Meetings OverviewOver the years many seekers met with Paul Brunton searching for a deeper understanding of the meaning of life and for clues to the direction they might take along their own spiritual path. The story of each of these seekers' experiences is unique and varies according to the preconceptions with which they arrived, the kinds of help they needed, and how they interpreted their interactions with PB.
Below are the stories of:
Robert Larson, publisher
Anna Bornstein, PB's Swedish Translator (see also A Mind for Peace)
Timothy Smith, co-editor of the Notebooks
Barbara Plaisted, student and board member
Beverly Bennett, student and board member
It is the early seventies. I am in Helsinki, Finland and have a couple of hours before the plane takes off for Stockholm. What to do? The choice stands between spending the time at a nice nearby cafeteria or visiting the big Academic bookshop. I choose the latter.
Drawn to the department in the bookstore where spiritual literature is displayed, I read back covers and browse through several books. There is much of interest here. Finally a young lady approaches me:
"My name is Miss Reinikka. [I will never forget her name.] Do you know an author named Paul Brunton?” she asks.
"No, I have not heard of him.”
"Buy a book of his; he is very good,” she says with a smile.
Why not? I think, and grab a book with the enticing title The Secret Path. I pay at the cashier's desk and take a bus to the airport.
When we are in the air I start reading here and there in my new book. Suddenly something totally unexpected happens. Together with a feeling of deep inner peace there is an absolute certainty in me that my long-held longing for meaning, deepening, and freedom had received an answer. It is like an immediate intuitive insight. Tears start to come; I neither can or want to stop them. I am extremely grateful.
Now, forty years later when I think of this experience, I shiver. Thirty thousand feet above the earth's surface, at last I had met my much longed for spiritual guide. And now I knew his name: Paul Brunton. Later a possibility opened up to meet him personally, which happened on five occasions. But that is a different story...
The meeting with Paul Brunton and his ideas came in a critical period of my life. The midlife crisis was not just words—it was a painful reality. For me, as for many others, it was a matter of the meaning of life, or rather the lack of meaning of it, that I had encountered. I had lived long on the surface of life without any deeper anchoring, and I felt desperately that life was running away from me. Was this really all? Wasn't there anything more?
The brief interchange with Miss Reinikka in the bookstore was not only the beginning of a development that changed the course of my life completely; it was also a start of my role as a publisher of Paul Brunton. A translation into Swedish of The Secret Path was the first Brunton book we published.
by Anna Bornstein
Forty years ago I rang the bell to Paul Brunton’s apartment in Lausanne in Switzerland for the first time. I was 27, a divorced mother of two sons, Eliah a toddler and Chris, six years old. Wounded and bleeding from existential doubts, I don’t think I would have made it if Paul Brunton did not come into my life. “I was hanging over the abyss,” I said to him as we walked together along the shore of Geneva Lake on a lovely spring day a year later. After a silence so long that I thought he hadn’t heard me, he said quietly, “Yes, you were.”
Our first meeting had been scheduled with very short notice. There was no previous outward contact, but for months before I woke up every morning with a feeling of happy expectancy. I knew I would meet someone who knew me to the core.
As Paul Brunton opened the door and I gazed into his eyes, I knew it was he. In a sudden flash the greatness of our human nature was revealed to me. The man standing in the doorway in the world outside and my own innermost being magically merged into one.
The experience turned my whole life around. It made it possible for me to fight and conquer the destructive urges in my nature that were pulling me down.
Being a journalist and writer I offered to translate Paul Brunton’s books into Swedish. Translating is a wonderful way of studying a text in depth. And in this case, the source being spiritual, the daily contact with his writing also helped me to heal psychologically and emotionally.
At the time of my first visit with Paul Brunton I was studying philosophy and meditation with Anthony Damiani, one of his most devoted students. Anthony’s humble love for his teacher had opened the way for me. Anthony was a passionate Italian American mystic and philosopher, strong willed, and brilliant, with a velveteen depth of feeling. During one of my first classes in The American Brahman bookstore in Ithaca where he taught I heard him say “PB.” When he spoke his teacher’s initials his whole being was transfigured into one of infinite tenderness and humility. A deep silence ensued—we all felt an angel pass through the room.
