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Losing the Ego: A Conversation with Ram Dass

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It was 1997. I was visiting the Neem Karoli Baba ashram in Vrindaban, India, when I learned that my old friend and spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, had had a major, possibly life-threatening stroke. How strange to hear such news in that particular place, which took me over 20 years to visit since first hearing Ram Dass's wondrous stories about Maharaj-ji in the mid '70s. ("Maharaj-ji" is the less formal, affectionate honorific used by Neem Karoli Baba's devotees.)

In a shamefully narcissistic manner, one of my first thoughts had to do with me. Because of all his work in the field of death and dying, not to mention being my teacher, I always assumed that if push ever came to shove and I was lying in my death bed somewhere, I'd call on Ram Dass to come sit with me through the process and all would be well. It simply never dawned on me that he was 22 years my senior, and, barring unforeseen tragic events, he was quite likely going to pre-decease me. I was a bit in shock at what should have been an obvious revelation, and felt orphaned.

Ram Dass demonstrated through his stroke experience what it means to truly walk one's talk, for he managed to re-frame a frightening, painful and shocking event that would completely change his life and abilities forever, into what he would eventually refer to as "fierce grace" (which also became the title of a wonderful film about his ordeal.) The teaching he offered is that all circumstances -- seemingly good or bad from our own perspective -- can be seen, felt and even known as God's grace, if one is but willing to hold them that way and learn from them rather than merely complain and be the unfortunate victim of a terrible turn of events in one's life.

Of course, being a spiritual hero to thousands, Ram Dass really had no choice; he couldn't very well indulge in kvetching about his reality for very long, or behaving as if God and his guru were somehow suddenly absent from the universe! Clearly, if God is real and present -- no matter what happens -- then one must learn to accept all experiences ultimately as the grace of God, some more fierce than others.

For most of us, though, how could having a stroke, being paralyzed on one side, and initially losing nearly all of your speech capacity, possibly be the grace of God? If such a thing happened to me, I know I'd be extremely pissed off at God, and asking questions like, "What about playing guitar and piano? Or bicycling? I mean, I teach movement and dance for crying out loud!"

Rabbi Harold Kushner's famous query comes to mind: "Where is God when bad things happen to good people?" According to the mystics among us, the answer is always the same: God is present, and cannot possibly be elsewhere, for the "One Vast Eternal Omnipresent Source of All Being and Existence " certainly cannot be off at a brothel in Thailand while you're being mugged in New York City. No, as Thich Nat Hanh might say, God is the mugger and the mugged (and the Thai prostitute). Given the daily state of affairs in our own lives as well as the headlines from around the world that bombard us each morning, if any of us presume to intuit the presence of God, then that presence is clearly not impacted one way or the other by actual events that occur. The good stuff that happens doesn't mean God is here, and the bad stuff doesn't mean the divine has left the building. God is the animating force, or the all-pervading intelligence within which all experience takes place. The Tibetan Buddhists call it "cognizant emptiness." Not very spiritually romantic for devotional, religious types, but accurate.

I had a video Skype session with Ram Dass a few years ago, a service called a "Heart-to-Heart" that he makes available to his website subscribers. My agenda in setting up the conversation was to ask him for his blessing before I set out on a book tour to promote a memoir that featured my history with him in the first and last chapters, symmetrically framing the whole work. And though I had badgered him repeatedly the previous year, in the end he had opted not to endorse the back of my book. So now, if I couldn't get his blurb, I felt I at least needed his blessing. He paused a moment when I asked, closed his eyes to search for his answer, then looking straight into the camera and pointing his finger, said very calmly, "You have my blessing, as long as you tell the truth."

That gave my little brain plenty to think about! Was he saying I didn't tell the truth in the book? That I somehow misrepresented him in my story? What did he mean? I didn't ask him, and rather than try and figure out the answer, I lived, as Rilke said, "inside the question." As I traveled the country on my book tour, it became my personal Zen koan each time I took the stage.

And I think I told the truth. Mostly.

He also gave me an extremely valuable piece of advice: "If you go on a book tour as an ego, in order to sell books," he said, "it is a complete pain in the butt. But if you approach each event as a gathering of souls, then you can have a meaningful evening together." I took that very much to heart, and brought my guitar along and wound up singing and chanting with people in bookstores all across the country, and I do believe that souls were touched. Mine was.

