Being Ram Dass by Ram Dass, Rameshwar Das and Anne Lamott
He wrote an autobiography that is full of insights and he is one of the world’s biggest mentors/gurus. I love what he stands for.
“Love the best you can at any moment. Don’t harsh yourself—it can be tricky for everyone having this dual citizenship, of the biographical and the divine. You’re not alone; we are in this together, connected, all one.”
“Nowadays the mantra I give everyone is ‘I Am Loving Awareness,’ which is my own simple practice. The love is bhakti, the awareness is Buddhism: awareness and love, wisdom and compassion, formless and form, consciousness and love.” Ram Dass taught it with feeling and charm, the esoteric and private, accessible to lifelong devotees or regular old grown-ups who might not actively be in the market for wonder. He helps us get back what we had as children: awe, curiosity, now-ness. My young Sunday school kids feel it when we study nautilus shells and when they roll down grassy hills. They know it when the rains come and the grass turns green again. This is the teaching: Pay attention. Be here now.”
“As at Wesleyan, I was terrified people would find out how little I actually knew, but I discovered that connecting with audiences brought out my charismatic, confident self—the self that had once loved being the emcee for music nights at Willenrica and delivering Dad’s speech at Williston. I was funny and warm, with a knack for explaining things in accessible ways. I still didn’t know much, but I was popular.”
“As a teenager, I used to hide on the stairs to listen when Dad led Brandeis board meetings in our living room. I would overhear how they went about hiring and firing professors. I understood then that academia was clearly about who you knew, not what you knew. The power is wielded by money and big names, professors who get grants and have written the most books or papers. I didn’t have the books or brilliant research at Harvard, but I did know the power of connections. I was well-spoken and charismatic, and I was good at dropping a Freudian reference or two to impress my colleagues.”
“I enjoyed picking up the folks in my shiny Mercedes. Their youngest son had made it. With my sense of accomplishment, I also took more risks. I ate more, drank more, collected more possessions and antiques, and sought more sexual escapades. I visited gay bars in Boston and brought lovers to my apartment. I had a girlfriend on one side of Boston and a boyfriend on the other. Despite still playing both sides of the fence, I made my peace with my interest in men. I no longer tried so hard to hide these liaisons; my confidence made me shrug off the dangers of being outed.”
“He was still ecstatic from the magnitude of the experience. “I learned more about my brain and its possibilities and more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than in my fifteen years of studying psychology,” he later said.”
“Tim was thrilled. He gave psilocybin to anyone who requested it, in exchange for a detailed report on the experience. In keeping with his existential-transaction ideas, he designed the project with an egalitarian, democratic approach. Rather than the usual clinical, detached method, he wanted both subjects and researchers to participate, taking turns ingesting and observing the effects of psilocybin. He wanted not just psychologists but philosophers, religious types, housewives, cabdrivers, students, and all manner of creatives: musicians, painters, poets, novelists. To avoid the impersonal setting of an office, he invited participants to try the drugs in his own home.”
“It took a moment for me to actually focus on the question. Then it dawned on me: Even though everything I thought of as me, including my body, was gone, I was still fully aware! Not only that, but this aware inner “I” was watching the entire drama, including the panic attack, with quiet compassion and not a little amusement at the fear my ego was experiencing.”
“At that moment, I recalled the work of the sociologist and Harvard professor David Riesman, who in his 1950 book on post–World War II America, The Lonely Crowd, had coined the expression “other-directedness,” a term for how individuals look to their neighbors and community to define their likes and dislikes. I saw the part in myself that was always tuning to what everybody else wanted. My parents were the voices I’d always listened to. Even when I was rebelling—as when I rejected going to medical school—part of me still wanted their approval.”
“I felt guilty. Was I being a complete hypocrite? Psychologists think that reality is ultimately psychological, and yet the psilocybin trip had shown me that I was more than a psychological entity. Until that moment, the only stirring of my spirit had been in Quaker meetings at Wesleyan. Now, I knew from my own experience there was another plane of consciousness beyond time and space.”
“Still, even though I was back in my psychological self, my thinking mind and ego, I was different. The roles—professor, son, pilot, cellist—returned, but I didn’t identify with them in the same way. The observer stance I’d long cultivated had new meaning. There was a way to observe life from this quiet center within, from the soul. I’d tasted a reality where I was home in my heart, and even the memory—that lightness of pure being—remained with me.”
“We were practicing what Willam James called “introspectionism,” or studying the mind from the inside out. Introspective psychology relies on observation of one’s own mental states. Though subjective, it is disciplined. This fit the nature of our psilocybin research: our work was guided by the self-reporting and internal observations of the experimenter. The phenomena we were observing were states of consciousness, thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences, often about identity and self-awareness.”
“I worked mostly in a supervisory and administrative role, negotiating with prison officials and setting up the protocols. What was radical to me about the experiment was the attempt to develop valid therapeutic models with psychedelics. It was similar to the studies going on with alcoholism and depression. The main problem was little follow-up was done after the prisoners’ release. We had no budget for halfway houses or to continue the study over an extended long term. Ultimately, the project would prove that, while psychedelic insights can serve as a catalyst for behavioral change, transformation requires sustained attention and work. I would learn this in my own life soon enough.”
“Chasing the moon was not what Tim and I were doing, but in many ways the president’s words captured how we saw our own scientific efforts. We too wanted to conquer space—inner, not outer, space. We were intranauts, not astronauts, at the cutting edge of human consciousness.”
“Our stance made people in the Harvard scientific community nervous. When we returned, Dave distributed a memo at one of our faculty meetings in which he outlined his growing concern. “Many reports are given of deep mystical experiences,” he wrote, “but their chief characteristic is the wonder at one’s own profundity.” He wanted fewer subjective reports and more control and hard data.”
“He would eventually describe the experience as the most shattering of his life, writing that his first spoonful of LSD had “flipped consciousness out beyond life into the whirling dance of pure energy.” But in the immediate aftermath, as the drug’s effects wore off, he sobbed uncontrollably, overcome by the feeling that he had died and been reborn. After that, he did not speak for days.”
“Like a high-voltage jolt, LSD changed the nature of the Psilocybin Project at Harvard. Psilocybin, as we’d experienced it, was a relational and unifying drug. The doses we administered were relatively small, six to eight milligrams, and the trips we guided lasted just three or four hours. Participants remembered their names and situations even as they reported feelings of oneness. Boundaries melted with a sense of warmth and understanding. Psilocybin softened the ego and opened the heart.”
“Looking back, I see that when awareness gets disconnected from compassion and interrelatedness, it can feel robotic or puppet-like. Tim’s observations also foreshadowed the fundamental realization we’d have a few years later about psychedelics in general: that a trip is just that—a trip—and you have to come back. At the end of the day, for all your new insight, you still have to take out the garbage.
Eventually, I decided to lick the spoon myself. When I finally did, I realized that all this time in previous psychedelic sessions, I had been screwing around in the astral plane. LSD went beyond the astral, beyond form. It took you deeper, stripping away more of the layers of mind, and it lasted much longer. The peak of a trip carried you into a nova of consciousness and pure energy. Psilocybin had opened my spiritual heart. Now LSD opened the recesses of my mind and connected me to the very source of cosmic energy. No wonder Tim hadn’t been able to speak.”
“Still, to most of us in the Harvard Psychedelic Project, the conflicts over our drug supplies and methodology were mostly an annoyance. This was the dawn of the sixties, and we saw ourselves as part of the growing cultural push to move beyond the political status quo, sexual mores, social institutions, racial barriers, old concepts and limits. We took note of Harvard’s strictures, but they didn’t seem terribly consequential. We were inner explorers and revolutionaries. I was sure Harvard would catch up.”
“and the two agreed to test the Tibetan Book of the Dead as the map we thought it might be. As Ralph began to hallucinate, he found himself alternating between beautiful, radiant experiences and fearful, ugly ones. He felt trapped by the scary imagery until he remembered the words in the book, which admonish the traveler to see both good and terrifying images for what they are, images in one’s mind, and to let them pass by. Ralph came down from his trip buoyant. He said he felt freer than he ever had before.”
“It was true. I was paranoid. Then I became afraid I was an embarrassment to the psychedelic movement. I’d almost gone too far. Tripping alone in the ocean at night was probably not the best strategy. I was always the one trying to keep it together, and my brush with annihilation had evoked my primal fear of death. It was a classic bad trip. Fear keeps you alive, but it also keeps you from letting go into your soul, your true inner self.”
“The jungle, the ocean, and the bottle of LSD had all worked to unite us. Much like my experience as a boy at Willenrica, the proximity to nature and its beauty made me feel more comfortable in the universe. My terrifying near-death trip aside, I felt I’d advanced my spiritual journey. And through our group bonding, I’d felt my identity open more deeply to meeting others as souls. We’d entered a timeless state together, an endless summer.”
“Although it was a rented house, Tim decided we should make some changes. He wanted to enlarge the kitchen, so we started to take down a wall. Once we started knocking it down, we discovered it was load bearing and had some vital plumbing. So we had to leave it. The kitchen remained partially demolished thereafter. Demolition was easier than reconstruction for Tim—in retrospect, a side of his personality to which I should have paid more attention.”
“We also built an inner meditation room for psychedelic sessions that could only be accessed via a ladder from the basement, which meant visitors had no idea it was even there. The notion of the room was inspired in part by the writings of Hermann Hesse, which Tim and Ralph were reading and interpreting as coded accounts of psychedelic explorations. The room had mattresses and pillows and Indian bedspreads. It was very quiet and peaceful, a place where you could shed the layers of outer activity and relax into the silence, entering the emptiness that Buddhists describe as sunyata. Someone was usually tripping or meditating there, which made the room the center of consciousness of the house. It was the heart cave of the Newton commune. It was in that room that I had one of my first experiences in solo meditation.”
“For me, communal life made up for what I lacked not having my own nuclear family. In particular, it satisfied my craving for love. For all my cruising of parks and men’s rooms, my desire was often more for intimacy than sex. I craved affection, and intercourse with lovers was in some ways an afterthought. What I wanted more was the interpersonal depth.”
