Carol Gunn’s Story About Baba
As I reflect back on my life I see clues of Meher Baba's guidance and love long before I was consciously aware of him.
I was born in Wilmington. North Carolina in 1944. Wilmington, other than being a coastal port city and hub for the Atlantic coastline railway, was a fairly provincial and sleepy place. Nonetheless it had an airport through which Baba passed on two trips to the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach in 1956 and 1958. I like to think that Baba drove past my father's clothing store in downtown Wilmington on His way to the Center.
I was raised in the Jewish faith by loving parents. While attending services at our local synagogue, I would try to connect in some way with the God we would read about in the prayer books or hear about in services. However, this God of the Hebrews seemed rather inaccessible and remote. I mostly enjoyed the social aspects and camaraderie of being at the synagogue and of being a member of the larger Jewish community.
As a child I was intrigued by one part of the Jewish Seder meal at Passover time. A special wine glass would be set at the table for Elijah the prophet. Later someone would go to the door to see if Elijah had arrived at our house. It was my understanding that Elijah would bring news that the Messiah had come. I always hoped that Elijah would be at the door and was disappointed each Passover when he did not come to our house.
In the early 60’s I went to college at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I found the town most beautiful. It had a vibrant and uplifting energy which at the time I attributed to the newness of being on my own and going to college. Years later I learned that Baba had a connection with Chapel Hill: He had passed through on His way from Myrtle Beach to Durham's Duke Hospital to have His leg cast changed after His automobile accident in Oklahoma in 1952. He had also directed Najoo Kotwal, one of His close followers, to attend graduate school at UNC in the late 1950s.
I loved walking in the historic neighborhoods and woodlands near campus. At one favorite spot on a wooded bluff, I would reflect on the nature of the universe and wonder about the creation and the Creator. I wondered where the winding road I could see in the distance would lead me. These reflections were one main link with the spiritual side of life. Also, I had always felt uplifted by the beauty of music. Now, as a music major at college, I could continue my enjoyment of playing the piano and listening to music.
After two years at UNC, with some regrets, I left Chapel Hill. I transferred to the University of Georgia in Athens in order to be closer to a fellow from Atlanta whom I had been dating. David and I had met on a blind date when his family came for a family reunion in Wilmington. We married in 1966 after I graduated from college.
Although we were both Jewish, neither of us felt a strong urge to attend synagogue services or to seek some deeper spiritual meaning through Judaism. I did enjoy celebrating the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday nights: I would fix a special meal and we would say the traditional Sabbath prayers. At some point I became interested in learning more about the mystical aspects of Judaism, but the books I read were hard to understand so I didn’t get too far with this pursuit.
When our son, Dean, was born in 1970 I felt exhilarated to be a mother and to experience the miracle of birth. I can remember viewing the world around me with more awareness and appreciation. I felt as though I was high on life. However there were challenges as well which began to impact my physical and mental health.
My physical health was good prior to and after giving birth: however I gradually became more and more exhausted with the routine of being up with Dean several times during the night. During the day I might sleep briefly, but mainly took care of household duties. As a new parent somewhat on cloud nine, I wasn't aware that maintaining this schedule would have some Repercussions.
In the meantime, David was under tremendous pressure working six long days a week as the owner of an independent grocery store. The grocery store was losing money and his business partner had accused him of stealing the profits. Later we would learn that profits were being drained as a result of employee and customer thefts. David was so immersed in the events at the store that he could lend little support to me while at home. Because of mothering responsibilities, I couldn't be as supportive of him, whereas in the past I had helped David at his store and been a listening ear for business problems. These issues caused some arguments and marital tensions.
Eventually the physical, marital and other stresses of being a new mother had an impact on my mental health. Later I would learn that there was a post partum hormonal imbalance component complicating matters as well. In my distress, I began to turn to the inner voice of intuition to help me face the challenges I was experiencing. I thought of this inner voice as some kind of outside guidance from a benevolent source. This source never prompted me to do ‘bad’ things. but I did have some irrational thoughts.
The most special experience I had as I opened to a more intuitive way of thinking was that I began to experience for the first time that God was very present in all of our lives. God was not the distant, seemingly inaccessible God of my youth. I couldn't believe that something so obvious had eluded me in the past and I took comfort in this knowledge.
I tried sharing some of my inner life with my husband and parents. At some point they became concerned about some of my irrational ideas, mixed in with the talk about God. They suggested that it might be helpful for me to talk to a psychiatrist. I agreed even though I didn't believe that there was any major problem.
