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Path: One Man's Quest On the Only Path There Is
by J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda)
in Providence, a short train ride away from Boston, I often visited Rod
and Betty. Rod lived in Wellesley Hills, a Boston suburb. Betty, a dear
friend as well as my cousin, was a student at nearby Wellesley College.
Rod had enrolled at Boston University. He was as good-humored and intense about everything as ever. Together we devoted much time to what might, with some generosity, be described as the Indian practice of neti, neti ("not this, not that").(10) That is to say, we engaged in a running analysis, complete with droll commentary and merry exaggeration, on some of the follies to which mankind is addicted.
There was the living-to-impress-others dream: "I work on Wall Street. (Pause) Of course, you know what that means."
There was the "Protestant ethic," I'm-glad-I'm-not-happy-because-that-means-I'm-good dream: "I wouldn't think of telling you what you ought to do. All I ask is that you (sigh) let your conscience be your guide."
A favorite of ours was the if-you-want-to-be-sure-you're-right-just-follow-the-crowd dream: "You'd better march in step, son, if you want the whole column to move."
Rod was a wonderful mimic. He could make even normally reasonable statements sound ridiculous. He attained his height when imitating someone hopelessly inept trying to sound like a big shot.
We also discussed seriously the fulfillments we both wanted from life. The longer we talked, the longer our list of minuses kept growing, and the shorter that of the plusses. For Rod, these narrowing horizons meant his gradual loss of ambition to become a writer. For me, it meant a gradual redirection of ambition from worldly to divine attainments.
In those days, as I've mentioned earlier, students were not as preoccupied as they are nowadays with the search for meaning. For most of them the ideal was "Get to the top; become wealthy and important; marry; buy a big home, and populate it with a large family; let everyone see you enjoying life; better still, get them to envy you for enjoying it." Needless to say, the gradations of worldly ambition are many, by no means all of them crass. But youth in its quest for personal directions is seldom sensitive to the directions of others. If Rod and I were ungenerous, it was partly because we were still preoccupied with defining our own goals.
Not surprisingly, some of the people whose values we rejected reciprocated with a certain antagonism. Rod, in fact, almost invited their antagonism, by judging them along with their values. Ever tending to extremes in his reactions, he either praised people to the skies as "perfectly wonderful," or condemned them to the depths as "dreadful," or "ridiculous."
But judgment forms a barrier: In excluding others, it also encloses oneself. Rod, by his judgmental attitude, was gradually painting himself into a psychological corner. After all, if others didn't measure up to his ideals, it behooved him to prove that he did. The stricter his standards for others, the more impossible they became for himself. I remember a space of two or three months when, though supposedly working on a novel, he never progressed beyond typing "Page one, Chapter one," on an otherwise blank page. In time I suppose he had no choice but to abandon writing altogether. It was a pity, for his was, and still is, one of the most talented, intelligent, and deeply perceptive natures I have ever known.
I myself, though not as judgmental as Rod, could be cutting in my remarks. I justified this tendency by telling myself that I was only trying to get people to be more discriminating. But there is never a good excuse for unkindness. In one important respect, indeed, my fault was greater than Rod's, for whereas his judgments were directed at people he scarcely knew, my criticisms were reserved for my friends.
I once wrote a stinging letter to Betty, simply because I felt that she wasn't trying hard enough to develop her own very real spiritual potential. Occasionally even my mother came under fire from me. It was years, and many personal hurts, before I realized that no one has a right to impose on the free will of another human being. Respect for that freedom is, indeed, essential if one would counsel others wisely. Without due regard for another's right to be himself, one's perception of his needs will be insensitive, and seldom wholly accurate. I, certainly, had all the insensitivity of immature understanding. The hurts I gave others were never compensated for by any notable acceptance, on their part, of my advice.
Often on the path I have thought, How can I make amends for the hurts I have given so many of my friends and loved ones? And as often the answer comes back to me: By asking God to bless them with His love.
