Return to Consciousness

By Abigail Hofrichter and McKenzie Merriman


Entering the Ashram

A small white house is tucked in between its neighbors, just a few feet apart. Two rectangular windows face the back yard, revealing little sign of what’s inside. The only sign of life is a red van parked among the veins of mud etched into the ground by overflow parking.

Visitors are told to enter through the back. After crossing the muddy lawn, a collection of cinder blocks serves as steps up to the wooden porch. The back door leads to a foyer the size of a twin bed lined with coat hooks. Frank Tennyson’s voice sings on the other side of a blue movers blanket, hung from the door frame to insulate the heated living space from the entry way.

Inside the kitchen, a mixture of grapes, cauliflower and cabbage sit upon a cutting board as Frank greets the first guest to his Wednesday potluck. His long, grey hair is pulled into a braid, tied with three multicolored hair bands. His eyes squint as he grins, burying his deep brown eyes under a mass of wrinkles. He stretches his arms out so his body resembles the letter T.

“You get a hug, if you would like one,” he says.

A tall man with short red hair takes his shoes off at the door and enters Frank’s embrace. Frank and the man wrap their arms around each other, and with a momentary pause, the hug is audible as Frank’s wrinkled hands rub against the man’s leather jacket. Before ending the hug, Frank pulls back a few inches, for a moment of direct eye contact. A woman approaches and this same process begins again. It goes on until all four guests have been greeted. Every so often a hum escapes from Frank’s lips.

The group lingers in the kitchen, greeting one another in the crowded space. They offer beer, dessert and other items brought for the potluck. After serving themselves, the group migrates to the living room and stands in a circle as Frank blesses the food. They sit down to eat. Amid the small talk, Frank asks how the food tastes.

“Am I hearing lots of mmms and ahhhs,” he asks. “You know the mmms and ahhhs of life are really the universal Om.”

He places his bowl on the carpet and starts to discuss the moments in life when people make these sounds. He gives examples; when someone is eating, relaxing or having sex. Little moments like these, he explains, are universal acts that connect people to each other. The group nods their heads and continues to fork cauliflower and grapes into their mouths. The meal goes on like this for the next twenty minutes. They finish eating and Frank continues to share his philosophy with his visitors, who sit cross-legged on his carpet nodding their heads.

This is a familiar scene at Frank’s home. In the fall of 2014, Frank moved into 65 Wisconsin Ave. to begin transforming the previously dilapidated home into an ashram. The term ashram traditionally refers a place of Hindu and Buddhist practice where gurus and spiritual healers study or learn from elder practitioners of the faith, similar to a monastery. For Frank, it will be a place for the spiritually inclined, or curious, to gather. He aims to create a space for people interested in mediation and communal existence to come and explore freely.

His ashram practices a mix of Buddhism, Christianity and Shamanism, as reflected in the decorations and art scattered across his home. A watercolor painting of the traditional, Christian Jesus sits above the couch. Paintings done by Ariel, his roommate, fill the walls with the faces of goddesses and Buddhist imagery. Upon the first visit to the ashram, the decorations seemed haphazard, like posters and photos in a teenagers bedroom. Over time, as more art was hung and the space was organized, it became clear that every piece had been placed intentionally. The art and memorabilia is meant to reflect the mix of cultures and practices welcome in the ashram.

Rules of the ashram hang in the hallway leading to the kitchen.

Frank

Frank began meditating in his mid-twenties.

With a wink, Frank explains how a degree in political science from The Ohio State University transitioned into a short-lived stint as a traveling comedian. Then, a mixture of failed attempts and everyday circumstances led a 20-something Frank to begin performing as a folk singer, going by the name Gentle. His travels took him to Hawaii. It was here that the locals introduced Frank to the Love Family.

Members of the Love Family had names like Zeal, Courage and Integrity. So upon hearing the name Gentle, people often assumed Frank was a member of the group. This sparked a curiosity in Frank.

Frank stands over his new juicer and recounts his years spent with the Love Family.

“I had a storied youth,” he says “and, uhh, I didn’t always have my marbles.”

His voice trails off, muffled by the rustle of the compost bucket he is dumping remnants into. The story ebbs and flows as Frank makes the juice, his memories become interrupted each time he starts a new task. He pats a layer of vegetable fiber into a thin cheesecloth.

“Its better…better,” he adds.

He squeezes the cheesecloth and a stream of juice drains from the vegetable pulp, into the bowl on the counter. Frank traces his journey to meditation back to his time with the Love family, a communal religious movement led by Paul Erdman who named himself Love Israel in essence of the groups fundamental belief: “love is real.”

“It was my first exposure to meditation,” Frank recalls.

