with certainty.
In order to focus fully on this course of training, we left our worldly lives behind. In addition to selling or giving our possessions away we also let go of other familiar aspects of our former lives in order to achieve freedom. On the mundane level we changed our clothing, our eating and our sleeping habits. On a more profound level, one of identity and sense of self, for some of us, we also changed our names, or MD gave us new ones. I had already experimented a little in college with using my middle name instead of my given name so when I was given a new name, I felt prepared and willing to accept something new, and it didn’t feel strange. I was given the name Jaikananda, which by my understanding means ‘victory to bliss’ in Sanskrit. I went by Jaia for short. Not all of us were given new names at first, some were given new names years later, and some were given many new names over the course of the training; as with most aspects of the program it was unique and different for each of us. One of the members of the community, who joined fairly early on, never had his name changed but kept his birth name throughout the entire time. My name was changed one more time to Francis about a year or two later, and eventually I had it legally changed to this, but for the beginning of this journey I went by the name Jaia.
Our diet was simple and delightful. There were variations to this over the years due to circumstances, but in general it was a vegan diet with very little processed sugars. Some scenarios would involve other types of food, as various members worked on habits around baked goods, or candy or things like that, but apart from these specific reasons, in general we ate very simply. For myself, and the others that I spent the most time with, we typically wouldn’t eat anything until lunchtime, or if we did, we had oranges or bananas. This also was a typical lunch, although sometimes we’d have avocado sandwiches. Dinner was nearly always a wonderful hot dish of primarily potatoes and carrots with various spices along with a green salad with shredded carrots and thinly sliced tomatoes. One would expect after a short time of a diet like this it would get boring but amazingly it never did; in fact, at least for me, it was always satisfying and I never got tired of it even though we ate this way for years. Beverages were equally simple as we almost exclusively drank water or rice milk. Again, there were exceptions to this due to other factors but this was the general rule of thumb.
White was the color of our clothing, though each of us had differing styles; my shirts had Nehru collars, while some of the other men had a more relaxed style of shirt. This changed in later years particularly due to work environments when individuals would be employed and required by jobs to wear other things, but in the beginning years we all wore white. At first it felt a little uncomfortable wearing only white, because we were setting ourselves obviously apart from everyone in the world, and I didn’t like drawing attention to myself, but very soon I enjoyed the white clothing because it gave me a feeling of peace and after a while I also loved the purity and the beauty of it. It occurred to me that my aversion to it wasn’t grounded in anything other than a fear of looking odd or doing something unusual. These certainly weren’t worthwhile reasons to be uncomfortable. Ultimately wearing white was joyful, simplified my choices and allowed me to focus on other more important things.
Our community was primarily nomadic and because of the fact that we never lived in one location for very long we didn’t sleep in beds. I had kept a very good sleeping bag from my former life in the world and used this for the entire time; I remember the first time sleeping in a bed, nearly five years later, how strange it felt and I didn’t like it. It took me several months to get used to the feeling of a mattress again and also the feeling of sleeping inside a house. Most of the time we slept under the stars, under a tarp if it rained, or in tents. We lived in places of incredible natural beauty in the mountains of northern California and Arizona, and in the deserts of New Mexico. Over the years I grew so accustomed to the feel of the night breeze, the sounds of the local animal life, and the beauty of the stars in the night sky twinkling over me as I drifted off to sleep, that it was a difficult transition to sleep inside a stuffy bedroom again when the time came to do so.
(to be continued)