God in the Backseat

By Dan Kempner, Guest Contributor

I was sitting cross-legged in the Blue Room, a cavernous, carpeted space on the second floor of the Ashram – school, in Sanskrit.

The room was empty, with nothing but a few other students and a large, flower-strewn altar at the far end. Among the flowers were photos of our teacher, our Guru in the Sanskrit version, and of his. Symbols of all other religions, known and unknown, were on the wall behind, as the place was ecumenical rather than dogmatic, which is one reason I liked it.

I was in a white cotton full-length robe as were several of my fellows. Others sported the mustard-colored robes Hindu monks traditionally wear though they, like me, were all Americans. We were all celibate, too – or supposed to be. We were also all teachers of Hatha Yoga postures, and we all worked in what was sort of the family business, a natural food store we ran on the first floor of our building in New York City.

I had lived in this Greenwich Village brownstone for more than two years, yet I was only 20. I helped manage the store and also our uptown branch on West End Avenue.

Born to Jewish atheists, intellectuals who tried and failed to be even-handed about religion, I had, after years of murky feelings and ambivalence on the topic, fallen in with a bunch of yogis after a back injury. Following them to their source, I had landed at this cool New York ashram, the first branch opened by the Indian fellow who had, improbably, befriended artists like Carol King and Peter Max, and whose remarks had opened the Woodstock festival.

It was a terrific community, a loving and peaceful place, and we were all dedicated to the health and wellness of one another and the planet. We worked hard, did our chores and our practices, didn’t watch TV but, like this day, hung out and yakked a lot.

Classes were over for the day, we’d finished our evening meditation session and some, including me, were now engaged in a vigorous discussion. The topic at hand was this: should the toilet paper roll be installed with the loose square on the inside, or the outside?

I was a staunch proponent of the outside method, others the reverse, and no one was convincing anyone. Then one of the monks – or Swamis, as they are called in Sanskrit – cited the ultimate authority.

“Gurudev,” he said, using our teacher’s respectful Sanskrit diminutive, “said it should go on the outside.”

Well, that was that, end of discussion. Everyone chuckled and the conversation broke up. I knew, however, that everyone present, whatever their previous ideas, would now be installing the TP that way.

I went uptown on the subway, getting the usual cocked-headed stares at my odd attire. This was in 1979 or so, and my particular brand of weirdness was still relatively new – even in New York. I stayed up for a while and thought about the conversation.

More than the vegetarian diet – which I still maintain – or the celibacy, which I’d signed onto for as long as I lived there, or the rigorous schedule of practices, teaching, and retail, this conversation had rankled.

In whatever pious language I used at the time my thought was essentially, “why the fuck do I need some mystic to tell me how to install toilet paper? Is that really why we all came here… to have the mysteries of the Universe, including bath accessories, explained down to the smallest detail?

I was gone within the month, driving a cab, and signing my own lease in Queens, $225 bucks a month for a big one-bedroom in Astoria. I was still affiliated but, when it came to which spoon I used or whether I meditated or if I wanted to play the field, I was back in charge. As I said one day to my best friend, a monk who’d remained behind when I left, “I’m willing to take responsibility for all the stuff I do. God, if such there be, will have to sit back and watch: I’m in the driver’s seat. If I crash, or scrape the paint off, I’ll take the heat. But at least I’ll be making my own mistakes and using my own brain to do it.”

My pal was still there when the scandal broke a few years later – the Guru’s sex life, it seemed, hadn’t lived up to the standards he’d set for the rest of us. My friend dropped out, but many remained.

Then, as now, I was baffled by their circular thinking. Despite clear and compelling testimony, they eagerly subsumed their own ability to reason to maintain the status quo.

Years passed. The scandal had soured me on religious authority, and I had slid back to question marks around God and spirit. Chatting one day with my Rabbi cousin, and really getting into it, he finally said, “Look, I get it that the only rational position is agnosticism. That said, I choose to believe in the Torah.”

OK. Yes, I can fully respect that approach because, like the great toilet paper debate, he was not taking his cue from anyone but rather had decided consciously to create himself as a believing Jew and to carry that to all his Rabbinical work.

Yet, when I accompanied him to services, I found the prayers to the deity so humble and groveling as to be nauseating. “Oh Lord,” they said, “without you we are nothing, no one, helpless, pathetic, clueless, brainless worms. Save us, oh Lord.” Merde! It made me retch. This was my heritage, but it clearly wasn’t for me.

More years passed. I had married and divorced. I had gone back to school. I had married again. This time it was an Asian woman who, having started as a communist party protégé in her home country, had rejected both politics and Buddhism to convert to Catholicism. Her mom, who had been grooming her for high party office – the only way to power and safety in the country at that time – was ready to throw her out. Having felt peace in a church, my wife had stuck with her decision to convert. Kudos again. “Damn the torpedoes,” or the Vietnamese equivalent. “I’m making my own choices and I’ll accept the consequences.”

As a loving and benevolent husband, whose own agnostic leanings had now slid into full-on atheism, I accompanied her to church on occasion. There I found that, depending on the week, the homilies could be charming, even useful. The pageantry could be beautiful and uplifting. The Latin of the catechism sounded lofty and regal.

But in the English prayers, hymns and priestly benedictions, the kneeling and groveling were there all over again. I stifled my repugnance, but watching grownups engage in this was awful. Such fawning and sucking up and brown-nosing, in any other context, would be ridiculed by these very same worshipers. But it was their very worship I could not stomach. Respect? Gratitude? Appreciation? Fine by me. But hearing septuagenarians toadying and begging felt just awful.

Why, in the name of the very God being kissed up to, would anyone cede their adult authority in this way? Discernment, judgment, their very ability to make decisions called for in every other sphere… why would they willfully infantilize themselves?

I don’t know.

I do know that I, at least, have decided to ignore any directives from above. As my Rabbinical cousin conceded, the only rational position is agnosticism, and I get that.

Yet I can’t even go that far at this point. I can’t grovel and, since Jesus hasn’t invited me to lunch. I can’t ask, “Hey, what would You do?” That’s OK because I’d prefer to ask, “What am I going to do?” and then do it.

One thing is for sure: it’s not in any sacred texts that I know of but, as far as toilet paper is concerned, the open square goes on the outside.

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