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 existence 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, to be sure, there were bad days, but then there were also good ones — days together, sometimes, when we were less tortured than usual.
The time came, however, when a handful of us began to think 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, and we could share our doubts with a few friends, served to kindle our speculations. At last we determined that there simply had to be an alternative to being tortured. A small group of us decided to rebel.
We laid our plans carefully. One day, rising together from our tasks, we slipped up behind the torturers, slew them, and escaped. Sneaking cautiously out of the great room, fearing lest armies of torturers be lying in wait 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 our whole lives in the torture chamber, the horizon seemed incredibly distant. Joyfully we inhaled the fresh air. Gazing about us, we all but shouted the previously never-imagined word: “Freedom!”
Before departing the building forever, we glanced up at the top floor, scene of the only life we’d ever known. There, to our astonishment, we saw the very torturers we thought we’d slain. They were going matter-of-factly about their business as though nothing had happened! Amazed, we looked to one another for an explanation.
Suddenly the answer dawned on me. “Don’t you see?” I exclaimed. “It’s ourselves we have conquered, not the torturers!”
With that realization, I awoke.
I felt that this dream held an important message for me. The torture chamber, located as it was on the top floor of the building, symbolized the human mind. The torturers represented our mental shortcomings. The emptiness of the rest of the building meant that once one has overcome his mental torturers, there are no more enemies left to conquer. All human suffering, in other words, originates in the mind. We cannot slay universal delusion; all we can do is slay our own mental torturers. They will always remain on the scene, inflicting on others their painful lessons.
My dream, I felt, held a divine message for me. Its implication was that the time had come for me to seek a higher way of life. My problem was, how to seek it? I knew nothing of great saints who had communed with God. To me, the very word, “saint,” connoted only a person of frail goodness, not someone filled with divine love, and certainly not someone soaring in ecstasy. All I knew of religion were the stylized church services I had attended, the uninspired ministers I had heard — insecure 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, failings — doubt, 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 I could commune. I wanted desperately to trust, even to love, but I had no idea what or whom, 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 not 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 which could be 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 her absence was keen, and after a time I stopped going.
In Sue’s dormitory there lived a girl from India, a friend of Sue’s named Indira Kirpalani. Indira was perhaps the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. I had no romantic interest in her, but she was part of Sue’s scene, which I’d enjoyed. Indira hinted more than once that she wished I would date her.
One day I accepted her invitation to escort her to a Bryn Mawr dance. That evening I allowed myself to enter into her mood. Throwing myself merrily into the occasion, I became “the parfait gentle knight,” or, alternatively, a kind of Arthur Murray. To my surprise, at one point everyone in the hall cleared the floor to watch us go whirling around. For me, however, the occasion was only merry-making. I realized that Indira’s attraction to me was based on an image that was not at all my true reality. Far from being the dashing young sportsman of her imagination, I was, inwardly, in my almost desperate search for eternal verities, becoming more and more withdrawn from the “normal” social scene.
How often our perception of others is merely a projection of our own concepts, desires, and conditioning! Though I was only eighteen, in comparing myself to Indira’s image of the youths she admired I felt positively ancient.
Granted, this was only a subjective impression. One day, when I went to Philadelphia for my weekly singing lesson with Marie Zimmerman, she noticed that I was in low spirits and inquired what was wrong. I related 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 myself in my unhappiness, 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 my reason and will were unshaken.
Mainly, however, I spent my days thinking, thinking, thinking, as if to wrest from life insights into its farthest secrets. Why, I asked myself, did the promise of joy so often prove 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 mist.
My draft board called me in for an examination, which I failed owing to weak eyesight. Resolved thereby was the dilemma of whether or not to register as a conscientious objector. I had doubted whether I could register as one in completely good faith, 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 attaché 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, it was not to wait on tables. I kept absent-mindedly sitting down with groups of customers, quite forgetful that there were other tables waiting to be served; then forgetting to change the total on the bill when the customers increased their orders. I’m afraid I came close to being 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 your notes should sound!”
