Max Reif is the author of Toward an Interior Sun, recently published by The Mindful Word. Below are his in-depth answers to eight questions we asked him about the creative arts, his love for Meher Baba, and the spiritual journey.
Martin is a young man with no conscious spiritual yearning and a dim sense of something wrong deep inside. He almost destroys himself by the time he’s twenty-two, but then has the good fortune to be awakened by Meher Baba, a renowned spiritual figure.
After a honeymoon of feeling divine love, it gradually begins to dawn on Martin that the Master wants not only love, but obedience. The spiritual path is “no game for the weak and fainthearted.” Martin has a difficult go of it, blundering several times over the next decades, suffering precipitous falls—but always, somehow, being given another chance. He comes to realize the journey is a long one.
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.
What got you started on the spiritual path?
I’d known nothing of the Spiritual Path, as an American growing up in the ’50s and early ’60s. The nearest thing to it was what my English teachers in school called “The Good Life” … some kind of living with awareness, implied in the author Henry James’ suggestion, “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.”
I began to see, as I left home for college, that my parents had doted on me too much. I was just too attached to them, and on my own I really felt myself starting to drown. Eventually, I took acid—one of the stories in the book, “Coming Into It,” is about that—and it seemed promising, but after eight trips, I’d sort of done myself in.
I thought my life was over. I got some borrowed energy from anti-depressants, which were not well-known back then, after being like a “living dead man” for a year. That got me to what I see as my “appointment” with Meher Baba, and an experience of Infinite Love, suddenly everywhere, and the only thing in existence! [Note: I later quit taking those pills, relying on Baba alone … some of that story is in the book, as well.]
I was visiting Chicago, where I’d gone to college, in early ’71, and I stopped in for a few minutes to see a friend who’d asked if I’d come by his advertising office and say “Hi” before I left town. A conversation ensued that I hadn’t expected. I began asking questions about a photo-poster that he had on the wall of Meher Baba, of whom I’d heard. After five or ten minutes of this, which seemed practically like a scenario that had already been written, although it was totally spontaneous, this Love just started pouring out of the photo!
Meher Baba had lived in India. I knew he’d been a powerful spiritual figure, but had passed away in ‘69. I knew that because an acquaintance, by seeming coincidence, had read me his obituary from the New York Times the day after his passing. That had been the first time I’d heard his name.
When this Love manifested, there was nothing left to know or say! It seemed like this was it—total happiness for the rest of my life! But after a time—as I learned happens, reading Baba’s discourses a bit later—the immediate intensity of that experience faded, and I had all my habits, etc., to deal with. Buddha says the very knowledge that such a thing as Enlightenment, or God-Realization, as Baba calls it, exists is like a fire that will burn through everything else in a person’s mental make-up, as if it’s all a vast container filled with cotton! Nevertheless, there are also certain attitudes to inculcate into your personality, and it’s no small change, for many of us, so it takes time to accomplish. For the past 45 years, since that day, I have been pursuing that Love. But I feel infinitely blessed to have had that concrete experience, and many others, to inspire and sustain me as I continue the pursuit.
My book is a record of some experiential landmarks of those years, although it also includes stories of major life experiences that came “before Baba.” In the course of all this Inspiration and such, I also flubbed up very badly a number of times. The book, among other things, is, I feel, a testament to God’s infinite patience, and a document of unlimited hope.
How did you know Meher Baba was your guru? Why was he so inspiring?
Well, the experience described above was infinitely self-validating. Only real love and truth can do that. It left me with the conviction that Meher Baba was God in human form and the Avatar—as were Zoroaster, Ram, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed, in their own times—of our particular age. I came to feel that he, the Divine Beloved, had been playing a sort of cat-and-mouse game with me for several years, and suddenly the game was over. I, the mouse, was joyfully, blissfully snared! When a Love you’ve never been certain existed anywhere in the world comes wafting out of a photo, and you see the entire world with totally new eyes, and your entire spirit is completely uplifted and renewed … after you had, a month or two earlier, given yourself up for lost … you’re not prone to doubt!
