Since the release of the 6 part series Wild, Wild Country I have been inundated with questions about the experience of being a sannyasin in Osho’s ashram. While the series did include the remarks of many followers, the essence of being a spiritual seeker simply wasn’t the focus that the political story occupied. Many of the Osho folks interviewed were either acquaintances or dear friends of mine but only the public side of them was of interest for the series. In response to many of readers I have duplicated here the two chapters of my book, Awakened Leadership, describing my life in Osho’s ashram in Pune, India.
Note that I arrived some years after the Oregon experiment had disbanded and Osho’s followers had reorganized in India. By then the focus on political engagement had long left the commune and spiritual seeking was it’s only focus. I personally feel that it exactly this time that reflects the deepest insight into the inner life of an Osho sannyasin. In that spirit I invite you all to enjoy my story.
One of the first anecdotes I heard soon after my arrival in the ashram was a favorite of Osho’s that he loved to repeat. In this story, he likened the life of the seeker to that of a man who has willingly jumped off a cliff and is hurtling through the air. As he plunges past his fellow travelers, he hears their voices echoing in the canyons as they call out to him, ”So far, so good . . .” It was in this spirit that I stepped off into the space known as that of the seeker.
After awakening, it is not difficult to speak about the jagged walk through broken glass by which the ego has crossed from the known into the unknown. Entering into the experiences that lead to this point is an entirely different matter. Many call this entry “the beginning of the return to the self”; others call it “setting out on the journey of personal transformation.” But on the runway, no markers are apparent. My newly honed awareness of the possibilities of spiritual experience, and my usual hair-trigger readiness to respond to anything I might encounter, prepared me to plunge into what was waiting for me over the next few months. But as my plane lifted off above the Los Angeles smog, I felt a surge of apprehension common to those who enter into an experience with no idea of what is to come.
It makes sense that anyone raised in a culture solidly built on conceptual structures would find it a challenge to begin living on the slippery platform of experience as it arises moment to moment. In the years that followed the initial opening that Osho’s words carved out in me, I would witness many who could not make that transition. They would arrive at the Pune ashram expecting some great transformation to happen and leave bewildered not long afterward. For some, the atmosphere was altogether too alien; for others, the experiences that lie behind what is affectionately called the Gateless Gate of the ashram simply jettisoned them. A good chunk of me wished to avoid experiences that evoked emotional pain; in this I was no different from anyone else. But the fire within me was not to be denied, and even as vulnerability mixed with fear and burned through my belly as I approached this new land, I understood that there would be no detours.
If the process I was embarking on was completely beyond anything that could be called familiar, then at least I had found the perfect place to have those experiences. Not that it seemed that way from the get-go. Before her wheels even touched down in Bombay, the plane was filled with an odor unlike any I have ever encountered. It was the smell of India in its hot season—old tires, body odor, and fragrant incense all rolled into the glue of early morning humidity. Friends who had spent time there had carefully coached me on what I could expect when I first arrived, but not even their most detailed portrayals could have described the actual assault on the senses of a country like India.
As my driver steered his taxi into the traffic outside the airport, I was struck by the realization that I had never seen so many different vehicles in motion in one place, much less this close to one another. I was an old hand at navigating the L.A.-area freeways and city streets overburdened with way too much traffic, but this was something else altogether. Bicycles, taxis, motorcycles and scooters, motorized rickshaws, battered cars with mismatched colors and parts, and trucks of every size and description were jockeying for position on the road. None of these vehicles appeared to be in a lane of traffic, or obeying any traffic rules, or even aware of anyone else on the road. The occasional oxcart, small pack of ragged canines, or desultory cow would enter the fray, adding to the chaos.
Just about every vehicle I saw had more people stuffed into it or piled on top of it than you would think is humanly possible. At any moment, I expected one of the women or children clinging to papa atop some frail bicycle to tumble to the ground with a scream that would be barely audible in the soundtrack of shouts, incessant car horns, squealing tires, klaxons demanding right of way. This cacophony competed with the shrill tones of what I later came to know was Bollywood music, which seemed to be pouring out from every direction.
