It was January, 1967, when I first heard of Richard Baker. Soon thereafter, by an interesting coincidence, I also met him.
I heard of him from Jeannie Campbell, the receptionist and general secretary for the print shop where my first three books were printed. I had lively discussions with Jeannie, a dedicated Zen Buddhist, on the differences between Zen and yoga. She also gave me a running description of developments at Tassajara, a retreat being built by the Zen temple of San Francisco in the mountains near Carmel, California. During one conversation, I told her of my wish to find land for a retreat of my own.
“Say,” she cried, “why don’t you contact Dick Baker? He’s the president of the Zen Center here in San Francisco, and is in charge of building Tassajara. If anyone would know about available land, he would.”
I dutifully jotted down his name, but delayed trying to reach him. I suspected that this lead, like so many others before it, would lead nowhere. My latest failure in that respect had been a recent trip to Missouri. A visitor had come one day to my apartment to tell me about a college campus she’d seen advertised in her home state: “A hundred and ten acres,” she said excitedly, “with several large buildings, and all that for only ten thousand dollars!” It seemed fabulous indeed. In fact, as things turned out, it was too good to be true.
From Kansas City this friend drove me to the little college town where the property was located. It was, as she’d said, beautiful. It was only ten acres, however, not a hundred and ten, and selling for a hundred and ten thousand dollars, not a mere ten thousand. A bargain nevertheless, but a great deal more than I could afford to pay. Considering in addition its distance from San Francisco, where I’d built my little base of operations, it was, as far as I was concerned, indeed a “utopia” (the ancient Greek word for “nowhere”).
A week or so after that suggestion of Jeannie’s, however, I visited a small picture-framing shop in North Beach with four paintings of mine that I wanted to hang. I was obliged to wait while another customer was served. This man was speaking to the proprietor about a parcel of land he and several friends were thinking of buying as a place for retreat. Unable to resist this entree, I said that I, too, was looking for something similar. At this point, during a still-casual conversation, the visitor produced a map of the proposed property and spread it out on a table. “I’m still looking for a few people to buy into the property with me,” he said, “provided their ideals are harmonious with my own.”
Had this looked like a common real estate deal, I might not have been so interested, but this one definitely seemed worth investigating. “What is your name?” I inquired.
The very person Jeannie had said I should look up! Evidently he and the shopkeeper were friends. The property was one of several that had been offered to the Zen Center as an alternative to Tassajara, in case that land proved too expensive for them. Partly to check out alternatives, and partly because he also wanted a place of retreat for himself and his family, Dick Baker had inspected all the proposed properties. Of them all, his favorite was this tract. It consisted of 172 acres, and was located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near Nevada City, California. It had been offered for only $250 an acre: inexpensive for California, and in fact only half the normal price of land even in this remote area. Dick had figured he could swing the deal if he could find six others to go in on it with him, dividing the land into twenty-four-acre parcels. He said he planned to visit there in the early spring, and would be glad to have me come along.
In late March or early April, I joined a group of them: Dick Baker, Allen Ginsburg and Gary Snyder (both of them well-known “beat” poets), Richard Wirtheimer (an attorney), and a young woman who’d been assigned to write an article on Allen Ginsburg for The New Yorker magazine.
We stopped at Nevada City for lunch, where we ate at the kind of place one sometimes hears described as a “greasy spoon” restaurant-the sort that, during the nineteen-forties, used to advertise “booths for ladies.” Although the only vegetarian in the group, I made out somehow. Lunch finished, we drove the twenty-something miles north to see the property.
The drive took us well into the countryside. The last three miles were dirt road, some of which had been scoured by hydraulic mining and looked like a moonscape. The last quarter mile was the “driveway” entrance to the property. Deeply rutted-some of the ruts more than a foot deep-from the rains and snows of many winters, it was impossible to drive any further. We parked and walked.
