The Making of an American Swami

sallyIt’s eight a.m. on New Year’s morning and I’m sitting in the darkened hall of the Siddha Yoga Meditation Center in Los Angeles, staring at the cluster of swamis in red sitting cross-legged on the floor. There’s a slender woman with short blonde hair. Is that Sally? That’s what she looked like thirty years ago, but I’ve heard that she’s gained weight and I’m sure her hair has signs of gray.

She’s called Swami Durgananda now but I knew her as Sally Kempton, the brilliant, icily beautiful writer who was the daughter of the celebrated newspaper columnist, Murray Kempton, and who wrote the purest, most lethal and eloquent statement of feminist rage published in the Seventies-an essay called “Cutting Loose” that appeared in Esquire, a bastion of male literary and intellectual supremacy.

I’d last seen her in 1974, when she became a follower of Swami Muktananda. To the surprise of many who knew her, she took vows of celibacy, became a swami herself and has stayed in the order for twenty-seven years. While I’d thought about her from time to time, we’d had no contact until the fall of 2000, when I heard she’d written a book called The Heart of Meditation.

I called her to suggest an interview on the occasion of her book’s publication, which is set for 2002. She was pleased to hear from me but said, “I don’t get to make my own decisions.” I was floored that Sally, whom I’d known as a gutsy, irreverent young woman who wouldn’t take shit from anyone, had surrendered her ability to make her own decisions. She explained that she makes her decisions on personal matters but any question affecting the Siddha Yoga Foundation, which has 200 centers and ashrams throughout the world, has to be referred to a committee. A month later she informed me the decision was no, but three months later she said, “Amazingly enough, the people here have decided it would be a good idea.” We arranged to meet in Los Angeles when she would be teaching at the group’s Winter Love Retreat.

I was eager to see her and sense the effects of a twenty-seven year commitment to rigorous Hindu practice. I was also curious because she’d followed a road I couldn’t have imagined taking. We’d started at the same place in our twenties: we were journalists in New York, married and writing for magazines like Esquire and Harper’s as well as the Village Voice and Rolling Stone. We became caught up in the women’s movement and eventually divorced. In the early Seventies, we started to pursue what was then called “the path,” seeking answers to life’s essential questions. But while Sally committed herself entirely, I kept one foot on and one foot off. I married again and had two children, wrote books and television shows, studied Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity and now it’s twenty-seven years later and we’re meeting at the Siddha Meditation Center.

The master of ceremonies says, “Here to guide us is Swami Durgananda. She makes the difficult easy. She makes the complex simple.” The slender blonde woman stands. It is Sally, wearing a fitted red tunic with a high neck and long sleeves, loose red pants and red stockings. Her face-unmistakable, with large blue eyes and prominent cheekbones–appears on two large video screens, since the retreat is being broadcast live to siddha yoga centers around the world.

Anyone expecting her to be spacey or robotic would be immediately disabused. The intelligence, the ironic wit and elegance of language I remember are in full display, only they’re being used to explicate the principles of Kashmir Shaivism, a philosophy that flowered in Kashmir in the eighth century and whose bottom line is that God both creates and dwells within all beings.

Since Gurumayi, the young woman who succeeded Muktananda after he died, is presently in India, Durganada is about to deliver the guru’s message for the new year. She reads the words as they flash on screen: “Approach the present with your heart’s consent. Make it a blessed event.” When I repeat this later to a friend, he says, “It sounds like a Chinese fortune cookie.” I laugh. The words of someone else’s guru invariably sound like a cookie fortune but Durgananda deconstructs them. “You know how it is,” she says, “most of the time, whatever we’re doing, we’re sort of half there? I keep asking myself: am I giving my heart’s consent to what I’m doing in this moment? Am I fully anchored in the present? Because the present is the only moment we have, in terms of making choices, acting, transforming. It’s all there is.”

At the first break, we walk toward each other and hug, assuring each other that we appear little changed.

“Your hair is still blonde,” I say.

“The women in my family don’t turn gray till they’re seventy,” she says.

There’s a quality about her, however, that I don’t recollect: a gentleness, an active sympathy, a sense that with her one will be in safe hands.

