Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Truth

It's a "she said - he said" situation.

That's the first thought that occurred to me as I rode home from school that day, unable to study for my fast approaching law school exams. Sevika had said that she'd had sex with Guru. Guru, presumably, denied it. They couldn't both be right. A classic "she said - he said." Nobody -- save Sevika and Guru -- would ever know the truth.

I acknowledge that. I'll never know whether Guru had sex with Sevika (or in the alternative, whether Sevika's allegation is a false one). I'll never know.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my dissatisfaction with the realization that I'd never know the truth about Sevika's allegation led me to turn to the law in the hope of finding an answer. Courts deal with these types of conundrums every day, I'd reasoned. Judges and juries must have a way of deciding who is telling the truth when the stories of two people conflict.

Sure enough, I discovered, they do. When there's an absence of any other evidence -- like corroborating documents or an incriminating video tape -- jurors just decide whose story they believe. Right or wrong -- for the purposes of "justice" -- their decision is the truth.

That's not to say that judges and juries make such decisions lightly or without the aid of reason. In California -- as I suspect is true in most places -- the evidence code provides some guidance. It suggests a number of factors that the judge or jury may use to help them judge a witness' credibility, like his or her demeanor in court, his or her character for honesty (or its opposite), or the existence of bias, among others.

This system works well. That is to say, it works efficiently. Everyday, men are imprisoned and women lose custody of their kids based on just such decisions. The problem, of course, is that judges and juries make mistakes. They don't know the truth. And in making such mistakes, lives are ruined.

I'm no judge. A judge is expected to be cold, to be removed emotionally from the individuals standing before him seeking justice, to be impartial, and to be decisive. That's not me. Instead, I'm encumbered by life lessons that have stressed the importance of loyalty, gratitude, and fairness.

For one thing, I've always been acutely aware of how it feels to be blamed for things that I didn't do. One morning, for example, when I was about seven years old, my father came into my room, turned on the lights, and angrily interrogated me about our next door neighbor's bicycle. Apparently, one their bikes had been vandalized in the middle of the night and the neighbor said she saw me -- in her garage in the middle of the night -- doing the damage.

I was seven years old, for Christ's sake. Surely, nobody would believe such a story. When I denied it, though, my dad spanked me. Apparently, the neighbor's story was so outrageous that it had to be true. I've never forgotten how helpless I felt at that moment when my word alone wasn't good enough.

To make matters worse, I had another problem when I was a kid. Sometimes I smiled at inappropriate times. This was particularly true when I was being asked whether or not I was telling the truth -- a seemingly regular question during my childhood -- I would smile. Thus, I was seldom believed.

Those experiences not only left me wanting to be believed, but they also reminded me how important it was to assume the good faith of others. They also laid the foundation for my overly developed sense of personal loyalty. That lesson, however, came much harder. It took getting a taste of my own medicine -- my own disloyalty -- to learn it well.

I've already recounted how I abandoned my high school chum, Charlie, when he left the Center. It was only years later, when I myself decided to leave and some disciples, whom I had thought were close to me, instead turned a cold shoulder. That's when I realized how disloyal I had been to Charlie years earlier, when he needed a friend most. Loyalty isn't about standing by a friend in good times. It's about standing by in bad, even when their choices disappoint you.

It's about being unconditional.

I'm reminded of the best professor I ever had, Francis Teti. He taught graduate classes at the Monterey Institute, like "National Security Policy in the 21st Century," which turned out to be Socratic seminars on concepts like agape (or unconditional love). I remember Professor Teti once posed a hypothetical situation in which a father's son commits a heinous act of some kind.

Professor Teti wondered aloud whether he would, in such a situation, ever speak to his son again. At Professor Teti's prompting, a student suggested that if the father's love for his son was conditioned upon the son's good behavior, then by definition such love couldn't be unconditional agape.

The difficulty most people seem to have with the concept of unconditional love or loyalty is that they believe that to stand by someone -- particularly when that person has done something wrong -- is to condone that wrong act. That's flawed reasoning. The father in Professor Teti's hypothetical could still love his son, visit him in prison, try to give him comfort, and hope for his son's further progress (and still not condone the crime).

