Summer of Satsang


Recently, we’ve showcased many of our BMCM initiatives that extend our reach to new meditators. To complement that, in this story we’re highlighting two intensive programs for meditators looking to deepen their practice and weave the eight points seamlessly throughout the day.

The Cohort program (for young adults in their 20s and 30s) and the Affiliate program (open to meditators of any age) each run for six months. Both programs offer participants an opportunity to focus their attention on their spiritual practice through a series of video calls, experiments to try at home, and opportunities to come together in person for immersive experiences. 

For a week this summer, these two groups of dedicated meditators came together to live in a spiritual household at the BMCM retreat house, meditating, sharing meals, participating in workshops on each of the eight points, and discussing how they could each take their own practice deeper. 

It was a wonderful way to celebrate the culmination of four months of dedicated study from the Affiliates during the first half of this year, and a great kick-off for the upcoming months that the Cohorts will spend together online. We’re pleased to share some behind-the-scenes of the experience with you.

The Affiliate & Cohort Programs

In all his talks and writings Easwaran sets before us a lofty vision of what meditation can bring:

There is nothing like meditation on earth. Each day it is new to me and fresh. I find it difficult to understand why everyone does not take to it. Millions dedicate their lives to art, music, literature, or science, which reveal just one facet of the priceless jewel hidden in the world. A life based on meditation on the Lord of Love within penetrates far beyond the multiplicity of existence into the indivisible realm of reality, where dwell infinite truth, joy, and beauty.

In meditation I see a clear, changeless goal far above the fever and fret of the day. This inner vision fills me with unshakable security, inspires me with wisdom beyond the reach of the intellect, and releases within me the capacity to act calmly and compassionately.

Though the goal is lofty, Easwaran never fails to remind us that meditation is also hard work. The Affiliate program and the Cohort program are both designed to help long-term meditators continue their practice, as Easwaran often says, “sincerely, systematically, and with sustained enthusiasm.” And satsang, or spiritual companionship, is essential to this effort:

Don't think the purpose of meditation is to go deep into consciousness, wrap a blanket around yourself, and say, “How cozy! I’m going to curl up in here by myself; let the world burn.” Not at all. We go deep into meditation so that we can reach out farther and farther to the world outside. In meditation we are going deep into ourselves, into the utter solitude that is within. As a counterbalance to this, it is necessary to be with people: to laugh with them, to sing with them, and to enjoy the healthy activities of life. It is not a luxury on the spiritual path to have hard work, or to have the company of spiritually oriented people; these are necessary for our spiritual development.

So, what actually happens in these programs? Though they look slightly different, each program has three components: video calls, a weeklong retreat, and an immersive living experience. Every component offers a unique opportunity for supporting these spiritual aspirants right where they are, and helps them to find the next step they can take to deepen their practice.

Video Calls

This year, the Affiliates met monthly during the first part of 2017 and, as you’ll see in their reflections below, they had plenty of activities to keep them occupied!

From Laura, an Affiliate from Illinois:

I've participated in the Affiliate Program for a number of years now, and have found the experience to be a rich addition to my spiritual practice. We explore different themes each month (such as building our spiritual schedule, developing discrimination, increasing flexibility and getting free of rigidity). Each week there is a different exercise to practice, related to an aspect of the month's theme. The curriculum is beautifully planned (including Easwaran videos and passage readings) and each exercise builds on the one before. This year we had video calls for the first time (one per month), and it is really a treat to see everyone (from around the world, including India and the Netherlands) as well as hear their voices. We can also break into small groups on the video calls, and discuss issues in more detail. This is technology at its best! Then we continue the large group discussion via email, where we share our progress and pitfalls, raise questions and offer mutual support. I love this extended satsang family of earnest and large-hearted meditators, and have made it through some rough times with their wisdom and support. I have also grown spiritually through the increased vigilance in my practice of the eight points.

Laura with her granddaughter.

