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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He Gathers Strength for the Climb
At about this time in my life I had an interesting dream. I was living with many other people in a torture chamber. For generations our families had lived here, knowing no world but this one; the possibility of any other world simply never occurred to us. One awoke, one was tortured, and at night one found brief respite in sleep. What else could there be to life? We didn't particularly mind our lot. Rather, we imagined ourselves reasonably well-off. Oh, there were bad days to be sure, but then there were also good onesdays together, sometimes, when we were less tortured than usual.
The time came, however, when a handful of us began thinking the unthinkable. Might there, we asked ourselves, just possibly be another, a better way of life? Moments snatched when our torturers were out of earshot served to kindle our speculations. At last we determined to rebel.
We laid our plans carefully. One day, rising in unison from our tasks, we slew the torturers and escaped. Slipping out of the great room cautiously, lest armies of torturers be waiting for us outside, we encountered no one. The torture chamber itself, it turned out, occupied only the top floor of a large, otherwise empty building. We walked unchallenged down flights of stairs, emerging from the ground floor onto a vast, empty plain. Confined as we'd been all our lives in the torture chamber, the horizon seemed incredibly distant. Joyfully we inhaled the fresh air. Gazing about us, we all but shouted the new word: Freedom!
Before departing the building forever, we glanced upward to the top floor, scene of the only life we'd ever known. There, to our astonishment, were the very torturers we thought we'd slain, going about their business as though nothing had happened! Amazed, we looked to one another for an explanation.
And then the solution dawned on me. "Don't you see?" I cried. "It's ourselves we've conquered, not the torturers!"
With that realization I awoke.
I felt that this dream held an important meaning for me. The prison, located as it had been on the top floor of the building, symbolized for me the human mind. The torturers represented our mental shortcomings. The emptiness of the rest of the building meant to me that once one overcomes his mental torturers, he finds no more enemies left to conquer. All human suffering, in other words, originates in the mind.
My dream, I felt, held a divine message for me. Its implication was that the time had come for me to seek a higher life. But how was I to seek it? I knew nothing of great saints who had communed with God. To me this very word, saint, connoted only a person of frail goodness, not one filled with divine love, and certainly not with ecstasy. All I knew of religion were the stylized church services I had attended, the uninspired ministers I had listened toinsecure men who sought support for their faith in the approval of others, not in the unbribable voice of their own conscience.
Though I didn't realize it at the time, my ignorance concerning the spiritual path was my own chief "torturer"; it hindered me from seeking the good for which my soul longed. Subordinate to ignorance there were other, more evident, failingsdoubt, for example. Had I approached truth by love I might have gone straight to the mark. But I was trying to think my way to wisdom. God I looked upon as Something to be thought about, not Someone with whom one could commune. I wanted desperately to trust, even to love, but had no idea what, specifically, to trust or to love. I had reached a point where I thought about God almost constantly; but He remained silent, for I never called to Him.
Another of my mental torturers was fear. Certainly I had never considered myself a fearful person, but that was because in most matters I was non-attached. In one test of my non-attachment, however, I had shown myself exceedingly vulnerable: I feared disappointment from others.
Peace in this world depends on cheerfully relinquishing attachment to all things, even to ego. As long as I strove to protect my sense of personal worth, I would suffer again and again, ever in essentially the same ways.
I was not yet wise enough to see clearly, but at least my vision was improving. My dream about the torture chamber, conveying as it did a sense of divine guidance, had made me more aware of realities beyond those known through the senses. This awareness, coupled with the trust and affirmation that I had worked on developing earlier, led me now to an interesting discovery.
I hit upon what was, as far as I knew then, a novel theory: To be lucky, expect luck; don't wait passively for it to come to you, but go out and meet it halfway. With strong, positive expectation, combined with equally positive action, success will be assured. With this simple formula I was to achieve some remarkable results.
Not long after the New Year our first semester ended. At that time Rod, and one or two other friends, flunked out of college. It was hardly surprising, considering the disdain all of us felt for "the system." Their departure put me on my own now in my efforts to understand life more deeply. My independence proved a wholesome opportunity.
I visited Sue's dormitory occasionally, hoping in chats with a few of her friends to relive a little of the happiness I had known with her. But the pain of not finding her there was too keen.
Marie Zimmerman, noticing my low spirits, inquired about them one day. I told her of my little tragedy.
