Thursday, September 13, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 2: India.

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

The previous blog entry describes my practice/life through my freshman year in college, 1977/78, when I encountered guru Swami Muktananda and his “Siddha Yoga” (SYDA) organization. He inspired me to give up ordinary-American style. I quit school, worked and saved for months, and started living in Siddha Yoga ashrams, joining Muktananda’s “3rd World Tour” by early 1979.

Today, as I progress into deep middle-age, it’s difficult to keep all these memories organized. In this case, though, I’m certain of the date. The first ashram I lived in was Oakland, CA, a stop on Muktananda’s Tour. After 2 months, I returned to see my parents near Philadelphia, PA. I recall my nervousness when flying back East, because the accident at Three Mile Island had just exploded. So I have a reliable time-stamp for my story at this point. We may assume that it’s pure coincidence that my years with Muktananda started with a nuclear melt-down.

Anyway: the great lesson I learned from Muktananda is that my thinking, what’s going on in my mind just now, is incredibly, amazingly powerful. Attending to how I keep my mind moment-to-moment can be a more interesting, rewarding, and efficient life direction than trying to get or control anything in the external world. In order to comprehend and experience the power of mind, it’s necessary to take a pause, slow down, and observe this inner world with care and energy. That is: this 5 year period in SYDA ashrams was when I began to do formal meditation practices.

It’s hard to break the habit of always focusing on the world of stuff, always striving to get stuff. Looking at thought-patterns is usually more difficult than distracting myself from them. Even the act of sitting still for long periods is itself physically painful. There are major hurdles to overcome in starting a meditation practice. The ashram helped me through this in a number of ways.

I had the support of the large group that lived and practiced together (human beings are herding animals more than we realize). I adopted the belief-system that Muktananda was on a higher, more spiritual level than ordinary people, so I could believe him when he told me that meditation was special and holy, that it would bring me to God, to enlightenment, and all that. I got lots of great, euphoric feelings from the practices, and from focusing on the guru. The community, the hope and desire to climb the spiritual ladder, and the good feelings inside kept me going.

And I liked the philosophy. I liked remembering that It’s All One. Just as gold can be fashioned into different types of jewelry and still be the same gold, all things in the world are in fact the same substance: God or Self or Absolute. This understanding freed me from clinging to particular things, people, or situations. If it’s all God, then wherever I go, whatever I do, whatever happens is OK. Following this understanding, after 2.5 years in American ashrams, I moved to the main ashram in India, effectively renouncing everything from my previous life.

I was there when Muktananda died; it didn’t bother me at all. By that point, I was really interested in exploring truth for myself, not so much in devotion to a guru. Sure, in the early years, it gave me energy to believe in god-like super-beings. Eventually, all that seemed cultish. I’d prefer to take my understanding and my meditation practice and run.

But on the other hand… everyone around me believed in the magical power that emanated from the guru, a power most concentrated in his physical presence, a power that’d exponentially quicken my ascent to enlightenment or whatever. What if they were right? It’d be stupid to give that up, and I didn’t want to be stupid. Muktananda had left successor gurus, so for a year after his death, I remained with them in the India ashram, uncertain about giving up my connection to the special power that was (maybe?) dependent on holy people and places.

Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to believe in myself. I preferred having a scientific mind that openly questioned everything, rather than believing in magical invisible energy, in Gods, in holy enlightened beings. I was tired of believing in things because other people did, or because some authority told me to, or because some old and popular book said so. If I could get enlightenment in a year by believing in a guru, or in 1000 lifetimes by believing in myself, I’d still prefer to believe in myself. What’s the hurry anyway?

So I left India in early 1984, figuring I’d go back the good old USA, where people are skeptical and cynical and don’t believe in any folktale that sounds nice. My kind of people! I’d find some simple life to sustain myself, continue to meditate, to train my mind to be quiet and focused, and use my remembrance of Oneness to remain as a witness. Whatever would appear in the real world, I’d watch it unfold as if a movie.

