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'
Joy Is the Goal
My first year at Haverford was one of joyous sifting of new ideas. During my second year there, I tried to digest those ideas and make them my own. The digestive process took place on two levels, the one abstract, and the other deeply personal.
On the abstract level, association with Rod had coaxed me out of my former preoccupation with suffering, and with the essential unreality of this world. I was beginning to see the world more affirmatively. Even suffering seemed to me conquerable now, by the simpleand perhaps simplisticexpedient of strong, positive affirmation.
On the personal level, I was learning to affirm my own worth, a worth I had doubted during my years at Hackley and Kent, then affirmed artificially at Scarsdale High. Now, at Haverford, in the company of friends who shared many of my ideals, I was discovering in myself a basis for genuine self-acceptance.
Once I had somewhat digested my new attitudes, my two-fronts advance converged on a single point. For both abstract and personal reasons, I began to find myself able to express once again that most battered of virtues: trust. In the words of Emerson, I was beginning to feel that the world was my "oyster," that life was basically sunny, right, and beautiful. Even the disapproval of worldly people could no longer dampen my expanding trust in life, and, on a certain level, in them. For I felt they merely lacked the courage to live up to a truth which, deep in their hearts, they believed in. I longed for the power to bring them joy.
Trust! This joyful offering I now made to life was selfless and pure. Yet the wise have ever said that one should trust fully only in God, that to place faith in earthly accomplishments is like expecting perpetual stability of a ship at sea. Alas, I hadn't their wisdom to guide me. All my faith now I flung with ardent enthusiasm into the fragile basket of this world.
For my sophomore year I was assigned to a suite in Lloyd Hall, which in normal times was reserved for upperclassmen. My roommate was from Argentina. Roberto Pablo Payro was his name; I understand he has since become a successful novelist in his country. Roberto was quiet, dignified, and ever courteous: ideal qualities in a roommate. We got along well together, though the goals we pursued were different. Roberto's social life was as quiet as he was. He liked sophisticated, serious discussions, mostly on such down-to-earth subjects as politics and sociology, and rather marveled that such abstractions as "life" and "truth" could command from me the intense enthusiasm that they did. My tendency was to seize a thought firmly, wrestle with it for days until I felt I'd mastered it, and then to dash out, laughing, in search of friends with whom I could celebrate my victory. To Roberto I must have seemed alternately far too intense, and inconsistently frivolous.
But thought itself was, for me, a joyous adventure. It was only years later, after I met my guru, that I learned that thinking is but a by-path to truth, and that the highest perceptions are possible only when the fluctuations of the mind have been stilled.
Rod was the best friend I had found so far in this country. We spent much time together, continuing our nocturnal rounds of coffee, drinks, and wee-hour philosophizing. But I was beginning also to spend more time now seeking truth on my own.
For my college major I selected English literature. I loved reading the great works that comprise our true heritagea heritage of insights and inspiration, not of mere worldly accomplishments. Reading Shakespeare, Donne, and numerous others, I pondered a new question: In what ways has great literature served the cause of truth? As an aspiring writer myself, I hoped to make whatever I wrote serve as an instrument of the highest vision.
But there was buoyant good humor, too, in our seeking. Rod and I could laugh merrily over the gravest of issues. A few somber souls there were who viewed our unconventional levity with dismay. I think they considered it a proof that we were dissolute, misspending our youth in drunkenness and debauchery. But we had little patience with people who equated seriousness with joylessness. Taking my cue from Rod, I would sometimes delight in pretending we were in league with forces unspeakably dark. (The effort to imagine such forces I left entirely to our critics!)
One of our fellow students, with the appropriate last name of Coffin, used to carry a Bible around with him wherever he went, the more sadly to reproach anyone who showed a disposition occasionally to kick up his heels. "The wages of sin," Coffin would remind us sinners gravely, citing chapter and verse, "is death." As my own reputation for cheerful irreverence spread, he took to bringing me, particularly, the Good News. Entering my room one morning before I'd fairly tested the world to make sure it was still there, he sat on the edge of my bed, the Bible open in his hands, looked at me dolefully, andsighed.
If only religion weren't made so lugubrious, I think many people might be inspired to seek God who presently confuse ministers with undertakers. It was years before I myself learned that religious worship needn't verge on the funerealthat it can be, as Paramhansa Yogananda put it, the joyous funeral of all sorrows. As it was, I satisfied a natural craving for religious inspiration by laughing at the lack of it in religion as I found it practiced. Had I known better, I might have sincerely worshiped.
