by Spyridon Stratigos
The late sixties and early seventies were an exciting time to have lived on a college campus. The winds of change seemed to be taking me way off the course I thought I was heading. I came to Indiana University and joined a fraternity that, unbeknownst to me, was one of the conservative bastions of American college cultural life. Within a two year period, I moved out of the fraternity, became an activist against the Viet Nam war, smoked marijuana and experimented with psychedelic drugs. At the end of this whirlwind of change, I began my search for a more meaningful life in Eastern religions and teachings.
My story was not unusual and along the way I found many a kindred soul. It was during this period I kept running into this guy from Connersville, Indiana, whose life was running almost exactly parallel to mine. His name at that time was Michael Shoemaker.
Michael had moved back to Connersville for a short period of time while I had connected with a group of Sufis who were leading meditation classes and Sufi dance meetings. Our teacher was Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, and he was carrying on the teachings of his father, Hazrat Inayat Khan. In San Francisco at that time, there was a teacher of Hazrat’s who had developed an American style of Sufi teaching. His name was Murshid Samuel Lewis, also known as Sufi Sam. It was through that connection that a couple who were devotees of Murshid Sam came to Bloomington. We found an abandoned fraternity house, rented it for cheap, and called it the Sufi House.
The house became a magnet for just about every spiritual group passing through town. It was during this time that Michael moved back to Bloomington and into the Sufi House. If there was one thing I learned about Michael is that once he became involved with a movement or practice, he focused like a laser. Within weeks he was teaching Hatha Yoga in the student meadow in front of the Student Union Building, just a block from the Sufi House.
One day a fellow seeker came to visit us at the Sufi House. His name was David Komito. I had known David casually before but this time there was a new energy surrounding his being. He had just come from New York City where he had met his guru. As Michael and I and several others listened, he told us of meeting this man named Rudi. We were enthralled by his words of Kundalini yoga and Shakti. He invited us to come out to New York and meet Rudi with our own eyes. Michael didn’t hesitate. Shortly after hearing David’s tales of Rudi and Kundalini yoga he went to New York to meet Rudi. I, on the other hand, didn’t want to leave my girlfriend and had plans to go to Arizona to attend a Pir Vilayat led Sufi camp. So Michael headed east, and I headed west. not knowing what the future held. By the way, in those days we were fearless and lived in the moment. In retrospect, we had no idea what we were doing but it never stopped us from doing it.
Sufi camp was great. It deepened my spiritual yearnings and my commitment to live a spiritual life. I thought that I needed to travel to India to find a teacher to continue my spiritual quest. As fate would have it and my memory is not quite clear on this, but a few weeks after returning to Indiana, I ran into Michael Shoemaker at the Indianapolis Airport. He was heading back to New York to move into Rudi’s Ashram in the city. He had that same glow that I had seen in David’s countenance months earlier. He urged me before I did anything that I should come to New York to meet Rudi. So, a few weeks later I and a couple of Sufi buddies headed to New York city. By the way, one of those friends whose name is now Govind is living in the Portland Ashram after a circuitous path of his own.
I will never forget pulling up in front of Rudi’s 10th Street Ashram. There was Rudi sitting on his stoop with several of his students including Michael. Here was this portly, bald, Jewish man smiling at me. Once our eyes met my heart broke and I was overwhelmed by a powerful emotion of joy and love. My mind was telling me this can’t be happening. My conception of a spiritual teacher at that time was of a thin, bearded, holy man, dressed in white. Yet, my heart was throbbing with joy. I was confused but curious. We got out of the car. He came forward and asked us to follow him up the Big Indian, his ashram in the Catskills. We didn’t question him and the next thing I know we were heading north up the New York Thruway!
After settling in, we were assigned work on the grounds. I was given the job of working with the goats. During a break I was walking down the path towards the old hotel site where the ashram residents stayed. Rudi was approaching me with a few of his devotees. He motioned me over and gave me a hug. At the same time he softly touched the base of my spine and put his forehead to my forehead. I felt a pulsation into my third eye and the touch to my spine sent me into a swoon. Rudi caught my fall, and I was laid down on the gravel path. All I can say is that I was having an out of body ecstatic experience that is to this day difficult to describe in words. I can remember Rudi saying, “Just lie there and absorb it”.
