Friday, February 29, 2008

Planning

When I began to plan how I was going to attend Center meetings twice a week without my dad's knowledge, I didn't know the operational difference between a covert op and a clandestine one.

As I would learn years later as a naval intelligence trainee, when an operation is covert, only the operator remains secret -- the target country knows something happened (like a facility is bombed) -- but it doesn't know who bombed it. Plausible deniability is the watchword of covert operations.

A clandestine op, however, never happened. That's the plan anyway. Before, during and after the operation, the target country is blissfully unaware that anything is happening. That's what I was shooting for and I took inspiration from my favorite fictional spy at the time: Quiller. Dad introduced me to Quiller. Ironic.

Quiller is a loner, he's introspective, and he never carries a gun. He's old school. Unlike James Bond (or more humorously Maxwell Smart, pictured), Quiller relies upon tradecraft, not gadgets. Before any mission, Quiller thinks out all the angles, all the possibilities, and then acts. Quiller is nothing if not decisive.

On paper, my mission was simple: get to and from meditations on Wednesday and Sunday nights undetected. In practice, however, it was dicey. While the San Jose Center meeting on Wednesday nights was nearby, the Sunday Center meeting was held in San Francisco, a solid hour drive north one way.

On Wednesdays, I decided to make my way to the Center on foot. Before disappearing from home for the evening, I would make my presence known downstairs; let dad see me hanging around. Then, just before 6:30 p.m., I'd head upstairs to my room, pack my white meditation clothes, a towel, and some toiletries into a backpack, change into my running togs, and slip out my brother's second story bedroom window.

I'd run the 2.5 miles to the Center, shower, and be ready for meditation at 7:30 p.m. An hour later, I'd hitch a ride back home with one of the other disciples and sneak back into the house via my brother's window. I'd be home by 9:00 p.m. -- two and a half hours max.

San Francisco was much riskier. I'd pack my clothes and extract out of dad's house the same way, but I had to do it earlier: at 6:00 p.m. Rick -- who truly went above and beyond the call of duty -- would then pick me up a block away for the drive to S.F. Meditation there went from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., followed by a light dinner cooked by disciples. We'd begin our drive back home at about 9:00 p.m. I wouldn't sneak back into the house until near 10:30 p.m. -- a full four and a half hours later.

I was certain to get caught eventually, but like Quiller, I knew the risks, did the best to minimize them, and then got on with the job.

This would be my routine for the next eight months, until I graduated school for good the following June. I never got caught. Thanks to a dad who was working full-time as a cop and then moonlighting just about every night at the local hospital emergency room. Thanks to some good cover work by my younger brother (more about him later). Thanks to Divine intervention.

Whatever the reason, I never missed another Center meeting.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tightening the Screws

The bad news for me didn't end with Charlie's departure.

While my high school issued grades only at the end of each semester, it issued progress reports at mid-term. I got mine that fall (1982). Dad wasn't pleased.

He immediately revoked my driving privileges. No problem. I could deal with that. Inconvenient, sure. But my driving privileges were revoked with regularity (and later reinstated) each time my grades came out. Dad, however, took it to another level: he also restricted me to the house on school nights.

In effect, this meant that I couldn't go to meditation on Wednesday nights at the new San Jose Center. I was upset, obviously, but I didn't go ballistic at that moment. In part, I had a sense that things would work out. I took comfort in Swami Yogananda's story. He, too, faced pressure from his father to pay more attention to his studies. While Swami Yogananda was uncompromising in his devotions -- despite his father's pressure -- Sri Yukteswar (pictured) promised him he'd graduate from college as long as Yogananda did the minimum and sat for his exams.

"Cheer up, Mukunda." Sri Yukteswar's tones were light and unconcerned. He pointed to the blue vault of the heavens. "It is more possible for the sun and moon to interchange their positions in space than it is for you to fail in getting your degree!" (Click here for the story.)

Another reason I didn't immediately blow my stack at dad's new edict was that I had something to look forward to that weekend and I had an immediate way to strike back. First off, I had been scheduled to take the SAT exam that Saturday. As far as I was concerned, that was now off the table. While I wouldn't tell dad, there was no way I would sit for that exam. Second, Joy Days were scheduled that weekend.

