in Monasticism

Elvis in the Ashram

elvis and yogananda-minFrom private correspondence between a former SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) monk and me, below is a kind-of guest post used with permission. In this story our former-monk-friend shares his personal experiences of the night he entered the SRF ashram to begin his new life as a monk.

The night I entered the ashram, I was picked up from the duplex where I lived. I shared this duplex, right across the street from the SRF Hollywood Temple (on Edgemont Ave), with a handful of other devotees. A brahmachari [one who takes vow of brahmacharya, a celibate junior monk in the swami order] who had lived at Hollywood Temple and, in fact, was driving the SRF ashram car that came to pick me up. I knew this brahmachari from before he became a monk.

Brother Premamoy [see my post Postulant House Cat: Queen Nefertari for a brief bio], who had been in L.A. for some organizational business and was on his way back to Encinitas ashram center, was in the passenger seat. It was about 9:00 p.m., maybe even a little later. I’d been told earlier in the day to standby and be read. So, when the brahmachari rang my doorbell, I grabbed my little bag of possessions and got into the waiting car. I’ll never forget that drive to Encinitas. Quiet, contemplative, whisked away into a new life. When we arrived in Encinitas, the streets were empty.

I, too, did not tell anyone in my family what I was doing. I just did it. In the car, the brahmachari told me I’d have to change my name because there was already a monk with the same first name as mine. [No duplicate first names were allowed in the ashram]. The brahmachari jokingly said, “This is your chance to name yourself Elvis.”

Not sure where my questioning of belief came in–it just happened gradually, over time. I am not the same empty vessel that I was when I entered the ashram decades ago to be whisked away into a new life as a monk. Recently, I was reading Camus’ The Stranger, a short, existential novel. I highly recommend this book if you have not already read it. It cuts to the core.

To the best of my knowledge there never was a monk named Elvis. However, the real Elvis Presley was apparently a staunch SRF follower and devotee of Sri Daya Mata. You can find plenty of online sources and references of Elvis’ affinity for SRF, Yogananda and Daya Mata in Elvis biographies. Also while I was a monk in the ashram, I had heard from Sri Daya Mata and from other senior monks of encounters of Elvis visiting the SRF ashrams. I can visualize the legend: Elvis, the Pelvis, sitting in full lotus.

Thanks to our guest contributor for sharing with us his story and his journey.

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  1. The car drive to the monastery on the day you enter… A very intense moment indeed ! My monastery was in the mountain, surrounded by thick forest, miles away from the nearest village. An old employee of the monastery had picked me up at the train station. With an old car. I can still remember details of that drive 10 years after.

    A few days ago, a blogger on spiritual matters I follow, put me in touch – by mail – with someone who was to enter the same order, even maybe the same monastery where I was (!). The blogger just knew I was a monk but not where.
    It was a bit embarrassing as his friend the new monk wanted to know about my story. I said I would only answer his questions on general matters regarding monastic life.
    Our dialogue was very short. In my replies I would give him prosaic views but he say things like ” On, that’s not my case ! I go there for whatever the Lord has chosen for me”. ” I’ ll be like a (female) servant to his mistress ” (Bible quote). I refrain from telling him he is actually gonna chop his balls and become a transsexual lol
    That’s very much the thing ” like eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven “. I am not talking about the obvious sexual downside, but of the fact you choose to become impotent IN LiFE, a free man choosing to become a slave ! Or a sheep for the good sheppherd, who is in fact your Superior in the horse. See the softcore version of Little riding hood.
    But the sheep doesn’t realize it. He wants something Grand.
    Anyway, my intention wasn’t to prevent him from entering but just to tell him to prepare his exit, just in case. In Catholic monasteries, depending on the order, I’d say more than 90 % of those who enter never make it till ” full vows” (it takes a minimum of 6 years ).
    But that guy was in such a psychological state… It kind of reminded me of my own feelings.
    I noticed that expression ” empty vessel ” in the story above. A good description. Or being in a tunnel, no vision on the left, on the right, above or below.
    What striked me me in the discussion with that guy is how impersonal it was. ” It is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me ” sort of fable. He had completely disappeared behind a narrative, at least in his public speach. He wasn’t a dude anymore but the character of a tale.
    And he even implied I wasn’t the real type anyway because I had left.
    He had the right foot on the ladder of the spaceship. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… Bye.
    I didn’t wish him good luck as he was already saved.

