I love a parade
I didn't intend to do anything rebellious. It was April, 1951. Douglas MacArthur, General of the Army (a rare five star general), had just been fired by President Harry S Truman (No period after the S - Truman insisted his middle name was S) for insubordination - actually MacArthur was attempting a coup d'état - and he went on a tour of the country, where huge ticker-tape parades were held for him. (A good history of the situation can be seen here.)
On April 26, MacArthur's tour brought him to Chicago, my sweet home. A huge parade was held for him, with the crowd estimated at between 3 and 4 million people, the largest in American history. I went to the parade with my mother and sister, an aunt, and probably some cousins. We had no idea what was going on, except "MacArthur" was coming.
I was not quite six years old at the time, and probably didn't even know what a parade was. According to my aunt, we were positioned at the University of Chicago, which is on the southeast side of Chicago, in a neighborhood called Hyde Park. We waited for a while, and then I noticed a lot of commotion up the street. An open-air car was coming up the street, and hordes of people were cheering wildly and throwing things at it. It was just paper confetti, but I didn't know that. It looked to me like you were supposed to throw things at the car, but I didn't have anything to throw.
Ever the resourceful one, I saw that there was a lot of gravel along the curb gutter, and figured that must have been what everyone was throwing. It looked like great fun, so I grabbed a couple of handfuls, and called to my sister to do the same. As MacArthur rode by we let heave, picked up more handfuls, and let heave again. It indeed was great fun.
There were police on motorcycles alongside the motorcade, and I remember one of them yelling, "Hey, you kids!" But it was too late. MacArthur was gone, and we had had our fun.
The only people who remember this fun episode are my sister and me. My aunt remembers taking us there, but she doesn't remember the gravel part. My mother probably remembered, but she's not around anymore to reminisce. As the years passed, and I found out more about what the parade was about, and why MacArthur was fired, this memory has become one my my fondest childhood recollections. I'm sure MacArthur remembered it too, but perhaps not so fondly.
One of the most positive aspects of this memory is what it has to say about rebellion. I never set out to be a rebel. It just came my way. Every "rebellious" act that I can remember was something I thought was the normal or right thing to do. It just happened that what I perceived as the normal or right thing was not always in conformity with conventional wisdom.
A good example is my Catholic upbringing. I took it seriously, and even thought of becoming a priest. Actually, it was my brother who was pursuing the idea, and I got inspired. A "Maryknoll" priest even came to our house to talk to him, and I sat in on the conversation. The Maryknoll order is an organization of missionaries, and they go to poor countries around the world to convert and provide aid. (Famously, two Maryknoll nuns, a nun of the Ursuline order, and a lay associate were raped and murdered by a U.S. sponsored death squad in "El Salvador" in 1980.) I think my brother was about ten years old, and I was eight. Eight years old, and getting hustled to be a priest. At least it was by a Maryknoll. He was a lot more decent than almost all the other priests who crossed my path over the years.
Anyway, I lasted in Catholicism through graduation from a Catholic college. Since that time, because of a number of influences, not the least of which was the Beatles, I looked East. I have been pursuing the contemplative and meditative arts of the various forms of Yoga, Buddhism, Taoism, and related disciplines like Tai Chi since the early 70s.
I didn't "rebel" against Catholicism. It just didn't resonate with me as a meaningful spiritual path (I should mention that it is and has been a meaningful spiritual path for millions of people for centuries. It just wasn't for me.). There wasn't much about the Church liturgy that I found appealing, and over many years of Catholic schooling,I found the clergy to be deeply flawed human beings. Looking back on it, I have to say that only one priest whom I knew was of the child molester sort, and we didn't have any conception of such a thing then. He was a violent, alcohol abusing, frustrated being who hit boys with closed fists, and would grab guys by the penis. We just thought he was weird and dangerous, and avoided him. Thankfully, he never grabbed or hit me, but did hurl a couple of insults my way. He was the dean of boys at my high school until wealthy parents of punched sons had him removed. He was farmed-out to the library, but still got in an occasional punch. I saw him punch a guy in the nose for coming in after the bell, made him bleed all over a fresh white shirt. "Father" James Beatty, CSV, was his name, as lousy a priest as could be, eventually defrocked for getting married. Whoever would marry him will remain one of those unanswerable mysteries. I was kind of surprised that he married a woman, because he always had a "special student" who would spend a lot of time with him in his "office" in the back of the library, behind the stacks where no one was allowed to go. The special friend was never a girl.
