|Journeys: Barbara (Babs) Johnson|
|Date: February 3, 2001|
Steve and Teresa and Larry and I were roaming the Stanford campus on a warm evening in the late spring of 1971, looking for something to do. Steve pointed to a flyer advertising a thirteen-year-old "Perfect Master" and said, "That sounds interesting." The poorly-reproduced photo of a skinny child wearing a turban was just too weird. The photographer must have caught the kid in mid-blink, giving him a heavy-lidded, trancelike appearance. He was gesturing with three fingers like the Infant of Prague. Larry said two-headed fetal pigs in formaldehyde were interesting, too, and we went to see Death in Venice instead.
Steve went on to become an internationally-recognized expert in the field of Lucid Dreaming. Larry wrote the http protocol which enables us all to communicate via the Internet. Teresa drank kool-aid in Jonestown. Only I dissolved my forehead into the Lotus Feet, but at least I lived to tell the story.
On May 8th, 1972, my twenty-second birthday, I stood on University Avenue in Berkeley, California holding a sign that said "East." I had already turned on and tuned in; now I was dropping out. I made it to New York in four days on seven dollars. "Not bad," I thought, "Might as well continue," and booked a seat on Icelandic Airlines, bound for London.
Please keep in mind that these were the glorious days, post-pill and pre-aids, when sex was okay.
I shared a room (and a bed) in Ladbroke Grove with Geoffrey, a former sailor in the Merchant Marine. We both lived quite comfortably on the insanity pension which he picked up every Thursday at the post office. Geoff's house was built on a "ley line," an invisible channel of power supposedly aligned with the earth's magnetic field. Many of England's ancient roads and abbeys were built atop ley lines. Many of these lines intersect at a town called Glastonbury. It was common knowledge, asserted my mad sailor lover, that a pilgrimage to Glastonbury along a ley line at Midsummer Solstice would definitely change the course of your life. I didn't understand why poor Geoff was so surprised when I left...
Stumbling around in the dark at the base of the Glastonbury Tor on Midsummer Eve, I lost the only thing I really cared about: my journal. I climbed the hill again at dawn the next day, without much hope of finding it, but I saw a man with a walking-stick propped against the old stones of the tower, reading my book. I sat down beside him, and he began to read my words aloud, answering even my unasked questions, explaining to me the nature of God and Life as no one ever had before. He drew a map in my journal and told me to follow it to the ashram and ask for Knowledge. So I went.
I arrived at the ashram at midnight and pounded on the door, demanding Knowledge. The ashram door didn't open, of course, but the neighbors took pity and took me in. I tried again after breakfast, and was told I was "too impure" to receive Knowledge, as I had tripped on acid once in the two preceding weeks. In those days, aspirants were required to be drug-free for a minimum of two weeks before receiving Knowledge. So I sat in the meditation room all day every day, gazing at a picture of Maharaj Ji until I hallucinated, waiting for the time to pass. Sometimes I was given the opportunity to do service. I swept the ashram steps. Then I was sent to sweep the steps at rich people's houses. They gave me money and I gave it to the ashram. I went to satsang every night and saw auras around the mahatmas. Life was simple and good.
On the day I received Knowledge, I wore silk. I carried flowers. I didn't eat or speak, and the birds sang in harmony. When Prakash Bai asked me what I saw, I wasn't there; but I came back from nowhere to whisper, "Diamonds... spreading out all over." When she asked me if I felt the peace, I whispered, "Yes." I was allowed to move into the ashram right away.
On the day the letter arrived from Maharaj Ji, instructing all American premies who were "spaced out" in Europe to return immediately to the States for Guru Puja, I collapsed sobbing over the ironing board. The housemother was jealous that I could shed tears of pure devotion, and told me I was fated to be the next Joan Apter. Before you could say Jai Satchitanand, I was back on Icelandic Airlines, dreaming of darshan. Hitching out of New York with a sign that said "West." Stumbling into the Boulder ashram during a rehearsal of the Krishna Lila. Expecting and getting miracles.