In the course of finding an ordinary life situation, I ended up in California by 1985. There I had my first encounters with Zen teaching and with major psychedelic experiences, which jolted me into a new direction and new understandings (or perhaps a lack thereof). Details to come in the next couple blog entries of my story.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Stuart, nice post.
After following my guru and group for twelve years with an insight that seems very close to yours.
But somehow I feel a bit spiritually disillusioned afterwards. And after returning to normal life I have had a hard time keeping a spiritual focus.

Not that it is a big problem, my life is good, but a part of me really wish that I could keep the focus. So my world I feel that the whole Guru business have not been so good, as it have messed my natural spiritual inclination a bit up. Maybe part of it is also that I dont use my old sadhana anymore as it remind me to much of the time in the rather cultish inviroment.

Stuart said...

anony said...
And after returning to normal life I have had a hard time keeping a spiritual focus.

Many thanks for posting, anony. Please feel free to talk in more detail about your own situation past and present if you'd like.

The first thing that hits my mind is wondering what you mean by spiritual. It's a word that often creates confusion when it's used a lot without a clear agreement of what it means.

I think leaving a particular guru or group or ashram or practice is a time to look into our direction. Why do we do this or that practice; why do we do anything; why are we alive?

For instance, you meet a guru who says you should follow this path so that you can get enlightenment, become spiritual and holy, please God, etc. And for so many years you focus on putting energy into the path, that you may lose sight of the meaning and purpose of it all. What is "God" or "enlightenment"? Why do I need to become "spiritual" or "holy"? For what; for who? Such deep questioning is usually not encouraged in a group based on shared beliefs, since sharing a belief is the opposite of questioning.

In leaving my old guru and ashram and group, I lost my old direction, since I no longer wanted to hold these ideas about God or holiness or spiritual high or low. So what type of direction does that leave?

For me at the moment, a key part of my direction is questioning. We're in a very odd situation here, getting born into a world without knowing who I am or why I'm here etc. It's natural to be curious, so even without belief in anything, I always have the great questions like "What am I?" and "What is this?"

The other element is suffering. Lots of time I'm aware of suffering in myself and others. I can always trace suffering back to "I want something." This gives me a direction for practicing. By looking into thinking, how it appears and disappears like clouds, I can see into the insubstantiality of I/my/me, which is the best medicine for suffering.

taman said...

Big Mistake- one can find God sitting right at home.
Problem is, there is a lot of advertising going on-we will help you find God and we will help you find your inner peace.

Anonymous said...

Stuart, you've offered a rare perspective on all this.

"If I could get enlightenment in a year by believing in a guru, or in 1000 lifetimes by believing in myself, I’d still prefer to believe in myself.

What’s the hurry anyway?"

For most, enlightement has been marketed as a commodity, as something to lust after, an object of craving.

So..people are in a hurry and they are exploitable by being in a hurry. Sales people and street hustlers foster a sense of scarcity and urgency to get people to buy.

Someone who is NOT in a hurry is a
salesperson's worst nightmare. There's nothing on you to manipulate. You are free from the typical reactivity/urgency that make most seekers and consumers exploitable.

Also it seems few are capable of actualy setting conditions beforehand on how they want to do spiritual practice.

Its like a million dollars--on what conditions would you want a million dollars? Or would you take it under any condition?'.

Would we accept the hypothetical million bucks if we knew it was from a corrupt source? THat someone else was harmed in order to generate that money?

Would we accept that million if we were required to sell out something that mattered to us?

Or would we only tkae the million dollars if it was clean money, and if having it would not make you crazy or mess up existing relationships that you cherish?

It may be that Stuart offered few hooks that a predatory guru could have exploited.

First, Stuart didnt have money or social connections. He'd renounced whatever economic and social assets he had before he joined Muktananda's group.

All too often members who are known to be wealthy are singled out for flattery and special treatment at the ashram. Not having dough, not being erotically attractive to the guru, will spare you that sort of targeted attention.

By his self report, Stuart was not at the ashram seeking surrogate parent. He arrived there with a sense of personal agency. He wanted spiritual practice and looked to the ashram to teach him how to do so and to provide a supportive setting.