“In retrospect it was inevitable. The protective reflex of the institution against radical change and the circling of academic wagons opposing the perceived subversion of the Harvard psychology establishment should have been apparent.”
“The beach in general was a good backdrop for sessions. Ralph and Susan reported that the ocean served as an excellent tool for bringing someone through a difficult phase of an acid trip. If a person was struggling with fear or suspicion or frustration, they would help him or her to the water’s edge, rolling their body in the sand and allowing the waves to wash over them. The experience of nature—the air, the surf, the sun, the sand—washed away the bad feelings.”
“We designed experiments in living and came up with different frameworks to test our interpersonal dynamics. We liked going outside for sessions—we had a couple of favorite hills—but we also made use of the other buildings. One experiment involved two people sequestered for a week in the bowling alley house, to see how tripping together affected them and the rest of the community. Another effort put different couples on the third floor of the Big House, to see how they negotiated their sexual jealousy. Yet another experiment was a variation on the lifeguard tower in Zihuatanejo: every week, we designated one person to trip for all of us in a building we called the Meditation House. Unlike the other experiments, this one was more about inner spiritual growth. When the week was over, we would parade over together from the Big House to hear what insights the person had returned with.”
“agent we’d met through Peggy, was always bringing guests from the fashion world: models, photographers, other agents. Word was out that Millbrook was a good place to party on the weekends, and it didn’t matter that we didn’t share our drugs; visitors brought their own. As the months went by, we continued guiding sessions for individuals, especially for people who could help us financially. Saul Steinberg, the beloved New Yorker cartoonist, came at one point, as did trumpeter Miles Davis, then at the forefront of innovations in jazz. Even Ralph’s mother came to visit us; he guided her on a trip that she really enjoyed. Some friends from my California days also paid us a visit. Ken Kesey, after participating in the government-sponsored drug tests while a student at Stanford, had published his novel about psychiatric patients, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to widespread acclaim. He’d also been cultivating fame of another kind, forming a commune of his own with former Stanford colleagues, bohemians, and literary figures. Together they’d been freely experimenting with drugs, throwing parties and sharing LSD with anyone interested. In June 1964, after the publication of his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey and his Merry Pranksters decided to take a cross-country trip in their rainbow-colored bus, which they christened Furthur. They decided to stop in at Millbrook.”
“Tim, Ralph, and I threw our energies into putting the finishing touches on our psychedelic manual. We asked Alan Watts, who by this time was living on a houseboat in Sausalito, California, to read the proofs. He declared it to be a rare psychiatry book that attempted to classify the states of consciousness. That August, our guide for how to use mind-expanding drugs was published as The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. We dedicated it to Aldous Huxley. The first printing sold out so quickly, the publisher had to print several more runs. We had a best seller. The broad reach of the book made us realize that even though we no longer occupied an intellectual perch at the apex of academia, we were at the cutting edge of a much greater paradigm shift. Psychedelics were expanding the consciousness of not just a few researchers and their subjects, but a great swath of American culture.”
“books, the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, In Search of the Miraculous, P. D. Ouspensky’s exposition of Gurdjieff’s teaching—also prompted the notion of a journey to the East. While Tim and I were busy getting kicked out of Harvard, Allen Ginsberg, on his trip to India, had met the Dalai Lama and discussed consciousness with various swamis and gurus, including Dudjom Rinpoche and Swami Sivananda. He’d returned with a new sense of creative and spiritual energy, which we saw when he came to Millbrook afterward.”
“That’s what psychedelics had done for me. They’d helped me understand love and compassion in ways I never had before. They also helped me explore my sexuality, my human-ness. In a way, psilocybin and LSD gave me license to be who I was. With psychedelics, I could look at myself honestly, inside and out, and accept what I saw. I could say, “What you are is okay.” I didn’t have to hide.”
“Millbrook had a live-and-let-live atmosphere, but my interest in men could make people I cared about uncomfortable, like Tim. I’d wondered sometimes if psychedelics might be a tool that could help me make sense of my attractions, taking me deep enough to uncover their roots. Psychedelics did give me primal insights into my sexuality, but my innate bisexual orientation remained, and my sense of shame, ambivalence, and inadequacy around sex stubbornly returned each time I came down from a trip and reentered my personality.”
“As it turned out, I had a very optimistic view. At first, we were happy to be together. It was fun. We all felt we had entered into a joyful state together. But after a week, the stress of living in a confined space began to dominate. We all developed a tolerance to the LSD and stopped reaching a higher consciousness. We began to fall back into our egos—and all of us had strong egos to begin with. Our edges began to fray, and we fought like hell. Love was the goal, but interpersonal friction and ragged egos won.”
“Besides yoga, we experimented with other practices. At one point, I traveled to Boston to study with Michio Kushi, the Japanese teacher of macrobiotics. About half of us at Millbrook radically changed our diet for a month or two. Macrobiotics were a good balance to psychedelics. In macrobiotic terms, the drugs are very yin (very spacey), and the whole grains and veggies of the macro diet are yang (solid and grounding). The diet helped balance our forays into other worlds.”
“My sense of ease onstage went back to the family music evenings we hosted for charity in our barn at Willenrica, when I was emcee. As a teaching assistant and a professor, I’d learned the value of humor. It was one reason I was popular as a teacher. Even now, in my spiritual talks, I rely on humor, because it brings lightness to the journey. Humor illuminates the paradox of the infinite Spirit fitting into this all-too-human form.”
“A high being like Leonard can use the power of his will to go deeper into his soul, or he can lose himself in delusions of power and paranoia, as Leonard did. The combination of his anger at Dad, his secret homosexuality, and his desire for money and power sent him off the rails. He was searching for love, but he came at it from his ego, and his life, much like Dad’s and mine, revolved around power.”
“Meanwhile, in India, Tim and Nena, the newlyweds, were having their own troubles. They’d joined Ralph in Almora and visited the Taj Mahal, tripping on the grounds under the moonlight, deeply moved by the monument built by an emperor to remember his beloved wife. But things grew edgy between them, and when they returned to Millbrook, they were fighting. Peggy Hitchcock married a doctor soon after their return, and we all attended the wedding. That hardly helped.”
“Besides, I was starting to feel a deep spiritual dissatisfaction. Sometimes, when people asked whether they should keep doing psychedelics, I responded with a phrase I’d learned from Alan Watts: “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” But I hadn’t taken this advice myself, and constantly getting high and coming down was becoming its own kind of despair. I could touch those other planes of consciousness and love, but I couldn’t stay there.”
“was not as much of an intellectual. I was more empathic and relational, and now I was feeling an existential frustration. I knew I was on to something, and I wanted to figure it out. In a way, getting kicked out of Millbrook was just the escape hatch I needed. In fact, there was a perfect metaphor in my experience as a pilot. While Tim and Nena were in India, I’d borrowed Billy Hitchcock’s plane to fly to Millbrook. I had three other passengers and a dog on board. It was a twin-engine, underwing plane that had retractable landing gear, something I wasn’t used to because my Cessna had fixed landing gear.”
“There was a eucalyptus grove where Steve and I tripped together and felt the trees breathe. We would laugh and laugh. Every Saturday we held a family session, and during the week Steve and I would travel around California together, lecturing about psychedelics. He was a good speaker, very confident. Often, people who took acid for the first time would write to us to share their experiences and questions. There were so many letters that Barbara helped with the correspondence.”
“No matter how much you pursue the mirage, you will never reach water, and the search for God through drugs must end in disillusionment.” I could take LSD three more times, he told me. Then I should stop completely. I loved Meher Baba, but back then I wasn’t that kind of a follower. I had years of research behind me. I thought, “What does he know? Nice old man in India, never took acid.” I kept on going. In January 1966, Kesey and other friends—Stewart Brand, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, the Grateful Dead, the Hells Angels—put together a three-day Acid Test in San Francisco known as the Trips Festival. Thousands of people showed up. Something was happening, and I was in the middle of it. The counterculture was underway.”
“Caroline was my longest, closest female relationship—we had a deep connection. I considered her my soul partner, though that didn’t stop me from sneaking out at night occasionally to pick up young men. With the loosening sexual mores of the sixties, my double life felt like less of a burden.”
“Authorities everywhere were suspicious. I was growing uncomfortable and a little frightened. For all my awe at the power of LSD, I was starting to think I’d gone as far as I could with psychedelics. Although I was one of the quintessential spokesmen for acid, the trips I was taking myself were no longer special. I wasn’t getting new insights. All the theoretical underpinnings I’d developed as a researcher and for my many lectures felt inadequate. My trips felt too astral, too full of mental imagery. I was also bored and disillusioned with all the egos in the psychedelic scene. There were so many nutty and neurotic people. The personal and lasting transformation we all sought was elusive.”
“Now her sister Edna assumed the family mantle while Mother spent months in and out of the hospital. Mother saw her doctor as a medical deity. The atom had been split in the 1930s. Science seemed omnipotent. In reality, the cancer treatments of the time had little to offer. To the doctor, Mother was an experimental patient. He kept promising her that new treatments would work, but none did. I’ve often wondered why she never lost faith in the doctors. Maybe it was all she had.”
“For so many years, the dynamic had affected my image of her, fueling a latent resentment. But this hang-up with control—it was about her, not about me. Her restraining my childish behavior came from her own insecurity. It was not my fault, I realized now. I knew she loved me a lot. Sitting by her bedside, recognizing her as a soul, I was finally able to acknowledge the purity of her love. I could begin to let go of my anger.”
“Poor Caroline didn’t handle it very well. It was important to my family that I marry someone Jewish, and she couldn’t help but make the wrong impression just by dint of who she was. I honestly didn’t care that she wasn’t Jewish, though I felt the burden of pleasing my parents.”
“The rose was a clear signal of that transition. Mother was still here, even if her body wasn’t. As our family got in the limousine to head to the cemetery, Leonard, seeing the rose in Dad’s hands, said what we were all thinking. “She sent you a last message,” he told Dad. “Yes!” all of us in the car agreed. It was an acknowledgment of a reality that none of us had ever discussed.”
