Anyone who has seen "Caddyshack" knows Bill Murray's character, Carl Spackler, is promised total consciousness on his deathbed. Turns out the Dalai Lama isn't a golfer, but another highly influential spiritual leader is.
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev's YouTube videos, which mostly take the form of five-minute answers to deep questions, have eclipsed 100 million views. His is a globetrotting schedule—conducting large-scale meditation workshops, building schools, battling deforestation, lecturing for assemblies like the United Nations and World Economic Forum—but the self-described "yogi, mystic and visionary" got in 29 rounds last year.
"When the entire population of the world attains enlightenment, I'll retire and play golf every day," he says, and it's oddly hypnotic the way his white beard bounces as he laughs. He has to tie it so it doesn't interfere with his swing. He almost always brings his clubs on the road, eschews carts, and prefers parkland courses to links.
A dean at the University of Cambridge was incredulous when she heard he partook in such a bourgeoisie activity.
"I love games, and I'll play any," Sadhguru told her. "Games are a way of training ourselves to be heavily involved without being serious." A way of being, Sadhguru believes, that can assist in learning how to focus inward. He likes to quote Swami Vivekananda, the yogi pioneer who came to the United States in 1893, who said, "Kicking a football will take you closer to the Divine than any amount of prayer." If Swami had played golf, surely he would've agreed the mind similarly can't wander.
To train for his annual summer trek in the Himalayas of Tibet, Sadhguru, who turned 60 on Sept. 3, walks 36 holes a day for several days on a course at an elevation of 6,200 feet in his native India. "By day two or three my game becomes really good," he says. "The best round I ever shot was three over par. Most of the time I'm between six and 18." Not bad considering he took up the game seriously just a few years ago—a friend's suggestion after Sadhguru injured his knee playing soccer with children.
"He's a good player, and strong," says five-time major champion Yani Tseng, who first attended one of Sadhguru's workshops in Manhattan, then later spent one-on-one time with the man at the meditation center he built in Tennessee. Why Tennessee? Besides natural beauty, its central location is within a day's drive for most of the U.S. population. When you're trying to change the world, you've got to be efficient.
Tseng's initial motivation for visiting Sadhguru was to regain the mental clarity she enjoyed when she was the No. 1 female golfer in the world. "I had all these specific questions, but once I was around him those questions started to feel unimportant. He brings such a sense of peace. I forgot about golf and started thinking more about enjoying life, being grateful for my family and friends. Of course, having a quiet mind also helps in golf."
If Tiger Woods would accept his help, Sadhguru believes he could get him going in the right direction, too. Which, if you commit to reading on, is what this is all about. Prepping the mind to hit fewer shots can't be separated from the larger task of total self-re-examination.
"Today, the most important work on the planet is to raise human consciousness," Sadhguru says—and writes. (His dozen books he has simply dictated into a recording device, then made minimal edits to the transcripts—a working method that is unbelievable until you hear him speak for hours without a single stammer or notecard.) "For the first time, we have the necessary capability, technology and resources to solve almost every human problem—fundamental problems like malnutrition, sickness, illiteracy—on this planet; never before was this possible. The only thing that is missing is human consciousness. ... All it takes is to make human beings willing."
Willing, that is, to be truly inclusive and compassionate. To see themselves as part of a larger energy that is dispersed among all forms of life.
Whoa. Let's pause here. From Tony Robbins to Eckhart Tolle, modern gurus—which let's define as charismatic figures who make their life telling others how to live—tend to engender worship or extreme skepticism. Internet trolls accuse Sadhguru of hypocrisy in little ways, and others battle on intellectual turf, arguing his transposing of ancient Eastern philosophy into the Western world takes unforgivable shortcuts. "My hypothesis is that Jaggi Vasudev's act of interspersing his religious sermon with science is a conscious attempt to appeal to the urbane middle class," writes someone whose screen name is "tArkika."
POWERFUL IN PERSON
But far more credit the man for changing their lives for the better. In 2016, Sadhguru initiated 35,000 Americans into yoga. In India, certain nights of Hindu celebrations with Sadhguru have drawn half a million people. In 2017, the Indian government awarded him its highest annual civilian honor, the Padma Vibhushan. He has played six-hour rounds because of grounds-crew workers and other followers flocking the fairway. "By the time the round is over, I've blessed 150 to 200 people," he says.
A guru's delivery is equally if not more important than his message, so I hesitate to distill in an article that which was conveyed over 20 hours of lecture (accompanied by group chanting and an absolutely terrific string band). So all I'll say is, I attended Sadhguru's three-day course on "Inner Engineering" at the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa. Early registration of $2,000 covered room and vegetarian board, with the rest supporting the nonprofit Isha Foundation, which Sadhguru founded in 1992.
If you're a golfer, who among us hasn't wondered if a little Zen training might improve our putting? So it was with this mixture of curiosity and selfish motivation that I laid down my mat and prepared to be transformed.
