Letters from Ananda members, Part 54

The Best Friend I’ve Ever Had
Sheila Rush

I’ve always loved Yogananda’s poem, Friendship, which speaks beautifully of the “garden of selflessness” in which perfect friendship grows. This is the kind of friendship I’ve received from Swami Kriyananda—selfless, loving and always directed toward my highest spiritual welfare. It’s been the greatest blessing of my life.

I arrived at Ananda Village in 1980 with my 8-year old son Joseph. I had moved from New York City, where I had been working as a law professor. I had planned a total break with the field of law, but when SRF sued Ananda, in 1990 I was asked to serve on Ananda’s legal team, a group of ten people, including Kriyananda, who make legal decisions for Ananda. Within a year I began working with Jon Parsons, the attorney who had been representing us since 1990. Jon and I worked together on the SRF case and later on the Bertolucci case. From 1991 on, I was in regular, and sometimes daily, contact with Kriyananda.

Supportive leader and team player
Swami’s detractors call him a “dictator,” someone who forces people to submit to his will. When I hear such things, I wonder how people can make claims so totally the opposite of the truth? His detractors apparently think that by making Kriyananda look utterly despicable people will assume that at least some of their outrageous accusations are true.

The truth is, Swami Kriyananda never imposes his will on anyone. During the eight years I worked on the two lawsuits, Swami rarely told me what to do, even though he was spiritual director of Ananda and a named defendant in both lawsuits, with every right to direct the handling of the case.

Under Kriyananda’s leadership, the legal team functioned as a team, with Swami showing an extraordinary talent for involving everyone and drawing the best out of each of us. More than that, Swami had a way of imbuing everything we did with a sense of joy. I look back on my legal team experiences during those eight years as among the most enjoyable of my life. The open sharing of ideas, the creative give and take of frequently widely differing viewpoints, the sense of deep and loving friendship that connected us —all these unique aspects of our collaborative efforts I trace directly to Swami’s genius for supportive leadership.

Although I was receptive to creative, legal strategies, Swami often helped me to expand my sense of the possible beyond anything I could have imagined. But the important thing, in terms of his leadership style, is that he always did this in a way that enabled me to come to my own independent understanding.

A good instance of this involved SRF’s absurd claim that Ananda was “passing itself off” as SRF. Ananda was winning the SRF case claim by claim through “summary judgment motions”. These motions enabled Ananda to defeat SRF’s claims without having to go to trial. However, I was convinced we couldn’t win the passing off claim with a motion and that for this claim a trial was inevitable. I explained all this to Swami and he seemed to accept my reasons.

But over the next month or so Swami would occasionally suggest that we bring a summary judgment motion on the passing off claim. Each time I would again give him my reasons for not doing it.

After several rounds of this, one day while meditating I asked myself, why is he still suggesting this? In that moment the answer came in a flood of insights on the uniqueness of the evidence in our case, which made it possible for us to prepare and possibly win such a motion.

When I explained this to Swami, he simply agreed and encouraged me to get started. There was no “So you’ve finally seen the light!” or anything like that. He didn’t even let on that he had obviously intuited this very possibility. As it turned out, we came so close to winning the motion that SRF decided to dismiss the claim rather than go to trial. A trial on the passing off claim would have meant a humiliating defeat for SRF. We had presented voluminous evidence showing that Ananda always made it very clear that it was not affiliated with SRF.

Kriyananda also never criticized me for any mistake I made, no matter how serious. Once, for example, I lost track of the need to do a final, thorough editing on one of the most important legal briefs we ever filed.

I can’t explain the miasma that came over me in the early hours of the morning. Although we were up against time pressure, there was still enough time to give our brief another editing, which it very much needed. Yet somehow, in the flurry of last minute tasks, I lost track of it. After I got some sleep and re-read the brief, I was shocked at the number of wrong citations, the instances of poor organization, and the overall lack of polish.

At this stage of the case, Swami read every brief with the utmost care. Yet, he never said anything about the brief itself. It was only when, a few weeks later, I was writing our reply to SRF’s response that he tactfully suggested that I spare no effort to do a thorough job.

I found it difficult to be truly non-attached to the outcome of any motion, but it was worse this time because I knew our main brief could have been so much better. While we waited for the judge’s decision (which took months) Swami said several times that he thought we would win. Fortunately, we did win. I was very grateful to Swami for never mentioning my mistake, for the support he gave me, and for the important lesson in supportive leadership.

During the eight years of my active involvement in the lawsuits, Swami gave me constant support. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he poured energy into me. Without fanfare, he simply became my friend. During our regular phone conversations he often discussed the lawsuit and related matters, but more often he would talk of other things— spiritual matters, SRF, things he’d written. My work was very isolating. Other than Asha Praver and Keshava Taylor, who were also part of the legal team, I didn’t see many members of the Palo Alto community. Swami was consciously filling that void.

