Cabins at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck; Photo: Omega Institute for Holistic Studies
The Ram Dass Library
is silent except for a click-clack rhythm that gets louder as I climb the steps to the children's section. I almost step on a woman lying on the floor with her ankles in a machine that moves her feet and legs back and forth. Eyes closed, her lower body shimmies like a mermaid shedding its tail. "It's a chi machine," whispers the librarian. It oxygenates, tones, and strengthens the body, stimulating the lymph systems and balancing the spine. Downstairs in each book alcove, people are draped like cats on window seats. This is my idea of the perfect workout--15 minutes of lying on my back with my feet on a jiggling machine, followed by an hour of vigorous reading.
I'm at Omega Institute for Holistic Studies
in Rhinebeck, New York, about 2 hours north of Manhattan. Open April through October, it is the perfect summer camp for adventures in chanting, yoga, meditation, Buddhist studies, sexual awakening, and much more. Omega's Genesis story is that, in the beginning, three Sufis chose a Yiddish cultural summer camp that was formerly a Shaker settlement as the location for an experiment in lifelong learning. The result is an eclectic and ecumenical environment.
Participants are housed in gray wood cabins and cottages with shared bathrooms (thank goodness no latrines). There are trails through the woods, a picture-perfect lake where hammocks are slung under trees and boats are available for paddling, and a serene meditation center called the Sanctuary, with reflecting ponds and rock gardens.
I feel like I'm in a time warp. The strangers smiling at me as we shuffle down the hill and through the garden path to the dining hall remind me of my best friends from the seventies. Women my age have a natural appearance and eyeball each other with curiosity and confidence. Younger people look like we did in college. Except no one is smoking weed. Slogans start coming back: Question authority. Make love not war.
The dining hall is classic cafeteria-style, except the food is vegetarian fare like scrambled tofu with wild mushrooms for breakfast and fried tofu with butternut squash for dinner. The first night I sit with George, a fit and wiry man in his 70s who lives in nearby Germantown. A former butcher and prison official, George hardly seems like the kind of person to sign up for a workshop on 10 Transformative Practices for Enlightened Living, but he comes to Omega twice a year.
In my Heart of Chanting class, taught by Robert Gass
, we progress to chanting "OM" 99 times. I try to catalog the sounds I hear in the vibrations of our voices--a beehive, jet, jaw harp, didgereedoo, bassoon, steam whistle, groaning, the words "home" and "womb." I get images of the slow footsteps of a giant tortoise, a rotating egg, a cave in the face of a mountain. Robert talks about the concept of entrainment--when we chant Om, we create a vibration that attunes to cosmic vibration and we start thinking universally. When a bird chirps as we finish, it seems to come from some collective heart.
That night fireflies flash their tiny golden lanterns in the flowers across from my cottage and I remember my parents' voices outside my bedroom window on summer night as they talked on the porch. Do I hear moth wings beating under my porch light or is it the heart of the universe?