The First Days of a Neophyte
The daily routine at Mt. Washington was fairly individual. Freedom was given us, as it is in most Indian ashrams, for private spiritual practice. We met regularly for work and for meals, and held occasional evening classes in the SRF printed lessons, following the classes with group meditation. Paramhansaji had expressed the wish that we meditate together more often. We lacked a leader, however, and group initiative that has no one to stimulate it seldom travels in a straight line. Rev. Bernard, whom Master had placed in charge of our daily activities, wouldn’t assume responsibility for our spiritual life, which he viewed as Master’s exclusive domain.
Indeed, I suspect Master himself didn’t greatly mind our lack of organization. For while daily group meditations might have kept a few of the less dedicated monks more firmly on the path, it would also have interfered with the free time the rest of us could devote to longer, private meditations. Master wanted our spiritual endeavors to spring from the depths of a sincere yearning for God, and not merely to follow mechanically the well-worn paths of established habit. To be sure, he stressed the importance of regular practice, but I think the clockwork regularity of Western monastic discipline must have struck him as rather too mechanical, and too much a part of that most far-reaching of Western delusions: the belief that perfection can be achieved through outward, not inward, reforms. At any rate, Master himself often lifted us out of any groove of routine into which we’d become too firmly settled. In his company, there was little danger that our mental grooves would become ruts!
I myself was glad for the opportunity to develop a meditative routine of my own. Soon I was rising at four o’clock every morning — staggering out of bed, admittedly, with the indispensable aid of an alarm clock. After practicing Master’s exercises for recharging the body with energy, I would meditate two or three hours. At seven o’clock I would enter the main building, where I showered and breakfasted before going out into the garden for work. At noon I would put food aside for myself in the men’s dining room, then meditate half an hour in the main chapel upstairs. Evenings I would eat lightly (a heavy meal in the stomach, I discovered, makes it difficult to meditate deeply), study a little, then go down to my “cave” and meditate two or three more hours before bed.
Soon I was looking forward to my meditation times as eagerly as the worldly man looks forward to an evening’s partying — indeed, much more eagerly. Never had I dreamed there could be such a wealth of enjoyment within my own self!
In addition to techniques of meditation, Paramhansa Yogananda taught, as I’ve indicated, a series of energization exercises. He based these exercises on a little-known truth, which Rev. Bernard explained to me on my first evening at Mt. Washington. Cosmic energy is drawn into the body by the agency of the will through the medulla oblongata. “The greater the will,” Master said, “the greater the flow of energy.” Practicing these exercises gratefully every morning and evening, I found them marvelously effective for banishing fatigue and developing a radiant, lasting sense of well-being.
Saturdays, no work was scheduled. This gave us time for personal chores, and for longer private meditations. Usually I meditated late into the morning, then kept silence the rest of the day. Sometimes I fasted. In the evening I meditated again for several hours.
Sundays we attended morning and evening services at our church in Hollywood. There being only a pickup truck to get us there, we younger monks piled happily into the back of it for the trip, which took fifteen or twenty minutes. In winter, to harden ourselves against the cold and to develop titiksha (endurance), we sometimes bared our bodies from the waist up, joyously welcoming the invigorating air and laughing with youthful good spirits as we bounced along. (“You should learn tumo,” Boone shouted to me one day as the wind whistled around us. “What’s that?” “It’s a Tibetan technique for overcoming cold.” From then on, if ever Boone looked a little chilly, I would shout to him to “do mo’ tumo!”)
The Hollywood church was charming in its simplicity. Its color scheme, both inside and out, was blue, white, and gold—“Master’s colors,” Boone informed me. Little niches on either side of the sanctuary contained figurines depicting various leaders in the great world religions. Paramhansa Yogananda had named this a “Church of All Religions.” His teachings stressed the underlying oneness of all faiths. Seats for about 115 people faced the small stage from which services were conducted. Before and after services, curtains were usually drawn shut across this stage. When they were parted, there stood revealed along the back wall an altar containing five niches, each with a picture of one of our line of gurus: Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, Swami Sri Yukteswar, Paramhansa Yogananda, and Jesus Christ.
Bernard, who was to conduct the service in the church the first Sunday after my arrival, showed me around beforehand. “Why,” I asked him, “is the picture of Jesus Christ on our altar, too? Surely he isn’t in our line of gurus. Do we include him just to avoid criticism from the Christian denominations?”
