His Year of Rest

[Listen to Asha read this story]

Since he became a disciple, it is a rare day that Swamiji does not engage in creative or serviceful work. Even in his busy life, however, 1995 stands out. “My Year of Rest,” Swamiji jokingly calls it.

The stage was set a few months earlier in the autumn of 1994. The Time-Warner Company had published one of Swamiji’s books and then sent him on a ten-city tour to promote it. For years, his heart had been giving him trouble, and the strain of the tour proved to be the last straw. By the time he reached the tenth city, his heart was racing at 160 beats a minute and refused to slow down. He had to cancel a few of the final engagements and return to Ananda Village.

His cardiologist issued a stern warning: "Your heart requires urgent surgery. The longer you wait, the greater the chances that you'll simply die suddenly, during the night."

The operation was set for December 18th. Between the doctor’s warning and the time of the surgery, Swamiji received a legal summons. An ex-Ananda member named Annemarie Bertolucci had filed a lawsuit claiming that Ananda was a cult and that Swamiji an abusive cult leader. The media picked up the story right away, and for the next several years, as the lawsuit made its way through the court system, Ananda and Swamiji received a great deal of negative publicity.

Just before surgery, Swamiji found out that if he didn’t immediately finish editing the Preface to his latest book, Expansive Marriage, it couldn’t be printed in time for its scheduled launch. He had already entered the hospital, so Swamiji spent the day before the operation lying in bed working on the Preface.

The open-heart surgery took four hours. The doctor did a by-pass, inserted a pacemaker, and replaced one of Swamiji’s heart valves with an artificial one. Afterwards, Swamiji often referred to the operation as his “valve job.” That evening, the surgeon told Swamiji “You must absolutely take a year off, now, from all work and all stressful activity.”

Unfortunately, Swamiji still hadn’t quite finished the Preface. So the next day, using his willpower to drive the lingering fog of anesthesia from his brain, he finished editing it.

* * *

“As things begin, so they continue” is a rule of life Swamiji has often quoted. It certainly proved true for that year. Circumstances, and Swamiji’s own life-long commitment to honoring his word, combined to make 1995 one of the busiest and most stressful years of Swamiji’s life.

Another publisher, Workman, had for the last two years put out calendars based on Swamiji’s Secrets books. Each book in the Secrets series contains a month of aphorisms on a particular subject, like happiness or peace of mind. Swamiji had agreed to give Workman sayings for one more calendar. He had hoped to have enough Secrets, but it turned out there weren’t enough. It was too late to cancel the contract. Swamiji had already spent the $11,000 advance royalties on equipment for the recording studio at Ananda and was in no position to refund the money.

Fortunately, he had another book, Do it Now!, not yet published, which had 365 sayings, one for each day of the year. He’d written that whole book in one day a few months earlier, concerned that if he stretched it out over a longer period he would forget what he had written and repeat himself.

Now Swamiji carefully edited some of the sayings and wrote new ones to replace those he considered weak. The deadline was the end of January and he got the calendar to Workman just in time. Swamiji felt it was best to finish Do It Now! while he was in the flow rather than starting over again later. So the month of February he spent polishing that book.

When he was done, Swamiji felt the sayings could be of such benefit to people, he didn’t want to wait for the usual print and purchase cycle to get it into the hands of readers. Instead, at his own expense, he printed 5000 copies and gave them away free. By this time, the Bertolucci lawsuit had become a full-blown personal attack on Swamiji’s integrity as a spiritual leader. Do It Now! was one way for Swamiji to counter all that negativity with positive energy of his own.

* * *

Before the surgery had been scheduled, Swamiji had committed himself to a lecture tour of Southern California in March. Many people had put time, energy, and money into setting up the tour and Swamiji felt it wouldn’t be fair to them to cancel it. Besides, with all the negative publicity, this was not the time to hide at home. The best antidote was for Swamiji to speak openly in public so that people could meet him and make up their own minds.

By April, all this work began to take a toll on Swamiji’s weakened body and he went to Hawaii for a few weeks of rest. He had promised Time-Warner another book by the end of June. The agreed upon title was Meditation for Starters. Swamiji was confident, after all his years of teaching, that he could turn the book out in a few weeks. While he was in Hawaii, however, he received notice from the publisher that they wanted to change the title to Superconsciousness.

A book on superconsciousness was quite different from a meditation book for beginners. Swamiji felt it would take at least a year to write, and, ideally, two years. Time-Warner informed him, however, that they expected him to honor his contract and complete the book by the end of June. He had a little more than two months to write it.

And two weeks of that time had already been committed to giving lectures in Chicago and Denver, also promised before the operation. Again, people were counting on him and Swamiji didn’t feel he could cancel. Nor could he cancel the book contract. He had already spent the $75,000 advance royalties on equipment for the recording studio and there was no way to pay it back.

