On April 19, 1968, I turned thirty-three — and I was about ready to end it all. I had worked my way up from the poverty of my early life on the streets of New York, and now I was a successful businessman, living in Los Angeles. I had a loving wife and four great kids, a beautiful home, three new cars, interesting friends — I had really learned how to live the good life. And even though I had had to leave school early to help support my family, I had taught myself to appreciate good literature, classical music, the arts. I was right where I always thought I wanted to be.
That day, one of my best friends called me up and said that he would like to take me out for my birthday — for drinks, to dinner, the whole thing. First we went to the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel and had a few drinks. Then we went to a restaurant — one of Los Angeles' finest — and had a great French meal with fine wines. After dinner, we went to catch the scene at one of the local jazz clubs.
Between sets, my friend and I were standing at the bar having another drink. I turned to him and told him something that had been bothering me for months, something I had never mentioned to anyone else: "You know, there has got to be more to life than this." And I was dead serious. I had everything I imagined I wanted when I was growing up, hanging out in the pool rooms and bars, and then starting out as an office errand boy, and then moving up the ladder to book salesman in Manhattan, and then finally getting promoted to Los Angeles — I had all the things I thought would make me happy. But now that I had it, I knew it wasn't enough. The feeling that there had to be more to life than what I was experiencing kept gnawing at me. My friend was about twenty-five years older than I was, so I thought maybe he had discovered something I hadn't.
But he answered me, "No, man, this is it. At some point in life, everyone has to come to the recognition that this is all there is — then you make the best of it for the rest of your life."
I thought about what he said for a minute, and then I said, "If that's the case, then I have real trouble."
My friend tried to reassure me. "You'll learn to deal with it," he said. But he didn't have any advice for me as to how to deal with it. So I spent the next four and a half years doing everything I could to numb myself, so that I wouldn't have to face the painful feeling that, even though I was successful in a lot of ways, my life was meaningless and empty.
I never thought to look for a religious answer — I owned a bookstore with a large section on philosophy, new-age religions, and Eastern gurus, but I only carried these types of books because they sold well. I would order them by title, but I personally never read even a page. Like the whole crowd of friends I ran with at that time, I thought that I was too sophisticated to need that kind of stuff — it all seemed like hocus-pocus to me.
Since I didn't know what else to do, I started two businesses. I poured even more energy into my four kids, doing everything I could for them, doing homework with them, going to PTA meetings, taking them to baseball games, providing for them, disciplining them, telling them bedtime stories every single night — they were the one thing that made sense in my life. But even that wasn't enough. I started drinking and using social drugs more, working later hours, going out on the town more.
All this took a toll on my marriage, and I started to have terrible arguments with my wife. We had met when we were still kids, and we had worked hard together to get ahead financially and to create a good Italian family. But she didn't seem to share my feelings of dissatisfaction with what we had, and she couldn't understand my pain, so the gap between us only grew.
But that wasn't the only place I was having difficulty — I started acting out my frustration at work, too. I got angry and sarcastic with customers or salesmen in my store for no reason. I was so wound up that I actually started having heart problems. I was really worried, but I didn't know what to do about it all. I kept having the feeling, "I want to change my life completely," but I didn't have a clue as to what kind of changes would make a difference.
Finally, my marriage collapsed. Now I was in serious trouble. My kids were everything to me — I remember having to tell the four of them that we couldn't live together any more. My eleven-year old daughter said, "Dad, I feel like my heart is breaking." In that moment, mine broke too. I was not prepared for the emotional impact of losing them — I had lost the only thing I was anchored to, the only thing I had been able to invest myself in. I visited them as much as possible, I called them a lot, I did everything I could to make it okay for them and for me, but losing them nearly destroyed me.
Two or three months later, I was sitting alone in my new apartment. Instead of facing my unbelievable anguish at the way my life was turning out, I was sitting in front of the TV, eating a TV dinner, with a joint in one hand and a bottle of wine on the table. Suddenly, I felt completely repelled by what I was doing. "What the hell have I become?" I practically shouted. I threw away the TV dinner, turned off the TV, threw away the joint, and sat down to figure out what to do about the mess my life had turned into. I sat up almost the whole night trying to think things out.
