April 6, 1931 – December 22, 2019
It’s not a surprise to me that Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert, died on December 22, the first night of Hanukah and less than two weeks before the beginning of a new decade. In a way, it is a testament to his birth religion, Judaism.
Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now, which was first published in 1971 and which has sold more than two million copies, offered seekers and hippies like myself ways to attain a state of higher consciousness. This tome was a bible for our times—and as a baby boomer, I considered the words within those pages wisdom to live by. It could be read from cover to cover, but most often readers like me flipped open the book to a random page for inspiration to move us into a higher realm or level of consciousness.
In early December 2014, I was blessed to have met Ram Dass. I attended his “Open Your Heart in Paradise” conference in Hawaii with close to 400 others. During the retreat, we stayed at the beautiful Napili Kai Beach Resort, and each day was filled with spiritual awakenings and events. Evenings involved listening to Kirtan music and hearing Ram Dass and his associates share wisdom. By this time, he’d had a stroke, was in a wheelchair, and had difficulty expressing himself. He spoke slowly, and we patiently listened as he offered universal messages from his huge heart.
At the end of the event, the participants had an opportunity to meet face-to-face with Ram Dass in front of the stage where he spoke. There was a long line snaked around the outdoor stadium, as we all waited to have some one-on-one time with him. Many knew what they’d say, while others were more spontaneous. The wait was close to an hour, so we had plenty of time to contemplate and choose our words. I thought long and hard about how to avail myself of this amazing opportunity. I remembered what my writing mentor used to say: “Keep it simple,” and I did just that. When my time came to approach Ram Dass, I kissed his forehead and said, “Ram Dass, thanks for being you. You’re amazing and have taught us so much.” He hesitated, looked at me with his wise eyes, smiled, and said, “No, you’re amazing,” and proceeded to kiss my hand. I can still feel the power of his energy and the transformation I felt at that moment.
For years, I’ve taken myself to Maui on a private writing retreat. The retreats are always inspiring, uplifting, and provide me with creative inspiration for my writing. I am a poet and memoir writer, and I find that Hawaii provides a great escape for me and nurtures my creative spirit.
On one visit years later, I met my spiritual guide and shaman, Lei’Ohu Ryder, a tall Hawaiian visionary, who I came to learn was very close to Ram Dass. She swam in the ocean with him and others every other Monday morning. I had a very special connection with her, and she took me to many spiritual spots. During our initial meeting, she advised me that in one of my many past lives, I had been Hawaiian, and that my grandfather owned an herbal farm near Iao Valley State Park in Maui.
She drove me to that park, and I had an unexpected spiritual awakening, At this sacred spot, she performed a ceremony where she called upon my ancestors, loved ones, and spirit guides to join in the prayers, which she sang in Hawaiian with her beautiful voice. They were called in to help with whatever issues I was dealing with at that time. When all the ancestors had arrived, Lei’Ohu performed a ritual by pulling together a few ti leaves into a bouquet, and depending where we were, she either planted them in the earth or sent them down the local stream.
She and others like Ram Dass often remind us that we feel happiest when we hear the true voice of God, spirit, or our ancestors.
On a subsequent visit with her, Lei’Ohu asked me if I wanted to swim with Ram Dass. How could I decline such an offer? She drove me down to the beach where we met with his entourage, which included Lei’Ohu, who helped transport his floating wheelchair about 100 feet into the water. We all gathered around Ram Dass tossing flower petals his way. Lei’Ohu sang songs to him, and he beamed his effervescent smile, which shone like the ocean’s ripples. It was a morning to remember.
We left, and Lei’Ohu continued to tell me stories. For years I’d been drawn to the Hawaiian tradition of Ka’ao, or sharing wisdom through the art of storytelling. Kahunas teach and instruct in the form of story, which provides a vehicle for understanding life and relationships. Thus, the story becomes a form of philosophy. The ceremonies and rituals and the art of storytelling are inherent in the Hawaiian culture.
Storytelling dates back to the beginning of time. Its purpose is to share stories that unite us. Regardless of our culture, stories bring us together and bridge the gaps between us. They’re also tools for learning and exchanging ideas. Many of the strengths, preferences, and comfort zones relating to storytelling often harken back to the patterns of our childhoods.
My parents were first-generation immigrants and worked very long hours. Typically, our dinners were often rushed, with little opportunity for storytelling. As such, most of the stories I heard during my childhood were parts of conversations I overhead when my parents had guests. Since I didn’t have brothers and sisters, I spent a lot of time reading and writing, and often found myself gravitating to friends and family members who were adept storytellers, which is how I learned to be a good listener.
Because I’d been a writer from a young age, my written storytelling skills were more effective than my oral ones. During my time with my kahuna, however, out of necessity, my oral storytelling skills quickly improved. I learned that it’s important to remember to put on your “story hat,” and to embody the feeling of a story when you’re telling it. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but perhaps one subconscious reason why I continually yearn to spend time in Hawaii is to improve my storytelling skills, and thus, connect in a more profound way with my fellow travelers on the life path.
Thank you, Ram Dass, for helping to show so many of us the way. You had so much wisdom that enlightened myself and others. In addition to being one of the first practitioners of mindfulness by reminding us to Be Here Now, you also advocated practicing nonjudgment, which is clear in this memorable passage:
“When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You are too this, or I’m too this.’ That judgment mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”