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.