I assessed my situation: I had made money, I had a lot of "things", I knew how to be successful, but none of that seemed to have any meaning. It certainly was not making me happy. My marriage was over, and I could see that the divorce had really hurt my kids, even though I did everything I could to prevent that. But even my kids and the love I felt for them wasn't enough to give my life purpose, somehow. Since the divorce I had had a couple of girlfriends, but sex and romance didn't touch the feeling I was struggling with, either. I kept asking myself, "This is a life?" What I didn't know at the time was that I was Spiritually starved. I was missing something, something very real, the most important thing there is — which is a connection to the Source of Life, to God, to the Divine. What I did know was that being successful wasn't enough. I knew that I was tormented by the feeling that something was missing, but I didn't know what it was or where to find it.
So I considered the options I was aware of at the time. I could sell my business, fly to Europe with a lady friend, and just float for a while. Maybe that would numb the pain. Or I could really throw myself into my business and build it into an even bigger moneymaker. Then I could afford even more extravagant toys and entertainments, and maybe that would distract me from the feeling that my life was meaningless. Or I could drop out and move up the California coast and try to "discover myself in nature — pretty unlikely for a guy from New York, but I could try it. Or I could go to a shrink. A number of my friends were already in therapy and I had read quite a bit of Western psychology — Freud, Jung, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, and so on. But nothing I had read or heard from my friends impressed me as a way out of my suffering — my problem seemed bigger than anything a psychiatrist could fix.
Nevertheless, I thought about the different possibilities for hours, developing them in detail in my mind. But when I asked myself, "What would this option or that option do for what I am feeling?" nothing seemed to touch my fundamental feeling of despair. Finally, I decided that there was only one thing that made any sense — I should just check out of life altogether. I thought, "I am here for this life, and it hasn't worked out. There is nothing more that I want to get or do — I already have all the things I thought I wanted and they are definitely not worth the trouble. So why not kill myself? At least it would be over and I wouldn't have to despair about the meaninglessness of my life any longer."
I also remember the philosophy I had at the time: I thought that you come into this life with a kind of innocence, like my kids had. Then as a result of all the things that happen to you, you build up a kind of shell. You get jaded, hard. You lose the innocence, and when that happens, life loses its meaning. Then, when you die, you get the innocence back — everything that built up during your life gets erased, and you can go on to something else. At that time, I didn't believe in reincarnation, so I wasn't thinking that I would go on to another life — I was just hoping that the innocence would be restored and that I could go on to something else, whatever it might be.
So I thought about whether or not to commit suicide for two or three days. I finally decided, feeling completely lucid about it, that I would do it on Saturday morning.
That Thursday, I spent the evening playing with my children. My ex-wife was out, so I let them stay up a little later than usual, then I tucked them in. When they were asleep, I went to the hall closet, got my hunting rifle and shells, and put them in the trunk of my car. I went back into the house to say goodbye to my kids. I rubbed each one of them on the head as they were sleeping, telling them how much I loved them and how much they meant to me. Just as I was finishing up, the phone rang.
I wasn't going to answer it, but I didn't want the kids to wake up, so I picked it up. It was an old acquaintance named Jerry, someone I'd met through one of my businesses. Jerry had experimented with a number of different meditation techniques and new-age Spiritual groups — a year and a half previously he had spent an entire evening teaching me how to relax and breathe and use a mantra while lying on the floor. In those days, I was willing to try everything, so I went along with him, but I basically thought he was nuts.
I asked him where he was. He said he was in Los Angeles. The last time we met he was living in a Yoga community in northern California, so I asked him about that.
"No, no. I got out of that. That's why I'm calling you. I am with this man, this teacher now, and you have got to meet him. I know the two of you will really get along."
I said, "Yeah? What's his name?"
"Franklin Jones," he said. (In the early days of His Work, Adi Da Samraj used the name His parents had given Him.) This sounded like just one more of Jerry's strange and useless trips. I tried to get out of it. "Nobody is named Franklin Jones!" I said. But Jerry insisted, "You should meet him."