Joy Days was a monthly occurrence amongst the California disciples. Each month the disciples were encouraged to descend upon one of the Centers in the State (either in San Diego, L.A., Santa Barbara, San Jose, or San Francisco) for a weekend of fun and camaraderie. Guru really encouraged the idea and Joy Days were typically attended by the more enthusiastic disciples. As a rule, I really enjoyed Joy Days and that month they were held in San Jose for the very first time.

So, I'd secretly stick it to dad by bailing on the SAT and, instead, enjoy myself at Joy Days. That would also give me time to figure out how to solve my dilemma about Wednesday night meditations. Just like Swami Yogananda, I could count -- I thought -- on some kind of Divine intervention.

As expected, Joy Days was great. I was out of the house for most of the weekend and when I saw dad on Sunday afternoon, I happily reported to him that "the SAT wasn't as hard as I thought it would be." He seemed pleased until he saw me headed out the door again about an hour later, showered up and in my meditation whites.

"Where are you going," he asked.

"I'm going to meditation."

"No you're not. You have school tomorrow."

Gulp. He was right. It had never occurred to me. Sunday was, technically, a school night. As I stood there in the doorway, realization dawning on me, I could no longer contain myself. I blew my stack. In my anger, I promised dad that when I graduated high school the following June, I'd be out of his house immediately and permanently. I stalked upstairs to my room in a rage.

The final blow came a few hours later. I got a phone call from one of the disciples. He said that Guru had called the Center that night after the meditation and had spoken to each person individually.

I hung up. Cried in frustration. Then began planning.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Goodbye

September 1982 brought the beginning of my last year of high school (and as far as I was concerned, the last year of school for me, period). Coming as it did in the wake of my first trip to New York and Guru's kind words to me, it should have been a happy time. But it wasn't.

With the start of our senior year, Charlie -- like his brother Dave -- began drifting away from the Center.

The rule about speaking to "ex-disciples" as they were known was simple: don't. The rule was explicit -- I had both read it in more than one of Guru's books and heard him say so himself. So, I acted accordingly.

As a practical matter, I don't think I shared any classes with Charlie. He was a bright student, while I was anything but. I did see him in the halls between classes, though. When I did, I'd say hello, but nothing more. It would take another eight years before I realized what an asshole I'd been to Charlie, and took steps to repair the damage.

In the meantime, however, I hoped that I'd never fall from grace myself. In the Center rhetoric, that's exactly what happened when a disciple left. For one reason or another -- whether personal weakness or the influence of some unseen hostile force -- a person who left the Center had "fallen." And in some occult way, ex-disciples were secretly contagious. To "mix" with then meant to court one's spiritual doom.

While I was then an extremely motivated disciple -- like I expect most new disciples were -- I was also a 17 year-old jock at heart. When I sat down to meditate I was all business, but once we left the meditation room, I loved mischief (particularly using the license of youth to push the buttons of my adult brother and sister disciples). That said, the idea of leaving the Center scared me.

It must have scared Guru, too. Back in the day, he belonged to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. At the age of 33, he left the Ashram to start his own career, to the chagrin of some of those then in charge of Sri Aurobindo's legacy. Guru was no doubt aware of how it felt to be ostracized from some of those he'd once thought were friends.

Eight years later, when I myself was on the way out and was being ostracized by people I long thought were friends, I came to regret my treatment of Charlie. I made it a priority to seek him out and apologize. (I also made it a point to remind myself going forward never to abandon a friend again.)

Since the first day I met him, Charlie was a class act. He went on to attend U.C. Berkeley and is now a successful architect. We still keep in touch by email. He's married to a wonderful (and beautiful) woman named Karen and has three kids, the youngest -- almost a year old now -- named Joseph.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

New York At Last

I find prayer distasteful.

Right out of the blocks, the person praying is in a position of weakness. The only thing I could ever pray for was conscious oneness with the Divine. That's pretty much how I started and ended my daily meditations. Other than that, I couldn't ask for anything.

