“It’s like a spiritual cruise ship, a love boat,” says Joan. She’s determined to be positive. The lounge on the first floor is decorated with large posters of attractive, radiantly smiling men and women who have given money to the ashram. All the women appear fitter, happier, more relaxed than she. Few of the men are as handsome as her husband. Joan cannot imagine Richard raising up his arms in an attitude of joy, as a man with curly gray hair is doing in a field of daffodils. Underneath the posters are racks of brochures with quotations from the guru and lists of activities available to guests.
“These are not inexpensive programs,” Richard comments drily. “This is a corporation, Joan. A well-run commercial enterprise.” He is grimly satisfied that, as parents of a disciple, they will pay next to nothing for their week’s stay.
Wally told them on the telephone to bring only casual clothes. “Loose, unconstricting stuff, Dad,” Wally said. “Sweat pants, T-shirts. If you have anything white, that would be nice for morning meditations.”
“Will your mother and I be expected to meditate, Wally?”
Wally assured him no one expected them to do anything, and Richard has to admit that has been the case thus far. Joan, however, throws herself into all activities offered to guests. Richard catches glimpses of her in the East Program Room at noon learning to relax deeply, in the main chapel at two-thirty with a beginners’ yoga class. At the silent meals she sits on the sisters’ side of the dining chapel, eyes closed, chewing consciously, her hands resting on the table. “I’m simply trying to get a feel for the place,” she says when he challenges her.
Richard reads the guidelines for guests carefully. “We can eat together, if you like. It says so right here. Brothers and sisters use separate sides of the dining chapel, but married couples may sit together if they wish.”
“I don't notice anyone doing that,” Joan answers. “Let’s not draw attention to ourselves. Besides,” she lowers her voice, “if you eat with the men, you might have the chance to sit with. . . .” She pauses. “With Sudhir,” she says at last.
Richard steps back. “Don’t call him that. He has a perfectly good name.”
Wally has not been in the dining chapel at mealtimes. Richard thinks the boy has some work detail connected with food. “Seva,” Wally calls his work, as in, “My seva last month was veggie prep.” Wally is a Princeton graduate with a degree in history and economics. In June he was accepted into the law school of the University of Pennsylvania. Richard has persuaded the administration to keep his place open for a year.
It is January and the wind chill flays the skin on the faces of those who venture outside the building. It is too cold to snow and the several inches already trampled and rutted on the ground have hardened into a frozen layer of ice. A rising wind moans beyond the plate-glass windows, but inside the ashram the temperature is a constant seventy degrees. There is a semi-sweet pervasive smell in the hallways, not incense, not any identifiable food. Richard has a moment’s irrational fear that this not-unpleasant aroma is meant to break down his will, to drift inside his brain and cloud his thinking. Residents and guests, including Joan, rise at 5:45 in the warm dark to do breathing exercises and meditate in the main chapel. If Joan chooses to spend her week at the ashram in group activities, if she frequently tells other guests that their son, Sudhir — that’s how she puts it, “our son, Sudhir” — is a resident, that is her privilege, Richard decides. He has come for one purpose only: to bring the boy home.
Wally has arranged to be free all Thursday afternoon, and Richard hopes to take him out, perhaps to a coffee shop in town. But Wally has a cold. He greeted them upon their arrival between sneezes, his eyes tearing.
“You should be in the infirmary, dear,” Joan cried as she wrapped her arms around her only child. He felt familiar there, still a little overweight, still her Wally despite the growth of a sparse, sandy beard which made his face seem rounder. His reddened nose looked sore.
“I’m cleansing,” Wally told them.
“You look sick to me,” Richard said. He held out his right hand just as Wally opened his arms and both gestures froze midway.
“We call it cleansing, Dad. The chronic tensions and emotional blocks have to be released from the body.”
He showed them the cramped room he shared with a brother whose Sanskrit name Richard instantly forgot. Wally’s burns in his belly, piercing as an ulcer.
