Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer and my guest this week is Phil Goldberg. Phil’s an old friend of mine. We go back 40 years, which is probably two-thirds of our life. We were both from the East Coast. He was from New York, I was from Connecticut, and we were on the same course in 1970 becoming teachers of Transcendental Meditation. Phil has been a writer most of his adult life and has written a number of books. We’re going to talk about a couple of them today, but in particular, American Veda, which is his most recent book, From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. When I started out this show, I was just interviewing people here in Fairfield, Iowa who said they had had a spiritual awakening. Then I went to Skype and started interviewing people around the world, many of whom are teachers of some sort. They’ve made spiritual teaching their gig. Some people complained about that. They said, “What about the regular people? I liked it when you just did regular people.” Then there’s also a third category developing, which is people who aren’t necessarily spiritual teachers nor claim to have had a spiritual awakening, but who are interesting to talk to and who shed light on the theme of this show, which is ordinary people who’ve had a spiritual awakening.
Phil: You’ll run out of them after a while.
Rick: No, they keep popping up. I’ve got a long list, actually. The question is how to prioritize them. Phil’s book definitely sheds light on this because when we speak of spiritual awakening, we usually mean that in an Eastern sense, in terms of enlightenment or that sort of awakening. If Eastern teachers and philosophies hadn’t influenced the West as they have, we probably wouldn’t be using such terminology, although it’s arguable that people would still be having awakenings, but they might define them differently. But in any case, that’s what we’re going to talk about today. I wanted to just start with a couple of big-picture points because your whole book is about how Indian spirituality has influenced the West. According to Indian tradition, there was a time when Vedic civilization was global and it was eventually lost and shrunken down to just the Indian subcontinent. But that’s an interesting kind of consideration. If that’s true, then all we’re experiencing here is a reintroduction. Why don’t you give us a sketch of your book, Phil, in a nutshell?
Phil: I’m agnostic on whether there was a Vedic civilization that was global.
Rick: Yeah, who knows?
Phil: We do know that in more recent times, like a few thousand years ago, there was contact with Europeans and India. There are wonderful anecdotes about Alexander the Great having his mind blown when he reached the Himalayas and met some yogis who were not terribly impressed by someone who wanted to conquer the world. The story I tell in American Veda really begins about 200 years ago with Emerson, or prior to Emerson’s emergence as a well-known thinker, when he was a child, really. The first sympathetic translations of Vedic texts and first sympathetic commentaries were coming into New England from Europe via ship. People in the educated elite in New England, like Emerson’s father, who was a Unitarian minister, were reading these books, so Emerson grew up with them. They had a profound impact on his emergence as a thinker, philosopher, and literary genius. As I say in the book, if he was the only person ever to have been affected by Indian spiritual teachings, the effect still would have been profound, because it had a huge effect on him and he had a huge effect on the evolution of American philosophy, American thinking, American literature, and so forth. But that’s where my story begins. What I attempt to do in the book is convey this story of how these Vedic streams and tributaries from the different teachers and the different books and the different yoga masters and gurus and everybody who came here found their way into the culture, beginning with sort of elites and counterculture type of people, and then into the mainstream. The subtle ways that these threads weave into the fabric of the culture from the principal sources and then through secondary sources, who are then influenced by the teachings and then influence others. In a minor way, people like you and me and probably everybody watching this. In a major way, by people who become very famous and become sort of Vedic disseminators themselves. There are a lot of those people. We can probably talk about some of them, I’m sure. But that’s what the book is about, and I contend that the impact on America has been far greater than people realize, and it’s affected not only the obvious people like people watching this who are interested in enlightenment and whose lives were powerfully transformed by these teachings, but by ordinary people whose doctors tell them to meditate or whose psychotherapists practice therapy differently because they’ve been influenced by Vedic teachings or because their professor teaching comparative religion spent a few years in an ashram and has a different perspective on things, and so on and so forth. The incidents of these kinds of things throughout the culture are enormous.
Rick: Well, certainly in reading your book, and I’m about a third of the way through it now because we rescheduled this interview and kind of moved it up, but it’s had more of an influence than I had realized, and I’ve been into this stuff for over four decades. I was amazed as I read how many well-known literary people, academics and even politicians had been influenced by, whether Emerson or Swami Vivekananda or various sources of wisdom from the East. So, it’s really obviously had an impact. You used the word “sympathetic” a few minutes ago. Was that to say that earlier translations of Vedic scriptures were intentionally distorted in order to make them look like pagans?
Phil: You can say that. I use the term “intentionally” because it was not so much the translations because translations didn’t start coming until people learned Sanskrit. But prior to that, all the commentary, all the travelogues, and people writing about India were pretty much in the service of one of the three Ms that I call “mercenaries,” “missionaries,” and “militaries.” And so, during the British Raj, their assignment was to get to know the Indian religion and, in order to debunk it, well, not only to debunk it but to demonstrate the need for these people to have a civilizing influence of British administration and Christian missionary work. And so it justified the missionary effort and it justified the colonial effort. That was their assignment, but there were a few people who broke through that and said, “Why are we trying to convert these people? They have something to teach us.” And those started to get published at that time.
Rick: Was it Rudyard Kipling who said, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”?
Phil: Yes, yes. He was wrong.
Rick: Yeah, I was thinking… Yeah, he probably said that because when he went to India the culture must have seemed so radically different than his own that he couldn’t imagine a merging or a synthesis of East and West. But obviously, as transportation and communications have increased, that was bound to happen, and it’s gone in both directions. I mean, you know, India is very technologically savvy these days.
Phil: Yes, but it’s not only that. I mean, if you look at the thread of teachers who came here and had the biggest impact, beginning with Swami Vivekananda in the 1890s and then into the 20th century with all the gurus and swamis, we’re familiar with, they were all educated in British schools or with British influence. They were all very fluent in English. They were all very familiar with science. They were all very familiar with Darwinian theory and the sort of philosophy of the Western Enlightenment so-called. And so, they were able to adapt these ancient and traditional teachings to the modern era because they had been influenced by the West themselves. And the modernizing influence that started to take root in India affected their thinking and they were very smart and very skillful in not only packaging, using the term packaging sounds like it was crass, but interpreting and translating and presenting, offering these texts in ways that the West could be accommodated and be appealing to the sort of Western rational, pragmatic, empirical mindset. And so the influence went both ways even in this transmission.
Rick: Yeah, like for instance in your book you said that these teachers would not emphasize the sort of ritualistic things. Swami Vivekananda didn’t play up the fact that his guru was a Kali worshiper, and they were quick to emphasize that this is not going to replace your religion, it’s only going to enhance it.
