The Theosophical Society in America

Quest Magazine

From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the  Fall 2017  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard, "From the Editor's Desk" Quest 105:4(Fall 2017) pg. 2

It turns out that chimps are smarter than humans. Or more rational. At least when it comes to playing the ultimatum game.

The game can be played by humans and higher primates. It involves two players and a pile of things (M&Ms, dollar bills) that are perceived as desirable by the species in question. One player has to decide how to split up the pile, which he can do as he wishes. The other player has only the choice of whether to accept or reject the offer. If he refuses, nobody gets anything.

Chimps as a rule will accept any offer, no matter how small. Humans will not. They tend to reject any offer that is lower than 20 to 30 percent of the goods. In this sense, chimps are more rational. After all, they started out with nothing and will end up with something, however little. But humans will refuse bad offers as a way of punishing the other player for making an unfair allocation.

Though, from the point of view of rational self-interest, the human response is less prudent than the chimpanzees’, researchers say this fact points to a “fairness gene” in humans, which makes us hold others accountable. Some go so far as to say that this is humanity’s killer app—the feature that enables us to cooperate and build sophisticated societies and great civilizations.

 Whether this is so or not, these experiments do suggest that humans find fairness—justice, if you like—important if not central to life. As the Irish poet and Theosophist Æ (George Russell) wrote, “I could not so desire what was not my own, and what is our own we cannot lose. Desire is hidden identity.”

It often seems that people will endure great hardship if they believe it is fair, whereas they grumble at the slightest inconvenience if they believe it is unfair. It’s easy to see this in daily life. People often grow impatient in supermarket lines: the customer in front of you is taking too much time; the clerk had to send someone back to check on a price; the other line is moving faster than yours. None of these inconveniences cause the slightest harm in themselves; but we have a subconscious (and far from accurate) sense that we are being treated unfairly, even if we admit that none of this is being done on purpose.

It appears too that many criminals operate out of a sense of fairness, at least as they perceive it: the criminal feels that life has given him no breaks, so he is entitled to make his own. Or he believes that the whole of human society is a con game, and that he would be a fool if he acted otherwise. Some of this reasoning is mere rationalizing, but often the individual really believes that he has been unjustly used by life and is fully justified in taking his recompense, with or without the approval of the law.

So, then, we demand justice from other people; it is part of what makes us human. But we go further. We demand justice of the universe—of God, if you like. And often it does not seem to be there. The innocent suffer; the wicked triumph. I sometimes wonder whether every news headline is trying to communicate this message in some form or another.

But why should we demand justice of the cosmos? Are we simply projecting the standards of the human fairness gene on a universe that operates by quite different principles? This seems to be the sobering message of the book of Job: At the end, the Lord, appearing to Job out of the whirlwind, does not explain himself; quite the opposite. He confronts Job, asking, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4). He goes on to show Job how little he knows of the workings of the universe, and that he has no business demanding any explanations. Job finally backs down, saying, “Therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not” (Job 42:3).

Usually the answer to Job is regarded as a kind of show of divine force that grinds all questions down to dust. I myself do not think so. I believe that it points to one, possibly the only, answer to the problem of evil (which of course includes injustice). Again it is from the Hebrew Bible: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).

It’s not hard to see this statement as equivalent to that of the one “Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable principle” of which H.P. Blavatsky speaks in The Secret Doctrine. From this one principle everything arises—light and dark, good and evil. And we have been called into being to experience all these things. Some say that evil and injustice are part of the divine plan; others say that it was an enormous cosmic detour known in some traditions as maya, illusion, in others as the Fall. In either case, we have all eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and in our lives on earth, we will get more than a taste of each.

Richard Smoley



Viewpoint: Transitions

Printed in the  Fall 2017  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Herbert, Barbara, "Viewpoint: Transitions" Quest 105:4(Fall 2017) pg. 8

By Barbara Hebert, National President

Barbara HebertIt is said that the only constant in life is change. Transition, change, can be both exciting and terrifying. It can also hold a variety of other feelings, including sadness and joy as well as guilt and anger. There is no end to the number of feelings an individual can experience during a time of transition.

When we think of transition, we frequently think of death—someone transitioning to continue their journey in those invisible worlds which few of us know. In mid-May, one of my dearest friends and a true sister of the heart, Carol Keay, died. Her transition was very peaceful, and it seemed as if she just simply stepped out of her body. While she had been sick for many years and had recently experienced a time in the intensive care unit, her death was a surprise, because she had seemed to be improving a bit. Her family and friends grieved the loss of her physical presence, but all were grateful that she had been freed from the constraints of the physical body.

Many other feelings were involved in Carol’s death, however—sadness, relief, loneliness, happiness, and even fear and guilt. Her husband lost the physical presence of his partner and best friend of almost fifty-five years. Her children lost the nurturing influence of their mother, while they and her many friends also lost the guiding influence of an incredibly spiritual person. Along with the expected myriad of feelings experienced when a loved one dies, we might be surprised to find a feeling of fear, but it is not really surprising that some of Carol’s family and friends might feel fearful about life without her physical presence and without her wisdom. Guilt comes into the picture as well, with some thinking,  “Perhaps I should have spent more time with her, perhaps I should have [fill in the blank!].” Carol’s transition did not simply affect her; it affected everyone who knew and loved her.

Clearly, transition is not an individual experience! Not only does it impact the person making the change, it has an effect on everyone who knows and loves that individual.

There are other types of transition, of course, such as transition from one job to another or from one home to another. A young friend and her husband recently bought their first home. She experienced feelings of joy and excitement but also feelings of anxiety and trepidation.  The responsibility of owning and maintaining a home was overwhelming, although the idea of creating her own nest also provided a degree of happiness and contentment. When she finally moved in, she said, “It feels good to finally move, both physically and emotionally.”

Our international president, Tim Boyd, and his family have also just completed a major transition. As Tim completed his term as president of the Theosophical Society in America, he and his family moved from the TSA headquarters in Wheaton back to their own home in Chicago. Tim continues with his service to the Theosophical Society as international president, so that consistency remains; however, he and his family have experienced the transition of moving and of leaving friends in Wheaton. The staff of the TSA has had to deal with the loss of seeing and working with Tim and his family on a daily basis. Tim was much loved, and his absence leaves a hole in the day-to day-activities at Olcott, our national headquarters.

Along those same lines, the staff has had to contend with the arrival of a new president and all of the changes that are inherent in this transition. The staff at Olcott has gone above and beyond to make me feel welcomed—from signs in the dining room and in the administrative office to flowers in the president’s office. This transition must elicit a number of emotional responses, very much like the other transitions mentioned.