"Ah!" she exclaimed impatiently. "Puppy love! I lived with my husband nearly fifty years. In all that time our friendship kept growing deeper. Since his death we are closer than ever. That is love!"
Offended, I told myself she simply didn't understand. But her words remained with me, gently reminding me in my deeper self that I probably had much in life yet to learn.
My college classes had lost all appeal for me. I seldom mixed with the other students. To protect my unhappiness over Sue, I put on an over-intellectual front, did frequent battle with words, and assumed an air of self-assurance in which there was considerably more affirmation than self-recognition. My heart was vulnerable, but not my reason or my will.
Mainly, however, I spent my days thinking, thinking, thinking, as if to wrest from life insights into its farthest secrets. Why was the promise of joy so often a will-o'-the-wisp? And was it not essential to a well-ordered universe that love given be in some way returned? Again, where lay the pathway to true happiness?
"Relax!" cried Roberto one day, seeing me staring sightlessly out the window. "Can't you ever relax!"
So the semester passed. In recollection it all seems a grey fog.
My draft board called me for an examination, which I failed because of poor eyesight, thereby resolving the dilemma of whether or not to register as a conscientious objector. I had doubted whether I could register thus in completely good conscience, since it wasn't a matter of my religious convictions; I simply knew with perfect certainty that, even if my own life depended on it, I could never take the life of another human being.
In April, Dad was sent to Rumania as petroleum attach to the U.S. diplomatic mission in Bucharest.
My job at The Last Straw convinced me, and everyone else (especially my employer!), that whatever my mission in life was, it was not to be a waiter. I kept absent-mindedly sitting down with customers, quite forgetting that there were other tables to be served; then forgetting to change the bill when customers increased their orders. I'm afraid I was almost The Last Straw's last straw!
My singing lessons were the only really bright spot in my life. Marie Zimmerman was a demanding teacher. After six months of weekly lessons she stopped me one day in the midst of a song.
"There!" she cried triumphantly. "That note. That's how all of them should sound!"
There were other compensations besides the sheer joy of learning to sing from her. Once she said to me, "If any singing teacher worthy of the nameI mean a real musicianwere to hear you now, he would be impressed."
And toward the end of the college year, she told me softly, "I am living for only one thing now: to see you become a great singer! It isn't only your voice; others have good voices, too. But you have a mind; you understand."
Dear Marie! (May I call you that, now that you've left this world? To call you Mrs. Zimmerman seems too formal when addressing your soul.) How sad I have been that I had to disappoint you. That was our last class together. I couldn't go back to you. I knew that to be a singer, even a world-renowned one, was not at all my calling. But maybe you are pleased with the fact that I have touched people with my giftnot for money, but for love. And maybe someday, too, if we meet in heaven, or in some other life on earth, I can sing for you again. One of my deepest prayers on the spiritual path has been that all whom I have ever loved be blessed with divine peace and joy. May you be so blessed also.
As the college year began drawing to a close, my prolonged inattention to the daily class routine brought me to a rather awkward predicament. Most of my courses I was at least confident of passing, though barely. Greek, however, was a downright embarrassment. It became a standard joke in class to see whether I would recognize one, or two, Greek words in a paragraph when called upon to translate. The entire semester I did hardly three assignments. As we prepared for the final exam, Dr. Post, our professor, remarked more than once, "Not everyone in this room need trouble himself to appear for that event." Whenever he said this, the other students glanced at me and laughed.
But I determined to show up for the exam, and to pass it. It might take a bit of luck not to flunk, but then, I reminded myself, I also had my new theory on how to attract luck: Expect to be lucky, then meet luck halfway with a vigorous, positive attitude.
Unfortunately, I felt anything but vigorous and positive towards the one activity that really mattered: study. A week before the test I finally picked up the textbook and glanced half-heartedly at the first page. It was no use. Giving up, I flung the book aside. "Tomorrow," I consoled myself, "I'll study twice as long as I was going to today." But the next day my good intentions were again routed ignominiously. For the rest of the week I showed persistence only in my continued willingness to procrastinate.
Almost before I knew it, the last evening was upon me. And I hadn't studied at all! Even now I fully intended to pass, but I can't imagine anyone in his right mind endorsing these roseate expectations.
Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention. Fortunately for me, my present extremity displayed the right, maternal instinct. Out of the blue an inspiration appeared.
