A longer version of this essay is published separately on this website under the title ‘The Bright Yellow Circus’.
I think of Walt Whitman sitting under an apple tree on Long Island at the age of thirty-six, drunk with the odor of crushed grass. I think of William Blake conversing with angels, and Jacob Boehme cobbling God’s shoes. I think of Plato’s Symposium, describing the ladder of universal love as an ascending current of knowledge mingled with delight. In that conversation between drunken friends, the wisdom of East and West mingle playfully, preparing future marriages.
I think of my own experience not long ago, sitting in a strangely decorated room, the air perfumed with incense. At one end is a seat draped with richly colored cloths. On the walls hang several greatly enlarged photographs of a dark-skinned man in a loin cloth, his body oddly smooth and glowing, his face expressing a combination of sleepiness and alert attention.
A few days before I had received a phone call from a friend I hadn’t seen in quite some time.
“I’ve been in India for three and a half years, living in an ashram,” she announced, “and now I’m in New York for a while with my guru. Why don’t we get together?”
This was astounding news. Apparently my friend’s life had taken some unexpected turns since I last saw her. I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know what an ashram was. My friend had gone to India to “shop around for a guru,” she explained jokingly, and after some looking had found one. I didn’t exactly know what a guru was either. Gurus had something to do with the wisdom of the East, I remembered ironically. They were some sort of wise men you went to when you had a question. I concluded I would rather ask my friends, or read a book.
Nonetheless, I was here to check out Odile’s guru. We’d had coffee together the day before, and she’d talked about her life in India. She had always been a tough-minded person, and that hadn’t changed. If anything she seemed tougher now, almost ominously solid. Whatever she’d been up to, it had somehow accentuated her personality, so that there seemed to be a kind of overflow in her movements.
She spoke slowly, pausing for a long time between words. I had the impression she had never talked about these things before, and that stuck in my mind more than anything she said. What sort of experience, I wondered, could a strong-minded, intelligent woman have been engrossed in for three and a half years, without ever having tried to explain it, even to herself? A few other things stuck in my mind. Her guru, Swami Muktananda, wasn’t simply a guru, he was a sat guru, the highest level of guru; so high, he had nothing in common with the pleasant-faced Indian gentlemen in white clothing one met presiding over yoga centers throughout America. A satguru was something else entirely. Not simply a teacher, but a “perfectly realized human being.” I heard that expression in quotation marks, because it didn’t seem to me it could be used in any other way. “Once upon a time there was a perfectly realized human being . . .” What do we mean when we use such an expression, I would ask my students? What in our psyches responds to mythic notions of this sort? After all, myths aren’t merely a form of entertainment. They don’t simply lie. Though, of course, I would add privately, they don’t simply tell the truth either. But Odile wasn’t talking in quotation marks.
“He’s quite an unusual man,” she said, smiling thoughtfully. “In India they call him a saint, but in a way, I think of him more as a warrior.”
Muktananda’s temporary ashram in New York was a lovely red brick school house near Riverside Park, where I was told, he took long walks every day before dawn. Consistent with his aura of sainthood, he had never been mugged. In fact, the idea was vaguely humorous. Later I would have dreams of violent young men running up in the darkness to throw themselves at his feet. He would bend over and thump them on the back, or walk by, playfully raising his eyebrows.
I had been ushered into a medium-sized room with large windows, where a number of people were already waiting. The curls of burning incense, the colorful chair, the exotic paraphernalia; people sitting expertly in the lotus posture, or leaning against a wall, or gathering their legs about them as best they could: the atmosphere was low key, yet vaguely expectant. An air of dormant obsession pervaded the room, making me feel as if I ought to pay attention, though I had no idea to what.
I didn’t see the door open. He was simply there, quite suddenly. He walked across the room and sat down with a series of quick, fluid movements. Odile had warned me that he wouldn’t seem very holy, and she was right. He wore an orange ski cap, dark glasses, and a gaudy robe that looked as if someone had raided a costume store. On the whole he bore a slight resemblance to a jazz musician, except that his face had a kind of feathery alertness, as he settled onto his chair, checked a clock, tapped a microphone to see if it worked, looked for a pile of orange cards on a side table, and sprinkled perfume on a wand of sumptuous peacock feathers. He seemed to be in perpetual motion, occasionally darting glances around the room at one person or another.
