Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Sit Down



Right as the public meditation ended, I got word that Guru wanted me at the house.

The porch was crowded when I got there. Guru was in the other room apparently, and everyone welcomed me a little more warmly than usual. I sat down, but before I could truly settle in, the girls began filing out of the other room and onto the porch.

One of them -- perhaps Savita, whom I had always admired -- told me that Guru wanted me. It became quiet and serious almost at once. Guru was sitting up straight in his reclining chair and he motioned for me to sit in front of him. "Let us meditate good boy," Guru said as he closed his eyes.

We meditated together for two or three minutes before Guru asked me what was wrong. "Tell me everything that is bothering you, good boy."

I told Guru the same thing that I had told him a few days earlier on the phone, and what I had told him in my goodbye note. This time, however, I wasn't at all emotional. "Guru, I've lost my aspiration. It's disappeared and I don't think it's coming back." Truth be told, I was sure it wasn't coming back.

Guru protested at length, as he had a few days earlier. He repeated my name and its meaning -- the abode of yoga. "Such a powerful name I have given you!" He went on to say again that I was destined for the spiritual life.

In retrospect, I wonder how Guru would have reacted had I been more explicit about the nature of my "problem." What would he have said if I had been brutally frank? "Guru, I need to have sex (and soon)!" The idea never would have had occurred to me at the time though. In public, at least, Guru didn't answer questions about sex (though he has written about it in very broad, generic terms). In private, I expect that I could have raised the issue with Guru, but I don't know what his advice to me would have been. Don't ask, don't tell? I just don't know.

In any event, Guru went on to ask me if anything else was bothering me. "I don't want to work at the Smile," I replied. I was burned out and had been for a few years. The inherent stress of restaurant work, the low pay, the ungrateful customers (primarily rowdy school kids), all combined to create an almost unbearable atmosphere in which to work.

"You don't have to work at the Smile," Guru said. "You can work wherever you'd like." That was a revelation. I'd always assumed I was permanently locked into the Smile. Finally, Guru asked me to stay and to give my life in the Center another chance.

As I had on the phone a few days earlier -- and for the same reasons -- I agreed.

Guru had not convinced me of anything. I simply felt that I owed him. He had re-shaped my life in just a few short years and in the process had never asked me for anything in return. Now he was asking me to give the Center another chance. I couldn't say no.

Before getting up, I told Guru that my dad had paid for my plane ticket home and that I should repay him. Guru asked me how much. "About $400," I said. Guru reached into the pocket of his kurta and pulled out a roll of cash and counted out more than enough and handed it to me.

I thanked Guru, bowed and then went to the porch. The Annam Brahma girls served dinner, there was prasad, and before I knew it, I was back in my once-abandoned room at Premik's.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Called Back

"Yogaloy, Guru wants to talk to you." It was Ashrita. "Will you be at this number for a few minutes?"

"Yes," I said, and then hung up. I hadn't expected this development. I took the phone downstairs to my new room. I had thought Guru wouldn't want anything to do with me once I'd left. Now I sat waiting for the phone to ring. I didn't have to wait long.

Guru and I spoke for about ten minutes (maybe less). He did most of the talking while I listened with tears in my eyes. I told Guru frankly that my aspiration -- my hunger for the Divine -- had disappeared. I told him that I was quite sure it wouldn't return. While he went on at some length, in short Guru didn't accept my analysis of the situation. He told me in no uncertain terms that I was "destined for the spiritual life."

I doubted that, but couldn't resist Guru's simple request: that I agree to go back to New York and talk to him face to face. He would let me leave with his blessings afterwards, he said, if I so chose. I agreed.

It would be easy to say that I just caved to Guru, but that wouldn't be accurate. My decision to go back to talk to Guru was a conscious one. In my seven-plus years as a disciple, Guru had never asked me to do anything. I felt that I owed him. Though I was sure that the trip back wouldn't change anything, I felt it was the least I could do.

Two days later, Jeevan and Bipin drove me to the airport, where they paid an exorbitant rate in cash for a last minute, one-way, non-stop flight from San Jose to JFK. It was Wednesday night when I arrived and was picked up by Vinaya.

He took me straight to P.S. 86, where the public meditation was just ending. I felt all eyes upon me as I walked down the familiar hall towards the stage. Guru was still there, selling some item or another.

Ketan was at the end of the hall and had a look of shocked concern on his face. Shambhu was there, too. He had a bit of a twinkle in his eye and a look of disbelief -- like he hadn't believed me capable of bailing on the Center like I'd done. Shambhu pulled out his wallet and gave me some money.

Reluctantly, I walked across the stage -- in front of all the disciples -- and bought what Guru was selling.

Photo credit here.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Freedom



When I think back about how I felt hunched over my handlebars pedaling north along Monterey Highway towards San Jose, I always think of Curt Smith cruising through California in his convertible MG in this video for the Tears for Fears classic "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."

Freedom.

I was riding my racing bike north from Morgan Hill, where my dad lived, up to my old stomping grounds, about a 50 mile ride round trip. I had slipped away cleanly from New York, having left my goodbye note to Guru on the dresser in my old room in Queens.

Perhaps at that very moment back in New York, Ketan or someone else had discovered the note in my abandoned room after I had failed to show up to work that morning. That was all behind me, though. God, to be free! I'd always felt free on my bike, but being away from the New York winter, the New York crime, the self-imposed discipline of the Center -- I'd never felt so free.

As I rode through South San Jose, I passed my old high school, David Moretti's house, the old neighborhood, and out past Charlie's house on my way to Los Gatos. To my surprise, Charlie and his brother Dave were in their garage. Considering my poor treatment of Charlie years earlier when he had left the Center, I felt rather sheepish saying hello. I stopped, nevertheless, and they were both very gracious. Class acts, both of them.

