(I continue to be on sick leave from my broken arm. Some combination of solitude, newly living in the country with a wonderful housemate, and all the love and support my friends have been pouring out on me seems to have me reflecting on my spiritual life. Here’s part of the story.)
My early life was quite religious, but never spiritual. My family life was loaded with trauma and my Catholic schooling was populated with a vengeful God – not a God of love, not a channel for transcendence.
Using marijuana in college (late 60’s) and taking several acid trips in grad school, I started to dismantle my ego. Each acid trip started with an experience of such intense oneness that I just wanted to stay there – and was followed by my ego fighting back and leading me to terrifying dark places.
Also in graduate school I was exposed to Eastern religion. I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation and that first initiation took me to heaven – the freedom from the ego that I felt with acid, with none of the chaos or loss of control. But, while I had many more nice experiences during my two years of TM meditation, I never went to heaven again.
Si Chinmoy took me to heaven. I read Be Here Now by Ram Das (didn’t we all?) and came away from that reading really wanting a teacher. I never had any sense that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of TM might be my teacher, but now I was ready for one. I was living in upstate New York, but my wife and I had taken jobs in Nova Scotia. Two weeks before we moved, I went to a yoga retreat at a nearby spiritual center that I had never visited. I had heard that Ken Pillar, the director of the center, had a reputation as a psychic. When I walked into the center for the first time, Ken called to me across a large room, “You’re going on a long tip – you’re going to meet your teacher.”
About a month after moving near Amherst Nova Scotia (we bought a little farm house on the Bay of Fundy 20 miles from our jobs in Asheville and in the neighboring Spring Hill), I was looking at a bulletin board in town. It was devoid of any reference to personal growth, consciousness or Eastern religion. Except for one poster for the Halifax Sri Chinmoy Meditation Center: “Open meditation Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. No charge.”
Halifax was about three hours from Amherst. I called the number on the poster and spoke with a very warm and friendly young man named Jim. We arranged that I would leave work an hour early the next Wednesday and drive to Halifax, then stay overnight in a guest room at the center and drive back to Amherst the next morning before work.
That next Wednesday I was filled with happy anticipation: I was maybe on the path to meet my teacher! I understood from Jim that Sri Chinmoy lived full-time in New York City (the Jamaica neighborhood in Queens). It was a long trip from Halifax, but the “disciples” – which the committed students called themselves – and other students would frequently pile in a car (lots of drivers) and drive the thirteen hours to New York, so there wold be plenty of opportunity to see “Guru”. None of this talk of disciples or guru fazed me: I wanted a guru and I was ready to be a disciple.
I arrived at the meditation center about 15 minutes early and had some animated chatter with Jim and Harvey, who lived at the center, and about eight other people. I was told that not all of them were disciples, that there was a special process you went through to become one – and that male disciples were dressed in crisply pressed white shirt and pants, and women in saris. None of this caused even a bump for me. I was picturing myself in those white shirts and pants.
Jim explained that Sri Chinmoy’s path followed a Hindu lineage called bhakti yoga – the yoga of love, devotion, and surrender. This lineage was strong in the part of Bengal where Sri Chinmoy was born, including the Sri Aurobindo ashram where he grew up. The way you meditated was to sit (everybody sat in straight-backed chairs) and look at a table with a tall lighted candle and a picture of the guru in his highest meditation. You could meditate on the candle flame or the picture. Because, in the picture, Guru was looking at the divine – the Supreme, our divine father – looking at him could take you there.
When the meditation began, I had a few minutes of restlessness, then got quiet inside. After two years of TM, 20 minutes twice a day, I did have some skill at quieting my mind. But I was not prepared for what came next: I went back to heaven! That experience of transcendence that I had experienced once only in two years of TM was right here again – and if anything even stronger. I’m not going to try to describe how happy I was.
That night I went to bed filled with peace and happiness. Even though I was sleeping in a strange place, I slipped easily into sleep – and all night long I had terrifying dreams of a strange Indian guy who was trying to steal my mind! In the morning, I dressed quietly and slipped down the hall to where my shoes would be waiting by the front door – and I could escape. When I tiptoed past Jim’s room, he called out, “John!” “Yeah.” “Do you want to meditate?” “Er, uh, sure.” I don’t remember what went through my mind as I prepared to meditate. What I remember with extraordinary vividness is that as my breathing quieted and my body got peaceful and I looked at the picture of the guru, I went right back to heaven again!
This experience of visiting heaven repeated many times over the next three years on the Sri Chinmoy path – and very seldom in the forty years since I left it. I’ve had many wonderful experiences, but not that. As my friend Tom Kilby said to me tonight when I described some of this to him, “Dude, you’ve been to heaven! What’s up now? Why are you not going there?” In this time of solitude and no work and all this love and support flooding in to me, I think I am meant to explore this question.