“Since there were no buildings on the property yet, Caroline and I lived in the bus. We had some beautiful moments, watching sunsets together over the sweep of the mesas below the mountains. But as a couple, something wasn’t working, and we both knew it. At some point, Caroline realized I was bisexual. We had a soulful intimacy, and there was no question we were in love, but we also had plenty of friction and felt physically incompatible. We adored each other, but we couldn’t cohabit long term.”
“When David Padwa wrote that his India preparations were finally together, our separation felt timely and natural. Caroline had a moment of recognition from when she was a teenager and her father had left her mother for a male lover. She remembered the same ambiguous feelings coming up between her parents. It was a karmic coda: that memory allowed her to see the reality of our relationship and, perhaps, to let go.”
“We all stayed together on the New Ruby—David slept with one of the girls—and for the next several days we relaxed and got high. We had some celestial LSD parties on the houseboat, awed by our surroundings. After some days, we decided to trek to Amarnath cave, a Hindu shrine farther up in the twenty-thousand-foot Himalaya peaks, about forty miles from Srinagar. David loves mountains. Amarnath is a deeply sacred pilgrimage site because of its ice stalagmite, formed from the meltwater that drips from the ceiling of the cave and believed to be one of the Jyotirlingams, a phallic representation of Shiva. The pillar of ice changes in height and size with the season and temperature, and it is called a “lingam of light” for how it catches sunlight. The cave is surrounded by snow most of the year, and every summer, thousands of devotees make a pilgrimage.”
“Once the Land Rover got its new rear axle, we drove with Harish to Bareilly, to visit his family’s home. Then we went on to Varanasi, or Benares, the holy city on the banks of the River Ganges and one of the most intensely religious places on the planet, a major pilgrimage site. Many Hindus come there to die and be cremated along the banks of the river, which is considered holy. We stayed in a small hotel near the Ganga, close to Manikarnika Ghat, one of the holiest of the cremation grounds. I was overwhelmed by the number of people wandering the streets, waiting to die. There were lepers and people with obvious deformities and visible cancers. Each person carried just enough money to pay for the firewood needed for their cremation. I could barely look at them. I felt waves of horror. I thought they should all be in the hospital. I couldn’t connect with or even confront them as human beings.”
“We stayed in pilgrim rest houses called dharmsalas, some put up by the government, with concrete rooms and wooden beds. At first it was an adventure, and the spartan conditions didn’t bother me. But it was very hot, and as the days went by, I needed to distract myself from the blisters and bad food. I tried to entertain myself narrating my past exploits to Bhagavan Das. I thought he would be amused, but he was completely uninterested. When I told stories, he replied, “Just be here now.” I was thrown back into myself. Just be. Here. Now.”
“Overhead the shimmering stars seemed so close they appeared as hanging lights. It was like a hallucinatory van Gogh painting. There’s something profound about staring into the cosmos, and in that moment, I suddenly felt Mother with me. Not since I was on LSD at her funeral had I been with her as a soul, and in the months since, I’d not made time to mourn or acknowledge my sadness—what with the family commotion, the upheaval at Millbrook, my relationship with Caroline, my travels with David and Bhagavan Das. My emotions were still mixed and raw. Now in her presence again, I felt joy. It was as if she’d come in spirit to give me her love.”
“I had to laugh. Here I was, a Freudian-trained psychologist who’d endured years of psychoanalysis, on my way to the outdoor toilet, thinking about—of course!—my mother. My professional self loved the incongruity. Even in this tender moment, I was retreating into humor and irony to sidestep the gaping emptiness of Mother’s death. The thought passed. I continued under the stars to the outhouse, emptied my innards, and stumbled back to the silent house. I fell into a dreamless sleep.”
“My mind goes faster and faster, trying to figure out how Maharaj-ji knows this. Finally, like a cartoon computer stuck in an insoluble loop, the bell rings, and the red light flashes. My mind just stops. I’m stuck. My rational mind gives up. It just goes, Pouf! At that same moment, there’s a violent wrenching in my chest, a very painful pull, and I start to cry. Later, I realize it was my spiritual heart opening. How fitting that when he says “spleen” and my mind blows and my heart opens, the organ that killed my mother becomes the key for my awakening.”
“Suddenly, sitting there, it occurs to me that if Maharaj-ji knows my thoughts about my mother, then he knows all my other thoughts too—including all the things I’m most ashamed of. My bisexual double life. My intellectual pretense. My anger at my mother. I can’t bear that he knows all this. These are things I keep carefully hidden. I’m convinced that if people were to know them, they wouldn’t love me. I’m sitting on the grass looking down, thinking about all these things I’m so ashamed of that I don’t want anyone to know. He’s sitting just above me, on his plank bed. I know he knows every one of these thoughts. He’s talking to other people as if nothing out of the ordinary is going on. Finally, I summon the courage to look up at him. He’s looking back down at me from only a few inches away—and all I see in his face is total love. I know he knows all these things I’m so ashamed of. He knows, but instead of criticism, all I feel is great love coming from him. He’s not judging me or mocking me or laughing at me. He’s just talking to people. I look up at him, and he looks down at me, and I realize he’s just loving me with pure unconditional love.”
“The shame of all my hidden stuff washes out of me, all the thoughts and judgments. The paranoia about the car, about the guru, is all gone. I am left with a feeling of release, of all-pervading love and peace. I am living in the presence of Maharaj-ji’s unconditional love. I have never been loved so completely. My parents loved me because I was a good boy, my lovers because I loved them back. There were always conditions on love. Now there are no conditions; there is only pure love. I, who never felt worthy of love, am dissolving into it.”
“I had no idea what to make of this exchange. He was not talking about Lincoln or Gandhi as historical figures. They were present for him in a way I could not grasp. Days later, in the bazaar, I bought small round spectacles like those Gandhi wore. Maybe I would see things the way he did. But I wasn’t about to live on goat’s milk and almonds, or travel around in a loincloth, or spin the thread for my clothes, as Gandhi had. Sometime afterward, I heard a story about Gandhi. He was on a train, about to depart from an Indian railroad station, when a reporter outside called out, “Give me a message for your people!” As the train began to move, Gandhi hastily scribbled on a piece of paper bag. “My life is my message,” he wrote. I think that’s what Maharaj-ji was trying to tell me. His directive had to do with participating in the human condition. Our relations with one another are ultimately rooted in who we are—what all our experiences, education, and karma have made us. Life is the message.”
“I sat at his feet all day. I was watching carefully, ready to take notes or respond if help was needed. I knew this psychedelic territory well. I had a lot of experience guiding people through LSD sessions, and I’d taken well over three hundred psychedelic trips myself. This was truly the acid test. But nothing happened, nothing at all. Maharaj-ji went on talking with other people as usual, addressing their personal issues, jobs, marriages, children. Every now and then, he would look at me and twinkle. From time to time, he would close his eyes and go within for a few moments, as he often did. Then he’d be back chatting animatedly and moving about on the tukhat. Absolutely nothing happened! Whatever Maharaj-ji’s sadhana, or spiritual path, had been, it had taken him way beyond LSD. It was as if Maharaj-ji’s consciousness encompassed LSD and everything else too. Sitting there before him, I experienced something like a contact high. But there was also another kind of high, a space I was not used to. It was a boundless feeling of pure presence. There were no edges, no boundaries, no concepts to hold on to. I wasn’t looking for love, but I felt that too. From my Western standpoint, LSD was the strongest tool I had, the most powerful drug I knew for accessing other states of consciousness. Yet it had no effect on Maharaj-ji. My first reaction was disappointment. Part of me was hoping he would be impressed and tell me something profound about psychedelics. On the other hand, the fact that nothing happened told me that he is beyond the body, beyond physical form. He is just being love. On some level, even after my heart opening, I still thought of psychedelics as a path for the West, instant chemical enlightenment. I had been using acid to shift my plane of consciousness, but now I realized that Maharaj-ji is all the planes of consciousness. I had to go from one plane to another, but he is already in all of them.”
“Maharaj-ji stands in two planes of consciousness at once, one foot in form as an individual soul and one foot in the vast formless ocean of love, in undifferentiated oneness. He is a living paradox of form and formless.”
“Our exchanges were brief and cryptic. He wrote things like “If a pickpocket comes to see a saint, all he sees are his pockets.”
“I was a good student, but my eagerness to learn was rooted in my desire for power. I was fascinated by Maharaj-ji’s ability to read my mind, and I wanted to know how to access those siddhis, or psychic powers, in myself. Maharaj-ji said things like “I hold the keys to the mind” and “All the money in the world is mine.”
“The scientist in me wanted to know how this all worked. Though Maharaj-ji’s love was the greatest power I had ever encountered, I thought it was Maharaj-ji’s psychic power that had opened me. When I met him I was still in the grip of my Western mind and my psychology training. I couldn’t fully take in the depth of that love. Maharaj-ji bathed me in unconditional love, but unconditional love doesn’t have a place in psychology. Psychology is about understanding the mind and relationships with the mind.”
“Maharaj-ji would list the very human qualities of lust, anger, delusion, and greed (in Hindi, kama, krodh, moha, and lobh), with the admonition that you have to deal with your obstacles before you can really enter onto the spiritual path (sadhana). Just because you decide you’re on a spiritual path doesn’t mean habitual patterns vanish. The word yoga, in its original sense, comes from the same root as yoke, because it harnesses the sometimes contradictory input of body, mind, emotions, and spirit into the One.”
“Some residual part of Richard still longed for the comforts of home, paying homage to my old life. But I didn’t really want to be anywhere else. I’d surrendered to being at Kainchi, in this timeless space. I was a being in transition. I still had a healthy ego, but the temple, the yoga, and the meditation were literally changing my mind and body and ushering me into my spirit.”
“In later years, when Westerners came to see Maharaj-ji, he’d tell his devotees, “Feed them, feed them.” The Indian devotees would feed copious amounts of pooris and aloo, spicy potatoes and flat bread cooked in ghee—true comfort food. Coming from Maharaj-ji, this was prasad, food blessed with unconditional love.”