The translating enabled me to see Paul Brunton once or twice a year during the last ten years of his life. I eventually moved back to Sweden with my children in order to help promote his books in my native country. Larson Publications (Swedish / English), owned and run by Robert Larson and his wife Brigitta, had just published PB's first book, The Secret Path, in Swedish when I returned to Stockholm.
I saw that many of my friends were hanging over the abyss as I had been and thought that the spiritual guidance Paul Brunton offered in his books could possibly help them too. Here my journalistic training came in handy. I became an investigating reporter of the inner. PB encouraged me to write. “You will be a bridge between the spiritual philosophy in my books and the general public,” he said. “Don’t just write about my ideas. Write on different life topics and then you can bring in a deeper perspective.”
I followed his advice.
Luck had it that Svenska Dagbladet, one of the two largest newspapers in Sweden at that time, had a very popular section of existential topics where I fit in. I wrote a series of feature articles for it from the mid-1980s to 2004. Among these I published a three-piece series about Paul Brunton, and his writings helped to promote the books that were published in wider circles.
During the ten years that Paul Brunton lived after our first meeting, my greatest joy was the visits I had with him once or twice a year. He lived a very reclusive life, devoting himself to writing and “inner research.” I tried to make myself useful, helping him with correspondence and practical chores. He revised his books and helped formulate the study guides, which the Swedish publisher wanted to include in the books.
In Sweden we have a vast infrastructure of study organizations for adult education. Paul Brunton’s books were marketed and promoted for study circles by several of the largest study organizations in Sweden. A study circle consists of ten to twenty individuals and meets a couple of evenings a month during one semester. It is a great way for questers to find and get to know and exchange experiences and views with each other.
It begins with meditation and then proceeds with discussion based on the questions in the study guide.
Paul Brunton encouraged the study circle to form for the study of spiritual philosophy. He liked the idea that a group would form and meet for a short time and then dissolve. He did not want to start movements and organizations. “After all,” he often said, “the spiritual quest is an inner thing.” You need to learn to rely on your inner guidance in order to realize its high goal. Considering that, of course, guru worship and external organizations may be counterproductive.
Our time together was devoted to work and service. The most trivial chores in PB’s presence, like disposing of garbage, or wrapping up ancient silk paintings, or cutting tomatoes took on an intensely spiritual dimension.
What does it mean? How was it experienced? Different individuals experienced it differently. I felt it when I was on my way to see him in the U.S. that first time. It was as if the protective shield on my heart was beginning to melt. Situations, people, and events in my life were held up before my mind’s eye. First I saw them from the outside, which is a familiar perspective. Then the outside melted away, and the inner truth was revealed. My tears were flowing from the time I boarded the plane to New York until we landed in Oslo. When I came to PB much of my personal pain and bitterness had dissolved, and I felt naked, skinless. When weaned from PB’s company I experienced his presence more and more as an unfathomable peace, clarity, or knowing. It could also manifest as intense joy or freedom.
When I received word of PB’s passing in July of 1981, I was taking a deep breath to let my tears flow, when I had an unexpected and very clear perception of him. His characteristic chuckle and little smile. “Let me see now if you have understood what I taught you, or if I wasted my time on you!” his voice resounded within me.
This too was a gift. I had wanted to—and did—ask him so many things. He was so wide and kind, you couldn’t help doing it. But 99% of the time he would reflect my questions back onto me: “What do you yourself think, Anna? Find it out!” Although it may at times have felt baffling, it served me perfectly. I did ask myself. And each time I asked, unknowingly I had drawn closer to the light deep within my own heart. Now suddenly it was present there, not only in me but also in the forest and meadows surrounding me. PB was closer than he had even been while in the body. And his light merged with the light of my own higher self.
What was the impact of your first meeting with PB? Was there a feeling of peace in his presence?
The impact of meeting PB was very powerful. Every time. Every day when He opened the door.
To give a little context, I’ve met many gurus and spiritual personalities, including several encounters with the Dalai Lama and Shankaracarya in India. Each encounter was very wonderful, and each of these great beings has a distinctly different Presence.
