The Guru Years
I had already had experiences in meditation where my consciousness would expand outside myself and I felt like the entire universe was happening inside me. The feeling tone of this luminous expansive consciousness was love, joy, and peace. Even though this was an occasional experience, it gave me the conviction that this part of me was different from my mind and body. No matter how preoccupied I might get with my worries, concerns, ruminations, projections, desires and daily dramas, the insight I had gained from these meditations reminded me to identify or align myself with this pure awareness when I would get ensnared by this person and persona I had created.
Even as I write, I am aware of observing myself trying to communicate my understanding of my past. Try this experiment. Move your awareness to the back of the brain and take the seat of the observer. Take a moment to observe any thoughts passing by without getting involved for the next five minutes. Afterward, try to identify with this part of you watching the mind and body in action instead of just identifying with the mind and body. When you drive your car, you can be on automatic pilot. Have you ever driven from point A to B and wondered as you pulled into the driveway, what just happened? Thank goodness for automatic pilot! When I do that, I know I have been in my head with my discursive thinking. Instead, take the seat of the observer while you drive.
You will be watching your mind and body in the act of driving in a very mindful way noticing the full range of sensations, thoughts, emotions and reactions. You will be awake to the full experience of driving and being. You can apply this awareness all day when you remember to shift to being the witness or observer. It is meditation in motion. A practical benefit for me is it allows me to have space around my typical mentally conditioned reactions so I have a choice to respond in a calm way instead of reacting in an edgy way. It allows me to grow my fuse. One of my buttons might get pushed but there is no impulse to push back. This reduces a lot of stress and takes me out of the fight, freeze or flight reactivity of the sympathetic nervous system.
You may also discover that the substratum of the universe and life is this expansive unlimited pure consciousness that we all share equally whether we are aware of it or not. The essence of it contains everything we might be looking for in our life. Meaning, love, contentment, peace and joy are revealed manifest as this consciousness. The human condition is to look for all of this in people, places, and things. If you have ever experienced emotional ups and downs, restlessness, anxiety, desire, cravings, boredom or the need for stimulation, you know what I mean.
I had discovered this in my tweens and teens. It was the catalyst to figure out why I suffer and is there a way out. I wanted more alignment to this expansive consciousness and less suffering. Whenever I align with the Divine, the Self, the Atman, the pure consciousness I had a moment of peace. The desire for inner peace methinks is a good desire.
This desire kept me open during the Guru years. We co-led the Erie Siddha Yoga Meditation Center from 85 to 91. I have checked out several spiritual and religious groups over the years and one aspect I found fascinating is the personality type that is attracted to a type of group. It appeared our Erie group was primarily introverted recovering Catholics with mother issues! Gurumayi represented the ideal mother to many of them who they hoped could heal their mother wounds. In psychology, this is known as transference or projection. It seemed like Gurumayi carried a lot of projections. Today, even postural yoga teachers can be placed on an altar when students think they never get stressed; that they are perfect.
There was a mixture of blue and white collar Siddha practitioners. At the main ashram, based on the luxury cars in the parking lot, the cost of “spiritual materialism” like silk meditation shawls and precious stone mala beads in the gift shop, and my observations, Siddha Yoga attracted an upper-class well-educated crowd.
Our group and Siddha Yoga at large had its “membership only” language including words like kriyas, karma, samskaras, darshan, bhava, maya, Shakti, bindu, japa, spanda, Abhishek, pranam, Sevite, and the Blue Pearl not unlike religious groups. The irony for me is the “we are all one” mentality might exclude those who don’t know the lingo. Specialized language like Sanskrit can be off-putting to outsiders. Therefore, gym yoga and fitness yoga styles often removed Sanskrit from their classes. To be more inclusive, I try to provide the English translations and explanations in this memoir. Some even felt we were the chosen few who would illuminate the world with our special attainments.
The emphasis was to become enlightened as quickly as possible by receiving shaktipat then doing the practices given by Gurumayi with regularity. For householders, this meant early morning meditation followed by chanting along with a recording of the Guru Gita. The day’s activities and work were to be practiced in the spirit of Karma Yoga or Seva – selfless service. Raising five children gave us many opportunities to practice Seva especially since children and teenagers are not always ready to give mom or dad a pat on the back or a gold star or even a compliment for a job well done like caring for them when they were sick in the middle of the night.
This idea is developed very beautifully and deeply in the Bhagavad Gita. Perform your actions to the best of your abilities then renounce the fruit of your actions. In other words, let go of the attachment of looking for rewards. The intention is to diminish the influence of the ego in our decision making and actions so we can align more easily with the intuitive direction of the higher Self or spirit.