When we’d been friends before, I’d been intimidated and guarded in her presence. I knew she might seem sympathetic but could skewer people with the look of an eye or a single phrase that would pierce their pose and reduce them to an object of ridicule. One reporter called her a “dangerous woman” and for certain men, she was an object of erotic obsession. She was also warm and fun and game for anything.

* * *

The week after New Year’s, I’m having lunch with Swami Durgananda at Pradeep’s, a nouvelle California-Indian organic restaurant in Santa Monica. Durgananda reads from the menu with mocking humor, “Create your own Indian-style burrito.” She orders curry. “I’m basically an ironist,” she says, adding that when you commit yourself to a spiritual life and “everything gets stripped away, you’re left with your soul and your natural personality. Mine is ironic.”

I ask what caused her to move from feminism to spirituality. “That is a darn good question,” she says playfully. She was a feminist for only a year, she says, when she realized she’d simply turned from “radical self blame to radical blaming of others. The truth was, I was responsible for my life. It wasn’t any guy’s fault.” She says feminism was the start of her spiritual quest. Despite her gifts and achievements, despite her cool exterior, she felt empty and fraught with anxiety. “To tell you the truth I was looking for happiness, but since I was a political-intellectual-left wing person, I couldn’t go straight to God. The road was twisty.”

She was also influenced by L.S.D. “One time when I’d taken the drug, I saw the skin come off the world. I saw that everyone was playing a game. The rules were arbitrary. There was no reason for anyone to be doing anything because the rules were completely made up.” On another occasion she felt an inrush of love and joy, but when she told her radical activist boyfriend, “he thought I was crazy. He said, `That’s just an acid trip. That’s not life.’ At the time, I never believed in the reality of that joy or that my daily life could be like that.” She takes a sip of juice. “And now it is.”

I put my fork down. “Are you serious?

She nods.

“Joy is your basic state, every day? How long has this been true?”

“About ten years. ”

I tell her I’ve had interludes I would call happy but mostly there’s been pain from one sector or another. She nods in recognition. “I used to be in pain 98% of the time.” Through her work in siddha yoga, she says, the pain diminished and joy became her customary state. “And it’s a juicy, vibrant feeling.”

I press her to define this joy. “The closest analogy I have is the joy you feel when you’re in love. That heart-melting feeling when you’re happy and the world seems fascinating and you’re aware of the life in yourself and the life in others. You find a lot of pleasure in simple things.” She says there are degrees to this and sometimes she feels worried or frightened but can always bring herself back to that heartfelt happiness.

She does seem content but I’ve seen her only one day and can’t know how she is when alone. I’m inclined to believe, though, that years of meditation and cultivating love toward the self and others have brought her this equanimity.

* * *

Kempton grew up in Princeton, N.J., with three brothers and parents who’d met as young socialists at Johns Hopkins. Her mother, Mina, was a social worker and her father, Murray, was a beloved liberal columnist who won the Pulitzer prize and National Book Award. When she was young, Kempton was close to her father but relations became strained as she grew older. In “Cutting Loose,” Kempton wrote that her father raised her with “a sort of eighteenth-century fantasy about our relationship, the one in which the count teaches his daughter to read Virgil and ride like a man and she grows up to be the perfect feminine companion, parroting him with such subtlety that it is impossible to tell that her thoughts and feelings, so perfectly coincident with his, are not original.”

She chose to attend Sarah Lawrence over Barnard because she’d been told the former was more “feminine.” She was working as a free-lance journalist when she was introduced to the New York Radical Feminists in 1969. She took part in the sit-in at the Ladies Home Journal to protest the magazine’s sappy portrayal of women. She appeared on the Dick Cavett show with Susan Brownmiller to confront Hugh Hefner. When Brownmiller pointed her finger at Hefner and cried, “That man is my enemy,” Kempton sat draped in her chair, exuding frosty disdain.

She was twenty-six when she wrote “Cutting Loose,” which is still remembered and widely quoted on the Internet. In writing it, she pushed literary confession to its extreme. She wrote that she’d had a “compulsion to seduce men” and needed to marry a father figure-Harrison Starr, who was 13 years older and produced movies including Antonioni’s flawed take on the Sixties, “Zabriskie Point.” She writes that Starr objected that she was too young for him. “I would climb upon his lap, figuratively speaking, and protest that I was not. It was no more disgusting than most courtships.”

