A former student of psychology traces his life, from childhood to now—from looking up to others to looking into himself.
by Dharmadhyaksa dasa
On June 17, 1959, with summer vacation just a few days away, I walked onto my grammar school playground in a lighthearted mood. Just then my best friend Billy rushed over to me with wide eyes. Did you hear the news?!”
“This morning Superman killed himself! He shot himself in the head with a luger!”
At first I thought Billy was kidding, but soon I noticed that everyone in the yard was talking about the story—George Reeves, TV’s Superman, had committed suicide. II couldn’t believe it. A hero—how could a hero do that? I couldn’t believe it. A hero—how could a hero do that?
As Emerson said, “It is natural to believe in great men.” And in his book, The Hero, American Style, Marshall William Fishwick remarks that “people are ineffective without leaders. The search for paragons is inherent in human nature.” In an article in Today’s Health magazine, social critic Marya Mannes goes a little further. She says, “Unless we have some image of human greatness, of human excellence, to build on, we shall find it difficult to be animated by great dreams. We will be only moles burrowing in the darkness.”
For its part, modern psychology calls its equivalent of the hero or paragon the “ego ideal.” A person forms his ego ideal by picking out traits of parents, friends, and others in the society at large. Researchers are quick to point out that healthy models make for healthy people, while sick models, like Hitlers and Stalins, make for sick people and a sick world.
Social commentators are concerned about today’s shortage of inspiring, healthy models. “Where Have All the Heroes Gone?” asks Edward Hoagland in The New York Times Magazine, and U.S. News & World Report talks about “The Vanishing Hero.” So perhaps I was right, back there on the school playground,infeeling I’d been let down.
By the time I’d entered high school, most fictional heroes struck me as cardboard characters. I had to pass them by. Now, political leaders, past and present, replaced them. Then, in my freshman year of college, in 1965, the Watergate mood hit me early.
On the afternoon when Georgetown University played host to some members of Congress, I was one of the first students to trot up the steps of Harlan Hall. My mind was filled with anticipation. I wanted to get involved in government; it seemed a good way to work with people. During my first few months at school, I’d absorbed as much as I could of the theory and history of government, and now came a bonus—the chance to talk with the people who were making the history I was studying.
As I stood on the thick red carpet, the university’s past presidents stared down at me from their portraits on the old wood walls. Even their grave faces couldn’t douse my enthusiasm. In less than forty minutes I’d be sharing the room with the country’s leaders.
While I was thinking this way, a congressman dressed in a blue blazer bounded up the steps and walked hurriedly across the room. Several friends and I approached him and started asking questions, but he seemed totally intent on wherever he was going. He never slowed down.
“Boys,” he said, “I’m a Johnson Democrat. That answers all your questions. Now, where’s the bar?”
As we stood there openmouthed, the congressman glided past us and ordered a bourbon on the rocks,
My other brushes with politicians only reinforced this first bruised impression. With the world so much in need of unity and cooperation, I felt turned off by so much small-mindedness. It all seemed like a cheating, losing game, and I didn’t want to play it. So after my sophomore year I opted for a change—psychology.
At least psychology could tell you something about what was going on inside people. What surprised me was that all this inside knowledge of human nature just seemed to turn psychologists into pessimists. I’ll never forget the day when one of my best professors, Dr. M., compared human beings to lemmings.
“The lemming is a peculiar breed of rat that lives in Scandanavia,” said Dr. M. in his usual intense way. “Every so often—it seems to happen without any rhyme or reason—one lemming starts running frantically across the countryside. This ‘running fever’ spreads to the other rats, and soon a kind of mass hysteria infects them. For months and months they migrate, only to reach the coastline and a dead end.
” ‘Dead end’—that’s really what it is. Without hesitating, the lead lemming leaps into the sea, and all the rest follow him. The few that survive produce some more, and then they go through the suicide sequence all over again.
“Maybe we’re like the lemmings. World Wars I and II, Vietnam, the Middle East,… World War III—it’s a frightening thought, but if you look at our record,… maybe that’s the best we can do.”
In his book Motivation and Personality, psychologist Abraham Maslow talked about this kind of thinking. He chided not only psychologists but also many others in the intellectual community for denying “the possibility of improving human nature and society, or of discovering intrinsic human values, or of being life-loving in general.” During my college days I empathized with Maslow’s criticisms. Yet even more appealing to me were his positive insights about human potential.