I have been initiated as a disciple, Wally wrote at Christmas. This was seven months after the ashram had swallowed him up, sucked him in, siphoned him away from them. He didn’t even return for his clothes, though he wrote regularly, begging his parents to visit, speaking of his love for his guru.
Joan and Richard celebrated Christmas and exchanged presents with Wally’s cousin Ginger, her husband, and their three small children. There was a great deal of noise and tearing of gift paper. Joan applied herself to keeping the peace. As a kindergarten teacher, she almost instinctively distracts, organizes, and enchants the very young. The challenge kept her mind off Wally. They had mailed him a ski jacket from the Lands’ End catalog, and received in return a four-page, single-spaced letter describing his initiation. My Indian name is Sudhir, Wally wrote. Guruji says its meaning will be revealed in the manner in which I lead my life here and grow in my spiritual journey.
In the kitchen, Ginger and Joan talked while washing dishes.
“I just can’t see it for Wally,” Ginger said. “I mean, he had such a caustic sense of humor. He was known for that.”
“Oh my God,” she added a minute later. “I spoke about him in the past tense.”
“Sometimes Richard does too,” Joan said. “This is harder on him than on me. He can’t talk about it.”
“They don’t know how,” said Ginger. “Poor men.”
At Princeton, Wally had enjoyed a certain reputation as a stand-up comic. This talent earned him the admiration of women who might otherwise have dismissed him as chubby and sexless. Wally discovered that ferocity of wit was a good substitute for an athletic body. He took his dates to Woody Allen movies and studied the techniques of young comics on television. By spring of his senior year he was regularly called upon to perform at the college clubs. He sweated profusely before and during his moments onstage, but the audience screamed with hilarity. Wally understood this to be a minor talent, shining the more brightly at Princeton because he could draw on the common and terrifying experience of the overachiever. He had a routine about setting the world on fire that invariably brought his classmates to their feet.
On Thursday, Richard rises at six-thirty. Beyond the window, a pale dawn struggles to manifest. Joan has left an hour earlier for meditation. Richard pulls on a jogging outfit and pads to the dining chapel in white athletic socks. Most of the guests and residents wear sandals which they slip off and place on long racks by the doors of the program rooms. Richard, after three days of bending down to untie, take off, put on, and retie his sneakers at odd intervals, has decided to forego shoes altogether. The halls are carpeted in a deep pink nylon pile and, despite the early hour, two young women are already vacuuming. Long orange electrical cords trail behind them, and they smile happily, as if pushing their children in baby carriages. One of them says, “Good morning, Richard,” and he’s startled until he remembers the green name tag pinned to his sweat shirt.
The doors of the main chapel open and white-garbed men and women flow outward in his direction. Richard scans faces for his wife’s. When at last he recognizes Joan’s firm, stocky body and plain, intelligent features, he has to stifle the urge to run up and ask her to leave with him at once.
Joan gives him a puzzled smile as though something were tangled in her thoughts, something she ought to unravel before speaking. “I wish you’d get up early with the rest of us,” she whispers. “The guru himself came to meditation this morning.”
Richard raises an eyebrow.
“I’ll tell you more later,” Joan says. She picks up a tray and stands in the sisters’ line, smiling absently across the space that separates them.
By Thursday, Sudhir’s cold has accelerated into fierce night sweats. When the alarm goes off at four-thirty, he wakes to find the sheets wrapped about his arms and legs like a shroud. He feels very weak and thinks he ought to spend the day in bed. His roommate Prabhakar slips into the kitchen and returns with a cup of tea.
“Kukicha tea is very centering, Sudhir.” He pulls the one chair in the room close to their bunk and sits at Sudhir’s head like a doctor. In fact, medicine is Prabhakar’s profession, or would have been had he not left medical school in the second year of a surgical residency. Sudhir looks out at him from deep inside his returning Wally-ness, and a headache clamps down on either side of his temples. “I think it’s the flu,” he gasps.
Prabhakar smiles from behind a full black beard that Sudhir envies.
“Does your body ache? Is your throat sore?”
Sudhir shakes his head no, and green lights flash behind his eyes.
