Ram Dass’ Greatest Teaching
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“This one line has done more to shape my teaching than any other.”
Ram Dass is dead. He died on Sunday, Dec. 22. This may mean nothing to you—fewer and fewer people I meet know who Ram Dass was. But to me it means a great deal.
I first met Ram Dass through his 1971 book, Be Here Now. In both design (sometimes you had to turn to the book around in your hand to follow its message) and content, Be Here Now affirmed my investigations into Hinduism, meditation, and yoga. It challenged me to push through any insights I imagined I had to confront the greater truth of not-knowing. While I have read all of Ram Dass’ books, it is Be Here Now that still sits on my bookshelf.*
Decades later, once Ram Dass regained his ability to speak lost in a massive stroke in 1997 and began to teach once more, I had the great honor of participating in an Inner Directions Gathering** in La Jolla, California, where he was the guest of honor and main speaker.
The night before the gathering, the hosts, Matthew and Joan Greenblatt, and teachers gathered with Ram Dass for dinner. He took up residence in a small room so as not to be overwhelmed by the noise of the diners. Many of his students sat with him in silence. I joined the group just to bask in his presence. He sat motionless in his wheelchair. He didn’t speak and no one interrupted the silence. At some point it was clear that we were to leave. I sat and waited until Ram Dass and I were alone.
He didn’t know who I was, and we had never spoken before. I sat down next to his wheelchair and spoke to him very softly. I had no questions and needed nothing from him. I simply needed to tell him how much I loved him and how much he shaped my life. I’m certain he had heard this hundreds if not thousands of times before. He didn’t need to hear it from me. I needed to say it to him. When I had, I stood, bowed, and left.
The next day in my role as emcee, I introduced Ram Dass to the 500-plus people in attendance. Someone wheeled him onto the stage and set up the microphone for him. After a few moments of meditative quiet, he spoke very briefly about his stroke and how it has affected his speech. “There will be moments,” he said, “when I will know the idea I want to share but will be unable to find the word I need to say it. You, however, will know the word I want to say. Please don’t say it. Simply sit quietly as will I. If the word comes to me, I will say it. If it doesn’t, I will talk about something else.” He then went on to share his wisdom with us.
I don’t remember a word of his talk after the line I just quoted. That was all I had to hear. That was the sign of a teacher in the embrace of grace—fierce grace as he called it. This one line has done more to shape my teaching than any other. I don’t read from papers. I don’t work from notes. I have an idea I want to explore, and I trust that the words will come. And if they don’t … I will talk about something else.
If you are new to Ram Dass, I urge you to watch two videos about his life: Fierce Grace and Becoming Nobody. If you haven’t read Be Here Now, or haven’t read it in a long time, I urge you to do so this week in honor of his death. This is how we honor our teachers: we learn from them. Ram Dass, my beloved teacher, you will be missed but not forgotten.
*The copy on my shelf is the third copy of Be Here Now I have owned. The first two eventually wore out from reading and rereading.
**To learn more about Inner Directions, visit www.innerdirections.org.
Read more of our appreciation of Ram Dass, here.