Phil: Yes, and that was a big deal because this was the opposite of the missionary effort that was going on in India, which they’ve always resented and even Vivekananda, all, to a person, the gurus who came here made a point of saying, “We’re not trying to get you to convert to Hinduism. You can be a better Christian or Jew or whatever by practicing these techniques. And even if you’re secular, even if you’re not religious, you can look at these as self-improvement practices and as a philosophy.” So, Vivekananda didn’t start the Hinduism society, he started the Vedanta society and Maharishi didn’t teach Hindu meditation, he taught TM and made it an educational organization. That’s the way they presented it and that had a big impact. If you go to some of these lineages, you’ll see pictures of Jesus on the altar and people speaking very highly of Jesus, distinguishing him as a great yogi or avatar whom they honor from churchy stuff. And that was part of their appeal too.
Rick: Yeah. Some critics would argue that it was a deceptive approach because many people did end up becoming very Indianized. They became Swamis, they adopted Indian names. I mean, here in Fairfield, Iowa, there are two Mother Divine temples.
Phil: Of all places. I’m in L.A. where you expect that sort of thing. So, you’re right, but that was an option. None of the teachers made it, with some exceptions, but there were always these sorts of layers of involvement that you could choose. You could just be a participant, to use TM as an example, because that’s what we did. People could just learn to meditate for whatever reason. They didn’t have to get involved with anything organizational or deeper than that. On the other hand, some people became so immersed in it that they became almost like disciples in the classic sense of the word. And in other teaching lineages, there are, as you said, people made Swamis and people taking vows and people becoming sworn devotees of a lineage and so forth. So that option was there. But at the same time, most of those people wouldn’t call themselves Hindus. That’s a very interesting distinction.
Rick: And no one ever said to them, “Become a Hindu or you’re going to hell.”
Phil: Certainly not, and no one ever said, “Become a Hindu, or else you can’t take full advantage of this stuff.” It was just not necessary. To this day, if you go back to the first teaching organization that got established in America, which was the one Vivekananda started, when they initiate somebody into their form of meditation and the person becomes an initiate, they give them the option of choosing their own Ishta-Devata. And if Jesus or Mary is their chosen form of devotion, then that’s perfectly fine with them.
Rick: Yeah, Ammachi does the same thing. She initiates people and gives them mantras, and if they say they want it to be based on Jesus or Mary or whatever, she’ll give them a mantra with that incorporated into it.
Phil: Yeah, it’s very common.
Rick: And they’ll all celebrate Christmas and Easter in a very sincere way. It was not a cynical kind of thing. When Yogananda first set up his headquarters in LA, he started having Sunday services. And if you go to them now, it’s like Hindu-Presbyterian on Sunday morning. But it wasn’t sort of cynical. That’s what Americans do. That’s when they’re spiritual. So he did it on Sunday morning and patterned it after what they’re accustomed to.
Rick: Yeah, and this is all very in keeping with the way Vedic civilization works. It’s all-embracing, it’s all-inclusive. In the Gita, Krishna says something like, “Howsoever a man worships me, I accept that,” implying that it could be somebody in a jungle village in Africa worshipping some god as he understands it, but the all-embracing godhead recognizes and accepts that in whatever form it’s offered.
Phil: Right, so that verse in the Rig Veda, which is often quoted, that’s usually translated “Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.” In those days it meant, well, you worship Shiva or Vishnu or Surya or whatever, but then as the world got globalized it also came to include Islam and Judaism and Christianity. Anything pursued in an authentic and deep way would be acceptable to the Vedic tradition.
Rick: Yeah. I start my day out every day when I turn on my computer by downloading the latest beautiful high-resolution photos photo from NASA. Usually, it’s some galaxies or nebulas or something like that. It just reminds me of how vast the universe is, beyond conception, and what a tiny speck our planet is. It’s just infinitesimally small in comparison to the vastness of…
Phil: Devotional astronomy.
Rick: Yeah, really. If you believe, as I do, that the universe is teeming with life, then this wisdom that we’re calling Vedic or Eastern is really so fundamental in my understanding that it’s not even human wisdom. There could be beings elsewhere in the universe who we wouldn’t call human but who are highly evolved in the way we understand that to mean, who are conversing in the same terms and experiencing the same things through their particular nervous systems.
Phil: No doubt, but my book does not cover…
Rick: Other galaxies.
Phil: We’re focused on America, not Europe.
Rick: That’ll be the sequel, huh?
Phil: The sequel is Europe and then part three will be the rest of the galaxy. But your point reminds me of another reason that the teachings that came here found such a receptive audience, and that is their compatibility with science. There was never any of this split between faith and reason or science and religion like there is in the West. All the great teachers embraced evolution and the scientific methodology and so forth.
Rick: Yeah, I was reading just last night, I think you were referring to the interviews with Bill Moyers and, what’s his name?
Phil: Houston Smith, Joseph Campbell.
Phil: Joseph Campbell, and Bill Moyers asked him something about what he believed, and Campbell said, “It doesn’t matter what I believe, what matters is what I experience.”
Phil: Right, right. And that is one of the real principal teachings that has taken root in America, because of the sort of shift that the Eastern traditions brought, that what matters is the direct experience of the divine, not belief systems or creeds, those things become secondary. That has really taken root in America, and not just with the obvious people who are meditating and going to yoga studios and all that, but with the mainstream. If you look at religious surveys among just random samples of Americans, the shift to experiential spirituality over the last 40 or so years has been extraordinary. I think that’s one of the chief contributions that were made by the teachers from the East.
Rick: Do you think that’s what people mean when they say, “Well, I’m spiritual but not religious”?
Phil: I think that the term… I gave a talk last night and this came up, and I said, “You know, there were probably always people who were spiritual but not religious.” Probably Emerson was the prototype American, Emerson and Thoreau, for being spiritual but not religious. They sort of rejected mainstream religion and went on their own individual paths and encouraged everybody else to do so. It was formed, in large part, by the Gita and other texts that they were reading. But there was no term for it, and now it’s a religious category. Now it’s the fastest growing religious category in America. I think that being spiritual but not religious in a real sense would have been inconceivable without the teachings that came here. Because if you don’t have a practice, if you don’t have an intellectual framework about what it means to be spiritual and what that brings to your life, and if you don’t have practices to make that a reality, then it’s just sort of stargazing. And it’s something ephemeral. But I think the emergence and the acceptance and permeation of these teachings made it possible for people who were alienated from traditional religion or turned off by it or had difficulty with it in some way to be spiritual in a structured and authentic context without having to sacrifice their integrity or sign on to a belief system that they didn’t feel comfortable with or any of that sort of thing.
Rick: Now, I don’t think either of us is implying that traditional religion is without its experiential dimension. I mean, first, there have been great mystics throughout religious history in probably every religion who had levels of experience that modern, new-age spiritual seekers would envy. But there was actually a division in the early days of the Christian church. There was this tussle between the sort of mystical, inter-directed, experientially oriented people and the more doctrinaire, Bible is literal, just believe in the word, so on type of people. And the latter won out.
