Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of interviews with spiritually awakening people. I’ve done 620-something of them now. And if this is new to you and you’d like to check out previous ones, please go to batgap.com, B-A-T-G-A-P, and look under the past interviews menu, where you’ll find the old ones arranged in several different ways. This program is made possible through the support of appreciative listeners and viewers. So if you appreciate it and would like to help support it, there’s a PayPal button on every page of the website, and there’s also a donation page that explains some alternatives to PayPal. Speaking of previous interviews, my guest today is Phil Goldberg, whom I interviewed 11 years ago, nearly. And Phil and I have known each other for over 50 years. In the last interview I said 40 years, now it’s 50. And we’ve been good friends for all this time and had some interesting adventures together. And incidentally, you might like to listen to the first interview we did together, although I apologize for the imbalance of the audio tracks. In those days, I didn’t have two-channel audio as I do now, and so my voice is about twice as loud as Phil’s. I know that because I listened to it this week. But otherwise, it was good content. So welcome, Phil. Good to have you.
Phil: Thanks, Rick. Great to be with you again.
Rick: And let me just read Phil’s bio a little bit. So Phil has been studying the world’s spiritual tradition. Oh, I’ve got to show you guys something. So I mentioned that Phil and I knew each other 50 years ago. Here’s a picture of us 50 years ago, roughly. I don’t think you can see it, but the audience can. And that’s obviously Phil on the left. You had a funny story about this photo, Phil. I think your nephew or somebody saw it. Tell us that story.
Phil: I was giving a TM lecture sometime in the ’70s. And then whoever took it sent it to me several years ago, and I showed it to my nephew, who was then nine. And he said, “Who is that?” And I said, “It’s me. It’s Uncle Phil.” And he said, “That’s you? What happened?” [laughter] And I crack people up by telling them that story ever since. He, of course, doesn’t remember it, but it just says so much.
Rick: Yeah, I told Irene that story, and she cracked up. She thought that was great. The ravages of time. But to tell you the truth, in many respects, I don’t know about you, I feel younger now than I did then. Wasn’t there a Dylan song? I was so much–
Phil: I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now. I know exactly what you mean, except when some of the arthritis in my hip reminds me that I am, in fact, older. But I do feel more youthful in many ways. And I know more, I’m wiser, and one of the ways I’m wiser is I don’t think I know everything like I did back then.
Rick: I sometimes think, “Okay, I really wish I could redo high school in my current state of mind.” I would have gotten so much more out of it in college. Incidentally, speaking of hips, I have a friend who had both hips replaced, and he regularly hikes the Grand Canyon and things like that, so go ahead and do that if you need to. So here’s your bio. Phil has been studying the world’s spiritual traditions for more than 50 years as a practitioner, teacher, and author. He trained as a transcendental meditation teacher with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1970, as did I, we were on the same course, and later became an ordained interfaith minister and spiritual counselor. As a public speaker and workshop leader, he has lectured and taught at major venues throughout the U.S. and India. As a professional writer, his articles and blogs have appeared in numerous print and online publications, and he has authored or co-authored more than 25 books, including an upcoming novel and such celebrated nonfiction as “The Intuitive Edge–Understanding Intuition and Applying It in Everyday Life,” “Road Signs on the Spiritual Path–Living at the Heart of Paradox,” the award-winning “American Veda–From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation,” “How Indian Spirituality Changed the West,” which I talked about a lot in the previous interview, and his relatively new book, which I just listened to, “The Life of Yogananda–The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru,” and his latest book, “The Timely Spiritual Practice for Crazy Times–Powerful Tools to Cultivate Calm, Clarity, and Courage.” He has produced e-courses for spirituality in practice and has taught many online courses, most recently “The Yoga of Intuition and Creativity,” “Four Pathways to the Divine–How Hindu Dharma Transformed the West,” and the forthcoming “An Immersive Exploration of the Iconic Autobiography of a Yogi.” His special 12-part series, “Spiritual Practice for Crazy Times” for Unity Online Radio, features interviews with well-known spiritual teachers. He is currently working on two nonfiction books and a sequel to his novel. In addition, he blogs regularly on Elephant Journal and Spirituality and Health, co-hosts the popular Spirit Matters podcast with our mutual friend Dennis Ramundi, and it has a YouTube channel also, and leads American Veda tours to India. He serves on the board of the Association for Spiritual Integrity. I’m an advisor to that organization and helped found it, and his website is philipgoldberg.com. So, I don’t usually read fairly long autobiographical sketches like that, but that was good. It packs in a lot, and probably you wouldn’t remember to mention all that stuff if I just asked you to wing it.
Phil: Thank you. I appreciate it. Let’s just kind of–
Rick: speaking of winging it, I have some notes here, but I think we’re just going to have a fairly extemporaneous conversation and cover all kinds of stuff, and as I often say to my guests, don’t hesitate to say whatever comes to mind. Don’t wait for me to ask a question about it, because I might not think to. If you feel like launching into some segue, just go ahead and do it.
Phil: All right. Sounds like good jazz.
Rick: Yeah, right. That’s what it is. So, I just listened to your book, and I enjoyed it a lot. I, of course, have read “Autobiography of a Yogi,” which probably most of the people listening to this have, and if they haven’t, I highly recommend it. They really should. It’s quite a book, and it got a lot of us started on the spiritual path.
Phil: I should note, by the way, that it’s the 75th anniversary of the publication of “Autobiography of a Yogi,” and there’s a lot going on to celebrate that.
Rick: And I know that people ask you, “Well, why write a biography of Yogananda when he already wrote this great autobiography?” But having now read both, there’s a lot of stuff in your biography that wasn’t in his autobiography and wouldn’t have been. I mean, he just wouldn’t have gone into all that stuff, but it really shows his human side, I think, to a great degree, and his, perhaps, vulnerabilities, if we want to call them that, the trials and tribulations that he underwent as he pursued his mission, largely in the West, and some of the stuff he had to deal with. I don’t know. It just gives you a better feeling of the man. And in fact, I mean, the autobiography itself, I don’t know what percentage of it was actually about him. A lot of it was just about all these yogis and saints and people that he had encountered or even just heard about.
Phil: The “Autobiography of a Yogi” is probably the most influential book on spirituality, at least, well, in the last 75 years, at least. When I was researching American Veda, and I asked people what got them on their spiritual path, if they mentioned a book, it was far and away the most often mentioned book. The second most mentioned book, I should say, was Ram Dass’ “Be Here Now.” But when I interviewed Ram Dass, he mentioned “Autobiography of a Yogi.” So it is a hugely influential book. And when I wrote “American Veda,” I had a chapter to devote to Yogananda, because he was so influential in the saga of Eastern teachings, of the teachings of yoga and Vedanta and the whole sort of Indian legacy, that I gave him a full chapter. And while researching it, I realized he had a really interesting human story. And we know a lot more about his human story than we usually do from renunciate gurus who don’t talk that much about their past. And I felt, oh, I wish I had more space. And then after the book was published, and I was thinking what to do next, I thought, what about a full-on biography of Yogananda? And there are other gurus I wrote about that would deserve that. But my first question to myself was, well, but he wrote the “Autobiography,” so what is there? So I revisited “Autobiography of a Yogi,” and that’s when it really hit me how much he leaves out. There are places where he says things like, “And four years passed.” And, you know, he talks about his four years in Boston, which is where he started. He came here in 1920 to Boston and spent the first four years of his, what would ultimately be more than 30 years in America, in Boston. And it says, “And four years passed in Boston,” and I taught a lot of people, and that was it. And I said, wait a minute. What were those four years like? Here’s a guy who grew up in a part of the world where, you know, it seldom got below 60 or 70 degrees, and he was in Boston, and he showed up in September. And what was the winter like? What was it like being a long-haired, dark-skinned man in Boston in 1920 when there was so much racism alive and, you know, no one had — very few people, anyway, had seen an orange-clad, you know, Hindu? What was it like? How did he get started? So I set out, and I realized there’s a lot of gaps to fill. And you’re also right that the book is called “An Autobiography of a Yogi,” and it is to a large extent, but it’s also other things. It’s a treatise on Indian philosophy. It’s portraits of incredibly interesting people who are not Yogananda, like, you know, saints and yogis and siddhas and people like Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore and Luther Burbank. And, you know, so it’s a lot of things, not just a straight-on memoir. And so I felt there was room, given his importance and the number of people who admire him and revere him, there was room for telling the larger human story that’s not in “Autobiography.”
Rick: One thing that struck me as I was reading the book, even though I had already read “American Veda” and I was somewhat familiar with the history of the Vedanta Society and Vivekananda coming here and everything, one thing that struck me was, you know, what a splash he made in the West back in the ’20s. You know, 6,000 people would turn out for a lecture, and, you know, it was really kind of big news sometimes when he would travel around, because somehow I just have this bias that, you know, well, Eastern spirituality didn’t really take off until the late ’60s and early ’70s, because that was what it took off for us. Because we lived that.
