Monday, June 30, 2008

Fight on the Block

"He insulted you, Guru." I was quietly sobbing into the phone, standing in the Smile's scullery.

Guru told me not to worry. "I'm very proud of you, good boy."

It had all happened rather quickly just a few minutes earlier. A table full of teenagers had just finished their lunch. One of them, however, had snuck out without paying.

I followed him out and browbeat him back into the Smile to pay. At that point, while still outside on the block, one of his friends said, "Fuck the Guru." As I later learned, the local teenagers referred to disciples as "gurus," but at the time, I thought he was insulting Guru directly. I blew my stack.

I aggressively shoved the guy, who was tall -- six feet easy. In one movement he handed a textbook he was carrying to his buddy and swung around and belted me just beneath the left eye.

Dazed, I stumbled backward a step or two. Then, I sprung on him, closing the distance between us and put him in a headlock, bringing him to the pavement. Before I could start raining blows down upon his defenseless face, I felt multiple pairs of hands on me. Satyajit and Sahishnu were pulling me up and pulling us apart.

Just as we separated, the guy belted me again. I broke free of my brother disciples and slipped the headlock on again, determined not to let go this time. Nevertheless, we were pulled apart again, my outstretched hand gripping the guy's long hair, not wanting to let go.

Back in the Smile, the adrenaline pumping through the organism was giving me the shakes. Just minutes later, Sahishnu was holding the phone.

"Yogaloy. It's Guru. He wants to talk to you."

After talking to Guru, Sahishnu cut me loose early. I went home, took a shower, and tried to relax. That evening, Guru invited the whole Smile crew to his house for dinner, by which time I was sporting a nice shiner (of which I felt kind of proud).

It was very nice at Guru's that night. Guru told us how important it was that we, as disciples, defend each other. He said that that had been one of the things he admired about the Muslims he had been exposed to in his native Bangladesh (Bengal, India, at the time) as a boy. The Muslims, he said, stuck together.

Guru said the same should be true of us. When we saw a disciple in trouble, we shouldn't ask questions or wonder who is to blame, but instead spring into action. It seemed like Guru was directing his comments to the other guys, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Another interesting thing Guru said was that when a person intervenes to prevent some kind of criminal or hostile event, the act of intervening itself oftentimes prevents other hostile acts from occurring within a few miles of the original incident.

It certainly calmed things down in the Smile for the rest of the school year -- the kids were alright. The job at the Smile was a stressful one, though, and it had begun wearing on me. In fact, during his last visit, Jeevan told me that I had been grinding my teeth at night.

I needed a break, and thanks to a good friend, I was about to get one.

Premik

Sometime shortly after April Celebrations 1987, I stepped into Guru Health Foods for a snack after work.

Ashrita was working behind the counter and there were a few other customers in the store, including a guy who sang in the boys' singing group with me. His name was Premik.

"He Yogaloy," Premik said. "You know anyone looking for a room to rent."

Although Premik was in the Connecticut Center (which actually met in Queens with all the other local Centers) and worked at a disciple-run restaurant in Greenwich, he lived just a few blocks from the Smile.

I'd never been in the house where he lived, but it looked big on the outside and inconspicuous. Unlike many of the disciple-owned houses in Jamaica which were painted bright blue, Premik's place was pale yellow and indistinguishable from the others on the block.

The only other thing I knew about the house was that during the day, another disciple (who I think owned the house) ran a small mail order business which sold gift items (like high-end maple syrup) out of the home's first floor living room. But instead of running the business himself, this guy employed a female disciple to run it.

I was interested in the room. At the time, I was still living at Mangal's -- who I liked -- but the landlords there lived downstairs and were disagreeable.

Premik told me the rent and that he and I would be the only people in the house, except for Celebrations. Narada, he said, also rented a room, but would only be around a few times a year. Within just a few minutes, it seemed that we had a deal. That's when Ashrita chimed in.

"Yogaloy," he said, "I think you should ask Guru's permission before you move there."

"Why," I asked, a bit incredulously.

"Because there are girls working in that house," he responded.

I was immediately agitated. First, from day one, my relationship with Ashrita was what you might expect between two spiritual type-A personalities. I always held Ashrita in high regard, but that didn't mean I wanted his advice.

Second, I was still brooding about Guru's warning to me, which, of course, had been delivered to me by Ashrita. Third, and probably most important to me, I generally didn't ask Guru questions. Period.