While with the Love Family, Frank would wake at 4:30 a.m. each morning to make coffee. After a pipe was passed around to those who wanted a smoke, Love Israel would start the meditation.

Frank opens the refrigerator door in search of any remaining ingredients he can use for the juice.

“And I would notice that whenever I got to this viscous space, what I call emptiness, he would always stop the meditation and say something like ‘when the going gets tough the tough get going’ or ‘if it’s serious, it isn’t funny’,” a hiccup-like chuckle interrupts Franks story.

He closes the refrigerator door and returns to his juicer.

“So I realized all there is to meditation is chilling,” he says while picking up a chunk of ginger he forgot to add into his mixture. “He taught by example.”

Frank moved to a commune in Utah with the Love Family and, after what he vaguely describes as a number of years, made his way back to Ohio.

It is the teaching by example observed with the Love Family that led Frank to create his own ashram, The Franklinton Meditation Center, all these years later.

“I think,” he says, “if you build it they will come.”

As the ashram has grown over the course of early 2015, Frank seems to be right. In January, the group for guided meditations on Saturday afternoons would range in size from two to five people. The weekly meditations now range from four to twenty guests. As the rooms have been cleaned and organized, and the space has been decorated with tye-dyed tapestries, wind chimes and plush seating, Frank’s vision of the ashram is coming to fruition.

Ariel

A group of community members is gathered for a meditation at the ashram on a chilly Saturday in January.

Frank’s roommate, Ariel, asks to lead the first meditation of the day. The circle that sits in the living room of the ashram is made up of six people: Karena, a middle-aged brunette; Jabari, a 20-something black man in a navy blue and white striped hemp sweater; Ariel, in a lavender outfit with the singing bowl in front of her; and Criss and Carrie, a young couple who joins the circle fifteen minutes into the meditation and, of course, Frank.

“I would like to guide you all into a state of the thoughtless mind,” Ariel begins. She focuses the group. “Breathing in the space, the vibrations, choosing to breathe in any tension, deep through your lungs, and release it like a cloud of black smoke out through your mouth, just release it. You were never connected to it, it was never a part of you.”

Frank’s throaty laughter pierces the otherwise quiet air. He continues to laugh, eventually ending with a relaxed “ahhh.”. Explosions of sound like this are common during guided mediation, especially from Frank. Whoever is leading the meditation often pauses, allowing the sounds to be expressed, and then continues on disrupted. Frank says involuntary vocalizations such as this are a sign that you’ve reached your heart space, which, to put it simply, is a good thing.

Frank describes the heart space as a place where a person is being love and living as an expression of love. In other words, sudden sounds and expressions are a sign of deep meditation.

Ariel continues, focusing on the pineal gland, also known as the third eye. She describes seeing the space felt around you, even with two eyes closed. Another sound, a low humm this time, rumbles from Frank.

“Feel the sharing of this space, paying attention to the point of light on your third eye…breathe in this expression,” always bringing the group back to their breath, Ariel describes how an awareness of space leads to an awareness of thoughts, which ultimately informs the way humans interact with the physical world.

She ends with a “namaste.”

As a place of community and healing, the ashram has connected a web of people who are motivated by the ideals of compassion and mindful living. Ariel is just one of the many people whose lifestyle has been transformed through this practice of meditation.

Frank often invites Ariel to lead these meditations either before or after his. He introduces her with what seems to be grand admiration. His voice is lower and louder than usual as he addressed the circle. “We are very lucky to have a young master here with us,” he says.

Ariel, 21, came to live with Frank when she was 19 in the hopes of fostering her painting career and spiritual future. The two met at a music and arts festival, Frank recalled, while neither were able to remember a precise location or date.

Frank recalls dancing in a group of people when he and Ariel made eye contact. The two stopped dancing and approached one another. The strangers hugged.

“And we just kept hugging,” Franks laughs. “We probably hugged for five minutes.”

This memory seems to be much more prominent in Frank’s memory than Ariel’s. About a week after Frank told this story, Ariel sat in the kitchen and tried to think about meeting Frank, “it was probably at some festival or something, I’m not really sure,” she said.

Ariel is a live painter, meaning she paints as a form of performance, creating her pieces for those interested in watching at music and art festivals. She identifies herself as a psychic and a shaman, which is a person in Native American or North Asian cultures who has access to spirits and acts as a healer, and says her creative work is an reflection of these spiritual connections, coming from visions and interactions with the earth and different higher beings.

Living with Frank, Ariel has used his teachings to heal herself spiritually and grow her art business.