The altitude at the top was 3,000 feet. The air was fresh. The property was wooded, gently rolling, and serene, giving onto views of distant, snow-capped Sierra mountains. I went off by myself to “feel” the land. The impression came to me strongly that the particular portion I was walking had been blessed already by our Gurus. It had an eastern exposure, especially attractive to me as a yogi. As the latecomer to the group, however, I would be the last in line to choose. Fortunately, the others all felt drawn to the western part of the land. My selection had the views.
I ended up getting three “lots” in all, in the section I’d felt guided to buy. Gary Snyder bought a fourth lot; Allen Ginzburg, a fifth; Dick Baker, the sixth. Each one had just the piece he wanted. Changes occurred later in the arrangements, but I kept my parcel, which I paid for in April. I planned to begin construction that summer and autumn, with the help of a few friends.
In May, 1967, I had an interesting experience. I’d been teaching a series of classes in Rancho Cordova, a suburb of Sacramento. Three of the students invited me to a dinner at one of their homes. They also invited a friend of theirs, Ann Armstrong, whom they introduced to me as a well-known psychic, and said that she’d done amazingly accurate readings for each of them. I sang one or two of my songs after dinner, following which there was a lively discussion on various topics, mostly concerning what I’d been teaching. Ann Armstrong invited me afterward to her home on Norris Street, in Sacramento, where she and her husband, Jim, lived. The Armstrongs were the owners of Beers Books in the heart of the city, the main-perhaps the only-metaphysical book store in Sacramento. Shortly after my arrival, Ann asked if I would like her to do a reading for me. Considering it a harmless way of passing the time, I accepted with pleasure.
We entered her interview room and sat facing each other. She took each of my hands in one of hers, and closed her eyes. Instantly, both of us went into a superconscious state. I could hardly move. Ann spoke slowly into a tape recorder.
“As I took your hands,” she said, “I suddenly felt your soul. It’s a deep soul, a wonderful soul. God has blessed you in many ways. He has given you a beautiful voice, and fingers able to bring out lovely music from a musical instrument; a clear understanding; inspiration. You have much to give.
”The time has come, now, for you to take the next step in your life. There is much you have accomplished, but it is time for you to establish a center, where you can bring to a focus what you’ve accomplished so far, that you may move on to the next phase. All the doors are open before you. The ground has been prepared. It’s as though this next phase is just waiting to receive you.
“And yet . . . and yet . . . I sense an obstacle. I sense hesitation on your part. Now, why? . . . The word I sense is ‘pride.’ It’s as if you’re afraid of developing pride if you take on this new responsibility. You want so much to be humble, and you’re afraid of losing your humility. But you are humble. In trying to preserve your humility, you reject faith in your ability to serve more completely. It’s as though you were poised, now, between two alternatives, asking yourself, ‘In what ways ought I to be humble, and in what ways, proud?’
”I see you as this little child. It’s a beautiful child. But you see, within this child there is also majesty. I see you bowing in your mind before the great ones, and of course it’s good that you should do so. But see you not that you, too, are a great one? You need to understand that pride, too, has a place in your life-not pride in yourself, but in your victories. You need to claim them as your own. For they are rightfully yours.
“I see you in robes of majesty. But you will not be able to grow further if you reject what is your own. By rejecting it, you obstruct your further development. You must be proud: not for yourself, but in the greatness that God has given you. You must accept it. Only then will He be able to bless you with more.
”It is time now for you to put down roots. It is time for you to establish a center. I feel that this land you’ve acquired is right for you at this time. Your fear is that it may limit you, that it may hold you back, but you need at this time to establish a plateau for the further work you have to do.“
After more along the same vein, she asked if I had any questions. I inquired about SRF, and about Tara.
