This story appears in the book Toward an Interior Sun: Awakening by a Master, and the Difficult Journey toward Discipleship. In this collection of short stories, Max Reif digs deep to offer an entertaining and insightful account of this arduous spiritual trek. The tales lead the reader from epiphanies of youth, to the life of a spiritual seeker, to a deepening awareness of the maturity required for true discipleship. Learn more about the book.
I first encountered the name Meher Baba while walking to breakfast with an acquaintance at college in Sarasota, Florida in early February, 1969. The friend was carrying a newspaper, glancing at it as we quietly walked. Half way to the cafeteria, he said, “Here’s an interesting article,” and proceeded to read a brief story on the obituary page. The piece went something like:
“There was a man named Meher Baba, who lived in India and did not speak. He maintained for many years that he was God, and would break his silence before he died, and he died yesterday, January 31, 1969.”
My emotional response to those words was a kind of whimsical delight. That someone, somewhere in the modern world would either claim he was God, or maintain silence—let alone both, briefly lifted the quotidian veil, somehow. Before long, however, the name Meher Baba faded from my mind.
The context for that “first hearing” described above was the cyclonic 1960s and its blast furnace of intensity, some of which I describe in the other stories and essays in this book. In spirit, “the sixties” as a vortex of energy replete with new possibilities and some peril, lasted for me from spring of 1967 until sometime in the ‘80s.
In the late ‘60s, many of us were too young or immature to know the stakes. I was among those who played Russian roulette with chemicals that I really had no business messing with—although the possibility that LSD and other drugs ingested during my brief months of trying to “right myself” with what seemed their promise may have been a necessary tool God used to batter down my ego, whose defenses were particularly self-protective because of traumatic experiences in childhood.
Hearing Meher Baba’s name coincided with my plunge into the psychedelic world and then my plunging again, eight times in all, to try to recoup my losses from the first time as well as to heal my life up till then. These plunges were into a deep pond which contained a Golden Key that I had lost. Each effort to recover it failed, although it sometimes appeared briefly that I was on the way to success. That turned out to be a mirage, as the story “Coming Into It” expresses.
The period also coincided with my 21st birthday, the coming of age alluded to in the title of that story—and with my expulsion from Sarasota’s New College. Both events took place within two weeks of that memorable walk to breakfast.
My mother keened on the phone when I told her of my expulsion, like an Irishwoman who’d lost a fisherman son to the sea. I didn’t feel consciously devastated, however. I felt I was moving toward something: a fellow New College student had offered the use of her family’s land and farmhouse in upstate New York for an experimental community—a commune, as we called them. I felt this was my logical next step. Finally, away from meddling parents and university officials, I believed I could “create, 24 hours a day.”
I left New College in a drive-away car with several friends, on what was their, but no longer my, spring break. It was my first cross-country drive and my first time in California. It was all deliciously planned, this Grand Tour, to circle back for a quick visit with my folks, followed by the move to the farm.
By far the most poignant irony I’d ever experienced was a growing awareness, as I neared our “utopia” waiting outside of Ithaca, that my mind was proportionately shutting down and refusing to cooperate. Psychedelics had brought up deeply buried emotions I had been defending against since childhood. I was raw. My mind, it seems, was doing for me what I could not or would not do for myself, removing me from this unbearable nakedness by shutting me down completely.
Instead of realizing utopian dreams in the six months I spent at the farm, I became “a living dead man.” I tried to isolate from the other residents by putting a mattress down in the old milk room of the barn and making it “my room,” leaving the farmhouse where everyone else lived. Finally, my parents came and begged me to come home. I vehemently refused. But one day not long after they left, I realized how deeply I was mired and that nothing would ever change if I stayed. I admitted defeat, caught a Greyhound, and became, for a year, my mother and father’s child again.
The condition of living in the family home was that I see a psychiatrist once a week. I believed my case was hopeless, that the drugs had done something to my brain that was beyond repair. However, there was nothing to lose by complying with the request, and in fact it bought a year frozen in time that I look back on with great tenderness. After a couple of months of “talking therapy,” Dr. Wolff, the tall, gaunt psychiatrist, told me, “You are not responsible for your problems. You have a chemical imbalance. We will treat you with antidepressant pills, and we will keep trying different ones until one works.”
