The Bright Yellow Circus

By Paul Zweig

Page 3

The morning before my departure I went up to him and told him I would be away for a week. He said: “Come back soon. Meanwhile I’ll be thinking about you.” The rest of the day I felt feverish and my head was unpleasantly heavy. I hung around the ashram for a while, then went home to pack. I didn’t feel desperate or anxious, simply absorbed in my discomfort. That night, I hardly slept. But when I woke up, around 5:00 a.m., I found myself exploding with energy. Every cell in my body seemed to crackle with exuberance and laughter. I drove eleven hours without a stop, singing the few Sanskrit chants I had memorized at the top of my lungs the whole way: absorbed in myself, in the landscape flashing by, in the glint of sunlight and the colored eggs of cars sliding past.

That night I woke up after only a few hours sleep, feeling terribly anxious. It is a form of insomnia I know well: I wake up in the middle of the night filled with painful thoughts and lie in bed, increasingly oppressed, until finally I get up, put the light on, and start my daytime self functioning — reintroducing the tiny sanities of purpose, projects, ideas, until the anxiety, like a dark shallow pool, soaks away.

I lay there, stunned by the return of this catspaw of the old nightmare. My eyes were still closed, but I knew I would have to open them and begin the familiar ritual of self-distraction. Suddenly a bright yellow light filled my eyes. The light resembled an enormous surface, covered with the baroque line drawing of a circus: trapezes, animals, trainers, clowns. I heard my own voice saying: “It’s all a play of the divine energy.” The voice meant that my anxiety too was a play of the divine energy, and I understood this instantly. Then the scene dissolved. But the anxiety was gone too. I felt full and still, and fell asleep again quickly.

As months pass, it has become clear that this was one of the extraordinary experiences of my life: the sign of a mental reality I had never even approached; a talisman as solid and palpable as any outward miracle could be, letting me know that a mental realm existed for me to reach, that an experience of knowledge was there for me to grasp, if I pursued the quest which Muktananda had made possible. When I try, I can still see the yellow glow with a circus scrawled across it, and on occasion I have seen other things: a sultry colored jungle; the looming eyeless statue of Shiva; a blue mosaic floor extending to the horizon. I have come to think of them as Baba’s gifts, or rather, gifts he has enabled me to give myself through the practice of a particular form of love, mingling devotion to the guru, and total acceptance of myself and of all experience: the practice of meditation.

Sitting quietly in my study in the early morning darkness, my legs folded under me, the air pungent with incense, a lit candle providing a palpable image of the inner light, and exposing a photograph of Muktananda, I close my eyes for meditation and bow mentally in all six directions. Then I move my mental eye slowly from my toes to my head, imagining the presence of God in each part of my body. I have invented this ritual to create a border of concentration for the blanket of awareness which I pull close to me. I repeat slowly the mantra Muktananda has given me, as if each syllable had a taste. I gaze at the syllables themselves standing in my mind: Om Namah Shivaya.

It is like sitting in the most familiar of all rooms. Gradually the walls of the room become transparent, revealing a boundless space streaked with colors moving gently past. Sometimes I feel a pressure between my eyes, as if something were trying to get out, like a folded-up chick pressing against its shell. Sometimes the pressure grasps my cheekbones and temples, too.

Now the room is like a jar hanging in space. Now the jar is my mind, my very Self. Its limits no longer shut out what is beyond them. They aren’t quite limits anymore. Maybe I’m not in a jar at all, but swimming directly in the vastness. For a minute it seems that way, and the impression is blissful, then frightening, and fright recreates the jar.

At first, meditation disturbed me. It was an experience of persistent helplessness. Even when my days were electrified by Baba’s presence, I found the aloneness of meditation oppressive, because all the familiar attributes of my identity were left out. My quick-mindedness, my various facial expressions, the little games of humility I could not help playing around Baba: none of these, nor any of the other mannerisms of my existence, played a part in meditation. I understood that meditation was meant to provide leverage for psychic change; that it was a center of experience around which everything else was orchestrated. But this was hard for me to accept, precisely because everything else was so extraordinary, while meditation remained empty and anxious. Yet even during those first weeks there were instants of absorption followed by flickers of blue light. Sometimes the light lingered, and I would feel a sort of inner release, reminding me that I ought to persist, despite my discouragement. The changes came gradually. Little by little I realized that I was actually learning how to meditate, though it was not clear how I had gone about learning. The sharpest turning points seemed to come each time Muktananda left New York for a while and later when he moved to Florida and I visited him there.

Each time he had said, “Leave-taking is not very important. You need only gaze inside yourself, and you will find me present.”