Finally, I have a long memory for those who have helped me become a better person, many of whom I've profiled on this site before (including Sevika). None, however, have done as much for me as Guru. From the kind and gentle praise he gave me in my early days, to the subtle nudges he gave me in later years, to the direct tests he put in front of me after I had left the Center -- Guru changed my life for the better.

For those reasons, my loyalty lies with Guru.

Update: My thinking on these matters has evolved since the original posting of this piece. See, for example, this post for some additional thoughts.

The photo above is of a beautiful sculpture "Veritas" -- Truth -- by Audrey Flack. Check out her other amazing works here. I love how, unlike the many statues of Lady Justice -- whose eyes are typically completely covered to signify that "justice is blind" -- the eyes of the Truth are exposed.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

In Memory: Sudhir


February 24, 1955 - January 20, 2009

To the still heights and to the troubled depths
His equal spirit gave its vast assent:
A poised serenity of tranquil strength,
A wide unshaken look on Time's unrest
Faced all experience with unaltered peace.

Please take the time to check out this beautiful slide show of Sudhir set up by his good friend Ian "Harsha" Prior: http://web.mac.com/ianprior/iWeb/Site/Sudhir.html.


Photo of Sudhir by Unmesh. Opening poem is an excerpt from Savitri, Book One, Canto Three, by Sri Aurobindo.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Board

I no longer remember why I did it.

I suppose it was boredom or, perhaps, my natural inclination to put off the inevitable -- I had an entire day ahead of me devoted to studying constitutional law, property rights, contracts, or whatever subject was on tap for my upcoming law school finals. The first exam was three days away and I was having trouble getting started that morning.

It was December 2001. With finals complete, I'd be exactly halfway through law school. For whatever reason, though, I logged out of my email account that morning and instead of getting up and walking out of the computer lab to start studying in the library, I Googled the term "Sri Chinmoy Ex-Disciple." From there, it took me just a few seconds to find the Board.

The "Board" is a Yahoo Groups message board, which had been set up by a disgruntled former disciple and which had quickly gained attention both inside and outside the Center for some of the salacious allegations posted there. I had heard, through the grapevine, that the Board existed, but had never taken a look myself.

Why hadn't I waited until after finals to look at it?

I have no good answer to that question, but I didn't. With three days to study for my first exam, I instead spent the next day and a half reading the nearly 1,000 messages on the Board and digesting the shocking allegations made there. Most of the posts were rants by people who, when identifiable, I didn't have a high opinion of, even when they had been in the Center. There were, however, two or three allegations by women who claimed that Guru had engaged in sexual misconduct with them when they had been disciples.

My head was spinning. I was so shocked by the allegations that I left the computer lab after reading all the messages, went to my bike, and rode home. There was no way that I could study; I couldn't concentrate on anything other than processing all of the information I had just taken in. That meant that I had to work quickly -- I couldn't blow my law school exams. That was not an option.

On my bike ride home, I quickly decided to focus my attention only upon the allegations of sexual misconduct, and not on the more numerous -- and in my view, less serious -- complaints of Guru's harshness or unfairness. That some ex-disciples were upset about the treatment they received from Guru was not surprising to me. The allegations that Guru was having sex was.

My next analytic decision was to consider only those posts on the Board that could be construed as direct evidence. Direct evidence in this case would be only those allegations made by people with direct knowledge (e.g., people who saw acts done or words spoken). In other words, I wasn't interested in the opinions and emotional outrage of others. I was just interested in the testimonials of the women allegedly involved.

To simplify matters further, I made one final decision: I would only consider what I deemed to be the most devastating of allegations. If I could come to grips with the worst allegation made against Guru, then I figured I wouldn't have to parse the others.

That allegation was made by Sevika.

The picture above is looking west along the San Diego River bike path, which I took home each day from school. Photo credit here.

The Blue Lotus

Before moving to San Diego, my grandfather and namesake passed away. Generously, he left each of his grandchildren a modest inheritance.

Mine disappeared immediately into the coffers of Visa and MasterCard, whose services I had used to leverage my education. Jeevan and Nirbachita, however, became entrepreneurs.

Jeevan, who had settled in Santa Cruz after leaving the Center, used his money to open a yoga studio in Aptos, which he named Yoga Within. He ran it successfully for a few years before selling it.

