Autobiography of an Italian Yogi

Chapter 4

The Trinity

When you’re young, it feels like you have to pick a specific model if you want to fit into ‘the system’. It’s as if life gives you all these tailored suits to choose from, each one representing a person you can choose to be, and a path you can take, according to the conventional mores of life’s dance. It seemed to me as if my Mafia friends had been woven into their suits for life, and like it or not, their courses were set. It didn’t matter who you wanted to be, or who you could have been, if you were born into a certain family, your future was already established. 

My future was more mutable than most of the guys I knocked around with. But being born into Catholicism is almost as hard to escape from as being born into the Mafia. Whatever went on at home, whatever fresh hell my mother visited upon me, my mother still held to Christian doctrine, even if she was just a Christian in name only. She didn’t often go to church – unless she wanted to show off an expensive new outfit. 

As a child, I went along to church with my young friends, and I would ring the bells, and take Holy Communion. I learned about original sin, and felt a certain attraction to the focus on suffering in Christianity. Perhaps it felt appropriate to my own situation in life. 

When I read the New Testament of the Bible, a lot of the things that Christ said really resonated with me. And I could get right behind the emphasis on love, but still, it didn’t feel right. It was just too rigid in its doctrines. Most of all, the concept of the Saints – who were presented as near-perfect individuals – didn’t really fit into my world view. 

It occurred to me that if my sin was already pre-established, and I was going to purgatory whatever happened, it didn’t leave Catholicism much capacity to inspire me. And on that basis, I was more than happy to accept Spinoza’s thinking that ‘there is no post-mortem realm of reward and punishment’. Pure Catholicism didn’t seem like a good fit. But that didn’t mean that some augmented form of Catholicism couldn’t work…

Rather than fearing other religious ideologies, I saw instead how other routes to what was essentially the same end could complement Catholicism, and that is when things started to connect for me. I’d been fascinated by my experiments at controlling my breathing, realising how my consciousness changed as my focus on my breathing intensified. I hadn’t known anything about the focus on the breath in Hinduism and Buddhism, and I assumed I was alone in my thinking. At that age, I had no one to talk to about my ideas. 

As a very young teen, I went to the local Franciscan monastery in search of some answers, or at least some sense of connection with other seekers of deeper spiritual truth. One of their Order listened as I told him about all my thinking on theology, religion, and life’s mysteries. After a while, he said he had something for me and appeared to glide off in his floor-length habit. When he returned, he presented me with a book called Seeds of Contemplation, written by Thomas Merton. That was my first exposure to the great theologian. 

I devoured that book and started to apply his thinking to my life straightaway. Merton said you have to give up all your desires, and all your ambitions. That made sense to me. I felt as if the only reason I had any ambitions was because I was expected to have them. A life of ambition seemed to me to be predicated on procuring more money to amass more things, more status. I had spent so long thinking that perhaps I should try and cultivate some ambitions because I felt so isolated and alone on my path. (In truth, I wasn’t very good at it; I think pursuing ambition just gave me a bad case of spiritual indigestion, and so I always went back to ascetism in the end.) 

But Merton made it clear that those ambitions were just the root of illusion. And so, I let go of my ambitions. It wasn’t that difficult when I’d already spent so much of my energy trying to escape the idea that I should be judged according to the role I took in life. The absence of worldly desire was startling, the relief was instantaneous. 

A perfect peace came over me. I hardly knew what it was at first. I sat, very still, in the attic room, and slipped out of the shackles of conventional thinking. I stopped thinking of who and what I had to become and let my ego take a back seat. As Merton taught, it is only when you stop trying to be someone you don’t want to be, and when you eschew the idea of religious and social conformity, that things magically align and convey inner peace.

There was nothing abstract about Merton’s teachings, they all made practical sense to me. The link between emptying my mind and my very soul of such routine desires as plagued the rest of the world was clear. And the more I found out about the man, the more I loved him. It was his very human frailties – his flaws, if you like – that made him such a compellingly relatable figure. Merton had been a Trappist monk for 26 years. But far from being a by-the-book Catholic, he was a bit of a trailblazer. We think of him now as the first Catholic mystic, and he was responsible for bringing more Eastern thought – including elements of Buddhism, and ideas around harnessing the breath – into Christianity. 