At one point I told Muktananda about my experience of the yellow circus. I asked him if it had happened because he had actually been thinking about me, as he said he would before I left. He laughed and slapped his thigh. Glancing at me archly, he said: “Yes.” And laughed again. Everyone else in the room laughed too. And it seemed to me that each person had heard what he needed to hear: yes, Baba can project his thoughts hundreds of miles and appear miraculously to his disciples in a moment of need; no, Baba obviously wasn’t thinking about him, and now he’s making a little joke for his and our edification. What I heard as if it had been spoken, was this: “I won’t answer your question. My yes, combined with laughter, might also be no. Put another way, the mental reality of your vision was perhaps my thought, yet it came wholly from you, and was, therefore, your thought. It was mine and yours too. Mine, to the extent that you succeeded in forging a link between us: that link was the vision.”

During the first weeks after I met Muktananda, my exaltation was so intense, so sustained, that I wondered, almost wistfully, whether I had stepped outside the human condition. I felt drawn to the faces I saw in the street. Faces were visible souls, and I was penetrated by the work which life had accomplished in them, as if an inner wind had dislocated the original elements, leaving a sort of wreckage: lips reshaped by tension, eyes set into dark smudges, cheeks hardened by anger or frustration. I seemed to see the traces of breakage everywhere. Yet I experienced even this as part of an immense, almost audible blossoming which was going on all around me, and in me. The breakage too was part of a flow, as if the world had become the bed of a river. The faces with their lives written into them in the signatures of wrinkles and discoloration, seemed bottomless to me; they offered no resistance to my seeing, which sank into them. At the same time, the seeing set me apart, not exactly lonely but ready to be lonely.

I had always believed that people were linked to each other by means of small fractures. Through all the broken places, an inner substance welled, mingling with the inner substance of others. Society, companionship, even love, was a miracle resulting from pain and, in a sense, failure. Yet here I was feeling healed and buoyant. At such moments I felt as if my being had been displaced into a different continuum of existence; as if, in some important sense, I was no longer here.

Yet, as far as my friends were concerned, nothing particularly noticeable had happened, except that I had, on occasion, a new and rather bizarre subject of conversation. When, now and then, I saw myself with their eyes, I felt like the character in the cartoon who has climbed a ladder; after a while he looks down and notices the ladder is gone, he is standing on nothing. As the days passed I discovered that I had begun waiting to fall.

Two occasions stand out in my mind from these early days. One is my first, and only, “private” encounter with Muktananda. One morning I arrived at the ashram feeling depressed and frightened. I had gotten out of bed, and there had been nothing. As if a light had gone out. I had been waiting for the fall, and now, apparently, it had come. This dark-rimmed, overly complicated person was me as I had forgotten myself to be: slightly scuffed, anxious, and lonely. My meditation that morning was boring. My tongue felt like a piece of rubber. My throat was sore. Muktananda was present during chanting, and I kept looking at him, thinking: what could he know about suffering? Why does he parade his bliss around in a world full of broken people? There was something callous about it. Yet I wasn’t really angry. Maybe I didn’t have enough energy to be angry. After the chanting, one of Muktananda’s aides asked me to come upstairs to look at a text they were writing. I followed him, feeling the absurdity of my dejection and wanting to get out of there quickly. Going up the stairs, I noticed Muktananda coming out of his room. He stood in the open door, his hands behind his back, and looked up and down the hall. Before I could think, I had gone over to him, dragging the aide, Yogananda, with me to translate.

“Baba, I’m feeling so depressed. What’s wrong with me?”

He darted a look at me, and gave me a friendly tap on the chest, laughing: “What you’re feeling isn’t really depression, it’s indifference.”

He laughed again, and then pounded me on the chest, repeating: “Not depression at all, indifference. Yes, very good.”

The last words were said in English, his comical accent making a joke out of them. Then he turned, laughing to himself, and went on down the hall.

I continued upstairs and did what Yogananda had asked, feeling jittery and impatient to leave. As I clumped downstairs and put my shoes and coat on, I could still feel the impact of Baba’s hand on my chest. His high-pitched laughter kept turning in my mind. With no transition, I was running up the street, wanting to chant at the top of my lungs. An exalted feeling brimmed through every pore of my body; All day I wondered — had it been the words, the laughter, the touch, or something else? The connection between depression and indifference was interesting, to be sure, but how could that provoke the intense happiness which flared through me and diminished only gradually into normal lightheartedness?

On another occasion, I was having dinner with a friend who is in the habit of asking momentous questions over cocktails. In the past, always when least expected, we had talked about the nature of love, about the erotic attraction of extremely young girls, about Christ, about the meaning of the word “nature,” etc.

