in Monasticism, Self-Realization Fellowship

“If I lived in a monastery I’d be happy and peaceful praying and meditating all the time.”

A monastic routine teaches lessons in self-discipline, contemplation, and obedience. But a rigid routine, based on unlivable ideals also has many pitfalls and dangers.

In this post, I share the daily routine of a SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) monk: the spiritual activities, individual duties, and group activities expected of monks within the SRF Order. Though the ashram routine being discussed is founded within a Hindu-Christian religious ideology and an extreme monastics renunciate lifestyle, any closed system–political, social, religious–is likely to have similar risks and dangers.

Monks’ Ashram Weekday Schedule

The typical weekday schedule of an SRF monk consisted of:

  • 6:00 a.m. Gong rings, arise for private meditation in your bedroom
  • 7:00 Group meditation in Monk’s Chapel
  • 8:00  Vegetarian Breakfast served in Monk’s Dining Room (Silence)
  • 8:30-12:00 Office work in Monk’s assigned department
  • 12:00-12:30 p.m. Meditation (Silence)
  • 12:00-1:00 Vegetarian Lunch served in Monk’s Dining room (Silence)
  • 1:00-4:30 Office work (continued)
  • 4:30-5:30 Recreation (group or individual physical fitness)
  • 6:00-7:00 Group meditation in Monk’s Chapel
  • 7:00-7:30 Vegetarian Dinner served in Monk’s Dining Room (Silence)
  • 9:00 Private meditation
  • 10:00 Lights Out (Silence)

Everyday there was a strict rule of silence–no talking or noise–between 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., and during all meals and meditations and all day Sundays. [Read my post Ashram Silence.] During my first 5-7 years inside the ashram, I was quite self-disciplined in forcing myself to get up by six in the morning. and in following the monastic vows and rules of the Order.

Later, after 10 years or so, I realized that the monks who lasted that long or longer inside this cloistered system had managed to carve out their own routines. When a monk felt reasonably secure in his seniority or status in the ashram he can take liberties with his schedule; whereas the younger, newer monks feel the need to follow all the rules and vows or they may be reprimanded, or worse, asked to leave the Order. Fear often motivated monks to follow the weekly routine.

Monks’ Weekly Evening Schedule

Monday evenings – Private Spiritual Study of lessons and books published by SRF.

All monks were expected to read the SRF Lessons, books, or lectures in the privacy of their own room. Studying non-SRF books was discouraged.

Over the decades I was in SRF and was a monk I’d read most of the same books and lessons numerous times. Of course, I often learned something new each time I reread the same books. However, there was much more I could’ve (and eventually secretly) learned by reading non-SRF approved books. [Read my post Secret, Underground Library of Monks].

Once per month, on Monday evening, the monks would gather at 6 p.m. as a group in the Monks’ Office conference area and watch a movie: a film that was typically rated G or PG, and on top of that was often edited and censored prior to screening. All movies were first censored by a 3-5 person Monks’ Movie Review Committee. Films that were particularly popular among the monks included Raiders of Lost Ark/Indiana JonesStar WarsStar Trek, and so on.

Tuesday evenings –  There was class on a topic related to monastic life, such as obedience, loyalty, simplicity, chastity, devotion, meditation, prayer, and so on.

Typically, classes were lectures given by a senior monk. In the ashram monastery the longer a monk was in the Order the more supposedly spiritual the monk was. Anyway, during classes in my first 3-5 years in the ashram I wrote copious notes during lectures.

These classes didn’t really encourage “learning”. Rather the underlying message was always about following the guru–obediently. The ashram system was based on an authoritarian teaching model based on the time-honored Eastern tradition of the guru-disciple relationship.

The guru-disciple relationship systems is based on unquestioning obedience to the teacher-master. [See my post Guru Dictates the Questions and Answers]. We were taught that the guru knew what was best for us, even if we thought otherwise. After all, we were led to believe that our guru was all-knowing, all-loving, an enlightened master. Who were we to question his teaching? Despite the rhetoric that the monks were family inside the ashram, each monk was more or less isolated in how to apply what was taught. Not a recipe, in my experience, for productive, long-term learning, growth, or fulfillment.

Wednesday evenings – Private Spiritual Study.

Same as above Monday evening’s Private Spiritual Study.

Thursday evenings – Three-hour group meditation in Monks’ or Main Chapel.

Thursday evenings the monks were expected to skip dinner (fast)–no food was served, except sometimes there was a watery soup. Then at 6 p.m. the monks were expected to meditate as a group in the chapel from 6 to 9 p.m. I learned that many monks took a nap before the long meditations to try to prevent themselves from sleeping or nodding off during meditation. For the problems of monk’s sleeping in meditation, read my post on Sleepitation.

Friday evenings – Open schedule.

