To The First Meeting
It was a Friday,
the last day of the work-week in early September, 1966. My lunch
break was nearing its end as I hurried past New York’s
grand library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Working a summer
job as a secretary-clerk at a downtown New York office to help
pay my college expenses this next semester, I was now part of
the large crowd swarming across the metropolis. Young secretaries
in high heels walked together, laughing, and somber businessmen
in pinstripes strode purposefully, their leather briefcases
swinging by their sides. A young couple argued with each other
as they passed. Groups of teenagers darted artfully across the
busy intersection around speeding cars and trucks. No one looked
twice at the woman mumbling loudly to herself. It was life in
the big city, but I could not resign myself to it.
Over the past
few days, vague reflections and questions had been whispering
through my mind. I had been trying to ignore them, but on that
Friday they shouted, “Where are we all really going? Where
are we really coming from? What does it all mean? What is the
point of it all?” I had no answer.
A few days later
I was sitting at my parents’ home in the Bronx, leafing
through the pages of Life magazine. For some reason I found
the photos annoying, as if they were triggering something disturbing
within me. They seemed no longer of living people, but clones
or robots. Struggling with a sense of futility and unrealness,
I turned to my mother and asked, “Do I have to become
like these adults? Like do I have to dress up and wear lipstick,
just go to work and then die, and that’s it? I don’t
see any point.”
not, dear,” my mother calmly answered without even looking
up from the TV program.
I felt like
a misfit. The next day even more questions surfaced in my consciousness:
Was I alive before I was in my mother’s womb? Am I just
bound to a form now, because I took birth, or did I have an
identity before? Questions like these plagued me all day, and
they only increased when I got home from work and tried to relax
in front of the TV. Watching a panel discussion between a group
of psychologists, anthropologists, clergymen and philosophy
professors on the subject of death, I was dismayed when all
these scholars admitted, directly or indirectly, that they had
no clear idea what happens to a person after death.
Later that evening
I asked my mother, “Mom, if I wasn’t born from you,
would I still exist?”
She was surprised.
“Well . . . uh, I don’t know,” she stuttered.
“I guess so.”
* * * *
By mid-September my summer job was over, and I returned to school.
Nineteen years old, I was just beginning my sophomore year at
City College of New York where I planned to major in art and
history. Like many of my fellow students and friends, I was
politically minded; I wanted to change the world and redefine
the political and social realities of the day. My dream was
of a world where all would be free from oppression. I joined
a left-wing political group and picketed the Vietnam War.
Though I was
part of the sixties’ youth culture, I also felt estranged
from it. It sometimes seemed as if I was watching a TV show
in which I played a fictitious part. I struggled to find authenticity
for my life, believing that I would—if only I could reach
the higher reality beyond my limited senses. The popular belief
at the time was that all people were caught on one side of a
dual reality. So, through the use of mind-expanding drugs such
as LSD and marijuana, my friends and I strove to reach a kind
of separate, utopian reality which we felt was within our grasp.
By using LSD, I strove to achieve a sense of oneness with the
universe. Even though each LSD trip ended in depression, I always
experienced a few beautiful moments when the world became amazingly
colorful and ever changing. I came to believe that my ever-new
and animated, albeit imaginary, perceptions of the world, were
an ultimate reality in themselves—and that I was the orchestrator
of that reality. This led me to believe that I was not my body,
but the all-pervading God, the supreme creator and controller.
I had a few
different outfits in my closet which I thought helped me to
look more God-like, and which I would wear them on alternate
days. One was a 1920’s style long, beige dress and black
cape, and the other was a pair of wellworn jeans with either
an olive green or maroon turtleneck—colors and style that
were considered by our counterculture to be high and transcendental.
My life continued
as usual until one Friday afternoon in mid-October when I intending
to buy a huge quantity of LSD. I withdrew from the bank the
few hundred dollars I had saved from my summer job. Although
I would be selling most of it, I would also save some for my
own use. The previous time I’d done this, although I had
thought I was buying wholesale lysergic acid, I ended up with
plain sugar cubes. To recoup my loss, I had to pass the deception
on to my clients.
this to happen again, I took great care to ensure that this
new dealer was honest. I had met him at a party, and feeling
that he was trustworthy, I agreed to meet him outside an apartment
on the Lower East Side. When I got there he said he did not
want to attract attention, so he asked me to give him the money
and wait outside while he went upstairs to get the drugs. I
waited for what felt like hours, but the man did not return.
Finally, someone in a neighboring flat told me that he had seen
him going out the back fire escape.
I was devastated.
My whole summer paycheck was gone, and there was nothing I could
do; I certainly couldn’t go to the police. “Isn’t
there anyone who can help me?” I whispered into the ether.
The plea seemed to trigger a more urgent realization that my
life wasn’t developing into the utopia I had envisioned.
If I was God, I was doing a rather pathetic job it.