Phil: A lot of groundwork was laid by Vivekananda and his lineage and Yogananda and his work and the “Autobiography of a Yogi.” I mean, you’re right. It really took off from ’67 through the ’70s. But, you know, things were different then. Mass media. I mean, Yogananda was at the birth of radio. You know, the immigration laws had changed. Jet planes, you know, were available. And the ’60s happened, and the explosion of interest in consciousness expansion. And the Beatles happened. The Beatles went to India with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and that was huge. But a lot of the people who turned out for Maharishi and for Muktananda and for Satchitananda had read “Autobiography of a Yogi.” And, you know, they didn’t all become disciples of Yogananda. They found other teachers. But there was groundwork laid. And you’re right. In the ’20s and ’30s, he started filling auditoriums. But it didn’t start that way. His first, you know, public talks after, he came here to speak at a conference and then waited around to see what would happen. And then he got invited to speak at a church. And he was giving talks to 10, 12 people in people’s living rooms. You know, they all start that way. I know people who, you know, went to see Amma on her first, you know, times. And it was just small rooms of people. But then word grew, support grew. You know, people who were influential came aboard his work, trained, you know, sort of clued him in to how Americans think and how to reach them. And before you knew it, he was, he actually in ’27, I think it was, filled Carnegie Hall.
Rick: You and I are quite familiar with Maharishi, both in his public presentation and behind the scenes. And in a way, some ways, Yogananda reminded me of him in terms of his, like, almost childlike enthusiasm for everything. You know, I mean, he wanted to go sightseeing. He wanted to try different food. And, you know, he would play pranks on people and, you know, do odd things. You know, stick something in somebody’s ears in one of your chapters and, you know, all kinds of kind of playful things.
Phil: That, yeah, that kind of playful innocence, which I’ve, you know, I’ve seen in a lot of gurus, you know, people, swamis, that sort of innocent joy in the little things of life. You know, and both of the, you know, the people we’re talking about are monks. They’re renunciates, but they, they like to laugh and they like to be made to, you know, have a good time. And there’s a lot of that in Yogananda that I learned about from reading letters and memoirs and things of people who knew him. And that’s the kind of thing that when you said there would be things in my biography that he wouldn’t write about. Why would he write about practical jokes? And, you know, like he may have mentioned that he liked to cook. He liked to cook for people and liked to, you know, have banquets and honor people and all that. But he, you know, he went to Western movies, you know, in the 30s and 40s. So, yeah, there’s that part of thing. He loved to travel. He collected souvenirs. He loved the American landscape.
Rick: Yeah, he’d go to Yellowstone and all kinds of places like that. Another thing about him, which again is characteristic of several such people that I’ve known, is his incredible energy. I mean, he only slept a few hours a night, right? And he would just go and go and go. And I mean, that kind of says something about, you know, what at least some type of enlightenment can be. It’s something above the norm in terms of the way a human being can function. And that’s an impression you get when you meet a great soul like that is, “Whoa, I didn’t realize people could be like this.” You know, this person is so much different than everybody else I’ve ever encountered.
Phil: Yeah, and people who knew him would say that. But that business of working hard, you know, the gurus were familiar with the ones who came here, especially. They’re mission-driven. They came here for a reason. And if they developed a following, it was because they felt, you know, they were bringing something to the West that, you know, hadn’t been brought before or was supplementing what came before. Maybe it’s a different angle on the yogic repertoire. Maybe it’s, you know, a different, you know, because what we call Hinduism, you know, this Sanatana Dharma of India, and especially if you include Buddhism and Jainism and Sikhism. And, you know, it’s vast and so diverse. And they all brought different angles, different priorities, different orientations. So, you know, Muktananda brought Kashmir Shaivism and, you know, Kriyananda, I mean, Yogananda brought his Kriya Yoga lineage. But they’re mission-driven and they work really hard. We both know people who could barely fall asleep, you know, stay awake. And Maharishi was going, you know, at 2, 3 in the morning, working them. And apparently, Yogananda was very much like that. So they have a certain energy, but they’re also, you know, they have a sense of Dharma. You know, this was their, that’s why they were here. And they were fulfilling a mission that they felt was given to them and that they didn’t question. And they worked very hard. Yogananda worked really hard. And when you think about what he was up against, 1920s were very different from the ’60s and ’70s. The resistance was more, racism was more. And then the Depression came and they could barely pay the bills. You know, there were challenges. There were people who were trying to bring him down. There were things he had to deal with and he dealt with it.
Rick: Yeah, I mean some of the things he dealt with, for instance, like you just said, there were financial pressures. And, you know, the Great Depression came along and a lot of people who had been able to support him no longer were able to. And that was a struggle. And there were all kinds of things he had to do to deal with that. And then he had some fairly, some people who were really close to him and kind of his right-hand man, so to speak, who ended up leaving him and eventually trying to sue him. You know, so he had some kind of betrayal kind of situations that he had to deal with. And your book portrays his personal reaction to those things, both in terms of the emotional impact it had on him and also, you know, the strategies he tried to employ to deal with these folks, you know. Obviously, fighting fire with fire and having to resort to legal recourse of various kinds.
Phil: Yeah. And on top of the actual lawsuits, and there were two important ones, as you said, people who had been close to him, they made front page stories in the Los Angeles newspaper. So this happened after he set up his headquarters in L.A. And so he had to deal with the media backlash and the public perception of things, as well as the actual lawsuits and hiring of lawyers and the sense of betrayal and all the rest of it. And one of the interesting things about that, that comes out, that, you know, another thing that wouldn’t be in his own memoir, there were times, and this is on record, it’s in letters and everything, where he just felt, you know, I don’t need this. I just I want to go back to India. I want to do what I originally set out to do, which was to be a sannyasi, to be a monk. And the one time he did go to India, he was in India for a year, the only period that he was not here from 1920 till his passing in 1952. And he, you know, he visited monks and he just he said, I want to part of me, wants to stay here. And just like walk along the Ganges and be with God. And that’s what I that’s why I renounced, you know, the householder life. That’s why I became a monk. I did not. He called organizations hornets nest. You know, he didn’t want to be involved with all that not craziness, but he knew it was necessary. And it was the mission was the most important thing. And there were a few times where he said, I may not come back. I may I may go back to India and stay there. But he didn’t. And he actually it reminded me of that scene in Godfather three, where Al Pacino says, every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in. He said on one of those occasions, he just he went to Mexico to be by himself for a while. And he said, you know,
Rick: Yogananda did not Al Pachino.
Phil: I just yoga. Right. And he said, you know, I, I, I asked Mother Divine, I asked the Divine Mother, please let me just go back to India and be a humble monk. And she said, no, you got to go back. You got you got work to do. And so he did. And, you know, you have to admire that because and it’s one of the many ways where if you look into the lives of somebody like that. You you find inspiration for your own path and you find kind of a role model situation because you think, I think my life is hard. You know, so did his life was hard and he was a monk. You know, he didn’t sign up for this, but he did what was he did what had to be done. And he did it in that spirit of establishing yoga, perform action that from, you know, as best as he could to maintain his inner state of peace and bliss. And to be joyful and to treat people well and to behave honorably and with dignity. At the same time, he had to work really hard and and he was up against very big challenges. So you think, OK, every time I think I want to just get out of here and renounce the world and go live in an ashram. I think, well, you know, I’d probably go there and get bored and get annoyed at the monk in the next room.
Rick: When we look at the story at the stories of, you know, several, quite a few in Eastern teachers who came to the West, it seems that the impact of Western culture got to them somewhat. In other words, compromise their integrity or their integrity. It was compromised. They allowed it to be compromised or whatever. They weren’t able to maintain quite the impeccable image that they tried to portray. Do you feel like anything like that happened with Yogananda or did he really kind of maintain a very high standard?
Phil: Well, most of what you’re talking about, which is why you started the Association of Spiritual Integrity and why I’m involved, too. You know, there was so much disillusionment about some of the gurus in the 60s and 70s and later, you know, and especially some of the self-anointed spiritual teachers. So we’re very aware that this happened. When I was looking into Yogananda’s life, I came to realize there are people to this day. This is 80 to 90 years later, arguing over whether he had affairs with some of the women in the ashram that became the international headquarters of his self-realization fellowship. This is three, four generations later and people are still arguing about this and looking for evidence.
Rick: But there weren’t any women who said that it happened, were there? That’s a difference between him and some other gurus.
Phil: There was one woman who in a letter said he tried to kiss her or hold her or something. But there’s reasons to doubt the veracity of it. And even if it does, she didn’t say they had sex. She didn’t say, you know, he forced himself on her or anything like that. It was all very 1920s.
Rick: So people were interpreting, you know, what might have happened when they saw people go into his room late at night.