My first encounter with PB was through the kind offices of my teacher Anthony Damiani. I met Anthony within days of coming to Cornell as a freshman and knew as soon as I encountered him that he was the reason I’d come to Ithaca. That was 1967. Over the next several years many of his students were able to visit with PB in Europe, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a week. Although I asked to go several times, PB never responded to my requests. By 1971 I had moved in to Wisdom’s Goldenrod, where I lived as a monk with several other men for the next three years.
By 1972 not only had many people closely connected to Wisdom’s Goldenrod met PB, but some had seen him quite often. I truly despaired of ever meeting him, and wondered what personal flaw or spiritual weakness was blocking my way—or rather which of my flaws and weaknesses were the blocks. Then one morning Anthony stopped by the Center and asked, “Can you be ready to see PB by next week?” I said of course I could and proceeded to make hasty arrangements to travel to Switzerland, having never been abroad before. My itinerary, arranged by my backwater travel agent, had me traveling straight through by bus, plane, boat and rail for 48 hours from Ithaca to New York to London, then on to Paris and finally to Montreux, Switzerland where PB was living at the time. I was told that I should call PB the moment I arrived in Montreux and follow his instructions.
Although I’m a pretty hardy traveler, that trip was very exhausting for me—going through customs, finding my way to Calais, and so forth. But, two days after I left Ithaca, and without the benefit of pausing at a hotel midway, I took the instructions literally, and called PB the moment I got off the train in Montreux. “Very well,” he said, “come right over.”
I was aghast. I needed a shower and a change of clothes; it was Sunday, and I had meant to get some flowers or fruits to bring as an offering—something that had been recommended to me. Now, in those days Switzerland on Sunday was deader than a parking lot in an ice storm—even in the train station, there was nothing open, not even a newsstand. There was, however, a vending machine that sold oranges as well as chocolates and crackers—so I bought all the oranges in the machine, stashed my suitcase, and headed up the long road to find PB. I got to his apartment, knocked on the door, and who should open it but my friend Micha-El [Dr. Alan Berkowitz] from Wisdom’s Goldenrod, who bid me enter and told me that PB was awaiting my arrival in his study.
I entered the study to find a diminutive man reclining on a vivid orange couch, propped up on pillows reading A Search in Secret Egypt. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he said, “I must find out how this book comes out.” Too nonplussed to make a remark, I knelt on the floor for some time. Gradually a great peace and joy began to fill me. I felt absolutely wonderful and had the sense that I could never desire anything again, except to be in that room, with PB. I didn’t stop being tired, and I still wondered about his remark concerning a book he himself had written, but I had no doubt that I was in the presence of something I’d never encountered before.
The way I put it to someone today was that being in his presence didn’t make the rest of life meaningless, but rather it revealed to me a plane of Reality in which meaning simply didn’t—and doesn’t—apply. I felt an odd disappointment. The disappointment was the inner death of my secret (and unrecognized) hopes that other goals and avenues of life besides the quest were worthwhile and legitimate in their own right. In the presence of the Sage, in his Silence, in his Radiance, that was manifestly not the case, for I now knew that the Sage, in this case PB, is at the center of life, of human endeavor regardless of our skills, interests, opportunities, or abilities. I also knew with intimate clarity exactly why I had had to wait so very long to meet with PB. I could see that an earlier visit would have unbalanced me, filled me with too much pride or shame, too many questions or too many answers. If, now, in these latter years, I am ever able to communicate these facts—the FACT of enlightenment, and the fact of the extraordinary wisdom involved in the unfoldment of our own spiritual experiences—I will indeed feel that I’ve done something to repay PB, and the Overself, for that moment.
So, by and by, PB sat up, apologized for the wait, commented that He hadn’t read that book in decades and was reviewing it with Alan for changes and corrections. Then he asked, “Do you have any questions for me?” Well, I did, but I was hardly in a state of mind or body to ask them, or to retain his answers, being exalted in mind and exhausted in body. Nonetheless, I knew that this was a moment that could not be postponed. So I got out my little notebook and presented him with my three questions. One of them was of a personal nature, and I shan’t repeat it here. The second was, “What is dharma?” His response was, “Putting into practice what you know.” The third question was, “What can I do to help you?”—a question that has been answered for the rest of my life! At the time, PB just smiled and said, “I’ll think of something.”