  2. Spelling mystakes

    ” I refrainED from telling him ”
    “who is in fact your Superior in the horse” lol IN THE HOUSE !
    ” in the discussion with that guy is how impersonal it was ” How impersonnal He was

  3. @2bidule22: Thanks for sharing your story about your monastic and post-monastic journey with readers. I’ve been getting feedback that readers are interested in reading more about the journey in and out of the ashram, spiritual questioning, and critical thinking that challenges conventional assumptions.

  4. Thanks for the very interesting stories. I have some questions for those of you who were monastics: Was there any particular moment (or moments) that convinced you that your commitment as a monastic was no longer healthy for you? In entering the monastic order, understandably there must have been a kind of spiritual “high”, but do you ever now look back and see “red flags” that were missed at that time – and what would you consider those to be?

  5. cj725: My short answer to your question, as it relates to my monastic journey, is definitely yes. I will try to write up my longer response to the “red flags”. I’ve written about many of them in my blog posts, but will try to consolidate and add some new ones.

    I’ve asked my two new former-monastic contributors to reply and or write their replies for future posts.

    Thanks for your thoughtful questions. Keep them coming and feel free to share your thoughts as they also could relate to lay-persons who “leave” religions or doctrines that once may’ve been freeing but later became a straightjacket.

  6. And Thanks for the very interesting questions. For the moment, here are my quick answers:

    It is like a relationship. And a separation. Or a divorce, for the most committed. Bit by bit. It takes time. It is a process. Every case is different.

    Love makes you blind. You see the red flags. But you are so much in love that they only look pink. Or like challenges you’ll have to bypass or to vanquish to become a Knight. That’s when entering the monastery.
    Again, each case is different.

  7. Thank you, Scott, for sharing my recollections on going into the ashram. Scott had asked me if it was okay to post it and I’d said sure. And thank you for such a great blog!

    I loved reading the insightful comments. Thank you, 2bidule22, for this: “It is like a relationship. And a separation. Or a divorce, for the most committed. Bit by bit. It takes time. It is a process. Every case is different…You see the red flags. But you are so much in love that they only look pink.” You nailed it. And Sabio Lantz, what a great comment that “Giving a new name is a great way to get more and more cognitive dissonance in religions.”

    I was a monk for just three years, but it was life-changing–although that really did not become clear to me until many years later.

    My entrance into a yoga ashram was whole-hearted, except for one thing—my family. I really hated to leave them all behind. I have three younger sisters and my parents were always good to me. A few years ago, one of my sisters had a photography shop convert all the slides my father had taken over the years onto several CD’s. It was wonderful to go back over old family pictures, but I noticed that I was absent from so many gatherings. Christmas, Thanksgiving, big family picnics. It was because I’d been in the ashram—or London, or Hawaii, places I’d lived, always searching for something. It made me sad to realize I hadn’t been there with my family.

    So, yes, I felt pangs of loss when I entered the ashram because my family didn’t understand and I was afraid to tell them that I was essentially renouncing them. I just went into the ashram and told them after the fact.

    Other than that, however, I was all in. I loved being a monk. I loved meditating, working in the field, silence on Sundays, the beach in the afternoons. Loved my fellow postulant monks. All of them were great guys.

    I had no more than a high school education (I’d been a poor student, at best) and for several years had not read many books besides proscribed ashram literature and, earlier, books on Eastern saints. I had a rather provincial view of my own life, even though I’d traveled and lived in a number of different places.

    Red flags? Well, I wish I could easily tell you how they were there. It’s only in retrospect, however, that I came to realize my whole life was a red flag. But I didn’t understand that until much, much later, after years of psychotherapy.

