Reading time: ca. minutes
In kindergarten I enjoyed digging in the sandbox of the playground. Some kids had said there must be water under all that sand. And so I kept digging till I found it. Actually, I never outgrew the kindergarten sandbox, because I still like to know what´s under all the sand…
When I was 8 years old I collected clippings of "De Rusteloze Aarde" (The Restless Earth), which appeared every Saturday in the newspaper of the "Utrechts Nieuwsblad" in the early 1960s.
A bit later I got a chemistry kit and a bit later again I did experiments in my own lab in my parents' garage. I also followed space travel closely and communicated with American and Russian space agencies.
Gathering scientific and other types of knowledge was really my passion and I could already see myself becoming a researcher in a lab with lots of impressive glassware and equipment. Especially the natural sciences attracted me, but also parapsychology and all kinds of pseudoscience, like astrology, UFOs and what have you. I also bought and read a lot of science fiction.
I guess I was a bit of a weird kid :-).
After high school and training as a laboratory assistant, I worked for a few years in a hospital microbiology lab. And there it became clear to me very quickly that the practice of such a lab did not suit me at all. Far too monotonous, too superficial, too practical and too focused on details. I was (and still am) much more interested in more comprehensive and deeper subjects, such as theories about and research into space and time, particle physics and cosmology. However, I lack the necessary aptitude for mathematics to actually engage in these fields.
But after my discharge from the hospital, I was able to study philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. And there my world opened up. Thinking about the philosophical issues related to matter and consciousness, and the origin and deep nature of the universe, really made me attend every lecture with great enthusiasm. I was having the time of my life! And every day saw a new hero - usually inspired thinkers who focus on the "big picture" like Henri Bergson, Teillard de Chardin, Robert Pirsig, David Bohm, Oliver Reiser, Itzhak Bentov and Carl Jung. I also studied parapsychology as my non-philosophical minor under professor Tenhaeff in Utrecht.
In fact I was searching for a vision, where all the bits and pieces of real and perhaps imagined knowledge I had gathered would fit into an all-encompassing, totally hermetic, unified system, my personal "Theory Of Everything". A vision like that would give me the power of ultimate understanding!
Already as a young teenager, I felt a strong connection to the political philosophy of anarchism. In the Netherlands in the 1960s there was the Provo movement and later on the Kabouters. Both were strongly anti-authoritarian and enjoyed great popular sympathy, especially in the big cities, such as Amsterdam. Provo was fresh, wild and playful. I thought it fun and interesting, but was too young to join.
Later in my twenties, I did join a local action group called the "Actieraad". Many members, including me, were originally part of a small left-wing political party that was represented in the city council of the town where I lived. Disenchanted by corruption, we left the official political arena and focused instead on "direct action", such as squatting, sabotaging, setting up or participating in demonstrations and happenings. We also sold books, buttons and other leftist paraphernalia from a cargo bike and later from a squatted former restaurant, which we called "Utopia."
I read many books by anarchists, and while studying philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, I also attended a workshop on anarchism.
A little book called "Rhizome" by the French poststructuralists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatari marked the end of my involvement in both anarchist theory and practice. They showed me clearly that we are all heavily indoctrinated by a certain mode of thinking, which is unnaturally linear, hierarchic, taking the form of a tree, branching out from the root up or from the top down. I will discuss the details later on.
Because the mind is indoctrinated, I understood that it is the mind that I need to examine. I concluded that politics and political activity are actually ineffective. And indeed, I experienced the activism of my political group as quite ineffective, which was very frustrating.
At the same time, I was influenced by the feminist slogan "all politics is personal and the personal is political". The time was ripe to focus on the personal, to go "inward". I started to become more and more interested in everything psychological and "spiritual". And I almost completely forgot about the anarchist ideal.
Feminism led me to "go inward" by exploring therapeutic approaches such as "radical therapy" and "counseling". Many feminist women at that time (the late 1970s) were involved in what were known as "FORT" groups (in Dutch: Feministische Oefengroepen Radicale Therapie). Feminist men copied that format in what they called "MRT" (Mannen Radicale Therapie). Both had the same structure, based on helping each other without a lead therapist. I formed an MRT group with a few men from the Actieraad and we held meetings in my home. There was a lot of crying, expression of anger, hugging and positive affirmation.
Even before my conversion from politics to spirituality, I had been reading books by Blavatsky, Carlos Castaneda, Tathang Tulku, J. Krishnamurti, Vimala Thakar, George Gurdjieff and many others. They all talked about exploring mind, psyche and spirit, the "inner world". I read about consciousness, meditation, realms beyond ordinary reality, psychic travel and out-of-body experiences. I soon believed in chakras, auras, reincarnation, channeled entities, acupuncture and so on.
I also read about the possibility of "spiritual enlightenment" and about the "paths" to this state. I understood that one cannot make this journey alone. You need a guide, a guru, someone who knows the way. In Castaneda's books, you have the figure of Don Juan who taught Carlos on his path to becoming a "Nagual", a master free from all constraints of cultural indoctrination. I wanted that for myself, too. But where could I find such a master?
A few times I had met people walking around in orange/red clothes wearing a necklace with a picture of an Indian guru's face on it. The guru was very famous in the Netherlands at that time. He called himself Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as "Osho"). He had an ashram in Poona, India. But in my skeptical mind, this guy was just a con-man who exploited his followers for money. I wanted nothing to do with him.
Still, I couldn't help but find the man intriguing. I understood after a while that many very intelligent people "took sannyas", which meant becoming a disciple, a "sannyasin" of Rajneesh. I started reading books by Rajneesh and by people such as the famous psychiatrist Jan Foudraine, who was now named "Swami Deva Amrito".
