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My first year at Haverford was spent in joyously welcoming new ideas. My second year, at the age of eighteen, I tried to digest those ideas and make them my own. During the process of absorption I greatly broadened my horizons, deepened my inner search, grounded it, and then sent it soaring up in skies of hopeful expectation.
Rod had confirmed me in my desire to rise above excessive concern over other people’s opinions. While he scoffed at my more “mystical” preoccupations, and inspired me to seek solutions that were wholly grounded in human realities, my own nature kept me wanting to break out from even these confining walls. Rod and I met, however, on the question of right attitudes, such as non-attachment, objectivity, and the question of right behavior in this world.
I don’t recall that human suffering particularly preoccupied him, but with me it lingered as one of my deepest concerns. Now, however, the problem seemed capable of resolution — not (as most people think) by medicine, money, or sensory excitements, but by a changed attitude, which I realized is basic to true and lasting happiness.
An important question remained for me: Is right attitude based on mere mental resolution, or is it born of higher-than-sensory experience?
One night, in a dream, I found myself flying through the air. “This isn’t possible,” I thought. “People don’t fly about like birds!”
I tried to reason the whole thing out: Was I dreaming, or was I fully awake? Careful logic — dream-logic, however — led me at last to the conclusion that in fact I was awake; I was only doing something unusual.
What was my surprise then, a moment later, to wake up! The whole thing, careful reasoning and all, had been a dream!
Is life itself then, I asked myself, only a dream? If so, what is reality? Can we simply resolve, in this dream-existence of ours, to “dream” better? Can we, by affirmation alone, overcome suffering, achieve good health, and attain happiness? Is suffering, too, only a dream, and if so could it not be overcome by the simple expedient of strong, positive affirmation?
No, I decided, for even if life really is only a dream, the dream logic we use is subject to dream realities.
I am getting ahead of myself a little here, but a few months later, in Mexico, I met an English girl who had embraced Christian Science. Ignorant as I was of its justifications for what it taught, I remember saying to her, “One can’t rid himself of life’s dream-hypnosis merely by wishful thinking. Somehow we’ve got to discover how to awaken from the dream.”
And yet, affirmation did take me a long way toward achieving everything I wanted. As we’ll see also, presently, it was an important step in my own progress.
First, I needed to affirm my own worth, a truth I had doubted at Hackley and Kent, then affirmed artificially at Scarsdale High. Now, at Haverford, I found myself beginning to discover in myself a basis for genuine self-acceptance.
The better I succeeded, the more completely I found that I could express once again that most battered of virtues: trust. In the words of Emerson, I now began to feel that the world was my “oyster”: that life is basically sunny, right, and beautiful. Even the disapproval of worldly people could no longer dampen my expanding trust in life, and, on a certain level, in those very people. For I felt they merely lacked the courage to live up to a truth which they must know, deep in their own hearts. I longed to share with everyone my consciousness of joy.
Trust! The joyful offering I now made to life was selfless and pure. Yet the wise have ever said that one should trust fully only in God; that to place faith in earthly accomplishments is like expecting perpetual stability of a ship at sea. Alas, I hadn’t that wisdom to guide me. All my faith I now flung with ardent enthusiasm into the fragile basket of this world.
For my sophomore year I was assigned to a suite in Lloyd Hall, which in normal times was reserved for upperclassmen. My roommate, Roberto Pablo Payro, was from Argentina. He has since become a researcher, translator, and editor for the International Labor Office. Roberto was quiet, dignified, and ever courteous: ideal qualities in a roommate. We got along well together, though the goals we pursued were different. Roberto’s social life was separate from mine, though he seemed to like serious, sophisticated discussions, mostly on such down-to-earth subjects as politics and sociology. He rather marveled that such abstractions as “life” and “truth” could command from me the intense enthusiasm they did.
My tendency was to seize a thought firmly, wrestle with it for days until I felt I’d mastered it, and then dash out joyfully in search of friends with whom I could celebrate my victory. To Roberto I must have seemed alternately far too intense, and inconsistently frivolous.
But thinking itself was, for me, a joyous adventure. It was only years later, after I met my Guru, that I learned that thinking is only a by-path to truth, whereas the highest perceptions are possible only when the fluctuations of the mind have been stilled.
Rod and I spent much time together, continuing our nocturnal rounds of coffee, drinks, and wee-hour philosophizing. But I was beginning also to spend more time now in the search for truth on my own.
For my college major I selected English literature. I loved reading the great works that comprise our true heritage — a heritage of insights and inspiration, not of mere worldly accomplishments. Reading Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, eighteenth-century French playwrights and modern playwrights like John Millington Synge, as well as numerous others, I pondered a new question: In what ways has great literature served the cause of truth? As an aspiring writer myself, I hoped to make whatever I wrote serve as an instrument of the highest insights.
