Realizations The Autobiography
of J. Curtis Lee Mickunas / COPYRIGHT
2009 JULIAN LEE
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Let God upgrade your life, including your past. It's not beyond Him.
Sister Eleanor Therese
She was an austere nun, rather old, and the terror of all seventh graders. A funny thing about her was that she was extraordinarily small. A beautiful thing about her was that she had the smell of sanctity about her.
There was no moral matter, even an oblique one, that was not of grave concern to Sister E.T. She demanded the strictest attention and concentration of mind; all attention on her words. Talking in class? Don't even think about it! She had a rule that if our pencil or pen rolled off our desk we were not to stoop and pick it up or take our eyes from her. She would come pick it up for you instead.
My Indian guru Yogananda wrote about how his crew could get their guru, Sri Yukteswar, talking about esoterica and the mysteries of life if they were attentive. He wrote that if his attention wandered while Yukteswar was speaking, the guru would sense it and end his words. Those who have something of true value to impart, and know it, won't speak to the inattentive, or repeat themselves much. They sense inwardly that it is an insult to the power behind their speech to throw those words on the ground. Sister Eleanor Therese was actually my first introduction to genuine yoga.
The essence of yoga, in the Yoga-Sutra, is concentration of the mind, or dharana. The nun was, indeed, the first one who baptized me with the experience of dharana -- continuous focus of the mind -- and real yoga, by demanding that we all place our attention on her words and not wander. I realized all this much later, and how often it is that the odd or seemingly random experiences of early life are in fact the foundations of great inner life constructions to come later.
I found at the outset I was not very good at Sister's yoga. I found my mind wanted to wander everywhere at all times. It seemed to want to think of everything but her. But this is what all people find when they first begin to work with their minds, achieve dharana, or meditate. Indeed, I was exactly like any novice meditator in any ashram or monastery. But like a harsh Zen master who gives a whack to the heedless, the fear element in her class helped us achieve, slowly, a bit of that primordially difficult and central spiritual attainment, that of concentration of mind. Indeed, once I learned what yoga meant -- concentration of mind -- I was astounded to realize that this old, diminutive nun was, verily, my first guru and first teacher of yoga.
I still remember her black garments swooshing past me like a close encounter with a rare and terrible bird. Truly, the nun in nun's garb takes on an otherworldly quality and mystery, representing something higher. She can command respect. Sister used it. She had no need to be a sweet woman to us. She had a mission with us, something high. At one time a classmate named Andrew H. arrived late for class, first class of the day. As he tried to sneak in the door she halted him there and asked, "Why are you late?"
"I overslept" he answered.
She said "Why did you oversleep?"
In the frank, Saggitarian attitude native to him and with a characteristic shrug of the shoulders he answered: "I was tired."
Displeased with his frivolous answer she said, "I want you to go run ten laps around the field."
The Field was a large open area of bare ground that was our recess area. It was right outside our windows to the left. Then the kicker for the attitude:
"And you're to do it every morning before you come in, for the rest of the year, and be on time for class."
Andy did it, the rest of the year. And there was a rule for us to go with it: Nobody was to turn their heads to look out at Andy running laps.
She said "Even if you hear a bomb explode out there, you are to keep your attention firmly on me and what I'm saying."
Yogananda, used to say: "Stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds." I didn't know it then, but Sr. was teaching us mental discipline and steadiness of concentration, which is the essence of yogic discipline, which in turn gives the laser-like steadiness of the mind by which saints are able to finally uncover God within, in the form of sat-chit-ananda, or "pure being, pure consciousness, and bliss." The Catholic disciplines are in fact full of genuine yoga, while most modern 'yoga studios' -- are not. Kneeling long periods in church is, in fact, is a yogic activity that gives as much value as most yogic asanas in the books, breaking our petulant dependence on bodily comfort, making our minds free, and giving us "freedom from the pairs of opposites." Oh! How great have been our European ancestors who performed this yoga long centuries in their churches.
