In a talk recorded in June 1973, Ram Dass talks about his preconceptions of what spiritual work was and how he came to work on accepting his difficulties as spiritual work as well, as un-spiritual as they may seem.

In hinduism there are 3 main deities: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. There is no good or evil one, all of them are part of the normal cycle of life and should be honored. It’s easy to imagine oneself worship or pay one’s respect to the preserver of all things, or the creator of all things, but the destroyer is equally part of the Universe and should be equally honored – which at first does not seem that easy !

So in the Ramayana (a very long epic poem, a very important text in Hinduism) that Ram Dass was studying, it’s said that unless you truly honor Shiva you cannot fully come to God, and that’s something that seems to have led him to a peculiar view of his predicaments – or Shiva’s incarnation in his live.

A very serious meditation retreat

One example: after coming back from India to the US he gave many talks, got surrounded by the American culture and felt the need to get back to India and work on his « holiness » again which he felt was slipping. So he went meditating in Goenka’s 10 day courses, doing one after the other, and after a while he planned a trip to the mountains to work with a respected meditation teacher with just one or two people. He wanted to get out of the western scene in which he somehow always found himself – he didn’t go to India to get surrounded by foreigners after all.

On the way to the festival he meets his Guru Maharaji, to whom he tells that he made serious plans for meditation, expecting praise or blessing. Instead he gets a « Ok, if you want to » – quite anti-climatic… But he decides that that old man doesn’t really know what he says, the festival takes place and he leaves for the mountains to wait for the teacher.

And now day after day more and more foreigners are coming to that secret location, to Ram Dass’ great displeasure. « How did you find this place, why are you here? » « Oh, Maharaji told us to come here and meditate with you! »

And (of course, says Ram Dass) a few days later they receive a letter from the teacher who tells them that due to external circonstances he won’t be able to come. And so Ram Dass ends up stuck with the westerners instead, they end up doing a retreat together, doing meditation and holy practices, and it turned out to be a lovely summer – just not at all the one that was planned.

Cabin in the woods

At least on this occasion he still got to do something that, from the outside, looked like spiritual work. On another occasion Ram Dass wanted to go alone in a secluded cabin in the woods where his only neighbors would be bird watchers to work during 30 days on a small prayer book, repeating it over and over.

So he goes there, he has food for a month and he starts his solitary retreat. Now the first day, he watches TV all day. At the end of the day he is horrified: afraid that he would do that for the remaining 29 days he unscrews the TV from the wall, puts it in the closet behind his bags and goes to sleep. It is scary to meet Shiva in yourself!

The second day, around 5pm, he tells himself « well I could maybe just watch the news… » so he plugs it back in and next thing you know it’s 1 am in the morning. And that goes on for a few weeks, and he would take long baths in the bathtub, and he would eat in front of the TV, and drink beer… And then he became a little be quieter and he started studying the birds, and after 20 days he could sit for a few hours by the river and the TV was not so attractive anymore, and then he stopped watching completely and got into a different space and by the end of the 30 days he was in that very peaceful place where you are after 9 days of quietly watching the mind.

Now it’s quite hard to think about the first part of that retreat as sadhana (spiritual practice), but he had to honor what was really in him at that moment, and what was inside him was that destructive force, and once he let go of the struggle something new emerged.

« Tell the truth baby, truth gets you high »

To accept that unpleasant reality – and it is only unpleasant because you do not accept it, because it goes against a predetermined model you have in your mind and when that model doesn’t fit with the reality of the moment and you still cling to it, suffering emerges – you need to accept the truth of the moment.

One of the main injonctions that Maharaji was repeating to Ram Dass over and over was « tell the truth, always tell the truth ». He’d always catch him telling small non-truths and correct him in his peculiar show-the-contradiction ways.

A man came to visit Maharaji and the guru starts telling him about Ram Dass, about how important he is in America, how well respected, a professor at Havard et cetera et cetera, all these things that Ram Dass had found unfulfilling and led him to India. Now the man becomes very impressed and offers Ram Dass to visit the local justice court room and maybe give a speech.

But Ram Dass comes from a family of lawyers and certainly didn’t come to India to visit courtrooms, so he politely says « that would be lovely, but I have to ask permission from my guru » to which Maharaji answers « Oooh if Ram Dass says it would be lovely then certainly it would be lovely ». Honoring the truth, moment after moment after moment!

Phony holy

That became sort of a problem for him when he got back in the West, where you usually need to know in advance where you’ll be later, both spiritually and physically.

He would spend an evening with people and he’d be filled with grace and lovingkindness and they would be into a really groovy place so they would convene that they would be his guests the next day. And the next day comes and after waking up all that Ram Dass wants to do is watch TV. They come up in the driveway and he’s all « Do I have to see them today? » So he hates them because they’re here and he just wants to watch TV. Note that he does not want to hate them, he’s a holy man and he wants to love them but he does hate them because he wants to watch TV though he does not want to want to watch TV but…

So he would take his role and put on his benevolent smile and the robe and the necklace and he would play the part but it all seemed pretty fake, quite phony. So after a while he decided that he would not act as if he were somewhere he’s not; if he’s feeling holy and radiating then he would be with people and if not then he would stay solitary and study or pray or meditate. Of course that requires to be truthful to the reality of the moment…

A Gandhi story illustrates this well: Gandhi was leading marches in India, and he realized that the march was not going to end well and was done for the wrong reasons so days before he told his lieutenants that he was going to cancel it. « – But Gandhi-ji you can’t do that, people have left their jobs, traveled across the country to participate with you! » « – Yes, but only God knows absolute truth. I’m a human and I only know relative truth, which changes from moment to moment. And my commitment must be to Truth, not to consistency. » Wrap your head around that one!