The Bright Yellow Circus

An extraordinarily gifted writer describes how he was changed by his guru, Muktananda.

By Paul Zweig

A shorter version of this essay is published separately on this website under the title ‘Shaktipat’.

LATELY I HAVE BEGUN to think about the wisdom of fairy tales, in particular the story of the poor farmer who is granted three wishes and ends up with a string of sausages dangling from his nose. The story is a reminder that it isn’t enough to obtain the power of wishing, you’ve got to know what wishes to make, and when to make them, for wishing is a form of destiny. Making our wish, we make ourselves. We exist in the time between the wish and its fulfillment. On the whole, we are creatures of the interval. Caught between a past of wishing and a future of dreamed fulfillments, we project a sort of inner extension or continuity which we come to think of as our personal sign, our very selves. Our intimate awareness results from the habit of wishing; it is the fossil of a wish.

This essay has been out of print for years. It is part of Three Journeys and was first published in American Review 23.
Three Journeys by Paul Zweig

I began to think about wishing because, for some time, I had felt something dangling from my nose: clumsy and a little terrifying, hard to explain to friends and utterly mystifying to myself. It felt as if I had been chosen by a demon whose bizarre humor had turned my face into a nightmare, and I remembered the philosopher who said that after the age of thirty a man is responsible for his face. The idea is absurd, I said. How can I be responsible for these damned sausages? Yet I had suspected for a long time that it was true; that some recipe of wishes dating from the earliest mixture, of my being had prepared this awful dish. As far as I could tell, I had intended something far different, something tasty and succulent. I had intended to be completely happy, and had set about my work with confidence. But something had gone wrong, for the recipe had produced this awful appendage. I suspected, to my horror, that I was myself the demon, and had no idea how my intentions had become so twisted as to make me permanently miserable instead of happy.

Pretty soon I couldn’t think of anything else. I heard a whimper reverberating in my ears, which I gradually recognized as my own voice. What was I looking for? Was it the demon, or was it myself?

I began to understand that weird power of mind which is the subject of the fairy tale: the power to make wishes come true. Gradually our lives become filled with the furniture of our wishes, and it is too bad if we have gotten it wrong, for we may end up with sausages dangling and self-preoccupation repeating itself like a mad tape recorder.

My wishing began about fifteen years ago, as well as I can remember. A kind of alchemy had passed my elementary substance through tubes and chafing dishes, until a spectral self collected in the mental cup of a twenty-five-year-old boy living in Paris. The boy had done away with his past. He spoke only a foreign language, which had become a circumlocution for the name of God, childhood, or self. His life was a euphemism. He preferred Hegel to sex, ideology to emotions, the mathematical ballet of Mallarmé to the compassion of Walt Whitman. He had talking partners, but no friends. He was lonely, but hadn’t yet learned the meaning of the word. He enjoyed the comfort of ghostliness, which enabled him to project a complete wardrobe of social relationships, including a marriage, without having to wear any of them. It was in such a space that Galileo’s theoretical feather came to earth with a velocity equal to a stone’s, proving that gravity is relentless and democratic.

That is how my wishes came, as if by appointment. I wished I had some friends, I wished I could write better, I wished I could find some honorable way of going back to America.

Paul Zweig

Paul Zweig

I began to remember certain moments in my childhood, like a cluster of bright balloons floating over a beach. The beach was silvery and empty, the white pleats of waves unfolding toward my feet.

Inside one balloon was my grandparents’ farm in upstate New York, with its horse and buggy, its birch forest, and its sentinel pine tree on top of the hill, like a barbed green mooring for the sky. Here I first learned to pray: “May I not meet any snakes today. may I not be stung by a bee, a wasp, or a hornet; may I not be scared by a spider.” The natural world represented extraordinary peace, and extraordinary terror, and the ambivalence did not disturb me.

Another balloon contained a decayed wooden porch in an alley near the ocean, a cushion to sit on, and a large number of books selected according to several principles: there had to be much natural description, empty spaces, characters preferring solitude to people, and a busy sprinkling of adventure. The perfect book, beside which all others succeeded or failed, was Robinson Crusoe. The experience of loss foreboded by a story’s end was so distressing I decided never to read a book less than 300 pages long. To this day, the imagination still has for me a smell of dampness and rot-softened wood; an alley roofed by a strip of sunlight; neighbors’ voices shouting through windows; a basement full of coal and, at the far end, the oblong opening to the street through which bus rumbles and the noise of strangers drift mysteriously.