The most famous image from the piece is of Kempton lying awake in bed beside her husband as he sleeps, wishing “I had the courage to bash in his head with a frying pan.” She doesn’t dare, she realizes, because she’s afraid “that if I cracked his head with a frying pan he would leave me.”

This image of rage and dependency melded in the frying pan was to shock both men and women, ratcheting up the gender wars. Kempton says, “I knew the writing came from the place that’s the closest you can get to truth. But the downside was, I became a character in a public story that resembled mine but was a huge oversimplification of a complex life.”

Partly as a consequence of the piece, she and Starr were divorced. “He’d read it in advance but didn’t realize how bad it would make him look,” she says. “When it came out and was so big, it was humiliating.” Her father hated the piece. “First he called and said how great it was. Then he wrote me a nasty letter. Our relationship was complicated and full of misunderstandings for years.” Both her parents, who’d divorced, were disheartened when she became a yogi monk. “They wanted me to be a New York writer.” But as time passed, they felt a softening, a kindness in her which allowed them to become close again.

* * *

Kempton first met Muktananda in 1974. She’d taken courses in meditation and was having dramatic experiences of “energy rushing up from the base of my spine and exploding in my head. It scared me, and I thought, you don’t want to do this without a guru.” Kempton had heard of Muktananda and says I was the one who connected her with “Baba,” as he was called, but I have no memory of this. I was living in Venice, California, writing Loose Change, and went to a weekend “intensive” with him during which I had to get up at five a.m. and Baba hit me on the head with peacock feathers. I thought some kind of mass hypnosis might be going on–people were laughing, crying out and convulsing after being hit with the peacock feathers. Nothing like that happened to me and I never felt compelled to return.

Kempton, however, walked into the mansion in Pasadena where Baba was staying, saw him sitting on a gold chair, wearing an orange robe, a ski cap and dark glasses, and had what she calls a “classic conversion experience.” She realized he was in a state of unity and felt herself flooded with light. “I had the thought: this is what I’ve been looking for. This is what I was born for.”

I asked Durgananda how she explains the fact that none of her friends had a similar response to Muktananda. She said simply, “He wasn’t their guru. Or it wasn’t their time.”

Shortly after meeting Muktananda, she flew to Denver and joined his tour across America, plunging into the strict discipline of his traveling ashram. They rose at five a.m., chanted, meditated, did seva-service to the guru. They were asked to be celibate, to eat vegetarian, give up stimulants including reading books and magazines and engaging in social talk.

Those who heard from afar about Kempton’s conversion were baffled. She’d jumped from being an iconoclastic rebel against authority-specifically male authority-to acceptance of a belief system and the authority of a male guru whose word was literally God’s. How was this possible with the mind she owned? She asked herself similar questions: “Am I running away from my unresolved problems? Taking the easy way out? Am I jumping into the arms of the great parent? Am I handing my power to someone outside myself? The way I resolved it was deciding that my life is about service and this was training for that service.”

She said she became celibate “two minutes after I met Baba. The inner experience became so delightful and consuming-it was more interesting than anything going on with another person. It wasn’t a sacrifice.” Before joining Muktananda, Kempton had been in love with one man and having an affair with a second. Winnie Rosen, a writer who was friends with Kempton, remembers being astonished when Kempton became celibate. “I couldn’t imagine having no sex in your life and that being all right.”

I was more surprised by Kempton’s willingness to surrender to Muktananda. The idea of finding a guru to whom one could hand over the guidance of one’s life was appealing and I understood the premise-that by surrendering one’s external liberty one might gain inner freedom-but it was impossible for me. When I asked Durgananda about this she said, “Surrender is impossible without love. When I met Baba, a huge love was kindled and with it came the desire to serve. I wasn’t in a state of surrender, I was practicing surrender.” If the ashram leaders made a decision she opposed, she resisted it. If the decision wasn’t changed, she had to go along with it or leave. “It’s the same in marriage. When you have a disagreement, if your commitment is to your marriage rather than the issue you’re disagreeing on, you stay with the marriage.”

