Yesterday evening I spoke in a pub as part of the Brighton Festival’s ‘Philosophy in Pubs’ series. A great atmosphere reigned as an audience pitched 60/40 in favour of reductionism wrestled with ideas of mysticism and determinism. I argued that a ‘mystical mind-set’ was more pragmatic than a reductionist one, and I chose the example of the life of the remarkable ‘Omnipotent Oom’ to illustrate this idea. Here is a summary of what I said:
If we were living a little north of New York City in the 1920s we might be having this discussion not in this august establishment (The Parkview pub in Brighton) but in the Clarkstown Country Club in Nyack. Here the Great Oom, aka Dr Pierre Bernard, ran courses on philosophy, supervised yoga classes and built an empire combining the eastern idea of the ashram with the western idea of the health farm. Oom, with his unremarkable features, sometimes moustachioed, balding from an early age, led an extraordinary life. Hounded by guardians of the moral right, thrown into prison for a time, accused of being involved in the white slave trade, he taught the secrets of tantra and yoga to some of the wealthiest people in the world. As a consequence he was surrounded by beautiful women, had privileged access to fortunes, and was responsible for introducing the practice of hatha yoga to America. He was a mystic, a businessman, and in many respects a scoundrel. Alan Watts placed him on a par with Gurdjieff and Aleister Crowley as one of the greatest ‘rascal masters’ of all time. And yet he helped thousands of people with his prescriptions for a healthy life.
Robert Love has just produced a meticulously-researched biography of this little known, but highly influential eccentric: ‘the Great Oom: the Improbable Birth of Yoga in America” (Viking, 2010).
In studying this book on Bernard’s life, I was soon struck by the fact that he – like so many people – was gifted with a fortuitous meeting that determined its future course. When he was 13 he met one of the few Indian immigrants in America who was trained in yoga and tantra – Sylvais Hamati – and for the next eighteen years became his devoted disciple. He learned everything he could from him – studying Sanskrit, and practicing asanas and breathing exercises every day. How a single meeting can radically change the course of one’s life!
Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘The Outliers’ provides fascinating information on the matrix of influences that determine a successful life. He dismisses the myth of the ‘self-made man’, and shows how our success is instead not determined purely by our own efforts, but by factors such as birth date, historical windows of opportunity, geography, class, and the amount of time we put into practicing any skill (at least 10,000 hours are needed he claims). But Gladwell is unable to explain the one ingredient which makes all the difference – the lucky break – that shows up time and again in any biography. The Beatles got their lucky break by being asked to play in a Hamburg strip club for hours on end. By the time they became famous in 1964 they had played 1,200 gigs there – that is more performances than most bands today will ever achieve in a lifetime. Bill Gates got 9 lucky breaks in succession.
Are some people simply lucky? Are these events random? A reductionist would say ‘Yes’ but speaking from an esoteric/mystical/spiritual perspective I would be inclined to say ‘No.’
Gladwell would say that Bernard was successful because he was born at just the right time: as the second generation of vast American wealth was ready to start exploring personal development. He was born in the right place for this: the USA. He had the right family too – his mother paid him a stipend to study with Hamati rather than going to college or getting a job (what a mum!). He lived with his grandfather in California who was a Naturopath – another great source of inspiration for his work of helping people. And he got in his 10,000 hours of practice training under Hamati. But without his meeting with Hamati his life would certainly have turned out differently. Was this meeting chance, or was it destined? Was it his ‘karma’ to meet him? Did they know each other from a previous life? Did the ‘Invisible World’ provide the young student with a teacher so that he could work in the world?
We cannot know the answer to these questions, of course, but we have a choice. We can conduct our lives as if we have no control over whether we will ever get a ‘lucky break’ or we can live our lives as if every moment provides the opportunity for a magical encounter that can radically change our lives.