1970-1971: Days of Simplicity and Great Joy

Photo: Asha (with mixing bowl) serves in the Meditation Retreat kitchen at Ananda Village, 1971

The first act of faith in my Ananda life was to keep following the driving instructions, against all common sense, in the hope that this steep, rocky, rutted road would lead me to the community I was seeking. Many hopes rested on this visit.

I had just turned twenty-three—early, you might think, already to be living a life of quiet desperation, as Thoreau aptly put it. But I was. I desperately wanted to find meaning in life and a cause I could give myself to without reservation. I longed for true happiness and a way to share that happiness with others.

As part of the sixties culture I had discovered Eastern religion. For several years I had been immersed in the principles of Self-realization, first as a philosophy, then through reading the lives of saints and yogis who had done more than study—they had lived these teachings.

My own life, by contrast, went on in its usual, mundane way: go to work, come home, eat, sleep, see a few friends, then get up and do it all over again. Staring out the window one day at all the apartment buildings like mine, filled with people like me, going to work, coming home, eating, sleeping, and then repeating it the next day, I understood suicide, drug-addiction, or slipping into madness. Anything to escape what Paramhansa Yogananda called the “anguishing monotony” of it all.

Ironically, studying the science of Self-realization had made my desperation worse. I had the key, but I couldn’t find the door on which to use it.

Then I met Swami Kriyananda in November 1969, just before Thanksgiving. He was giving a lecture at Stanford University. I had dropped out of Stanford a few years earlier, but still lived nearby. He walked into the room, and before he spoke a single word, an inner voice—prompted by intuition I didn’t know I had—declared, “He has what I want!”

I knew theoretically that it was possible to change one’s consciousness; I had a stack of biographies of people who had done it. But they were dead, far away, or living in a context impossible for me: Himalayan caves, Catholic monasteries, mission stations in the jungle.

This was different. Kriyananda was American. He was a disciple of an Indian teacher—Paramhansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi—but the context of his life, his language, his experience was the same as my own.

He gave a lecture, but I remember nothing of what he said, except my impression, “This is the most intelligent man I have ever met.” He had started a community in a rural area just a few hours north of San Francisco. For him, and the lucky few who lived there, this wasn’t just a teaching; it was a way of life and a way to serve. Integral to the community was a retreat for the public.

This was vitally important to me. My longing for happiness was inseparable from my desire also to bring happiness to others. Not the fleeting, outward imitation of happiness the world offered, but the lasting happiness of the soul. There is a Sanskrit word for it — Ananda,  divine bliss — the very name Kriyananda had chosen for his community.


The last stretch of road was the worst of all. Moving at a snail’s pace, increasingly concerned that I was miles from where I wanted to be, finally the water-tower—the landmark I’d been seeking—came into view.

The climate has since changed, but at that time it rained sixty inches a year, plus occasional snow, all within six months. The other half of the year was bone dry. As the head gardener put it, “The land changed from a swamp to a tennis court before you had time to plow!”

It was August 1970, the height of the dry season, and what was mud in the winter was now fine red dust. I opened the door of the car and when my foot touched the ground, the dust rose in a cloud around my sandal. For the third time, my intuition came in words, “This place is true. You will not be disappointed. Here, you will find what you are seeking.”

I saw a few small buildings, but no people. Soon I came to a wide porch built around a dome that seemed to be the dining hall. Across from this was a building site, where a few carpenters were working on a large platform supported by concrete blocks. Some of the timbers were singed black. Later I learned that a few weeks earlier the temple had burned down.

Then I saw Swamiji. He was sitting under a large tree talking quietly to another man. It was very hot and he was bare-chested, wearing an orange dhoti (a skirt-like Indian garment) with his long hair hanging loosely down his back.

I was raised Jewish. Sometimes we went to the temple but we were more cultural than religious. I’d never traveled outside the United States or visited other churches. “Sacred space” was not a familiar concept. But there on the porch, looking at Swamiji, I knew I was standing on holy ground.

It was the last few days of Ananda’s annual Spiritual Renewal Week. Every morning Swamiji gave a class, and every evening a satsang (spiritual gathering) where he would sing and tell stories about life with his Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, whom he, and everyone at Ananda, called Master.

Over the next few days, nothing contradicted, and everything reinforced, my first impression of Swamiji, of Ananda, and of being on holy ground. My fate was sealed, and I was over the moon about it! It took ten months for me to extricate myself from the life I had. Finally, I wrote Swamiji that I was coming to live at Ananda. He sent word that it was most auspicious to arrive on a Tuesday before noon. So on Tuesday, June 1, 1971, scrambling to pack the car and drive off in time, I squeaked in just before the noon hour.

