The Will to Believe
A sordid solitary thing,
Mid countless brethren with a lonely heart
Thro’ courts and cities the smooth Savage roams
Feeling himself, his own low Self the whole;
When he by sacred sympathy might make
The whole ONE SELF! SELF, that no alien knows!
SELF, spreading still! Oblivious of its own,
Yet all of all possessing.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1794
Everyone in my family is now a yogi. Except me. I’m still holding out, guarding the gates of rationalism against the onslaught of what I presume to be fanciful belief. Is it an excess of decorative sentiment I object to? The blighting earnestness of pious people pretending things could really be that simple? I don’t know anymore. I used to be so sure when I was 20 years old. Now I’m a little older, and a little less inclined to argue with my mother during the holiday season (at least about whether or not God exists). In my spiritually fruitless early adulthood, I am little more than an agnostic in search of an elegant synthesis, a humble nonbeliever hoping someone will still want to be my friend.
Growing up, I don’t think my step-sister and I fully realized that we belonged to a legitimate religious minority. We lived in a nice part of Phoenix, Arizona, and going to “church” always felt natural. The chanting, the energization exercises, the brief spurts of meditation we learned to tolerate in Sunday School were merely things that came before the occasional ice cream social afterwards. In form and content, enough of our parents’ religion was relatable to Protestant Christianity that we could feel normal when the topic came up with friends at school. Our parents had jobs; they drove cars; they dressed and spoke like ordinary white middle-class Americans. But they also happened to meditate between 1-2 hours a day and believe that the universe is governed by immutable cosmic laws like Karma and reincarnation. In the course of any given dinner conversation, the word “Master”—the traditional Hindu designation for one’s guru, or spiritual teacher—would issue from our parents’ lips as effortlessly as the words “work” or “school” or “discipline.” The world our family inhabited was at once secular and deeply religious, and this happened to align perfectly with the spiritual principles my step-sister and I imbibed from a young age. In a certain light, though my mother may object to this, we were New Age Protestants, only slightly more culturally distinctive than the Evangelical Christians she and my step-father vehemently disagreed with politically.
According to the “Aims and Ideals of Self-Realization Fellowship As set forth by Paramahansa Yogananda, Founder,” SRF—the acronym everyone in the church uses—seeks what all millennial faiths seek: to change the world for the better. Its founder’s mission was “To disseminate among the nations a knowledge of definite scientific techniques for attaining direct personal experience of God.” In his words, SRF, founded in Los Angeles in 1920, taught “that the purpose of life is the evolution, through self-effort, of man’s limited mortal consciousness into God Consciousness.” That’s right: the evolution of God Consciousness. Most profoundly, Yogananda sought to “reveal the complete harmony and basic oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ and original Yoga as taught by Bhagavan Krishna; and to show that these principles of truth are the common scientific foundation of all true religions.”
Even as children we got wind of the fact that this was heady stuff. We absorbed the mundane trappings of Protestant morality, recognizable to any American child touched by the shared legacy of Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin. (SRF emphasized “plain living and high thinking,” “the superiority of mind over body, of soul over mind”; it sought “To overcome evil by good, sorrow by joy, cruelty by kindness, ignorance by wisdom,” etc. etc). But there was always something grander, dare I say more modern, just beneath the surface of each Sunday School lesson. In keeping with his view of the fundamental affinity between original Christianity and original Yoga, Yogananda aimed “To unite science and religion through realization of the unity of their underlying principles.” He was in some sense another American pragmatist, though certainly a more devout one than the likes of William James. As soon as he arrived in the United States in 1920, he began advocating “cultural and spiritual understanding between East and West, and the exchange of their finest distinctive features.” He came as India’s delegate to an International Congress of Religious Liberals taking place in Boston, and he became something of a religious celebrity almost overnight. As kids we heard the story of his first speech in English many times. Spontaneously, we were told, the words just came to him on the ship; he electrified his audience without knowing a word of English, and from then on he wrote and spoke in an eloquent English vernacular for the rest of his life. This was God Consciousness in action. We believed the story when we were young.
By whatever logic, my step-sister and I distanced ourselves from SRF as we grew older. I think we’d both stopped going to church by the time we were 16. She became something of a young leftist, picketing Paradise Valley Mall with anti-consumerist pamphlets and dabbling in the writings of Valerie Solanas until she fell in love with French midway through college, while I pursued a less auspicious route. What became my mature (18 or 19-year-old) rationalism evolved slowly over the course of many warm summer nights sitting outside my friend Jeff’s garage. Through our philosophic wanderings, I began to piece together the makings of a secular worldview, the details of which I filled in haphazardly over time. I wasn’t entirely comfortable confronting my mother with my unbelief while I still lived in her house. But by the time I’d spent a semester in college I had become a very arrogant young man.