Phil: Yeah, they sure did. However, I would not denigrate the fact that any individual could go to a church or synagogue and have a transcendent experience or walk in the woods and have a transcendent experience, independent of religion. We all know that that is not only possible but does happen. But the odds are against it if you don’t have a genuine spiritual practice that you do, and if you don’t have a teaching that encourages it. And those things were kind of lost to the Western religion. So in our generation, when we came of age and started to become seekers of truth and self-transformation, it wasn’t available. It wasn’t really happening. And so, the East made that a priority, and there it was offered to us. As a result of that, there’s been a tremendous revival of mystical Christianity and mystical Judaism, especially in the last 20 or 30 years. One of the chapters you haven’t got to in American Veda talks about that, because you start with people like Thomas Merton, who were being influenced by Asian texts and Buddhist and Hindu literature, and then started corresponding with teachers in those traditions, and people like Bede Griffiths and a whole bunch of rabbis and other Christian leaders. They looked to the East and said, “Something’s of value here.” And then in the ’60s and ’70s, when people like us were going off to India and being with gurus, a lot of the Christian and Jewish leaders, as you know, said, “Why? Why are these people turning away from us and going to these Asian teachers?” And because of that, the investigation of some of those people, like Father Thomas Keating and certain rabbis, was to say, “We can learn from these teachings and adapt them to our Christian tradition or our Jewish tradition. And in fact, let’s look into the lost materials in those traditions and see if we can revive them and make them available to lay people.” And so now, if you look, Google “Jewish meditation” or “Christian meditation,” there’s a ton of stuff. Centering prayer, for example, was based on the TM teaching procedures. And there are people meditating who, because of rabbis who were seekers like us in the ’60s and ’70s and learned to practice meditation through a guru or a year in an ashram or whatever, now teach Jewish meditation using Hebrew instead of Sanskrit as mantras. They’ve adapted what they learned to the tradition that they came back and re-embraced. I mean, I’ve interviewed a number of such people. It’s fascinating.
Rick: It’s interesting. It almost seems like, well, I imagine there will always be cultural distinctions and diversities, but it’s kind of curious to speculate as to how far this will go, you know? But who knows?
Phil: Yeah, I’m always asked to make predictions because I wrote a book, and it’s like, “I don’t want to go there. This seems to be the direction of evolution.” Whatever form it takes, it will have the characteristics of being more genuinely inclusive, more genuinely independent, and more genuinely inner-directed and experiential.
Rick: Yeah, and non-dual.
Phil: Yeah, and non-dual. There’s a genuine non-dualism emerging that includes the duality of devotion and the awareness of ultimate unity at the same time.
Rick: I want to talk about the whole non-dual neo-Advaita as we go along. It’s just like the Eskimos have 30 words for snow, in the East, in India, there’s all this subtle knowledge of fine distinctions in experience and various components of the subtle personality. They’ve really mapped it out and understood it very subtly and thoroughly, whereas in the West that sort of understanding was really rather vague and blunt. I think what you’re saying is that that sort of emphasis on inner exploration has been the essential gift of the East to the West so far. Rather than just sort of tossing aside one’s religion, the religions are kind of waking up to that possibility, perhaps even in their own tradition. I mean, Jewish tradition has the Baal Shem Tov, who was a great mystic.
Phil: Yeah, and all the Kabbalists.
Rick: Yeah, and you mentioned suppressed literature. There’s the whole Gnostic Christianity, which had a lot to say about all this but was repressed back in the early days.
Phil: And there’s been a revival of this, catalyzed I think by the emergence of teachers from the East. One of the things that’s interesting about it is it’s also being democratized. So, there are people teaching Kabbalah and Christian contemplative practices. These things were very esoteric when they were available at all. It was only for certain select people. Just like meditation, TM became available to anybody who wanted it. These other teachings are now being democratized. And that’s what’s happening. But what you also reminded me of is it’s not just the religions that are being transformed by this. So are the secular disciplines. So, the delineations you spoke of, this investigation of consciousness by the East, the systematic investigation of consciousness, is influencing psychology and neuroscience. So, our understanding of consciousness, our understanding of human development through the evolution of psychology as a discipline and all the mind sciences, has been powerfully affected by the emergence of these teachings. And the sort of cutting edge of psychology and cognitive science and neuroscience and all that has been influenced by the theoretical models, you could say, of the literature from Buddhism and Hinduism for 40 years now, ever since the teachings became more available.
Rick: Yeah. Growing up in a sort of TM culture, we were both conversant with the scientific research on meditation. But I’ve never explored that aspect too much outside the TM culture. I’m exploring teachers and teachings, but I’ve never really looked much at the research. If you had a whole map of the kind of research you’re talking about in physiology and psychology, how big of a circle on that map would the TM research be?
Phil: Oh, it’s big. It’s set the prototype. I’ve interviewed over the years a number of people involved in transpersonal psychology and in consciousness research and so forth, the people who read scientific journals and go to conferences and all that. And my sense is that over the years they’ve recognized the TM research as truly groundbreaking. It set the tone. Keith Wallace’s research and the subsequent research he did with Benson, got the whole thing off the ground. And there’s a lot of, well I have to be honest, there are mixed feelings about the TM research in those circles, outside of the TM scientists. And they recognize the amazing amount of research that’s done and recognize most of it as making an important contribution. They have sometimes been critical of the way the results are presented and interpreted, accusing the TM scientists of proselytizing, and calling their objectivity into question for obvious reasons. People have said to me, “Well, if I read a study from a pharmaceutical company, I’m a little more skeptical.” And so, anybody representing an institution that has something they’re promoting is going to be seen with more skepticism. And so, some of the TM research is held with a sort of arm’s length cynicism, but most of it has been peer-reviewed and they accept it as true. It’s the claims to, some of the way they’re interpreted has often, and promoted, has ruffled feathers. But there’s also been a tremendous amount of research on other practices. One of the interesting things now is people like you and me in the early 70s were presenting this research and were very upset that the research done on TM was being generalized to any old form of meditation. And we would say, “No, not all forms of meditation are the same.” And the science is finally coming around to that. They’re finally realizing you can’t make those generalizations and they’re doing comparative studies of different forms of meditation and sort of validating what the TM scientists have been arguing all along, that there are different forms, they have different effects, and you have to distinguish among them. And that’s now part of the literature.
Rick: Well, the TM scientists have been arguing that ours is the best. And a lot of times the research is used to try to prove that. But I imagine that scientists outside the TM world are not necessarily coming to that conclusion. They’re just saying there are differences.
Phil: That’s the more objective way of stating it. Well, they might say one is superior to the other for certain things. So, if you do a blood pressure test and one form lowers blood pressure more than another, that’s a valid conclusion to come to. But with respect to other things, that’s one of the things that has ruffled feathers.
Rick: Yeah. And that kind of gets us back to the different strokes for different folks theme of the Vedic civilization, which is that the masters and the teachers realize that different people have different temperaments and different practices are going to be suitable for different people.
