Volunteering experience of Dan

“The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.” Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.

My name is Dan, I’m from the UK and I’ve had the fortune of being an ESC volunteer at Ananda Gaorii since May. Here I will share some of my reflections and experiences so far, of life as an ESC volunteer at this Ashram, Farm and Learning Centre.

To plunge deep into the unknown is something of a wild adventure; surrendering to the possibilities for all circumstances, emotions and experiences to arise, free from the normal perceived level of predictability most people seek. My dive into the world of Ananda Marga at Ananda Gaorii Ashram, Farm and Learning Centre was a natural progression on my path of spiritual seeking and increasing desire to be with the natural environment. Yet the progressive nature of this step made it no less of a plunge into the unknown.

To leave behind the comfort of my home in Bristol, UK for the green pastures of rural Denmark seemed like an enforced deprivation of sensory stimulus, a decision to choose life in the slow lane compared to the constant hubbub of the M32 motorway I woke to every morning.

Personally I’ve always had issues with the idea of routine. And the practicalities of sticking to it too. So upon seeing the clear daily schedule, small shock waves were sent through my mind, ‘can I cope?’, ‘will I feel constricted?’, ‘will I have any freedom to be with myself?’, ’10 months is a long time…’ These thoughts and many more echoed round my head, the familiar lingering shadow of self-doubt which has stalked me for so long, creeping up in moments of reflection.

The reality of my experience has been startlingly opposite. Although it’s never been one of my strong suits, discipline is something I’m deeply interested in. The benefits of it are plain to see: focus, commitment, completing tasks, deeper enjoyment of activities. And despite battling with Attention Deficit Disorder, I am finally beginning to pluck some of the sweet fruits of living a life with a little more discipline.

Ananda Gaorii has greeted me like an old friend would, after years of separation. The smiles, the radiating warmth, the peace and quiet of the surroundings. It immediately felt like home, and I was back with my family, albeit much larger than I had previously. Conversations flow so effortlessly with people from all over the world, many of whom share the same experience as me on the ESC programme. It is rare to find a place where connection comes so naturally with so many people, I thought it must be something in the air, or the food maybe..

The regular schedule of meditation and Kirtan have provided a wonderful springboard to dive deeper into my spiritual practice, a desire which has grown significantly over the last few years. I’ve found peace and re-assurance in the spiritual teachings of the Ananda Marga, learning about Yoga Philosophy on a much more fundamental level than the watered down bullshit you hear stoned hippies discussing while sipping their sweet chai tea in a bamboo cafe in Rishikesh.
The teachings about the power of our mind and body go way beyond this short synopsis of my ESC experience, and I truly believe they have changed the way I see human potential and our roles in the world forever.

The garden is the practice field. This is the beautiful spot in nature where I can apply the spiritual knowledge gained, tending to tasks with mindfulness and presence, communicating with my team with sensitivity and understanding, creating ideas from a place of stillness and abundance. I’ve found it an amazing opportunity to learn much from the wealth of experience of those around me, while also the lessons delivered by nature itself, gaining an insight into the relationships between the plants, the soil, the water and sun.
Throughout summer I sowed, pruned, watered, weeded and harvested plants I’ve never even heard of, let alone come into contact with, as well as being greeted by some of the familiar favourites. The learning has all been through exposure and experience, workshops on ‘how to’ and then applied in the garden. I’ve had the responsibility of opening and watering the greenhouses, which I’m very grateful for and it’s taught me responsibility in a different way. Something like looking after a child, minus the vomit and dirty nappies, and with plenty more hungry slugs involved.

The underpinning of the whole experience is that of community. It is something which I’m now beginning to realise I knew so little about, at least on a deeper level. As social creatures we simply need some level of community to survive, and connection with others is the biggest factor in living for longer. Yet community is something we are so devoid of in many western countries. Yes, we have our friends and our colleagues, but many of these relationships do not satiate the hunger we have for honest, open connection with others.
Initially during my stay here, I was confused as to why everyone was talking so much and so openly about their feelings. It almost felt like a joke at times. I felt uncomfortable, and at times, even a little frustrated. And then I started to realise, this open communication style is one of the main reasons why this place feels so comfortable and inviting. People are so content in opening up to each other, expressing their vulnerability and listening, that one feels an invitation to pour their inner soul out to people they barely know, yet feel so trusting of.
Community goes beyond communication though, and involves shared responsibility and motivation to think about how one’s actions might affect others. It allows the boundaries of self to slowly melt away, creating a shared experience. On a practical level this responsibility involves lots of cleaning, primarily. It is something of a spiritual principle to keep a clean space, it requires mindfulness to clean up after yourself and ensure that actions aren’t imposing on anybody else negatively. This is a lesson I am definitely still learning..
There has also been much inspiration to consider how I consume, everything from information to possessions, to food. This is extremely valuable, as again, in the community its important to consider resources as shared and not just ‘mine’. I believe this to be an important lesson we could all take note of on a much wider, global level.

As well as being one of the best things about being an ESC volunteer at Ananda Gaorii, living in a community also comes with challenges. Living under one roof with so many people does, at times, bring frustrations, conflicts and a lack of privacy. Personally, I have a great need for solitude and peace. When the Ashram was very busy over the summer months, looking for this was like searching for a needle in a haystack. I took refuge outside, but on an internal level it was difficult to feel such constant distraction and noise while at ‘home’.
This has made developing personal routine quite tricky. Taking time out by myself to cycle, read and write have been pursuits I haven’t managed to balance so successfully throughout my four months living here. Discipline again is required to be assertive with the distribution of time and energy, and this is again an amazing learning opportunity for ESC volunteers.

I need to talk about food. Having lived a vegan lifestyle for nearly 6 years, food has been very important to me for reasons of health, ethics and unabandoned pleasure. Being used to generally battling my way through interactions focusing on ‘why would you wanna be vegan?!’ where do you get your protein? ‘and’ plants are alive too so you’re still a murderer!’, it has been a breath of fresh air living in a community where delicious, creative vegan food is cooked using fresh ingredients from the garden and experiences from chefs worldwide. Consistently topped with the added ingredient of loving intention in every meal.

To conclude, my experience of being an ESC volunteer in Ananda Gaorii has been one of the utmost pleasure, and so far has been truly perspective altering. When I reflect back on all I have experienced, achieved and learnt and I see immense personal and professional growth. I see 4 months spent in an environment with loving individuals helping to bring me out of my shell and giving me permission to love myself. I see a flourishing community of inspiring people, who are learning every single day to be the best versions of themselves and working out the way that they can best devote their lives to spreading positivity and goodwill in this world.
In Ananda Gaorii, with the support of my family, I feel at home.

The simple things truly are the the most extraordinary things, and this is something I’m really beginning to understand.

Photos by Ago L. Dimasi @alok_ae