But there was buoyant good humor, too, in Rod’s and my seeking. We could laugh merrily over the gravest of issues. A few somber souls there were who viewed our unconventional levity with dismay. I think they considered it a proof that we were dissolute, drowning our misspent youth in drunkenness and debauchery. We had little patience, however, with people who equated seriousness with an absence of joy. Taking my cue from Rod, I would sometimes delight in pretending we were in league with forces unspeakably dark. (The effort to imagine such forces I left entirely to our critics!)
One of our fellow students, with the appropriate last name of Coffin, used to carry a Bible around with him wherever he went, in order the more sadly to reproach anyone who showed an occasional disposition to kick up his heels. “The wages of sin,” Coffin would remind us “sinners” gravely, citing chapter and verse, “is death.” As my own reputation for cheerful irreverence spread, he took to bringing me, particularly, the Good News. Entering my room one morning before I’d fairly tested the world to make sure it was still there, he sat on the edge of my bed, the Bible open in his hands, looked at me dolefully, and — sighed.
If only religion weren’t made so lugubrious, I think many people might be inspired to seek God who presently equate ministers of religion with undertakers. It was years before I myself learned that religious worship needn’t verge on the funereal — that it can be, as Paramhansa Yogananda put it, the funeral of all sorrows. As things stood, I satisfied a natural craving for religious inspiration by laughing at the lack of it in religion as I found it practiced. Had I known better, I might have sincerely worshiped.
During our second year at Haverford someone gave Rod a few guppies in a glass bowl. Guppy, we decided, was far too undignified a name for even such nondescript fish as these. We renamed his new pets, accordingly, “The Sacred White Fish.” Soon, enlarging on this grand concept, we joyously set out to create an entire religion, complete with ceremonies, dogmas, and ritual responses. I even found a partially completed, abandoned chapel for our rites. Needless to say, our comedy never advanced beyond the playful planning stage, but we had great fun with it.
One day Rod was summoned into the office of Mr. Gibb, dean of our very proper Quaker college. “What’s this I hear, Mr. Brown,” he began cautiously, “about… ah… how shall I put it? … a new religion? Something about the… ah … sacred… ah… white… fish? Have I heard this incredible tale correctly?” We never learned whom it was we’d shocked into reporting us to the dean, but even the anonymity of this outrage added fresh zest to our game.
Yet I also felt, inexplicably, a deep and almost wistful thrill at the thought of helping to found a new religion. Perhaps it was because the fun we were having over those guppies underscored for me the joy that I missed in church. To me, however, it was more than fun. My search for truth, and for joy as the very essence of truth, held an almost life-or-death earnestness. And I yearned, not only for myself but for others, to discover new insights into truth.
On another matter, I felt less keenly the need to cloak my interest under a guise of playfulness. A continuous aspiration of mine since the age of fifteen had been the founding of a “utopian” community. Utopia literally means “not a place”; the word is generally used to describe any impractical communitarian dream. But I was convinced that an intentional community founded on high ideals could, with down-to-earth realism and foresight, be made viable. During this period at Haverford, and for years thereafter, I devoted considerable time to studying and thinking about the problems connected with such a project; I read everything I could find on the subject. On some deep level of consciousness I believed that it was my duty someday to found such a community.
Among my friends, however, I encountered little sympathy for the idea. When I spoke of it to them they expressed mild interest, only to lose it altogether when they realized I was in earnest. After that, they left me to dream alone.
Undaunted by their lack of interest, I simply broadened my horizons to include the rest of the human race! The more I thought about intentional communities, the more clearly I saw them not as a step backward into primitive simplicity, but as a step forward in social evolution, a natural progression from machine technology and the self-defeating complexity of modern life to a new kind of enlightened simplicity, one in which technology served human, not merely mechanical or economic ends.
Decentralization seemed to me a growing need, too, in this age. The essentially sterile demands for efficiency that are served by centralizing power in big industry and big government would, I believed, be balanced by the human and idealistic values that would be emphasized in small, spiritually integrated communities.
With my growing enthusiasm for life I also took increasing pleasure in singing. At last I resolved to take singing lessons. Dr. Frederick Schlieder, a noted pianist and organist, recommended to Mother that I study under Marie Zimmerman, a singing teacher in Philadelphia. “She is a real musician,” he assured Mother. “Your son is fortunate to be in college so nearby.”
One day I took a train into Philadelphia and visited Mrs. Zimmerman in her studio. Seventy-five years old she must have been at the time. A concert singer in her younger days, her voice, now no longer beautiful, was still perfectly placed.
“The voice,” she explained to me, “is the one musical instrument which can’t be seen. I can’t show you how to use it, as I could demonstrate how to play the piano. You’ll have to listen sensitively as I sing a note, then try to imitate the sound I make. The more perceptively you listen, the more quickly you’ll learn.”