I went on to study Baba’s life; visit his home and tomb in India, as well as his “home in the West,” a beautiful retreat/wildlife preserve on the ocean in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which he visited three times; speak with many in the East and West who’d followed him or lived with him for decades; and hear music inspired by Baba that transported me to the most sublime places, as if to God Himself.
Never, in all this time, have I heard one thing that seemed incongruous with Baba’s being that Love I’d experienced in that room! There are so many stories about Meher Baba’s love and compassion. I’ve probably heard hundreds, and there remain thousands, I’m sure, that I still don’t know.
Here are a few brief ones that come to mind:
The “expected one”
Once, Baba was in a certain Indian city doing some of his work, and one morning, he grabbed several of his close mandali (disciples), and had them rev up a car. Baba, who was silent for the last 44 years of his life, gestured “turn here, now turn here,” etc., and they finally parked and followed him through some narrow lanes, then up some stairs to an apartment, and on into the unit. There, Baba walked straight through several rooms and finally entered one, where a man happened to be, and sat down in a certain chair.
The man began weeping and fell at Baba’s feet! The people accompanying Baba had absolutely no idea what was going on, until the man explained, “All my life, I’ve had the feeling that the Expected One, the Avatar, was on Earth again, and I’ve longed with all my heart to meet Him. I set up this special devotional room for that One, and have prayed with all my heart, for years, that He would come here. And I put this chair in it, and vowed that no one would ever, ever sit in it until He came.”
Previously, I believe, the man had told no one about any of this.
“Eddie’s radiating these days”
Another story involves a friend of mine who was fortunate enough to meet Meher Baba several times while the Master was still in the body. My friend and his brother were both devoted to Baba. The first time they sought to go to India, though, in 1959, my friend was underage, and their father, who at that point was very anti-Baba, was able to prevent him from accompanying his brother.
My friend had no choice but to return to his hometown, Miami, where he resumed his old habit of going to the beach every day and hanging out with friends. That week, he began to feel something, a certain Light, radiating from inside him. It grew stronger every day. He had no idea what was going on, but he was aware that little children on the beach would climb on his back to be near that Light, and when he showed up at the spot his friends frequented, they would say things like “Hey, Eddie’s radiating these days!”
At the height of this mysterious ongoing experience, my friend went home for lunch one day, and his mother said, “You’ve got some mail. It looks like a telegram from India.”
Ed opened it, and, still pulsing with Light, mind you, he read:
Time and distance mean nothing to me. You will benefit equally with your brother. Meher Baba.
Absolute selflessness and service
I could go on for hours. The biography of Baba is 6,874 pages, in 20 volumes. It and other books are filled with such well-documented tales. One more little vignette: I once showed some movies of Baba to a friend I’d grown up with. He’d also been to India, studied meditation, and so on. One film showed Baba bowing down to a group of impoverished lepers, and presenting each one, I believe, with a blanket and some money. My friend’s comment was, “That was very unusual. You usually think of people coming to bow down to a Master. Here, the Master was bowing down to the poorest people on Earth.” That was Baba. Any study of his life will show you His absolute selflessness and service. Of course he had no self, in the sense that we might usually think of it, no limited ego out for its own gratification.
Have you ever had any doubts about Baba? If so, how did you overcome them?
It’s not that I ever had doubts about Baba, after that first experience and the other very powerful ones that I assume I was given for the very purpose of fostering that “conviction” in me for the long haul. The doubts that have arisen from time to time have been about whether I myself am capable of following this Path. Baba said, “I am Love,” and the idea is just to love Him. One of his most-quoted lines is that “Love is self-communicative,” and that those who don’t have it catch it from those who have it, and it goes on spreading until it transforms everyone it touches.