I had been startled when several people had touched their foreheads to the ground when he entered the room, but I didn’t really pay much attention, mainly because I didn’t feel concerned. I wasn’t even there out of curiosity, I reminded myself, but simply as a gesture of friendship to Odile. I noticed that the man in the enlarged photographs on the wall was not Muktananda, and asked Odile about it. She said the photographs were of Muktananda’s guru, Nityananda: a large-bodied, imposing figure, naked except for the loin cloth, and emanating a gruff, disturbing energy. He seemed quite different from the loudly dressed man moving around on his chair at the front of the room. There was a dark, almost demonic quality in the photograph, and a stillness which seemed to inhere in the figure itself.
Muktananda communicated through an interpreter, a lively young man dressed in orange robes, who sat cross-legged on the floor at his feet. The interpreter called the name of each visitor to come up and be introduced. Not much seemed to go into an introduction. You got to say your name and what you did, while Muktananda tilted his head graciously and smiled. His smile was crisp and restrained, yet benevolent in its way. However theatrical his clothes might be, Muktananda’s face did not indulge in flourishes; on the contrary, even his wit had a quality of severity. My turn came early in the hour. I went up and, observing what appeared to be a practice, got on my knees while the introduction was made. Odile, to whom I had given copies of some books I had written, dumped them on the floor in front of Muktananda, who picked up the books and looked at them while the titles were translated. He asked if the word “emptiness” in one title, had anything to do with the Buddhist void. I answered that I had never thought about it. Did I want to ask him anything? That was the furthest thing from my mind. I said no, and the introduction was over.
More people were introduced. For the most part they were younger, and had been involved in the oriental scene in one way or another. Some had questions to ask about meditation, a few had been to India. The sorts of questions they asked rubbed me the wrong way: they seemed full of personal melodrama and inflated romantic excitement. “Sometimes I feel within me…” “I know in my heart…” “My inner awareness …” “My cosmic feelings…” I moved over to get a better look at Muktananda. For all his quickness and sudden changes of expression, there was a kind of distance in his face, an immobility not unlike the face in the photograph.
A young woman was speaking to him. She had lived for several years in Pondicherry Ashram. She gave Muktananda a drawing she had done, and in a high tremulous voice said she had a question to ask him. I found myself paying attention suddenly, not so much to what the woman said as to a feeling of vulnerability in her voice. When she meditated, the experience of silvery light was very intense, but then nightmarish forms came between her and the light, and she was frightened. Her voice became increasingly tenuous as she talked, and then it broke. I could tell she was crying. She had lifted up a hand, as if to describe the nightmares, and I saw that it was shaking. And suddenly I was shaking too. I felt as if I were rooted to the floor, trembling with intense feeling. I became aware that I had to make an effort not to cry, yet it wasn’t simply crying, for my body had become buoyant and warm. I stared at the woman’s hand sketching a movement in the air: it was pale, delicate. Even after the hand was tucked away in her lap, and Muktananda’s voice had begun to speak an answer, I went on staring. My eyes seemed to be peering out of a deep, silvery tunnel, while the forms and colors of the room glided across their surface like paper cutouts.
The words, “afloat in tears,” repeated themselves over and over in my mind. With no transition I seemed to be seeing my life from a new angle. An overwhelming idea had seized hold of me: all of us did our best against suffering and useless pain. Those nightmarish forms the woman had talked about were the element of my life, and everyone’s life. All of us sitting in this room were on the point of crying out, for we existed far from the light. I had accomplished all sorts of things in my life. I had a position in the world; I wrote books; I was a discriminating person who cringed from the naive self-importance of these “kids.” Yet nothing I had done meant a thing from the viewpoint of that light. I too was defenseless, full of longing; and we were equal, because we were human. Great clots seemed to be floating loose in my mind. Shapes so old they had come to seem part of the landscape were breaking up, and through the cracks in their ruin tears poured, like an imprisoned element suddenly set free.
As I stared at Muktananda’s quick aimless movements, I was aware that my mouth was hanging open, but I couldn’t seem to close it. For some reason I wasn’t frightened; I was even pleased, though I couldn’t say why. My jaws felt like great hinged gates into a cave full of tears. Muktananda had done this, but what had he done, and how? We hadn’t talked much, and he had hardly looked at me. He was not especially charismatic: no great gestures or fixed, piercing glances. He moved around a lot, and played with his fingers. All the while I was holding back my tears by an effort of subtle attention. The tears seeped onto my face anyway, a few at a time.