I wanted to go to New York for the August (1982) Celebrations so badly, however, that I almost held my nose, got down on my knees and begged. Almost.

I wanted to go to New York so badly; I just wasn't going to be denied. Falling entirely within the last weeks of my summer vacation from school, dad couldn't deny me my first chance to attend Celebrations. So, he consented to me joining Charlie and Prakash in a cross-country trip in the Saab.

On the appointed day, Prakash and Charlie picked me up at my dad's house and we were off, driving north through Oakland to link up with Interstate 80, which eventually took us east. What a long drive! My pre-conceived idea about the size of the country ended in eastern Nevada.

We drove pretty much straight through, stopping only a few times at KOA campgrounds to shower up. We all seemed to get along fine and the car was a dream. Prakash was reluctant to let Charlie and me drive, but he couldn't do it all himself. He repeatedly chastised us about our poor shifting technique, and constantly implored us to keep the speed down. But once he dropped away to sleep in the back seat, we'd open her up.

At about 90 m.p.h., however, the Saab's turbo would kick in with a subtle whine. Prakash was tuned into that turbo-whine like a terrier to a dog whistle. When he heard it, he'd wake from the deepest sleep to peer at the speedometer needle, which by then would be quickly dropping back below 90.

We got to New York in three days. Our first stop: Guru Health Foods and its owner Ashrita Furman. Among his many other responsibilities, Ashrita was in charge of organizing the housing for the hundreds of visiting disciples who would converge twice a year on Jamaica, New York for Celebrations. Ashrita told us that once Celebrations started (we had arrived two days early), there would be no rooms available locally for new disciples like me and Charlie. Instead, we would be checked into a hotel about an hour away on Long Island. For the next two days, though, he'd find us rooms we could crash in. The hotel thing didn't sound good to me and I thought there must be some way to secure a room locally, but I knew nobody. And besides, I couldn't be too bummed: I was in New York!

I eventually got directions to a house just around the corner, where a local New York disciple agreed to let me sleep on his floor for two days. He was a tall, dour faced man who would later play an important part in my development. His name was Sahishnu, which means "patience."

Celebrations were a whirlwind. Aside from the very last day, my memory of that first New York visit comes in just broad brush strokes: the oppressive heat and crowded conditions, the cicadas, the disciples from all over the world, and the frustration I felt at arriving at functions late and having to leave early in order to take a chartered bus with the other hotel-bound disciples.

As far as I remember, the schedule for celebrations was pretty much the same each day. First, hours spent each morning at Guru's private clay-surfaced tennis court watching him play, followed by prasad. Then a luke-warm lunch cooked by rotating crews of visiting disciples served at Goose Pond Park. After that, we headed over to "Progress-Promise," the large meditation hall for the New York area disciples, where the various visiting centers would put on skits, sing devotional songs and put on other wholesome entertainment (followed by more prasad).

The evenings would usually end with more of the same at the auditorium of the local grade school (P.S. 86). There were also some significant departures from this routine, including a parade held throughout the local neighborhoods; the 47-mile race, an ultra-marathon held in and around Jamaica High School; Sports Day, an Olympic-like track and field competition for the disciples; and Guru's birthday on August 27, an ultra-marathon length function usually held at an auditorium on Long Island somewhere.

It was both exhausting and exhilarating. And on our last day in New York, Guru spoke to me. We were at Progress-Promise, the meditation hall. As usual, it was packed and I was standing in line, slowly inching up towards the stage where Guru was sitting in a throne-like chair, silently meditating as the disciples filed by to grab the blessed treats set out in front of him. As I approached with a well of gratitude in my heart, out of the blue, Guru said, "What is your name?"

I didn't understand at first and there were so many people there that it didn't occur to me that Guru was speaking to me anyway. So, he repeated himself, this time making reference to my old center: "Hey you, from Santa Cruz, what is your name?"

I was dumbfounded. "Joe," I said.

"Joe? Joe, very good. How old are you?"

"I'm 17, Guru," I stammered.

