On weekends at the ashram attracted throngs of suburbanites would come in for short retreats and trainings which was how the place got their funding to keep their doors open. Saturday nights would often have some kind of concert or talk in the main hall. Once in a while there would be a musical act that would catch my attention. One event featured a jazz drummer/zen master with his jazz trio. I had been a jazz fan for a long time and had studied the music extensively in my school days. At this concert, something different was happening. There was a quality of space and presence in their music. There music allowed people to have a profound meditative experience. I realized that if used correctly, music could be a bridge between my inner experiences and my relationship with the world. In the basement of the ashram there was an old beat up piano. On my break the next day, I found myself gravitating to it.
Meanwhile, across the street was another spiritual community. It was led by a charismatic “enlightened guru.” He was a musician and wanted to put together a band that would play wherever he would give a talk. Someone told him that there was a piano playing monk across the street. Referring to my interests in music and spirituality, he told me that playing with him could be an experience of “having my cake and eating it too.” We arranged a meeting and I joined his band.
After playing the local club circuit, we began to do international tours that coincided with his spiritual lectures. I should mention that I was the only one in the group that was not a devotee of his. This made for an interesting dynamic. His personality and teaching style was very confrontational and dominant. We would often have lively debates where his not so secret intention seemed to be to convince me of my inferiority to him in terms of my spiritual achievement level. I welcomed these spirited discussions because it allowed me to further the work of questioning myself and my beliefs. Cults share some underlying dynamics and his organization had many of them. You could say that there were cult-like elements to this community or you could just say that it was a straight up cult. If the leader wanted me to agree with him on something I would often hear it from him and then, over the course of the day, I'd hear it from 20 or 30 of his devotees. Yes, it was a little strange but I enjoyed it because I didn’t feel threatened by it. I fully engaged with him because I figured that if he was so much better than me or someone that I should devote myself to then I would realize that and do it. Otherwise I’d move on with the current plan: continue to stumble around as myself for a while longer. Cultish manipulation aside, it can be a helpful self-awareness tool when each day groups of people question you about every aspect of your life from your diet to your wardrobe to your sleeping habits.