Apart from that Skype call, I hadn't seen Ram Dass for some time. But since I was to be in Maui, not 10 minutes from his home, I requested some moments of his time, and he was gracious enough to receive me. His place is gorgeous, overlooking the sea. His living room features a very large holy shrine adorned with flowers, photos and sacred relics, that pays homage to his guru and many other saints from a diversity of religious traditions. Although he can swim in his pool and walk a bit with a walker, he is for the most part confined to a wheelchair, presumably for the rest of his life. Yet not only is he not complaining, it seems he has managed to arrive at an even happier and more content state of being than ever before! This is clear both from being in the room with him as well as from his own public talks about his personal process in the years since his stroke.

I first met Ram Dass in 1975 at the age of 23, when I was first emerging as a spiritual seeker, full of longing and penetrating questions, deeply hungry for answers and direction. Ram Dass was bigger than life, rapidly gaining worldwide notoriety as a counter-cultural hero and teacher to millions, and author of what was becoming the pivotal spiritual guidebook of those tumultuous times, "Be Here Now." He had returned from India wearing the trappings of that culture -- white robe and beads and long, wild hair and beard. But even in his more ordinary American attire, he exuded a powerful, loving presence that was quite palpable, penetrating and real.

I vividly remember the intensity and significance of our first meeting. He would often do an exercise with new students that involved sitting across from one another, eyeball to eyeball, with the instruction, "Anything that comes into your mind that you don't want to share with me, share with me." It was astounding for me to witness and subsequently reveal the vast array of normally private, psychological material -- shameful secrets, things I was embarrassed about and so forth -- and to feel the unconditional love pouring through his eyes as he listened silently to all that came spilling out of me in what amounted to being a liberating confessional of sorts. The exercise continued until I reached my limit, my line in the sand, where there were just certain things too horrible to say aloud, and I didn't, and he didn't ask me to.

And I never have, to him. In a way, I never completed that exercise.

Although I had seen him many times in the interim, perhaps I should have used this visit in Maui to pick up where we had left off some 35 years ago when we first played that game, but this time I was determined to show up as an "adult." I wanted to approach my old spiritual teacher not as what George Bernard Shaw called a "bundle of grievances and ailments." I did not want to greet him as a needy spiritual seeker full of problems and questions looking for someone to provide me with answers. Rather, I wanted to have no particular agenda apart from paying my respects, human to human, to an old friend and mentor, with the awareness that I didn't know if we would ever meet again in this lifetime. (Ram Dass never leaves Maui, and this was my first visit there in nearly 25 years.)

I didn't want to arrive empty-handed; yet there didn't seem to be any physical object I could bring that would make any sense. It's all just "stuff." I had picked up various chatchkes around our house to bring to him, but my wife Shari nixed each one. Then, in Maui, a few days before we were to get together, someone was giving away a very long and exotic Hawaiian flower, and I thought that one of them, like a single rose, would make a nice offering. I put it in water for two days, but on the morning I was to drive over to meet Ram Dass, I discovered that the flower had started to turn brown and die. That would have had its own significance, I suppose, but I wanted to bring a fresh flower, and it was too late to look for a florist. As I drove to his house, I passed a field of wild flowers, pulled over and picked one beautiful fuchsia-colored flower on a thorny stem. I spent some time on the side of the road, scraping all the thorns off with my thumbnail until I felt confident that I could hand it to him without the risk of him getting pierced by a thorn.

Meanwhile, I was recalling a story Ram Dass used to tell of his early days in India, when he was agonizing over finding just the perfect gift for Maharaj-ji. He had finally settled on purchasing a beautiful blanket, because Maharaji basically only wore blankets, and Ram Dass carried the blanket with him throughout his travels, building up in his mind how wonderful it was going to be to present his beloved guru with this token of his great love, and how special he would feel as the bestower of such a perfect gift. But in fact, when he was finally sitting before his guru and with great ceremony presented him with the blanket, Majaraj-ji picked it up by the edges of one corner with two fingers, holding it up like a dead rat, and then turned and presented it to another devotee as a gift. He then turned to Ram Dass and asked, "Did I do the right thing?" "Perfect," Ram Dass responded. In that moment, he saw how much his ego had riding on the blanket; it was not a "clean" gift in that way, and Maharaj-ji held it up in that manner to indicate as much.