The psychiatrist offered no validation of the spiritual awakening I described. Instead He suggested immediate drug therapy or hospitalization. I was extremely distressed with the thought that I might have to leave my new baby so I agreed to the heavy-duty medication. The combination of the drugs and professional opinion that I needed help brought my world crashing down. I became confused and felt that I could not trust myself anymore. In addition, the drugs made me feel weird and masked my feelings of love and other emotions. I became depressed, and eventually became afraid of opening to the God force in my life because it seemed to have gotten me in a mess. I wasn't very happy with this God who seemed to be causing me so much suffering and who had seemingly abandoned me.
In the midst of this inner turmoil, I was given some support for the newly experienced spiritual aspects of finding God in my everyday life. My brother Barry, who had become interested in Meher Baba in the late sixties after visiting the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, came to visit shortly after Dean was born. While visiting he gave me a Baba card which I placed on my refrigerator. I don’t remember him saying much about Baba and I didn't make a connection between Baba and God. However, after he returned to upstate New York where he was working at the Brown's Hotel, he wrote me a most beautiful letter that offered some hope in the midst of my troubled times. In the letter he mentioned Baba and some of the insights about life that he was gaining through his relationship with Him. Here are a few excerpts from that letter:
One must realize that there is someone who loves you more than anyone else could ever love you. Love is the answer. Love from friends, family and from that Someone. Although I miss you, I'm with you always as is that certain force, whatever it is to you---to me it's Baba---so ‘Don’t worry be happy.’ This phase too will pass and you may look back and laugh and yet understand yourself and those around you better.
Rick Berman, a childhood friend from Wilmington who was now living in Atlanta, and his wife Ethel, were a source of solace during my depression. Rick and I were able to talk about having a personal relationship with God which he had experienced also. Being able to share some of my experience with him was very helpful. Ethel stopped by at the end of some of my long days of caring for a new baby when I wasn't feeling well. Rick and Ethel were Baba followers, but did not say much to me about Baba at that time.
Gradually I got better and the drug therapy was discontinued. As things became more normal for me in the worldly sense, I turned to God less and less. I was fearful of ‘going off the deep end’ again if I continued a more personal relationship with God. I focused instead on my responsibilities as a wife and mother.
About four years passed. While on a visit with my family at their home in Wrightsville Beach, my brother Barry showed me the book Be Here Now by Dr Richard Alpert also known as Baba Ram Dass. I was intrigued initially because Alpert is my maiden name. In the book, Ram Dass shares his spiritual journey with the spiritual use of psychedelics to a life in which he embraces a guru and Eastern mysticism. He also had a connection with Meher Baba and quotes some of His words in the book. The part of the book that really caught my attention was an explanation that through a profound event, such as bearing a child, one may touch a place that has intuitive validity of a higher consciousness. Ram Dass explains that such an experience is powerful and valid, but is so discontinuous with one's normal consciousness that the person may doubt its validity. The conventional view of such an experience is that it is Psychotic.
After reading this information, I felt a tremendous sense of relief to find some support for the type of experience I had after Dean's birth. This explanation opened that part of myself that had shut the door on anything outside of my usual rational experience including Meher Baba. Feeling excited, I told my brother Barry what I had read. He suggested that we could take a day trip to the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, about an hour drive from Wilmington. Although I was not sure what I might find at the Center, I felt eager to learn more about Baba.
The Center was quite different from what I expected. I pictured formal buildings and people who were obviously devout or other-worldly. To my relief I saw a beautiful rustic setting and rather normal looking people. Barry gave me a tour and introduced me to Marion Saffo. a high school friend of his. Our conversation with Marion helped me to relax further as I still wasn't sure about these "Baba people." Marion suggested that to learn more about Baba, I might want to read the book Avatar, by Jean Adriel.
It was customary for newcomers to meet one of the ladies who helped run the Center. We met with Jane Haynes, who was at the Center beach with a group of children taking part in Happy Club activities. Jane, who had met Baba in the 1950’s, made me feel very welcome. I told her about myself and she shared about her life with Baba. Jane suggested that upon my return home to Atlanta, that I contact her son, Charles, who helped organize Baba meetings there. It was helpful that neither Jane nor Barry made me feel pressured to rush into a relationship with Meher Baba. I needed time to observe and learn more.