I hesitated, saying I had no time. But he finally convinced me that he and I should at least get together to talk about it. So I went down to the address on Melrose Avenue that Jerry gave me where Avatar Adi Da and some of His devotees had set up a tiny bookstore and meditation hall.
It was Friday night — the night that Jerry managed the bookstore and the night before I was planning to kill myself. I had the rifle in my car, ready for the next morning. It seemed a little funny to be spending my last night on earth with this guy I didn't know very well and who I thought was part crackpot, but I had already given up — I had nothing better to do.
Jerry and I were the only ones there the whole night. He showed me around the place. (I remember the first thing I told him was that they needed to stock the shelves with more books. Here I was, about to commit suicide, and I'm still giving business advice!) We sat in the front and talked, but there was also a small empty room at the back of the store, behind a curtain. Jerry told me that that was the place where Adi Da sat in meditation with His students. When I poked my head into the room to take a look, just briefly, I noticed the room had an unusual quality — it seemed to contain a distinct energy, a kind of peace.
Then Jerry started telling me about Adi Da and His point of view. It didn't make much sense to me, but I did get the feeling that Adi Da would understand what I was going through. For the very first time in my life, I began to express to someone my feeling of despair and how empty my life seemed. I remember that vividly. I told Jerry everything about how I was feeling.
Four hours later, Jerry said, "I'm going to close this place up. You should go home. I'll drive you."
I had my own car, so I said, "No, you don't have to do that." Then I blurted out, "I'd like to sleep here, in the meditation hall."
Don't ask me why I said that. I had never slept on a floor in my entire life. I preferred the kind of class and comfort found in places like the Beverly Hills Hilton. It was completely uncharacteristic for me to say that I wanted to spend the night sleeping on a floor. But for some mysterious reason that I couldn't understand at the time, I really wanted to stay there. After some prompting, Jerry let me.
In the morning when I woke up, something had changed in me. It felt as though I had been touched or caressed by some kind of Graceful Presence, like my troubled brow had been smoothed — just by being in that room. I felt a peace in myself from sleeping there, a peace I sorely needed to feel.
It was Saturday morning, but I wasn't thinking about killing myself anymore. I hadn't decided not to do it either — it's just that, for the moment, I was more interested in something else. Jerry had given me a copy of the manuscript of Adi Da's autobiography, The Knee of Listening, and I wanted to read it.
I browsed the manuscript a bit when I first woke up, then I started to read it in earnest over breakfast, and after that I just kept on going. I spent the whole day reading — and by the time I got to the end of the book, my life had gone through a total reversal!
I don't know if I can express how excited I was by what I was reading. After years of feeling so much despair, after coming to the point of utter hopelessness — now, for the first time, someone was explaining my situation to me in a way that made sense, in a way that lifted me into an entirely new way of looking at things.
For years, people had been telling me that there wasn't any more to life than what I was experiencing — and my own life certainly seemed to be proving that they were right. I kept getting richer, and as I did, I grew more and more desperate, more and more certain that success was not enough. Here, for the first time, was someone who made me feel that, "Yes, there is more to this life! Here it is, right here!"
Without even noticing it, I read past the appointed hour for my suicide. When I finished the book, I immediately started reading it over again — I stayed up all night reading it the second time through. I couldn't put it down. This is what I had been looking for — and it had come to me just in the nick of time!
"Suffering is separation, being separate, limited, a self-exhausting capsule of life-energy," Adi Da said. "Suffering is separation and separativeness. And suffering is the primary fact of individual life. The seeker's 'problem' of life, for all suffering human beings, is how to realize life under the conditions of suffering. How to remain active, 'creative', relatively and at least temporarily fearless, optimistic, and effective?"
This was the question I had been posing to myself over and over for years, which Adi Da had stated more clearly than I could ever have myself. Then, He went on to answer the question that had been tormenting me for so long.
He said that we suffer because we falsely presume that we are separate from the Source of Life, and that the Inherent Nature of that Source is Happiness Itself. He said that everything we do is seeking — a futile attempt to somehow find true Happiness. And He pointed out over and over again that this seeking for Happiness must fail because it does not touch the cause of suffering — our presumption that we are separate. I felt immense relief. No one else had been able to explain what was bothering me, but now it was obvious that I was caught in the cycle of separation, suffering, and seeking that Adi Da was describing.
