When someone asks about your earliest childhood memory, what comes to mind? For me, it was fear. Specifically, fear that I would be drafted into the army and killed in battle. I remember making myself sick in the back seat of the car, lost in an overwhelming sense of doom, while everyone else seemed perfectly fine, happily chatting away.
Even though my childhood was spent in Thailand, a Buddhist country where karma and reincarnation are concepts firmly integrated in everyday beliefs, I could not yet grasp that this fear was a remembrance of things past. I felt that at any moment, death and destruction would snatch me away. Of course, I could never tell anyone about this anxiety, for boys were supposed to crave blood lust.
I moved to America when I was nine. The culture was so alien that I spent many nights crying myself to sleep. Nothing was easy and it was at this time that God first appeared. After a particularly trying day of being utterly lost at school, I was about to give into desperate tears when I suddenly bit my lip – hard – and resolved that I was done being weak. From now on, nothing was going to stand in my way. Instead of salty tears, I fell asleep with the slightly sweet taste of blood lingering on my tongue, determined to succeed.
I excelled in school after that night, but making friends was still a challenge. I preferred drawing and staying indoors because I found socializing exhausting, yet I sensed that I must participate in this slick, new world, so I tried my best. Much to my mother’s relief, I was beginning to accumulate friends. To blend in with the crowd even more convincingly, I discarded my Thai birth name, Peeti. From now on, I was an American and everyone was going to call me Peter.
I was busy carving a new identity, so my sister’s interest in Buddhist teachings came as a surprise. She and her two Thai-American friends actually wanted to spend their weekends with monks! Imagine that! “It’s because they didn’t grow up in Thailand like me,” I thought, “I already know all of this.” I got out of going to temple as much as I could; not a difficult task, as my mother didn’t seem to care and my dad preferred to examine Buddhist relics at home, so we only went as a family 3-4 times a year. This suited me just fine and I decided that I had no use for religion.
Searching for Something More
God reappeared when I was in my early 20s, fresh out of university, and with a job in journalism. I was a voracious reader and one of the titles that I picked up was Autobiography of a Yogi. It was only OK – just a collection of fictitious, whimsical stories that had very little to do with the type of sweaty, physically challenging yoga that I recently discovered. So I closed the book and moved on.
Looking for comfort, something to make my life complete, was always on my mind and even more so now that I’d left home. So, like any modern person, I dated and broke up, found solace in food and wine and sought friendships from charismatic people. I was fairly successful, but never felt fulfilled. So friends came and went, bottles of wine turned into heavier drinking and getting stoned, but no matter what I did, I was unable to fill that nagging emptiness in my heart.
About ten years later, I picked up a book that I remembered reading a while back. This time, however, Autobiography of a Yogi was to be my instruction manual, for I was now teaching yoga professionally. I made it most of the way through the brightly orange-covered book, long enough for me to register the name of the organization that Yogananda founded, before unintentionally leaving the book behind in the back of a taxi. How odd, I thought, because I have never left anything behind in a taxi before (or since). But no matter what, I will find another copy later.
In the meantime, I became preoccupied with looking for the right teacher. I attended workshops and classes with as many yoga personalities that I could find, but wasn’t really inspired by any of them. It felt as if I was just collecting points for future bragging rights of having trained with so-and-so. Meanwhile, I was beginning to ask myself what the point of yoga was. I could now stand on my head and contort my body in all sorts of configurations, but now what? Is this all there is?
I became more and more weary of practicing physical yoga at glossy studios, yet I knew that there was something about the practice that I hadn’t yet found, but where was I to go? I tried connecting with the rich Buddhist heritage of my youth but found it too conservatively ritualistic. I then recalled the institution named in the orange book that I lost, did some research, and enrolled in a home-study course for kriya yoga.
I was told to expect a lesson in the mail every week. How passé, I thought, why not just email? After disclosing that I was a yoga teacher, I received a letter stating that I was not to speak of the details about the course with anyone. I was to immediately direct any queries to the organization. I thought that this was such a suffocating demand, for when I find something special, all I want to do is to share it with others. But I kept such concerns to myself; after all, this was the official organization founded by Yogananda. And who was I to argue?
Sometimes mailings arrived and sometimes they did not, so I never knew if I was on the right track. My enthusiasm began to wane after a couple of months but I did not want to give up. I did some research and found that there was a meditation group sanctioned by this organization just a short subway ride away. So I reached out and got the details of when and where to show up. I felt hopeful, excited to meet others on this path.
Alas, when the time came, no one was there. Perhaps I missed something? A wrong address? A different time? I surveyed the meeting point for another 30 minutes and went home. “We were there,” I was told later in an email, “but we did not see you.” Must be an error on my part, I thought, let’s try again next week. I reconfirmed the meeting place, time and, for good measure, got the room number where the meditation was going to be held.
As instructed, I waited in the parking lot for someone to get me. Even though I showed up well ahead of time, still, no one came. Not willing to give up, I spoke to the doorman and asked if I could go up to the room. “He has a church up there,” the doorman said, and let me in. I gave him some money and he showed me to the elevator. The door opened on an empty, unremarkable floor. I located the room and knocked several times. No answer. Tried looking through the keyhole and announced that I was here for meditation. Silence. Called from my mobile. No one picked up.
I went back downstairs, thanked the doorman and asked if I could wait down here for a few more minutes. He nodded and offered me a seat right by the main entrance. For almost an hour, I asked everyone that approached the door if they were here to meditate. No one said yes; everyone looked bewildered at my most unusual question. I eventually gave up and left. The doorman said to come back later. I didn’t say anything.
On the subway back, I thought that perhaps this path was not for me. This must be a sign that Yogananda is not my teacher. I felt incredibly alone even though the train was completely packed.
The End of the Search
When I got home, though, I suddenly had a thought. I was surprised that this never crossed my mind: What other organizations offer the teachings of Yogananda? I excitedly opened my laptop, daring to hope one more time.
When I first saw Nayaswami Asha speaking in her videos I was overjoyed. It felt as if all those years of searching had had a purpose. I remember watching nothing else except her talks for days, totally absorbed in every word. I then discovered that Ananda Village offers a kriya preparation course online and felt so relieved that these people knew about the internet. No more waiting for weekly letters from halfway across the world! I finished the course in a little over a year and discovered that I could be initiated in Europe at Ananda Assisi, just a couple of hours away from Casola Valsenio, where I was already offering yoga workshops every summer! I marveled at how quickly everything was moving along. It was only later that I learned about being ‘in tune.’
Whatever words that I can offer to describe the initiation week would do the divine experience injustice. But let me say that when I first introduced myself to Nayaswami Shivani, she gave me her signature look and announced, in front of a large group of soon-to-be kriyabans: “That’s not your name. You don’t look like a Peter.” About a month later, she told me my new name: Jagadish. At first, I resisted. I already had a birth name, an Anglicized version plus a nickname that my family used since childhood; I was not looking for another one. But in just a few days I was thrilled with my new coat of arms, for it dawned on me that previous labels now fit me poorly. For I am no longer a boy trying to fit in with the world. I was, and have always been, a child of God.