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Joy: Ram Dass’s Spirit Lives On

Joy: Ram Dass’s Spirit Lives On. He discovered the joy of service and dedicated his life to it.

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It was an honor to be invited by Ram Dass to speak at his 1991 Reaching Out, a 10-week experiment in community service held in Oakland, California.  I fondly remember sharing stories there about our global travels – his to India, mine to the Philippines.  During our life-changing adventures, we’d both discovered a secret – that the joy of service was a powerful antidote to the culture shock we felt when we returned to the United States and its individualistic culture.

Given his penchant for fun, he had invited some his cool musical friends–like the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Peter Gabriel, Bobby (“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”) McFerrin and Arlo Guthrie—to be there. He also brought together kindred spirits like my friend, Fire Captain Ray Gatchalian, who had invited me to work with him in his beloved community of Oakland. Years later we culminated our program at Fremont High School with the Stone Soup Leadership Institute’s Celebration of Heroes with Mayor Jerry Brown, where we honored Captain Ray and local youth for doing good.

Over the years, Ram Dass explored various ways of engaging people in discovering the joy of service through his conferences, retreats, TV series, writings, books like How Can I Help?, and by founding his non-profit organization, the Seva Foundation.  

Seva Foundation

When I was writing the book, Stone Soup for the World: Life-Changing Stories of Everyday Heroes, Ram Dass told me this Seva story about Dr. V. at Aravind Eye Hospital in India.

“If you are at a point in your life where you are ready to grow, to push yourself a little, to open your heart to a deeper compassion, drop in at the Aravind Eye Hospital, India. Offer yourself as a volunteer — for as long as you are comfortable.  Even a week would work, as it did for myself,” says Ram Dass.   From his experiences with Dr. V, he deepened his understanding of a basic tenet of the Seva Foundation – that one need not forgo doing for being or being for doing.  Actions involving the best skills and a technology balanced with caring hearts rooted in a sweet spiritual presence that is embracing of all fellow souls. It is a great teaching.

Years later I was touched to learn from Seva Foundation’s Kate Moynihan that they use and draw upon this story and my book to as one of our staff and board members’ essential readings

The World’s Largest Book Signing

To engage people in serving, we also worked together to plan the World’s Largest Book Signing – where 40 of the people featured in the book signed books and signed up volunteers at bookstores across the country.  When the date arrived in April 1998, we weren’t sure if Ram Dass would make it. It was to be his first public appearance after a debilitating, life-threatening stroke.  We carefully chosen a locally owned bookstore, Book Passages in Corte Madera, near his home in Mill Valley.  When he arrived in a wheelchair, Pathways to Peace’s Avon Mattison, another person featured in the book, fondly remembers how he radiated joy. “Everyone was touched by his authentic sharing of how he came to embody his message of service, despite his visible disability,” she says. 

Kindred Spirits in Hawaii

When Ram Dass moved to Seva co-founder Larry Brilliant’s home on Maui, I sought his counsel while I worked there with Hawaiian youth leaders.  His message to young people — and those who worked with them — was the same: love and serve.  It was the essence of the Hawaiian Aloha spirit. And my friend and mentor Nancy Aronie traveled to Hawaii from Martha’s Vineyard after her son’s passing to be comforted by his gentle words.   His book Be Here Now was a touchstone for her and over 2 million readers.  She had treasured his meditation retreats. When her Dan was struggling to deal with multiple sclerosis, she’d brought him to be with Ram Dass in San Anselmo. “Dan,” he said, “you’re not in charge of what happens to you but you are in charge of how you respond.” 

On Ram Dass’s Passing

Last year when Ram Dass passed over at the age of 88, there was a universal outpouring of love honoring him and his great contribution to our world.  Friends shared their special stories about him – how he was often playful, sometimes challenging, always joyful.  The Institute’s Board of Director Carol Saysette told a story from when Richard Alpert was a guest professor at Stanford University, and she was a 19-year-old sophomore in his behavioral psychology course. “He talked about rats, all the time,” she said.  After returning to Harvard University, Richard Alpert went to India, where he received his new name, Ram Dass (Servant of God), and a mandate to “love everyone and tell the truth.”  Years later when Ram Dass spoke at CCC (the Congregational Community Church) in Tiburon, California, now Rev. Saysette greeted him in a long white robe and shared her memory of how when she first knew him, all he talked about was rats.  “We’ve come a long way, baby!” he joked.

Author Jack Kornfield wrote about the last retreat they did together – and said that while his presence was still strong, Ram Dass’s speech was by then limited to just one word:  “Joy.”  At that time, I was in Sri Lanka with a friend of Ram Dass, 89-year-old Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, who has been called “the Gandhi of Sri Lanka.” When I shared this story with him, he created a simple, mantra-like chant “Joy. Joy. Joy.”  

In his simple way, Ram Dass has passed on the essence of service – in just that one word, joy.  We strive to pass on these gems of intergenerational wisdom to young people, especially those featured in my forthcoming book, Stone Soup for a Sustainable World: Life-Changing Stories of Young Heroes.  May we all discover the joy in service.  As Ram Dass often said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

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