Speaking with a friend who is building a yurt in Hawaii, I was reminded of the yurt I lived in for several months at Ananda Spiritual Community in California. This is a rather long blog, a section from Knowing Woman, Nurturing the Feminine Self.
The minister at Ocean Song, an Ananda-operated property on the Northern California coast, had invited me to help her develop a guesthouse and retreat center. After I returned from Israel, my daughter, two-year-old grandson, and I drove over to see the spectacular property, located on rolling hills a mile from the ocean. Pleased with what I found and eager for a ministerial opportunity, I prepared to move.
The day before I was to leave, the Ocean Song minister phoned. “I’m sorry, Jo,” she said, “Don’t come. Swami Kriyananda has decided to return the property to the owner.”
I scrambled to find a place to live—a guest cabin at the Old Retreat—and a job, writing publicity for The Expanding Light. A few weeks later, a yurt on the hill above the dairy became available and I drove over to see it.
Parking my car at the end of the road, I followed a deer trail up a steep hill through trees and small bushes. Turning a bend, I saw a small, round structure nestled against the hill one hundred feet above me. On its lower side, peeled poles supported the canvas building; on the upper side, a three-foot porch fit the curve of the land. Modeled after the homes of Siberian nomads, the yurt was twelve feet in diameter with a dome roof; crisscrossed, two-inch lathes framed the interior fabric walls.
Inside, under the window and next to the sink, a two-burner Coleman stove sat atop a small storage cabinet. Kerosene fueled the lights and space heater; when the temperature rose above freezing, I would have cold water from a hose outside. I moved in immediately.
I slept under cozy blankets on a four-inch foam pad laid out on the varnished, yellow pine floor. On clear nights, stars filled the sky; deer foraged outside, so close—and the canvas walls so thin—I could hear them chewing. One evening as I drifted off to sleep, a doe and a yearling grazed nearby. An owl hooted a quarter mile away, startling the deer; the ground vibrated under their hooves as they ran, setting up a resonance I felt in my half-sleep.
One week out of four, the full moon shone through the un-curtained windows. Soft shadows spread across the polished floor. Month by month, I moved my pad and blankets, following the moon south and west. Old books warned of moon madness if the full moon shone on one, but I knew differently. With the full moon came a fullness of being—an intuitive knowing beyond rational thought, identification with the heart of nature.
As the weather warmed, I bundled up and meditated entire mornings on the sheltered north porch. Birds flew in and joined me, then moved on with a tiny flutter. At the porch edge, three-inch long, leathery green salamanders stretched, absorbing the heat of the late winter sun. One morning, I felt a stir of air, a tiny vibration near my cheek. Carefully, slowly, I lifted an eyelid to see what was causing it. A yellow and gray hummingbird with speckled throat feathers hovered at my mouth, its beak dipping for moisture between my open lips.
Meditating, reading, and writing, I built a castle of silent joy, a hermitage of the heart. Alone, I enjoyed a kind of global immersion. Peaceful and serene, I resisted going out, knowing my unity would be shattered. Leaving the yurt broke my connectedness with God, with the land, with deep silence.
In sharp contrast, when I was with others, I experienced a loss of self. I became the zeitgeist of the moment for as long as the connection—with a friend, family member, or guest—lasted. Relating to others for hours while I was with them, I was unaware that my energy was draining away. Leaving them, I experienced our separation as a great loss, accompanied by overwhelming sadness.
Both conditions—being with others or alone—satisfied me; however, the transition from one state to the other caused emotional devastation. I had experienced this loss all my life without knowing why. For many years, busyness had covered the hole in my heart; now, the emptiness seemed related to my habitual denial of self.
Each time I went out, I coached myself: this time, this time, I’ll feel at home among my spiritual friends. But it never worked. When I was with other devotees, I pretended, as I had always done. Anandans told me I looked sublimely happy; guests called me Joy. Like a small white hand in a soft leather glove, I acted as if I belonged in the community while my heart’s perpetual turmoil threatened my self-control. Life seesawed between the truth I perceived and the reality others appeared to live. My fragile self swung back and forth, a pendulum pointing first to my knowledge, then to Ananda’s truth, oscillating between awareness of my duplicity and my need to be accepted. If only I could be like them, I thought, I would be at peace.
The problem lay in me: because I had not found my true Self, like many, perhaps most women and men, I externalized my value—if they loved me, I would be happy.
At Easter, I waited tables at a wedding banquet. As usual, pretending joy I did not feel, I observed the festivities from the sidelines. (“Smile!” my grandmother had instructed when I was nine. “If you don’t smile, people will think you’re angry.” Taught from an early age to always appear happy, at the end of a long day in the governor’s office, my face had sometimes ached from smiling. By the time I arrived at Ananda, I had a perfect false smile.) As soon as I could leave without being noticed, I slipped away. Crossing the greening meadow, I entered the woods above the village. Safely hidden, I began to cry.
Ten minutes later, as I neared the dairy, a car approached on the road behind me. Swami Kriyananda and Rosanna—the beautiful, young Italian woman he had married the previous summer—were returning to the Hermitage. They stopped to offer me a ride. Suppressing my inner tumult, I smiled a greeting.
“How are you?” Swami asked.
A God-given opportunity for spiritual guidance, I thought. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
“Fine!” I answered cheerfully, “Although it’s not easy being a single, older woman in gatherings like the one we just left.”
“What do you mean?” Rosanna asked.
“With people or alone, I’m happy; moving from seclusion to being with people, or reversing the process—from the group back into seclusion—is hard. Swamiji, do you ever experience that?”
“I can’t say that I do,” Swami answered.
At the turnoff to the yurt, I jumped nimbly out of the car, wished them a joyful Easter, and waved as they drove away.
A few steps up the trail, I sobbed aloud.