The Bright Yellow Circus

By Paul Zweig

Page 4

I have come to wonder whether this tantalizing unrelationship is not at the heart of Baba’s teaching. Its aim, perhaps, is to isolate our mental activity by prompting it to sprout vigorously, boisterously. Meeting Baba, the disciple throws his emotional resources into the accustomed labor of building a relationship, only to find, instead of a psychic network mingling with his own, a compassionate, impersonal light. He had never seen himself in such a light. The furious burgeoning of his thoughts reaches into nothing; the familiar dance suddenly seems strange, because the partner is not dancing, and, yes, there is no music.

Previously it had seemed only natural to wrestle with the world, because the world had answered with wrestling of its own: hate, desire, worry, anxiety had grappled with hate, desire, worry, anxiety. The disciple’s emotions had lunged against opposite emotions, also lunging, and the resultant tangle was called a relationship. How else to behave? But now, a glimpse at a time, the lunging seems isolated, absurd. One doesn’t know how to stop, but the slippery creature no longer seems quite so inevitable, quite so intimately tied to one’s identity.

In Baba’s presence, for the first time, I began to perceive my double: the obstructive network of wishes which duplicated my existence and projected it, like a shadow, into the world ahead of me. I walked behind this double, always in its shelter. My double received the brunt of the human storm, not me; my double arranged for love and disappointment, for worry and trust. I, a step behind, received only the diminished ripple of these experiences. My double was constructed of mental busyness; it was glued together by obsessive thinking and propelled by anxiety. The commotion which my double specialized in making had a way of drawing attention to itself, especially my own attention, so that I tended to be overly involved in promoting my double’s activities, as if I were, indeed, my double, and little else.

Of course, this was not wholly true, and the best evidence for another view of the matter was my writing, which I often reread with puzzlement. My poetry and prose often seemed to know things which I, clearly, didn’t know. I had written about love and the nature of the interior self; even about meditation; even about the energy flowing in superpersonal billows through the psyche from the remote inward spaces out into the world, and from the world into the mental interior. But I had reversed the sign of this energy, for I had perceived it as a danger, an enemy. I had identified it as the crucial flaw of human and my own nature, which Christian morality had mythicized as original sin. I called this energy “anxiety,” and saw the world as a dark analogue of its presence. “Dark” was my favorite word, “fear” was my oxygen, “insomnia” was my heroism. Yet, in a peculiar way, my writing had gotten it right, albeit reversed, and temporarily unintelligible.

For some time I had been unsettled by the poems I wrote, as by a self-portrait which I didn’t quite recognize. Now, sitting near Baba’s throne, watching his quick, dark face, I saw the weather-vane flapping in the psychic wind more clearly than ever before. I saw my double agitating in front of me: worry, ambition for a book I had just published, a mania for comparing myself with other disciples who seemed to meditate more intensely or chant more robustly: these clouds kept shutting out my view of Baba, whom I wanted passionately to “see,” and I began to grasp a new sort of truth: this agitated bundle of preoccupations was not all of me; on the contrary, it was always getting in my way. To be sure, before meeting Baba I hadn’t minded very much, because I had learned to see myself and the world through its eye and with its values. But now I longed for my double to doze off for a while. I longed to be face to face with the steady warmth which Baba shone in my direction. And the more I longed, the more agitated my double became; for wanting, longing, and mulling over were its game.

Sitting in my disorganized lotus posture on the floor of the auditorium, I would find myself imprisoned by these thoughts. My throat would dry out. If I were chanting, I would find it hard to squeeze the words through my parched larynx. My body would ache from sitting in an unnatural position. The thoughts would become like a ball racing around and through me, absorbing me into its discomfort. Then, something would happen. As I lost myself in the anger and discomfort, the ball of thoughts would gradually speed up. Closing my eyes, I would actually see a dark sphere spinning, getting smaller and blacker, and then it would vanish. Sometimes this was accompanied by a trancelike feeling in which Baba’s face would seem to float before my eyes. Sometimes, like a silent movie, there would be no emotional accompaniment. I imagined Baba packing the dark flimsy substance into an ever smaller ball, then throwing it away. When this happened, the nagging thoughts evaporated, and I would be left, as on a bright empty beach, with a feeling of happiness.