Bernard smiled. “Master has told us it was Jesus himself who appeared to Babaji, and asked him to send this teaching of Self-Realization to the West. ‘My followers,’ Jesus asserted at that meeting, ‘have forgotten the art of divine, inner communion. Outwardly they do good works, but they have lost sight of the most important of my teachings, to “seek the kingdom of God first.”‘(1)
“The work he sent to the West through Master is helping people to commune inwardly with God,” continued Bernard. “Jesus, too, through people’s practice of meditation, is becoming a living reality for them — a being with whom they can commune, rather than merely read about in the Bible. This was what Jesus meant when he said that he would come again. Master often speaks of this work as the Second Coming of Christ, for it teaches people how to fulfill the true promise of Jesus — not to return again outwardly, but in the souls of those who loved him and communed with him.”
“That isn’t what most Christians believe.” I smiled wryly.
“True! But you may recall several Biblical accounts in which Jesus rebuked the apostles themselves for taking words literally that he had meant metaphorically. ‘I have meat to eat that ye know not of,’(2) he said, and they thought he must have food hidden about his person! Jesus himself, moreover, placed his Second Coming within the present lifetimes of his listeners. ‘Verily I say unto you,’ he told them, ‘This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.’(3) In those days, and many times since then, he has fulfilled his promise to appear — not to fanatical adventists, some of whom have waited for him on hilltops in flowing, white gowns, but to true devotees who sought him humbly and ardently in their own souls.”
“Tell me,” I said, hesitating before taking this philosophical plunge, “why do we have pictures on our altar at all? If the state of consciousness we’re seeking is formless and omnipresent, something we’re supposed to commune with in our own selves, doesn’t it hinder our development to have our attention diverted outwardly toward individuals?”
“No,” Bernard replied. “You see, our masters have that state of consciousness. For us, it is difficult even to visualize such a state! By attuning ourselves to them, we begin to intuit what it is that they have, and to develop the same consciousness in ourselves. This is what is meant in the Bible by the words, ‘As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.’”(4)
“Then is it more important to try to tune in to Master’s consciousness in meditation, than to concentrate on what he says and does outwardly?”
“Very much so! I don’t mean, of course, that his outward teachings don’t hold vital lessons for us also. But the very gist of those teachings is to guide us into inner attunement. One might say that attunement is the essence of discipleship.”
I wondered whether such an intensely personal relationship to one’s guru might not cause emotional attachment to him, thereby limiting the disciple’s consciousness instead of freeing it. Most important of all, I wondered, would attunement with Master threaten my attunement with God? Would it externalize my attention, instead of interiorizing it?
As time passed, and I got to know Master better, it became obvious to me that the attunement he encouraged in his disciples was impersonal. It was his practice to turn people’s devotion resolutely away from himself as a human being, and toward the omnipresent Divinity that was the sole object of his own devotion. Attunement with him, I found then, meant attunement, not with his human personality, but with his universal state of awareness. Indeed, in the deeper sense there was no personality there for us to attune ourselves to. As he often put it, “I killed Yogananda long ago. No one dwells in this temple now but God.”
At first, unaware as yet of how deeply impersonal his consciousness was, I saw him rather as a great and wise man. He sought to help me expand my mental horizons. Looking deeply into my eyes one day, he said, “If you knew my consciousness!”
If anyone betrayed toward him the slightest attachment, or presumption as a result of some favor received, Master invariably became more than usually impersonal toward that disciple. Those who were closest to him were, without exception, disciples whose relationship with him was a relationship primarily in God.
The day of our first meeting on September 12, Master returned to Encinitas. I didn’t see him until two weeks later, when he was scheduled to preach again at Hollywood Church.
The church that day was divinely peaceful. As we entered, music sounded on the organ. The organist, Jane Brush (later, Sahaja Mata), was playing her own arrangements of devotional chants that Master had written. I found her arrangements so sweet, so devotionally inspiring, that my heart soared up in longing for God. Of all the renditions I have ever heard of Master’s chants, none have moved me so deeply as hers.
After some twenty minutes, it was time for the service to begin. The curtains parted; and there stood Master, a deep, penetrating gaze in his eyes that seemed to bestow on each person present a special blessing. Then suddenly he was smiling, radiant with divine joy. We rose spontaneously to our feet. As had been his practice during his early “campaign” days, he demanded, “How is everybody?”