I examined myself carefully, but as far as I could discern, my flower offering was clean. I liked that I picked it in the wild and not at a store, and that I had smoothed off the thorns to protect his hands. And so, when he wheeled himself into his living room to see me, I rose to greet and hug him and presented him with the flower. He held it in his hand awhile, feeling it, contemplating it in silence. And continued to do so throughout our hour-plus conversation.

Because of my decision to come to him not wanting anything, the result was that in large part our meeting together remained mostly on a "chatty" level, in great contrast to the original soul-bearing, life-changing contact we had had over three decades earlier. But several times we lapsed into silence and simply gazed at one another, and I later concluded that it didn't matter what we talked about. Whatever connection or transmission that needed to occur was going to happen anyway. I suppose this is true of every interaction we have with everyone, but right or wrong, I give my relationship with Ram Dass more weight and significance than I do some others, despite his repeated reminders in the early days that the bus driver or your Aunt Gertrude just might be the Buddha.

At one point, after one of those silences, he said, "You're in good shape; you used to talk off the wall." I puzzled over that one for awhile, then recalled that when I had been badgering him to endorse my book and he wasn't returning any of my emails, each time I wrote him I opened with a bigger apology: "I don't mean to be a nuisance, please forgive me, maybe you didn't get my email" etc., and then even sent him a snail-mail letter on top of all that, until I finally browbeat him into at least agreeing to read my manuscript, but then as press time approached and I saw no blurb from him forthcoming, I bugged him one last time, and my apology had escalated to, "I know you must hate me and think I should rot in hell for all of eternity, but please know that our deadline is next week."

And to that he finally responded: "If you go to hell, I will miss you. Namaste, Ram Dass." I laughed -- a lot -- and I was simultaneously crestfallen. Because now I knew he was choosing not to endorse my book, it wasn't simply that my requests had gotten overlooked in a pile of mail. So perhaps my "rot in hell" routine was what he was referring to when he said I used to talk "off the wall." Though undoubtedly I had teetered on the wall many times before that.

Now, sitting across from him in Maui, talking about this and that, he suddenly said, quite out of the blue, "You should let something else, or someone else, write through you, instead of just writing from your ego." I felt a bit defensive, because I had not posted any blogs in months for that very reason; as an ego, I knew I simply had nothing much to say or offer, and yet nothing else seemed to be wanting to come through me either. In response to Ram Dass's suggestion, I said, "Well, I'm usually pretty dense when it comes to subtle energies or other dimensions." He replied, "Well, your ego is dense through and through, but your soul isn't."

That was a conversation stopper, and we fell into silence a bit. Who knows, though? Maybe this is what I sound like when I'm letting something else write through me! I always figured it would sound more like, "Blessings to all my children who come seeking union with their beloved." Maybe I am a channel for Shecky Greene rather than St. Germaine. (Given a choice, I would have opted for Kerouac.)

When the renowned Brazilian healer, Joao de Deus (John of God) came to the United States for the first time, I hopped a plane to Atlanta to meet him. Some two thousand of us, all dressed in nearly identical white yoga clothing, had the opportunity to walk past him for a brief moment, while he was presumably inhabited by a variety of "entities," the spirits of deceased physicians. Through a translator, he would quickly direct each person to either a healing room to receive psychic surgery from the non-physical guides that were hovering about, or to a meditation room to simply sit quietly in the energy that permeated the place and was tangible even to a closed-off, skeptical cynic like myself. After whisking people away one after the other in rapid succession, when I approached him the translator abruptly stopped me dead in my tracks, pointed at me and said firmly, "You, he wants to see in Brazil."

I moved on past, thinking to myself, I schlepped all the way to Atlanta to see him, why do I have to go to Brazil? I'm here now! Plus, how do I know if I go to Brazil he's not going to say, "You I want to see in Atlanta?" But I decided to go back a second day, and again I was one of two thousand new (and some repeat) visitors. Once again I watched person after person march by him in half a second, getting waved on to the healing room or the meditation room. And once again when I came before him the translator stopped me and said, "You he waits for in Brazil!" Needless to say, it gave me food for thought, but I never went.