Nirbachita, too, went into business for herself. She was still in the Center and as I recall, even before she moved to New York permanently -- before she had even inherited any money -- Guru had suggested that she open a cafe of some kind.

So, naturally, that's what she considered doing when she eventually came into the money. By then, however, Nirbachita's relationship with Guru was tempestuous. At the time, we were talking on the phone with each other fairly regularly and she seemed unsure whether to go forward with the idea. I seem to remember that, once she had the money in hand, she actually asked Guru to tell her whether she should open a shop or not, but Guru demurred.

With a natural courage that I never had, Nirbachita went forward alone. She found a nice location in Forest Hills, where she opened a beautiful little cafe, which she named The Blue Lotus. That's when, it seemed to me, the trouble began.

When a disciple opens a new store -- which in Center lingo is called an "enterprise" -- there are two general expectations.

First, it's practically a given that Guru will give the new enterprise a spiritual name, usually before it's opened. After all, the enterprise is dedicated to Guru and almost always has his photos and art on the walls, his music playing in the background, and his books available for sale. In fact, I can think of no business opened by a disciple in Queens during my time in the Center that Guru did not name.

Except Nirbachita's place.

The second expectation of a new enterprise owner is that Guru will visit. Along with Guru's visit come lots of disciples and some quick business. The true value of such a visit, though, is a morale boost. Guru's visit is his way of blessing both the new enterprise and its intrepid owner.

Guru, however, refused to visit The Blue Lotus. In fact, Guru stuck it to Nirbachita even one better. Not only did he tell her that he wouldn't be visiting her cafe, but he also prohibited certain prominent female disciples from visiting it, too. In the status conscious Center, that move was the death blow. It assured that very few disciples would ever see Nirbachita's beautiful creation.

I hesitate to delve too deeply into the underlying controversy, in part because there's so little depth to explore. A young disciple, whom Guru was fond of, left the Center. Nirbachita showed her some compassion and let her work in the cafe. That was it.

By August 2001, with my first year of law school over and Nirbachita seemingly in need of a morale boost of her own, I flew to New York for a short visit. On my first night there, there was a public meditation. Amazingly to me, Nirbachita had brought seekers (i.e., potential disciples she had more or less recruited) to the meditation, despite feeling under siege by Guru's poor treatment. I couldn't have withstood that kind of pressure. To her great credit, Nirbachita displayed complete equanimity.

I must say also that at the time, I wasn't all that worked-up over Guru's treatment of my sister. For at least a year or two, I had viewed Guru's harsh treatment of Nirbachita as his indirect, passive-aggressive way of trying to push her out of the Center. Not because she wasn't good enough for disciple life, but rather because, for her, the usefulness of disciple life had ended.

For Nirbachita, the spiritual life wasn't something that she did, it was who she was. Spirituality -- goodness, a constant quest to better oneself, to refine one's nature -- is integral to her personality. At that point in one's development, the need for the organized rules, regulations, and structure of a communal existence become a drag on one's further development, rather than an aid.

Nevertheless, I never encouraged Nirbachita to leave the Center. We had many frank conversations and I listened carefully and gave my take on things when asked, but I had decided that I wasn't going to overtly suggest that she leave Guru. That was for her to decide on her own.

Based upon my own experience -- and that of others that I have observed -- those who make the stark decision to leave the Center on their own, with little or no emotional help from others, seem to fare the best outside the Center.

For me -- and at the time, I expected for Nirbachita, too -- the internal process of mustering the courage to leave the Center, which literally took me years, is an intense and invaluable opportunity to mature. By actively and openly encouraging Nirbachita to leave the Center, I thought I might interfere with that valuable, albeit painful, experience.

In any event, the public meditation held on my first night in Queens was held at the tennis court, which had become standard in the years since I had been in the Center (rather than at P.S. 86). When Guru called the men seekers (which included ex-disciples like me), I descended from the gallery and sat amongst some 20 or 30 other guys in front of him.

As Guru scanned the seekers before him with half-closed eyes, I was a little apprehensive, wondering whether he'd recognize me. It seemed doubtful, considering the time that had passed, my civilian clothes (rather than the disciple whites), and my seat near the back of all the others. But as Guru looked past me, his head stopped, and he looked back in my direction for a few seconds. Then, opening his eyes fully -- as if he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing -- Guru looked at me directly.