“Awake and ready!” we all shouted.
“How feels everybody?”
“Awake and ready!”
We sat down, inspired by his dynamic power. He led us in chanting and meditation, then gave a brief interpretation of selected passages from the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. His sermon followed — an altogether delightful blend of wit, devotional inspiration, and wisdom. I had always supposed that deep truths must be spoken portentously, in measured cadences, rather in the style of Emerson’s essays. Rev. Bernard had addressed us rather that way the Sunday before (indeed, his very conversation had a certain ring of gravity to it!), and I had been suitably impressed. But Master now lectured in a manner so totally natural that, for several minutes, I was quite taken aback. Was this the way to convince people of the importance of divine truths? He made no attempt to impress us with the depth of his insight. Frequently, rather, he sent us into gales of laughter. Only gradually did I observe that his flashes of humor invariably preceded some profound spiritual advice. Yogananda wore his wisdom without the slightest affectation, like a comfortable old jacket one has been wearing for years.
“Behind every rosebush of pleasure,” he cautioned us, “hides a rattlesnake of pain.” He went on to urge us to seek our “pleasures” in God, and to ignore the fickle promises of this world.
“There are two kinds of poor people,” he remarked—“those who wear rags of cloth, and those who, though traveling in limousines, wear spiritual rags of selfishness and indifference to truth and to God. It is better to be materially poor and have God in your heart, than to be materially wealthy without Him.
“Never say that you are a sinner,” he went on to advise us. “You are a child of God! Gold, though covered for centuries with mud, remains gold. Even so, the pure gold of the soul, though covered for eons of time with the mud of delusion, remains pure ‘gold’ forever. To call yourself a sinner is to identify yourself with your sins instead of trying to rid yourself of them. It is to affirm sinfulness. To call yourself a sinner is the greatest sin before God!”
He proceeded to discuss different levels of spiritual development: “I slept and dreamed life was beauty. I woke up, and found life was duty. But even in this, my dutiful ego, I dreamed myself separate from God. And then I awoke in Him, to realize that life truly is beauty! For the beauties we seek in this world can never be found except in Him. To experience them, we must first be dutiful to His will. Only then can we rise above self. We have not been sent down to earth to create here a pleasure garden. This world is a battlefield! Our highest duty is to seek the Lord. ‘Seek ye the kingdom of God first,’ Jesus said, ‘and all these things shall be added unto you’—‘neither be ye of doubtful mind!’”
Finally, Master gave us this invaluable suggestion: “Never go to bed at night until you have convinced your mind that this world is God’s dream.”
Following the sermon, Bernard made a few announcements. He concluded by recommending Autobiography of a Yogi to newcomers. At this point Master interrupted him to say, “Many are coming from afar after reading the book. One man recently read it in New York, and — Walter, please stand up.”
I glanced around to see this “Walter” who, like me, had read the book recently in New York. No one had stood up. Turning back to Master, I found him smiling at me! Walter?! “Ah, well,” I thought philosophically, “a rose by any other name.…” Self-consciously I rose to my feet.
“Walter read the book in New York,” Master continued affectionately, “and left everything to come here. Now he has become one of us.”
Members, lay and renunciate alike, smiled at me in blessing.
“Walter” was the name Master called me ever thereafter. No one else used this name, until, after Master’s earthly passing, I longed for every possible reminder of those precious years with him. I then asked my brothers and sisters on the path to call me by that name.
Master spent the next few days at Mt. Washington. During this period I saw him several times, though not privately. Indeed, such was my inner turmoil, caused by this drastic change in my life, that I doubt whether another private interview with him at this time would have helped me very much. For Master’s part, he probably was waiting for me to assimilate the instructions he had given me at our first meeting.
A few days before Master’s return to Mt. Washington, Norman had talked me into joining him in what is known to health-faddists as the “Grape Cure,” a diet of only grapes and grape juice. A few weeks of this cure would, Norman assured me, purify my body, and help me to make rapid progress in the spiritual life. Master saw us that Monday morning.
“Devotion is the greatest purifier,” he remarked, smiling.
“Is it your wish then, Sir, that we break this fast?” I asked him.