Friday night’s no particular group events were scheduled, but once or twice per month, there was an optional group shopping trip to one of the local malls. Monks were expected, when leaving the monastery grounds, to keep in pairs to avoid getting into trouble–tempted by “maya” (cosmic illusion or satan)–or into activities inappropriate for an SRF monastic who had taken vows of loyalty, obedience, chastity, and simplicity. SRFers are taught “environment is stronger than willpower”. In other words, if we live in a world of maya (cosmic illusion) we cannot trust ourselves unless we surround ourselves with other SRF members or better yet SRF monastics who think these same thoughts like us.

Monks’ Ashram Weekend Schedule

Saturday – Open schedule – extracurricular ashram duties such as cleaning rooms and ashram community areas and doing yard work.

Cleaning of monks community areas included: chapel, courtyard, library, barber shop, laundry room, and so on. Haircuts were given by another monk assigned to them. The monk barbers were trained to cut hair by a former monk who, after he left the ashram, ran a successful hair salon.

Sunday – Silence all day and night.

11 a.m. -12 p.m. Sunday sermon/service in monks chapel

3-9 p.m. Six-hour meditation in monks chapel

(6 p.m. – Soup, salad, and baked potato served in monks dining room–if you weren’t at the six-hour meditation. Sunday was a day of fasting, except for monks who wanted some fruit during the day or soup and salad in the evening.)

Pass the Tofu, Please: Ashram Dining

Strict lacto-ovo vegetarian. No alcohol or stimulants were served. Once a month, for a special occasion, Chai Tea was made and served by a monk from India. The cliche about Friar Tuck loving his food is true. One of the few acceptable fleshly pleasures for the monks was food. Sweets especially were relished in great quantities with gusto. However, dessert was officially served only once a week during a lunch. [Read my post Seductive Pleasure of Monks].

Meals were served buffet-style. A monk could pick and choose, do “all you can eat,” fast or abstain entirely from eating. Only during special holidays or ceremonies were monks expected to join the group during meals. Food was both seen as a base necessity–to feed the body temple for God–and relished as one of the only “pleasures of the flesh” to be indulged with discipline in the monastery. Monks sometimes joked as they heaped large portions of food on their plates, “Food: it’s the last thing to go”–the last physical desire to overcome on the spiritual path to avoid rebirth and to attain godhood.

The Monk’s Dining Room had enough chairs and tables for about 30 persons. There were 80 monastic residents at that time at the Mt Washington Ashram Center. Monks cycled through the dining area in shifts or waves. Or, they grabbed food on plate and went outside to eat in silence the ashram courtyard.

School’s Out For Recreation

For the sporty and competitive, like me, this included group sports: basketball, volleyball, soccer, tennis, or gym. The monastery/ashram had its own courts and sport facilities on the grounds.

Many monks were hyper-competitive. Group sport was an outlet for an otherwise “go along, to get along” culture. (Most of the monks realized the ashram had a “false” harmony–a surface illusion of harmony–while underneath the surface where many deep individual and group frustrations, angers, and passive-aggressions. Sports was for some, an outlet of their aggressions). I recall ashram basketball, volleyball, and soccer games where monks got injured, elbowed in the eye, or knocked off their feet by highly-competitive and aggressive monks.

Most monks chose solitary or individual fitness activities like walking, jogging, hatha yoga, or gardening. Walkers or joggers were permitted to venture outside the walls but only on prescribed paths and preferably with another monk. As noted above, monks were to avoid going anywhere without the company of another monk.

Group Meditations

Mandatory. Weekly schedule had built-in 4 hours of weekday meditation, and on weekends up to 10 hours meditation. 24-30 hours of individual and group meditation every week. While ashram routine was helpful with establishing habits and ensuring time each day to practice meditation, most of the monks–as far as I could tell–struggled with the monotony of practicing the same techniques, in the same way, with the same people, day after day, year after year. The irony was we were taught by the spiritual teachers that we were practicing meditation to find every new joy. There was seldom joy and little new in these monotonous individual or group meditations.

Monks’ Living Quarters

The monks’ living quarters consisted of ashram units or blocks of individual dorm rooms. Rooms were basic: typically approximately 10×15 sq feet. Four walls with an entrance door from the unit hallway with communal bathroom and toilet shared by 4 or more monks in a unit. Each monk had their own room within the unit. Each room contained a single bed–called a yogi-bed, a wood plank with a mattress on top–a dresser, desk, and small closet. Maybe a bookshelf. Otherwise, each monk was on their own to furnish their bedroom.

Senior monks got the best rooms–the most quiet, not adjacent to the courtyard, kitchen, or phone room–or rooms outside the ashram walls within homes, private residences with swimming pools, in the neighborhood adjacent to the ashram. During the time I was in the ashram no personal phones, computers, or TVs were provided or permitted.