Then there was the Dominican when I was in college who had the hots for our middle linebacker - a chiseled, strikingly handsome, really decent guy (not gay either). He got a tryout with the Denver Broncos after graduating, but it was too much even for him. The last time I saw him he was a Marine lieutenant, headed for Vietnam to be an artillery forward observer. One comical night there was a dance party out on the tennis courts, our linebacker had too much to drink, and the Dominican tried to take him back to the dorm to get him into the shower. It was textbook, like something out of Monty Python, the lisping Dominican in his long white robe complete with hood and cincture, the football player looking like an enraged god. He had been injured in spring practice, and had one arm in a sling.
The number one factor that drove me away from Catholicism, though, was its authoritarian nature. The priestly hierarchy was given dictatorial power over the spiritual life of the faithful, and as Acton's dictum has proven true time and again, this kind of power corrupts absolutely. What the Church authority amounts to is the hierarchy standing as the gatekeeper - the intermediary between you and God, the rule-maker, the granter of approval or disapproval. In grade school we were told not to associate with kids who went to public schools. They even had a name for them - the creative genius moniker "publics."
"Confession" is probably the pinnacle of authoritarian surreality. My best friend from high school was a star athlete until he discovered girls. A key player in the 1958 Little League World Series finals, he got kicked off the high school team for sitting in the bleachers with girls between innings. We used to love to go to confession just to hear him get yelled at. "You're going straight to hell," and "You did what?" would be followed by "Say 10 'Our Fathers' and 10 'Hail Marys,' and get out of here!" He would come out all red-faced, embarrassed and angry, swearing never to go to confession again. When he found out how much we enjoyed it, it became performance art, and he always provided top-level entertainment. It was the only reason we went to Confession.
I eventually found a path that I thought was real, called Siddha Yoga, or SYDA. It was organized by devotees of Swami Muktananda of Ganeshpuri in the Maharashtra state of India (The name Muktananda is pronounced as if with an umlaut, Müktananda. It is a combination of the sanskrit words "mukti" - freedom or liberation, and "ananda" - bliss. The bliss of liberation. Indian swamis - renunciate holy men - tend to take on a name that has the suffix "ananda."). I actually read about Muktananda in Time Magazine, in an article in the July 26, 1976 issue. It described how he could awaken a person's "Kündalini" energy, giving a dramatic jump-start to one's path to enlightenment. I had already been practicing a method of Kundalini Yoga that involved strenuous postures and exercises, and figured having a guru do it for me would save a lot of effort and time (Siddha Yoga was self-described as the "easy path"). I stayed with it for eight years.
Muktananda died in 1982, and by then I was getting tired and uneasy about my involvement with SYDA. "Baba" bequeathed his "lineage" to a brother and sister, Subash and Malti Shetty, to whom he gave the names Nityananda and Chidvilasananda. The sister eventually ousted her brother, and now has total control over the organization. Her followers call her "Gurumayi."
There is a website dedicated to exposing the scandals that have rocked the Siddha Yoga foundation since Muktananda's death, Leaving Siddha Yoga. It chroncles the sexual abuse, violence, threats, and other cultish behavior alleged about Muktananda, his managers, and his successors. It's worth a read. Other information about Siddha Yoga and cults in general can be found here, here, here, and here.
There's even a link there to a picture of notorious manager/abuser/child seducer George Afif at the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony with Angelina Jolie. This was no gaggle of hippies out in the woods. The rich and famous were drawn to Siddha Yoga, including such Hollywood luminaries as Olivia Hussey (from whom I relish the dirty looks she gave me - they were daggers), Marsha Mason, John Denver, Roberta Flack, Raúl Juliá (whom I had lunch with one day, by accident, a great guy), Diana Ross, and then-senator Claiborne Pell. I wrote about my acquaintance with former pro football bad boy Joe Don Looney in "Altered states." After I left other celebrities reportedly entered the picture, including Meg Ryan, Isabella Rossellini, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, and Phylicia Rashad.