“Well, I don’t want you to break your will, now that you have set it this way. But your time would be better spent in working to develop devotion. A pure heart is the way to God, not a pure stomach!”
Heeding his counsel, I soon lost “heart” for the grape cure, though I continued it another day or two so as, in his words, not to “break” my will. It wasn’t long, however, before I took up the infinitely more rewarding, though also far more demanding, task of deepening my love for God by chanting and holding constantly to the thought of God’s presence in my heart.
Mental habits, alas, are not so easy to change as to think about changing. Months passed before I felt that I had made substantial progress against my years-old tendency to over-intellectualize. Master, seeing my desire, helped me from the start with constant encouragement and advice.
“Get devotion!” he would tell me. “You must have devotion. Remember what Jesus said”—here he paraphrased the words of the Gospel—“‘Thou dost not reveal Thyself unto the prudent and the wise, but unto babes.’”
Swami Sri Yukteswar, a saint of wisdom if such ever existed, and one therefore (so people might think) more likely than most to endorse intellectual attitudes, said that love alone fits a person for the spiritual path. In his book, The Holy Science, he wrote, “This heart’s natural love is the principal thing to attain a holy life.… It is impossible for man to advance a step towards [salvation] without it.” The present age, alas, perhaps even more than most, affords all too little encouragement for developing the all-surrendering love which saints have ever praised. “Mawkish sentimentalism” is the common judgment on deep, positive feelings of any kind.
Indeed, an unfeeling heart is often taken as evidence of a “scientific outlook.” In truth, however, without love no one can penetrate deeply to the center of things, which is often described, with unconscious wisdom, as their “heart.” For whereas emotions can, and sometimes do, cloud the mind, calm, pure love clarifies it and makes possible the subtlest intuitions.
A certain visitor once requested a private interview with Master. On the appointed day he arrived armed with a long list of what he considered “profound” questions.
“Love God,” Master said in answer to the first of them.
The man paused a moment uncomprehendingly, then shrugged and posed his second question.
“Love God!” Master persisted.
Nonplussed, the visitor proceeded to the third “deep” question on his list.
“Love God!” came the Master’s reply once more, this time sternly. Without another word he rose, concluding the interview, and left the room. The intellectual guest never did grasp the relevance of Master’s counsel to his questions. Years later, in fact, he became a sort of spiritual teacher in Chicago, and often cited this episode to illustrate, as he put it, that even great masters have their human failings. Paramhansaji was telling him, however, that until he developed love, the doors to true wisdom would remain closed to him.
Stern discipline from an all-compassionate master sometimes puzzles devotees. The neophyte, when first his guru “treats” him to a good scolding, may even ask himself, “Has he lost his temper?” A true master, however, lives on a plane far above such corrosive emotions. Sometimes he may indeed make a show of anger, but if he does so it is only to emphasize some counsel which, if delivered gently, might not sink in deeply enough. A mother may be obliged, similarly, to scold her child if he won’t heed her gentle admonishments. Which of two mothers, indeed, shows the more genuine love: the one who, if her little child steps off the curb into heavy traffic, admonishes him gently, “I wouldn’t do that, Johnny, if I were you”—or the one who snatches him back, scolds him, and maybe spanks him lightly to reinforce her counsel?
Jean Haupt told me of one occasion when Master was upbraiding one of the nuns in his presence. “You’d have thought the roof would fly off!” said Jean, chuckling. “Master was pacing the floor, shouting. I was seated at one end of the room; the nun was at the other end. Each time Master faced her, he emphasized his meaning by a stern look. When he turned his back to her, however, his face relaxed into an amused smile. He didn’t stop shouting, but he winked at me before turning back toward her fiercely.”
Master disciplined only those who accepted his discipline. Otherwise he was the soul of consideration. I remember him sometimes inquiring gently of a new disciple, to whom he’d offered mild correction, “You don’t mind my saying that, do you?”
One of the traits that impressed me most deeply about him was his quality of universal respect. It was a respect born of the deepest concern for other people’s welfare. The veriest stranger was, I am convinced, as dear to him as his own closest disciples.
Debi Mukerjee, a young monk from India, told me of an example he had seen of the universality of Master’s love. Master had invited him out one afternoon for a drive. They were on their way home, near sundown.