Everybody today is conversant with “chemical imbalances” and various brand names of antidepressants, but I had never heard of any of these things. Secretly, I didn’t even really believe the doctor. How could my “chemical imbalance” just happen to coincide with the horrendous things I’d experienced on LSD? But again, I went along because there was nothing to lose. The period of “experiment” with pills bought still more months of semi-pleasant limbo.
One day one of the pills worked. It was quite sudden. Instead of being afraid to leave the house without my parents, unable to think of anything to say to anyone, I was filled with energy and confidence. I marched into Dr. Wolff’s office and proclaimed, “Out of the ashes we rise triumphant!”
With all the energy from the pills pumping into my system, I seemed to soon exhaust the possibilities of my home city, even though it was holiday season and many friends were home from college. I decided to go visit old friends from my first school, Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois near Chicago. There I had gone through a phase as a political radical (some of this period is covered in the story, “The Incident”), but the end of a love affair had wounded me so that I did not want to go back for my junior year and had transferred to New College.
With my new energy, which seemed to keep streaming no matter what happened, I enjoyed the 300-mile drive from St. Louis. On the street near campus, I ran into a girl I’d known. She invited me to stay in the apartment she shared with a friend and also mentioned, “Aldo (a fictional name used in “The Incident”) is back in town!” “Aldo” was the radical leader at whose Student Power election rally I had climbed onto a large boulder on campus and told my story of being roughed up by security. He had been elected student president and a few months later had received a letter from the university, saying, “You are disqualified from taking office because of a summer school course you didn’t complete two years ago.” Disillusioned, he had left Evanston. Six weeks later my roommate and I had received a postcard written on a beach in Mexico. It said only, “Truth is metaphysical, not political.”
The next thing I’d heard about Aldo was that he had somehow become connected with Meher Baba, the spiritual figure whose name I’d heard several more times since that day at New College and one of whose books I had even perused, to little avail. After informing me that Aldo was back, my female friend added, “But you don’t want to have anything to do with him. He works in an advertising agency now, and I saw him on TV selling laundry detergent!”
That telegraphic description, coupled with the image I’d had of him from before, created a picture that did indeed encourage me to give the fellow a wide berth. How had he possibly changed so much in two years?
In the next two weeks, I visited all my friends in Evanston except for Aldo. Practically every place I went, my host or hostess would point out in the bookcase a book Aldo had brought by, about Meher Baba. Then, instead of discussing Meher Baba, we would continue to go on about Aldo and his eccentricity.
One morning, shortly before I intended to leave Chicago, the phone rang and one of the young ladies said it was for me. The receiver to my ear, I heard a voice say, “Hi, this is Aldo! I heard you were in town, and I’m really happy to hear you’re doing well!” I felt immediately disarmed by his genuine and friendly tone. There was no eccentricity about it, only simple humanity. He went on to ask if I wanted to stop by the advertising agency where he worked, to say hello, and I did not feel in the least bit anxious, replying that I’d love to.
The next morning I took the El train downtown to the Prudential Building, where my friend worked. I caught the elevator to his ad agency on the upper floors. Notified by the receptionist, Aldo came out to the reception area and embraced me. Then he led me down a corridor and opened a doorway into what was the tiniest private office I’d ever seen.
There were a desk and two chairs in the office—no room for anything else. One of the chairs was behind the desk, the other in front. I sat, of course, in the latter. As I faced my friend, I noticed that behind him on the wall was a large poster on yellow newsprint paper. A man’s face, in a black and white photo, looked out from the poster. The man looked to be in his twenties. He had long straight hair, a feathery moustache, a wisp of beard and the loveliest soft, clear eyes. Under the photo in large capital letters were the words:
I AM THE ANCIENT ONE.
Below those words in smaller letters, the poster read:
“I was Rama,
I was Krishna,
I was this one,
I was that one,
And now I am Meher Baba.”
Suddenly I realized that sitting in front of me was someone who could tell me more about this unusual man whose obituary had been read to me for no understandable reason on a misty Saturday morning two years before.
“Did Meher Baba really say he was God?” I asked.