I was pretty naive and unaware of what was going on at the higher levels, but what went on around me was enough to drive me away. Mostly it had to do with power - getting it, keeping it, expanding it, and using it to dominate and control other people. Money and sex of course went hand-in-hand with power, and they all combined for a pretty dysfunctional system.
One of the silly trends that swept the staff of the Siddha organization was the rapid spread of get-rich-quick schemes. Every so often a chain-letter would surface, with the accompanying guarantees of limitless wealth. People were selling each other vitamins, watches, Indian jewelry, clothing, books, and just about anything they could pick up on excursions to New York City. Those who had enough money invested in gold and in the stock market. The goal was to be able to travel with Muktananda without having to work outside the ashrams, and the frenzy over easy money extended to smuggling goods into India when "The Tour" went there. One of the ashram higher-ups got caught smuggling radios and tape recorders, but apparently some discreet bribery kept her out of the hoosegow.
Most of my experience with Siddha Yoga was while living in the SYDA ashram in Ann Arbor, Michigan, headed by the also notorious Shankar and his then-wife, the equally notorious Girija, nee Joanne Moran, sort of from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Shankar, nee Russell Kruckman, is a Brooklyn-born "Jew" who taught Shakespeare at Indiana University-Gary, of all places. He is now known as Shankarananda, and has his own following in Australia. If you are in Australia and are tempted to join the "Swamiji" sphere of influence, I have just two words of warning: stay away.
I also lived in other ashrams - Houston, Honolulu, India - and was on staff as a plumber and electrician at the main SY center in South Fallsburg, New York for two years, for part of 1979 and 1980, and from 1981 to 1983. The Fallsburg ashram was an old Borscht Belt hotel that required a lot of renovation. (Now SYDA owns several other hotels in the area.)
In Ann Arbor I was considered a heretic, or rebellious, or disloyal, because I would move out if they messed with me, which they did as a matter of course. I would stay away for months at a time, but came back, partly because of the cheap rent and low-cost meals (total $185/month, hard to pass up), but mostly for the "programs," which consisted of several chanting and meditation sessions. I loved chanting Sanskrit mantras, and the accompanying Indian musical instruments made it exotic and sometimes ecstatic. Usually the accompaniment consisted of someone playing a harmonium - a small, piano/organ-like instrument, amplified by a bellows, tambouras - 4-stringed drone instruments that look similar to the sitar, and drums - either tablas or a horizontal drum known as the mridangam.
Again, I didn't set out to rebel. I responded to the situation that I saw in front of me. I gained tremendously from the Siddha Yoga experience, and don't have the bitter memories that so many others have. My lucky advantage, as it turned out, was that I didn't seek to be in a position of power. I took Muktananda at his word, that the only thing that mattered was one's connection with one's inner Self, also known as the Atman, and that enlightenment, or self-realization was the goal of all spiritual practice. There were a couple of brief times when I was being groomed for power, but my natural irreverence for things pretentious and my independence made these very short interludes.
In order to have "power," you have to be subservient to someone. You gotta to serve somebody, as Dylan put it. I don't have a problem in being of service to humanity, but personal subservience doesn't come easy. There have been times when I would have done anything for what I perceived to be great leaders, but they have been few, and the "leaders" usually ended up being failed human beings. For a perfect example, my high school coaches. Pure crap. Ego-centered, semi-competent, ignored everyone but their favored few, played mostly weak teams, tended to lose the big games. My dad used to make up funny pronunciations of their names, which I told everyone, to their great delight. I would have sat the bench in football anyway - too small, but in track, those same coaches could have been a great help and inspiration. I ran the mile under five minutes as a freshman, and got steadily worse every year afterwards. I coulda been a contende(r).
On the "Leaving Siddha Yoga" site there is a link to an essay that I highly recommend. It covers the sinister nature of power-grabbing and abuse as well as anything I have ever seen. And it is especially pertinent to what is going on in the world today, particularly in that viper-pit of consciousness, Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America.