I apologized for my previous behavior, told them that I had just moved back, and we promised to touch base soon. With that, I turned around and completed my ride back down south to Morgan Hill. When I got back to the house, there was a message for me to call Ashrita.

Audition

While I was secretly planning my getaway, there was another development: Guru had become extremely displeased with the New York boys' singing group, which was known simply as "Kanan's group," after our saintly leader.

For his day job, Kanan ran a flower shop on Parsons Boulevard called "The Garland of Divinity's Love." He's married to a nice woman named Hashi and happens to be that rare individual for whom nobody has an unkind word. The only cross he apparently had to bear in life was leading his singing group, and it was getting heavy (not that it was his fault at all).

The singing group itself was made up of about 10 guys, all of whom had been in the Center significantly longer than I had. Unfortunately, at least half of them had a motivation problem when it came to learning and singing Guru's Bengali songs. Besides special sets of songs for each of the two annual Celebrations, we sang two or three songs each week at Guru's public meditations (which were then held at Public School 86, just across the street from the disciple-run stores).

Our motivation problem was obvious -- one need only compare us to the New York girls' group led by Tanima (front and center in the blue sari above). Like us, Tanima's group also sang two or three songs each week at the public meditation. Unlike the songs we sang, however, Tanima's group typically sang either Guru's newer songs or they would sing more obscure, complicated songs. The girls sang with conviction and power, a direct result of each singer in the group knowing each song cold.

Our group, in comparison, was like a spiritual Top-40 group (and not in a good way). We sang (and re-sang) the same tired tunes just about every week. You might think, therefore, that we'd sing them with gusto, but you'd be wrong. Only two-thirds of us, it seemed to my ear, even knew all the words to the songs we sang in public, so not all of us sang. Needless to say, we weren't very powerful. And that wouldn't have been so bad except that there was at least one guy in the group who would belt out the songs anyway, despite mangling the words throughout.

Frankly, more often than not, we sounded like shit. It was personally demoralizing to me early on in my discipleship because singing meant so much to me and was such a big part of my spiritual discipline. By the time I had burned out spiritually, however, I no longer cared. That was the environment in which Guru, just back from his winter break, decided to act.

If we wanted to remain in Kanan's group, Guru said, each of us would have to audition for Tanima. She would decide who was in and who was out.

I got this news from Kanan at Progress-Promise one evening, a week or so away from my planned secret escape from the Center. But even if I hadn't been planning to leave, there is no way I would have auditioned for Tanima in order to remain in that group. Ever since I had been involved in the singing groups -- first in Venu's group in San Francisco (nice shot here of Venu with Sunil) and later Kanan's group when I moved to New York -- Guru had always fostered competition between the four principal groups (SF boys and girls, and NY boys and girls). The idea of submitting control of our group to Tanima just struck me as humiliating. I wouldn't do it. I'd rather not be in the group.

The fact that I was leaving the Center just made it that much easier to blow off the individual auditions with Tanima.

On a Thursday night shortly after the scheduled auditions -- and just two days before I had planned on flying back to California for good -- Ashrita called me at home.

"Yogaloy, Guru said that you can stay in Kanan's group. You don't have to audition for Tanima. But, he wants you to know that that kind of pride will take you away from the Center."

Though Ashrita seemed to be standing ready to take down my response and communicate it to Guru, I said nothing but "thanks" and hung up the phone.

Did Guru know I was leaving?

Photo credit here.

Planning (Part Deux)

I returned to New York from my Christmas and New Year's vacation a week or two before Guru and many of the disciples returned from their own.

Ketan had gone on the trip with Guru and on one of his first nights back, we guarded the block together. Guarding the block consisted of sitting in a car all night parked in front of the disciple-owned stores on Parsons Boulevard to ward off potential vandals. It was brutal duty and, therefore, critical that your guard partner be a good one. Ketan was. Despite the fact that I'm generally taciturn, we could talk for hours.

That night, Ketan asked me how my vacation had been. "You see any old friends?"

"Yeah," I replied, "I went to a New Year's Eve party," I said hesitantly. I wasn't sure that it was a good idea to share this information.

Over the previous year, my relationship with Ketan had become distant as I spent more of my free time training for triathlons and less time hanging out at the tennis court and generally making myself available for invitations to Guru's house. So, I wasn't sure that Ketan would hold our conversation in confidence. There was a possibility, I'd thought, that he'd pass on to Guru anything untoward I told him.

In any event, Ketan's questions were direct and I preferred to be honest.

"Did you drink?"

"I had a little beer," I said.

Silence. "Did you get drunk?"

"No," I lied, starting to feel defensive. More silence.

The night was a long one, but as it turned out, Ketan kept my secret. I never heard a word about it from Guru. Not that it would have mattered much. I had already begun preparing my escape and not even Ketan knew that. I had called my dad and asked him if he and my step mom would be willing to buy me a ticket home and let me stay at their home for some time. They had agreed.

A short time later, with the flight information in hand, I secretly began taking my racing bike apart and packed it in a travel box down in the basement of my place. As it turned out, D-day would be a Saturday, a day I was scheduled to work. So, I told Sahishnu that I'd have to leave early that day to go to doctor's appointment related to my earlier hospitalization. I then arranged for a taxi cab to pick me up at a designated hour to take me to LaGuardia.

With a few days to spare, my plan was in place.

Photo credit here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Five-Year Reunion

Despite having written my goodbye note to Guru, I had no concrete plan in place to leave the Center when he and many of the disciples left town for the Christmas trip (1988). So, the note remained on my shrine.