Swamiji was in seclusion and silence, working on his writing, but he agreed to see me. Seva Wiberg, the community’s financial manager and one of Swamiji’s right-hand people, went to his house every afternoon at 4:00 p.m.. That Tuesday, she took me with her. Because Swamiji was in silence, the conversation, from my point of view, was a little awkward. I spoke, he wrote notes in reply.

“Is there something you want to ask me?” he wrote.

“No, I just wanted you to know that I’m here.”

He acknowledged that, indeed, there I was. Shortly after, he graciously made it clear that since there was nothing more to discuss he would be happy to get back to his work and his solitude.

Thus began my life at Ananda.


Ananda consisted of three locations within a small, rural area of Nevada County called the San Juan Ridge. In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, at an elevation of twenty-five hundred feet, Ananda was about twenty miles from the nearest town — Nevada City, California.

The Farm, which eventually became Ananda Village, was the community, where families and children lived. The Meditation Retreat, six miles away—much of that over the rough, unpaved road that was my introduction to Ananda—was for Retreat guests and those residents who wanted a more meditative life. Ayodhya was a smaller parcel, not quite contiguous to the Farm, where Swamiji was building a house for himself.

Initially, he had planned to develop the community on the Retreat land, at least for the first five years. It was fully paid for, thanks to his years of teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area, and having no mortgage was a distinct advantage for the fledging community. In theory, families, children, and meditating yogis could live harmoniously together on those seventy-two acres. In reality, a single exuberant child — and there were several — could be heard everywhere, interrupting the silence needed for a meditation Retreat.

The Retreat was Swamiji’s portion of a larger land purchase made in conjunction with several others in 1967. In the first year, confusion arose about the ownership and governance of the land, which eventually made it impossible to develop either the Retreat or the community in the way Swamiji had envisioned. Fortunately, the Farm and nearby Ayodhya came up for sale just when a change was needed.

Swamiji asked Jyotish Novak, one of his most trusted friends and later his spiritual successor, to move from the Retreat to the Farm to lead the energy there. This was not a simple task. It was the height of the hippie, back-to-the-land movement. Except for having a strict rule against recreational drugs, the community’s self-definition was vague. Ananda was a big adventure and we welcomed almost anyone who wanted to join in. Later we joked that in those years, if you could chant AUM three times and say you were off drugs, you could become a member.

Most who came were good people, but their idea of community did not always match what Swamiji had in mind. The differences emerged gradually, not always harmoniously. Jyotish did a masterful job of supporting Swamiji’s vision while still being a helpful friend to those with other ideas.

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.

Years later, those who hadn’t been there 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.”


A month after I arrived, Swamiji asked me to assist the manager of the Retreat kitchen. Just before Spiritual Renewal Week in August, the manager had a family emergency and left in the middle of the night, leaving me in charge. For the next two years, I ran the kitchen: three meals a day, six days a week. On the seventh day, I drove a pick-up truck into town to do laundry and get supplies.

In September, Swamiji moved from the Retreat to his newly built dome at Ayodhya. A handful of others moved with him, men and women who had formally embraced the monastic life. The monks lived in a cluster of trailers and teepees near Swamiji’s dome; the women further up the hill. Same as at the Retreat, life was simple, bordering on primitive; but no one minded.

During the week, Swamiji stayed at Ayodhya. On the weekends, he stayed at the Retreat, to give classes, Sunday service, and private interviews for those who needed counseling. On Sunday afternoon he would invite a few friends to his house for tea, which often extended into dinner. Soon I was spending every Sunday with him.

An important principle of leadership, Swamiji said, “Is to give most of your energy to those who are most in tune. Leaders often try too hard to win over the negative ones. At best you bring them to neutral, but as soon as you turn your back they become negative again. Cultivate those with the capacity to become leaders themselves. Increase the positive magnetism at the center, and those with the ability to be in tune will be drawn in; and those for whom this isn’t right will be spun out.

“I’ve let others develop the community in the way they think important—buildings, planning, rules—while I have concentrated on the one thing I know is needed: the right spirit. When the spirit is right, everything else follows naturally.”