Phil: And for different purposes. And it could very well be that some of the practices being studied work well in combination with one another. Because there are certain forms that involve contemplation on content and certain forms that involve what we used to say is not good for meditation, and concentration, which in its context isolated from the imperative to transcend thought there may be some value in training the mind or whatever it is. So, we’re learning that there may be meditative practices and yogic practices that have different values for different purposes.
Rick: Yeah, good point. So, let’s continue our timeline here. We kind of touched upon Emerson and we didn’t mention Thoreau, but people usually mention them in the same breath and everyone knows quite a bit about what he contributed. And then we have Swami Vivekananda, I don’t know if that’s the next major chapter in your book. And then we get into the whole crop of public intellectuals, you know, Houston Smith and Aldous Huxley and these guys. Is there anything you want to comment about any of those people so far?
Phil: There in the structure of my book I broke with chronology because I wanted to show early on these threads of transmission. So, I did a chapter on Vivekananda who was the sort of Jackie Robinson in the story, or the first to break through and come here and have an effect. He created the Vedanta societies which are still going strong. The Swamis who came to run the Vedanta society centers in America became mentors, especially in the 40s and 50s, to young intellectuals, and Westerners, who went on to have a huge impact on the culture. So, I wanted to show that early on, so I skipped ahead a little bit to the 40s and 50s and then went back to Yogananda’s arrival in the 20s. But when you think of, in LA for example, the Swami Brahma Vananda who was running the Vedanta center here, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Gerald Hurd were hanging around as young seekers. They were already well known in Britain. They started publishing books that probably many of us read in the 60s and 70s, early translations of the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, other books, anthologies of writings about Vedanta by Western authors, a journal. These had a huge impact prior to the wave of gurus that came in the 60s and 70s and are still being read. And then when you think about them going on and Huxley going on to write the Perennial Philosophy and Isherwood going on to write a book about Ramakrishna and about novels about where the characters are seekers who are practicing these Eastern practices. And then in St. Louis, the Swami who was running the Vedanta center was mentoring Houston Smith, who went on and wrote the most important comparative religion textbook in the last 50 years and is a sort of giant of religious scholarship. And in New York, Joseph Campbell was mentored by Swami Nikola Nanda and he went on to do all of his work, all informed by Vedantic teachings. Incidentally, also in New York at that time was J.D. Salinger hanging around the Vedanta society and being informed. If you read all of his work subsequent to Catcher in the Rye, you see a sort of Eastern mysticism 101 permeating all the writing. These people reached millions and millions of people. And then, in turn, they influenced people like other scholars and other novelists or whatever who also influenced others. And that’s how at least the kernel of the teachings spread. So that’s why that chapter is there. And then I think the next major inciting incident, as they say in Pali, was when Yogananda came in the 1920s and settled here, becoming the first major guru to live here and set up his Self-Realization Fellowships and of course write the Autobiography of a Yogi, which was probably the most influential book in turning people on to Eastern teachings, at least among the people I interviewed.
Rick: Actually, since we’re talking about all these authors, we could rewind the clock a little bit and mention Mark Twain, who at one point was the most famous man in the world and certainly the most famous author, who went to India and was very impressed. And some of his later books actually contain a very mystical theme. There’s one book, I forget the title of it, where there’s this boy who performs siddhis and all kinds of interesting things that came out from his having visited India.
Phil: Yet another thing that didn’t get into my book I’ll have to put on the website. But I do mention that he went to India and his journals of writings from India were published and gave a lot of people their first glimpse of at least Indian culture, if not the spiritual component.
Rick: Yeah. Yogananda definitely had an impact, and he was in the U.S. for a number of decades.
Phil: 32 years he lived here.
Rick: Yeah, a long time. Do you want to say anything about him in passing?
Phil: Well, it’s principally the “Autobiography of a Yogi” that had a huge impact. Going back to the ’60s. Most people I knew who were busy being seekers had read that book at one time and passed it around to their friends and so forth. But he also was very innovative. He was a great example of somebody holding firm to tradition while also adapting to Western culture. Back in his early days, he started distributing some of the teachings that were only given one-on-one through mail order, which was the kind of Internet of its day. You signed up for lessons and they came every week or two in the mail on your doorstep. Think about the innovation of that. And then later when Maharishi and the gurus of the ’60s and ’70s came, they had television and videotape, and then later, the Internet. They were all kind of innovative and cutting-edge. He was an early example of it.
Rick: My introduction to this sort of thing happened initially at prep school. I went to prep school for a year because my parents felt it might get me away from taking drugs. That’s where I first got stoned, was at prep school. My roommate started mentioning yoga, and somehow that rang a bell in my mind. “Yeah, yoga, that sounds interesting.” And then that summer I was driving down the post road in Westport, Connecticut with three friends in the car, and one of them in the back seat was reading from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, translated by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, “Wow, enlightenment, that’s what you’re supposed to do?” I realized, “Oh, there is such a thing.” So there again was that Eastern influence. And then after about a year of fooling around, I learned to meditate.
Phil: And needless to say, you were not the only one who had that pattern. And Ram Dass, the former Richard Alpert, was kind of the prototype of that, and the most famous of people who had that pattern of seeking and drug-taking and reading and then settling into an authentic spiritual pursuit.
Rick: Yeah. All right, so your book moves on. You’re talking about beatniks and hippies. This is the part I haven’t read yet, consciousness expanders, but we’re sort of alluding to that now in terms of the whole drug culture.
Phil: Everything changed then.
Rick: Yeah, which had a sort of a spiritual justification in some people’s minds. They ostensibly were doing it for some kind of inner exploration, although many people got totally absorbed in just getting their kicks. And then when Maharishi came along, his whole emphasis was to clean everybody up, and I think he successfully did that with a lot of people.
Phil: Oh, you bet. I think of the three main influences, the three big teachers, the ones who get the most space in the book, were Vivekananda, Yogananda, and Maharishi, just going by their sheer impact on the culture. And the time frame, I think of the sort of story I tell in American Veda as having, there’s the pre-Beatles in India phase and the post-Beatles in India phase. That was a watershed moment. Now a lot was going on in Maharishi’s teaching and the TM world that made the Beatles possible, and so, we don’t want to detract from the hard work that was done by the early TM teachers and by Maharishi himself and by Jerry Jarvis and all those people.
Rick: When you say made them possible, you mean made it possible for them to find Maharishi.
Phil: That’s exactly right.