Phil: That’s right. They saw people go, women going into his room late at night. And then, you know, as we said earlier, some of these yogis, they work till three, four in the morning and then sleep for a few hours. So you had people coming in, they were working. That’s the story. And you think, well, if he was going to be doing that, if he was going to have affairs, he certainly wouldn’t do it by, you know, parading women in his room in this place where everybody would see them. It would be more more clandestine. And there were accusations of that. There’s people who claim he fathered children and they can show you, look how much this one looks like this person, all that. And I went into the project thinking, OK, maybe he did. Maybe he did have some fall from grace. Maybe he did, as other gurus have. It wouldn’t detract from my respect for the work he did. But I’m writing a biography. I have to be objective. I’m going to look into the evidence. And, you know, people were hoping I would be the one who blew the whistle on Yogananda. And, of course, on the other side are people for whom such a thing would be totally unthinkable because he was he’s a sainted figure. It’s impeccable human being. How could it possibly happen? And I was saying, well, let’s see where the evidence leads. And I didn’t find anything really convincing, just sort of speculative and inferred.
Rick: And and there were some DNA tests which didn’t pan out.
Phil: There were DNA tests about the one of the alleged children, and then there are people to this day who say that SRF tampered with the DNA samples and it was not real. You know, and so there are people who, you know, will who were disappointed that I didn’t find, you know, that I didn’t declare the truth of Yogananda’s transgressions. And there were other people who thought I shouldn’t have even mentioned it because it’s so unthinkable. And that’s the extremes on this thing. And I found the same thing when writing American Veda and looking into the scandals of the 60s and 70s. There would be those extremes as well, even in the light of very convincing evidence. There would be people who said, no, no, no, it can’t be. He would. My guru would never do that. You know, so they’re human. And one of the things I liked about working on Yogananda’s story was telling the human story. He was worried about money. He got angry that when, you know, people disappointed him and all that. And, you know, I thought this was great. I can see it in the letters that were made available to me. He was he was annoyed at some people. He was upset about this and that and worried about money and the future of his organization and the, you know, whether it would endure all that throughout his time. And you think, oh, he’s an enlightened yogi. He wouldn’t worry. You know what me worry. Right. He wouldn’t he wouldn’t be concerned about that. You know, the God will support him and he would have had faith. And he had a certain equanimity, it would seem, and a certain grace. But he did worry and he did get angry. And there was a human part of him. I love that. And he was also very kind and very loving. The other human qualities come out. He was very close to his family. A lot of renunciates in certain orders. They, you know, they don’t they just disassociate from family life. No, he was in touch with his father. It was so sweet to read about his reunion with his family when he went back to India and all that. So he had a sentimental side. The human part of the equation is, you know, to me, terribly important for us to emphasize. So, you know, people love to put gurus up on a pedestal and then they love to tear them down. And in the meantime, they’re still human beings.
Rick: I thought you approached it in a very fair way and you were just trying to get at the truth as best you could. You didn’t have a bone to pick one way or the other.
Phil: No, and I was fully prepared to say, hey, look, you know, I really admire Yogananda. And, you know, his impact and his influence is so incredibly important. But look what I found. It looks like, you know, he did have a fall from grace, but I didn’t. Nothing was convincing enough.
Rick: One interesting aspect of his personality that I found that your book highlighted was his indomitable will. It’s like there was this story about when he was a child and he fancied some orange candies that were in a shop. Tell that little story.
Phil: It’s fresher in your mind because you just heard it.
Rick: Basically, he just really was fixated on these orange candies. He really wanted them and he was like, you know, not taking no for an answer and making a big fuss. And finally, his mother had to go late at night and wake up the shopkeeper because I guess the family couldn’t sleep until Yogananda got these candies. And that’s interesting because I’m always a little bit fascinated, both philosophically and in my own experience, with the balance between asserting one’s will versus not insisting that things happen in any particular way so as to be more in tune with the will of God.
Phil: And if you reach a certain level of consciousness, presumably, then your will is the will of God and you’re a vehicle for it.
Rick: And maybe if God really wants orange candies, then you’re going to scream until you get them.
Phil: Well, but here’s another thing about it. There are people, first of all, let me say human will and strength of mind. He taught that a lot. He spoke about it a lot. You want to accomplish something, will powers. And he really emphasized that a lot. And he did. He had this indomitable will and, you know, showed up and there’s many other examples of that. But the other part of that. Is. When he a lot of his closest disciples, the people who are for whom he’s master, they call him master. There’s people who think, you know, he was born enlightened and is maybe an avatar and and all that. But in my reading, my evidence, you see the evolution of his spiritual life throughout through time. He was writing about breakthroughs of consciousness. And he wrote long letters to people that I read that describing, you know, these these experiences that, you know, people like you and me would probably say, should I wish that would happen to me? You know, breakthroughs. And if you if you look at them over time, they. They’re indicative of the kind of stages of growth of spirituality or conscious evolution of consciousness that, you know, there are prototypes for there are models for. And there were, for example, periods of going into deep samadhis on spontaneously and then coming out and describing them to people and writing in letters. And there was one moment where he said, from now on, I will always have this inside me and you won’t know it. You won’t be able to see it. I won’t look any different, but he just knew it had that breakthrough into some permanence of of that higher consciousness and realization of the self. Well, that to me is a sign that he he experienced spiritual growth. He wasn’t born that way. He was a seeker and he had his own sadhana and his own pursuit of higher consciousness and moments of realization and breakthroughs. And, you know, we don’t get to see that in the so-called enlightened ones very often. But he left behind a record of that. And I love and there were stuff that, you know, I just couldn’t put it all in in my book about him. I just had to choose some of them carefully and make choices. But it was there. And the other piece of that is that indomitable will as a kid. He knew that he was meant for the monastic life of of a seeker and spiritual leader as a kid. I always I always joke when I’ve talked about this. It’s like when we were all teenagers and we all had people that we knew who were called ringleaders. And they were they would like be the ones who threw a party or did some mischief. You know, let’s go shoplift. Let’s go do this. Let’s, you know, whatever. Borrow dad’s car. You know, Yogananda was a ringleader, but he was organizing satsangs. As a as an adolescent, he would gather his friends and go see, you know, this guru who’s in town, Swami. They heard about or go to the temple because it was a festival of some kind. And he was going to see every guru, every Swami, every person he could meet and talk to. He was also pretty athletic. He was he was a good athlete. He he ran races. He was apparently very fast. But his main activity as a teenager was spiritual. And when he was 15, he started an ashram. You know, that’s a mark. It was there. And he he went off beginning at age like 12 or 13, three different times, just left home. To go off to the Himalayas to find his guru and the family had to go running after him and bringing bring him home. You know, he got pretty far from Calcutta. I have the mileage and what it would take. I don’t remember the details, but I said, wait a minute. He was like 12, 13 or 14 or whatever. And he went from he he took a bag of stuff and created some subterfuge and got on a train and went on his way to Rishikesh. And he only got as far as Haridwar before they found him and brought him back. And so I calculated how long that would take now on a train. And it was a major undertaking to do this. He was, you know, an adolescent. So, you know, that the passion, the pursuit of the divine was just that strong and that obvious even when he was a kid.
Rick: Who did he think he was in past lives? What was it, Alexander the Great or some such thing? William the Conqueror, I forget.
Phil: William the Conqueror. Yeah. Arjuna. But, you know, well, that one, was that him saying it or was it somebody saying it about?
Rick: Yeah, I heard that he said that. I don’t know. Maybe somebody said it about.
Phil: And, you know, I’m asked about that, you know, and I’m agnostic. I don’t know about people’s past lives. People have told me who my past lives and I don’t know what to take seriously or what not to. But, you know, there you know, when he’s he told followers he had been William the Conqueror. So now those followers wanted to be the people around William the Conqueror. So they made their choices.
Rick: Another thing about him was that we’re not going to spend this entire interview talking about Yogananda. So far we are. We don’t have to. We can’t. But another thing about him was he would often have visions of something that was going to happen and then that very thing would happen.
Phil: Yeah. And, you know, that’s part of the autobiography of a yogi. People talk about the the number of miracles and wonders and super normal psychic experiences that he describes, not just his own, but even more so those of great yogis. And and they’re all there. You know, the miracles of people levitating and people being in two places at the same time, compared to a lot of the wonder works in the book, his own, you know. Premonitions and psychic insights seem almost ordinary compared to some of the other stuff. And in my experience, there’s two kinds of people who read the autobiography of a yogi and for whom, you know, the book had an impact. People who are drawn to the miracles and wonders. And there’s a lot of them in the book and think, you know, that’s what opened their eyes. This is great. They can’t get enough. And people who don’t believe a word of it. They they they’re skeptical. They think he made it up or he’s gullible. And, you know, these things didn’t really happen. There’s. But they like other aspects of the book. And so they’re fans of it. Nevertheless. And he makes an effort in the book, you know, it came out in 1946 of putting those things in the context of the science that was available at that time. Laws of physics, as they were known, he has a whole chapter called the Law of Miracles. And so he attempts to, you could say sensationalize, but make a big deal of them and at the same time, explain them rationally and scientifically with the emphasis on these are things that are possible. If you you know, if you’re a yogi and you do your your you know, you evolve to those states. But like all the other great teachers, he also said, don’t get caught too caught up in that stuff.