I particularly despised the idea of asking Guru questions about the everyday minutia of life: can I move? should I take this job? can I watch TV? may I have a pet? I mean, for God's sake people!

I understood the impulse of such questions. The point of the guruvada is to surrender oneself to the guru, heart and soul. Why wouldn't a disciple put every decision no matter how inconsequential to the master? I thought of the issue differently, though. My orientation -- and I wasn't unique in this regard -- was to avoid adding, in any way, to Guru's everyday burden. Not pestering him with mundane questions was one way to help.

Plus, I always saw discipleship as a means to a goal, not as the goal itself. And that goal was to become what I think can accurately be described as the Supreme Individual. Surely, a prerequisite to divine maturity is the ability to make decisions for oneself.

That's why I was feeling agitated at Ashrita's suggestion that Guru be consulted about my prospective move. Figuring Ashrita was going to mention it to Guru anyway, I said fine, go ahead and ask. A day or two later, Guru said that the move would be fine.

Premik is a great guy and was a great roommate for the next year and a half or so. While his day job was restaurant manager, he was a highly accomplished jazz musician. I had seen his name -- Russell Tubbs -- even before becoming a disciple on the liner notes of some great jazz fusion albums. For some reason -- perhaps the soul in his saxophone -- I had always thought Premik was African-American.

Outwardly, at least, Premik is in fact as white as can be. He's tall and ultra-skinny. His slight build was in inverse proportion to his daily caloric intake; the more he ate -- and he ate a lot -- the skinnier he seemed to become.

At its root, Premik means love, love for God. He's a truly good man and I've been blessed to know him. (Check out Premik's myspace page here.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Birthday Blessing

Just a few days after Guru's warning to me -- and with Celebrations underway -- I turned 22.

It was bittersweet. On the one hand, I was still bumming about Guru's warning. On the other hand, Jeevan and Liz were in town and I was happy to see them. They were upbeat and inspired -- just the antidote I needed.

On the night of my birthday, there was a function at P.S. 86. Near the end of the night, I was standing in the back of the school's auditorium commiserating with Jeevan and Liz. Liz had brought a bag of birthday gifts which were wonderful -- the first birthday gifts I'd received in a long time.

Then Guru -- sitting in a reclining chair in front of the stage at the front of the auditorium -- pulled his microphone over and called my name.

I took off my shoes and then jogged up to Guru's chair. He had a rose in his hand and beckoned me closer. I kneeled before him with folded hands and he placed his right hand on my head. The blessing lasted just a minute or so, but its effect turned things around for me. Forgotten was the sting of the previous week's warning.

Afterwards, I just wanted to be alone. And for the next three or for days, it felt like my nerves were physically buzzing. But I just couldn't shake the sense of unfairness that I felt from Guru's warning. I really felt that Guru should have given those who had complained about me and Jayanti the what for. In hindsight, however, I now look at that warning as a mother bird's first peck at her chick to get out of the nest.

As I've said, that experience caused a permanent crack in my Center oriented personality, but I didn't know that at the time. Even though Guru's warning shocked me, I loved Guru and loved being in the Center. I think that shows in my birthday picture, above. I loved nothing more than running over to the tennis court after work to throw balls or to suit up into my whites and go to meditation.

I was living my dream.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Saint

If 1986 was the year of personal breakthroughs for me, then 1987 was the year that I simply broke.

It started with a phone call from Ashrita in early April 1987, just before Celebrations began.

“Smile of the Beyond, may I help you?”

“Yogaloy? It’s Ashrita.”

Ashrita was the official messenger to and from Guru. Something was wrong. From all of the phone calls I had had with him the previous summer about my sister Liz, I recognized the tone of his voice.

“What’s up,” I asked.

“Yogaloy, Guru wants you to be careful. He’s received complaints that you’re becoming too friendly with Jayanti.”

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I was stunned.

“When I spoke to Guru," Ashrita continued, "he said ‘Yogaloy is a saint,’ but he wants you to be careful.” He paused. It seemed like Ashrita was waiting for a response from me to carry back to Guru. My head was spinning.

“Thanks,” I said, and hung up the phone.