Phil: Yeah, and because it started to be popular among young people in the US and UK before the Beatles. It was happening on college campuses to a certain extent, and so the word was out that you could do this practice. But what was most interesting, as somebody who thought that that part of the book would be the easiest thing to write, because I lived through it, having been initiated into TM in ’68. My introductory lecture was when Maharishi appeared at Harvard in the early part of ’68, a famous lecture. Although I couldn’t get in, I had to watch it on television. I thought I knew that period, but doing my due diligence and doing my research, it blew my mind to go back and read the newspaper coverage and the magazines of the time. It was phenomenal, the amount of publicity that came about when the Beatles met Maharishi and learned about him, and of course a lot of it was on television, so you could even see a lot of stuff on YouTube now. It was relentless, and then it got even bigger when they announced they were going to India, and reporters and journalists were encircling the ashram in Rishikesh. It was months and months of front-page coverage and major magazine cover stories. It was enormous. What was most interesting was reading the texts of some of the journalists. It was far more sympathetic to Maharishi and meditation in general, and India and Indian stuff in general than I’d remembered. Because of course, there was also cynical reporting, but the main reason for the sympathetic tone was, “Oh, these young people are cleaning up their acts.” These hippies and dropouts whose parents were so worried about them, it looks like they’re now saying, “Oh, I don’t do drugs anymore. I meditate, so maybe this is a good thing after all.” There would be interviews with parents saying, “I don’t know. When he first went to India, when he first met this guru, I thought it was so weird and I was worried about it, but look, now he’s nice to me, and now he’s going back to school, and now he cut his hair,” or whatever it was. The main thing was not drugs. If you look at a lot of the headlines, it was, “Guru gets young people off drugs.”
Rick: I’ll tell you a funny story. This must have been in the spring of ’68 before I had learned to meditate. Some friends and I sat in my car smoking dope for an hour or so, and then totally stoned drove into town to get a burger or something. I ran a red light because I was so out of it, and a cop almost hit me, so he pulled me over right away. I rolled down the window and he said, “Oh, God, you guys smell like you’ve had a fix.” I said, “Oh, no, officer. We don’t do drugs anymore. We practice transcendental meditation.” But I hadn’t learned yet.
Phil: Since we’re being confessional. When I couldn’t get in to see Maharishi speak at Harvard, they announced that the local PBS station was going to air it on TV that week. So a bunch of people came over to my apartment to smoke dope and watch the Guru, and that was my introductory lecture.
Rick: But then after I’d been doing it for a few months and had, like you say, totally cleaned up my act. I dropped out of high school. My father had kicked me out of the house. Within two weeks after I’d learned, I’d gotten my hair cut, got a job, got back into school, and did all this stuff. My father, after a couple of months, said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I want to do it too.” You might remember my father.
Phil: That’s right. Yes, I do, and that happened a lot. As we all know, first of all, you’ll find those sections quite nostalgic. It’ll bring back your youth.
Rick: I haven’t lost it.
Phil: No, good memories. But within, as we know, and this is a point I make in my talks that is very important to convey, because of what we were just talking about, serious grown-ups started looking at what was going on with meditation. That stimulated a lot of interest from scientists and psychologists to say, “What is going on? Why are these people being transformed by this practice?” That led to the mainstreaming of TM. So, by 1975, when we had the Merv Griffin phenomenon, now we had, instead of the sort of counterculture heroes of the Beatles, we had mainstream heroes advocating TM. Mary Tyler Moore and Clint Eastwood are two bigger stars you could not imagine at the time. And America’s sort of a favorite talk show host saying he’s a meditator. This was huge. And so, it was kind of a very rapid evolution from hippies going away from LSD into meditation to ordinary Americans getting off Valium to meditate instead. This was a huge, huge thing, and not to be underestimated.
Rick: It’s true. It happened within five or six years. Most of the 50,000 or so people who were coming in to learn every month after the Merv Griffin show were truck drivers and housewives, and just people who wouldn’t have gone anywhere near LSD. They were just sort of looking to lower their stress levels.
Phil: That’s right. And so, you had this mainstreaming of meditation, and with it, the mainstreaming that India has something legitimate to teach us and that the conceptual framework that comes with meditation and comes with these practices is something to be taken seriously. That started to have a huge transformative effect on psychology, on medicine, and it opened the doors. In the book, I call Maharishi the Henry Ford of American Veda because he mainstreamed the practice of meditation. Meditation became legitimate. We would think of it as TM, but the general term, meditation, because it opened the door to all the other gurus and all the other teaching lineages to have more customers because now it was legitimate. And so, people who weren’t drawn to TM, a lot of the leadership of the Vedanta Society, of SRF, of the Integral Yoga Institute, of Muktananda’s lineage, all these other current leaders were people who were influenced in those days to look to Indian spiritual teachings and found their way to whatever was appropriate for them.
Rick: It seems to me that, I mean, I’ve been a little bit obsessed with this topic over the last ten years, but it seems to me that it’s almost the exception to find a teacher from the East who hasn’t been embroiled in some sort of scandal or controversy like this. Some of them managed to keep it very private, others just blew it wide open. But it puzzles me, and I’ve given it a lot of thought. I sort of feel like perhaps the reason, and see what you think about this, is that the culture in which these teachers grew up didn’t prepare them to deal with being surrounded by beautiful young women and lots of money and stuff like that. They may have grown up in an ashram and they had issues that they didn’t even know they had and may very well have reached a very high level of consciousness, however we want to define that, but had shadow issues that hadn’t been dealt with and that were triggered by the proximity of these temptations. I agree with you, everything you say, especially back in the 70s. I think your analysis is probably true, but one of the takeaways from this is that it has given rise to a lot of interesting thinking, especially in circles of people who are both spiritual practitioners and intellectual psychologists who have given a lot of thought to it and written about it, people like Ken Wilbert. One of the conclusions I think we have come to is that enlightenment doesn’t necessarily imply a one-to-one correspondence with what we think of as moral or ethical behavior and that people can achieve higher levels of consciousness and still misbehave or still find those shadow elements present. The whole humanness of the experience and the unreasonable expectations that we project onto people of spiritual stature has come into focus over the last few decades, and I think we’re a lot more mature about that now as a result. This is not to downplay the wounds that these scandals created and the disillusionment, the hurt, and the pain. There was an awful lot of that, and it’s still there for a lot of people.
Rick: Yeah. It took me a long time to adjust to that idea because Maharishi, who is my teacher, emphasized so much that there is a tight correlation between ethical and moral development and the development of consciousness. He always said people act from their level of consciousness, but I’ve had to accept that the correlation is a lot looser than I once thought.
Phil: Yeah, and I think there probably is some correlation, because I think the odds of behaving morally and ethically improve as you advance spiritually, but it’s not a one-to-one thing. It’s not like a train where consciousness is the locomotive and behavior in the world and moral behavior, business acumen, or any of these kinds of relative qualities are the cars that get dragged along with it. It just doesn’t seem to be that way. And there is that shadow element that we carry with us and our humanness, and our physicalness, and our bodies. All these things are factors that can’t be dismissed, but I think the tendency to elevate gurus to a certain level and to take surrender to a guru or humility to a great teacher to the extreme of believing everything they say or assuming everything they say is true and there’s a certain infallibility quality to it, I think that we’ve learned better.
Rick: Another thing people fail to do, I think, is to discriminate between what the guru is saying, which may only be a reflection of his particular opinion or cultural development, and what he’s saying that might have some universal truth quality to it. You know, like if for instance a guru makes some comment about politics or something, is that really cosmic intelligence offering an opinion about politics or is that just his opinion?
