Insanity Loop by artist Flaming Claw

I’ve never thought of myself as an artist. My work as a writer and editor is word-slinging, no more – it isn’t art.

My photographic efforts began fifty years ago, at a time when my heart was drained of inspiration and sorely needed refilling.

I wasn’t affected, as artists can be, by the forms of things – excited by their colors and shapes – but by the reactions at a deeper level of my heart. Call it soul – I was looking for a joy that lasted, that didn’t fade when the colors grew tiresome, emptied of their ability to excite.

I’m a self-styled utility photographer and word nerd. I’ve hoped that my photos and words would be useful – that they would touch hearts, uplift spirits, and evoke smiles. And those were results that I was never able to achieve without feeling that God was taking the pictures or writing the words through me.

Rambhakta photo by Ishani.

I found that it never could happen without emptying myself of myself. I was most filled with joyful art when I could figure out how to step aside and exit the shell.

What is your image of an artist? I picture beefy guys –Michelangelo, Leonardo, Dale Chihuly, Alexander Calder – not wispy creatures dabbing faintly. I’m not disappointed that I could never paint a picture or compose a sonnet. To be useful was fulfilling. And it did demand muscles.

When I entered the spiritual life, I decided that I would approach it in a spirit of scientific inquiry. I would enter the laboratory of the human heart, mind, and body and conduct experiments using the investigative tools of prayer and meditation.

I would duplicate the experiments of the saints and sages, and see if I could achieve their results. I would test the scriptures and accept no less a proof than my own experience. I would not believe blindly.

I got results with such blinding consistency that when I applied the tools of spiritual inquiry in my utilitarian art, I was confident that they would not fail me.

Throughout Swami Kriyananda’s life, melodies came to him easily. There were so many that he ignored them. He only began to write them down when he realized that music was a channel for sharing states of consciousness. Asha Nayaswami recalls:

Paramhansa Yogananda repeatedly told Swamiji, “You have a great work to do.” After Yogananda died, Yogananda’s chief disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda, told Swamiji, “You have a great work to do, and Master will give you the strength to do it.”

I remember sitting next to Swamiji during a concert, I believe it was a performance of his Oratorio, Christ Lives. During a break in the music, he leaned over to me and said, “When Rajarsi spoke of Master giving me the power to do the work, he was referring to this music.”

I find it profoundly interesting that the power of that “great work” is in the music: that it can convey to people what the work is about, and transmit the power of its source. The music of Ananda articulates that power in a non-intellectual way that people can understand by having their own direct experience of it.

On another occasion, he said, “This music is not my music. It’s not our music.” He said, “It is a new consciousness coming into the world as music.”

Swamiji said that he had never composed a single note that wasn’t received from the Divine. Given the high aspiration of that level of spiritual art, what is the message for us? Can our own art be God-inspired, if we are less than cosmically attuned in body, mind, and spirit while we’re making it?

Will God be able to express His love and joy through us, when we are bent and broken?

I believe so. By way of illustration, let me share a brief story.

I am pedaling my bicycle, enjoying the morning air and feeling complacent in the knowledge that I am nicely dressed and well-rehearsed to sing. We will perform five songs at a public celebration of the life of Paramhansa Yogananda.

The venue is lovely – it’s a newly constructed community center in Palo Alto, with airy classrooms that surround a large inner courtyard, shaded by a magnificent oak at its center.

I am looking forward to a happy day, filled with music and conversation and laughter. And then the Furies that lurk beneath the surface of the road reach up their dark trembling hands and throw my bike chain.

I am dressed to the nines, accounting for a measure of my cock‑a‑hoop mood – I have even found a short-sleeved shirt that fits, and black concert pants that aren’t stretched several carbo-years too tight in the wrong places.

In recent weeks I’ve over-oiled the bike chain and I’ve ridden dusty trails – it would not be possible for the bike’s nether portions to be filthier. After remounting the chain, my hands are covered from fingernails to wrists in gooey black grease.

We are due to sing in ten minutes, and I am the group’s sole tenor. I hasten to find soap and water and store my pack, arriving at the small stage as the guitarist strums the opening bars of our first song, “Brothers.”

At this point, I’ve begun to suspect that the Lord has made His own plans, and that it will not be a day for light pleasantries. We will roll up our sleeves and do spiritual work.

This is not an unprecedented experience. Today’s script has me cast me in the role of idiot, not for the first time. Seventy years ago, in elementary school, I garnered praise for my grades and test scores. I did well in college, when I was inspired by my courses. But when I came on the path of Paramhansa Yogananda, God took pains to let me know that a clever mind counted for nothing.

In every possible way and on every possible occasion, Swami Kriyananda encouraged me to work to open my heart. “That is your single greatest need,” he told me. (Later, I reflected that it is everyone’s need.) And because I was accustomed to inhabiting the brain regions where the multiplication tables repose, God made it His pleasant routine to turn those cells to mush.