Guru Maharaj Ji showed up at the Boulder ashram about twenty minutes after I did. The thirty or so premies all wept, pranammed, and sang "Lord of the Universe" while he beamed at us from an armchair on a platform. Then we followed him out to his car and clustered around it, still singing. He rolled down the window and beamed at us some more. My heart broke open and I knew he was my Lord. I worshipped him with every cell in my body. I gave him my life. I knew the meaning of bliss.
It was on a farm near Montrose where the heavens met the earth that we began to believe that Knowledge could really transform humanity. The darshan line snaked over rolling fields to a pavilion on a hill, and after we kissed his feet, our own feet didn't touch the ground. The mahatmas told us we needed to go to India, to Prem Nagar, to bathe in the Ganges, to pass under the seven arches, to achieve liberation in this lifetime. We signed up. We were part of something big. We threw our clothes on the ground for Maharaj Ji to walk on. He made the sun set and the moon rise. He made rainbows in the sky.
Maharaj Ji went back to Denver after the festival and holed up at 1560 Race. He sent word to the premies not to camp on his front lawn, but a handful of us laughed and did it anyway. During the night, my backpack was stolen. I lost everything I owned, all forty pounds of it: tarot cards, vitamins, travelers' checks, contact lenses, peppermint soap, the works. I started giving satsang about the divine lila that strips us of everything except our devotion, which is all we really need. A brother was so moved by my non-attachment to material things that he slipped me a little black purse and told me to spend whatever I wanted and give him back whatever was left. While sitting at the bus stop, overcome with curiosity, I opened the purse. It contained nine hundred dollars. I spent twenty at the army-navy store and gave him back the rest.
There were forty of us living in the Oakland premie house, and none of us had jobs. We slept on the concrete floor in the basement while we decorated the rest of the house for Maharaj Ji. We ate food that we salvaged from dumpsters behind supermarkets. We did prachar on the sidewalks. A woman named Rekha who had been Mata Ji's cook came to live with us. It was Rekha who arranged for the mayor of Oakland to present the key to the city to Guru Maharaj Ji.
On the day of the ceremony, Maharaj Ji was invited to our house for lunch, and Rekha and I were cooking. I had managed to extract a very beautiful (and expensive) set of Dansk stoneware from my first husband, but Rekha said we couldn"t use it for Maharaj Ji if it had ever been used before. She said we could keep it and use it for the mahatmas, who were our big brothers, but Maharaj Ji was the Lord. She talked some aspirants who still had money into donating some new dishes.
Everybody from Divine Light Mission kept telling us Maharaj Ji wouldn't come to our house, because there were too many stairs to climb. The house was set atop a hill, way above the street. Rekha and I spread all of her beautiful saris out on those stairs for him to walk on. We knew he would come.
I felt rather than heard him enter the house and caught a glimpse of him seated in that armchair swathed with yards and yards of the most buttery bridal satin money could buy as I ran up and down the staircase with tray after tray of Rekha's otherworldly delights and then suddenly, inexplicably, he was gone and I collapsed on the stairs weeping with a full tray in my lap, and all my premie sisters who had been sitting at his feet were wiping the tears off my cheeks and touching them to their foreheads. Rekha was so sure he would come back he stationed me in the kitchen to guard the food all afternoon. I couldn't let anybody into the kitchen at all, couldn't even hand out a glass of water, had to have everything perfect for his return.
There was a big public program that night; Maharaj Ji was speaking at the Oakland Auditorium. The program was supposed to start at seven; it was quarter-of-seven; all the other premies were already at the hall hours ago; and I was still guarding the kitchen. The housefather screeched up in one of those vehicles that ran on grace and whisked me to the backstage area and handed me a garland. Another sister, blonde, in a white polyester pantsuit, was holding a garland also. I think we were chosen for the job because of our outfits. I was all dolled up like the Virgin Mary in a grade-school play: a bunchy, light-blue, ankle-length cotton skirt and a hand-knitted white shawl.
