The air was thick with humidity along with the scent of salt water from the nearby Gulf. I’d driven twenty-five hours from Chicago straight through to Florida, and this was unfamiliar territory to me, in more ways than one. Scanning the rows of houses along the neighborhood side streets, I finally located his small, one-story bungalow, partly obscured by overhanging trees and heavy vegetation overflowing its fringes.
I rang the doorbell, and was soon greeted by a smiling older gentleman with a white beard. He offered a cheerful hello and invited me into his modest home. He was already deviating from my expectations: he was almost too warm and friendly—folksy even. Where was that all-important solemnity and gravitas I expected from the powerful teacher I’d heard so much about? And where were those visions I secretly hoped to experience, like the one my teacher up north said he’d had on first meeting with this teacher? There was certainly nothing larger than life about him, not physically anyway. He couldn’t have been much more than five feet tall.
I stepped through the door, and he invited me to sit down on one side of his small living room. He was dressed entirely in black, and reminded me a bit of Obi Wan Kenobi from the then just-released film Star Wars, but with a touch of Santa Claus thrown into the mix. His eyes were unusual: kind and sparkly, but with a certain depth and intensity to them. I also noticed that his white hair was tied into one or two thin braids extending down the back of his black sweater. And he was wearing boots—maybe cowboy boots; I couldn’t be sure. Most surprising of all was that voice of his: very deep, more appropriate for someone twice his size, and colored by an accent that betrayed the colloquial inflections of his rural Pennsylvanian roots.
Throughout the afternoon he was enthusiastic and warm with all his comments, and frequently broke into laughter. I couldn’t help but notice he gave out information mainly in response to the questions I posed, rarely volunteering information beyond the scope of those queries. There’s a spiritual saying to the effect that “the true mystic never offers their teaching uninvited”—the spiritual ethic of noninterference, in other words. I had the feeling that was Shelly’s take on things as well.
That first conversation proved to be a turning point for me in a number of ways. Part of it was the sheer profusion of new ideas it exposed me to, many of which left an imprint on my thinking that would last for decades afterwards. During those few hours we discussed a wide range of topics—magic, astral projection, cinema, meditation, astrology, God, sexual energy, the Kabbalah, hypnosis, even quantum physics. And just as I’d heard others say, he rarely paused for more than a second when answering any question, no matter how obscure it was—and some were very obscure. But on those few occasions when he did pause, I paid extra attention.
To understand something about Shelly Trimmer, it’s probably best to start at the beginning. A Scorpio, he was born in 1917 in a part of the U.S. commonly known as “Pennsylvania Dutch” country. (“Dutch” is actually derived from deutsch, the German word for “German,” and refers to the German-speaking immigrants who came to this region.) While Pennsylvania Dutch culture has traditionally been a highly religious one—an amalgam of various denominations that included Lutherans, Anabaptists, and Moravians—just beneath its surface there has lingered an undercurrent of magical and “superstitious” beliefs imported from the Old World, most obvious to area newcomers in the form of hex signs painted on the sides of barns or houses, ostensibly designed to ward off evil influences.
Into that cultural matrix Shelly Trimmer was born. From a young age he was steeped in the magical and mystical practices of that tradition, and before long began expanding his studies into spiritual systems beyond his native one.
It was one such search that led him to travel to California in the late 1930s in hope of finding a teacher who would impart the techniques to aid him in his quest for enlightenment. It was there that he met, and became a student of, Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952). The famed Hindu is probably best known for his book Autobiography of a Yogi—a work cited as a key influence throughout the decades by such figures as Steve Jobs, Elvis Presley, Robin Williams, and George Harrison, to name a few. Yogananda taught a system of spiritual practice known as Kriya Yoga, which incorporates a variety of techniques and disciplines tailored to help individuals achieve well-being and enlightenment.
Despite his deepening commitment to the practices of that tradition, Shelly remained independent of any organization—including Yogananda’s—and never formally adopted a swami name. For reasons that will become clear in the pages ahead, he remained comparatively reclusive much of his life, choosing to teach in an oral, one-on-one fashion and never writing any books or even articles. For many years he lived in a remote section of Minnesota with his wife, Marjorie, along with their children, but eventually moved to Bradenton, Florida, where he enjoyed sailing his small boat in the Gulf and meeting with students at his home. After his wife died in 1976, he lived alone for a number of years, then finally remarried, to a woman named Deborah Wisby, who lived with him until his death.
I first heard about Shelly through his Chicago-based student, Goswami Kriyananda (not to be confused with the late Swami Kriyananda of California, a.k.a J. Donald Walters ). The more I listened to Kriyananda’s stories about his teacher, the more interested I became in meeting him myself. Among other things, Kriyananda once referred to Shelly as being “a million times more evolved than myself.” Even allowing for a generous dose of hyperbole, statements like that nonetheless piqued my curiosity. Upon obtaining Shelly’s address from Kriyananda, I sent Shelly a note asking if I could come to his house and speak with him. As is typical for many spiritual teachers, my initial requests were met with a polite rebuff. But on my third try, he agreed to see me for a few hours in September 1977.
When we met at his modest home, he was not quite sixty at the time, and I was still in my mid-twenties, a somewhat neurotic yet spiritually inquisitive young man. His wife Marjorie had died just the year before, and his small black dog was his constant companion throughout the afternoon. That meeting was the first of a number of discussions and communications I’d have with him over the coming years until his death at age seventy-nine in 1996. Altogether, I met with him at his home four separate times, communicated with him by letter or tape recordings many other times, and crossed paths with him during the times he spoke in Chicago in 1985.