Kempton did not think she was making a commitment for life. “I was 31, I didn’t have a husband or kids so I was free to live as a yogi.” After she’d been with Muktananda six months, an editor called and offered her an assignment for the New York Times Magazine. She decided it was time to put her career back on track. “Then it came to me. I was in the middle of an important process. Baba was 69 and I wanted to stay with the process. Whatever I was leaving unfinished in the world-my writing career, intimate relationships-I would go back to and finish some day.”

* * *

During her early years with Baba, Kempton was in a fairly frequent state of bliss, which she says is typical of the first arc in the devotional path. “You fall in love with the guru and have experiences you attribute to the guru, some of which are quite spectacular.” In New York Magazine she described an experience where she felt she was floating in a soft, warm pool. “It was the most intensely sensual feeling I’d ever had. It felt so good that my first reaction was a sharp pang of guilt, a feeling that I had stumbled into some forbidden region, perhaps tapped a pleasure center in the brain.”

She developed a missionary zeal, wanting to make Baba’s teaching and spiritual power available to as many as possible. Baba had written that his goal was to start a “meditation revolution–to create a world full of saints.” Durgananda says she’d always been shy and anxious about speaking on the phone, but she became Baba’s press secretary and had to speak continually on the phone.

In 1976 she went to India with Baba and stayed in his ashram two years. “I had absolutely no money.” She explains that the disciple offers service to the guru and the guru will feed and clothe the disciple, but the disciple is not supposed to ask for anything. “I became extraordinarily austere. It was humbling and physically hard-sleeping in a room with forty other women and all my stuff under the bed.” She became withdrawn and unavailable to people. She thought her real relationship was with the guru and any other relationship was a distraction. She believed the personality of Sally Kempton was not acceptable spiritually. “I had to cut off whole parts of myself-the bohemian, rebellious, intellectual, ironic radical.”

In the late Seventies, when Baba created an order of monks who would be teachers, Kempton put her name on the list. She was ambivalent about the commitment and having to wear yellow clothes. “The whole uniform thing went against the artistic individualist in me.” She withdrew but Baba talked her into it. He gave her the name, Durgananda, which means the bliss of Durga, the divine mother. Kempton thought of herself as Saraswati, goddess of learning, art and music. “Durga wasn’t my favorite goddess, and I don’t like the sound so much. In America it’s pronounced `dir-ga,’ like `dirty.’ On the other hand, Durga is a warrior, and it’s great to have a new name because it forces you to drop your identification with the old persona. I couldn’t use my old by-line anymore.”

She found she was suited for monasticism. “A simple life works best for me, one without a huge amount of emotional entanglements.” After five years she was ordained a swami, which set off waves of consternation among her family and old friends. “I’d crossed the guru curtain,” she says. “How many swamis do we know? It’s like you’re not a regular person anymore.” As a swami, she’d taken vows to renounce worldly ambition and to give her life to the pursuit of knowing God, serving the guru and helping others. She wears red exclusively-a custom-made punjabi when she’s teaching and red slacks and sweaters when she’s not. There are presently fourteen swamis in the Siddha Yoga organization but only one guru, who takes responsibility for all the disciples’ progress. After her ordination, Kempton ran into one of her classmates from Sarah Lawrence who wrote in the alumni newsletter, “Saw Sally Kempton, ’64, who is now married to an Indian man and is Mrs. Durgananda.”

* * *

In April of this year, I take the bus from Manhattan to South Fallsburg, N.Y., to visit Durgananda at the Sri Muktananda Ashram, the center of Siddha Yoga. The sprawling compound, which has an estimated value of seventeen million dollars, feels like India in the Catskills: statues of Shiva and Lakshmi stand before elegant remodeled buildings that were once borsht-belt hotels and now have Hindu names. When I tell residents I’m an old friend of Swami Durgananda, they look at me with awe. It feels like being an F.O.B. during the Clinton administration. “We appreciate her intellect,” one woman says. “She’s a great being.”

