November 13, 2014

Losing My Religion? Journalists Spend a Weekend at an Ashram in India

In March 2014, I took my journalism class to India to cover the role of religion in the upcoming election. I’d done similar trips before to Israel and Ireland, but this time I wanted the students to have more than a fleeting encounter with the religion they were covering.

During a 2012 trip to India, a previous class had visited one of Delhi’s Hanuman temples. Eyes popping at the sight of yonis and lingams, red gods and blue gods, heaps of orange flowers and piles of sugary candies, we found ourselves in a packed and narrow chamber. Twisting around waves of petitioners, we reached the priests presiding over golden idols and fire braziers. After the robed officiants placed garlands around our necks, we moved away, standing and watching until head splitting, chest heaving, body shredding gongs paralyzed us. In a state of synesthetic overload, we had no choice but simply to be.

On the most recent trip, I wanted my students to experience something like that before we started reporting. The best option, I decided, was a long weekend at an ashram, where students could meditate, practice yoga, and listen to spiritual masters. The key was to take them outside of their comfort zones and into silence and stillness, trusting they would experience something visceral and perhaps even essential. I chose Ananda and Osho because they were both Westerner-friendly and close to Mumbai, where we would do our reporting. So, after flying twenty-plus hours from Los Angeles to Bombay and driving another six hours to Pune, I’d dropped half of the students at the rural Ananda retreat and alighted at Osho, an in-town urban oasis, with the rest.

I gave clear instructions to both groups: try to stay off your screens and experience rather than observe (no taking notes). I also explained that they would be expected to write a first-person account of their visits, but that these could be anything from a chronicle of their spiritual journey to a review of the ashram’s food.

The twelve students, nine women and three men, ranged from seniors to graduate students. Several were committed Christians, some were lapsed Catholics, and a few considered themselves “nones.” All were enthused about spending time at Osho and Ananda and had visited meditation centers in Los Angeles to prepare for the retreat. But the devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and the actual experience of the ashrams was not at all like the fantasy. Students found the blatant marketing and self-promotion at both sites problematic; moreover, several of the students at Osho were unsettled by “dynamic meditation” techniques that required dancing, deep breathing, shaking, screaming, and other physical manifestations.

Back in Los Angeles, many of the students wrote about their spiritual journeys at the ashram or, more accurately, the failure of those journeys to enlighten or even inspire. Still, most had thought-provoking experiences, and the collection of pieces shows a fascinating range of reactions to meditation.

All of the students have graduated since writing these pieces.

February 11, 2014

The Many Grooves of Prayer

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Vinyl Prayers,” John Modern’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

In 1935, Samuel Saia, a garbage collector from Buffalo, New York, and a devout Jehovah’s Witness, purchased an electroacoustic loudspeaker and affixed it to the roof of his Studebaker automobile. On a weekly basis, he would drive up and down the streets of upstate New York, using a portable phonograph to broadcast the recorded sermons of “Judge” Joseph Rutherford to all who could hear. Saia’s practice was common among Jehovah’s Witnesses of his time, who took advantage of all sorts of media and auditory technologies to spread the word of God. But it is inadequate to think of their use of “sound cars” as merely instrumental. Instead, Saia and his co-religionists practiced what I have described elsewhere as “sound car religion.” That is, their choice of media was inextricably entangled with their message: sound cars and loudspeakers materialized their imperative to preach the gospel as loudly and widely as they could, their rejection of a popular inclusionary ideology that assumed sectarian differences were best kept to oneself, and their refusal to abide by the liberal norms of civil restraint that often seemed to govern American public spaces.


August 22, 2013

A Life With God in Prayer

As a professor and journalist my primary academic focus is about researching and reporting on how people interact with God. The direct experience of God has been of endless interest to me my entire life, probably since the moment my caretaker told me about prayer, and how it was possible to speak with God by praying.

It was quite a revelation to be told that God was with me, even inside me, and that He was listening when I prayed, either in Church with others via rituals, or by myself, aloud or silently. The idea of God being present and accessible, essentially in every way, was amazing.

In the last few years I’ve gathered empirical and experiential data in the form of stories and methodologies of Christian prayer, all about people’s direct interactions with God. I’ve tried to connect antiquity with contemporary practices, recorded and output in several media: text, oral histories, ethnographic film, and audio. My findings have been published in several media: a mass-market trade book, Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, a documentary feature film and national PBS television special under the same title, and a national public radio program, “Rethinking Religion: the Harlem Renaissance.” I also have an academic book in the works on hesychia or silent prayer, coming in early 2014 published by Fortress Academic Press.

Recently, while researching and planning to produce and direct a new PBS network television movie, “Sacred,” a filmed anthology of worldwide rituals (WNET, New York), I had the opportunity to be interviewed by monks at Vatopaidi Monastery on Holy Mount Athos in Greece, which was featured in their new online journal, “Pemptousia.” I discuss my doctoral research on the Jesus Prayer, and how I was inspired to create a feature film and book on the subject.

The monks were also quite interested in an article I had previously written for the Huffington Post Religion section on “Why It’s Cool to Go to Church Again.” The monks asked me to update and revise it for their journal, Pemptousia. This is a mass-market glimpse of what some people say they encounter through Church, and through prayer in a ritualized context.