Though I had no plans to leave the Center just then, I did fly back to my dad's place in Morgan Hill, California for the holidays. I arrived a few days before Christmas and would stay for a few days past New Years.

My dad gave me the use of one of his cars for my stay and on a lark, I called my old friend Dave Moretti. Later that day, we met at a local mall to do some Christmas shopping. Dave was then managing a fitness center and had been bodybuilding for the last few years. He was huge and it was great to see him. We caught up over lunch and he invited me to a New Year's Eve party planned for the following week.

I don't remember spending much time with Jeevan or Nirbachita, who by then were living in San Francisco and attending the Center there. As I recall, they were going through their own period of allergy to the parents at that time, but did make it down for Christmas day. In any event, I was free New Year's Eve to go to the party.

Held at the childhood home of one of our old schoolmates, the party turned out to be an impromptu five-year reunion of our high school graduating class. It struck me as surreal. Out of the blue, it seemed, all these characters from my pre-disciple days -- jocks, burnouts, and even some nerds -- were there in front of me, excited to catch up and hear what I'd been up to.

I lied a little by omission. I'd been working at a restaurant in New York, I'd told them, and training for triathlons. Some who knew me better than others, like Dave and some of the other jocks, remembered my affiliation with Guru. As a bodybuilder, Dave wanted to know about Guru's feats of strength, which were getting a lot of bad press in bodybuilding circles. I told Dave, truthfully but with little conviction, that Guru was just trying to inspire people to push the envelope, to do more than they thought possible.

Another friend from my football days told me that what he always remembered about me was that when I got into something, I went all the way. He said it admiringly and for brief moment that comment reminded me of all I'd done since I'd seen these old friends last. While most of them had remained right there in San Jose and got blue collar jobs, I had seen much of the United States, travelled to Japan, and was living in New York, regularly exposed to disciples from all over the world. San Jose seemed provincial to me, almost quaint.

Those inward looking moments were brief, though. It was a party after all. Classic rock was on the stereo and there were two kegs on the back porch. And there were girls, most of whom I did not recognize. As the New Year rang in, however, I was talking to a girl I had remembered when she leaned into me and kissed me on the mouth.

"Happy New Years," she said smiling. It was 1989, and for that moment, I was happy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Note

In the late fall (1988), I sat at my bedroom shrine for the first time in many months. It had been more than a year since the psychic flame which had sustained my spiritual life had been extinguished. I was in a somber mood.

I folded my hands and looked at the picture of Guru which had started me on my spiritual journey seven years earlier. Though sad, I remembered from whence I had come -- who I had been before I took up the path -- and conjured a pure feeling of gratitude in my heart.

Bowing my forehead to meet my folded hands in front of me, I offered my occult gratitude to Guru for everything he'd done for me.

Then I picked up a piece of paper and a pen I had placed on my shrine for this purpose and wrote Guru a short goodbye. I no longer have the note, but I wrote the following (almost word for word):

Dearest Guru,

I am eternally grateful for everything you have done for me and for my brother and sister. It is a debt I will never be able to pay.

Unfortunately, I have lost my aspiration and am certain it will not return. I'm sorry that I have failed you.

Love and Gratitude,

Yogaloy

I then folded the note twice and placed it back on my shrine, where it would sit for the next few months, while I mustered the courage to leave the Center.

Photo credit of the sunset over the Ganges here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A New Goal Forms

To my mind, having a girlfriend was incompatible with remaining in the Center. Certainly, that was the explicit general rule: if you were single, then you were to remain celibate.

Now, I wasn't completely naive. I knew that amongst the general population of disciples there were those who didn't follow all of the rules all of the time. And even amongst those who were wholly devoted to Guru and the Center way of life there were, at times, temporary exceptions to the general rule. If, for example, an otherwise devoted disciple was honest with Guru about an affair of some kind (or some other indiscretion), it wasn't necessarily a firing offense.

There were no exceptions, however, to the marriage prohibition. In the 1970s, Guru not only permitted marriages, he actually arranged some between disciples. But by the time I joined the Center, marriage was verboten. If a disciple got married, he or she would have to leave the Center and could come back only after a three-year hiatus. There were a number of disciples who took this option.

My standard was different though. The fact that I wanted a girlfriend -- that I desired sex -- was a failure of my spiritual life on its face. There was no getting around it and I wasn't going to be a hypocrite and pretend to be a disciple while leading a double life of some kind. So, by the time I was discharged from the hospital, I knew that my eventual departure from the Center was inevitable.

What I did not have, however, was a goal -- something around which a plan to actually leave the Center could coalesce. That changed when someone handed me a paperback copy of Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October. One of my talents is an active, solution-oriented imagination. Given a goal that I believe in -- one that grabs my attention -- I can "see" how to make it happen. The Hunt for Red October provided me with my first worldly adult ambition: to be a spy.

After finishing the book one night, I lay in bed thinking to myself that there were, in fact, people like the book's protagonist Jack Ryan out there. Not necessarily saving the world or single-handedly preventing World War III (I've always despised anything smaking of James Bond, a kind of vulgarity which led John le Carre to call the Bond series "pornography"), but men of action doing dangerous, challenging jobs. That's what I wanted, too.

Laying there that night, I knew at once that I'd need a college degree, probably an advanced one. I'd need language skills. I'd need military experience. The bare outline of a long-term plan began to form. It was thrilling and frightening at the same time. While I'd known for some months that I couldn't remain in the Center indefinitely, I hadn't been forced -- until that moment -- to contemplate actually leaving.

That was the scary part.

The Nurse

She was Vietnamese, about my age (23), and very pretty. She was my nurse.

Trishatur had brought me to the emergency room the night before. After waiting more than six hours without being admitted, I had barged past the triage nurse in agony and was immediately shown a bed and administered an I.V.