“Then it’s not flu,” says Prabhakar. “This is a deep cleansing. Try to be grateful.”
Despite the sweats, the fever, and the headache, Sudhir is experiencing a return of the acerbic analytical skills that earned him A’s at Princeton. He suddenly recalls that whenever the residents share with Guruji, Prabhakar is one of the first to speak humbly and at length of his limitations. But in such a way, surely in such a way, as to impress Guruji with the clarity of his insights.
“Come to morning sadhana,” Prabhakar urges. “Meditation will calm your mind.”
Sudhir squints at the lanky body wavering before his gaze like a heat-induced mirage. Prabhakar reaches for the empty teacup, and his hand, with its ragged, bitten nails, looms large in front of Sudhir’s face.
“Dad won’t come to anything,” Sudhir says.
He thinks if Prabhakar trimmed his beard he would look like Abe Lincoln.
Sudhir had been at the ashram two months before he got up the courage to share with Guruji. “I am sometimes afraid,” he whispered as he knelt on the cushion by Guruji’s feet. Drops of sweat beaded on his brow. “If I climb the mountain of self-mastery and self-awareness. . . .” The microphone in his hand amplified his voice so that it was audible to all the assembled brothers and sisters. “I read there was a yogi who sat still for such a long time, trees grew up around him.”
Guruji chuckled. “And you,” he asked, “how long can you sit still?” Appreciative laughter rippled through the auditorium and drops of sweat fell onto Sudhir’s knees. “Look how you are scaring yourself,” Guruji said quietly. “How your fears interfere with the next small step you might wish to take.” Sudhir raised his head to look at his teacher. “It is most unlikely that you will become so enlightened trees will grow up around you,” Guruji said, still smiling. Sudhir had never received such a smile. It traveled deep inside him and rested there like sunlight. Guruji placed his hand on Sudhir’s shoulder. “Do not concern yourself with fears. Practice, simply practice.” And Sudhir realized he was looking up at Guruji with an awful, naked love. He thought if he had to look upon himself, shining with love in that way, he could not bear it.
Prabhakar convinces Sudhir to come to morning sadhana. Sudhir moves shakily from his lower bunk to the communal bathroom. He spends long moments pulling at his beard, which still itches. He debates whether his father would be pleased if he came clean-shaven to their afternoon meeting. In the shower he leans his head against the tiles while hot water streams along his back and down his thighs. He studies the roll of flesh above his stomach and imagines himself flat and lean, able to hold yoga postures until all sensations of pain dissolve in ecstasy.
He arrives late for meditation, several minutes after Guruji’s surprise entrance. He puts as many seated, meditating bodies between himself and Guruji as possible, fading toward the back of the chapel until Guruji has been reduced to a small, cross-legged figure on a distant dais.
The teacher’s voice rises and falls against a background of ocean sounds. “Be in the witness state,” Guruji says softly. “Be neither active nor reactive.” Sudhir groans. Images run riot in his mind. His mother’s hands blossom in the darkness, the tips of her fingers rough with paste or glue from the cutouts she prepares for the walls of her classroom. Sudhir sneezes, coughs, sneezes again. A spate of gold stars spills from a little box she holds out to him, and he pastes the stars across his forehead. The sounds of breaking waves curl around him. He begins to plan very carefully what he will say to his father in the afternoon.
Richard stands in the breakfast line between two young men, one narrow-shouldered, slight of build, and carelessly groomed, the other like Wally, soft in the belly and bearded. He tries to imagine them in business suits behind office desks, or dancing in a nightclub. He has a sudden vision of legions of fathers like himself, heading to work in carpools and on commuter trains, men who would be hard-pressed to put their fingers on any signal failure as spouse or parent, any decisive error that might account for the defection of these middle-class children with their new Sanskrit names and bare feet and beaded necklaces.
Richard fills a bowl with hot oatmeal and milk and sits across from a guest approximately his own age, whose name tag reads Sheldon. He nods politely, but Sheldon’s eyes are closed and he is chewing intently. Richard bends to his bowl of oatmeal. He is reminded of the long ago porridge prepared each morning by his Irish nurse, Catherine, who knew how to make oatmeal without lumps and to pour the cream upon it in rivulet designs. He invited Catherine to his and Joan’s wedding and, a year later, to the christening, when he placed his sleeping infant son, Richard Wallace Ingram III, into her arms.
