“The Longest journey of any person is the journey inward.”
Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings.
“The fourth condition is Atman in his own pure state: the awakened life of supreme consciousness. It is neither outer nor inner consciousness, neither semi-consciousness, neither consciousness nor unconsciousness. He is Atman, the Spirit himself, that cannot be seen or touched, that is above all distinction, beyond thought and ineffable. In the union with him is the supreme proof of his reality. He is the end of evolution and non-duality. He is peace and love.”
Mandukya Upanishad. The Upanishads. Translation by Juan Mascaro. (New York, Penguin Books, 1965)
My good friend, Sister Eileen McNerney CSJ, asked me during lunch last week if I had a “Spiritual Bucket List?” You probably remember the recent movie, “The Bucket List. In the 2007 film, Edward Cole and Carter Chambers both have terminal illnesses and share a hospital room. They create a bucket list of all the things they wanted to do before they died. As the two men share exhilarating experiences, they become friends and find renewed joy.
Sister Eileen stimulated more thinking. What is my spiritual bucket list before I die? I think I would like to go back to Braunschweig, Germany to visit the Heimbs family and St. Andreas Church. I visited that town during two life crises: vocation for the priesthood and struggles in our marriage. There are also people who have been formative to my life whom I would like to see again. As I contemplate my spiritual bucket list, I am remembering those transformative places where encounters with the Holy changed my life.
Perhaps reading this blog stimulates some of your own thoughts about your spiritual bucket list. This is different from the peak experience bucket list where testosterone and adrenalin rule. There is a deep longing within each of us for transformative communion with the Holy. For some of us that has not happened yet. For others, we may want to visit places where that did happen as a kind of pilgrimage reconnecting memory and place.
Within my spiritual bucket list is a visit to the hidden Ashram in the Sierra foothills west of Lone Pine California.
The front door to the Alabama Hills Café jingled, announcing new arrivals for breakfast on a warm April Day. My window seat gives me a direct view of Mount Whitney, reflecting a golden aura off the sun coming out of Death Valley. At the booth behind me, two mountaineer guides compare notes for an expedition that begins today. At 9am, a young man and a woman enter the café, see the guides behind me, wave recognition and join them. I listen in as introductions are made. Soon the booth has eight occupants. After introductions, the two guides lead a clinical checklist of who brought what for an ascent of Mount Langley, which is not as busy with human traffic as Mount Whitney.
An elderly rancher enters the café with two cowboys, spurs jangling. They sit at the table across from me, shouting greetings to the waitress and friends at the café counter, and begin to talk about repairing fences and the mother cow who struggled last night to give birth, and needed a cowboy’s help with a chain around the calf’s legs and a strong steady pull. All is well with mother and baby.
I ask the waitress: “Do you know anything about the Ashram up in the hills?” The café became quiet. Had I asked a forbidden question? “Why do you ask?” she said. “I heard about it from my friend Chris Langley. Do you know how to get there? “Haven’t been there myself,” she confessed, “ but I understand that if you go up Whitney Portal Road and turn left at…..” A thirty- something man at the counter interrupted her. “Don’t be giving that information away, Lucy. We do like to keep that location a secret.”
The banter resumed in the café as if I had not asked the question. And I would not repeat it.
I have consulted maps and hiking reports and this is what I came up with: from Lone Pine, turn west onto Whitney Portal Road, then turn south onto the Horseshoe Meadows Road, turn west on Granite View Drive and follow the road to the parking area at the end. Follow the Tuttle Creek Trail to the Ashram.
Since my three surgeries a couple of years ago, I have hesitated going out alone. Chris says it is about a two-hour hike. Of all the sacred sites on which I have written, finally I must confess that this is a visit now on my spiritual bucket list.
Ashram. What is an Ashram after all? An Ashram is a spiritual hermitage. In India, it is a place set apart in a forest or on a mountain where people go today for spiritual instruction by a guru and to practice yoga and meditation.
