How an Ashram Changed My Mind About Irresponsible Spending


On some subliminal level, I’ve convinced myself that if I surround myself with financially successful people (like my friends in New York City who work at hedge funds or for large corporations or who are successful entrepreneurs), I will become rich through osmosis. Therefore, this artist chasing her dream of becoming a bestselling author has spent years practicing the art of “feeling abundant” à la Napoleon Hill’s classic text “Think and Grow Rich,” or what the self-help industry has coined “the law of attraction.” 

The idea: By feeling and acting rich, I will become rich (or something like that). 

Unfortunately, this can be a big drain on cash in the meantime. Surrounding myself with people who are richer than me means I’ve sometimes found myself in scenarios where I’m splitting, say, a $100 brunch bill at the Todd English Food Hall at the Plaza Hotel. (Did I really need lobster mac n’ cheese and two organic Bloody Marys when there is already a bottle of Grey Goose in my freezer, not to mention an entirely untouched six-pack of V8 gathering dust in my pantry?) 

I know, that seems ridiculous, but it’s not hard to spend a lot on a meal in Manhattan if you’re not careful. Temptation cities like New York are a debt minefield for impulsive — shall we say “carpe diem”? — ladies like me who have erratic cycles of income. I am to cocktail infusions, Dr. Hauschka facials and Anthropologie as Rebecca Bloomwood is to luxury apparel in the film “Confessions of a Shopaholic.” Yet, as we all know, the instant gratification one feels after a new purchase is often short-lived (and financially draining). 

I’m all about “self-compassion” these days, since I learned about the movement at a conference last year. So when it comes to my shopping indiscretions, I’m quick to argue: It’s not my fault! We live in a consumerist, materialistic society and are constantly being marketed and pitched to. It’s hard to resist without incredible willpower and restraint. And it’s particularly challenging to distance oneself from compulsive consumerism while living in the epicenter of it all. 

But I have wondered: Is it my surroundings or is it me? What would happen if I put myself in a completely different environment where asceticism was valued and consumerism discouraged? I found out last fall when a series of serendipitous events led me to an ashram in upstate New York — far from any shops, restaurants or bars. 
Truth be told, I’d been searching for a quiet place to work on my book, away from the distractions and dalliances of city life. A friend recommended the ashram, and after perusing the website, I applied to the work-study program, which meant I would earn my stay by working for the ashram three hours a day. What I liked about the setup was that I wouldn’t be spending money on anything, except for the bus ride out there. 

Refreshingly, there was no advertising of any sort at the ashram, no signage at all. In fact, on my first evening, I got lost in the woods trying to find the dining hall. It was one of those find your-own-way places, and I reveled in the rustic charm of it all, carving out time to explore the stark surroundings, which basically consisted of trees, a large pond, roaming fawn and a few dilapidated white houses interspersed across campus. 

For the most part, my routine consisted of waking up early for a simple breakfast of porridge, followed by group meditation, Sanskrit lessons, yoga, a vegan lunch, a walk in the woods and my three-hour work shift. (I worked in the ashram’s Publications Trust, editing pamphlets and writing book descriptions for the website. Most residents, however, work in the communal kitchen, in housekeeping or in composting.) In the afternoons, I had time to work on my book, followed by a vegan dinner, evening meditation, a fire ceremony, kirtan — a form of devotional chanting and drumming — more book writing and bed, usually no later than 10pm. At the end of the day, I felt whole, like I’d bartered hard for my day, but in the best way possible. 

I never had that icky consumerist feeling. I never had a hangover. I never felt any regret for anything I’d done or said. The whole experience was very balancing and cleansing, and I discovered the space in my day that would normally be filled with shopping, emailing or drinking pomegranate martinis was now filled with things like stargazing, swinging in hammocks and reading poetry at bonfires.
There was no alcohol allowed on campus, though we did get a little mischievous on Halloween night. I’d befriended a cute 24-year-old Belarusian who managed to hijack someone’s car and drive us to the nearest gas station where he bought us $3 40-oz. Bud Lights, which we drank back in the dorms. It was fun in a juvenile sort of way, and I appreciated it so much more precisely because it felt like such an extravagant diversion from my daily routine, which had swiftly become as comfortable to me as an old sweatshirt. 

I suppose when you have too much of something, you appreciate it less. I became mindful of that and made a mental pledge to truly scale back when I returned to the city. 
It wasn’t until my last week that I discovered the ashram had a tiny shop hidden on the second floor of one of the houses. It had sporadic hours, usually no more than two per day, and sold basic toiletries, Ayurveda-inspired massage oils, incense, books on spirituality and chocolate, which was a real luxury on the premises. I went in with the intent of just browsing, but came out with a mala prayer bracelet for $7. It wasn’t a relapse, I told myself, but rather an investment in my spirituality! Besides, I’d adopted a Spartan lifestyle for a month and believed that my behavior had warranted a small token to congratulate myself for such a successful spending detox. The string of rosewood beads clenched around my otherwise naked wrist in stoic simplicity, a reminder of the life I was going to lead back in New York. OK, maybe that was unlikely, but it could serve as a symbol of inspiration, a sage warning not to constantly cave into the temptations of a consumer-driven society.
Now that I’ve been back in the “real world” for a few months, I have a greater awareness of my own personal penchant for consumerism. And they say that awareness is the first step in recovery. I’m not perfect — I still buy stuff that one wouldn’t deem crucial for survival — but I’m less impulsive, and have certainly adopted a more minimalist mindset. The real test will be on February 1, when I move back to New York full time (I’ve been floating around between California, Connecticut and D.C., working on my book). 

But in the meantime, every time I look at my bracelet from the ashram, I see it as a gesture of self-love — more affordable (and meaningful) than an expensive brunch. When I think back to the way I use to spend money, I don’t get mad at myself, because that’s pointless. I just understand it as a misguided way of loving myself. But now I know that the best way to feel abundant and attract abundance isn’t to rack up debt and live life large, but to work hard, stay focused, stay positive, believe in myself, persevere, dream big and be constantly mindful of all the things I already have in my life. And that doesn’t cost a thing.

Natasha is a New York-based writer covering lifestyle, spirituality and women’s issues for a variety of media outlets. Follow her on Twitter @natscript.

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