“Stop the car!” Master ordered suddenly. They parked by the curb. He got out and walked back several doors to a small, rather shoddy-looking variety shop. There, to Debi’s astonishment, he selected a number of items, none of them useful. “What on earth can he want with all that junk?” Debi marveled. At the front counter the owner, an elderly woman, added up the price. When Master paid it, she burst into tears.
“I very badly needed just this sum of money today!” she cried. “It’s near closing time, and I’d almost given up hope of getting it. Bless you, Sir. God Himself must have sent you to me in my hour of need!”
Master’s quiet smile alone betrayed his knowledge of her difficulty. He offered no explanation. The purchases, as Debi had suspected, served no practical purpose thereafter.
At first I found it a bit awkward living with someone who was, as I soon discovered, conscious of my innermost thoughts and feelings. Nor was space any barrier to his telepathic insight. Wherever his disciples happened to be, he read them like a headline.
Boone and Norman told me of an occasion, a few weeks before my arrival, when they had traveled by bus together to Encinitas. Their conversation had apparently been somewhat less than edifying.
“Master met us at the gate,” Norman told me. “He looked stern. After quoting to us several of our more colorful remarks on the bus, he gave us a good scolding. ‘You’ve come here to forget worldly things,’ he said. ‘Spend your time, when possible, by yourselves, talking to God. When you mix with others, talk more of Him.’ He ended up telling us not to mix with each other!”
James Coller, another disciple, visited us at about this time from Phoenix, Arizona; Master had appointed him to be the minister of our church there. James, though deeply devoted to God and Guru, had a tendency to be a little casual about hermitage discipline.
“I was driving from Phoenix to Encinitas recently,” James told us, “to see Master. It was late at night, and I was getting hungry. After some time I came to a restaurant that was still open, and eagerly went in. As bad luck would have it, all they had to serve was hamburgers. What was I to do? I knew Master wanted us to be vegetarians, but still.… I mean, I was really hungry! ‘Oh, well,’ I decided finally, ‘he won’t know!’ So I ate two hamburgers. After I reached Encinitas, I spoke with Master. At the end of our conversation, he remarked gently:
“‘By the way, James, when you’re on the highway late at night, and you come to a place that serves nothing but hamburgers — better not eat anything.’” It may comfort those who have similar problems with self-discipline that Master said James would be spiritually free in this life. His saving grace was deep love for God.
Disconcerting though it might have been to live in the company of someone who had free access to the hidden recesses of my mind, I was increasingly grateful for his insight. For here at last, I realized, was one human being whose misunderstanding I never need fear. Master was my friend, ever firmly and quietly on my side, concerned only with helping me through every error toward the highest understanding. Almost incredibly, moreover, he was exactly the same, inwardly, to all, no matter what they did nor how they treated him. His concern was entirely with giving to them, never with receiving from them.
He once scolded Rev. Stanley, the minister at the SRF Lake Shrine.
“But please, Sir,” Stanley pleaded, “you will forgive me, won’t you?”
“Well,” Master replied, astonished, “what else can I do?”
I never knew him to hold a grudge.
There was a man who for years, out of intense jealousy, had slandered Master. One day, a few days before the end of Master’s life, the two of them met at a formal gathering.
“Remember,” Master said, gazing into the man’s eyes with deep forgiveness, “I will always love you!” I saw the man later, gazing at Master with deep love and admiration. A photograph of that encounter appears in the published story of Master’s mahasamadhi, or final conscious exit from his body.
Master’s counsel to people, born as it was of divine love, was always particular to their needs. Seeing me one day on the grounds, he advised me, “Do not get excited or impatient, Walter. Go with slow speed.” Only he, who knew my private thoughts in meditation, could have perceived the galloping zeal with which I’d embarked on the spiritual path. It was not an attitude that I displayed outwardly.
Toward the end of September he invited me to Encinitas, where he said he would be spending the next week or so. There a small group of us meditated with him one evening in the peaceful salon of the hermitage, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Sitting in his presence, I felt as though some powerful magnet were uplifting my entire being and concentrating it at the point between the eyebrows. The thought came to me, No wonder the Indian scriptures praise above all else the uplifting influence of a true guru! Never, by my unaided efforts alone, could I have plunged into meditation so suddenly, or so deeply.
Soon thereafter Master invited me to Twenty-Nine Palms, where he said he was planning to go for a period of seclusion. Here it was, over the years, that I accumulated my most precious memories of him.