Towards the end of my first year at Brown, Rod, having dropped out of Boston University, came to live with me in a room I had taken off campus. We cooked our own meals with the help of a book that I had bought for its reassuring title, You Can Cook If You Can Read. I'd always looked on cooking as a kind of magic. It delighted me, therefore, to find in this book such quasi-ritualistic advice as, "To ascertain if the spaghetti is done, throw a piece of it at a wall. If it sticks there, it's ready to eat."
Rooming with Rod, I got an opportunity to observe on a new level the truth, which I'd discovered during my last semester at Haverford, that subjective attitudes can have objective consequences. Rod's tendency to judge others attracted antagonism not only from people he knew, but, in some subtle way, from perfect strangers. In restaurants, people sitting nearby would sometimes snarl at him for no evident reason. One evening a passer-by pulled a gun on him, warning him to mind his own business. Another evening six men with knives chased him down a dark street; Rod eluded them only by hiding in a doorway. Whenever he and I went out together, all was peaceful. But Rod by himself continually skirted disaster. Fortunately, no doubt because he really meant no harm, he always got off without injury.
At this time Rod's life and mine were beginning to branch apart. Rod shared some of my interest in spiritual matters, but not to the extent of wanting to get involved in them himself. I, on the other hand, was growing more and more keen to mold my life along spiritual lines. We talked freely on most subjects, but on this one I found it better to keep my thoughts to myself.
One day I was reading a book, when suddenly I had an inspiration that came, I felt, from some deeper-than-conscious level of my mind. Stunned at the depth of my certitude, I told Rod, "I'm going to be a religious teacher!"
"Don't be silly!" he snorted, not at all impressed.
Very well, I thought, I'll say no more. But I know.
The thought of being a religious teacher, however, in no way inspired me to spend more time in church, where religion held no appeal for me whatever. "Hel-lo!" our campus minister would simper sweetly, almost embarrassingly self-conscious in his effort to demonstrate his "Christian charity" to us when passing us in the hallway. People, I thought, attended church chiefly because it was the respectable and proper thing to do. Some of them, no doubt, wanted to be good, but how many, I wondered, attended because they loved God? Divine yearning seemed incompatible, somehow, with going to church, carefully ordered as the services were, and devoid of spontaneity. The ministers in their pulpits talked of politics and sin and social illsand, endlessly, of money. But they didn't talk of God. They didn't tell us to dedicate our lives to Him. No hint passed their lips that the soul's only true Friend and Lover dwells within, a truth which Jesus stated plainly. Socially inconvenient Biblical teachings, such as Jesus' commandment, "Leave all, and follow me," were either omitted altogether from their homilies, or hemmed in with cautious qualifications that left us, in the end, exactly where we were already, armed now with a good excuse. My impression was that the ministers I listened to hesitated to offend their wealthy parishioners, whom they viewed as customers. As for direct, inner communion with God, no one ever mentioned it. Communion was something one took at the altar rail, with priestly assistance.
One Sunday I attended a service in a little town north of Boston. The sermon title was "Drink to Forget." And what were we supposed to forget? Well, the wicked Japs and their betrayal of us at Pearl Harbor. The Nazis and their atrocities. There was nothing here about righting our own wrongs, or seeing God in our enemies. Nothing even about forgiving them their wrongs. The sacrificial wine that was served later that morning was supposed to help us forget all the bad things others had done to us. I could hardly suppress a smile when that Lethe-inducing nectar turned out to be, not wine, but grape juice!
