28 Dec Vale Ram Dass – my first teacher in Eastern mysticism
Long before I was into yoga, a friend of a friend handed me a cassette tape with some recorded lectures by Ram Dass. The woman was an astrologer. She had drawn a marvellous birth chart for me with hand-coloured zodiac imagery. “Here,” she said, giving me my chart, “I’ve read this. You don’t know it yet but you’re a New Ager.” Then she handed me the tape, “so you should listen to this.”
She was right, I didn’t get the New Age thing yet (busy, busy, corporate, corporate) but I listened to the tape. I’m still listening to Ram Dass almost thirty years later, even though he’s no longer with us.
Ram Dass left his body at the Winter Solstice last week. (By that terminology, I think I’m confirmed as a New Ager). But he can’t leave me. I came to Ram Dass a spiritual virgin and I will never forget him as my first teacher of Eastern mysticism. (I don’t think anyone forgets their first!)
Conscious, creative ageing
Ram Dass was 60 by the time I heard of him. I became especially interested in his work on conscious ageing and his service to people as they were dying. As he told the first Conscious Ageing Conference in New York in 1992: “We can look at ageing as a creative process. We are creating our lives every day.” Yoga captures this concept of never-ending creativity in the Sanskrit phrase aham brahmasmi. Aham meaning “I am”, and brahmasmi meaning “the creative principle.” I am the creative principle in my life. You are the creative principle in yours.
“In the East, one spends one’s life – in the spiritual sense – preparing for ageing and death,” Ram Dass told the conference. “We have spent most of our lives in denying ageing and death. The predicament we face now is when you get older, it’s harder to do the work because it’s harder not to be distracted by all the changes that are happening in our bodies and our minds.” While change itself is “endlessly fascinating,” he said, “when it starts to happen to who we think we are, the fascination turns into fear.”
Letting go of who we think we are
Ram Dass himself went through many changes. He metamorphosed from a western intellectual, the former Harvard Psychology professor Richard Alpert, to a disciple of the Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba (Maharajji.)
He transformed from an advocate and researcher of psychedelic drugs to a teacher on the natural highs of meditation and spiritual practice.
He transitioned from an international speaker and energetic activist (co-founder of the Seva Foundation and the Love, Serve, Remember Foundation), to life in a wheelchair after a massive stroke, dependent on carers for his physical needs.
In his teachings, he warned over and over of the predicament of getting too caught up in “who we think we are” and, in his life, he had plenty of opportunities to let go of his ego constructs and move on. For most of us, when we get stuck by sickness or debilitation or weariness or all the other restrictions that stop us from being who we think we are, we’re terrified. Because if we can’t be that, then who are we? In answer, Ram Dass quotes Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.
Grounding ourselves in soul, Ram Dass told the Conscious Ageing Conference, requires taking a horizontal step away from total identification with the body and the personality. His message was the same 27 years later when he spoke to the New York Times this year in an interview headed Ram Dass is Ready to Die. “Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts,” he said. “Those are the daily attention-grabbers that make it so that you can’t come from your mind to your heart to your soul. The soul contains love, compassion, wisdom, peace and joy, but most people identify with the mind. You’re not an ego. You’re a soul.”
You can only be it
The predicament of connecting with soul he described this way: “Is there a part of you that is not in time? If so find it, and rest in it. That’s the whole mystical journey. The problem is the part of you that is not in time . . . you can’t see it, you can’t smell it, or hear it, you can’t even think about it and yet it is. You can only be it. You can’t know it because the thinking mind only knows objects and objects are in time. What a frustrating thing!”
It is. It’s the frustration of meditation, the frustration of practice, the frustration of losing it over and over. And yet those moments when you can be, when you do rest in that place that’s not in time, those moments make the frustrations manageable and keep me returning to the work of being.
Ram Dass helped introduce me to the place that’s not in time, and I will always be grateful. His teachings in Eastern ploughed over the field of my church upbringing and left it fallow, ready to be seeded by all the great yoga teachers I studied with over the following years.
From them, I found answers to my big questions about life, the universe and everything. When a friend says – after I’ve been unapologetically New Age – “you don’t actually believe that stuff, do you?” I smile and say, “it works for me,” because that’s all I know. Yoga is a spiritual science – practice, repeat, and if it works, replicate. I can’t argue for universal truths – I leave that to teachers like Ram Dass – but I know what works for me. Thanks, Ram Dass, for the kick-start on this journey.