The Bright Yellow Circus by Paul Zweig, page 2

The Bright Yellow Circus

By Paul Zweig

Page 2

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 made him seem almost crazed. But neither Muktananda nor his interpreter seemed at all nervous. 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, a thought filled my mind, as with a bright vaporous whisper: yes, it’s possible; such a response is possible!

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 now seemed merely vulnerable, lonely. His fingers were stained 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. Then 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.

Muktananda glanced at a pop art alarm clock on the table beside him. He said something in Hindi to his interpreter, and stood up, glancing around. Everyone bowed, and he walked briskly out of the room. His way of walking was strange, yet marvelous, too. He leaned backward a little and swung his arms in a long outward arc. This made his round soft stomach especially prominent, as if he were being guided by it.

When I mentioned this to Odile one day, she laughed and said that it wasn’t really a potbelly, but a result of breath retention. Most of the great Siddhas had round bellies. So did the Buddha. (Muktananda’s stomach was to become, for me, an emblem of his compassion and power; a physical embodiment of the inward space he vanished into when, under his dark glasses, in the midst of a talk or a chant, he closed his eyes for a moment, and I would say to myself: he has vanished into his belly, he has disappeared into the source.)

Muktananda in 1974 (photo by Russell Halpern)

Muktananda in 1974. Photo by Russell Halpern.

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. 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. The music fed the intensity which pulsed gently, making my body feel roomy and full. I had no idea what was happening, yet I still wasn’t afraid or even curious. I was simply absorbed, as if I were dancing or singing with abandon. Yet I was sitting completely still. I might even have seemed sad to an observer.

I remember the afternoon in bits: trying to talk to a disciple, 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 that 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. Everything about him was so vivid: his wiry black beard and the moods flitting across his face. I felt myself dissolving again into the billows which broke warmly, silently in my mind.

Later I remembered what his disciple 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 is 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 explanation of something that actually 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 crazy, if pleasureful; I was experiencing something real, something with a name.

This reassurance led me to glimpse a mental trap I had lived in all my life. An experience became real for me only when I identified and shared it by giving it a name. All my life I had read books, studied them, eventually written them, and the enveloping purpose of my reading and writing had been an endless anxious 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.

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.

The energy fusing from every part of my body sufficed to itself. It wasn’t so much beyond words as it was alongside 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 perfectly ordinary to anyone who saw me go by. Yet I had become different. My life was no longer subject to the universal law of suffering. 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 — filled with the amazing clarity of store windows, of faces streaming toward me like separate pieces of a single awareness — was so much more real than any place I could be coming from or going toward. I was aware of the strangeness, and possibly the ridiculousness, of these thoughts which insisted on coming into my mind. I could not help but take my feelings seriously, but it seemed best not to take these slightly mad ideas seriously. There would be plenty of time to see later on.

I was more a witness than a participant in the events which filled the rest of the day. The sound of my voice, the old-fashioned furniture in my living room, my wife’s puzzled expression as my voice tried, and failed, to make any sense of the day’s experience: all of this took place in a strangely tender realm, orbiting far away from the luminous bead at the center of my mind. I had the impression of being the hub of a world of events which “happened.” This world included my bodily sensations, the ridges on my fingertips, the feeling of my wife’s body as I hugged her with more affection than I had ever felt before; my wish that she know exactly what was happening to me; the black velvet sensation of making love later that evening; the mattress under my back and the lofty shadow of the ceiling as I lay waiting for sleep, and stared, not wondering or thinking but simply staring, at the only thing in the world: a dark, slightly peeled ceiling in the bedroom I had slept in for many years, which had been a theater for love, for my favorite anxieties, and my reluctant, nervous waking up on all those mornings which had been circles on the calendar of my life.

Earlier in the evening a friend had come by to talk about some poems he had written. I told him that my mind was a bit foggy, and I wasn’t sure I’d have much to say. I mentioned my encounter with Muktananda that morning and the experience I’d had and was still having. My friend looked at me carefully. His own life had taught him a great deal about the tricks the mind plays. He was not a man who had much faith in sanity, so it was with real concern that he wondered if I shouldn’t talk to a psychiatrist. I found it odd that I hadn’t thought of it myself, but I hadn’t, and his saying it gave me a jolt, because I was filled suddenly with a conviction that, come what may, what was happening to me was absolutely sane, saner probably than anything I had ever experienced.

As we sat and read my friend’s poems together, I had an experience of lucidity which was momentarily frightening. Something, not me, was reading those poems. Something was seeing what they meant as if the meaning were a map drawn to perfect scale. I saw the locations where the meaning faltered, and the poem’s energy was deflected. I saw where the words strained for a farther, more secret meaning. It was as if my mind had gone into overdrive, and I sat back, watching its luminous swoop, hearing my voice suggest this, insist on that. I was generally fairly good at this sort of thing, but not this good. I felt as if I were inside those poems, and inside my friend’s life. There seemed to be no limit to the mental penetration of this “something” for which “I” was apparently a lens focusing it into the world, making it visible and audible.