Sr. Therese even took issue with the way we boys and girls stood in the hall or outside. Once she gave us a lecture on the subject of slouching. I had seen fellows in upper grades slouching, their hips jutting out as if they didn't care about a thing. I remember deliberately standing with a slouch because I thought it looked cool. Funny to think that in that atmosphere of rectitude even a boy putting his weight on just one leg stood out as something catchy.
She gave us a fiery lecture one day against slouching. She said we should always stand with our weight balanced evenly atop both legs. She linked it to a negative medical outcome in which our hips would sooner wear out, and we'd become crippled. She said, moreover, that it puts the spine in a slight curve and we could develop troubles of the spine to boot. But there was a profounder purpose here. Her real motive was that in women, slouching with a hip thrown out is slutty and provocative. In men, it is a lazy and dissolute attitude which evokes lazy and dissolute mind. It's also feminine in a man. Maybe she didn't want to say these things, but I know she felt them by instinct. Slouching is not the yogic attitude!!
The fact is, this teaching comported fully with occult laws of the body and of yoga. The way we posture our body impacts our own mental state. This is one of the secrets of yogic asanas and mudras. They create occult impact on our own mind. On the everyday level, the man who stands erect gets an inner attitude of moral rectitude to match it. For the same reason the discipline-hungry army life teaches men to stand ramrod straight. Same with women. A straight standing female transmits rectitude and purity to the mind. In the entire Yoga-Sutra, ancient manual for God-realization, there is only one instruction regarding the body: "The spine should be settled but erect [when practicing meditation]."
A meditating yogi needs to learn to sit for long hours with his spine erect. The prana and kundalini-shakti is hampered and misdirected if he doesn't. In fact, the straightness of the spine attracts the kundalini-shakti into an upward flow, feeding the intellect and cutting channels to bliss later. Every boy growing up making an effort not to slouch is preparing himself for this. So here Sr. Eleanor Therese was preparing us all for the path of yoga and ultimate bliss by teaching us to keep, not only our spine, but our entire bodies, erect!
With Sr. Eleanor Therese we had to use different "spiritual muscles" than we were used to using. These were the faculties of detachment, concentration, and renunciation. She was teaching us the saint's faculties of austerity, renunciation, and concentration of mind. But who would know? She was the only nun I ever heard make an issue of the creeping decadence seen in the young women as they matured. Though the girls wore uniform outfits -- dull green tweed skirts, white shirts, and dark green jackets -- they had begun sporting makeup, hose, and sexy girl things like jewelry. It was never an issue with anybody else, but the diminutive Sr. Eleanor Therese was not going to stand for the slutification of her girls. She'd berate some girls when they came into class and send them to the bathroom to wash it off. When they'd come back in some had been crying. But the girls looked more wholesome, and more approachable and honestly beautiful, under Eleanor Therese's rule that year.
In her mind, this was all so that we would have the way clear to know God through the saintly principles of self-control, austerity, and strong mind.
Sr. Eleanor Therese never joked, never laughed, never smiled. She was all business. To relieve the stress, we joked. A certain wit -- the only one who I'd ever heard actually impressed this nun with is mind -- had coined an underground nickname for her, Mighty Mo after the formidable Navy battleship. This wit was a WWII aficionado. Actually, this was my brother Victor who coined it. But you never heard "Mighty Mo" anywhere within three blocks of this nun. You simply didn't mess with Sr. Eleanor Therese.
She didn't have any "pets" among the students. Well, there was said to be one. That was my brother Victor himself, the only kid rumored to be even close to that status with her. See, Victor had literary brilliance. Apparently, this moved her.
I was made of lesser academic stuff. My experiences with her were all painful. Once she pulled my sideburns hard with strong, bony fingers, a trick I'd never heard tell of. Pain like blood and fire! She spoke sternly to me all year long. Once she made me stand humiliated in he middle of the class until I crashed on the floor in a cold faint. My crimes were typical adolescent stuff: asking dumb questions, goofing merrily out in the hall past the bell, or turning to joke with a pal about a girl we liked to mock, deliberately in earshot of the target. This was the un-confident and friendless Helen R. (May God comfort her soul always.) I was in a phase of trying to be the class clown in the realms of the other teachers, and had unwisely brought that into her hour. Sister somehow never missed much, and straight after my whispered aside to my pal the terrible white-and-black bird was swooshing straight towards me. I went cold.