At the end of April, Swamiji returned to Ananda Village to begin what looked to him like a Herculean labor to write the book in time. In May he received a letter from Derek Bell, the noted Irish harpist, offering to record an album of Swamiji’s music. This was an offer Swamiji couldn't refuse. Derek Bell was a member of the multiple Grammy-award winning group, The Chieftains, and a world-renowned musician in his own right. To have an album by Derek Bell would help put Swamiji’s music on the map.

The problem was, Swamiji didn’t have any specifically Celtic melodies for Derek to record—he’d have to write them. The Chieftains toured almost continuously, so Derek had only a small window of time in the summer in which he could come to Ananda to make the album. At the moment, however, with the looming deadline for the book, Swamiji had to put the music project on the back-burner. Perhaps some of his existing melodies would do? He asked a friend to review the music he had already written and see what he could come up with.

Apart from the lecture tour, Swamiji spent May and June writing the book Superconsciousness. In order to understand the subject, he said later, he had to be in a superconscious state himself. He shut off his phone, accepted no mail, and fairly poured himself into the writing. With divine grace he finished the book on June 29th and got it to Time-Warner by the deadline of June 30th.

Three days later, he was scheduled to leave for a two-week visit to the Ananda communities in Portland and Seattle where he was to give a series of lectures and classes, another promise made before the operation. Now that the book was done, he turned his attention to Derek’s request. Unfortunately only two of his songs – Desdemona’s Song and Invocation to Woodland Devas – seemed right for the album.

“I was already in a superconscious state,” Swamiji said later, “from writing the book.” With that expanded awareness, in the next two days, Swamiji was able to write the seventeen additional melodies needed for the album they had decided to call Mystic Harp. This left one day relatively free to pack for the tour.

* * *

After the tour, Swamiji had a few days to polish the melodies and write lyrics for a number of them before Derek Bell arrived to do the recording. A few days after the recording was finished, Swamiji left for San Francisco to meet an entirely different kind of demand on his time – the beginning of what were to amount to 80 hours of deposition in the Bertolucci lawsuit.

The opposing lawyer was so openly hostile to Swamiji, that at one point he shouted in anger at an Ananda member, “You can tell your Mr. Walters [Swamiji] that I am going to destroy him!” (As a deliberate insult, the lawyer refused to address Swamiji by his spiritual name and title.) The lawyer was a long-time member of SRF. The Bertolucci lawsuit itself was only an extension of SRF’s ongoing effort—through the courts and by other means—to take away from Swamiji his right as a disciple to serve his Guru.

The hours of deposition were filled with innuendos, outright insults, mockery, and sneers. Swamiji took it all calmly, but to protect his still precarious health, a doctor remained in the room with him to monitor the condition of his heart. Some days the deposition had to be terminated early to allow Swamiji’s body time to recover.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Ananda community in Italy was building a new temple. A large fund raising event in which Swamiji was the guest of honor was key to their success. Once again, Swamiji felt committed. Midway through the deposition process, Swamiji took a break and went to Italy. After the event, he and a few friends went to India in the hope that the spiritual atmosphere of that country would rejuvenate him. Instead, almost immediately, Swamiji came down with walking pneumonia and had to return to Italy early in order to recover enough to go back to San Francisco to complete those eighty hours of deposition.

In Italy, yet another demand was placed in front of him. Some years earlier, Swamiji had written a three volume, stanza-by-stanza comparison of parallel passages in the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. He called it Rays of the Same Light. The purpose was twofold: as a study in itself and also as weekly readings for the Ananda Sunday worship services.

The farther Swamiji had proceeded into the year, however, the longer the "readings" had become. He had known for some time that he needed to write two separate books: a shorter one for Sunday readings and a longer one for study.

“Asha felt particularly burdened by those long readings,” Swamiji said later. “She gives most of the Sunday Services in the Ananda colony in Palo Alto where she and her husband David are in charge. She had been happy to get a reprieve when we switched for awhile from Rays of the Same Light to reading from the newly published commentary, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained.”

Now that ‘reprieve’ was coming to an end. “I could almost see the teardrops on the fax she sent me,” Swamiji joked later, “pleading for an alternative to those long readings.”

Swamiji decided it was time to write the shorter commentary, which he called Rays of the One Light. “I finished the first reading just in time to fax it to Asha for the first Sunday Service after the Rubaiyat was done,” Swamiji said.

By the end of the year the book was finished.

In December, Swamiji returned to San Francisco and completed the remaining forty hours of depositions. Thus ended his “Year of Rest.”

* * *

A guest once said to Swamiji, “This may be a hard question for you to answer. Do you serve man or do you serve God?”

“It’s not at all hard to answer,” Swamiji replied. “I serve God. If I felt God wanted me to, I could walk away from everything. When we die, we leave it all behind anyway. Only God is real. One reason I am able to accomplish so much is because I feel inwardly free.”

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