I first saw Ram Dass in the late 70’s, when he came to Ohio State University to speak about his trip to India and the ways it transformed his consciousness and character. He spoke about his time as a Harvard Professor, his friendship with Timothy Leary and finding his Hindu teacher.
Everyone is a manisfestation of God, he said, and every moment is of infinite significance.
I had no idea who Ram Dass was and had no expectations. He walked to the center of the stage in flowing robes, closed his eyes and sat quietly for a very long time. It amazed me. How could anyone begin a presentation by sitting down and being quiet?
I was at Ohio State studying dance, theater and women’s literature. I had just finished touring with Hello Dolly and had been well-schooled. Being on stage was about dynamic presentation, articulation, entertainment and projection. How could this guy sit center stage, take a long drink of water and willfully exclude his audience? I was baffled.
He began to talk about consciousness and the freedom in allowing yourself simply to be without doing.
We are human beings, he said, not human doings.
Wow, what would that be like? I was a single mom and the pressures of it made me feel like jumping off the nearest bridge. I got up early each morning; put my son in the child seat on my bike and my daughter on the grown-up seat, while I pedaled standing up. I stopped first at the day care center and later the university. We came home the same way. I worked as a waitress from three until nine, gave all my tips to the babysitter and stayed up past midnight finishing assignments. The next day I did it all again. Easy for him to talk about being and not doing, I thought.
But there was something wonderfully appealing about his gentle spirit, colorful robes and the tranquil glow in his eyes that made me pay attention and want to read his books. A few years later I moved from Ohio to Oregon and decided to try a ten day meditation. I had never done a formal meditation in my life – starting with ten days was not enlightenment, it was pure hell. But I was curious to know who I was beneath my story, history and ingrained beliefs, so I began searching for another way, a way that made sense to me.
What I settled on was sending my kids to their father’s house, while I closed the door to the world and imposed a kind of solitary confinement. I sat and noticed and observed.
When I wanted to bust out of the room, I noticed the feelings, thoughts and sensations around the desire but remained still.
When I wanted to eat food I was not hungry for, I stopped and noticed the desire for comfort, my need to fill my emotional emptiness and soothe the frightened child within.
I spent nearly a month peeling back the layers of my identity, sitting, laughing, crying and writing, looking for and finding the me that was capable of being and not doing. I wanted the personality to ease its fearful grip and allow a glimpse of the divine. I wanted access to the wise woman at my center and was not disappointed.
I saw Ram Dass last night in a documentary called Fierce Grace. He looked vulnerable, frail and broken. He talked about his stroke and what a worthy teacher it was. He cried openly and laughed the same way. The ability to mask his emotions had dissolved; the flow of his language was restricted and withheld. My husband wondered if it hurt his credibility to weep without restraint, but I saw it as one more protective human wall that had collapsed, to further reveal the compassionate spirit within.
Life is a strange and unyielding teacher. Willing or unwilling, we are all her pupils.