Hidden away in the back of the cedar walk-in closet, I wrapped a set of red and black sushi dishes in a March edition of the Vero Beach Press Journal. The scent of cedar had faded long ago. Newspaper rustled and crinkled as I folded it around each piece of ceramic. The dishes, a birthday gift from my brother. He would be left to clean up the mess after my departure.
What if someone walked by and heard me in here crumpling paper? I sat cross-legged in the back of the closet, prime real estate I had acquired along with my ashram status as CEO and advisor to the guru. I was second in command next to my mother, who had been living with the guru for the last thirty years.
I shared my ashram home in a small town south of Cocoa Beach, Florida, with fifteen other people who also lived in the eastern-based spiritual community. On the eighty-acre property, there were four other private houses similar to mine, all of them warrens of converted garages, laundry rooms, and closets. We shared the common areas, kitchens, living rooms and, if lucky, a porch. Our private bedrooms were off limits to others, for the most part, unless we were asked to move out for a visiting guest. A number of members had spread from the ashram into the neighborhood of cracker box GDC homes across the street. We also occupied the apartment complex that bordered the north side of the ashram that one of the members had purchased a few years ago. We were everywhere.
The scent of lavender oil diffusing in my bedroom seeped beneath the gap under the hall door. The scent merged with the acrid sulfur odor of our water from the nearby bathroom. Filling boxes with items I had no clue I’d ever use again did not free me from the anxiety and heartache around my clandestine departure. Packing offered me a thin strand of control over my unraveling life. For twenty years, I served my guru and ashram with love and intensity. Now I muttered, then swore. At this point, I could barely stand to listen to another teaching.
I had lived a real-life spiritual fairy tale. Part Cinderella, I worked hard serving the guru, herding my tribe and directing the ashram. Part Merida, I was a warrior pursuing my spiritual liberation, battling my ego and defending the realm; and like Rapunzel, I was trapped not in an isolated tower but in a bubble of belief. In the end, I’d become Sleeping Beauty. Who knew I’d find myself deeply asleep after all the years of spiritual practice trying to awaken from a worldly dream? When I finally woke up, I was rescued by a man, who was in every sense my prince.
“Won’t you miss the excitement of your life? Won’t you miss the work?” Sampuran, the prince in question, asked me. He studied me from his pretzel-like Lotus Pose, his gray mane of hair falling past his broad swimmer shoulders.
“What about all the people you’ve met? Won’t you miss meeting all those spiritual masters, famous yogis, authors, and celebrities who visit the ashram?”
I finished taping shut a few boxes of family photo albums. My two grown boys would want them at some point. One son, off in California, was preparing for the birth of his first child, and the other was teaching English in Japan. My decision to go was still a secret. At forty-seven years old, hiding in the closet, I wept, my palms stained with ink. I tugged on a piece of what little hair was left on my shorn head. I’d kept my hair short after becoming a swami. And, oh, how I’d come to hate the color orange.
How would I tell her I was leaving? They say once you find your guru, you are bound for life or, in our case, lifetimes. Would I be able to leave and still remain part of the community, or would I be cast out as pariah, shunned, cut off and disavowed?
I’d written numerous letters since deciding to leave, trying to decide how I would explain why I was going.
Dear Mother Guru,
I love you. Thank you for everything and all that you are to me. You have guided me on my life’s journey. You have given me innumerable gifts. You’ve helped me to become who I am. I am forever grateful. I am sorry but it’s time for me to leave the ashram.
I love you,
The lined legal pads littered with inadequate reasons ended up a jumble of paragraphs, like the ramblings of a deluded stoner. Crumpled balls of yellow paper filled the trash basket next to my bed. Other attempts torn into tiny fragments lay scattered on the hardwood floor. Best not leave any evidence.
Surrendering your life to a guru is one of the greatest leaps of faith you can take. It requires a depth of trust. The guru is meant to be the dispeller of our darkness. The guru-student relationship is a bond, a tightly woven union of profound love, devotion, and trust. It’s a marriage of sorts. At times, the love I felt for my guru cracked my heart open so wide I could barely breathe. This love I had for her and her unapologetic, crazy wisdom had filled me, sustained me, and protected me since I was a young girl. I understood that leaving the guru was the worst thing I, or any of us, could do.
“You’ll come back up the ass of cockroach,” she’d remind us. If I left and let go of the feet of the guru, would I end up stuck on the karmic spinning wheel for lifetimes? If I stayed, would I wither and die? I drew in a long powerful breath. For as long as I’d been with the guru, the idea of leaving her or the teaching meant I was throwing my life away and with it any possibility of enlightenment. Was I destined to live the rest of my life a tortured soul?
