The Path: One Man's Quest On the Only Path There Is
by Swami Kriyananda
(J. Donald Walters)
Direct Disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda
Purchase a copy of 'The Path'
To Thine Own Search Be True
I graduated from Scarsdale High School in June 1943, shortly after turning seventeen. Bob and I were invited by George Calvert, a school friend of ours, to work with him on his father's farm in upstate New York. That summer we picked strawberries and pitched hay. The work was vigorous, healthful, and good fun. After six or seven weeks as a farm hand, I decided to take advantage of my vacation to broaden my experience of the world. The change I hit upon was radical: from bucolic pastures to grey skyscrapers and acres of sterile concrete.
New York! I worked there as a messenger boy for the Herald Tribune. Every day, dodging determined cars, trucks, and buses, and weaving through impatient hordes of shoppers, my fellow messenger boys and I visited the inner sanctums of well-known department stores, delivered advertising copy to and from countless corporations, and swept pellmell through the rushing bloodstream of big-city life. The myriad sense impressions were stimulating, almost overwhelming. In madly bobbing faces on crowded sidewalks, in pleading glances from behind drugstore counters, in fleeting smiles, frosty stares, angry gestures, twitching lips, and self-preoccupied frowns, I saw mankind in virtual caricature, exaggerated out of all credible proportion by the sheer enormity of numbers. Here were tumbling waves of humanity: the youthfully exuberant, the sad and lonely, the stage-struck, the grimly success-oriented, the hard and cynical, the fragile, the lost. All looked hurried and nervous. All seemed harassed by desire.
New York! Its heaving sea of humanity charms and repels in the same instant. It encourages a sense of exaggerated self-importance in those who pride themselves on living in one of the largest, most vital cities in the world. But, in the anonymity it imposes on its faceless millions, it also mocks at self-importance. New Yorkers face a perennial conflict between these opposing challenges to their egos, a conflict that is resolved only by those who seek a broader, spiritual identity. For in the frenzied pace of big-city life it is as if God were whispering to the soul: "Dance with bubbles if you like, but when you tire of dancing, and your bubbles begin bursting one by one, look about you at all these other faces. They are your spiritual brothers and sisters, mirrors to your own self! They are you. O little wave, transcend your littleness. Be one with all of them. Be one with life!"
When autumn came I began my higher education at Haverford College, a small men's college on the Main Line to Paoli from Philadelphia. At that time, owing to the war, it was smaller than ever.
The students were bright-eyed, enthusiastic, and intelligent; the professors, quiet, sedate, seriously concerned for their students' welfare. Haverford, a Quaker college, conveys the simple, serene dignity that is to be expected of institutions run by that pacific sect. I don't mean we students didn't have our normal boys' share of high times, but these were always inflicted on a background of gentle disapproval from the discreet greystone-and-ivy buildings, and of restrained dismay from our ever-concerned faculty.
The diminished student body was composed mostly of freshmen, a fact which didn't conduce greatly to the maintenance of certain hallowed college traditions, such as freshmen hazing. When a handful of upperclassmen appeared one day in our dormitory to subject us to that ancient rite, we met them with another venerable American institution: the bum's rush. With whoops of joy, flying pillows, energetic shoves, and a solid phalanx of inverted chairs, we drove them down the stairs and out of the building. Thereafter they left us strictly alone, concluding, no doubt, that in wartime there are certain sacrifices which older and wiser heads must make in the name of peace.
We freshman were so dominant numerically that I actually made the football team. One of my problems at Scarsdale High, apart from my light weight, had been that I could never throw the ball properly; my hands were simply too small to get a grip on it. At Haverford our coach, "Pop" Haddleton, solved this problem by making me a running guard. Counting on speed rather than weight, I found I could pull larger opponents off balance while they were still shifting their bodies into position to block me. I would then dash through the line and catch many a runner before he'd got off to a good start with the ball. The left guard, a boy named Mason, was as lightweight as I. Our college newspaper was soon dubbing us "the watch charm guards."
My big play of the season came near the end of a game. Up to that point neither team had scored. In a last, desperate maneuver we were going to try an end run down half the length of the field. I was to run interference. We cleared the end safely, and were well on our way into "enemy territory," when two men rushed to intercept us. I prepared to block the first of them, hoping our runner would be able to dodge the second. Just then I tripped on a dangling shoelace! Sprawling full length onto the ground, I made a perfect, though involuntary, double block. Our man went on to make the touchdown. And I was the hero of the hour. I tried to explain what had really happened, but no one wanted to believe me.
We won every game that season. And so it was that my school athletic career reached a happy climaxbefore petering out altogether.