During our second year at Haverford someone gave Rod a few guppies in a glass bowl. Guppy, we decided, was far too undignified a name even for so nondescript a creature. We renamed his new pets, accordingly, "The Sacred White Fish." Soon, enlarging on this grand concept, we created an entire religion, complete with ceremonies, dogmas, and ritual responses. I even found a partially completed, abandoned chapel for our rites. Needless to say, our comedy never advanced beyond the playful planning stage, but we had great fun with it.
One day Rod was summoned into the dean's office. "What's this I hear, Mr. Brown," began Mr. Gibb cautiously, "about . . . ah . . . how shall I put it? . . . a new religion? Something about the . . . ah . . . sacred . . . ah . . . white . . . ah . . . fish? Have I heard this incredible tale correctly?" We never learned whom it was we'd shocked into reporting us to the dean, but even this anonymous outrage added fresh zest to our game.
Yet I also felt, inexplicably, a deep, almost wistful thrill at the thought of helping to found a new religion. Perhaps it was because the fun we were having with those guppies underscored for me the joy that I missed in the churches. But to me it was more than fun. My search for truth, and for joy as the very essence of truth, held an almost life-or-death earnestness.
On another matter I felt less keenly the need to cloak my interest under a guise of playfulness. A continuous aspiration of mine since the age of fifteen had been the founding of a "utopian" community. Utopia literally means "not a place"; the word is generally used to describe any impractical communitarian dream. But I was convinced that an intentional community founded on high ideals could be made viable, with sufficient realism and foresight. During this period at Haverford, and for years thereafter, I devoted considerable time to studying and thinking about the problems connected with such a project. On some deep level I believed it was my duty someday to found such a community.
Among my friends, however, I encountered little sympathy for the idea. When I spoke of it to a few of them, they expressed mild interest, only to lose it altogether when they realized I was completely in earnest. After that, they left me to do my dreaming alone.
Undaunted by their lack of interest, I simply broadened my horizons to include the rest of the human race! The more I thought about intentional communities, the more clearly I saw them not as a step backward into primitive simplicity, but as a step forward in social evolution, a natural progression from machine technology and the self-defeating complexity of modern life to a new kind of enlightened simplicity, one in which technology served human, not merely mechanical or economic ends.
Decentralization seemed to me a growing need, too, in this age. The essentially sterile demands for efficiency that are served by centralizing power in big industry and big government would, I believed, be balanced by the human and idealistic values that would be emphasized in small, spiritually integral communities.
With my growing enthusiasm for life I also took increasing pleasure in singing. At last I resolved to take singing lessons. Dr. Frederick Schlieder, the noted pianist and organist, recommended to Mother that I study under Marie Zimmerman, a singing teacher in Philadelphia. "She is a real musician," he assured Mother. "Your son is fortunate to be in college so nearby."
One day I took a train into Philadelphia and visited Mrs. Zimmerman in her studio. Seventy-five years old she must have been at that time. A concert singer in her younger days, her voice, now no longer beautiful, was still perfectly placed.
"The voice," she explained to me, "is an instrument that can't be seen. I can't show you how to use it, as I could how to play the piano. You'll have to listen sensitively as I sing a note, then try to imitate the sound that I make. The more perceptively you listen, the more quickly you'll learn."
Next she placed my right hand over her stomach. "I'm going to show you how to breathe properly," she explained. As she inhaled, her diaphragm moved downward, pushing the stomach out. I prepared to listen to a full, operative tone.
"Mooooooooooo!" came the feeble croak, its sound hardly powerful enough to fill a pantry, let alone a concert hall. I fought to suppress my mirth.
But her voice was well placed. Recalling Dr. Schlieder's high recommendations, I decided to study with her.
"You will pay me five dollars a lesson," she announced firmly. "It isn't that I need the money. I don't. But you need to pay it. It will help you to take your lessons seriously."
I didn't want to bother Dad for the weekly fees, so I took a job waiting on tables one night a week at The Last Straw. From those earnings I paid for my lessons.
Marie Zimmerman proved an excellent teacher. Unlike most voice teachers, she wouldn't let me sing on my own for the first weeks. Gradually only, as my placement improved, she allowed me to practice a little at home, then a little bit more. The farther I progressed, the more I grew to enjoy these lessons, until at last they became the high point of my week.