Jayanti is Ketan’s little sister. At the time, I was about to turn 22, Ketan was almost 20 and Jayanti was perhaps 16 or 17. From the time of our introduction at the tennis court by Guru, Ketan and Jayanti were like siblings to me. While I’ve already discussed how Ketan felt like a lost brother to me, he didn’t actually remind me of my brother Jeevan in any way. Not so with Jayanti. From the time I first met her, she reminded me very much of my sister Liz in appearance and that’s how I thought of her, as a sister.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention their mother, Samarpana. If you look up the word “sacrifice” in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Samarpana (right alongside that of my wife, Elaine). I can’t say enough good things about her or what she meant to me during those years when I lived so far away from my own family. Samarpana, Ketan and Jayanti were like a second family to me.

The idea that someone had complained about me and Jayanti was infuriating.

I searched my memory for any incident that might have been latched onto by the ever-present tattle tales and it came to me in an instant. I was in the hallway at P.S. 86 the night before -- where we held evening functions at the time -- when Samarpana and Jayanti arrived from Greenwich, where they lived during the week. I hugged Samarpana and clapped Jayanti on the back. That must have been the offending touch: that clap on the back.

The more I thought about it, the madder I got. I was particularly obsessed with who had ratted me out, and -- from the beginning -- pissed that Guru had felt it necessary to have Ashrita call me. If I was a saint -- and at the time I was -- then why tell me? Tell the idiots who had complained about me!

I had always had a pretty muscular view -- perhaps elitist view -- of what disciple life should have been. It didn’t include tattle tales. From my point of view, tattle tales and brown noses -- often one and the same -- had no place in the spiritual life. And while I realized even then that they in fact did have a place in the wider scheme of the Center, I didn’t like it and that really hit home in the wake of Ashrita’s call.

Ultimately, informants served Guru and he cultivated them. He often said that those who knew about the wrongdoing of their brother and sister disciples and didn’t report it were just as guilty as the wrongdoers themselves. No doubt, the informant system helped Guru control his loosely organized Center. That said, it rewarded and bred weakness and small mindedness in those who participated (as I myself had once done years earlier in my discipleship). As captain of the ship, Guru was the only one to blame for the system.

At the time, though, it wasn’t the system itself that I was angry about, but the unwarranted complaints about me. It was maddening. In the wake of Ashrita’s call, I hit only two of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief: anger and depression.

That night, I found myself sitting in the hallway of P.S. 86 again when Samarpana and Jayanti came walking towards me. During the day, I had wondered whether Jayanti had got a call too. Looking at their long faces as they approached me, it was obvious they had. They sat down next to me in the hall for a little while, but it was awkward. I imagined people running up to Ashrita to complain -- just as they had done to my sister the previous summer -- and I didn’t care.

That experience cracked my Center-identified persona permanently.

Great photo of Jayanti at about the time in question, taken by Subala. See Subala's other great photos here. Jayanti went on become a college writing professor and her memoir -- tentatively titled Cartwheels in a Sari -- is due to be published in early 2009. Check her website here.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

7,063

I was right -- there was something unusual going on at Guru's house that night. Guru was going to attempt a mega-lift of some kind. As it turned out: 7,063 and three quarters pounds.

Almost immediately upon my arrival, I was swept into action. The apparent mission: to schlep every single 100 pound cast iron plate in Guru's house into his living room. Quite a task. By that time (January 1987), Guru had accumulated a lot of weights and he had weightlifting machines all over his house: in the basement, in the unattached garage area, and upstairs in his bedroom.

As I've made clear in a previous post, I was deeply ambivalent about Guru's foray into weightlifting. While I appreciated the gusto, the sheer audacity with which he threw himself into the endeavor, I thought the way in which his accomplishments were marketed outside the Center was a mistake.

That said, one had to marvel at the structure that took shape in Guru's living room that night. Just look at it (above). As one of my friends (who is still nominally in the Center) remarked to me recently, "it's like a piece of modern art." And the wide-angle lens used to capture the shot above doesn't do the apparatus full justice. That bar was long!

Now, before I go any further, let me dispel a few myths I've run across on the web about the ensuing lift. First, the weights were real -- not Styrofoam or anything else other than cast iron. And -- pardon my French -- they were fuckin' heavy. Second, the trellis-like structure running across the top of the plates had no nefarious purpose. It was there for one reason: to keep the bar straight. Finally, there was no lever involved. I think the idea that Guru used some kind of lever to raise the weight that night comes from the convenience with which web critics in all fields (religion, politics, you name it) tend to pull things out of their collective ass.