There are two subjects Durgananda does not feel at liberty to discuss: the struggle for the throne after Baba died in 1982 and the allegations reported in the New Yorker and elsewhere that Baba had sex with young girls in the ashram. “It’s impossible to say what happened or didn’t happen because Baba isn’t around,” she says.

During the turmoil following Baba’s death, Durgananda questioned whether she could open herself to another guru. While many swamis left, she stayed because, to her surprise, she began to feel an inner link to Gurumayi, who was then twenty-seven. “What I learned is that the guru is not Baba or Gurumayi but an energy that’s present in the guru and lives in you as well.” She said this was the second stage of the devotional path, “when you realize the energy is there when the guru isn’t present and you internalize it more. In the final stage, you own it.”

Durgananda spent the Eighties teaching in Oakland and Los Angeles. She found teaching rewarding but realized that she still had psychological issues to deal with. Feelings of sadness rose in her-from her childhood, from relationships, from sources she couldn’t even define. “For two years I cried and cried.” She felt it was part of the cleansing or purification that takes place on the yogic path. “Old feelings like anger or sadness come up and if you allow yourself to be with the feelings, if you don’t try to squash them or turn away, they eventually dissolve.”

Around 1989, she reached an equilibrium and felt she could be a “regular person” again. She began to reclaim parts of herself she’d tried to disown. “For a long time I believed that the critical doubting part of my mind was the enemy and discounted everything it said. Then I saw that the doubting mind was part of the divine. Everything in life is part of the divine.”

She began to spend time with old friends, to read novels and go to movies. “I stopped having to keep the fence so tight. I could be with people without worrying they’d clutter up my mind and ruin my meditation.” In 1995, she wrote her father a letter saying she knew he’d been angry with her, she was grateful for all he’d taught her and sorry for anything she’d done to engender his anger. “We became quite close,” she says. When her father contracted pancreatic cancer, Durgananda was with him every day until he died. “There was a lot of love at the end.”

She also started writing again. She began to meditate for three to four hours a day, experimenting with techniques, exploring and mapping her own consciousness. “If you have a guru there’s no guarantee you’ll get anywhere until you take responsibility for the inner drilling,” she says.

As a result of her work she wrote The Heart of Meditation, a self-help guide for people starting to meditate or wishing to go deeper. The words are precise, the tone humble. She writes, “You might want to try…” instead of “you must do this.” The book is rich with personal anecdotes and suggestions aimed at inspiring the reader to create a practice of one’s own.

* * *

Durgananda is driving me to the bus stop in the 1990 red Toyota her mother gave her. On the spiritual path, it’s said that one can go deep or one can go wide–deep by staying with one master or tradition and wide by gleaning what’s of value from different traditions. It occurs to me that Durgananda has gone deep and I’ve gone wide and we’ve each reaped benefits and paid a price. I wouldn’t give up what I’ve had: my children, certain love affairs, the exaltation of the creative process. But these experiences haven’t brought me the sustained inner joy she claims to own. I ask if there’s anything she wishes she’d done, any experience she missed because of becoming a monk. “Yes,” she says and falls silent. I wait. “I feel I still have writing to do. There are ways of experiencing people-a kind of vulnerable intimacy that I’ve been protected from. I guess I feel that in one way or another I’ll have those things before I leave this world.”

In the Seventies she’d written that she wanted to become like Muktananda, a saint. I ask if she still wants that. “At times I feel it’s happened-I’ve felt that state of oneness,” she says. “I hope I’ll feel it in a more sustained way in this lifetime.”

We arrive at the dreary corner of town where the bus stops and I start my customary worrying: did we miss it? Has it passed yet? An aging car rolls by with a sign, “Ronnie’s Royal Car Service,” and Durgananda can’t resist observing dryly, “He’s come up in the world. `Royal car.’ He used to be Ronnie’s Taxi.” Then she returns to the issue of sainthood. She says what Baba meant by saint was a realized or enlightened being, and “there are many levels of enlightenment. As you enter certain states, the ante goes up. You realize there are deeper levels of equanimity, freedom and love. The bar is always being raised.”

The bus lumbers down the street and I gather my bags, preparing to board. She says no state is trustworthy until you hold it during a crisis, such as death. “If it’s there at your death…” She smiles. “Then you have it.”