One would think that living in Peru in the early seventies would have prepared me for both the lack of amenities as well as the poverty that I would witness. But India is not a place that yields to preparation by experiencing any other country. It was three in the morning as we made our way to Dadar train station, and I couldn’t help but notice that most everyone I saw was sleeping either on top of a car or on a sidewalk. As we drove through the night, the driver proudly announced that Bombay was populated by some forty million people, twenty million of whom were homeless and slept exactly in this manner.
I had been instructed to commandeer another taxi to take me to Pune once I reached Dadar. This last leg of the journey turned out to be four hours of misery over a pothole-filled dirt road. Still, it wouldn’t be fair to describe my first exposure to India as an exercise in suffering. Despite the obvious poverty and pain, I couldn’t help but see beauty everywhere. Especially the colors. The deep hues of the Indian landscape seem to grow out from the ground and live themselves as part of the decor. Intermingled with all the new smells, they surge and seethe around you. And I can tell you that a taxi jaunt past the Bombay flower stands enlivens the senses in a way that only the newest designer drug can approach.
I strained to absorb the immensity and grace of the country, but at some point simply relaxed into it and let it roll over me in waves. The early-morning sounds of India—roosters crowing the day awake, the lowing of water buffalo on the move, and the splash of water from battered tin cans as people crouched in the streets for their morning bath—were my welcome committee when I at last arrived at my destination. It was about seven by then, and the mists hung over the fields as farmers hauled huge metal milk cans to market. How these skinny men managed to keep those cans balanced on the unruly tree boughs that they had cut and hung over their shoulders was beyond me.
My friends had cautioned me to spend a day or two resting in my hotel room before jumping into action. I could see their point, since my trip had taken more than thirty hours end to end, and I was now in a time zone twelve and a half hours different from that of California. The taxi driver looked as wilted as I did by the time we arrived at the hotel and, grateful to him for having delivered me alive, I was happy to hand over my fare in Monopoly money—this time in the form of Indian rupees.
I dropped my suitcase on the bed, took a shower and, after pulling some fresh clothes out of my bag and tossing it in a corner, decided to attempt to follow the instructions I had been given. I dutifully lay down, closed my eyes, and waited. Maybe it was the oppressive heat or the coarse woolen blankets shedding their fibers that no human with eczema could stand, but my lapse into obeying instructions didn’t last. By seven forty-five, I was standing at the gates of the ashram, waiting to get in.
Eventually, I heard the muffled slap of approaching footsteps, followed by the scrape and groan of the gates being pulled open from the inside. The face of a sleepy Indian in a loose, ankle-length maroon robe and faded rubber flip-flops fell into a gentle smile. He must have gathered from my expression that I was a new arrival, so he said, “Welcome home” and led me straight to the ashram’s welcome center. Here the ever-eager Alan was told that he would need to arrange for an HIV test, the results of which would not be sent over until the next morning at eight. Like it or not, I was forced to take at least one day to rest before being allowed to wander freely in the ashram. My sannyasin friends back home had told me that this would be the drill, so even as hungry as I was to begin the pursuit, I made the best of it.
After getting the green light the following morning, I hightailed it over to the place where newcomers are advised about which groups or individual sessions would be most appropriate to sign up for. As I walked up the few steps to the wraparound porch of the old house that contained the Multiversity offices, a lanky, almost frail, man in flowing black robes sat playing a guitar, seemingly without a care in the world. He looked up over his guitar and, waving me toward a seat across from him, asked in a soft but unmistakable English accent whether I minded hearing a tune.
Alan: I would love to listen to your guitar solo, but I am here to get something done and I have no time to spare.
Counselor: When did you get to the ashram?
Alan: Yesterday at seven a.m.
Counselor: Don’t you think you should take some time to really arrive?
Alan: [looking all around and then straight back at him] I’m right here and I’ve arrived.
