I recall absolutely nothing about the book, Centering, in Pottery, Poetry and the Person, by MC Richards whose blue cover (I think) is already worn from my mauling and caressing it throughout these last semesters of college. I only know it is my bible.
Be Here Now, by Ram Das, is also assigned to us at the University of Wisconsin Dance Department as “required reading” by our new guest artist-in-residence, Bob Beswick, from the Alvin Nicolai Dance Company. Bob comes off as a snob and exudes elitism, speaking in a distinctly “eastern seaboard,” educated accent, and he gifts us yoga, meditation, pranayama and all kinds of "esoteric" things. I am both intimidated and intrigued by him. He’s with we dancers for a semester in 1972.
Sitting in lotus position performing “alternate nostril breathing,” Nadi Shodanan; on the hard wood floors of the historic, Lathrop Hall, we are soon performing asana and "simply sitting" on that worn floor, day after day.
I’m driven mad by this newness and out-of-the box fun. Journaling daily, I pour my heart through my pen’s stroke, my every thought and feeling, mostly scribing my secret love and desire for this blue-eyed, mostly out-of-reach man, along with my inspirations from yoga practice. Each day, I sit seated cross-legged; breathing in, breathing out, a tad ridged, seated tall and earnest, somewhat to impress him, and hoping too to reach some kind of enlightenment. Peeking around the room I realize I may not be the only co-ed with a huge crush on our new dance teacher. We students are mesmerized by Mr Beswick, and suddenly dance technique class is an exciting prospect every day instead of a chore.
Little do I know as I sit on the hard floor, the practice and study of yoga is to become a more than major influence in my life. Little do I suspect I’d go on to teach almost 25,000 classes, and take as many, all over the world.
Little do I imagine I’d meet Ram Das at one of his appearances in Hollywood, as well as the star of his book, Bhagavan Das, right in my own living room in Madison, Wisconsin, 40 years later, as he sips a beer and a 20-year-old, (he eventually marries,) sits adoringly at his feet. Das’dread locks are piled high on his balding head appearing as old as my diploma, hanging by what appears to be a single grey hair. He holds court from his corner on the stuffed chair swathed in robes and adorned in ancient beads. I’m not impressed. Hours earlier I attended his kirtan at a local yoga studio, and I swear I heard him saying weird made up things as he chanted. It seemed he was faking it, but I really don’t know, it was just and instinct. A yoga teacher once said that anyone who takes on a spiritual name is one of two kinds; enlightened, or a crook.
Claudia Melrose is bigger than life: real, fresh and empowering and is our next guest teacher, and artist-in-residence, in 1973, also sent by the Nicolai’s Dance Theater Company. She becomes our absolute heroine, and a big relief after Bob’s machismo and arrogance, and particularly after he runs off with a willowy red head in our class at the end of his stay. We Modern Dance students would follow her into the fires of an erupting volcano if she asked us to. She too is tall and lanky, like Bob, yet she wears a messy a mass of long natural brown frizzyl hair. In a few short weeks, she has us eating mantras out of her palms.
Our bodies are stretched, our creativity challenged, and the choreography grows to new artist heights each and every day as we move across the floors of the practice studio, and eventually onto the stage of the (pre) Margaret D’Oubler Theater the fall and summer of 1973.
“Mantra is charged with a special vibration,” Claudia tells us, our eyes wide and breath abated. “Each of you will receive your own personal, secret mantra to use in your meditations. You can never ever tell this mantra to your friends.” We totally understand.
We dancers line up with our cash to receive the special mantra, direct from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi-to-the-stars, and to the Beatles for god-sakes. Even at 21 years old, I know I will never ever slip and tell anyone my word, my seed sound, my vibration. My little lean body quivers in excitement to be initiated into the secret society of Transcendental Meditation; TM.
One-by-one we come forward and sit on a folding chair. Claudia bends over us, her fragrant hair dusting our cheeks, and whispers our $35.00 mantra into our ears. My secret sound journeys deep into my cerebral cortex; down, down, to my Pineal Gland where it is planted, glowing like a spiritual radium seed doctors plant into the scrotum of old men with prostate cancer. I know my life is forever changed. I now have my personal precious mantra.