In addition, we were encouraged to read books by Muktananda and Gurumayi, their magazine Darshan and their correspondence course. The evening, after the kids would go to sleep, could be an opportunity to practice another chant or meditation. I was usually too exhausted and would collapse into sleep. We were encouraged to go to the ashram regularly and dive deep into their schedule. Compared to what some people think of their postural yoga class today, this was the Marine Corp of Yoga. We were the elite special forces to replace imperfection in the world.
Remember the word Siddha. It meant a perfected being or one who has attained the state of unity-consciousness or enlightenment. The Siddha Yoga Guru or Master is one who has attained this state and can awaken the dormant spiritual energy of a disciple and guide him or her to the same state. You can see how this might appeal to folks with low self-esteem, insecurities, and unworthiness whether they are successful on the material plane or not. This imperfect inner state was very common with the people I knew and it was one I was very familiar with. Siddha Yoga is the yoga which takes place spontaneously within a seeker whose Kundalini has been awakened by a Siddha Guru and which leads to the state of spiritual perfection.
The Holy Grail of their programs was the Intensive. During my time, they were offering them on most weekends in the summer. Let’s do the math. The elegant meditation hall fits at least a 1,000 by my estimate. There were also overflow rooms. People would get up early, like at a concert or Black Friday, to stand in line to sit as close to Gurumayi as possible. The perception was her Shakti (transmission of spiritual energy) was more powerful. At the time an Intensive cost $400 so in the summer they might gross 4 million. The Intensive was a program designed by Muktananda in 1974 to give direct initiation through the awakening of the Kundalini energy.
Prior to that, there was not formal ritual or program for shaktipat. It would happen unexpectedly around Nityananda or Muktananda. Stories about Bade Baba or the original Bhagawan Nityananda (the bliss of eternity) described him lying on his side on a bench in deep meditation. His energy field was so thick gatherers would spontaneously go into deep meditation and sometimes receive shaktipat. When he thought people were too attached to his form, he would throw rocks to get them to leave. Shaktipat was free in his time.
How did you know if you received shaktipat? The shaktipat testimonials are as numerous as the individuals who received it. However, there were some common themes. Feeling a bolt of lightning moving into the top of the head then merging into infinite space, momentary x-ray vision, levitation, out of body experiences, waves of intense bliss; spontaneous animal and bird sounds, mudras and hatha yoga postures; intense Karmic physical pain that was released; and deep meditation leading to mental stillness, with a vision of the Blue Pearl that suggested our eternal nature. The Blue Pearl was described as the subtle abode of the inner Self; a brilliant blue light, the size of a sesame seed, which appears in meditation to one whose Kundalini has been awakened.
The Blue Pearl was a big deal. If you did not see your eternal Soul in this form after shaktipat, you could then take a Blue Pearl level 1-4 courses for more money. I went to four intensives and experienced some of these “miracles” or amazing adventures. I couldn’t afford to travel to exotic places but I could travel the inner landscape. Some trips were like LSD without the side effects. Sometimes I would experience my infinite nature at regular evening programs, at Darshan, in meditation in the Bade Baba temple or at home during meditation.
At one Intensive, I was silently pleading with Gurumayi to give me a direct experience of my own divinity. After several minutes of anguished neediness, I remembered something she had said – “Just devotion, no expectations” – and was truly able to let go of anything happening. I just rested in the contentment of being there. Suddenly, I felt a vortex of energy spiraling upward from the base of my spine. My awareness shifted. It traveled with the energy out the top of my head. I saw myself sitting with everyone in the hall. My awareness expanded, even more, to include the ashram, the countryside, and the planet too. I saw planets and galaxies. And then I heard a drum deep within my being. The sound brought me back into my body and the room. I was forever changed. Since then I have had the conviction that we are all eternal and death is not something to fear.
Some of the experiences we had in Siddha Yoga corresponded to the eight major siddhis (supernatural powers) described in Patanjali’s Sutras that I had studied many years before. I am aware of the power of suggestion and wanting to create what we have heard might happen. Imagination can be powerful like in guided visualizations. I can only attest to the authenticity of my experiences. They include: reducing one’s body to the size of an atom to mentally travel to the subtle realms; expanding the body to any size; levitation; making the body heavy; ability to attain everything; manifesting wishes; mastery over everything; and the power to attract and direct all things.
Patanjali and others have warned not to seek the siddhis and if attained to use them very wisely in the context of the moral and ethical principles of the Yamas – the first limb of Raja Yoga. One concern is they can deter one from the goal of liberation from the ego and instead become an ego trip to manipulate others.