By doing this, Stuart had criteria, self generated standards, by which he could tell whether that ashram and its guru yoga were supporting his practice--or had become something to outgrow.

A psychologist would say that Stuart had an internal locus of control--personal autonomy, and that he valued personal autonomy and did not make the mistake made by so many seekers of devaluing autonomy.

Other seekers either arrived at the ashram already with external loci of control--looking outside of themselves for orientation. Or if they arrived with internal loci of control, allowed themselves to devalue their autonomy and subtituted the whims of the guru for their original inner compass.

Stuart did not do that. He retained his internal locus of control. He respected what the ashram offered but retained his adult autonomy in relation to it.

So it may be that by valuing and retaining his unusual personal autonomy, by not having money or influential social connections, and not having visible dependency needs, and not matching the erotic preferences of the guru, Stuart would not have been selected for the kind of flattery and love bombing used to draw others into the guru's inner circle.

Trouble is very many seekers unknowingly have dependency needs, and in addition, some may also have wealth or skills that make them valuable recruits for a predatory group.

And submissiveness to authoritarian gurus and commodification of enlightement are fostered by the Enlightenment Industry and its media outlets.

The people who like Stuart are not looking for Magic Mommies and Daddies and who are at an ashram strictly to do the sadhana may thrive because they do not attract toxic attention from troubled leaders.

They are free persons when they enter the ashram and remain free within the ashram to use the best that the ashram offeers, and move on when they decide it is time to graduate and move on.

Fragile, dependent persons, especially those who also have wealth or erotic appeal may attract quite different handling at the ashram and be pulled in far more deeply.

.

Stuart said...

Anony said...
All too often members who are known to be wealthy are singled out for flattery and special treatment at the ashram. Not having dough, not being erotically attractive to the guru, will spare you that sort of targeted attention.

There's lots of Anony's points that have got me thinking, and till I have some more time, I'll respond to this one.

When I was in the ashram, I had a little contact with fellow devotee Marsha Mason. She had some success as an actress, and was also famous for being married to playwright Neil Simon. When Marsha left India, there was this press conference where she explained how her life was changing and why. Kind of like the Beatles had to face all these questions from the world when the left Maharishi.

When I heard about Marsha's press conference, it made me so happy that I wasn't rich and famous and successful. It was definitely enough of a challenge for me to just decide for myself what my life direction should be. Once I made a decision, I wanted to be free to just follow my perception and understanding quietly and anonymously. Hard enough to make life transforming decisions, without having to hold a damn press conference!

It even touches on a big issue that I've been chewing on for years. Every psychological study that you read, along with anecdotal evidence, shows that external success, things like riches and power and good situations, make you happier for about 6 months, then you're back to where you were. The ONLY thing about external life that may make a longer difference is having connections with friends and family that you help and trust. (There's even a story all over the net now with the headline $315 million Powerball winner's dreams now nightmare.)

Now I certainly don't celebrate poverty and misery... though maybe a certain amount of suffering and challenge and bad situations may be absolutely necessary to a good clear life.

What I'm looking at is... these psych studies and so on clearly convince me cognitively that what's really important to happiness is keeping my own mind clear in this moment, and trying to be kind to whomever I'm with. And it seems to be an ongoing process to remember that this seductive feeling that a good situation on the outside will bring some sort of lasting happiness... it really does need to get put down.

Stuart said...

taman said...
Big Mistake- one can find God sitting right at home.
Problem is, there is a lot of advertising going on-we will help you find God and we will help you find your inner peace.


Thanks, taman. The problem arises as soon as I believe in that advertising!

Zen Master Seung Sahn put it so simply: "If you want something, you have a problem."

I think many of us in the ashram world didn't see this "wanting mind" as the problem. We thought that the solution was to want the right things. To want not just money and sex and fame etc, but to want (even more) to get God and enlightenment and holiness and good inner feelings.