For not long after this, college sports and I came to a rather cool parting of the ways. Our separation was due partly to my increasing preoccupation with the search for meaning, and partly, I'm afraid, to the fact that I was attaching "meaning" to a few of the wrong thingslike sitting in local bars with friends, nursing a variety of poisonous decoctions, and talking philosophy into the wee hours.
I began devoting much of my free time also to writing poetry, the themes of which related to questions that had long been bothering me: Why suffering? Why warfare and destruction? How is it that God countenances hatred and other forms of human madness? Surely, I thought, suffering can't be His will for us? Must it not be a sign, rather, that man is out of harmony with God's will?
And what of eternal life? Not even matter or energy can be destroyed. Was it not reasonable, then, to suppose that life, too, is eternal? And if eternal, what about heaven and hell? I wrote a poem at this time in which I postulated a world after death that is perceived differently by each individual, seeming to be either beautiful or ugly, happy or sad, according to the state of consciousness he brings with him from this world.
At this point in my life I might easily have embraced a religious calling. But I knew too little about it, and found no guidance from others in directions that were meaningful to me. Haverford College is a prominent center of Quakerism. In my time there, leading members of this society were on the faculty: Douglas Steere, Rufus Jones, Howard Comfort. I was impressed by their transparent earnestness and goodness. I also liked the Quaker practice of sitting quietly in meditation at the Sunday services"meetings," as they were called. Above all, I liked the Quakers for their simplicity. All that they did seemed admirable to me. But somehow I could find no challenge in it. I was seeking a path that would engross me utterly, not one that I could contemplate benignly while puffing on a pipe.
Sunday meetings became all too frequently the scene of genteel competition. The Quakers have no ordained ministers; their members sit in silence on Sunday mornings until one of them feels moved "of the Spirit" to rise and share some inspiration with others. Haverford being an intellectual community, our Sunday meetings were more than usually taken up with this kind of "moving." Hardly a minute passed in silence before someone else was on his feet, sharing with everyone else. Sometimes two or more were moved simultaneouslythough, in such cases, courtesy always prevailed.
I'll never forget Douglas Steere rising one day to inquire brightly, "Is there a little bird in your bosom?" Involuntarily my hand went to my chest. The solemnity of the occasion, and my own respect for him, prevented me from succumbing to hilarity on the spot, but afterward my friends and I made up delightedly for our heroic repression.
Doubtless I had much to learn, not the least being reverence and humility. It may be that those religious leaders had more to teach me than I knew. But since I didn't know it, I had no choice but to follow my own star.
Early during my first semester at Haverford I made friends with Julius Katchen, who later acquired fame as a concert pianist in Europe. I loved his intensity and enthusiasm. And though I was less agreeably impressed by his egotism, I found compensation for it in his romantic devotion to every form of art, music, and poetry. Our friendship flourished in the soil of kindred artistic interests. In this relationship, Julius was the musician, and I, the poet. Through our association my feelings for poetry became more musical, artistically more romantic. Julius's mother, too, had been a concert pianist. When I visited the Katchen home in Long Branch, New Jersey, I was caught up in his entire family's devotion to the arts.
At this time, also, I took a course in poetry composition at nearby Bryn Mawr College under the famous poet, W. H. Auden. Auden encouraged me in my poetic efforts. For some time thereafter, poetry became my god.
Yet there was another side of me that could not remain satisfied for long with Keats's romantic fiction, "Truth is beauty, beauty, truth." In every question, what mattered most to me was not whether an idea was beautiful, but whether in some much deeper sense it was true. In this concern I found myself increasingly out of tune with the approach our professors took, which was to view all intellectual commitment with suspicion. Scholarly detachment, not commitment, was their guiding principle.
"That's all very well," I would think. "I want to be objective, too. But I don't want to spend my life sitting on a fence. Even objectivity ought to lead one to conclusions of some kind." To my professors, scholarly detachment meant holding a perennial question mark up to life. It meant supporting, "for the sake of discussion," positions to which they didn't really subscribe. It meant showing equal interest in every argument, without endorsing any. I was impatient with their indecisiveness.
My need for truths to which I could commit myself had posed a problem for me in our debating society at Kent School. It made me a failure in public speaking classes during my freshman year at Haverford, and a bad actor in the plays in which I occasionally took part, during college and afterward. It ruined my chances, years later, as a radio announcer. More and more it was to give me difficulties as a student as well, particularly in such subjects as English literature and philosophy. I had to know whether what we were considering was true. In reaction against my professors and their insistence on a spirit of polite scholarly inquiry, I gradually developed a rebellious attitude toward college in general.