Maharaj Ji burst through the stage door and hurried up yet another long flight of stairs to his high throne on center stage.The two of us were supposed to follow him up all those steps in front of all those people and place the garlands around his neck. Somehow the other sister managed to do it, but I was so overwhelmed at being so near to his feet that I couldn't raise my arms any higher and simply placed the garland on his feet and then backed all the way down the stairs in that damn skirt without breaking my neck, no small feat especially when you consider how nearsighted I am and that I had been living without corrective lenses, in a lovely impressionist blur, since Guru Puja. I sat on the floor on the stage during Maharaj Ji's satsang. All the flowers on the stage appeared to be opening and blooming like in those old Disney stop-frame nature movies.
The day before I left for India, I received a pair of contact lenses in the mail from my parents. I thanked Maharaj Ji.
We landed in Delhi in the dark. I remember looking out the window of the jumbo jet as the ground approached and feeling real terror when I realized that all those lights were fires. This enormous city had no electric grid...
I kissed the asphalt as soon as I got off the plane. Lots of premies were kissing the asphalt. We were taken to Punjabi Bagh ashram and given agya to rest for a whole day. We were given lessons in eating, showering, using the lota. Everything was different. From my spot on the mat I could hear tinny, nasal music coming through a cheap transistor radio and I could see a water buffalo. It took a long time to fall asleep.
Volunteers were selected to go on all-day, chanting-and-singing processions through the streets of New Delhi, proclaiming the glory of Maharaj Ji to the cynical, guru-weary native population. I was given a "service" to perform; it was my job to check the lines of women before they were allowed to pass through the ashram gates and make sure they were wearing bras. Wouldn't want the Indian people to think that Maharaj Ji's followers were a bunch of rag-tag hippies, now, would you? A mahatma coached us in some basic Hindi chants. After he would holler something, we would holler back "Santa himara piara hey!" No idea whatsoever what we were saying. It was hot and dry and dusty, but things soon got worse.
All two thousand of us moved into tents on the Ram Lila grounds for the actual Hans Jayanti celebration. It was just like a refugee camp: nothing but dirt and people. I was given a new "service" to perform: guard duty. I sat on a folding chair at the end of a tent and tried to stay awake all night. Toward dawn someone would bring me chai in a paper cup. It was the best chai Ive ever had. So warm in the hands, so warm in the throat. People walked back and forth from the tents to the latrines all night long, coughing and spitting into the dirt. The air was thick with dust and smoke.
I felt really bad and walked over to the hospital tent one morning. Dr. John told me there was nothing wrong with me but lack of meditation. Later that afternoon two sisters carried me back over to the hospital tent and set me down on a folding chair. I fell off the chair and landed in the dirt. "That one can stay," said Dr. John. And so it came to pass that I made the journey to Prem Nagar on the hospital bus, which was just like the other busses but not quite as crowded.
The tents at Prem Nagar were smaller and there were lots more of them, arranged in rows and columns with handmade street signs: "Bliss Lane," "Devotion Way." A tent city, with a P.A. system. And only a short hike to the Holy Ganges. I had heard stories about how cold the water was, and how fast the current, and how much fun it was to hike upstream, jump in, and let the river carry you back down. I was ready for some fun. So were we all. We spent one glorious afternoon playing in the river. The next morning we were told that playing in the river was forbidden.
We were allowed - encouraged - to get up at dawn and harvest roses, however. Mata Ji's roses. Acres of roses planted in rows. We picked them into baskets and dunped the baskets onto tarps, and the people of Hardwar, who couldn't afford food for their tables, came to the ashram every day to buy flowers for their altars.
One morning a call went out over the loudspeakers for all housemothers to report to the kitchen. The cauliflower was infested with caterpillars. I spent the day standing around an enormous round table in a tent with about twenty other women, picking caterpillars out of the cauliflower and singing bhajans. 2000 people ate cauliflower that night.
One afternoon a call went out over the loudspeakers for blankets. The American premies would be winging back to the States in a few days, but monsoon season was coming, and if we could leave our blankets behind for the Indian premies please thank you very much it would be very much appreciated it would be most blissful yes jai satchitanand premie ji, bhole shri! The quilt I had been sleeping on was a wedding present, made for my parents by my mother's grandmother in 1934. I cried as I folded it one last time and carried it to the donation tent. It was very tattered and dirty. It was still very beautiful.