From Ken, an Affiliate from California:

Having been part of the Affiliate Program for a few years, I am very grateful for the worldwide spiritual fellowship because it inspires me to deepen my passage meditation practice. The video calls are really wonderful and give the feeling of being in a retreat workshop in the Saint Francis Room. The program is both challenging and rewarding and very well presented with Easwaran videos, reading assignments and suggested experiments. As an example, with one of the monthly themes “Building Flexibility and Getting Free of Rigidity”, I feel like I only scratched the surface. We are encouraged to focus on our small successes and build on them and I always wind up noticing that I have made progress.

Ken at a recent retreat.

From Kurt, an Affiliate from Ohio:

To me the Affiliate Program felt like an ashram without walls. The BMCM provided us with a lot of resources – monthly Saturday calls with small and large group audiovisual sharing, weekly shared experiments to develop discrimination and build up our spiritual muscles, and readings, Easwaran talks, and audio recordings of Easwaran and Christine reading passages. Affiliates’ sharing their experiences in integrating these resources into our diverse daily lives was inspiring, and made me feel like I was in satsang nearly every day.

My favorite Affiliate activity was the challenge to choose shreya over preya – focusing our attention and action on that which leads to lasting good (even if unpleasant at first), rather than doing what offers pleasure in the short run, but ultimately leads away from the Goal. My tendency is to want to work on the big picture. And the exercises in considering and refining our daily spiritual schedule, and in doing the red pen exercise to cut out unneeded activities to make more time for the eight points, helped. But the prompt to take this exercise down to the micro level – choosing shreya over preya in the small moments, or even paying attention in where I directed my attention second-to-second (at least for a minute or so) continues to generate helpful energy for getting over my small s self. (Don’t say these last three words too quickly.)

As for the Cohorts, they had their first video call in June. They came together for a reading study based on Easwaran’s book, Love Never Faileth, which was also the book studied in the weeklong retreat. They brainstormed how they could get the most from their upcoming in-person weeklong retreat, and also from the six months that they’ll spend studying together in online workshops.

A peek into the Cohort video call.

These calls offer a precious opportunity for both these groups to work on their practice – right in the midst of their day-to-day lives. The calls are structured to give each participant a chance to reflect on their practice, and to experiment with small, practical changes that they can implement easily.

Weeklong Retreat

In July, many of the Affiliates and Cohorts joined together for a weeklong retreat at the BMCM retreat house. Each day of the retreat was spent on one of the eight points, giving all the participants an opportunity to come up with a strategy to implement in their own life.

From Kurt (again):

Mixing the Affiliate and Cohort Programs with the July Weeklong Retreat was a luminous combination for moving forward in the life of the householder spiritual aspirant. The four-month online Affiliate Program supported us in building flexibility in living the eight points in our daily household – inspiring and learning from each other wherever our lives are situated. Then the retreat ramped up our satsang by helping us to develop even-mindedness in our own ashram of older affiliates and the young adult cohort.

All the advance work done in our own households really jumpstarted our efforts to develop our collective household at the retreat, focusing on living the eight points together. The young adults were inspiring in their energy and insights, and our shared experience drove us deeper in the practice in ways that are carrying forward now that I’m back home. Somehow the BMCM staff has made a curriculum that feels both decompressed – with flexible time every day – and enriched, with just the right mix of action and reflection. I don’t think I’ll ever get through the Thursday night mantram singing without tears on my cheeks as our feeling of oneness deepens together and then extends beyond our group.

I am filled with gratitude. 

Kurt, speaking with other friends at the retreat.

The Cohorts also “sponsored” an afternoon volleyball game (a long-running tradition at young adult retreats) during which they shared the very untraditional rules of BMCM volleyball.  These allow for everyone to get more than one try, and decree that as long as you’re having fun – anything goes! For the first time the game even drew some Affiliate cheerleaders from the retreat!