A short time later, the emergency room doctor told me that I appeared to be suffering from appendicitis. An operating room was being prepared for me, he said, and would be ready in an hour or so.

A few hours later, the prospective surgeon appeared at my bedside. I told him I wasn't feeling any better, but neither was I feeling any worse. He suggested that we hold off on the surgery and reassess in a few hours. By midday, I was feeling slightly better and had been moved out of the emergency room.

Some of my friends had visited me, including at least one of the "Annam Brahma" girls (I can't remember whether it was Nishtha, Pranika, or Shephali -- all of whom I have fond memories of and held in high regard). Apparently, Guru (who was in Seoul for the Olympics) had been told of my predicament and said that I'd be fine. I should drink green coconut water, he'd said.

The girls had brought some coconut water with them. They also brought along a large framed photo of Guru, which they set up next to my hospital bed. It made me uncomfortable for two reasons. First, while I'd never hid my discipleship or the fact that Guru was my master, I could not practice in public. Spirituality, I felt intuitively, was not something that should be worn on one's shirtsleeve. Meditation is best practiced in secret.

Second, and more importantly considering the disappearance of my psychic inspiration, I didn't want to have to explain the picture to the nurse, the one I had become smitten with. I was in the hospital for three days before being discharged without surgery. During that time, my nurse seemed to spend more and more time in my room. We chatted about small things and it was thrilling.

On the morning of my third day, a janitor came into my room and seemed surprised to see me. "I think you've been discharged," she said. Sure enough, I had been, but no one had bothered to tell me. From the beginning, it had seemed that since I had had no medical insurance, the hospital wasn't all that excited about sinking time into my care. Thus, the unceremonious discharge.

I called my close friend, Tejiyan, and he came and picked me up. I left a flowering plant that someone had given me for my nurse-friend. A couple of months later, I was jogging down 150th Street towards the Grand Central Parkway when I saw her standing at a bus stop on the other side of the street.

Excited as I had been to see her, I was emotionally paralyzed. I kept right on running down 150th Street hoping to have a girlfriend of my own some day.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

New Ventures

By late '87, I had run about 20 marathons and three or four ultra-marathons (including the 200 mile race). I was beginning to burn out on running.

So, I bought a road bike from a very nice guy named Sandhani. My plan was to start triathlon training. I got some help on the bike and local bike routes from another very nice disciple named Krandan -- a great character originally from England, then hailing from Switzerland. He took me on a number of 50-mile rides out to Oyster Bay that were breathtaking, in more ways than one.

For help with swim training, I turned to three disciples who were training to swim the English Channel: Shraddha, Sunil, and Dhruva. A few nights a week, they would drive out to Hofstra University's Olympic-sized pool and seemingly swim forever. The first time they brought me out there, I remember walking out onto the pool deck in my baggy running shorts and being slightly embarrassed by the sight of the three of them in their Speedos. To put it mildly, they didn't look athletic.

An integral part of Channel Swimming, however, is preparing oneself for the cold. And from my point of view, they looked prepared! Once in the water, though, the three of them moved like the marine mammals they were becoming. That first trip to Hofstra, I swam 400 yards in 50 yard increments. I thought I was going to drown. I got out, showered, dressed, and then sat in the pool deck bleachers for near two hours while the three of them continued their mammoth workout. Later that summer (1988), Sunil, Dhruva, and Shraddha made the 342nd, 344th, and 345th solo crossings of the English Channel, respectively.

The very first disciple to swim the English Channel was a German woman named Vasanti in 1985. She was closely followed by the first male disciple to make the crossing -- Adhiratha -- that same year. Shortly after their victorious swims, Vasanti and Adhirhatha returned to New York where Guru held a celebratory function in their honor. It was -- hands down -- the best function I ever attended. The highlight of the night was when Guru had Vasanti and Adhiratha stand on the stage while the disciples filed by, one by one, to shake hands with them. What great memories I have of that night.

In any event, at around the same time Sunil, Shraddha, and Dhruva were completing their own Channel swims, I was suffering in my own way. That summer, the Olympics were being held in Seoul, South Korea. Guru and a number of disciples made the trip, particularly to see Carl Lewis, whom Guru had given the spiritual name Sudahota. In the afternoon of the 100 meter finals, Sundar and I did a brutal hill workout, picked up dinner to go from Annam Brahma, and went to my place to watch the Games. That's when I began feeling sick.

Without touching my food and before the 100 meter final was run, I excused myself and went upstairs to my room. I had a devastating pain in the lower right portion of my abdomen. Very quickly I realized I should go to the hospital. I called Trishatur -- whom I'll profile a bit later on -- and he agreed to pick me up.

It was the beginning of a horrible Friday night.

On March 10, 2002, Sunil passed away unexpectedly. As I recall, his spiritual name meant "blue, Krishna's blue." After successfully conquering the English Channel, Sunil became a mountain climber. The picture above is Sunil swimming to the beyond, taken by his close friend Shraddha. The original, along with many other great shots of Sunil, Shraddha, Adiratha and others can be found here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Lexicon

Now is the time, perhaps, to identify and provide some simple explanations for the labels Guru used for the various constituents of the human psyche.

They are five: the body, the vital, the mind, the heart, and the soul.

These are somewhat simplified versions of the labels Guru learned in the spiritual community in which he was raised: the Sri Auruobindo Ashram. (Here is a Wikipedia description of the psychology of Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga.)

In later posts, I'll address the significant influence that Sri Aurobindo's writings eventually had on me, but for now let me just say that the following explanations of the five parts of the human psyche as categorized by Guru are my own. That is to say, they are my understandings of those terms and how I thought of them and their workings according to my own experience. And to be clear, my explanations are not necessarily Center orthodoxy.

