Spiritual Unplugging, Or What to Do When There is Wifi at the Ashram

I wanted them to confiscate my phone. “Just take it,” I inwardly begged.

As a journalist, I live and die by my phone, email and Twitter. I call sources, pursue leads, check the news, and schedule interviews. I don’t know how not to do this.

Yet here I was at the Ananda Ashram in rural India, expecting (and craving) swift condemnation by the monks and nuns at the sight of an iPhone. I was on a university-sponsored trip to the subcontinent with other journalists, all of us covering politics and religion. The reporting would come later, however. First came three days in an ashram, and I hoped for a 72-hour hiatus from the compulsion to connect.

But this ashram sold wifi. Monks rested their keys and cellphones on the table during meals. And during yoga on the first night, our yogi took pictures with her phone as we attempted the warrior pose.

Was I back in Los Angeles? Why wasn’t this different?

The staff—all devotees of the Ananda movement, a Hindu spiritual fellowship founded in northern California during the late 60s—only reinforced feelings of familiarity.

There was Jemal, the dreadlocked, Yale-educated monk who waxed philosophic about the “sublime” benefits of a celibate lifestyle. There was Shivani, a Jewish girl from Ohio who joined the Ananda community in 1969 and never left. And there was Victor, the recent Stanford graduate who resided in a cave at the ashram for the last eight months, and opined that American seekers were likely reincarnated Indians, helpfully bridging spiritual chasms between the two countries.

How convenient, I thought. But that was my general outlook on anything resembling spiritual commitment.

For most of my life, I wanted to be a Catholic priest. I’d studied Catholic theology in college, and upon graduating, I lived in community with the Society of Jesus. I’d come out as gay during college and dated men, but the work of a priest felt right. I wanted to make the priest’s total commitment to service, especially a service so rooted in wisdom, social justice, and peace. That this commitment entailed celibacy didn’t seem to matter—it was a sacrifice, after all. The vows only legitimated my deeper desire.

Until I had a chance to live it out. Something about the politics of living in community coupled with the nobility of the cause—the work of God! – put a sour taste in my mouth. Conflicts among the priests would bubble up during meals, in a manner that was both petty and erudite. One time, a priest accused another during lunch, “Did you abscond with the pepper shaker?” As an outsider, I was a sounding board for others, drawn into taking a side. And among the community, all the sexual repression didn’t let cooler heads prevail. After a year with the Jesuits, I bid my superiors goodbye and moved in with my boyfriend, a cupcake baker. No sour taste there.

I replaced the church with journalism—two arenas which share many traits. A journalist, like a priest, is often thrown into extraordinary situations—fires, shootings, political campaigns and interviews with high-ranking officials. The priest stands in for God. The journalist stands in for the community at-large. The latter just felt more honest.

Coming back to a spiritual community felt familiar, yes, by which I mean dishonest, delusional, disingenuous.

But I kept those reservations at bay. I meditated at dawn for 90 minutes. I heeded the silence imposed during breakfast. I dutifully attended lectures on meditation and ayurvedic healing. And during yoga, I stretched and breathed in step with the yogi.

The schedule gave me structure, and the structure let me silence all my religious qualms. “I’m here to get away,” I’d remind myself as I sat in morning meditation, relishing the slow pace, the lack of phone, and the birds, chirping in the canyon surrounding the ashram. After about an hour of silence, the spiritual director Surrendra read a passage aloud from the legendary 20th century yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda. “Yours is a glorious destiny. You are a child of the Infinite!” Surrendra said. “Why delay? Why waste time on countless detours? Go straight to Him.”

Delays and detours—I had known them, like alcohol, sex, and general restlessness. But going straight to him? Him? That’s where the road ended and delusion, I thought, began.

But long after morning meditation ended, I kept chewing on that one line, “Why delay?…Go straight to Him.” It percolated during later chants and yoga sessions. With its simple two-word question—“Why delay?”—the verse presumed to know so much. By the second day in the ashram, it hounded me.

What am I hiding? What am I avoiding? The questions clawed at my insides. And during the middle of meditation, as my self-interrogation boiled, my hand extended to the right. I reached for my phone, but I found nothing.

At first I laughed at my instinct, my muscle memory. The phone, with its glowing screen, gave me solace and control.

But I was tied to my cushion for another hour, and in this ashram for another day, so email would have to wait. I panicked. My heart raced. Would my editor be asking for me? Would a reply from that politician’s secretary sit unanswered in my inbox? Was my updated resumé sent to that recruiter?

Why waste time on countless detours? Go straight to Him.

At first I breathed to slow my heartbeat, then I breathed deeper. I thought of my mom and dad, probably watching TV at home in Delaware. I missed my boyfriend—who always has a hard time when I’m away on a trip, because he’s still grieving his brother’s murder.

I breathed more. I had focused on building a career in journalism since leaving the Jesuits. But had I been a good son? A kind brother? An available boyfriend?

It was the sort of self-evaluation that usually ends with me flagellating myself and shooting off a text or email (mostly) driven by guilt. But sending another perfunctory, apologetic note wouldn’t suffice now, if ever. I was tired of that detour.

As I walked back to my room—a small bungalow—the only thing I could do was think of my mom, sautéeing vegetables while watching the evening news; my dad, reading the newspaper and sipping coffee at the table; my boyfriend, practicing the piano. I could only see them in my mind’s eye and love them.

With my phone and laptop stowed in my bag, I stood 8,000 miles away and felt broken and inadequate—but so present and so loved.