India birthed the ashram during a period of dramatic spiritual transformation. During the late Vedic Era, the spiritual practices of India became too complicated for the common person to participate. Elaborate sacrifices, involving many priests over a period as much as a year, cut off the common person.
I imagine this time as somewhat similar to what happened in America in the late 1960s. We experienced a shift from traditional practices and theological assumptions. With the influence of the open door to Asian immigration and the simultaneous influx of Zen, Buddhist and Hindu spiritual practices, the religious landscape of our country was forever transformed. A new Great Awakening, which continues to this very day, stimulated a deep hunger for personal, life-changing spiritual experience.
In India, during the decline of the Vedic Age, people went to forests and mountain to sit at the feet of a spiritual master. This was an inclusive movement without barriers to caste or sex. During the period 800 to 400 B.C.E, these insightful teachings about the nature of reality and the answers to the deepest human longings became the 112 Upanishads.
The Upanishads remind me of the Christian New Testament. In John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” and “the kingdom of God is within you. There is a similar spirit within the Upanishads. We have an innate desire for union with God. These Indian gurus revealed that God (Brahman) is the ultimate reality behind all things and is not separate from us, but is an inmost part of us (Atman)
I will summarize the essentials of this Indian worldview because it will directly connect to the energy and inspiration that built and sustained the Ashram in Lone Pine. These are different elements of reality from the monotheistic Abrahamic religions.
Samsara: “that which flows together.” The world has a mysterious flexibility that includes many forms of reality that flow together. All energy and matter are conserved and being constantly and dynamically transformed. All living things are continuously being reborn. If this idea of reincarnation sounds like it is not of this world, listen to the words of a quantum physicist who happens to be a Jesuit priest:
“An organism is an information and thermodynamic system, receiving, storing and giving off both energy and information in all its forms, from the light of the sun to the flow of food, oxygen and heat passing through it.
“Like the sun and moon, we are disturbances in the field, vortices in turbulent nature. We are probably the most recycled beings in the universe even while we live dissolving and re-enfleshing. We regrow our entire physical body as we do our hair and nails. Nothing in our genes was present a year ago. The tissue of our stomach renews itself weekly, the skin is shed monthly and the liver regenerated every six weeks. At every moment a portion of the body’s 10(28) atoms is returning to the world outside and ninety percent of them are replaced annually. Each time we breath we take in a quadrillion atoms breathed by the rest of humanity within the last two weeks and more than a million atoms breathed personally by each person on earth.”
At Home in the Cosmos: the Poetics of Matter=Energy, David S. Toolan, S.J.
Does that expand your understanding of reincarnation?
The Romantic poet Rainer Maria Rilke adds this image:
Not to be cut off
Not through the slightest partition
Shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner—what is it?
IF not intensified sky, hurled through with birds and
Deep with winds of homecoming.
Karma: the spiritual law that determines our next birth. We are not born with a clean slate, but we carry a heritage of our previous lives. All action has consequence. The bad karma that comes from harming any living thing can add up to our destiny to come back as a lizard in the next life. An interesting answer to the problem of evil: it may seem like people get away with doing injustice in this life, but the next time around will set things right.
Duhkha: dissatisfaction. As much as I long to arrive at a state of happiness, found in personal achievement, possessions and relationships, I will always be dissatisfied. This is not dark depression, but the door opening to enlightenment and liberation (Moksha), which is described in the Crest Jewel.
The “Crest Jewel” (Vivekachudamani) .
1. A necessary identity crisis: the constant change and flux of the world torments me, because nothing is permanent. All that I love and possess will eventually be taken from me in one way or another.
2. Learn who I am not: my false self that I have spent a lifetime creating and defending is uncovered and it is not the real me. Illusion has taken me off the true path. I need a teacher. I need to seek an ashram for spiritual refuge, where the teacher can lead me from the unreal to the real.
3. Finding my True Self: through an appropriate yoga.
4. Celebrating the one true self (Atman) that has always lived within me. I am guided to a noetic, life changing experience and my life will never be the same.
