Twin Highways: The Swami and the Pioneer
by Jonathan Bricklin
Ralph White was not the first person to begin an American odyssey in Chicago and go on to create a holistic spiritual Center in Manhattan. More than a hundred years ago, Swami Vivekananda, after electrifying the audience at Chicago’s Parliament of Religions, founded a Center a few blocks away from us (54 W. 33rd Street), a Center whose mission was to “break down religious sectarianism and superstition” and to help each individual realize “the divine oneness of all life.” Vivekananda came to my mind often throughout reading Ralph’s luminous memoir, The Jeweled Highway: On the Quest For a Life of Meaning, and not just because of this vocational and locational coincidence.
Almost all memoirs that chronicle spiritual quests veer off into narrow paths of self-absorption. But Ralph’s globe-trekking path, like that of the peripatetic Vivekananda (who introduced much of the West to Yoga and Vedantic philosophy) has always been a road built for many—a highway indeed, and one that accommodated the most turbulent traffic. Beginning with his spiritual initiation in the American Southwest, where he first felt the “growing sense of a much larger reality around me and within me,” Ralph’s primary impulse, like Vivekananda’s, was to help others expand the “smaller” reality in which we mostly dwell. “Honoring the divinity at the heart of all people” (in Ralph’s words) was both their prescriptions for addressing the dire consequences—social, environmental, psychological—of our dishonor.
From its inception, the Open Center set out to alleviate what Vivekananda identified as “one of the evils of Western Civilization”: the pursuit of “intellectual education alone” that takes “no care for the heart.” Ralph’s guiding programming principle was: “everything had to begin with the individual…in the deepest recesses of his or her heart.” And both well knew just how challenging such a beginning was. Vivekananda told William James that the sight of our faces, “all contracted as they are with the habitual American over-intensity and anxiety of expression,” were painful to behold. And Ralph, after a year’s pilgrimage through the “natural holy places” of Central and South America, where a “feeling of magical reverence was generated organically,” found himself with the identical perspective toward North Americans. Chancing upon the Paul Newman movie WUSA, he writes: “I remember nothing about the plot. What struck me with an appalling force was the contorted expressions on the characters’ faces. Their anxieties had made them exceptionally ugly.” Vivekananda prescribed meditation, as was practiced a half hour every day by the children of India. The Open Center, as more people need to know, has offered a free meditation space from its inception.
Ralph—ever wary of Gurus—will no doubt scoff at my comparing him to a Swami, especially a Swami who profusely refers to God. For all that Ralph has done to promote the beauty and power of the Western spiritual tradition, God is not one of the named jewels on his highway. There are hints, though, throughout his page-turner adventure story, a story sprinkled with synchronicities, of what Rudolf Steiner—Ralph’s “sort of” guru—called the “hidden God, palpably alive and moving among humankind.” And surely it is this God whom the nondualist Vivekananda pledges his allegiance to.
At the very least, the lives of both men are testaments to Ralph’s conviction that “our vast cosmos ultimately supports” those guided by its “inner radiance.” Neither of their highways was laid out with anything resembling a plan. Vivekananda, who railed against the very idea of planning, showed up penniless in Chicago, and was virtually rescued from the streets by a wealthy woman. Much of the page-turner aspect of Ralph’s memoir is tracking the path of caution thrown into turbulent winds, following his mystical initiation in his twenties. How Omega, the Open Center, and a dozen global Esoteric Quests have turned out is well known. But “how will this turn out?” is an appropriate margin note for the story of how they came about, as it is for most of Ralph’s uncharted highway—whether it be his hitchhiking through the mountains and inner cities of Central and South America, his holistic missionary work in Eastern Europe, or his astonishing, mission impossible, behind-the-Communist-lines adventure in Tibet on behalf of the Tibetan State Oracle.
I don’t know if a movie will ever be made of these high adventures, but so rich in precise detail is Ralph’s account, that I feel as if I have already seen it. And in this, too, he brings to mind Vivekananda. No one who has ever heard Ralph mesmerize an audience with a spontaneous talk will be surprised at how exquisitely he writes. Vivekananda’s own quest for a life of meaning is also exquisitely documented in books, letters and spontaneous talks—many of those talks delivered just a few blocks away.
The Jeweled Highway can be purchased at the New York Open Center (22 E. 30th Street) or at HERE.