How Muktananda made these things happen, I don’t know. But they happened. They were the live energy pouring through the unrelationship which Baba had created, or rather, had enabled me to create between us. Life around Baba became a sort of hide and seek. I rused and struggled with my double. I tried to leap over it, and into Baba’s arms, and became lost in the murkiness of the encounter. Then, suddenly, Baba’s mental hand would pack the double into a ball and throw it away. And I would glimpse another order of experience flowing in all the nooks of my awareness: an experience of pure and simple happiness. The happiness bound me to Muktananda. It strengthened my devotion to him, and my love functioned as a conductor for his love. The more I cleansed the circuits of my devotion, the more Baba’s energy flooded through them. The more I felt drawn to him, the more I experienced myself in a new way. I began to understand what Baba had meant when he said that love was a gift you gave yourself. By showing my double to me, by teaching me how to pack it into a ball and throw it away, Baba was teaching me how to give myself this gift. Love for Baba, it turned out, was self-love of the most joyous sort.

Muktananda doesn’t emphasize techniques and special disciplines. In terms of Yoga practice, he often says his “method” represents a shortcut: you simply sit back and let his energy irradiate you in the form of shaktipat. Once that has happened, it’s out of your hands. The inner changes will unfold according to their own rhythm. You need merely be a spectator. Indeed, any role besides that of spectator would be a hindrance. Chanting, meditation, ceremonial activities, are merely ways of deepening your receptiveness, while the released energy, the kundalini, does its work.

It turns out, of course, to be harder than one could imagine simply to watch the changes happen. The role of such a spectator becomes, perhaps, the most difficult role in the world. Your entire identity seems to resist it. Until Baba’s shakti touched me, I had formed the all-too-human habit of connecting my wishes to their fulfillments by means of willpower and positive acts. The notion that I was “doing” something, and the endlessly repeated experience of doing it, was crucial to my sense of personal integrity. Then Baba said something like, “Stop wasting your time. All this doing doesn’t amount to much anyway. Do you really believe you are the one who’s doing it? Well, here’s one thing you can’t do, so why not simply get out of the way.”

So you try to get out of the way, and discover that you can’t. You keep trying until, befuddled and a little desperate, you say, “To hell with it.” And that’s what Baba had been driving at all along. Saying “To hell with it” with all your heart releases you. The spectator, sitting back, feels happy and free. Feeling happy and free, he begins to stir about again; he begins to jiggle in his seat, and make incorrigible little “doing” movements, and pretty soon it all begins again, until, after a while, tied into a knot, he says, “To hell with it.” And it goes on, this learning and unlearning and relearning. That is Baba’s easy path, that is his “shortcut.” It is indeed as short as your stubbornness, which can be pretty long.

I last saw Muktananda in Florida, where I went to spend a week with him. The house he was staying at was located in one of those embalmed suburban neighborhoods in Coral Gables. The houses were bland, the people invisible. The tropical sunshine seemed to gain a chill as it poured between the rows of boxlike homes. In the morning and evening Muktananda took long walks, and his orange robes, from a distance, resembled a flame promenading in the deserted streets.

It was one of the more bizarre Florida holidays anyone has ever taken: no swimming and no sunshine, hardly any sleep, and hours of sitting on Baba’s living room floor or in the hall where he gave audiences, my face vacant, my eyes sprung open, or drifting half-closed, or closing entirely to watch the inner movements of light.

I absorbed every detail of Baba’s appearance: his graceful, busy toes; his smooth shins with little scars on them; his hands like musical instruments; his face; above all, his wonderful stomach swelling under the gauzy shirt he wore in the Florida air. I knew this to be a traditional form of meditation: internalizing the visible aspects of the guru, the disciple also internalizes the guru’s perfected psychic life.

