Jogyata Dallas runs Auckland’s Sri Chinmoy centre, which offers free meditation courses to more than 1000 people every year. The Wanganui-born former mine worker, chef and clown lives a celibate life with few material possessions
1. Did you grow up with religion?
My Dad was religious but I spent all my time avoiding church. He would give me a penny to take to our Presbyterian church in Wanganui but I would put it on the train tracks and lie in the long grass and watch the train roll over it. I honestly don't remember much of my childhood - it's all fallen into the sea. I distinguished myself at school by having the highest non-attendance rate for three consecutive years. I vaguely remember a group of us always getting into trouble - letting down the tyres of the teachers' cars, hoisting a skull-and-crossbones flag on the school flagpole, drawing unflattering portraits in the toilets of the most disliked teachers. I studied English literature at university and some geology but never had any idea what I wanted to do. I was back in Wanganui one day pushing the lawn mower around when I realised I would never do that stuff, wouldn't do law or medicine like my friends, wouldn't be a scientist like my father wanted for me.
2. What did you do instead?
I spent years travelling the world, going down all the culs-de-sac of work and travel and exploring, looking for happiness in other things. The Greek poet Cavafy says "No ship exists to take you from yourself" and that's what I find. Everywhere I went I carried my own baggage, my discontent and unhappiness and sense of not belonging. I'd always had that - the feeling that what everyone else was doing didn't really please me or satisfy me.
3. How did you find meditation?
I began to read books about the spiritual masters and exploring yoga. It really stimulated something deeper in me and I felt that this is what my life should be about. I was in Australia and walked across a road one afternoon looking for a drink and inside this place was a picture of Sri Chinmoy on the wall with an aphorism underneath that said, "Peace that comes from inner awakening is the peace everlasting". Several months later, I went to a public meditation in New York held by his centre. He walked past me afterwards and looked at me and saw everything about me and smiled this huge smile. It left me with this feeling for days afterwards of inner peacefulness and joy. That was 1980. Meditation was very fringe then.
4. Were you married then?
I met my wife in Hamilton through friends. She'd just arrived from Ireland, a very feisty and independent woman. I'd never thought of marriage but her visa ran out and so we went to the registry office to get married. She was back in Ireland when I was exploring the path and when I said I was going to New York to see Sri Chinmoy, she said, "I'm not coming". But she changed her mind and came to love him a lot, as I did.
5. What is love to you?
I think it is the most powerful force in the universe. My wife Subarata died very young, 15 years ago, so I'm a kind of urban monk now and practising a celibate's love. Her passing was a terribly sad time. Sri Chinmoy asked me once how I was coping - I told him I still missed her, there was a vacuum in my heart that she had once filled. I thought he would offer a sympathetic remark, but instead he gave me a broad smile and said, "I don't miss her, I see her all the time". He was reminding me that the secret of life is that there is no death, that she is still here. Sometimes I have had some remarkable experiences of this.
6. Celibacy seems a very radical act in the modern age. Is it difficult?
It's a very hard word for most people. But being 67 and unemployable and with hair falling out and living in a tiny room, no one is going to be interested in me anyway. Ha! I'm trying to develop a love that moves beyond physical need and attachment, to a love for all. We can learn to love unconditionally, without wanting to possess. In the past three decades, I have seen about 20,000 women pass through this centre to learn meditation. I always feel I have been entrusted to offer everything I can to help them in their spiritual lives, but I know it would be a grave error to ever disturb them romantically. So I try to be a brother and to cultivate purity and detachment.
7. Where is the tiny room you live in?
My life has been very precarious financially through choice and I wouldn't change any of it. I live in a very small room next to the centre which has a small place to meditate, a bed; I don't really have a kitchen, just a blender and a tiny stove. I've worked all my life but now I'm a superannuitant, which I can't believe. I feel guilty. It seems extraordinary to live in a country where you are getting $300 a week and I'm doing what I love to do. Meditation is a very sacred thing for us and we would never charge for it.
8. Did you decide not to have children?
Neither of us felt we were meant to have children. But I love kids. I was Toto the clown in Auckland for 10 years as a way to earn a living; I did parties and shopping malls. I love being with children, especially when their parents aren't there, because then you can be as childlike as them and they love that.
9. Why is it beneficial for our minds to be still?
Stillness is an immensely powerful creative space. This is where Einstein discovered the general theory of relativity and other insights into the universe, and where the ancient Vedic seers realised the nature of the universe, which modern quantum theory is verifying now. Silence is also a haven where we can step back and consider our life more deeply, to see what is important and what is not important, and to know ourselves more deeply.
10. What's the best antidote to modern life?
I often feel uneasy at the amount of time we spend in jobs and careers we really don't enjoy, and the illusion that the fruits of this striving will make us happy. Everyone's consumed with their toys, their computers and phones and gadgets. We have become very urban and mesmerised by it all. Nature is a great antidote - try taking a walk along Whatipu beach on your own. Landscapes diminish us, humble us a little in a healing way.
11. What does your name mean?
"Jogyata" is a Bengali name given to me many years ago. It means knowing the right way, right thought, and righteousness. Spiritual masters at this level can see our soul's unique attributes and a spiritual name identifies this uniqueness and offers a window into our inner life. So I always listen to my heart in meditation and let it show me the right way, right thing to do.
12. When have you failed?
I've made lots of mistakes in my life, but Sri Chinmoy always taught us that the past is dust, and to only see what we call our failings as simply experiences that prepare us for a brighter future. If we look back at all that we have been and done in the course of our evolution, our other lives, we'd probably be horrified. But we're evolving, and these stumblings and failings are the preparation for tomorrow's dawn.