Whenever I hear people talking about "culture shock," I remember that, two days after leaving Prem Nagar, I was living with my parents in Fort Worth, Texas and selling ashtrays in the gift department of Monnig's Westcliff. People were giving each other a lot of ashtrays that Christmas. I sang Hindi Arti and burned incense and meditated every morning and every night. Kept fresh flowers in front of Maharaj Ji's picture on the altar in my bedroom. My poor father nailed crucifixes to the walls and left bibles on the tables in every room of the house. My poor mother would grab me by the shoulders, her eyes brimming with tears, and tell me, "I'll always love you, even when I don't understand you." Right after Christmas, I moved into the Houston ashram.
115 OAK PLACE
There were no sisters in the Houston ashram until I moved in. Larry was the ashram supervisor, and Booth was acting housemother - because somebody had to do it, he said modestly. He was actually quite good at running a kitchen. All the brothers agreed that I should be the housemother, since I was (nudge, wink, blush) the right gender for the job. Booth taught me how to make overnight yoghurt in a gas oven , and how to make porridge and chai. Cheap, simple, wholesome, delicious food. I fell in love with him right away. His father was a professor in the Rice School of Architecture. I had studied Architecture at Rice. We were obviously meant to be soulmates.
But Joan Leahy came to Houston on a spy mission from IHQ, bearing tidings that would soon transform our sleepy backwater into the eye of the hurricane. In order for the Millennium festival to take place, a lotta changes had to happen. First among them, the splitting up of Booth and Babs. Just as the first wave of worker bees flew in, I flew out, shipped to Denver to work on the magazine. These were heady times. I felt great sadness at leaving Booth, but great joy that Maharaj Ji had found a way to use my talents in his service.
1607 RACE STREET
As I was hauling my suitcase in, another sister was hauling her suitcase out. She stopped in the little strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb and held both hands with a brother about her height. They leaned forward until their foreheads touched, closed their eyes, and just stood there without moving for about half an hour. I felt bad for them, that they didn't have a private space to express their love and pain. Her hair was long and dark; his was blond and curly. I never knew their names. She could have been a Margaret. I hope they found each other again, somewhere, somewhen. I hope they embraced...
I was assigned floor-space in a third-floor garret room with a rickety wooden fire escape. About a hundred and fifty of us lived at 1607 Race Street, and another hundred and fifty across the street at the more prestigious former Divine Residence at 1560, but we all ate out of the kitchen at 1560. I celebrated my twenty-third birthday in complete obscurity among total strangers, but noted many wonderful moments of synchronicity which I attributed to Guru Maharaj Ji's grace; so I felt very lonely but completely loved at the same time.
The executive ashram was a block away, on High Street. Many jokes were made about the street names, the gist being that only the executives had time to meditate; the rest of us were all too busy racing around. On my first day in the Layout and Paste-up Department, we crawled around on the floor looking for a letter "e." Shri Hans Productions had not yet acquired a typesetting computer, and galleys of set type were precious, irreplaceable. We sat on stools at light tables with non-repro blue grids and waxed type and rubylith and razor blades, and drank coffee, and pasted up And it is Divine and interoffice memo forms and Soul Rush brochures until we were falling-off-our-stools tired, then we slept for a couple of hours and did it again. I actually went for a whole week without sleeping, once, trying to meet a deadline. I began dreaming while awake. Finally I fell asleep on my feet one morning, while trying to sing Arti. Bob Mishler even called me into his office and told me to get some sleep, but he was so pale and thin and hollow-eyed himself that I just laughed and went back to work.
It was hard to survive in the highly-charged political climate of International Headquarters where the rules kept changing all the time. Premies burned out, flipped out, and were shipped out, but there were always more premies anxious to move up the corporate ladder. When I became a Department Head, I schlepped my suitcase across the street to 1560 and was allowed to share a stinky rattletrap Plymouth with another Department Head. I was getting somewhere fast!
