Until my mom pulled Autobiography of a Yogi off her shelf, I had been an avowed atheist. I remember as an eight year old playing with some friends and telling them with contrarian glee that I didn’t believe in God. The idea of God -- some white-haired, bearded old man sitting on a throne of gold in the sky -- made no sense to me. So, I rejected it. Since there was no other conception of God that I was aware of, I figured I was an atheist.
Swami Yogananda changed that. His Autobiography (which you can read online here) introduced me to a more complicated, personal and natural conception of the divine -- one that would shape the rest of my life.
The first thing about Autobiography that grabbed my attention was Swami Yogananda’s picture on the front cover. He’s beautiful. Even as an insecure 13 year old boy I could admit that. Swamiji radiated beauty. Despite his long hair and orange gown he didn’t project an effeminate vibe. Plus, inexplicably, Swamiji seemed familiar to me.
Then there were the stories: the saint with two bodies, the “perfume” saint, the levitating saint, the tiger swami. I ate these stories up. Over the next few weeks I’m sure that my re-telling of them to Brett and Charlie grew tiresome. I couldn’t help myself though. The young Swami Yogananda’s urge to escape the world and his search for self-mastery -- his search for a spiritual master -- resonated with me in the most powerful way. One chapter in the book, however, stood out from the others: The Blissful Devotee and his Cosmic Romance.
If it was Swami Yogananda’s intent to use Autobiography to catch devotees, then the stories about miracles and saints acted like chum in the water to me. I wasn’t actually landed, however, until I read Swamiji’s reminiscences about Master Mahasaya (pictured). For it was at that point in the book -- through the intercession of Master Mahasaya -- that Swami Yogananda says that he had a vision of the Divine Mother. That idea floored me. First, that through meditation one could actually see the divine. Second, the “Divine Mother”! The idea suggested intimacy with the divine that I’d never conceived of before.
It would be some years still before I recognized the great appeal of Master Mahasaya for what it was: the reflection of his own spiritual master Sri Ramakrishna. Over the next few weeks, however, I raced through the rest of Autobiography and at the end was left with a profound sense of loss. Not just because I had finished the book -- probably the first book I had ever read voluntarily and undoubtedly the longest book I’d read period. I honestly felt that at 13 years old I had missed the boat.
One night, shortly after having finished the book, my mom took me to dinner at the Live Oak Kitchen, a local pizza and salad place. Over dinner, I cried openly about my sense of loss and frustration at having squandered my life. While I had been drinking, smoking pot and getting into trouble at my young age, Swami Yogananda had spent his waking hours looking for God. I couldn’t shake the picture of Swamiji as a six year old (pictured), sitting cross legged and apparently already meditating. I was more than twice that age, I lamented. There was no hope for me to realize God in this lifetime. Mom, to her great credit, took me seriously and tried to console me.
I was still three years away from meeting my own master. In the meantime, there would be more drinking, smoking and trouble. While Autobiography of a Yogi planted the seed in me, there was a need for a little more "fertilizer" in my life before that seed would sprout.