“Paul, why is the imagination such an important part of mental life?” he asked, puffing on his pipe, on his face a painfully earnest expression combined with a suggestion of slyness. “Why do we all assume it’s such a valuable faculty to have?”

As the question came, I felt myself grow excited by the power of an idea which imprinted itself in my mind with exhilarating clarity.

“You can think of the imagination as a form of play,” I said. “Essentially, it is a way of playing at self-destruction. Through the imagination, we master the actual prospect of destruction by making it happen over and over again, like the game Freud once saw a child playing. The child got great pleasure out of making something disappear and reappear endlessly. It turned out the child was experimenting with loss, in particular the loss of his mother who, naturally enough, went away sometimes and then came back. In the case of the imagination, what is ‘destroyed’ is a portion of our identity which normally is kept in place at a great expense of mental energy. It is the identity of willpower, of making plans, of calculating and foreseeing, of remembering; the identity which manages social behavior and knows about causes and effects. It takes a great deal of work to keep this identity, which we normally think of as our ‘self,’ intact. We have a feeling it might collapse if we forgot to think about it, so we devote a large portion of our life-energy to insuring its continuity. As a result of this exhausting labor, we find we sometimes need a holiday; we need a seventh day, when the Lord rested. The imagination is our seventh day. We play at giving up. We let go, the house falls down, and infinite quantities of space pour in with a feeling of plenty, of wealth. For a minute self-destruction feels like the only way to really live. The space pouring in takes the form of images, of impulses, of spontaneous thoughts, memories, inner fables. That’s the weather we built the house to be sheltered from. And for a split second, we learn two things: it feels good to be destroyed; it feels equally good to notice the house miraculously intact, not destroyed at all, but made somehow receptive to the weather.”

My idea had begun as a kind of ironic paradox, appropriate to a mock-serious conversation over tall drinks, but the paradox had taken over, as if I were being spoken through by a self I had never met. When I stopped, my friend cleared his throat nervously, and took a long puff on his pipe:

“Have you been thinking these matters over for some time?” he asked hesitantly. His question underscored my feeling of bewilderment. No, I hadn’t; I had, in fact, learned them that very minute, just as I had learned “it’s all a play of the divine energy,” by listening to my own voice giving its opinion. Only months later did I realize that an explanation had been offered to me that evening, concerning the nature of meditation and “bliss”: both resulted from a release of psychic energy which was no longer trapped in the labor of self-defense. Imagination, sleep, the delight of full self-realization, were conditions of total vulnerability which was achieved by alchemizing all danger into an experience of energy: not a threat to one’s mental integrity but a part of that integrity. It was a question of learning to be part of the weather. Sitting in meditation, one fed one’s experiences, one’s thoughts, all the dirty wash of a day’s complicated living, into a great laundering device: what came out was pure being, yours and the world’s undifferentiated.

Several times since meeting Muktananda, I have had the experience of being spoken through by an idea which expressed itself more to me than to the person I was talking to, as if an inner teacher were addressing me with my own voice.

Only after my initial experience had begun to subside did I fasten my attention wholly on Muktananda. Before that, I had been too involved in watching myself live. To feel was about all I could manage, while the mental furniture moved itself around, and an earthquake rippled all the old corners of my being: an earthquake of previously unknown emotions — of “ice cream,” to use Baba’s expression; a storm of “sugar” and “honey,” in the words of the great Sufi poet, Rumi.

At the center of the change was Baba, seated on his foam rubber throne, his head darting from side to side, singing verses of poetry from Indian scripture or from the work of the great Siddha poet, Kabir. He touched long lines of visitors with his perfumed peacock wand, gave out candy, and transformed the room into an echo chamber with his high-pitched angers which seemed to fasten mostly on small matters: a broken microphone, someone slipping into meditation during chanting, or coming late to a meal. The angers flared up and calmed almost instantly. And they were never predictable.

Every morning I sat as close to him as I could, noticing when his eyes fluttered closed now and then, watching his lips move during chanting, and following the pattern of his long graceful fingers on the tambourine he often played. Very few words passed between us. In fact, after the first weeks, he seemed not to notice my existence any more, except for an occasional glance in my direction from under his tinted glasses. I never knew about those glances. They seemed to be filled with compressed rage. But were they even glances at all, and if so, were they at me? And was it rage, or could it be something else: a signal, the equivalent of a hand reaching into my mental apparatus to accomplish some subtle retuning?

The more he ignored me, the more he came to resemble something like a pure phenomenon to me: a sacred tree, or a fire in a vast cold place. Everything I did at the ashram became a way of organizing my presence in his vicinity. I stared at his face, listened to him speak, clustered at his feet along with the other devotees, like a flock of birds huddling around a fountain. His presence was so stark and dense, it seemed as if he were composed of another sort of flesh: more opaque, more magnetized; not flesh at all, but a shimmer of condensed energy, assuming this dark-skinned, uncharismatic, yet totally compelling form.