1560 RACE STREET
And it is Divine magazine reached its peak of perfection in the months before Millennium, thanks to two passionate Englishmen and my skill as a negotiator. Charles Cameron did the words and David Passes did the pictures. I flew between them like a tennis ball, wheedling and cajoling Charles to cut a word here so that David could have a picture there, begging David to crop or reduce just a bit so that Charles could have an adjective he just couldn't live without. I was the midwife who stood at the bottom of the chute to catch the first magazine and scan it for errors. I was the one who had to holler, "Stop the presses!" if I found any.
David and I has been educating ourselves in Magazine Design by poring over issues of a French magazine called Realites. We had decided to use pregnant cut-off lines in a beautiful shade of burnt-orange to separate groups of paragraphs in a story on the Mideast called "Land of the Eleventh Hour." The lines really perked up those grey expanses of type and harmonized nicely with the photos of Jerusalem's rooftops at sunset. Of course, the success of the design, as always, depended on the accuracy of the paste-up. I measured with calipers and checked with a loupe. I could touch-up individual letters with a rapidograph in those days - if I held my breath.
I'll never know how it happened, but one of those damn orange lines slid down about an eighth of an inch and no longer neatly bisected the white space between blocks of type. The run was complete and I was already back at the Kittredge building before I saw it. There was nothing I could do.
The Art Department of Shri Hans Productions occupied a former jewelry store on the second floor of the building. The jeweler had installed a walk-in metal safe. The first time Guru Maharaj Ji toured the Art Department, he asked about the funny little room, and joked that it was "a safe place for premies." Naturally we turned it into a meditation room after that - not that any of us meditated for more than five minutes at a stretch without falling dead asleep!
When the enormity of the horror of the misplaced pregnant cut-off line aborted my euphoria, I ran into the safe and slammed the door, threw myself on the floor, and rolled around, sobbing and moaning. Tearing out my hair, clawing at my face. You've seen news photos of Palestinian women mourning for their sons, right? That's what I must have looked like. I was in there for three hours abandoning myself to grief. Finally Bea Kuncisky, one of the housemothers from 1560, pushed open the door and, with great patience and compassion, held me, soothed me, and coaxed me upstairs to an office where Finnegan, a bit of a renegade premie but a born healer, administered Bach drops until my sanity was restored.
I still have my DUO photo-ID membership card from this period in my life. I was an unsmiling young woman with a bad haircut in a cheap polyester pantsuit, face dotted with sores, desperate eyes. I remember looking into the camera and thinking, "Maharaj Ji will see this picture. He will realize how miserable I am. He will help me."
A gigantic premie nicknamed "Tiny" was imported from Grand Rapids to get Shri Hans Productions whipped into shape. The first thing he did was call me into his office and ask how the magazine usually happened. "Charles edits it, David designs it, and I lay it out. We don't use work order forms because we don't have trouble communicating." Tiny saw it another way: "Basically, you and David get together once a month and have a baby."
I was shocked and humiliated. David was quick, dark, charming, enthusiastic; a lovely elf. I was a singularly unattractive female. He was kind to me. We collaborated. We didn't physically touch each other at all. I hadn't realized it was bad; I just knew it was working. I offered to disappear; I was told to change. Tiny put a wall of "production assistants" between David and me; we were no longer permitted to speak face-to-face. Tiny drew graphs, established a System. The pain in my left neck and shoulder was so intense that Divine Light Mission actually sent me to a real doctor for ultrasound treatments; but Maharaj Ji said he was pleased with the November issue, and when Bal Bhagwan Ji saw it, he touched it to his forehead.
The November issue was the Millennium Program. I was in the last group of premies to evacuate Denver: and, as I was in the process of packing, I was told to pack everything, since I wouldn't be returning. Maharaj Ji had decided he didn't want women in positions of authority in his organization. Sherri Weinstein and I were the only two female Department Heads, and we were both fired at the same time.