My own transition from my former position as executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center–Hope House to this current one of president of the Theosophical Society in America has definitely produced a number of emotions—excitement, trepidation, and hope that I can facilitate the work of the TSA as it continues to promote the spiritual evolution of humanity. Leaving my home, family, and friends in Louisiana to move to Wheaton and our national headquarters has also been a major personal transition. Many Southerners tend to be home-centered and live in the same part of the country in which they were born and raised. My own family goes back multiple generations (on both sides) in the small Louisiana community which I call home. Therefore, moving almost a thousand miles away is a difficult concept for many of my friends to comprehend, and their responses ranged from concern (are you joining a cult?) to confusion (why would you move so far away?). The thought of moving away from family and friends provoked a number of feelings in me as well, including sadness at not seeing family on a daily basis, intermingled with feelings of excitement regarding new beginnings. Fortunately, I am a third-generation Theosophist, so my family does not struggle with the concept of my move as they might have. They have always known that the Theosophical Society, its concepts, its focus on spiritual self-awareness, and most importantly those Great Ones who initiated the formation of the Society have been the guiding light in my life.

Even with the understanding of my family regarding this transition, it created challenges for all of us. Why is transition so difficult for us as human beings? Why do we struggle with change, whether it is our own or that of someone close to us?

Transition is change, and very few of us really enjoy change, especially major changes. Change forces us to look at our attachments: attachments to friends, to family, to concepts and beliefs, to things such as home. In a talk called “The Urgency of Change,” J. Krishnamurti observes, “The more one is attached the greater the dependence. The attachment is not only to persons but to ideas and to things. One is attached to a particular environment, to a particular country and so on. And from this springs dependence and therefore resistance.” He goes on to say, “In your attachment there is pain.” As human beings, we attempt to avoid pain as much as possible; therefore, we struggle against change. We resist it. We want everything to remain the same so that we do not experience pain.

Interesting, isn’t it? We try to avoid those expressions that make us fully human and that provide some of the most valuable lessons in each lifetime. It’s also interesting that when we push away uncomfortable feelings, we use a great deal of energy and we still feel the feelings anyway! But as Anne Frank, in her young wisdom, writes, “Feelings can't be ignored.”. And in agreement with Anne is Virginia Woolf, who writes in her book The Voyage Out, “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.” Feelings are simply a part of the physical world—part of our physical incarnation—and if we are to move toward conscious awareness of the unity of all life, it is useless to attempt to avoid life’s difficult aspects, including painful feelings. Not only do they not disappear when we resist them, they seem to become stronger!

What do we do, then? From a Theosophical perspective, we do what we must: we move forward, facing and experiencing the feelings engendered by living life in this physical world. We work to recognize that this component of our physical incarnation can facilitate our spiritual growth, if we allow it. When painful feelings arise, it is useful to become aware of them rather than immediately push them away. Once we are aware of our discomfort, then we can simply acknowledge what we are experiencing. Acknowledgment is a step toward acceptance. Once we acknowledge and begin to accept painful feelings, it is almost as if they lose some of their sting. Why? Perhaps it is because we have taken a step back from the feeling. We have stopped fighting it, and we are slowly becoming an observer. We are looking at the entire issue: the feeling, the situation from which the feeling arose, our response, the attachments that caused our response, and so on.

Krishnamurti, in almost all of his teachings, encourages us to become observers of ourselves. Of course, becoming the observer is far more difficult than it sounds and requires a great deal of energy and focus. In a 1967 talk, Krishnamurti says:

We can only understand something when we see the totality of it, when we see its whole structure and the meaning of it. You cannot see the whole pattern of life, the whole movement of life, if you merely take one part of it and are tremendously concerned about that particular part. It is only when we see the whole map that we can see where we are and choose a particular road. So we are not concerned with individual salvation or individual liberation, or whatever the individual is trying to seek but rather with the whole movement of life, the understanding of the whole current of existence; then perhaps the individual problems can be approached entirely differently. It becomes extremely difficult to see the whole issue, to understand it—it demands attention. One cannot understand anything intellectually—you may hear words, give explanations, find out the cause, but that is not understanding. Understanding—as one observes oneself—takes place only when the mind, including the brain, is totally attentive. And one is not attentive when one is interpreting and translating what one sees according to one's background. You must have noticed—obviously most of us have—that when the mind is completely quiet—not demanding, not fussing around, not tearing to pieces the problem, but is really facing the problem with complete quietness—then there is an understanding. That very understanding is the action, the liberating force or energy, which frees us from the problem.

Understanding occurs when one is totally attentive: a simple concept and a difficult feat. Yet this is such an important goal, isn’t it? To live our physical lives so that we may become conscious of our unity with all life. In that state of conscious awareness, we will begin to realize that what happens to one of us happens to all of us, because there is no such thing as one of us. There is only One, which is ALL. Therefore, as we deal with transitions, attachments, feelings, all of those things that encompass living life in the physical world, we must work toward living with understanding, living in a state of total attentiveness.


Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Random House, 1977 [1947].

Krishnamurti, J. Talk, Paris, April 16, 1967;; accessed July 5, 2017.

———.“The Urgency of Change”;; accessed July 3, 2017.

Woolf, Virginia. The Voyage Out. New York: Random House, 2001 [1915].

The Fetters of “Free Thought”

 Printed in the  Fall 2017    issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Stanciu, George, "The Fetters of “Free Thought”" Quest 105:4(Fall 2017) pg. 26-30

By George Stanciu

George StanciuWe Americans so firmly believe that each one of us has freely chosen our own way of life that we immediately reject the suggestion that to a large extent our thinking is programmed by culture; I know I did for years. But culturally-given habits and attitudes are especially powerful precisely because we do not usually reflect on them. “Most of us are prisoners of the culture’s current presuppositions about life’s purposes,” historians Richard and Susan Rapson write. “We believe ourselves to be the shapers of our own destinies, but more often we chase after culturally-defined goals as though we were automatons, unaware of the spate of signals which constantly barrage us and mold our attitudes” (Rapson, 7). So, perhaps, just perhaps, we are trapped within the bubble of modernity and not as free as we think we are.

Every culture tells its members who they are, why they are here, and what the world is about. What defines a culture are the social, emotional, and intellectual habits that are passed on from one generation to the next, whether it is the Lakota Indians, Harvard University, or Google Inc. Culturally given habits are the substance of custom, or “our way of doing things,” and they possess more authority than civil law, because such habits are the essence of daily living. Every culture lays down patterns of behavior and thought that most of its members follow blindly. Often, instead of a person saying “I am thinking,” it would be more accurate for him or her to say that “culture thinks for me.” Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm elaborates: “In expressing an opinion, for instance, we say, ‘I think’ this or that. If one analyzes this opinion, however, one might discover that the person only voices what he has heard from someone else, what he has read in the newspaper, what he was taught by his parents when he was a child. He is under the illusion that it is he who thinks of this, when actually it would be more correct if he said: ‘It thinks me.’ He has about the same illusion a record player would have which, provided it could think, would say, ‘I am now playing a Mozart symphony,’ when we all know that we put the record on the record player and that it is only reproducing what is fed into it” (Fromm, 49).