"Seventeen? Very good. Where's your friend," he asked.

Where was Charlie? I turned around, scanning the crowd in a bit of a panic, but couldn't see him. I don't remember if I called out to him or if some other alert disciple did, but Charlie waved from the very back of the auditorium. Guru then said, "You are a very good boy. I'm very proud of you."

As Guru walked off the stage and towards the back of the meditation hall to leave, he spotted Charlie and stopped and said a few words to him, too, which I couldn't catch. Later that day, Prakash, Charlie and I loaded back into the Saab and began our journey home.

I remember nothing of the trip back.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Idolatry

My grandparent's home was deathly quiet as I left my bedroom and crept into the small den. Along one wall was an antique curio, which held the object of my desire: a pristine porcelain Madonna (in the exact same form as pictured, minus the condition issues, which actually make this image even more alluring to me somehow).

I opened the glass cabinet, gently removed the statue, and snuck back to my room and my makeshift shrine. For the next half hour -- in the dead of night -- I worshipped the Virgin Mary.

As beautiful as the statue was, I was left spiritually unsatisfied. With much less excitement, I quietly returned the Madonna to her cabinet and went to bed. I felt alone. Charlie was away in New York at April celebrations with our Guru, and I was lying awake at my grandparent's home in Oceanside, California.

From the beginning, my spiritual ideal was the formless divine and my goal was conscious oneness with it. That's why worshipping anything -- whether it be the Virgin Mary statue or my own guru -- never did anything for me. I wasn't the worshipping kind. Implicit in the act of worship is a state of separateness between the worshipper and the object of his or her worship. I wanted nothing to do with separateness; I longed for union.

As an aside, I wouldn't discover The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (available online here) for another year and a half, but I love this early exchange between The Gospel's author "M" (later to become Swami Yogananda's "blissful devotee") and his newly found master Sri Ramakrishna on a related point:

Master: "Well, do you believe in God with form or without form?"

M., rather surprised, said to himself: "How can one believe in God without form when one believes in God with form? And if one believes in God without form, how can one believe that God has a form? Can these two contradictory ideas be true at the same time? Can a white liquid like milk be black?"


M: "Sir, I like to think of God as formless."


Master: "Very good. It is enough to have faith in either aspect. .... But never for a moment think that this alone is true and all else false. Remember that God with form is just as true as God without form. But hold fast to your own conviction."

The assertion that both are equally true amazed M.; he had never learnt this
from his books. ....

M: "Sir, suppose one believes in God with form. Certainly He is not the clay image!"

Master (interrupting): "But why clay? It is an image of Spirit."

M. could not quite understand the significance of this "image of Spirit." "But Sir," he said to the Master, "one should explain to those who worship the clay image that it is not God, and that, while worshipping it, they should have God in view and not the clay image. One should not worship clay."

Master (sharply): "That's the one hobby of you Calcutta people -- giving lectures
and bringing others to the light! Nobody ever stops to consider how to get
the light for himself. Who are you to teach others?"


I never worshipped Guru. True, I had his photograph on my shrine and would meditate on it, but it wasn't worship as such. First of all, while Guru's transcendental photograph was a physically separate object (like the Madonna statue), I was actually trying to merge my consciousness with it and for large parts of my meditation, my awareness of the photo itself (as a photo) would disappear.

More importantly, however, my budding relationship with Guru -- based entirely upon the inner bond I had formed with his photograph (he had yet to speak a word to me) -- was unique. From the start, I was aware that in my case, Guru was a caretaker master. While our connection was sweet and intimate, it was at its core utilitarian. It was as if Guru were a trustee over my development because some earlier master was no longer around.

His relationship with me was avuncular. It was blood close, but unlike a father figure, he would wield no direct authority over me. That's why it was so easy for me to realize the value of Prakash's attitude and why I never had a problem with reverential awe.

That said, I longed to be in New York. My next chance would be in August.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A New York Dream

My immediate goal was clear from the beginning and I made it known to anyone who would listen: I was going to move to New York. That's where Sri Chinmoy lived. That's where I had to be.

