During the past four decades, a curious phenomenon has swept this nation. Inspired by the teachings of several Master souls from the East, an unusually large number of ashrams and retreats have made their appearance on the scene -- spiritual centers designed to provide seekers of the truth with a focused environment in which to practice their particular spiritual path.
Seduced by the Western notion of cause and effect, they somehow think that spiritual attainment is related to the way they act -- as if God was some kind of transcultural Santa Claus looking for good little boys and girls to bring his shiny red fire trucks to.
While most people who spend time in these places are extremely dedicated and sincere, there still remains a goodly number who, in their attempt to have "an experience," miss the point completely.
Not surprisingly, the spirit of the law is all too often traded for the letter -- a letter that, no matter how many stamps are put on it, is continually returned for insufficient postage.
Surrender is replaced by submission, patience by hesitation, and humility by timidity.
Alas, in the name of finding themselves, our God-seeking brothers and sisters have tended to lose the very thing that makes them truly human -- their individuality.
And so, with great respect to your personal God, your Guru, your Guru's Guru, and your favorite tax-deductible charity, I humbly offer you the following soul-saving tips should you decide to visit (or move into) the ashram or spiritual center of your choice.
Take what you can, leave the rest, and remember -- it's not whether your shoes are on or off, but if your heart is open.
1. DO NOT CHANGE THE WAY YOU WALK
Most visitors to a spiritual retreat think they have to change the way they walk if they are truly going to have a meaningful experience. Somehow, they believe there is a direct correlation between the way they move their feet and the amount of "grace" or "blessings" about to enter their lives.
The "spiritual walk" is actually a not-too-distant cousin of the "museum walk," the curious way a person slows down and shuffles knowingly, yet humbly, past a Monet (or is it a Manet?), silently getting the essence of the Masterpiece even as they move noddingly towards that incomprehensible cubist piece in the next room.
If you like, think of the spiritual walk as the complete opposite of the on-the-way-to-work-walk or the exiting-a-disco-in-New York walk.
Simply put, the spiritual walk is a way of moving that practitioners believe will attract small deer from nearby forests -- deer that will literally walk right up to them and eat from their hand -- more proof to anyone in the general vicinity that they are, in fact, enlightened souls, humble devotees, children of God, or the so-far-unacknowledged successors to their guru's lineage.
Ideally, the spiritual walk should be taken in sandals, though Reeboks or Chinese slippers will do in a pinch. Cowboy boots are definitely out, as are galoshes, high heels, and Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars.
2. DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, SUCCUMB TO THE ASHRAM NOD
Closely related to the spiritual walk, the spiritual nod is routinely practiced in retreats the world over. And while no one completely comprehends it's divine origins, many believe it began when a blissful brother simply forgot the name of his roommate on his way to the bathroom.
Instead of issuing the familiar Sanskrit phrase of the week, our trend-setting friend simply tightened his lips, looked at the ground and... well... nodded.
Now, every time you walk by someone at the ashram, you are half-expected to flash them the nod, the non-verbal equivalent of "Hi! I know you know, and you know I know, and you know that I know that you know, and in my knowing, I know that I know you know, and by so knowing, need not speak, since words are finite and cannot express the knowingness which the two of us (being one) share from such a knowful place. Know what I mean?"
3. DO NOT JUDGE ANYONE, INCLUDING YOURSELF
This is the hardest of all commandments to obey. Why? Because spiritual environments not only bring out the best in people, they also bring out the worst. And while the worst is often more difficult to detect than the bliss of people wanting you to notice how blissful they are, the higher you get, the easier it is to notice -- that is, if you are looking for it.
Of course, it would be very easy to spend your entire spiritualized retreat noticing all the subtle ego trips going on around you. Resist this temptation with all your might!
Do not, I repeat, do not, focus on the stuff that would make good material for this article. You have no right. In fact, you have absolutely no idea why anyone is there, what their motivation is, or how they will learn the kinds of lessons you are absolutely sure they need to learn.
In reality, you are most likely seeing your own projections -- those disowned parts of your self that you've refused to acknowledge all these years: your spiritual groupie, your brownie point collector, your junkie for more experience, your suburban yogi , your guilty seeker of God, your con man, your eunuch, your resolution maker, your ass watcher, your closet fanatic, your glutton for humble pie, your too poetic definer of ecstasy, your flaming bullshit artist, your know-it-all, your have-it-all, your spring-headed bower towards anyone with more than two devotees.
All of them are you! Every single one of them! Don't judge them. Love them! Bring them tea! Rub their feet every chance you get!
NOTE: The preceding blog is PART ONE of a three-part series on the topic. The other seven commandments are forthcoming. Stay tuned!
Mitch Ditkoff, Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions, once lived in an ashram for five years. He loved every minute of it, but along the way noticed all kinds of trips and spiritual ego, his own included. He dedicates this article to everyone looking for themselves, but sometimes confusing the "show" with what there is to experience beyond the show.
For more by Mitch Ditkoff, click here.
For more GPS for the Soul, click here.