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My decision to seek peace of mind in an environment of bucolic simplicity coincided with the end of the school year and the summer closing of the Dock Street Theater. I returned to New York.
Dad had recently been posted to Cairo, Egypt, as Esso’s exploration manager there. Our home in Scarsdale was let, and mother had taken a house temporarily in White Plains preparatory to departing for Cairo at the end of August to join Dad. I stayed with her two or three weeks.
My plans for the summer were already set. I said nothing of them, however, giving out only that I was going upstate New York; my spiritual longings I kept a carefully guarded secret. But I put immediately into effect my plan to study the scriptures. Borrowing Mother’s copy of the Holy Bible, I began to read it from the beginning.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. … And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” Who is not familiar with these wonderful lines?
“And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.… And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”
But — what was this? How could God possibly want man to remain ignorant?
And so man ate the fruit, became wise, and in consequence was forced to live like a witless serf. What kind of teaching was this?
Chapter Five: Here I learned that Adam lived nine hundred and thirty years; his son, Seth, nine hundred and twelve years, and Seth’s son, Enos, nine hundred and five years. Cainan, Enos’s son, “lived seventy years, and begat Mahalaleel: and Cainan lived after he begat Mahalaleel eight hundred and forty years, and begat sons and daughters: And all the days of Cainan were nine hundred and ten years: and he died. And Mahalaleel lived sixty and five years, and begat Jared.… And Jared lived an hundred sixty and two years, and he begat Enoch.… And Enoch lived sixty and five years, and begat Methuselah.… And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years: and he died.”
What in heaven’s name did it all mean? Was some deep symbolism involved?(1) All this said nothing whatever to my present needs. Disappointed, I laid the book down.
Over the years since then, a number of well-meaning Christians have sought to persuade me that God’s truth can be found only in the Bible. If this were true, I cannot imagine that one who sought as ardently as I did could have been turned away at the very threshold by what he read in the Good Book itself. It wasn’t until I met my Guru, and learned from him the deep meanings in the teachings of the Bible, that I was able to return to it with a sense of real appreciation. For the time being, I’m afraid I simply bogged down in the “begats.”
In Mother’s library I found another book that captured my interest. This one, called, A Short World Bible, contained brief excerpts from the major religions of the world. Perhaps here I would find the guidance I was seeking.
The selections from the Bible in this book proved more meaningful to me. Even so, though, they seemed too anthropomorphic for my tastes, steeped as I was in a more modern, scientific view of reality. The Judaic, the Muslim, the Taoist, the Buddhist, the Zoroastrian: I found poetic beauty and inspiration in all of these sacred works, but for me, still, something was lacking. I was being asked to believe, but so far, and as nearly as I could tell, none of these scriptures was asking me to experience. Without actual experience of God, what was the good of mere beliefs? The farther I read, the more all of these scriptures impressed me as — well, great, no doubt, but at last hopelessly beyond me. Perhaps it was simply a question of style. The standard language of scripture, I reflected, was cryptic to the point of incomprehensibility.
At last, then, I came upon excerpts from the Hindu teachings — a few pages only, but what a revelation! Here the emphasis was on cosmic realities. God was described as an Infinite Consciousness; man, as a manifestation of that consciousness. Why, this was the very concept I myself had worked out during my long evening walk in Charleston! Man’s highest duty, I read, is to attune himself with the divine consciousness: Again, this was what I, too, had worked out! Man’s ultimate goal is — I found the thought echoed back to me — to experience that divine reality as his true Self. But, how scientific! What infinite promise!
Poetic symbolism abounded here, too, as in the other scriptures. Here, however, I found also explanations, presented with crystal clarity and logic. Best of all, I found the counsel I had been seeking: not only on how to live a religious life generally, but, more specifically, on how to seek God.
I was astounded! This was exactly what I’d been seeking! I felt like a poor man who has just been given great riches. Hastily I skimmed through these few excerpts from the book; then, realizing the awesome importance this all held for me, I put the book aside, and resolved to wait for a later time when I would be free to read these selections slowly, digesting them. Casually I asked Mother if I might take the book upstate with me for the summer. “Of course,” she replied, never suspecting the depth of my interest.
My Aunt Alleen, Mother’s half-sister, visited us in White Plains during my stay there. Sensing the turmoil seething within me, she remarked to Mother one day, “I bet Don ends up in a theological seminary.”
“Oh, not Don!” Mother’s tone implied the thought, “Almost anyone else.” The change in my life, when it came, caught her completely by surprise.
Two or three times during my stay in White Plains I took the train into New York City. There I contemplated the rushing throngs of tense, worried faces. How many human tragedies were written there in lines of desperation, of bitterness, of hidden grief! More keenly than ever I felt with them our common bond of humanity. The worst criminal, I reflected, lived a life that might have been mine, had my mistakes taken me in his direction. Who, indeed, was safe from ignorance? Doubtless the very worst drug addict felt a certain justification in attitudes that had drawn him, like a fly, into his spider’s web of confusion. What, then, of my own attitudes? Did I dare to trust them? How could anyone, at any given hour in his life, know for a certainty whether his best-intentioned behavior would advance him toward freedom, or, instead, enmesh him more helplessly in bondage? My growing conviction that everything is a part of one Reality, though it gave me a deep sense of kinship with others, awakened in me also a terrifying sense of my own vulnerability. I was drifting on a sea of ignorance, where my potential to sink or to rise was equally great.