The apparatus that night was just a bar, hanging from a rack, with 70 one hundred pound plates, and the trellis keeping the whole thing erect. That's it. As for the ensuing lift itself, I'll simply tell you what I saw.

I don't remember exactly what time I arrived at Guru's house that night, perhaps around 8 p.m. or so. The weights as they appear above were in place sometime late that evening -- 11 p.m. or later.

There was then a very long time of meditative waiting, but I had a good seat -- as good as anyone there that night, I think. In fact -- in a move Forrest Gump would have been proud of -- I was one of the few faces visible in the photo (I'm off to the left, behind Sagar).

By looking through an open doorway in the wall behind Guru, I could see the spot where he would place his hand on the bar when he attempted the lift. From that angle, however, I could see nothing else.

If, however, I wanted to see the weights on the right side of the bar (as Guru faced it), then all I had to do was to lean to my right a little. If I did so, then I could see the end of the apparatus jutting into the living room.

As I recall, Guru spent a lot of time upstairs in his room before coming down to attempt the lift. Even once downstairs, Guru did a lot of pacing and staring at himself in the mirror -- psyching himself up in a way that would be familiar to anyone who had spent any time at all in the gym lifting weights.

By the time Guru approached the bar, it was past midnight. By that time in Guru's weightlifting career, I'd seen videos of a lot of Guru's lifts, but nothing prepared me for the blood-curdling kiai that exploded from Guru as the attempt was made. It was so loud that, in a flash, I wondered to myself: "What will the neighbors think?"

With my eyes riveted on Guru's hand, which was straining against the bar, I saw an upward movement.

To be sure, from my angle I could not see where the bar rested upon the rack nor whether there had been separation between the bar and the rack holding it.

But it did appear to me that Guru's hand and the bar moved vertically and back down. I was surprised because at a much lower weight a few months earlier I had definitely not seen Guru make a lift that he apparently thought he had (and I had told him so at the time).

So -- surprised at what I'd seen -- I quickly leaned over to my right so that I could see the right end of the plates jutting into the living room. They were wobbling back and forth

That's what I saw that night.

I think it's time for a short addendum.

After reading Jayanti's book, Cartwheels in a Sari, I was reminded to address the only other two reminiscences about Guru's 7,000 pound lift that I've read: one by my old Center roommate, Mangal, found here; the other by Jayanti's dad, Rudra, recounted both in her book and online here.

These accounts misremember some facts and conflate others. To be sure, I ascribe no ill motive to either Mangal or Rudra: it's hard to remember the details of these events so long ago and as I've written repeatedly on this blog, I suspect I'm guilty of the same offense here and there (and I urge my readers to write in with corrections if you have any).

Nevertheless, as far as their respective memories of the 7,000 pound lift are concerned, the accounts of Mangal and Rudra are not accurate in important respects.

As for Mangal's account -- which mentions me by name as someone who can substantiate it -- the problem is largely one of conflation. Mangal conflates the events of an earlier lift at a much lighter weight (which I blogged about separately here) for those of the 7,000 pound lift. I don't recall Guru going over and over any videotape in the very early morning hours after his 7,000 pound attempt.

There were so many people at the house that evening setting up the lift for so long -- and then the long wait for Guru to actually make the attempt -- that as far as I can recall, the meeting broke up relatively quickly after Guru made the attempt(s). In trying to quickly encapsulate his Center experience in one short post, I think Mangal simply conflated these two events.

Rudra's account is a little more complicated and, at least in part, seems to conflate the same separate weightlifting events that Mangal's account does. In Rudra's account, however, Rudra is the sole disciple willing to tell Guru that the weight wasn't lifted. And, that because of his courage under fire, Guru never dared show the videotape of the 7,000 pound lift ever again.

I'm not sure what, if anything, to say about this. As I said with regard to Mangal's account, I have no memory of Guru buttonholing individual disciples in the early morning hours after the 7,000 pound lift. Guru absolutely did do that at an earlier weight (as I blogged about), but I don't recall Rudra being there, though he certainly could have been. I have absolutely no memory of Rudra ever being the sole person in dissent after such an event.