That was it.

The next day was fantastic. I got to spend some time at The Blue Lotus, which had a French countryside motif. Then, my personal heroes, Bhima and Tejiyan, took me and Nirbachita surfing at Jones Beach. I've had a long love affair with the Gulf Stream, but that was the first time I ever surfed. Under the expert tutelage of the brothers Hogan, we had a great time.

On my last morning in New York, I ran with Sundar. It was a typical hot and humid August morning and despite the passage of some 12 years since our last run, Sundar hadn't lost a step. He hammered me for four or five miles before my younger body began to shut down.

Then, as he had done many times before, Sundar patiently walked and ran with me as I struggled to finish the last mile. It was a fitting end to a nice trip.

Photo credit here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

One L

What a relief to be a student again, particularly in San Diego!

In the summer of 2000, my family and I settled in the community of Ocean Beach and I began preparing for my first year of law school (or "One L"). The first thing I did upon arrival was to buy a mountain bike, which I used to commute to school each day.

With few exceptions, for the next three years I'd wear shorts and t-shirts every day. Hard to beat that.

As for law school itself, for better and for worse, it wasn't what I had expected. On the bright side, I found the experience nothing like the brutal experience described by Scott Turow in his classic memoir of his first year at Harvard Law: One L. That's probably because I didn't go to Harvard, and because my personal disposition was a little more laid back than Scott's was when he started school.

At the outset, I had decided to treat law school like a job. I kept bankers' hours (and not lawyers' hours). Typically, I got to school around 9 a.m. and left by 4:30 or 5 p.m. I didn't do weekends and didn't do homework. I either got my work done during the day or I didn't do it. The only exception being the end of each semester, when I studied for final exams.

On the downside, I didn't find my first year of law school as stimulating as I had hoped. I was learning a lot, no doubt, but I had imagined law school as a place to debate the great issues of the day -- for example, Bush v. Gore. In this I was disappointed. There was too much material to cover and most of my classmates just didn't seem interested in much else.

As it turned out, the most provocative, intellectually demanding, and influential books I read during my three-year law school career were esoteric: Sri Aurobindo's Essays on the Gita, Synthesis of Yoga, and his magnum opus The Life Divine. If I were to identify a canon of my spiritual life, then these books, along with Autobiography of a Yogi, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Isherwood's My Guru and His Disciple (and post-law school, Aurobindo's Savitri) would be it.

I can't do justice to these books in this simple post -- each rightly deserves an entire blog site of its own. But, the message I took home is crystallized in the short quote I've inserted just beneath the title of this blog site: "All life is Yoga."

To me, that had become true. I no longer distinguished between the "inner life" and the "outer life," between the "spiritual" and the "worldly" as I once had done in the Center. Those distinctions carried implicit value judgments -- "spiritual" was good, "worldly" was bad. Whatever their earlier value, such distinctions no longer had any utility for me.

With the advent of my law school career, I began the process of not only integrating the disparate members of my psyche -- body, life force, mind, and psychic -- but also of synthesizing myself with the world at large. The motto "All life is Yoga" -- and the underlying canon of Sri Aurobindo supporting it -- was key to that process of mine, which spanned my three years in school.

Interestingly, law school made Sri Aurobindo's works -- particularly The Life Divine -- accessible to me. Studying law the American way, using the casebook method, requires law students to read thousands of pages of obtuse, jargon-heavy, and at times complicated legal opinion and reasoning. That was exactly the kind of training it took for me to be able to read and follow Sri Aurobindo's tightly reasoned explication of the occult process and purpose of the human experiment.

During the summer break after my first year of law school, I spent six weeks interning for the local public defender's office, the highlight of which -- for a first-year law student anyway -- came every Friday, when I took an active role in felony arraignment. Arraignment is typically a criminal defendant's first appearance in court, at which time he or she usually enters a plea of not guilty.

The court then decides whether to remand the defendant into custody, set bail, or (rarely) to release the defendant on his or her own recognisance (i.e., without having to post any bail at all). Along with my fellow student interns, my job was to interview defendants being held in custody in a small, oppressively hot cell just beside the courtroom. The cell, which measured about 15 feet deep by ten feet wide, usually held ten to 15 defendants wearing orange jumpsuits inside.