A guest in Swami’s home
In 1998, after the Bertolucci trial, I closed down my apartment in the Mountain View Ananda community and, at Swami’s suggestion, moved to Ananda’s retreat center in Assisi, Italy. I was having health challenges and was looking forward to an extended period of R&R in Italy. While visiting relatives on the East Coast en route to Italy, I learned that the room where I would be living at the Assisi center wasn’t ready—it was still under construction, though “nearing completion.” Swami called and invited me to stay in the guestroom at his home for what he estimated would be a week or so.

Swami’s “guestroom” was on the lower level of his home and was in reality his recording studio and music room. The room had small convertible sofa and its own separate entrance and bath. The Retreat’s dining room, where I went for meals, was only a ten-minute walk away through beautiful countryside.

As things turned out, I stayed at Swami’s home for eight weeks. I’ve asked myself how I would have responded if a friend had come to stay with me for a week or two and ended up staying for eight! Would I have been as gracious as Swami? Would I have been so good a friend? For me it would not have been easy. Swami values solitude as much as I do, but never did I feel that I was intruding. Always I felt welcome.

Swami was always willing to set aside his personal needs if there was an opportunity to help me spiritually. I recall one morning when he came downstairs to show me a letter he’d written. It was obvious he didn’t plan to stay long. For me, however, it was one of those special days when I was feeling unusually uplifted and receptive, and could have talked of God forever. Swamiji obviously tuned into it because he stayed for two hours, long past breakfast time, discussing many things.

The day I left, I told Swami how much I had appreciated staying there. He said, simply, “It’s been good for you.” Swami had been deprived of his recording studio for nearly two months. But what mattered most to him was that my staying there had been good for me.

It had been very good for me. My health was better. The sadness that I’d felt after the Bertolucci trial was gone. I was happier. And I could feel my heart opening in ways I had long wanted.

Generosity
People have charged Swami with avarice—with being not just attached to money but greedy. This is still another of those straw men conjured up by his detractors and completely refuted by the facts.

Swami has shown a remarkable ability to manifest money in the building of Ananda, and in his personal life, mainly because he’s so completely non-attached to it. He is not at all concerned with his own financial security. Whatever Divine Mother gives him he gratefully accepts. Whatever he has he is willing to share with others in need.

I recall a situation in Assisi involving a man who frequently came to Swami’s talks but wasn’t close to Swami or to any of the Ananda Assisi leaders. Apparently in need of money, this man asked Swami to pay for a painting that he’d given Swami as a gift months before.

I was part of a small gathering at Swami’s house when someone referred to this man’s unusual request. Swami said that he had been to the bank and withdrawn the requested amount, which was not a small sum. I was surprised because the request had seemed inappropriate to me. “You’re going to pay him for the painting?” I asked. “I’ve already paid him,” Swami replied. I thought to myself—Why? Catching my unasked question, Swamiji said simply, “I want to help him.” It was touching to see not only Swami’s generosity but also his humility in responding to a very presumptuous request.

The choice of Gordon Rockhill as our trial attorney
Swami’s detractors’ also accuse him of egotism, outrageous egotism. But the facts again prove just the opposite. They show not the egotist his detractors describe, but a man of great humility committed to following the will of God, even at the cost of his own reputation and life’s work.

Swami was out of the country when the legal team hired Gordon Rockhill as trial attorney in the Bertolucci case. We had investigated Gordon’s background and learned that he was an honest, hard working trial lawyer who had built his reputation on an impressive string of victories in criminal cases. His professional manner was formal and distant, but his reputation, his perceptive comments about our case, and his confident statement that he had won more trials than any other lawyer in Northern California impressed us. Battle-weary from two lawsuits and the dissension within Ananda generated by the Bertolucci case, we wanted an end to the Bertolucci case and Gordon seemed equal to the task. David Praver summed it up nicely: we hired Gordon for only one reason—we believed he would win for us.

Only Jon and I were present when Gordon met Swami. Since criminal defendants are often guilty or lying, it’s common in the profession to use “grilling” tactics to ferret out lies. From Gordon’s approach during the interview, Kriyananda might well have been a criminal defendant hiding the truth. Gordon seemed determined in one setting to “break” Swami and uncover the truth, even at the cost of any future rapport between them. Despite Gordon’s disrespectful attitude and the constant barrage of less than friendly questions, Swami remained calm and politely answered.

Swami called me later and expressed serious concerns about having Gordon as our trial attorney, concerns he communicated again over the next several weeks. Although I too had reservations about Gordon, I felt conflicted. Winning the case seemed all-important, and I still believed Gordon could deliver. I was never truly receptive to discussing the implications of Swami’s concerns. When he raised them. I said very little or, adopting Jon’s point of view, suggested that in time Gordon would change his views.

At one point Swami said he was trying to determine what Divine Mother wanted. After that he said very little, which I took to mean he had come to accept Gordon. It wasn’t until I was in Italy that Swami told me he had always known that Gordon was the wrong lawyer for us. Why, then, didn’t he force the issue and tell us to fire Gordon? As a named defendant, Swami had every right to the lawyer of his choice.

