Odysseys for the Soul



by Margaret Bendet

At 21, with a new journalism degree and a hundred dollars in my pocket, I flew to Hawaii to be in a former roommate’s wedding. My plan was to start a new life, as far as possible from Evanston, Illinois, where I’d gone to school, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I’d spent my formative years and where my parents were then living. In Hawaii I faced survival challenges, joined the working press, embarked on romantic adventures, learned to snorkel, drank wine on the beach, married, bought a cottage, gardened, took in two cats . . . After eight years, even though my life seemed to be exactly what I’d set out to find, I came to the understanding that it wasn’t working for me. Why?

Let me tell you a little story. It comes from the Yoga Vasishtha, which, like other Indian scriptures, is full of tales describing the human condition. This one is called “The Story of the Great Forest.” In it a celestial being, walking in a vast wooded expanse, encounters a restless creature with a thousand arms and legs. Though there is no one else around, the creature is clearly frightened. He’s armed with a mace, and he’s hitting himself with it. The creature bellows and weeps and runs to hide — from himself!

Seeing this endless cycle of pain, the celestial takes compassion on the creature. With the strength of his will, he restrains the creature long enough to ask, “Who are you?” At this, the creature becomes frantic with terror. He turns his abuse on the celestial, calls him vile names, sneers at him. Left on his own again, the creature continues his self-destructive behavior.

Occasionally, in this forest the celestial encounters a creature who responds to the question and contemplates his own bleak condition. Such a one, the scripture says, can find freedom.

As with all parables, everything in the story is a symbol: The forest is the circumstance of our lives, and the creature is our own mind, the nervous trickster that creates enmity and strife for us where none need exist. That’s what my mind was doing to me.

I didn’t know this parable at the time, but I, by age 29, had come to understand that I was a primary cause of my own discontent. So, when I did an interview for the newspaper with a visiting master of meditation, I was ready to hear his wisdom, put down my mace (so to speak), and follow him. That journey, which became its own great forest — which became the new circumstance of my life — lasted for about 35 years. To still my mind, I meditated, chanted God’s name, read sacred texts, but I also edited a monthly magazine and later a Web site; I worked on course scripts and the sorts of written communications a nonprofit sends its various supporters.

Then at age 63, I embarked on a journey of re-entry. I left my teacher’s ashram and went to an island — not Hawaii this time but another island, in the Pacific Northwest — to begin yet another new life. This was an unexpected journey. There were a number of us in the ashram who had hoped to serve as pillars for the work, to give the whole of our lives for its support. Some are still in the ashram doing just that; others, like myself, found we needed to move on.

My departure from the ashram was even more of a pilgrimage than moving into it had been — I think because I now knew so much more about how to be on a journey of discovery, what to do so that I might better learn from it.


For me the most crucial step was realizing I would embark on a journey at all. This was a matter of listening. Leaving the ashram wasn’t a new topic for me. Over the years I’d had hundreds of conversations about leaving the ashram — about the possibility that I might leave and the fact that various other people were leaving. An ashram is a place of refuge, a place of spiritual practice and study, a place of service, but generally it isn’t a place where anyone other than a monk spends the rest of their life. At one point or another, most of my colleagues and closest friends had left the ashram to start new careers, care for parents, raise children, explore the arts, and so on. I sent them off with gifts and kisses and well wishes; in many cases I kept in touch, but my basic attitude was there but for the grace of God . . . I thought if I could be strong enough, I’d be able to stay.

At the entrance of a temple in an ashram in India (ca. 1989).
Move cursor over image to see picture from 1975.

One day before the noon chant I heard something else. My teacher — the successor to the first teacher I had followed — came to the chant and, walking to her seat, paused to question a four-year-old boy. The child’s best friend, a six-year-old, had recently left with her parents to return home to France. Did the boy miss his friend? Had he written to her? Oh, so he had called her. Was it fun to talk with her on the phone? Was it like being with her?

In this back-and-forth, I observed that my teacher was speaking about people who had just left the ashram. Then I heard, as a thought, It’s time for you to go.

This message was as clear as any oral or written instruction I have ever received. The inner direction may have come before, but this was the first time I’d heard it. If I hadn’t heard it on that day, I’m certain it would have come again . . . and again . . . each time more strongly until, finally, the message would be given in some way that I had to hear it.

In my observation, it’s easier to follow instructions that come from inside myself than it is those delivered aloud by virtually anyone else. It’s as if, for me, spoken words are a kind of bludgeon. I don’t know why that is. It isn’t that I thought I had any real choice about this inner message. I saw It’s time for you to go not as an invitation but as a command, a call to action.

