IN THE FALL OF 1971, MY LIFE SUDDENLY AND DRAMATICALLY CHANGED. Although I had been striving for spiritual understanding for a number of years, I had little to show for it. I was eighteen years old, but I had grown up from the time I was a small child with the spiritual traditions of the East. I had read many metaphysical and spiritual teachings, but they did little to change my life or prepare me for what I was about to experience. But perhaps the unusual upbringing I experienced may have foreshadowed what would change the future course of my life.
Off to India to Buy the Taj Mahal
Let’s rewind to 1955 when my mother and father packed up three children under the age of seven and moved to India for 26 months. Leaving a comfortable living near Boston, Massachusetts, they ventured out on a spiritual quest that each had long dreamed of. When my father resigned from his job as Director of Advertising at Sheraton Hotels, nobody was able to believe the reason for his resignation!
My father’s co-workers repeatedly pestered him for the real reason for his unusual journey. Finally, in exasperation, he confided to one particularly inquisitive co-worker, after swearing him to secrecy, “I am on a secret mission for Sheraton Hotels to speak with the Government of India about buying the Taj Mahal.” Although he thought the story was too preposterous to be taken seriously, it soon leaked out to the Boston newspapers. Apparently, people at that time and in that place believed that the purchase of the Taj Mahal by a hotel company was a more plausible explanation for travel to India than going on a spiritual quest!
The doors to spiritual progress open if we persist with effort and patience. I had reached that point in my journey.
My family lived in Northern India for two years in the mid-1950s. My father was writing a book of Vedantic spiritual teachings titled Journeys on the Razor Edged Path while studying with monks of the Ramakrishna Mission around Kalimpong near the border of India, Sikkim, and Bhutan. My mother studied Hatha Yoga while in India. Returning to the US in the late 1950s, she began teaching and writing about yoga, health, and diet.
My early life was influenced, even if unconsciously, by the quests of my father and mother. I learned Hatha Yoga and astrology from my mother at an early age. I also read about the masters of the East and Theosophy. I read the teachings of the Himalayan masters, Theosophy, Alice Bailey, Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, the Tibetan masters, Kabbalah, and others.
And yet, I did not feel that I had come closer to Self-understanding.
A Sudden Awakening
In 1971, I was a freshman at Pomona College in Claremont, California. I had planned to study a major in psychology since I had not found the answers that I was looking for in religion or metaphysics. However, a momentous day dawned in the fall of that year. As I stood near the inside door of my dormitory room on the ground floor of Harwood Court, thoughts went through my mind concerning service. I had never really participated in organized service projects, but I was beginning to recognize that service was an inescapable part of a spiritual endeavor.
When I finally resolved to participate in a campus program to work at a mental hospital in the nearby town of Pomona, a sudden breakthrough in consciousness occurred at that very moment. As I flipped on the wall light switch, it was like I had flipped on a switch in my mind. Instantly my consciousness shed all worries, and a blissful peace overcame me. I was immediately energized and saw everything around me as though I was seeing it for the first time. The cares of the world slipped from my shoulders, and I felt as though all questions were answered, or more specifically, that there were no questions left unanswered.
When the spiritual switch is flicked, supreme bliss can be experienced immediately. Therefore, the realization of this exalted state, described variously as Brahmanandam, Parama Sukhadam, etc., can happen instantaneously, without any apparent reason. To have this experience, you do not have to withdraw to the forest as people mistakenly imagine; it can happen to you right here.
I could have been standing two inches off the floor for the buoyancy and lightness I experienced. I not only felt weightless but also filled with wonderful light. The moment stood still in time as I looked around incredulously. Nothing had outwardly changed in my environment, but everything had inwardly changed. At that moment, I knew that I was experiencing Self-realization. I recognized the characteristics of the experience from my readings, particularly in Zen Buddhism. But even in the absence of references, the experience was so powerful and ‘Self’ fulfilling that I was certain it could be nothing else.
Nothing had outwardly changed in my environment, but everything had changed inwardly. At that moment, I knew that I was experiencing Self-realization.
In that state, there were no questions or problems, only a remarkable bliss and a lightness of being.
A Return To ‘Normalcy’
Unfortunately, all too soon, the experience came to an end. It probably lasted no longer than a minute or two, but I was irrevocably changed. I became convinced of the reality of Self-realization and the possibility of sudden personal transformation. From that day, no other goal could capture my imagination. I knew that my one goal was to recapture that bliss and equanimity. And thus began the start of a new journey.
It has been said that a momentary experience of Self-realization might occur as the result of spiritual practices done in past lifetimes. The progress we secure in each passing lifetime is never lost; it becomes a part of our new lives as we resume our journey.
“Divine vision is the result of practice and of God’s grace. At times, divine vision may appear to arise spontaneously, but it is because of work done by a person in a previous life.”
Conversations With Sathya Sai Baba
I did complete the volunteer work at the mental hospital in Pomona that I signed up for. But the will to serve did not reappear to any notable degree until several years later, as I will describe. At 18 years of age, I did not consciously possess the spirit of surrender, for I had no teacher or personal form of God to whom I felt inclined to surrender. Much work remained to be done. However, I did receive some grace from God, from some past spiritual karma, that resulted in a state of mental stillness that briefly revealed to me the Atma.
There are three kinds of liberation. It is experienced in one type of samadhi (mental stillness). Then, a person who is engaged in sadhana (spiritual discipline) can suddenly — like a flash of lightning — have a clear vision of the truth, but it fades and ordinary life resumes. Liberation cannot be permanent without total surrender.
My Baba and I
In 1975, I married Rose, whom I had met during a summer foreign exchange program in Germany when we were 16 years old. The following June, I graduated from Pomona College, and Rose and I moved to Tucson, Arizona. I started a job as a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch, but my focus on spiritual life did not change. I believed that holding a steady job and settling down in my own home would provide the stability I needed to concentrate further on my goal. Most of my effort was to fathom the cryptic teachings and anecdotes in John Blofeld’s book, The Zen Teachings of Huang Po. Yet however much I tried to recapture the satori (enlightenment) experience that I had when I was 18 years old, I was unable to recover that bliss and inner fulfillment.
But by 1978, I seemed to have hit a wall in my spiritual practice. No effort or direction of approach appeared to bring me any closer to my goal. I no longer had excuses. I had a home, a job, the time, and silence to pursue the path. But the wall I encountered offered me no path — over, around, or underneath the obstacle of my mind. However, we become eligible for divine grace when we employ our best efforts on the spiritual path and still come up short. The doors to spiritual progress open if we persist with effort and patience. I had reached that point in my journey... (to be continued).
In the second part of this series, I will narrate how I was drawn to Sri Sathya Sai Baba to fulfill my spiritual quest, which is the ultimate experience for all spiritual seekers.
About the Author:
Mr. Jonathan Roof is currently retired and living in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Jonathan first visited Sathya Sai Baba in India in 1979. As a result of his interactions with Sai Baba, he wrote the three volumes of Pathways to God. The first volume came out in 1991 and the third volume in 2004. Jonathan served as an SSSIO officer in many capacities for 33 years. In 2011 he led the USA pilgrimage to Prasanthi Nilayam. Mr. Roof was President of the Sathya Sai Baba Central Council USA from 2001 until 2011. He has spoken extensively at Sai conferences throughout the USA and Canada.
First published in Eternal Companion Vol. 1, Iss. 9