At another Intensive, Gurumayi began with a very insightful discourse on the first four Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. I had studied them for over 10 years at that point and was enthralled to hear someone explain them. Afterward, they debuted a new chant – Jaya Shiva Shambo. This lasted for at least an hour followed by silent meditation when she gave shaktipat using her willpower. However, it was not so silent.
There was a chorus of animal sounds arising and subsiding from the thousand or more people packed into the hall. I remained quiet. I felt intense pain in my left shoulder for what seemed like an eternity but was probably 30 minutes. This was not imagined. Afterward, the pain was released and I started to feel intense waves of bliss that I had never felt before. The program ended the day with Darshan (greeting the Guru or the direct experience of God) and chanting.
We were directed to eat dinner and practice silence and solitude for the evening. I was so filled with bliss that I had no need to eat. Now if you know me, then you know this is a big deal because I like to eat and their food was the best I would ever have compared to other ashrams and yoga centers I would go to in the future. I went to my room and sat there all evening enjoying feeling surges of Prana Shakti within and around me. I could not sleep most of the night but when I awoke I felt refreshed and excited to complete the program. The second day was integrative grounding the energy and experiences from the initiation. The challenge then was to drive home for seven hours and return to all my individual, family and work Karma waiting at the door.
Sometimes these amazing experiences would happen outside of the intensives but without the duration or intensity. I remember receiving Darshan at a public program and then seeing all the bodies around me- about 2,000! – as light forms. It was like a science fiction movie. It passed quickly but I was staggering away from the Guru almost like being drunk until someone gave me a chocolate then the bodies returned to their physical forms. That was some good chocolate! Anyway, this gave me another experience that I am not just my body or mind. That we are something greater than that. The famous mantra So Ham which means I am That referring to our divinity reminds us of that expansive state.
I would also have some very deep meditations there especially in the Bade Baba temple or in the meditation cave. When I say deep I mean I was aware I was not thinking. I was mentally still. I was conscious of consciousness. One of the Psalms says, Be Still and Know That I am God. I now know what that means. What is the feeling tone of inner divinity? Peace and love. Have we not heard God is peace and love? Muktananda used to say the sensation of the Self is love. Bhagawan Nityananda said, the heart is the hub of all sacred places; go there and roam in it.
There were many other intriguing programs and courses offered in the early 90’s on meditation, spiritual philosophy, and practices, the Goddesses, Hatha Yoga, managing a center and service. I attended several and they were always very professionally conducted. My meditation was given a boost by a course taught by one of my favorite Swami’s Durgananda, now Sally Kempton; the Lakshmi course was very uplifting and the Iyengar trained Hatha teachers were excellent especially Doug Keller and John Friend.
I continue to love roaming in the space of the spiritual heart. These amazing experiences for me were offset by the imperfections of myself, other practitioners of Siddha Yoga and historical scandals that continue to blemish the reputation of the SYDA organization Muktananda and Gurumayi.
At home interrelationship, marital and group dynamics were navigated out of context sometimes with the lingo of the path. If one got upset, the other person would say, “oh he is having a kriya” (mental, physical or emotional purificatory movements caused by the awakened Kundalini. Kriyas purify the body and nervous system so one can endure the energy of higher states of consciousness.). If anyone would have issues with another person, they were reminded “we are all perfect” and it is just a “play of consciousness” and your Kriya will help you to be free from your karma. I was told to just give up any of my difficulties to the Guru and she will take care of everything.
Keep in mind their definition of Kriya was different from the understanding of other groups. Many Sanskrit words have multiple meanings, adding to the richness of the language but can also create some confusion for the literalists. There are Kundalini Yoga postural sequences known as kriyas to address various ailments. There is the Kriya Yoga of Paramahansa Yogananda and the Self-Realization Fellowship. Patanjali describes Kriya Yoga in his way in Pada 2; Sutra one which includes the practices of tapas, swadhyaya, and ishvaripranidhana.
I had difficulties with the Siddha lingo passing as communication because it blocked for me any authentic communication of natural human emotions. For me, it was also a convenient way to not take responsibility for our actions. My first wife did not want to hear about my worries, concerns, trials and tribulations. My real inner emotional landscape was passed off as samskaras (latent Karmic tendencies or habits that block alignment of the Self or positive practices to align with the Self like meditation) or karma. She became more emotionally unavailable. Eventually, we separated and she chose to move out.
Afterward, I was given the choice to continue as sole leader of the Erie Siddha Yoga Meditation Center but chose to “resign”. At the time, our five children were living with me and I wanted to focus on personal healing, caring for them, developing my career and finalizing a divorce. I continued with the correspondence course for several more years until I reached the magic number of 12 or completion but I dropped the other daily practices and began to develop a new sadhana for me.