“I’m…I’m…I am I am I am I am I’m I’m I’m I’m… it buzzes like a bee deep at the center of my gooey grey matter, vibrating me into a higher being with every I’M.
Months go by. We meditate daily. Sometimes my friends and I climb up onto the stage of the Memorial Union Ballroom and sit cross-legged, and meditate as the “less enlightened” student body shuffle in and out.
It works. Twenty minutes, day and night, and I begin to feel relaxed, centered, and part of an elite artistic society with an infusion of the spiritual. I love TM. TM is changing me!
Now we all know how hard it is for 20-something females to keep a secret. Eventually, at a party in one of the cool “off-campus” apartments; the kind that smells of granola and adolescent body odor, adorned with leafy green plants, succulents, and sprouting avocado seeds in every windowsill; a gaggle of we skinny, bell-bottomed woman with leg hair and bare feet find ourselves once more dancing creatively on the living room floor.
My girlfriends and I are drinking a little bit of beer, maybe it is tea, laughing and moving wildly to Van Morrison’s Moon Dance, and culminating to Aretha Franklin’s, Respect; finally giggling ourselves into a pile on the dusty couch. Inevitably, the subject of our secret mantra comes around.
“Aren’t you curious about what the other mantras are?” We guiltily speak out loud.. “Awe, come-on… We can share just ours can’t we?” One of us utters.
“After all, we are best friends, … and the semester is over… We don’t have to tell anyone else.”
The thrill of the forbidden delivers chills and excitement to the skin and the heart, and one of us yells out loud, and screams. “I'M!”
Silence and shock follow: “I’m” …(pause) “What is yours…?”
We are each sobered. Wait, that’s my special mantra…
We’ve been duped by our goddess princess, guru, master, and leader, Claudia.
“Do you think everyone has exactly the same mantra? We weakly speculate.
“Yea probably.” We concur.
Phyllis Popper whose apartment we gather in this night, claims she knows one other person who told her their mantra, and "it is different," she claims defending our innocence and TM’s integirty. Whew, at least there are two…
The months fly by, and Claudia is displaced by yet another guest teacher; Al Wondar. He is the teacher who introduces us to the Yoga “Sun Salutations.” We learn to breathe with each movement and practice outdoors often in a circle that magical summer.
Five years later I experience more guru-types in Hollywood. I even take up residence in an ashram called the Siddha Yoga Dham, in upstate New York, where Baba Muktananda, which means “liberated,” resides surrounded by thousands of mostly white, upper middle-class devotees catering to his every need. Baba is considered the real deal, and a totally enlightened being.
I find my way to this Catskill Mountain retreat through a series of unfortunate and over-the-top events.
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, my writing, travel, and adventure guru over the last year; my lover and crazy companion dumps me for a younger woman; a Saturday Night Live assistant to John Belushi. I am devastated. I am driven insane with jealousy. I feel the burn of this vile emotion, this heartbreak, this betrayal with every cell in my body.
I'd moved back to NYC from Los Angeles, somehow rented an apartment on 69th St and Central Park West, and take up the high life, where I left off in LA, with a short 3-month affair with Al Pacino. Al takes me to plays and gifts me acting books. He squires me to Brooklyn to pick fresh basil out of a friend's backyard one night, and performs Richard the II on my front steps at 3 am the next. I have passes to every show at SNL and once take my mother there to meet the cast backstage, passing up a night of dancing at a private club invited by Al and Robert De Niro. I, send two of my girlfriends instead so I can share SNL with mom. Spring delivers Hunter back into my life once again. He is staying with me supposedly editing, The Great Shark Hunt, but mostly cavorting with me and my 21 yr-old roommate, and creating all kind of chaos both at my place and at the Gramercy Park Hotel where we spend half our time. It is a wild few weeks. Hunter’d hold court wearing a platinum blonde shoulder length wig and bright pink lipstick, and operating room fatigues we'd lift from my roommate. People beg to visit and meet the good doctor, and he has them fleeing in fear and shock shortly after arriving.
Ten miles over the Hudson River my parents reside in a little apartment in a Dutch community; Prospect Park, New Jersey. I played with my Barbie Dolls a decade or so earlier in our humble rented home. I feel thousands of miles from them now, spending nights with movie stars, attending parties all over the city, and partying hard with Hunter and his ever present entourage at every hotspot in NYC in spring of 1979.