There were 140 participants, including those who'd flown from South America, the Caribbean, even India, to spend this special intimate session with Sadhguru. A curious number of attendees were in medicine; doctors and practitioners looking for knowledge to complement (or replace) what they'd learned of the human system in traditional education. The rest of the attendees professed old-fashioned, run-of-the-mill existential crises—sometimes I wake up in the morning and just think, What's the point?—and were seeking greater meaning. I wasn't the only golfer.
Old and young, fit and fat, stylish and frumpy—overall, about the most diverse group ever gathered in a tapestried conference room.
Cross-legged and mic'd on the stage, magnificently holy in his colored robes although he endorses no religion (his teachings have the most parallels with Buddhism), Sadhguru paused if a person left to go to the bathroom, so critical was each word of this condensed course. We were afforded comfort breaks every two hours, though Sadhguru mischievously hinted pride about his superior capacity. Such control over the body's plumbing might one day also be ours, if we followed the practices with discipline. Note-taking was strictly discouraged. "We are not here to make scripture," Sadhguru joked, and we laughed. "Leave behind what you think you know and please just give me your full attention these next few days. That is all I ask."
What does enlightenment feel like? ‘Take your greatest experience in life ever, and make that your baseline.’
THE MEANING OF LIFE
Because I am not your guru, where Sadhguru weaves nuance I can only offer brevity. What follows are the crib notes on the meaning of life, before I get to the part about which I'm qualified to comment—teeing it up with Sadhguru the day after the retreat.
The course's title "Inner Engineering" comes from the premise that in our exterior world, humans trust only things that work. We board elevators and trains not out of faith, but because we understand (or at least someone does) how they operate. However, for our interior world, we rely on things that are wishy-washy. Religions, philosophies, concepts like love—these work for some people some of the time, but generally we all pass through life with fluctuating discontent and uncertainty. But through close examination of the human system, a marrying of Eastern and Western knowledge to grasp "the nuts and bolts" of how life is, we may learn to run the "human machine" with a similar pleasurable confidence to how we turn on our phones or fly helicopters. (Sadhguru loves to fly helicopters.)
What the following examples might seem to lack in cohesion, they make up for in accessibility. Seas rise with the full moon and our bodies are 60-percent water. To think our energy levels are independent of nature's cycles is ludicrous. The human jaw and digestive tract closely resemble a structure common to herbivores, and it's a diet of far too much meat—like bad gasoline—that's largely responsible for our lethargy and need to sleep seven to nine hours a day. Cared for properly, Sadhguru believes the human body can live up to 160 years. As a father of three children under age 3, the notion of functioning better off less sleep perked my ears. Key for dawn tee times.
At the cellular level, it's evident the fundamental nature of life is a desire to expand. Grass and flowers grow, squirrels and bears grow, each wanting to become a full-fledged grass blade, flower, squirrel and bear. At the essence of sexuality, is this desire to join oneself with another, to expand, and as a consequence, proliferate. The unique problem (or blessing) of humans is consciousness, and so we wrestle with what it means to be a full-fledged human being.
Most of us have our basic needs of survival met, so it's almost out of something like boredom that we start our little personal psychodramas: Should I be a doctor, a lawyer, live alone in a cabin in the woods? Why doesn't that person like me; maybe a new set of irons will make me happy? When we consider that each of us is but a speck on a planet that is a speck in a solar system that is but a speck in the cosmos—a bacterial microbe crawling on your face occupies an infinitely larger relative plot of real estate—human concerns can become quite funny. Of course, this perspective is hard to maintain in the whirl of daily life.
The answer, says Sadhguru, is to expand one's consciousness. What does that even mean, Carl Spackler? To allow your mind to exist beyond the boundary of your cranium. To join the elemental universe of which it is truly part. Get here, and it will feel second-nature "to look out at the world and feel limitless responsibility," even though your physical ability to do anything about its problems is limited.
A notion with which I can almost connect, but it's hard when my knee ligaments are about to snap from sitting on the floor in extended Baddha Konasana.
Same as the body is an accumulation of everything you eat, the mind is the sum of everything perceived through the five senses—the books you've read, the music you've heard, the places you've seen, the people you've known, on down the line. Though the DNA that shapes your nose remembers your great-grandmother, our minds and bodies essentially become the product of what we think and do. "Mindfulness" has been a buzz word of late, but Sadhguru prefers "meditativeness." He disparages modern yoga studios that focus on physical contortions and sweating while ignoring—or even worse, misguiding—the inner dimension.
During times that survival is threatened, a gun is pointed at us or we flee a burning building, people often report an "out-of-body experience" where their mind was clear and they acted decisively, almost without thinking. How, one might imagine, a squirrel or bear is much of the time. But when you've got a coffee and a breakfast sandwich going, plopped in an office chair weighing what to say in the morning budget meeting, it's very much an "in-body experience."
To foster this right detachment—or the kind of freeness that could lead to playing lights-out golf—Sadhguru says one might consider a traffic jam. You can feel angry and anxious stuck in one, but viewed from an airplane window, the snaking, glowing curves of tail lights become abstract and almost aesthetically pleasing. A grander perception that we all could seek more regularly. To rise there, to escape the confines of the self, the answer is meditation. Which initially can be very difficult. To think no thoughts and feel yourself exist, even if for just a moment, 12 inches outside your forehead—let alone a mile up in the sky—can take decades of practice. Though maybe just minutes.