After returning home to Atlanta, I began to observe an inn subtle change in myself which is hard to put into words. The closest I can come to describing these changes is that I was awakening to other aspects of myself and the world around me. Eventually my curiosity to know more about Baba helped me overcome my shyness about calling Charles. I began to attend some Baba meetings which were held at Emory University, including an entertaining Baba birthday party open to the public at which I played the piano for some of the performers.
At first I felt like an outsider at the meetings and was still reserving judgment about Baba. However, little by little, in various ways, Baba drew me closer. At the Atlanta Baba meetings I loved hearing Charles talk about his personal experiences of being with Baba. In addition there were many fine musicians in the group who shared Baba songs which opened my heart. I learned more about Baba in Jean Adriel's book, Avatar, and experienced Baba's authority and clarity as I read His Discourses. I also visited the Baba Center again on my own where I heard wonderful heart-opening talks by Darwin Shaw, Lyn and Phyllis Ott, Henry Kashouty and others. I also met Kitty Davy and Elizabeth Patterson, long-time disciples of Baba, who were in charge of the Center.
When I was first getting acquainted with Baba, I had a hard time accepting that He is the Christ or Avatar, the manifestation of God in human form. Because of my Jewish background I hadn't been introduced to the idea of having a relationship with Christ. The concept of God taking a human form was beyond my mind’s ability to understand. However, as my heart opened more to Baba's Love. I no longer needed my mind to understand. Furthermore, everything that I learned about Baba validated my mind’s scrutiny and reinforced my heart connection with Him.
In my everyday life I became a ‘closet' Baba lover - keeping my Baba pictures and a large Baba poster in my bedroom walk-in closet. I wanted to keep this very special part of my life private because my husband had no interest in learning about Baba or tending meetings with me. Also he had been uncomfortable when I had shared a children's Baba book with our son. I became aware of my own deep feelings for Baba when I realized that I would stick to Baba even if my husband asked me choose between Baba or remaining married to him. I was surprised by these feeling because up to this time my husband and marriage had been my life and security.
Fortunately I didn’t have to choose between my husband and Baba. There were other problems in the marriage which eventually prompted him to ask for a trial separation in 1975. I was very sad and shocked because I loved my husband and had hoped things would work out for us. However in various ways, I felt Baba's loving support and guidance as I came to grips with this big change in my life.
In January of 1976, about two months after the separation I received a postcard from Barry who was on pilgrimage in India to visit Meherabad and Meherazad, special places associated with Baba's life. On the front of the postcard was a picture of Baba standing on Seclusion Hill. I can remember reading the postcard as I stood by the mailbox--it was a pivotal event in this lifetime. In the card Barry invited me to join him in India because it was very important to visit Baba's Samadhi and meet the mandali. He said I should come as soon as possible so that we could be there together.
My first thought was, How can I go to India? For one thing my husband David wouldn’t approve and secondly, How can leave my son Dean? Then I realized that I no longer had to worry about David's approval because we were separated. As for Dean, he had been spending more time with his Dad since the separation. Perhaps he would be okay as well. I knew then that if arrangements could be made for Dean, I really wanted to join Barry in India.
By Baba's grace, not only did David agree to take care of Dean, but he also offered to pay for my plane ticket to India. With the help of friends in the Atlanta Baba group, I quickly made arrangements for my trip. My friend Ted Vigodsky offered to take me to the airport. To this day it still amazes me that within three weeks of getting Barry's postcard, I left for India. I had known nothing about what to pack, what airline to take, what shots to get and so on. These days even though I am a more experienced traveler, it often takes me several months to get ready to go to India. It seemed that Baba really wanted me to come to India quickIy.
After making the necessary arrangements, I sent a cable to Barry telling him the dates I was coming. His reply was a bit distressing. He was really happy that I was coming, but he wouldn't be there during the first week of my stay. He would be helping with some documentary filming of Baba lovers in Andhra state with Irwin Luck. However he assured me that all would be well. He would have his friend David Fenster meet me at the Bombay airport and bring me to Ahmednagar. He said I would recognize David because he had red hair and would be wearing a cowboy hat, not a typical description of people in the airport.
My parents were very surprised when I told them about my upcoming trip to India. They knew a little about my interest in Baba but having two of their children in India at the same time, especially their somewhat conventional daughter, was a bit overwhelming. My mother commented that I had always been so religious growing up. Later they really respected Baba because they saw that Barry and I both had benefited from our relationship with Him. Later, our whole family, including my younger sisters, visited the Center together.