Rick: I tend to think those things are possible myself. But as some skeptical friends of mine have pointed out with with whom I’ve been having conversations, this stuff always happens in the past. You never you never see anybody now even, you know, who can do this stuff. And therefore, you really wonder whether it ever happened. Why wouldn’t it be happening now if it happened then?
Phil: Well, I know those arguments and the counter arguments to that are things like you have no idea how much they’re going on just because you haven’t experienced them. But there are yogis in the Himalayas and all that that are doing these things all the time. That’s one reaction to that, whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. And people will say, but, you know, people have psychic experiences all the time. And, you know, some people have a more intensely than others.
Rick: Yeah, psychic. I mean, there’s people like Dean Radin and all who who study this stuff. And but it’s this this sort of, you know, you have to be a master of statistics to to actually discern the significance of various measurements. And now there’s nothing obvious going on, like walking on water.
Phil: Right. But I know. But people might say, oh, yes, but it happens up in the Himalayas. And it wasn’t happening on the streets of Calcutta in Yogananda’s youth. But they heard these stories and then he claims to have witnessed some of them. Well, you know, a skeptic would say, well, he you know, he’s he’s seeing what he wanted to see. Or it was a trick the gurus do. You know, they knew how to make you think they’re levitating or manifesting things.
Rick: You know, our friend Dana Sawyer, who has been all over India many times, and he knows all these tricks like it. And so he he would, you know, see these guys on the street making their palt stop. And he said, oh, you have a walnut under your armpit, you know, or or the milk is dripping down. Oh, yeah. Yeah. You did something with a sponge in your hair or whatever. But then he said the one thing he ever saw, which he couldn’t explain away, was this guy who could swallow a live snake and then regurgitate it. He said that that was not some hocus pocus. He said he saw the guy do it.
Phil: I do it every Thanksgiving. Yeah. You know, and the other thing they’ll say is, well, the atmosphere in the world is so much more corrupted now. And, you know, that when the atmosphere was pure and, you know, in the along the Ganges and, you know, in the Himalayas, then these things were more possible. I don’t know. And I don’t much care. But I’ll tell you, there’s one one thing that I have to bring up. I always wondered why so many why did he put so much attention on these in the autobiography? Because he didn’t do it to that extent. In his teaching life. And I said, you know, what was the reason for that? Well, it turns out, you know, he was he wanted to write a book about what he called the Yogi Christ of India. And he was gathering stories and materials for that book and then was persuaded to write this memoir. And so it became a kind of combination of autobiography. And then. But at one point, I asked my liaison people at SRF when I was researching the book. And I said to one of their leaders who was really the master historian of Yogananda. And I said, why all the miracles and wonders? Why did he do it? And he and he said to me, have you looked at the title page of the book? You know, we’re here on the inside.
Rick: What does it say there? We can’t quite see.
Phil: But it’s on that title, what’s called the title page of the book. He has a quote from the New Testament, except you see signs and wonders you will not believe. He said, there it is. He told you the purpose of it right at the beginning. And I never noticed that. And I realized, OK, he was getting your attention so he could talk about things.
Rick: He did something like this in his public presentations. And he had he had a guy come out and warm up the crowd by lying on a bed of nails and sticking needles through his tongue and all kinds of weird things.
Phil: And I thought, you know, that’s a little too showbiz. That’s a little too vaudeville for my taste. But it got people in the door. So, you know, whether that was a compromise, whether that was, you know, P.T. Barnum kind of stunt, you can that’s up to you to to decide. But he did make those choices, especially in the 30s, where money was tight and, you know, getting people in the door was not necessarily easy. He had those people doing those things.
Rick: One reason that I, you know, find the whole idea of cities tangentially interesting is just that if people really could perform them demonstrably, you know, verifiably, it would blow some minds in terms of, you know, what the laws of nature are and what are what human beings relationship to them is. I mean, if if if someone could levitate, for instance, and it could be totally proven that they were doing that, you know, by any kind of scientific scrutiny anyone wanted to put on it, you know, people would really have to rethink, you know, what is the mind? What is gravity? You know, what is the relation? What is consciousness? What is the relationship between consciousness and laws of nature such as gravity? I mean, it would it would completely upset the apple cart paradigm of current scientific thinking, which I think needs to be done.
Phil: Yes. Yes. And that’s why some people, well-trained psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying this stuff for a long time. I mean, I know Charles Tart, who was one of the early researchers in psi phenomena. And that was his whole purpose. Try to, you know, you verify these things, try to show that these things are possible, not for their own sake, but because of what it would open up in terms of our understanding of consciousness and the possibilities of human potential. And people like him have always been troubled by the fact that their research wasn’t taken as seriously as they felt it should have been. But I think that’s why Yogananda did it as well. He wasn’t there to tell you you could levitate or you could appear in two places at once. He was there to tell you this is what is possible. This is the relationship between consciousness and matter. And these are the things that are, you know, the kind of things that are possible as you evolve in consciousness.
Rick: Yeah, that’s interesting.
Phil: You know, and to some degree…
Rick: Another rather little bizarre chapter in Yogananda’s life was his praise of Hitler and Mussolini. I think this quote is on Hitler. He said, “The average man cannot think clearly. He needs the mastermind of a dictator in order to think right and do right.” And then on Mussolini, he said, “A master brain like that of Mussolini does more good than millions of social organizations of group intelligence.” This was like in 1934 when those guys had not yet come into their full…
Phil: And maybe even earlier, he later changed his tune about those people, obviously. But, you know, when I found those things, I thought, “Oh, my God, what does that mean?” Well, then you look into the history and you realize a lot of very responsible grown-up people in the period between World War I and World War II didn’t get the rise of fascism when it was happening at the beginning. They saw, you know, Mussolini was stabilizing Italy and unifying it and, you know, helping the recovery after World War I and the early days of Hitler, which seems so unthinkable to us now. But there were some people who just thought, “Yeah, they need a strong leader. He was democratically elected, blah, blah, blah, and, you know, the country is in bad shape and he’ll, you know, that’s what they need.” There was a lot more of that than we realize, especially in the late ’20s and into the early ’30s. But by the time Yogananda, on his way to India at that time, went through Europe and spent a little time in Germany and Italy. He was starting to be troubled by what was going on then and then, of course, you know, became outspoken. And that’s one of the things I came to admire about him. He was a monk. He was a spiritual teacher in a foreign land. He was not able to become an American citizen until toward the very end of his life. He was a British subject until India independence. And yet he spoke out. He spoke on behalf of Gandhi. And the Brits were spying on him and, you know, thought he might be, he thought he might get deported. But he spoke out against bigotry and he spoke out against racism and militarism and all kinds of things. And I thought, okay, good, an example of somebody trying to, who’s in the world and not of it in that usual way. And an argument against spiritual teachers who tell us, you know, all this is Maya and we shouldn’t be bothered with, you know, current events and politics and foolish human things like that. No one knew better than Yogananda, the reality of non-dual oneness. No one talked, he talked about Maya all the time and told people not to get too caught up in the world and blah, blah, blah. And yet he was very aware of world events and spoke out when he needed to.
Rick: Which highlights one of my favorite reflections about enlightenment, which is that it’s really a blossoming of multidimensionalism, we could say, in which, you know, you can simultaneously regard the world as, you know, illusory in a way and yet take it seriously. And you can, you know, you can reside in a state at which you are not doing anything, the essential you, your true nature, and yet you are dynamically engaged in activity. So it’s really kind of a growth of the ability to incorporate paradoxically opposed dimensions of reality within one human experience.
Phil: I couldn’t agree more, as you know, and I think it’s a terrible misunderstanding of concepts like Maya and non-dualism to adopt an attitude of our human story being meaningless. Or being indifferent to, you know, the suffering of human beings, embodied human beings, and to, you know, turn away from it. Because, you know, it’s very, one of the earliest lessons in reading the Bhagavad Gita for the first time was Krishna telling Arjuna, you must act. There’s no such thing as not acting, you know, in the world, you know, you have to, you’re an embodied human being, and action is necessary. Then it’s a question of what kind of action and what do you do? And so all the teachers said, yeah, this is all a dream. Yogananda used to use to use the movie screen analogy of its all illusory you know light and shadow on the movie screen of oneness and formlessness, and we’re just, you know, like the characters on the screen. At the same time, you have to act as if it really matters. And do what you do well and do it with integrity and do it impeccably. And he worked with people around him very hard while telling them not to get too attached to the things of the world. He would make them work very hard to get things done.
Rick: You know, different spiritual teachers and teachings and movements seem to place different degrees of emphasis on different aspects of spiritual development. As you were kind of alluding to there, I mean, some are just, it’s all about consciousness. They don’t pay much attention to anything else. Some are like, it’s all about behavior, you know, being a good person, and they don’t even consider consciousness. So, you know, in terms of that consideration, what would you say Yogananda’s balance was of the various facets of potential development? Did he cover all the bases? Did he place a fair amount of emphasis on ethical development, for instance, or what?
