John Oliver Black’s 96th Birthday had just passed a week before. He was in fine health and quite active. On Saturday, September 16 he would periodically sit up on his bed to meditate. The last time he did so, he held his body in the lotus posture and then his body gently fell backwards with his eyes upturned, his legs still folded, and he passed away. Later a doctor pronounced him dead of heart failure. This was a fitting end to a magnificent life. But who was John Oliver Black and what is his story?
John Oliver Black was born on September 1, 1893, in a small northwestern Ohio town called Grover Hill. This town is about 30 miles east of Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was here that he spent most of his youth. He later moved to Rockford Illinois not far from Chicago. And finally at the age of 27 he moved to Detroit where he spent the rest of his life.
John started his career working at a carriage works factory in Rockford, Illinois. Then he was drawn to the booming new industry of that time: Car Manufacturing. He worked with various auto plants and then finally moved to Detroit with his wife Ethel. Eventually he started his own small manufacturing plant in his garage with an investment of $500. The auto industry was booming at that time and he was very successful. Yet John felt emptiness in life and began searching for answers. He studied philosophy and eventually started teaching the subject. He also made it a point to meet all the eastern teachers and yogis who passed by Detroit. Though he himself was teaching yoga at this point his own progress in understanding its deeper meaning was haphazard at best. Then he met Yogananda at the age of 39 and his life changed. This how he describes how the meeting came about:
“Yogananda was going back from Washington DC to California. And the short way would have been through St. Columbus, Ohio. But when plans of the journey were made an inner voice told him to come to Detroit. Yet when he got to Detroit, he did not know what to do. So he went through a telephone book and started leafing the pages and running his finger down its pages. His finger eventually stopped on a name. So he looked at it and called that number up. This happened to be a number of a lady by the name of Mrs. Emerson. He introduced himself as a yogi who happened to be passing through Detroit. The lady then blurted out that she knew somebody who was teaching her yoga at her home. Yogananda immediately asked that he meet this person and a meeting was arranged.”
This person happened to be John and when he first saw Yogananda he immediately knew that he had found his teacher. Yogananda also immediately realized that John was the reason for his visit to Detroit and an exceptionally gifted spiritual person. He stayed back for an additional week and taught many things to John. When John was in his mid 70’s, this is how he describes how Yogananda changed his life:
“It was my guru Paramahamsa Yogananda who helped me put it altogether; he set me straight. When I first met him 35 years ago I was afraid to get half a mile away from a drug store. I was a regular hypochondriac. Took pills for laxatives, aspirins for headaches, and probably would have taken tranquilizers if they’d had them. In those days the automobile business was a fast track, and without realizing it I was digging my own grave.”
John made rapid spiritual progress, but he was reluctant to give up his business. Soon Yogananda was confiding privately to his friend that of all his many thousands of students worldwide, John Oliver Black was the second most advanced. (He considered James Lynn to be his most advanced student.) Yogananda even began dropping strong hints to John that if he would not voluntarily give up his business something unforeseen would happen and the business would be taken away from him.
That unforeseen circumstance came in the form of a hostile stock-market takeover of his business. All of a sudden, the work that he had built up from the smallest beginnings was no longer his. He came out of the transaction still a wealthy man, and he did continue on the board of the company for some time, but he got the message that he was being freed up to follow his guru’s instructions.
In August of 1951, just a year before his passing, Yogananda conferred the title of Yogacharya on John Oliver Black at a special ceremony. John was 58 years old at that time. This title signified that he was an accomplished and learned yogi and was authorized to teach and initiate yoga students. For another 38 years John would continue to teach and inspire legions of followers. Lorne C. Dekun who became his biographer describes his first meeting with John:
“I WAS MAGNETIZED by his luminous face, his infectious laughter, his divine love and friendship. Shortly after I met him, as he came down the aisle, I saw him suddenly turn into dazzling light; at the same time, a strange force almost caused me to fall at his feet. Before it could actually happen, I saw him return to his normal appearance. But when I awakened from my shock — this being the first of many spiritual experiences which I was to undergo — I realized I was being given a message that this was a pure soul in the eyes of God and that I lacked humility and respect.
Later, he made known to me that he knew me better than I knew myself — my weaknesses and my strengths, the skeletons in my closet. Everything about me was known to him; there were no secrets. I felt very disconcerted. There was nowhere to hide, and I soon found out there was no fooling him, he knew my every thought.
One day, as we were all seated around him, and he was at the end of the table, I began to mull over these thoughts in my head: who was he? I felt he seemed to be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. I saw him answering people’s questions with great wisdom. Miraculous things would happen around him. I realized I could feel his presence in Chicago, where I lived, even though he was in Detroit. So I was thinking to myself, he must be God, for he seems to have the power of God. Just at this point, my reverie was abruptly broken by his voice. I looked up. His piercing eyes were focused on me as he stopped right in the middle of his conversation with the people next to him and said, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing. God isn’t a man.” He made it a natural part of his conversation, as he taught everyone around him.”
John had two children. A son who was killed while a pilot in WW II and a daughter who he outlived. His wife Ethel died in 1970 when he was 77 years old. Besides being a multi millionaire and successful businessman he was also a stalwart yogi. But this is not all he did. He operated a working farm, bred show dogs and horses, at one time he was the largest individual landowner in his state. He also was an avid inventor and held patents on several items including a three dimensional camera and a design for a vertical takeoff and landing plane. He studied painting and drawing, and he also created many innovations in furniture design. He also drilled for gas and oil. In fact a week before his passing, on his 96th birthday he was looking for investors for a drilling project.
John Oliver Black’s life is deeply inspiring for us. It shows us what can be accomplished in a single lifetime. It shows us that if one is willing to open our spiritual hearts and make serious effort to go beyond the ego, guidance in the form of a guru will appear and help take us further. He also shows us that as one makes spiritual progress, our life in the material world continues to progress effortlessly, there is no need to struggle and thrash about. So the question before all of us: Are we prepared to learn our lessons from this illustrious life?