Most appropriately, I left for India on Valentine's Day. My dear cousin Linda who was living in Boston met me in New York and went with me to the airport for my Air India flight. I had never been out of the country and was feeling a bit overwhelmed as I walked toward my gate. Linda says I looked very small to be heading off on such a big adventure.
The trip was exhausting. The already long trip was made even longer because of some mechanical delays. I also couldn't sleep, didn't know to drink lots of water and to limit my alcohol intake. A very attractive off duty Air India navigator invited me to join him in the First Class lounge for drinks and refreshments. One could say that I was distracted by some worldly pleasures of maya. I think Baba was doing some cleaning of impressions before I got to His home.
Although I was pretty mentally exhausted as the plane flew lower to land at the Bombay airport, I felt a tremendous feeling of home sickness as I viewed India from the air. I felt as though I was returning home after a very long time. These feelings were surprising to me because I had never been to India and was also pretty nervous about what to expect.
David was easy to spot when he greeted me at the airport. We went together to the home of Nargis Dadachanji. Nargis,whose family had close connections with Baba, welcomed me with a big hug. Her hug and a beautiful picture of Baba made me feel right at home.We rented rooms at her home for several days before continuing the journey to Ahmednagar.
David and I and several other passengers, including Khorshed Irani, took a taxi together. To break up the Journey we stopped in Pune to have lunch with Baba's brother Jal. It was special meeting Khorshed and Jal, but at the time I had no idea of their lives of service to Baba. I remember Khorshed taking Baba's name when we got a flat tire. It was one of my early lessons to remember Baba at times of difficulty.
Before going to our accommodations in Ahmednagar, we stopped at the Samadhi, Baba's tomb shrine, to pay our respects. Afterwards, Nana Kher, the tomb attendant, gave everyone Prasad, a hug and a warm, "Welcome Home.” While hugging me, Nana Kher also added one additional line. He said: "Your brother arrived this morning. " Those words were nectar to my ears.
Barry and I had a joyous reunion that day, meeting each other half way around the world at the Sablok Hotel. He explained that the filming trip to Andhra had ended earlier than expected which allowed him to arrive on the exact day that I did. In the worldly sense, the long journey to India ended with this reunion with my brother. Later, however, I was to have an unexpected reunion with my Beloved as well.
Barry was my pilgrimage guide - making sure that I took advantage of being near Baba's special places and close followers. I had arrived in India with no idea of what to expect. At first I approached every new experience intellectually as an observer, sometimes wondering what one was supposed to feel, for example, at Baba's tomb.
Gradually my heart began to open as I met many of Baba's close Mandali at Meherazad and Meherabad. In the special atmosphere of these settings, I was inspired by their stories of life with Baba, and through them, I learned more about what it meant to love and obey Him.
One day, when I was visiting Baba's Samadhi, Nana Kher asked me to share my Baba story. We sat on the mandap, a covered stone platform opposite Baba's tomb/shrine. When I got to the part of my story where I described feeling despondent and abandoned by God, I had a sudden realization. On some level I was still feeling abandoned. I had never let go of that feeling even though later on I had experienced Baba's loving presence in my life. Furthermore, if God had abandoned me why was I in India sitting across from the tomb of the Avatar of this age? In that moment of realization, Meher Baba, the master psychiatrist, lifted a barrier that had blocked my ability to feel the depth of His love for me. During the rest of my stay in India I experienced a loving reunion and honeymoon with the Beloved of my heart.
The Baba birthday celebration on February 25th was a magical time for me. As I celebrated this event with hundreds of other devotees, I felt as though the atmosphere at Meherabad was permeated with the sweetness of Baba's love. The love and longing I felt during the birthday and in other events of my three week’s stay is hard to convey in words. In order to express the inexpressible, I was inspired to write two Baba songs. The words below are from one of the songs:
Your Love is the flame that sets life aglow
A beacon that pierces the night
Guiding wayfarers to Love s abode
Place of the heart 's delight.
I left India on March 8th. Baba had filled my cup to the brim and I felt His loving presence on the journey home and upon my return. This love gave me the strength to face some challenges after the breakup of my marriage. Later I felt Baba's loving hand in introducing me to my husband, John, who has shared the continuing adventure of growing in Baba’s Love. In the thirty years since that first India trip, my relationship with Baba has deepened. He continues to guide, support and sustain me throughout each day and through every Joy and sorrow. I feel tremendous gratitude for all that He has given and continues to give.
Carol was raised in Wilmington and now lives part-time in Chapel Hill and part-time in India.