I got back from Ananda Village on Sunday, and finally posted a few photos from the retreat I was on. I've been a bit slow in processing the experience for presentation to the external world, but I wanted to say a bit about it before I got too far away from it.
The Living with Spirit participants were about 25-30 people (it fluctuated, because some folks who live at the village came and went), between the ages of 16 and 30 (I think I was the oldest). And it was a really good, cohesive group of people. The program doesn't have any requirements about specific spiritual beliefs, but this year it seemed like everyone there was either already involved with the Ananda path in some form, or was taking to it right away. And that was really good because however much you want to affirm the ultimate oneness of all Truth, it does help to be on the same page with how you talk about it with everyone. But there was also enough variety in everyone's background and experience and skills that each person brought something really unique and valuable to our little community. It felt like we all really quickly formed a close family, with everyone having an important role of their own to fill, which was a really good way for the group to function.
Our campsite was located about a 7-minute walk along a dusty dirt road from "downtown" Ananda (which is about six buildings, plus our showers). We had a pretty good kitchen setup, since someone had gotten running water, electricity, and gas out there. That let us have a sink, stove, and refrigerator, so we could do all our own food. We also had a couple outhouses, to save us some of the walks back to civilization, and then we all just set up tents wherever we could find the most shade. (It was 100+° the first few days.)
Ananda-associated food has always been excellent, in my experience. Being a clever vegetarian cook (including being able to piece together gourmet meals from random campsite supplies) seems to be a very common quality among people there. I was even inspired to buy two Ananda cookbooks, and I hardly ever buy cookbooks. But heck, the sun burger recipe alone would have been worth the price.
I also had some food-naming amusement, thanks to Greg and Briana. Greg made minestrone soup on the day that Swami Kriyananda arrived at the village, and dubbed it "mineswami" soup, after which he also decided we should have "chakra chip" cookies. At breakfast on the last day, Briana came up with "om-meal" and "Anandamoyee Ma-shed potatoes." Awesome.
We had two sadhana periods each day (well, most days) -- one at 6:00 AM, which was usually the best temperature of the day, and one in the afternoon before dinner. They usually consisted of energization exercises, yoga, and meditation. For me, yoga was the new part and I took to it, as they say, like a duck to investment banking. But over the course of the two weeks, I learned to relate to it a bit better, and grok it a little more. I still don't care for the more stretchy poses, or anything that I don't feel like I can even approximate. But I do feel the benefit of a lot of them, and even started rather liking some of the balancing poses. (Maybe that's just the dancer in me enjoying that kind of a challenge.)
A lot of this retreat was not just spiritual practice, but also "karma yoga," meaning detached action solely for the sake of service. Which is, of course, a spiritual practice in its own way if you do it right. The theme this year was sustainable agriculture, so we spent a lot of time just working on the Ananda farm, mostly with the vegetables and fruit orchards, but also doing occasional other stuff like building fences or trails. I've been gardening enough this year that I think I enjoyed this all more than I would have in the past. It's especially nice, after just having potted plants on a balcony, to get out and work with plants in the actual ground for a change. The hardest part for me was thinning the apples on the apple trees. It seems so horrible to pick and throw out so many baby apples, but it does let the remaining ones grow bigger and sweeter.
Swamiji arrived from Italy in the middle of the first week, so he could be there for Ananda Village's 40th anniversary celebration on the 4th of July weekend. He's 83 but in better shape right now than he has been in years, which made everyone very happy. He even sang a few solos at the concert on Saturday night, effectively getting "Love Is a Musician" stuck in everyone's heads for the rest of the trip. (I really want to do a cross-step waltz to that song.)
Our group also got to spend an evening with Swami at the Crystal Hermitage. He didn't give a lecture or anything, just plunked himself down and asked what we wanted to talk about. There were a lot of us, and I wasn't one of the few who actually got to ask him a question. But Swami has a way of managing to talk about everything, regardless of what questions actually get asked. So I think everyone comes away satisfied at the end anyway.
The Yuba River
We had a field trip day each week, and on the first one we went swimming in the Yuba River. It's a gorgeous place, and delightful to swim in, but getting there was more of an adventure than I'd expected. To try and pass up the most crowded, close-to-the-road, areas, we hiked up hill for a while, then hiked/slid back down to river level, then ended up fording the whole river to get to a small, untenanted beach on the other side. All this while carrying our towels, other personal items, boxes containing picnics for 30 people, a large cooler full of drinking water, and a guitar. I was the one carrying Parkle's guitar, and I gotta say it made me pretty nervous clambering over rocks in the middle of the river with that. But we made it okay.
We swam upstream for a while, getting out occasionally to clamber over small waterfalls and such things. I can't remember the last time I swam against a current, so that was pretty interesting. There was one spot of relatively calm water with a 30-foot rock over it that was good for leaping off of ("the Acid Drop") though I passed on that, myself. Some of us took a little detour off to the side of the river to find an old mine tunnel with great echoes, where we chanted some extremely satisfying "OMs." The turnaround point for most of us was at a place with a waterfall inside a cave inside a waterfall. Then we swam back, with the current this time. That was mostly easier, though the waterfalls were still tricky. We went over the first one with just a few bumps and it seemed okay. The second one looked easier, but completely bashed everyone up. (I still have bruises and scrapes on my legs from that. At least I went feet-first.) After that I was a bit more careful and went around some of the others. Back at our home beach we had our afternoon meditation wherever we could find places on the rocks or the sand, which was a lovely way to wrap it up.
The Donner Pass
Our other field trip was to go hiking up Donner Pass in the Sierras. We started around 7000 feet in elevation and got up to a peak at 8500 feet. That's a beautiful place to hike. I love all the mountain rocks and trees, and the trails are good, and we even found a patch of snow to play in (in July!). We stopped and had lunch just short of our destination, then Greg and John had us all close our eyes while they led us around the last outcroppings of rock. They lined us all up and had us all open our eyes at once, to a spectacular view looking all the way down to Donner Lake. We went down to the lake itself later on, but since that water had been snow just days before, I opted not to go in. (It was cooler there around the mountains, anyway, so I wasn't frying as much as usual.)
The "Point" of It All
A lot of people have asked me whether I got what I wanted to out of this trip. It's a fair question, though I don't think I feel like writing a complete answer here on my blog (nor could I if I tried, I expect). But yes, it was good, and I'm glad I went. While some specific experiences were especially powerful (the evening we spent on healing prayers, for instance) a lot of the real benefit came just from being in that environment. That land has been a very intentionally, devotedly spiritual community for 40 years now, and you can feel it, just being there. It's also very good to spend time around people who are constantly helping each other to remember to think of God, and to find the spiritual aspect in everything they do.
Om. Peace. Amen.