I started to think less about myself, and more and more about him. And as I did so, the nature of my meditations began to change. Meditation became a form of profound aloneness, and at the same time a conduit to Baba. In meditation I felt closer to him, sometimes, than in his actual presence, when I would often be sidetracked by annoying questions: “Why doesn’t he pay any attention to me? What did I do to make him seem so reserved? Why can’t I focus my attention on him without being distracted by so many self-serving thoughts? If he really can read my mind, then he’s got to despise me a little right now.” The futility of these thoughts was clear to me, yet Baba’s presence would often stir them into furious motion.

I had to admit to myself that it was no easy matter to hang around Baba; that it was sometimes even a little unpleasant. The experience was humbling, because I could see how childish I was being, yet I couldn’t help it. At the same time, Baba’s example provided me with a new resource: it taught me to be a bemused spectator of these silly notions of mine, watching them flit about with the tolerance of a tender parent, for even they were an energy directed at Baba.

During the last weeks of Muktananda’s stay in New York, I began to spend five or six hours a day at the ashram. The rest of my time was an interlude. Mostly I sat in my study, my thoughts moving in an unfocused way among the impressions which had accumulated during the day. They were satisfying afternoons. I did almost no reading. Even Muktananda’s spiritual autobiography, Chitshakti Vilas [Play of Consciousness], couldn’t hold my attention for long. I played Gregorian chants and Indian ragas over and over again, and I waited. I don’t think I was waiting for anything in particular. My usual circle of preoccupations had simply drifted an arm’s length away; cradled in the space they had left, I watched them float around me with a lazy eye. The sensation was, perhaps, that of digesting a subtle food: my laziness enabled Baba’s nourishment to penetrate the hidden parts of my awareness. It resembled an attenuated form of meditation.

I am surprised, now, to recall how much of my ordinary life was carried on quite actively during those days. Though I was on leave from my university, I wrote articles to make money, and continued work on a book. I had not become a hermit sitting cross-legged in a cave, but I was in a mental cave which never lost its solitariness, even in the midst of a dinner party or other social occasion.

Friends tended to assume that I spent hours in intimate conversation with Muktananda, that I found him to be an extremely wise person with whom I had discovered an unusual affinity. How else could one account for my embarrassingly intense devotion to the man? Indeed, how else? Yet they were wrong. He virtually never talked to me, and when he did, I rarely had anything to say in reply. We have never actually conversed. To tell the truth, on the rare occasions when he has talked to me, I have been so filled with excitement that I could hardly listen to what he was saying, and have had to reconstruct it later from the memory traces of his voice.

Clearly my bond to Muktananda was not a relationship in the ordinary sense. I didn’t “know” him at all, and if he “knew” me, I had a sense — disquieting but also reassuring — that it was the way a candle might be said to “know” the objects its light falls on: with an intensity dependent only on the distance of the objects from the flame and not on their particular qualities. I couldn’t “deserve” Baba’s attention any more than I could deserve light. Yet his light shone without interruption. It was not shed on me by means of personal gestures, advice, or any of the forms of human giving and taking one normally thinks of. But its shining was there, so definite and precise I rarely had a chance to doubt it.

The more I tried to solve the elusiveness of Baba’s character, the more I became intrigued by my failure. My occasional stabs at thinking have led me to the conclusion that Baba doesn’t have a character in the way we normally mean. He has many characters: every mood and mannerism is exhaustive and wholly articulated. The reason why one’s awareness focuses on him so intensely in his presence is that he is himself wholly present. None of his mental energy is reserved for holding onto a past or planning for a future; he is never saving, always spending. Every movement he makes, from beating on a tambourine to scratching himself, is so decisive it rivets our attention. The thought and the act coincide; the want and its fulfillment are the same. Another way to say this is that he has no wants, for nothing in him is incomplete. It is, from this point of view, an existence bathed in magic, a spontaneous existence. Maybe that is the fundamental siddhi — or supernormal power — which Siddha masters are said to possess: the magic of unwithholding presentness. When we meet Baba, we set about fitting our impressions into a unity, as we usually do when we meet a person. We call this unity the person’s character, meaning by that the limits he creates for his life by remembering and wanting in habitual ways. One’s character is one’s history. But with Baba, our effort doesn’t seem to work. The unity doesn’t telegraph itself to us. When we insist, thinking we’ve made some error in our arithmetic, we end up looking with puzzlement at this weird activity of our mind which, momentarily, resembles a sort of dancing after the music has stopped playing.

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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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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