”Yes, I sense obstruction there. It’s as if they’re jealous of you. [speaking of Tara:] You see, when she’s confronted by someone as open as you are, it bothers her. It makes her insecure.“
There was much more, but the essence of it was as I’ve written. I found what she’d said most interesting both in practical and in metaphysical ways. On the one hand, she was perfectly right: I did have difficulty in understanding in what ways I should be humble, and in what ways I should feel secure in what I’d been given. Humility is a virtue, as we all know. Negative self-affirmation, however, is not humility, and can obstruct achievement. My tendency had always been to belittle the very things people most appreciated in me, in an effort not to claim credit for them personally. Master himself had sometimes scolded me for this tendency. For not only is it a common tendency for people to take others at their own self-evaluation, but self-belittlement can also prevent further accomplishment. As Master once said to me, ”There should be neither superiority nor inferiority complex.“
All my life, since meeting him, I have reflected on the things he said and did, and have gained wonderful insights in the process. Now, I recalled a story he’d told from his younger days in Ranchi, India. He had commissioned a well-known artist to paint a portrait of his param-guru, Lahiri Mahasaya. Unfortunately, the outcome was not satisfying to him.
”How long did it take you to master your art?“ he asked the artist. Ever seeking to help people to grow spiritually, he wanted to help this man achieve deeper levels, artistically.
”Twenty years,“ replied the man.
”Twenty years, to convince yourself you could paint?“ Master marveled.
This reply, given to an artist of established reputation by someone the older man had every right to consider a mere boy, seemed impertinent. ”I’d like to see you paint as well in twice that length of time!“ he retorted angrily.
”Give me a week,“ the Master replied. The other, considering this simply an insult, left in a huff. Within a week, however, the Master succeeded in painting a better portrait than his own. The artist was invited, and, on beholding it, had to acknowledge that it was an improvement.
This story seemed to me worth pondering in the present context. My own way of doing things had been almost the opposite of what Master had advised. ”The only thing I want,“ I told myself, ”is God. Nothing else matters.“ This would be a good attitude, no doubt, if my duty in this life were only to be a hermit. Master, however, had told me repeatedly I had ”a great work“ to do. Was it right in this case to retreat bashfully from success in that role? Success and failure didn’t matter to me, but surely I must do conscientiously whatever life gave me to do.
Ann was saying I should be proud of my accomplishments. She’d made it clear that she didn’t mean I should be proud of myself, but only that I should accept what I’d done as having merit, and not deny or reject its value. There was much truth in what she’d said. My very inclination to dismiss her advice was, to me, an indication that I should ponder it deeply. Pride, for example: It was true I’d undercut my own achievements by belittling them. Moreover-strange irony!-some people had seen in that very effort an indication of pride. Yet I knew also that I was right in not giving them much importance.
Was it, I asked myself, self-confidence that made people successful? Or did self-confidence only come as a result of success? If it came as a result, it was fragile and temporary and could evaporate after any serious set-back. Confidence in the true Self, however, depended on nothing outward, and could remain rock firm. On the other hand, if even confidence based on outward success was necessary for achieving further success, then perhaps I needed more of it in order to serve God more effectively, according to what my Guru had said he expected of me.
Certain things he had told me made me wonder if I was missing some important insight. He had tried, on more than one occasion, to get me to take my role more seriously. Sometimes he even scolded me for not fully accepting it. On the other hand, he had complimented me on my humility. One time he had told me with firm conviction, ”You will never fall due to ego.“ How, I often asked myself, can I remain humble if I accept anything I do as important? I was convinced that nothing I could do-nothing any human being can do-really matters. This whole world is a delusion. What are we, in the greater scheme of things? Certainly I felt more comfortable with the thought that nothing, including myself, has any importance at all.
This self-interrogation lasted for years, and proved both an aid and an obstruction in the development of Ananda. For our members, especially our ministers, have naturally absorbed their attitudes of discipleship from me. On the one hand, the humility they display is beautiful. There always has been, as well, a tendency at Ananda not to thrust its accomplishments upon the public’s attention. As a result, obvious opportunities for reaching people have been overlooked. Sometimes I think that Ananda is one of the best-kept secrets around.