Never wanting to interrupt her lecture, and knowing well how to punish, she just came to my side and curtly said "Stand up." I stood. Briskly, she said: "You're to stand for the rest of the hour" and continued on with her lecture without missing a beat. You don't turn your head for an explosion, nor do you look at the hapless Curtis now standing like a fool in a sea of heads, black, brown, and blond.
Like a scarecrow in a field I had to stand idiot-like amidst the assemblage -- which included every girl I'd ever hoped to impress and every boy who liked to gun for me. This with my covert jerk-i-tude towards Helen newly exposed. And it was 20 minutes before the bell. I turned to stone. Losing consciousness I collapsed face-first into the hapless kid in front of me, John C. I don't remember anything about what my body did. He later told me, "I thought you were trying to pull some funny stunt of pushing my chair forward with your nose." All I remember is her black gown and shoes stepping briskly away as I was coming to. She had swiftly folded me into a sitting position with her own hands, then lifted me and stuffed my head between my legs in a flash, then again went on with her lecture. (I was giving Sr. a bit of a challenge commanding all concentration that day. As I saw her feet stepping away and heard her say: "There is nothing to be alarmed about. He will be fine." I had the slightest sense that Sr. was ever so slightly shaken herself, but only the slightest impression.
This sounds like extreme discipline, but I deserved that. It was perfect karma. I was indeed making fun of a female who had low self-esteem already and deserved protection. I had a bad trait of mocking the less fortunate. Do you know that this "cruel" nun, Sr. Eleanor Therese, was the only teacher who not only called me on it, but she really nailed me. She fought for the female dignity of that girl from a poor family, and gave me proper payback and instant karma. And there's a funny thing about spiritual people and divine masters: In their proximity karma fruits instantly.
When it came to academics, I had no better luck with her. At one time I handed her a hand-written assignment. She took one look at it, ripped it in two, and handed it back. Referring to my penmanship, she said tersely, "You made no effort to write well." That hurt! This was not to mention the "F" grade she'd given on another paper, with a caustic remark about the level of my effort. It was true, I was lazy. Who knew? But there was one more thing she said after she shredded my work, one saving grace. She said: "You can do better than this, Curtis."
It rattled me. On the other hand she gave me a new comfort: Just hearing her say my name felt like profound music, like I had been admitted into, at least, the front entrance of some ancient and secret place. Now I wanted to measure up.
We learned to respect this woman and make efforts. One day late in the year I got a hard-won decent grade on a paper. I think it was a B-plus. I had made an effort, and now seeing her grade I was on Cloud Nine! I felt expanded before God in His cosmic imperium. Occasionally now I saw our makeup-free female peers now tarrying after class to get instruction about lessons and papers from the Sr. Rarely the boys! But the girls seemed to be blossoming academically and getting a certain maturity under her. A peek in the room after closing one day, and seeing some of my favorite girl classmates calmly passing papers back and forth with the nun, it appeared as though they had earned her approval and even an amazing closeness. I was impressed by the sober, unmade-up workmanlike attitude they had with Sister. The girls were seeming to become better than us. She was tougher on us because we were to be men. Boys avoided her like the plague.
It's a spiritual mystery that if a holy person even looks at you, pays attention to you, or especially speaks to you -- they transmit shakti or divine energy to you. However, if they get angry at you -- they transmit even more. The great yogi Swami Muktananda never got many words from his guru Nityananda, though he craved for them and kept cultivating his devotional attitude. However, one time Nityananda yelled at Muktananda and chased him out of his ashram with a stick. Muktananda became the chief beneficiary of his guru's astounding shakti, and the main lineage carrier. I never knew if the aloof Sr. Eleanor Therese was even aware of my existence. But as the years wore on, I reflected on the fact that this terrible, remote creature of God had actually touched me. Not just touched me: She had hoisted my whole insensate body with her thin arms and old hands. In nun's vestments she then shoved my crude head between my legs to save my brain.