"You are a Greek," I told myself with all the concentration I could muster, adjusting myself resolutely to this new identity. The results were astonishing.
As an American, I had found the study of Greek difficult. But now as a Greek "my own" language came surprisingly easily. Through some subtle channel in the network of consciousness that binds all men together, I felt myself suddenly in tune with Greek ways of thinking and speaking. Approaching this new language as an old friend, moreover, I no longer faced the age-old problem of the student who, while attracting knowledge with one half of his mind, pushes it away with the other half by his unwillingness to learn. My entire mental flow was in one direction. For two hours I absorbed Greek grammar and vocabulary like a dry sponge in water, until I could hold no more.
The following morning, "Mother Necessity" gave birth to another inspiration. Our class had been studying the New Testament in the original Greek. Dr. Post had told us that we'd be asked to translate a portion of it into English. This morning, then, mindful of my theory on attracting luck, it occurred to me to turn to the King James translation of the Bible. Only enough time remained for me to read one chapter, but if my luck held, this would be the chapter from which the passage would be selected.
It was! The exam that year as it turned out was exceptionally difficult: Only two students passed it. But my theory on luck was vindicated: I was one of them.
From this experience I learned several useful lessons: for one, the mind's power for positive accomplishment, once it learns to resist its own "no"-saying tendency. Much, indeed, of what people do amounts to pushing simultaneously on opposite sides of a door. Working themselves to exhaustion, they yet accomplish little, or nothing. If they would only learn to say "Yes!" to life with all the conviction of their being, their capacity for success might be expanded almost to infinity.
This discovery of the latent power within me, and within every man, was important for me, but even so its interest was secondary to another problem that eluded me still: the secret of happiness.
Is not joy, I asked myself, what all men are really seeking, in their heart of hearts? Why, then, do so few experience it? And why is it so common for people to suffer in the very pursuit of happiness? Toward the end of the semester it occurred to me that perhaps the fault lay with our life-style in America. How, I asked myself, could anyone find true happiness while satiating himself on physical comforts? Thoreau's statement in Walden impressed me: "Of a life of luxury the fruit is luxury." For the materialist, the heights of inspiration are unimaginable. The worst disease of modern life, I concluded, is complacency. True joy is ever creative; it demands fresh, vital, intense awareness. How, I thought impatiently, will happiness worthy of the name ever be felt by people who are too complacent to hold an unconventional thought? Materialism cannot buy happiness.
It is not unusual for this kind of judgment to be met with indulgent smiles, as though the sheer frequency with which it is made, by young people especially, rendered it invalid. But considering the fact that it is arrived at more or less independently by so many seekers after honest values, I think it might be wise to ponder whether it contains an element of truth.
At any rate, my own solution that year to the shortcomings I identified with life in America was to travel abroad. I imagined people in less industrialized countries turning to their daily tasks with a song on their lips, and inspiration in their hearts. Mexico was such a country. I would spend my summer vacation there among simple, happy, spontaneous, genuine human beings.
Getting there was my first problem. If I took a job to earn the money for the journey, my vacation might end before I'd saved enough. How, thenshort of robbing a bankcould I "get rich quick"? What was called for, obviously, was another application of my theory on luck.
Affirming a bright, positive attitude, I cast about hopefully for a solution. Our college yearbook, I remembered, offered cash prizes for a variety of literary contributions. If only I could win a large enough prize, my problem would be solved! I leafed through the book. Most of the prizes listed were small: ten, fifteen, twenty-five dollars. But then a more promising figure caught my eye: one hundred dollars! This amount would take me far, indeed. Eagerly I checked to see what I must do to win it. Then my heart sank. The requirement was for an essay on the subject "The Basic Principles Underlying the Government of the United States." Some law professor, probably, dreamed up this legal gem! Why, I thought with a sigh, must educators continually place the highest price on the driest matter? Who would ever write on such a ponderous subject?
I was about to pass on to other prospects when the answering thought came: "That's right: Who would?" Examining the information more closely, I found no one listed as having won this prize the previous year. I checked several earlier yearbooks: None of them showed a winner. Perhaps after all there was hope! Ignorant though I was of the fine legal or historical points implied in the topic, if mine was the sole entry. . . .