I went out and
bought a new pair of knee-high, black leather boots to cheer
myself up, but it didn’t help. Then I decided to see my
boyfriend who lived in
the East Village. Maybe that would help. Heading into Manhattan
on the IRT train, I asked myself, “If I’m all-knowing,
why am I so gullible?” I had no answer. Tossed back and
forth on the subway seat, I stared at my own reflection on the
grimy window, trying to see my soul in the glass. But all I
saw was blackness as the train shot along the darkened tracks.
I silently called out, “Who am I really? If I’m
the cause of everything, why can’t I control anything?
Why can’t I transfer myself out of this subway right now?”
Again, no answer.
I walked down
to 9th street, heading towards Tompkins Square Park—the
famous playground and personal backyard of the hippies and counterculture
intellectuals who went there to smoke marijuana, talk about
left-wing politics like Socialism and Communism, play music,
and hang out—where I had also spent many evenings and
weekends looking for happiness.
This Sunday, though, my depression weighed so heavily on me
that I simply hurried through it, anxious to reach Mike’s
house. Guitars twanged, bongo drums beat African rhythms, and
transistor radios blasted across the park. I was used to hearing
this euphony, and it usually made me feel like dancing, but
that day I dragged along—wanting peace.
All of a sudden
a very different sound attracted my attention. It was soft and
hypnotic, exotic, yet hauntingly familiar. Something buried
inside me responded to it. “That old sound is coming again,”
I thought, although I had no idea what I meant.
It was not difficult
to find the source of the music. Half-way through the park a
large crowd had gathered. Elderly European men dressed in old-fashioned
suits, elderly European women in kerchiefs and heavy sweaters,
American and Puerto Rican children, and even stray dogs were
in the gathering to listen. I walked in the direction of the
crowd, not realizing that the next moment would change my life.
* * *
I gently pushed through crowd for a better view—and then
saw him. He was dressed in pale, peach-colored robes and was
playing a bongo drum. He was sitting peacefully, with closed
eyes and crossed legs on an oriental rug undera huge oak tree.
He seemed completely absorbed in what he was singing, as if
he were experiencing a different reality. Independent from his
surroundings, he looked ageless. A stark contrast to the people
gathered around him, he was a golden jewel set in a dull background.
I instinctively felt that finally there was someone who knew
the answers to my deepest questions.
to five rows of singing and dancing hippies and European refugees
encircled him, there was also an inner group of about fifteen
young American men, obviously his own followers. One of them
wearing exotic Indian robes like his teacher and the others
in normal street clothes, they all danced bare-footed in a small
circle on the rug where he sat. A few played finger cymbals,
and others played bells or tambourines. Together with the drone
of a tamboura and hand-pumped organ, they all made a rhythmic,
hypnotic beat, and I was mesmerized.
leader looked so mystical that I could only compare him to what
I knew of India—a genie on a flying carpet. I thought,
perhaps, that he was from another planet, and I listened intently
as their mysterious chant filled the air: “Hare Krsna,
Hare Krsna, Krsna, Krsna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama
Rama, Hare Hare.” It was as if a voice were calling me
from both a primeval time and also from the future. I could
When the chanting
finished, that holy person stood up, and I was surprised to
see that he was only about five feet tall. I had thought him
to be much taller, as he exuded an impressive authority-radiating
energy. On the other hand, he was completely unassuming as he
stood humbly before the crowd, his hands folded like a student
at his desk. He thanked us for participating. He explained that
because the chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra was coming from
the depths of the soul, there was no need to understand its
language, and that all nationalities could benefit equally.
know where the soul’s depths could be, but his voice was
so sonorous that it sounded as if it had surely came from there.
is no cost,” he continued. “No one will tax you
for it or check you from it. There is no loss, and the gain
is terrific.” He then concluded by saying that chanting
would make us all happy.
One of his followers
distributed flyers to the crowd. It read:
No More Coming Down
Practice Krsna Consciousness
Expand your consciousness by practicing the
*TRANSCENDENTAL SOUND VIBRATION*
HARE KRSNA HARE KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA HARE HARE
HARE RAMA HARE RAMA RAMA RAMA HARE HARE
Tune In to the chanting of Hare Krsna;
Turn On to a blissful spiritual consciousness;
and Drop Out of the illusory material world.
that this was a take-off on Timothy Leary’s decree to
drop out of mainstream society via psychedelic drugs. Yet, this
flyer was promising something deeper.
A few minutes
later the chanters packed up their drums and cymbals, rolled
up their rug and started to walk out of the park. I wanted to
follow them, but because the crowds blocked my view I could
not see which exit they took. So I gazed at the tree where they
had just been, feeling quite stranded as another onlooker tapped
me on the shoulder. He said, “Hi. Would you like to visit
temple to meet Swamiji?”
This tap seemed
to be an arrangement of that same force that drew me to the
chanters. Therefore, totally forgetting about my boyfriend,
I left the park with this stranger. The man led me down Avenue
A toward Houston Street, speaking little. We walked through
the internationally variegated Lower East Side, an area widely
considered to be the right place to meet the right people, and
I felt that I was heading to one such momentous meeting. We
finally stopped at a small storefront at 26 Second Avenue, where
I noted a handpainted sign above the front window—”Matchless
Gifts.” It looked suitably psychedelic, and my guide announced
that this was the temple.
window I saw four young men in the center of the narrow temple
room, dancing and singing that same mantra I had heard in the
park. Their hands were raised in the air as they danced, their
faces gazing upward.