Rudra's account is also inaccurate in a more significant and easily refutable way. He writes that "we were told to look at ckg's throne in front of his living room, and not at the attempt itself." This simply never happened. I suspect that Rudra is simply misremembering something Guru did say, which was that while he was looking at himself in the mirror before the lift, that the disciples should not look at him.

But there was never any prohibition against looking at Guru as the attempt(s) were made. One need only look at the photo above to confirm this -- Sagar and I are clearly visible watching the lift.

As a matter of fact, most people in the house that night could not see the lift -- there were very few seats with any view of Guru's hand on the bar, and I had one of them. I'm not sure what to make of Rudra's memory of where he was sitting, "at the side, near the stairs, and watched the weights and ckg as his back was to me attempting the lifts." 

I suspect it's possible Rudra was sitting somewhere in front of me using the same sight line (through the open hallway doors), but as the photo above shows, nobody was behind Guru and for anyone sitting "near the stairs," seeing anything at all would have been impossible.

To reiterate, I attribute no ill motive to the mistaken accounts of Mangal or Rudra. They are simply misremembering some events, I think, and conflating others.

To be sure, there almost certainly was a contemporaneous record made of the 7,000 pound lift, either by video and or by stenography. Someday, perhaps, we'll get the definitive account. Until then, I stand by my account as posted originally above.

Yogaloy
July 14, 2009.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Year Ends

Like most years, 1986 ended with Guru and many of the local disciples going away on vacation. Though I didn't get to go, it had been a good year.

Before leaving, Guru gave what was becoming a standard talk on how he hoped that no disciples "disappeared" while he was away.

Though the idea hadn't yet occurred to me, there was a bit of the "while the cat is away, the mice will play" attitude amongst some of the local disciples. Rules were broken in Guru's absence. Usually, a few would take the further step of leaving the Center.

I sort of enjoyed the solitude. I'd do my regular work hours at the Smile and then go for a run in the cold, dark early evenings. After dinner, I'd walk over to Ketan's place -- a granny flat behind his parents' house. Ketan was away on the trip, but he had generously given me his key so that I could go in and watch TV.

When Guru returned in mid-January, the pace quickened again.

Before leaving for the trip, Guru had told me to start apprenticing with another disciple to learn how to operate the Center's old Heidelberg offset press -- the one used to print all of Guru's books. My press night was Thursday, so shortly after their return that January, I headed over to Agni Press.

I was apprenticing with Abedan. Abedan was a long-time local disciple who cultivated the appearance of a brusque personality. He founded and ran what was, arguably, the most successful disciple-run enterprise: Victory Factory.

Abedan was also one of the very few disciples other than Pahar -- who then managed the press -- who actually knew how to run the old four-color offset press. (Had I been more astute at the time, I might have realized that I was being trained, at least in part, because Pahar himself was about to leave the Center, as he did a short time later.)

Shortly after I got to the press that January night, however, someone from Guru's house called.

"You're wanted up at the house, Yogaloy."

I felt sheepish leaving the press so soon after I had arrived, but I was only there because Guru wanted me there. And now, apparently, Guru wanted me at the house. So, my misgivings didn't last long.

When I got to the house, the first thing I noticed was that there were a lot of guys there -- more than normal. Clearly, something unusual was going on.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Full Moon, New Moon

Do you know that story from the Ramayana?

The demon king Ravana had kidnapped Lord Rama's wife, Sita. Back at his palace, Ravana asked Sita what she thought of him.

"You are like the full moon," Sita replied. "While Rama is like the new moon."

Ravana was pleased, thinking it a compliment. What Sita meant, though, was that Ravana's power was at its peak -- like the full moon, his power would only wane from that point. Rama's power, however, like the new moon's, was on the rise.

That's what I'm reminded of when I look back at this picture of me and Jeevan from October 1986. I was at the height of my discipleship -- the full moon to Jeevan's up and coming new moon.

Guru had made a trip to the Bay Area, which included a visit to my old Center in San Jose. Giribar had since opened up a juice bar and gallery. That's where Jeevan worked and the picture was taken.

On his way out of the gallery, Guru stopped in front of Jeevan and me and began meditating. After a minute or so, he looked at both of us with half closed eyes.

"You two know who I am," Guru said, nodding affirmatively. He gave us each another smile, and then walked out.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Limits of Power

In the days after my Rutgers experience, I was psychically intoxicated during my waking hours, more so than I had been for the previous year. In that state, I learned something important about the limits of my spiritual power (such as it was).

