in Monasticism, Self-Realization Fellowship

Darshan: Mind-Reading Saints

4004356031_3cba6a3d57The saint appeared. The monks showered her with rose petals and tried to conceal their thoughts.

“All monks to assemble in the Main Hall, today 3:30 sharp”, read the bulletin in the Monks’ Refectory. That afternoon we were called to assemble for darshan (a glimpse of a saint). Daya Mata, the Sanghamata (“mother of the monastic community”), was to bless us with her presence. These divine sightings (darshans) of Ma were rare and special. Although Daya Mata often visited the Mt. Washington ashram center the monks saw her only three or four times a year.

For three-thirty darshan the monastics eagerly lined the stairs, in single file, ranked by seniority of monastic vow and frock color: first were Swamis in robes of ochre, then Brahmacharis in mustard, and last, Novices in blue. As Daya Mata descended the stairway and walked past we pronamed (folded our palms together and mentally or physically touched her feet). The ocher-mustard-blue frocked line of monks snaked from the bottom of the stairs through the Main Hall and out the door onto the driveway to Ma’s waiting Cadillac. Just before Ma stepped into her car the monks tossed up fresh rose petals above her and shouted “Jai Ma” (Victory to Mother)! We felt blessed by the sight of a living saint and president of Self-Realization Fellowship.

Saint Mind-Reader

“I hid under the stairwell in the Main Hall in Mt. Washington to avoid being seen by Daya Ma”, remembered a senior Swami to the younger monks in yoga class. “I had been in a dark mood, filled with guilt and shame.” The Self-Realization Fellowship monastics believed that Daya Ma was a siddha (realized, perfected one). The saints or siddhas supposedly had attained yogic superpowers (siddhis) as a product of spiritual advancement through practice of yoga meditation. (The fourth chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and the Hindu Bhagavata Purana mention five to fifteen siddhi-powersthat may be attained through meditation. The siddhic power that concerns us here is “knowing the minds of others” (para citta ādi abhijñatā)). Swami continued his testimony, “As I hid under the stairs, to avoid Ma, she approached me, tapped me on the forehead with the palm of her hand, and said “Don’t do it again!” The monks were impressed with Swami’s testimony that Ma had read his mind and the saint had superpowers.

Runaway Darshan

Another darshan story illustrates the powers that a devotee attributes to a saint.

Christmas Day was arduous for the Mt. Washington monks. There was much work to do. Early Christmas morning, we had to set-up 50 banquet tables, place 150 table settings for 150 guests, and laid 100 yards of audio/video cable to feed three cameras, six microphones, and seven recording machines. The monks were responsible for capturing, for posterity, on audio/video tape, the darshan and the pearls of wisdom falling from the lips of Daya Ma.

On one particular Christmas night, after a long day and when the banquet was over, Ma took the elevator to exit the Main Hall through the basement. I was operating the audio/video equipment that was next to the elevator in the basement. “Merry Christmas”, greeted Daya Mata and her sister (also allegedly a Siddha) as the saints exited the elevator and entered the basement. “Merry Christmas”, I replied back and crouched behind the recording equipment. Ma then said “Oh my”, walked away, and exited the basement towards her waiting Cadillac. I wondered: Could Daya Mata read my mind? my soul? Did Ma “know” I had been plotting an escape from the Order?

Six months later, my body caught up with my runaway thoughts. Indeed, I climbed into my getaway vehicle: a black Honda Accord, that two weeks earlier I had purchased online, and on that June day was delivered and parked outside on the Mt. Washington ashram driveway. Without fanfare, without rose petals, and with muted farewells from several monk-friends, I drove out of the gated monastery.

Question for readers: What might get a devotee to consider the notion that a “saint” may not actually have superpowers?