Ethnologist S.M. Molema, writing about his own people, the Bantu tribe, points out that in premodern Africa a person’s “actions are controlled by iron reins of tradition, his conduct is constrained by rigid custom. His very words are often a formula” (Molema, 136; emphasis added). Prince Modupe of the So-So tribe in French Guinea confirms Molema’s observation: “When I lived with my people in Dubricka, all of my opinions and judgments were formed by them, by my mother and the elders and the teachers in the Bondo Bush. A youth was taught never to question the validity of anything an elder said” (Modupe, 110). Many Eskimo and aboriginal tribes do not even have a word for disobedience. Group expectations are so strong that the young learn to follow custom unthinkingly, and as a result, such ancient peoples have no system of law and punishment.

Ancient Habits of Thinking

At an early age, a person in a premodern culture acquires the habit of understanding himself as part of a larger whole. The French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville emphasizes that an “aristocracy links everybody, from the peasant to the king, in one long chain” (Tocqueville, 508). If I am a link in such a chain, I understand myself by looking outward to see who is above and below me in the social hierarchy. In this way, I form the habit of understanding myself as part of a whole. Later, I transfer this habit to thinking about other things. Thus, in a group-centered culture, the first habit of thinking is: to understand something, see how it is related to the whole. With such a habit, a person approaches every problem as an organic whole, not a composite whole made up of a sum of parts, and understands each of its many interrelated parts in terms of that whole, whatever it may be: humanity, the family, the person, or even an animal or plant. Before a Hopi potter begins to shape the clay, she has the entire design of the pot formed in her mind. No single element of the design has a symbolic significance in and of itself, but only in relation to the whole. The design intricacies of Hopi pottery are shown in the illustration.

  Hopi ceramic pot
  Nampeyo, Hopi ceramic pot, c.1880, courtesy Phyzome, Wikimedia Commons

In the ancient world, the constant reference point was the group. To be separated from the group was to lose one’s identity, or even one’s existence. Modupe says that at the turn of the century in Africa, “Any destiny apart from the tribe was, of course, beyond the limits of either imagination or intuition. It was as un­thinkable as that one of the bright orange legs of a milli­pede should detach itself from the long black body of the creature and go walking off by itself” (Modupe, 53–54). If I am a member of a group-centered culture, I believe that I am social by nature and that without the group I would not exist. Each person about me understands himself or herself as part of a group. I see that I am always in need of other persons; thus when I do not know something, I seek out a person who possesses knowledge and wisdom. In this way, I form a second habit of thinking: seek guidance from masters. Hopi children frequently hear from their parents, “Your old uncle taught us that way; it is the right way,” and “Listen to the old people; they are wise.”

In addition, I realize that my experience is neither unique nor private; I understand what happens to me in terms of experience common to my family, to my clan, or to humanity. I recognize that my understanding is limited, but I have a common treasure to draw upon—the accumulated knowledge of my people. Life, for me, is governed less by abstract thinking and more by a common store of wisdom. Thus I acquire a third habit of thinking: experience will confirm the truth of what the masters say and reveal the wisdom behind their words. Hopis say, “Our way of life was given to us when time began.” 

Modern Habits of Thinking

Alexis de Tocqueville, in “Concerning the Philosophical Approach of the Americans,” an absolutely brilliant chapter of his classic work Democracy in America (published in two volumes, the first in 1835 and the second in 1840), argues that since an American always begins with the self, each citizen forms the intellectual habit of looking to the part, not to the whole, and as a result is a Cartesian reductionist: “Of all the countries in the world, America is the one in which the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed” (Tocqueville, 429). Tocqueville explains this paradox: In a modern democratic society, the links between generations are broken, and consequently in such a society men and women cannot base their beliefs on tradition or class. Social equality produces a “general distaste for accepting any man’s word as proof of anything” (ibid., 429–30). Therefore, “in most mental operations each American relies on individual effort and judgment.” Just like Descartes, each American employs the philosophical method to seek the reason of things for oneself and in oneself alone.

From his study of nineteenth-century American life, Tocqueville concludes that “the Americans have needed no books to teach them philosophic method, having found it in themselves. Much the same can be said of what has happened in Europe.” Francis Bacon, in natural science, and René Descartes, in philosophy, “abolished accepted formulas, destroyed the dominion of tradition, and upset the authority of the masters” (ibid.). Luther, Voltaire, and, several centuries later, the man on the street in America submitted traditional beliefs to individual examination.

Proceeding by leaps and bounds, Tocqueville does not stop to give in detail the modern habits of thinking, so at the risk of appearing slightly redundant, let me flesh out his insights.

First, let me note that to grasp the habits of thinking of premodern peoples I had to imaginatively use published accounts by Africans, Native Americans, and Chinese, while to understand modern habits of thinking I just had to look at myself.

As a member of a modern democratic culture, I could not base my beliefs on tradition, custom, or class, because the links between the peasant and the king no longer exist in modernity. By the sixth grade, I did not understand myself in terms of either family or nature. I understand myself as an isolated, autonomous individual. My constant reference point, then, was always myself. Consequently, I formed the habit of always thinking of myself in isolation from other persons, and this habit carried over when I thought about other things. Thus, my first culturally given habit of thinking: to understand something, isolate it so that it exists apart from all relations.

Hence I believed that every part can be separated from the whole and that the whole can be understood as simply a collection of parts. With such a habit of mind, I attempted to understand every whole solely in terms of its parts. But the smallest parts of anything are material. Therefore the culturally given habit of thinking that the whole is a collection of parts made me a firm believer in materialism—I could not think any other way. I just “knew” that the universe, including all aspects of human life, was the result of the interactions of little bits of matter.

When I was a young theoretical physicist, I would have staked my life on the proposition that matter is the ultimate reality. The future philosophers and aspiring poets I knew in graduate school often asked me over beer about the fundamental elements of reality. With no hesitancy, like Erich Fromm’s record player, I could not help but say, “Atoms, genes, individuals, competition, and warfare,” and yet believed I was thinking, not mindlessly repeating what had been programmed into me, and my philosopher and poet friends did not strenuously disagree. I now know that virtually every American forms the intellectual habit of looking to the part, not to the whole, and thus is at heart a Cartesian reductionist.

Because of the principles of social equality that I had taken in, I did not trust the authority of any person and had an intense “distaste for accepting any man’s word as proof of anything” (ibid., 430). As a result, I relied on my own judgment and thought. Although I found philosophy a bore and totally irrelevant to my life, yet I proceeded just as Descartes did: the intellectual method I employed was to seek by myself and in myself “for the only reason for things” (ibid., 429).