Well, that sounded easy! Who wouldn’t want to be loved and transformed into becoming that Love?
As I began to read the books and listen to the people who had been with Baba, however, it turned out that the lover of the Divine Beloved has certain responsibilities. Baba described them as Obedience and Surrender. Obedience would be easy if it consisted simply of injunctions like the Ten Commandments. But when Baba said something like “Be honest,” you began, at a certain point, to suspect that he didn’t just mean that in a legalistic, narrow way, but was referring to a kind of total emotional honesty in life.
Baba also said, “Love is no game for the weak and faint-hearted.” Now, I have strong points to my make-up, but I also have had, for much of my life, what I’ve considered to be serious flaws. There seemed to be some areas in which, no matter what I did, I was weak. I would make vows to be brave, and still get stuck. It was frustration over those kinds of things that one time, years ago, led me to say inwardly, “Baba, I just can’t do it!” I soon recanted, though, because I really couldn’t stop saying His Name and thinking about Him.
The living examples of Baba’s closest disciples also gave me a kind of pause, because the demands he made on them—in order to annihilate their egos and liberate them eternally, mind you, that was the real purpose—the amount of work he seemed to have them doing, nonstop, frequently left me feeling, “I’m just not ready.”
I’m still working with some of these issues, but I’ve come to a partial resolution. I no longer beat myself up if I’m not like people who, in my opinion, are just much older souls than I. I give myself a little more slack. I try to remember Baba constantly, and to genuinely do my best, and, as he asked, leave the results to God. I’m a little better than I used to be at accepting where I am, and trusting that over time, and I mean lifetimes, Baba will take me where I need to go.
What was the most important thing you learned throughout your 45-year relationship with Meher Baba? Do you think someone has to have a spiritual mentor of sorts to learn a lesson like this, or could they learn it by other means?
The question brings to mind something said by Adi K. Irani, Baba’s longtime secretary. When asked, “What was the most important thing Baba taught you about yourself?” Adi laughed and said, “He taught me to forget myself!”
I don’t feel I can say that, but a start has been made.
I think the most important thing, if I have to choose one, is what I referred to earlier: having the experientially-based conviction that 1) there is a God, 2) God takes human form from time to time, and 3) I’m fortunate to have such a connection with the form the most recent Incarnation of the Avatar took, with this absolutely pure being of such Love.
And, also, as I paraphrased from Buddha above … that there really is such a thing as Enlightenment or Realization. Baba has given me a taste, here and there, of something at least mind-blowingly “on the way” to that. These tastes have sustained and inspired me all these years. They aren’t something you can ever really forget or doubt.
As to whether there’s another way, I’m not sure if there’s really any free will in all this. Some have masters because they need them, because it’s time. I believe Baba once remarked that such a relationship makes someone aware of things “that life would show you, if it could.”
Would you willingly relive all your younger years again, assuming you’d come through with the same knowledge you have now, at this point? Is there any “big thing” you’d do differently, if given the opportunity to make a change?
There’s a novel by P.D. Ouspensky, the coworker of the mystic George Gurdjieff, about a man who messes up his life and, near its end, meets a Master. He tells the Master, “If only I could live it all over again, I would end up better!” The Master turns out to have the power to grant this wish. The man, Ivan Osokin, finds himself young again and eagerly sets out, still remembering the mistakes he made the first time. But alas, he ends up lost at the end anyway! This time, when he meets the Master, the Master tells him, “If you come and stay with me for seven years, then you will be alright.”
I really couldn’t say, myself, about living anything over. Should I have abstained from taking LSD? Baba said it can lead to madness and death, and can’t really take one to God. [Note: Baba also said that psychedelics, when taken with proper supervision, could have valid medical and therapeutic uses.] You see, in my case, I was tightly guarding some secrets about a childhood trauma and such that had left me feeling extremely ashamed. It was like I was exerting 10 million pounds of pressure, with all my personality, to keep everything inside me. Who knows? Maybe the acid was part of the weakening of that intense, self-protective shell, and was necessary to get me to open up, which I finally did with Ram Dass in ’76, through an amazing series of events recounted in the book. But I don’t think I’m capable of knowing such things. Baba once told someone, though, “Good or bad, if it brought you to Me, it was good.”
