The text-message from Richard Parenti said he would probably check out within the next three weeks. I knew this meant he was about to die. Richard had cancer of the base of the tongue and had already outlived his doctor’s initial estimate of time left.
It just so happened that I already had plans to travel to the San Francisco area to visit another friend who was fighting cancer, so I postponed my return flight until later in the day so I could visit Richard too. I’d only be able to spend a brief time with each, but that was better than not seeing Richard.
Richard and I had a beautiful history. I first met him in at my teacher Swami Veda Bharati’s ashram in Rishikesh, Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama, called SRSG. I believe this was in 2004. Swami Veda had asked me to organize a trip to the holy shrine of Tarakeshwara (where Gurudeva Swami Rama was first enlightened) for some of the guests at the ashram and told me to invite Richard.
At the time, Richard was engaged in a 40-day personal silence practice. I went to Richard’s cottage, said that I was taking a group to Tarakeshwara, and that Swami Veda specifically asked me to invite him to go along. Richard smiled and wrote a short note which he handed me. It said, “I’ll think about it.”
Returning to Swami Veda’s chambers, I told him what Richard’s note said. Swami Veda rolled his eyes and playfully said, “Americans!” I knew why he said that because we’d had some conversations about how his Indian students usually didn’t take initiative and looked to him as an elder for instructions for everything, and how the American students were the complete opposite.
Not much time passed before Swami Veda again asked me to go and invite Richard, with the same result. This went on several times until, finally, I went to Richard’s cottage and told him “Richard, Swami Veda really wants you to go to Tarakeshwara, and there must be a very important reason for it. I strongly suggest you come with us.” This time he relented and agreed to join in the journey.
A day or so later, our small group set out for the five-hour trip into the Garhwal mountain range. The journey was across the plains for an hour or so to the town of Kotdwara, just at the base of the mountains. There we stopped, as was the custom for people visiting Tarakeshwara, and bought fresh vegetables at the outdoor vegetable market so we’d have food at our destination. During our trip up, and throughout our stay, Richard maintained his silence practice.
After Kotdwara the road immediately enters the mountains. A lovely vista opened on the right side of the road for some way, and then the switchbacks began. The switchbacks in the mountains there were like nothing I’d experienced before visiting India, back and forth and back and forth on the narrow road, sometimes with sheer drops and no barriers along the edge. Sometimes cars would come from around the bends going in the opposite direction but in our lane. It’s common to get motion sickness on the journey. I made a point of asking the driver to go slow to minimize the discomfort, but the driver didn’t always listen.
Upon arrival I was relieved, although rubber legged from the journey. The scent of the deodar cedars filled the air, and there was a happy feeling as we made our way down the trail to the ashram where we’d be staying.
There was a tiny ashram at Tarakeshwara, with several rooms for guests in one small building, set on a hill above the shrine. The women got the larger room that had an adjoining toilet and the men were put into the smaller room with the toilet some way outside. We all settled into the clear cold air and meditative vibrations of the place.
During the time we spent there, Richard appeared completely peaceful and happy. It never occurred to me that he was going through a powerful internal experience during our time in Tarakeshwara. But his appearance was misleading: In a story Richard later wrote about that visit to Tarakeshwara, titled “Naked Before God,” Richard recounted the experience he had there (see https://www.ahymsin.org/docs2/News/1701/10.html for the story), in one place saying “I stood before God, the Source of All That Is naked and vulnerable like a child knowing perhaps for the first time who I really AM.”
Later, after he had completed his silence practice, I learned how severely he was tested during his time in Tarakeshwara.
After returning from India, Richard and I kept in contact and became friends. Although we got together rarely, we talked on the phone regularly. Richard was always friendly and generous with his time. He freely gave me emotional support and when I suffered over what to do about a family member who was suffering addiction. He and I often talked about yoga philosophy and practice. He was curious, a great listener, and a good friend.
Richard kept busy teaching yoga and taught a course he developed called Emotional Mastery based on Sutras 1.33 and 2.33 of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Richard also authored several articles that were published in a yoga magazine, and he mentored many students who thought the world of him.
Three or four years ago Richard was diagnosed with throat cancer. Miraculously that crisis passed and Richard returned to health. But last year he let me know that he’d come down with tongue cancer and had a bad prognosis. Hearing of his tongue cancer, I went to visit him. His body had changed to the point where I did not recognize him. Yet, what amazed me was the love and joy that emanated from Richard’s eyes while we were together. Here was a man who was extremely sick from cancer and the effects of chemotherapy, and he was joyful. In addition, even during this time, he kept teaching, guiding students, wrote several articles and published a book— Secrets of Mental Magic: The Essence of Yoga Psychology: Emotional Mastery that is available on Amazon.com. He attributed his lack of fear of death to a special mantra he’d been given by Swami Veda Bharati that he’d been practicing.
A whole year passed and rather than dying, Richard kept going and continued to be creative, and then last week I got that text message about “checking out.” So, I visited him again. Although he’d not eaten for three days, he got up and walked me to his room where we meditated together. Then we went outside onto the patio and chatted. Richard said he’d likely soon go to hospice. Yet, he was completely happy, calm, and present.
Richard told me that when this latest cancer appeared, he asked himself, “what’s good about this?” The answer that came to him was that he was going home. Richard said, “I’m happy to be going home.”
*In a recent communication about Richard, Swami Ritavan called him a “Sadhaka exemplar.” That’s a good description.