Experiencing the Passing of a Master

My life has been significantly conditioned by the ideas of, and dialogues with, a man who was a rare master of the art of living usefully and well. He died in 1995.

From the beginning of our acquaintance, the sense of assurance he manifested was compelling. He communicated a calm authority unlike any I have ever encountered, implying real knowledge. No problem was incomprehensible to him. I was seeking clarity, understanding, and wisdom in a world where confusion, misunderstanding, and ignorance seemed to abound. He appeared ready and able to provide what I needed.

He worked initially as a psychiatrist, evolving into what he called a teacher or spiritual guide. I was led to him by the woman who was later to become my wife. Together, we studied with him for many years. His startlingly clear insights into the nature of human problems, brilliance at precisely defining spiritual terms and ideas, and facility in enunciating profoundly helpful principles always seemed light years in advance of all the popularly celebrated new-age gurus. Not only was he decades ahead of his time in addressing the spiritual issues of life, but he excelled in articulating the view of reality from an "enlightened" perspective.

Two examples illustrate the efficacy of his understanding. When a couple's 4 year old son was diagnosed with a hearing problem which an audiologist said required surgery to repair, our teacher revealed that the hearing shortcoming demonstrated an inclination toward yelling in the household. This embarrassing disclosure impelled them to quiet their efforts at coercive vocal control of family situations, and the problem promptly disappeared; the child's hearing was restored. <

On another occasion, a fellow student reported that her dog had been discovered to have a tumor, and that surgery was recommended. A conversation with the teacher indicated that there was nothing to fear, that the dog was perfect, and that the surgery could proceed. When the dog was operated on, the surgeon was dismayed that no tumor could be found. Such healings were not uncommon among his devoted students.

He had an abundant sense of humor, often laughing loudest after telling one of his many therapeutically relevant stories. One of his therapy students recalled how, during her training under him, while waiting outside his office for her appointment, she heard him laughing animatedly and continuously during his session with one of her fellow trainees. When this fellow student emerged, she asked him what he had said that the teacher found so funny, for she could not imagine herself capable of keeping him so entertained. The other student replied with a horrified look, "I didn't say anything that was funny."

This knack, of refusing to take seriously that which his students/patients were quite serious about, made him capable of dispelling our symptoms. He would often say that "there is nothing more ridiculous than seriousness." I would go in crying to him about my problems, and come out smiling and with my spirits uplifted. I never failed to marvel at his ability to accomplish this. He had a different orientation on life and reality from the rest of us. He would say that "the understanding of what really is abolishes all that seems to be." I was grateful for the inspiration that he imparted.

He lived in very beautiful places -- in New York City overlooking Central Park, and in a country manor setting with a majestic view of a reservoir. His offices/homes were decorated in a simple, modern style, surrounded by lovely paintings created by his wife, who took such kind and loving care of him that he was completely free to pursue his interest in understanding and communicating what life is all about.

In the end, he succumbed, but somewhat on his own terms. He allowed merely a few students to know of his condition, so as not to arouse questioning of the validity or applicability of his teaching to his own circumstances. He had taught that when we become aware of the specific thoughts underlying our suffering, and regret them, that we can then choose to think in a healthier, more valid way, according to our inner voice, and that as this activity of our souls becomes real to us, we are healed. The many demonstrations of healing that we experienced individually and heard reported by others served to sustain our interest, despite our own halting progress toward "enlightenment."

I saw him as a wise man, above the fray (what he called "the interaction") of ordinary life. He seemed to genuinely value "the quality of consciousness" as the most important thing in life. At times, his way appeared unattainable for me, given the various temporal, economic, social, and family pressures that I experienced. He had adopted a life-style that enabled him and his wife, each of an Eastern European origin according to which an easy division of labor was embraced, to live abundantly, joyously, and ostensibly without great effort. Meanwhile, I struggled to make a satisfactory living for my family and myself.

He would begin each group session by slowly acknowledging, with a small but wondrously communicative warm smile and nod, each of the individuals surrounding him. He seemed to be made happier by the opportunity to gather with a collection of seekers for whom he could show or clarify the way. The love and joy radiating from him were, at times, almost palpable, especially as he spoke of "the things that cannot be done," like truth, goodness, harmony, love, joy, and gratitude.

One student wrote upon his departure:

I know now that I will miss him
Because no one else will be able to see
The way he lived, the way he laughed,
The way he taught us all to see.

But for my family and me life was far from perfect. I, like many of his students, failed to absorb any significant measure of the wisdom he expressed. I attributed my lack of progress partly to the deficiency of his instruction, for I, like most, was labeled by him as an imperfectly motivated student, but more importantly to my individual reluctance to seek understanding more independently. I relied too much upon him.

Over the years, especially after the death of his wife, I found that his methods became more rigid, his patience with misunderstanding more limited, his concern for his students' growth less urgent. I began to realize the magnitude of his wife's contribution -- that she was the "beneficial presence" of which he spoke -- and that she was instrumental in enabling his life-enhancing discoveries by buffering him from the often morale-eroding petty details of everyday life. They seemed a team greatly to be emulated.

No such harmony prevailed in our household. Try as I might, I have been able to discern how to live in peaceful accord neither with my own aspirations in life, nor with my wife and children. My wife found our guide to be the problem, whereas I blamed her and myself.

I became especially pained at the ways in which he not only failed to help my wife, but also how he began to alienate her. She joined many of the long-time students who stopped seeing him. This troubled me, making it more difficult for us to think that we shared a common set of values. Ultimately, in the interest of retaining a measure of marital peace, I stopped seeing him as well, although I continued to appreciate the goal of spiritual transcendence. It was his practice that troubled me, for I found him to be an increasingly less loving model of his own teachings. The ideals that he asserted as "principles" seemed somewhat hollow as he more frequently (at least to me) manifested common human interpersonal failings.

Our individual reactions to his passing have been distinct. My wife saw it as an irremediable loss, regretting that she never earned the regard she sought from him and lost the opportunity to express the love and gratitude she felt for him, while I was more attentive to his human failings and made resolutions to be more committed to the spiritual path that he had illuminated. We both happily accepted one of his wife's luminous paintings distributed by the executors of his estate. This is a peerless memento, and an ironic tribute to God's love and sense of humor, because prior to his death, my wife had been looking compulsively for a poodle puppy to replace one that died a few years ago, and here we were given a superb painting of their poodle on their country home patio.

There have been, among his students, several reunions, where both mourning and reaffirmation occurred. On one occasion, we reviewed the principles he taught, discussing their impact upon our lives. At another, we examined his explanation of "blessed are they that mourn...." as an opportunity to distinguish between attachment (a form of dependence) and love (the highest good of life). Still, the sense of "nowhere to turn" remains, as we all realize that we must now rely on our own insight into the meanings and solutions of our problems.

He was a gifted and inspiring teacher, one whose understanding will have great significance for those fortunate enough to be receptive to the ideas that he formulated. Although several books and hundreds of audiotapes are available for the perpetuation of his message, only those who knew him could fully appreciate the ineffable and unique quality of his presence and spirit at their best.