This form of meditation began of itself one afternoon while Baba was having his mail read to him. He was wearing less clothing than he had in New York, and his body seemed smooth and supple. Not at all the body of a man in his late sixties. His toes were playing with the carpet. They seemed like monkey’s toes, each one with a separate, prehensile life. He had let his arm dangle over the side of his chair, and his hand stirred faintly in the air like some kind of brown plant. For some reason, all these details fascinated me as they never had before.

When I closed my eyes, a tremendous pressure squeezed my temples. My mental eye still saw Baba lounging on his chair. It began to move from his toes to his face like a lens, while at the same time melting my own body into each image. Those were my toes, my scarred shins, my belly like a soft sun, my pursed, busy lips, my fleshy eyelids closing for a few seconds under the dark glasses, my hand stirring in the air. Later, when Muktananda had gone back to his room, I lay down on the terrace and closed my eyes. My entire field of sight was filled with intensely glowing blue tiles extending as far as the horizon. A rush of cold energy went through my body, and I experienced a feeling of total wonder. I wanted to give myself up entirely to the experience, but I was afraid to, and after a short time the tiles began to dissolve into ordinary blue light, and then a faded white light. I opened my eyes.

Such visionary moments have been rare for me, but so vivid I have had only to think about them to recall them in complete detail. I think of them as signals from a neighboring psychic realm, mental cairns which I glimpse at crucial moments to keep from getting lost or confused on this path I have undertaken. Even my many doubts and occasional sense of foolishness seem to carry a message attached to them: if you’re going to doubt, doubt for all your worth; if you’re going to feel foolish, at least feel totally ridiculous; if you’re going to be anxious, let it be the champion of all anxieties. Let your troubles burn themselves alive. Turn even them, especially them, into their underlying reality, which is energy.

On my last day in Florida, I was asked to give a talk about Muktananda and the experience of meditation. It seemed odd to be asked. What could I really claim to know about Baba, aside from my particular experience? And what did I even know about that? I had not tried to find words for the changes I was going through. Words had gotten me into the “nightmare” in the first place, or so I often felt. For years my overly articulate nature had expelled experiences from my psyche a little too quickly, as if I had needed to turn my life into meanings before it could hug me too closely. The result was that my words contained emotions, understanding, even wisdom which came from me but were not mine. I was a hostage to my words: what I spoke, I didn’t have; what belonged to my “style” did not belong to me. It had been something of a devil’s bargain, and for a while I had been willing to keep the bargain: a feeling of personal emptiness in return for good language; a private conviction of failure in return for steady doses of attention from all the hearers I could induce to gather round. It reassured me that so little of my communication with Muktananda had been by means of words.

My talk was to be at a day-long session of chanting and meditation. I woke up well before dawn and sat in a corner of my room trying to meditate. A sharp ache radiated inward from my eyes and forehead; when I closed my eyes, breakers of gray light crashed and withdrew like snow falling on dark water.

We drove to the hall where the day’s program was to take place, and I chose a place to sit near Baba’s throne. As the day progressed all I could do was to chant, weep, and try to ignore the splintered feeling in my brain. Each time I looked at Baba, I winced: his movements were like blows on my forehead. I had been told that one got such headaches sometimes. They were shakti headaches, the result of all that inner furniture being moved about; to which I added a week’s lack of sleep, the shock of leaving Baba, and the talk I was to give without knowing what to say.

Under my pain and panic a perverse thought fascinated me: if I were to make a fool of myself this afternoon, that too would be all right, because being foolish might be exactly what was required of me today. There was even a seductive logic to my thought: what in fact had I always been most afraid of? Being, or at least seeming, ridiculous. Therefore, if I fumbled for words and said foolish things this afternoon, if I even spoke disrespectfully of Baba, that would be part of Baba’s cunning. It would be his “treatment” for my obsessive self-importance, and I would swallow the treatment bravely. I would find that it tasted weirdly good. Baba would glare at me in disgust, and that too would almost be a pleasure. I almost wanted it to happen. There is a kind of authenticity in making a fool of yourself, I mused.