Shortly thereafter Alan and I went to our hotel, and I fell into a deep sleep. After that, for the next week, each day we met with PB for a few hours in the morning and sometimes again in the afternoon. Sometimes he saw both of us, sometimes just one of us. My own subjective state was all over the map: some days I was in bliss and very content to be present; at other times I was filled with negative thoughts, resentment, anxiety, and a variety of irrelevant preoccupations and fears. Fortunately, these attacks seldom occurred while I was in his presence, so I was able to really pay attention to him.
During this stay PB discussed his original books with Alan and started making a list of all the corrections that he wanted to see made to these texts. I believe that this discussion wasn’t completed until Alan’s final visit with him in 1979.
He gave me several envelopes full of typewritten phrases, a set of envelopes numbered I to XXVIII, and a list of 28 categories, somewhat similar to those found in the Notebooks. He asked me to sort the phrases into their appropriate categories. I eagerly accepted the task, and when I opened the envelope, I was confronted with statements like, “and this is more important than,” or “on no account should this be neglected.” I spent several days trying to deal with these fragments and eventually placed all of them in one category or another. PB then grilled me on my placement and ended by giving me another couple of batches to sort.
And so our days passed, walking in the streets of Montreux, taking tea with PB, speaking when spoken to, eating tahini and toast, and trying to write down as much as we could of our sojourn. On the last day, PB sat both of us down, and spoke to us at length—for what seemed hours. After we said our goodbyes, we went to a nearby park to write down this remarkable moment and found that we had no memory whatsoever of what transpired. And to this day neither Alan nor I have even the slightest recollection of that conversation.
I do remember having the strong sense that I would see him again and an overwhelming desire to do whatever it took in whatever inner or outer work to make it so. Fortune, the Grace of the Overself, and PB’s own profound generosity saw to it that in spite of my own limitations, my wish was granted, several times over, with benefits that will affect me for lifetimes to come.
So yes, PB did give off a feeling of peace, but also of barely contained power, sort of like walking on the surface of the sun—so much light it was wonderful and extraordinarily difficult to bear at the same time. Others, who hadn’t the slightest inkling about him, also felt this. When we went out for the day, sometimes a person would sit next to us on the bus or in a café and then would follow PB around for the remainder of the day; when he was in hospital for a minor operation, the nurses, doctors, and cleaning staff would sometimes just come and sit in the room, and these were not people who had any reason to recognize him or his name. In another time I’ll try writing some anecdotes about them.
I know what he looked like physically, but I wonder about his demeanor. When he was not addressing people on spiritual matters...what might he have been like to bump into in the grocery store, for instance? Was he mercurial and energetic, always changing depending on who he was with and where he was? Was he the life of the party? Gregarious at social events, or quiet and off to himself in the corner?
When PB was not addressing people on spiritual matters—that was most of the time and none of the time—he was simply quiet, but I’d hardly say ‘off to himself in the corner’. There wasn’t so much a sense of withdrawal into quiet reserve as a manifestation of silence. In the 7 months I attended to him, I only had two conversations regarding personal issues (and questions) of mine. On the other hand, issues, philosophic points, techniques for meditation, and occult information more or less flowed from him during our tea-time and lunch. Occasionally, when I would come into his office area with a question or to report a task accomplished, PB would look up from his work or his reading and initiate a conversation, more often than not starting with a question to me! On most of these occasions a lengthy conversation would follow, and after a while PB would explain his interest and reflections on the topic in hand; at other times when I replied he would only nod and thank me, giving me no clue as to why he asked the question or what he made of my response.
I too wondered how he would be in the grocery store—and got to see him in action there! Basically he was incredibly efficient, circumspect, and tried to avoid bumping into anyone at all costs. (Being touched really impacted him with the aura of the other person, and they were likely to get a ‘hit’ of his presence that way as well.) Once someone became aware of him—a shopper or shopkeeper, for example—they tended to follow him around, sometimes even walking down the street after him, leaving their store untended. He therefore put out a kind of invisibility cloak and moved swiftly through the public environment. Occasionally he would arouse animosity, as people would literally stop thinking in his presence, and those who had a resistance to spiritual matters would deeply dislike him. Mostly though, people would begin to glow and kind of ‘wake up’ around him—and these are ordinary shopkeepers who didn’t know his name, reputation, or anything about him.