Since American culture told me that all individuals are equal and that I could recognize the truth just as well as the next person, I thought that I had no need to seek guidance from others, even acknowledged masters. Indeed, I believed that if I followed another person’s judgment, I would give myself over to that individual, and thereby enslave myself and violate what was most precious to me, my personal freedom. Thus my second habit of thinking: rely solely on individual judgment and thought. Consequently, in American life no masters are recognized, and, in effect, the three great teachers of humankind—the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus—are seen as just three voices among many. In fact, if anyone holds up someone as a master to follow, most Americans will ignore or dismiss that person, since it smacks of inequality.

American culture also informed me that the essence of individuality is uniqueness. Each individual has his or her own unique beliefs, tastes, feelings, thoughts, desires, and expectations. What is true for another individual is not true for me: everybody is different. Furthermore, each individual has a different way of evaluating his or her experiences. Thus another individual’s word or experience is not proof of anything. However, since all individuals are equal, my direct experience is not proof of anything either. From these cultural opinions, I learned to distrust my own experience. For instance, when I read in Aristotle’s treatises that “the whole is prior to and greater than the part,” “every person desires to know,” and “man is social by nature” are first principles, I did not look to my own experience for confirmation, but instead demanded a proof of some kind, and not finding an acceptable proof, I took each of these statements as assumptions that I could later deny, if I so wished.

Since individual experience is unique and truth is universal, I was led to form a third habit of thinking: accept as true only what can be proved through logic, mathematics, or scientific experiment. For me, reason and the scientific method replaced the authority of direct, concrete experience. In principle, I could carry out any logical argument, mathematical demonstration, or scientific experiment, and thus I never had to submit myself to an acknowledged master or any outside authority. I readily accepted the results of electrodynamics, general relativity, and quantum mechanics because they made no claim on my interior life and never challenged who I took myself to be.

Layered on top of these three democratic habits of thinking are religious dogmas and political ideologies—the equality of conditions does not exist in a vacuum. Many political junkies, those rabid viewers of Fox News or MSNBC, believe that they rely solely on their own judgment; when in actuality, political ideologues, left and right, often parrot what they saw on TV, heard on talk radio, or read on the Internet. Religious dogma and political ideology led to creationism and the denial of climate change, despite scientific evidence.

No one doubts that many Americans today consult priests or psychotherapists for guidance in life, although I suspect not with the blind faith or trust they would have had in the fifties. After the intensification of equality in the sixties, parishioners and clients understand themselves to be the final judges of what is best for them.

That science is the only intellectual authority in modernity seems to be contradicted by the widespread belief in astrology, herbal cures for cancer, and crystal healing for a disturbed psyche. But when science proclaims that life is pointless, can offer only slash-and-burn-and-poison for cancer treatment, and restores mental well-being through tranquilizers and psychotropics, then even the college-educated, out of desperation, turn to alternatives.

The real alternative is to examine the modern habits of thinking, all of which rely upon the fact that the links of the long chain from “peasant to king” have been broken. To say this in a more general way, in contrast to premodern cultures, where people understand themselves to exist only in relationship, in modernity, individuals assume they exist in isolation. One of these understandings of the human being clearly must be wrong.

Ironically, we have already demonstrated that the belief that we exist in isolation is false. No one, not you or me, not Aristotle or Descartes, initially chooses his or her habits of thinking. That ancient and modern habits of thinking exist shows how all human beings are programmed by culture to think in a certain way and is undeniably evidence that we exist only in relationship. This leads to an inevitable conclusion: contrary to our culturally instilled beliefs, modern habits of thinking are faulty and ultimately lead us to a false understanding of ourselves, nature, and the transcendent that has had bad consequences.

To give just one simple example: Chlorofluorocarbons, once used as refrigerants and propellants in aerosol cans, were tested extensively on human beings and found to be harmless. But the tests were carried out on individuals in laboratories isolated from the environment. Years later, scientists discovered that when chlorofluorocarbons are used by real people in the real world, they migrate to the upper atmosphere and deplete the ozone layer. An ozone-depleted atmosphere allows more ultraviolet radiation to strike the surface of the earth and thus increases the incidence of cataracts and skin cancer. The original tests were failures because they did not take into account the truth that human beings are part of an ecosystem. Because Westerners overlook the whole, they repeat the same basic error again and again.

In the Western tradition, anchored in ancient Athens and the Holy Land, freedom is obedience to truth, for to live contrary to reality eventually leads to personal and social disasters. Hence, to be genuinely free, we Americans must give up the flatteries of democratic life, where we exalt ourselves as “kings of the castle,” as the sole judges of what is true, good, and beautiful. We must forsake the pleasure of being “lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms” (Wallace) and instead embrace the knowledge that we are an inseparable part of a whole, so that we can experience the happiness of simplified living and joy of serving others.


Fromm, Erich. “The Creative Attitude,” in Creativity and Its Cultivation, edited by Harold H. Anderson. New York: Harper & Row, 1959.

Modupe, Prince. I Was a Savage. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1957.

Molema, S.M. The Bantu: Past and Present. Edinburgh: Green & Son, 1920.

Rapson, Richard. The Pursuit of Meaning: America, 1600 to 2000 (Washington: University Press of America, 1977).

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence. New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1835, 1840].

Wallace, David Foster. Kenyon College commencement address, 2005;; accessed July 3, 2017.

George Stanciu earned his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Michigan and taught the Great Books at St. John’s College, Santa Fe. He is the academic dean emeritus at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire, and is the coauthor of The New Biology and The New Story of Science. This article is taken from the website The Imaginative Conservative:


President's Diary

Printed in the  Fall 2017     issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Herbert, Barbara, "President’s Diary" Quest 105:4(Fall 2017) pg. 34-35

Barbara HebertSpring and summer 2017 have been a time for meeting old and new friends, for transitions, and for growth and learning. Early spring brought a visit to the Theosophical Society in Portland, Oregon. It was wonderful to visit this vibrant group and to experience their gorgeous Victorian-era building, which houses a main meeting room, a library, and smaller meeting and administrative rooms. The members extended a tremendous welcome. Nancy Secrest spent hours driving me around the area so that I could experience its natural beauty. We also had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful Lan Su Chinese Gardens and lunching in the teahouse. The garden is the result of a collaboration between the city of Portland and its sister city in China, Suzhou, famous for its Ming Dynasty gardens. This incredible botanical garden is based on 2000-year-old Chinese traditions, which meld art, architecture, design, and nature in perfect harmony. The visit to Portland combined the joy of meeting old friends (some for the first time in this incarnation!), the stimulation of sharing Theosophical ideas and concepts, and the bright light of warm hospitality.