Sheldon appears to be praying over his banana. When he opens his eyes he beams at Richard. He has a genial, rumpled face and silver hair that curls low on his neck. Richard decides he’s a psychiatrist whose son earns more than a hundred thousand dollars a year as a financial consultant.
After breakfast, Joan brushes her teeth and gazes in the mirror over the basin by her bed. She runs her hands through her hair, which has been cut short in just this fashion since she was fifteen, and has now faded to a color between light brown and gray. She traces with her fingers the tiny lines that radiate from the corners of her eyes. Then the familiar regrets touch her, that she appears older than her husband, that Wally has inherited her chunky body and oval, unexciting face. Richard has always outclassed them both.
“I wish you’d come with me today,” she says. “There’s guest sharing in the solarium at nine.”
“I don’t share with strangers,” Richard says. “Tell me about the guru.”
“I’m still skeptical, of course,” Joan says slowly. “But I had this feeling, Richard. When he came in, everyone stood up. People moved aside to make a pathway for him. Everyone’s hands were in prayer position.” She places her palms together between her breasts and Richard winces. “Now this is just my reaction.” She gives a light, embarrassed laugh. “When he walked by me I thought, it’s Jesus Christ.”
“For God’s sake, Joan.”
“It was just an impression,” she says hastily. “If he’d been short and round or bald, I wouldn’t have made the association. But he looked like the pictures in the Sunday school book I had as a child. I bowed my head without meaning to.”
“You bowed to him?”
“I didn’t exactly bow, Richard. I think I inclined my head a fraction. It all happened very fast.” She puts her arms around her husband. “I’m off to the solarium now,” she says.
In the chapel during meditation, she heard Wally cough. Hundreds of men and women, coughs and sniffs from every direction, and she knew at once it was Wally.
Richard wanders from floor to floor without destination. Within his socks, his toes push off the thick carpet. He digs in deeper, scrunching down the way a boy might dig bare toes into sand. The troubled sky stretches across the vast windows. A sky like the sea, Richard thinks. He begins to think of the sea, of the salt air stiffening his hair, and the fishy, seaweed, backwater smells of towns on the Chesapeake Bay. He smells the odor of diesel oil on the gloves he used to hand his father, whose head and shoulders would disappear into the engine compartment of their wooden schooner. “As you take care of your boat, so you’ll take care of your life,” his father told him.
When he was eleven, Richard went offshore for the first time on a trip from Virginia to Maine. He was tolerated by his father’s sailing buddies because he was nimble and quiet. The fifth night, they set out after dinner from Cape Ann, past the isles of Shoals toward Casco Bay. A thick fog licked the color from the sunset and settled into the night.
“Can’t see your hand before your face,” his father said. “You go up forward, Rich, and blow the horn every two or three minutes. There’s a lot of ships in this channel.”
Richard tied himself into the lifelines and crawled to the bow. The silent, dripping darkness touched his face softly. He leaned against the mast and blew the foghorn all night, while inside his head, unseen tankers and Navy destroyers bore relentlessly down on them.
Toward dawn, his dad called out, “We should be on the Portland Lightship in a bit.” At that moment there came a moaning from the bed of the ocean, a deep-throated call of despair that seeped into Richard’s bones, and he could do nothing but breathe with it, as though his shallow boy-breaths would ease the monster’s pain. Richard knew this was an ancient long-necked monster, dwarfing dinosaurs, blinded from eons at the bottom of the sea. He dropped the foghorn and crawled back through the gray air to stand beside his father.
“The Lightship, right on schedule,” his dad said. Richard bowed his head, trembling. His father turned the wheel a few degrees and soon the Lightship, its stertorous, deep moan in every one of Richard’s cells, slipped away behind them.
“Know where you are at all times, son. Take a good bearing and stay alert.”