From Logan, a Cohort from Texas:

As always, the weeklong retreat provided a great boost and deepening of my practice. The combination of the Affiliates and Cohorts together at this retreat created a unique pace that was set before the retreat even started (by way of a pre-retreat video call for the Cohorts). Typically I find there is a sort of "warm up" period at weeklong retreats before we dive deep, but this retreat seemed to skip that step and we dove right in on day one. I felt like so much ground was covered in that week that my practice got an extra hearty boost. I'm looking forward to carrying that onwards with the rest of the Cohort program.

Logan (left) and Geer (right).

The weekend ended with a visit to Christine Easwaran, during which some musical retreatants played a few songs, and everyone got to share news from their local satsang.

Immersive Living Experience

In many respects these two intensive programs for longtime practitioners are very similar. It’s in the immersive living experiences that you see some variation, to meet the particular needs of each group.

Let’s start with the young adults! Right after the retreat, the Cohorts spend a weekend together at Dillon Beach, creating their own spiritual household.

Cohorts are in charge of their own schedule, and this year took advantage of an early low tide to explore the beach together.

From Lisa, a Cohort from California:

It was so wonderful to spend a weekend with the Cohorts after the weeklong retreat. We had such fun visiting the beach, cooking, and getting to chat. It's a really special experience to spend time with other likeminded young people where conversations move seamlessly from the pizza we're eating for dinner to Easwaran's commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. I'm grateful to have been able to spend time with such a unique group.

The Cohort's homemade pizza dinner.

From Geer, a Cohort from Texas:

The Cohort program has benefited my practice immensely; keeping me more active, conscious and enthusiastic about the eight points. Our meeting before the retreat really helped deepen my engagement in the week's discussions and the post-retreat weekend helped me transfer thoughts and ideas from the week into daily life.

The immersive experience for Affiliates takes a different shape, with Affiliates spending five days in a spiritual household in Tomales. During the first half of the day, they take part in work parties at Ramagiri Ashram, working in the garden or out in the hills.

Then Affiliates eat lunch with the BMCM community. The afternoons are free, with plenty of time for a personal retreat, quiet study, a visit with friends, or even a nap!

From Merritt, an Affiliate from Ohio:

For me, a significant feature of BMCM retreats is the chance to really slow down. Being slowed down during the internship allowed me to learn from and appreciate others' comments, questions and personal conduct even more sweetly during the time spent living in a spiritual household. Shared meditation, work parties, meals, and the evening program at Ramagiri ashram supported a deepening connection to Easwaran, the BMCM residents and staff, fellow interns and my own shining Self.

The closing workshop for Affiliate interns.

From Stephanie, an Affiliate from California:

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us plainly, "You are what your deep driving desire is. As is your desire, so is your will. As is your will, so is your deed. As is your deed, so is your destiny." 

With its emphasis on selfless work, satsang, and deepening meditation, the Affiliate internship is a unique opportunity to align ourselves and our lives at a higher level with our "deep driving desire" in service of our Beloved Teacher and our precious BMCM community worldwide. 

Looking Forward

Here at the BMCM Headquarters, things seem rather quiet now that our Affiliate and Cohort friends have left for home, but we have another weeklong retreat coming up! We’re also starting to prepare for a full Fall schedule of online programs to help share Easwaran’s teachings with his worldwide audience.

All of these programs and opportunities for spiritual practice bring to life Easwaran’s belief that each of us has the capacity to change ourselves completely, as he says here:

Of all that is wonderful in the human being, our most glorious asset is this capacity to change ourselves. Nothing is more significant. I admire the achievements of science, but I do not feel intimidated by the current conviction that we are what our genes are. My body is what my genes make it, but my character and behavior are not fixed by my genetic code. As proof we have the lives of great men and women of all religions who have thrown these claims to the winds with their personal transformations – from angry to compassionate, from insecure to unshakable, from human to divine. The message of their lives echoes down the corridors of time to those who have ears to hear: “You are not what your body is. Your real nature is spirit, which nothing can diminish or deny.” Whatever our past, whatever our present, all of us have the capacity to change ourselves completely through the practice of meditation.