Phil: And the whole notion of gurus don’t make mistakes, that everything they do is in line with divine intelligence or God’s will or whatever the motif is. And psychologists call that the “halo effect,” and they’ve been using that term long before there were gurus. I mean, when people like Edison and Einstein were around, they were always asked their opinion about social things and cultural things and politics because they were geniuses in their field. And there’s this assumption that genius would carry over, so why should we make the same assumption about spiritual genius or philosophical genius or good charismatic teaching skills, it’s even more so with gurus because there’s this spiritual sense of surrender and perfectibility that we mistakenly allow to cross over to those fields. So, you’re right, gurus are also products of their culture. I remember when I was troubled over some of the things Maharishi was saying about world affairs or some of the policies of the movement, one person who shall be nameless said to me, “Well, he’s Indian.” And I thought, “Oh, yes, he’s from India. He’s not only from India, he was of a different generation and a totally different lifestyle and cultural milieu. So of course, he’s going to see certain things differently and do things differently. Why do we assume it’s necessarily appropriate or correct or mistake-free?”
Rick: I think the confusing thing about gurus, though, is that whereas with Edison or Einstein, they were scientists, and we don’t necessarily expect scientists to be saints, but a guru is associated with “higher states of consciousness”, quote-unquote, which is associated with saintliness. We picture Christ walking on water or something and saying, “Be therefore perfect.” And some gurus, Maharishi in particular, are explicitly taught that if you get enlightened, you’re not going to be able to make mistakes or violate laws of nature.
Phil: But then it’s incumbent upon us to ask the question, “What does that mean? What does it mean not to make mistakes in the cosmic sense? What does it mean when you try to apply that principle, even if you assume it’s true?” Which I don’t. But if you assume it’s true, what does it mean when you apply it to life in the relative world? There are a million stories of Maharishi complaining to people about why they didn’t tell him he was wrong about something. Well, they didn’t tell him because they assumed he couldn’t be wrong.
Rick: He said that to me one time.
Phil: There you go. And I heard him say, “Oh, I made a mistake. I should have done this.” There’s cognitive dissonance there that people do not want to look at.
Rick: Well, the funny thing is …
Phil: It wasn’t just Maharishi, I must tell you.
Phil: It was in all the other movements as well.
Rick: Absolutely. If you read the Vedic literature, the Puranas, they’re full of wacky stories of saints and sages and Maharishis and Brahmarishis and whatnot going at each other, battling, and doing all kinds of crazy stuff that doesn’t fit into our concept of morality.
Phil: They’re human. And so, this is a big lesson. In my experience, the young practitioners now, the young seekers, even the ones who are around gurus and love their guru, are not making the same mistakes, maybe because they saw their older siblings or parents go through what we’re talking about. They’re more likely to have a sensible attitude toward their gurus or their teachers, one that does not make these assumptions of infallibility and perfection and obedience that many, many people of our generation did. I’m sure they’re still doing some of that. But there’s also, I think, less likelihood of sexual shenanigans nowadays, in part because there are a lot of female gurus now, and they’re not testosterone-driven, their bodies aren’t the same way. But it would also be because we’ve all learned a lot about this. There are precautionary tales about the inappropriateness of that kind of intimacy between teachers and students and people in authority and so forth. So it’s different.
Rick: Yeah. And also, some of the teachers are much more down to earth. They’re not trying to create too much of an aura around themselves, like Adyashanti, for instance, or kind of a matter of fact. And in cases where there has been a faux pas, there has in some cases been a very honest forthcoming evaluation of it, like for instance Gangaji’s husband.
Phil: That’s right. But the difference, Rick, with the people you just mentioned, is these are not people who took vows of celibacy, they were not swamis, they were not representing a tradition where brahmacharya was held up to be an ideal, and they did not ask that of their followers.
Rick: Good point.
Phil: I think a big part of the 70s scandals was the hypocrisy and the delusionary kind of quality and the sneaking around and the denial and all the rest of that kind of cover-up stuff that came with it.
Rick: Yeah, good point. I was interviewing Genpo Roshi a couple of weeks ago, do you know him?
Rick: I didn’t know it at the time, but I looked him up on Wikipedia later and found out there had actually been some scandal in his life. I don’t know what the gist of it was and I won’t pass judgment on it, but in the interview, he was saying how he saw this kind of fall that gurus take as a step in their progress rather than a regression. It’s sort of like it forces them to face things that they hadn’t faced.
Phil: It could very well be, but they didn’t all face it, at least not publicly anyway. And to this day! I can’t tell you how bad. This was the hardest stuff for me to write in the book because it’s so complicated and I didn’t want it to be too sensationalized and I didn’t want it to overwhelm the other stuff because it’s so titillating. But I talked to a lot of people in all the organizations where there were scandals or at least allegations and the range of reaction to this stuff, to this day, 30, 40 years later, is extraordinary. There are still people who will not accept that it possibly could have happened and on the other extreme, there are people who have renounced everything about gurus and Indian teachings and so forth. But most people in the middle of this sort of bell curve just mature to a perspective where they realize it is always about the teaching, not the teacher, and it always should have been about the teachings and not the teacher, and that’s what they’ve come back to. “Yeah, my teacher may have had a fall, he may have done these things, but it does not change what I got from these teachings and practices that he brought to my life.”
Rick: Yeah, that’s my attitude.
Phil: Yes, exactly. And I think that’s the maturation that took place. Some of these things surfaced after the guru had passed from the earth and so we don’t know if they would ever have faced up to it. And to this day there are some things that we just don’t know if they’re true or not.
Rick: Yeah, and I notice that neither of us is naming names here, and I think it’s better that way in a sense because my attitude is not to shove this in people’s faces. If they’re curious and they want to research it, they can find out things about their particular teacher or any particular teacher.
Phil: Oh man, there’s no shortage of stuff about all this on the internet. In the book I only named a couple of names where there was a lot of publicity around it, and people know about it. Or where there was something about what happened that was unique and needed to be expressed. Like when Amrit Desai’s scandal happened, it was confronted in a grown-up and mature way and the result of that was the Kripalu Institute, which is the biggest residential yoga center in America now, and converted from a guru-centered organization to a non-profit educational model and has thrived ever since. And so that was worth mentioning because it was very public and there are lessons to be drawn. But I try to stay away from all the other things. You had to mention that there were allegations, but I was not going to investigate what was true and what was not.
Rick: Okay, so you go on in the book to talk about the spin-offs from some of these Indian teachers, Ram Dass, Deepak, and other American Acharyas, take the wheel you say?
Phil: Yes, and some people who became actual gurus with disciples who were Americans, and others who became scholars or psychologists and so on. I call them all the Vedic transmitters.
Rick: Like Andrew Cohen you’re probably referring to and Ken Wilber and so on?