Anyway, I reflected, I wasn't completely ignorant. At least I knew America's basic principles as they are popularly defined: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That brief phrase might not make much of an essay, but what if I took a fresh approach to it? Would the judges decide I'd skirted the issue if, for example, I examined our present-day society in the light of how truly it was living up to those principles? Here at least I'd be walking familiar ground.
Dividing my essay into three chapters"Life," "Liberty," and, "The Pursuit of Property"I sought to demonstrate how, by our relentless acquisitiveness, we were depriving ourselves of all three of our basic rights: life and liberty, as well as happiness.
My paper was the sole entry. It won the prize.
Another prize offered in the yearbook was of fifteen dollars for the best poem submitted. Though this was hardly "big money," it seemed worth a light stab; I already had a few poems written that I could submit. In this effort, I knew, I faced competition. The campus poetry club had been debating which of its members would walk away with the prize; they'd already made clear their view that I, who wasn't a member, didn't stand a chance. In the past we'd crossed swords on the subject of solitary, versus group, creativity. To me a poetry club seemed a contradiction in terms. I saw it as a victory for my own point of view when this prize came to me.
Thus, with $115 in my pocket before the vacation had even started, I decided I had enough money for the journey. If I found later that I needed more, Lady Luck would no doubt provide it. Barely nineteen years old, never before on my own, and with my parents far away in Rumania: I considered myself an adventurer indeed!
Before leaving for Mexico, I took a short trip north to Massachusetts to visit Rod. Soon thereafter my great odyssey began. Heading south, I made use of a return-trip train ticket that I was holding from New York to Philadelphia. From Philadelphia I planned to hitchhike, armed with my so-far-successful formula for attracting luck, and burdened with nothing but a knapsack.
A young couple seated behind me in the train noticed the knapsack, and engaged me in conversation. Was I a hiker? They themselves were enthusiastic youth hostelers. We chatted pleasantly; soon we were singing folk songs. By the time we reached Philadelphia we felt like old friends. They invited me to spend the night in their family home in Ardmore, the town before Haverford on the Main Line.
This home turned out to be no mere residence, but a veritable mansion. Their hospitality, too, was extraordinary. A member of the family was about to be married; relatives were arriving from distant parts. Food fit for the most educated tastes was being served at every meal. Lady Luck, I reflected, seemed particularly well disposed towards me!
The following morning, as I was sitting in the living room preparatory to leaving, the dowager of the clan entered and took a chair next to mine. Her smiling manner hinted at good news for me.
"I have a nephew," she began, "who is being sent by his firm to Mexico City. He will be leaving tomorrow by car. As he is traveling alone, I'm sure he would appreciate company. Do you think you might like to go with him?"
A three-thousand-mile ride! Lady Luck was taking a most welcome interest in my case. Bob Watson, the nephew, not only took me along, but appointed me his extra driver, thereby paying all my travel expenses from his expense account. When we reached Mexico City, he put me up in his home. Thus my money, which I found had less purchasing power than I'd imagined, lasted me the entire summer.
Bob, and later his wife, Dorothy, when she joined us, were the kindest of friends to me. Our Mexican adventure was as new and fascinating for them as it was for me. Together we shared its daily lessons, rewards, and comic twists as we reported our new experiences to one another in the evenings.
Recalling my impromptu system for learning Greek, I was resolved now to learn Spanish the same way. The day Bob and I crossed the border at Nuevo Laredo, I told myself with deep concentration, "You're a Mexican." Hours later, having carefully rehearsed my words, I entered a restaurant and asked for something to drink, taking pains to get the accent as correctly as I could. An American tourist lady was standing nearby. Hearing me speak, she promptly boosted my confidence by exclaiming in astonishment, "Why, you're a Mexican!"
In one week, by following what was, I realized, a definite principle for self-education, I was speaking Spanish well enough to carry on protracted, if halting, conversations on a wide variety of subjects with people who knew no English. By the end of two and a half months my Spanish was fairly fluent.
The principle, I discovered, is to put oneself completely in tune with whatever subject one wants to master. Inborn talent, though helpful, is not nearly so important as deep concentration. Anyone can do well if he will attune himself sensitively with his subject, and resolutely exclude from his mind any thought of the task's foreignness to him. I have tested this principle many times since thenin learning to write music, to play musical instruments, to paint, to understand some of the deeper aspects of numerous subjects both abstract and practical, to attract money when I needed it, to found a successful community, and to receive helpful answers on countless matters in meditation. Always, the system has taken me far deeper into my subject than intellectual study alone could have done. Friends also, to whom I have taught this principle, have had remarkable success with it.
