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Turning from Guru to God
Michael Graham was a leading disciple of one of India's most famous holy men, and then an international teacher of New Age spiritualities. Now he is a Christian. It's an enthralling story that will challenge all spiritual seekers. This article was originally published in the October 1999 issue of Alive magazine, and is reproduced with permission.
Many of the young Western spiritual seekers who flocked to Indian religions during the idealistic 1960s and 1970s became familiar with a mild-mannered Australian named Michael Graham. For Michael, who had embarked on an intense and far-reaching spiritual journey from the time of his graduation from elite Geelong Grammar School in the mid-1960s, came to find himself at the forefront of the great migration to the West of Indian religious teachings and practices.
As one of the first Western disciples of Swami Muktananda Paramanansa, who was to become a leading figure in America and elsewhere with his teachings of Siddha (perfect being) yoga, Michael helped manage his ashram (spiritual centre) in India, with up to 2,600 Westerners there at one time. He also became deeply involved in Muktananda’s American activities and energetically promoted his teachings in Australia and elsewhere.
Yet today Michael, 52, is on a different mission. In 1997 he became a Christian, after being convicted with the realisation that his 28 years of spiritual practices and experiences amounted to, in his own words, “a big fat zero”—and he is now working to persuade other idealistic spiritual seekers that their needs are simply met by the figure of Jesus, “the fulfilment of all spiritual paths”.
Michael’s story is a remarkable one. Born and raised in Melbourne, his father a doctor and psycho-analyst, he spent three years studying and practising yoga while still in his late teens, then took his motorcycle by ship to Colombo, and rode around Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India. After a trip to England he returned to India in early 1969 and spent six months in Muktananda’s ashram. And it was during this period of intense spiritual discipline that he experienced a dramatic spiritual “awakening”.
“The theory is that within everyone there is an unawakened divine potential,” says Michael. “By the intent or touch of a guru like Muktananda it can be awakened. I experienced this in a very powerful form.”
In an interview with Rowan Forster on Melbourne’s Triple 7 radio in April 1999 he recounted the experience:
“I was just sitting there, meditating, and all of a sudden my body started to gyrate in a circular motion. And then each day it began to sway more and more vigorously, even violently. I’d stop it, saying: ‘What’s this? How extraordinary. What an extraordinary phenomenon.’
“Hitherto, I’d always moved my body, but never before has it happened spontaneously. All sorts of dynamic and palpable activities started to take place under the influence of this spontaneous force. There’d be laughing one moment and crying the next, with nothing funny or sad in attendance—there’d be vigorous breathing rhythms, sounds of birds and animals coming from my mouth and speaking in tongues. It was fascinating. My body would start to move in classical dancing postures, I’d hop around the floor, I’d see inner lights, particularly blue, and sometimes torrents of peace would overcome me, even journeys out of the body.”
It was a tantalising experience for the young Australian. “I was totally seduced by this awakening. It is so engaging and seductive. It was real, with no suggestion or hypnosis involved. And it had a huge promise attached to it. It promised a final merging with the divine.”
Michael, with Muktananda’s Siddha yoga as his core practice, returned to India several times, but studied and practised under other gurus also, some of whom were to become famous (and in some cases, infamous) in the West, such as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
In 1977 he rejoined Muktananda in America, and, as one of his renowned disciples, spent some years working and touring with him and his successors. Muktananda was attracting huge numbers of followers, including famous names like John Denver—whom Michael remembers coming daily to the Santa Monica ashram and often singing for all the students—along with Diana Ross, actors Raul Julia and Olivia Hussey, and former California Governor Jerry Brown.
In the words of former Los Angeles Times journalist Russell Chandler, in his book Understanding the New Age, “Perhaps more than any other guru except Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of transcendental meditation fame, Muktananda made yoga meditation accessible and fun to Westerners—particularly the Hollywood set.”
But despite the exhilarating phenomena of Indian religious practice, Michael found that it was not bringing forth the life changes he desired.
“I remained the same at heart. It was always the same old me. There was no change of heart and mind. I was a young man, a modern man, with a philosophical bent. I had no affinity for major elements of the teaching. It was all the amazing experiences that kept me there, and what they were supposed to lead to. So I looked for something to supplement it, in the New Age movement. I became involved in various New Age mind dynamic techniques.”
For a time he was active in corporate consulting, designing and delivering a wide range of personal and organisational development strategies. He then discovered the US-developed Avatar® programme, an inventive way of creating a preferred reality through the management of one’s beliefs. He became one of the most successful teachers of this programme, delivering it in Australia, the US, New Zealand, Singapore and Switzerland.
