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.
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 www.raygrasse.com.