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This retreat in the Indian Himalayas is home to the author. Photo: Courtesy of Enos Denham

Fetch Wood, Carry Water


It is New Year’s day, just before dawn. We wind our way down the mountain trail, sixty of us, as we do every morning. Somewhere across the valley, a barking deer—a small animal, not even waist high—gives its distinctive call, a loud, raspy cough. Many of us cling to the crude metal handrails. The steep, rocky path is icy from the previous day’s snow melt, and any slip would result in a bone-crunching tumble. For added grip, some of us wear Yaktrax or homemade cleats consisting of metal spikes tied to our sneakers with old shoelaces. Many have on North Face down jackets and L.L.Bean boots. Nearly all wear the traditional white dhoti kurta (five yards of cotton cloth snugly wrapped around the waist then hanging loosely to the ankle, with a knee-length tunic over that).

It is a few hundred yards downhill from our simple brick-and-painted-mortar rooms to the meditation hall, which is on a larger and flatter piece of terraced land among the precipitous slopes. Facing east, sitting comfortably cross-legged or in lotus pose on small carpets, cushions, or cotton mats, most will stay there until lunch, around one o’clock. It is totally silent.

Having recently returned to the Himalayas after nearly four years away, I had forgotten just how much the Silence (with a capital S because of its profound quality) tangibly reverberates in the air, especially early mornings and late afternoons when all are meditating. It’s such a contrast to the highly focused activity of caring for my aging parents in their final years at their home in Michigan.

In the States, people often asked me what life is like in a Himalayan ashram, and I was perplexed about how to describe it properly. I would tell people how, through our Indian host organization, we arranged for a girls’school to be built for the area. Or how we established a mandir, or Vedic temple, that became the social and spiritual center for a poor, remote village. Or how we maintained a mountain shrine to protect villagers as they forage for wood and grass (there are bear, jackals, an occasional leopard, and the ever-present danger of falling off the mountainside). And how we boost the local economy by hiring workers for jobs like maintenance, gardening, and cooking (over time we have taught cooks how to make excellent veggie lasagna and paneer pizza, among other Western-style dishes).

I would mention the hundreds of rosebushes and other flowers we’ve planted, along with apricot and apple trees—how, in the summer, when the roses are in full bloom, the air is intoxicating with their scent. I would describe the extensive vegetable garden that provides us with fresh, organic veggies, a boon during the monsoon, when landslides sometimes block the only road to the market. And I would point out that, even with no phone, no TV, no Internet, and only intermittent electricity, we manage to communicate with the outside world (the porter who goes to the market for our weekly supplies carries a pen drive with which to send and receive emails from the local Internet café). All this in a narrow mountain valley at seven thousand feet, with the nearby peaks looming twelve thousand feet above us and, just over their crests, the giant twenty-thousand-plus-foot ranges starting.

This is what I told people when they asked. The accomplishments that signify progress. But the real accomplishment of an ashram is the quality of Silence that is produced both for the individual and for the environment. We spend hours every day meditating and experiencing pure Silence. And it is in Silence that we carry out whatever little activity we engage in. What matters here is interaction with the Self— the infinite Consciousness that lies within everyone and is accessible with practice and meditation— rather than with one’s community. And because of this, oddly enough, one feels a profound sense of harmony and interconnectedness with one’s community. We meditate in order to radiate Silence and Joy in all we do.

There is a common ashram saying, “Before Enlightenment fetch wood, carry water. After Enlightenment fetch wood, carry water.” Yes, the routines of life will always be the same in any state of consciousness. But this maxim is missing an important element. It should say, “After Enlightenment fetch wood, carry water… live Bliss.”

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