It was high time, surely, that I took myself in hand. Too long had I been drifting haphazardly on heaving seas of uncertainty, hoping vaguely that my general direction would be toward the shores of truth, but with no certainty of anything. Now I must begin to direct my life more deliberately.
One afternoon I was walking down Fifth Avenue. The heat was oppressive. A bar, cool and inviting, stood before me on a street corner. I stepped in and had a couple of refreshing beers. Though by no means intoxicated, I realized that my reflexes were a little less keen than they had been on entering. I’d never considered drinking to be a personal problem, nor had I seen anything wrong with it in moderation. It occurred to me now, however, that if anything could lessen my self-control, even to this slight degree, I would be wise to avoid it. On leaving that barroom I resolved never again to take another drink. Nor have I ever done so.
My trip to upstate New York had been intended originally to help me find peace effortlessly amid the beauties of Nature. By the time I left White Plains, however, my resolution to work on myself, encouraged by the brief excerpts I had read from the Indian scriptures, had stiffened markedly. Having given up drinking — and also, two or three months earlier, smoking — I was beginning to feel keenly enthusiastic for self-discipline.
My thought now, however, was to find what I was seeking in some more “balanced” way than by seeking God. I still hoped that more natural surroundings would contribute something to my peace of mind, but I had no illusions that all my answers would be found in a random assortment of hills and trees. God saw to it, as I shall soon explain, that I found none of my answers there.
As a start toward transformation, I decided on vigorous physical discipline. My initial enthusiasm, of course, made me overdo it.
I set out from White Plains on a one-speed bicycle, taking with me a knapsack that held only Mother’s book of scriptural excerpts, a few clothes, and a poncho. I had no sleeping bag; absurd as it may seem, I knew nothing of camping procedures, and wasn’t even aware that sleeping bags existed.
My first night I spent in an open field, the poncho spread out under me as protection against the damp earth. At three in the morning I awoke, freezing cold, to find myself sloshing about in a puddle of water collected by my poncho from the heavy dew. Further sleep was impossible. Finally, I got up resignedly and set out on my bicycle again. Mile followed weary mile through deserted mountain terrain, scarcely a village in sight anywhere. Toward afternoon the seat of my bicycle had become so hard that, though I tried to soften it with a folded towel, I could hardly bear to sit on it. After ten or twelve hours of ceaseless pedaling, my legs, unaccustomed to this strenuous effort, felt with every upgrade that they must soon give out altogether.
Towards late afternoon I began to watch hopefully for signs of a village with an inn, for on one point I was resolved: I would not, if I could possibly help it, sleep in another field. Alas, I came upon not a house. Sixteen hours I pedaled that day, mostly uphill, on my one-speed bicycle, covering well over a hundred miles.
The sun was low in the west when I met a hiker who informed me that there was a village two miles or so off the road I was on, and that the village had a guest house. With very nearly my last ounce of strength I pedaled there. In the center of the village I found a house, in the front yard of which stood the reassuring sign, “Rooms for Rent.” Literally staggering indoors, I collapsed into a chair by the front door.
“May I please have a room?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. We’ve been meaning to take that sign down. We no longer rent rooms.”
I was seized by despair. “Is there no place nearby where I can spend the night?”
“Well, there’s an inn down the road about a mile. I’m sure they’d have a room for you.”
A whole mile! Even that short distance seemed beyond my powers, in this state of exhaustion; I hardly had strength enough left to stand. “Please, do you think you might phone and ask them to come fetch me in their car?”
A ride was arranged. Lying in bed that night I actually thought I might die. I didn’t realize it at the time, but since early childhood I’d had a minor heart condition. That entire night my heart pounded on the walls of my chest as if trying to break them. I slept around the clock. Mercifully, by mid-morning my heartbeat had returned to normal. Feeling refreshed, though sore in every muscle, I was eager to continue my journey.
An important passage in the Bhagavad Gita, which unfortunately I had not yet read, counsels moderation in all things.(2) I had discovered the merits of this precept quite on my own! From now on, I decided, I’d better proceed on the pathway to perfection at a more measured pace. I must, so to speak, tighten the screw carefully, lest it split the wood.
And so I proceeded, this time more slowly, to the small mountain town of Indian Lake, where I rented a room and settled down eagerly to my reward: a careful study of the excerpts I possessed from the Indian scriptures.
Later, when I read my Guru’s explanation of the story of Adam and Eve, I found its inner meaning profound, and deeply inspiring.
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But for earthly needs
Religion is not his who too much fasts
Or too much feasts, nor his who sleeps away
An idle mind; nor his who wears to waste
His strength in vigils. Nay, Arjuna! call
That the true piety which most removes
Earth-aches and ills, where one is moderate
In eating and in resting, and in sport;
Measured in wish and act; sleeping betimes,
Waking betimes for duty.
—Bhagavad Gita in Sir Edwin Arnold’s poetic translation, The Song Celestial
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