Early in his career, Maslow had become disgusted with modern psychology’s obsession for studying mental disease. He felt that the study of sick and crippled persons could only produce a sick and crippled psychology. Maslow reversed this trend by researching the dynamics of health. He wrote,
If we want to know the possibilities for spiritual growth, or moral development in human beings, then I maintain that we can learn most by studying our most moral, ethical, or saintly people.
Maslow’s research reached its height in his description of the fully healthy or “self-actualized” person. In Towards a Psychology of Being, he wrote, “In these healthy people we find duty and pleasure to be the same thing, as is also work and play, self-interest and altruism.” In an earlier essay he had pointed out,
For such people virtue is its own reward…. They spontaneously tend to do right because that is what they want to do, what they need to do, what they enjoy, and what they will continue to enjoy.
The self-actualized displayed clearer perception of reality, more openness to experience, greater spontaneity, and a firmer sense of identity. They also possessed greater creativity, treated different kinds of people equally, and had a greater ability to love. They valued justice, simplicity, beauty, individuality, joy, and honesty.
The more I read about self-actualization, the more I liked it. But there was one hitch. Maslow didn’t know how the self-actualized got that way:
We simply do not have available today enough reliable knowledge to proceed to the construction of the One Good World. We do not even have enough knowledge to teach individuals how to love each other.
I still wanted self-actualization, but naturally I didn’t know how to get there either.
By this time I was in my senior year. Most of my classmates (even those who shared my feelings) kept themselves busy by applying to graduate schools or jockeying for a job. I could have forgotten my predicament that way and buried myself in some institutional cubbyhole, but something inside me refused to allow it. “You can’t fool yourself. You’ll never be happy by doing that.” With mixed emotions, I kept to that conclusion.
In other words, in so many ways this was a frightening decision to make. There were so many nagging questions. “Will I become an oddball and cut myself off from my family and friends?” “How will I support myself?” “Will I get into something worthwhile, or will I just wind up getting nowhere fast?”
At the same time, I knew that something was missing, from my life and from the lives of most people. I wanted to ferret out that “something.”
I climbed the stairs out of the dungeonlike subway, not far from the West Village. It was October 16, 1969. After jogging four blocks, I arrived at 735 Spring Street. I tried to open the door, but it was bolted shut. I rang the bell, and soon someone was peering through the peephole. “What’s your name?” said the muffled voice. I replied (as I’d been instructed), “Danny the Red.” The door creaked open, and a smiling brunette with glasses and a collegiate sweater greeted me. Behind her stood three men with baseball bats. She continued the interrogation.
“Who sent you?”
“I met Mark Folsom up at Columbia, and he suggested that I come down and check things out.”
At the mention of “Mark” the three men dispersed and the girl’s smile widened.
“Good. My name’s Andrea. Let me introduce you to Ted Gold.”
Blotched mimeograph paper, crumpled coffee cups, pop bottles, and hundreds of crushed cigarette butts littered the brick floor of Ted Gold’s office. The walls were plastered with posters of the revolutionary masses and the pantheon of armed struggle—Lenin, Mao, Castro, and Che Guevara. Ted Gold himself had reddish hair, thick glasses, and an energetic though ruffled air about him.
“What do you know about communism?” he asked. No pleasantries.
“Just what I’ve learned in college and from a few books I’ve read.”
Gold’s line of vision sank to the floor, then honed back in on me.
“Communism means violent revolution,” he said. “There’s no redeeming value in this capitalistic society—none.”
“None! Insurance, welfare, social security—these are all stopgap measures designed to tranquilize the masses and prevent them from rising up and smashing their oppressors. There’s nothing of value in this society-NOTHING! Our job is clear. We must tear this rotten structure down—brick by brick—until nothing can stop the revolution.”
Since the main purpose of my visit was to hear about the radical movement’s vision of the perfect society, I asked, “After you’ve torn everything down, what will you replace it with?”
Gold fidgeted. It appeared I’d asked the wrong question.
“We don’t have time to worry about things like that. All we have to do is rip this society apart. What happens after the revolution will take care of itself.”
“That’s all you can tell me?”
“So you’ll help us tear it down?”
“I don’t know. Let me think about it.”
He didn’t care for my answer, and I hadn’t cared for his. Since he wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me any more, I left.
Almost five months later, on March 7, 1970, a headline in the New York Times read, “Townhouse Razed by Blast and Fire; Man’s Body Found.” The firemen theorized that a gas leak had triggered the blast, but the man’s body was too disfigured for immediate identification. Then, two days later, the Times ran Ted Gold’s picture and tagged him as the disaster’s victim. Familiar with Gold’s radical background, the police decided to keep sifting through the debris. Finally, on March 11, the Times front page said, “Bombs, Dynamite, and Woman’s Body Found in Ruins of 11th St. Townhouse.” According to Chief Inspector Albert Seedment, “The people in the house were obviously putting together the component parts of a bomb, and they did something wrong.”