“Maharaj-ji saw that in childhood, many Westerners hadn’t been fed with real love. This was certainly true for me: for years, I’d fed my emotional emptiness with Mother’s chocolate cake and home-cooked brisket, things she pushed on me as a Jewish mother’s expression of love. But that kind of love had not fed my soul. Maharaj-ji gave us the opportunity to taste unconditional love in the extended family of Indian devotees, who so freely and graciously fed and took care of us.”
“Most of my own interactions with Maharaj-ji, by contrast, were from the inside. Whether I saw him or not, I felt his presence. For a being like him, there is no discontinuity or distinction between the physical and pure consciousness. You could sometimes tell this from his eyes, which had long lashes and were often half-closed. They were rarely fully visible. Sometimes one eye was focused and the other was out of focus, off somewhere else. It was like he had one foot in the world and one in the formless.”
“Anyway, it’s not like I really had a curriculum to take back. Under Maharaj-ji’s blanket, I’d experienced a complete shift in my persona, from former Harvard professor to a yogi. I was like a leaf being carried on a stream to the ocean. I’d been launched on a lifelong evolution from ego to soul, from neurotic separateness to my deeper being. I’d gone from running my own show to turning my life over to the guru. I was beginning to see myself as part of the lila, the cosmic dance—a soul in a divine play led and orchestrated by God within.”
“I stayed in my childhood bedroom. I’d left Kainchi, a spiritual womb, and returned home to a flashback of an entirely different stage of my life, when the hooks of the parent-child relationships seemed real. Those attachments were now faded shadows. Maharaj-ji was with me, was part of me. I was less in my ego. I was witnessing the changes from a clear, calm place in the heart. Maharaj-ji’s cosmic humor at inserting me into this regression was inescapable.”
“I used to tell people, “If you want to see how you are doing with your spiritual work, go spend a week with your family.” That was from my own experience. When it came to communicating about my time with Maharaj-ji, only Phyllis and my brother Leonard seemed to understand. Still, something of Maharaj-ji’s unconditional love came across even to Dad and Billy. I was different. My new being was lifting the burden of guilt and shame from my childhood and adolescence, focusing in on my heart. Maharaj-ji’s love was coming through me.”
“In the West the idea of surrendering to a guru carries negative connotations. It implies giving up power to another human being. But that internal surrender is really about letting go of the things that keep you separate, your own fetters. You surrender to something greater than yourself, to a love beyond form.”
“A guru is different from a teacher. If you think of the spiritual path as the road to your true self, a teacher is someone who stands next to you, giving directions. A guru, on the other hand, is up ahead, beckoning you from the destination. The guru knows the journey is an illusion; his job is to get you to see that there is nowhere to go, that you are part of the One.”
“I was just a loving presence, maybe the only family member who was not uptight about it all. Because Maharaj-ji had helped me find peace with my feelings about Mother, I was happy for Dad to find a new wife.”
“Some people got high as I talked. I got high too, but not from psychedelics. I was stoned—with love. Maharaj-ji was coming through me. I loved my audience, and they reciprocated. It was a shared consciousness, intimate and powerful at the same time.”
“Brook Beecher, a big guy who was Wavy’s brother-in-law. He was also hearing impaired and mentally disturbed. As I began to deliver my talk, Brook decided I was stealing attention from his friend who was still dancing. He bashed me on the head with a rock he was carrying from Mount Ararat in Turkey, the resting place of Noah’s ark. As people pulled Brook off me, he yelled, “Holy men are full of holes!” My weeks of meditation in Bodh Gaya must have been effective: my head was bleeding, but I felt nothing but compassion for him.”
“It will give you great wealth and powers.” “Unless it gives me compassion,” I replied, “I don’t want power. I don’t want power without compassion.” Muktananda looked at me disdainfully and walked away. That moment illuminated the contrast between Maharaj-ji’s path of the heart and Muktananda’s predilection for power and wealth. Of course, both those qualities resonated in me, which was why I was attracted to Muktananda in the first place. I realized at that moment that my focus had shifted, from my head to my heart.”
“When I meditated, the mantra Muktananda gave me for wealth and power kept coming into my mind. I was still attracted to power. I wasn’t going deeply into the mantra, though. I was just using it to examine my attachments to power and wealth. I could see how really using it would increase my affinity for them.”
“Maharaj-ji kept giving me these experiences with power until I saw it was love, not power, that matters.”
“No one else got the joke besides me and Dwarka. Maharaj-ji had a hilarious sense of humor, but understood only by those he intended it for. I’d been feeling guilty about fooling around, but the lightness with which he treated my lust freed me from taking myself so seriously. He was saying, “You want to keep getting lost in that? Okay, but don’t get lost in shame and guilt too. It’s just a desire.” He saw everything. Those hidden feelings weren’t hidden from him. Maharaj-ji’s teaching was intimate, funny, straight to the heart, and not heavy-handed, though he could be very fierce too. I associate that cosmic humor with the feeling of his grace. Being able to laugh at oneself is grace.”
“Oh, God, what have I done?” I thought in a panic. I had gauged his weight, but I didn’t know his age, and there was no telling what such a heavy dose would do to him this time. “He was such a sweet old man!” Maharaj-ji laughed delightedly. It was a total put-on. He stopped playacting and said, “Got anything stronger?” He was beaming. He was just playing with my mind, like a kid with a toy. He went back to talking with people, completely ordinary conversations, at least for Maharaj-ji. I was watching like a hawk. Nothing happened. Nothing at all. So Maharaj-ji delivered the coup de grace to my doubts. Not only did he validate the first experience; he again showed he could read my mind, with all my uncertainty. I’d known inside that I had come to the end of my psychedelic path. He confirmed that assessment. Actually, he rubbed my nose in it thoroughly. Chagrined, I began to see the humor in the whole thing. In both LSD incidents, Maharaj-ji was laughing at my Western reliance on externals and stretching my conception of his consciousness. I had thought of psychedelics as a spiritual path, and now he was pulling that conceptual rug out from under me. From the place of oneness where Maharaj-ji sits, psychedelics are just a fragmentary shard of a vastly deeper reality. He showed me they are a limited window, all the while reflecting back to me the deeper place of love within myself.”
“He said psychedelics could be useful if you took them in a quiet, cold place and your soul was turned toward God. “They allow you to come into the presence of Christ, to have darshan, but you can only stay for two hours.” It was good to visit Christ, Maharaj-ji said, but it was better to be Christ. “This medicine won’t do that,” he continued. “It’s not the true samadhi, absorption in God. Love is a much stronger medicine.”
“My role as teacher included guidance counselor and therapist: my old roles with new tricks. All the training I had in psychology, psychedelics, and spiritual practices was called upon. When I sat with people individually, we would look into each other’s eyes, going deeper and deeper through layers of personality into our souls. I would say, “If there’s anything you feel you can’t tell me, tell me.” Deep feelings, spiritual aspirations, and decades of neuroses bubbled up. Maharaj-ji’s compassionate presence allowed a lot of internal work to be done.”
“It was intimate, it was truthful, it was sometimes painful and sometimes beautiful. We all made great effort to go within. I was helping the participants witness their psychological games. We were dismantling the ego, thought by thought. Spiritually, we saw ourselves as sadhaks, seekers on the path, instead of in interpersonal relationships. When I sat with someone, we would start with those interpersonal and personality layers, spiritual and psychological stuff mixed together. After a while, we’d get into this place where we were just hanging out together as spiritual friends, witnessing the mind river flowing by.”
“When we were with Maharaj-ji, time and space didn’t exist. His presence seemed vast and eternal. He would say things about the future that we couldn’t understand. At times you couldn’t tell whether he was talking about the past, the present, or the future.”
My mother always fed everybody who came to our house. Maharaj-ji did the same at his temples. When we asked Maharaj-ji how to raise kundalini, the spiritual energy, he said simply, “Feed everyone and love everyone. Remember God.”
“It was different from being a solo yogi in the Himalayas. Like everyone else, I had karmic stuff to work through: anger, lust, power. Maharaj-ji confronted me with my attachments, sometimes with gentle humor and sometimes with situations from which I had no escape. He gave me the title commander in chief of the westerners, then promptly undermined my authority and attempts at order at every turn.”
hated myself for that too. By then I was crying. “I hate everybody, including myself,” I blurted out. “I hate everybody but you.” Maharaj-ji sounded sympathetic. “Oh, Ram Dass is angry,” he said. Then he looked at me. “Ram Dass, love everyone. Love everyone and tell the truth.” I said, “Maharaj-ji, the truth is: I am angry.” He leaned over and looked me in the eye, practically nose to nose. He said, “Tell the truth. And love everyone.” I knew in that moment I had to choose whether to hold on to my righteous anger or surrender to Maharaj-ji. It’s a rare moment when your guru gives you a direct command. Not to be taken lightly.”
“Maharaj-ji had done it to me again, confronting me with my negative emotions, anger and jealousy and self-righteousness, which were keeping me separate from him and everyone else and from God. I’d been wallowing in self-pity—not to mention self-hatred and unworthiness, which of course I was projecting onto everyone else. Maharaj-ji just sat there twinkling, an unflinching mirror.”
“I knew I had to make amends to my satsang brothers and sisters. Maharaj-ji’s essential teaching is to feed everyone and love everyone. I took an apple and cut it up. Then I went from one member of the satsang to another. Maharaj-ji said you should feed others with love; if you feed someone in anger, it’s like giving them poison. I looked each person in the eyes, until I could see the place in them where we are love together, and then I fed them each a piece of apple. It took a while. The whole situation was Maharaj-ji’s lila, his play, from start to finish.”
“It’s a treasured image because it represents a shared moment basking in Maharaj-ji’s unconditional love. For most of those in the photo, that time is a deep fountain of faith and solace. Since those days together, there have been illnesses and deaths, terrible accidents, painful divorces and infidelities, problems with kids and careers, addictions, and now the depredations of age. Each of us, in our unique way, confronts the existential elements the Buddha laid out, of suffering, impermanence, and the ego delusion of any permanent self. But behind it all, still, is Maharaj-ji. Love everyone, serve everyone, and remember God.”