Most of what Swamiji was teaching was new to us: Karma, reincarnation, chakras, kundalini. He gave dozens of classes on the same subjects, coming at it each time from a different angle. He spoke rapidly, with great intensity, in a rich, melodious voice. At times I felt he was waging a one-man battle against delusion. Later he characterized it in just those terms: a war of ideas happening on the causal plane.[1]

In the United States, especially on the west coast of California, the guru game was going strong. Self-declared enlightened masters were appearing on every corner, with resumés that included past lives as saints and avatars (Incarnations of God).

“There are plenty of gurus,” Swamiji said. “What is needed now are examples of what it means to be a disciple. I’ve always felt I could do more good as a simple unaffected friend than in any other role.”

He kept things informal, shunning all accoutrements of spiritual leadership to which he would naturally have been entitled. Awareness of his spiritual stature wasn’t corporate policy; it had to come by intuition. Privately, a woman asked me, “It seems to me everything that happens at Ananda is because of Swamiji. Is that true?”

“Yes, but don’t tell anyone,” I said. “It is better for people to discover it on their own.” Respect for Swamiji meant cooperating with how he wanted to present himself. Whatever energy came to him in reverence or gratitude, he directed toward Master.

Soon after he moved to Ayodhya, a woman named Mary and I were helping Swamiji clean out some files. We found notes of a reading from the Brighu Samhita. Brighu was an ancient sage of great renown. The Samhita is a collection of his prophecies, describing with astonishing accuracy, thousands of people who would live centuries after him. Brighu spoke of Swamiji’s future as a spiritual world-leader, recognized and acclaimed by all. Like a gleeful teenager, Mary said, “Wow! That sounds terrific!”

A look of deeper understanding passed between Swamiji and me. The simplicity of our life, the closeness of our small community, our almost daily contact with one another. “These are the good old days,” he said quietly.


In September, Swamiji asked if I would like to help him with his correspondence. Naturally, I was eager, but it was several months before we started working together.

The first step, from my point of view, was to get him organized. Master was very practical in his advice to the monks: To keep your room neat, put each thing away when you are finished using it. Swamiji, an exemplary disciple in most ways, said, “It takes too much time to do that.” Later in his life, housekeepers and secretaries created a tidy living space for him. He got credit then for an orderliness that was never his own.

When I started helping Swamiji with his correspondence, unanswered letters, and other works-in-progress were scattered everywhere. My concern was that people’s needs would be lost in the shuffle. Not a chance! As I went through the house, hunting and gathering letters, it was soon clear Swamiji knew where every letter was, and the timeline for the reply. He made remarks like, “Don’t miss the one under the toaster from the woman in Seattle whose sister has cancer. Or on the dresser from the Indian boy who wants to be a monk but his parents want him to marry. And today we must respond to the woman from Sweden whose mother is ill.”

In those years he was the only one who gave Kriya Initiation, which took place once or twice a year. During the ceremony, he dipped his finger into a small bowl of colored powder, then touched the spiritual eye of each devotee, leaving a mark of initiation.

He kept the bowl of powder uncovered on a bookshelf. I picked it up to take it to the kitchen, put the powder in a sealed jar, wash the bowl, and put it all away. Though Swamiji was in another part of the house, he heard the movement and intuited my intention.

“Leave it there,” he said, “I’m using it.”

To me, every six to twelve months was the future. The same with his projects and letters. I wanted to put them away for later. To him there was no later; it was all now. The implications went beyond housekeeping. It gave him endless patience with the shortcomings of others. No matter what we did—and it was a rocky road for many of us—he never defined us by our mistakes. He knew that eventually we would get it right, and for him, eventually was the same as now.

“When I see people suffering,” Swamiji said, “I think, ‘How much sweeter, then, will be the moment when God comes.’”

Sometime during that first winter, Swamiji called a meeting which proved to be a turning point in Ananda’s development. He had received a donation of $25,000 which he wanted to use to build a publications building at the Farm. Master had said, “Immortalize your ideals in architecture.” In meditation, Swamiji received a design for a double-curved roof that seemed to express both soaring aspiration and the desire to reach out and help others.

The site was chosen in cooperation with the Farm planning council, in the area they had designated for commercial enterprises, which happened to be right where Swamiji wanted it. On a hillside, highly visible, out in the open, it would be a defining image for the community.

Still, many Farm residents argued against the decision. “Out of respect for the land,” they insisted, “all buildings should be hidden from view.” Swamiji’s bold architectural statement was antithetical to the private haven they thought the community should be. They wanted to drop out—not reach out to the world.