“The lead lemming leaps into the sea, and the rest follow. Maybe we’re like the lemmings. World Wars I and II… World War III–maybe that’s the best we can do.”
For two years I’d been searching for a workable solution to the problematic life I saw all around me—but without much success. I was beginning to sense that, though billed as a haven of peace and love, the so-called counterculture harbored about as much narrow-mindedness as there was anywhere else.
The first real light appeared in the spring of 1971, when I started investigating Eastern meditation. The descriptions of enlightened meditators closely matched Maslow’s ideal of the self-actualized person, and there was a practical way to get there.
The cultural difference didn’t really bother me much. Although I wasn’t a very religious person, I’d sometimes thought, “I don’t know what truth is, and I don’t care if a red, white, black, yellow, or brown man speaks it—or if it comes from the north, south, east,or west. All I know is, I want it.”
From the start, I sensed the power of turning inward, the power of meditation. At one and the same time, I was becoming more aware of my inner self and more aware of the people and events around me. Yet I noticed that many spiritualists, including big teachers, became not so much self-realized as self-serving.
For instance, after you had gained a little spiritual power, the next step—the “in” thing to do—was to admit that you were really God, posing for now as a mere mortal. It got to be sort of dizzying, meeting all these yogis who were actually God. Then gradually it began to make sense. If you were God you could pretty much get what you wanted. God doesn’t have to ask twice. But, to be fair, these divine debauchees provided some of the best comedy I’d ever seen.
For example, one day during the summer of 1972, at a green-lawned country retreat, I was sitting in on a verbal meditation. The Great One said, in a sonorous voice, “Feel that you are that same power that has manifested innumerable suns, moons, and stars…. Feel yourself creating and maintaining innumerable … owwwwWWWWW!!” All at once a severe toothache jolted the Great One’s jaw. The meditation seemed to be ending a little sooner than the supreme will had ordained, but perhaps toothaches were just a divine entertainment. His other pastimes included phobias for mosquitoes, airplanes, and death. And, to make matters worse, the Great One was in constant anxiety about whether the United States government would grant him immigration status.
Nonetheless, I stayed convinced that meditation could awaken the self. All I had to do was find a way to practice it purely. I carried on as well as I could. Then, one day in the spring of 1973, I was walking through the Port Authority Bus Terminal, on 40th Street, to catch a Greyhound to the Catskill Mountains. The noise level at the terminal was high—hundreds of arriving and departing buses, honking taxicabs, and bustling travelers.
Suddenly, above the tumult, I heard a woman’s voice call out, “Hey, yogi!”
I stopped dead in my tracks. You didn’t have to be clairvoyant to tell that I was interested in yoga and meditation. My white pants and Indian shirt were giveaways. Still, I couldn’t help thinking, “Who cares about yoga in the Port Authority?” I turned around and saw a smiling young American woman dressed in an Indian sari. She had a travel bag across her shoulder.
“Hare Krishna,” she said, folding her hands together in a traditional, prayerlike greeting.
“Hare Krishna,” I replied.
“My name’s Daiva Sakti. What’s yours?”
During our pleasant conversation, I told her that two years ago I’d married a girl who also meditated.
“Do you have any children?”
“Yes, a baby boy named Maitreya.”
When Daiva Sakti heard that name, her face lit up in near ecstasy.
“Maitreya!” she said, reaching into her travel bag. “Have a look at this book. It’s about the great Vedic sage Maitreya.”
“Maitreya was a Vedic sage? But don’t the Buddhists consider him to be the coming Buddha [enlightened one]?”
Daiva Sakti smiled. “Twenty-five hundred years before Lord Buddha appeared, the sage Maitreya lived in India, and this book has his teachings.”
This revelation whetted my curiosity so much that I offered to buy the book. I handed her a ten-dollar bill, said “Thank you,” and rushed off to catch my bus. As soon as I’d settled into my recliner, I absorbed myself in reading. This book was so attractive that it took me only three days to finish.
To my delight, the book told about the irrationality of trying to be God. “God is conscious of everything past, present, and future, and also of each and every corner of His manifestations, both material and spiritual.” But as for the ordinary person, he “does not even know what is happening within his own personal body. He eats his food but does not know how this food is transformed into energy or how it sustains the body.”