Another balloon contained a dream I had at the beginning of adolescence, the only boyhood dream I still remember. I am lying in bed, in a large bare room with windows opening onto a courtyard. The courtyard lets me know that the building is my elementary school. Women come into the room with graceful ballet movements. They are naked. They bound onto the bed and out of the window, one after another. I know that they are bounding to their deaths. I understand that this is a nightmare, but the feeling of terror is muted. I am not sure I feel it.

Around the time the wishing began, a creature made its appearance in the dark of my character. It shadowed me from within, loving when I loved, speaking when I spoke. Every spoonful of my existence went, somehow, into its mouth. This creature burgled me relentlessly. Because of it, everything went wrong, food did not feed me, but it; success did not please me, but it. The creature reclined in the sultriness of my inner existence, while I shivered and became thin. Oddly enough, I was aware that I had made a bargain with this creature, who was none other than the demon of wishing. I would get my wishes, but the satisfaction would be his. As a result, every wish would make me hungrier. Every day I would run faster, but with increasing difficulty, as my inner accomplice grew sluggish and fat. I could see the day when I would fall exhaustedly on the ground, and say: “That’s it, now it’s your turn to carry me.” Meanwhile, running and hungering, I squandered my pleasures on the demon.

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 Jakob Boehme cobbling God’s shoes. I think of my experience of the Sahara Desert last spring, and of another more surprising experience only a few months ago, when I received a phone call from a friend I hadn’t seen in years. At the time, she had been about to set up a psychiatric practice somewhere in southern France. After some hard living, that was what she had decided to do with her life, and I remember feeling relieved to hear it. It was good for people to pull themselves together, I thought. A career was like a net over the abyss. I felt that for myself and needed, I suppose, to be reassured by the same reasoning in others. The contrary choice generally frightened me.

“I’ve been in India for the past 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?”

It was unsettling news, to say the least. Apparently my friend’s net had become unstuck 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, and after some looking had found one. I didn’t exactly know what a guru was either. The image that came to my mind confused the Aga Khan sitting cross-legged on a pile of gold with a plump Hindu adolescent grinning blissfully from posters all over New York. Gurus had something to do with the wisdom of the East. They were some sort of wise men you went to when you had a question to ask. I concluded I would rather ask my friends, or read a book.

We had coffee together the next day and she talked about her life in India. She had always been a tough-minded lady, 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. She spoke slowly, pausing for a long time between words. I had the impression she’d never talked about these things before. That struck me 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, apparently without 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 Sadguru, 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 Sadguru was 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?

But Odile wasn’t talking in quotation marks. “Muktananda is a perfected master of Siddha Yoga ” she said. “By means of certain spiritual practices, he has reached a state of complete mental self-possession, therefore he doesn’t have needs or wants. He lives in a state of bliss all the time.”

I winced at the mention of bliss, with its overtones of empty-headedness and a silly grin. In fact, I wasn’t truly listening to what Odile was saying. At the time I had a firmly established view of human nature. Fear was salutary, the gray ghosts of the night were my intimate friends. In a recent poem I had written: “I will praise the fear of death/ Which is the basalt of dark foundations.”

Yet, in the end, I had become cozy with the “abyss.” I felt that because of it, I had been guaranteed a sort of spiritual integrity. It would be impossible for me to “sell out,” I thought, as long as I was so unhappy.

“Why don’t you come and meet him?” she said.

There was no reason not to go. I lived only twenty blocks from the ashram and had plenty of time. Besides, in her quiet way, Odile was being insistent.

“He’s quite an unusual man,” she said, as if trying the words out. “In India they call him a saint, but I think of him more as a warrior.”

Muktananda’s temporary ashram in New York was a lovely red brick building, formerly a school, on 91st Street near Riverside Park where, I was told, he took long walks every day before dawn. Consistent with his aura, he had never been mugged. (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 was ushered into a medium-sized room with large windows, where a number of people were already waiting. Curls of burning incense, a foam rubber throne draped with a vivid cloth, a wand of peacock feathers upright beside it; 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. On the wall hung several huge photographs of a dark-skinned man in a loincloth, his body oddly smooth and glowing, his face expressing a combination of sleepiness and alert attention.

Muktananda never saw anyone privately, Odile said. At eleven every morning, he gave audiences to fifteen or twenty people. Even the disciples who traveled with him had to come to the eleven o’clock audience if they wanted to talk to him. That seemed as odd as anything else she had said. What sort of relationship could one have with a man one saw only in public, for a few minutes at a time? Surely he had some sort of private life. Odile assured me that he hadn’t. He was always either alone or on display, you might say. Everyone around him existed on the same level, perpetually confronted with the mystery of his distance and impenetrability. Yet it was a mystery full of playfulness and spontaneity. He could be very funny, she said.