“Someone came to tell us the temple was closing. As we got up to go, Anandamayi came out a side door and walked across the courtyard, right in our path. She looked as if she were sleepwalking. She walked past us, hesitated, and stopped just in front of us so we could touch her feet. She was completely ethereal, hardly there. It was like meeting a startled deer in the quiet of a deep forest or having a bird land on your shoulder—a precious instant when you connect with something pure and elemental, untouched by the mundane.”
“On two occasions, once in New Delhi and another time in a village, Maharaj-ji walked right past me without acknowledging my presence. Not a flicker of recognition, no acknowledgment of any connection between us. Nada. He could be completely impersonal, which undercut any sense I had of being important or really of being anyone at all. It caused me to consider my personality in a different light. I would be carrying on an ordinary conversation with him, then realize there was no one there. Sometimes, talking to him was like engaging with a tree or a rock. Yet, as with Anandamayi, I still touched love. I felt more love from him than I’d ever felt from anyone in my life.”
“Maharaj-ji told me not to go. He said, “Don’t you see, it’s all perfect?” He was telling me not to get caught by my view of the suffering. Not that there wasn’t horrific suffering. It was awful. But it was also part of God’s perfection, of the One. As humans we just want to alleviate the suffering. Understanding that suffering is part of divine perfection, that in the bigger picture it is all in the plan, was hard to accept.”
“I was determined not to be emotional. Maharaj-ji wasn’t much for Jewish good-byes, and anyway, I felt he was coming with me. He was my soul companion. I was established with him, and his loving presence was, and is, part of my world.”
“I shouldn’t have worried. When I finally landed in Boston, there was no one waiting at the airport to receive me—not even Dad, who was out of town and didn’t get the cable about my flight. This gave me some time to figure out my next steps. Maharaj-ji had told me not to have ashrams or students or to stay anyplace longer than five days. He also said to love and serve everyone. I needed to figure out what my service should look like.”
“my grief on losing Mother. My connection to Maharaj-ji was soul to soul. The body was gone, but the soul was still there. Curiously, my connection to Maharaj-ji was now even more direct, and I was held in the aura of his love.”
“Thirty of us took a Pan Am charter flight to New Delhi. We got on a bus to the Vrindavan ashram, where we found a still-smoldering heap of Maharaj-ji’s ashes. Larry Brilliant took some of the ashes; later he gave me an amulet containing some. The ashram held a big bhandara, feeding thousands of people, a traditional way of marking an important event. Afterward, we traveled up to Kainchi. While it felt eerie without Maharaj-ji shouting orders and throwing fruit and keeping the whole show in motion, our Indian family was as loving as ever. Maharaj-ji’s energy was very present.”
“I had noticed that after Be Here Now was published, I started getting a lot of letters from prisoners, mainly drug offenders, probably because of my own past drug associations. The government’s war on drugs was putting many people in jail for nonviolent offenses. I felt deep compassion for inmates, because society ignored and ostracized them.”
See God in everyone. MAHARAJ-JI
“In my replies I encouraged inmates to see their prison sentences as an opportunity for spiritual growth. In many ways, the austerity of prison life is like the austerity of an ashram. If they could do the work of forgiveness and love in spite of the harsh conditions, they could purify a tremendous amount of negative karma over the course of their sentence. No one was irredeemable.”
“Bo wrote a manual, We’re All Doing Time, about how to turn prison life into spiritual life. He and Sita sent it free to inmates who requested it. It’s now in its twenty-first printing and has been translated into several different languages. Eventually, the Prison-Ashram Project grew so large that Bo and Sita formed their own foundation, the Human Kindness Foundation, which has grown into the largest interfaith prison ministry in the world.”
“I can’t say I wasn’t interested. Trungpa appealed to my desire for power. By the time we saw each other again, in Boston, Trungpa had become a mentor to my old friend Allen Ginsberg. Before Maharaj-ji died, I learned from Allen that Trungpa planned to open an institute for Buddhist studies, the Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colorado. He wanted to create a place where students could learn Eastern and Western thought, as well as have meditation training.”
“Trungpa’s talks were more the yoga of the intellect. Between his Tibetan monastic training and his Oxford education, he was a master of philosophy. Trungpa’s lineage is tantric, using the energies of the outer world to go inward, and he took his students through their karma via gambling, sex, and alcohol. I couldn’t tell if he actually helped release their attachments or reinforced their desires. Or he may have done these things because he liked doing them himself. The older students all swore his teaching was classical Vajrayana tantra and that it led them to greater internal freedom. I couldn’t tell; it may have been wishful thinking.”
former church retreat and founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. IMS is still one of the best places in the country to learn and practice meditation. Naropa itself is now an accredited university that exquisitely integrates arts and spiritual disciplines.”
“I also loved Joya. It was romantic and playful and exciting. I loved her mostly on the spiritual plane; the physical and emotional part seemed like a teaching. Her role, Joya liked to say, was to pave the way for me to become a world spiritual leader. And my main attraction was to her power—her shakti. She used and misused that power, sometimes for her ego to get what she wanted. Sometimes she was very innocent, other times completely calculating. I felt like I was in a blender.”
“Publicly admitting I’d been sidetracked by my own desires was embarrassing, but I discovered that it connected me to others. We need to know not only the signposts on the path, but also about the detours and pitfalls. Openly sharing my mistakes was part of my sadhana, part of Maharaj-ji’s instruction about truth telling. The more open I was, the more others felt loved and served. Using myself as an object lesson in my talks and writings kept me honest and kept my ego out of the way. As long as I stayed in my heart, Maharaj-ji’s message came across.”
“Service as a spiritual path lacks glamour. I liked moving in and out of planes of reality, esoteric teachings, secret mantras, meditations in caves, experiences of bliss. Those experiences of different planes originated in my use of psychedelics, and I’d grown attached to those experiences. It was another subtle trap that I created for myself, another kind of spiritual ego.”
“Maharaj-ji told me to be like Gandhi. Now I realized that meant fully participating in the human condition. But what did that look like? Others were better trained to alleviate suffering, like nurses, doctors, and political activists. They manifested compassion or fought injustice in their own ways. As I pondered Maharaj-ji’s instructions, I realized my ability is to serve as a spiritual friend to help others see what lies at the root of suffering and help them to awaken. I could help people get free to serve others.”
“in Benares, Shiva whispers Ram, the name of God, in your ear, and your soul is liberated. Those people knew they were in the perfect place to die. They understood the symmetry of the cycle of life and death. Benares held incredible human suffering, but it was also a city of incredible joy.”
“As with Mother, the most important part was simply being present. In Los Angeles, I went to visit a dear friend who was dying of a cancer of the nervous system. She was an intellectual, sensitive person who had no interest in reincarnation. Her pain was very severe. She was writhing in bed from the intensity of it. Words were of no use to her, so instead I sat next to her and began doing the Buddhist meditation on the decaying body.”
“This is a formal meditation that one does on the stages of decay. I sat there, eyes wide open, just noticing the pain and letting my emotions flow but not clinging or judging. Just noticing the laws of the universe unfold, which is not easy to do with someone you love, because of your emotional attachment. I sat there, watching the suffering, and I began to feel a vast, deep calm. The room became luminous. In that moment, my friend turned to me and whispered, “I feel so peaceful.” Though her body was racked with pain, in this meditative environment, she was able to move beyond it. We created a space that we could be in together. It was bliss.”
“The best preparation for death is to live in the present moment. If you are living in this moment, then when the moment of death comes, it is just another moment. But you can’t tell someone else to live in the present moment unless you live here and now yourself.”
Every dying person with whom I shared time helped me, probably more than I helped them. Dying is a collaborative dance, an opportunity to do the work within, whether as the one facing death or the one sitting at the bedside. It was a privilege to share those moments. I came to see death, not as an end point, but as a process of transformation.
I heard her playing on the fears of the audience with her urgency. I thought, “Haven’t we gotten to a place in social action where we can inform and trust each other, instead of trying to manipulate people emotionally?”
I notice how many angry people there are at peace rallies. Social action arouses righteousness. But righteous anger can close your heart. If I want to be free more than I want to be right, I have to let go of righteousness. For social action to be done with love, the spiritual work has to come first. I work on myself to perform social action from a place of true compassion. Compassion and love are both in the soul. If my social action is not directed by the soul, it comes from the ego.
Friendship, sex, and intimacy are all powerful teachings about love and attachment. Love wants for nothing, but sex, with its attendant lust, animal drives, and Freudian fantasies, reinforces sticky attachments and can create more karma. If you can focus on the love and bring it all into loving awareness, then you can truly enter into the spirit. My relationship with Peter started with attraction, moved into friendship and intimacy, and flowed into the spiritual. At the same time, we were vastly different personalities. I liked being in control. I had a public life, going out on speaking tours, and a spiritual practice. Peter, meanwhile, needed stability. He was a good artist. I encouraged his art and helped him get exposure, and I supported him so he could focus on his work.
Also across the table was Dr. Nicole Grasset, a noted epidemiologist who had overseen the smallpox eradication push in Southeast Asia and had been Larry’s boss. Next to her sat an ophthalmologist from South India, Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy. Dr. V., as everyone called him, was a devotee of the Indian saint and revolutionary, Sri Aurobindo. Dr. V. had founded Aravind Eye Hospital in the ancient temple town of Madurai, performing thousands of cataract surgeries every year, mostly for free. He appeared unassuming, but I felt an immediate spiritual connection.
Nicole had done her homework. Blindness in Nepal can be a death sentence because of the mountainous terrain; a person who goes blind has a life expectancy of less than two years. In Nepali, the term for blind person translates as “mouth without hands,” useless to a family surviving on the edge of subsistence. Larry and the Hog Farmers had gone trekking and seen the heart-wrenching consequences of blindness in Nepal. I knew nothing about blindness, but Nicole was a dynamic and persuasive advocate. We quickly agreed Seva’s first project would be to eliminate preventable blindness in Nepal. My doctorate was in psychology, not medicine, and my efforts to alleviate the world’s problems were limited to charitable giving and attending antiwar or antinuclear protests. I was impressed we were going to take on such a huge and tangible problem.