Phil: I think he would have been in line with your way of thinking that we have to, the priority is consciousness. The priority is your sadhana. Do your practices every day. Don’t compromise on that. Make that your highest priority. Associate with, you know, the sangha of fellow seekers. Don’t get too caught up in the world. At the same time, do what must be done. Do your dharma. Do your action with honesty and integrity. Behave in accordance with ethical principles and good morality. And you do both. And he would not have thought that the expansion of consciousness alone would necessarily automatically lead to right action. It would just make the odds better. But you had to, you know, people who had proper training and proper upbringing knew how to behave. And he would get upset with people if they, you know, slacked off or they didn’t do their jobs well or they got lazy in like laziness. And I think most of the gurus I’ve ever met would be in the same boat. Priority is, you know, he would have said your relationship to God, your relationship to the true self. This is what matters most. But you’re also a human being. And every, I don’t know of any respected guru these days, even now, who doesn’t have some kind of serious service project going on. That their ashram or their lineage is sponsoring. If, you know, they’re in India, they’re, you know, helping villages get, you know, toilets and clean water. They’re growing trees. They’re, you know, feeding the hungry. They’re doing that. And, you know, that is in every tradition that, you know, God is first. But you also have to serve and, you know, serve humanity in a way. And I, you know, I’ve seen that many, many, many times. I’m sure you have as well. I mean, Amma has programs going on all the time. It’s not just about hugging. It’s about service. And, you know, when I take groups to India and we visit gurus and stuff, it’s, you know, it’s very impressive how much of their efforts are around.
Rick: And I think that there’s more to it than just helping the people because it’s a spiritual practice for the helpers as well.
Phil: Yes. That’s right. It’s karma yoga. And that’s a big part of it because, you know, some of it is, you know, go clean the toilets in the ashram and chop vegetables in the kitchen. And that’s, you know, that’s a practice.
Rick: And it’s not just that you’re earning good karma or something. It’s also, I think, that it kind of attenuates the ego. You know, it’s not all about me, me, me. There’s, you know, what can I do for this person? What can I do? So it kind of takes the attention off of the individual needs and preferences and so on. It makes you more universal.
Phil: It’s a kind of consciousness.
Rick: That’s right.
Phil: : It’s a kind of consciousness expansion because we’re all we’re selfish human beings. We’re always thinking, what do I need? What do I want? And when you’re forced or encouraged, at least, to do something for others, it’s in a way liberating. I was I once heard a guru say, if you want to be depressed, just think about yourself all the time. And when you’re when you see people, you know, in true need and you’re able to bring something to them, or you just know that you’re doing something, even if it’s just, well, my guru told me to, you know, I’m going to do whatever this is or, you know, whatever the task is. It’s not selfish. It’s a form of expansion. You’re bringing something from the inner self outward and, you know, connecting. That’s why it’s considered spiritual practice to do acts of service.
Rick: And I think we’ve all seen examples of people who have left that out of their spiritual practice repertoire and the results it has on their personalities. I mean, it’s almost a caricature of, you know, the what was that? Somebody used the term flow bro. These guys who just sort of live for themselves and bounce from one relationship to the other and couch surf around the world. And, you know, there’s just kind of this self-absorbed. I mean, I don’t mean to sound holier than thou or that, you know, I’m free of any such tendencies. But I mean, chuckled. But I guess the point I’m trying to emphasize is if a person is really sincere about spiritual growth, then this needs to be part of the toolkit. And if a teacher is offering it, great. If they aren’t, maybe you need to find a different teacher or kind of freelance in order to engage in something like this.
Phil: And sometimes it’s something very simple. I knew we were all spiritual narcissists at one point in our lives. And and many of us still are. But I’ve seen people who are very self-absorbed and all they wanted was their own enlightenment. You know, all this stuff. And then suddenly their parents. And suddenly they’re thrown into or their their their parent. Needs caretaking and they’re suddenly thrown into a situation where you can’t be selfish, where love just brings out doings. The priority becomes the care and of of another human being that you love. And that’s a form of service that comes naturally to people. And often it’s a revelation. It’s like, oh, that meant so much to my spiritual life. It’s a form of bhakti, you know, that love and devotion. I’m often asked, though I have been in the past to describe my, you know, most memorable spiritual experience. And I used to talk about, you know, transcending and, you know, long meditation courses and, you know, this feeling of this and that, because I never had spectacular experiences. And then about 20 some years ago, I was visiting my father when he was ill and it was a whole thing. And I had to rush into the hospital and I had to clean up a mess after him. And it was an all night thing. And I came home and I back to his house from the hospital after being up all night and just doing and doing and doing for him. And I sat down to meditate because I want to go to back to sleep. And I just felt. Bliss and this oneness, and I said, what the hell is that about? You’re exhausted. And I realized I hadn’t thought about myself in like six or seven hours. It was just pure giving and doing instinctively. And I said that’s when I realized that’s why people do this service. That’s why people, you know, go to work for Mother Teresa or, you know, emptying bedpans. There’s something powerful about that. It’s not my way. You know, it’s not like I gave up everything and and, you know, became a hospital orderly. But it was it was really, really interesting. And so, you know, we that’s why gurus, you know, whatever your Dharma is, like you are doing a great service with batgap. You know, Dennis and I are doing a spirit matters podcast. You know, it’s just service and our own enrichment. We learn a lot and all that. And so, you know, we do what we can. And some people are just I bow to their, you know, spirit of of service in the world. And many of them could use a spiritual practice because they’re, you know, busy saving the planet and social justice and all that. And they don’t have that spiritual inclination. And there’s a lot of burnout and a lot of so some balance there for the individual is terribly important.
Rick: Well, I think we covered that point, but we can always come back to it. That’s a good point. It’s an important point. There’s some. Well, anything just I was just about say anything more about Yogananda. But there were some poignant pages towards the very end of your book where he was approaching death. And when he actually did that, did die even the very last day of his life. And for one thing, he saw it coming. Maybe that was yogic ability or maybe he just felt really lousy and he felt like he was going to live much longer. But he was telling the people close around him. There was a really sweet scene where he he sat in his chair in his room. I guess it was at Mount Washington and his close disciples are around him. And he just looked into each of their eyes one by one. And it was this this beautiful blessing scene that happened. I don’t know if you want to comment on that, but the whole thing about the end of his life.
Phil: Well, I’ll say, yeah, those pages writing about the last period of his life. And as you said, he knew he was not going to live a long life. He knew that a long time. How old was he when he died? Fifteen, fifty nine. And and had been not well in many respects, you know, over the last few years. But at one point, he knowing that he stopped all his travels and everything and just, you know, just worked really hard, probably too hard, securing his legacy for the future after after he’s gone. And a big part of that was writing autobiography of a yogi, which was going to be the thing that, you know, lasted after his death. He said it would. And he was right. And, you know, the organization and the finances and the training people, that’s what he focused on. But and the most poignant part of writing the book for me was writing about those last days and the last night of his life. And some of it was uncanny. Like he had said earlier and earlier, I die. My beloved India will be on my lips because he loved his homeland. He was very happy when it achieved independence. Always wanted to go back for another visit, but only had that one. And the night of his death, the occasion was a big banquet for the visit of the first ambassador to the US after India’s independence. And Yogananda was the keynote speaker and blah, blah, blah. And he gave the keynote speech and he read a couple of stanzas from his poem, which was an ode to India, so to speak, and his beloved homeland. And as soon as he finished, he fell at the podium and died of a heart attack. It was really pretty uncanny. And that scene that, of course, I learned about because disciples who were present wrote about it. Yeah, he knew he didn’t have long. I don’t know if he knew this was his last night, but he knew it was one of the last. And and he had the people closest to him. It is very tender, very beautiful thing. And you never know how much of it is exaggerated by people after his passing.
Rick: But there were a lot of people at the banquet and they saw that happen. Yeah.
Phil: Oh, that that part. Yeah. But the other little things, the premonitions and all that. But, you know, it’s there were people who felt certain about him so strongly that you kind of expected to hear of a resurrection story.
Rick: Well, there was the body not decomposing story.
Phil: Yeah. But that’s different. And people have felt him come to him, them in visions and stuff, but nothing, nothing like, you know, the Christ story. But it’s very it’s very beautiful. He was beloved by the people around him. And it shows in what they wrote about him after he was gone and while he was alive. And, you know, like all the other gurus, he had people very close to him who loved him and supported him and wrote checks and, you know, open doors for him. And then got close to him and had the, you know, Darshan, the special Darshan that made others jealous. So, you know, it’s very typical guru story in many ways. And therefore, there’s a lot to be learned about the gurus and gurus and disciples. But it’s also unique because of his written his having written autobiography of a yogi. Not many, not many gurus write memoirs like that.