Suddenly, all this raucous fun stops when he meets his next love at a party we are attending after a Saturday Night Live broadcast. I don’t know it for certain, but I feel it. Coming back from a restroom, I pass the elevator and see them side-by-side as the doors slides open. I see pig faces grunting and snorting like plastic masks instead of their real faces. They are stunned as I am to catch them sneaking off into the night. I'm in over my head and in denial. I run down the stairs and catch them leaving. I’m screaming and crying chasing them. This is the lowest point in my life, no doubt.
Now I'm walking the streets of NYC in a grey fog looking down at the gum-stained sidewalks, tears dropping onto the pavement. I pump frozen yogurt in my Cinderella day job, and live the A-list high life in NYC at night. I appear to be winning, and I am losing. Months earlier Al let me down easy telling me I am "way too young for him" and should settle into myself, and maybe even consider therapy. He suggested I was being used by my so-called friends in Hollywood and to stick closer to my roots.
Sitting at the kitchen table of my parents’ home, I cry uncontrollably for hours and hours, days maybe, to their horror and despair. I am wailing from a broken-open heart, and I cannot stop. “Help me. “Please help me,” I kept repeating to their tears and anguished faces.
“Dar maybe we should take you to a hospital…” They suggest in their sadness. “What can we do Dar?”
For the first time they don’t blame me for my despair. I never hear dad spurt out.
Dar, I told you so..I told you these men, and these phony people would hurt you. You should have stayed here and gone to the school up the hill and studied to be a school teacher…”
No, I hear none of the statements used on me every other time I call crying, exhausted, and broke.
I’ve burned up two years in Hollywood and NYC, and am no closer to being a working actress than the day I ran across Sunset Blvd with the wind in my sails. I am a soap opera day player, and do artist nude modeling. I’ve had many famous and infamous lovers, and grand movie-star-studded moments, and here I sit, slumped over a familiar Formica table; broken completely.
Eventually I call a former boyfriend, who is well into another relationship, after I'd broken his heart by running rampant with Thompson. I ask him humbly to please help me. He’s always has a heart for me. He agrees to pay for a month in the Siddha Yoga Dham.
“It’ll be good for you baby…” He adds. “You need to go inside for a while. There’s lots of shakti up there.” One of his former girlfriends, Sally Kempton, is a devotee of Baba’s named Swami Durga. I think he gave me $400. for a month in residence.
I live in the ashram dorm with about 8 beds for the first month. I’m with the program. There’s no booze, cocaine or sex here. The celebrities come and go. I’m a good ashram resident following all the rules. I wake 3:30 am each day to the conch shell. I make my way to the huge, dimly lit, blue Meditation Hall to meditate an hour. From the blue hall, we all gather to chant the Guru Gita day after day as the sun rises. At about 6:30 am breakfast is served; a porridge piled with yeast flakes, sliced onions and exotic Indian herbs which eventually exude from ones armpits. The early hours are a strain though, and often I’d sneak back to the dorm room, which is mostly empty during the afternoons, while most perform their assigned work. I climb up to the upper bunk and collapse in exhaustion.
More than once I’d experience an eerie out-of-bodyexperience. It is hard to describe it, but resembles many I’ve had in other places during my younger years. A feeling of gravity overcomes me and pins me to the bed as a kind of “lighter body” rises. It is scary, to say the least.
One afternoon I’m overcome with the odor of cigar smoke and muffled sounds coming from just below my bunk. My lighter body looks over the side of the bed and there are four men sitting, playing cards and smoking cigars. They are drinking and laughing, seated on the rug next to my bed! One of these bearded dirty characters looks up and laughs, pointing at me, he says mockingly, “Why aren’t you doing your GURU SEVA?” They all laugh. These “men” are a bit ragged and rough, and in my room!!! As I stare at them, they continue to mock me in muffled voices. I finally realize they are each slightly transparent. My body is frozen. I’m seeing and hearing and smelling ghosts! I’m terrified.