One night, Prakash took me and Charlie to see a concert by the progressive rock band The Warriors, which was led by long-time disciple Narada Michael Walden. After the concert, Prakash took us backstage and introduced us to Narada, who could not have been more gracious. He seemed to be glowing after the concert. When he asked me what my goal was after high school, I told him flat out: "I'm moving to New York." Narada laughed in the big, infectious way that he has and encouraged me.

A more pressing issue for the Santa Cruz disciples, however, was finding a new Center. The Santanas, who had left the group months earlier, would no longer be financing the apartment we were using for our meetings. Based upon the geographic make-up of the remaining Santa Cruz Center disciples, it seemed certain the Center would relocate east, over the hill to the fledgling Silicon Valley, nearer my dad's house, where I lived.

Aside from Prakash (who I profiled here), the Santa Cruz Center then consisted of me, Charlie, Charlie's brother Dave, Dave's guitar teacher Peter, another guy named Rick, and two young women named Claire and Elizabeth, who both lived locally in Santa Cruz. Prakash, Dave, Charlie, Peter, Rick and I all lived in the San Jose area. That's where the Center moved.

After some searching, we found a one bedroom walk-up in a shady (as in sketchy, not tree-lined) part of down town San Jose, where most of the houses had been converted to half-way houses. It was almost exactly a mile and a half from where I was living.

Our nominal Center leader was Deborah Santana's sister, Ratna. If memory serves, "Ratna" means "jewel," and she has an obvious beauty. Ratna was a long-time member of the San Francisco Center, which was then the most dynamic (if not largest) Center outside of Guru's New York headquarters. By the time Ratna was leading our new San Jose Center, she had probably been a disciple for a decade already. She had gravitas and without saying anything demanded respect.

I, however, was one pointed and only wanted to get to New York. My first opportunity arose in April 1982, the so-called "April celebrations." Twice a year -- April and August -- Guru's disciples descended upon Queens for a few weeks of on non-stop spiritual activities. The April celebrations were centered around Guru's arrival in the West (April 1964) and the August celebrations were centered around Guru's birthday (August 27, 1931).

So, sometime at the beginning of the New Year (1982), Ratna began asking the San Jose disciples which of us were planning on going to the celebrations in April. As Center leader, I suppose she had to provide a head count. My dad said I could go, so long as my trip coincided with Easter break at school, which was about two weeks long. Unfortunately, the celebrations ran over by just a couple of days and neither my dad nor Ratna would make an exception.

To be fair to Ratna, the rule requiring disciples to arrive on the first day of celebrations and stay until the last day, was Guru's. But even then, I sensed that there were ways around such bureaucratic rules in exceptional cases. I mean, come on, I was a 16 year old high school student dying to see his master, not some flunky half-hearted or burned-out disciple who wanted to blow into New York days late and cut-out days early.

Ratna, sniffing out my haughty sense of entitlement, was unmoved. She told me that over the years she had seen disciples come and go and that in all likelihood I wouldn't last in the Center for even one year anyway.

That was a terrible thing to say, but it had two positive results. First, at that very early stage of my discipleship, I lost any sense that I had to defer to my Center leader or any other disciple for any reason -- an attitude that I would carry with me for the next nine years. Second, I realized that I had to control my own destiny; I couldn't continue allowing others to control my access to Guru, whether it was dad, Ratna, or anyone else.

I didn't go to New York that April. Instead, I spent my Easter break in Oceanside, California with my paternal grandparents.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

School Days

The impact of that first live meditation with Guru in such an intimate setting was such that I have little memory now of the rest of his visit, except that Prakash put the Saab through its paces in our rush to San Francisco.

From that point on, high school was never the same (overhead photo of my high school courtesy of Google Maps). As my junior year started (a month earlier), I decided against playing football. For me it had always been an outlet for outright violence -- I tried to (and occasionally did) hurt opposing players. I could no longer do that. I did continue to wrestle, though.