It was not the only early conflict in Seva. From the beginning, there were differing visions. The medical folks wanted simply to alleviate suffering. I and a few others wanted social service to also include spiritual practice to cultivate wisdom and compassion. Our view was, if we did not work on ourselves and teach others to do the same, our service would only contribute to more suffering. This philosophical divergence became a core conflict within Seva, between what I came to call “the be-ers and the do-ers.” To me, Seva was a laboratory for spiritual social action. By performing seva as selfless service and not being attached to the results, as the Bhagavad Gita taught, people would evolve spiritually while helping.
It was an essential debate. I don’t think Nicole really understood my position at first, and I needed to appreciate the urgency of the frontline workers. We all had more work to do on ourselves. We stayed in the fire together. Over the years, the self-awareness component, working on oneself spiritually while serving, has waxed and waned at Seva, depending on who is in command. But we all grew profoundly through that dialogue. I understand better how to serve and what alleviating suffering is about in myself and others. The do-ers understood that the point of view from which you serve, whether it truly comes from the heart, influences the outcome.
The less attached you are to your own desires, the more you can hear what other human beings need, and the less you project
your own needs. Your response is more compassionate and appropriate to the need at hand. That doesn’t mean you don’t have desires. The paradoxical question is, how can we be fully engaged in life yet not be attached? Translating the inner work on ourselves into action is a subtle art!
Her words captured exactly what I had been feeling. I’d been afraid to open my heart to the suffering of others because I feared I would be consumed, unable to set limits.
I remember Robin Williams remarking on the harmonic connection among all living things.
It’s a delicate balance: wisdom and compassion, detachment and devotion. Those twin lessons from the battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita still apply. Detachment is giving up how it turns out, and devotion is surrendering into love. The practice is to keep an eye on both and maintain the balance.
I felt like an amateur in the company of these big league meditators. Sharon got instruction in the practice of metta, or lovingkindness, while the rest of us focused simply on deepening our meditation. This was basic Buddhist practice: no Western embellishments or comforts, no talking, no mind games, just sitting. Like Theravadan Buddhism itself, it was bare-bones simplicity. I was trying to perfect meditation as a method.
We buried her ashes at the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society ashram, which was still under the leadership of Gayatri Devi, who had been part of our early psilocybin work at Harvard. Phyllis’s death engaged my heart. I didn’t need to be so afraid of grief; it didn’t separate me from the spiritual dimension. In fact, it put me more in touch with the soul plane. And knowing that grief is an experience shared by all humanity let me see myself as just one wave on a great sea.
After Phyllis’s death, I became more of an active presence in Dad’s care. The time with him was unexpectedly sweet. Most of my life was an implicit rebellion against everything he’d stood for or wanted me to do, his concepts of success, wealth, and power. When you rebel against parental projections, they’re just as much a part of you as part of the parent. As a Harvard professor, even as I was rebelling, I was still competing with my father.
Dad was withdrawn and barely spoke, but I was glad for the opportunity to care for him. At first I did it grudgingly, looking for praise for being a good son. Later, as I worked to make my father happy in his final years, I felt like I’d been given a gift. In India, I saw how family roles give form and meaning to life. Now I understood this for myself.
Dad and I developed a deep friendship. Friendship had never been part of my relationship with either of my parents, but with death beckoning, we were able to enter a shared heart space. When their bodies were falling away, I was able to see the spirit without the parental trappings. We were souls hanging out.
I had expected to share a meditative evening. So much for expectations. I wanted to leave the next morning, but we were way up on the volcano and I had no transport. I was physically trapped in their psychological universe. I lay in bed looking up at the stars. As I quieted down, I realized they were right. I was still a phony. I had been relying on my charm and stories to cover up my vulnerability all evening. I felt intensely embarrassed and humiliated.
Then she’s grabbing my arms and staring down at this male child, this part of herself that she cannot control, glaring at me with scorn and rejection. I am fighting her with all my power, but she just grips my arms and looks at me coldly. It is that look of cold anger that turns the tide. If I lose her love, I lose everything. My will flickers, then I am overcome with a paroxysm of defeat as I relinquish my power. It is as simple as that.
I quieted down and came back into the room with those thirty people in Hawaii. Though lost from view in the abyss of my unconscious, I realized the memory was true. It took thirty of them and being imprisoned in this contrived social situation to uncover that three-year-old child. What years of analysis, drugs, and meditation had been unable to do, they had done. I still didn’t like them. But I was thankful to them for liberating this early, almost preconceptual, personality calcification hidden within me.
Other memories flooded back over time. I realized, from that very early traumatic experience, that I had power only when my mother gave it to me. Her intensely intimate love often combined with that implacable control, forcing me to focus on pleasing her. Later that pattern of submission extended to the other power figures around me.
Karma, the result of past actions and our conditioned desires, keeps us turning on the wheel of birth and death. Our reality is a projection of desire on many levels, from gross to subtle. Coming into a body, incarnating into a human birth, brings all the drives for physical survival, sex, nourishment, safety, security. Above all, it brings the need for love. Love is different from other emotions because it can take us out of our instinctive drives and fears and connect us to our soul. Each family member has their own karmic knot to untie. The family unit and its dynamic create the perfect vehicle for each member to burn off their karma. No matter how dysfunctional it appears from the outside, that’s what family is about. Maybe the shared family karma will be complementary; maybe it will conflict. Seemingly random associations in a family are in truth a constellation of souls with interlocking karma that can be either reinforced or released. The poet e. e. cummings says, “let all go / dear / so comes love.”
My lack of attachment to Dad’s money had a positive effect on our relationship before he died. I think he could sense I didn’t want anything from him. In the end we were just two people
Instead I learned the power of connection. The deprivation opened my eyes and heart. The happiness of the women who received the goats was deeply moving. They were so poor! Yet their sense of community and gumption in the face of overwhelming oppression and suffering was inspiring. Their villages had been destroyed, but they still felt united. We reached one area with nine villages and explained that we could only fund one village at a time. The elders replied, “We’ll spread the money to everyone, or we just won’t take it.” Community was more powerful for them than money.
He started chanting a blessing, and he wanted to know the names of all the board members to include them. When he got to Wavy Gravy, his pronunciation (“Waaby Graaby”) was so funny we broke out laughing. These people didn’t fit my spiritual world view, but they sure opened my heart. I had never spent time with rural people with no food or medical care, whose children were so malnourished and dirty.
Tim and I experienced our own full-circle moment a decade earlier, when we were invited to a reunion of the Harvard Psilocybin Project organized by a graduate student, Joseph Kasof, who was interested in psychedelics. The two of us spoke to a packed audience on campus. Our old boss, Dave McClelland, moderated the conversation. It was the first time Tim and I had shared a stage since the sixties, and it was the first time Tim had been on the Harvard campus since our departure. After prison, he’d lectured around the country with G. Gordon Liddy, his prosecutorial nemesis at Millbrook. Tim befriended him in prison after Liddy was convicted for his role in Watergate, and on the lecture circuit they staged witty, spirited debates about politics and drugs. Tim also remarried, to filmmaker Barbara Chase, and raised her son, Zach,
Though Tim and I periodically crossed paths, this moment in Orange County felt symbolic, recognized by media outlets like Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, the same ones that years before had sensationalized our academic downfall.
As ever, Tim was the social engineer and game theorist, fascinated by the consequences of how people interact with one another. I shared that I still tripped every once in a while, partly to keep my membership in the psychedelic club, but found the experience less important than contemplation, service, and compassion.
I did share my experience with a psychedelic I’d tried for the first time the previous summer: toad slime. It was an intense and scary experience; I took such a big hit that I went into breathing distress, and Peter had to help me. On the brief, intense trip, I turned into a large black woman surrounded by beings who were children, all suffering, hungry, frightened, sick. I opened my arms to draw them all into myself, gagging on the shared agony, the deep, hungry cry of life itself. Yet I was also in ecstasy: the ecstasy of bearing the unbearable, of being part of the total dance of life, of not looking away from anything.
A year later Tim reached out. He told me he had late-stage, inoperable prostate cancer. Ever the optimist and showman, he called it “wonderful news,” and he was happy for the chance to face his death with intention, designing this final experience with curiosity and the help of friends. I knew something about being with the dying by then. Since our early days with the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Tim and I had spent many years considering death. I was glad to sit with him for this last stage in our long and sometimes fraught friendship. Tim announced the news far and wide in the media, and when a filmmaker named Gay Dillingham heard about it, she proposed she film our discussion around death. Her idea was to recreate, in a way, our notion of set and setting, providing a warm and relaxed atmosphere for us to reminisce about the past and consider the great transition.
The ensuing conversations were lovely and loving, even at argumentative moments. (Robert Redford, who narrated the documentary Dillingham eventually produced, sat in my living room at one point and asked for advice on psychedelics.) Tim had experienced deep personal pain in recent years. His daughter, Susan, had died by suicide after a long struggle with mental illness. His son Jack was estranged, wounded by the many years that Tim had been too busy for his children. Tim was close with his son Zach, but his wife Barbara had left him. We both enjoyed having the space to consider our own complicated history with clarity and compassion. I felt real affection for him, even when he dismissed my spiritual ideas. We laughed a lot. As psychedelics were slowly coming out of hiding, our long-ago experiments at Harvard were also being reconsidered. Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS, had conducted a follow-up to the Good Friday Experiment as an undergraduate project. His study, published by the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology in 1991, found that the effects of the psilocybin experience at Marsh Chapel lasted, for a majority of the seminary students, throughout their lives. Tim and I and Walter Pahnke had set out to test whether psychedelics could facilitate a true religious experience in a religious setting. The results appeared to bear out, with subjects recalling, more than twenty-five years later, how the sense of timelessness and light had permanently transformed their spiritual understanding. “We took such an infinitesimal amount of psilocybin,” said one participant, who went on to become a minister. “And yet it connected me to infinity.”