The body. Self-explanatory really. The body is the physical organism. For those readers familiar with the idea of chakras, the occult center of the body is in the root chakra at the base of the spine.

The vital. This term encompasses all the life forces from nervous physical energy through the higher emotions of empathy and sympathy and everything in between. Unfortunately, however, the term "vital" all too often is used as a synonym for sex, and in the Center, sex is "bad" or dirty in the Victorian sense. For that reason, I prefer to refer to the vital as the life force. The occult centers for the vital life forces are located in the sacral chakra, the navel chakra, and the heart chakra.

The mind. This term, like the body, is self-explanatory. As used in the Center, it refers to virtually all mental activity without distinguishing between the various types of mental activity (as identified by Sri Aurobindo). In the Center, the general goal was to extinguish such mental activity. Though at the time I was in the Center, I too shared this understanding of the term "mind," it is now almost a term without any utility to me. I've instead embraced Sri Aurobindo's more nuanced and useful (for my purposes anyway) distinctions. In any event, the occult centers of mental activity are at the throat, forehead, and brain chakras.

The heart. The heart is the heart chakra and it is understood to be the seat of the soul. In Center philosophy, the heart -- though acknowledged to be the seat of pure emotions or life force capable of identifying with others -- is not included in the term "vital," though I think it properly belongs there. Guru refers to his path as the "path of the heart." At its metaphysical root, the method of the Center was to calm the body (by keeping it healthy through exercise mainly) and lessen the influence of the vital and mind, thereby allowing the influence of the heart to reign. That was the idea.

The soul. Hate this term. Too much Christian baggage for me and I never knew what it meant. Though it has its own new age baggage, I much prefer the term coined by Sri Aurobindo (long before the "new age"): the psychic being. It's a more concrete term, I guess -- not so amorphous, to me anyway. The psychic being is located deep within the heart chakra.

For all my life, I had been a jock and thus had a natural and close connection to my body. As you can read in my early posts, I also had a pretty full stock of life energy animating my physical body, but I had a lot of emotional dysfunction. Not damage, really, just immaturity. My emotional development seemed to go into a state of suspended animation as I took up the spiritual life in earnest.

Honestly, I never had much intellectual mental development. I had an adequate mental instrument, but in my development it seemed I went from being an emotionally needy and dysfunctional teenager straight to the spiritual life, kind of bypassing significant intellectual training. I hated high school before becoming a disciple and hated it after -- just for different reasons.

Looking back, this was all fine as the influence of my psychic being blossomed and then annexed the rest of my psyche, but once it receded, the life force came out of suspended animation with a vengeance, leaving me feeling lost and defeated.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Breaking Down

By the spring of 1988, I had begun to panic. While still master of my domain, the psychic flame had been out for nearly six months, replaced by an ever present and increasingly powerful sexual desire.

I struggled to keep it in check, but a confluence of factors worked against me. First, I was stressed at work. At that point, I had worked about two years straight with just two days off a month. Needless to explain, perhaps, the restaurant business was getting old. Plus, despite living a Spartan lifestyle, I couldn't even afford to buy a new pair of running shoes (instead Sundar, who sold shoes out of his barbershop for extra cash, extended me credit).

This stress combined with my inability to meditate -- to immerse myself in the occult movement that had once owned me -- left me with little desire to attend Guru's regular functions. And it seemed my nascent sexual desire fed on this stress. The obvious implication of these developments -- that I would eventually leave the Center -- scared me.

There was nothing ambiguous about Guru's attitude toward the Center -- one was to remain in the "Golden Boat," as he called it, at all costs. While Guru has written that once a disciple, always a disciple (in an occult sense), he has also said on numerous occasions that to leave the Center voluntarily is to court disaster. Thus the explicit prohibition from speaking to ex-disciples without permission. Your soul, Guru would say, would punish you for leaving.

While such pronouncements were cause for concern, I've never responded well to threats. What really tortured me, though, was the colossal failure that the rebirth of my sexual desire represented. The only ambition I ever had in my life was to be the best at something, to reach the pinnacle of achievement in some field.

As a youngster, I had wanted to be an Olympic sprinter, but was not fast enough. Then I wanted to win the Heisman Trophy, but was not big enough. In the spiritual life, however, it seemed I had found my calling. I was young, independent, and above all, I had some mysterious psychic aptitude for it. Now, just as mysteriously, the psychic flame that had driven me to a singular moment of achievement, had abandoned me to crushing depression.

One night, after April Celebrations had failed to rekindle the flame, I went for a run out Union Turnpike. As I turned around at the two and a half mile marker and headed into the upscale Bayside neighborhood adjacent to Cunningham Park, I broke down.

Walking in the middle of a quiet residential street, I cried openly, surrendering to my formless God with hushed anguish. "Out of the blue, you lit the flame to begin with," I whispered, my tear-filled eyes looking upwards, towards the night sky. "Now you've taken it away."

I continued walking in silence and then continued my pathetic soliloquy. "My only prayer has been to become consciously one with Thee -- but I don't control it, I don't control anything," I cried. "Let Thy will be done. If you want me to aspire for Thee, you alone will rekindle the flame."

I walked the remaining two miles home, spent both physically and emotionally.

Photo credit here.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Lonely Winter


Thanksgiving moved on to Christmas and the dead of winter. Guru and many of the local disciples were away on winter break, not to return until mid-January 1988. And the inner flame had not yet returned.

I wasn't alarmed. All seekers could be expected to go through a dry spell, right? I was lonely, though. Without Guru and many of my friends around I suddenly found myself with lots of time on my hands in the evenings after work. It was then that something quite unexpected happened.