1 The Bhagavata Purana describes five primary and ten secondary Siddhis (superpowers) that can be attained through yoga meditation practice,

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  1. It’s hard to define what constitutes a saint. What stage of meditation must be reached to define a newly minted saint? The stages of meditation are impermanent, and like muscles, must be continuously exercised if they are to be easily accessible. If a person loses the ability to access that state, are they no longer a saint? I don’t think mind reading or other siddhis constitute saint-hood, as these begin to express themselves by the entrance into the fourth jhana. (I prefer to use the Buddhist terminology for meditation, as the stages have been exceedingly well-defined through centuries of highly skilled mastery and documentation, whereas I find other cultures’ terminology woefully inadequate).

    When I was about 10 years younger and relatively new to meditation, about 5 months in, I had quickly understood the value of meditation, and that depth = more benefits. I was already practicing postures, pranayama (traditional, not kriya), and meditation techniques for 1.5 hours in the morning before work each day. But as an experiment to see what would happen, being young and very brash and brazen, decided to take it to the limit. Though I worked a full time job with a long bus commute, I would meditate on the 45 minute bus ride into downtown (after my 1.5 hours of early morning practice), and also during part of my lunch hour, on the 45 minute bus ride home, again once I got home, and then once more before I went to bed. On top of that, I also practiced insight meditation at all times while I wasn’t sitting in meditation. I had essentially created retreat conditions as an experiment.

    After many uncomfortable experiences where I thought my head was going to explode from all the energy, or I was going to be driven mad by the sheer intensity of my unrelenting practices, I had a breakthrough while sitting after work one night. The meditation was extraordinarily smooth. The mantra glided gently forward in my mind (just the standard issue “ommm”), while nary a thought had formed. Eventually it felt like just me and the mantra, in deep space. Afterward, I would find that this was about the time when my senses had gathered themselves up and I could no longer feel my body or experience the outside world. On and on this went, just repeating the mantra, the experience of experiencing the mantra being repeated, and the vague peripheral notion of vast, directionless space. Faintly and quite suddenly I heard a gentle buzzing, as though it were off in the distance. I instinctively abandoned the mantra to investigate and focus on this unexpected sound. As I curiously focused gently, but more intently on this sound, it grew in perceived volume until it was so loud that It sounded like my head was in the middle of a very active beehive. It was at that point that a thought finally crept into my awareness, “What is that??” And immediately it felt like I was rushing out of meditation, and I could feel the energy cascade downwards and outwards into the nerves of my body, slowly enlivening my senses so that I could perceive the world. My meditation timer had been beeping at me for 15 minutes.

    I got up and walked around a little bit, still trying to gather my bearings and analyze what had just happened, when all of a sudden I had the very distinct impression that my mom was going to call me upstairs for dinner. I stood there, calmly, and about 5 seconds later, I heard her shout from upstairs to come for dinner. Later that night after dinner, I had the sudden, but distinct impression that a specific friend was going to send me a text message, so I took out my cellphone and looked down at the screen, and only a few seconds more, the text from the friend appeared.

    The next morning while riding the elevator up at work with an older woman, I suddenly had the distinct perception that an inquiry was percolating up from her subconscious, with me as its object, and then specifically what the question was, followed by the intent to ask me, and then her asking the question in the elevator. It was the most unusual experience of my entire life, and I think about it occasionally to this very day.

    That night while sitting on my meditation seat, the same sequence of meditation events played out, except that at the height of the buzzing sound, when it was almost “deafening”, it began to recede back into the distance. The moment it ended, it was immediately replaced with another faint sound. At first, it sounded like the tinkling of chimes in the distance. As I focused, and it grew louder, it sounded like gloriously beatific tones, each played gently one into another without a start, stop, or pause. The closest sound on earth I’ve ever found to something like it is the glass armonica, or wine glasses being played. But just like the night before, the thought suddenly entered my field of experience, “What is that??” and immediately I was pulled out of meditation. I continued to have unusual psychic and mind-reading experiences for about the next week, but the intensity with which I’d cultivated such a deep state of meditation was too difficult to continue maintaining with how much time and effort it required, and I slowly slacked in my practice towards a relatively more normal level.