Later in the hour I managed to stand up and indicate that I had a question after all. I marveled that my limbs still functioned as I made my way to the front of the room. The atmosphere was dreamlike and filmy, and I felt strangely dissolved in it.
“My question is the same one you asked me earlier. What is the connection between the experience of inner emptiness, the frightening feeling that at some level of my existence I’m nobody, that my identity has collapsed and, deep down, no one’s there; what is the connection between this feeling, and the Buddhist void?”
“They are the same,” he answered immediately, “but in the Buddhist void there is no fear.”
Later on I thought about Muktananda’s answer, although at the time I was too preoccupied with my emotional upheaval to think clearly at all. If anything, I felt vaguely disappointed, for what he said seemed like a non-answer. It was said offhandedly too, not as one ought to speak to someone whose life was breaking into warm, tearful pieces. I felt ever so faintly rebuffed, yet I was moved too. Until that very minute I had accepted mental pain as an ordinary part of life. I believed that my insufferable anxieties belonged to the fabric of existence; that in some way they were a good thing. This morning, sitting on a hard wood floor, looking at a dark-skinned Indian man with a large belly and an orange ski cap, a strange light had been driven into my gloom: the sickness can be cured, it has been cured. You are already free. I was experiencing the delirium of release.
It was very much like a delirium. My head had become increasingly large and feverish. My thoughts floated in a syrupy atmosphere to which the features of my face—lips, nose, eyes —gave an identity. Yet the thoughts, surging like sea creatures, were strong and sharp. They were not my thoughts at all, but residents of the heaviness in my mind. I was a fisherman, a swimmer. Words like happy or unhappy didn’t mean anything: something was breaking open; something was bursting; something was spilling out.
Toward the end of the hour, a nervous redheaded man was introduced. He stood in front of Muktananda, and began talking in a voice full of forced arrogance:
“You people talk of bliss and liberation, but you ought to know that you’re a tiny minority, a mere fraction. Most people don’t see things your way. They suffer, and they hate. They work and they feel frustrated. That’s reality. What would Anatole France say about you, I wonder?”
His body stiffened while he talked, and his shoulders hunched up defiantly. Every once in a while, he squeezed a laugh from his throat which resembled a cackle. He tried to get a cigarette to his mouth, but his hand was shaking too violently.
“What right do you have to announce that you’re happy to people who are suffering? This is evil. Anyway, you can’t prove it. How do I know you’re not lying? You talk about love and compassion. Yoh claim you’re not afraid to die.” Baba cut in, “Just as you have the right to say you are unhappy and cling to your unhappiness, so I have the right to say I am happy. You love your unhappiness and I love my happiness.”
He cackled again. Then, as if forcing himself to speak: “Listen, I’m terrified of dying. What would you do if I pointed a gun at you right now, if I pulled a gun out of my pocket and pointed it at you?”
There was an undertone of violence in his voice that seemed almost crazy. Clearly the man was out of control, he might do anything, I thought. But Muktananda’s interpreter did not seem at all nervous, although some visitors were getting ready to be scared, as I was. When the talk about the gun occurred, Muktananda answered:
“My love would still be coming toward you while you pulled the trigger.”
I remember thinking: This is preposterous; no one can say such a thing and mean it. At the same time I was stunned by a thought which'filled my mind as with a bright, vaporous whisper; yes, it’s possible; such a response is possible. For an instant I glimpsed depths gaping under and around the frail island which I had confidently labeled human nature. I felt ignorant, a beginner crawling on a beach, an infant. Yet my ignorance was filled with happiness, because it seemed to me that something previously inconceivable was not only possible, but was happening before my eyes. It’s odd, but I didn’t ask myself if Muktananda was telling the truth at that moment. I was too overwhelmed by my discovery to even think of such a question.
The redheaded man seemed to collapse. He threw his head back and laughed, almost shyly. All at once he was hugging himself and turning his body from side to side like a little boy. Everyone was laughing gently, and the man seemed vulnerable, lonely. His fingers were caked with nicotine, and they still shook a little. With his talk of Anatole France, he reminded me of an uncle of mine: a nervous, frustrated intellectual. He reminded me of myself, or an aspect of myself: a frail, wiry individual who couldn’t afford to be truly generous, who needed all his energy simply to stand still, at all costs, including inner paralysis, as if he were a rim around nothing, and had to expend quantities of passion simply to maintain the integrity of this rim.