It was at about this time that I met a student at Haverford whose search for truth coincided more nearly with my own. Rod Brown was two years older than I, exceedingly intelligent, and a gifted poet. At first our relationship was one of learned sage and unlettered bumpkin of a disciple. Rod treated me with a certain amused condescension, as the ingenuous youngster that I was. My poems he read tolerantly, never lavishing higher praise on them than to call them "nice." His poems I couldn't even understand. He would quote at length from countless books I'd never heard of, and could make each quotation sound so important that one got the impression that only a confirmed ignoramus would dare to face life without at least the ability to paraphrase that passage.
Rod was a sensitive young man who had learned early in life to fend off others' rejection of him by treating them with disdain. It was purely a defense mechanism, but he carried it off well. I was as intrigued by his superior attitude towards me for my ignorance as I was captivated by his single-minded devotion to philosophical realities. Surely, I thought, if he knew enough to look down on me, it behooved me to learn what the view was from his altitude.
In time we became fast friends. I discovered that, besides his enthusiasm for truth, he had a delightful sense of humor, and was eager to share his ideas and opinions, always fresh and interesting, with others. Rod only raised a supercilious eyebrow at my theories about God, suffering, and eternal life. Rhetorically he would ask, "How can anyone ever know the answers to such questions?" But he directed my thinking constructively into more immediate channels. For the time being the quest for religious truths dropped out of my life. But where the search concerns truth, can true religion be very far away?
Indeed, Rod's thinking and mine verged constantly on the spiritual. He introduced me to Emerson and Thoreau. I drank eagerly at the fountain of wisdom in "The Over-Soul," in "Self-Reliance," and in Walden. These writings were the closest I had come so far to the expansive vistas of Indian thought,(7) for though I didn't realize it at the time, Emerson and Thoreau were both admirers of India's Scriptures, and echoed in their own writings the lofty teachings of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.
Rod prompted me to stop concerning myself with life's meaning as an abstraction, and to face the more concrete problem of how to live wisely among men. One of the principles we discussed night after night was non-attachment. Another was the courage to reject values that we considered false, even if all other men believed in them. Amusing as it seems now, we spent hours discussing intellectually the uselessness of intellectualism. And, deciding that the uneducated masses were surely more genuine than we in their simple, earthy attitudes, we set out with pioneering zeal to frequent the haunts of truck drivers and manual laborers. No deep wisdom was ever born of these outings, but then, people who hold cherished theories rarely feel a need to sustain them on the coarse fare of facts!
Not everything Rod said or did won my support. He told me approvingly, for instance, of an older friend of his who had an unnaturally small heart. To Rod and his friend this fact suggested a lack of emotional capacity, and, therefore, a nature truly non-attached. But I disagreed with their equation, for I considered non-attachment and feeling not at all incompatible with one another. The important point, rather, I felt, was that one's feelings be impersonal. Non-attachment releases one from identity with a mere handful of things, and should therefore permit an expansion, an increase, of feeling.
Rod also believed that, armed with a genuine spirit of non-attachment, one could behave in as worldly a manner as one pleased. But this argument struck me as too convenient a rationalization for his own worldliness. For Rod, despite his disdain for middle-class values and his praise of lower-class simplicity, betrayed a marked fondness for upper-class luxuries. Though he often mocked me for my innocence, I myself looked upon innocence as a truer safeguard of non-attachment.
Rod, like all men, had his shortcomings. He was, among other things, somewhat intolerant of disagreement, proud of his own brilliance, and unabashedly lazy. But for all that he was at heart a loving and true friend, deeply concerned about countless others despite his vaunted indifference, more hurt by people's rejection of him than honestly disdainful of them in return, and a great deal more conservative in his values than he would ever have admitted. While others clucked disapprovingly at him, I saw him as one person who could really help me to think boldly for myself. For this reason above all, I was grateful for his friendship.
Yet in my association with him I also acquired some of the very traits I disapproved of in him. Such, indeed, is the power of all human association. Like Rod, I developed intellectual pride as a defense against rejection and misunderstanding. Perhaps worst of all, I acquired some of his worldliness, though never so much so that Rod ceased to twit me for what he called my naivet.
In those days it was Rod who gave me my real education. My classes formed a mere backdrop; they taught me facts, but in discussions with him I learned what I would do with facts. Night after night we sat discussing life over pots of coffee in our rooms, or in bars, or in an off-campus restaurant with the engaging name "The Last Straw." We had few friends, but that no longer really mattered to me. I was seeking truth now, not the mere opinions of men.
(7) In those days, courses in Indian studies were comparatively rare. The only actual exposure I ever got to them was from Douglas Steere, in his freshman course on the history of philosophy. For the first twenty minutes of his first class Dr. Steere touched lightly on the Vedas, giving us the impression, merely, that there was such a thing as Indian philosophy.
Back in context.
Copyright 1996 J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda), Trustee