I had heard that Ram Dass had gone down to Brazil to visit Joao's well-known healing center, known as the Casa, and had had very good things to say about it. He compared the loving, heart-opening atmosphere he discovered there to the feelings he had only experienced previously at his Guru's ashram in India, although he did not receive any physical healing of the stroke symptoms that had prompted the visit. I told him my story of meeting John of God, and receiving the repeated admonition to head to Brazil. Since Ram Dass had had a positive experience down there, I asked him if he thought it would be worth the trip for me to go. After a brief closed-eye contemplation, he responded, "Given your attitude, I don't think it would do you any good," and we both cracked up; it was so clearly the truth about me! I am famous for going to places like that in order to demonstrate that they don't work for me. I have a reputation to uphold as the 99th Monkey, the proverbial one who never gets it. (It's a really crummy job, trust me. You wouldn't want to be me.)

Earlier in our conversation, we were talking about his stroke, his physical condition, and with his left hand pointing to the paralyzed right side of his body, he made a a gesture of dismissal, and said, "Just my body," then pointing to his heart, added, "Not me." Of course some could argue this is just cognitive dissonance, that once you've lost half your body, your identity had better reside in the heart and soul, not the failing flesh. And I also realized that if I was to share with him any of my personal issues, I couldn't very well bring up my hurting knees or lower back or the osteoarthritis in my big toes.

Witnessing the contentment, joy and absence of struggle he was clearly enjoying, moment-to-moment, it was fairly obvious that he had arrived at a pretty happy place in his consciousness, stroke or no stroke. The wheelchair and the condition of his body were truly irrelevant to his primary self-identity as "loving awareness," a term from his current book, "Be Love Now." The new title ups the ante, nearly 40 years later, from merely being here now to being love now. I'm guessing they are interdependent, however, and arise together; if you are truly and fully present in the here and now, love is the inevitable outcome. Conversely, if you are truly "being love," you will find yourself in the here and now. But the one-word change in the title points the reader in an ever-so-subtly different direction, imbuing one's journey with a somewhat softer focus, somehow, perhaps a bit like moving from the austerity of a zendo to the bhakti-infused devotion of a Hindu temple.

When I got up to leave, he wheeled himself behind me, steering me in the direction of the altar (unless I went there on my own and he followed? I can't remember.) As I stood before the altar, he gently handed me back the flower, and I understood that I was to offer it, which I did, and gently set it down. My wild, thorn-free fuchsia-colored flower had been received, my offering had been accepted.

The flower reminded me of the time I saw Ram Dass several years after his stroke. He was making his first trip to Taos, New Mexico, to the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram there, in order to celebrate bhandara (commemorating Maharaji's mahasamadhi, the time of his passing from this Earth, which occurred in 1973.) It would be his first public appearance in several years. There were hundreds of people anxious to greet him personally, if only for a few moments. I didn't want to add to what I imagined might have been too much for him, or overwhelming, so I opted instead to go into a small meditation chamber in the rear of the ashram, away from the hubbub.

There were only one or two other people in the room. Not five minutes after I closed my eyes to meditate, I heard the door open, looked up, and someone was wheeling Ram Dass into the room. Feeling thrilled and privileged, I closed my eyes to enjoy this intimate meditation time with my teacher sitting right beside me. Some time passed, and we looked over and gazed into each other's eyes for a prolonged moment. Then, as the aide began to wheel him out, Ram Dass looked up at him and commented aloud, with his then still-limited speech, "Every individual, like a flower." It was his commentary, it seemed, about our silent interaction.

He left the room and I burst into tears, for through that one poetic remark I recognized that he was seeing the "flower part" of me, a precious and pure, unsullied natural place within that I myself had long since forgotten was still in there somewhere. And I also knew I wasn't special. He said every individual. What would that be like, to go through life seeing each person as if gazing at a flawless, beautiful blossom?

Our good-bye in Maui was less dramatic. I asked him if he still did spiritual practices, and he looked at me as if I was speaking Greek and asked, "Spiritual practices?" And I said, "You know, spiritual practices; you remember those." He replied, "I just hang out with Maharaj-ji." When you're living in the presence, certainty and awareness of "being love now," one is no longer doing anything in order to find or cultivate that love. I leaned over and kissed his bald head and said I love you, walking away and not looking back; just before I went out the door, he called out, "I love you too," and of course I didn't believe him, and got in the car and immediately thought I had acted like an idiot, wasted a precious opportunity to ask the deeper questions, and figured that he probably thought I was an a**hole. And still off the wall.

But that's just my way, and I got over it. Meanwhile, I have some gardening to do if I want this flower to bloom.

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