For over 30 years I was a devoted initiate of an Indian guru, Charan Singh. He was the leader of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), a spiritual/religious organization headquartered in Beas, India.
The only time I saw Charan Singh in person was during two weeks in 1977.
I'd just begun a new job in state government in Salem, Oregon. I had a five year old daughter who was going to get her first bicycle from "Santa." My wife dearly wanted me to be home for Christmas.
I did too. However, I was even more desperate to see the guru in person after being initiated by him by proxy (via an American representative of the guru, Roland deVries) in 1971.
The Radha Soami Satsang Beas books talked about the importance of having the darshan (sight) of the physical guru. If a disciple had seen the guru in person, he or she could visualize the face of the guru during meditation -- which was supposed to be a concentration aid.
Most importantly, I was eager to see if, when I saw Charan Singh in person, I'd feel like he was the God in Human Form that the Radha Soami Satsang Beas teachings claimed him to be.
So for two weeks in late December I visited the Dera, as the RSSB headquarters was called.
Every evening, with maybe a few exceptions, there would be an intimate question and answer session with the guru and visiting Western initiates. Each of us also had two short personal interviews with Charan Singh. And we would see him from afar as we did "mitti" seva (service), which consisted of long lines of people filling ravines with sand one basketful at a time.
(The baskets were carried on top of the head, and they weren't exactly leakproof. The big "miracle" of my visit for me was that even though I wore contact lenses, I never got sand in my eyes.)
I was much impressed by Charan Singh.
I didn't have any grand mystical experiences during my trip to India. I just came away impressed with the guru's undeniable warmth, dedication, love, and sense of humor. Looking back, I must have seen him as a sort of father figure, since I grew up without a father following my parents' divorce when I was too young to remember him (except for one hour I spent with my father when I was in my thirties).
My trip back to the United States began with a flight out of the Amritsar airport. I remember sitting in a window seat, looking at the Himalaya mountains off in the distance. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with a feeling of love and devotion for my guru, Charan Singh.
"I only want your thoughts to be in my mind," I said to myself. Or words to that effect.
The underlying meaning was that I wanted to repeat the mantra ("five holy names") given to RSSB disciples at the time of initiation so assiduously, I'd feel like whatever entered my mind wouldn't be coming from my personal ego, but from the guru -- since it was believed that the guru placed his "radiant form" within each initiate's consciousness, and this spiritual entity could guide the initiate.
Yes, I realize this sounds weird.
But back then I didn't question the truth of the RSSB teachings. I was sure that I'd embarked on what amounted to a mystical meditation experiment that would end with me ascending to higher spiritual regions of reality under the guidance of the inner guru.
So what do I believe today? Well, something similar, actually. Just without any religious connotations.
As I've written about frequently on this blog, I don't believe in free will. (Put "free will" into the Google search box in the left sidebar to find the posts I've written on this subject.)
Modern science, including neuroscience, argues that every living being is part of a vast web of interconnections that span the vastness of time and space. For example, every entity alive today is related to every other living entity via a Last Universal Common Ancestor that existed billions of years ago.
And our thoughts, intentions, feelings, and what-not are strongly influenced by all of the interactions we've had with parents, friends, siblings, teachers, work associates, and all the other people who have been part of our life. Not to mention the cultural influences we've absorbed through books, music, arts, and so many other ways.
From this perspective, what we do, think, and feel isn't our freely-selected choice. "It takes a village," as the proverb goes.
Of course, in my everyday life I feel like my thoughts, actions, and emotions are mine, even though I understand that this is an illusion. In the same way, after I had my "I only want your thoughts in my mind" revelation on the flight out of Amritsar, I still felt like I was the one in control of my life, even though I believed that the guru was guiding my steps.
My main point here, I guess, is that becoming an atheist doesn't require leaving behind the good feelings that came with being religious. Those feelings just need to be reinterpreted in a secular sense. For example, I still feel awe and wonder at the grandeur of the cosmos.
I just don't consider that God or any other supernatural being is part of it.