At the same time, that’s all it was. With years of practice in meditation — practice in watching my own mind — I was able to take in this instruction without the emotional freight I might once have attached to it. It’s time for you to go didn’t mean I had failed or was less worthy than those who were staying; it didn’t raise in me a fear about what would happen to me next or flood me with questions about what I would do to support myself. And It’s time for you to go didn’t mean in this very minute!

Actually, that I was able to hear this instruction as I did, coming from inside, may have meant that I had a more gracious length of time to plan my journey. I spoke to my supervisor that afternoon and the human resources department the next morning, but it was fully a year before I drove away from the ashram in my capriciously overstuffed car. By then I’d had plenty of time to prepare — to decide, for instance, where I might go. For that I had to do a bit of looking.


Many of my friends who’ve made a big move in their sixties have done so in order to be with family: parents, children, grandchildren. In other words, there was no question where they’d be going. This was not true for me. My own parents were gone; I had no children; I was fond of my only brother but not close to him. For years I’d thought of the ashram as home, and what I needed now was a new home. I needed to be able to support myself as well, but finding a place to live was my main task. The question was what to look for?

A New York couple I know tried the esoteric field of astrocartography, hiring someone to cast their astrological chart in reference to geography. They asked the astrologer, Where is the most auspicious place for us to live?

The answer was Brazil.

But if they moved to Brazil, my friends said, they wouldn’t know the language and, besides, they would never be able to see their grandchildren again.

“In that case,” they were told, “you could live in Nova Scotia.”

They scrapped astrocartography and opted for upstate New York, where they have lived happily for the last 15 years.

As I considered what was most important for me, I saw I wasn’t going to become someone else on this journey. What had mattered to me for the last 35 years was still going to matter: I needed a place where I’d be supported in my meditation. That meant the place should be beautiful but not so beautiful that hordes of people live there. It should be quiet but close to culture and not so small it’s provincial. And the local people should be friendly to others who aren’t exactly like themselves — to those, say, who’ve lived for three and a half decades in an ashram. They should be willing to think of such people as family.

In two trips, I looked at four places. By looking I mean that I stayed with friends, did some work, negotiated highways, went for walks, ate out, visited meditation centers, and asked everyone I met how they felt about living there. So, actually I looked and listened. When I told a young man behind an airport coffee counter I was thinking about moving to that city, he said, “Why would you want to do that?” He meant it.

In the last place I went — Whidbey Island in Washington State — I was just planning to visit a friend. I hadn’t seriously considered Whidbey. This forested island is exquisite but too small, too rural; I’d never be able to support myself there. And yet, ultimately, that was where I wanted to live. What clinched it was when my friend, a retired professor, told me, “If I were moving to a city today, I have no idea how I’d make new friends. On Whidbey you see someone at the post office, you see them at the market, you talk to them at a meeting — and suddenly you know that person. It’s organic.” That’s what I was looking for: organic.


I was driving from New York to Washington by the northernmost U.S. route. I had driven cross-country before, several times and alone, but never in a car that groaned under its load; never with a backseat piled so high the rear-view mirror was useless for anything but putting on lipstick; never with a trunk full of electronics I didn’t yet know how to operate; never with a just-potted cutting from a night-blooming cereus; and never, never, never had I traveled with a cat.

That’s right: a cat. This was Softy, a stray who had been so named by her first ashram owner, a seven-year-old girl, and who had then adopted two successive patrons. Softy was a beauty: a long-haired, black-and-white “tuxedo” cat with a wide face and a regal manner. I was Softy’s last patron, and the ashram managers were eager that the cat leave when I did. I was delighted to take her along. We’d been together about two years, and I was bonded.

I got a wire carrier for her to travel in and left it out the week before our trip. Softy showed no interest. I arranged the carrier in a cozy spot in the backseat, wedged between decorative pillows and a blue and white vase with yellow silk forsythia. Softy was unimpressed. When I forcibly put her into the carrier — as I felt I had to do — it occurred to me that this was not in the agreement the cat and I’d had about living together. Never before had I shut her into a cage.

Softy was a vocal cat, and right away she let me know she didn’t share my sense of adventure about our road trip. For a while I tried holding her in my lap as I drove, but that turned out to be dangerous. We didn’t get far that first day; it was hard to drive with the wail from the backseat.

