The Path: One Man's Quest On the Only Path There Is
by Swami Kriyananda
(J. Donald Walters)
Direct Disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda
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My decision to seek peace of mind in an environment of bucolic simplicity coincided with the end of the school year, and the closing of the Dock Street Theater for the summer. I returned to New York.
Dad had recently been posted to Cairo, Egypt, as Esso's exploration manager there. Our home in Scarsdale was let, and mother had taken a house temporarily in White Plains, preparatory to departing for Cairo in August to join Dad. I stayed with her two or three weeks.
My plans for the summer were already set. I said nothing of them, however, to anyone, giving out only that I was going to upstate New York; my spiritual longings I kept a carefully guarded secret. But I put in effect immediately my plan to study the Scriptures. Borrowing Mother's copy of the Holy Bible, I began reading it from the beginning.
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. . . . And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." Who is not familiar with these wonderful lines?
"And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. . . . And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."
Butwhat was this? How could God possibly want man to remain ignorant?
And so man ate the fruit, became wise, and was forced in consequence to live like a witless serf. What kind of teaching was this?
Chapter Five: Here I learned that Adam lived nine hundred and thirty years; his son, Seth, nine hundred and twelve years, and Seth's son, Enos, nine hundred and five years. Cainan, Enos's son, "lived seventy years, and begat Mahalaleel: and Cainan lived after he begat Mahalaleel eight hundred and forty years, and begat sons and daughters: And all the days of Cainan were nine hundred and ten years: and he died. And Mahalaleel lived sixty and five years, and begat Jared. . . . And Jared lived an hundred sixty and two years, and he begat Enoch. . . . And Enoch lived sixty and five years, and begat Methuselah. . . . And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years: and he died."
What in heaven's name did it all mean? Was some deep symbolism involved?(14) All this said nothing whatever to my present needs. Disappointed, I put the book down.
Over the years since then, a number of well-meaning Christians have sought to persuade me that God's truth can be found only in the Bible. If this were true, I cannot imagine that one who was seeking as sincerely as I was would have been turned away at the very threshold by what he read in the Good Book itself. It wasn't until I met my guru, and learned from him the teachings of the Bible, that I was able to return to it with a sense of real appreciation. For the time being, I'm afraid I simply bogged down in the "begats."
In Mother's library there was another book that captured my interest. This one contained brief excerpts from the major religions of the world. Perhaps here I would find the guidance I was seeking.
The selections from the Bible in this book proved more meaningful to me, but even so they seemed too anthropomorphic for my tastes, steeped as I was in the scientific view of reality. The Judaic, the Moslem, the Taoist, the Buddhist, the Zoroastrianall, I found poetically beautiful and inspiring, but for me still there was something lacking. I was being asked to believe, but none of these Scriptures, as nearly as I could tell, was asking me to experience. Without actual experience of God, what was the good of mere belief? The farther I read, the more all of these Scriptures impressed me aswell, great, no doubt, but at last hopelessly beyond me. Perhaps it was simply a question of style. The standard language of Scripture, I reflected, was cryptic to the point of being incomprehensible.
And then I came upon excerpts from the Hindu teachingsa few pages only, but what a revelation! Here the emphasis was on cosmic realities. God was described as an Infinite Consciousness; man, as a manifestation of that consciousness. Why, this was the very concept I myself had worked out on that long evening walk in Charleston! Man's highest duty, I read, is to attune himself with that divine consciousness: Again, this was what I had worked out! Man's ultimate goal, according to these writings, is to experience that divine reality as his true Self. But, how scientific! What infinite promise! Poetic symbolism abounded here, too, as in the other Scriptures, but here I found also explanations, crystal clear and logical. Best of all, I found advice: not only on the religious life generally, but more specifically, on how to seek God.
All this was exactly what I'd been seeking! I felt like a poor man who has just been given a priceless gift. Hastily I skimmed through these excerpts; then, realizing the awesome importance they held for me, I put the book aside, and resolved to wait for a later time when I would be free to read these teachings slowly and digest them. Casually I asked Mother if I might take the book upstate with me for the summer. "Of course," she replied, never suspecting the depth of my interest.
My Aunt Alleen, Mother's half-sister, visited us in White Plains during my stay there. Sensing the turmoil seething within me, she remarked to Mother one day, "I bet Don ends up in a theological seminary."
"Oh, not Don!" Mother's tone implied, "almost anyone else." The change in my life, when it came, caught her completely by surprise.
Two or three times during my stay in White Plains I took the train into New York City, and there contemplated anew the unending throng of tense, worried faces. How many human tragedies were written there in lines of desperation, of bitterness, of hidden grief! More keenly than ever I felt the bond of our common humanity. The worst criminal, I reflected, might have been I. For who was safe from ignorance? Doubtless even the drug addict felt justified in the attitudes that had drawn him into his web of confusion. What, then, of my own present attitudes? Did I dare trust them? How could anyone, at any given hour in his life, know for a certainty that his most well-intentioned behavior would advance him toward freedom, and not enmesh him in further bondage? My growing conviction that everything is a part of one Reality, while it gave me a deep sense of kinship with others, awakened in me at the same time a terrifying sense of my own vulnerability. I visualized myself drifting through skies of ignorance in which it was as much my potential to fall as to rise.