Suddenly the door to my room opens a crack, and (I swear to God) a 3-inch Baba Muktananda walks in and waves them away. His miniature self looks up at me, turns, and leaves the room. It all dissolves. Yea…
This happens more than once; same theme, ruffians, mocking transparent men, lowlifes, repugnant cigar smoke. I’m finally driven to approach Malti, Baba’s translator, and request I tell him what I am experiencing.
Baba listens, nodding, when I am granted a minute, and waves the peacock feather and tells me to ignore the “hungry ghost world.” “They can’t hurt you, they have no power.” Malti translates. “Ignore them and meditate,” She concludes. Baba hits me with the feather and waves me away.
I find out that this ashram site, this hotel and grounds, were once a drinking, brothel, and gambling center.
I never experience an out-of-body experience again of this nature. And yet I do experience weird hallucinations, two of which I will describe here.
In the Cafeteria, there are pictures of Hindu Gods hung along the walls, as well as many photos of Baba Muktananda and his own guru, Swami Nityananda Baba (whom I’ve dream about many times years earlier.) One day, as I eat my pungent porridge, I look up, and the photos are alive. Baba is waving at me, winking. The deities are dancing, their jewels glistening. I am sure I am truly insane, or the porridge is spiked, or both. I’m laughing uncontrollably staring into the orange delicious slop, afraid to look up or see a wink or dance out of the corner of my eye. The long tables are full of porridge-eating asham residents, and here I am laughing hysterically at my bowl just like a bonefied insane person. My heart feels full of ecstasy, joy, and bliss. I can’t muffle the laughter and am concurrently full of embarrassment. Upon talking to other devotees, I discover, with astonishment, they too have had similar dining hall experiences, and other strange encounters with “Shakti”.
My second spiritual experience, if you can call it this, occurs during a 24 hour chant of Om Namah Shivaya on some special Hindu holiday. All night we chant this mantra; women on one side of the Hall, and men on the other, in a “call and response” style where the women chant it and then the men chant it and it goes back and forth like a volley ball of sound and vibration. It is an awesome experience.
Suddenly, I am lifted away right out of the hall and transported to another planet, or location. I hear the chanting in the background, but am walking around in a glorious, heavenly light-filled place surrounded by deities who are bluish, and covered in flowers and glowing. It is heavenly, fragrant, peaceful..
I ask “Where am I?
One deity, who in retrospect might be Krishna himself, tells me I am in Siddha Loka. I repeat, “Siddha Loka Land?” again laughing and giddy with this wild weird journey, I continue, “You mean like Hollywood Land?”
“Kind of,“ The kind, blue-faced bejeweled man-woman god responds… I walk among elephants and be-jeweled women for too short a time.
The next day I head to the resident library and look up “Siddha Loka” and sure the fuck enough, it is a place where myth says all the gods reside in a more refined light-body, bluish-colored state.
Eventually, inevitably, I meet a very cute guy and move into a farm in the Catskills slightly off the ashram grounds. These chilly fall days I work each day de-thorning roses, praying for a miracle, and attending satsang each night. I remain somewhat un-hinged, depressed, and leaning on yet another lover at the farmhouse.
Philip Meese is making a documentary about BABA Muktananda and follows him around the country filming his satsangs (gatherings and teachings of Kashmir Shivaism.) Philip is 24 yrs young; tall, a privileged wasp raised in wealthy Connecticut. He is gorgeous with dreamy blue eyes and long legs. His crytal clear blue eyes sometimes tear up when we talk about what I have been through. He has a big crush on me, and me him. He also has a girlfriend, 23, with long chestnut hair who is a classical pianist and visits regularly. Philip and I have an affair, but now slightly outside of our “celibacy only" requirement at the ashram.
We enjoy thrilling taboo sex; outdoors, on logs, in fields, barns, and across his editing table on top of the outtakes of Baba footage, sometimes finishing up just as his real girlfriend drives up smiling widely and running into his arms. My hurt hangs with me like a skin I cannot shed.
It is said ashram life is akin to a pressure cooker, distilling and breaking down ones’ issues. It gets hot and uncomfortable, and eventually one surrenders to truths and grows; burning up karma and samskaras (flaws). I am in the pressure cooker. We each are.
