Grows only in the bosom tranquillised,
The spirit passionless, purged from offense,
Vowed to the Infinite. He who thus vows
His soul to the Supreme Soul, quitting sin,
Passes unhindered to the endless bliss
Of unity with Brahma.
Reading these words from the Bhagavad Gita (as translated by Sir Edwin Arnold), my imagination was deeply stirred. The task I faced, I was now learning from the excerpts before me, was to calm my thoughts and feelings, thereby making myself an open and empty receptacle to be filled by God’s grace. If I did offer myself thus, so these teachings averred, God would enter my life and fill it with “endless bliss.”
How different, these simple precepts, from the meandering theology I had heard proclaimed from pulpits on Sunday mornings! Here I found no beggarly self-abasement — the weak man’s masquerade of humility; no talk of the importance of seeking a religious institution as a doorway to heaven; no effort, by the diplomatic address of formal prayer, to hold God at a distance; no hint at compromising one’s spiritual commitment by concern over its social acceptability. What I read here was fresh, honest, and convincing. It gave me extraordinary hope.
One thing that had disturbed me about all the churches I had visited was their sectarianism. “Ours is the one, the only true way” was a dogma implied even when it wasn’t stated. Invariably suggested also was that all other ways were false, that even if other groups loved the same God, their message in some indiscernible manner was inadequate, and perhaps even “of the devil.”
How different were the teachings I read now! All paths, they assured me, lead to the same, infinite goal. “As a mother,” one stated, “in nursing her sick children, gives rice and curry to one, sago and arrowroot to another, and bread and butter to a third, so the Lord has laid out different paths for different men, suitable to their natures.”
How beautiful! How persuasive in its utter fairness!
Another point that had always troubled me about the usual minister of religion was his tendency to discourage questioning. “Have faith,” he would tell me. But what sort of “faith” is it that refuses to submit itself to honest questioning? Could the motive behind such refusals be anything but what it seems on the surface: a lack of clarity in one’s own convictions? The motive might be fear, even, lest one’s entire belief system turn out to be like a house built on sand. Even in their efforts to be reasonable, these men seemed to be wearing blinders. They quoted scripture in support of their beliefs, but never admitted the possibility that their very quotations might contain other and deeper meanings than those they ascribed to them.
Jesus often scolded even his closest disciples for mistaking his true meanings. Is it wise and humble for us, then, who live so distant from him in time, to insist that we understand him perfectly? Scriptures are written to expand our understanding, not to suppress and suffocate it.
But then, as my Guru was later to point out to me, one difference between scriptural writings and a living teacher is that the mere pages of a book cannot point out the seeker’s misunderstandings, whereas a man of living wisdom can do so, sharply or softly as the occasion demands.
The Indian teachings, unlike any minister of the Gospel I had ever met, stressed the need for testing every scriptural claim. Direct, personal experience of the truth, not dogmatic or uncritical belief in it, was the “litmus paper” they proposed. They also suggested intermediate tests by which the veriest beginner could know whether he was headed in the right direction, or slipping off onto one of the innumerable detours from the path.
One such test was to see whether one is finding greater, unfluctuating happiness in himself. Another: whether life itself now seemed more consistently beautiful. For, as Yogananda was later to teach me, meditation enlivens all the senses.
Another test lay in other people’s reactions to oneself. For a person might think he was developing non-attachment to outwardness, when in fact he was only growing dull-minded. If others find increasing inspiration in association with him, he might take their reaction as an outward confirmation of his inward progress.
I had already realized from personal experience that the differences between right and wrong decisions can be subtle. I was impressed, therefore, with teachings that could be verified not only after death, but here on earth, in this lifetime.1
These were the teachings for which I had been longing. Yes, I vowed again, I would dedicate my life to the search for God! Too long had I delayed, too long vacillated with doubt, too long sought earthly, not spiritual, solutions to life’s deepest problems. Art? Science? Social systems? What could any of these accomplish significantly, or for very long? Without inner transformation, outer improvements in the human lot were like attempts to reinforce a termite-ridden building with a fresh coat of paint.
One parable in the reading I was doing affected me especially. It was from the sayings of a great saint of the nineteenth century, Sri Ramakrishna. Not knowing who he was, I assumed the saying was taken from some ancient text.
“How,” Sri Ramakrishna asked, “does a man come to have dispassion? A wife once said to her husband, ‘Dear, I am very anxious about my brother. For the past one week he has been thinking of becoming an ascetic, and is making preparations for it. He is trying to reduce gradually all his desires and needs.’ The husband replied, ‘Dear, be not at all anxious about your brother. He will never become a sannyasin [renunciate]. No one can become a sannyasin in that way.’ ‘How does one become a sannyasin, then?’ asked the wife. ‘It is done in this way!’ the husband exclaimed. So saying, he tore into pieces his flowing garment, took a piece out of it, tied it round his loins, and told his wife that she and all others of her sex were thenceforth mothers to him. He left the house and never more returned.”2
The courage of this man’s renunciation stirred me to my depths. By contrast, how I myself had been vacillating in my doubts!