Tim died five months after the reunion with the Concord ex-convicts, on May 31, 1996. He’d intended to create an event around his death and have his brain cryogenically frozen. In the end, he departed with little fanfare, in his sleep. His last months served as a continuous wake, with dozens of friends coming and going. There was no big funeral. Instead, in keeping with the explorer he’d always been, some of his ashes were shot into space.
Gay Dillingham’s film of our conversations, Dying to Know, came out years later. It captured what I remember best about my last visits with Tim: his strong presence, his iconoclastic humor, his insouciant curiosity, our loving connection. I was grateful to have Tim as an upaguru. As with psychedelics, we faced the next round together with a joyous sense of adventure. When you lose your fear of death, you gain a love of life.
However, I saw this invitation as Maharaj-ji’s hint that it was time to reckon with my family karma. I’ve said that the religion you are born with frequently becomes more important as you see the universality of truth. Once you learn to go beyond your negative experiences as a child, you can return to your roots with new eyes. Once, when I was in Jerusalem, I passed two Hasidic Jews coming across a square. They were wearing the usual black hats and black coats, and I heard one of them say, “That’s Ram Dass! He’s the one who got me into this.” They had taken drugs and read Be Here Now. In Burma, I met two westerners who were studying to be Buddhist monks. “Your book started us on our Buddhist path,” they told me. Now, here I was, and I had yet to fully engage with one of the formative circumstances of my own life. I was born into Judaism. I needed to find ways to honor that.
From a Hindu perspective, you are born into what you need to deal with, your karmic predicament. If you try to push anything away, whatever it is, the reaction against it creates more attachment, just like getting pulled into it: it’s got your mind. It was no accident that I was born into a Jewish family, and I finally was able to appreciate its mark on me. Only when you honor your karma fully can you begin to be free.
In his later years, I think Leonard was in a spiritual state not unlike those of Meher Baba’s masts, beings who are absorbed in other planes and too confused to function much in the physical world. In our culture, we hospitalize people like that. In San Francisco, Leonard got into heroin, and it put him over the edge. With his mental instability, his mix of mysticism and power needs, and his hidden sexual life, drugs were just too much. He became disruptive and destructive in his relationships, including his relationship with me.
There was no breakthrough, but I was grateful for Peter’s attempt and felt more at peace with my own feelings about Len. As I was learning, we all carry the imprint of the past in emotional memories. Part of conscious aging is to reflect on and finish the business of our past, to dissolve the karmic knots by bringing them into awareness.
If we hold grudges, if we don’t practice forgiveness or work on releasing our unfinished business, our karma will play out in other ways or just leave us more stuck. If instead we cultivate being in the present, the awareness of this moment is stronger than the memories of the past and brings a spaciousness that can surround and dissolve old traumas.
I enjoy live radio—this was before podcasts. We featured call-in questions and had real conversations—not “the expert tells us how it is,” but “we’re in this together.” I wanted to create a safe space for everyone to talk about everything: drugs, relationships, sexuality, politics, whatever.
I knew this was a big deal, but it didn’t really occur to me I might be dying, that this might be all she wrote for this body. As I looked from the paramedics to the doctors, I could see they all thought I was dying. But inside I wasn’t dying. My consciousness was alive. I wasn’t thinking straight because of my scrambled brain. Maybe I was in the witness place. But clearly I was still here. When they realized I had had a serious stroke, they transported me to a special Kaiser stroke facility south of San Francisco. They gave me a 10 percent chance of survival. But survive I did. I was in the ICU for four or five days and then was moved to a rehab center. I don’t remember much of those first days. Since I understand this reality as a projection of mind, my immediate reaction to the stroke was that I had created this medical disaster as an exercise to finish the book. Was this reality, or was it my projection? On some level both were true. But the arrival of the paramedics and my not being able to talk or move the right side of my body was a potent sales pitch for reality. As I had trained myself to do with any bad trip, I settled into witness consciousness and watched it all go by.
Of course, the truth is that we all keep failing tests until we don’t. That’s a definition of the spiritual path. Eventually, surrendering to my damaged body, I had to surrender my judging mind too—the attachments, the motivations, how I thought it should be or how I should be.
At the hospital and rehab, a lot of people came and went, doctors and nurses and friends and relatives. They all had long faces that said, “You poor guy, you’ve had a stroke!” The whole view of a stroke as a medical disaster was continually projected onto me. And by absorbing their mindsets, I started to think of myself as a “poor guy,” another stroke “victim.” Only the cleaning woman didn’t project despair onto me. Whenever she came into my room, she was totally present, just . . . cleaning. She knew. She didn’t see me as a medical disaster. She saw me as a fellow soul.
To the rehab people I was my body. I wasn’t thinking that way, and I felt distant. I was straddling two planes of consciousness, one witnessing the other as an impatient patient. I had to accept the karma, the fierce grace of my situation. And I had to work with my therapists. One part of me was watching the lila, the dance of consciousness, and the other part of me was working like hell to get my body functions back. My relationships with the physical therapists were warm, and they were wonderfully skilled. So I did as instructed, witnessing from the inside and doing the exercises outside.
Contentment is a practice. It’s not a feeling of accomplishment from doing something. Contentment is just being complete in the moment. In the moment, there is just presence, no future or past, just happy to be here in the moment. Contentment is an attitude of the soul.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized the stroke was just a stroke. My reaction to the stroke was something else: that was my work on myself. The saving grace was being able to see it from the soul perspective. Instead of saying, “Oh, no, I’ve had a stroke!” and going through the whole cascade of medical disaster and despair, I came around to, “Well, let’s see what’s graceful in this stroke.” I began to treat it as just what was happening in the present moment. When Marlene
Faith seems fragile and intangible when it disappears. Yet it has been the most powerful wellspring in my life and a source of strength since it returned. Maharaj-ji said, “You may forget me, but I never forget you. Once I take hold of a devotee’s hand, I never let go.” The stroke stripped me of many things on the outside: physical strength, the ability to drive, play my cello, fly my plane, have sex. I’m dependent on others, and I feel vulnerable. My mind and speech are slow; it’s hard to find words. But since the stroke, I’ve been more with Maharaj-ji than ever.
A parade of friends visited, loved, and encouraged me. My dear friend Joan Halifax brought Laurance Rockefeller to visit. He and I had met in the early nineties, and I’d stopped in a couple of times at his Park Avenue apartment in New York. He attended a lecture I gave at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center about dying. His enthusiasm helped get the doctors to pay attention too. For a man of his wealth and position, Laurance was a pretty enlightened being, whose great generosity came from his heart. When Laurance heard about my stroke, he contributed to the fund for my rehabilitation, my endless stream of therapists and handicap adaptations. It was wonderful to see him. In the past, we’d smoked pot together and played verbal consciousness games. Now I wasn’t so verbal, but we did have a convivial smoke. He parked his Cadillac limo outside our little Tiburon house and had a vegetarian lunch with Joan and me. Before leaving, he bought one of Peter’s paintings for an overly generous amount.
I noticed a change in my awareness. It happened in a moment, and it surprised me. The whole universe became lovable. I loved everything that came in through my eyes, nose, ears, and skin. It all delighted me. It all made me happy. Not just the parts I used to love, like my partner and good food and my sports car, but everything. I began to live in love as a state of being. It was as if love was no longer a verb with an object. In that state, I simply became a loving being, an emitter of love. It’s a two-way street: as you become a loving being, the Universe is loving you. You are at home in the Universe. hOMe, hOMe on the range.
Though having a stroke is different from these sorts of geopolitical and cultural shifts, my experience gave me deep compassion for those being whipsawed by bewilderment and loss. I returned to my lecturing, speaking to audiences all over the country about what I’d learned: about surrender, about not being afraid, about letting go of the future and the past, and about living in the truth of the moment.
In the months I’d spent at Kainchi training as a yogi, I had numerous astral visions or flashbacks of meditating cross-legged in the jungle. On several occasions, Maharaj-ji referred to me as Samarth Guru Ramdas, a renowned Maharashtra yogi and hermit sage of the 1600s. Though he was implying that I was Samarth Guru Ramdas in one of my past lives, he referred to me, not in the past, but as if I am him. Where was that yogi within me now? Samarth Guru Ramdas’s incarnation was deeply immersed in God consciousness. In contrast, Richard Alpert learned from birth to be an individual and to achieve in ways that emphasized separateness, wealth, and power. In the rooms at Kainchi where I’d meditated and first felt the possibility of merging into oneness, I thought about the intervening years. Teaching and teachers, traveling and writing, relationships, the stroke—had all changed me, yet the simplicity of this connection to oneness through Maharaj-ji was still here, underlying everything, present through it all.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling well. So many unfamiliar maladies exist in India, I might have brought one back. Not wanting to disappoint the retreatants, I pushed along. Sridhar had rented a house for me to stay in, and in the afternoons, I invited retreat participants to my living room, where I could give dharma talks and answer questions as the tropical rains drizzled outside. We talked about death and dying, about finding home. It was lovely. But by the end of the retreat, I was running a fever of 103. Sridhar took me to the emergency room, where doctors diagnosed a urinary tract infection that had spread to my kidneys and into my bloodstream, causing sepsis, a systemic infection. The bug responsible was resistant to common antibiotics and if not controlled could be life threatening. All this talk of dying and home—was Maui my Benares?
Peter came to visit me while I was in the hospital on Maui. I told him I wasn’t coming back to California. We’d been together for almost two decades, the longest relationship I’d ever had. He returned to San Francisco, but we spoke on the phone, trading life details, consoling each other over difficulties, exchanging stories about our cats. In many ways, the evolution of our relationship was a direct reflection of my own internal evolution, from the outer work of traveling and lecturing to a quiet deepening of awareness and love.
