Monday, February 25, 2008
I had an interesting weekend. I spent it with some friends from the Circle of Friends, in a really beautiful setting so far out into the Tennessee wilderness that I could hear banjos playing for the last hour of my drive; I hope to tell you more about it later, when I have a bit more distance and hopefully a picture or two. But for the moment I'm thinking about one of the movies I saw, Ram Dass: Fierce Grace.
If I want to see someone who's had a stroke agonizingly move about a room, and learn to walk and speak again, I just have to look at my eighteen-year old cat, Ms. Johnson (for those of you who are friends of hers, she is still kicking. And stumbling and shedding and eating and shitting; she sends her regards). Of course, being a cat, she's tougher than we are. Watching a human is a bit more painful, as well as tedious, and that's a lot of what you have to do to make it through this movie. I never would have made it through the first fifteen minutes of this if I hadn't been trapped on a couch in a room full of people and it was almost my nap time.
Having said that, the movie picks up speed when it finally gets around to the bio of Richard Alpert, a.k.a. Baba Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now, which was at one time the third best-selling book in the English language. Even if you weren't born til after the sixties or slept through them, you've seen this book. Ram Dass was probably the biggest importer of Hinduist mysticism into Twentieth Century pop culture, together with George Harrison. Alpert's story is a Sixties story, to be sure. Born rich, he got his doctorate at Stanford and became a professor of Psychology at Harvard, where he had the fortune (whichever way you look at it) to office with Timothy Leary, who of course introduced him to LSD and got them both summarily fired. The two went on to introduce literally millions of Americans to acid, and without them the culture change that hit this country in the 60's would have been a lot different.
I won't spend my time right here on acid. If you haven't done it, don't do it now. Likewise if you have done it. But if you did it back when there was a cultural context for it, you may have learned something. Richard Alpert sure did, and to his credit, with a lot of help, he finally got over it. He developed mystical inclinations, which is easy to do on acid, and had the money and freedom even without the Harvard position to go to India and find himself a guru, Maharaj-ji. Given the abundance of gurus who arose in India to meet the Western demand for them in the same time period, Alpert lucked out and found one who didn't suck him dry for cash, but in fact taught him some really good stuff. Thus blessed, Richard Alpert returned home and became Baba Ram Dass, New Age icon.
I wouldn't really advocate Hinduism for anyone; it seems to be that if you feel the need to practice a devotional religion, there are others nearer to hand. Christianity, for example. Or Tibetan Buddhism, but that's another story. But for many of us who grew up with a stupid, repressive form of Christianity, Hinduism was an outlet, and an exciting, exotic and musical one at that (thanks to the aforementioned and sadly missed George Harrison). But never forget there are stupid, repressive forms of Hinduism as well. Ever heard of the caste system? And look up sati.
Anyway, Fierce Grace is a film by Mickey Lemle, a longtime devotee or fan of Ram Dass. As all the review say, it is geared for New Agers, but become accessible and meaningful to a wider audience, because if you can make it through the slow parts, and especially in the slow parts, Ram Dass shows the endearing humanity and intelligence that made him a survivor in the Guru Wars, and chronicles the tempering of his spiritual steel in the flame of his 1997 stroke. Seeing the wisdom Ram Dass has developed in handling his own inevitable traumas and counselling others, I can sympathize, much more than usual with exponents of the "all paths lead to the same door" rationalizations of human spirituality. It certainly makes me want to listen to Ram Dass without all the editing (although this film needed more of it). He certainly is, or has become a wise man.
But the problem with all these religions and Deistic philosophies, even of the Mystical variety, is that they can take you to the door but they can't push you through. It certainly can be argued that even some of the "lower" forms of Christianity come down to a personal relationship between Man and God that surpasses in some way the written form of the teachings. However, essentially, to understand Reality, you have to become One with it (to be as mystical as I can get and still eat my breakfast). When I have a relationship with God, there are at least two extraneous entities involved in the relationship. And it seems that even for the most highly developed mystics of the devotional schools, this last barrier of conceptualization is nigh insurmountable.
Ram Dass repeatedly speaks in the film of the moment of his stroke. In what appear to be later discussions, he speaks of his continued awareness of the Beloved, etc. But the most telling moment comes early in the film, in which he admits that at the moment of his stroke, he had no spritual thoughts. No visions of God. To paraphrase, he says (with the characteristic humor that makes him so endearing): "Here I am, Mr. Spiritual. And all I can see is the pipes above my head."
He seems sad. "He says, here I am, and I failed the final test. I did not see God in what could have been the final moments of my life. I just saw the room I was in." Hello! Of course I'm thinking, here you are, after this lifetime of illusion, and at your final moment despite all that, Reality comes and kicks you in the head and You Don't Get It! You Missed It! And you went back to duality, looking to see some God.
My friend Eric says that he's seen somewhere on the internet that Ram Dass later repented that passage, saying that he was just being in the moment. As of course, we always are. And as far as I know, we only have this one moment to figure that out.