Swami doesn’t work that way. The most important thing to him is our soul evolution, our spiritual growth. Swami decided, correctly in my case, that I wasn’t receptive to letting Gordon go, even though I knew he was displeased with him. Swami saw what I simply could not see: that I relied too much on my own energies and not enough on God; too much on the world of law, and not enough on Swami’s leadership and direction. Because of my fixation on winning, it was difficult for me to face the implications of Gordon’s attitude towards Swami—that he disliked Swami and had little interest in defending him. Ironically, had I faced it, I would have known that, with Gordon as our attorney, there was no way we could win.

Swami needed a lawyer who believed in him, who could champion him in a righteous battle for uncovering the truth. Gordon simply wasn’t the “championing” type nor, in fairness to him, did his experience with primarily guilty clients, many of them hardened criminals, prepare him for it. His job was to give his clients a fair defense and, in some instances, prevent them from being executed. It didn’t matter whether he liked them. But in our case, it mattered.

Swami gave many indications of what he thought about our choice for trial attorney, but seeing our persistent lack of understanding, he surrendered to it rather than do violence to our free will. I’ve mentioned Swami’s comment about trying to determine what Divine Mother wanted. I believe he concluded that it was Divine mother’s will that he allow us to learn our lessons at our own pace. He surrendered to that higher dharma even though he believed that our choice of trial lawyers would be harmful both to him and Ananda.

Fortunately, the harm that accrued has proved in many ways a blessing, much like the fire that nearly destroyed Ananda Village in 1976. For Ananda members, one of the main lessons of the Bertolucci case was to be loyal to Swami and to stand up for him with fully committed energy. It was a lesson that most of Ananda needed to learn, and it came to each of us in different ways. Unfortunately, my loyalty to Swami wasn’t strong enough to offset my fixation on winning.

From the crucible of the Bertolucci case, we have learned important lessons about the right relationship to our spiritual teacher. Those who weren’t receptive to learning those lessons have moved on. For those who remained, our love and appreciation for Kriyananda are deeper than ever. Ananda itself has emerged stronger, more resilient—better equipped to meet the challenges that lie ahead. And Swami has become more joyfully radiant and, from all appearances, soaringly free in God.

Compassion and forgiveness in the face of betrayal
One of the most painful moments of the Bertolucci trial was when Kimberly Moore, to whom Kriyananda had briefly been married, testified against him. I had known Kimberly when she was at Ananda, and had seen her with Swami on many occasions—as had most of Ananda. Theirs was an open and affectionate relationship, with Kimberly seeming to embrace the leadership role Swami had given her. We have a video at Ananda Village of a talk Kimberly gave on spiritual marriage, in which she discussed how her marriage to Kriyananda would serve as a model for the Ananda community.

With Swami present in the courtroom, Kimberly accused him of forcing the marriage upon her through deception and imposing his will on her sexually. Her testimony was deeply upsetting to Kriyananda, not only because it was untrue but also because of the betrayal it represented.

Later, in Assisi, Swami showed me a letter he was in the process of writing to Kimberly. The letter was friendly and caring. He asked nothing for himself, only that she think more deeply about her future attitudes and actions. Swami believed that Kimberly could still fulfill the spiritual potential he had seen in her (on her own, not at Ananda), and he offered advice along those lines. He wrote several versions of the letter until he was satisfied that it had the right tone and length. He finally condensed to one page.

At the time, I still harbored a number of grievances from the Bertolucci trial but my grievances were trivial compared to what Swami had endured. Yet Swami never expressed anger or resentment toward anyone, not even Kimberly, despite all she had done to try to destroy him. He only wanted to help her.

Attitudes toward women
When I first heard about the Bertolucci allegations, my years of experience with Kriyananda told me that he never imposed his will on anyone—female or male. More than this, I had been around Kriyananda in countless situations and I had never seen him express anything remotely resembling sexual interest in women, or even the kind of silent appreciation of attractive women that men commonly express. Swami’s relationship with women and men is impersonal. To him we are “souls,” children of God, trying to escape the bondage of ego. Our outward attributes and personalities are secondary.

A certain degree of familiarity is a natural development when you work closely with a person, but Swami discourages it. I twice made the mistake of crossing the line into undue familiarity. Without actually saying anything, Swami made me aware of it. He nipped in the bud any tendency on my part to think he was my “special” friend because I spent a lot of time with him. I’ve also seen him take this approach with others.

These and other experiences convinced me that any sexual involvements between Swami and his accusers would have been as consenting adults. Knowing also the difficulty Swami has in saying “no” to people who ignore his wishes and impose on him, I am also convinced that some of these women initiated the encounters.

 

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Kriyananda has inspired me to take my spiritual life seriously—to put out the energy it takes to find God in this lifetime, and not to worry so much about the “failures” along the way. The dedication and compassion he shows as he works tirelessly to help me and countless others experience the peace and joy of the soul is nothing short of extraordinary. I am eternally grateful to God and Guru for Kriyananda, the best friend I’ve ever had. The deepest blessing of his friendship is the glimpse it has given me of the perfect friendship of God.

Sheila lives at Ananda Village where she is the editor of Clarity Magazine and also assists with Ananda’s legal efforts.