I moved right back into my old room in the Houston ashram, the day before the Millennium Festival. I slept through all three days of the festival on the floor of the Astrodome. Suddenly, it was over. The zillions of premies went back to wherever they came from and the Houston ashram was out in the boondocks again, poof! - just like it was before the Millennium Madness struck. And I was its assistant housemother, under Paula Hull.
My main responsibility as assistant housemother was doing the laundry for eighteen brothers who were all the same size and hadn't bothered to label their clothing. I was a failure as a laundress. I attempted suicide. It was a half-hearted attempt, but death briefly seemed preferable to the laundry, so I took a handful of muscle relaxers. I slept eighteen hours, and when I woke up, I wrote in my journal,
"One of the things that freaks me out is the contempt for the mind that all premies express. Sometimes it looks like Maharaj Ji has gathered all the best minds of a whole generation and stoppered them up in a bottle where they can neither function nor reproduce. Peace, yes, but at such a price! We are living in a Brave New World with no books, no outside news, no talk except satsang, no friends on the outside, no choice. It's just the sort of thing I've been warned about all my life. He's gathered all the rebels and taught their angry tongues to drink nectar... but what if there is something to rebel against? What if?
"It's really blind faith, you know, no matter how much we talk about 'the experience.' It's really about trusting Maharaj Ji. I don't see how a little doughnut of light that I see when I press on my eyeballs is more fantastic than an acid trip. I don't see how listening to myself breathe while I do the laundry can change the world better than designing a utopia. I still haven't figured out why I'm not following Paolo Soleri or Bucky Fuller instead of the Lord of the Universe. I don't know why I gave up listening to Mozart in exchange for a couple of notes, if I'm lucky, in my right ear. I still love green leaves against blue sky and the love in human eyes and the meshing of minds in human play much too much to understand all this talk about 'going within.'
I know it will end and I love it all the more. I love the humanly beautiful precisely because it is so fragile. I love the moment as it changes. I love the best, as I was taught to love. I hated Tiny because he discovered and stamped out the last pocket of sensitivity in Divine Light Mission. He has no concept of Art. 'Service is Service,' and everyone is replaceable, like cogs in a machine...
There is nothing wrong with doing what you love doing, doing it as perfectly as you can, and doing it for Maharaj Ji in a spirit of loving devotion. It is simply not using common sense to make artists into salesmen and geniuses into janitors. Why are they still persecuting us? Isn't this supposed to be the 'Golden Age?' I don't like the way this 'peace' is shaping up. The sameness is deadly. I have never wanted to be a sheep. My little life may be petty in sight of the universe, as I am often told, but I'd rather have hills and valleys and electric storms in it than all this heartless, mindless, robotlike, cloying, plodding Peace."
THE PUNCH LINE
I remained an active premie for six more years.
I was unable to produce art during those years unless directly ordered to do so by a superior. After leaving the Mission, I was unable to produce any art at all. Twenty-eight years down the road, my neck and shoulder still bother me just about every day. On the other hand, I am happily married and have a beautiful daughter. I am surprised that I have such a good life.
After my parents died of Alzheimers' and emphysema, I inherited enough money to afford a therapist. After I revealed the techniques to him, I had chills and fever for about a week; but since then I've been able to paint some mandalas. I seem to have a lot of repressed anger. Surprise, surprise. I meditate for ten minutes, three times a day, using the basic Buddhist techniques of Tong-len and Mai-tri.
Gradually I am learning how to be peaceful. Jack Kornfield has written a book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, which I found to be very helpful. Mostly I try to do as little harm as possible. My husband Ralph tells people he's a Zen Baptist, but I always say I belong to the Church of Science Fiction.
I have so much material locked up inside me, and set down in old journals, that I just might have to write a book someday. If anybody out there wants to hear more stories, let me know. I have some pretty racy ones from my days at COLL!
Finally, to those of you who remember me as "Babs," I want to tell you that the love we felt for each other was real, even though we were characters in a Looney Tune; and I feel it still when I remember you. If I hurt you, I'm sorry. If you hurt me, I forgive you. But I still haven't forgiven Maharaj Ji.