    According to Buddhist definitions, the sounds are referred to as a “nimitta” or mental signature of the refining meditation object. Depending on the person’s temperament and meditation object, they can manifest in multiple internal sensory ways. The most common is the visual nimitta, which the Buddhists describe as the familiar dark blue pearl, with scintillating point of bright, white light in the middle, haloed by a golden ring. The other mental-senses also have their own corresponding nimitta experience, all of which refine in graduation as the focus deepens, and the individual releases further into trusting the object.

    So, of the 9 jhanas, or states of meditation defined by Buddhism, the 4th is said to be when the siddhis begin spontaneously manifesting. While the 4th is considered the highest necessary state for the liberating insight of enlightenment to occur, there are yet 5 more progressively profound states of absorption. Which means that a mind-reading “saint” shows up relatively low on the meditation experience totem pole. If a 20 year old can accomplish it in 2 months, where does that leave someone with a lifetime of experience to show for it? I think the idea of a “saint” is an inherently flawed measure of an individual, their experience, or their attainments. I also think it’s shameful for those who’ve attained deeper stages of meditation to use that as a pivot of power amongst those who have not, regardless of their position or occupation. I feel the Buddhists have a more accurate view of these attainments, not glorifying and praising these individuals as gods, but as teachers who can (and should) help others to reach the same or higher levels.

    As a disclaimer, I was an SRF-er for a short stint, and was not at all pleased by the deification of experienced meditators, the lack of progress I experienced from the techniques compared to other systems of meditation, and the requirements of promising vows to obtain relatively flaccid techniques (in my opinion and experience.) The people are all really nice, though, but extraordinarily quick to cut off the head of other sunflowers trying to reach higher sun, and their loyalty boarders on the pathological.

  2. @Mark: Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mark. You’ve said alot. I’ll reply here to a few points in your comment.

    I agree the term “saint” needs to be defined. Not unlike most, if not all spiritual or religious terminology “saint”, “samadhi”, “Om” etc etc are all extremely vague concepts. Specific schools or gurus interpret them as they will.

    What I’m coming to grips with is that it’s all about seeking something that is not, the attainment or the escape into some idealized state of mind or awareness. I recently wrote in my post Think & Grow Rich Gurus about my motivations to escape suffering and avoid struggles.

    Spending 3-4 hours a day, like you and I did, in meditation is sure to yield results eventually as sure as sleep- and sensory-deprivation causes hallucinations. See my posts on Depersonalization and Derealization.

    I no longer have to defend my faith or my desire to attain some special states of consciousness, so I follow the evidence where it leads not where I wish it to take me.

    The cultivation of clear-, critical- and skeptical-thinking is the best way to vet extraordinary claims. And, or, to seek medical professional help if “reality” becomes too difficult to cope or function in. Meditation is not always healthy.


  3. I agree completely. Though I practice traditional yoga(/hindu) techniques of cognitive-improvement, I most often use buddhist terms to describe states and experiences, because if the terms even exist in yoga or hinduism, they’re are extraordinarily vague, often to the point of being useless. In Buddhism, samadhi just means focused concentration. They have 9 separate states defining the various levels of absorption of “samadhi”, whereas yoga only has 2. Savikalpa and nirvikalpa, and the qualities of neither of them are particularly well defined in yoga.

    I’ve noticed that the Hindus significantly idealize the absorption states into something they’re not. Layers upon layers of superstition and dogma. There isn’t really anything in there. The perception, the object of perception, and the experience of perceiving the object. The only things that change are the object and the subjective experience of the individual as the mind takes on progressively more refined objects of perception. Adding layers of religious and cultural dogma and superstition does nothing but hinder access to absorption states. You usually just end up pushing harder and harder to prove these notions correct, yielding in a lot of futility, frustration, and neuroticism. I only know that, because I started out with a significant hindu bent, thanks in large part to Autobiography of a Yogi, and some ancient Hindu texts that demanded very strict moral and ethical codes (like celibacy) in order to “progress on the spiritual path” and attain “samadhi.” It was only after I began abandoning these superstitious and dogmatic notions that I became more realistic about meditation, and my experiences deepened concurrently. You can’t take any baggage with you on your trip through inner space, none of it will fit.