In April, Ananya Sri Ram Rajan and I had the privilege of doing a workshop at Ojai’s Krotona School of Theosophy entitled “Empowering the Divine Feminine.” The workshop was well attended, and everyone seemed to enjoy having the opportunity to talk about self-nurturance on the spiritual path. Once again, it was joyful to meet old and new friends. Being at Krotona is always a delight. I lived there and worked on staff for four years, so it always feels like home to me. The Ojai Valley provides beauty, a sense of peace, and a connection to nature that is not found in many places. The trip also involved the extra pleasure of family! My sister, Lindy, accompanied me to Krotona, and my cousin, Kate, lives in nearby Ventura and attended the workshop. Both are lifelong Theosophists. Together with Ananya and Kate’s husband, Pete, we spent time together enjoying the beauty of the area.

  Barbara Hebert speaking at the
Portland Lodge

The Texas Federation held its annual meeting in San Antonio at the beginning of May. Sharing time with Texans from across the state reminded me of the spiritual closeness that we all feel. Even though we are separated geographically, once we are together, it feels as if we have always been together! It has been said that Theosophists like to greet, meet, and eat. That is very true of the Texas Federation meeting. Members spent a great deal of time hugging one another after a separation of a year or more. We certainly had a series of interesting meetings in which many members discussed various aspects of walking the spiritual path. And of course there was a great deal of eating, from snacks provided in the meeting room to a wonderful dinner at a local Indian restaurant. As usual, the conversations about Theosophical topics continued throughout the entire visit.

June brought a time of transition for me as well as for our international president and former national president, Tim Boyd, and his family. I spent the entire month of June preparing for my move to our national headquarters in Wheaton, Illinois, while at the same time Tim and his family were getting ready for their move away from Wheaton and into Chicago. Preparing for a major move is an interesting experience, especially in regard to attachment. It is shocking to me how many things one accumulates over time—or perhaps I should really own that statement and say that I was shocked to realize what I had accumulated. As I sorted and recycled items that needed a new home, I began to worry that the person at the second-hand store would run in terror when he saw me drive up to deliver yet another load. This experience certainly left me with a strong desire (yes, I said desire!) not to continue the behavior of accumulation.

At the end of June, Lindy and I drove from my home in southern Louisiana to Wheaton. Lindy’s plan was to help me move into my new abode, the president’s house, in which Tim and Lily had lived for the previous six years. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it was not to be! My furniture did not arrive as expected. In fact, it was delayed for a week. Therefore, we took the most reasonable option available to us—Lindy and I played tourist in downtown Chicago for two days. We saw all of the sights and ate deep-dish pizza. It was wonderful! Sadly, Lindy had to return to Louisiana for work, and later in the week, my furniture finally arrived.

 I was able to unpack enough so that I could provide dinner at my house for the board members on the night before the first board meeting. As you know, we have six board members—two from each district—who come together twice a year to discuss the business of the TSA. They are joined by the national president, the national vice-president (Kathy Gann), the national secretary (David Bruce), the national treasurer (Floyd Kettering), the chief financial officer (Augie Hirt), and the Olcott chief of staff (Christopher Dixon). These amazingly dedicated Theosophists spend three-and-a-half days listening to reports from the various departments at Olcott, discussing budgetary issues, and determining the path of the TSA.

Barbara with Cynthia Talboys
of the Texas Federation.

This July board meeting went very well. It was absolutely amazing to listen to the Olcott staff talk about the many and varied methods they are using to share Theosophy with the world—from webinars to live streaming of lectures at Olcott, from ebooks and audiobooks to the Theosophical YouTube channel—just to name a few!

Once the board meeting finished, it was time for our 131st Summer National Convention (SNC). The topic, chosen by Tim Boyd, was “Ecospirituality: Embracing the Soul of the World.” Over 100 people attended the three-and-a half-day conference. Everyone seemed to have a wonderful time greeting old friends, attending the educational sessions, and eating the delicious food (especially the desserts!). It was delightful to see so many friends—old and new—at the SNC, and I look forward to sharing next summer’s convention with even more friends!

The programs at the 2017 SNC were eye-opening in many ways. The speakers were absolutely phenomenal. As Sr. Gabriele Uhlein mentioned in her final talk on Tuesday morning, the entire conference was “a donation to the evolution of humanity.” From her, we learned that “eco,” at its root, means “home,” and that ecology means the study, logic, and work of home. From Dr. Richard Heinberg, Dr. Roger Gottleib, and Dr. Will Tuttle, we learned that our home, our Great Mother, is in serious trouble. From Dr. Robyn Finseth, we learned that we can become partners with the unseen beings who work to nourish the Mother and her children. The content of every talk was enlightening; however, the talks were also disconcerting and very sobering at times. If you did not have the opportunity to hear them, I strongly encourage you to seek them out on the Theosophy YouTube channel ( It may be life-changing for you, as I believe it was for many who attended the conference.

 As seekers on the path, we received a call during this convention. No longer can we turn a blind eye to what is happening in our world. We cannot unhear what we heard. We cannot hide behind our books and say, no matter how truthfully, that energy is never lost, what dies will come again in another form. We have been called to act—to become ecospiritually active in accordance with Theosophical teachings

First, we must look within, seeking increased awareness and understanding of ourselves and of our connection to all beings. What happens to one of us happens to all of us. What happens to the water, to the trees, to the animals happens to us.

   A session at the Krotona workshop on “Empowering the Divine Feminine.

Then we must look outside of ourselves. We must accept our responsibility—daring to connect with each other and with all of nature. The Theosophical Society cannot and will not tell us what actions to take: each of us must look to ourselves and our own paths to make that determination. Some of us may take huge steps into ecospirituality, making major changes in our lives. Others may change one small thing at a time. These are decisions that can only be made by each individual.

Make no mistake, however: we have been called to make changes—to see what is happening in our world today and then to act on what is before us. We learned that it is essential for us all to move forward, secure in the knowledge that we can and will make a difference in our world.

I share with you all my gratitude, not only to our Great Mother and all of her helpers for their very existence, but also for the opportunity to move forward as their coworkers in nourishing and restoring our world.

Barbara Hebert


Memories of Yogananda

Printed in the  Fall 2017    issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Grasse, Ray, "Memories of Yogananda" Quest 105:4(Fall 2017) pg. 16-19

By Ray Grasse

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I conducted a series of interviews with the yogi and mystic Shelly Trimmer (1917–1996). Raised in the magical tradition of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, Shelly studied for several years with the famed yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, and from there went on to take on students of his own. Unlike the far more public Yogananda, however, Shelly chose to remain relatively reclusive, living with his wife and family, first in the woods of Minnesota, and finally on the Gulf Coast of Florida, all the while choosing to teach students in a one-on-one fashion rather than through public lectures or publications.

