I confess, listening to Marianne Williamson in those first two presidential debates, I had a couple of eyeroll moments. Her ideals are crucially important, but my brain kept going: why is this new-agey guru on the stage with Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg? Here are two superb technocrats out-thinking, outsmarting everyone else, and we’re all on the edge of our seats trying to figure out who can kick out the liar in chief, and Williamson’s going on about love. I mean, she’s not wrong, but come on.
I’m old enough to remember the name Ram Dass. (Stay with me, this is, in fact, related!) So when I saw the New York Times Magazine headline this morning, “Ram Dass is ready to die,” I wondered, where do I know him from? Oh, right, Timothy Leary’s buddy of the bud. (Do they still call it “the bud?”)
He’s the guy who wrote Be Here Now, the book of early modern teachings on what we currently call “mindfulness.” Which calls to mind one time—this was about 1972?—I was stuck in a house late on a raging-snowstorm night with a sweet guy who kept saying, “Be here now. Come on, love the one you’re with.” So I thought that phrase was a new-age way to get in a girl’s pants.
Anyway, I’m reading the article and enjoying my breakfast, and Ram Dass keeps striking a chord, in a flower child kind of way. He’s being interviewed by David Marchese, whose ironic tone checks enough curious-skeptic boxes for me to keep reading.
Back in my impressionable teens, a lot of people were using mind-altering substances to try to access a different plane of consciousness. A lot of people just wanted to escape from the stresses of living in a turbulent time: you couldn’t trust politicians, the environment was being trashed, we kept killing people half a planet away in an endless war; the world just seemed to keep getting more chaotic. A lot like now. We turned to a philosophy of: Give peace a chance. Make love, not war. Peace is not the destination, peace is the way. Don’t hate… meditate. Turn on, tune in, drop out. Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Power to the people! Burn baby burn! Be here now!
Reading the NYT interview, I’m reminded of the tone of the polemics the 1960’s and ‘70’s, which often had a nugget of clarity and resonance, wrapped in what we called psychobabble. Ram Dass still says things like, “You are a soul. Your baby is a soul. Your wife is a soul. The reader is a soul. The editor is a soul. I am a soul. But many of those people don’t identify with their soul. There’s a metaphor that Maharaji described for me: There’s a fisherman, and he’s got a pole, and you’re the fish and I’m the worm. In India, they say: ‘Don’t look for a guru. The guru looks for you.’ ” And I get hung up (another 60’s phrase) on the metaphor: soooo, is the guru the fisherman or the worm?
But then he says something like this, which I think I understand with something besides my brain: “The soul witnesses the ego and witnesses thoughts. ‘Be here now’ gives people an opportunity to reidentify outside of their thinking-mind ego and into that thing that’s called the soul. It is the perspective from which we could live a life without being caught so much in fear. To reidentify there is to change your whole life.”
Ram Dass writes with certainty about his spiritual awakening and the way we can all achieve that level of connection to the soul, to each other. And to achieve that, I must let go a little bit, because I’ve generally thought we need to use intellect to rationally solve problems. His idea is that there are limitations to believing in the primacy of the rational mind, like any belief system. He generally relates his spiritual insights in classic 1960’s stream of consciousness, almost brain-washy prose. But some of it you can sink your teeth into, like, “Suffering is part of our training program for becoming wise.” Or, “As we grow in our consciousness, there will be more compassion and more love, and then the barriers between people, between religions, between nations will begin to fall. Yes, we have to beat down the separateness.”
In the New York Times piece, Marchese suggested that, unlike Dass, most of us can’t devote the time and effort it takes to achieve that kind of spiritual development: go to India to meditate for months, ignore work email, or spend hours each night focusing on our breathing. Ram Dass responds that we spend our waking lives with “thoughts, thoughts, thoughts,” He is concerned that those daily attention-grabbers get in the way of tapping into our heart and soul, which is where compassion, wisdom, peace, and yes, joy, all come from. “If you identify with the ego plane, you’ll find you’re in time, you’re in space, you’re a little body. But go to the spiritual heart, and there will be a doorway to the next plane of consciousness: soul land.”
It still sounds fairly woo-woo to my jaded ear, but I see that he recognized, from the feverish 1960’s to this day, the collective aspiration to understand the world, to reject the corrupt past, to overcome, to find a fresh, more spiritually enlightened path toward peace and compassion.
At the end of the article, Marchese asked what he’d say to help Donald Trump with his job. Ram Dass’s advice: “Identify with your soul.”
Marianne Williamson, who grew up when I did, is also recognizing our collective fear in the grip of what feels like a backward-turning world, un-progress, undoing of the progressive righting of some of our past wrongs, like economic injustice and trashing our environment. She said what Ram Dass said, but she said it more clearly on that debate stage. “If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.
“Our problem is not just that we need to defeat Donald Trump. We need a plan to solve institutionalized hatred, collectivized hatred, and white nationalism.” When I got the impulse to write about about the Ram Dass article this morning I didn’t intend to focus on politics. But as I write, I feel Williamson’s truth on the level of my heart and soul.