Marie Zimmerman was not only an excellent teacher and a fine musician; she was also a remarkable woman. Deeply, calmly religious, she was content with only the highest and noblest in everything. She was, in fact, an impressive example of a truth that was becoming increasingly clear to me, that the chief masterpiece of an aspiring artist must be himself.
One day at about this time I had what was, to me, a revelation. Sudden, vivid, and intense, it gave me in the space of a few minutes insights into the nature of art, and of art's relationship to truth, that have guided my thinking ever since.
The word art, as Rod and I used it, encompassed all the creative arts including music and literature. We had pondered authorities whose claim was that art should be for art's sake alone; or that it must capture reality as a camera does, literally; or that it ought to reflect a sense of social responsibility; or be a purely personal catharsis; or express the spirit of the times in which the artist lives.
Suddenly I felt certain of a truth deeper than all of these. Most artistic theories, I realized, emphasize primarily the forms of art. But art is essentially a human, not an abstract phenomenon. A man's intrinsic worth is determined not by his physical appearance, but by his spirit, his essential attitudes, his courage or cowardice, his wisdom or ignorance. With art, similarly, it is the artist's vision of life, not his medium of expression, that determines the validity of his work. Inspiration, or sterility: Either can be expressed as well through realism as through impressionism. The essential question is: How great does the artist's work reveal HIM to be, as a man? Only if he is great will his work stand a chance of being truly great also. Otherwise it may reveal superlative craftsmanship, but lest plumbers, too, deserve acceptance as artists, mere skill cannot serve to define art.(8)
My first task as a writer, I decided, was no different from my first task as a human being. It was to determine what constitute ideal human qualities, and then to try to develop myself accordingly.
At about this time we were given the assignment in English class of writing an essay on our personal criteria of greatness in literature. Not feeling competent as yet to explain some of the subtler nuances of my revelation, I confined myself to one aspect of itone perhaps subtler than all the rest! I wrote that, after reading Homer's Iliad, I had sensed a blazing white light emanating from it. Later, as I contemplated other great works, I had sensed again in each case a bright light, though in no case so intense as Homer's. Chaucer's light seemed of a duller hue than Milton's, Dante's or Shakespeare's. From still lesser works I sensed no light at all; it was as though they were spiritually dead. I admitted that I saw no objective reason for giving Homer the highest marks; his epic seemed to me, on the surface, only a good, rousing war story. But I knew from its light that it must be a work of superlative greatness. (9)
My poor professor! Shaking his head in bewilderment, he gave me a flunking grade. Yet even today I consider the criterion of greatness that I described in that paper to have been just and valid.
Rod and I continued our discussions on philosophical matters: intellectual integrity, for example, and living in the now, and the importance of non-attachment. Non-attachment, I was coming to realize, is crucial to human happiness. No one can truly enjoy what he fears to lose.
One evening my non-attachment was put to an unusual test. I was sitting in my bedroom, studying for a philosophy exam. The textbook was exceptionally dull. Midway through my study, as I was reflecting glumly that this author valued pedantry over clarity, I heard footsteps approaching stealthily over the dry leaves on the ground outside my window. I glanced at my watch. Nine-thirty: the hour the library closed. One of my friends must be planning to play a joke on me on his way back from there. Smiling, I stepped over to the window to show him I'd caught him at his little game.
At once the footsteps fled into the night. Whoever it was would, I assumed with a smile, come around through the front door and we'd enjoy a friendly chuckle before he returned to his own room.
To my surprise, no one came.
Smiling at the improbable fancy, I thought, "Maybe someone wanted to shoot me!"
Twenty minutes passed. Again the footsteps came, this time even more softly over the dead leaves.
Who could it be? My friends weren't this persistent at anything! Perhaps it really was someone wanting to shoot me. Silently I stepped to the window. Once again the steps faded hastily into the darkness.
By this time my curiosity was thoroughly aroused. How would I ever know who this mysterious intruder was, or what he wanted, if I persisted in frightening him off? If he returned a third time, I decided, I would pretend I hadn't heard him.
Another twenty minutes passed. Finally once again: footsteps, this time more stealthy than ever. Moments later, a shoe scraped lightly on the ledge below my window. A hand grasped the metal grating over the window.