My life was at the Retreat, mostly in the kitchen. I knew nothing of the controversy. So I was shocked when Swamiji opened the meeting by saying, “I don’t often speak strongly but when I do, I expect to be listened to. If you don’t want to listen to me, then I’ll leave Ananda.”

What!!?? He might leave? I expected an outcry from all present! Instead, there was silence. Then, to my astonishment, various Farm residents responded as if the only issue was the building! They talked of trees, land, architecture, the sanctity of the family, the needs of children. Everything but the issue at hand: Swamiji was threatening to leave!

I had no idea this meeting was the carefully considered culmination of a long series of incidents between Swamiji and some of the Farm residents. Eventually I panicked, jumped to my feet and squeaked out, “Didn’t you hear him? If we don’t do what he says he is going to leave!”

After my outburst, many others began to speak in favor of Swamiji’s plan. Seeing themselves outnumbered, the dissidents left the meeting, and soon after left Ananda.

Afterward, Swamiji explained. “No matter what I said, those people would take the opposite view, merely because it was I who said it. They were anti-authority and opposed me on principle—as if negativity could be called a principle!

“There was no danger of my leaving Ananda. I wouldn’t have called the meeting if I hadn’t known the majority was on my side. I have no wish to impose my leadership, but I won’t shirk my responsibility if people want leadership from me.”

One Sunday afternoon, Swamiji began to talk about Ananda’s future. “First we’ll develop communities on the West Coast of the United States, then at least one on the East Coast. From there we’ll go to Europe, from Europe to Australia, and then to India. India will be more receptive if Ananda is an international work, rather than purely American.”

I couldn’t imagine how we would get from a handful of people, living an isolated life in the woods, to communities around the world. I respected Swamiji, but I also respected my own intelligence. I would not be a blind follower. “I always accepted Master’s authority unhesitatingly,” Swamiji said, “but never unquestioningly.” My path, too.

So I built a mental shelf, like the back part of a closet, where you put things that you can’t use but are too valuable to throw away. What I didn’t understand, I neither accepted nor rejected. I just put them on the shelf. Over the years, I’ve unpacked everything I stored there, and found that each one, at the right time, fit perfectly.

When he described the progression of Ananda from California to India, I felt India was his real objective. Certainly the rest of it was worthwhile, but in some way for him, it was a means to an end.


Master had a unique way of celebrating Christmas. In 1971, Swamiji felt it was time to start a similar tradition at Ananda. Spiritual Christmas would be an eight-hour meditation on December 23; Christmas Eve, a party with lots of caroling; Christmas Day, another meditation, mostly listening to Handel’s Messiah; then opening presents, and a banquet of Indian food.

Master would always speak at the Christmas banquet, so Swamiji did, too. Over the years, Swamiji’s Christmas talk became like the president’s State of the Union address to Congress. In our case, though, the union being addressed was soul union with God.

Having grown up Jewish, this was not only my first Ananda Christmas, it was my first Christmas ever. Most vividly, I remember the music on Christmas Eve. We gathered in what we called the Common Dome—the dining hall and meeting room of the Retreat. It was about thirty feet in diameter, with a heating stove in the corner, and propane lights. There were thirty or forty people there. It was snowing heavily, and most of the Farm residents stayed home with their children. Nothing of the outside world touched us; we could have been on Mars.

A woman in the community, Kalyani, played the piano and sang beautifully. We had harmoniums to accompany chanting, usually playing with one hand and pumping the bellows with the other. This time, however, the harmonium was on a stand with foot pedals, so Kalyani could use both hands to play. Swamiji stood next to her; everyone else crowded around.

Choosing only the most spiritual carols or classical songs, they sang duets and solos, and led us in singing together. Some of the music I’d heard before, but never like this. Songs to God, and about God, sung by those who loved Him. The first line of one carol described it perfectly: “Angels we have heard on high…

Swamiji said that when we achieve final liberation we look back at all our incarnations, which seemed so real at the time, and see it was all a dream. The only enduring reality are those moments when we were touched by God. When my liberation comes, singing carols my first Christmas at Ananda will be one such moment.


[1] Creation exists on three levels, from subtle to gross, each a blueprint for that which comes after. First is the causal plane of thoughts and ideas, then the astral plane of energy, and finally the physical plane of matter. Just as a building begins as an idea in the mind of the architect, then energy applied by the carpenters turns that idea into a physical structure, so everything that happens in the physical universe is determined by ideas and energy from the causal and astral planes. In all three worlds, forces of light and darkness battle each other for influence and control.