In last week’s blog post, I dipped into the vast subject of meditation and said that I’d start to write about my own spiritual history. This is daunting because what I really want to do before I die is to write a spiritual memoir. There, I said it. That’s a book I’d like to write, and maybe I will get to.
I said last week that I’d been practicing meditation most of my life, since childhood. It’s unusual, and it’s the great blessing of my life. My earliest recollections, as a baby, are of spiritual states.
I was fortunate that my parents were intent on giving me their religion. As early as we could converse, they taught me Hebrew prayers, especially one to say and concentrate with as I fell asleep. What a gift.
When I was six and started first grade, I also started Hebrew school two afternoons a week, where I learned about Judaism and reading in Hebrew.
By the time I was about seven, my mother’s mental illness was becoming acute. She frequently went into screaming rages. We were living in a duplex on an Air Force base outside Las Vegas. I’d sometimes go hide outside, sitting in oleander bushes, where I would repeat Hebrew prayers as mantras to escape her negative energy. No one taught me this as a form of meditation. It was improv.
Fast forward past the years when the abuse from both parents became worse – a subject for some other writing – it was after my bat mitzvah, at 14, that I took my first yoga class. I only got to attend the class twice. When my mother saw how much I loved it, she banned me from attending.
There was no internet, and I had no car. But what I had was the public library and a bookstore at the mall. My parents would drop me off at the library every other week. I had an hour there and could check out ten books. I gathered and read everything then available, which was not much, about Hinduism, Buddhism, yoga and meditation. At the mall, I used babysitting money to buy a paperback book about meditation. (One of the couples I babysat for were students of Paramahansa Yogananda, and they let me read their copies of his books.)
It was then, at 14, that I began my lifelong habit of waking up at 5 a.m. That gave me about an hour of silence in the house before anyone else woke up. I’d light a candle and practice yoga and meditation using instructions in books.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
We had few books in the house, but one of them became a lifeline. It was Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, which presents an allegorical community asking questions of a spiritual master. I became captivated by two lines in it. One was: “to wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving” and another was to “think not that you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.” I wrote these lines on index cards posted to my bulletin board and used them, including the image of a winged heart–which I did not then know was a symbol of Sufism–as themes to contemplate.
In high school, I took up kundalini yoga as taught by the Sikh teacher Yogi Bhajan who was building a business empire (and, it turned out, a cult) for himself in Los Angeles. (By then I had a boyfriend who was also a yogi, and my mother relented, allowing me to attend yoga classes with him.)
Around this time, in the mid-1970s, we got an early edition of the 1971 classic Be Here Now by former psychiatrist and LSD expert Richard Alpert, who had transformed into Baba Ram Dass, disciple of an Indian guru. The book is packed with spiritual themes and practices. I believe this book changed history because it instructed the hippie generation on how to practice elements of Hinduism and Buddhism in a western life. Be Here Now had a brief section on the work of Murshid Samuel Lewis, a San Francisco elder who had taught Sufism and simple circle dances using prayers from all religions, to young hippies in the bay area before his death in 1971. Reading about Samuel Lewis in those few pages got us thinking that we wanted to find a Sufi group.
The 1970s were years of ferment in the spiritual counterculture. I dipped my toes into the flowing streams and hung out with Hare Krishnas, Vedantists, and one memorable Wiccan. I got an early edition of Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and read whatever was available about feminist spirituality.
It was shortly after high school, when I had just moved in with the boyfriend, that we found our Sufis. Taped to a wall on the UC Irvine campus where we were starting school, there was an announcement for a Sufi meeting printed, with a line drawing of a winged heart, on an orange piece of paper. We went and spent the evening learning meditation practices from the local leader of a Sufi school that had been brought to the West in the 1920s by an Indian musician named Hazrat Inayat Khan.
At the home of this local leader and his wife about a week later, on their table was a photograph of Hazrat Inayat Khan wearing a heart and wings pendant. I looked and looked at the beauty of this face. I was startled with a feeling of love and a strong sense that I wanted to just dive into the teachings of this immense being.
Hazrat Inayat Khan had passed away in 1927, after which some of his relatives had struggled over leadership of successor organizations, all of which maintained the message of the unity of all religions, which is the essence of universal Sufism.
During World War II, Hazrat Inayat Khan’s eldest daughter, Noor-un-Nissa Inayat Khan, had been a radio operator for the French Resistance and was ultimately captured and killed by the Nazis at Dachau.
Then starting in the 1950s, Pir Vilayat Khan, the eldest son of Inayat, built up an organization called the Sufi Order. By the 1970s, it had merged with the organization that had formed around Samuel Lewis, who had been one of the American disciples of Hazrat Inayat Khan. There was one organization, though not for long, as there was a divisive split in 1977.
But at age 18, I didn’t yet know that I don’t like or fit in well with organizations. I just knew that I was in love with the path of Sufism, the teachers and everyone in it. I became a student of an older woman who was a kind mother figure for me. She was a long-time student of Pir Vilayat, and she had also trained in another mystical tradition. Over a six year period with her, she aimed to teach me everything she knew.
Pir Vilayat seemed very old in the late 70s, though he was probably about 60 when I met him. He was small and spry with a gray beard and wild hair, dark, bushy eyebrows and piercing eyes. He wore a wool burnoose in ochre tones. He was one of the great meditation masters of the 20th century.
At retreats held in beautiful campground settings, he would pour into us what he knew from all the religious paths, and he would take us soaring with him into the inner worlds of light.
To this day, when I go on a retreat, I begin by remembering his soft voice, some of his instructions, and his luminosity as he sat on a rock or tree branch, infusing his love into us.
He would talk about quantum physics and the yogic chakra system in a single sentence. It was mostly over my head. I was at least ten years younger than the other students and peripheral to the scene. Older students would ask Pir about their problems with health and divorces. I found it hard to relate to their woes.
On more than one occasion, I watched while Pir listened to someone who was in deep pain. He held their hands and, with a feeling of compassion, he said: “Suffering makes the heart sincere.”
Though I was very young then, I felt that to be true.
TO BE CONTINUED