Rick: Well, I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude. You know, I mean, everything he did, like you said in the beginning, really paved the way for whatever teacher we may now align ourselves with or have aligned ourselves with. I mean, he was a big contributor to what I believe and I’m sure you do because he wrote American Veda has been a significant influence on the West.
Phil: I mean, yeah, one of the big three, if not the most important. I hate to rank people, but there were clearly three of the gurus who came here who had the biggest impact, the biggest influence. Vivekananda, Yogananda, Maharishi in sheer impact.
Rick: Did you know that Vivekananda and Maharishi had the same birthday?
Phil: Same birthday. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And he, Yogananda is January 5th. So make of that what you will. He was born the year Vivekananda came here.
Rick: Okay. So we have about 45 minutes left. So what else do we want to talk about? There’s your book, Spiritual Practice for Crazy Times, and these are certainly crazy times. There’s the whole issues that we consider in the Association for Spiritual Integrity. We talked about those quite a bit in our first interview and we’ve touched upon them here. But help me prioritize, what should we cover in our remaining time?
Phil: Well, the most the most important thing, Rick, is for me to plug the course I’m going to be teaching starting in January, going through Autobiography of a Yogi in 10 sessions, weekly sessions for Hindu University of America. So if you want to anybody out there wants a deep dive into the book and supplemented by stories, I know from my own research, go to hua.edu and sign up.
Rick: So you’ll read a section of the book and then everybody will discuss it.
Phil: Yeah. Right. Approximately 50 pages per week. And then we’ll discuss and talk about the messages and all that.
Rick: And since this interview will be up for a long time past January, I wonder if that’ll be online.
Phil: It’ll be archived. Yes, being taught online, it’ll be archived. Thank you for allowing me that shameless self-promotion. I’m sure you have.
Rick: Okay. So issues around the dilution of yoga, cultural appropriation, perennial philosophy, whether all roads really do lead to the same mountaintop. That’s an interesting topic, whether all roads really do lead to the same mountaintop. I’ve had discussions with Dana about this, too.
Phil: Me, too. And we’re about to interview him about that on Spirit Matters.
Rick: Oh, and Irene just sent me a question. Let’s do the question first. This is from, let’s see, from Dennis Sullivan in Beaverton, Ontario. Oh, maybe it’s Denise, but it’s spelled—well, French-speaking people say Denise, D-E-N-I-S. Anyway, he’s wondering, or she, “I am curious if Yogananda ever spent time with Mother Teresa. I’m also curious what other saints he met.” Well, he met a lot of saints, but I don’t know if his life and Mother Teresa’s overlapped. No.
Phil: No, no, no. There’s a beautiful chapter in the autobiography about AnandaMayi Ma and this footage of them together. There’s a beautiful chapter about his time with Ramana Maharshi, about which I was able to find out stuff from the Ramana Maharshi people about that visit. That’s not in autobiography. There’s a chapter about his visit with Gandhi and his—and other saints. But Mother Teresa was not—they did not overlap in India.
Rick: In fact, it was—he spent a year in—what was the year he spent in India? What, 30-something?
Phil: Mid-35 to mid-36.
Rick: So Mother Teresa was still a young girl then, probably. Yeah, the section in the book about him meeting Anandamayima was beautiful in the autobiography for Yogi. And, okay, so that answers that question. So the thing about whether all roads lead to the same mountaintop. Why don’t you sketch it out so I don’t talk too much?
Phil: Well, that’s essentially the position of classical Vedanta and of the perennial philosophy, which our mutual friend, Dana, is an expert on and has written a lot about as a scholar. And, you know, people like Houston Smith and Aldous Huxley and those people who were very much influenced by Vedanta philosophy were perennialists. And there’s other well-known scholars. And the essential point is that in the mystical branches of every spiritual tradition, if you look at how the people describe their experiences, there’s a remarkable similarity if they’re not identical. Different languages, different terminology, even different centuries, different cultures, even different theologies. Houston Smith had a very important distinction that he mentions in his introduction to American Veda. Between the exoteric, E-X-o-teric aspects of religion and the esoteric. The exoteric meaning the theologies, the belief systems, the doctrines and dogmas, the view of history, the rituals, all the external stuff. That’s where you find differences. And that’s what most people focus on and fight about and argue about and go to war about. The esoteric, the inner experience of religious experience and engagement, what we think of as spirituality now, that’s where you find unity. That’s where you find sameness and oneness. And people have argued with this. But people who are spiritual practitioners and who look at people like Ramana Maharshi, Sri Ramakrishna, who decided to test this out by doing Christian and Muslim practices to see if it gave him the same experience of oneness that his traditional yogic and Hindu practices did. And came out and said, yeah, all roads do lead to all paths. They all give you different views and they have different terrain. But when you get to the mountaintop, it’s the same. He used the analogy of two different analogies. If you go down to the ghats along the river, the steps down to the river, you see people, you know, who speak different languages and now have different words for water. And there are different methods of extracting it. But it’s the same water. And you can get to the roof of a building by climbing a rope or taking the stairs or, you know, many different ways. But when you get to the roof, the view is the same. So there’s a lot of different metaphors. And in practice and in my experience by talking, just the interviews I’ve done and talking to people, the verification is in how ordinary spiritual practitioners describe their spiritual experiences. And so to me, it’s it seems perfectly obvious. But at the same time, the descriptions can be just different, you know, different enough to give you doubt whether they mean the same thing, whether they intend the same thing. But on the level of experience and here’s here’s something I learned. I didn’t make this up. I was part of a group and we used to do this exercise that somebody had come up with where you where you got together people from different paths and you described your most meaningful spiritual experiences. And the rules were you couldn’t use religious jargon. So you couldn’t you didn’t use God. You didn’t say Brahman. You didn’t say Allah. You didn’t say Atman, Samadhi. In none of those terms, you just had to say what you experience in plain language. And then you see people describe the same things. Vastness, transcendence, unconditional love, all the different qualities, bliss. But so this has been argued, especially in academic circles forever. But it would be a big remedy to religious discord if we got away from belief systems and dogma and talk more about people’s personal experiences. You know, I know a Christian minister when we get him to talk about his spiritual experience without invoking Jesus, it’s very much like what many of us would have experienced.
Rick: And we can throw psychedelics in the mix too, the kinds of experiences people have on those.
Phil: That’s right. And in fact, people who do that research have told me it kind of bears out the premises of perennialism, that the experiences are in fact virtually identical or very similar.
Rick: And I think the reason this is significant, and it’s not just some interesting intellectual thing, is that all these traditions are telling people that what they’re aiming for is something that is indeed universal and fundamental and essential. It’s kind of foundational to the universe and whatever terminology they use. But it’s the essential constituent of everything. It’s the essential constituent of you. It’s what you ultimately are and so on. I mean, and some of them say this in clearer terms than others. But that is significant because it suggests—and the fact that people across all cultures and times have experiences like that is significant because it suggests that consciousness is not merely a product of the brain, which is a predominant scientific understanding or paradigm these days. And consciousness doesn’t die when the body dies. And we are not isolated to this flesh and blood form. We’re more like a field that transmits through or reflects through this form and many points like that. But that understanding and moreover that experience can be profoundly transformative to a person’s life.
Phil: And I agree. And even if you’re not, and I know people like this who are not willing to make that leap into, you know, tat tvam asi, into that thou art, that we are, you know, the real self is eternal and infinite and beyond form and so forth. Even if they’re not willing to go there, even if they’re not willing to go to consciousness exists, you know, outside the brain or in the body, they definitely have to go to these experiences are transformative. And they change your life for the better. And that if you realize you can have these experiences and be a Buddhist and be a Christian and be a Jew and be a Muslim and be a whatever, then there must be some commonality that’s more important than the differences. And if nothing else, it gives it’s a blow to exclusivism and triumphalism and that, you know, my path is the only way for everybody. It’s a more ecumenical vision. And if you look at the surveys of Americans attitude toward things about religion and spirituality, you see more and more people over, especially since the 60s, moving in that direction of, yeah, all the paths are useful for different people. That’s a big deal. And that means a lot. I’ve also noticed that there are people who hold strongly to dualism.
Rick: There are branches of Indian philosophy that hold that, you know.
Phil: That’s right. And they won’t go to a humbrum husk me. I am Brahman and thou art that. But. When you when you ask them, you know, when you probe their inner experience, especially if they have a contemplative or meditative practice that’s deep and you ask them, you know, have you ever had the experience of being conscious, being awake inside without thought? Just stop talking with my hands. Just even even for a moment. They’ll say yes, and many of them will will describe. What we call pure consciousness, you know, Turiya. But they won’t use that language. They may never have heard that language. But, yes, I’ve had that experience of just consciousness alone by itself. I was awake and then thoughts came in. And and had you feel during that time and after it was perfectly at peace. I felt I was, you know, and if they are religious, they might say, oh, you know, I felt like I was in the embrace of God. And if they’re not, they might say I was never more content in my life or something like that. And so they’ve they can acknowledge that experience of. Non separation of their inner self with anything. And yet, you know, they’ll still want to maintain the dualism, but the experience is still the same.
