From Commune to Community

[Listen to Asha read this story]

(Told by Hassi)

A group of us lived together on a farm in Southern Illinois. We had all read Autobiography of a Yogi and aspired to be a spiritual community along the lines of Ananda. Our hearts were in the right place, but we were all new on the path. What we ended up with was kind of a combination ashram and hippie commune.

A couple in the group wanted to get married. They invited Swamiji to come and perform the ceremony. He had a lecture tour on the East Coast and kindly agreed to stop by on his way back to California. The bride wanted to have the wedding in the Catholic Church, so it was a joint ceremony, presided over by both Swamiji and the priest.

Most of us at the farm had never met Swamiji. We were thrilled that he was coming to visit. Looking back on it now, however, I am embarrassed to see that we had no real idea of who he was or how to show him proper respect.

To begin with, we let him pay all his own travel expenses. We arranged for him to speak at a local college, but they didn’t pay him anything. We didn’t even give him an honorarium for performing the wedding.

The man who picked him up at the airport arrived late, and then, on the hundred-mile ride back to the farm, drove like a maniac. Twice Swamiji had to cry out, “STOP!” in a loud and powerful voice to avert serious accidents. At least when it was time to return to the airport at the end of the visit, we arranged for Swamiji to fly.

We did give Swamiji the best room in the house, but we all lived pretty simply so it wasn’t much—a bedroom in the attic. One of the hippies hanging around the farm kept referring to him as “The Old Man.” Swamiji wasn’t old, just older than the rest of us.

At the wedding, one of the guests was a typical narrow-minded Midwesterner who didn’t want to have anything to do with this “swami from California.” When Swamiji greeted him, the man turned his face away and made no reply. For a moment Swamiji stood perfectly still, waiting to see if the man would reconsider. When it was clear he was not going to, a look of compassion came over Swamiji’s face. There was no judgment from Swamiji. I don’t think he even registered the snub as an insult. I had never seen anyone return sweetness for rudeness the way Swamiji did.

A reporter challenged him, “What is a spiritual teacher like you doing in a place like this?” Rustic is a kindly way to describe the way we lived.

Swamiji said simply, “These are my friends. I have come to visit them.”

I was so curious about Swamiji that I watched him carefully all weekend. I was impressed by the calm and dignified way he responded to every situation, no matter how odd or inappropriate. He never showed even a hint of impatience or displeasure.

He was so considerate right up to the last few minutes of his visit. When it was time for him to leave, we gathered outside to say good-bye. Everyone was there but my husband.

“No need to wait for him,” I said. “You have to get on your way.”

“I can’t leave without saying good-bye to him,” Swamiji replied. “I’ll wait until he comes.”

The community was split about our future and we appealed to Swamiji for help. “How can we make what we are doing better?” we asked him. Some felt things were fine as they were, others felt changes were needed to make us a more spiritual community.

“Why don’t you just come and live at Ananda?” Swamiji replied. This was not the answer we expected. “You could always come back here later,” he added. He made no effort to persuade us, just issued the invitation and let us make up our own minds.

Four of us did move to Ananda and found there the spiritual life we longed for. I see now what Swamiji must also have known—that we could never have created it on our own.

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