Next she placed my right hand over her stomach. “I’m going to show you how to breathe properly,” she explained. As she inhaled, her diaphragm moved downward, pushing the stomach out. I prepared to listen to a full, operatic tone.
“Mooooooooooo!” came the feeble croak, sounding hardly powerful enough to fill a pantry, let alone a concert hall. I fought to suppress my mirth.
But her voice was well placed. Recalling Dr. Schlieder’s high recommendations, I decided to study with her.
“You will pay me five dollars a lesson,” she announced firmly. “It isn’t that I need the money. I don’t. But you need to pay it. It will help you to take your lessons seriously.”
I didn’t want to bother Dad for the weekly fees, so I took a job waiting on tables one night a week at The Last Straw. From those earnings I paid for my lessons.
Marie Zimmerman proved an excellent teacher. Unlike most voice teachers, she wouldn’t let me sing on my own for the first weeks. Gradually only, as my placement improved, did she allow me to practice a little at home, then a little bit more. The farther I progressed, the more I found myself enjoying these lessons, until at last they became the high point of my week.
Marie Zimmerman was not only an excellent teacher and a fine musician; she was also a remarkable woman. Deeply, calmly spiritual, she was content with only the highest and noblest in everything. She was, in fact, an impressive example of a truth that was becoming increasingly clear to me, that the chief masterpiece of an aspiring artist must be himself.
One day at about this time I had what was, to me, a revelation. Sudden, vivid, and intense, it gave me in the space of a few minutes insights into the nature of art, and of art’s relationship to truth, that have guided my thinking ever since.
The word art, as Rod and I used it, encompassed all the creative arts, including music and literature. We had pondered reputed authorities whose claim was that art should be for art’s sake alone; that it must capture reality as a camera does, literally; that it ought to reflect a sense of social responsibility; to be a purely personal catharsis; or to express the spirit of the times in which the artist lives.
Suddenly I felt certain of a truth deeper than all of these. Most artistic theories, I realized, emphasize primarily the forms of art. But art is essentially a human, not an abstract phenomenon. A man’s intrinsic worth is determined not by his physical appearance, but by his spirit, his essential attitudes, his courage or cowardice, his kindness or selfishness, his wisdom or ignorance. With art, similarly, it is the artist’s vision of life, not his mode of expression, that determines the validity of his work. Inspiration — or sterility: Either can be expressed as well through realism as through impressionism. The essential question is: How great does the artist’s work reveal HIM to be, as a man? Only if he is great will his work stand a chance of being truly great also. Otherwise it may reveal superlative craftsmanship, but lest plumbers deserve acclaim also as great artists, mere skill cannot serve to define art.(1)
My first task as a writer, I decided, was no different from my first task as a human being. It was to determine what constitute ideal human qualities, and then to try to develop myself, accordingly.
At about this time we were given the assignment in English class of writing an essay on our personal criteria for greatness in literature. Not feeling myself competent as yet to explain some of the subtler nuances of my revelation, I confined myself to one aspect of it — one perhaps subtler than all the rest! I wrote that, after reading Homer’s Iliad, I had sensed that a blazing white light emanated from it. Later, as I contemplated other great works, I had sensed again in each case a bright light, though in no case so intense as Homer’s. Chaucer’s light seemed of a duller hue than Milton’s, Dante’s, or Shakespeare’s. From lesser works than these I sensed no light at all; it was as though their authors were spiritually dead.
I admitted that I saw no objective reason for giving Homer the highest marks; his epic seemed to me, on the surface, only a good, rousing war story. But I knew from the light it emanated that it must be a work of superlative greatness.(2)
My poor professor! Shaking his head in bewilderment, he gave me a flunking grade. Yet even today I consider the criterion of greatness I’d described in that paper to be just and valid.
Rod and I continued our discussions on philosophical matters: intellectual integrity, for example, and living in the now, and the importance of non-attachment. Non-attachment, I was coming to realize, is crucial to human happiness. No one can truly enjoy anything that he fears to lose.
One evening my non-attachment was put to an unusual test. I was sitting in my bedroom, studying for a philosophy exam. The textbook was exceedingly dull. Midway through my study, as I was reflecting glumly that this author valued pedantry over clarity, I heard footsteps approaching stealthily over the dry leaves on the ground outside my window. I glanced at my watch: Nine-thirty, the hour the library closed. One of my friends must be planning to play a joke on me, on the way back to his room. Smiling, I stepped over to the window to show him that I’d caught him at his little game.
At once, the footsteps fled into the night. Whoever it was would, I assumed smiling, come around through the front door and we’d enjoy a friendly chuckle before he returned to his own room.
To my surprise, no one came.
Smiling at the improbable fancy, I thought, “Maybe someone wanted to shoot me!”