As for ‘mercurial,’ I suppose so, in that he responded to whatever was the deepest essence of the person with whom he was interacting. So if that person was kindly, he became kindness itself; if they were selfish, he became coldly impersonal. He did not judge people in the sense of condemning them; he simply reflected their own spiritual status back to them, willy-nilly. He was aware of what people thought, aware of their whole life, and often of their past lives as well, not in a psychic way, but in a more direct, innate mode of knowing. He certainly had a sense of humor and was not above teasing or quick repartee, but these moods mostly occurred over tea or while traveling. And while I could say that he was always changing, it was more that no projection or expectation really ‘stuck’ on him; he was immediately present to life, and as such flowed along with the circumstance and quality of the moment. It’s something like meeting a pen-pal in person once a year: we’re reminded of the fuller life-presence of the other person; the rest of the time we’re just words on paper, thoughts in the ether. Now take that sense of aliveness we get when we meet someone and square it; meeting PB was like meeting the purest power of human life. Is that mercurial? Sometimes. Energetic? Definitely.
But life of the party? Gregarious at social events? Well, there may have been a time in PB’s long life when there were social events, but certainly not during the period I knew him, or knew of him. He would meet people for dinners and have a few words, or for tea, but that was more one on one or in small groups. In such settings the visitor’s awareness of his presence forestalled any sense of socializing, though there was a gracious and cultured atmosphere at all times. I never saw him ‘relax’ or let his hair down as an escape from some quotidian pressure, nor did it occur to me that he would have need of such activity. He did relax his lower mind and body on a daily basis, setting aside an hour after lunch for a nap (he was elderly) and to read various papers and journals, including the local newspaper. While I never saw him read a novel, his remarks on literature made it clear that he was well-read, especially with respect to the authors of his own time, like Henry Miller, Hemingway, and of course Somerset Maugham.
He was exactly and effortlessly who the World Mind called him to be in each moment of life, no more, no less.
He did not tolerate artifice, and since most social gatherings are artificial in one way or another, he did not engage in such gatherings. When I say that he did not tolerate them, I mean his very presence shattered any pretense around him, freeing those who preferred authenticity, and scaring the shit out of those clinging to formalism and pretense. So it was really impossible for him to be part of a party, as his very arrival changed the whole quality, the whole fact of the event!
Well, that’s enough from me on this topic. I bet that if you asked other people you would get different answers. After all, I knew PB as an older man, and we had a lot of work to get done during my stay with him. And I myself am hardly inclined towards social activities, which inevitably colors these stories, but it’s what I saw, what I observed, and what I’m most glad to pass along to you.
Meditating with PB —”the sun behind the sun”
“The mind stilled, the self surrendered, a divine awareness possesses him. For there can be three forms of possession: divine, human (as in artists or writers), and diabolic. In the ideal sage, divine possession has become a permanent state.” (Notebooks 22.2.33)
This quote stirred a recollection or two of PB. Sometimes he would become so still that the very world around him stopped, as if to honor that silence within him. In those moments, “he” would become “He;” His eye-color changed—or rather His gaze became beatific, terrifying, intimate, and impersonal all at once. One could barely stand to accept that gaze, much less return it—and at the same time, one could barely tolerate the prospect of ever, ever forfeiting that presence ever again. Should He speak in such a moment, it was so quiet and penetrating that the words seemed mere echoes of the transmission of meaning / consciousness. In such a moment, the meaning of Shruti—the speaking truth of the Rishi—became absolutely literal and exquisitely Real.
One day we were to travel from the small town of Vevey to the Cantonal center of Lausanne. Standing on the train platform, I anxiously awaited the arrival of PB. He was nowhere in sight. The train came and left. Then PB appeared walking through a large culvert that ran underneath the tracks. “I tried a different route to the station,” he remarked. “Evidently, it’s not a short-cut!” This being Switzerland, there would soon be another train to Lausanne, so we had about 40 minutes to wait.
