Formal Studies

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Halfway through law school, I began exploring spiritual life in formats totally alien to my Jewish upbringing. It all started when one of the lawyers at the firm where I was doing a summer internship invited me along to his regular, Sunday morning yoga lesson. Ironically enough, the teacher was a religiously observant Jewish woman who happened to have her own hatha-yoga studio!

On the surface, hatha-yoga is a physical discipline consisting of a series of postures, held with a high degree of concentration. But almost from the start of that class, I sensed that more than my spine was flexing and relaxing. With each long, measured breath, I could feel my cluttered psyche unlimbering. An hour and a half later, I was in such a wonderfully calm but alert state that I promptly signed up for my own weekly yoga lessons.

My third year of law school proved a welcome respite from the competitiveness of the first two years. On the strength of my performance as a summer intern, the firm had guaranteed me a position a full year ahead of graduation. I thus was spared the rigors of job hunting with which my classmates were contending. The curriculum itself was less demanding, and with my immediate future secure, maintaining a high class ranking also lost its urgency.

It was during this happy time that I picked up a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda. In the life story of this inspired swami, I found an exotic yet vaguely familiar approach to God and religion. Had I not known such reverence myself, years before? Yogananda’s writing reminded me of the little boy who had wanted to be a Torah scroll; and made me wonder what had become of that precocious child’s naive but endearing thrust for holiness.

I thus emerged from law school with all the qualifications for budding leadership in the Jewish community. I had the birthright, the education, a Jewish wife and one of the preferred professional pedigrees, to boot. I had even taken a summer school class with famed Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and could expound upon his theory of God as “the Power that makes for Salvation” – even if I couldn’t apply it in any personally useful way. But that was to become the fly in my spiritual ointment. For what I hadn’t learned from my Judaic curriculum, communal activism or that year in Israel was how to establish a sense of connection … with Hashem Eloheynu.

Then unexpectedly, some ancient childish impetus began flickering again, like a personal Ner Tamid. And for the moment at least, Swami Yogananda was the unlikely custodian of its sacerdotal flame.




Signs and Wonders

Yogananda stressed that it was possible to know God experientially, not just metaphorically. I had seen this in tracts handed out by missionaries of various stripe (which I’d dismissed as so much self-delusion on their part). Perhaps what was different about Yogananda’s message was that he was telling the story of his own life, not threatening me with eternal damnation. In all events, my circumstances now allowed me the time and energy for some spiritual experimentation.

One day, after an hour or so of yoga postures and deep breathing, I felt particularly alert and focused. “Why not give it a try?” I asked myself. “Give what a try?” I answered. “You know, the talking to God thing.”

Since no one was looking, I allowed myself, just barely, to continue along these lines. I did some more deep breathing and found my attention gathered at the spot between the eyebrows sometimes called the “third eye.” I fancied myself putting out a signal-beam to God’s 1-800 number: “Okay, I’m here. I’m skeptical. (In fact if ever asked, I’ll probably deny we had this conversation.) But if You’re there and willing to make contact, I’d welcome some response.”

Yogananda, I remembered, had a guru to help him make the divine connection. Indeed, he had seen the face of his spiritual teacher in meditation before meeting him in the flesh. Willing to settle for such a sign, I began conjuring up visages of current day holy people whose names I’d seen on placards or in books.

“What if asking for this kind of thing (or even ‘being open to it’) means I’ve already half lost my mind?” I panicked. “Oh, give it a rest,” some more adventuresome part of me prodded. “You’ll either get some kind of response or you won’t.” Pressing ahead, I tried to visualize someone walking toward me, an item of clothing or some unique ornament by which I might later recognize my spiritual teacher. The image came to mind of a large red flower.

After half an hour or so, it occurred to me that this was the first real praying I had done since my childhood, in the sense of directing a message to God while entertaining the possibility, however remote, that He might actually hear and respond. I was skeptical, but I was doing it. Not as a ritual and not for public consumption. As some Christians might have put it, I was “knocking.”

But it also seemed clear that the images passing through my mind during this prayer and meditation were products of my own invention. In fact, I got up from the exercise rather disappointed that nothing whatever had been accomplished.

That evening, I stopped by a relative’s house where a distant cousin was visiting from England. I had no other information about him and no particular expectations for the encounter. But I soon learned it was no mere holiday that had brought Cousin Jeff to America. He’d come all this way to attend a “festival,” at the Houston Astrodome … with a 14-year-old guru named Deva Ji!

I had seen this kid’s picture on posters near the Loyola campus. In fact, he was one of the guru candidates who had come to mind during my meditation, six hours earlier. And here was my hitherto unknown cousin commending him to me now, in terms Yogananda himself might have used: as the current Satguru (true teacher), whose very job was to open my inner eye … so that I might know God for myself. “I’m not proposing you believe in Gurudeva Ji,” Jeff pitched me almost irresistibly. “Just give him a chance to show you what he can do. He’ll either deliver or he won’t.”

With the benefit of a few decades’ hindsight, I can picture God (or an administrative assistant) fielding my call: “What are we going to do for this poor guy?” They may have looked quickly around the neighborhood, spotting Gurudeva Ji in Houston and Cousin Jeff with his layover in Chicago. “This is the best we can come up with on short notice; let’s just see what he’ll do with it.”

Though more than a little intrigued, I never mentioned my meditation earlier in the day nor gave Jeff any inkling what a hot prospect he had stumbled upon. As I was leaving, he handed me a magazine about the guru to take home.

I know I wasn’t meditating or otherwise spiritually exerting myself as I sat there in my living room a few days later. But I felt my head begin to rotate, slightly and to the left. Mechanically, in slow motion; inexorably – of its own accord. Then downward just a bit, toward the coffee table ... onto which I’d tossed that magazine from Cousin Jeff the other night.

And from its glossy cover, a portly, tuxedo clad young man was staring up at me, mischievously. Sporting the gaudiest, most audacious RED CARNATION ever to have graced a guru’s lapel.

Now in 20 some years of attending religious services and reciting rote prayers, I had never had such an experience. Word of other people’s cosmic encounters with Gurudeva Ji added fuel to my fire, and in short order, I too was singing his praises.