In the tradition and direction I'm now working with, I don't look for new or better things to want. Instead, I try to clearly see this mind, this thinking "I want" itself, and to recognize that it's temporary, insubstantial, and intimately connected with suffering.

Anne Hill said...

I had a roommate at UCB in 1980 who was into siddha yoga--and after that a reincarnated master of some sort, then Jesus, and then I lost track. It's so sad how these strong charismatics prey on the weak. What a jumbled wreck she became after all that.

Stuart said...

Anne Hill said...
I had a roommate at UCB in 1980 who was into siddha yoga--and after that a reincarnated master of some sort, then Jesus, and then I lost track.

After following Muktananda for years, it did hit me at one point that what I was doing was very similar to Christianity. I was relying on the magical power of a being who claimed to be more god-like than the masses.

There are all sorts of paths like this, and to me it seems not so different whether one seeks Truth and Correct Life from Jesus, a guru, a reincarnated master, or whatever. It's not uncommon for people to go from one group to another looking for some special master to believe in, until maybe, eventually, trying to believe in themselves.

It's so sad how these strong charismatics prey on the weak.

The world is filled with people looking for a master to follow, and the market responds with lots of different choices for them. It's not like we can or should do away with the masters and gurus. They exist because so many of us want them. If there were no gurus, we'd have to invent them.

All of this is no problem for those of us who aren't hungry to follow a leader. For those who do have that hunger, and who aren't ready to throw it away... yeah, it's sad that some leaders act deceptively or selfishly.

Anonymous said...

Not to bust your balls, but I have been reading your accounts of your departure from SYDA for what must be at least 10 years now. These accounts have always been well done, but it makes it appear the crowning achievement of your life has been this one disappearing act...in 1984. This seminal event has now been exteremly well documented, analyzed , and retold. I'm just wondering, do you have anything else for us? Also, do you ever feel that continuing to write over and over, in 2007, about your adventures in the Carter and Reagan years may strike some as verging on the egocentric?

Stuart said...

Anonymous said...
Not to bust your balls, but I have been reading your accounts of your departure from SYDA for what must be at least 10 years now.

I'm not sure how long I've been posting to the internet, but it has been many years, and over time that includes a huge amount of material, stuff about everything from chess to poker to TV shows to mind-alterning drugs. It's interesting that out of all that, you focus on the SYDA stuff. It must hold a special interest to you. What exactly is your interest in it?

This seminal event has now been exteremly well documented, analyzed , and retold.

Again, it's interesting that you should call my departure from SYDA a "seminal event." Why do you find it so important?

I'm just wondering, do you have anything else for us?

I've only been blogging for a few months, but there's already a number of posts for you to look through, including stuff on popular culture (Sopranos, Blues Brothers), politics, and Zen. But since you seem fixated on SYDA, why hide from that, why not be upfront about why you focus on that?

In any case, in the particular story of "Different Styles of Practice" that I'm telling, the last entry took me through leaving India, so the upcoming blogs will be about how I gradually found the Zen tradition. If you're interested in Zen particularly, or the Big Questions of Life in general, you may find that interesting.

There's a whole wide internet out there, where you can find whatever you like. You've decided to focus on my departure from SYDA. That's an OK topic... but if that's your interest, why not offer something with a little more depth (like why you're drawn to this topic) than you have in this comment?

Also, do you ever feel that continuing to write over and over, in 2007, about your adventures in the Carter and Reagan years may strike some as verging on the egocentric?

Everybody who blogs about their life and experience and opinions about anything may be viewed by some as egocentric. On the other hand, it's very interesting how when I write about my own particular life, a number of other people find parallels in their own life, so I get comments and emails from a number of people sharing their views on what I write, and I find that interesting.

Even you find something interesting about my writing, enough to follow me for 10 years!! I thank you for that deeply... though I do wish you'd be a bit more honest and open about why you fixate on SYDA. Maybe share some of your own experiences or perspectives that lead you to be so interested in that particular aspect of my writings.

Anand Vijoy said...

good one like !!it..carry on .., keep the good work going..
seriously enjoyed devourering each letter of your blog you write awesome