The defendants were hot, tired, and stressed. Most had been in custody at least a day and had not showered. None had lawyers and we were sent in to get basic information about them, which might aid in lowering their bail requirement. For example, if you have a job, a family, and a house, it's assumed that you are less likely to go on the lam if released, thus your bail is likely to be lower.

The sheriff's deputies, who controlled the prisoners in and around the courthouse, got a kick out of locking us frightened looking law students in the cell (and then ignoring our banging on the door to be let out once the interviews were complete). It was a good experience for me though. Working for the public defender gave me a practical opportunity to, among other things, work though and eliminate my subtle prejudices. With that, my first year of law school was complete.

Before I began my second year classes, though, I decided to make a trip to New York. It was Nirbachita's birthday and I figured that she needed a morale boost.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Confidence-Light

Shortly after my reawakening, I began writing letters to Guru.

Not all the time, mind you, but once every four or five months. I'd usually start such letters by giving Guru a basic update of my career and family life, and then summarize any dreams or experiences that I thought were of significance. From time to time, I'd also ask Guru rhetorical questions (generally speaking, Guru did not answer letters).

In the late spring of 2000 -- after Nirbachita had made her permanent move to New York -- I wrote one such letter to Guru. I started by telling Guru that I had decided to go to law school in San Diego. I had quickly become bored with my duties at the textbook publisher and had applied to four law schools. Of the three schools that accepted my application, the one in San Diego had the most to offer my family. We were set to move down from Monterey come July.

I then related, in my letter to Guru, some of the recent experiences I had been having in my walking meditations. Finally, I concluded the letter by asking Guru a question that I never expected him to answer.

Some 15 years earlier, Guru had written down what he thought was my worst personal quality (the back story is here). Written above, the note he gave me says: "Lack of Confidence-Light in the aspiration heart." In short, Guru's note meant that I had no confidence in my own spirituality. At the time, I didn't get it. But 15 years later, as I wrote my letter to Guru, I felt that I did finally understand.

Not only that, but I thought I had finally conquered my worst quality and I told Guru so in my letter. Since replacing Guru's picture with my own chakras as the object of my concentration, I had become almost spiritually cocky.

So, I ended my letter to Guru that spring with a question. I reminded him of that function so many years ago when he told me my worst quality. I told him that I thought I had overcome that problem, and I asked him if I was right. Then I dropped the letter in the mail.

Three days later I had an answer. I was sitting in my office at work when Nirbachita called. She was hesitant. She prefaced her remarks by saying that she was only passing a message on. She intimated that I wasn't going to like it.

"I was at the tennis court," she began, "and Guru called me aside. He says that you should not go to law school."

I felt a little stunned as Nirbachita continued. "Guru said that if you go to law school, you will lose whatever spirituality you might have left." I loved that last bit -- "whatever spirituality you might have left."

In any event, that was it. I didn't stay on the phone with Nirbachita much longer. Like I said, I was initially shocked. Could I make an about face and not go to law school? I thought about it for a moment, but there was no way. I'd already given notice at my job, secured student loans, et cetera.

Then, for about ten minutes or so, I was angry -- at Guru for interfering, at myself for inviting it. After calming down a bit, though, I began to reflect upon my own feelings. The more I thought about it, the more confident I began to feel in my decision to go. Nevertheless, as I began my short walk home from work that day, I was still a little stressed by Guru's message.

Why had I told Guru about my plans? Why had I invited him, with my letter, to interfere? As I walked home, I decided then and there to stop sending such letters to Guru.

Then it struck me: the letter!

In the letter that I had sent to Guru informing him about my plans to go to law school, I had boasted about having overcome my worst quality. In essence, I had told Guru that I was wholly confident in my own spirituality.

His response? To challenge my assertion.

On the one hand, my own Guru was telling me that if I went ahead with my plan to go to law school, then I'd lose all my spirituality. On the other hand, my own "aspiration-heart" was telling me to go to law school.

Where did my confidence lie?

As I made my way home, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

Lines of Communication

By 1999, Jeevan was no longer in the Center.

