Circling Back

by Philip Goldberg

In the 1960s, I was a radical activist, working to end racial discrimination, the Vietnam War, and other social horrors. At the same time, I was trying to find answers to the Big Questions—Who am I? What am I doing here?—and to figure out how to live a more meaningful life than the ones modeled by the grownups around me. It was a tall order, wrestling with all of that, and one by one the sources I turned to for wisdom—Freud, Marx, sociology, politics—each came up short. Then, like many others in that period, I stumbled upon the teachings that were first articulated in ancient India and were later rendered in modern language by giants of the East and the West. One day, in a gallery of Buddhist statuary, I gazed at the faces of Buddhas and Boddhisatvas and thought, “Whatever those guys had, I want it.”

I read everything about mysticism and Eastern philosophy I could get my hands on. It all seemed rational and pragmatic to me, and it did not require that I accept anything on faith, just test out the methods in the laboratory of my own consciousness and see what worked. In 1968, between the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, I decided I needed a meditation practice, so I followed the Beatles’ lead and learned Transcendental Meditation. I soon added asanas and pranayama, and I was off and running.

My personal life rapidly transformed. I found a measure of reliable peace; I rediscovered joy; I restored the health I’d jeopardized with self-destructive habits; I started moving in a more positive direction. I continued my political activities, but I grew increasingly disillusioned with them, largely because my fellow activists did not exactly walk the talk of peace and freedom. One afternoon, at a meeting to plan a march on Washington, I witnessed outbursts that came close to violence; displays of misogyny that would embarrass the crudest of frat boys today; and ego trips and power games that make the U.S. Congress look like a Quaker meeting. I thought, “Wow, if the revolution comes, these lunatics will run the asylum!”

I went directly from that meeting to a group meditation. There, I saw serene people interacting with friendliness and good cheer. The choice before me couldn’t have been plainer. I turned away from political action and plunged headlong into the pursuit of enlightenment. Not that I abandoned my ideals; I just shifted from political activism to spiritual activism. I had come to see that it was basically an inside job, and social change would not come about in the absence of individual transformation. I quit my job and got trained as a meditation teacher. We would change the world one mantra at a time. The next period of my life was glorious. People started learning yoga and meditation by the thousands, and in my narrow circle everyone appeared to be evolving rapidly. Surely, a sublime new consciousness would dawn, and with it a new world.

Among the most blissful times I had in the early seventies were weekends leading meditation retreats in a rundown former Jesuit monastery in the Berkshires, named Shadowbrook. In my memory bank is a vivid montage of that place, with the landscape shifting from glistening white to pastel spring to emerald summer to the blazing reds and oranges of autumn. And another memory: a dark night of the soul on the last weekend I spent at Shadowbrook. I plummeted from bliss to blisters, as a relationship, my living arrangements, and my health fell apart at the same time. I felt angry and let down. Hadn’t I been promised that all my psychological and emotional baggage would get burned off in the fires of yoga?

Well, actually, I hadn’t been promised that. I only thought I had, because I wanted it to be true. The revelation came late one night, in my spare, silent, monastic room. I opened the Bhagavad Gita, and came upon one of my favorite passages, the one that says enlightened yogis have “equanimity in loss and gain, in pleasure and pain, in victory and defeat.” And it dawned on me: it does not promise no loss, no pain, no defeat. It does not say that yogic life is a straight linear progression of more and more joy. No, life’s ups and downs, with all their shocks and bumps and bruises, will always be there, even if fewer and less severe. The yogi’s job is to cultivate the capacity to roll with it all in equanimity and, part of that task, it occurred to me, is to face our baggage honestly and deal with it. When I drove to the Massachusetts Turnpike that Sunday, I wasn’t as bubbly as I’d been on previous Shadowbrook weekends, but I was decidedly more mature.

Shadowbrook, of course, became Kripalu. When I drive onto the grounds this month, it will no doubt boggle my mind to think that four entire decades have passed since I last taught in that location. I will reflect on the dream that many of us shared 40 years ago, and take satisfaction in knowing that it has, to some extent, come to pass: the teachings of the great masters and sages have indeed changed the world, and Kripalu’s success is one piece of evidence. At the same time, it will be disheartening to realize that the transformation of millions of lives has not yet added up to the big-time social change we had hoped for, as a glance at any newspaper will verify.

I remain convinced that it is, fundamentally, an inside job. But I’m perplexed by how to marry individual spiritual growth to collective transformation. That might be the great challenge of our era. Maybe teaching in the deep Berkshire silence will once again spark an insight into one of the mysteries of the path.

Philip Goldberg is the author or co-author of numerous books; a public speaker and workshop leader; and a spiritual counselor, meditation teacher and ordained Interfaith Minister.  

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