The author. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, recommended bhakti-yoga (unselfish loving service) as the sure cure for all forms of egotism. My college friends and I had joked that newspaper headlines should herald the big ego as public enemy number one. Now the idea of conquering the big ego by bhakti-yoga captivated my mind. Srila Prabhupada said that this service attitude was “dormant in everyone … the natural inclination of every living being,… the highest perfection in life.”
I recalled how I’d enrolled in college with the idea of landing a job in public service. All my life I’d been serving someone or something—my parents, my teachers, my friends (even my car). Srila Prabhupada pointed out how big businessmen had to serve their customers and the president had to serve his country. It seemed that no matter what I did, it would be some sort of service. And, as Srila Prabhupada said, you could reach the ultimate state of consciousness by directing your service toward the complete whole, or Krishna.
I was able to pick up the logic of practically everything Srila Prabhupada wrote. His students, who were making Krishna consciousness available in such hectic places as the bus terminal, also impressed me. Nonetheless, my experiences with counterfeit groups made me reluctant to get involved. It was only after several months of thinking and reading Krishna conscious books that I decided, in the winter of 1973, to check into this process more closely.
Practicing Krishna Consciousness
According to the ancient Vedic literature (which the Krishna consciousness movement publishes, in English) your personality depends on the kind of sound you hear. Loving, truthful, spiritual sound creates a loving, truthful, spiritual personality; self-motivated, materialistic sound creates a self-motivated, materialistic personality. When I thought about it, I realized that perhaps I’d never heard a spiritual sound in my life.
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
Generally, spiritual sound is called mantra. Man means “mind,” and tra means “release.” A mantra, then, is a sound vibration that can release the mind from self-centered, material thought processes. Chanting mantras was nothing new to me; for more than four years I had chanted all kinds of mantras. Yet chanting the Hare Krishna mantra—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare-gave me astonishing results. I wanted to cleanse and refresh my mind and heart, and chanting Hare Krishna was like taking a shower on the inside.
Also, I observed how the benefits of chanting Hare Krishna carried over into the everyday lives of other chanters. And my own experience was similar to that of my friend Howard Resnick, who said, “I didn’t follow any particular leader. I just saw that chanting Hare Krishna was a bona fide process, and that people who practiced it were becoming happy.”
After I started chanting, my personality started developing rapidly. Having chanters as friends helped. Instead of wasting time in small talk, they were thinking about “Who am I?” and “What’s the best thing I can do with my life?” The all-embracing scope of Krishna consciousness especially pleased me.
At least seven years earlier, I’d seen how pettiness and the party spirit cause most of the world’s conflicts. Now, by chanting I experienced each person as part of a harmonious whole (God). Deep inside I felt the same as everyone else, and at the same time completely unique. I felt more united with other people, and, paradoxically, more of an individual. Instead of being at loggerheads, in Krishna consciousness the group and individual enhanced each other. And I saw that simply by chanting, thousands of people were realizing this ideal in their own lives.
Already, I’d found that almost every theme sounded by progressive thinkers (like Maslow) came in for full development in the techniques and literature of Krishna consciousness. I wanted to share my realizations, so I started lecturing about Krishna consciousness in grammar schools, high schools, and colleges. At first, many of the listeners had their doubts, but after an explanation, the majority found Krishna conscious methods and goals agreeable. Many teachers told me that their students had reacted with more interest to my presentation than to any other class in the semester. Gradually I realized that I was touching upon that missing “something” I’d felt the need for during my own college years.
I asked many teachers to assess the current student mood. They said, almost without exception, that the students of the mid-1970s had turned apathetic. Apparently the questioning, questing spirit of the ’60s had gone away. But how could anyone blame the students? Who could they look to—unstable movie and TV stars, unprincipled politicians, unsure teachers, self-destructive revolutionaries, self-indulgent saviors? Old or new, the heroes were tarnished. Still, when I talked with the students about the pleasure of spiritual living, glimmers of excitement played on their faces.
By 1975 I was ready to fill out my personal observations about Krishna consciousness with scientific evidence. Psychology seemed like a natural approach to take, so I invited several psychologists with no prior experience of Krishna consciousness to study the effects of chanting Hare Krishna. The findings of Drs. Allen Gerson and Ronald Huff, along with interviews I conducted, confirmed my impression that chanting produces a state of human health that modern psychology is just beginning to imagine.
Here are some highlights of the research. Dr. Gerson, a practicing clinical psychologist who also specializes in psychological testing, reports that chanters “are more keenly aware and have sharper mental cognitions.” Richard Arthur, an instructor of English at Rutgers University, brought to mind Maslow’s self-actualized person when he told me, “Chanting makes me more aware of what to do and what not to do. And now, I naturally feel happy about doing the right thing.”