The same “something” is writing these words, months later, beside a frosty lace of moisture on the plate glass windows of the cafe where I come on afternoons, feeling as if a thumb were pressed between my eyes: a slight, confident pressure which signals the onset, as of a gust of inner wind, of the shakti, the playful coming and going of the meditative state which rarely leaves me entirely these days. It has snowed all day, and the streets have a white, crumpled look. Cars, trucks, and people move by in careful slow motion. The frost patterns on the window are incredibly suggestive. They are silvery, and they glow in the diffused sunlight. Looking at them, I feel as if my eyes were closed. It is a feeling I often have when I write about my experience of Baba. At such times, I have no idea what will happen next. My experience of time expands and becomes smooth. Going nowhere becomes, momentarily, a luxury. Everything has the glow of water beaded up on a windowpane: my hands relaxed on the table; the faces moving at people-height along the sidewalk; the indoor plants suspended near the window like clusters of green snowflakes.

Odile had suggested that I come to the ashram in the morning, to see what the daily activities were like. There was an early meditation at 6:00 a.m. I woke at five, and walked the twenty blocks. In the early morning darkness, West End Avenue resembled a vast indoors I strode through, to the door on 91st Street through which I stepped out, not in, to a candlelit vestibule. I left my shoes and coat, and went up a narrow flight of steps to the auditorium. The dense warmth of the room was full of breathing. It was completely dark, except for a relaxed dangle of candlelight along the walls under several large photographs of Muktananda’s guru, Nityananda. I stood near the back, until I began to make out dim bundles scattered about the floor. I remember thinking they looked like headstones. They were people sitting in meditation. I didn’t know how one went about meditating, but I sat on the floor with my legs crossed and closed my eyes.

It was probably the longest hour of my life. I thought about my aching back, knees, and ankles. I thought about my thoughts which wouldn’t stop, or even slow down: perfectly ordinary thoughts squirming about like fish in a pond. The harder I tried to catch them, the more they squirmed and multiplied. I felt increasingly helpless, a bystander in my own mind. It was like a bad home movie, composed of endless reels of “shots” I never wanted taken in the first place. None of them had anything to do with my feelings of yesterday or this morning; none with Baba, or shaktipat, or the curls of incense unfurling in the dark room, except if I made an effort of will, which seemed out of place, for the willed images felt self-defeating and gradually depressed me. If there was ever a lesson in the futility of mental processes, I was receiving it. When the lights came on, and the soft sound of chanting started up, I felt as if I had risen to the surface of a pool of foul water. Already my discouragement was dissolving. I heard myself laughing softly as I watched people form a breakfast line, chanting as they had before lunch the previous day. As I sat in my place, large-headed and giggling, it became clear that I had been meditating after all. The taste of trivia lingering in my mind was strangely happy.

How odd, I thought. If shakti is energy, then my anxiety was shakti too, and it was normal for it to turn into laughter, for it had been laughter all along, or rather, it had been neither anxiety nor laughter, but simply energy focused first through one emotional lens and then another. My life seemed totally open, as if I had been transported to a world which was governed by the law of total surprise. The only way to exist in this world was to start it up again with every glance. Existence threw itself into the air every minute, and came down in a new arrangement, damp with its birth water.

After breakfast there was a long session of chanting and prayers, in Sanskrit. It took many days before I could even follow the phonetic transliteration of the chants, and more days before I could join in with more than an occasional mumble. At first the chanting felt stagy to me, like some sort of transcendental circus. But gradually it dawned on me: apparently this is what people do around Muktananda. They chant, meditate, and stand in line for meals. When he comes into a room, they touch their foreheads to the floor; some throw themselves full length, and touch his throne with their hands after he’s gone. They bring him little presents of fruit or flowers. They ask him to bless personal objects. They go up to him at every possible excuse to get touched by his peacock feathers. They ask him questions sometimes, not so much to get an answer as to have his attention focused in their direction for a while. Even his anger, full of shrill electric wavelengths, seems to thrill them. Clearly, from every point of view except the one I find myself in, this is absurd and silly, maybe even dangerous. It amounts to worshipping a human being, which is barbarous. In that case, why am I doing it? For I too bowed, got brushed with peacock feathers, and lost myself in the energy of chanting. I too found my eyes locked on Muktananda’s face, on his wonderful brown hands and his supple legs. None of these activities made rational sense to me. Yet I kept remembering: while sitting in this man’s presence, I was cured of a “nightmare” which I had come to accept as the main premise of my life. At this very moment, I am happy. In that case, why shouldn’t I chant, bow, and beg for attention?