That was personal. As I became old and realized more, I felt a strange honor and elevation from this fact. How many rosaries had she said? How may austerities had this celibate woman done? How many Catholic prayers and pilgrimages? I am certainly the only member of the class who was bodily picked up by the small old woman. It was probably my first spiritual baptism (shaktipat). Maybe this was the first place I was picked up by God, indeed, and my destiny changed to an upward arc.
She seemed always aloof from me. But perhaps she kept her finger on me after all. Many years later another religious woman, the great guru Karunamayi seemed to react to my moods and thoughts as she would give lectures. She once interrupted her lecture and exiting the hall just after I felt a blaze of anger. I was at a weekend silent retreat with her in a hotel, with many disciples. I had started seeing a strong aura of light around her during the retreat, a phenomenon I had never seen, and I was having a blissful time. I had felt very close to this saint, had once been invited to sit right at her feet by her people, and would crumble into tears whenever I approached her in the reception line. She had granted me a samadhi. She always called me her "Son."
Then in passing she made a little teasing joke that women might be more spiritually advanced than the men, as there were more women there than men. My thought was, "Oh no, not American feminism." And "Quality, not quantity." I felt it was an insult to most of the noble and satvic American bhaktas I knew among the men. It did not tally with my observation. (The men in the group were a saintly group, while the women would rather swish around in sexy Indian clothes, get parties going, and flirt.) She said it with a giggle, but I was enraged and my mood was gone. I was some distance from her. I wrote my feelings on a piece of paper, steaming. She immediately shifted to talking about anger, saying one can have much knowledge and spiritual advancement, but if he has anger, he still has a serious spiritual flaw. I was not impressed. I completely closed off to her. Just then one of her staff came in and said, "There's been a sudden change with the hotel administration. They tell all conference participants have to go to their rooms now and clear out their things, instead of at noon. So we have to take an unscheduled break right now." As everybody stirred to leave I saw Karunamayi get up from her little throne and walk quickly down her flower strewn path through through the stirring group. She completely dispensed with the slow "royal progress" and greetings she would usually make when passing through the devotees. I took my opportunity to leave, observing as I did that this was her cosmic doings. She had both released me, and gotten rid of me, not accepting my anger before her or in that group. As she hustled hurriedly through the group, almost ignored by all, she had a pained look on her face. It was a thing I had never seen.
We get from religion according to our attitude. The universal omniscient God stands back of every religious symbol that denotes Him. When we have the right attitude toward any religious symbol of God -- be it a thing or a person -- God takes notice and gives us something back. I had a close connection with Karunamayi and received some boons from her (described later), because of 1) what she was, and 2) my attitude toward her. And the wiser Catholics cultivate the right attitude toward those symbols of God who are the priests and nuns. They act indeed as guru figures to the students, and through them God is trying to lead us to Him. There was an odd thing about Sister Eleanor's spontaneous lecture on slouching I only realized years later: Just a few days before I had taken up the conscious practice of slouching in the schoolyard to look careless and cool. I remember thinking of it at the time and thinking, "Other boys must be slouching. She couldn't be doing this whole lecture because of me." I have had sometimes in age trouble with my hips and have occasionally had to use a cane. It seems to get worse with slouching or sitting with crossed legs too long. Was she speaking specifically to me with her slouching lecture that day?
One day I saw Sister Eleanor abandoned by the more cautious students as usual at the end of the day as she was soon to leave the school. I had my grade B from her lately and felt a bit of legitimacy before her, so I tarried unobtrusively nearby as the others left, waiting for every last one to go. Then I entered the room bravely and asked: "Sister, would you let me carry your briefcase?"
I had seen other kids do it over the years with kinder nuns. I had heard one brave soul, a girl, had even requested and been allowed by Sr. Therese.
I understood something, and that was: What this nun represented on earth. None of this was personal. She was a nun, and on this earth she represented purity and devotion to God, and God was standing behind that purity and devotion. She answered soberly without the slightest smile or embellishment: "Yes, you may, Curtis."
I owe that nun -- and the Catholic Church -- a debt of gratitude today for having the guru-principle alive. She understood why a Catholic boy asks to carry a nun's briefcase, and the religious and spiritual development of young men was what this one cared about. Thus she consented.