Now, as any devoted fan of the hit series Seinfeld will tell you, hardly a day passes when I cannot make some reference to one of that show's episodes in reference to the everyday happenings of my life. For that reason, I try to keep such references to a minimum. For one thing, such references date me -- the show has been in syndication for 10 years. For another thing, I'm sure non-fans get tired of such references.

In this case, however, I cannot resist. One night, while lying in bed in early 1988, "it" moved.

Jerry: Really?

George: I think it moved.

Jerry: Moved?

George: It may have moved, I don't
know.


Jerry: I'm sure it didn't move.

George: It moved! It was imperceptible but I
felt it.


Jerry: Maybe it just wanted to change
positions? You know, shift to the otherside.


George: No, no. It wasn't a shift, I've
shifted, this was a move.


(From the episode The Note.)

In George Costanza's case, the causal factor was receiving a seemingly benign massage from a man. In my case, however, it wasn't clear to me at the time why -- seemingly out of the blue -- sexual desire welled up from within me. With time, though, the reason became clear and is pretty straightforward.

The retreat or disappearance of the occult movement which had dominated my psyche for the past six years had left a vacuum in its wake. After a short slack tide, the life force -- with sexual desire leading the charge -- filled that vacuum.

This new movement, such as it was, was nothing more -- just a feeling not to be acted upon. I was still "master of my domain."

Photo credit goes to johnivara on Flickr.

Sundar

Do you know the story of the Earl of Stanhope?

It is said that upon arriving at the palace of King Louis XIV, the French King met the Earl’s carriage and held the door to the palace open and said, “After you.” Without hesitation, the Earl of Stanhope said “thank you,” permitted the King to hold the door for him, and walked into the palace. The King replied, “Truly, you are the most polite man in Europe.” The moral of the story is that when someone offers you a courtesy – even if that someone is your superior, like the King in this case – the polite response is to accept gracefully. (A similar story is recounted here about the Earl of Stair.)

This story comes to my mind often. Just the other day, while descending in the elevator on my way home from work, I told my fellow passenger “after you.” “No, no after you,” he insisted. In the meantime, the elevator doors began to close. I didn’t fight any further. Remembering the Earl of Stanhope, I said “thank you” and went on my way.

Sundar taught me that story more than 20 years ago.

For the four and a half years that I lived in Queens, Sundar was my running partner, confidante, and true friend (and it all started at the Smile of the Beyond). As you may remember from a previous post, I first started working at the Smile on a temporary basis, while the then-current manager was away on the Christmas trip. Sundar was part of the full-time staff. At work, he taught me the ropes. After work, Sundar taught me how to run.

First and foremost, Sundar was my running partner. From my first days working at the Smile, Sundar led me on a running exploration of the greater Queens region. On Friday nights in the fall, for example, we'd run to circus practice. (At every Celebrations, there was a circus, where various disciples would put on acts. Typically, I didn't participate and circus practice for Sundar and me, and a number of other guys, consisted of playing indoor soccer for a few hours until Guru called for prasad.)

Heading north on Union Turnpike, we'd run until about the two and a half mile marker -- a big, circled 2 1/2 painted both on the sidewalk and street in white paint by Guru's road crew (of which I was a part). We'd then cross over to the Alley Pond bike path, which in the early fall darkness was somber and quiet. For the next few miles, our steps and our breathing were in unison and were the only sounds to be heard until we reached the end of the path, crossed back over Union Turnpike, and ran the rest of the way to the public school where circus practice was held.

On frigid winter mornings, we might rise early and run to the Kissena Park golf course and run on the snow-covered fairways. We'd stop for a few minutes to stand still, panting with hands folded, to salute the rising sun, whose power was barely perceptible in the face of the frozen jets of air pushing south from the Canadian plains.

In the spring, Sundar and I might run in Forest Park Gardens, where the tulips were in bloom and where we might catch Geraldine Ferraro walking her dog with her neighbors. In the brutal New York summers, we might venture out early on Sunday, out the bike path and beyond, circling back to Jamaica for 16 miles and then head south to Flushing Meadows Park for 20-plus miles total. After showering, we'd meet at Annam Brahma for a huge meal, and miss part or all of the morning function with Guru.

On such mornings, we'd shrug it off. "After running 20 miles," Sundar would say, "no matter what you do for the rest of the day, you feel like you've accomplished something." I wholeheartedly agreed.

Sundar was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, speaks fluent French, and is extremely well-versed in the history and literature of Western Europe, from which he would regularly regale me with stories and anecdotes like that of the Earl of Stanhope, above, which would stick with me forever.

Primarily, though, Sundar taught me how to observe -- how to observe others and, ultimately, how to observe myself. After leaving the employ of the Smile, Sundar became a barber and took over the Center-owned barbershop (called "Perfection in the Head World"), where he's been cutting hair and holding court for more than 20 years.

Traditionally, barbershops have been gathering places for locals to meet and exchange information. That's certainly true for Sundar's shop. ("Sundar," by the way, means "beauty" in Bengali.) From his post on Parsons Boulevard, Sundar presides over a vast, informal intelligence network of disciple goings-on and Center-related intrigue. Once, wanting to share some experience I had had at Guru's house the previous evening -- but not wanting it broadcast to all -- I asked Sundar whether he ever kept secrets.

"Of course," he answered. "If someone tells me that some piece of information is confidential, then I'll never pass it on." Sundar was true to his word.

Sundar has the vibe of old world, European royalty, but not of a warrior-king -- there's no violence hidden within him -- so much as a privy counselor: refinement, learnedness, discretion. I'm not aware of any disciple who is at the same time as self-sufficient as Sundar and as steady in his practice.

