No one at the staff meeting this morning seemed to notice. Or perhaps they were just being polite and ignoring the dark circles around my eyes and the fact that I had exchanged showering and putting on makeup for an extra half hour of sleep. How could they know that their colleague had had an extraordinary experience that kept her out late the night before? Or that even when I had laid my head down on the pillow it took me til nearly 3 am to get to sleep, in no small part due to the rhythmic chants going through my head on a non-stop loop, like when you hear a song on a TV commercial and can’t get it out of your brain, only more meaningful?
My friend Laura and I spent all day and all evening yesterday at Buddhafest, a three-day feast of Buddhist films, music, meditation and talks. We were both in a place where we needed some spiritual shoring up and this was definitely the place for that. One of the organizers shared that a man from West Virginia had told him how much the event had meant to him, and how it was a “hope generator.” How perfectly that captured our intention in coming and the gift of the event.
As is often the case, memorable events can come where and when least expected. I made a nice connection with a man, Steve, sitting near me when speakers from Shambhala Meditation Center had us break up into twos for an exercise. It was one of those great incidents of synchronicity and recognition where you’re both saying, ‘wow, we’re going through the same kind of experience!’ and it makes you remember you’re not alone in this world or in your experience.
My friend Laura was chatting with a woman behind us in line, she more intently than I as I popped out to grab another bottle of water and browse the books/CDs/DVDs for sale tables. I heard that the woman, Lysa, was from Canada and had come here specifically for Buddhafest. I knew that Laura was also talking with her about how much she needed this gathering and its lessons, after a series of events had really beaten her up over the last year and a half. After we sat down, Laura told me what a lovely spirit she had, and how when Laura had asked her of all the retreats and meditation centers she’d been to, which was her favorite, Lysa replied that it was the one she’d created in her own home. Out of the blue in a break between sessions, Lysa came back to our row of seats and knelt urgently at Laura’s feet, pressing into her hand a little silver bag. She told Laura she knew how difficult a time she’d been having because she’d gone through some things herself, and that she wanted her to have this talisman. After she stood and disappeared back to her seat, Laura opened the bag to find a gorgeous glass pendant of blues and grays and greens. As she rubbed her fingers over the smooth surface, we sat holding in awe the deeply touching gesture, all the more meaningful coming from a stranger.
Although the afternoon’s talks and films had focused very tightly on Buddhist meditation and Buddhist lineages of spiritual teachers, it was an evening more in the Hindu milieu that lifted hearts and voices the highest and bodies from our seats.
Krishna Das, the world acclaimed musician, had us chanting for a few minutes in a call and response before he talked a bit about his relationship with Ram Dass, the great spiritual teacher who came out of the 1960s and reminded us to “Be Here Now.” We all knew that Ram Dass had suffered a stroke more than a decade ago that left him partially paralyzed and with speech difficulties. We were all very excited that after watching a film that had been made of him after his stroke, Ram Dass was going to join us via Skype.
photo credit: Laura Keel
I had already seen the film Fierce Grace on Netflix, but it was much more powerful on a large screen in a room full of mindful spiritual seekers and practitioners. Also on my small living room TV I had not been able to hear Ram Dass in real time from Maui, with the wonderful sound of waves crashing on the shore in in the background.
Krishna Das talked with him briefly. Ram Dass said, “I’ve learned to go within to go in my heart, and certainly my stroke has helped me because it’s given me contentment. Here I am, I’m 81 and I’m content!” Later he added, “The stroke was grace. You know, I’m just learning how to inhabit my heart, my spiritual heart. Our guru [Maharaj Ji] gave us love and I’m giving you love, and you will give love to other people, and that’s the way it’s spent, heart to heart to heart.”
One of the audience members asked what we can do to engage the youth of today to look at spiritual teachings and continue to work for peace. Ram Dass replied, “We can be, not do…I tell the youth today, don’t get intrigued by information on the outside. Go into your heart because that is where the real information is. Outside is objective. Inside is subjective. Inside is self, your guru, God. All inside of you. Inside of you! When the environment is too much, go inside, go inside,” he urged us, then broke into a great big smile and added, “Yeah!”
Ram Dass also told us that we have to embrace change, particularly regarding aging, but that declines in health need not define us. “I am inside,” he said, “and I am an infinite being, and then I have this body. The stroke happened to this body, it didn’t happen to me. See?”
“It’s made it hard to play the cello, and it’s made it hard to drive, and it’s made it hard to walk,” he continued. “But those ‘hardnesses’ showed me how strong my attachments were.” Taking the example of driving, he said that he’d gone from being in the driver’s seat to being chauffeured, and he looks at trees and grass now, not the road. “I am a passenger. A perfect passenger!”
We gave a standing ovation and waved farewell to Ram Dass, then settled in for a promised 45 minutes of music from Krishna Das. The kirtan began then and we had barely chanted one call and response before one after another of the audience members rose to their feet and began to dance, either at their seats or out in the aisles. Small groups of dancers formed and we chanted on and on and on, a mantra, a loud vibration of the universe and praise to God that in this multi-faith gathering became praise to the universe, praise to spirit and divine energy, and to living lives of love and peace. The emotion built and the chanting and music from Krishna Das and his band and the audience response grew louder and louder til I thought I would lose my voice.
Introducing the film to us, Fierce Grace director Mickey Lemle said that one thing he learned from Ram Dass was, “We’re simultaneously human and divine, and the trick is to dance in the space between the two, in that tension.” And so we danced, and danced, and danced.