Spirituality for dummies
Learn to channel your inner zen this exam term
It must be said before we delve into this topic that I am in no way spiritual.
From the age of around thirteen, when my friend introduced me to the work of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, I have been a loud, uncompromising, verging on militant, anti-theist atheist. Back home in London, where I was surrounded by a close nit group of left-wing fellow atheist friends, a metropolitan bubble so to speak, this was acceptable.
There were of course religious people in our school but we did not tend to socialise with them and when we did it wasn’t long before they had also joined us in our atheism.
It was never so much a dislike of religion but a total lack of understanding of it. Why would people believe in things for which there was no evidence? The arguments for atheism were just so strong from a scientific point of view and the idea of a god who was all-knowing and all-supervising seemed unattractive to me from a philosophical point of view.
Cambridge however, where it isn’t just sub sects within your school community who have religious views but also your friends, has made me aware of my ignorance – lots of people are religious. I think it is difficult for me to say that I will ever become religious but I am curious as to what spirituality is. My friend Mim is in India right now and has just completed two weeks on an Ashram. Since we have a similar background, we’re both atheists and went to the same school together, I decided to interview her to gain an insight into whether she has had any spiritual enlightenment.
As we conduct this interview on FaceTime it is about 8pm at night in Rajasthan and forty five degrees and whereas the sun has barely began to be felt in Cambridge, Mim is sporting a ferocious tan. I’m already jealous. We catch up and then get down to business.
”What is an Ashram?” I ask. ”The Ashram” Mim says ”is a spiritual centre where a group of people get together to meditate and do yoga. Not everyone who goes is spiritual, some people didn’t even know they were going to an Ashram, but ended up having a good time and not wanting to leave. Conversely, there were people who had been there for years and who had no intention of leaving. One girl from Texas afraid of having to settle down has been living there for over a year. There are a mixed bag of people, all united more often than not, by a desire to understand and to try and experience something spiritual”.
”What would you do there?” I ask. ”The day would begin at 5.45 am”. She says with a sigh. ”The leader of the Ashram would ring a bell. Everyone would wake up and enter a chanting room whereby they would sing a series of mantras for over an hour.” The mantras are spiritual songs designed to get people into a meditative state.
”We would sing mantras at the beginning and the end of every day.” This was, she says ”a much better way of starting and ending the day than checking social media” (which is prohibited). Mim didn’t know what was being said in the Mantras but it made her feel ‘relaxed and connected’.
”Afterwards” Mim says. ”The day would consist of community activities, like helping some local kids with swimming or helping the chief of the Ashram with making leaflets or posters. For meals each person would take turns to make food for the rest of the group. While eating you are not allowed to speak because it is considered a meditative process, you are supposed to focus on your taste buds, and in order to do this it is important to focus; communicating is considered a distraction.”
Mim goes on, ”Between meals and mantras, there would be community yoga sessions and group meditation sessions, which would consist of chanting around a fire and sometimes they would take part on a beach at sunset.” Sounds alright…
Mim says she definitely learnt to switch off when needed and although she doesn’t consider herself a convert, she is no doubt willing to benefit from the good habits that being in an Ashram taught her. Though you may not be able to visit an Ashram right now, you can always seek inner peace by cutting out the noise and focusing in on yourself. You don’t need to be a hippy or part of an organised religion to be mindful.
In our Cambridge bubbles, especially during exams, it is important to be mindful and to take a step back.
NOTE: Flights to Mumbai come at around £250 one way. There’s still time…