I once hosted a dinner at a restaurant for several well-known public figures. This was in the late 1970s or early ’80s. I’d been invited, with others, to participate in a gathering to discuss intentional communities. I was the only one that evening who represented an actual, functioning community. Most of the others were well-known, but not specifically in that field. Paolo Soleri hoped to get a community started based on his architectural concepts. Paul Solomon had convened the gathering to present his own plans for creating a community. Peter Caddy was the co-founder of Findhorn, but had established it as a training center, not as a community; moreover, he no longer lived there. Barbara Marx Hubbard was an enthusiast on the subject, but hadn’t actually built anything. The general attitude toward me, rather to my surprise, seemed to be, ”Well, so, what have you got to share?“ I was included only marginally in their ”important“ conversation. I remember that occasion not with indignation, but as the reminder it gave me of the far greater importance of humility. I enjoyed the evening. A question dangled before me, however: Was my willingness to accept their lack of interest in my accomplishments a sign that I was not conscious enough of the importance of what I represented?
For myself, I felt fine about it, but I wondered whether, in God’s eyes, my indifference didn’t contain a hint of irresponsibility. For I believed intensely in the importance of Paramhansa Yogananda’s mission, his teachings, his communitarian ideals, his very place in history. I was afraid only of pushing myself forward as an instrument of his mission. Tara’s scathing condemnation of me had unquestionably influenced my thinking in these matters. I sensed, on the other hand, that her words were projections of her own swelling ego. Still, I asked myself, was it not an exaggerated consciousness of self that made me even seek obscurity? How subtle, and innumerable, are the traps the ego can set for us!
Gradually, over years, I resolved this dilemma to my own satisfaction. Ann had been responding to certain questions in my own mind, and had, I believe, perceived some of the answer. I realized in time that I’d been obstructing the flow of inspiration by my tendency to belittle myself. Instead, I should simply accept inspiration gratefully, without referring it back, even in denial, to myself as the instrument for it.
To accept confidently what flowed through me-sharing it mentally, however, with God-was not ego-involvement. Master had told me repeatedly, ”You have a great work to do.“ Rajarsi had said also, ”Master has a great work to do through you, Walter. And he will give you the strength to do it.” More and more I realized that it was, indeed, from higher inspiration that I received my answers and solutions, often in the small details of my life. It was not necessary for me to deny my accomplishments. They were valid. The truth was simply that they weren’t my own. The more I removed myself from the scene, the more I found that I could succeed at whatever I attempted. The test was not to care how other people perceived it; not to mind if they misunderstood; not to crave acceptance by anyone. I found God’s glory more enticing, more satisfying, more powerful than anything human. Even if no one accepted what He gave me, the loss was theirs, not His! And certainly not mine.
In my Guru’s guidance and grace I could be proud indeed-proud not in an egoic, but in a divine way. It was, I realized, this awareness that he had always sought to cultivate in me.
In this thought, however, the word, pride, remains unsatisfactory to me. It has its place, but it is also a word that can be distorted unless its true meaning is constantly clarified. Why not another word: delight? Delight can apply also to a hermit’s life. The more unity we bring to our vision of life, and the more we can broaden our understanding to embrace apparent differences, the deeper, surely, will be our wisdom.
Whether we serve God outwardly in some way, or inwardly in meditation, we still serve Him by offering our thoughts and energy into His river of love. Pride conveys a suggestion of responsibility for the preservation of an image, or position. But whose responsibility is all this, anyway? God’s, surely, not our own.
What I’ve come to feel is, rather, the sheer delight of serving Him in any way that He wants. There is the same divine joy in gazing at a flower as in writing deep spiritual commentaries. Both are matters of self-giving.
The thought of a hermit’s life as being passive would be unacceptable to any true hermit. It is a life of mutual rejoicing with and in God. Thus, God could give me no greater work than to share whatever I have to give-with Him, above all, and secondly with Him through others who long to escape the pain of spiritual ignorance.