    I agree that clear-, critical-, and skeptical-thinking is not only the best way to vet extraordinary claims, but how one should approach meditation. If it is, indeed, a science, then this is the only rational way one should approach it. In my experience, it’s also the quickest way to progress.

    But if one is using it to cope with reality, then one’s mental and emotional stability is probably not solid enough to deal with some of the negative side effects that can result from either too much practice (for that specific individual), or advancing too quickly. Most people don’t realize that concentration and insight are two sides of the same coin. If you practice concentration, insight (or heightened perceptual awareness) grows concurrently. While concentration has a lot of beatific and pleasant experiences as the stages progress, insight has some pretty nasty and downright awful stages (to produce what is colloquially referred to as “the dark night of the soul”). Being that these two run alongside each other concomitantly, an individual can run into what some call “negative side effects” while practicing strictly concentration-based techniques. In insight meditation, if you don’t progress out of these stages by continued effort, you can unfortunately end up trapped in them for days, weeks, months, even years. I, myself, spent about 3.5 years dealing with this in my early-mid 20’s. The stages and effects of insight meditation are essentially what is referred to in yoga as “kundalini awakening” (the experience of energy and movement in the spine is neither dogma or layers of superstition, either), and if you’re not mentally and emotionally stalwart or have some semblance of what you’re doing or what stage you’re in, can cause a meltdown and send you straight to the nut hut.

    However, quite quizzically, combining both insight-specific practices with concentration-based techniques in the same sitting meditation session yields a hastened pace of advancement in less time with a far more smooth, manageable ride. The required balance is delicate, though, like the razor’s edge.

  4. Hey Mark: You said: “You can’t take any baggage with you on your trip through inner space, none of it will fit”. What’s this inner space? I’ve meditated for years and found the inner subjective “space” is full of many things…hallucinations, imaginations, and nothing–hence the danger or making or interpreting the space any way we humans want to consciously or unconsciously. Huge danger in bias. You also reference “progress” or “advancing” in meditation.

    What specifically are we to attain or travel to? This seem to me be very much like striving for the states of samadhi that I thought you eschewed in your other comments.

    Call me a skeptic, doubter. I don’t see any substance to the extraordinary claims that meditation does much more than many other activities like sleeping, sex, or sensory deprivation/peak experiences.

  5. From my experience, most of the early states are filled with mental garbage. The general thoughts that arise for no reason at all, but breed even more thoughts, making progress slow, like a sherpa burdened with inordinate amounts of luggage while climbing up a mountain. As I progress however, the thoughts slowly cease, and it feels more and more like mental weight is being cast off. The sense of progress and the deepening of concentration speeds up, as the mind’s wavering from the target decreases, and the various components of mind begin to coalesce to form single stream-of-consciousness directed towards the object in an increasingly calm and laser-like fashion. Eventually there are no thoughts at all, and the mind is almost completely undistracted from its object, and this is when the unusual meditative experiences seem to arise. One of which for me is the vague but persistent notion of vast, directionless space while focusing on the object while the senses are withdrawn. It’s just an experience, and I don’t think it means anything inherently, just a byproduct of a certain meditative state. But that’s what I meant by not taking any baggage with you on your trip through inner space. The mental garbage is left behind, and there’s no way to get there with a constant stream of interrupting thoughts. If thoughts begin to interrupt in that state, then I am simply drawn back out of it.