Disoriented, Richard comes to a halt, aware that, at the far end of a corridor, a man is wheeling a cartful of laundry toward an elevator. Anything is enough to recognize a son — length of hair, breadth of shoulders, a certain rhythm to the walk. The elevator door opens and closes and Richard wants to cry out, “I am a good man.” He goes up to the elevator and places his palms against its gray steel doors. A thudding hum of invisible pulleys throbs in the shaft and he thinks of Joan, her hands in prayer position, head bowed.
In the solarium, Joan and Sheldon sit by a luxuriant rubber plant and wait for other guests to arrive for sharing. “What do you do?” Joan asks. Sheldon is an arranger and composer of electronic music. Joan does not say she teaches kindergarten. Instead she tells Sheldon that Richard is chief legal counsel for a multinational corporation in Philadelphia.
After lunch, Sudhir pulls on layers of warm clothing. His father thinks it will do him good to get out of the ashram for a while. They’re going to drive into town. Sudhir puts on the ski jacket his parents gave him for Christmas and winds a long yellow scarf around his neck. Whenever he wears this scarf he feels like the Little Prince.
“Aren’t you with me on this?” Richard asks Joan. “Do you want him to stay here and throw his life away?”
In yoga class at three, Joan is almost successful in holding the posture of the tree. “Plant your feet firmly on the ground,” the instructor says. “Empty the weight from your left foot. Pick up your left foot in your hands and place it against the inner thigh of the right leg.” As he speaks, he is mirroring the posture for them. He grasps his own right foot as he tells them to pick up the left. Joan admires this skill. “When your balance is stabilized, raise your hands, palms pressed together, to your chest.” Joan’s right leg wobbles. “Now raise your hands above your head.” The young man stands like a rock in front of her. Holding her breath, staring into his eyes, Joan raises her hands. “Sense your foot as rooted in the earth.” Joan’s leg ceases to tremble. The unexpected sensation of balance brings a cry of surprise to the edge of her lips. “Concentrate,” the yoga teacher says. “Breathe deeply. If you are holding your breath in any way, that is a gesture of protection.” Joan lets out her breath with a sigh, draws in another, and feels the shaking begin. “Oh, please,” she begs her body, but the balance is gone.
“This is more like it,” Richard says to Wally, but in fact the self-consciously arty coffee shop is not his sort of place. He orders a cup of strong coffee, Wally a dish of banana-blueberry frozen yogurt.
Wally’s face is alternately flushed and ashen, and a drop of moisture hangs at the end of one nostril. Richard averts his eyes. Until eight months ago, Wally was a Princeton graduate, a first-year law student, his son.
Prabhakar has been waiting a month to ask Guruji this particular question. He thinks possibly it is a profound question. At three, Guruji is giving a darshan, a teaching seminar, to five brothers and two sisters. Sudhir was invited but chose to go out with his father. Prabhakar thinks this unwise, given his active state of cleansing.
“Yes?” says Guruji, turning the palm of his right hand slightly outward, inviting the disciples to come forward with questions.
Prabhakar kneels on the cushion and touches his forehead to the floor.
“Once I achieve a state of choiceless awareness, Guruji, what becomes the basis of my decision to act?”
“Clarity,” Guruji answers without hesitation.
Prabhakar waits, but nothing more is forthcoming. One word isn’t enough. “If I am clear, why act at all?” he challenges.
In the coffee shop, Sudhir holds a spoonful of yogurt inside his mouth until it melts. “If I said I was a seeker after truth, would that satisfy you?” he asks his father.
Guruji looks into Prabhakar’s tight, earnest face. “That is a false question,” he says quietly. “You’re imagining that you can be without action. That’s not possible. Thought itself is an action. Clarity gives you the right guidance. If you have been moving about a room in darkness, stumbling over the sofa, bumping into the table, and you find the light switch, will you ask me why or how you should enjoy the room now that it’s illuminated?”
“I do not worship him,” Sudhir insists. “He is not a divinity. In loving him, we love the path he reveals to us.”
