So, I was saying I met Ram Dass?
That is to say, in the library of the good people who invited me to live in their house (and made it seem I was doing them a favour by house-sitting), among the books was this dark purple one, called ‘Be Here Now.’
I’d never seen anything like it. It was written in spirals, grooving round the pages, and it was full of soothing words about the spiritual nature of reality. It challenged me to consider all the teachings I’d had as a kid from my parents, and compare them to its take on Hinduism and Buddhism and Yoga. I’d taken my first yoga classes at university, and found such healing in the discipline of Hatha. I still find Hatha more appealing than the more popular flowing forms.
I wondered, recently, whether Ram Dass would still be as appealing, thirty years later.
The short answer: no.
The longer answer has to start with Thanks. At a time when I was afraid, living alone, the simplistic spiritual messages spinning through the pages comforted me. I must admit, reading Be Here Now helped me be present and centred, and accept that I was alone, in a house without a phone, with neighbours I didn’t yet know, vulnerable.
Anyone might have climbed the garden wall if they wanted to attack me. Nobody wanted to attack me. Mostly, people don’t, in normal living situations.
But also, scorpions could have fallen out of the thatched roof and stung me in my sleep. That didn’t happen either. Good thing, because I had no phone, and, until I got to know my neighbours, would have been on my own with whatever affects the venom might have on me.
Coming to terms with my situation included learning not to freak out when avocados fell out of the big tree in the yard and thumped the roof, followed by the scurrying of rats in a hurry to bite these treasures, along with accepting the risk of intruders both human and insect.
Reading simple words that reminded me to breathe really helped.
However, it astonishes me now, to see what this book is really like. I had no idea. I’d just picked it up and flipped through, stopping at interesting bits that spoke to my fear and calmed it. Looking for resonances with the words of Vine Deloria,Jr. whose God Is Red had so influenced my university experience, and emboldened me to defy curriculum, get put on academic probation, and go to Mexico, feeling not entirely a failure, but also feeling a dawning sense of my Indigeneity as a powerful thing.
But where Deloria’s work was also connected to the lived experience of indigeneity, and thus heavy with personal losses, this purple book was free from those connections.
Now, I pick it up, and start at the beginning, and see it as a piece of colonial history. How did I not think to read and take in that Ram Dass was a rich, white American guy, who did the Indian version of the Carlos Castaneda trip, finding spirituality via psychedelics?
Did I really never see the psychedelic bits? Did I overlook them? Did I ignore them as irrelevant? Did it not bother me that he was not writing with me in mind? Now, when I look at the book, I cannot get past the differences between us.
I’m an Indigenous woman, raised in what First World folks would call poverty (but with riches, in real world terms). I have never been interested in drugs.
If I’d first met this book now? I’d critique it for its privilege, its exclusion, its drug influences, its cultural frame. Ram Dass, I might scoff, your name is Richard Alpert. And that urge to critique reveals a paradox that bears some consideration.
Here’s why: I needed words of comfort to centre me. I couldn’t find them anymore in the Christian bible. I found them in this strange purple book, in my solitude. So, whatever I might think, feel, and judge now? I owe Ram Dass some thanks. I have to acknowledge that his work was useful to me then, and helped me get calm.
So did music – playing guitar in the patio, listening to the records in Merrilee and Agustín’s collection, listening to the cassette tapes I’d brought from home. I learned new ways to pray. I knew that was what I needed because my parents were people who prayed, each in different ways.
And of course, best of all, I got to know the neighbours. Their profound humanity and kindness, their patience and lack of presumption, their actual calm, were the real protection all along. And they never pointed it out. They were just there, being themselves; I may have been pretty strange to them, too. But over the weeks, they must’ve heard me plunking away on the guitar, and realised I was as harmless as Agustín and Merrilee (most probably) assured them beforehand. Once I settled in, we had a good time being neighbours.
When I look at Be Here Now, Remember (which turns out to be the full name of this book), I confront the paradox of learning. We learn from teachers that we may well grow past. Fair enough.
It’s worth remembering, though, that I didn’t always know what I know now; I was once a person who didn’t notice that so much of 1960s philosophy, and the ‘New Age’ stuff arising from it, was no more written for me (Indigenous square) than was the Bible.
Putting this book down now, unread, I’m content to send it back to the library, where it might speak to someone else. I’ll have to keep working on my embarrassment, and on becoming more at ease with admitting I didn’t know what I was reading, and found it helpful.
Let me say, thanks, Ram Dass. Through what many (myself among them) these days would judge to be Cultural Appropriation, your work confirmed the positives I first found in a yoga class at university. Your iteration of spiritual traditions that mean so much more to people who live in the lands where they originate helped me.
I owe the larger thanks to teachers I’ll never meet, who developed Yoga, Buddhism, Hinduism; just as I owe thanks to teachers who developed Christianity and the other religions associated with its texts. And as I owe thanks to teachers of this land’s traditions.
And finally, revisiting, however briefly, Be Here Now, reminds me, there are teachers in plenty yet to meet. It is good, yes indeed, to be here, now. It’s a world of wonders.