He did it on social occasions, at choir rehearsals, and with supercharged frequency and gusto in my friendship with Ishani. To say that the Cosmic Mother thought nothing of crushing my rational brain cells like beer cans being fed through a wood chipper is sorely to understate the case.

I remember a public event with Swami Kriyananda. The choir was slated to open the proceedings with “Brave Were the People,” a song with which I had a festering disagreement. Although I had gone over the first bars scores of times, I could not commit them to memory. As I sat in the packed church waiting to sing, I had not the least hint of a shred of a suggestion of how the song started.

I was tense with anxiety and grim with foreboding. The woman sitting next to me was in effervescent mood – she turned to me, eyes filled with silent disapproval: why aren’t you feeling joyful like everybody else? What is wrong with you? You must not be spiritual.

Having exhausted my mental resources, I threw up my hands and surrendered, turning over the reins to God. And in the last moment, the notes appeared.

But God was not yet sufficiently amused. On stage, I was pleased to duck behind a bass who was overdue for a haircut. Whereupon he turned and uttered the fearsome words: “Rambhakta, you can’t hide back there! Get up here and sing where Swamiji can see you.” I climbed to the spot he indicated, which was the most visible position in the hall, and somehow managed to lurch through the song.

Having shown up for innumerable rehearsals and performances with all the spiritual spriteliness of a toad, I began to catch on that progress in the spiritual path demands that we learn to watch the antics of the rational mind with a certain bemused detachment, while seizing every opportunity to open the heart.

In time, I realized that God didn’t mind if I had a teaspoonful of heart or a truckload, so long as I could gather any available scraps of loving feeling and offer them to Him. God didn’t mind if I could not give Him a heart that was sweet with angelic melodies: He wanted to hear from this heart which He tenderly loved and adored, just as it was.

At the Yogananda celebration, I was an assigned photographer, a role that required me to wander among the crowds for eleven hours snapping pictures.

A preliminary circumambulation of the courtyard was not promising – I had no firm center from which to expand my heart. Brain shards were rattling down the ravines of my cerebellum, tumbling onto a trash heap in my lower spine. My mental tenor resembled a thousand monkeys playing kazoos.

Feeling utterly non compos, I decided that the best course was to retreat to the auditorium and regroup by sitting deliberately.

I found a chair apart from the few folks chatting in the large room and sat still and began to do long, slow breathing, without making the slightest effort to beat down the skiffle band playing in my head. I simply sat, a determined dolt, a crow on a wire, drooling immobile while breathing deeply; and knowing from experience that in the uttermost reaches of my storm-tossed inner seas there was a chamber of unbroken, unceasing, rock-steady peace.

I sat for a long while without moving, slowly relaxing part by part, feeling the tension drain from body and brain. I observed the halfwit Rambhakta, that imbecile, doofus and amiable lout with calm detachment, and I gradually began to be comfortable with the state of affairs, and capable of offering the teeming morass to God.

I was not looking to “calm the mind” or “still the thoughts.” I was looking to recover the small, quiet place at the center of my heart where perfect sincerity of being is found. And when I felt that liquid serenity, I offered myself to God. “I don’t want to have an elbow in this affray or an iron in this fire, Swamiji,” I prayed. “I offer this day to you, to do as you will.”

And then I found myself somehow talking quietly with our video guy Ron Cantoni, and noticing small and lovely things going on outside the window.

I passed the remainder of the day as a crackle-brained imbecile, feeling comfortably detached while photographing the passing throng, and babbling semi-coherently but cheerfully enough with old friends. Reviewing the pictures later, I saw homely human photos, accepting of others and honoring the joy in them. I knew that I had no claim upon them. While taking them, I had been a stuporous and delighted cipher.

To see the photos full size, follow the link to Yogananda Fest (74 photos; complete 565-photo dump here). Or click through the slides:

My friend Rani loves to serve God with her camera. Whenever I praise her photos, she responds, “God is photographing God.” It was lovely to disappear, to renounce ownership, to be a simpleton, a pleasantly empty old person with a mind as stable as a fast-food wrapper whirling in the wind, endowed with the brain-power of toothpaste.

In younger years I ran ultramarathons, races longer than twenty-six miles, generally in the mountains. I treasured the feeling, in the late stages of a fifty-mile race, of being a frail old person with a mind no longer capable of planning, toiling down the trail in silent simplicity. What an opening of heart it allowed! If I had run the first miles with care, building a foundation of focused attention and insistent, expansive qualities of the heart, I would find a harmony of body and soul in the emptiness of that silence.

Long after Yogananda Fest had receded like taillights on a country road, I told Anandaprem that I was grateful for the event because it had given me an opportunity to repeat a long-familiar lesson: that it’s okay to be completely nuts, that God doesn’t mind if we are exhausted or mentally unstable, so long as we can find our hearts and offer them to Him.


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