It was Pascal’s bet, and I was making it with a great laugh: if Muktananda is what my experience tells me he is, then I’ve gained everything; if I’m deluded and it’s all a fraud, then I’m back where I started, which is nowhere, a place I know all about. Besides, I had already tried the other solution, which consisted in being reasonable, filled with brittle dignity, and resistant to changes in habit.

To tell the truth, making the bet was easy, because everything I did set off tremors of fulfillment. When I repeated the mantra he had given me — Om Namah Shivaya — a molten feeling would come over me and I would find it hard to speak. Gusts of exuberance would start up at odd moments of the day. I thought about the Christian paradox enunciated by Tertullian almost 2,000 years ago: credo quia absurdum est, with its overtone of loneliness, struggle, and uncertain fulfillment. I felt as if a crack had opened in a wall I never knew was there, and I had slipped through it: on the other side of the crack, belief was a simple matter, like tasting or touching. It was a question not of faith, in the Christian sense, but of experience. I believe because I am experiencing it. I would encounter this same sentiment in a poem by the Hindu poet, Kabir: “If you have not lived through something, it is not true.”

I read a talk by Muktananda in which he said that the sound specific to every activity, being, or event is yet another way the world has found to repeat the divine name. The sound of a running stream, the clanking of a bus, a man shouting from the sidewalk to someone at a window, a dog barking, my own talking, singing, or breathing: all of these were different “names” for the energy which plays about us and in us, and is called, by some, God. There were moments when I could hear this underlying unity with the clarity of a bell ringing inside my ear. They were moments of complete happiness, as if, between one instant and another, a stillness had opened without any thoughts, hopes, or acts in it, but only the stillness itself, which made me vibrate like a musical instrument stroked by an invisible hand.

I made a decision during those first days which has governed all my uncertainties since then. Because I couldn’t doubt my experience, I might as well believe everything, or at least not disbelieve too quickly. It was a tall order, because strange claims were made by Muktananda’s devotees, and stranger stories were told by Muktananda himself about the power of his own guru, Nityananda, who had died some years before: Nityananda’s spirit answering a frantic plea to frighten muggers away in a city he had never visited; his voice speaking in a dream to a kidnapped Indian student, giving him instructions on how to escape from his abductors. A French disciple told me she had gone to Nityananda’s shrine in Ganeshpuri a year ago and explained to his statue that her sister had been trying to have a child for twelve years: “Nityananda, if you want me to make any spiritual progress, you’ve got to help my sister, because I feel responsible for her happiness, and couldn’t possibly free myself from desires as long as she is miserable.” Within two months her sister was pregnant, and has since had a child.

It was said that Muktananda could know what was going on in people’s minds; that wishes made in his presence were fulfilled; that problems, however difficult, were resolved. Although Muktananda had no interest in supernormal powers, and disapproved of yogis who made a business of showing them off, he let it be known that such powers existed and that he had mastered their use. In an account of his guru’s career, he wrote that Nityananda was such a powerful saint, that powers — siddhis — danced attendance on him, often without his knowledge. When money was needed to pay workers for some task, he would tell them to look under a stone in the forest, and the money would be there.

It was hard for me to know how to feel about such stories. Should I simply believe them? Or should I consider them as vehicles for Muktananda’s mental power, his shakti, and therefore true, but only in the sense that their apparent meaning made it possible for the hearer to be receptive to the perfected energy of a Siddha master? Did they have an esoteric dimension which I would grasp later on? Or were they challenges which Muktananda threw out for his disciples to wrestle with, the energy of the struggle being useful, for it forced the disciple to define his relationship to his guru, and therefore to improve his self-understanding? Perhaps all of these answers were needed to account for the stories. Yet I find, as time has passed, that believing or disbelieving has gradually lost importance for me. Whatever sort of “truth” the stories contain, I find it hard to dwell on them when the most important of all siddhis is demonstrated every day in the experience of my own mind awakening to the “sweetness” of those mysterious bees Muktananda talked about one morning when I had offered him a jar of honey: “They are so tiny, a breath of wind could blow them away like specks of dust. But the honey they make is limpid, clear as water, and it is tastier than any other honey. Such tiny, tiny bees, and they blow away so easily.”

A few weeks after I met Muktananda, I had to leave New York for a week to join my wife, who had gone to North Carolina to exhibit jewelry she makes. This meant giving up the supports of my experience: meditating, chanting every morning at the ashram, and sitting in Muktananda’s presence. The thought of doing anything that might cause me to lapse into my previous state of existence was frightening. At the same time, it was clear that I would have to deal with my fear sooner or later, because Muktananda was planning to leave New York in a few months.

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

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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

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


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