When I would finally muster up the courage to leave the Center for good, Sundar was one of just a handful of my brother disciples to see me off. For that reason alone, I'm indebted to him.

Unmesh took the great picture above of Sundar and I running the Sri Chinmoy Marathon then held every February in New Hampshire.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Flame is Gone

I can't pinpoint the exact day, but sometime in the fall of 1987 the psychic flame went out.

In fact, maybe it had gone out earlier -- that summer perhaps -- but I had only noticed it that fall. In any event, the retreat of the occult movement which just the year before had completed its annexation of my conscious being had occurred.

I do remember the exact moment I realized that the psychic retreat had occurred: the day after Thanksgiving.

Guru must have been out of town, because a disciple had invited me and a couple other guys to spend Thanksgiving day with him and his family in rural New Jersey. It turned out to be the best Thanksgiving I've ever had (before or since). Maybe that was because my expectations for it were so low.

To start with: New Jersey? My experiences with the "Garden State" had been largely confined to drives to and from Newark (for the uninitiated, not a pleasant drive). Then there was Thanksgiving itself and the inevitable family issues that tended to linger just beneath the surface of the best of families. And here we were going to be a bunch of vegetarian cult members (in the family's eyes anyway) crashing the party. I didn't have high hopes.

But it was great. Rural New Jersey, if not quite a "garden," is beautiful. The guys and I went for a short run on the trails behind the family home before dinner, which was incredible. My host's many grown brothers and sisters, and their spouses and children, all crowded around two full-sized dining room tables put end to end. As I ate, I sat there thinking: "This is what Thanksgiving dinner was meant to be."

The next night, though, back in Queens, I noticed something different as I lay in bed. The psychic flame that had been an ever-present physical sensation in the middle of my chest since my first awakening some five years earlier was gone. Initially, this realization didn't cause me any panic nor really any concern. I just noted its disappearance.

Little did I know then that it wouldn't return for another ten years.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Polishing the Rough Diamond

Guru has said that there are grades of spiritual masters, just as there are different grades of doctors.

In his analogy, the third grade of doctor merely makes a diagnosis and writes the appropriate prescription. One step up is the second grade of doctor, who goes a step further and will check up on the patient from time to time and, if necessary, encourage the patient to take his or her medicine.

Finally, there is the first grade of doctor. According to Guru's analogy, the first grade of doctor will go beyond mere encouragement. If necessary, the first grade of doctor will put his or her knee on the patient's chest and force the medicine down. According to Guru, the same is true for spiritual masters.

For spiritual masters, however, neither the diagnosis nor the medicine is physical. In the most generic and general sense, the diagnosis typically involves the disciple's ego and personal qualities associated with the ego. The spiritual master's prescription for such problems oftentimes appears unorthodox.

I love the example given by Swami Vivekananda. A seeker once asked him what he should do to progress in the spiritual life. Swamiji replied: "Start telling lies." He then explained that if the seeker started telling lies, then eventually others would discover his lies and challenge him. As a result of being challenged, the seeker would then begin developing a personality, some individuality. Only with a strong personality -- a strong sense of individuality -- would the seeker be ready for the spiritual life.

Pretty counter intuitive and, when you think about it, pretty harsh. One gathers that Swamiji, however, was a doctor of the first grade -- that he was going to give the seeker the best medicine, whether the seeker liked it or not. Similarly, Guru could be harsh on those who could handle it.

Guru only upbraided me once. Vinaya and I had arrived at a concert venue not far from Queens with the wrong cello bow. Honestly, up to that point I had never really taken much notice of such things. Instead, whatever instruments Vinaya told me to load in the car, I loaded. But when we got to the concert hall and Guru discovered our mistake, he really laid into us both. I quickly drove back to Guru's house and retrieved the proper cello bow while Vinaya continued the concert set-up.

That experience, however, washed right over me. I had been kind of spaced out in my duties, had made a mistake, and Guru ripped me a new one. From that point forward, I didn't make that mistake again. It wasn't personal.

No so, however, with his warning to me about Jayanti and then the sense of personal disappointment that he communicated to me about not having lost enough weight. Unlike the upbraiding Guru gave me about the cello bow -- which was richly deserved -- these other incidents were not deserved. They cut me deep.

For some reason, I was very sensitive to such things. I had a strong sense of honor and a lot of associated pride. Pride, of course, is a big fat target for the spiritual master, so perhaps that alone is the answer. Guru was simply pushing the buttons I was presenting him. While from my personal point of view back at that time, it didn't make sense to me why Guru would unnecessarily chastise me about girls or my weight, the fact that he did so had the effect of pushing me away from Guru and made me begin to stand on my own two feet. Perhaps, that was his intent.

Spiritual masters can be very unorthodox. For example, there's a great story about the wife of one of Sri Ramakrishna's prominent disciples. She was very fastidious -- what we would now call a germaphobe. Thakur advised her to smear a small amount of human feces on her forehead and leave it there all day. Guess what ... no more germaphobe. (That story always makes me belly laugh.)

I'm not sure how Guru dealt with germaphobes, but he could be unorthodox, too (or at least politically incorrect), particularly when it came to weight issues. While he had been a champion athlete at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram before coming to America in 1964, by the early 1970s, Guru had put on a lot of weight himself. Then, in his late 40s, he took up long distance running with a vengeance.

By the time I came around the Center, Guru was pretty hardcore in his treatment of disciples -- typically the women disciples -- who were overweight. He was merciless, really. Locally, he even started a special Center for such women: the Kohinoor Center, after the large diamond of that name. These weren't morbidly obese women, just typical middle-aged women who I think it's safe to say weren't jocks by nature. But Guru pushed them constantly to exercise and lose weight. In terms of pure physical fitness, the Kohinoor women were better for it, but it must have been embarrassing for many of them to be called out in front of the other disciples.