The other residents in the woods at the farm include a self-proclaimed witch who fries chicken hearts and gizzards stinking up the entire house to we vegetarians’ horror; and a tall elegant aristocrat, a Rothschild, who becomes a friend and confident of mine because we share so many people in common from LA and Aspen, where she resides. This “home” is a strange brew to say the least; particularly when Philips’ girlfriend spends the weekend.
On Halloween, Philip and I stand side-by-side walking down the aisle towards Baba’s infamous peacock feather. Baba looks up at us and pauses. I know he knows, and I project all kinds of shame and guilt into the moment. Baba grunts indifferently and waves us on.
Dad and mom decide to come up to the Catskill mountains to find out about this “cult” their daughter is involved in. I’m both excited to show them around and hopeful somehow, they might receive shaktipat, the energy transmitted to begin their process of “enlightenment.”
Dot and Cor arrive, (who knows how,) at the farmhouse with paper maps in hand. They sit down meekly in the large, drafty, sparsely furnished living room; awkward, nervous, and genuinely concerned about their daughter who is now in her late 20’s. Dad makes a comment; “Gosh, a person could roller-skate in this living room here it’s so big.” I'm embarrassed in front of Philip whose father is a powerful, world-traveling CEO who never visits. Philip tries to explain his documentary to them. My parents have no idea what he is talking about, and Philip realizes this immediately and we make plans to get over to the evening program.
Mom, Dad, me and Philip make our way to the festive ashram hall where about 700 to 800 people stand in wait for Baba's entrance, and perhaps a glance from their beloved Muktananda. I give dad and mom fruit for the satsang line. Mom refuses to take part. Dad takes a mango, or a papaya, I can’t remember. I hold a few de-thorned roses. Dad’s wearing his worn plaid work shirt, K-mart pants, and continues to mispronounce Baba’s name as “Babu.”
I intruct dad to kneel and bow, and to hand him the fruit when the time comes. Dad looks at me and is resigned that his daughter is actually off her rocker, and because he’ll do anything for me, he is with this program; as always, no matter what. Mom remains somewhere along the back wall, seated, biting her lip, I am sure.
Suddenly and un-expectedly Baba enters a side door and surprises everyone. He is in full orange robes, black slippers, and walks along with his entourage. Suddenly he stops and turns slowly in our direction against the back wall. He walks towards my dad. He stops and stares at him. The entire crowd is breathless. The huge hall is wall-to-wall people mostly made up of people and families able to live endlessly the “ashram life” due to their trust funds or good luck in life.
Any eye contact or attention; positive or negative, from the guru is regarded as an incredible blessing. Baba lifts his arm and points to my dad and breaks into a huge smile as greeting an old friend. “Bro, slap me five” is the body language and tenor of the moment. He throws back his head and utters “AH!” nodding and laughing and smiling right at my dad.
I am flabbergasted. All eyes are on this interaction. Dad looks at me and says, “Does he want something?” I explain it as a great blessing. Dad dismisses the entire thing. Baba turns away as quickly as he addressed my daddy; and continues more seriously down the throngs of people, looking at no one.
Side-by-side, my father and I walk down the aisle, a far different aisle most dad’s usually walk with their daughters. We finally get to the guru’s feet and dad bows down and offers the mango/papaya. Baba whacks him over and over and over with his long peacock feather, taking more time than with anyone else. This whacking is also considered a coveted experience. Dad is “in” here, and it is very strange. It is strange for a lifetime. Decades later dad still refers to my time with BABU as a “phase I’ve outgrown, …thank god.”
On the last day of my father’s life, 40-something years later, the hospice people take him on a stretcher out of my living room where he has been for 5 months. They place sunglasses on his face and sit him up. He looks like a movie star, or jazz musician out in the June sunshine. He gives me a high five as they take him to what is to be his death bed.
At 5 am the next morning, my son and I get the call. It is time to go to the hospice center. We arrive and see “POP” in bed and taking his final breaths.
I sit around for hours asking for a sign that he is still available in spirit.
My son and I return home. Across the entrance to our tiny humble apartment lay a perfectly intact glorious peacock feather.
Over the years we each have spotted wild peacocks on the anniversary of my dad’s passing, or feathers...
What a strange, mysterious life this is.
Om Namah Shivaya!