In the aftermath of World War II, there was a greater influx of men into monasteries and women into convents, all affected by the atrocities, all searching for something deeper and more profound. Merton was instrumental in that. At a time when people wanted to break down barriers, his pursuit of spiritual truth seemed like it transcended some of the frontiers between the world religions. He was a more relatable figure too. As a good Catholic monk, he was obviously supposed to be celibate, but he was a bit of an outlier in that regard too… When he was in hospital, recuperating from debilitating back pain in a Louisville hospital, he fell in love with a 19-year old nurse, Margie Smith. Merton was someone I could identify with.

Merton’s teachings helped me to pick apart this idea that perfection had anything to do with enlightened thinking. What use is a perfect system in an imperfect world? Peter – the imperfect disciple – was made the first head of the Catholic church after all. And it seemed to me as if there should be a loosening of the perception of what constituted good Catholicism. I didn’t want to lead a strict ascetic life, I wanted to lead a life that was full of colour. And I felt as if that kind of existence was much more likely to lead me towards something transformative.

Merton opened up the power of monastic thinking for me. Inspired by my experience, I sought to combine what I’d learnt through a Catholic upbringing with what I had started learning of Buddhism and Hinduism, thinking that, by combining strands from each religion, I would move closer to a deeper understanding of God. It seemed to me that Christian structure represented the stricter forms of devotion (prayer) while Hinduism and Buddhism represented the freer forms of devotion (meditation). Inspired by Merton’s own path, and the possibilities of embracing elements of all three religions, I spent some time with the Trappist monks and wondered if I should join them to pursue my journey into deeper spirituality. (It wouldn’t have worked. Years later, when I went back for a visit with ym first wife and child, Father Mark said to me, “Peter, the reason why we kept on raising the age limit when you got old enough to join us is because we knew you were going to have a problem with women.” He wasn’t wrong. 

Father Mark was not only a Catholic monk, he was a medical doctor. He indulged me with his time and patience, as he listened to my thoughts, answered my questions, and most importantly of all, gave me the sense that my spiritual quest was worthwhile, even if it wasn’t going to be best served in the Trappist monastery. Father Mark told me that I was wise beyond my years. My precociousness made me seem like a prodigy to him. But in my mind, it was almost as if I was simply picking up from where I had left off in some other lifetime.

I was a little older and wiser when I tried to again. In my forties, I went to a Greek Orthodox monastery, dreaming that I could be a student of Eastern religion within a Christian structure. It didn’t quite work out like that…

We would stand in prayer for three hours or more in the chapel, but the strict adherence to prayer as the only vehicle to any kind of revelatory experience didn’t work for me. So, I would wait until the monks were sleeping, then I would head down to the chapel, focus my breathing, and meditate. Of course, if I heard anyone walking by, I would change my posture to make it look like I was deep in prayer. Meditation just didn’t register with the monks who only believed what they read in the Bible. Christ made no mention of meditation, only prayer, ergo, monks don’t meditate. 

But when I combined those elements of prayer, meditation, and mindful breathing, I took off like a rocket. The energy and power of standing in prayer for hours was like my rocket fuel, thousands of pounds of reason and logic representing the booster rockets which had to be dropped in order for the silent engines of meditation to engage and pierce the stratosphere. It’s as if our souls want to complete their journey, like salmon returning to the waterways where they were spawned. 

It was a blissful thing. Years later, when I told one of my friends, she asked, “What were you smoking?” To her, the idea of me attaining that kind of bliss without any other stimulation seemed utterly outrageous.   

Even if I wasn’t going to make ‘Monk of the month’ for it, I felt as if my experiment had worked beautifully. In my meditative sate, I felt as if I was actually talking with God, and I think He liked that. (Perhaps, God gets lonely sometimes. Perhaps that’s why he created us in the first place.) 