Rick: Now, I take it a step further, and I think you would, too, especially since we’re both old teachers. But, you know, it’s not just that this experience is personally gratifying and enjoyable and perhaps improves your life. You know, you begin to adopt healthier habits and drop unhealthy ones and you get along better with people and all that stuff. But this potentially has huge implications for the world. And I think we’re all concerned about the world or we should be. And there are so many problems that beset society, you know, I mean, racial and societal unrest and very difficult situations that people in various countries are going through. And we have this huge influx of migrants coming up from Central America. And those people are going through such a hard time in Syria. And there’s the environmental situation, which potentially could wipe us all out. And the bees are dying. I mean, we could go on and on for hours enumerating all the problems, any one of which might be able to do us in. And, you know, I really feel and have felt since I first heard the concept that consciousness is fundamental and that all problems on the surface of life are expressions of inadequate contact of a tremendous field of potentiality, which lies at the depth of life. And if the hose could be connected from that reservoir to the various relative fields on the surface, they could all flourish and we would find solutions to these problems. Or maybe some of them would just sort of drop off without even applying a specific solution. So anyway, I’m as optimistic and idealistic as I ever was on that particular theme, which is one of the things that motivates me to do what I do.
Phil: Yeah, me too. I adopted that perspective, you know, back 50 years ago, like you did. And I have seen, I’ve experienced nothing to change my mind about it with this caveat. It’s more nuanced than I originally thought. And I know you agree that we thought if you raise consciousness and the evidence bears this out, people become, you know, make better decisions. They become more creative. They become a little more compassionate. They become more effective in their lives. You know, the evidence of anecdotally and through science supports this notion that if you do these spiritual practices that expand consciousness and bring you in contact with the source of consciousness, then there are practical results. And that would lead to better behavior and better solutions in the world. The thing I’ve come to modify that with is it’s not automatic. And just the growth of consciousness isn’t enough to make people behave in an exemplary way or not do foolish things. And this was never more clear than, you know, this last several years when, you know, we’ve been set by all the problems you were that back in the 70s, we would have thought would be long gone by now. And they’re not. And you say, well, that means not enough people are meditating, not enough people are expanding their consciousness. And that’s no doubt true. But the other disturbing thing was how many people who do do these practices are either indifferent to the state of the world or are caught up in strange and destructive things like conspiracy theories. And that came as a shock to me. And I don’t quite know what the solution to that is. And if you add to that what we talked about before about presumably enlightened or at least highly evolved spiritual exemplars misbehaving. Usually around sex, sometimes around money and power, then you realize it’s not necessarily a one to one correspondence with, you know, elevated consciousness and ethical and moral behavior. And so something has to be done on that level, which is what motivated you to start the Association for Spiritual Integrity and got me hooked on making a contribution to it. Because sometimes there’s a disconnect between the expansion of consciousness and the deep inner experience of realization and awakening and moral behavior and this, you know, karma to be considered and upbringing and, you know, whatever else.
Rick: That’s a really good caveat. And let’s talk about it for a little bit. I think about it a lot. You know, I live in a community where, you know, a lot of people, a few thousand have been meditating, doing spiritual practices for many decades. I know at least half a dozen who went to the January 6th event and who will tell you that, oh, it was just like a peaceful tourist visit or something like that. And there are spiritual communities around the world, as we saw in our presentation with Jules Evans and Dan Wilson in the ASI, where, you know, vaccination rates are so low that whooping cough and old diseases like that are cropping up because the people have been convinced that they shouldn’t take vaccines. I mean, we probably just got about a dozen thumbs down on this YouTube video because probably some of the people are watching. And I guess to distill this into a central question, I keep coming back to we’ve got to evolve a form of spirituality which is well-rounded, which doesn’t have any important missing pieces. And I don’t think that most, which is why I asked you that thing about Yogananda earlier, I think most spiritual movements you look at have some missing pieces. Something hasn’t been emphasized enough. And if you look at some of the traditional texts like Patanjali, I mean, he seemed to cover a lot of the pieces, the yamas and niyamas.
Phil: He wasn’t running an organization.
Rick: And if, aside from, I mean, I don’t really consider myself part of any organization these days, but I think a lot about this well-rounded aspect of spirituality. I sort of feel like you can really handicap yourself by neglecting certain aspects of your makeup or of your development by ignoring your blind spots. I mean, some people like, for instance, our friend Miranda McPherson and others advocate seeing a therapist every now and then or going to a variety of spiritual teachers just to sort of like get outside your comfort zone and broaden your perspective. And so I don’t know if it would be a one-size-fits-all solution, and you can elaborate on what I’m trying to say here. But somehow or other, I think spirituality may be evolving. Not that there isn’t anything new under the sun, but that there’s something new about spirituality coming into this culture, the 21st century, with everything that’s going on and the incredible pace of change and all the challenges we face. It somehow has to rise to meet the challenge. And failure to do this can really throw a person off the rails, and I’ve seen so many examples of it where people have just gotten off into la-la land, gotten into very—you know how cult indoctrination happens kind of incrementally and you don’t even realize it’s happening until you’re deep into it? Well, in a way, even though some of these people I wouldn’t say are in an official cult, I think a lot of people who have just drifted off, who have really dedicated their lives to spirituality, have drifted off into some very strange places. And there are numerous articles. I mean, I could send you—I have sent you dozens of links. Yeah, and you’ve written some stuff on it. So I don’t know. You get my point.
Phil: Of course I do. And there’s a lot to be said in what you just said. One is that, you know, every spiritual teacher, we’ve already talked that they’re all human, and so their teachings might be missing stuff. You can’t, you know, be—no lineage, no organization could be all things to all people. And that’s true. I’ve never—I’ve researched all the spiritual organizations that were created by gurus who came here and by inference others, and they’re all imperfect. They’re all dysfunctional in some way or another. You all have followers who complain about them and who, you know, think they’re perfect on the other hand. And that makes sense because the founders were human, and the people around them were even more human and less evolved, as we know, you know, as we’ve experienced ourselves. And so that’s part of the deal. The other is, you know, I always come back to some people having a personality that is drawn to fanaticism. If you look at Vivekananda’s famous speech in Chicago in 1893, one of the things he talks about is fanaticism, religious fanaticism, and hoping that gatherings like the one he was at, which, you know, people from all the traditions, would be an end to fanaticism and all the damage it’s done. Well, here we are 130 years later, practically, and fanaticism of different kinds is still a problem. And you see it in spiritual communities, and some people then get drawn in a fanatical way toward things that can be destructive and not based in evidence. I think one of the things you were alluding to with spirituality for this time and place is that we are evolving in evidence-based spirituality. People often ask me, when I talk about American Veda and Yogananda and all this, why Americans were so drawn to these teachers from the East, including the Buddhist teachers, you know, all those Zen teachers and all the others. And it was one of my explanations is always Americans, there’s a segment of Americans that are very open minded and curious. And that pragmatism runs through the heart of America. We’re very pragmatic. Something works, even if it seems strange. Hey, it might work. I’ll check it out. And that led to the people, all these gurus becoming very popular because they didn’t ask you to believe in anything. They asked you to try out these methods of meditation and yoga and everything and see if they work for you. They didn’t ask you to convert. They didn’t ask, you know, tell you to adopt a belief system. It was a pragmatic, evidence-based spirituality. And that is still evolving. You know, you and I remember when there was, you know, a couple of studies on TM. And now, you know, there’s thousands of studies on different meditation practices and the utility. And I think that the evidence based quality of it is an important piece of it. And people’s, I think people need, and this should be part of ordinary education, training in how to sort out information and separate speculation and lies from things that can be proven and things for which there are evidence. And we’re living in a media landscape now that makes that very difficult. But then we come back to consciousness and the well of the mind that the information is coming into and how it is processed. So I still, like you, come back to that as fundamental.
Rick: Yeah. Another thing I come back to these days is that I think that a lot of people, when they get into spirituality, underestimate the amount of transformation that it’s going to be necessary to undergo. And the range of possibilities, you know, the vastness of the spectrum of spiritual development that they’re embarking on. I mean, when we first started, we were told that we’d be in cosmic consciousness in five to eight years. And, you know, what you end up realizing is that it’s really a lifelong undertaking and you never rest on your laurels. And that there’s, it’s really a huge thing. And you can get tripped up even after decades. You know, there are sort of the razor’s edge, you know, there can be pitfalls at any stage of the game. And there are actually Vedic stories about this, who great rishis who ended up falling because they got tripped up, they made some mistake. So I think that it’s always important. It helps to have that realistic perspective, I think. To me, it’s realistic.
Phil: I agree. And even the people who did slip into, you know, what we used to call cosmic consciousness, they turn out to have more evolution.
Rick: I remember reading in the local paper, one of them got busted for marijuana possession about, I don’t know, 10 or 20 years ago.