Before I reproduce what followed, I should point out that many of my friends had told me that the point of being a seeker is to become enlightened. Now, I didn’t know anything about enlightenment other than the things that my friends had tried to say about it and the concepts I had gleaned from the books I’d read on Eastern spirituality. Since the term sounded good to me, however, I had easily acquired the use of it. So the rest of the conversation went something like this:
Counselor: Tell me, what are you here to do?
Alan: I am here to get enlightened.
Counselor: And how do you see that happening?
Alan: I figured that you could give me a list—in order—of things that I need to do. I will start at the top and do them one at a time, and when I finish the last one, I will be enlightened.
He chuckled, then spent some moments in silence, looking out over the fragrant garden that surrounded us as he considered his next tack.
Counselor: I don’t suppose I could get you to wait a few days, just to settle in.
Alan: I feel quite settled as I am.
Much like in the story of the coconut pie, I only knew one way of doing things: make a list, execute, eat the pie. So while I knew that my ego-definition was shifting rapidly, I still needed to employ my tried-and-true recipe for self-mastery.
During this entire exchange, I had been sitting on the front edge of my chair, looking more like a lion in wait for his prey than a person seeking wise counsel, so I doubt that Mr. Black Robe concurred with this report of my inner state. But that’s how I normally look when I am ready to fall onto my next assignment. To this day, anyone in a similar situation with me cannot escape the sense of the impending launch of the projectile seated across from them.
My British minstrel must have concluded that whatever he prescribed for me had better keep my full attention. And that is how I ended up spending the next five days in the Primal Encounter group, completely absorbed in excavating my childhood conditioning.
It is extremely difficult to describe the nature of an Eastern spiritual journey. But it borders on the impossible to explain how Osho, as a modern-day master and guru, elevated and expanded this path. The basis of commune life as I experienced it back then was an attitude of willingness on the part of those who lived or visited there to look at their own unconscious conditioning. Much of this inner work was accomplished through the psychotherapeutic processes used in programs lasting from three to sixty days, which were carried out by one of the ever-changing schools under the umbrella of what was called the Multiversity.
These groups had originally been modeled after the techniques of popular movements that had emerged in the sixties and seventies, such as Gestalt Therapy, Rebirthing, Bioenergetics, Primal Scream, the Fischer-Hoffman process (before it became simply The Hoffman Process), and various encounter groups. Their approach was not based on a map of concepts presented as the ultimate objective in a pursuit of knowledge. Various maps were embedded in the processes, to be sure, but we were handling live ammunition. Every group demanded that we exercise awareness in order to see our conditionings as they arose each moment in interaction with others who were just as blind to theirs as we were to our own, but also just as motivated to uncover them. This was real, on-the-ground experience.
Osho was well known for his teaching that sexual energy can be used as a path to understanding how we have unconsciously limited one of our most essential energies. The community was, in fact, sexually open, but the point was to help you see your conditioned fears and limitations. So when there was a good reason for it, nudity was used within groups as a natural expression of that understanding. Of course, this area of his work is generally judged and criticized heavily.
But even though the ashram may have looked to outsiders to be the spiritual version of a carnival tent or the fleshpots of Egypt, I found it to be a place where sincere seekers bent on using the opportunity to look at themselves could take advantage of the huge variety of means for doing just that. Osho had created the entire ashram experience as an open canvas for people to engage the limits of their own boundaries in every direction. And as people’s conditionings were being brought to light, their awareness was further cultivated through the meditations available every day in the ashram. The two aspects of self-reflection and discovery—examination and meditation—were always intertwined.
Whatever the particular focus of the inner work, I always felt that the magic of the process was in our willingness to challenge one another to reexamine the stories that keep us limited. This confrontational style, both inside and outside of the groups, came with its own set of fluid rules that were uncomfortable and unwieldy. It was quite normal to be challenged at any point and at any time by any person in the ashram to ”take a look at” whatever trips your ego was generating.