The books were amazing! Rajneesh's ideas about sex, money, society and religion, just blew my mind! I found his whole vision of the "New Man" who is both a Buddha and a Zorba the Greek, who is enlightened but can also really enjoy life, quite irresistible. The contrast with my very serious former political comrades was more than obvious. The whole movement of people around Rajneesh overflowed with joy, playfulness and celebration. And so I took a jump. For me it was really "sannyas or suicide" as they said, because I was at the end of my rope and felt quite desperate. I felt I had no choice and threw myself into sannyas and at the feet of the "enlightened master".
And I soon received the letter from Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh's secretary, where it said I had been accepted and given a new name: Swami Pantha Chinmayo. I liked the "Chinmayo" part (meaning "consciousness"), but not so much the weird-sounding prefix "Pantha", meaning "path". But anyway I urged those around me to use my new name…
And I soon joined my first therapy group and did the Rajneesh meditations on a daily basis. In fact I did the whole trip of living in sannyas communes and doing the tour to Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, USA, where Rajneesh had set up camp at that time (early 1980s).
I looked up to most of my fellow sannyasins, especially center leaders and renowned therapists. These people were clearly much more centered, much more together, much more enlightened than I was. And all the time I had no idea that I in fact had joined a cult. I really believed that this was the real thing and that I was on my way to my own enlightenment. I just needed to do more meditations and more therapy groups to rid myself of unconscious patterns.
I became accustomed to the gaslighting, the abuse and the power-trips of therapists and leaders in the community, and I also contributed my share of abuse once I had some spiritual status myself. At that time I didn't question these practices, I really thought it was the right thing to do.
There was also the gossip, the looking down on less enlightened types and less radical tribes of the sannyas movement. And at the same time, there was a lot of partying, drugs and orgies, which meant I also had a great time, I must say!
After 10 years, my sannyas adventure came to an end. The pressure and fears caused by the abuse became too much for me and as soon as I could escape from the commune I was living in, I got out! Rajneesh had also died by now. But my dream of enlightenment not so much.
In Lucknow, India at that time, lived another guru who attracted many people, including many sannyasins. His name was Papaji, also called Poonjaji, but his real name was Hariwansh Lal Poonja, himself a disciple of Ramana Maharshi, the saint of Arunachala. Another Indian guru, who lived in Mumbai, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, also attracted many people from the West. Both gurus can be placed in a Hindu tradition called "Advaita Vedanta," where Advaita means "not two". Advaita teaches that the self or "Atman" is in fact one with universal consciousness or "Brahman". So the self and the world seen through the self are an illusion, only Brahman exists.
Western disciples of Papaji and Nisargadatta brought the teachings of Advaita to the West. Gangaji, Andrew Cohen, Isaac Shapiro, Ramesh Balsekar, Alexander Smith and many others were doing meetings called "satsang". I was in satsang with Djihi Marianne, herself a disciple of Shapiro, Mira, the wife of Papaji, and Timothy, a follower of Alexander Smith.
A typical satsang had a teacher - often in special clothing - in front, accompanied by pictures of the people in her or his lineage. Around and in front of the teacher the group of attendees on cushions or chairs. There were flowers, soft music, and lots of silence. The teacher spoke in a soft voice and attendees could ask questions after the opening speech. Everyone laughed and cried.
These teachers all claimed enlightenment and because the teachers were actually very approachable (you could have a beer with them after the show), enlightenment also seemed so close, so easy to reach… There were many moments when I thought I had it… But the blissful feeling of satsang never lasted long. And so the search continued…
The Neo-Advaita satsang scene grew into what is now (2023) known as "Non-duality". And there is a enormous growth of teachers, books, videos, meetings, online shows, etcetera going on. Of course, the Internet has helped this phenomenon tremendously. You can find the Mooji's, Adyashanti's, Rupert Spira's, Eckhard Tolle's, Jeff Fosters, Tony Parsons, and many, many others, almost on every street corner. It is a complete industry!
I have enjoyed reading and watching many of these teachers and some I still enjoy. The thing is that after reading a book, a video or attending a meeting, after the initial "yes, this is it!", there was always a restlessness because they never quite reached me, so I read the next book by the next teacher and then the next book. My bookshelf was well stocked. I kept believing that someday there would be someone who could show me the real truth, my truth, and then I would be done, which would mean I would finally be enlightened. Forever.
Anyway, apart from the search for ultimate knowledge and enlightenment I always have had a genuine sense of how amazing and awe-inspiring this life, this universe is. And that realization is still here. The quest for enlightenment has more or less stopped these days, thanks to the reading of the work of a few people you'll find in the back of this book. The only thing I really know is this experience right now, while typing these words. I don't care anymore what this is called. Life is happening. It brings what it brings. And "enlightenment" is just a word. Who cares.
"I don't think in terms of having experiences anymore. Things just happen. Rain is dripping softly. The heart is beating. There is breathing, in-out-in-out-in-out. There is quiet listening openness… emptiness… nothing… Enlightenment? How lethal it is to attach a label. Then you become somebody. At the moment of labeling, aliveness freezes into a concept. 'My enlightenment experience!' To be alive, fully alive, means flowing without hindrance — a vulnerable flow of aliveness with no resistance… Without needing to think about 'myself' — what I am, what I will be. Our experience mongering is a form of resistance in time."
I don't know anymore what's under the sand, although I could keep digging till doomsday. In fact, I don't even know what the sandbox itself is, nor what's in it or where it came from. I only know that the sandbox is there and that I am in the middle of it.
And anarchism has returned. Not as a political philosophy, but as a weariness towards ultimate answers and rigid hierarchical structures in mind, spirituality and science.
"Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever in allegiance with gravity while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the scars of damage, to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say 'Look!' and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads."
Mary Oliver, Mysteries, Yes