The storefront had been transformed into what looked like an
Indian temple, with just a few simple pieces of furniture. A
wooden platform at the back of the room was covered with a dark
velvet cloth, the lectern in front of the platform flanked by
flower vases and ornate plaster candlesticks. A large metal
gong hung from the side of the platform and dark purple and
burnt sienna curtains covered the wall and windows behind it.
Oriental rugs lined the long narrow floor, decorative Indian
silk cloths hung on the walls, and glass-framed pictures, some
Indian and some American, hung on the cloths. One of the pictures
was of Jesus, one of Buddha, and the others of other Indian
I stared at
a large circular painting just above the sitting place—a
beautiful blue boy and a golden girl, and then another picture
caught my eye. This one depicted a six -armed person; two of
His arms green and holding a bow and arrow, two bluish and holding
a flute, and the last two golden and holding a staff and bowl.
The pictures were amazing, more so than anything I’d ever
concocted on LSD. What artist had dreamed of them?
I was so interested
in the room—the dancers, the pictures, the music—that
I did not notice when my walking partner had left. I decided
that my “Inner Self” was now somehow mystically
guiding me to the “All-knowing It.” I determined
to be a passive witness and let whatever was destined to happen,
occur, without interfering.
The two young
men standing near me began speaking to each other. Their voices
were friendly, and so I listened. One told the other, “Swamiji
just said that when Godbrothers quarrel, it should be taken
as clouds passing by—not very significant.” “What
did that mean?” I wondered in disbelief. “There
is so much fighting in the world—between countries, races,
and even within my own family. Is it not inescapable? Is it
man came in from the side door and invited me to come upstairs
to meet the ‘Swami.’ I followed him though the courtyard
to the next building, climbing a dim fluorescent-lit stairway
to the second floor, and entering the right hand side apartment.
A sweet incense fragrance permeated the air, and several men
and women sat on the floor, chanting with strings of beads in
their hands. Although the words they were saying were indistinct,
the mystical drone once again evoked remembrance of some primeval
place. The Swami, that same glowing personality I’d seen
in the park, sat in their midst, looking simultaneously ascetic
and aristocratic. He bowed his head to the ground, which to
my mind confirmed my belief that everything, including
the floor, was God.
As the chanting
continued around him, he stood up, and followed by a few others
walked into another room in the back of the apartment—the
'greeting room.' His name, I was told, was Swamiji. He was Om
Visnupada Sri Srimad Bhaktivedanta Swami Maharaja. He was my
Srila Prabhupada. I watched as he interacted with each of the
guests. If someone folded their palms in respect, he returned
the same gesture; if someone offered to shake his hand, he extended
his hand to them; if someone waved good-bye, he waved good-bye
in return. When he finally turned his attention to me, it was
electric. His soft eyes pierced through me, cutting through
my imaginings. I felt he could see my very soul, that he already
knew me thoroughly, and yet I fought this instinct and looked
away. I told myself, “You’re making all this up.
This person is your own creation.”
squarely into my eyes and spoke calmly, “This is not a
concocted process, or something that you, or we, have made up.
This process is very old, simple, and sublime.”
Then, as if nothing unusual had just transpired, he sat comfortably
back, slowly looked around the room and continued, “We
are eternal, and everything around us is temporary.” Though
he spoke softly, his words carried so much power, and I waited
for his next words. Rather than give more philosophical truisms,
however, he politely asked, “Do you live near here?”
I was nervous, not knowing how to reply in a way that would
demonstrate just how enlightened I was. So I deliberately drew
out my words. Implying that ultimately I liv e everywhere, I
answered, “Yeeeeess . . . , I live veeeery near.”
He smiled. “Good,”
he said, “then you will be able to attend the morning
program at 7:00 a.m.”
realized my blunder: I lived in the uptown Bronx—an hour
and a half subway ride away! The idea of waking up at 5:30 in
the morning and having to take the train was untenable, especially
considering how late I usually went to bed. And besides that,
it would be scary. At the same time, the conviction in his voice
made me want to try.
I asked him
a totally unrelated question, “Do I have to come down
He looked at
Remembering the trance-like state of the dancers in the park
and in the temple, I said, “Is there a way I can stay
high on it forever?”
“No. It is material, and therefore temporary. Only Krishna
consciousness can give lasting pleasure; it is spiritual and
therefore eternal.” Somehow I believed him, and I knew
that my LSD days were over.
It was getting
late, so I said goodnight, went downstairs and looked for my
new boots. They were nowhere to be seen, and after a quick look
around the storefront, I accepted that someone had stolen them.
Perhaps someone was trying to tell me something. I left barefoot,
believing that I had been relieved of more than just my boots.
* * * *