I closed my eyes. I followed my breath in and up. The raspy sound of the inhalation rattled in my ears like a wheezing asthmatic. I prayed. I begged for an end to my suffering, internal conflict, and terror. It seemed only fair that one of the saints, gods, or goddesses I had prayed to with every drop of depth in my being and every ounce of belief I’d come to know, should damn well answer me now. I searched the quiet. I drew in another breath, the coolness tickling my nostrils. My breath, warm and moist, as I exhaled. My chest expanded with each inhale and then left me, deflated. I’d meditated, practiced yoga, lived a life of selfless service, and did all the things I was told to in order to be one with god. But in this moment, there was no message from beyond nor guidance being received: It was just me and my breath.
Over the Christmas holidays, I mapped out a plan: I’d leave in July as soon as the guru left for her annual summer retreat. I had unknowingly taken the first step and replaced myself as CEO a month before. Somehow that decision helped me realize I could leave. Now I would work on finding replacements for the seven other roles I played. I’d leave everything in order like a neatly wrapped present.
I told my friend Lorraine about my plan to leave. “You may not make it until then,” she said over the phone. “Once you push the button, once you know something isn’t working, it’s hard to stick around.”
She was right.
I shared my plans with my brother and my mother. “I don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense,” my brother kept repeating. My mother sobbed, “Oh god, oh no, what about the guru? How will she get through this?” My mother refused to give the guru my letter. “I can’t give her this letter, I need tell her to her in person,” she said. Once the guru knew my plans, my life as I knew it was irrevocably changed.
For years, I yearned to know the secrets of the universe. I wanted what the sages and yogis promised. I wanted what the guru promised. I wanted liberation. I wanted god. I worked hard to attain these things. No one told me waking up would be one of the hardest things I would experience. No one told me to prepare for the dark night of the soul. No told me it would hurt so badly.
The day I left, I carried one last box to my black Honda Civic. The ashram grounds were eerily quiet. It was 89 degrees at ten in the morning. Humidity pressed on my chest. The moving truck arrived at noon. I rubbed the sweat from my hands onto my khaki capris. A hefty guy named Ramon, whom I’d never met, and three strapping young Hispanic guys hurried as instructed. They loaded my thirty boxes of books, a few random pieces of furniture, and my clothing in under an hour.
“You must be smart,” Ramon commented with three boxes of books bulging his biceps.
“Not really.” I offered a weak smile. None of the books on my shelf told me how to do what I was I was doing. Nope, the books being carted down only explained how to get here, how to be a better yogi, how to find enlightenment. None of my books explained how to leave. Ramon slammed shut the back of the U-Haul and departed for the two hour drive to Orlando, where my things would be dropped off and stored in the garage of the lake house where I’d eventually live.
I rearranged the Office Depot boxes in the backseat of my car so I could see out the back window. Some of the boxes held a few leftover items from my life at the ashram, last minute things I decided to take. One box contained Hindu statues of gods and goddesses, which I onced dusted, oiled and prayed to. I would eventually give them away.
What was left behind of my ashram existence now lay crumpled in a towering pile of orange sanyasin gowns in the VIP guest room next to the closet where I had hidden earlier.
Before I departed, I hugged two of my close housemates who were now privy to my depature. The news would spread. I opened the driver door. It whined a loud oil-less whine. My hands shook as I clenched the steering wheel. I stepped on the clutch and shifted into reverse. I waved one last time and put the car into first and eased down the long sandy driveway that ambled alongside the adjacent cow pasture. I took care to avoid the familiar dips as I rounded the bend toward the main road. I’d gotten away mostly undetected, or so I thought.
I assumed leaving the ashram might be different for me because of my close relationship with the guru. She called me her daughter, told me how special I was, kept me close. I had run the ashram as if it were my own. The community was part of my heart. The guru, the satsang, and the teachings coursed through my veins. I grew up there. What happened?
I adjusted the rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of myself, gray circles puckering beneath my glassy brown eyes. My skin, which was usually sun-kissed and freckled by this time of year, was the color of yellowed spinach forgotten in the back of the fridge. I looked away and turned up the air conditioning. I passed the Palm Bay rest station. The ashram was already seventeen miles behind me. Palm trees, grazing cattle, and vast tracts of open land dotted with scrub oak and Saw Palmettos stretched out on both sides of the interstate.
I’ve heard it said that during the dying process, our lives flash before us. I imagined my beautiful guru gazing at me, cross-legged on her love seat, her back resting upon a large black sheepskin, her mare-like ebony hair cascading around her face and down her back, the trademark red dot swirled on her brow between piercing dark brown eyes. Her smile materialized in my mind’s eye along with her conspiratorial glance that I knew so well. Her infectious love swirled within me. How often was it that she and I would think the same thought in the same moment? Would I miss that depth of connection and knowledge I shared with her? Would I miss the people I came to love? Would I miss the drama of this life? I sucked my breath in. The breath eased me; it was the only thing that did these days.
