Monday, August 4, 2008

MY DAD, MY GURU AND ME

This post will be a little different from the other ones. Please consider this post more as a part of my profile than an actual post. I didn't write anything in my actual profile because I didn't want it to have any bearing on the way in which you considered the ideas expressed in the blog. The ideas should stand or fall on their own merit and when or how I came up with them is irrelevant. I hope you read and enjoy this post, but I will not be publishing any comments about it. There's nothing here to agree or disagree with. It's just my life.

In 1968 I was working as an actor and I was on a tour up and down the East coast. My girlfriend was back in New York and I would call her regularly (although, to be quite honest, I cannot remember now if she was actually my girlfriend at this exact time or not. Keep in mind that this was 1968 and relationships were.....perhaps the best word would be ephemeral.) Anyway, I was speaking with this woman with whom I had some sort of relationship, and she told me, very excitedly, and I do remember these exact words, that she was doing "exercises that made you high." What? I had never heard of such a thing. I had experimented very minimally with some drugs but was not really enthusiastic about any of them. Back then, I considered acting to be my drug of choice, but the idea of 'exercises that made you high' really intrigued me. They were called yoga, she said, and I resolved to take some yoga classes as soon as I returned to the city.


I wound up at a place called the Integral Yoga Institute on West End Avenue in Manhattan. The classes were taught on one of the upper floors of an apartment building, and, yes, those classes did make you high. At least they did for me. It was not just exercises. The class began with chanting in unison, then physical exercises, then breathing exercises, a deep relaxation, a brief meditation and some closing chants. The classes were taught by disciples of someone by the name of Swami Satchidananda, who the teachers referred to as Swamiji. I hadn't met Swamiji yet, but from the way these teachers spoke about him and from the effect these classes were having on me, I was very anxious to do so. Swamiji taught every Friday night, in those days, at a church on Central Park West, and after a few weeks of classes I decided to go.


Now I was not a child at this time. I was a fairly sophisticated adult in my twenties who had lived most of his life in a huge city (New York) and had attended an excellent university. But in all that time I had never met a radiant human being. Swami Satchidananda was radiant. And he was radiant in a way that filled that large church on Central Park West and made it literally impossible for anyone sitting there to entertain a negative thought about themselves, about life or anything else. And, of course, I was enthralled. In short order I had received a mantra from Swamiji, was eating a vegetarian diet as he prescribed and practicing yoga and meditation regularly. And, of course, every Friday night, religiously, I would attend his lectures and sit as close as I could, so that I could absorb not just his words, but the energy and love that was always emanating from his presence.


I was pretty estranged from my father at this time. He was not thrilled with what he perceived to be my bohemian life style or my choice of pursuing acting as a career. And I, in turn, was not taken with what I perceived to be his rigidity and his center right politics. So I was surprised when he expressed an interest in coming to the church to hear one of Swamiji's Friday night lectures. I consented, but I was ambivalent. I wasn't completely ready to share Swamiji with him and felt a bit like he was encroaching on my territory. I don't remember for sure, but it was probably at my insistence, that we sat separately; I, up front with my fellow long-haired and beaded regulars, and he, in the rear, in his white shirt and tie (he was a pharmacist and had come straight from work).


Swamiji's talk that night was about Oneness. His actual words escape me now, but it was, of course, as all his talks were, simple and penetrating, humorous and enlightening, and I was managing to enjoy it almost as much as I had enjoyed all his other lectures, except that I was a bit distracted by the fact that my Dad was also present, and taking everything in at the rear of the church. At the end of the lecture I met Dad as we were both emerging onto Central Park West. "So, what did you think of the lecture?" I asked. "It's just like Judaism," he replied. That stopped me in my tracks. "How do you mean?" "You know, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."


I was livid, incensed. Here I had introduced him to this amazing man, this saint, and all he can say is, "It's just like Judaism;" as if it's nothing new, as if it's something that he's heard a thousand times before. How dare he compare the tawdry, middle class, corned beef and cabbage Oneness of Judaism, with the exotic, transcendent, jasmine and saffron Oneness of Hinduism!

So after standing all day at his pharmacy, waiting on customers and filling prescriptions, after wolfing down a lonely dinner and racing to the church in the hopes of re-establishing some rapport with his son, as a thick cloud of gloom and separation descended between us, he went his way and I went mine. He to his apartment in Queens and I to my place in Greenwich Village.


Dear, dear Dad. How can you forgive me? How could I not see that my behavior was exactly the antithesis of everything that we had just heard in that lecture that night?


My father died suddenly a few years later when I was living in Boston. Perhaps he can hear me now. I really don't know. But what I want to say to him is this:


I loved Swami Satchidananda. He was a great, great treasure in my life, and he inspired in me a ten year spiritual oddysey that changed me forever. Love flowed out of him effortlessly, like an endless fountain of the Divine. But what I realized was that the love that you had, which you were often too shy to express and which was held in check by my adolescent anger and was often buried beneath the cigar smoke and mustard stains, was every bit as deep and profound and knowing as Swamiji's. This was almost forty years ago and I still remember Swamiji with great affection. But when I think of you, when I think of your quiet, non-complaining, patient love, and your great wisdom that went, for the most part, unrecognized, my heart explodes with love. I wish I could have told you this a long time ago, but Dad, you were my guru all along. I just never realized it.


And that, dear Reader, is why I have no patience for the idiotic parsing of religions by theological scholars and fundamentalists. Oneness is Oneness. Saints are saints. God is not a thing, and it is not a concept. Different religions have used different language and different concepts to try to communicate the ineffable in a way that is meaningful to different cultures at different periods in our history. 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is One.' Not one religion as opposed to another, not one people, or culture, or society as opposed to another. Not even one God as opposed to another. The Lord is beyond opposition. The Lord is One!

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