Still rooted to the floor I shook ever so slightly and wept, staring at this awesome tableau which engraved itself on the surface of my attention. On one side, a nervous, vulnerable man emanating that self-intoxicating misery which I knew so well, because it had for years been my landmark in the desert, the sour liquid I gulped every day, on the theory that it was better to drink even foul water, than to die of thirst. Facing him, with an interested look, a brightly dressed black man sitting cross-legged, holding a wand of peacock feathers in one hand. Everything about him was intensely composed. He created a feeling of total presence which was so imposing that, without a word, I knew that he was the opposite figure of the tableau: impregnable, serene, existing on a plane of mental self-possession so remote, that words like pleasure, pain, longing and needing, could not be used to describe the activities of his mind.
Did I know this, or even think it at the time? Probably not. The trance of emotion which overwhelmed me during that meeting has, in retrospect, made the hour seem as whole and complete as life itself. I have often had the sense that everything I would ever need to know was contained in that hour, and needed only a certain amount of time to unfold its possibilities.
Muktananda glanced at a pop art clock on the table beside him. He said something in Hindi to his interpreter, and stood up, glancing around. The devotees bowed, and he walked briskly out of the room. His way of walking was unique, yet marvelous too. It would gradually become imprinted on my mind during the weeks that followed. He leaned backward a little and swung his arms in a long outward arc. This made his round soft stomach especially prominent. When I mentioned this to Odile one day, she smiled, and said that it wasn’t really a pot belly, but a result of breath-retention. Most of the great Siddhas had round bellies. So did the Buddha.
After Muktananda left the room, we were invited downstairs and served lunch in what must have been an auditorium in the building’s school days. I sat on the floor and thought the food into my mouth. When I wasn’t thinking, my arms stopped, and a fullness heaved from some remote inner place, seeping out as tears. The people waiting for lunch chanted in a language I’d never heard before. Their chant was rhythmic and full-bodied, not at all like a church song or a religious hymn. It struck me that these people were having a good time. At the front of the room, a group played rhythmic accompaniment on a drum, a harmonium and a tall twangy instrument. Their music fed the mysterious intensity which came and went, making my body seem roomy and full. I had no idea what was happening to me, but for some reason I still wasn’t afraid, or even curious. I was simply absorbed, as if I were singing or dancing with complete abandon. Yet I was sitting completely still, my face was expressionless. I might even have seemed sad to an observer.
I remember the afternoon in bits: trying to talk to people, but not able to say more than a few words before tears overwhelmed me; Muktananda’s appearance a while later, wandering across the auditorium to his seat near the stage. I had become so absorbed in my experience it was a while before I noticed and hurried to sit near him, as did everyone else. Somehow he looked blacker, more solid. My eyes began to stare as they had that morning, tunneling deeply into themselves. I felt myself dissolving into the billows which broke warmly, silently in my mind. Everything was so vivid: Muktananda’s wiry black beard and the moods flitting across his face; later, on my way home, the excruciating clarity of store windows, mounds of garbage, faces streaming toward me like separate pieces of a single awareness.
I remembered what a devotee had said to me during lunch:
“It looks like you’ve got it.”
What had I got, I asked.
“Shaktipat, a dose of Baba’s shakti, his energy. That’s what you’re feeling now. Baba says that all of existence is a play of shakti, but that our personal shakti is dormant, as it is in external objects. Being intensely aware of objects is equivalent to awakening the shakti in them. That’s what Baba does. He activates the dormant energy in us. It’s like a lamp being used to light another lamp.”
The explanation didn’t really make any sense to me. Merely to follow it as an actual explanation of something that happened, like the law of gravity, required a wrenching of my mental habits which was quite beyond me. Nonetheless, I was dumbfounded. Apparently other people had had this experience often enough to give it a name: shaktipat. This thought alone was full of wonder for me. So I was not simply flipping out, according to some personal law, the end result of which was madness, however pleasureful. I was experiencing something real, something with a name.