    A couple of years into the ashram, I was a novice monk and grew bored in the evenings. There wasn’t a whole lot to do between dinner and my own private meditation. And after I’d meditated, I didn’t go to sleep right away. So I began reading books from the monks’ library, just to have something else to do. I’ve always had kind of a restless mind, one reason why meditation is still good for me to practice, even though I don’t do it as much anymore. First, I picked up books on Catholic saints. Then I read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. I’m pretty sure that was stocked in the library, too. I picked up books from the library’s Great Books collection. Dickens and Tolstoy. I read War and Peace on a desert retreat and totally identified with one of the main characters, Pierre Bezukhov. I thought, “I’m going through an identity crisis, too! Who am I? I’m 24 years old and thought I was a yoga monk for life and now I don’t know who I am or what I’m supposed to do.” My mind began to open and as it opened the questions kept pouring in. But there was no one there to answer them, so I continued reading.

    I read Emerson and Thoreau. I went out and bought more Thomas Merton books. I read Contemplation in a World of Action. That started to set me on the course out of the ashram. I had to find out who I was and soon realized I couldn’t do that in the ashram. The reassurances that I was Master’s servant, blessed to be doing his work, etc., didn’t ring true anymore. For years, I’d thought that the only thing I ever wanted was to be a monk in Master’s ashram, to walk the sacred grounds where he’d walked.

    All that began to change. I felt stifled, unable to find answers in the ashram. That’s it, in a nutshell—realizing I’d changed, I could never put the genie back in the bottle, and the ashram was not the place for me anymore. I was still a seeker, but the path had shifted under my feet.

    To switch metaphors, I didn’t realize it then, but I’d set a huge ball in motion that I couldn’t stop rolling.

  8. Thanks for all of the great responses to my questions! Am very much looking forward to hearing more. I had a good chuckle over the red flags looking pink! Yes, I do have my own story as an SRF lay-person shifting away from the official scene. Perhaps later would be a better time for me to tell more, however I will say that in my time with the group I held positions of responsibility that allowed me greater contact with monastics than most lay-people. The majority of that contact was very positive, some was problematic. Overall, I’m truly interested in your experience and appreciate your sharing it. I do have more questions, but don’t want to ask all at once.

  9. 2bidule22: How insightful and poetic, I agree with you and your line as relates to why join or stay in a relationship, religion or monastery: “Love makes you blind. You see the red flags. But you are so much in love that they only look pink”. However, in my case, when I finally discovered (because I knew something was wrong–not with me–but with the community and system) so I could recognize the red flags as red it was too late, 5-10 years in, to make a quick and easy break. I tried first to reconcile my differences with community and system. And, it took years to give it my best effort at reconciliation and finally to extricate myself from the monastic community physically, mentally, and emotionally.

    Sabio Lantz: Four levels of Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic vows: 1) postulancy (first name change optional, not typical unless other monk already has that name–names retained or changed to are Bob, Joe, Bill, etc.); 2) Novice: no name change, keep first name addressed by first name. 3) Brahmachari: addressed by Brahmachari in front of first name, eg. I was known as Brahmachari Scott (except SRF monks in India take up Sanskrit name and drop given-first name and become for instance Brahmachari Piddlananda. 4) Sannyasi (highest level): becomes Brother Piddlananda (except in India where becomes Swami Piddlananda).

    “Elvis”: Thanks for sharing your additional story in response to CJ and the rest of us. Great stuff.

    Looking forward to future discussions. You all seem extraordinarily talented, unique, and fascinating. Thanks everyone for contributing and sharing.

  10. One last thing I wanted to mention is how much I respect the courage it took for each of you to make the decisions that you did. Clearly it required a great deal of inner strength to leave those closed systems – especially since, I assume, you had little in the way of support to do so. Thank you for having that courage and for sharing your stories.

  11. @cj: Thanks for acknowledging the challenges we all faced escaping the closed-systems: ashrams, monasteries, and religions. In a way its not different in kind but degree to escaping family, societal, or peer pressure–basic human systems and challenges. This is a big reason why I don’t think calling these systems “cults” is a helpful distinction. Thanks for your feedback. You are encouraging our discussions.