In addition, the psychologists found chanters brimming with self-confidence. Art director Nathan Zakheim affirmed to me, “After years of being a closed-in person and trying to protect myself from experiences, now I’m really different. Chanting makes me so exuberant that I sail through situations that used to stymie me.” Dr. Gerson notes that chanters are seldom if ever bored, but “are always in a state of discovery that allows them to see things more vividly.”
Also, Dr. Gerson detected that chanting promotes creativity in all spheres of life. “I’m astounded,” he said, “with the percentage of creative people among chanters.” Daniel Clark, a thirty-five-year old filmmaker who has been chanting Hare Krishna for ten years, told me how chanting affected his creativity. Clark said, “Before I started chanting, I thought myself limited to films, but now I see that I have a talent for writing, lecturing, acting. You can do anything, in a sense. You don’t become a superman, but all your hang-ups go away. Then you find that your capabilities as a spiritual person are very great.”
Robert Grant, a successful young publishing executive, says that chanting even improves business aptitude. “Now I’m doing all kinds of things—management, publishing, working with artists—things I’ve never done or displayed any skill for. I find that chanting Hare Krishna gives me the insight on how to do it.”
As housewives like Mrs. Stephanie Lindberg have found, chanting inspires people to give their daily routines a creative touch. Mrs. Lindberg related to me, “Now my mind is bubbling with new ideas. By chanting I experience a freedom that makes my life more creative and stimulates me to use my talents in ways I never thought of before.” Mr. Grant reported a similar feeling to me when he said, “I feel some connection with God that makes me do things in a spontaneous, joyful, uninhibited way.” It’s interesting to note how these experiences recall those of the ancient sages. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam Dhruva Maharaja delights, “Krishna, You have enlivened all my sleeping senses—my hands, legs, ears, touch sensation, life force, and especially my speech.”
The psychologists verify that chanters enjoy a strong sense of identity and uniqueness. Dr. Ronald Huff (a clinician with an extensive background in bio-feedback) notes “greater individuality in the way chanters relate to the external experience, indicating greater uniqueness.” After more than fifty case studies, Dr. Gerson concludes, “Chanters have a clear sense of identity. They know who they are in relationship to the universe, where they’re going, and how they can improve themselves and the world around them.”
A secretary, Heather Payne, disclosed to me that chanting allows her “to overcome any prejudices I may have felt toward people.” Here, both psychologists score the Krishna conscious process highly. Says Dr. Gerson, “The democratic character structure [the ability to treat people fairly] comes through strongly in chanters.”
With this greater tolerance, chanters naturally have more ability to love. Richard Arthur told me that in his better moments of chanting, “I relate to people on the basis of love, and I can feel them pick up on it.” Judy Guarino, an illustrator in her early thirties, remarked, “I experience affection for people I’ve never known before. Now I’m able to be a better friend.” According to Dr. Huff, “Parents who chant enjoy more expressions of mature and meaningful affection with their children.” Dr. Gerson describes chanters as “open, friendly, warm, and outgoing as a group, as well as individually.”
In fact, chanters report that their love approaches what Daniel Clark called “cosmic—a love of the whole world with all its human beings, animals, and plants, and ultimately for God.”
So research shows chanting the Hare Krishna mantra to be a scientific, effective means for liberating human potential. Chanting works for men and women, young and old, rich and poor, black and white. Oriental and Westerner. Also, as the record demonstrates, chanting has brought people self-realization for thousands of years.
What’s been so convincing for me is that whereas other processes always turned stale, the Krishna conscious experience keeps getting fresher and fresher. Every other process I tried seemed to yield results at first, but I always reached a point where I couldn’t or wouldn’t go any further.
In Krishna consciousness the progress has been steady without any signs of stopping. Krishna consciousness has given me a deep feeling of self-satisfaction and contentment. Often I check my progress, and it always amazes me how well my body, my emotions, my mind, my intelligence, my soul, all of me—feels about chanting Hare Krishna.
If you find something good, you want to share it. And Krishna consciousness is the best thing I’ve found. Of course, as Srila Prabhupada says, it’s inevitable for mankind to evolve to higher consciousness. Yet, as he also says,
Why do others have to wait for thousands and thousands of years to attain these heights? Why not give them the information immediately in a systematic way, sothat they may save time and energy?
That makes sense to me. And, as progressive thinkers past and present have discovered, giving yourself to this kind of work is sheer pleasure.