“Brahman is the only truth, the world is unreal, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and individual self”
What is the way to achieve salvation, release from samsara and the cycle of life-death and rebirth?
Yoga “to yoke or harness a discipline.” Right now, you may be thinking of that yoga class you take at the health club for creating a more flexible body or to deal with stress. But the experience in the ashram will show you that yoga is fundamentally a variety of spiritual disciplines that help you harness body and breath, so that you can quiet that busy mind and go to that deep place where Atman and Brahman can be in communion.
Human consciousness becomes enchanted and entangled with the world, which spins out mental and physical forms as some kind of dramatic show for the sake of consciousness, luring the false self to continue on its dead end journey. The alternative way is for consciousness to harness this experience.
My world religion professor at UC Berkeley, Huston Smith, revealed that the genius of religion in India is how it adapts to our personal make-up. He said something like this: consider that your unique self has been dealt a hand of cards. Cards have four suites. Each of us has a dominant suite: hearts, spades, clubs or diamonds. OR as I tell my students, if you take a Myers Briggs test, you will find that you have some dominant characteristics
The genius of spirituality in India is how the varieties of Yoga can access our unique personality and through that particular yoga, bring us to a place of communion with God/Ultimate Reality. Here are the four kinds of yoga and the personality type to which they would match:
Janana Yoga: for the reflective personality, the path of knowledge. With the help of a wise teacher, developing intuitive insight to plumb the depths of scripture, so that the ideas dance in the head. Who am I am? Guidance toward discerning the True Self (atman) and Self Realization.
“After negating all of the above mentioned as not this, not that, that Awareness which alone remains….that I am….the thought, “Who am I?”, will destroy all other thoughts, and like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself in the end get destroyed. Then, there will arise self-realization.”
Karma Yoga: for the action oriented personality, all useful activity that is done with detachment, desire or reward. I think of Christian agape as being similar. Here is what Swami Vivekandanda has to say:
“But with this secret we must take into consideration the great objection against work, namely that it causes pain. All misery and pain come from attachment. I want to do work. I want to do good to a human being; and it is ninety to one that that human being whom I have helped will prove ungrateful and go against me and the result to me is pain. Such things deter mankind, this fear of pain and misery.”
Bhakti Yoga: for the emotive personality, sharing a love relationship to a god, like Krishna or Shiva. This is commonly expressed in daily puja at the home altar, anointing, singing to, and feeding with devotion a beloved deity with one’s whole heart.
Royal Yoga: for the contemplative personality. Yogis say that it is easier to calm a wild tiger than it is to quiet the mind, which is like a drunken monkey that has been bitten by a scorpion. But the mind is the gateway to our True Self. The goal of Royal Yoga is to make the mind absolutely calm and clear. This is a graded course of eight steps (the Eight Limbs) which help to harness the breath and body so that with much effort one can go to that deep, fourth level of consciousness, atman, for union with God/Ultimate reality. The ultimate goal is Samadhi, the super conscious state of union with God.
In 1928, Franklin and Sarah (Sherifa) Wolff made a spiritual pilgrimage to the Owens Valley, camping at the base of Mount Whitney for several weeks. Something about the landscape captured their hearts and they decided to create a school for spiritual exploration open to all seekers. Franklin had had the first of several awakenings, influenced by Sufi, Buddhist and Muslim mystics, in which he knew with great clarity, “I am Atman.” The Sufi sage Hazrate Inayat Kahn directed Franklin and Sarah to create their spiritual center at the highest mountain in the country, which was Mount Whitney at the time. The serene, remote setting of Tuttle Creek Canyon became the site for their ashram.
My friend Chris Langley reflects on his profound connection to the Ashram and his yogi teacher Franklin Wolff.
