This post is the Preface of my first book, The Guillotine of Silence: It’s Never How You Think It Is, available in paperback and e-book formats from my bookstore. This piece recounts how I met Swami Muktananda and my “asking permission to leave” conversation that, inexplicably, re-routed the course of my life. I now think of that conversation as my personal initiation into the possibilities of life beyond the mind, as Baba might call it, or the thoughstream, as I call it. I tried to map the border crossing to this life forty years later with The 5 Principles of Authentic Living. The pictures are circa early- to mid-70s, in the ashram in Ganeshpuri, India.
In 1969, I lived in a wood shack near the village of Trinidad, about thirty miles north of Arcata, California. I was supposed to be studying Eastern philosophy at Humboldt State College but spent hardly any time in class. Instead, I sampled a variety of hallucinogens, sat zazen and practiced Aikido, followed the saga of Carlos Castaneda, and read haiku poetry — tiny bridges of words that are connected to the immense emptiness behind conventional thinking and meaning. During this time, I encountered the world of silence and in that silence I first experienced that the physical world perceived by the senses was a mere tissue hiding something vast.
It was in search of that vastness that I traveled to India. In 1973, I set off with a friend whom I had met the year before in Israel. Eric and I had decided to go overland from Europe. We set off from Paris, hitchhiking to Brindisi, Italy, intending to take the ferry to Greece, and then trains and buses through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and into India.
During one of the station stops in eastern Turkey, Eric and I ventured out to the platform, where we met another traveler, a Frenchman. Herve was a shepherd who was returning to India to see his “guru,” Swami Muktananda. The three of us struck up a friendship and journeyed together another two months, ending up in Delhi, India. We had endured and enjoyed much and had formed a great bond of love. In India, Herve invited us to visit him at his guru’s ashram near Bombay. But Eric and I were headed to Bhutan, so as we parted company to go our separate ways, I was sure I would never see Herve again.
I never made it to Bhutan. I think that the vast silence I was searching for took control of my itinerary. I was first sent to a small ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the resident guru, Neem Karoli Baba, had passed on just days before. I stayed there for about a week. During that time I heard many stories of Muktananda, and several people suggested I visit him.
Returning to Delhi, Eric decided that he wanted to study the sitar in Benares. I bought a third class ticket and boarded a train for Madras. My next adventure, courtesy of the silence, was a two week vipassana meditation retreat with Goenka, a Burmese teacher. I subsequently visited Satya Sai Baba’s ashram, and wandered around south India. Several months later, I ended up in Bombay. I thought of Herve.
I climbed into a battered red bus and spent the day crawling the 60 miles to visit him in his guru’s ashram. I entered through a circular gate into the small marble courtyard that is the entrance wearing sandals, white cotton pants and shirt, and carrying a small rucksack.
Herve was in a Bombay hospital, expected back soon, and Muktananda was up north in Kashmir with a few disciples. I was invited to stay as a guest until Herve’s return. I settled into a tiny room with a cot and mattress and a view of the rice paddies and plantain trees. The ashram was quite beautiful and clean, a real oasis from the pounding I had taken wandering around India for five months. Herve returned two days later, and he became my enthusiastic guide through the ashram’s rigorous discipline.
One was expected to wake up at 3:30 AM and pretty much remain engaged with meditation, chanting Sanskrit hymns, or work of one sort or another until 10:00 PM. As I was still but a guest, I was allowed some leniency. I managed a few hours a day of meditating and chanting, pitched in with the dishes and the gardening. Sometimes, a few of us would escape to the dingy yellowed tea shop next store, where in deep shadows we’d drink strong tea strained through a T-shirt unwashed in over a decade.
I began to get restless. I wanted to head up to Benares to meet Eric. Herve went nuts when I told him I wanted to leave. He insisted I wait a few more days to meet his guru. French shepherds can be very persuasive. I relented.
A few days later, a current of intense excitement went through the ashram. Muktananda was coming home. In the late morning we all gathered densely in the front of the ashram with the usual cacophony signaling auspicious events: bells, trumpets, conches, gongs, and clapping, shouting, and stomping. Suddenly, there was the guru.