The principle has many ramifications, one of which is my theory on attracting luck. For a strong, positive affirmation of success is more effective when it is sensitively attuned to one's goal, and protected from the thought of possible failure.
This innocence of the chances of failure is, I think, largely responsible for the phenomenon that is popularly known as "beginners' luck."
An English girl of my acquaintance in Mexico City once told me, "A few weeks ago Mummy and I accompanied Daddy to the racetrack. He goes often, but for us it was the first time. He spent most of the afternoon making fun of our 'system' for betting. We'd choose a horse, you see, because we liked the cute white spot on its nose, or because it had a nice name. Daddy's system was more scientific. But would you believe it? He usually lost, and we won every time!"
If my theory is valid, a beginner's temporary advantage over more seasoned players is that, not knowing the obstacles he is up against, his expectations are more confident. Of course, ignorance of those obstacles also limits his success. It takes sensitive awareness of all aspects of a subject, including its difficulties, to achieve genuine mastery.
I had an opportunity during my stay in Mexico to test the mind's power in another way also. Near the end of summer I succumbed to a debilitating combination of diseases: streptococcal infection, tonsillitis, and dysentery. It was several days before I was even strong enough to go see a doctor. When at last I did so, he sent me straight to a hospital. "You'd better reconcile yourself," he told me, "to staying there at least two weeks." Worried that I couldn't afford such a long stay, I made a few discreet inquiries, and found that my fears were amply justified. To get money from America would have been difficult, though Dad had left emergency funds there for us boys. The most obvious solution was for me to get well at once.
"You're in perfect health," I told myself firmly, saturating my mind with the thought of well-being, and rigidly excluding from it the slightest indulgence in the thought of my illness. Within two days of my arrival I was out of the hospital, fully cured.
Years later a friend corroborated my belief in the mind's healing power. He had once worked as a physio-therapist in a polio sanitarium. While there, he had noticed that the poor patients, unable to afford a long stay, were more likely to recover than the wealthy ones. He had concluded that their strong desire to get well generated the energy their bodies needed to heal themselves.
My Mexican adventure proved on the whole exciting, interesting, and funeven though, in its innocent exposure to a wide variety of experiences, it bore some resemblance (as Dad put it later) to the travels of Pinocchio. I didn't get from it, however, what I'd been seeking most keenly: a better way of life. I'd hoped if nothing else to find more laughter there, more human warmth, more inspiration. For a time I imagined I'd actually found them. But then it dawned on me that what I was experiencing was only my own joyous sense of adventure; the people around me, meanwhile, were engrossed in the same dull round of existence as those back home. Mexicans differed only superficially from Americans; in essence both were the same. They lived, worked, bred, and died; the imaginations of a rare few in either land soared above these mundane activities.
Worse still, from my own point of view, I found that I too was basically no different whether in Villa Obregon and Cuernavaca, or in Scarsdale. I experienced the same physical discomforts, the same need to eat and sleep, the same loneliness. I could appreciate more fully now Thoreau's statement with which he dismissed the common fancy that a person was wiser for having traveled abroad. "I have traveled a good deal," he wrote, "in Concord." He had, too. He knew more about his home town and its environs than any other man alive.
The important thing, I realized, is not what we see around us, but the mental attitude with which we look. Answers will not be found merely by transporting one's body from one clime to another. To those people who expect to find abroad what they have overlooked especially in themselves, Emerson's words are a classic rebuke: "Travel is a fool's paradise."
In college that fall I was discussing with a few friends a movie we'd seenThe Razor's Edge, a tale about a Westerner who traveled to India and, with the help of a wise man whom he met there, found enlightenment.
"Oh, if only I could go to India," cried a girl in our group fervently, "and get lost!"
Newly returned as I was from my Mexican experience, I had few illusions left about travel as a solution to the human predicament. "Whom would you lose?" I chuckled. "Certainly not yourself!"
Illness towards the summer's end, and disappointment at not finding what I had hoped to find in Mexico, left me for a time feeling a little dispirited. I continued my search for reality, but with less than my customary enthusiasm. It is a striking fact that, until my faith returned with all its former vitality, Lady Luck withheld from me further proofs of her favor.
Copyright 1996 J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda), Trustee