At that moment, I glimpsed a mental trap I had lived in all my life. Despite being largely endowed with “inner resources” as the saying went, I had never fully accepted the reality of my feelings. An experience became real for me only when I shared it, giving it a name like tree, chair, or face. Without the name, it remained a little dubious, a little undependable. All my life I had read books, studied them, eventually written them, and the enveloping quality of my reading and writing had been a persistent anxious quest which no quantity of written words could satisfy, but which the acts of reading and writing themselves appeased while they were being performed: the quest for words capable of communicating to me the reality of my own feelings. Adam named the animals according to a technique which had, apparently, been lost to me, for his animals stayed named, while mine sank back again instantly, so that nothing was ever gained except the experience of naming itself which therefore could never be finished, and could also never be wholly satisfying.
All my life I had been convinced that my character had condemned me to a sort of inner impurity; that, for example, I could never keep a secret because, in my system of identity, secrets became empty and unreal when I refused to speak them. They became an actual menace to my integrity because when they dislocated in silence, I felt myself dislocating too. Secrets made me dizzy, and I did my best to avoid them, often by simple ignorance; I couldn’t tell what I didn’t know. The result was that I often knew nothing, especially about myself.
Even on that first day, walking home along Broadway in a state between dreamy relaxation and pure aerial energy, I sensed that my system had been overthrown, because what I was experiencing was simply irrefutable. This upheaval didn’t need me to prove its reality. On the contrary, it was proving my reality, just as fear or erotic excitement are tremendous proofs of one’s reality.
It occurred to me that I could keep this secret if I chose to. The energy fusing from every part of my body sufficed to itself. It wasn’t so much beyond words, as it was alongside of them, in some other realm. I liked that idea. In a confused way, it increased my feeling of self-respect. My secret sprayed itself through my body, and I reveled in the misunderstanding which made me seem different. My life was no longer subject to the universal law of suffering, or so it seemed. I had escaped by some miracle which I connected to a dark-skinned man in a ski cap, whose precise features, movements, and voice already seemed a little blurry; for that very moment, walking, filling the sidewalk with my presence, was so much more real than any place I could be coming from or going toward.
This article is reprinted from the book Kundalini, Evolution and Enlightenment. Copyright © 1979, 1990 John White.
Paul Zweig (1935‒1984) was a celebrated poet, critic, and memoirist, widely admired in literary circles, who died at age 49. He was a devotee of Swami Muktananda and contributed to several of Muktananda’s books.
This is a longer version of Shaktipat.
A gifted writer visits Muktananda at his ashram in India.
Kundalini, Evolution and Enlightenment
Edited by John White
A wide-ranging anthology of the most insightful writings on harnessing the vital life force present in all human beings. With an emphasis on theory and personal practice, this book will appeal to a wide range of people interested in Kundalini concepts.
Three Journeys: An Automythology
By Paul Zweig
This book includes Zweig’s long account of his relationship with Swami Muktananda, which is reprinted on this website as The Bright Yellow Circus. Lee Siegel, an editor at a major literary magazine, wrote about Zweig:
“Rilke once said that fame is the sum of misunderstandings that accrue around a name. Though the poet, critic and memoirist Paul Zweig was admired in literary circles during his lifetime, he slipped through fame's embrace. That may have been his misfortune, but you can read the books of this "fierce little man" — as his friend, the poet Robert Bly, called Zweig at a tribute held last month at Poets House in Manhattan — unclouded by commentary and judgment, fresh, as if they had just appeared. And Zweig, who died of lymphatic cancer in 1984 at the age of 49, is well worth revisiting. At a time when writers often write with calculated eccentricity rather than out of a fateful obsession, and compose memoirs that seem devoid of self-understanding, his raw, original studies of culture and his masterly autobiographies provide a rich diet for famished readers. Zweig may have spent much of his life in the academy, but he wished to throw himself into the world and test his ideas against experience, and then measure himself against the results. He wanted a destiny, not a career.”
By Swami Muktananda
“In this Classic spiritual autobiography for all times SWAMI MUKTANANDA not only POURS OUT HIS VAST ARRAY OF DIVINE KNOWLEDGE, BUT at the same time holds the attuned reader SPELLBOUND WITH THE GURU'S ALWAY’S LIVE CURRENT OF PURE AND DIVINE GRACE. THIS BOOK CONTAINS THE LIVING SPIRITUAL FIRE OF GOD!”
—Harold Kalustian (an Amazon reviewer)
This page was published on August 31, 2016 and last revised on January 8, 2018.