So it is that one of the best memories of my life is 2 or 3 minutes carrying Sister Eleanor Therese's black briefcase. She walked wordlessly beside me. I remember the clean smell of her full Dominican linen, her smooth, cool presence. Though she was exceedingly diminutive, I felt she was a mysterious giant walking beside me. I wondered about the nature of such a person, the nun. I had seen the little chapel in their convent containing kneeling furniture where nuns would kneel and pray and it amazed me. A life devoted to God! What a mystery is a nun! She had a solitary quality even among the other nuns. I never saw her chatting with another nun except rarely, in a strictly businesslike fashion. As I walked beside her she "smelled" like wisdom. I "felt" that she had an interior that showed on the surface only as sobriety and silence. Now arrived at the steps to their convent, she gave me a thanks that was proper and courteous and no more. But as I walked home I felt sublimely elevated, righteous, decent.
See, she consented to be served for my sake, not hers. The yogic adept Swami Muktananda points out, quite archly, that the real beneficiary of religious devotion is one's self -- not the object of that devotion. This is because the attitude of devotion is a higher spiritual state, and one step away from bliss. The deeper spiritual mystery is that God Himself is of the nature of devotion. Thus when one puts himself into the devotional state, he makes himself right for God.
As I walked along carrying Sr.'s briefcase I didn't understand any of this. But the 12-year-old kid who walked home afterwards had a bit more pep in his step and a little more love of life, thanks to a nun who said "yes" when asked, was profoundly silent while I walked beside her, and knew that this was enough; that nothing should be said to add even one thing to what it was. No small talk. No effort to make me feel good. Talk would have diminished the effect. She knew that I was serving the divinity by carrying her case, and that that was all and everything.
And funny thing about Andy, the one who had to run endurance laps around the big outer field each morning before he could enter the classroom: He was the one who made the most of himself. Everybody was amazed at a reunion I helped stimulate when we were in our 40's, that Andy had become an M.D. and had a beautiful wife. What a skillful and well-loved M.D. he would be. Becoming a doctor is hard. And you have to get up early a lot and go without sleep a lot. But Sister Eleanor Therese accustomed me to sitting with a straight spine, and Andy to getting up early and doing hard work.
I still remember moments when I found myself listening to Sr. Eleanor Therese, experiencing moments of concentration. I remember realizing "I'm on it. I'm following her. I'm with her. I'm understanding." By the end of that year I was having moments of mature mind and clarity while concentrating on whatever she said. I felt relieved to have moments freed of the roiling monkey mind that besets all undisciplined youth and men. The experience of concentration on Sr. Eleanor's words was a feeling of cool power. Indeed, mental mastery -- yoga -- is that. I don't know if being in her class taught me what church was supposed to be like, or whether sitting in church reminded me of being in the presence of a saint. But that year in her class corresponded to an increased attraction to go to my church when it was empty; to sit in the pure and quiet place devoted to the Creative Power and think of God -- with attention. That became one of the best parts of my life. Being in Sister Eleanor Therese's presence, at attention, had been in truth like being rightly at church.
Much later after years of religious meditation I found myself understanding the ancient Indian scriptures called the Upanishads. I began to occasionally write commentaries for my little inchoate brotherhood, and placing them on the internet for others to read. I had long had the habit of writing my spontaneous thoughts in the blank spaces of the pages. I felt that it would be most engaging for readers to post the scans of those exact pages, for the interest of the handwriting and the human touch. I had long since found that I could write clearly enough, and small enough, to get away with it. Indeed, lifelong I had tried to write clearly, and it paid off on my handwritten Upanishad commentaries. I never came to write as clearly or discreetly as my classmate Kathy Maxwell. But the beginning of my effort to write clearly at all was that day when Sister Eleanor tore up my essay and said "You can do better than this." Did my first guru, the Zen-like diminutive nun, know somewhere in her soul that I would some day hand-write commentaries explaining the abstruse Upanishads, fount of Christianity, publishing them to the world for a celibate, Christian-positive brotherhood of men?