These excerpts were all saying essentially the same thing: Perfection can be found only within the self, not in the outer world. Of the truth of this teaching God evidently had it in mind to supply me with abundant proof that summer.
Indian Lake is a beautiful place of pine trees and cool forest glades, of rolling hills and gently rippling water. “If I’m to relate more deeply to higher realities,” I thought, “I could begin in no better place than right here.” Indeed, the very scenery invited communion.
I tried consciously to feel the thrill of a raindrop quivering on a pine needle; the exquisite freshness of the morning dew; a burst of sunlight through the clouds at sunset. Always I had loved Nature, and had felt deeply drawn to her beauty in woods, lakes, flowers, and starry skies. But now, as I endeavored to intensify my sensitivity by entering directly into the life of Nature all around me, I discovered with a pang what an utter prisoner I was, locked in my little ego. I could see; I could not feel. Or, to the extent that I could feel, I could do so with only a small part of me, not with my whole being. I was like an eight-cylinder motor hitting on only one cylinder. Surely if even here, in these perfect surroundings, I could not rise out of myself and attune myself to greater realities, no mere place would ever accomplish such a transformation for me. Obviously it was I, myself, who needed changing. Whether my outer environment was beautiful or ugly was not particularly significant. What mattered was what I made of my own inner “environment”: my thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and reactions.
I was now spending some time every day in a brave attempt at meditation. I didn’t know how to go about it, but I believed that, if I could only calm my mind a little bit, I would at least be heading in the right direction. I prayed daily, too: something I had never had faith enough to do, previously.
For my outer life God was saying to me, I suspect with a friendly chuckle, “You expected to find better human beings in the country? Take a good look around you! Man is not better for where he lives. Dreams of outer perfection are a delusion. Happiness must be sought inside; otherwise, it will remain elusive!”
My first plan for a job at Indian Lake had been to work as a lumberjack. I asked my landlady what she thought of my chances of finding such employment.
“What!” she cried. “And get knifed in a drunken brawl? Those men aren’t your type at all.”
Well, I had to admit her description left something to be desired. But I wasn’t to be put off so easily. For two days I trudged about in the woods, looking for a logging camp that was said to be in the vicinity. Perhaps it was God’s will that I missed it. At any rate, all I encountered were swarms of deer flies. On the third day, covered with stings, I found myself more receptive to my landlady’s warnings. I decided I would seek elsewhere for employment.
That morning a local farmer agreed to hire me as a handyman. I’d had a little experience with farm work after my graduation from high school, and had enjoyed it then. Never before, however, had I worked for anyone like this.
My intention had been to work quietly, thinking of God. My employer, however, had other, and to him infinitely better, ideas: He wanted me to play the fool in his little court. “What else is a handyman for?” he demanded of me rhetorically when I remonstrated at being made the constant butt of his rustic jokes. Humor I didn’t mind, but I drew the line at witless humor. There are few things so exasperating as meeting a gibe with a clever thrust, only to have it soar yards above the other fellow’s head. When, after a few clever (but ignored) sallies on my part, I lapsed resignedly into silence, the farmer persisted, “C’mon, flannelmouth! I hired you to work. Don’t stand there jabbering all day.” And that, as I recall, was the high point in his comedy routine. My image of the genuine, innocent, good rustic was growing grey around the edges.
I soon left this worthy’s employ. Putting peaceful Indian Lake resolutely behind me, I set off down the road on my bicycle in search of other work. Hours later I came to a mine owned by the Union Carbide Corporation. There the hiring clerk looked at me dubiously.
“We have work, all right,” she said, “but it isn’t your kind of work.”
“What do you mean, not my kind of work? I can do anything!”
“Well, you won’t like this job. You’ll see. You won’t last a week.” With that encouragement I was hired.
The atmosphere of the sintering plant, where I was put to work, was so thick with the dust of the ore they were mining that one couldn’t even see across the room. At the end of every day my face and hands were completely black. Some idea was beginning to form in my mind of what that woman had meant.
But it wasn’t the work itself that finally got me. It was another of those simple, genuine, innocent, good rustics — a complete fool who, finding me too polite to tell him, as everyone else did, to go to hell, mistook me for an even greater fool than he. All day, every day, he regaled me with lies about his heroic feats before, during, and after World War II. Then, taking my silence for credulity, he began to preen himself on his own superiority. Finally he informed me disdainfully that I was too stupid to be worthy to associate with one of his own incomparable brilliance.
The hiring clerk didn’t even trouble to remind me of her prediction when, after a week, I appeared for my severance pay.