Phil: Right, all of those people are mentioned or profiled and given some time in the book because they all made contributions in their own way.
Rick: And then you also covered the impact that India has had on music and the arts.
Phil: Well, mentioned the impact India had on music and the other arts, but there was a greater focus on how the arts became means of transmission and artists became means of transmission. The principal one was Ravi Shankar and his impact on classical and jazz musicians, like George Harrison, and through George, of course, there was a tremendous amount of transmission because of his interest in the spiritual component of Indian music. He became the true seeker among the Beatles and a transmitter in his own right. But also, people like T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats, Salinger, Somerset Maugham, Herman Hesse, Yehudi Menuhin, John Coltrane, and a lot of other people.
Rick: John McLachlan, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Phil: That’s right, and a lot of those people who learned from Indian teachers and transmitted the teachings in some form or another through their art, including filmmakers, and films like Gandhi and Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. These things in some subtle way and in some overt ways influenced people in the direction of looking deeper into Indian spiritual teachings. It was a lot of fun to write that chapter.
Rick: “Within You, Without You” certainly had an impact on me listening to that Beatles song.
Phil: That’s right.
Rick: All right, so we are sort of going through your book in a linear fashion but it’s kind of working. Your next chapter here is “The Soul of Science,” “The Science of Soul.” What’s that about?
Phil: Well, we touched upon…
Rick: Oh, scientific research?
Phil: One part of it is the impact of all the scientific research that started with the TM research and has now evolved into a lot of studies on Hatha Yoga and various forms of meditation and of course the brain imaging techniques that are so much more sophisticated than they were back in the early 70s. But that’s one part of it. The other part is the impact on certain cutting-edge theoretical physicists. I don’t just mean John Hagelin, I mean people like Heisenberg and Schrodinger and other physicists and earlier Tesla. Turns out that Nikola Tesla was friends with Vivekananda and they had a lot of interaction between them. So that sort of Eastern cosmology, Western science thing was going on back in the 1890s and it progressed obviously into the modern age. And then people like Fritz Kappler who wrote “The Tao of Physics” and other people who were looking into the connection between the consciousness sciences of the East and modern cosmology and physics and consciousness research. Also, the effect that science has now had as a means of transmission. So, you have people for whom Eastern practices were mainly conceived of as mind-body practices or as adding levels of understanding to what we think of as human potential. So, there’s a section about developmental psychology, and Skip Alexander, who many of your listeners know. People like Ken Wilber and other psychologists who were taking developmental psychology to higher levels of what’s possible for human beings because of the models that came to us from India. Also, health research, the practices in alternative medicine, people meditating and doing yoga for yoga therapy, mind-body integration, and people like Dean Ornish and Mehmet Oz, are all affected by the yogic practices and yogic teachings.
Rick: Mehmet Oz learned TM recently, by the way. I know he did, I was interviewed by him, and that didn’t come up, but I know he learned TM recently, but he was also practicing Hatha Yoga for many years. Dean Ornish modeled his whole research protocol from what he learned from his guru, Swami Satchidananda. He kept that quiet for a long time but was very eager to give Swami Satchidananda credit and to honor him when I interviewed him for the book. And so now he can call some of the components of what he does “yoga,” whereas before it was “stretching exercise.” So, these things have become mainstream through scientists who were influenced by the teachings early in their careers.
Rick: So this next chapter, a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into an ashram, I presume that’s about the deepening of Western religions by virtue of the Eastern influence that we were talking about earlier?
Phil: Exactly, yes. And so there are people like Thomas Merton and Beat Griffiths and the Jewish equivalents and the Christian mystics, and there’s a whole section in the book about the origins of centering prayer with Thomas Keating when he was bringing TM teachers up to the monastery at Spencer Mass, as well as some Buddhist teachers figured out what was going on with these practices, the ultimate result of which was the development of centering prayer.
Rick: In your final chapter, “The Once and Future Religion: America, the Spiritual Evolved,” it sounds like you’re going to prognosticate. What are you doing there?
Phil: A little bit, I’m reluctant to do that because I’m not a seer, but I’m just looking at trends. I did a lot of looking into research on religious trends, especially since the ’60s and ’70s. You could see patterns in all the surveys that were taken by Princeton, Pew Research, and Gallup polls. And the trend line is clearly in this Vedantic/Yogic direction, whether people call it that or not. One of the contentions I make in the book is that people have been influenced by these teachings, the Dharmic teachings, the Enlightenment teachings, including Buddhism, which I don’t cover in the book, what we think of as the Yogic tradition or the Hindu tradition, in ways they don’t even realize. They don’t even know they’re being affected by this because they learn something from a self-help author like John Gray, or Deepak, or any of the number of others, or they learn something from their psychotherapist, or from a new book on psychology, or whatever it is, not knowing that the authors and the seminar leaders have been powerfully influenced by these teachings and sort of changed the language so that there doesn’t seem to be anything Indian about it. And so, these things have permeated the culture in many, many ways, and that’s one of the big points I make in the book. The notion that you can be spiritual and not conventionally religious, that you can carve out your own individual path according to your inclinations and your personality and so forth, and that the focal point of your spiritual life can be the inner experience of the divine, or of God, or whatever how you define that has become mainstream. This is the direction that the research shows people’s attitudes toward religion and spirituality have moved, even among conventionally religious people. They will say that their church affiliation is less important than their inner experience, and this is a trend line. And they will say they’re open to learning from other traditions and other ways of looking at religion and spirituality. They will conscientiously learn from or seek out wisdom from other traditions, and above all, they are much more accepting of different spiritual pathways as legitimate. So, this move away from “my way is the only way” and “my tradition is the one true way” has disintegrated rapidly before our eyes. There are still fanatics and exclusivists out there making a lot of noise, and there probably always will be, but their numbers are less and less. So that’s the kind of trend I look at. I also look in the last chapter at the current wave of what is fashionable and trendy, or the new trend line in the Vedic tradition. So, I talk about the emergence of Hatha Yoga as a phenomenon and the yoga studios as a centerpiece for where young people are going for their spiritual nourishment, and the emergence of Kirtan as a major phenomenon. People are chanting all over the place, doing Sanskrit chants, and being Kirtan superstars like Krishnadasa and Nawa. That’s an interesting phenomenon because it shows that people are becoming more devotional, and the bhakti element is coming out more and more to balance out the jnani intellectual aspect. So, I talk about these trends and some of the newer gurus like Amma and Sri Ravi Shankar who have emerged since the ’80s.
Rick: Have you given much thought to the whole Neo-Advaita movement, as it’s called? What’s your take on that?