“I’d have done the same thing anywhere I lived,” she says, sitting on a stool beside an art desk Frank built for her the week before, “but being here with someone who has encouraged that and provided that is only going to help me.”

Frank and Ariel work together in achieving their own goals in the ashram. Frank has been supporting Ariel’s painting both literally, through trips to the art store and networking with potential customers, and figuratively, encouraging exploration of her spiritual side. Living here, she says, is guiding her to better understanding herself which is manifested through her artwork.

Ariel Esterline sits among her paintings and artwork.

“We’re all working in harmony and co-creation,” she says. Ariel explains three main improvements she has noticed in her life since living with Frank: her patience, her self-awareness and learning how to price her paintings. She equally prioritizes spiritual qualities and practical business skills. To Ariel, these things go hand-in-hand.

“The only things I’ve grown from are things I needed to be healed from,” she says. Ariel has spent the past three years practicing meditation, leading meditations, doing yoga and fostering her painting career. “I was looking outward for something I needed and it wasn’t there,” she says. “It was boys, you know, I didn’t have a father and the father I did have was only a disciplinarian.”

Her time with Frank and the meditation community as a whole has taught Ariel the self-love and awareness necessary to move beyond her past hinderances, and better understand how she can fulfill her own needs and pursue her passion for painting in the Columbus community.

Since becoming aware of these things, Ariel found herself in a space of self-actualization, which has directly transformed her approach to art work. Ariel says she’s learned to understand the deep connection she feels to gender, higher powers and nature. It was through exploring her relationship with her past, her family, and her current surroundings that she was able to understand that intense connection she feels, she says. Many of her painting feature abstract combinations of female silhouettes or faces emerging from what looks like air, water or elements of nature.

“Just make sure you are always giving appreciation to the hands of creation, and the creativity that is expanding within you,” Ariel advises, both for art and spiritual growth, “[Give] acknowledgement of life and divine source as it grows, and you begin to grow in your creativity.”

Greg

A leader who has been transformed through regular practice of mediation and mindfulness, Greg Deitrich is a frequent guest at the ashram. An active member of Columbus’ metaphysical community, Greg also leads his own meditations and healings with a group called Evolver Columbus.

One of those events took place on Feb. 18.

Seven people sit in a circle on a rectangular segment of red shag rug, tucked in the corner of a room. Through the hallway on the other side of the light blue, dividing walls is Pearls of Wisdom shop and meditation center.

They are celebrating the new moon and the rise of Aquarius, an astrological celebration of the moon entering the Aquarius constellation. Greg Dietrich’s voice fights to be heard over the industrial grind of a fan. Sitting at the corner of the mat surrounded by a collection of crystals, tarot cards, candles, loose paper and electronics, he rocks back and forth as the group chats and waits for the night to begin.

They begin the celebration by going around the circle and making introductions: name, astrological sign, moon sign. One man admits he does not know his moon sign, as astrology is new to him. The room erupts in a chatter, attempting to guide him on the astrology learning curve.

Greg stutters as he regains the group’s attention. “So now that we’re all comfortable, I thought we’d start with a meditation to sort of set the mood for the rest of the evening,”

A smile spreads across his face as he begins to lead the group through visualization.

“Visualization can be really helpful in the mediation process because our mind constantly wants to shift back to words,” he says. If you consciously use your imagination, and you explore a forest, you’re less likely to use words all the time to explain and label things.”

He adjusts his posture, straightening his spine and draws a deep, audible breath. His voice grows louder and more steady than normal, like a parishioner reading the liturgy in church. He begins the visualization, reading a passage off of a piece of paper.

“Find yourself emerging into a green haze,” Greg begins. “You walk on with steady stride and find yourself walking towards woodland hazed with the blush of early spring.”

Greg continues to read the passage about a woman in the field who emerges into a pool and washes the group with water. The group sits still throughout the visualization, most in a cross legged seat still with palms facing the sky. One woman is stretched out on her stomach with her head on her arms.

“Then everything stops. There is silence; the waters of the pool are stilled,” Greg reads as he brings the room back to consciousness. “…the water bearer has vanished, leaving no sign of her presence. You step from the pool.”

The visualization ends and the group begins to discuss what they’ve experienced.

Frank often sends people to Greg’s events. Together, Frank and Greg have coordinated a number of outings and events for the metaphysical community. Through his involvement with people like Frank, Greg has been able to share his meditation with a greater community of individuals, a community that didn’t seem as large to him before. Building these connections, he says, has helped turn Greg’s love and appreciation of the spiritual community into a career.

Greg has been running meditations and astrological events with Evolver Columbus for a few years and just recently, in February of 2015, launched a brick-and-mortar and online shop selling Kratom, a plant used for medicinal purposes and a mood stimulant. His interest in alternative medicines, psychedelics and meditaiton began in his late teens and early twenties, in the process of kicking a herion addiction.