How, I wondered, would I ever become a hermit? I’d need money for food. Probably I’d have to find employment from time to time simply to stay alive. But if these were samples of the kind of work I’d find out in the country, I wasn’t so sure that my spiritual losses wouldn’t outweigh the gains. Perhaps, I thought, if I could find some place where the money I earned could be stretched farther.…
That was it! I would go to some part of the world where the cost of living was low: yes, South America beckoned as offering such places. I would work first in this country, and save up. It wouldn’t cost much, surely, to get to South America; perhaps I could even work my way down there on a ship. And there I’d be able to live on my savings for months, perhaps years, meditating in some secluded spot in a jungle or on a mountaintop. My problem, now, was how to earn as much money as possible, as quickly as possible.
One of my co-workers at the mine had entertained me after work with tales of the huge earnings he’d accumulated one summer in tips as a bellhop at a resort hotel. The thought of milking people of their money by doing them favors was odious to me, but perhaps, I thought, if I kept my goal firmly in mind, I would find it possible to suppress that distaste.
My next stop was the resort town of Lake George. Stopping at a hotel, I approached the owner and asked if he needed a bellhop.
“Got one already.” He replied, then eyed me speculatively. “Where you from?”
“Scarsdale, eh?” His eyes flickered with interest. “Wouldn’t hurt to have someone from Scarsdale working here.” He paused a moment. “Okay, you’re on.”
Well, by no stretch of the imagination could this worthy be called a rustic! He was first, last, and forever a devotee of turning little fortunes into big ones. His guests received as little as possible in return for everything he could squeeze out of them. The janitor and cleaning woman were first cousins of his, emigrants from Europe, but he treated them like serfs. When I saw him for what he was, it shamed me to be working for him. And it shamed me almost more to accept tips from the guests, whom it was my pleasure to serve. When one couple tried to tip me a second time for fetching something else from their car, I simply refused to accept their offer.
I found a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, from which I emerged with slow dignity when the hotel owner cried, “Front, boy!” (He never tried that one again.)
Hardly a week passed before I was off down the road again. It was time in any case for me to return to White Plains and help Mother prepare for her long ocean voyage to Egypt.
My trip south held for me a measure of hope, also. A co-worker at the mine had suggested that I might get a job in the merchant marine, where the veriest beginner earned as much as $300 a month. In those days, this was good pay. Better still, since I would be sailing the high seas on free board and lodging, I’d be able to save quite a lot of money quickly. I decided to try my luck “before the mast.”
That summer had proved, so far, a mixed bag: uplifting in the truths I’d learned, but, materially speaking, a fiasco. More and more I was beginning to wonder if I hadn’t somehow landed on the wrong planet. None of my experiences over these past months had helped me to feel that this world was my home.
Yet my desire to “drop out” seemed, from every practical standpoint, wildly unrealistic. I could not but admit to myself that my plans for becoming a hermit rested on the shakiest possible ground. I knew nothing of the practical skills I’d need to live alone in the wilderness. I had no idea how much money I’d actually need, to remain a long time in South America. Worst of all, I knew so little of the spiritual path that I had no idea how to walk it alone. I didn’t know how to meditate. I didn’t know how to pray. I didn’t know what to think about when I wasn’t meditating or praying. It was becoming clear to me that, without proper guidance, I was as good as lost.
Yet I knew of no one to whom I could go for guidance out of the swamp of institutional religion into the clean air of universal truths. The path I was contemplating seemed, from every practical viewpoint, utter folly. I was contemplating it, however, because I had ruled out every conceivable alternative.
The thought of living a so-called “normal,” worldly life filled me with dread, the more so because I was so alone in my rejection of it. Most of my friends were getting married and settling down to good jobs. The pressure on me from all sides to do likewise was, in a sense, unceasing. To my mind, however, even a lifetime of starvation and suffering would be worth it, if only by so living I could find God.
And what did I hope to gain from finding Him? There, my notions remained vague, though certainly I would have considered even peace of mind an incomparable blessing. What mattered to me most, however, was that to know Him would be to know Truth, and that not to know Him meant wallowing in falsehood and delusion. Wherever my path led, I knew that I had only one valid choice: to offer my life to Him. It would be up to Him, thereafter, to lead me where He willed.
- The Bible, too, stresses verification by actual experience. “Test the spirits,” wrote St. John in his first epistle. Religionists who emphasize blind belief until death generally haven’t themselves tasted the fruits of the religious life, having never practiced it.
- This story must be understood in its cultural context. Marital fidelity is highly regarded in India. The Hindu scriptures state, however, that what is otherwise a duty ceases to be such when it conflicts with a higher duty. Man’s highest duty is to seek God. It is understood in India that one’s spouse can and should be supportive in one’s search. Only if the desire for God is intense, and one’s spouse poses an obstacle to that search by his or her worldliness, is it permissible to break the marital bond without mutual consent.