There were other compensations besides the sheer joy of learning from her how to sing. Once she said to me, “If any singing teacher worthy of the name — I mean a real musician — were 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!” She raised a hand impressively into the air. “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 gift — not for money, but for love. And maybe someday, too, if we meet in heaven or in some other lifetime on earth, I can sing for you again. One of my deepest prayers on the spiritual path has been that all the people I have ever loved be blessed with divine peace and joy. May you be even more blessed than most, for those fulfillments were what your own soul was actively seeking.
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 confident of at least 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. (I was a cinch for words like “a” and “the”!) That entire semester I did hardly three Greek 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.” Every time he said this, the other students would glance at me, and laugh.
I determined to show up for the exam, however, 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 day we were to sit for the exam, I finally picked up the textbook and glanced halfheartedly at the first page. It was no use. Giving up, I flung the book aside. “Tomorrow,” I assured myself, “I’ll study twice as long as I would have, today.” But the next day my good intentions were again routed ignominiously. For the rest of that week I showed persistence only in my continued willingness to procrastinate.
Almost before I knew it, the last evening loomed menacingly above my head. 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; I resolutely adjusted myself to this new identity. The results were astonishing.
As an American, I had found the study of Greek difficult. Now, however, as a Greek, “my own” language came to me with surprising ease. 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 trying to attract knowledge with one half of his mind, pushes it away with the other half by his unwillingness to learn. My entire mental flow was unidirectional. For two hours I absorbed Greek grammar and vocabulary like a dry sponge in water. At last 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 that scripture 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. I had time enough only to read one chapter, but, I thought, 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. My theory on luck was vindicated, however: I was one of those two.
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, is almost limitless. Much of what people do, indeed, amounts only 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 and to all its challenges, with the full conviction of their being, their capacity for success might be expanded almost to infinity.
This discovery of the latent power within me, and within everyone, 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, in their hearts, are really seeking? Why, then, do so few people 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 restless life-style in America. How, I asked myself, could anyone find true happiness while chasing ever-elusive rainbows, satiating himself with sense pleasures?
Years later, on learning that the cow, in India, commands special affection, an amusing comparison occurred to me. The Indian is, himself, in some ways cow-like: slowly ruminative, reflectively chewing the cud of his ideas. By contrast, Americans, who love dogs, seem actually to have a certain affinity with them, as they dash about in mad pursuit of endless and quite unnecessary goals, eagerly wagging their tails in an effort to be liked.
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 is, I concluded, its superficiality. True joy is ever creative; it demands fresh, vital, intense awareness. How, I thought impatiently, will happiness worthy of the name ever be felt, if one is too superficial to hold an unconventional thought? Material pleasures and acquisitions cannot bring anyone 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, especially by the young, rendered it invalid. Considering the fact, however, that it is arrived at more or less independently by so many who seek honest values, I think it might be wise to ponder whether it may not hold 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. Nearby Mexico, surely, 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 could save enough. How, then — short of robbing a bank — could I “get rich quick”? What my dilemma 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 I won 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, had coughed up this legal tidbit! Why, I thought with a sigh, must educators continually place the highest price on the driest matter? Who would ever write an essay on such a ponderous subject?
I was on the point of passing 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 there was hope after all! Ignorant though I was of the 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 had 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 on familiar ground.
Dividing my essay into three chapters—“Life,” “Liberty,” and, “The Pursuit of Property”—I demonstrated 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, and would therefore have won the prize anyway. But I was told afterward that the faculty had passed it around thoughtfully among themselves.
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 stab; I already had a few poems completed 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 to Massachusetts in order to visit Rod. Soon thereafter my great odyssey began. Hitchhiking southward, I made use of a return-trip train ticket that I held from New York to Philadelphia. From Philadelphia I planned to continue hitchhiking, armed with my until-now-successful formula for attracting luck, and burdened with nothing but a knapsack.
