In the fall of 1996, when I was 20 years old, I was graced with an unexpected, transcendent experience that awoke me to my own eternal being and to the spiritual reality of life. It came out of nowhere (I had not consciously been seeking anything of the sort), and it changed me forever.
At the time, out of all the people I’d shared the experience with, I sensed that only two had any real understanding of what I’d described. One was a bandmate of mine, a friend who had had his own mystical experience of sorts some years before. The other was my mother.
My mother had seemingly been through the gamut of other-worldly experiences before I’d even been born; near-death, out-of-body, past-life regression, hands-on healing, psychism, etc. My older brother and I were thus raised in a house where it was taken for granted that ghosts and aliens were real, that the soul was eternal, and that “The Force” described in the Star Wars films was most definitely the Truth behind life. There were always a few esoteric books in our library… Books on astrology, tarot, past lives, energetic healing, and more. And, of course, a couple of early books by Ram Dass (interestingly enough, “Be Here Now” was not one of them). Growing up, however, I’d never read any of these.
My mother was excited for me when I told her of what had happened, and she bought me a tape cassette of Ram Dass giving instruction in basic meditation. A couple of years passed, and I had not really utilized the tapes much at all. Then, one day, I was at a friend’s house and found his copy of “Be Here Now”. I read the beautiful story of Ram Dass meeting his guru. It had been two years since I’d had my initial “God-experience”, and the determination to become fully enlightened, to permanently realize what I had glimpsed that autumn day, finally began to take hold of me forcibly and completely. I subsequently moved upstate to the country and threw myself wholeheartedly into the spiritual quest; adopting yogic disciplines, becoming vegetarian, and studying various mystical traditions. It felt as if something was growing within me that I could not control, but could only surrender to.
Among the first books that I hungrily devoured were my mother’s old copies of “The Only Dance There Is” and “Grist For The Mill” by Ram Dass. I found both to be lucid, honest, inspiring, and helpful. Then, as time passed, I moved onto other books and authors, exploring Buddhism, Hinduism, Shamanism, Sufism, and more. As my spiritual life unfolded, my mother witnessed it and took inspiration from it. Somehow my own quest gave her the green light to finally take seriously her own spiritual yearnings, and she began to study, meditate, and view her own life in the context of an eternal soul-evolution. Ram Dass, whom she’d always felt a certain resonance with, became the main guide on her path.
Over the next fifteen years or so, I found myself participating in various spiritual communities and schools, and attending all sorts of retreats and workshops. I journaled incessantly for years, recording my musings, reflections, and experiences. I implemented many different practices and disciplines, and watched as my course moved this way and that, never seeming to adhere to any kind of straight line. At some point early on my path, I was turned onto the music of Krishna Das, and then turned my mother onto his music. She really took to it, much more than even I had.
My mother and I often shared with each other about our spiritual lives and understandings; what we were learning and experiencing, who we were becoming, and what our obstacles and issues were. We were a source of nourishment and support for each other over the years, true spiritual friends.
Two summers ago, I learned that Ram Dass had recently written a book called “Be Love Now”. As I’d had “Be Love” tattooed on my arms some years before, I figured I had to check this one out. It was really wonderful to reconnect to Ram Dass after all these years, and his writings brought me back to a secret, long-held longing in my heart for the true bhakti experience of devotion and Divine Love. I so enjoyed becoming inebriated by the mood of the book and the stories within it that I went exploring on the Ram Dass website. There I saw an advertisement for the Open Your Heart In Paradise retreat and immediately thought that I’d like to send my mother on the retreat. I knew she’d never received a gift like that before, and I felt she definitely deserved it.
When I told her, she was thrilled. I was too.
December rolled around, and off she went. I was excited and happy for her.
Afterward, she could not stop thanking me and talking about the retreat, how beautiful it had been and how it had transformed her. She went on and on about it for the whole next year. She told me that she was experiencing a deeper level of peace than she’d ever had before, and that she was chanting for hours everyday.
As the autumn of 2013 approached, she began hinting that she would love to go back, but had no money to do so. I suggested she ask for assistance from the people in her life. She was struggling, unable to think of anyone who would help. I was just waiting for her to ask me to send her again, but she wouldn’t do it. Finally, I told her that if she wanted my help, she’d have to ask me. So she shyly and humbly did. I agreed to send her to the Open Your Heart In Paradise retreat again. She was deeply moved and grateful. Within 24 hours of our conversation, I had made all the arrangements and reservations.
Two weeks later, my mother passed away.
It was completely unexpected. She was 63 years old. The coroner’s report said “natural causes”, but really they could not find the cause. She’d just died, without any warning.
A few days later I was in Florida at a funeral ceremony that I felt did not truly represent my mother at all. The eulogies were all well enough, but the orthodox jewish form certainly did not speak to my upbringing, nor to my mother’s kind of spirituality. It seemed that the funeral was less about her, but about the wishes of others. This saddened me.
While “sitting shiva” there in Florida that week, I began wondering what I would now do about all the arrangements I’d made (flights, resort reservation, retreat payment, etc). Would I attempt to get a refund? Oy… That could be a nightmare, especially when it came to the airlines. So I began contemplating going to Maui in her place. The more I thought about it, the more it felt like the right thing to do… To go in her place, to represent her. I made up my mind upon returning to New York that I would indeed go.