I didn’t see the door open. He was simply there, quite suddenly. He walked across the room and took his place on the throne with a series of quick but 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. On the whole, he bore a slight resemblance to Dizzy Gillespie. His face, hugged by a short curly beard, had a kind of feathery alertness, as he settled onto his seat, 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 the wand of sumptuous peacock feathers, occasionally darting glances around the room.

I had been startled when several people touched their foreheads to the ground as he came in, but I didn’t really pay much attention, mainly because I didn’t feel concerned. I wasn’t there even from curiosity, I reminded myself, but simply as a gesture of friendship to Odile.

I noticed that the man in the enlarged photograph on the wall was not Muktananda, and asked Odile about it. She said that the photographs were of Muktananda’s guru, Nityananda: a largebodied, imposing figure, naked except for a loincloth. He seemed very different from the loudly dressed man fidgeting on his throne 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’s guru Nityananda

Muktananda’s guru Nityananda

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 he, Muktananda's face did not indulge in flourishes. Mv 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 them up 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 farthest 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 Eastern scene in one way or another. The sorts of questions they asked rubbed me the wrong way; they seemed full of personal melodrama. “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 of his sudden changes of expression, I began to sense a remoteness 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 at an ashram in Pondicherry founded by Shree Aurobindo. She gave Muktananda drawing she had done, and in a tremulous voice said she had a question to ask him. I found myself paying attention suddenly, not so much to what she was saying as to the note of vulnerability in her voice. When she meditated, she said, 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. When she lifted up a hand, as if to describe the nightmare, it began to shake.

Suddenly I was shaking too. I felt as if I were rooted to the floor, yet trembling with intense feeling. I had to make an effort not to cry, but it wasn’t simply grief, 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, I went on staring while the forms and colors of the room glided before my eyes like paper cutouts. The words “afloat in tears,” repeated themselves over and over in my mind; an idea 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.

As I stared at Muktananda’s quick movements, I was aware that my mouth was hanging open, yet 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 hinged gates into a cave full of tears. Muktananda had done this, but what had he done, and how? We hadn’t talked very much, and he had hardly looked at me. He was not especially charismatic: no great gestures or piercing glances. He moved around a lot on his throne, picked his nose, and played with his fingers. I became fascinated by his large stomach, which seemed out of place on a man of such slight build. And all the while I held my tears in 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.”

He said this offhandedly, and I felt somewhat rebuffed, yet I was moved, too. For until this morning I had believed that my insufferable anxieties belonged to the fabric of existence; that, in some way, they were a good thing. Now, sitting on a wood floor looking at a dark-skinned Indian with a large belly and an orange ski cap, I felt that a piercing 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, over which my face seemed to be fitted like a distant mask. Yet the thoughts, surging like sea creatures, were strong and sharp. They were not my thoughts at all, but residents of the fluidity in my mind. I was a fisherman, a swimmer. Words like "happy” or “unhappy” meant nothing: something was breaking open; something was bursting like a pod; 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 choked arrogance: “You people talk about 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 talk about your bliss to people who are suffering? This is evil. Anyway, you can’t prove it. How do I know you’re not lying? You claim you’re not afraid to die.”

Copyright © 1976 Paul Zweig

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.

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Three Journeys by Paul Zweig

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.”

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Swami Muktananda, Play of Consciousness

Play of Consciousness

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!”

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Bonnie Greenwell, The Kundalini Guide

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“This book has everything explained, clearly and succinctly for the person looking for clarity about Kundalini awakening. I highly recommend it to anyone who has no idea what Kundalini is or what an awakening means. But it is also very useful for those who have awakened and need to fill in some basic facts and details about the phenomena.

I met Ms. Greenwell recently, and she has a deep and common sense understanding of this topic having had years of interviews with people who have been through this life-altering process. She lays it all out for everyone to understand with examples and a review of commonly asked questions. It could be a primer on the topic. The focus is on practical down-to-earth advice and information. The same information could be in some ancient Indian text, but to a Western reader it would be incomprehensible; Bonnie Greenwell has rectified this problem by covering the thousand questions one would have on this subject in simple straight-forward language. Her first book "Energies of Transformation" was a great help to me and many others who wanted to find out more about this topic. But this new book has condensed everything into a easily absorbed format that can be read both as informational and for future reference. Start here if you really want to get a clear picture of the phenomena of Kundalini.”

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This page was published on December 22, 2017 and last revised on January 8, 2018.


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