However long, don't wait until the final throes of life to "see a bright light at the end of the tunnel." The actionable takeaway of our retreat was a highly specific 21-minute routine of breathing and meditation called Shambhavi Kriya that should be done on an empty stomach. Eyes are meant to be closed, but how couldn't I peek at the four or five individuals who convulsed and cried with ecstasy? What does enlightenment feel like? Sadhguru says: "Take your greatest experience in life ever, and make that your baseline."
BACK TO REALITY
Lunch was awkward. What kind of chit-chat to make with a sober table full of strangers after dipping our toes in the primordial nothingness? Mmm, is that chopped kale in this hummus? Delicious. So as not to incite envy, I withheld the fact I was later playing golf with our leader. Some remarks of others:
"It's amazing how engaged he is giving what must be the same talk over and over."
"If you had the ability to make the world a better place, you'd be tireless, too."
"I find him much more pragmatic than Deepak Chopra."
BIG HITTER, THE GURU
The Crossings at Carlsbad is a municipal course but defies the term with its flawless conditioning, $110 peak green fee, gleaming modern clubhouse and cart-mandatory routing. After three days at the altar, it was startling to see Sadhguru's robes replaced by slacks and designer shades. There wasn't time to hit the range, so Sadhguru warmed up by corkscrewing his arms and fingers forward and back in the loudest, most tendon-popping, mesmerizing stretch I've ever witnessed.
The foursome ahead were clearly beginners, so I figured I'd go deep right away. "Sadhguru, what is the solution to slow play?" I said with solemnity, as if I had ascended a high peak to ask it.
Without missing a beat, he grinned, "Better accuracy."
He'd negotiated 14 strokes off me, remarking at breakfast that the key to golf was getting your opponent to boast about his game beforehand. Sadhguru has never taken a lesson but believes his "keen sense of geometry" garnered through yoga enables his steady play. Sure enough, he had me 2 down through four. "I am beating the pro," he said in gleeful disregard of the definition of amateur status.
"Anybody can play decent golf like me," Sadhguru says, "but people trip on their own minds. They need to create a little distance between what they think and what they do." As for the seemingly hopelessly uncoordinated, Sadhguru says there are specific yogic practices for that. "In six to eight weeks everything they do will feel like magic."
Sadhguru confided he thought the weekend's workshop had been successful, despite an audience he thought was reserved. I'd never encountered a more forthcoming group of strangers, as far as personal confessions and group dancing, which I suppose shows what a stiff I am. One way Sadhguru's organization measures success is through dogged survey work. Of all people who've attended Isha's workshops in the past year, 70 percent are still active with the prescribed meditative practices. Of the past three years, 40 percent.
At The Crossings, you drive the entire length of the 12th hole from green to tee before you play it, an unusual re-routing to placate the California Coastal Commission and Army Corps of Engineers. The developers also faced challenges when nests of the endangered black-tailed gnatcatcher were discovered. Given his environmental initiatives, I probed Sadhguru's perspective on golf-haters during our extended cart ride.
"Some people are always trying to think of everything in terms of utility. Life is not utility. If there's a water shortage, then, yes, let's water the greens and not the fairways. The problem is, we have set up the wrong aspirations. If everybody lived like Americans do, we'd need four planets. So now every small thing looks like an excess."
Having fielded existential questions all weekend, Sadhguru was clearly more excited to talk trash. When I lost a ball off an errant drive, he was thrilled. "I cannot play any game halfheartedly, only intentionally," he winked. To coax him into performing his unique stretch on video, I offered him a floating mulligan, which he accepted and promptly redeemed.
Riding up the 18th at sunset, it felt more like a round with a fun uncle, not a dignitary. Though as he sank a putt for a gritty net par to finish our match square, I remembered one thing Sadhguru said to me during the back nine, response to some inane question I'd cobbled about the cosmos. "The purpose of life is to explore one's own life to its fullest, to explore all dimensions. Forget the galaxies."
Golfers everywhere can take comfort in the fact that an enlightened individual is concerned with the same 4¼-inch black hole.
Only one week after the retreat, back in the throes of early-morning commuting, endless diaper changes and all the rest, I fell off the path by neglecting my Shambhavi Kriya practices. Barricading 21 quiet minutes daily felt impossible, even if it wasn't. The reality of my failure and lack of spiritual discipline set in at Chuck E. Cheese on a Saturday for a child's birthday party. Between the warm soda, greasy pizza, dirty carpets and cacophony of arcade games stoking frenzied desire, it occurred to me this was the worst collection of all possible inputs. If we truly are an accumulation of all perceived through the senses, I was doomed. But then I remembered a line from Sadhguru I hadn't written down. A trumping wisdom for raising consciousness: "No matter what you do, do it willingly." So I toured my daughter around to every stupid game and proceeded to have way more fun than if I'd played golf.