The next two months were very dream-like and surreal. I’d never really been in mourning before. Sometimes I cried, other times I functioned as normal. I allowed myself any indulgences I desired. I did my best to be loving and gentle with myself.
After returning from Florida, I resolved to move to LA come January of 2014. This was something I’d been thinking about for many months. The fact that my best friend had moved there the same week my mother passed away seemed to click it all into place. Dealing with the logistics of that upcoming venture felt to be a healthy distraction from the shock and turmoil of having my mother taken from me so suddenly. I also had to rearrange a previously planned trip to Austin to see family so that I could make it to the retreat, and then planned to return to Florida right after the retreat to complete some business of my mother’s. It was to be a two-week excursion in early December: Austin-Maui-Florida.
I had no expectations of the retreat or what it may offer me. I was really just doing it for my mother. A part of me just wanted to get it out of the way and move on with my relocation to LA.
December arrived and I flew to Texas to see my brother and his family. My father and step-mother also flew in. It was a typically frustrating and disappointing experience of “family”. I was happy to leave after a few days. Jumping in a rental car, I drove the 3.5 hours to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and boarded a plane for the 8.5 hour flight to Maui. Luckily, I had brought Rodney Dangerfield’s autobiography with me to pass the time.
I arrived on the island in the evening, and was immediately struck by Maui’s natural beauty. I found my way to the charming and exquisite room I had reserved originally for my mother, and slept. First thing the next morning, I went for a swim in the Pacific Ocean. The water was warm and gentle, a sign of things to come.
That evening the retreat officially began. I felt at home under the large tent with the other 300 spiritual aspirants, and I let myself sink into the sweet, supportive space of sangha… A space I had deeply missed in my life for some time. Ram Dass was wheeled in. To finally see him, in the flesh, touched me profoundly. He shined with a brilliant love that lit all of us up… An infectious glow. All of the teachers and speakers were welcoming and sincere, and there was a palpable feeling of openness in the air, a feeling that was to increase with each passing day.
As the rhythm of our daily schedule took shape, I found myself looking forward to the meals as much as the programs. It was at breakfast, lunch, and dinner that I really got a chance to meet my fellow seekers. So many beautiful and unique souls… And so many from LA! It was reassuring to know that I would soon be moving to a city where there was both a meditation and bhakti community waiting to embrace me.
Each teacher who took the stage throughout the retreat was skillful and inspiring. I particularly appreciated listening to Jack Kornfield, a man whose name, face, and quotes I had seen for years, but whose teachings I had never really explored. He and his wife Trudy Goodman led us in simple and effective meditative practices each morning that served to complement the wild and ecstatic bhakti-energy aroused each evening by Krishna Das and his band. It had been 10 years or so since I had been in kirtan with Krishna Das, and I’d forgotten the sheer power of it!
My heart seemed to open more and more with each passing day. I wound up sharing about my mother’s death repeatedly, as it inevitably would come up in conversation with each new friend I met. In telling the story over and over, I began to see the whole Maui/Ram Dass experience as a gift from my mother. It all seemed so divinely, perfectly orchestrated. You see, I had come to a point on my own path where I had, somewhat unconsciously, grown quite cynical and resigned about sadhana and spiritual self-development. The retreat that I now found myself at was bringing me back to my heart. It was a sort of homecoming, an answer to a prayer that had been buried deep within me for some time. I felt as if I had come full-circle, back to where I had started… With Ram Dass.
So many waves of healing and remembrance, beauty and love…
And then there was the ocean!
I would swim in the delicious water three or four times a day, giving thanks to Grandmother Ocean, receiving her blessing, and letting myself float blissfully in Sivasana as I listened to the chants going round and round in my head. Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram…
On the fifth day, the retreat concluded with a morning ceremony in which we were each given a mala blessed with a thread from Maharaji’s blanket tied to it. As I sat watching everyone receive darshan from Ram Dass, with the sound of the Hindu chant filling the space and the images of Maharaji everywhere, I was struck by something inexpressibly profound and moving.
This was my mother’s funeral, her true funeral.
This was the real celebration of her life, the celebration of who she was and what she truly loved. It was all being wondrously played out before me, gloriously all around me. Tears began to fall from my eyes. I was overcome with emotion, although I tried to keep it together. As I sat waiting for my turn, my turn to be with my mother’s beloved teacher, I could not stop my crying. It was all so beautifully poignant. The undeniable perfection of what was going on silenced my mind and pulled open my heart. I wept with gratitude and awe.
When at last I stood before the gentle, elderly man named Ram Dass, I humbly allowed all of my respect and honor to pour forth from my eyes. This was the first teacher on my own path when I’d started out on it way back in the autumn of ’98, the first whose teachings had so guided and helped me then, at such a tender and vulnerable stage of my journey. Now here he was, an old friend sitting before me. His healing light radiated without restraint, and I pressed my palms together.
Ram Dass gazed at me. He said, “I love you.”
All I could do was silently mouth the words, “Thank you.”
He continued to look into my eyes for a while longer, and then he finished his sentence…
“Just the way you are.”
I love you, too.
Written by Adam Z Krieger