If there was one subject that roused me to actual bitterness, it was the utterly commonplace character of religion as I found it in the churches. My bitterness was not because the demands this religion made were impossible, but because they were so unspeakably trivial; not because its assertions were unbelievable, but because they were carefully maintained at the safest, most timid level of popular acceptability. Above all I was disturbed because the churches struck me as primarily social institutions, not as lighthouses to guide people out of the darkness of spiritual ignorance. It was almost as if they were trying to reconcile themselves to that ignorance. With dances, third-class entertainments, and diluted teachings they tried desperately to get people merely to come to church, while neglecting the commandment of Jesus, "Feed my sheep." Frank Laubach, the great Christian missionary, once launched a campaign to get more ministers simply to mention God in their sermons. His campaign suggests the deepest reason for my own disillusionment. Of all things in life, it was for spiritual understanding that I longed most urgently. Yet, most notably, it was the churches that withheld such understanding from me. Instead, they offered me dead substitutes. For years I sought through other channels the fulfillment I craved, because the ministers in their pulpits made a mockery of the very fulfillments promised in the Bible. To paraphrase the words of Jesus, I asked of them the bread of life, and they offered me a stone. (11)
Thus, hungry as I was for spiritual understanding, I saw no choice but to pursue my career as a writer, and looked to the arts for that kind of inspiration which, had I but known it, only God can supply. It was like walking into a void, for lack of any better place to go. An emptiness was growing in my heart, and I knew not how to fill it.
My college classes were becoming increasingly burdensome. Intellectualism was not bringing me wisdom. It seemed to me almost unbearably trivial to be studying the Eighteenth-Century novel, when it was the meaning of life itself I was trying to fathom.
My parents had recently returned from Rumania. I sought their permission to take a leave of absence from college. Reluctantly they gave it. Thus, midway through my senior year, I left Brown University, never to return.
Thereafter for several months I lived with my parents. I struggledgamely, perhaps, but without real hopeover a two-act play. It concerned nothing I really wanted to say. But then, the things I did want to say were the last I felt myself decently qualified to express.
Occasionally I went into New York City, and spent hours there walking about, gazing at the tragedy of worldly people's transition from loneliness to apathy. How bereft of joy they seemed, struggling for mere survival in those desolate canyons of concrete!
At other times I would stroll through the happier setting of Washington Square, almost in a kind of ecstasy, observing mothers with their babies, laughing children playing on the lawns, young people singing with guitars by the fountain, trees waving, the fountain spray playing colorfully in the sunlight. All seemed to be joined together in a kind of cosmic symphony, their many lives but one life, their countless ripples of laughter but one sea of joy.
The valleys and the peaks of life! What grand truth could bind them all together, making them one?
Back home one day I told Mother I wouldn't be going with her to church any more. This was one of the few times I have ever seen her weep. "It pains me so deeply," she cried, "to see you pulling away from God!" I wasn't aware of her promise, made before my birth, to give me, her first-born, to God. I would have loved in any case to reassure her, and was deeply touched by her concern for me. But what could I do? My duty above all was to be honest with myself.
A few days later Mother sought me out. Hopefully she quoted a statement that she had read somewhere that morning, to the effect that atheism sometimes presages a deep spiritual commitment. I was by no means the atheist she thought I was; nevertheless, it relieved me to see that she understood my rejection of her church as part, at least, of a sincere search for truth. I didn't explain my true feelings to her at the time, however, for fear of diluting the intensity of my search.
That summer I traveled up to the little town of Putney, Vermont, where my youngest brother Dick was in school. Dick was maturing into a fine young man; I loved him deeply. Something he'd told me had touched me particularly. One day he was driving to a house to pick up a group of friends. As his car was rolling slowly to a halt, it lightly touched a dog that was standing complacently before it. The dog wasn't hurt, but its owner, a small, older man, no physical match for Dick, was furious. Striding up to the car, he punched Dick in the jaw.
At that moment Dick's friends came out of the house. Dick, concerned that they might hurt the man if they knew what had happened, said nothing of the matter either to them or to him.
During my stay at Putney, a drama teacher there recommended the Dock Street theater in Charleston, South Carolina, as a good place to study stagecraft. For my twenty-first birthday Dad had given me five hundred dollars. (Dick's comment: "A pleasing precedent has been set!") I decided, albeit in rather a mood of desperation, that if I was going to be a playwright I might as well go to Charleston with this money, and gain direct experience in my craft at that theater.
By examining every human delusion dispassionately, abandoning with the
conclusion, "This, too, is unreal (neti, neti)," the seeker
arrives at last at the vision of perfect Truth.