The details of our arguments are fuzzy now. Everyone would leave the room. We were never angry, exactly. Just committed to the truth of our respective positions. She had been meditating for upwards of 35 years when I was just discovering Nietzsche, but she had never read Nietzsche. Hence the stalemate. I could never get past the knowledge claims embedded in her spiritual assertions; she could never get past my insistence on boiling everything down to knowledge claims and rational assertions. Around we went, to the chagrin of my step-sister, my step-father, and anyone else who had to listen to us at length. Thanks in part to my mother’s quasi-Protestant work ethic, this became an irrepressible part of our dynamic after I went to college. She was of course helping to pay for my education every step of the way.
We were usually hiking in the desert just the two of us when we got closest to resolving our basic disagreement. Especially at Christmas time, when it was relatively cool out, we liked to take long walks that allowed our common verbosity to vent. The bleak expansiveness of the desert terrain proved an ideal setting for the dialectical match that would inevitably get lit, and we may have been on one of our familiar trails when we finally decided one fine day to stop arguing about God.
However the realization came, it settled things once and for all. It was so simple that we (or maybe just I) had missed it for years. My mother and I were speaking two different languages. Our terms were incommensurable. There was no way for us to agree, and no way for us to convince each other without agreeing to the terms of each others’ specific language and worldview. She was arguing from the experience of meditation; I was arguing from the crush of largely impressionistic intellectual musings. There was little common ground between us and even less willingness to budge.
So it was futile to argue. We might as well agree to disagree and talk about things that brought us closer together instead of repeating the same loop of discord. That was that, and forevermore holidays were happier times (for everyone concerned). We could all accept the epistemic/spiritual rift between our two family factions in the same way we accepted that there were divergent opinions about art and film—until the holiday season three years ago when my step-sister announced she was going to an SRF retreat in Switzerland just after the New Year.
In all honesty, “What?!” was my first thought when I heard the news. But I was understanding by then. I had grown to appreciate the fact that people thought about faith differently than I did, and I had intellectual reasons to justify my view that this was OK. I’d also come to recognize that SRFers are some of the kindest, warmest, least dogmatic people I know, and that meditation involves a very profound effort to discipline the mind. The loving dynamic we’d developed as a family was partly the result of work we’d all put in to get to know one another. But it also followed from the spiritual practices they sought to realize in their lives. So we proceeded; I watched as our parents delighted in the steady growth of my step-sister’s conviction in the tenets of SRF, and slowly I was enveloped in a new alienation. What was I missing? I wondered. Why did I lack the capacity to believe in what they believed? Deep down, I wanted the accolades of parental acceptance too, and fewer seemed to be coming my way for reading books and scratching at the surface of historical knowledge. By this time I was a graduate student, and my ego strength had diminished considerably after weathering the storms of that particular form of modern existence. At my most desperate, I wanted terribly to belong to what they did; there were even moments when I felt my commitment to Nietzsche wavering.
Last weekend, my step-sister and I Skyped across the Atlantic ocean. She’s lived in France for years now, and although we don’t talk as often as either of us would like, we catch up at considerable length when we find the time. We talked about various goings on in our lives, our parents, and the recent French election. After about an hour and a half I thought to ask how her meditations were going, almost in passing. She knew what I was asking (we know each other pretty well), and in the kind, thoughtful voice she always describes her SRF practices, she told me all about them. Just before we ended the Skype call she said something she’s said before, also almost in passing. “You know you should really read the Autobiography of A Yogi some time. Just to see what you think. I mean you might really find something in it. Something you might not expect, you know?…”
For some reason that day, the thought was oddly terrifying. I knew I had a copy on my shelf. This was the book that everyone in SRF read at one point or another, often as a prelude to entering the spiritual life Paramahansa Yogananda teaches. It is his autobiography, after all, and I can’t help but regard it as a quasi-sacred text.
This was Mother’s Day. I’d not read the autobiography before and something felt right. I decided I’d take it down from the shelf and just start reading. Just read it. What else did I have to do that day?
Lying comfortably in bed, I opened my copy for the first time since my mother and step-father had given it to me as a Christmas gift in 2007. I read the note they wrote in the front flap and felt a mix of warm nostalgia and firm resolve wash over me. Yes. I was going to do this. I was going to start reading the first chapter, “My Parents and Early Life,” word for word. The way one reads a book. Not to get the argument, but to read the book.
OK, so the writing wasn’t very good. The impressions of his childhood sounded like a bad Victorian novel, and his piousness was already starting to grate on me. I continued, growing frustrated. This wasn’t working. I had other things to do. There was “real” reading I was putting off. I started to skim, then skip ahead. A few minutes later I reread the table of contents to see which sections of the book might be especially worth reading. I flipped through “I Go to America” and found the part where he describes his experience spontaneously learning English. It wasn’t very convincing. It was overly sentimental and clearly embellished. Why was I reading this? This is why my parents and step-sister believe in miracles?
I put the book down; my room was quiet. Remorse wafted over me. I was incapable of joining them still. Whatever they had I lacked, whatever I had they lacked. The two were incommensurable. Nonetheless I felt alone. My intellect intact, my soul…