In a way, I was dying. My thoughts flashed to my last conversation with the guru after I told her my decision to leave. Her darkened eyes had glared at me. “I gave you everything. I trusted you,” she had said, her words burning me like a hot iron pulled from the coals, branding the center of my being. Her face twisted. Her skin pulled and paled. “You. You have betrayed me worse than anyone ever in all my years of teaching,” she hissed, her crooked finger pointed at me. “You will live a tortured life until the day you die.”
I wondered if my flesh would be forever seared by the tone of her voice. A convoy of tractor-trailers rumbled by. Pressing my palm to my chest, I tried to rub away the weight that had moved in like an unwanted guest who never stopped talking. An article recently claimed someone could actually die from a broken heart, and in that moment, I wondered whether that was true.
While I drove, I made a few calls to tell my co-workers about my departure. “I need to take a sabbatical,” I heard myself saying. I spun my own demise with each story I told. Too many years of public relations, marketing, and sales, I suppose. For my close friends, I walked a little closer to the truth. “It is time for me to go,” I told them. “I need a break. I’m unhappy. I need to get well.”
I plugged my cell phone into the cigarette lighter. The reverberation of the tires trembled beneath me, jarred my internal organs.
I read once that we think seventy to eighty thousand thoughts a day. Surely this number was wrong. It was as if a thousand thoughts a second crowded my brain. I clutched the steering wheel as if that would help my current state. I didn’t need to be this way. I thought that if I listened to my guru, meditated and led a life of service, I would realize liberation in this life.
The phone on the seat next to me rang again. I jumped. It was Sampuran, the man I’d fallen in love with. He wasn’t the reason I was leaving, even though that’s what the guru would tell everyone. I reached over the computer bag and flipped open the black Motorola Nokia.
“Where are you?” he asked. I looked up to see what exit I was passing. The flat swampy stretches of land yielded to cookie-cutter homes and strip malls that housed Best Buy, Michael’s Crafts, and Ross Dress for Less.
“I’m on 95, passing through Melbourne. The moving truck should be there in a half an hour.”
“I know. I spoke to the guys,” he said. Oh right, he was their boss, after all. “How are you?” he asked.
“I’m okay,” I said. But I wasn’t. Part of me felt lost and adrift, and the other part longed to be in his arms and start our new life together. Years of guilt and secret meetings were over. His ashram was different from mine. The members practiced Kundalini Yoga, and life there seemed much less rigid than my ashram. Non-celibate marriage was permitted in his ashram, which was a far cry from our intense ashram rule that being celibate was the path to enlightenment. Our relationship would no longer be taboo. His teacher was dead, and he was free from being told what to do. Still, it was strange moving into another ashram, even if only temporarily.
“Hurry up and get here,” he said. I smiled. He always knew how to make me smile.
“I’m driving as fast as I can.” Another call came in. “Oh my god. It’s my mother,” I said. “She’s left at least twenty messages.”
“Don’t answer it,” he said. “Your leaving isn’t going to look good no matter what you do.”
“It’s only going to get uglier.” I picked up my water bottle and took a sip.
“They’ll keep trying to break you,” he reminded me.
“I know,” I said. “I’ll see you soon.” We hung up.
There were times in my life I felt as if my skin didn’t quite fit, and I yearned to be complete. I thought enlightenment meant I’d become more than who I was. I’d be free from my pain, my feelings of unworthiness, inadequacy and imperfections. Some greater force would subsume me. I thought that by attaining this state of being, I would be different, somehow wiser, and deeper, with Yoda-like knowledge.
I leaned my forehead on the steering wheel and pressed hard on the same point between the brows my guru had touched numerable times to remind me who I was. I quickly lifted my head so I didn’t careen off the highway and kill myself before my new life began.
Focus on the road, I told myself. I wiped the cloudy film from my eyes.
One of the hardest things after I left the ashram was living without that certainty, without knowing who I was or what I believed or what I was doing in my life. Everything I knew and held true had been annihilated.
I drew in a deep breath and let it expand in my lungs. I held the breath for as long as possible. I held it until it hurt. I exhaled a long, slow, methodical breath out. I exited off I-95, whirling around the curve and merging onto The Bee Line. I shifted into fifth gear. In all of my uncertainty, I did know one thing: I was free.
PRIYA HUTNER is a writer, health and wellness chef and consultant, and yoga instructor embracing the Tahoe lifestyle. She writes feature articles and food reviews for The Weekly and freelances for The Sierra Sun, Tahoe Magazine and Northwoods Magazine. She also writes nonfiction book reviews for Transitions Radio Magazine in Santa Fe. Priya is currently writing a memoir about her experience living and working on an ashram with a guru for more than 20 years. | Photo: Marni Bistany.