What follows in this volume was drawn primarily from transcripts of those various interactions, especially from those first two meetings in 1977 and 1978. Some of those recordings haven’t weathered the years well, and there are times when his words are now nearly inaudible, not just because of the age of the tapes but because of his walking out of the room every now and then, or even his dog barking unceremoniously at critical moments! But I’ve done my best to reconstruct the information contained in those recordings, drawing on my memory wherever necessary to fill in the blanks, and when I was unable to, I’ve indicated that with parentheses. I’ve also added a number of anecdotes I’ve gathered from others, including some from Kriyananda himself, which help to flesh out important aspects of Shelly’s character and life.
To give some structure to the ideas presented here, I’ve organized the excerpts into various categories, with less concern for chronology than thematic relevance. This proved challenging at times, since there is considerable overlap between topics in many of the discussions. Shelly had the habit of ranging over a variety of topics in the space of a few minutes. At any rate, this structure should give some focus to these wide-ranging discussions. The reader is asked to excuse a certain amount of repetition, since a given subject might arise in several conversations in varying contexts. Yet while going over these transcripts, I realized that those varying contexts often provided subtly different shadings into the topic at hand. I’ve also felt the need for explanation or clarification of some of the things he said. When I’ve added my comments, they are marked in square brackets, i.e., [ ].
When I first began sharing some of these transcripts with friends, a colleague asked what I felt I’d learned from my interactions with Shelly. I initially thought that would be impossible to sum up simply, but the more I reflected on it, the more I realized that there were several things in particular which left their mark on me.
The most obvious of those was his considerable knowledge on spiritual and esoteric matters, which shaped my own perspective in a wide number of ways. He wasn’t strictly academic in the heavily footnoted manner of a Joseph Campbell or Mircea Eliade, say; I don’t believe Shelly had any college education. Yet he could talk at length about theology, philosophy, higher mathematics, music, even quantum physics. Over time, I came to think of him as a true genius, although I’m well aware those unfamiliar with his line of thought might well consider him to be a true lunatic. Who knows? Maybe he was a bit of both. For me, the bottom line is that much of what I’ve written about in my own books and articles stems back either directly or indirectly to Shelly Trimmer, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. He wasn’t my guru—I’ve never had one, for various reasons—but he served a similar function for me in any number of ways.
Then there are the subtler things I learned from him, such as his humility. Shelly was easily one of the most unpretentious and egoless individuals I’ve encountered during my life—all the more remarkable considering his considerable wisdom and intelligence. He wanted nothing to do with fame, and charged nothing for his time. As an editor and writer, I’ve come into contact with any number of teachers who brandished a nearly messianic attitude, thinking of themselves as self-styled saviors to humanity. Shelly was exactly the opposite; he didn’t take himself seriously at all. (When a friend of mine arrived at his home for a talk one day, he said to Shelly, “I have some questions I’ve been wanting to ask you,” to which Shelly responded, “Fire away, I’m full of useless information.”) That was a lesson I needed to learn myself.
But perhaps the most meaningful teaching of all for me was the subtlest, that being the unmistakable sense of balance he brought to his life. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, one encounters a teaching about the importance of balancing the relative and the absolute—in other words, learning how to juggle one’s pursuit of the supreme truth with one’s involvement in the everyday, mundane world. Simple as that sounds, it may well be the greatest spiritual challenge of all, judging from the countless mystics and metaphysicians who have become so caught up in their spiritual or intellectual quests that their lives start resembling rowboats with just one oar, and that go round and round as a result.
When I asked Kriyananda why he settled specifically on Shelly as his primary teacher, he immediately zeroed in on this same point when he said, “He was the only one who really seemed to have struck a balance between his mystical life and his everyday life.” As important as mysticism and knowledge was to Shelly, it was clear he was determined to live as simplified a life as possible, and wasn’t going to let his passion for the divine eclipse his ordinary responsibilities and relationships. He married and raised a family, worked part-time as TV repairman in an electronics store, and deliberately chose not to establish his own organization or cultivate a following or even to have a phone (he used a ham radio for emergencies). He presented himself in so low-keyed a fashion that unless you conversed with him at length, you’d likely never realize there was anything out of the ordinary about the man. But surely there was.
And then there’s this. Among his other traits, Shelly could be something of a trickster, and on more than one occasion was known to pull the wool over the eyes of some overly devoted or gullible student. Not in the harmful “crazy wisdom” way one sometimes hears of in connection with less reputable gurus, but more in the manner of a kind but inscrutable sage who works to prod the student awake by means of subtle—if sometimes baffling—teaching strategies. Even Kriyananda admitted to a number of frustrating experiences along those lines with Shelly. I’d suggest that readers keep all that in mind while reading these transcripts, and decide for themselves what herein is wheat and what is just chaff. I’d like to believe there is little to none of the latter and a great deal of the former, but when you’re dealing with a trickster, you can never be 100% sure!
And that’s OK. It was never Shelly’s intention to have students blindly believe what he taught. Because, for him, it wasn’t ultimately about belief systems or knowledge maps, useful as those may be, but about the inquiry itself, and searching out the landscape of the spirit for oneself. So you may even choose to read these exchanges simply as fantastical storytelling, if you prefer, or at times as a kind of science fiction (something Shelly was quite fond of, by the way)—in other words, as thought-provoking points of departure. If you can, then they will have served a useful purpose. I hope you enjoy the ride!