PB said to follow him, and headed off towards a pile of railroad ties and other industrial junk. Having just witnessed his egress from the culvert, I had no idea where we were headed or why. A few steps beyond the tracks we found a small, well-kept formal garden with three benches encircling a little fountain, all nestled in amongst the detritus of the rail-road station! It was very secluded and yet afforded a glimpse of the tracks, so we could easily know when the next train had arrived. This took place sometime in March, which was still winter in that part of the world—mostly overcast and rainy, but seldom nice enough to be outdoors for more than a few clammy minutes. However, on this particular day, the weather was sunny and clear and pleasantly warm.
We seated ourselves on the benches and just rested in the welcome sunlight. Whenever such a moment would present itself in PB’s presence, I would always start to meditate, in hopes of partaking of his silence and in natural response to the overwhelming radiance that flowed from him. This day was such a chance. As the sun shone down upon us, it complemented the great light I felt shining forth from within PB. The silence deepened, thought slowed, and a great simplicity of light remained. Then the spell was broken, gently, actually, by the arrival of our train. PB rose from his bench, smiled, and remarked, “It is pleasant to sit in the sun.” Then He paused and looked upon the world with those Eyes of Other and added, “But it is better to sit in the Sun Behind the Sun.”
Later, after I told Anthony Damiani about this incident, he pointed out the following passage from Manly Palmer Hall (The Secret Teachings of All Ages). "Apuleius said when describing his initiation, ‘At midnight I saw the sun shining with a splendid light.’ The midnight sun was also part of the mystery of alchemy. It symbolized the spirit in man shining through the darkness of his human organisms. It also referred to the spiritual sun in the solar system, which the mystic could see as well at midnight as at high noon, the material earth being powerless to obstruct the rays of this Divine orb.” For a more thorough explanation, I suggest reading "The Oration to the Sun" by Emperor Julian.
For a complete recounting of Tim’s Conversations and Recollections of Paul Brunton go to his website.
Visiting PB in Montreaux
I remember that his actions were unpredictable—a true individual. When I delivered some turtleneck shirts to him in pastel colors, I noted that the sender had said he wouldn’t like them. PB mildly said, “How would she know what I like?”
In 1974, two years after a painful divorce, I first became acquainted with Paul Brunton’s writings. The divorce was the hardest thing I had ever done. We had been married for fourteen years and had three children. I loved my husband but he suffered from bipolar disorder and self-medicated with alcohol. I felt that I had to make a better life for my children. I wondered why this had happened to me and what the meaning of my life was. Why was I here? In my pain I sought answers.
I joined a group in Columbus studying The Quest of the Overself. I was fascinated by the thought that I could actually search and perhaps find and be in union with my soul. I read Discover Yourself and found myself agreeing with the ideas. It was as though they were my own, and I had finally found someone who agreed with me. One book led to another, and eventually I had read them all.
When Paul Brunton visited Columbus in 1977, I served as his secretary. I remember the first time I waited for him to come so that we could begin to work. I was in complete and wonderful peace. It was the closest I have ever been to “the peace that passeth all understanding.” It was as though everything I had ever done in my entire life had brought me to this moment.
We sat out under the tree, and he dictated ideas to me. At one point he asked me to go in the house and tell the others that we were ready for tea. When I went into the kitchen there were three or four people working there, other students only too happy to be of service to PB, as he liked to be called. An amazing thing happened. It was as though vibrations of energy moved simultaneously toward me from each of the people and within that energy were their voices revealing what each was thinking. I was stunned. I had never before had a paranormal experience like that. In fact, in a somewhat typical western scientific way, I was skeptical. This experience was truly earthshaking for me. It shifted my perspective of reality and opened my mind to consider other possibilities.
I was fortunate to have a private interview with PB. He answered questions for me that still resonate today in their importance to my life. His writings continue to be of particular value to me because they encouraged me to take an independent path, absent of dogma. This left me free to choose the best in all philosophies, to think for myself and to begin to understand the truth of my existence. My physical teacher became my everyday experiences as I tested these ideas through daily application. I found them not only soul-satisfying but practical as well. They have helped me find the meaning I was searching for and have changed my life in positive ways.