You paint and play music in addition to writing. Did spirituality inspire you to take up any of these arts?
There were periods of my life during which I had difficulty talking to people, especially intimately. But I could write. The first story I ever had published in a big magazine began with the sentence, “There was a man who could do nothing but write.” Later, I could talk with people better, but the habit of writing had been ingrained, and since God had turned on the spigot of Inspiration, it was natural to channel it into poems and stories.
The painting and even songwriting, which I’d never in a million years believed could come out of me, came later, but it was all due to this Inspiration, this Awakening to the Oneness and the Divine Beauty of Existence. [Note: A CD of my songs, titled “The Wake-Up Man” and dedicated to Meher Baba, happened to come out two days before my book did.]
What do you get from writing more than the other arts?
It’s hard to say. I feel that karmically, somehow, I’ve done writing before. After I got really deep into painting—there’s a story about that in the book, about the incredible healing powers of Art, called “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”—I discovered a Gift, a real gift that had been deeply buried, and I may have worked in previous lives in that area, too. Before that, I was a total klutz in Art. Nor, for that matter, was I a poet, as a writer. There were veils that lifted over time. We never know who we are. Ultimately, of course, Baba says we’re God!
Each art has certain dimensions that are unique. It’s hard to compare them. Music is simply glorious! Praising God, praising Life, in Living Colour via paint—also just magnificent!
I don’t know if it’s even in a person’s own hands. Where the real Inspiration leads, you have to follow. And at times, at least in my case, you seem to run out of Inspiration, and everything comes to seem like “Been there, done that.” Something in you has to die, at that point, for that capacity to bring something truly fresh into the world, whatever the medium, to continue … to channel, so to speak, this freshness that the poet Ezra Pound called “News that stays news.”
What advice would you offer to an aspiring short story writer who is just getting into writing?
Well, in part, what Ram Dass wrote me years ago when I approached him by letter in great travail: “In order to go to God, you have to get all the shit inside you opened up.” Then he offered to meet with me, work with me. (It’s all in the book.) Maybe it’s what Carl Jung spoke of as integrating the Shadow.
Schopenhauer, the philosopher, wrote, “Remove the watchers from the gates of intelligence.”
Madeleine L’Engle, in a good book she wrote for aspiring writers, said, “Anyone who made it through childhood has enough material for a lifetime.” So it’s never a lack of material holding writers back.
I got another tip from Allen Ginsberg, who said he got it from Jack Kerouac. They would just write completely nakedly, completely uncensored, in a notebook—get everything down. Later, they would go through it again and make judgments about what could be developed for publication, and what was just “therapy” or whatever.
It takes a lot of strength, a lot of endurance, and a lot of faith to make it through life. Writing is a way to communicate truth. There’s a lot to learning technique, but most of that comes from practice. So for an aspiring writer, as for anyone else, I think “success” has a lot to do with the honest seeking of truth, and various qualities that are part of what we might call “character.” You really do need to have something to say, and that only comes from going through the ordeals life brings and coming out the other end.
We all get stuck sometimes, aspiring writers and everyone else, so I want to close with some words from Meher Baba that have meant a great deal to me: “Through repeated sincere prayers it is possible to affect an exit from the otherwise inexorable working out of the law of karma. The forgiveness asked from God evokes from Him His inscrutable grace, which alone can give new direction to the inexorable karmic determination.”
image 1: Max Reif; image 2: Copyright © Meher Baba Information, Berkeley, California 94701; image 3: Meher Spiritual Center, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina image 4: Avatar Meher Baba Perpetual Public Charitable Trust; image 5: Max Reif