I re-visited an old self last night, one I had thought to have long ago discarded. I was scrolling through movie selections on our Apple TV, intending to watch Crazy Wisdom—the film about Chogyam Trungpa—for which I had already paid and was for some reason unable to access a night or two before. For some reason, too, (no accidents!) I was unable to access it again last night, and instead happened upon One TrackHeart: The Story of Krishna Das.
I had peviously known nothing of the music of this one-time love generation rock-n-roller who is now well-known, even widely adored for performances and CDs that feature mostly Hindu spiritual chanting which he refers to, with genuine joy, as “singing with people.” The film is the story of his journey from that early period of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, through years of disillusionment and depression to his encounter with the Indian mystic, Maharaj-ji; and thence, on his guru’s death, into a new, deep downward spiral ending in a severe crack cocaine addiction, and a quasi-miraculous recovery into the spiritual life through re-dedication to the practice of his music. The final obstacle to overcome was, perhaps not surprisingly, his ego.
It’s a touching—and indeed a familiar story: smart, sensitive Western kid goes disastrously astray and finds salvation in the religious traditions of the East. This particular story, a documentary film, features such luminaries as Ram Dass (whose own story bears remarkable similarities), Lama Surya Das, and Sharon Salzberg along the way. Ram Dass, in particular—himself a disciple of Maharaj-ji, was the primary source of Krishna Das’s conversion back in the 1970s, and remains both his teacher and his enthusiastic fan to this day. (After the major stroke that felled him in 1997 and deprived him, for a long while, of speech and body movement, Ram Dass looked and sounded remarkably like his old self in interviews recorded for this film.)
All of which took me back to that time, in the early 1970s, the early days of my academic career, when students were coming to tell me that I “had to read” this book—Ram Dass’s Be Here Now. They were telling me, also, with great enthusiasm, about Alan Watts (The Way of Zen) and Shunryu Suzuki (Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind) and other great spiritual teachers of the time. My students must have recognized in me a yearning that I was not able to recognize myself, because I responded, at the time, with lofty intellectual skepticism and what I can only describe, in all honesty, as a kind of emotional repulsion. The images of chanting, happy people dancing in the meadows turned me off. And though I’d had myself, some years earlier, one memorable experience with LSD, I nursed a profound distrust of drugs and their supposedly liberating effects. I did not believe that happiness could be found this way. Indeed, unaware of the unhappiness in myself, I was unable to believe in happiness at all. The "heart" was a foreign concept. I argued, to myself and anyone who would listen to my prejudices, that Eastern religions belonged where they originated, in the East. They could not be transplanted, and to embrace them seemed to me a kind of fundamental dishonesty. The whole thing seemed false.
It took me another 20 years before I was able to come to acknowledge the internal conflict that perhaps my students had recognized and responded to. I was caught, unconsciously, on the one hand between an intense desire for precisely the ideals that those pioneers embodied: love, peace, happiness, and a truly open and embracing spirit; and on the other hand a heavily self-protected ego that felt threatened as much by freedom as by joy. It was this latter character I encountered yet again last night as I watched “One Track Heart.” The same old judgment came up as I watched the ecstatic singing and dancing, the blissful expression on the faces of both the singer and his fans: “It’s phony.”
How wrong I was! I feel blessed, now, to be able to watch that judgmental character with somewhat less, um… judgment than heretofore. That’s what I had to work through to arrive at the meditation practice I’ve been following for as many years as it took me to discover the value of the “heart” that’s referred to in the movie’s title. I had lived without it for years, rejecting with some anger the spiritual values of my father’s religion and unable to find an acceptable substitute for it. My “conversion” was provoked by a great personal, spiritual and emotional crisis in my life and took me on a journey of intense inner turmoil.
Truthfully, I must acknowledge that I have not yet arrived at the place of total bliss. I many never get there. There are still demons within, some known, some unknown. I have certainly not shed the last vestiges of ego. As I noticed last night, my old selves—the ones who served me ill—might suddenly reappear with savage, mocking grins, to remind me there is still work to be done. But at least I can now say with honesty that I recognize happiness to be an achievable goal in this life; I have come to believe in the primacy of heart over brain, and that a generous, all-loving heart is the path to the happiness we all seek. Thus far I have come. I still have far to go.