A young couple seated behind me on 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 together. By the time we reached Philadelphia we were like old friends. They invited me to spend the night at 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 palate was being served at every meal. Lady Luck, I reflected, seemed particularly well disposed towards me!
The following morning, as I sat 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.
“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 (who joined us later), 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 resolved now to learn Spanish the same way. The day we crossed the border at Nuevo Laredo, I told myself with deep concentration, “You’re a Mexican.” Some hours later, having carefully rehearsed my words, I entered a restaurant and asked for a glass of water to drink, taking pains to get the accent as right as possible. An American tourist lady was standing nearby. Hearing me speak, she promptly boosted my confidence by exclaiming in astonishment, “Why, you’re 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 spoke 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 to his subject, and resolutely exclude from his mind any thought of the task’s foreignness.
I have tested this principle many times since then — in 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 to countless questions, whether during meditation or while working or lecturing. Always, the system has taken me far deeper into my subject than intellectual study alone could ever 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. I’ve learned that 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 largely responsible, I think, for the phenomenon popularly known as “beginners’ luck.”
An English girl of my acquaintance in Mexico City (I mentioned her earlier in connection with her Christian Science beliefs) 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 we liked its name. Daddy’s system was more scientific. But would you believe it? He usually lost, whereas we won every time!”
If my theory is valid, a beginner’s temporary advantage over more seasoned players is that, not knowing the obstacles before him, his expectations are entirely positive. Of course, ignorance of those obstacles also places limitations on 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 direction also. Near the end of summer I succumbed to a debilitating combination of diseases: streptococcal infection, tonsillitis, dysentery. It was several days before I was even strong enough to go see a doctor. When at last I did so, he hurried me off urgently to a hospital. “You’d better reconcile yourself,” he told me, “to staying here at least two weeks.” Worried that I might not be able to afford such a long stay, I made a few discreet inquiries, and found my fears 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 any slight indulgence in the thought that I was ill. Within two days I left the hospital, fully cured.
Years later a friend corroborated my belief in the mind’s healing power. He had once worked as a physiotherapist in a polio sanitarium. While there, he had noticed that the poor patients, who couldn’t afford a long stay, were far more likely to recover than the wealthy ones. His conclusion was that the strong desire to get well, based on dire necessity, generated the energy the body needed for healing. In the rich patients, the longer time spent there caused their paralysis to become ingrained.
My Mexican adventure proved on the whole exciting, interesting, and fun — even 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 derive from it, however, what I’d been most keenly seeking: 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 was actually finding these desiderata. But then I realized that what I was experiencing was only my own happy sense of adventure. Meanwhile, the people around me were trudging through the same dull round of existence as the people back home. Mexicans differed from Americans only superficially; in essence, both were the same. All of them lived, worked, bred, and died — Solomon Grundies, all! The imaginations of a rare few, anywhere, soared above 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, “around the town of Concord.” He had, too. He knew more about his home town and its environs than any other man living.
One day he was walking through the fields with a friend. The friend lamented that no trace any longer remained of the indigenous tribes. Thoreau replied, “Why, their traces are everywhere!” Stooping over, he picked up an arrowhead from the ground. His friend had seen it only as a pebble.
The important thing, I realized, is not what lies around us, but the mental attitude with which we look. Answers will not be found merely by transporting our bodies from one clime to another. To those people who expect to find abroad what they have overlooked at home, 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 all seen, called The Razor’s Edge. It is a tale about a Westerner who traveled to India and, with the help of a wise man 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 adventure, I had few illusions left concerning 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 for in Mexico, left me a little dispirited for a time. I continued my search for reality, but did so with less than my normal enthusiasm.
It is a striking fact that, until my faith returned in all its former vitality, Lady Luck withheld from me further proofs of her favor.