Saturday, December 8, 2007

"Fierce Grace"

It's wonderful how things come together with mysterious and impeccable timing, just exactly when they're needed. We received in the mail the CD version of "Ram Dass: Fierce Grace," which had arrived fortuitously at the head of our Netflix "queue" at the end of the very week in which I had written the "Dear Ram Dass" letter that follows. The film retraces the path that took Ram Dass from childhood privilege to an Ivy League professorship; from Tim Leary/LSD-inspired explorations into the workings of the human mind to the feet of the guru, Maharaj-ji, and a life devoted to teaching and the cultivation of love in a Western world where the worship of reason seemed to have left it far behind. It also describes the devastating stroke, that "fierce grace" he understood as a "stroking" from his guru, which arrived to shake up all his preconceptions about how he himself would reach old age and die. It was the ultimate "gift wrapped in shit" about which I have been thinking and writing all week, as I pursued plans for the "Accidental Dharma" site that I've been planning for.

There are many moving moments in"Fierce Grace," but the most powerful of all is surely the reading of a letter that distills all the wisdom, love and understanding that Ram Dass has come to represent for so many throughout the world. The Rachel letter, as it has come to be known, was written to the parents of a girl who died in a senseless accident caused by a drunk driver. Listening to it read aloud by the girl's mother, Ellie and I were brought to floods of tears by the parent's suffering and by the profundity of compassion from which Ram Dass's words arose. It's an extraordinary piece of wisdom, and it describes better than I could what is meant by the concept of that "gift wrapped in shit."

While I'm still not there with Ram Dass in his ecstatic vision of the universal force that he calls God, he provided me with some wonderful guidance along the path that I have been following in my life. I wrote my letter simply to say thank you to a man whose words and example have given so many cause for gratitude. Here it is:

Dear Ram Dass,

I woke this morning with the realization that I have never done the graceful thing and paused for long enough to express my gratitude for your help in turning my life around at a time when I was in deep distress and trouble.

I met you in 1994. Not in the flesh, of course, but in the mind. It happened following a workshop in which I participated at the Esalen Institute with Dr. Ron Alexander, a psychotherapist who was profoundly influenced by Buddhism and other Eastern religious teaching. After the weekend workshop, I made an appointment with Ron in hopes of getting some clarity in the darkness that seemed to be closing in on me, and he suggested that I read your book, “The Only Dance There Is.”

I did. I think what impressed me most was your joy, mixed with the simple realism with which you viewed the world. The blend of the two seemed quite extraordinary to one who had been looking at a bleak and problematic world with something closer to despair. A friend loaned us a collection of your tapes—yes, this was the way we listened to sound recordings, back in those days!—and my wife Ellie and I played them in the car on our weekly pilgrimages to our weekend retreat. Together we chanted along with you those words from the Heart Sutra: gate, gate, paragate, parasumgate, boddhisvaha for an hour at a time. I had no idea what the words meant, and I have to tell you I felt more than a little foolish at first, but the chant did work, mysteriously, to alleviate the pain.

I had first heard of you much earlier in my life. Back in the early 1970s, remember, you had become quite the fad—so I judged—with one of your other books, “Remember, Be Here Now.” It was a book for that historical moment, appealing to the flower child generation and to those who opposed the Viet Nam war. In my ignorance, however, I was far too smart to be seduced by what I judged to be your simplistic view of the world, and my intellectual roots in the cultural traditions of the Western world had me rationalizing that it was a kind of arrogance to poach on the religious traditions of the East. Ram Dass, I was content to tell myself, is a fraud, a Pied Piper leading the flower children off into some impossible enchanted garden. What a farce! (I also had my judgments about all those drugs...)

That was then. I was not ready, obviously. I was blissfully unaware of my own ignorance and self-delusion. I was stubborn in my rejection of anything the smacked of soul or spirit. I was, as I have written elsewhere recently, embarrassed by my heart and especially by the whole idea of the "love" you preached. Life could not be that simple.

But in 1994, “The Only Dance There Is” was a revelation. It came when I was more than ready, desperate, even, for some kind of a perspective on the world, the suffering I was experiencing, and the suffering I saw around me. I found an extraordinary opportunity in the words you wrote, in the joy that they expressed, in their simple clarity and sanity. They opened the door for the meditation practice that has been my daily anchor ever since.

Then, soon after I had “discovered you,” you were stricken. But that stroke in 1997, it seems, failed to destroy your spirit. By the year 2000, I was far enough along the path to be reviewing books with spiritual content for the Los Angeles Times, and "Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying", the book about your stroke and its aftermath came into my hands. I was astounded by your ability to find the grace in your misfortune, and to find a powerful—even joyful—life lesson in the state to which you were reduced, needing help with the most elementary tasks in taking care of yourself.

I woke thinking of you today, perhaps, as a result of a conversation with Michael, a visiting artist friend last night. Michael is a man who has suffered extraordinary pain for years, and has undergone more back surgeries that most of us could bear. Our conversation took place in the context of the article by Daniel Bergner in last Sunday’s New York Times about the right to choose death with dignity over prolonged, incurable debility—the right to commit suicide rather than endure suffering. My Western, rationalist instinct is to support such choices, and the right to make them… until I think of your example.

Ellie asked me on our walk today about animals. We have put a number of them to sleep when the time seemed right. I still think those decisions were right: how could we stand by and watch the innocent suffer? What about people then? Ellie asked if I would “encourage” her to seek a peaceful death if she were ever in such a situation. No, I would not encourage her. But I would be there, I hope, to help her come to her own decision, whatever that might be.

So this will express my gratitude, Ram Dass, for both your example and your teaching. Both have been an inspiration to me, as I suspect they have been to many millions of others on this planet. I trust that you continue to prosper in adversity, and send with this note the love and admiration of a stranger.

In gratitude, Peter

Forgive my wordiness today, friends. And thank you, if you have taken the time to read thus far. Have a great weekend.


robin andrea said...

Such a beautiful, heartfelt letter. Interestingly, Roger and I bought a copy of Be Here Now two years ago just to be reminded and rekindle the original joy and heart-opening we felt when we first read it so many years ago. It was grand fun to have the book back with us like an old friend from the late 60s. A sweet companion. We then found Fierce Grace and purchased a copy. Watching him in this phase of his life was just as revelatory as reading his first book. Ram Dass is intrinsically a profound teacher. His dedication, direction, and dignity are magnificent lessons for us all. You've written a beautiful tribute to him, Peter.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I was enthralled by every word of "Still Here," and positively awed by the soul I saw expressed therein. It is one of my favorite books of all time.

You could not have chosen a better example of our human ability, rarely exercised, to make lemonade when life hands us lemons.

I think that the path to enlightenment necessitates our total acceptance of our lives in all their messy details. If we can survive the pain without becoming bitter and even use it to make ourselves stronger and better, then we begin to understand "fierce grace" and to see it in our own circumstances.

MandT said...

Wonderful post. Ram Dass is one of the great souls of our age. What a flowering!--- from the days of I.F.I.F. (International Federation of Internal Freedom) in Mexico after the Ivy busts, to that time in Kyoto in a visit to Gary Snyder when he first returned from India wrapped in a sheet and carrying a sign board to communicate in a vow of silence, and then to live in every glorious moment no matter the circumstances. He is the sage of our age. Peace M