“He says everyone and everything is God, but there are very few who are fully conscious of that Divinity and who therefore are really able to guide others.”
“Why shouldn’t I follow Christ or Ramakrishna?” The question erupted out of my mouth. It included the names of two spiritual beings I had recently begun reading about—Sri Ramakrishna having been a great Master who had lived near Calcutta in the late 19th century.
“Baba said he’s the Avatar,” replied my friend. “He said he returns to Earth approximately every 700 to 1400 years, whenever people forget what we’re all really here for. In recorded history, he said he had come as Zoroaster, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed.”
“He’s naming the greatest figures in history,” I thought. I was experiencing a curious phenomenon. Questions had been coming to my mind as naturally as though I were following some kind of script. And yet my words were totally spontaneous. Furthermore, each time my friend answered a question, or more accurately, told me Meher Baba’s answer, I felt lighter. White birds seemed to be flying upward from my head, so to speak, with every round of our conversation.
This process now stopped. My mind and the room were silent. “Maybe this Meher Baba was a really great man,” the voice of my thoughts went on, “but if he died two years ago, what’s the difference?” As that thought emerged, a very subtle presentiment, came with it: something might happen now. That was odd. My sense that “nothing can happen through mere conversation” had led, a couple of years back, to my more dangerous, pharmacologically based efforts at transformation.
”Where is he now?” I blurted out, looking at Meher Baba’s picture and not even realizing I’d been about to speak.
I waited for Aldo to answer. Silence. In a little while, I looked back toward him. He was smiling. What about? He in fact had practically the widest grin I’d ever seen. I had seen him grinning that way once back in our college days, scruffily dressed, high on LSD and gleefully handing a $5 bill to a beggar.
And then, suddenly, I felt it, too, the—Love! This was Love! Not Romantic Love, not Platonic love with a small “l”, but Divine Love! I’d read of it recently in Thomas Merton, in Ramakrishna and His Disciples, but without much idea what the authors were saying. This was God!
The room overflowed with Divine Love! The force, the Being, was invisible, yet far more real by far than anything I’d ever known. It felt “pink,” somehow, although visually I discerned no colour. “I am Meher Baba,” it seemed to be saying, silently. It was a distinct Personality; and yet also included my friend and me, and everything else! Words like “past” and “future,” “me” and “you” had no meaning—only this timeless, all-embracing Love had ever existed.
How had I never before felt what was clearly the only essential fact of all existence? How had I failed to notice Meher Baba, who was and had always been, the Being of my own being, the Self of all?
How long my friend and I sat there, embraced by that divine smile, I don’t know. But when I left that room, as it says in a poem I penned several years later: “I searched a different search and sang a different tune.”
I left that room 43 years ago. Not too long after, I quit taking the pills thinking “Baba will take care of me now.” But I had karma to reckon with and spent another year and a half in the black hole.
I don’t want to romanticize my life since that profound experience of Meher Baba. Such an experience, resulting in conviction about the Master’s status, is colloquially known as “coming to Baba.”
However, living the life of literal obedience that Baba asks those who love Him has been compared by close disciple Eruch Jessawala, to “walking on fire all the time.” I don’t feel I’ve been able to do that, this lifetime.
I would describe myself as a “spiritual amphibian” climbing out of the seas of ignorance. The stories in this book describe several periods of suffering after coming to Baba. What is noteworthy, I feel, is to have been able to recover and go on. Baba said, “All suffering is your labour of love to unveil your real Self.”
Honesty demands that I record the life I’ve actually lived. I feel it IS worth recording: the record of a spiritual novice, finding his way during a period just after the Avataric Advent, a Springtide of Creation when things are possible which during so many periods on Earth are not.
I’m still dazzled by some of the things I’ve experienced this lifetime. A few of them are in this book, but there are more. It may be that my real life as a lover of the God-Man will begin after all the “dazzle” is gone, and my entire life is “hidden in God.”
Meanwhile, everything short of God-Realization being Illusion, as Baba says, this life and these stories have, hopefully, a certain honest validity. They have been necessary to live through, as well as inspiring and “educational”; and perhaps they will be of value to some others.
by Max Reif
This story is an excerpt from Max’s forthcoming book, Toward an Interior Sun.