This experience was repeated many times over the next few months. I was asked if I wanted to move into the New York Ashram where my Bloomington friends Michael and David were living with a handful of other students. I didn’t hesitate to take him up on his offer. It was the most extraordinary few months of my life. We worked hard both physically and spiritually. One day Rudi suggested we (David, Michael, and myself) move back to Bloomington to start an ashram. I remember Michael pleading that we had no money to buy a house or start a business. Rudi’s response was, “Any schmuck can do it with money.”
We did move back to Bloomington and within six months owned a house, a restaurant, and a bakery.
The next couple of years are like a dream to me now. The ashram grew in leaps and bounds. More students were coming every day. We bought another house and then another. The Tao restaurant, which was my baby, served delicious vegetarian food, and was becoming very popular to the growing alternative life style market. We introduced a host of vegetarian dishes and sold medicinal herbs and teas over the counter. Rudi’s bakery followed and found immediate success. Michael opened a small but very tasteful Oriental Art store ( the term used back then). At the same time, our spiritual message was attracting more students. Michael, David, and I were teaching regular classes daily. Rudi made several trips to Indiana and gave lectures and held classes for our students. It was an amazing time.
As often happens with group dynamics, there started to be cracks in the system. There was trouble in paradise. David moved on to pursue more scholarly endeavors. Michael and I started to bicker over financial matters. My marriage was dissolving. One thing I want to make perfectly clear, during this turbulent time Michael never took his eye off the goal of becoming a teacher in every sense of the word. It was not perfection but he was progressing toward his goal. He worked harder and longer than any of us. In retrospect he made some mistakes of judgment and so did I. I can now say a lot of it was the fact we were so young and had been given an enormous responsibility.
Then Rudi died. That was a game changer for me. Michael had established himself as the one who would continue Rudi’s work not only in Indiana but for all Rudi’s students. I left the ashram, separated from my wife who stayed in the Ashram, went back to school in Religious Studies with a concentration on Tibetan Buddhism. In 1973 I opened my own restaurant. I would be remiss not to say there was a tension that existed between Michael and myself. We grew apart. After a few years the ashram moved to Boston. I stayed in Indiana, remarried my wife of 37 years, maintained an organic farm in the country with my wife and three sons, and was part owner of three other restaurants. I went back to school earned a degree in Second Language Studies, and taught in the department as an adjunct lecturer for over twenty years until I retired in 2011.
Michael never stopped working and serving his community. He deservedly became a Swami and from this point on I will refer to him as Swamiji. Swami Chetanananda and I have been reunited and are now true old friends. Rudi would be proud of his commitment to the work he started in this country. A few years ago we met in Bloomington during a visit of the Dalai Lama. We were both very close friends with the Dalai Lama’s older brother, who had lived in Bloomington. It was on the meeting that I mentioned that I would like to visit Ganeshpuri where Swami Nityananda’s shrine stands. Swamiji said “You must let me take you there.” He invited me to join him in Kathmandu and then we would take the trip down to Ganeshpuri. After a short visit to Portland, where I was reunited with many old friends and treated with kindness and love, I decided to take Swamiji up on his offer. The experience was illuminating. His graciousness and sincere caring for me was beyond the beyond. I saw first hand the kind of service he was doing in regard to his students as well as the Tibetan community. I was able to see first hand his continued search to become more selfless and forgiving. We were able to re-establish our old ties. As it turned out, we never went to down to India but instead ventured to Chitwan National Game Preserve in southern Nepal. We shared a tent for a week and talked and laughed like old times. I am proud to call Swamiji a friend and am proud of his life long efforts to lead a spiritual life and for the continuation of Rudi’s legacy.
My life has not and will never be the same after meeting Rudi so many years ago. I still practice the breathing exercise he taught us. I am reminded of him daily when I gaze at his picture on my puja table that also serves as my clothes dresser. I am grateful for my opportunity to grow spiritually and for my relationship with Swami Chetanananda, and I thank him for asking me to write this personal story.