"How did I get here?"

I grew up in the US and came to India for the first time in 1987, a couple of years after I first started meditating (or trying to meditate!) on my own. Learning to meditate-especially “insight meditation” and Tibetan Buddhist meditation—revolutionized my life and at the same time fit me so well that lots of things starting falling into place.


I had grown up loving my inner life and community in a Christian context, and as a young adult I even considered becoming a minister. But meditation, partly because of being from another culture that I did not need to adopt, freed my spiritual life from the half-heartedness and systemic gender and other biases of the white churches I knew growing up.

I finished my studies of art and religion at Harvard and returned to India in 1990 with a Radcliffe grant to study women's folk art collectives. I also sensed an inner directive to find access to continuous wisdom teachings—whether from inside or outside myself. On the first day back in Delhi, a woman whom I considered as an elder on the path told me about Poonjaji (Papaji) in Lucknow, and I knew I would go to meet him as soon as I could.

When I first went to Lucknow in 1991, I never planned to stay on so long, but I spent most of my next 6 and a half years immersed in Papaji's teachings-- Advaita (nonduality), humorous yet radical play, and incandescent power. The deep sparkle in his eyes -- and the way his heart seemed to have no border -- stay with me wherever I go. I learned a lot about being around a teacher, as well—both interpersonal dynamics at play (which Poonjaji would sometimes stir up), and the wonderfully non-linear contradictions, from his own history as an ex-army miner who would sometimes dress in saris to meet Krishna...to the way he would tell people not to meditate as postponement of freedom now, and yet would himself sit cross-legged on his bed several times a day.
 

Meanwhile I became friends with a local person, a family man, whom I also came to regard as a teacher. As the Papaji sangha dispersed to other places with his passing in 1997, I enjoyed self-retreat and was welcomed as part of the family by this teacher, who preferred to work in a quiet and low-key way in Lucknow. His support in every way has taught me, especially by example, about radical love, honesty, and awakening.

To read more on what I have experienced with teachers and teachings, and the volatile, tender and important areas involved in relationships to teachings, please read here, in my blog.

In 1998, partly to help fill the void left by Papaji, my insight meditation teacher Christopher Titmuss invited me to start teaching Dharma. I always assumed that this initiation would be a measured process that would happen some day (maybe never, if I was lucky!) when I was in the UK or in a meditation center in the US somewhere, a few years off in the future. So I agreed.

But in February 1999, at the first Sarnath Dharma Gathering, I had the honor and terror of offering teachings along with a rich and varied team, and gradually over the next few years flowed into a rhythm of leading silent meditation retreats about once a month in gorgeous and sacred places around the world.


By about 2002, it had become clear to me that most people get in their own way in meditation—with trying too hard, pressure, competition, and the exhaustion and reactivity of heart-impoverished and fast modern lives. And I began to introduce and share the way that meditation happened best for me—lying down.

I love to sit as well, but lying down takes my practice so much uber-deeper, that I gradually dared to say it out loud, out of a kindness that is beyond any personal ideas.

Living

 

The fire in leaf and grass

so green it seems

each summer the last summer.

 

The wind blowing, the leaves

shivering in the sun,

each day the last day.

 

A red salamander

so cold and so

easy to catch, dreamily

 

Moves his delicate feet

and long tail. I hold

my hand open for him to go.

 

Each minute the last minute.

 

~Denise Levertov

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All night I could not sleep

because of the moonlight on my bed.

I kept on hearing a voice calling:

Out of Nowhere,
Nothing answered, "Yes."

 

~attributed to the poetess Zi Ye (sometime between 6th-3rd century BCE, China), transl. Arthur Waley

The first retreat with the name “Deep Rest Retreat” happened in 2004, and there has been no turning back. People on my retreats are, of course, welcome to discover which positions best allow stillness and depth for meditation. And the different postures can complement each other really well. But isn't it interesting that many people consider lying down for meditation to be such an edgy and controversial thing? Perhaps this cultural bias against ease and rest could encourage you to try reclining meditation for yourself.

 

“Meditation through deep rest” does not mean “doing nothing”—we can learn to quiet down but we cannot stop life. Rest usually helps unwind knots of worry and past hurts, and leaves space for life to fill us with energy, creativity, and carefree clarity.
I am grateful for this ongoing unwinding and replenishment: in the last 15 years, my life has demanded more strength and flexibility and love than I ever imagined possible—especially since I gave birth in 2007 and co-founded the eco-hermitage "Dharmaloca" in Catalonia, Spain in 2008. Both being a mom and living off the grid have evoked humility, uncompromising 100% love, Dharma fierceness, and a boundless capacity for joy, intensity and beauty. Learning to surf uncertainty was just the medicine my self-curated spiritual path had needed.

Without giving ourselves to these challenging life situations, and letting our whole selves be drawn upon, it is easy for our “spiritual path” to remain tame and self-contained in a way that actually blocks awakening.

 

Being a family on retreat brought about humorous and touching situations: breastfeeding under a cape while giving a Dharma talk to a hundred people; offering one-to-one meetings with retreatants in the cab of a parked pick-up truck so my young child could play with the steering wheel while we adults talked; being in a teaching role but needing lots of help to get through the day.

Having our whole family in the retreat space inspired some people on retreats to let go of an assumption that parenting and meditation do not live together. Others got understandably disturbed by the wildness of childhood interrupting the words of teachings or the silence of retreat.

Since 2010, I have also had the luxury of teaching alone for the first time since 2000.


In 2016, I moved back to India, living in air pollution of “hazardous” levels, pulsing in my community of beloved friends. A year later, ever so unexpectedly, I found myself back in Catalonia, Spain, for reasons beyond my control. Gradually, I am getting established here, far from close friends and family, and getting to know life as an immigrant, single parent...wondering what life is bringing next.


No matter what way the special chemistry of teachings come about—whether on retreat or in a talk or one-to-one online or in person—I am grateful and honored and humbled and filled with joy to be part of this.

May our practice and our lives be dedicated to the momentum of awakening for all,

including ourselves.

 Images and text not attibuted to others are  (c)Jaya Julienne Ashmore, 2017

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