After a creative journey of three and a half years, the feature film Finding Happiness was released this fall. The docudrama tells the story of Nevada City, California’s Ananda Village, a multi-denominational spiritual community based on the ideals of Indian yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. I had the chance to speak with Executive Producer and Ananda citizen Shivani Lucki, about what life is like within an Ananda community.
Ananda has come far since its minimalist beginnings. Shivani first came in contact with Swami Kriyananda, the founder of Ananda Village, after he had just bought the property, which has since become a thriving community that has doctors, businesses and provides schooling up to and including the high school level. Having recently dropped out of law school, Shivani went to live in the first Ananda community at 24 years old. There were no buildings to live in at the time, so citizens had to build their own tepees. Shivani recalls that before her tepee was built, her first “home” was a sleeping bag on a bunch of pine needles underneath a tree. Inspired by Kriyananda, who raised the young people of his community as if they were his own family, she decided to stick around.
Fast forward nearly 50 years later, and there are now 10 Ananda communities in three countries, including the Assisi community in Italy, which Shivani has lived in for 30 years. The third country with an Ananda presence is India. Although all the Ananda communities differ somewhat physically, based on their geographic locations, they’re all based on the same ideals. They welcome people of various faiths who worship various gods, as long as they’re devoted to living empathetic lifestyles and spiritual progression.
Shivani believes that the transformation people undergo while living in Ananda communities must happen from the inside out. Allowing each individual to retain a distinct identity from that of the group as a whole is also of great importance. Therefore, the communities focus less on changing people’s external behaviours and more on encouraging them to develop positive attitudes. Once they develop positive attitudes, they naturally start behaving in ways that bring the maximum amount of happiness and peace to themselves and others. In Shivani’s own words, “When you change, your whole world changes.” She goes on to say that one of the first things taught to children is that “co-operation works, and it works for everyone, and everyone can win.”
Ananda communities have very few rules and restrictions. Members can travel outside of the communities whenever they choose. Although a vegetarian diet must be consumed in public places, Ananda citizens are free to eat meat in their own homes. While the Nayaswami monks (part of a monastic order founded by Kriyananda) wear robes, ordinary citizens are allowed to dress however they choose; most of those residing in the California village tend to go with typical American clothing. The only things Ananda citizens are not allowed to do is consume alcohol or other drugs, since it’s believed that doing so will interfere with their happiness and spiritual growth.
Most people who come to live in an Ananda community thrive and end up staying for many years, especially since its leaders do their best to accommodate each person’s needs. Shivani can recall only one time someone was asked to leave the association of communities altogether.
So, if Ananda’s such a paradise, can we all just pack our bags and go live there? Not exactly. While Ananda welcomes visitors for both short and extended periods of time, there’s a selection process individuals must go through if they decide that they want to become official residents. Perhaps this selection process is what guarantees that the vast majority of people who do become members remain satisfied with their lives, since this, along with the extended visits permitted, allows individuals who may not fit in at Ananda to identify themselves as such and pursue other alternatives.
If someone decides an Ananda community isn’t for them, Kriyananda said that anyone can create their own community, even if it’s just a retreat for a group of friends. Shivani understands that besides simply being more pleasant, life becomes much easier for us to navigate when we have the support of a community. With the lack of compassion present in the world these days, it’s inspiring to see how Ananda communitarians come together and support each other. Their camaraderie is reflected by Yogananda’s well-known statement, “There is a magnet in your heart that will attract true friends. That magnet is unselfishness, thinking of others first; when you learn to live for others, they will live for you.”
Considering this quotation, it’s not difficult to understand why the main character from the movie, Juliet (who represents a typical non-spiritual citizen of the Western world), would be skeptical of, and initially a bit uncomfortable with a community like Ananda. In today’s society, people are normally encouraged to keep quite a bit of emotional distance between themselves and their neighbours, and think of their own needs and goals before they think of those of anyone else. However, this leaves many people feeling unsupported, isolated and depressed.
While we can’t all become members of Ananda, we can all incorporate Yogananda’s idea of unselfishness into our own lives, wherever we reside. Even trying to help others, whether friends or strangers, a couple of times a week will allow us to generate a bit of the atmosphere of fellowship and support that’s a hallmark of the Ananda communities. Of course, this will seem so foreign to some people that they may reject our support with hostility, but chances are, there will also be many individuals who are grateful for the opportunity to build a bridge of friendship with another. Yogananda himself would agree with the latter idea, as he has also said, “The happiness of one’s own heart alone cannot satisfy the soul.”
For more information
Official Ananda website: Learn more about the communities, classes and retreats, with the option of taking a Free Intro to Meditation course online.
Crystal Clarity Publishers: Swami Kriyananda wrote 150 books over his lifetime, many of which are available here. For anyone who is interesting in learning more about community living, Lucki recommends Hope for a Better World: The Small Communities Solution.
Continue The Journey: Find out even more about Ananda and its values and activities here.
Learn more about living in a spiritual community in KARMA YOGA: Wearing away the ego, one toilet at a time>>
image 1: William Baker Photography; image 2: Andrea Roach