At its height in the late 1980’s to early 1090’s when I was involved, there were approximately 800 meditation centers and six ashrams in more than fifty countries. Centers in the US like ours served an average of 35 devotees. It was truly a global movement and then it began to decline. There are several theories as to why. A Guru system can be problematic in a Western culture that values egalitarianism and independent thinking. Muktananda once said, “Modern ideas on freedom and self-expression are considered obstacles to Siddha students.”
Think about how freedom of expression is championed at today’s Yoga festivals and conferences. “Anything goes” and “follow your bliss” has sometimes replaced the Guru is the means and the discipline of following a specific method.
Accepting human perfection and ultimately Godhood can be a stretch for a Judeo-Christian culture raised on the innate sinfulness of humanity. Some Christians, Jews and Muslims who have a dualistic world view of Creator and created might be resistant to the idea that we can attain a state of liberation here and now. That God and you are one and the same. Many Siddha aspirants were “recovering” from this background.
The name of Siddha Yoga embodies the vision of spiritual perfection. You are divine and not a sinner. Of course, this has been taught by many Hindu and Yoga Gurus for a long time. Swami Vivekananda who came here in 1893 said, the only sin is the consciousness of sin. If you think you are a sinner you will become a sinner. If you think you are Divine, you will become divine. This can still be a radical thought with some religious followers.
The Siddha Guru is said to embody and manifest this perfection. Then the logic conclusion is that the way they live their lives will reflect their inner divinity, providing proof of their realization. Their perfectibility was challenged in the light of several scandals. There was the succession scandal after Muktananda’s death in 82. After Subash-renamed Swami Nityananda after Muktananda’s Guru left in 85 announcing he was only to serve for three years. The problems began when he returned to proclaim he was still Guru. Now, several female Swami’s and devotees spoke openly about having sexual relations with him. One story is he said he was forced out and then harassed by people representing his sister, Gurumayi. Other Swami’s admitted to breaking their vows of celibacy and some left along with many devotees.
Nityananda left and continued at his small ashram in upstate New York. To my knowledge, there has never been a public reconciliation between the siblings. When I discovered all of this by 1990, I had to wonder like many before me if the Guru is truly enlightened and perfect, why can’t they come to terms and get along. There were also many allegations about Muktananda’s sexual indiscretions that were surfacing and stories about Gurumayi’s “controlling” nature. I was not part of her inner circle or lived at the ashram so my experiences were limited to public programs and occasional close encounters. When I was near her I sensed her groundedness and strength. I also heard her refrain from telling people what to do when they asked her for direction. I also heard her recommend therapy for devotees suffering from psychological afflictions instead of wanting a “miracle” from her. I also understood the physical form of the Guru reflects the internal Guru.
A very damaging article titled O Guru Guru Guru, about some of this was published in 1994 in the New Yorker known for its excellent journalism by Lis Harris. To read it go to http://www.leavingsiddhayoga.net/o_guru_english.htm. Less thorough but to the point is a Salon article: http://www.salon.com/2010/08/14/eat_pray_love_guru_sex_scandals/.
Since the mid-90’s there has been a slow decline and Gurumayi has rarely given any public programs. Some say she wants people to not be attached to her physical form; others say she got “burned out”. Global intensives are now provided by satellite and she gives a New Year’s message for her tribe to contemplate for the year. The sadhana emphasis seems to be more on conscious social and family involvement and less on personal enlightenment.
As I reflect on my time in Siddha Yoga, I am grateful for having experiences that supported my prior meditation insights and deepened my conviction that there is a part of me and all beings that are eternal. This is not based on blind faith in a dogma but the conviction born from experiential knowledge. Was I involved in a cult? Perhaps but I never felt coerced or forced into doing anything. We live in a culture of values that have been programmed into us by our family of origin, peers, and society. The American dream of affluent materialism and manifest destiny is part of our collective propaganda and dogma. The prefix of culture is the cult. How free are we?
Remember the book I referenced, the Guru Papers- Masks of Authoritarian Power in the previous chapter? It examines authoritarianism in religions, institutions, families, recovery groups, A Course in Miracles and many other settings. Whenever there is absolute authority there can be the likelihood of abuse. Look what happened in the Catholic church. We don’t have to look far to find the dark side of cult mentality.
I also have compassion and appreciation for the complexities of being human and aspiring to be spiritual as individuals and in the context of relationships and organizations. I continue to contemplate this idea of perfection. Is it to have extraordinary powers? To never suffer? To always feel unconditional love? To feel whole and complete? To be at peace? Or is it to accept the imperfections of humanity and love it fiercely anyway?