Phil: Well, I have mixed feelings about it because, on the one hand, it’s fascinating that non-dualism has become a commonly accepted term, and there are all these teachers teaching a kind of non-sectarian non-dualism, which I think has tremendous impact and importance. On the other hand, I take a lot of exception to the way some of these teachings are being interpreted and how people like Ramana Maharshi are being evoked in ways that I think do not do justice to who they really were, and are not accurate in their interpretation of what they stood for and what they were teaching. It’s the attitude I saw among a lot of the Neo-Advaita teachers to honor the sort of absolute, to disengage from what we think of as the relative, and to discount relative experience. It’s a very renunciate-oriented way of looking at the world that sort of takes all the concept of Maya and all this is unreal, and all this is an illusion, to mean that you shouldn’t be concerned about life in the world and that it has no real value or no meaning. This leads to a kind of disengagement that is false and can lead people astray. But the biggest problem I have is that they started to denigrate spiritual practice. You don’t need to practice, just sort of snap out of it, you’re already enlightened, so why meditate and why do any of this stuff, which I think does not do justice to where people are at and the importance of these traditional practices.
Rick: Yeah, it’s all very well put. It echoes what I’ve been thinking and saying about it. I tend to bring it up in almost every one of these interviews because I sort of have a little bee in my bonnet about it.
Phil: Me too. But I have to say, from what I can tell, it’s started to change because I think some of those teachers realized that they were not honoring where their students were at and they were leaving out something very important in the whole emergence of these Enlightenment teachings. One Zen teacher once said, “Enlightenment is an accident and meditation makes you accident prone.”
Rick: Yeah, I heard that one.
Phil: And that was always a sort of clever way of saying, “Yes, in an absolute sense we’re already enlightened and once you’re enlightened you realize you don’t need to practice and you’re already, already there, but that’s not where people are.” You have to make yourself, it’s like Ramakrishna used to say, “Grace is everywhere but you have to set your sails, or else you don’t catch the wind.”
Rick: Well in many cases I think that’s not even where these teachers are. I mean, I used to give a pretty good rap when I was 17 about all kinds of spiritual realities, speaking as if I was living from that level, which I wasn’t. I think in many cases, I don’t know for sure, but I think you can get a very intuitive feel for non-dual reality and feel that “Okay, well that’s what it’s all about.” You can just start learning to talk from there.
Phil: Yeah, I’m sure there’s a lot of that.
Rick: Yeah, but if you were somehow able to magically step into the shoes of Ramana Maharshi and see the world through his eyes, you might find there’s quite a radical contrast between what you had been experiencing and thinking was enlightenment and what someone like he was experiencing.
Phil: I suspect you’re quite right about that. And to come back to the teaching aspect and the sort of concept of upaya or skillful means, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta did not tell people not to do spiritual practices. They were all for spiritual practices for people on the path, and they made that very clear.
Rick: Yeah, there’s a young, very popular Advaita teacher, a non-dual teacher named Jeff Foster. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but I’m going to be interviewing him in a few weeks. And he tells this story about where he was taking a walk with his mother and his mother said, “Oh, look at the beautiful tree,” and he went into this whole cold rap about how there is no tree and there is no person and blah, blah, blah. And he looks back at that now and kicks himself, and thinks, “I was very foolish”. I’m going to get him to tell that story when I interview him, and we’ll take it from there.
Phil: Good for him. From what I gather, he’s not the only one of the non-dual teachers who have come around to recognize that the relative is also part of the picture, and is absolute, but it is also relative.
Rick: Yeah, which in the Vedic knowledge, as I understand it, Brahman is said to be the container of both absolute and relative, sort of a synergistic thing where it’s more than the sum of its parts.
Phil: Exactly, and that to me is true non-dualism, not the rejection of relativity.
Rick: Yeah. Alrighty, so in terms of your own personal progress and spiritual practice, how’s it been going for the last 43 years?
Phil: Well, you know, it’s one learning after another. I just continue to try to evolve in the way that’s appropriate for me, and I’ve gone through my changes. I will say this, because friends of mine out there who might be watching this might wonder, with all my research and everything, I still do my TM. That is still the centerpiece and has been since 1968. It’s the centerpiece of my spiritual life. I value it probably as much or more than I ever did because I’m less naive in my acceptance and my evaluation of it. I’ve come around to appreciate Maharishi’s contribution and the practice more and more, while also coming to respect and value many of the other teachings that have come and the different variations of the Vedantic and Yogic traditions and the different teachers who came and what their contribution was. I became, at a certain point, much more open-minded to learning from other teachings and teachers and much more eclectic in what I do, but TM remains the centerpiece of my practice and I find it still indispensable. But I also love going to kirtan sessions and chanting with the young people. It’s an outlet for whatever bhakti element is in me. I’ve learned to do Hatha Yoga practices that are beyond the few asanas we learned back when we were doing residence courses in the 70s. I learn from other teachers and I learn from other traditions as well, and I just continue my pursuit and try to integrate it with my life in the world as best I can and not think about it too much.
Rick: There’s a saying that you can be taking a walk and get caught in a sudden downpour and be drenched, or you can be taking a walk in a heavy mist, and at a certain point you realize you’re drenched but you can’t really say when it happened.
Phil: I think that’s very true, and every once in a while, people talk about enlightenment. Last night at a talk I gave at a bookstore, someone asked, in all my research, because I interviewed like 300 people for my book, “How many people did I interview who I thought were enlightened?” I thought, it never even dawned on me to ask that question. I’m not in the business of judging other people’s state of consciousness, and the truth is I hardly think about my own. For all I know, I’m walking around in a state of grace or in a more enlightened state than I give myself credit for, or maybe the opposite. I don’t know, and I think thinking about it does not serve me. I just want to live my life and go by how I feel and do justice to the fact that I have some responsibility in the world, having been given whatever gifts I’ve been given from Maharishi and all the other teachers, to know certain things and to have the ability to write and communicate verbally. I’ve come to think I have a certain responsibility in my own insignificant way to be a transmitter and to enjoy my life and presumably progress as quickly as I can. One thing I learned in the days when I was fanatical about getting enlightened, I was probably working against myself by trying too hard and neglecting other aspects of life that I had to make up for.
Rick: Well, that’s very well put and it’s probably a good place to conclude.
Rick: So thanks a lot, Phil. This has been great.
Phil: Thank you, Rick. It’s always great to be interviewed by someone who knows what they’re talking about and has a great knowledge of the subject.
Rick: I don’t know about that. So, I’ve been speaking with Philip Goldberg, who’s written a book entitled “American Veda,” and this is about the 57th or so interview that I’ve done in this series. If you go to batgap.com, B-A-T-G-A-P, which is an acronym for Buddha at the Gas Pump, you’ll see them all and you can participate in discussions. I’ll have links to Phil’s book and his website and things like that. There’s a podcast you can subscribe to. Videos are in various places, YouTube, Facebook, and so on. But batgap.com is kind of the mothership. Go there and you can find it all. Oh, and there’s also a donate button there. If you feel like making some small donation, I use that to upgrade equipment. You may have noticed my picture has been frozen during this interview. Something needs to be improved. But obviously no obligation. Thanks for watching or listening and we’ll see you next time.