In the years just before, he had been working with our sister, Nirbachita, to re-establish a Sri Chinmoy Center in Santa Cruz, the very Center where I had started my journey so many years before. They had been making some gains in attracting seekers and had even put on a successful swim-run biathlon.

Then word made it back to Guru that Jeevan had become romantically involved with someone. He was summarily kicked out of the Center.

Shortly thereafter, Jeevan asked Guru if he could return to the Center. In response, Ashrita told Jeevan that Guru had expressed surprise to hear that Jeevan wanted back in, but that if he did, then he must move to the San Francisco Center (where, presumably, Jeevan would have less "freedom"). It didn't take long, however, for someone to spot Jeevan getting out of a car driven by a female disciple. Guru kicked Jeevan out of the Center for the second (and last) time.

Much later, Jeevan told me that he knew that his disciple-life had been over for some time, but that he couldn't bring himself to leave Guru.

Jeevan's departure from the Center left just our sister Liz still remaining. By then (1999), though, Guru had given her the name of Nirbachita. Literally it means "chosen" or "selected" in Bengali. Guru's more elaborate meaning was: "A Supremely chosen instrument-child of our Absolute Lord Beloved Supreme to please Him in His own way."

The Chosen One!

Unfortunately for her, Nirbachita was beginning to have a rough go of it. She was living in San Francisco and working at the disciple-run restaurant there, Ananda Fuara. At the time, day-to-day management of the restaurant was the responsibility of a person lacking in inter-personal skills who clashed with Nirbachita. Instead of ironing out any differences, though, the manager would call Ashrita in New York and complain about her.

I could sympathize. Her situation reminded me of my time in the Navy. It's a real challenge to work in a high stress, low pay environment, especially when being managed by idiots. For the first time in our lives, Nirbachita and I began talking fairly regularly. And it wasn't just about the everyday stress of work.

Nirbachita couldn't have been more devoted to Guru, which made it that much more difficult for her to deal with the treatment Guru was subjecting her to. I've written before about Guru's "tough love," but that's not what I'm describing here. Instead, Guru began treating Nirbachita unfairly. It was the start of a perplexing downward spiral in relations between them, all instigated by Guru.

Recently, when I asked Nirbachita to tell me the most hurtful thing Guru did to her, she recalled this time period. One of her friends had just left the Center and Guru had blamed Nirbachita for it. To make matters worse, Guru didn't say anything to Nirbachita herself, nor did he have the message delivered to her in the normal fashion (via his messenger Ashrita). Instead, Guru spread the news rumor-style to some other disciples and let it trickle down to her (and others of course).

When Nirbachita heard the news, she cried literally all night, she said. When she finally fell asleep, however, she was comforted in an unusual way. In a vivid dream, Swami Vivekananda sat down next to her, put his arm on her shoulder, and consoled her.

At first, I didn't know what to make of Guru's treatment of Nirbachita (which in my opinion got worse later on, as I'll address a few posts from now). Guru had generally treated me with kid gloves. But as I reflected upon my own Center experience, I had come to the conclusion that Guru might have been trying to push me out of the Center, like a mother bird trying to get its chick to leave the nest.

With Nirbachita, it seemed, the mother bird was actually pecking her pretty hard. A short time after her Swami Vivekananda dream, things came to a head at the restaurant and Guru's solution was to tell Nirbachita move up to the Seattle Center (rather than have the troublesome restaurant manager move).

In one of our telephone conversations, I hypothesized that if Guru was given the choice of kicking only one of two disciples out of the Center, he'd kick the saner of the two out every time. A sane person, like Nirbachita, I reasoned, would thrive outside the Center and continue her quest for personal development. Not so with some folks in the Center. For some disciples -- and certainly for most of us in the very beginning -- life in the Center was a step up: simple drug- and alcohol-free living, relatively healthy food, exercise.

That's what I told Nirbachita upon her exile to Seattle. She was the stronger one, so she was moved.

That Nirbachita was slowly moving towards life on the outside was clear to me then, and it became even more apparent once she made her final move from Seattle to New York, where, for no apparent reason, Guru continued to treat her harshly and unfairly.

Photo credit of my sister goes to a very nice San Francisco Center disciple named Astika.