The monk’s ashram unit hallway had a wall phone. The wall phone could be used for personal calls. The monks would be billed monthly for all outbound calls which discouraged calls with anyone outside of the ashram system. With phone, internet, TV, and other communications restricted, monitored, and discouraged, the monks lived in a physically and ideologically closed system.

Monks’ Cubicles: Working for the Guru-Man

Every monk was assigned duties within a department. From 8:30 to 4:30 he was expected to serve SRF worldwide organization. Departments included: Temple, Center, Editorial, Publications, Purchasing, Telecommunications, IS, Personnel, Garden, and Office of President. During my fourteen years in the Order I served in four different departments. These jobs were not unlike any corporate cubicle job. However, no salary was paid. Monastics supposedly dedicated their hands, hearts, and minds wholly to the guru’s work–without monetary compensation.

Our office duties consisted of ordinary paper pushing, answering phones, emails, and attending meetings. Nothing remarkable. In fact, most monks that I knew found their office work unfulfilling. It was bureaucratic and tedious. There was little a monk could do without first obtaining permission from their superiors or authorization from the Office of the President. Monks, as far as administrative work, were replaceable drones, cogs in a machine. The work was not meant to be creative or productive, but to follow orders and to “keep the teachings pure” for SRF by protecting the image and “divine dispensation” of guru, Paramahansa Yogananda.

Psychologists have field day in the ashram

Some people might romanticize the life of a monk: thinking that it’s filled with peace, contentment, and brotherly love. There may be moments of happiness, but like everything else in life it was far from perfect. A monastic routine could reinforce self-discipline, contemplation, and persistence. But rigid routines, based on renunciation and unlivable ideals have many pitfalls and dangers.

During my last few years in the SRF Order, psychologists visited the ashram. They were not SRF members and were invited at the behest of the ashram leadership. Pairs of psychologists came into the ashram and conducted several workshops for monks and nuns. This was the era of the Spiritual Life Committee. Apparently, many monks and nuns were found to be psychologically impaired: several cases of monastics needing medical and psychological treatment for panic attacks, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and several scandalous outbursts of sexual misconduct.

The psychologists told us that the lifestyle of a monastic was one of the most stressful professions, along with Air Traffic Controllers, Police, and Firefighters. Why did these psychologists say monastic lifestyle so stressful? Living 24/7/365 with the people you live, work, and play with: your superiors, your peers, those who have ultimate authority to judge, punish, or reward you. Also, the pressures of being “perfect”–unlivable ideals–monastic rules and vows, the constant observation by other monastics and SRF members in the churches, temples, and meditation centers who were told–implicitly or explicitly–that the monks were representatives of God and guru.

Aint a saint?

Indeed, SRF devotees/members often assumed that the monastics were “saints”. Or at least some or many were saintly. While inside the order the way to “advance” in the was to please the superiors, to make the church look good. There was much pressure on monastics to please what seemed like the arbitrary wills of spiritual leaders who seldom talked directly with the monks (the average monks saw the President, Sri Daya Mata, and other high ranking church leaders (VP Sr Mrinalini Mata, GM Uma Mata, VP Ananda Mata) only once or twice a year at a Satsanga (group spiritual lecture). A most unimpressive organization, in terms of leadership and organizational effectiveness. It was a “spiritual” hierarchy of bureaucracy. Read my post The Ashram: Spiritual-Corporate Caste System.

Is living in a monastery a happy peaceful affair of praying and meditating all the time?

Monastic routine–including praying and meditating–is founded on the ideals of increasingly handing over control to unchallengeable authorities. These authorities propagate the virtues of renunciation and self-sacrifice. Presumably followers are required to sacrifice their selfish impulses to attain the superior or higher states of selflessness, enlightenment, samadhi and so on. In short, a follower’s concerns with their own interests becomes the source of their own problems. Self-centeredness (ego) becomes the villain to be sacrificed, slain, destroyed.

Once one’s self-trust is undermined its fairly easy to allow oneself to be manipulated and controlled by authority. It’s not necessary for any of the individuals within the monastery to consciously manipulate or control others or to allow themselves be manipulated and controlled by others. All that is required is to follow the routine and ideals of the monastic order.

Yes, outwardly the ashram routine allowed for plenty of peace and quiet time for prayer and meditation. A superficial vibe of peace, harmony, and happiness was present. But underneath the surface, inside the hearts and minds of monks was much anxiety, fear, even psychosis. The irony is that the ideals that lead one into a monastery, to pray and meditate all the time, are the very source of their problems. Going “within”–using meditation techniques and monastic routines–are following outward systems, promulgated by spiritual authorities. When we look outward (to renunciate or monastic systems, practices, or techniques) for validation we are barred from self-knowledge. We then are enslaved to routine and validation from authority.

Notes

Special thanks to Scott D. Jacobsen, Editor at Conatus News, and Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing for his editorial assistance and comments prior to publication of this post. Without Scott’s help and encouragement this post would not be published.

Featured image credit to amanderson2, line of monks, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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