“It looks like an altar to me,” his father says. “There’s his picture and candles and everything.”
Sudhir leans forward. Underneath the small wooden table he bumps into his father’s knees. “This country has enough lawyers,” he says. “Did you know there are as many yogis in India as there are lawyers in the United States?”
Joan sits in the sisters’ whirlpool bath in the basement of the ashram. To reach the whirlpool she had to walk through a corridor lined with bicycles. The bicycles hung on nails by their wheels, the Sanskrit names of their owners printed below them. Joan looked for Sudhir’s but did not find it. The hot jets pulse into her lower back and the muscles of her arms and thighs, which ache from the unaccustomed yoga postures. Two windows have been opened onto the snow and the condensation in the eighty-degree room creates a swirling fog. Everything is white. She can just make out the forms of other women quietly entering and leaving the roiling tub. Their nude bodies make her think of goddesses wrapped in clouds.
It’s a pleasure for Joan to sit up to her neck in water and still feel safe. She has a fear of water so intense she once told Richard, laughingly, that she must have drowned in some former life. Richard gave up his boat and the sea for her. Because he did this, she will never leave him.
“Money has certain responsibilities as well as certain privileges,” Richard says to Wally. “Your life has been very pleasant up till now and a great deal of money has been expended upon it — upward of seventy-five thousand dollars for your college education alone.
“I don’t intend to see those funds or any future ones handed over to yogis and ashrams,” he continues. He’s speaking in a low, reasonable tone to cover the ache in his heart. Wally sneezes and blows his nose on his napkin.
Going upstairs from the bath, Joan thinks of the books that Richard collects written by men who have sailed singlehanded around the world.
“You have so many of these. You must want to do that,” she once said to him.
“God, no,” Richard said. “The pain these men endure is unbelievable. And none of the electronics ever works on those boats after the first month or so. The storms, the loneliness, the months of boredom — there’s perhaps just a week or two when it all comes together perfectly.”
“I counted,” Joan teased. “You have sixteen books.”
“I read them to remind myself why it’s not something I’d ever choose to do.”
Joan walks down the long corridor, past the solarium. Her body after the hot bath feels floaty, as though it no longer quite belongs to her. “Could I do that?” she wonders. “Could I give him my blessing to sail alone around the world?”
“Listen, Wally,” Richard says. “You’re only twenty-two. If you want to take some time out, that’s fine with your mother and me. But life in the real world goes by very fast, and some years down the road you may feel this has been a mistake. I don’t want you to feel trapped by any hasty decision. I’ve decided to put twenty thousand a year for three years into a savings account, just as if I were paying your tuition for law school. Any time you change your mind, those funds will be waiting for you.”
“Wow,” says Wally. “That’s very generous.” He sneezes into his shredded napkin and Richard hands him a clean one.
“After three years, however, the funds will be withdrawn. Then you’re on your own. You can take poverty, obedience, and chastity as far as you like.”
The waitress wipes the counter furiously, pretending to hear nothing.
“Your mother and I love you very much,” Richard says. “But there are conscious choices to be made here. I think you’ll agree that three years is a long time.”
Wally wipes his rheumy eyes with Richard’s napkin. “I’m coming down with the flu. I’ll think about it, OK?”
Prabhakar, returning from the darshan, straightens up Sudhir’s bed, tucks the sheets tight and smooth, makes hospital corners. He airs the room in case cleansing is as contagious as the common cold.
Leaving the coffee shop, Richard tips the waitress, who pockets the money and gives him a long, curious look. He has a firm jaw and cleft chin and resembles the actor William Holden, who, she seems to remember, committed suicide in Africa.
Sudhir wraps the yellow scarf around his neck. Again he thinks of the Little Prince who fell to the ground silently, the coil of one serpent like a bracelet around his ankle. His father puts an arm around him. “I’m glad we came up here. Your mother likes the place. I think she likes your guru too.” He squeezes Sudhir’s shoulder. “When I was your age, I wanted to sail around the world.”
Sudhir thinks how much easier everything would be if he didn’t love his father.