That's not to say that Guru wasn't also nice to them -- he wasn't all stick and no carrot. Guru certainly showed the women of the Kohinoor Center lots of kindness and positive attention. But make no mistake, like the doctor of the first grade, Guru could be harsh when he thought the patient needed it. I couldn't have taken that kind of treatment.

And that's the final point -- the guruvada is a voluntary path. If the patient doesn't like the doctor or the treatment, the patient can leave.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Weight and Lifting

After the 7,000 pound lift, Guru began lifting people up, literally.

A disciple named Unmilan fit Guru's sitting calf raise machine with a platform so that people -- like professional wrestler "Hillbilly" Jim Morris, me, and the young daughter of a disciple -- could stand on it and be lifted.

Unmilan also fit Guru's one-arm press rack with a similar platform. Over the remaining years of his life, Guru would use this simple contraption to lift hundreds of dignitaries -- from Nobel laureates to heads of state.

Guru didn't just lift dignitaries, though. He also lifted disciples. It was around the summer of 1987, shortly after I had returned from my two weeks on the Peace Run, that Guru made an unusual request: he wanted all disciples to be weighed on a certain day.

I don't remember, now, exactly what Guru originally had in mind, but it was tied into his lifting in some way. In any event, he wanted all of the local disciples to get weighed on a certain day. Then, we'd all have about a week before we'd weigh in again. In the interim, he wanted us all to lose weight.

I didn't take it seriously. As was my practice at the time, if I detected that Guru was making general comments to the disciples that didn't apply to me, then I would generally ignore such comments. In this case, I was as fit as a fiddle and as light as I had ever been. On average, I was running seven or eight miles a day. I didn't need to lose weight.

Nevertheless, I weighed in like everyone else, deciding to step on the scale first thing in the morning on weigh-in day (we could show up any time that day to be weighed, as I recall). I didn't do anything different the following week and wasn't concerned at all at the end of the week when I stepped on the scale again. This time, though, I weighed in after dinner. The result: I had "gained" four or five pounds.

I use the scare quotes around the word "gained" because I hadn't really gained any weight. I had learned long ago, during my high school wrestling career, the vagaries of daily weight fluctuations and also how to manipulate my weight on short notice (as anyone who participates in a sport with weight classes does). The fact was, I had weighed in light (first thing in the morning) and weighed out heavy (after dinner in the evening).

That didn't seem to matter. Before that night's function, one of my friends started giving me shit for having gained weight. I was a little agitated by this, but still didn't think much of it until Guru arrived at Progress-Promise and the function started. He wasn't happy either -- not just because of me specifically, but with the disciples as a whole, who hadn't lost enough weight. It must be said, however, that Guru looked at me directly a number of times and made it clear to me that he was disappointed.

Guru then announced that there'd be a do-over, and this time he expected more of an effort. The following day, we were all to weigh in again. So, despite my increasing agitation, I put my old wrestling know-how to use and decided to weigh in heavy after dinner the next night. Then, for the next week, I went about my business as usual -- no dieting. As luck would have it, there was a half-marathon scheduled for the following Sunday, the day we were to weigh out.

I ran my best half-marathon ever that morning (1 hour, 21 minutes), went home and showered, and then went to Progress-Promise to get on the scale before eating breakfast. Lavanya was the official scale operator. I stepped up. The result: I had "lost" 11 pounds. I then headed straight for Lucille's for a huge breakfast -- happy I had gamed the system.

That was just it, however. It was a game. I've already written about how earlier that year, Guru had warned me -- unfairly I thought -- about getting too friendly with Jayanti. While I was unaware of it at the time, that experience had put a small crack into my Center-oriented personality.

The weight loss experience made that crack even larger.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Peace Run '87

I'm not sure whose idea it was originally, but in 1987 the Center sponsored its first Peace Run -- a 50-state Olympic-style torch relay.

Disciples had used running relays and other athletic events to celebrate certain Center causes and events for years. Peace Run '87, however, was on an altogether different scale.

It started in April and would end in August, with the goal of running a flaming peace torch not just back and forth across the United States, but on a course that would wind its way through every individual state as well.

It was a massive undertaking, and the Center had only one disciple capable of carrying it off: Shambhu.

Shambhu is a man of action. Were he associated with the military, he'd be an operator (as opposed to a mere analyst). Shambhu gets things done. He's not only a professional musician, but also a world-class public relations man.

To me, though, he is more than that. He's a friend and would become one of a small group of individuals who, at one time or another, would act as a mentor to me. He took a conscious interest in me and my interests, and would later play an important role in easing my transition from my inward looking world to the wider world of action.

The Peace Run had been underway for a few months or so when Shambhu asked me if I'd like a vacation. "If I can arrange it, would you like to meet up with team in the Southwest for a few weeks," he asked. There was a core group of runners on the relay full-time, which needed to be supplemented with fresh legs. Shambhu offered to send me at no cost -- all I had to do was run.

Just a few days later, I was running in Navajo country. What a great experience. I ran with the team for two weeks, putting in 10 miles a day, from Santa Fe to San Diego. The team captain was none other than Arpan, Giribar's older brother.

As we moved steadily westward towards the Pacific, I regaled the other guys with tales of "The Clam." Appropriately, that's where my vacation ended. The Clam is a cliff side in La Jolla, California, famous among locals as a sweet cliff jumping spot. On my last day on the run, a bunch of the San Diego disciples took us there to jump.

It was the perfect end to an unexpected -- but much needed and appreciated -- vacation, made possible solely by Shambhu's generosity.

Check out Shambhu's great blog here. Photo credit of The Clam, above, here.