As it happened, I left the Smile with Guru’s lunch in hand one day. Though it’s not clear how often he actually ate it, Guru had a standing lunch order with the Smile: a half grilled cheese sandwich (American cheese on white, with grilled white onion and tomato) and a cup of cauliflower curry soup.

We were to deliver Guru’s lunch to the house by noon and on the day in question, I got delivery duty. So, I turned left out of the Smile and left again on 86th Avenue. I always loved walking to Guru’s house, but in my spiritually inebriated state following the Rutgers concert, I was quite literally ecstatic as I walked up 86th towards 150th Street with my eyes half closed, basking in an internal glow. That’s when I noticed Lavanya walking towards me on the sidewalk from the opposite direction.

I had a crush on Lavanya.

Well, perhaps not a crush precisely. As I’ll discuss a few posts from now, once extinguished, my pre-Center sexual desires were gone. In the fall of 1986, not even a pilot light of sexuality remained. I wasn’t repressing such desires -- they simply did not exist.

No, my unrequited attraction to Lavanya wasn’t sexual. Instead, it was the attraction of -- as Sri Ramakrishna would say -- one hemp smoker to another. Thakur would say that even across a crowded room, hemp smokers could recognize each other with a single look and a knowing smile. Likewise, he said, one knower of Brahman recognizes another.

That’s what attracted me to Lavanya. In the sea of glowing faces amongst Guru’s female disciples -- and there were a lot of glowing faces -- one of the few that appeared to be receiving something during her meditation that looked -- that felt -- familiar to me was Lavanya.

Lavanya occupied a special place in the informal Center hierarchy. During my time in the Center, no other disciple save Ranjana was in closer proximity to Guru for as much time each day. This proximity alone conferred a special status upon her, though I suspect that Lavanya would reject any notion of her uniqueness vis-à-vis the other disciples. That, of course, was an added attraction.

Unlike Ranjana, Lavanya wasn't surrounded by sycophants. While having the highest profile job in the Center, it seemed she tried to stay low profile, to shun the attention of others. She appeared to be down to earth and comfortable in her own skin. All of this, of course, is based only upon my limited observation of Lavanya. The fact is, I rarely spoke to her.

That’s why -- I guess -- I became discombobulated over the next 30 seconds as we drew closer and closer to each other on the sidewalk that day.

Should I say hello? On the one hand, she seemed normal, approachable. On the other hand, the general rule was, boys weren't to speak to girls. And the old sanyassin rule was to avoid even looking at a woman's feet, let alone saying hello. But I talked to women all the time at the Smile -- taking their orders. That was my basic internal dialogue -- like a spiritual George Costanza -- as Lavanya and I passed each other without saying a word.

Then I snapped out of it. Were it in vogue at the time, I would have asked myself: WTF? How was it that one minute I'm reveling in this inner force which has annexed most of my being and the next minute I'm reduced to a bumbling fool in the face of the most basic of social interactions?

On that day, I realized the complete lack of utility of my inner life. Honestly, of what use was a powerful meditation if its effects could be blown away so easily?

Later, I told a friend that I felt like a tall, thin tower without a proper foundation. Perhaps, like Napolean marching east into Russia, I had advanced too far, stretching my inner supply lines too thin. Perhaps it was time for a bit of a retreat.

Photo credit to Subala, whose other photos of Center life can be seen here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Gates Open

Seemed like just another day.

Guru had a concert that night in New Jersey and I was leaving work a few hours early. Sahishnu, my boss at the Smile, was grumpy and he had a right to be. I was congenitally late for work, what with my late night hours spent doing other forms of selfless service. Now I was leaving him and the other guys to close up the store by themselves. It wasn't fair.

It was my job, though, to help Vinaya load up Guru's instruments and get them to the concert. Priorities. So, at about 3 p.m., I walked home, showered, and then walked over to Guru's house where I met Vinaya.

Guru dabbled in a lot of instruments and most of them were stored in what must have started out as a small, separate garage on the property, which was now accessed via a simple cipher lock. Guru, however, kept his main instruments -- esraj, cello, flute, and harmonium -- inside his living room.

The packing job didn't take long and once we had Vinaya's station wagon loaded, we drove south to New Jersey. The concert that night was on a university campus. I want to say Rutgers, but am no longer sure. In any event, Vinaya and I unpacked the car and began setting the instruments upon the stage.