Greg explains his journey to meditation while sitting in a swivel chair, leafing through old notes from prison.

The desktop computer in the bedroom plays electronic synth-pop music. Greg’s sing-song voice recites the lyrics he wrote; “I’ve been places in my life no one should ever have to be, but you have to know true suffering for true serenity… ” The song quiets as Greg turns the volume down. “I really believe that, because it’s all state of mind, it’s all attitude,” he says. The song is one of many produced and performed by Greg, based on the poetry he wrote while in prison during his early 20s.

When Greg was first imprisoned, he was a 19-year-old heroin addict. He says his time in prison opened his eyes to the way he was taught to see the world, and the real world impact of his negative mindset.

“I choose to hate life, to hate myself and to be miserable,” he says. “This is what I was doing when I was on heroin, but through mindfulness and meditation, the negative thoughts happened less and less through meditation. I think we can be more aware of the types of things that we think about.”

He reflects on this while still flipping through him poems and memoir notes written on yellow loose leaf. “For instance, when I would sit in meditation practice, the idea is to not have thoughts rush to your head, but they will ultimately pop up.”

A poem Greg wrote in prison, transcribed on a box he uses for keepsakes.

Greg’s time away from the negative societal influences in his life helped him tap into his ability to control his own thoughts and impulses. He also began writing and making music more as a result. As he developed his own practice of mediation, Greg says he discovered his creative essence through writing.

“It was like a death and rebirth process,” he says.

Finally done fidgeting with papers, Greg files away his binder. He swivels in his chair and faces the room. “To me, the purpose of meditation is to stop the ceaseless flow of thought that passes through our awareness,” he says. “All those thoughts are just influences from the world around us.”

Meditating with Frank

It is a Saturday at 4 p.m., and like almost every other Saturday, people have come to the ashram to meditate.

A circle of people lounges on the carpeted floor of the ashram as Frank’s voice guides the group into meditation.

“When the yogis all say ‘watch your breath’ it’s because breath is sacred,” he says.

Frank loudly sucks air in from the room with his lips shaped like an O through his wiry white beard. He exhales with another bout of laughter.

“So let’s whoosh is in.” The entire group follows Frank’s lead, sucking air into their lungs with rounded mouths.

“Push it back out.”

A rush of audible breaths escapes the group, pushing the air out like a child imitating the sound of a plane.

The circle continues to suck the air in and force it out; breathing at their own pace but with equal intensity. As the sounds grow louder and clearer, Frank invites the circle to turn their “ahhhs” into compassionate “awws”.

“Give your inner child some compassion right here, we’re gonna do some healing on that inner child,” he instructs, letting out an “aww”.

The difference between the sounds becomes obvious as Frank demonstrates. His voice is now higher pitched than before and he places an inflection on the end as people often do when talking to a dog or small child.

The seven different voices in the room mimic this sound.

“And now the adult,” Frank cues. This round of sounds more exhausted and pitiful as the sounds come and go quickly and without nearly as much emphasis as before. “The adults are particularly struggling, huh?” he notes softly, “Let’s give ourselves a compassionate aww”

The circle croons with a little more warmth than the last time, and the awws begin to dissolve into laughter, an Om Frank vocalizes throughout his entire practice.

To complete the meditation, Frank splits the group into pairs and invites those gathered in the ashram to send beams of love to their partners through eye contact alone. He demonstrates this process first, grabbing the woman sitting to his left. He begins making intense eye contact with the woman, she stares back quietly while standing on her knees to be at eye level. As they finish, she nods her head and sits back down. Frank takes a moment to explain this. He says it is a good thing when people break the silence. This happens in a moment when the participants feels the love from their partner, according to Frank.

“Thank you,” one voice whispers.

“You are so full of love,” a man tells his partner, whose name he had learned only minutes before.

Each person sends their message of ‘I love you’ differently, it seems. As the pairs rearrange until everyone has gotten the chance to stare into the eyes of everyone in the room, some fall quiet while others chat and giggle. Frank’s voice humms as he makes connections with each of the participants, his smiling eyes almost disappearing into his wrinkled face.

The meditation comes to an end, and people head back to their original seats. There is gratitude being expressed through words now, paired with hugs, high fives and pats on the back. This last exercise seemes to have broken any barriers of unknowing the group had when they entered the home. As Frank explains, each person has gotten the opportunity to love and be loved after an hour filled with meditation and mindful awareness, even if just for a moment.

“Love is all there is,” Frank says, humming to himself.

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