It was high time, surely, that I took my own life in hand. Too long had I been floating about haphazardly on seas of circumstance, vaguely hoping that my general direction would be toward the shores of truth. I must begin now to direct my life consciously.
One afternoon I was walking down Fifth Avenue. The heat was oppressive. A bar, cool and inviting, stood before me on a street corner. I stepped in and had a couple of refreshing beers. Though not intoxicated, I realized that my reflexes were not quite as keen as they had been when I came in. I'd never considered drinking a personal problem, nor had I seen anything wrong with drinking in moderation. But it occurred to me now that if anything could lessen my self-control even to this small degree, I would be wise to avoid it. On leaving that barroom I resolved never again to take another drink. Nor have I ever done so.
My trip upstate New York had been intended, originally, to help me find peace without effort, amid the beauties of Nature. But by the time I left White Plains my resolution to work on myself had stiffened markedly, encouraged by the brief excerpts I had read from the Indian Scriptures. Having given up drinkingand also, two or three months previously, smokingI was beginning to feel an actual enthusiasm for self-discipline. I still hoped that more natural surroundings would contribute something to my peace of mind, but I had no illusions that all my answers would be found in a random assortment of hills and trees. God saw to it, as I shall explain later on, that none of my answers were found there.
As a start toward self-transformation, I decided to begin with vigorous physical discipline. In my initial enthusiasm, of course, I overdid it.
I set out on a one-speed bicycle, taking with me a knapsack that contained only Mother's book of Scriptural excerpts, a few clothes, and a poncho. I had no sleeping bag; absurd as it may seem, I knew nothing of proper camping procedures; I wasn't even aware that there were such things as sleeping bags.
My first night I spent in an open field, the poncho spread out underneath me as protection against the damp earth. At three in the morning I awoke, freezing cold, to find myself sloshing about in a puddle of water, collected by my poncho from the heavy dew. Further sleep proved impossible. After some time I got up, resignedly, and started bicycling again. Mile followed weary mile through deserted mountain terrain, scarcely a village in sight anywhere. Toward afternoon the seat of my bicycle felt so hard that, even though I tried softening it with a folded towel, I could hardly bear to sit down. After ten or twelve hours of ceaseless pedaling, my legs, unaccustomed to this strenuous effort, felt with every upgrade that they must shortly give out altogether. Towards later afternoon I watched hopefully for signs of a village with an inn, for on one point I was resolved: I would not, if I could possibly help it, sleep in another field. But I saw not a house. Sixteen hours I pedaled that day, mostly uphill, on my one-speed bicycle; I covered well over a hundred miles.
The sun was low in the west when I met a hiker who informed me that there was a village two miles or so off the road I was on, and that that village had a guest house. With very nearly my last ounce of strength I pedaled there. In the center of the village I found a house in front of which stood the reassuring sign, "Rooms for Rent." Literally staggering inside, I collapsed in a chair by the front door.
"May I please have a room?"
"Oh, I'm so sorry. We've been meaning to take that sign down. We no longer rent rooms."
Despair seized me. "Is there no place nearby where I could spend the night?"
"Well, there's an inn down the road about a mile. I'm sure they'd have a room for you."
A whole mile! Even this short distance was too great for me, in my present state of exhaustion; I hardly had strength enough left to stand. "Please, do you think you might phone and ask them to come fetch me in their car?"
A ride was arranged. That night in bed I actually thought I might die. I didn't realize it at the time, but since early childhood I had had a minor heart condition. That entire night my heart pounded on the walls of my chest as though it would break them. I slept around the clock. Mercifully, by mid-morning my heartbeat had returned to normal. Feeling refreshed, though sore in every muscle, I was eager to continue my journey.
An important passage in the Bhagavad Gita, which unfortunately I had yet to read, counsels moderation in all things. (15) I had discovered the merits of this precept quite on my own! From now on, I decided, I'd better proceed on the pathway to perfection at a more measured pace. I must tighten the screw carefully, lest it split the wood.
And so I proceeded, this time more slowly, to the small mountain town of Indian Lake, where I rented a room and settled eagerly to my reward: a careful study of the few excerpts I had from the Indian Scriptures.
(14) Later, when I read my guru's explanation of the story of Adam and Eve, I found its inner meaning profound and deeply inspiring.
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(15) But for earthly needs
Religion is not his who too much fasts
Or too much feasts, nor his who sleeps away
An idle mind; nor his who wears to waste
His strength in vigils. Nay, Arjuna! call
That the true piety which most removes
Earth-aches and ills, where one is moderate
In eating and in resting, and in sport;
Measured in wish and act; sleeping betimes,
Waking betimes for duty.
--Bhagavad Gita, in Sir Edwin Arnold's translation, The Song Celestial.
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Copyright 1996 J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda), Trustee