Phil: Okay. And they may, you know, they may do unethical business practices or have bad relationships. You know, we’re humans and we always have to keep growing, regardless of whether we’re witnessing it all. And, you know, from this state of pure consciousness. And maybe there’s always further development as long as we’re in these bodies. And one of those areas of development, it seems, is ethical and moral behavior.
Rick: It’s a key one because if it’s neglected—I mean if you don’t do your pranayama or something, no big deal. But if ethical and moral behavior is neglected or violated seriously, it can really—there’s a saying, punya, your spiritual merit that has been accumulated. It can really pop your punya balloon and, you know, cloud the mind and cause you to start doing even worse things.
Phil: And the notion that right behavior automatically follows from, you know, samadhi, from spiritual experience, is, you know, it just doesn’t turn out to be true. You know, it’s just not automatic. I think there’s some correlation. You’re more likely to behave in the right way. You’re more likely to obey, you know, the sort of rules of the road. But if you’ve never taught those rules or you had contempt for them before, you might still misbehave. You might, you know, because that part of your curriculum in this life needs to be addressed.
Rick: Well, you know how Jesus was tempted by the devil during his 40 days and 40 nights, and he could have succumbed to that temptation perhaps? Or how Buddha under the Bodhi tree on the brink of his enlightenment was assailed by Mara and all the demons and temptations. And, you know, it’s like there’s almost in a way something that even at a very advanced stage, if these stories are representative of actual mechanics, tries to throw us off the track. Or, you know, tries to test us to see if we’re really serious about this. So again, there’s a quote I’ve used many, many times from Padmasambhava. He said, “Although my awareness is as vast as the sky, my attention to karma is as fine as a grain of barley flour.”
Phil: You’ve shared that with me in the past, and I love it. And that’s very good advice for all of us. You know, we may be in bliss, we may be feeling spiritually exalted, but then, you know, as the Zen people say, you have to chop wood and carry water. You know, there’s that old saying in Zen, “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” And people don’t quite realize that part of that, the meaning of that is you’re still chopping wood and carrying water, but your experience of it may be vastly different. But you still have to chop the wood and carry the water. Otherwise, you know, you can’t build a fire and you can’t quench your thirst. But the implication of that is you should do that with integrity, and you should chop wood and carry water with dignity and concern for others and compassion. Look, you know, a big part of the Buddhist teachings is about nirvana, getting enlightened. But what else? Also, compassion. And they have practices for cultivating compassion. And you have people like the Dalai Lama talking about compassion. Both of us interviewed Robert Thurman for our podcast, and I was interviewed by him not long ago. And one of the things I admire about him, he’s not only a scholar of religion, and he’s so close to the Dalai Lama, he’s passionate and fiery, you know, about climate change and the importance of it. And I’ve met other gurus, I’ve seen them in India working, you know, to combat climate change and make people aware that this is real. So being in those states doesn’t mean we’re not also human.
Rick: Another thought that comes to mind is that in the early years of my spiritual path, I was just going along being myself. But I did things which by my current standards were completely outrageous, would be egregiously wrong and insensitive and cruel and, you know, crazy by my current standards. So I think, you know, what happens is, you know, this Padmasambhava quote about the grains of barley flour. At first, you know, maybe to take your chopped wood thing, you know, we’re just swinging a big dull axe and whacking big pieces of wood. But later on, we’re kind of becoming this fine sculptor, you know, just carving this intricate thing. Your discernment has to become refined. And the sort of the, it’s not difficult, but the row, your walk has to be more and more fine tuned. You know what I’m trying to say?
Phil: I do, yes. And maybe part of that is you start chopping wood and carrying water to people who need some help and not just for yourself and your household. But I’m glad you use the word discernment because that’s always been a big part of the yogic path. You know, Shankara, the great non-dualist, wrote a book that has been translated Crest Jewel of Discrimination. But now they might say discernment and viveka. Discernment, intellect, discernment of the intellect is highly valued and often in spiritual circles. Oh, we should be in the heart and you’re in your head too much and you think too much. And there’s an almost denigration of the rules of logic and of rationality. Well, the yogis were much more balanced about that. You know, they were all about the heart and feeling and love and compassion. But they were also about discernment and discrimination and thinking clearly and following the rules of rational discourse.
Rick: If I understand Shankara correctly, what he says is that, you know, the final stages of enlightenment or the higher stages of spiritual development require a really subtle, refined intellect. But he said that at the earlier stages, you just don’t have that and you can’t have that. And what you need to do is purify yourself to the point where you can and therefore karma yoga. You should just engage in activity and good works and things like that. And through that, you’ll eventually become pure enough that a more subtle intellect will begin to dawn. And it’s that subtle intellect that accomplishes the final stages of realization.
Phil: And that is using the mind to go beyond the mind. So ultimately, discernment takes you to the door beyond which there’s nothing to discern. That’s just, you know, there. And but, yeah, that’s and we haven’t even mentioned bhakti, you know, we mentioned Raja yoga in the sense of doing meditative practices. But bhakti is also, you know, the devotional activities and the traditions that emphasize bhakti and, you know, all the practices around doing so ceremony and chanting and singing.
Rick: Yeah, all that can be very purifying.
Phil: Yes. And it’s, you know, you can transcend doing that. You know, people have great experiences doing that. And it opens the heart. So, you know, we should we all need balance. You mentioned razor’s edge. You know, that that comes out of that images from the Upanishads. And when I remember writing somewhere, you know, that if you’re going to be walking on a razor’s edge. You need balance.
Rick: I think that’s the point of the image.
Phil: Yeah, you need to because we go too far in one direction or another. You know, you get in big trouble. So extremism and fanaticism.
Rick: He was a big time fanatic before he found it. A question came in from a fellow in Portland named Emil Picard. And he said that he actually had a visitation from Yogananda about 10 years ago. He said it was comforting, the visitation. He said Yogananda told him things would be hard. And he’s wondering if Yogananda ever appeared to you in a dream. And if so, if you feel comfortable sharing about it.
Phil: I am not inclined to such experiences. But no, he’s never has. And people have also asked me when I was writing about him. Did I feel his presence? You know, was I being guided by him? And I know people have had these experiences. And I don’t want to appear cynical about them. They may very well be real. But it didn’t happen to me. I did feel at times being guided by something. You know, that there was something right about doing this. And it was going to be, you know, it was important to do. And, you know, all the obstacles sort of seemed to, you know, dissolve as soon as they arose. And it, you know, became doors opened and all this. And so I felt in a sense guided and supported by something beyond the ordinary. But I can’t say it was Yogananda or he came to me in a vision or anything like that. I feel closer to him, of course, because I just spent all this time researching and writing about him. But I was never a disciple. I was never a devotee or even a student other than, you know, drawing a lot from his books like many of us did. This copy of Autobiography of a Yogi I first read in 1970. But I was already on my path. And there’s been there are a lot of people like me, millions like you. You know, you got something out of this book. You were inspired by it. You learn from it. But you had a different path. But then there are those who read this book and their whole lives change and they become devotees and they become disciples. And some of them become monks in his tradition. And that’s a different level of engagement.
Rick: Even now you can still do that, right?
Phil: Yeah, people still doing that.
Rick: Any final thoughts, Phil?
Phil: No, I thank you for doing this. It’s a great joy. Always fun to talk to you.
Rick: And I’m really glad that our lives are intertwined these days with the ASI that we get to sort of talk to each other often. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a meaningful thing. And if anyone wants to check that out, it’s called spiritual-integrity.org, the Association for Spiritual Integrity. And, you know, there are many events we have which you can participate in without being a member. And then there are some other things that are just for members. And members, I guess you have to be a spiritual teacher or therapist or healer or something along those lines to actually be a member. Although I’ve been arguing for open membership.
Phil: Yeah, maybe we’ll change that someday or, you know, find something. We’re new, but I would encourage people to check us out and support it and, you know, become a member. There’s nothing, no obligation or anything. And we hope to be able to make a difference.
Rick: Okay, so I’ll be setting up a page on batgap.com as I always do, and it’ll have links to your books and to your website and to the ASI that we’ve just mentioned and, you know, everything that you gave me in your bio. So people can just, if they’re watching this on YouTube or something, if you want to get to all those links, go to Phil’s page on Batgap, which is actually in the description under the video on YouTube. And then you can jump from there to all the links and things that I just mentioned. So thank you, Phil, for your time. And thank you for writing such an interesting book. I really enjoyed it.
Phil: Thank you, Rick. Keep up the good work. And it’s been a joy to interact with you.
Rick: Thanks to those who’ve been listening or watching. Next week, I’ll be speaking with a gentleman in Australia named Colin Blake. Drake. Blake? Drake. Colin Drake. And I’ve been listening, started listening to his book, and it’s good stuff. He’s very interesting. So it should be a good conversation. So see you then. Thanks a lot.
Phil: Thanks, Rick.
Rick: Thanks, Phil.