The following exchanges are selected from transcripts of my conversations with Shelly focusing on his interactions with Yogananda in the late 1930s and early ’40s. They are excerpted from my recent book An Infinity of Gods: Conversations with an Unconventional Mystic—the Teachings of Shelly Trimmer. Over the course of my career I’ve come into contact with a wide range of spiritual teachers, but in some ways Shelly was the most interesting of them all. He was also one of the most unusual in terms of his interests and unorthodox ideas. He studiously avoided the limelight throughout his life, never publishing any books or articles. When I asked him why, he explained simply, “My students are my books.” I hope that this book (of which the Yogananda exchanges are a small part) will bring more attention to the fascinating figure of Shelly Trimmer and his thought-provoking ideas about God, reality, the Self, and consciousness. 

  Shelly Trimmer
  Shelly Trimmer.

Ray: How did you wind up studying with Yogananda?

Shelly: When I went out to California, there were two teachers who taught Kriya Yoga–style techniques. There was Yogananda, and there was also an Egyptian teacher [Hamid Bey], and I went out there to see both of them. I was actually more interested in the Egyptian, since most of my studying had been in the direction of the Egyptian schools rather than the Hindu schools. But he happened to be in Buffalo at the time, on a tour of the United States. So I went to Yogananda.When I spoke to Yogananda about the Egyptian, he said, “I won’t lie to you; that Egyptian teaches the same thing that I do. But he does not call it Kriya Yoga. And he claims it came from Egypt. Yet he gets the same results.”

But I found there was one key difference between the two systems. Yogananda said that in order to join his group, I had to take an oath of celibacy. “Under those conditions, I can’t join your organization,” I told him, “because I’ve seen the woman I’m going to marry. I know what she looks like, I know she has been married, and I know she has a son. I even know what he looks like.” I told him, “I’m not going to take an oath and then go out and then not fulfill that oath.” So I said, “I guess I’ll head over and find that Egyptian, and wait until he comes back.” And Yogananda said, “Now wait, don’t be so fast. This is unusual, but I will ask the lineage to see if they’ll make an exception. So come back in three days, and we’ll see whether they will accept you, or whether you’ll have to join the Egyptian.”

So in three days I came back and asked, “What did the lineage have to say?” You see, whether I studied with Yogananda or anyone else, it didn’t matter to me, because I knew what I wanted to learn, and I was going to search until I found someone to teach it to me. Yogananda said, “The lineage has made an exception in your case”—that is, as long as I remained celibate until I met my wife. That was no problem. So I took that oath with the idea that I’d be free from it after I met my wife.

* * *

Shelly: I like to say that there was Yogananda the man, and there was Yogananda the saint. Now, personally, I happened to enjoy Yogananda the man a great deal. Simply as a man, he really tickled my sense of humor. But that sort of judgment is up to each individual, I know. I enjoyed him very much. In fact, he was more of a father to me than my own father was. He played with my mind using a lot of humor, and did a lot of things that I look upon now with great humor.

Ray: But at the time . . . ?

Shelly: Well, at the time I didn’t know he was doing it! That he was testing me out, that is. But he sure set up problems for me. Like the time he had me repair the statues on the ashram grounds. Every time I’d fix one, he’d have another disciple take a club and break it down, to see how I’d react. So finally after doing this three or four times, he remarked to someone, “He’s not reacting. He keeps going right back up to fix them.” He had the impression when I’d first done that work that I was a bit too pleased with my artistic talent, so he wanted to see whether I became emotionally angry over the breakage—sputtered and fumed, that sort of thing. But I didn’t show any Mars, any anger, and I just went ahead and kept on working.

Actually, I’d thought that some vandals had come in and done that damage, so I felt like I had to get it fixed before Yogananda saw what they had done! I thought he might be disturbed. I didn’t realize he had told Victor to hit those statues over the head and damage them! I might have thought about it entirely differently had I known what had really taken place. It wasn’t until sometime afterwards that Vic told me what he had done, and that Yogananda had told him to do it.

Ray: How long did you study with him?

Shelly: Oh, all told, it was about three years. Then I had to go back home, because my family was in trouble. Yogananda wanted me to bring my sister and brother out there, but I figured that was wrong, because my sister and brother would be restricted to his things and not really acting of their own free will, see? And that I go against. I think each individual has a right to choose their particular religious direction, so to put them under his restrictions without their own freedom is wrong. So I went back home. But I was still in contact with Yogananda and still wrote to him throughout the years until he passed.

Yogananda used to like to quote Shakespeare, and one of his favorite quotations was, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Remember, whatever part you’re playing, play it to the hilt. And enjoy it! (laughs). Regardless of what it is. Yogananda certainly did. In the middle of the summer you could see him in his bearskin coat, a derby hat, and a cane, and he’d be walking down the steps to the temple, and there’d be a disciple waiting to take his cane and coat. He hammed it up as much as he possibly could. He had fun with his own personality. And he loved parties, putting on great feasts. But he could put it all aside when he needed to.

Ray: How do you mean?

Shelly: Like the time several of us disciples were recruited to retrieve a priceless statue encrusted with precious gems that was being sent to him by some wealthy shah in the East (laughs). We drove in a pickup truck to get it, but on the long drive back to Yogananda’s center, it somehow fell off the back of the truck and got lost. No matter how carefully we retraced our steps along that mountain road, we couldn’t find it. Naturally, we were concerned that Yogananda would be greatly disappointed, since he was looking forward to seeing it. But when we got back to the ashram and told him what happened and he saw our own disappointment, instead of being upset he consoled us and said not to worry. “It is you I truly value,” he said.

And he never brought the matter up again. As I said, there was Yogananda the man, and Yogananda the saint. As a man, he had his shortcomings; he even spoke about having had a violent temper when he was younger, which almost got him into trouble. But he learned to control these things; he was in control of his personality.                                                                       

* * *

Shelly: When I first came out to California in the late thirties to meet with Yogananda, I was living at a house in Los Angeles and would walk a few blocks down the street every day to a restaurant where I’d have my breakfast. Not far from where I was staying, there was another house I’d walk past, where I’d see a lot of very short men and women coming and going; (laughs) they were even shorter than me. They seemed to be having a good time whenever I’d see them, and a few times I stopped to talk with a couple of them.

One day, one of the fellows said to me, “Say, you’re one of us—why don’t you come and spend some time with us, maybe even move here? I could set you up with a lady here who I think who you’d really like!” But I wasn’t interested in looking for a woman at that point. Besides, I didn’t see myself as being quite that short! (laughs). It was only later I learned they were in town for the filming of The Wizard of Oz. They were playing the Munchkins.                                                                       

* * * 

Goswami Kriyananda, the Chicago-based Kriya Yoga teacher who first introduced me to Shelly, related the following two anecdotes he heard from Shelly about time with Yogananda.