Swami Muktananda warned many times about seeking the powers that sometimes came with spiritual practice. What in the West is called "Black magic," can be as simple as being very charismatic to being able to control other people, to make objects appear and disappear, to being able to see the future or over long distances, and even to change the weather. The misuse of such powers carries great consequences, known as Karma. From my own experience I can't say that Muktananda abused whatever powers he had, but I couldn't help seeing a lot of circumstantial evidence, material for another day. What I can say is that he was the most charismatic, personally powerful person I have ever seen anywhere, more so than any movie star or politician on the planet. If you were within about six feet from him, you got blasted with an energy that was overpowering, and intoxicating in a manner that defies comparison. I have no regret for thinking he was the equivalent of Jesus, the Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed, and any other revered saint.
Nowadays I take the Van Morrison approach: enlightenment, don't know what it is. I figure I'll know it when I get there. It's nice to have examples, and the Dalai Lama and Geshe Sopa are pretty good examples for me, but the main thing is to practice, to meditate, to be a good person. Enlightenment will come in its own time. If it doesn't, so what? As the Zen teachers say, live in the present moment.
What is pertinent in all this for the world predicament - Can I have an Amen for the pertinence to the predicament? - is that the past success of the Bush crime family - you had to know I would come around to that - and its future success, depend on what amounts to low-level psychic powers - siddhis, in the yogic terminology. Nothing profound, just a combination of clever lying techniques, powers of persuasion, playing to people's weaknesses and fears, and also playing to people's avarice and greed in ways that make them feel important, "better" than other people, righteous, and powerful. As a perfect example of how easy it is to fool people in this country, the "Republicans" are trotting out their time-honored campaigns to ban flag burning, gay marriage and abortion, all in combination with cutting taxes (even though the tax-cutting is for the super-wealthy).
You can see the low level spiritual power at work with charlatans like Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell. Bush basically hitched a ride on their corrupt coattails, borrowing Christian "credibility" from their buildup of years of fakery. People in this country don't have much awareness of either the dangers of spiritual pursuit or the power that can be foisted on the unaware and vulnerable.
We are getting a big lesson. If effectively half the country could have fallen for the flim-flammery of one George W. Bush, then we are in deeper peril as a nation than most of us can comprehend.
We are, of course, in the winding-down phase of the scam, the swindle, the con-game that is the Bush "Administration." What the servile news media refer to as "controversial policies" aren't policies at all. They are criminal schemes. The Iraq war isn't a "policy" initiative. It is a criminal operation. The plan to bomb Iran isn't a "policy." It is a criminal scheme. Calling these criminal operations "policies" is only semantic spin used to "sanitize" crimes against humanity. Mesmerized by their own proximity to "power," denizens of the news media internalize the deceit in order to maintain their positions. It's the exact same thing I observed for years in Siddha Yoga.
So what is called for is something to break the spell. How about a parade? How about a lot of parades? Ticker-tape parades all over the country. Except with some minor variations. We need parades of generals, just like Douglas MacArthur, in open-air limousines: Tommy Franks, Ricardo Sanchez, Geoffrey Miller, Michael Hayden, William Boykin, and of course our torture-mongering Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. And let's not forget Colin Powell. The spectators, millions everywhere, would all be children, nine years old and under, though the cutoff could be flexible. And the ticker-tape would be gravel. Lots of gravel. Big bins of gravel would be available for the children to throw. I can tell you from experience that they will have the time of their lives.
And then maybe we can start doing what needs to be done.
Note: For some background on the Ishaqi massacre, click here.
To read more about my involvement in the Siddha Yoga organization, click here.
Here's a song clip to enhance the reading experience.
Here's another. This is the Blues Brothers version. The best version I ever heard was Eddie Clearwater, at the DeKalb Corn Fest in 1986, of all places. Of course, it helped that it was live, in person.
Here's yet another.
Update, January 15, 2015: There was some negative feedback to this post, especially to this: "If you are in Australia and are tempted to join the "Swamiji" sphere of influence, I have just two words of warning: stay away. " Through the grapevine I was told Shankarananda wanted to engage in dialogue with me. I declined. I have my limits. As it turns out, a number of people who should have stayed away, didn't.