On Thursdays, when we usually had our meets, I would spend the few hours after school and before the match at Charlie's condo. For some reason, he wouldn't be around at that time, so he gave me the key to his place and I would go over there and meditate for an hour or so in his bedroom before heading back to school for the weigh-in and later match.

The school week always started for me on Sunday nights at the Santa Cruz Center meeting, where I'd check out a half-dozen of Guru's thin question and answer books. I'd take them to school the next day and pour through them ravenously. I was in pure, new convert, fanatic mode.

I often times wore my whites -- white shirt and white pants, the clothes male disciples were expected to wear to Center meetings -- to school. And on my jacket, I sported a campaign-style button with Guru's face on it. My dad had moved quickly from having to coerce me to cut my long hair to warning me not to cut it too short, worried I'd be selling books and dancing in the San Jose airport before long.

Almost by default, my grades began to rise from near failing to a solid "less than satisfactory," simply because I was no longer cutting classes and/or smoking dope. That's not to say I was actually doing my homework (I wasn't). During classes, I would sit with the text book open and covertly devour Astrology, the Supernatural and the Beyond, and other books by Guru.

Most of the other students took no notice. One morning, however, I entered the cafeteria before class and saw Charlie sitting at one of the tables. He looked up, saw me, and we smiled at each other. Another student saw the silent exchange between Charlie and me and pointed it out to others sitting near by. "Did you see how they looked at each other," he asked. "They smile like they're in love with each other!"

Funny. We did love each other, but not in the way that our classmate suspected (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Saturday, February 2, 2008

First Steps on the Path

In late October 1981 -- a week after receiving word that Sri Chinmoy had accepted me as a disciple -- I found myself speeding south to Santa Barbara in Prakash's Saab turbo.

Guru had announced a surprise weekend visit to California, which would include stops in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and San Francisco. I was stoked. So were Charlie and Dave, as Prakash sped us south down Highway 101, blasting Santana's Oneness on the Saab's Pioneer tape deck.

When we arrived in Santa Barbara some three and a half hours later, we went straight to a public park where we found Guru sitting on a folding chair on the grass, with a hundred or so disciples sitting before him in a semi-circle. Though fall, it felt like spring to me.

Honestly, I don't remember my first impression of Guru. While nothing "magical" happened like Swami Yogananda's first meeting with his master, I do remember his cheerfulness, his physical vibrancy, and a beauty that seemed to emanate from inside him -- that same beauty that I had first recognized years earlier in the eyes of Paramahansa Yogananda. (The photo of Guru above was taken at about the time that I first saw him and is how I remember him best -- Photo credit.)

The reason that I don't remember that first meeting very well is because of what happened next. The Santa Barbara Center put on a five mile race the following day, which Charlie and I ran. (That five miler was so painful that today, some 26 years later, I still remember my dismal time of 45 minutes and change. Yikes.) Then, after cleaning up, we jumped back in Prakash's car and headed back north.

As it turned out, Guru had told all those disciples traveling on to the next stop to go directly to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Sri Chinmoy would be visiting the tiny Santa Cruz Center and all its disciples were asked to be there. Naturally, with Prakash at the wheel of the Saab, we arrived in Santa Cruz before Guru did. When he arrived, he went straight upstairs to the ethereally white meditation room and sat on the low, throne-like seat his picture usually occupied.

Guru meditated for about ten minutes or so, first seemingly within himself, climbing some unseen ladder with eyes opened, at times flickering back and forth, at times transfixed. Then, one by one, Guru scanned the room, settling his eyes upon each of the half dozen of us in the room in turn. My inner attitude was like that of a baby bird in the nest, just opening its beak as wide as possble and hoping that mom stuffed as much food in as possible.

Guru then began speaking. He was speaking about a soul, that was present in the room, even though the person herself was not. Guru was visibly pained by it -- that is, by the experience. He was sad. I didn't know who he was talking about until the meditation was over and Guru was in his car on the way to San Francisco. Before we all jumped back into the Saab for a hair raising ride over the Santa Cruz mountains and north to SF, I asked one of the young women in the Center what Guru had been talking about.

"Urmila," she said. "He misses Urmila." The Santanas had left the Center for good.