It was a relatively small venue -- more of a student center of some kind than an auditorium. Intimate. My kind of place.

Our pre-concert preparations were unremarkable. And the concert itself was like hundreds I had attended before it. Then Guru did something a little unusual. Perhaps it was the small venue or the fact that not many New York disciples had made the weeknight drive to New Jersey. Whatever the reason, Guru asked the boy disciples to come forward to meditate.

I already had a good seat up front (a perk of getting to the venue early and being able to save one). So, when Guru asked us to come forward and sit in front of him, I was Johnny on the spot. I sat dead center, right in front of Guru, a foot or less away. Like being up front at a movie theater, I was practically oblivious to the others around me.

Before the rest of the guys had even settled in around and behind me, I had entered a familiar state. It was effortless. The occult movement that had been methodically annexing my psyche all year was then (fall 1986) on the verge of domination. Until that night, it seemed the only things standing between me and trance were a few seemingly autonomous neurons -- slowly, mechanically, firing away -- intent to hold their ground to the end.

Then it happened.

As Guru's shifting eyes rested upon me, I was transfixed. Unblinking. Mouth ajar. It was as if my brain -- the last resistant neurons -- had been stupefied. But I was aware. Aware not of my body or brain or surroundings -- but of being, of reveling in the pure force that had been assaulting my psyche for the last eight or nine months. Yoga.

The experience lasted mere minutes -- four or five at the most. Guru folded his hands and bowed. The meditation was over. I found it difficult to reach my seat. When the concert ended just a short while later, all I wanted was to be left alone -- to bask in the invisible sun that seemed to be blazing in my chest and forehead.

But I couldn't. I had to help Vinaya pack up the instruments and load them into his station wagon. Then, on our way back to Queens, Vinaya decided -- quite reasonably -- to stop at a diner, where we ran into some other disciples eating, too. I contemplated staying in the car, but I was too hungry.

Walking into the busy restaurant I felt like a torch being carried into the night sky; as if light were beaming off my forehead (though, nobody else seemed to notice).

For the next week or two the influence of that night stayed with me, day and night. Little did I know, however, that it would be -- imperceptibly at first -- all down hill from there. It would take another two years for me to realize it, but the denouement of my Center life had begun.

Photo credit for the stylized Tori gate here.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Doubting Thomas

I hated Guru's weightlifting.

Okay, that's a bit strong. But of all of Guru's multifarious activities -- and there were many -- I liked his weightlifting the least.

The beginning was fine -- 100, 200 pounds with one arm -- but by the fall of 1986, Guru was attempting big, big numbers. And it wasn't the numbers, per se, that bothered me, but how each successive lift was promoted to the public -- as if they were world records.

I found it embarrassing.

Not the weightlifting itself, which Guru attacked with the same gusto that he applied to each new endeavor. I was fine with that. Instead, I was embarrassed by the over-promotion, the hard sell used to attract praise from weightlifting luminaries outside the Center.

It's tempting to blame the very small group of eager beaver disciples in charge of promoting Guru's weightlifting achievements. I think they did Guru a disservice by their gushing descriptions of his lifts and their attempts to get various sanctioning bodies to recognize Guru's lifts. As I would later learn in the Navy, however, responsibility always lies with the skipper. Guru no doubt encouraged -- if not explicitly directed -- his publicists to take the actions they did.

That's not to say that I was against Guru's weightlifting efforts. On the contrary, I wanted him to be successful in everything he tried. It just wasn't my cup of tea.

So it was that one Sunday afternoon that fall I found myself at Guru's house with about 20 other disciples, mostly women. We were all in the living room area with Guru watching a video of his most recent one-armed milestone. That morning, Guru said, he'd pressed some 500 pounds and change with one arm. As I watched the video replay, though, I didn't see the weight move at all.

Guru did these one-arm presses with the use of a rack that held the massive dumbbell at about shoulder height. Typically, Guru would grab the bar, lock his elbow, and then use his entire body to drive the weight upwards in the rack. Unlike the 200 pound lift, though -- which Guru pressed up as high in the rack as possible -- at the higher weights, Guru was satisfied to just budge the bar even a half inch or so (which was no mean feat).

