Why I Need a Spiritual Community

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how being part of a community changes a person, in both subtle and obvious ways.

I’m in a good position to speak, because after taking a fairly wonderful and much-needed break from my previous life, I’ve been living at Ananda for three wonderful months…

…first as part of Ananda College and Meditation Retreat in the beautiful Sierra Mountains, and then in the Karma Yoga program at Ananda Village, California. It’s been… well, amazing!

Subtle and Obvious Changes

The first thing I realize is how many of the obvious outer changes are prompted by more subtle inner changes.

For instance, I wasn’t a vegetarian before I came to Ananda, but after a few months here I have to say I just feel better when I eat mostly vegetables.


It’s almost as though I’m more nutritionally in tune, and crave healthier stuff.

A McDonalds hamburger just doesn’t hold much appeal anymore — except on days when I forget to eat lunch, and then wallpaper would sound good!

Another change has been that I’m less emotional — in a good way.

Not like I’ve become a robot or anything, but before I came here I would really get into the ups and downs of life.

My emotions were a rollercoaster — and it was exhausting.

“Shannon’s coming to visit! I’m SO HAPPY!”

“Her trip’s been cancelled? OH NO!”

Daily meditation has a way of smoothing out those gut-wrenching emotions.

Now I mostly feel a steady sense of peace and calmness that doesn’t crumble at the first sign of disappointment.

In fact, I’ve gone through some very challenging tests since I came to Ananda, things that would have totally shaken me before…

…regardless of the outcome, the amazing thing was that I just felt calm and centered while the test was going on.

Facing a Difficult Test

One of the most difficult tests was when I decided about two months ago, being Canadian, to apply for an extension of my visitor visa to the US.

So much was going on in my life in California that I didn’t want to leave!

In about two days I had to:

  • put together approximately 50 pages of paperwork
  • fill out several complicated forms
  • send for and in a few cases help create supporting documents from Stanford and Harvard University, my mom, and Trimurti, the wonderful Karma Yoga Director
  • create duplicates of everything and submit the entire package by certified mail

Here’s the hardest part:

Basically, I had to “make a case” for why Homeland Security should let me stay.

Facing Homeland Security

At the time I felt a little hesitant — should I really be asking for this? — but it was the only way to continue the adventure! So I concluded it was time to be assertive.

Still, the prospect of preparing pages on end of documents in duplicate made me feel a little daunted.

But rather than crawling into bed or starting to despair, this time something was different.

I just sought inspiration, and just started in.

And amazingly enough, things really seemed to flow!

I started typing, setting my focus on being open and honest with the customs officers, rather than thinking about self-justification and or any worst-case scenarios.

In an afternoon I had most of the documents together.

Two days later I put them together and mailed them off!

The Hardest Part

Then came the hardest part. Until I received a response from Homeland Security, I was legally allowed to stay past my visa end date…

— but if they contacted me denying my request, I would have had to leave, most likely immediately.

At this point, I was just starting a 28-day Ananda Yoga Teacher Training program.

(Amazing, by the way!)

I really wanted to get certified.

I really wanted to give my friends in the community some notice of when I was leaving!

I didn’t have nearly enough cash for an emergency plane ticket if my visa got denied.

What to do?

I finally decided to go ahead with trust. It was that or leave almost immediately, and that decision, after  meditation, just didn’t feel right.

So throughout the whole Yoga Teacher Training program I had no idea, at the end of each night, whether the next day would bring a letter that would tell me I had to leave the country immediately, or face deportment and other unsavory consequences.

That was when I really realized how much I’d changed.

Sometimes I felt tension.

Sometimes I had to work through feelings of uncertainty and fear… what would happen if I had to hop on a plane the next day!?

But overall I just felt calm, stayed centered and enjoyed the amazing experience of Yoga Teacher Training, day by day.

What a gift.

People Who Support You Unconditionally

Homeland Security finally replied to my request two days before I left for home (fortunately with an approval!)

And despite my intention to make Ananda Village my home, I haven’t yet found the sponsorship or job offer that would allow me to stay for the long term.

So, as I’m leaving on Tuesday for Canada, for an indefinite — but short — sojourn in my native land before returning to Ananda Village, I’m reflecting on what the Ananda community (sangha) means to me.

Essentially, members of Ananda are my spiritual family, with all the support that entails.

And support within the Ananda community seems to come from a very unusual direction.

People here really support you unconditionally.

Not by focusing on your personality, your accomplishments or anything outward. Rather, they support you by encouraging you to live more fully from your highest self, and develop unconditional love, enthusiasm and harmony in your own life.

Here’s an example:

In the Karma Yoga program I’m having the amazing experience of just thinking of my actions as service from the heart, doing the best I can to help others… and letting go of the outcome. It’s a wonderful experience.

I think less about pleasing people — just presenting ideas and supporting others in the way they seem most able to accept… trying to tune in to the best way, and see where an idea is flowing to.

In this way, I feel more able to just focus on just doing my best — and afterward, let it go,  and let what will happen, happen!

How Spiritual Support Helps Me

So how does spiritual support come into it?

If you have a whole community of people who work intuitively, who listen deeply, and who genuinely care for one another — it creates a deep cycle of  trust and allows a full exploration of all the possibilities… when it comes to business or even just a new way of doing something simple.

Coming from Silicon Valley culture, it feels so freeing to work this way.

Needless to say, this kind of support is the thing I’m going to miss the most when I leave Ananda Village.

It is very hard, once you have dedicated your life to living with ever-greater freedom and clarity, to keep true and committed to that path without the support of at least a few like-minded people.

Many times I’ve tried “going it on my own” without much success or true progress.

When I came to Ananda I heard Yogananda’s statement that “environment is stronger than willpower” — and having seen the amazing changes in myself after three months in such a supportive, expansive and uplifting environment, I have to wholeheartedly agree.

So as I go out from Ananda Village I feel like I’m on a mission — not just to stay joyful, but to stay true, open, and ever dedicated to growth… however the path may lead me.

A Place Called Ananda

A blog by disciples of Paramhansa Yogananda