My turn came in the early afternoon. I stood near the front of the room and looked at the faces crowded together before me. For days I had had the haunted feeling that, one by one, I had replaced the parts of my body with Baba’s. Now, as I pursed my lips together and my eyes drifted closed, my face too became his. The warm, thick darkness I gazed at was the space of his awareness. The sharp throbbing ache behind my eyes was Baba’s egg hatching.

“We generally agree that love represents a high value,” I heard myself begin, “as in love thy neighbor, love thy parents, even love thy enemy.” As I spoke I felt Baba’s lucidity possess me once again. I had become a voice filled with his serene energy, as with a perfect weather. “Most of us would probably agree that love is our ideal emotion, and we would say it a little wistfully, because there have been only a few short times in our life when we have known, personally, the dislocating power of love. The rest of the time we find it necessary to preserve certain limits: to have affection, to like, to feel tenderness, to ‘love’ with civility and restraint, expecting the same civility and restraint in the ‘love’ that others feel for us. The other, more extreme kind of love isn’t forgotten, but we idealize it by playing rose-colored lights over it and using only elevated language when we talk about it. We direct it toward idealized objects too: beautiful women who preserve us from the danger of love by not loving us back, parents who are safely dead, or Jesus Christ whom we visualize with the aid of highly stylized images painted by artists for whom He was already a stylized ideal 1,500 years old.

“On the whole we tend to feel that an ideal is somewhat unrealistic and therefore not wholly serious. Our reverence for it doesn’t require that we change the way we live because the beloved ideal is hopelessly remote from our imperfect existences. The ideal is like a star, keeping us company from a distance. Because of the distance it is safe from our bad influence, and we are also safe from it. Love represents just such an ideal. We think of it as a heaven inhabited by beautiful forms and lovely words which we glimpse, and even approach, but only now and then.

“Yet this ideal, so far from the normal emotions of our lives that we have to select especially remote and radiant images to represent it, is marked by an almost forgotten trace of an entirely different nature. Even the most ordinary popular love songs may convey this trace, in the form of an undefined longing which can be overpowering, almost religious in its insinuating attraction. Even a pop tune has the power, sometimes, to make me feel like an exile wandering about in an empty world. In exile from what? From happiness, or from great sorrows; from whatever is the opposite of loneliness and vulnerability and politely limited emotions. We listen to the song and for a minute the ideal isn’t rose-colored anymore. It sinks its teeth into us like something hungry that would break apart our lives if we let it. All the great legends of love and death mutter and turn over in our psyches, and we hurry to put them to rest, because delirious, total love has no place among our practical values. Our capacity to cope with it has never been truly developed. That is why the Sanskrit word, bhakti, unwithholding love, has no real equivalent in our language. 'Devotion’ is as close as we come to it, and that is pale and dignified compared to the total sweetness of bhakti.

“Yet there actually was a time now forgotten when bhakti was the ruling emotion in our lives. Torrents of bhakti gushed from us in a wild unreflective spray. We were sluices of inner bhakti, and the objects of our love were looming figures, possessors of power, mysterious, unpredictable. Their being was on such a vastly different level from our own that only the maddest expense of energy could scale their heights and form a relationship. Of course, this was when we were infants, and the objects of our infantile bhakti were our parents. Never again have we loved as we loved in those days. Our lives pulsated with love. We cast it like a net far beyond ourselves, and caught in its mesh those great bulks which we grappled close and thrust within us. Yet there was never enough. We were always hungry, always loving. We could perceive the world only with love-eyes, which hurt strangely when the world resisted our need. Our bhakti was so powerful, it hit at last upon a way to solve its hunger. It would transform those resisting, unpredictable objects, our parents, into interior presences. It would rebuild them, like miraculous sculptures, within our mind, where they would actually be ourselves. Our thoughts and wishes, even the way we moved our bodies and organized our feelings, would be acts of interior bhakti; endlessly repeated hommages to our lovers.

‘‘Around this time, however, we made a discovery. The forms we had erected in our minds and worshipped until they had become the very structure of the mind itself had been created all too faithfully to their outward originals. Their style and dignity had become the foundation for our own style and dignity, but their painful contradictions, their anxieties and hopelessness, all the normal flaws of adult human nature, had also become foundations for those very same traits in ourselves. Along with our parents, it turned out that we had swallowed a strange poison, which they too had swallowed, and their parents before them in the same way.

