What Does Our Future Hold? Certain Change and the Riches of Simplicity

Quiz Question: Which aspect of the Ananda Communities today most accurately foretells the everyday lives of those who will walk this path in centuries to come?

Answer: A chorus of unborn souls resounds in joyous anticipation: “Ananda Valley Farm!” “Ananda Village, before 1980!”

Who would disagree? A simple life in the country, offering pleasures little known to city dwellers. A life of simple living and high thinking among fellow disciples, with home, church, and work in one place, as Paramhansa Yogananda foresaw.

When Asha Nayaswami moved to Ananda Village in 1971, she cherished the gifts of a simple life from the start.

Conditions at the Retreat when I arrived were simple, bordering on primitive. For five months, I lived in a tent, until an early snowfall forced me to move into something more substantial. Even then, with a few exceptions, substantial meant canvas teepees, or small, uninsulated cabins or trailers—no personal kitchen, no indoor plumbing. Water was carried in gallon jugs. Having even cold running water inside, or a spigot closer than the water tower at the top of the hill, was luxury living.

We took our meals together in the dining room and bathed at the shower house. There was no electricity, except for a generator to pump water and run a blender in the main kitchen, if the cooks timed it right. We had wood for heat, propane for cooking, and kerosene for lighting. It was understood that no dwelling could be within sight or sound of any other. Most of the land was inaccessible except on foot, by narrow dusty trails.

I grew up in suburbia. Later I lived briefly in New York City and San Francisco, but mostly I stayed in the same environment in which I was raised. I never went camping and rarely even visited rural areas. I was always surrounded by people. Inwardly, though, I stood at the edge of the crowd, vainly trying to understand a world that had no meaning for me. I lived behind a psychic shield erected so early in my life that I had forgotten it was there.

Now, for the first time ever, I was surrounded by kindred spirits. Instead of shielding myself from my environment, I wanted to absorb it completely.

The Retreat was so remote that nothing unnatural intruded. Except for our few, isolated dwellings, there was no sound or light except what Nature offered. I had never considered the subtle influence of electricity, but, removed from it now, I could feel my nervous system calming down.

One benefit of no indoor plumbing was to take me outside at night when I would not otherwise have left my cozy room. For the first time, I saw phases of the moon, shifting constellations, sunsets, sunrises, and, when winter came, rain and snow falling from a midnight sky—glorious, unexpected gifts.

Subsequent generations of Ananda members sometimes marveled at the hardship we endured. Hardship? Everything before I moved to Ananda—that was hardship!

Years later I asked Swamiji a question about reincarnation: what causes it and how to avoid it.

“Longing and regret,” he said simply. “That is what brings you back life after life.”

Longing for what you never had or lost too soon. The desire for revenge, to get even with those who wronged you. Regret over missed opportunities. Ill-considered actions you need to make right. All are equally binding.

Concerned lest desire trap me once again, I said, “I could repeat those first ten years at Ananda in a heartbeat. It was heaven on earth.”

“That’s different,” he said. “That longing is of the soul, not the ego. It doesn’t bind, it liberates.” (From Swami Kriyananda: Lightbearer, Year 1971)

In the late 1990s, there was a documentary on the TBS television network about a hypnotist who had “progressed” people, wanting to see if they could reveal how people would live in future generations. A number of the subjects reported seeing a world with a greatly reduced population, where the people lived in small cooperative communities near the ocean.

A little over a thousand years ago, in the 800s, when murderous hordes from Scandinavia and eastern Europe still ransacked the continent, the light of Christianity came very near being extinguished. A cynical observer summed up a widespread belief: “One more generation and the Church will be finished.”

Skellig Michael, the monastery complex
The monastery complex on Skellig Michael. Click for larger view.

At the time, there were only a few flickering pinpoints where small bands of faithful monks managed to keep the light alive. For four hundred years, they found shelter in places like Skellig Michael, a bare rocky spire seven miles off the Irish coast, where twelve monks lived in beehive-shaped huts, subsisting on a diet of fish and seabird eggs, and dividing their time between work, prayer, and worshiping in their tiny rock chapel.

It was another tiny colony of twelve sincere monks, founded in the year 910 at Cluny, France, 240 miles southeast of Paris, that spawned a renewal which would lead to the Christianization of Europe. In his former life as King Henry I of England, the abbot of the mother church at Cluny thanked him profusely, calling him the primary supporter of the Cluniac cause. (An amusing side note: the church at Cluny was for several centuries the largest in Christendom, until St. Peter’s was built in Rome. The Vatican deliberately built their church to be twenty-five feet longer than the one at Cluny.)

Swamiji once remarked, speaking of the persecution of the SRF lawsuit, that it was a tea party, compared to other trials to come. “But,” he said, “I’m not going to be afraid for one second!”

Another time, he said that the success of Christianity was ensured by the sacrifices of the martyrs. History tells us that a new dispensation will prevail only after arduous testing. Yet what God takes, He more than compensates with joys of a higher kind. Deprivation is revealed to be a turning of the soil in preparation for new growth.

The compensations are demonstrated by the lives of people who, even now, have turned their backs on the complexities and confusion of modern life in search of a primal simplicity of being.

Jean Aspen in the Alaskan wilderness, wearing a ball cap and smiling at the photographer
Jean Aspen

Such a seeker was Jean Aspen, who spent years living in extreme simplicity in the remote Alaskan wilderness above the Arctic Circle. In old age she described the satisfactions of her austere life.

“Living simply and with deliberation is not a hardship, but a joy and a communion. It is beyond price. That’s one of the things I want to share, that each of us has the ability to let go of what we think we need in life, and we will be enriched by it, not impoverished.

“It is my deepest hope that in sharing our life here we will inspire others not necessarily to go build a cabin in the wilderness, but to find things of beauty in their lives to invest in. To pay attention to the smile of a child and the blooming of a flower, to the sound of flowing water, to the gifts of everyday life.

“It is in recognizing our unity and our wholeness, our oneness with all living beings, that we will step out of the insanity that is driving us to extinction.”

Jean Aspen shared her story in a lovely documentary, “Arctic Daughter: A Lifetime of Wilderness,” available on Amazon Prime Video.

At a satsang in New Delhi, four years before his passing, Swami Kriyananda addressed an important question: “How can we keep Ananda spiritually strong into the future, especially after you are gone?”

Swamiji replied: “Love God. Love God in one another. Be loyal to Master. Try to do his will. I’ll always be in your hearts, encouraging you. The work I’ve done has all been to help you.” (Swami Kriyananda: Lightbearer, 2009, p. 563)

More Inspiration

A strangely engaging YouTube video on the rewards of solitude and simplicity is 3 Years Alone in the Forest Building a Log Cabin which at latest count had 31 million views despite having no dialogue, only the sounds of forest and hand tools. In his early twenties, Erik Grankvist turned his back on his life in Stockholm and settled on a remote piece of forest land owned by his grandparents, equipped only with a vision to build a well-crafted cabin with his own hands.

Civilisation, by Lord Kenneth Clark, Ch. 01: By the Skin of Our Teeth. The renowned British historian tells how the monks saved civilization (YouTube).

Civilisation, by Lord Kenneth Clark, Ch. 02: The Great Thaw. The story of Cluny, and a worldwide divine dispensation that marked the close of the Dark Ages (YouTube).

How Paramhansa Yogananda and Swami Kriyananda Helped Save Civilization 1000 Years Ago, and Why It Matters Today. An intimate account of the spiritual awakening of the early Middle Ages, and the important roles that were played by Swami Kriyananda and his Guru in former lives.