For that reason, though, it could be tough to see. But if he budged it, the weight would visibly move. And I wasn't seeing it this time. Guru played, rewound, and played the video over and over, asking nobody in particular: "Did you see it? Did you see it move?"

I don't remember now any specific response. Perhaps there was some enthusiastic nodding from some, but apparently it wasn't enthusiastic enough because Guru -- starting to his left -- began asking each disciple one at a time whether they could see the lift.

After each person answered, Guru would replay the video and then repeat the question to the next person in order. He started with the women (about 15 or so) and all but one -- Amita -- said that they had seen the weight move. Then Guru moved to the guys (about five or six of us).

I felt really uncomfortable. I wanted to see the lift. But it hadn't budged and there was no question that I'd have to tell Guru so. After I said so, Guru replayed the video and asked me again. No dice. So, Guru moved on to the next person.

In all, there were just five of us who told Guru that the weight didn't move (Amita, Databir, Ketan, me and I don't remember the fifth, maybe Sagar). Guru said we were "doubting Thomases." In fact, Databir disappeared for a short while and when he reappeared he had five baby blue t-shirts with the words "Doubting Thomas" emblazoned across the chest. Guru handed each of us a shirt and then we headed over to the tennis court for the evening.

It must be said, Guru gave us the shirts in good humor, and that night at the tennis court, Databir wore his proudly. I stuffed mine in the bottom drawer of my bureau and never touched it again. Initially, I felt kind of bummed about the entire incident, but with time came perspective.

I think Guru was pleased with the five of us. Under some real duress, we hadn't buckled. When it came down to it, Guru knew that we would be frank with him, even if such frankness wasn't in our own personal interest.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

August Drama

"Smile of the Beyond, how may I help you," I answered the phone.

I was at work and still puzzled by Lizzie's call just an hour earlier. When had she taken an interest in Guru? Was she actually interested in Guru? Maybe she just thought it would be fun to come to New York.

"Hey Yogaloy." It was Guru on the phone. "Of course your sister may come to Celebrations. Her soul has come to me many, many times." Guru went on a bit more, but that was the gist of it. Liz was in.

I hung up the phone, pleasantly stunned. I had never mentioned Liz to Guru before. Yet, he spoke as if he knew her intimately -- actually excited that she was coming to Celebrations. So, I was excited, too.

Little did I know what a shit storm was brewing.

To fully appreciate the situation that was about to unfold, you've got to keep in mind two simple factors: the boys and the girls. In the Center, the two generally don't mix. At all functions, meditations, concerts -- the girls sit on one side of the room, the boys sit on the other. Even the nomenclature -- boys and girls rather than men and women -- is meant to instill a sense of innocence. Celibacy for unmarried disciples is the rule.

As in all such bureaucracies, rule violators were reported by tattletales -- a practice expressly endorsed by Guru.

Until that point, such issues didn't concern me. For one thing, I was otherwise occupied. For another, I was largely hanging out with a bunch of younger guys who had been born into the Center, whose mothers and fathers were disciples. They weren't interested in girls, either. Or so I thought.

I was naive. At the time, I had gone through my high school experience. I had had some experience with the opposite sex, and I was glad to have passed beyond it. Not so with the 17, 18 and 19 year olds I was hanging out with, who had largely been sheltered and were now brimming with testosterone.

It was into this mix that my 18 year old sister arrived. She looked like Lindsey Lohan ala Mean Girls (pictured). You can imagine the stir it caused.

For the next two weeks, it seemed like I spoke to Ashrita every day. The boys from the brat pack couldn't stay away from her. Consequently, Guru was inundated with complaints. Guru, in turn, spoke to Ashrita, who called me to put the kibosh on it all.

Liz was blameless. First off, she didn't know any better. Boys had been a normal part of her life up to then. Second, when I asked her not to approach the guys, she complied. The guys, however, who knew better, kept approaching her -- even after I asked them to stop. Now, with hindsight, I guess I can't blame them. But Christ, back then I didn't need the headache.

Importantly, the situation prefaced an aspect of Guru's management style that I would learn -- first hand -- to despise. After numerous calls with Ashrita, he finally called me at the Smile near the end of Celebrations.

"Guru says that if he hears any more complaints about your sister, she's going to have to go," Ashrita told me. That pissed me off. Guru should have hammered the boys -- and their complaining mothers -- not Liz.

In any event, we all got through it. Jeevan and Liz were disciples.