Adi Da didn't suggest another, better form of seeking. He recommended that His readers understand the presumption of separation which is the cause of seeking. Without this understanding, He explained, we would live as seekers rather than enjoying Happiness, Reality, or God now. How ridiculous! I felt tremendous relief as He described His own insights into this absurd situation.
He said that if we begin to understand the presumption of separation itself — if, with His help, we can observe how that presumption of separation happens, and how it is unnecessary — then our sense of alienation from Happiness would be relieved. If this is done, He said, then a person . . .
will abide in understanding, and one will not come into conflict with one's moments, one's motives, one's actions, one's reactions. One will abide now, and now, and now. And this alone, not any motive or search or effect of these, will transform the complex of one's living. And that complex will never be one's concern, to transform it or escape it or transcend it, for one lives in understanding and draws Joy even in pleasure, in egoic ignorance, in failure, in suffering, pain, and death. Only because one abides in understanding is one already Free, already liberated from one's life.
Therefore, I affirm only understanding and no state or object yet to be attained. It is not a matter of purity first or at last, nor of sanity, nor wealth, well-being, goodness, or vision. All these are the imagery of search, the vanity of external peace.
Understanding is the ground of this moment, this event. Therefore, Realize understanding, and enjoy it, for you alone are the one who must live your ends and all the stages of time. The one who understands, who is always already Free, is never touched by the divisions of the mind. And that one alone is standing when all other beings and things have gone to rise or fall.
It was not just that His logic made complete sense to me (which it did — my own experience proved it). It was not just that He explained my suffering to me and even validated the feelings of despair I had been struggling with (which He did, in a way that was powerfully cathartic for me). I was beside myself with excitement because He was describing the very thing I had been hoping for, but without being able to put words to it, without being able to know what it was. He was describing the hub on which my own life and everyone's life is set like the spokes of a great wheel. He was describing the Truth, the Transcendental Reality that we are all part of. He was restoring me to my own Source, to the Heart, the Divine Self. As I read I thought, "This is exactly it!"
Thus, when understanding has most perfectly Realized itself as no-seeking in the heart . . . one is the heart. All the functions of the living being become the heart. The heart becomes the constant locus of all activity. There is no separate one to concentrate in it.
Therefore, one who has most perfectly Realized Existence as no-seeking in the heart. . . is Free, Blissful, "creatively" Alive. Thus, that one is not only no-seeking, which is Freedom. That one is eternally Present, Which is Bliss and no-dilemma.
The whole sad and stupid drama of my life over the past years seemed unnecessary. I felt immensely attracted to the alternative that Adi Da was offering. It's hard to describe, but Adi Da's words were more than ordinary words — they had much more energy, much more impact than anything I had ever read before. His insights weren't just ideas — they were alive. They opened me up and changed me. I felt His Wisdom flooding into my life as a kind of welcome, relieving Force. I decided I had to meet Adi Da in person. Suicide would have to wait.
I immediately phoned Jerry and asked him what I had to do to meet Adi Da. He told me that if I came to an orientation at the bookstore on Monday night, I could "sit" with Adi Da in meditation on Tuesday night. I didn't know anything about "sitting" or meditation, but I was so looking forward to meeting Him I could hardly contain myself.
I went to the Monday night presentation. The person giving the orientation said to me, "You can go further and check Adi Da and His Teaching out, or you can resort to your other alternatives."
It was the perfect thing to say to me. I answered, "I don't have any other alternatives." And that was true!
The orientation itself was brief — only two or three people came — and we were told to return the next night, Tuesday, to sit with Adi Da.
The next day I scrambled to finish work in time to go home, take a shower, and get down to the bookstore. I was going to "sit" with a Spiritual Teacher. It was all so out of the ordinary for me — but I was really interested.