Through my meditations, I discovered that the means you use to tap into the Divine don’t matter, it’s your intent that counts. There is a wonderful Hindu story that illustrates this:

God sent an angel down to earth to look for devout people. Sure enough, the angel found lots of devout people. In his first trip, he found a guru who knew the Bhagavad Gita backwards and forwards, and another guru who couldn’t stop praying and praising God, but when the angel went back to report to God, he was disappointed by His response. God said, “I don’t know these people.” The angel couldn’t understand how God didn’t know such devout people. God said, “Who else is there?” So, the angel went back and found many more holy and devout people and told God about them. Again, God said, “But I don’t know these people.”  

The angel kept looking. Among all the holy people, she saw a man on the hill, who was trying to build a fence. But the man was so drunk that he kept hitting his hand with his hammer, and cursing every time he did it. The angel made sure he remembered the names of all the holy people he’d seen, as well as the name of the man on the hill. He told God of all the holy people, and God was unimpressed. “Was there no one else?” he asked. “Well, there was one other man,” the angel ventured. He told God about the man on the hill, hardly expecting God to acknowledge him. But God said, “Oh yeah, that’s Harry. I know him very well. Harry loves me.”

God told the angel to go back to Harry, and mention that he had sent him. When the angel announced himself to Harry, the man transformed and entered into a divine dance with the angel; another level of consciousness. The angel began to understand. God told him. “The prayers are nice, but all I really want is love. I can feel Harry’s passion when he speaks to me. I can feel his love.” 

The monastery didn’t work for me. The pure Catholic ideology and mine didn’t mesh. But those people had such a passion and a love for God that it filled the space. You could almost touch it. And I realized that at its simplest, religion is just a vehicle. It’s a car. And when your family or your friends come to visit you, you don’t care what cars they’re driving. You just want them to reach you, however they can.

I left the monastery believing in the power of my discoveries, and resolved to live my life worrying less about my ‘car’ and more about the purity of my love for God…

In 1969, I moved out of the mundane world of aspiration and desire and made myself a home in the woods. Living in splendid isolation in the Oregon Mountain National Forest, I learned a different way of life. I built a beautiful log cabin from trees I cut down from the National Forest. I had to drag them to the site by myself. My female horse didn’t do much, except for eat and shit, and always tried to throw me when I rode her. (Just another woman in my life trying to break my balls!)

It was a simple way of life, I lived in harmony with the seasons, and tended the land. Up until then, I had no idea that vegetables came from the ground, I thought they came from Rosario’s Fruit and Vegetables in Little Italy! With my wolf dog, horse, and chickens, I thought only of the necessities of survival. My days were filled with honest toil, and my nights were spent in quiet contemplation. The game of life takes on a wholly different complexion when life is reduced to the bare essentials of sustenance and survival. The work itself was a form of meditation. Every new seed a demonstration of faith. 

If I had been looking for signs of the legitimacy of embracing the three strands of Christianity, Hinduism, and metaphysics, you might say I found it there. On my first day, I didn’t look for water until I got thirsty. Then, I discovered a particularly wet part of a nearby meadow, and climbed the mountain until I found the source.

There were three trickles of water coming from three underground springs. Holding onto the side of the mountain with one hand, I made a channel with my other hand, combining the three trickles into one channel of water. At the base of the mountain, I dug a large hole and lined it with rocks, and it provided an endless supply for me and the animals. I was even able to fashion a gravity flow garden on the mountain slope, and could supply water to different parts of the garden by moving a few rocks around. 

The final tributary carried water to the deep inground bathtub that I built. The sun warmed the water during the day making it wonderfully inviting by the evening. Each day’s dirty water would drain off, and the process would repeat the next day. The three streams of water that I fashioned into one lifegiving stream was a beautiful symbol of my thinking, and it continued to serve me well. 

In the summer, I worried that there wouldn’t be enough water for us to survive. I had planned to burrow further into the mountain to increase the water flow, but an old man told me that if I tried to dig it out, I’d run the risk of changing its direction and losing it altogether. So, I left it alone.

That summer was blisteringly hot. All the water sources dried up in the valley below. But my three trickles of water flowing into one never changed. Forever constant. My Trinity.