On the second morning, I pulled into a wooded rest stop in Pennsylvania with the idea that this was something Softy would enjoy. As soon as we stepped out of the car, a dog’s bark came from about ten yards away. In a split second, I was holding the new cat leash, the new cat halter hanging limply from the end. Softy was gone.

The rest stop was set in a forest and, except for the highway itself, all I could see were trees: Softy could be anywhere. At one end of the parking area was a phalanx of construction trucks with a roaring, rig-mounted jackhammer: no enticement for a frightened cat. Softy wasn’t going to come to me; so I looked for Softy. I raked the woods, peered behind bushes and up into branches; crooned, “Softy, here Softy” (as if she had ever come when called); reminded myself to breathe; attempted pacts with divine powers . . . It was my own version of “The Story of the Great Forest.” All the while there was an ache in the pit of my belly, as if a part of me had gone missing. Still, there came a point after about three hours when I knew I had to go on. Without Softy.

I don’t want to downplay my role in this drama. I had not taken adequate care of an animal for which I had responsibility, and, despite my anguish, it was the animal that would pay the greatest price. This aging housecat, tough and bright though she was, would not survive long in the forest. And yet I also knew I, myself, might not survive in the great forest. This was August 2008, and I was driving into what looked like the brink of a national economic meltdown. My resources were limited; I couldn’t afford to stay for days looking for Softy. If I was going to move, I had to do just that: I had to move on.

And I had to move on internally as well. Of course I’d made a mistake. I’d made several. But isn’t it our mistakes we’re most likely to beat ourselves up about? Mistakes are no reason to get out our mace. Mourning is one thing, self-castigation altogether another.

I spent a bleak second night on the road, by now in Ohio. The next morning I saw that I’d be ending that day’s drive in Chicago — where, with luck, I could stop and see a friend. I called her from the road. Yes, she would love to have me stay. That night I had the luxury of a warm, supportive shoulder as I recharged, replenished stores, and repacked the car. The following day, I was able to start my journey afresh.

Reach Out

I found that life on the road requires a precision with objects that I, a wordsmith, had never developed. I found that, to adapt a phrase, stuff happened. Stuff like losing my car keys in Ohio, dropping a credit card at a Starbucks in Minnesota, leaving my purse (with all my identification and money) on a picnic table in the badlands of North Dakota. With each mishap, my stomach would clench — and then, as one in the forest must, I did what was needed. Courtesy of AAA, I got the car towed to a dealer who could make new keys; I canceled the missing credit card and was glad I carried another; and the badlands didn’t turn out to be so bad after all. A woman who noticed me looking for my purse told me, “The park ranger has it; I turned it in at the office.”

After I’d been on Whidbey Island a couple of months, I fell and broke my arm, which, because I was living alone, I found to be a particular trial. About this time, I had a dream in which I was looking for a button to push. I needed to push a certain button, and I simply had to find this button. As I was coming out of sleep, I realized that I was looking for the button that would make everything all right. I woke up laughing — because, of course, there is no such button.

A Memoir Coaching class at the South Whidbey Center

There was never a guarantee that my adventure would turn out “all right” — meaning, the way I wanted it to. But I’ve noticed that every time something goes “wrong,” I have an opportunity to become more conscious and — just as significant — to have a new kind of interaction with the people around me, sometimes with total strangers. When I broke my arm, members of the meditation group on Whidbey, several of whom I had just met, brought me meals; others went with me to my medical appointments. “This is what friends do,” one woman said to me, and she’s had occasion to say it several times since, because over the last few years she’s been an enormous help to me. Hopefully, from time to time, I have been for her as well.

So, my most significant strategy on this journey of discovery has been to reach out. To this end I took a part-time job in the local library; joined a community choir; moved to a village where I can walk to many of the things I like doing; and adopted a gregarious dog who takes me out for daily walks. These are choices I didn’t know to make in my twenties when I moved to that other island. This time I am finding what’s right for me. It’s a gift that is, I think, not uncommon for those who have sought, as we all must one day, a way to calm the creature in the great forest.

Years ago my meditation master said that each of us had come to the ashram in order to receive something — “something to take with you when you leave,” he said, “something you can eat along the way.” This is what we all want for our journeys.

Margaret Bendet, an award-winning writer and editor, who also teaches classes in memoir. For nine years the chief interviewer for an international oral history collection, she specializes in drawing out people’s best stories, helping them present those stories effectively and contemplate what the stories mean to them. Margaret has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. For ten years she was a member of the working press, and in the past 30 years she has edited a monthly yoga magazine and a number of books. She can be contacted at MargaretBendet@gmail.com. Her Web site is at MargaretBendet.com.