I was there on the dot. I had been asked to return the manuscript of Adi Da's book, so I brought that with me, too. My approach to the event wasn't very "spiritual" — it's just that I was tremendously excited to meet the fellow who had written this book. I had been in publishing a long time and had met many authors, but their books had never impressed me the way that Adi Da's had. What could He be like?
I entered the meditation hall, sat down with my back to the wall, wearing my horn-rimmed reading glasses, and continued to read the manuscript. Adi Da came in and, without saying anything, took His seat at the front of the room, facing the group of twenty or so people who were there that night. He looked straight ahead and then, at times, He also looked around the room, gazing at the space just above our heads. After watching Him for a few minutes, I started reading the manuscript again.
Looking back at it, I can see that this was not the most sensitive thing to do, but I knew nothing about meditation or how to relate to a Guru. The whole situation was new to me and I felt a little awkward, so I returned to what was most familiar to me — reading. After a few minutes, though, I looked up at Him again. He looked directly at me. I felt a Force emanating from Him — it was peaceful and yet energetic, pleasant but not overwhelming — and I also felt a kind of connection to Him. But I still felt somewhat awkward, so I went back to reading the manuscript again.
After a few minutes more, I looked up at Him again. This time, He was staring right at me. I began to feel a very pleasant feeling in the center of my heart. I was very warm. Even though I couldn't tell what it was, I could tell that something out of the ordinary was going on here. So I put the manuscript down and sat up straight in a meditation posture, like everyone else in the room. It seemed important to be respectful of the process that was taking place, whatever it was, and to cooperate with whatever Adi Da was doing. From that point on, I simply looked at Him.
When the meditation was over, He left the room. I got up and followed Him to a small office in the back. He was sitting in the chair at His desk when I walked in, and it was clear to me that He was not in an ordinary state of awareness. I didn't know anything about Spiritual experience at the time, but I could tell that He was in a kind of Swoon, or Bliss-State. He seemed to be "coming down" from that Swoon to a more ordinary, "functional" awareness, so I walked right over to where He was sitting, put out my hand, and said, "My name is Neil Panico, Franklin. I am really glad to meet You."
He told me to sit down, which I did. Then He turned to me and said, "What's happening?"
I was floored. All my life I had used that very phrase millions of times with my friends, with people I met in business, with my kids — all the time. It was the most familiar thing He could have said to me. I found myself blurting out to Him, "I don't know, man, I can't relate to anything or anybody anymore."
I didn't think about it when I said it; I didn't mean to lay my problems on Him — it was spontaneous, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to tell Him my darkest secret. Immediately, He reached over and hugged me. I was a little taken aback at first, but He was so natural in the way He assumed an intimacy with me.
As He held me in this big bear-hug, and as I relaxed into it, I felt the most wonderful, nourishing feeling of coming home, of coming to rest. I felt tremendous, instantaneous relief from the incredible torment that I had been carrying around — just as I had when I read His book, but even more so. The warmth and the beauty of the feeling He communicated through that hug was fantastic — and it was such a long hug. By the time He let me go, my terrible feeling of emptiness and despair was gone. My suffering of so many years was over. He had removed it.
He said, "What do you do?"
I told him what I did for a living.
Then He asked me, "Why don't you come around a little bit?"
"Yeah, I'll definitely be around."
The next day I took the rifle back to my house. I thought, "I don't know what this is about, but I've got to check it out." I started going to the bookstore and hanging out writh Adi Da in the back room.
We had the most wonderful times in the tiny back room of that little Los Angeles storefront — there were always at least a handful of people there with Him, working, talking, laughing. There was always a lot of laughter — He was so full of humor! Sometimes, He would give talks, spontaneously. And then, everything would grow quiet and He would go into meditation. The room would fill up with the incredible feeling of His Love and Fullness, His Freedom, His Humor, His Peace. We would sit around Him, basking in that Feeling, wanting nothing more than to be with Him.
Since that very first meeting with Avatar Adi Da, I have never suffered so horribly again. I have never felt that kind of terrible Spiritual despair again, not for a moment. I am telling you the absolute truth. My horrible suffering was taken away forever, absorbed by my Guru.
Adi Da Samraj and Aniello Panico
Los Angeles, 1972