Yogananda often led group meditations in the main hall of his center, but on one occasion Shelly could tell from the brilliance of Yogananda’s aura that the teacher was going much deeper than normal. The other students in the room seemed unaware of that shift in Yogananda’s energies, and eventually began filing out of the room. That left Shelly alone with Yogananda. After some time, Yogananda finally returned to normal consciousness and slowly started opening his eyes. It was then that Shelly moved in closer and eventually posed the following question:

“Were you in God consciousness just now?”

Yogananda nodded in the affirmative.

Pressing further, Shelly asked, “So you were absolutely one with God?”

Yogananda patiently said, “Yes. I was one with God.”

It was then that Shelly pitched the following query: “So when you had completely merged with God, what happened to Yogananda?” Shelly was interested in finding out whether Yogananda’s individuality had been erased in that moment of divine absorption—a concern for many on the spiritual path.

Yogananda was silent for a moment, then softly said, “When I had completely merged with God, Mukunda was still Mukunda.

That was an even more surprising answer than Shelly expected, because Mukunda had been Yogananda’s childhood name before he had become an ordained swami. The message here seemed to be an important one for Shelly (as well as for Goswami Kriyananda, who called this “perhaps the most important mystical statement Yogananda ever made”): that even in our most elevated spiritual state we still retain a spark of our essential individuality. Or, to put it a little differently, in enlightenment everything is gained, and nothing is lost.

* * *

As Kriyananda related this story to me, Shelly was at the ashram one morning when Yogananda came walking through the grounds. As in the earlier story, Shelly could tell from the luminous energy around Yogananda that he was in an elevated state of awareness. Recognizing this, Shelly immediately went up to Yogananda and prostrated himself at the teacher’s feet. Acknowledging Shelly’s fiercely independent streak, Kriyananda added, “And if you know Shelly, that is definitely not a ‘Shelly’ thing to do.” So on hearing this story from his teacher, Kriyananda naturally asked him, “Shelly, why did you do that?”

To which Shelly responded, “Kriyananda, I was bowing down to the radiance within him.”                                                           

* * *

Shelly: Yogananda said—at least this is what he told me—”I know now that I will finally be free when I die to this world. And when I do, I’m going to a far distant sector in space, as we measure space here, to a place in the astral world that isn’t even close to this point of the cosmos at all. Because I’m not going to reincarnate again, because from here on I’m moving into Krishna [Christ] consciousness. And from there, to God consciousness.”

* * *

I’d just begun thinking about cultural symbols and synchronicities at the time of this next exchange, and about the curious way national leaders appear to be symbolically and astrologically connected to their countries.

Ray: Is the leader of a country the personification of that country, and the general mood of that country?

Shelly: That is what many astrologers say. If he or she doesn’t represent the sum total of the mood of the people at that time, then he couldn’t remain in office. And so he or she symbolically represents the total karma of the people at that time.

And the ruler of a country is a very enslaved individual. Because he is not free to do what he wants to do, he is controlled more or less by the oversoul of that country.

Ray: Is he any less free than anyone else?

Shelly: Yes, he’s much less free. If you want to seek freedom, don’t ever take a position of authority.

Ray: How about someone like a rock ’n’ roll idol, like one of the Beatles? That’s not “authority” in the sense that a president or head of a company is, but they’re having a massive influence on people.

Shelly: That’s still authority, an authority of that type of influence that he has over people.

Ray: They’re being molded almost more by the cultural needs of that time?

Shelly: Yes. This is what makes them so successful! They’re adaptable to the cultural needs of the people at that time. And what they’re feeling is what the people needed; if what they were feeling and expressing wasn’t what the people wanted, they wouldn’t have succeeded.

Ray: So each famous person is in danger of losing some of their free will because of being in the limelight?

Shelly: That’s right.

Ray: What about Yogananda?

Shelly: He felt very enslaved. There was a time I’d been watching him as people were coming in, you know, and they were talking to him. He said to me, “This might look wonderful to you—how important I am, people coming in and asking me all kind of questions, to solve all their problems for them, telling them what to do, and what not to do, and how they wait in line to see me. But I am not free. I am enslaved.”

He told me on another occasion about going down to Mexico three times (to take a break from the responsibilities of his organization). He said, “I know now that the only way I’m going to be free is when I die, when I leave this body. That’s the only way I can be free. My karma won’t let me be free any other way.”

Then he added, “I must free as many people as I enslaved as a result of my last incarnation”—he believed he was William the Conqueror in his last incarnation. And he said, “I enslaved many people as a result of that, and I’ve got to free as many people as I enslaved.” Not the same ones, but as many people. Then he said, “You! You remain free! Don’t you get involved like I have.”

And I listened to him.

* * *

Ray: Is it true that Yogananda originally planned to write a chapter about you in his autobiography?

Shelly: That’s what he told me. But he changed his mind when he realized that that would go against what he felt was best for me, in terms of staying free from fame and organizations, and all the problems he ran into himself

* * *

Shelly: I don’t ever think of myself by my name, I don’t ever call myself by any name. So I have no reference to myself in that respect. And I always refer to myself in the third person, you know. I call myself “he.” I guess most people refer to themselves as “I” or something.

Ray: I know I do. Well, there you go . . .

Shelly: It’s always as though I’m observing myself, and that I am something different maybe. I got that from Yogananda—always watching what you’re doing like you’re an actor on the stage playing a part.

* * * 

In this next exchange I was talking with Shelly about the afterlife. Just before I turned on the recorder he had been explaining how most people drift into a semi-dreamlike state once they’ve settled onto the other side. This section starts with him describing Yogananda’s encounter with a female disciple in the astral shortly after she had died.

Shelly: Yogananda told me that when one of his disciples was dying, she made him promise he would come and see that she was all right over there. Now he had a little difficulty finding her, since it’s not very easy finding someone over there, and when he found her, he called out to her—several times, in fact. In her semi-dreamlike state she was tending a garden, but she looked up at him, and thanked him for coming. Of course when he came, she woke up just a little bit more, but then she went back to her semi-sleep stage and continued gardening. You see, we gravitate to those things over there which suit us, in other words. Another example would be a man who worked hard all his life. He might just sit and rock back and forth in his rocker, because his idea of heaven would be not having to go to work. See?

So they’re in a semi-dreamlike state, and like a broken record they run over the important events in their life. Eventually the sum total of their life experience causes them to desire to be reincarnated again. And they are drawn—instinctively, you might say—to the new body which is contiguous with their nature, so that their astrological code and their genetic code is a representation of their natures and expresses their particular level of balanced self-conscious awareness. So that they don’t feel like a fish out of water, see? As it is, we are all a little bit alone in this world anyhow, we feel just a little bit like we’re a fish out of water. This is basically a lonely place. You’re born alone and you die alone; it doesn’t matter how many people are around you.

