Felix R. Guerrera / Flickr
Felix R. Guerrera / Flickr

Whenever i feel like I don’t know where my life is going, my father is there to console me. He tells me that his life—or at least the version of it that I know—only really began when he was 35. He reminds me that especially given his untraditional experiences, he and my mom have no expectation that either I or my brother follow the typical pattern of get a degree, get a job, get married, all right out of college.

His advice gained meaning when I came to Princeton, where the daunting tasks of finding a single profession and a future spouse became incredibly concrete. I have seen some of my peers determined to decide on an unchanging career path while hoping to find their life partner before walking out of the Fitz-Randolph Gates, but I shake off the pressure, knowing that my father did neither of these things for years.

At the same time, I began looking at my dad’s life differently after these new conversations about upcoming life choices. Before meeting my mom or becoming a university professor, my dad spent 12 years living in an ashram—an isolated monastic community for Hindus—in Gold Hill, Colorado. His sister also used to be in an ashram, and my grandmother on my father’s side still lives in one right outside of Tucson, Arizona.

For years, I never thought to ask my dad the details of his time there. The idea of joining an ashram after college felt as normal to me as taking an entry-level corporate job does to others—so many people in my family had done it that it just seemed to be another option. I felt no personal draw to the institution of the ashram—as an extrovert, the idea of living a hermetic lifestyle never appealed to me, and with such little interest in joining I felt no need to ask specific questions. I never even considered my dad’s spirituality; my mom is Jewish and ever since I was little my dad applied his beliefs to her liberal synagogue with so much finesse I only superficially recognized that his spiritual background was different.

In coming to Princeton there was a shift. The question of how my parents met so late in life started came up often in conversations with friends. I began to realize that my typical joking response was a cop-out, and only grazed the surface of my father’s experience.

“My dad lived in a Hindu ashram for 12 years after college, and at the same time my mom was married to her first husband. It’s why they both don’t know any ‘80s music—as a rule my dad couldn’t listen to any and my mom’s ex-husband hated everything but classical.”

The ashram remark resulted in a slew of follow-up questions. What is an ashram like? How did your dad become Hindu? 12 years is a long time, why did he leave? I stuck to answers just as superficial as my initial remark to avoid confronting the reality that my dad seriously lived in this type of spiritual community. I was significantly more informed about my mom’s divorce than my dad’s spiritual life and I didn’t even know the name of the ashram or why my dad joined it. I visited it once as a kid with my grandmother and all I remember is a cluster of isolated cabins at the end of a dirt road near the tiny town of Gold Hill. I was struck by the seclusion of the place as the sounds of people were replaced with the noise of a dry Colorado summer—the humming of grasshoppers and bugs and the crunching of dry plants underfoot. I remember wanting to drive back down the road and get ice cream from the Gold Hill General Store. I could have asked questions but the experience was so foreign that I didn’t know how to phrase any.

This semester I decided to call my dad and ask about the ashram. I wanted to figure out the narrative that reconciles the academic, hamburger-eating father I know with my stereotypical perception of a spiritual, vegetarian monk.

“This is 1972,” he began. “My mom and dad were always interested in spiritual things—they were ahead of their day, it was very unusual at that time for parents to be hippies. They gave up everything, all of their money, and by the time I was out of college they had met their guru, Swami Amar Jyoti. They were very committed to joining an ashram—well at that point it wasn’t an ashram, it was just a rented house with several people.”

My immediate reaction was that the whole situation sounded sketchy.

I kicked myself for being so skeptical about the idea of a guru. I was talking to my dad not to judge his choices but to hear about a serious spiritual endeavor. Still, how could anyone have so much faith in one person that they give up every possession, their own security, and their children’s inheritance to follow him? I couldn’t help thinking that if it wasn’t a scam it was certainly a bad decision. I stopped my dad mid-sentence, asking him his initial view of Swamiji as if this could affirm the validity of his parents’ actions.

“My first impression of him was that he was an incredible, deep soul and that he was very loving. There was a sense of real spiritual presence about him,” my dad explained.

I was disconcerted. I had never really heard my dad characterize anyone this way, and I began to realize his devotion to the ashram. To him, following Swamiji wasn’t some sort of rip-off but a meaningful spiritual choice.

I continued talking to my dad, finding that he didn’t just join the ashram—he was committed for years before he was invited to join. He wrote for their publications and uprooted his life in California to come to Colorado and be near the ashram, all before actually moving in. He balanced graduate school and a dissertation with a spiritual life that became increasingly all-encompassing, and through our discussion I realized it was a life that required so much more commitment and passion than I ever gave it credit for.

My dad characterized the ashram almost as a different culture. He described the intense gender separation—involving communication only through intermediaries—as a social convention unique to the ashram community. On the phone I saw my own bias and stereotypes of ashrams leak in: I thought the stratification of gender was crazy. My dad had only talked about the gender issue for a few minutes, but I found myself assuming that these divided gender roles inevitably lead to institutionalized sexism. I then asked about corruption and cultish practices, thinking back to stories of mass cult suicides and jumped to the conclusion that a powerful guru would inevitably take advantage of his followers. After all, my dad left for a reason. What discrimination or which crazy rituals were going on in those strange cabins in Gold Hill?

But there was nothing crazy and my expectations only revealed my ignorance. The ashram just had its own routines and its own norms, and I needed to recognize it as simply a social context that happened to be separate from the world I know. When my dad told me about leaving the ashram, his reasons were not dramatic but well thought-out and full of the appreciation he clearly has for the 12 years he spent there.

“I remember Swamiji when I met him—he was in our living room,” my dad explained. “But then he became distant as the number of ashrams grew. There were people you had to go through to talk to him and there was mean-spiritedness in those people. Leaving wasn’t easy, it felt like a divorce.”

Afterward moving out of the ashram my dad ventured back into the real world to recreate his life. For two years he began reestablishing himself professionally and gradually started meeting people and dating until he finally found my mom. He could not mix with the ashram community after leaving it, and so I grew up with little exposure to that world, only parental support for untraditional paths and a vague inclination of the kind of experience my dad had. Getting older and changing my own setting gave me the ability to see the flawed way I approached an ashram—the way I judged it, trivializing and making exotic a spiritual community I couldn’t understand or take part in. Even after this conversation I can’t quite grasp the entirety of my father’s experience, but I can appreciate and respect it as significantly more than just the reason he doesn’t recognize Bon Jovi.