“He’ll come home,” Richard tells Joan. He takes his wallet and car keys out of his back pocket and slips them beneath his socks in the top drawer of the bureau. There are no locks on the dormitory doors. “Perhaps not right away, but he’ll come home.”
On Friday morning, Richard accompanies Joan to meditation. Since returning to the ashram with Wally, he’s had the odd sensation of not wanting to be apart from her. He feels the need to touch her frequently. Sometimes he rubs the back of her neck, or leans his cheek against hers. They’ll be leaving after breakfast, so he has dressed in blue jeans and a turtleneck sweater. Joan is wearing a white sweat shirt and white cotton pants with a drawstring tie, purchased in the ashram shop. Outside the main chapel, Richard takes off his sneakers and lines them up beside the sandals on the rack.
The chapel is cool and dimly lit. On the risers is the guru’s small sofa, in front of which fresh flowers sit within a half circle of candles. Richard is holding Joan’s hand and she weaves him through the seated men and women, until they are quite close to the riser.
“How do I do this?” Richard whispers.
“Sit cross-legged,” she whispers back. “Keep your spine straight and breathe quietly.” He watches her compose herself, close her eyes. Richard does not feel like closing his eyes. He tries to count the people around and behind him.
When Guruji enters, everyone rises, then kneels and bends forward. Richard does not bend. He studies the yogi and agrees there’s a resemblance to Jesus Christ. Then he smiles wryly, because of course no one knows what Christ looked like. Besides, the yogi is considerably older than thirty-three. His shoulder-length, curling hair is shot through with gray, and his face, though it does not appear careworn, is lined. It’s very effective, Richard thinks — the saffron robe, the bare feet, the loving gaze.
The yogi sits on the sofa. A disciple brings him a boxlike instrument which emits a plaintive chord as soon as Guruji opens its lid.
“Close your eyes,” he says, “and allow yourself to enter the spirit of chanting.” The minor chords swell and subside as the yogi chants. His powerful voice seems to vibrate from within the music. Richard shuts his eyes against a sudden rush of sadness.
The yogi’s chanting gathers momentum. “Join now in the universal sound of Om,” he says.
Richard hears the words as a command and keeps his lips pressed together. All around him the sound of Om swells, unbroken, unending, like the long rollers that sweep under the bow of a ship.
“Open your heart,” the yogi says. “Feel the energy of the life force that is within you.”
Richard finds to his astonishment that he has come up on his knees and is riding the swell of Om, shooting down its crest, curled inside the wave of it.
“Open your heart,” the yogi repeats, and there comes such pain in the center of Richard’s chest that he is sure he’s having a heart attack. He does not seem able to change his posture, and fear rises in him, for now his heart is being squeezed in a giant fist. “Do not be afraid,” the yogi says. Now his voice seems to come from inside the pain in Richard’s chest, and for the first time Richard is aware that others are crying. The chant of Om continues, and Richard’s body lifts and planes down the waves of his pain. That he is no longer afraid, despite his belief he is dying, causes him to weep.
“Do not judge yourself, do not judge this experience. Open your heart still more,” the yogi says. “Let go, Richard.”
He could not have said that, Richard tells himself.
And then between one instant and the next, the pain is no longer there. Where the heart was strangling there is only space and a beating rhythm of light. The chanting fades to stillness. Richard hears the words, “Now, keeping your eyes closed, allow your breathing to return to normal.” With great effort, he forces his eyes open. Shaking but defiant, he looks steadily at the yogi. “I don’t know how you did that,” he telegraphs. “But you didn’t win.”
The yogi’s eyes look back into his. There is no demand in them, no desire to combat Richard’s resistance. The dark, compassionate gaze flows into him, and there is nothing in Richard strong enough to oppose it. It moves through and beyond him, continuous as a river, and Richard is aware that he wants only to go with it. He has to clench his jaw, tighten his hands into fists, to prevent a loss of control. He hunches over slightly. His heart is working normally again. He can barely sense its beating now.
“My son will be coming home,” Richard whispers, and still the calm, dark gaze flows unimpeded.