In the wake of my new limitations, I have had to move from doing, from acting and serving in the external world, to being love and awareness just where I am. This is my karma-yoga, doing work from the soul perspective. You work with what life presents you with, but you convert your life activity into your individual spiritual path, into grist for the mill of love and awareness.
This is increasingly my dilemma. If I pay attention full-time to my body, then my consciousness strays from my soul, because I am attending to my body. But as I continue to age, my body demands focus more and more. These bodies really capture our consciousness. As our parents impressed upon us, if you’re not careful, you are going to hurt yourself! But from another point of view, the workings of the body are a vehicle to get to the soul. It’s tough work. I was in the hospital
Gandhi said, “When you surrender completely to God as the only Truth worth having, you find yourself in the service of all that exists. It becomes your joy and recreation. You never tire of serving others.” Billions of acts create suffering in the world—acts of ignorance, greed, violence. But in the same way, each act of caring—the billion tiny ways that we offer compassion, wisdom, and joy to one another—serves to preserve and heal our world. When I help someone change their perspective on their individual problems, I also change society. Meher Baba said, “Love is like a disease. Those who don’t have it catch it from those who do.” Love is transmitted from Maharaj-ji’s heart to my heart to your heart and to the next heart, one to another.
great eloquence. Most of the time, he simply sat on his wooden bed, wrapped in his blanket. And yet he directed political leaders, helping them orient their decisions. He told a hippie doctor to go to work for the World Health Organization’s India smallpox program, to help eradicate this ancient plague (which they did). After that hippie doctor, Larry Brilliant, sat in front of Maharaj-ji, he said, “It’s appropriate that he loves everyone—he’s a saint. The real miracle is that I love everyone when I am around him.” Maharaj-ji broadcast love. When I first met him, the realization that he loved me unconditionally, with all my imperfections, changed me. I actually began to love myself too. Not in the self-aggrandizing ego-inflating way, but by seeing myself as a loving being, as a soul. Once I could forgive my imperfections, the same guilt and shame for which he had forgiven me, I could begin to love and forgive others as well.
I thought of myself as a spiritual uncle, a loving elder. Now here I was, a blood father to a fully adult human being. This was an unforeseen turn on the path. Wow. Peter was fifty-three. He was married to Linda, a yoga teacher, and they had a daughter, a teenager named Emily. I was a father and a grandfather! This whole revelation was as discombobulating for them as it was for me. I wondered about my feelings. Should I expect a surge of recognition or of love? I didn’t. I’d missed all the years of primal bonding and intimacy and teenage hormonal chaos. When Peter was a toddler, I was experimenting with psychedelics. By the time he was a teenager, I was leading the life of a yogi. I wondered how parental I would feel if we got to know each other. I hoped to find out.
Though Peter claimed not to be spiritual, he had found a peaceful place, as I had decades ago, in Quaker meeting. He had no idea what a Ram Dass was, but he was open to learning. We discovered we had qualities in common, like our humor and compassion and a certain lightheartedness.
He was a good father, and though frequently away, his now adult children said he was always there when they needed him. He was also the headman of the village where they lived, adjudicating community disputes and helping people with their problems. Both lives, guru and father, apparently occurred more or less in plain sight, though only a few devotees and family members were aware of the connections. How this sleight of hand occurred was a mystery. Maharaj-ji was a family guru. Most of his Indian devotees are householders with families, living the constant drama of secular lives. Unlike most gurus, Maharaj-ji ate and slept in his devotees’ houses and in that way brought unconditional love into the home. In India or in the West, family life can be a powerful sadhana, or spiritual path. Sometimes it seems like you can’t get away from it. It can be difficult and intense and all consuming, and it can also be very loving and joyful. Each individual’s karma in a family complements and compels the evolution of the others. Only rarely do any of us catch glimpses of this from within our family dynamic. The veil of unknowing that comes over us at birth hides this knowledge. We constantly get lost in our existential situation. If not, how could we participate in the lila, the dance of life, and take it seriously? It is a grace when we can think less about our roles—mother, father, daughter, son—and see our kids as souls and see one another as souls, one at a time and all together.
In my trance, I had a kind of visitation from my mother. I felt her presence, and as a soul, she spoke to me. “I’m proud of you now,” she said. “Why not accept my affection and let go of the resentment from the past?” It was a big shift in our relationship—almost love! She was tough, but I’m no longer afraid of her. Sometimes I regret not living more with my family—not helping Leonard enough or being in California when Mother died. Family photos bring uncomfortable memories of my childhood. But it’s interesting to think of all of us incarnating to play our roles for one another. More and more, I see my family members as souls.
We think of karma as a kind of action and reaction, cause and effect, but karma is organic and very subtle. I don’t know how well we can understand it from within our incarnation. Even the view that everything happens for a reason treads the slippery slope of fate or predestination versus free will. Both are true!
As I turn toward Maharaj-ji within, my understanding of family changes. I see the work each soul has to do when it takes birth. When I think of my years as a therapist, I would work a little differently now. From Maharaj-ji’s long view, a person is not just a bundle of adult needs and childhood traumas, the building blocks of personality. It is a much subtler picture of karma working out across incarnations. We may have regrets about our family, or, as I did for many years, avoid or resent them. But the soul demands that every moment-to-moment experience of living be meaningful, fulfilling, and real. The soul’s game is not about reorganizing external life. It’s not about getting a new job, friends, lifestyle; making more money or getting a new car; finding a new partner or a new therapist—or ignoring the family history.
On Maui I don’t feel the pull to return to India. There’s something of India here on this sacred island. I sense oneness in the wind, the birds, the sky, the waves. Floating on the ocean swell, I begin to dissolve into the oneness with nature, with Maharaj-ji.
Like the sun, Maharaj-ji radiates love. Like the waves, he washes us in love. It’s a state of being rather than an interpersonal relationship. But it’s not a fixed state, it’s ever-changing as are we. Maharaj-ji is in my soul, and he’s here on Maui. He once said he would come to America and wear a suit. I haven’t seen the suit. Would I recognize him in a suit? Did he mean a bathing suit?
Being with other people is sharing Maharaj-ji’s unconditional love. Every week I have online counseling appointments with individuals. It is one of my favorite things. I call them Heart 2 Heart sessions. I speak with people from all over the world. We meet on the screen. There’s a long waiting list. People ask me their questions, and I answer by getting quiet and listening to them and to Maharaj-ji inside.
Maharaj-ji said, “You can plan for five hundred years, but you don’t know what will happen the next moment.” Giving up experiences of the past or expectations of the future leaves only this present moment. Everything is present in this moment—everything! When I burrow into this moment, there is nothing else. If I am fully in the moment, my own death or someone else’s is just another moment. The spiritual journey is less about our timeline from birth to death than from separation to oneness. Rather than a small being soon to be extinguished, I am simply a spark of an infinite awareness.
The nineteenth-century Indian saint Ramakrishna likened himself to a salt doll melting into the vast ocean. That ocean is pure consciousness and love. Though I have only one arm that works to swim, I love to float in the Pacific. On land, my paralyzed body is a burden to be carried around, but once in the water I am buoyant and free, and I can be that salt doll.
Surrender is difficult for westerners to accept. We see ourselves as rugged individualists whose creative energy and willpower and constant striving make our lives better and the world a better place. We think our power is the power of our minds to conceive new ways of manipulating objective reality. Our minds are our very being—or, as Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”
Mindfulness is an easier sell in the West, because people think it’s about controlling thoughts, which are at the foundation of our Cartesian reality. The paradox is that to really practice mindfulness, you have to let go of thinking.
Maharaj-ji said, “Love is the greatest power.” That conversion, from power to love, is perhaps the most significant transformation of my human existence, and yet when I met Maharaj-ji I barely noticed his love because I was so fascinated by his power. This is not something that happened once upon a time. It’s continual. Love is a verb: it’s changing and present; it’s both transitive and intransitive. It’s a state of being, but an active state. Maharaj-ji doesn’t love me or you. He is love.
Tim Leary and I didn’t just share psilocybin and LSD, we shared an amazing cultural moment of transformation, a collective internal journey that played out on a national stage. The real change that came from psychedelics was not hippie drug culture but opening people to their inner nature, to their soul. Psychedelics were a gateway drug all right, but not to more drugs. They were an opening to the living spirit beyond the materialist and existential constructs of the 1950s.
All this makes me feel like a grandfather, as do other movements I have been a part of that are now accepted parts of our culture: hospice, conscious aging, environmentalism, and of course yoga and meditation.
Scientists go to the brain to get to the mind. But neuroscience has never been able to adequately define consciousness. It’s like the guy who loses his keys and is looking for them under a streetlight. Someone asks him where he lost them, and he says, “Back in the alley.” The person asks, “So why are you looking here?” And he says, “This is where the light is.”
I imagine that death is like finally coming home to an old friend who has always known me and loved me completely.
In that view, death is no big deal. It’s like taking off a tight shoe, as my astral friend Emmanuel used to say. It is not to be feared. If I see death as the moment when I engage the deepest mystery of the universe, then I am prepared for that moment. That’s what the Eastern traditions are about: preparing for death, so that you’ll be open, curious, equanimous, not clinging to the past. You’ll just be present, moment by moment.
Everyone perceives a different Maharaj-ji, according to their needs. People express their devotion in all kinds of ways, by feeding people, chanting, meditating, working in the gardens, or serving visitors. Siddhi Ma, in India, once said that the ashram is the body of the guru. All those expressions are ways of serving the guru.
I knew Ram Dass for more than fifty years, longer than practically anyone in my life. He was my spiritual friend. There is a term for that in India, kalyana mitra, which means more than a friend: a mentor, guide, inspiration for inner life.
If there was ever someone without fear of dying, it was Ram Dass. He had considered death so deeply and often, had sat bedside with so many dying people, that he saw death as a release more than an end point. His last book, Walking Each Other Home, was an extended conversation about dying with our old friend Mirabai Bush. Ram Dass is home now, home as in no-body home, home in the soul, back home in the heart of being, the formless OM home.
Davidson Hang is currently in Sales at Cheetah Digital which is a Marketing technology company located in NYC.
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