Suppressing a smile, I kept my eyes glued on the page before me.
Suddenly: an ear-splitting shot! For several seconds I heard nothing but the ringing in my ears; then, gradually, the ticking clock on my dresser; a car in the nearest parking lot revved its motor and roared off the campus at high speed.
Amazed, I leaned back in my chair andlaughed delightedly! It seemed incredible that such a thing could have actually happened. I checked my body: No holes anywhere. No blood. No pain. What? Nothing to show for this absurd adventure? I stepped over to examine the window. The screen was intact. What did it all mean?
Days later I learned that that evening had been Halloween! Evidently some village boy had decided, as a Halloween prank, to put the fear of God into a college student. He'd fired a blank cartridge!
I knew one ought to show a greater sense of responsibility toward one's body than I had. But I was happy at least to have had this experience as evidence of some definite measure of my non-attachment.
Soon, however, I received another test of my non-attachment, and this one I didn't pass so easily. It was a test of my developing ability to offer trust unreservedly.
Haverford boys usually dated Bryn Mawr girls. I did too, whenever I had the inclination for itand the money, which was seldom. I finally met a girl at Bryn Mawr named Sue, who came to epitomize for me everything that was good, kind, and holy in life. Her tastes were simple. Her smile expressed so much sweetness that, whether blindly or with actual insight, I could not imagine her holding a mean thought. Our joy in each other's company was such that we never felt the need to go anywhere in particular. A quiet walk through green fields, a friendly chat, a communion of hearts in precious silence: These were the essence of a relationship more beautiful than any I had ever before known.
I had no thought of marriage, of long years spent together, or of anything, really, beyond the present. Sue was for me not so much a girlfriend as a symbol of my new gift for trust, for giving myself to life joyously, without the slightest thought of return. How she felt toward me seemed almost irrelevant. It was enough, I felt, that my own love for her was true.
Yet there were times, in the happiness of moments together, when she would gaze at me sadly. She wouldn't say why. "Never mind," I would think, "I will only give her the more love, until all her sadness is washed away."
For Christmas vacation I went home. Shortly after the New Year I received a letter from Sue. Eagerly I tore it open.
"Dear Don," it began, "there is something I've been needing to tell you. I realize I should have done so early in our friendship, but I enjoyed your company and didn't want to lose it." She went on to say how deeply she had come to feel about me, and how sad also, that the realities of her life were such that she could never see me again. She was married, she explained, and was even then carrying her husband's baby. Her husband was stationed overseas in the Navy. She had realized she would not be allowed to return to college once it became known she was pregnant; hence her resolution of silence. But she had been feeling increasingly unhappy about this resolution insofar as I was concerned. She realized she should have had the courage to tell me sooner. Now she would not be returning to Bryn Mawr to finish the school year. She hoped I would understand the loneliness that had motivated her to go out with me. She had never wanted to hurt me, and was unhappy in the knowledge that such a hurt now was inevitable.
The effect of her letter was devastating. I didn't blame Sue, but rather sympathized with the predicament she'd been in. I reminded myself that I had never asked her to return my love, that in fact I'd never contemplated marriage to anyone. But, oh, the pain! And had I, I asked myself, been wrong to trust so completely? Put differently, was the whole structure of my inner development, in which trust played so vital a role, made of sand?
Much time was to pass before I understood that life, without God, is never trustworthy. It is not earthly fulfillment that deserves our faith, but God alone; not outer circumstances, but His inner blessings in the soul. These alone can never fail, can never disappoint. For God is our only true love. Until we learn to place ourselves unreservedly in His hands, our trust, wherever else we give it, will must, indeedbe betrayed again and again.
Can a boat ride calmly in a storm? How can a world in constant flux offer more than delusive security?
For months to come my problem was not disillusionment, for I determined with all my heart to trust life in spite of anything else that might come to hurt me. My problem, rather, was how to find a firm base on which to repose my trust.
I blessed Sue when I received her letter. I bless her even more now. For through our friendship, and even more through our parting, I was brought closer to God.
(8) An essay on this subject appears under the title, "Meaning in the Arts," in a book of mine, Tales for the Journey (Ananda Publications, 1974). This book contains two short stories also that I began writing during my sophomore year at Haverford.
Back in context.
(9) Homer was customarily referred to by ancient Greeks as "divine Homer."
Back in context.
Copyright 1996 J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda), Trustee