“I had been travelling the world as part of my Peace Corps assignment when I finally arrived in Lone Pine. It seemed ironic that after searching out there for a teacher that I would discover Dr. Merrell-Wolfe at the base of Mt. Langley named after my great great grandfather. I studied with him for a good part of the next ten years. He and his students had built the Ashrama at the base of Langley as a Karma yoga exercise during the day followed by Satsang sessions in the evening many years before. When I began a rather intensive program. with Franklin, it was every Sunday and Wednesday night study with his students. At that point, the Ashrama had suffered abuse by weather and worse the Federal government. The area had become a wilderness designation and roofed buildings were not allowed. They intended to dynamite the Ashrama, but then realized that would not be a good solution. Reducing the building to a pile of rocks would not remove it as a “blight” against the viewscape. It also had significant cultural historic importance. My studies were extremely important part of my spiritual development, and the Ashrama represented a physical manifestation of Dr. Wolfe’s introceptualism. It remains that today, although much of the structure has been stripped of the symbolic aspects of its architecture.”
I have wondered what is was about Wolff’s teaching that connected with Chris. As I have reviewed some of the lecture notes on the Internet and as a philosophy professor who has taught for forty years, I find his teachings to be dense and very difficult to understand. My first thoughts are that this good man, through yoga and deep contemplative meditation, had profound, noetic encounters with the Holy that words cannot fully capture. That is the nature of mysticism: the intuitive communion with Ultimate Reality is ineffable.
I believe that Wolff must have embodied his mystical experiences in such a way that there was a kind of luminescent aura about his presence, a congruence of word and spirit that said to his students: “ I have been there, I have seen the Real. I am so filled with this Spirit that I am compelled to help you on your journey to union with God.”
You can encounter Dr. Wolff for yourself in this YouTube video filmed in the last years of his life:
In an article Chris Langley wrote for The Territorial Review Monthly, November 2008, he remembers the Ashrama:
“Nearly every year I find my way up there at least once. This year I made the hike with my son, daughter in law and three grandchildren. I was happy I was still physically healthy enough to make the trek. It is not a particularly hard walk, but it is all uphill!”
“At first the Ashram itself is difficult to make out, perched on the steep canyon walls as it is. It actually sits out on a pinnacle of rock in a magnificent setting. I remember the students remarking on how the location had been chosen. Dr. Wolff and his wife Sherifa had wanted to be near the highest point in the lower forty-eight states. The students also said the place was the location of intersecting ley lines, a power center for earth energy, acknowledge by both early Indian inhabitants and wild animal trails as well….the 2000 square foot building in the form of a balanced cross symbolizes the principle of equilibrium.”
Students of Wolff have come to call the building the Ashrama and continue to have an annual conference every year in August. Residents of Lone Pine (if they will speak to you at all about the subject) call it “the Monastery,” and local hiking guidebooks refer to the site as “Stone House.”
What is on your Spiritual Bucket List? In India, the first and second stages of life are noted as Student and Householder. After the family has been raised, the tradition for the third stage of life, which we might call retirement for those with means, becomes the time to go off to the forest or mountain to an ashram to seek spiritual communion with the Holy.
From my experience as a parish priest, as we live through this spiritual Great Awakening in our culture, I encounter more and more middle-aged students, parishioners and friends giving attention to that inner call for communion with the Holy. I hope that what I share in this blog will help and encourage you to give your heart fully to the inward journey.
The Philosophy of Franklin Wolff:
Mandukya Upanishad. The Upanishads. Translation by Juan Mascaro. (New York, Penguin Books, 1965)
Mysticism: Holiness East and West, by Denise and John Carmody (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). Excellent introduction to mysticism. See Hinduism pp. 28-59.
Hindu Wisdom for All God’s Children, by Francis X. Clooney, SJ (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998). Father Clooney was my postgraduate professor at Boston College.
A Human Search: Bede Griffiths Reflects on His Life, Ed. By John Swindells (Liquori, Missouri: Triumph Books, 1997). The life story of a British Benedictine monk who enters a world of mysticism in the ashram he created in the lush jungles of southern India.
Arise, My Love: Mysticism for a New Era, by William Johnston. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000). Father Johnston is a wise teacher of the world’s contemplative traditions.
Most excellent Fr. Brad since I can relate living here in the desert!