    I’ve never experienced hallucinations in the way that a lot of Indian yogis have described. However, at a certain point in the concentration when there are nearly no thoughts interrupting the process, the body’s perceived peripheral dimensions begin to warp dramatically, as does the mental field in which the meditation object is being experienced (impossible to describe unless one has experienced it, and quite frightening the first time it happens.) And this seems to be one of the definable precursors to sensory withdrawal (at least for myself) before the actual states of meditation begin. I had always wondered about this extremely unusual “warping” experience, as I’d never heard it mentioned before, until I read Shaila Catherine’s book (Focused and Fearless) on the stages of meditation (as defined through Buddhist terms and practices), where she mentions it as a normal experience of the early stages of fruitful concentration practices prior to entering the “jhanas.”

    I don’t believe I’ve ever meant to eschew the achievement of increasingly deep states of concentration. Each state has its own particular benefits. Practicing meditation is like becoming a skilled craftsman of the mind. The mind is a worthy thing to perfect. And like the improvement of anything wholesome, the benefits increase with each level of mastery attained. Striving, however, tends to obstruct access to more refined states and make the process needlessly difficult. Striving taken to the extreme can cause a lot of neurotic issues to develop as an individual wages a war with their only ally. And this seems to be a significant problem in meditation circles that teach the ego as villain, as if the ego is somehow separate from the individual themselves, or their own mind. It is an indivisible aspect of mind and shouldn’t be given any thought. Truly, the only easy way to advance is to make peace with oneself and ignore the concept of cognitive duality that so many teach, and work with the mind through meditative practices, instead of against it. Relaxing into the experience and becoming ever better at letting go with the resolve to deepen the experience over time seems to be the most effective attitude one should take during meditation. Progress is effected without stress or strain.

    I can’t really speak to your personal experience that meditation doesn’t yield benefits beyond the experience of those other activities, as that hasn’t been my own experience. But I don’t think it really matters. Every living thing yearns for happiness, and seeks out that which makes them happiest, and that is what we are both doing.

  6. @Mark: As I read your articulate comments I see you write the word “progress” numerous times. Again, I wonder what it is you or anyone is “progressing” to? Is that not human interpretation? What’s the meaning you bring to the concepts of meditation? Is that not all rooted in thought? Even the “thoughtless” states you speak of are rooted in human interpretations, concepts, and meanings that are thoughts. I don’t buy the special pleading for meditation–though I know it has some benefits.

    I’m not saying I don’t think humans can learn, grow — but that’s not the same as imposing some supernatural meaning onto ordinary human experiences. I no longer need supernatural explanations, or spiritual progress. I find what I need in living life not escaping it or seeking it in some future or inner sanctum. I used to when I was a monk and fanatical meditator. Not anymore.

  7. An astute judge of human character can pick up subtle cues from facial expression, body posture,grooming, tone of voice, etc . A non- commital remark, such as “oh my” could be construed to mean about anything. It is well known that certain criminals and con-artists are excellent at exactly just this type of thing, and can be the reason for their ‘success ‘ ( I am NOT suggesting anyone in the story is a criminal). I have always been amazed how easily SRF devotees can be fooled by even basic slight-of-hand tricks. I remember when the great magician David Blaine first came on the scene-one of the senior members of our group taped his first TV special, and later a large group of gathered to watch it- and the consensus was that the guy had special.yogic powers and was somehow connected to Yogananda. I tried for many years to keep an “open mind” until I no longer could. I quit SRF a decade ago and have never, ever looked back……

  8. @Spiritwinds: Glad you eventually outgrew falling for “tricks” of charlatans like Yogananda, SRF, and David Blaine.

    Blaine, at least, admits he is a trickster, a fraudster for entertainment.

    SRFers actually fantasize the “magic” is real. Their frauds and fantasies are presented is if more real than reality as it is.

    We are all prone to tricks of the mind. So I don’t blame people for being gullible.

    But dangerous and harmful about fraudsters like SRF is it feeds and enables intellectual immaturity–being easily manipulated by authority based on fantasy and wishful thinking.

    Thanks for sharing your story as it relates to this post and my question at the end.