* * *

Shelly: When I was with Yogananda we used to exchange what I knew about Pennsylvania Dutch magic for his Hindu magic. This had nothing at all to do with God consciousness, of course, but it was very good for passing the time (laughs). I told him I knew a method for making two beings fall in love with one another, and of course he wanted to exchange certain magical things for that. He said, “I’ll give you this if you give me that,” and I’d say, “No, no, this is too good for that!” We’d barter like that (laughs).

Now there was a woman there at the ashram who hated a certain man, and he was an ex-Marine. There was quite a bit of age difference between them; he was in his thirties and she was in her seventies. So I said to Yogananda, you’ve got to get three strands of hair from each individual. But remember: they must give it to you, because love has to be given, it can’t be taken! He said, “Oh, that’s no trouble, no trouble at all. They’ll give me anything I ask.” Yogananda said this would be a good experiment to see if it worked. So he picked the two most difficult individuals he could possibly find, you see? (laughs).

The rest of the disciples knew what was going on, and they thought that I was teaching Yogananda black magic, and that I was in danger of making Yogananda a black magician. And they kept knocking on his bedroom door where we were working, but finally he told them that only if some very dire and violent thing happened were they to disturb him! Otherwise they weren’t to come in and pester him anymore. He finally said, “Now we’ll have peace.”

So I was chanting away there, and I was weaving and combining the hairs, and when I finished it I was going to put it in my [unintelligible], and he said, “No, no, let me keep it!” He added: “I’ll take all the karma, I’ll take all the karma.” I said, “OK, but they might take off and get married, Yogananda!” “Well that’s OK, I’ll take all the karma, I’ll take all the karma.”

At the end of Encinitas [California], where the hermitage used to be, there was a movie theater. And once a week I would go to the theater there and see a movie. I liked movies. And as I went in, the man who owned the theater said, “You know”—he named the ex-Marine and the older woman—“they’re slipping down behind the main streets, hand in hand, giggling. They come down here to the theater, but they don’t really watch the movie since they’re so wrapped up in one another.” Yogananda had his own grapevine, so he found out about this, too, and he was telling me about how all this took place. He was clapping his hands with glee over what was going on, because it was all working out as planned, you know.

Then he came to me and said he wanted three strands of my own hair. Why? I asked. Because he had three strands of a donkey’s hair and he wanted to combine mine with the animal’s so that I would fall in love with this—he called it a jackass. I said, “No, I’ve got to give it to you! You can’t take it from me!” But he said, “I’ve found a way around that!” And knowing Yogananda, well, maybe he did find a way around that (laughs). At any rate I wasn’t going to get close to him so he could get three strands of my hair! So he had a wonderful time chasing me to get those three strands. He would wait behind doors and behind trees, and everything else, to try and sneak up on me. But he finally said, “I can never sneak up on you, you can always feel me in your spine, can’t you?” And that was true. I could feel him in my spine.

Eventually that all passed. He was just having fun with me. These are some of the things that he pulled on me. We had a lot of fun, I liked him.

 * * *

To my mind, one of the more unusual stories from Shelly’s time with Yogananda was an anecdote about his interaction with a fellow student in the community, a wealthy businessman from Kansas named James T. Lynn. While the incident struck me as motivated largely by curiosity, it was clearly out of bounds, and Shelly got called out on it in a very public (and clever) way by Yogananda. Whatever else it conveys, the story is instructive for what it says about mind control and the potential dangers of hypnosis.

Shelly: There was a wealthy disciple of Yogananda’s who he referred to as “Saint Lynn” because of what Yogananda said was his high spiritual attainment. I was simply curious whether that was true, and I decided to find out. So one day Saint Lynn got up to give a talk before the group, and I left my body and I floated up to the front of the room where Saint Lynn was standing. I started giving him hypnotic suggestions, just to see how in control of his mind he was. I started telling him he was getting sleepier and sleepier, and after a short while he started looking a little tired. Finally at one point he began to yawn, and he eventually said to the group, “I’m sorry, but I’m very tired. I’m going to have to lie down.” And right there up on the platform, in front of the entire group, he began lying down on the floor.

At that point Yogananda finally figured out what was going on, and abruptly stood up from his chair and turned around to the group and said, “Everybody, stand up! There’s a demon afoot!” You see, back in those days I couldn’t get back into my body very fast, so while everyone else in the group rose quickly to their feet, there I was, still sitting in my chair. And so of course from that point on everyone knew exactly who the “demon” in their midst was (laughs).

As this conversation took place shortly after George Lucas’s first Star Wars film premiered, I couldn’t help but think of the iconic scene in which Obi Wan Kenobi hypnotically intones to the storm troopers blocking his way, “These are not the droids you’re looking for.” That idea is repeated in Return of the Jedi, when Jabba the Hutt speaks of “Jedi mind tricks” and says to Luke Skywalker, “Your powers will not work on me, boy.” Incidentally, it’s worth noting that Shelly came to feel a great fondness for Lynn, and described him as a sensitive and sincere soul.

 * * *

Ray: Can a person really transcend the difficult aspects in their horoscope?

Shelly: I’ll explain it like this. Yogananda’s secretary was a good astrologer, and she wrote for astrology magazines. But Yogananda told her she was too enslaved by it. So he said to her, “Pick out the worst possible aspect for me to do something, and I will do it just to show you that I can transcend the planetary energies.” So she gave him just such a time.

He wanted to bring a church made out of redwood that he liked down to Hollywood. This was a big project, and he needed money to do it, so he put out fliers to everybody, and the money came in. They moved the church from its original spot; but a telegram came in saying that the trailer had broken loose and crashed into some farmer’s yard. That led to legal problems, as well as damage to the crops.

As a result, Yogananda needed more money, and sent out another flier. He had hoped to get the church into place by Easter—and he did so, but by the skin of his teeth. He finally had it set up so that people could go into it. And by then, all the adverse aspects had finally passed. He said, “You see, you can transcend your horoscope. But not without difficulty!” (laughs).

* * *

Shelly: Yogananda came over to this country, and they gave him coffee, you know. He got to where he thought this habit of the Americans was a nice thing. Then one morning he didn’t get his coffee, and he had a headache. So he said, “I don’t know why I have a headache.” And someone said, “Oh, you haven’t had your coffee, have you?” “Why no,” he said. “Aha! Now that coffee is controlling me, instead of me controlling it.” So he stopped drinking coffee. This is the whole trouble with any form of narcotic or alcohol. It’s a modality that controls the individual; it’s in the opposite direction to the one in which God consciousness exists.

Ray Grasse is a writer, editor, and astrologer, and author of several books, including The Waking Dream (Quest Books, 1996), Signs of the Times (Hampton Roads, 2002), and Under a Sacred Sky (Wessex, 2015). He is also the former associate editor of Quest. He is a consulting astrologer, and his website is


facebook twitter youtube twitter