“Our sense of betrayal must have been extraordinarily painful, because we resolved never to surrender ourselves again to the internalizing power of bhakti. We would preserve our reverence for the love which had taught us how to think and feel, but we would insure ourselves against its recurrence by turning it into an ideal.

“Now suppose that sometime in our lives, we were to meet a person who had confronted precisely the painful underside of his humanness, and had managed to eliminate it, as the body eliminates the waste part of even the most nourishing food. Having learned the nature of the ‘poison’ he had found an antidote causing it to pass gradually from his system. In many ways, he is still very much like the rest of us. He eats and sleeps, gets angry, is subject to sore throats and toothaches. His personality is rich in contradictions. He grows old as we do, and has his caprices. But precisely those self-defeating needs which our infantile bhakti had smuggled into our characters have been eliminated. So that when we meet him, our elaborate defensiveness doesn’t clash with the expected weaponry of an opponent. We defend ourselves according to custom, but there is no attack. This had never happened before. We test again, and again the mental counterthrust is missing. We are thrown off balance and topple forward, into his arms so to speak. Before we know it, we are in quite a muddle. Nothing is going according to plan. Our sensible restraints are flapping about at loose ends; on the one hand they don’t seem to work, and on the other they don’t seem needed. In fact, we are not exactly sure if our situation represents a dilemma or a liberation. All that we know is that everything seems changed. Our emotions are running riot. Our perceptions and our self-awareness pulsate with a feeling of plenitude which is so exotic we aren’t sure we know how to cope with it. So much happiness almost seems threatening. We feel the deepest layers of our psyche tremble, as from an earthquake; or rather, tremble again, as they had in some not quite remembered past.

“I guess I’m describing my own experience of meeting Baba a few months ago. I’m describing the experience of possibility which burst in my life, and which many of you may have felt too. Since then, it has dawned on me that a lucky second chance has been offered to me. Having chosen once upon a time to keep my losses to a minimum; to renounce the vivifying love which forged my being, but also produced the inner flaws of my nature, making it necessary for me to live with anxiety and disappointments; having chosen to love only in civilized doses, and therefore to become a socialized, adult human being; now, I have discovered, an awesome and wholly unforeseen occasion has arisen for me to release the suppressed coils of bhakti, to become in this respect as a little child again, casting the net of love and hauling within me yet another miraculous sculpture of another parent, Baba, the father of my second birth. This new parent has extirpated the ancient poison from his nature. Therefore, by accepting him in my mind, I am injecting, or introjecting, his perfected existence, to counteract and expel the inner harm which had convinced me, long ago, to renounce the torrential wealth of bhakti.

“Why do you think the apostles hung around Jesus all the time? Why did noblemen and peasants, during the Middle Ages, have such awe for hermits meditating in their caves all over Europe? It was because they understood the psychic perfection these holy men had achieved. They knew that by simply hanging around such men, they too might get their second chance.

“A Siddha master like Baba is, in the most profound sense, a teacher. But what he teaches is not a philosophy; it is not a system of knowledge or behavior, nor is it expressed principally in the form of wise sayings or poetry, though both are implicit in his teaching. He teaches only himself; he is himself the lesson. That is why his devotees call him Baba — Father — and feel such love for him that they are endlessly fascinated by his voice, his movements, every nuance of his presence. That is why we trust him. We have learned from experience that by trusting him we lift ourselves, degree by degree, toward the psychic balance he has achieved for himself. Trusting him we trust ourselves, and loving him we love ourselves.”

During the weeks that followed, it occurred to me that the talk I had given in Florida represented a turning point in my experience. This was as far as words would take me. I had been lifted as by a gust of wisdom, which had set me down beyond the reach of eloquence. Words had carried me as far as the beginning. Now, in a far different sense, it was up to me to begin.


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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This page was published on December 22, 2017 and last revised on May 11, 2019.


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