So although therapy groups, sessions, and a variety of active and silent meditations were major components of this process of self-discovery, the experience of ashram life extended beyond any particular activity. Even if you were taking a break after an extended period of intense inner work, you were woven into the atmosphere of exploration through whatever you were doing. Having a job in the ashram was its own kind of group process, and simply being part of the larger community kept you soaked in the juices of Osho’s vision for “a new man and a new humanity” as it played out in every area of ashram life and in your own personal relationships, romantic and otherwise.
Some people, it’s true, came with no other intention than to hang out and have a good time. And in the permissive atmosphere of the ashram, everything from passionate sex to simple, natural affection was right at one’s fingertips. But the invitation that permeated the entire atmosphere was continuously extended to everyone who walked through those gates: to explore the boundaries imposed by family, society, religion, and culture, and to do so outside the reach of their influence.
The experiential nature of the groups opened me up for a quantum breakthrough in my spiritual quest. These processes became my focus for the next two months, extending into the next two years as I went back and forth between Pune and California, the lion’s share of my time being spent at the ashram. I was lucky to have arrived well past the era of turbulence stirred up by the world press that held Osho in low esteem; the time was ripe for pure experience without any distraction from public opinion. I took groups that dealt with primal and sexual conditioning, codependency, fear, and love, plus several groups that each centered on a different meditation method, such as vipassana.
At one point, I signed up for a six-day group called “Acceptance.” The point of this process is to be able to embrace the shadow side of the ego—that is to say, the parts of ourselves that lurk in the unconscious and that we’d rather not see. On the first day, we were asked to identify and write down our three major unconscious traits. We dutifully set out to comply, only to be told by the group leaders that we really weren’t giving our full effort—this turned out to be true—and we were sent back to the drawing board again and again over the course of the first three days. By the fourth day, I finally came up with a list that felt authentic to me:
1. An unconscious habitual liar
2. Uses sexuality to dominate
3. Sees others as objects to use
I suspect that most successful businessmen—in fact, I’d say most people—engage these traits in order to succeed. But upon the recognition of a trait that no sane person would want to claim as his own, the immediate reaction from the solar plexus is to disown it. I suppose it might have been possible to duck the full force of these revelations except for what happened next.
This group had thirty-six participants, which included twenty-four women, many of whom I would have dearly loved to know better. So when it was announced that the next part of the process entailed standing on stage in front of the group and announcing our unconscious traits through the microphone, I was stunned. It only got worse when I found out that, whenever my turn came, my three revelations would be followed by a Q & A period during which I could be asked anything that anyone wanted to know about me.
Of course, I was the first participant selected to mount the platform. It wasn’t until I was standing in the middle of the stage that the final instruction was given: “Before you speak, please take off all your clothes.”
As I stood there that day, it was clear to me that I wasn’t who I thought I was. I knew, well enough, the body that was presenting itself in the room, but the labels that had defined and terrorized Alan up to that point no longer were my identity. Whether they’re what we call positive or negative, they all revealed themselves to be merely ornaments on a bare Christmas tree. I could sense that the tags sewn on my personality were for display purposes only. But there was no way to classify the part that we all know is always there.
Yes, the emotional response to all this was almost too difficult to contain, but it was in this intensity that I had one of those moments that a seeker longs to experience: The conditioning that held the parts of me on which I had hung the sign “Unwanted! Stay back!” simply crumbled.
As I stepped down from the platform, I found myself surrounded by three dozen pairs of arms, into the center of which I gratefully collapsed. The love and support I felt all around me coalesced into a silent, palpable presence that held me as firmly as the sturdiness of their bodies. In the timeless flow of indescribable grace that surged through the room, I could see a figure here and there melting into some man or woman who had been held at a distance because embarrassment, shyness, or judgment had been blocking the way to an authentic heart connection.
A group of human beings who had started out as strangers from very different social and cultural contexts had, without saying a word, merged in the shared sense that we were all, just for those moments, the same. In this space, I could not distinguish their hugs—or their hearts—from my own. And I had finally experienced a taste of what it was like to reclaim my shadow attributes, a process that would continue for some time to come.