Twenty minutes passed. Again the footsteps, this time even more softly over the dead leaves.
Who could it be? My friends, I reflected, weren’t this persistent at anything! Perhaps it really was someone planning to shoot me. Silently I stepped to the window. Once again, the steps faded away quickly into the darkness.
By this time my curiosity was thoroughly aroused. How would I ever know who this mysterious intruder was, or what he wanted, if I persisted in frightening him away? I decided that if he returned a third time, I would pretend I hadn’t heard him.
Another twenty minutes passed. Finally once again: footsteps, this time more stealthy than before. Moments later, a shoe scraped lightly on the ledge below my window. A hand grasped the metal grating over the window.
Suppressing a smile, I kept my eyes glued to the page before me.
Suddenly: an ear-splitting shot! For several seconds I heard nothing but the ringing in my ears; then, gradually, the clock on my dresser resumed its ticking; a car in the nearest parking lot revved its motor and roared off the campus at high speed.
Amazed, I leaned back in my chair and — laughed in sheer delight! It seemed incredible that such a thing could have actually happened. I checked my body: No holes anywhere. No blood. No pain. What? Nothing to show for this absurd adventure? I stepped over to examine the window. The screen was intact. What did it all mean?
Days later I learned that that evening had been Halloween — a day when children in America traditionally play pranks! Evidently some village boy had decided as a Halloween prank to put the fear of God into one of the college students. He’d fired a blank cartridge!
I knew one ought to show a greater sense of responsibility toward one’s body than I had. But I was happy at least to have had in this experience some proof of my non-attachment.
Soon, however, I received another test of my non-attachment, and this one I didn’t pass so easily. It was a test of my developing ability to offer trust unreservedly.
Haverford boys usually dated Bryn Mawr girls. I did so too, whenever I had the inclination for it — and the money, which was seldom. I finally met a girl at Bryn Mawr named Sue, who came to epitomize for me everything that was good, kind, and holy in life. Her tastes were simple. Her smile expressed so much sweetness that, whether blindly or with actual insight, I could not imagine her holding a mean thought. Our joy in each other’s company was such that we never felt the need to go anywhere in particular. A quiet walk through green fields, a friendly chat, a communion of hearts in precious silence: These were the essence of a relationship more beautiful than any I had ever known before.
I had no thought of marriage, of long years spent together, or of anything, really, beyond the present. Sue was for me not so much a girlfriend as a symbol of my new gift for trust, for giving myself to life joyously without the slightest thought of receiving in return. How she felt toward me seemed almost irrelevant. It was enough, I felt, that my own love for her was true.
And yet there were times, in the happiness of our moments together, when she would gaze at me sadly. She wouldn’t say why. “Never mind,” I would think, “I will only give her the more love, until all her sadness is washed away.”
For Christmas vacation I went home. Shortly after the New Year I received a letter from Sue. Eagerly I tore it open.
“Dear Don,” it began, “there is something I’ve been needing to tell you. I realize I should have done so early in our friendship, but I enjoyed your company and didn’t want to lose it.” She went on to say how deeply she had come to feel about me, and how sad also, that the realities of her life were such that she could never see me again. She was married, she explained, and was even then carrying her husband’s baby. Her husband was in the Navy, stationed overseas. She had realized that she would not be allowed to return to college once it became known that she was pregnant; hence her resolution of silence. But she had been feeling increasingly unhappy about this resolution where I was concerned. She realized she should have had the courage to tell me sooner. Now she would not be returning to Bryn Mawr to finish the school year. She hoped I would understand the loneliness that had motivated her to go out with me. She had never wanted to hurt me, and was unhappy in the knowledge that such a hurt now was inevitable.
The effect of her letter was devastating. I didn’t blame Sue. Rather, I sympathized with the predicament she’d been in. I reminded myself that I had never asked her to return my love, that in fact I’d never contemplated marriage to anyone. But, oh, the pain! And had I, I asked myself, been wrong to trust so completely? Put differently, was the whole structure of my inner development, in which trust played so vital a role, made of sand?
Much time was to pass before I understood that life, without God, is never trustworthy. It is not earthly fulfillment that deserves our faith, but God alone; not outer circumstances, but His inner blessings in the soul. These alone can never fail, never disappoint. For God is our only true love. Until we learn to place ourselves unreservedly in His hands, our trust, wherever else we give it, will be — indeed, must be — betrayed again and again.
Can a boat ride calmly in a storm? How can a world in constant flux offer more than delusive security?
For months to come my problem was not disillusionment, for I determined with all my heart to trust life in spite of anything that might come to hurt me. My problem, rather, was how to find a firm base on which to repose my trust.
I blessed Sue when I received her letter. I bless her even more now. For through our friendship, and even more through our parting, I was brought closer to God.
© Ananda Sangha Worldwide 2013