“Avatar teaches that your beliefs determine your life’ experience. The point was that you could re-engineer your life by changing your beliefs. So you chose your desired outcome, then re-engineered your beliefs to create that reality. I explored it all assiduously, and drew as much from it as possible. But people’s deep-rooted beliefs are not amenable to change through strategic means. I decided ultimately that the programme’s impact was minimal.”
From around 1993 he started developing his own training courses. But increasingly, over several years, he felt frustration. His work was not developing to expectations. More significantly, he felt his spiritual life somehow in stagnation.
He resolved to intensify his spiritual practices, such as starting each day with 2½ hours of spiritual disciplines. Then he decided to embark on a series of 10-day meditations, in isolation, and it was during one of these that he had his encounter with Christ.
“At the time it happened I was in isolation,” he recalls. “But I wasn’t meditating; I was in a completely plain state of mind. All at once an image of Christ formed up in my chest cavity. Along with this image came a recognition of who He was. What followed was beyond conception. But to indicate using mere words…there was an openness to me from Christ of cosmic proportions, and an invitation and welcome, as if to say, ‘Give me your life and breath and I will take care of you.’ It was a personal invitation. It was equal to the deepest spiritual experience I’d ever had.”
But despite the marvel and intensity of the encounter, there was a problem. So entrenched was he in his existing spiritual ways, that Michael simply did not know how to respond. He carried that memory of meeting Jesus with him for one year, when he happened to be in Berkeley, California. And there, in 1997, he had what for him was another profound experience.
“I was overcome by the conviction that my lifelong spiritual quest added up to a big fat zero. It was a powerful sense. I was reduced to nothing.”
At the time he was driving 45 minutes each day, and as he drove he listened to evangelical Christian radio, which was building in him an understanding of the first principles of the Christian faith. “I started to get very excited by the promise of Christianity,” he remembers.
A prominent young Indian swami was visiting California at the time, and he was looking for 20-30 experienced people to be trained as gurus and healers in their own right. Michael was not in the least interested, but when three friends, separately, urged him to attend, he took that as some sort of sign that he should be there.
He went, and was not impressed by what he saw and heard. But one thing he noted deeply. The instructor reminded him that to achieve anything it was necessary to have faith. Thus reminded, Michael clearly recognised that it was only in Jesus Christ and His promise that he could ever have faith.
But there was for him one more step in becoming a Christian. “I knew about the importance, power and place of decision. I’d created a course on it called ‘The Decision Principle Training’. I knew that becoming a Christian would be the biggest decision of my life. I wanted to make a marker of it—an event. It so happened that Billy Graham was coming to San Francisco. So I went to that meeting for the express purpose alone of making this decision clearly, cleanly, surely, with no turning back, in front of 22,000 witnesses.
“And since that day I’ve never been the same. I knew absolutely what it was to be renewed, to be reborn. I was a new creation. It was a silent indwelling of the holy spirit. I started to be led in my Christian walk.”
Returning to Melbourne, he sought out a strong biblically-based church and found it in South Yarra Presbyterian Church, a short walk from his home, and a building he had strolled past numerous times previously with barely a glance.
Now after two years of dedicated Bible study he is eager to reach out to others with the story of his transformation. Exceedingly articulate, he has already addressed audiences at Christian colleges in Sydney and was a guest of Gordon Moyes on an Easter television special, and spoke to 25,000 Christians in India. He has also been working with the Community of Hope Christian mission in its outreach to the New Age movement.
He also tells the full and fascinating story of his 28-year spiritual odyssey in his book The Experience of Ultimate Truth.
In addition, he talks to friends and acquaintances who have been on a similar journey to his own, some of whom have also become disillusioned with the Eastern promise. “People I’m getting through to would normally never listen to a Christian,” he notes.
What would he tell today’s young spiritual seekers who are leaning towards Eastern religions?
“I’d tell them my story,” he says.
“Fulfilment is found in Christ. He is the embodiment of Truth, in whom is contained all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. The point is that the salvation He offers doesn’t come through signs and wonders, though they may be appended to it, but from a turning to Him in acknowledgment of His pre-eminence and His lordship, and as the medium through which total release can be known.
“In my experience the best the higher other ways can offer is amelioration of the human condition, coupled with large promises and tantalising effects. But they cannot penetrate to the very core, which is the call to utter renewal and the discovery of our sufficiency in Christ.
“Jesus doesn’t simply show us the way, or the truth. He is the way, the truth. He’s not another guru, or preceptor, or avatar, or holy man, or prophet. He’s God Himself stepped down into human flesh to die, identified with the consequences of our decision to turn from God, and thus eternally to reconcile us. The Christian revelation is the end of the end game, not the marvellous scenery on the way.”
And now that he is reconciled with Christ, how does Michael sum up his past? He smiles as he answers: “I was a dead man walking. I can’t believe I’m saying that. Because I thought I was so alive.”