It was a spring night in 1989 when our seven-year-old daughter burst into our bedroom, her eyes full of tears. “Oh, Daddy,” she cried, “Are we born just to die? Is there nothing more to life? We’re here, we die, and then there’s nothing? I can’t stand it if that’s all there is!”
I was dumbfounded. Our little girl had always been precocious and sensitive, heaven knows, but where had this come from? Up to that moment, she’d displayed no more of an inclination to ruminate on mortality and the meaning of life than the average first-grader.
I, on the other hand, having recently turned forty, rarely thought about anything else! Unfortunately, I hadn’t come up with any answers—the absence of which was now a source of acute and growing discomfort as I stared into my little girl’s despairing eyes.
Well, Daddies are supposed to have answers to all sorts of questions, and sitting on the edge of the bed wearing the expression of a just clubbed fish wasn’t getting the job done. “To tell you the truth, sweetheart, I’m not too sure myself…but I think I’ve found a place where they might know about, uh…that kind of stuff. At least we could ask them. It’s up in Seattle—shall we go this Sunday?”
She agreed we should check out this mysterious place I’d mentioned and went back to her bedroom—slightly mollified it seemed—leaving me alone to ponder life’s strange twists and turns. How strange? Well, had she burst in with her questions just a few days earlier I would have had to tell her—assuming the unlikely possibility I could be honest with her at such a moment—that, yep, that’s pretty much it. You’re born, you stumble along for a few years, then: lights out. A whole lot of nothing for the rest of eternity. But lately—very lately—I’d become much less certain…
Let me now contradict myself by saying the journey to this moment actually began fifteen years earlier with the death of my father-in-law in a mountain-climbing accident. The shock of losing Jack, a brilliant, highly-respected journalist, full of life and vigor at 55, was a terrible blow to both my wife and I—but not strong enough to shake the materialist in me. In fact, it reinforced my conviction that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” However, among the effects Jack left behind were his books, many of which came into our possession.
One was a volume his mother had given him many years earlier entitled Vedanta for the Western World. A collection of articles written for the journal of the Vedanta Society of Hollywood, California back in the 1940s, the book sat mostly neglected on our shelf for years. Mostly, but not entirely. Assigned to read Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man back in high school I finished it with a grudging respect for Hinduism. The unity of all beings, the infinite number of “second chances” for erring souls, the ultimate happy ending of inevitable enlightenment for one and all—such notions were bound to appeal to a budding sixties flower child like me. Then there were certain commonalities between ancient Hindu beliefs and the discoveries of western science that appealed to my more rational side—insights into the nature of the universe similar to those of Darwin, Einstein and Hawking but predating them by thousands of years. Obviously, those sages were onto something—something intriguing enough, anyway, to keep me dipping my toes into the subject every now and then, mostly by occasionally skimming through books like Huston’s, Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen…and now, Vedanta for the Western World.
So that’s what attracted me. On the other side of Hinduism’s ledger, however…well…
Gods and goddesses, thousands—millions!—of them, a few of whom apparently sported an elephant’s head, or a lion’s body, or…who knew what? “Sacred” rivers and mountains? Demons? Animal sacrifice? The caste system? All of which struck this “sophisticated” occidental teenager as being rather, well… primitive. Even more off-putting were what I understood to be the requirements for achieving “spiritual progress.” Self-discipline? Austerity? Sitting for hours—struggling, with laser-like concentration, to turn one’s eyes around and stare inward? None of it appealed in the least to this aforementioned flower child—quoth us baby boomers, “If it feels good, do it” while our gurus of choice, The Beatles, were singing “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream…”And so Vedanta for the Western World inevitably wound up back on the shelf, next to the works of Watts and Carlos Castaneda.
A few more years passed as I trudged that crowded, well-worn path to nowhere life provides those who pursue worldly pleasures. No great crisis suddenly brought awareness that my life had been a futile endeavor. Each day arrived a little more devoid of meaning, that’s all, a little less air in the room, a little less juice in the orange. By the late eighties, existence seemed a very dry proposition indeed—a tinder-like attitude needing only a tiny spark, perhaps, to set it off. With who knew what result?
Finally, the spark came and it was tiny, all right: my employer’s insistence that I give a demonstration of computer graphics at a conference in Seattle! I despised public speaking, but the demonstration would be on a topic I knew fairly well, and I had managed to muddle through similar ordeals in the past. This time, though, something was different. As the date approached, my anxiety ratcheted up notches every day, accompanied by a new and profound weariness with anxiety itself. What was the source of this tormenting self-consciousness, a condition that had plagued me throughout my adult life? Why did the mere business of living generate so much acute discomfort? In brief, for the fifty-billionth time, some poor soul was asking himself: what’s the point of it all?
Forced by such clichéd, but undeniably compelling musings to search at last for answers, something—or someone—must have inspired me to take Vedanta for the Western World down from the shelf one last time, determined to read it far more closely than ever I had before.
To my amazement, it was as if I had never really read a word of it, ever—how had I missed so lavish a feast of wisdom, spread out page after page? Every chapter contained at least a few paragraphs that seemed to speak directly to me, and underlying everything a subtext, a voice speaking with unshakeable conviction: Yes, there are answers; yes, there is a way out of the desert.
Next, I had to know: what and where are these Vedanta Societies, anyway? Because of the book I knew California had at least one; were there others on the west coast as well—maybe even in my own state of Washington? I was thrilled to discover the answer was yes. A quick search of the phone book revealed a Vedanta Society of Western Washington in Seattle, just fifty miles from our home. Dialing its number, I arranged a visit, on a day I had to be in the city anyway to deliver the equipment I’d need for the dreaded presentation. Once there I had an extremely pleasant conversation with a woman named Devra (who I later learned was integral to the functioning of the Center; a beloved den mother looking after everyone—swamis, brahmacharis, devotees).
Having left with so positive an impression, I made a firm resolve to attend one of the resident swami’s Sunday lectures…soon. Yes, knowing how many of my “firm resolves” in the past had jellified, then evaporated, there things may have lain for a good long while, if not forever. After all, the dreaded presentation had come and gone—survivable after all—and, freed from its pressure, life suddenly seemed a bit more bearable. In the clear light of day, was I really going to abandon my comfortable rut? Throw away a lifetime of disbelief, based on what struck me now as clear-headed, skeptical thinking—all because of a momentary panic? It was beginning to look like the Good Lord would have to supply a little extra motivation if He really wanted me to take a seat at next Sunday’s lecture. The very next night that motivation arrived as described above, in the form of a precious child shedding copious tears. One Sunday later—Mother’s Day, auspiciously enough—she and I attended our first lecture. From the moment I first heard the Swami speak, I knew this was it. I was hooked.
My daughter attended until she found respite from the questions tormenting her, gradually she tired of the weekly 100-mile round trip to Seattle, so I started going either alone or with my wife. Now in her thirties, my daughter and her husband attend a Presbyterian church near their home in Tacoma.
As for me—my introduction to Vedanta ended with my initiation, through the indescribable grace and compassion of Thakur, Ma and my revered guru, Swami Bhaskaranandaji, on October 10, 1991. And that, of course, was only the beginning…