I first met Ram Dass about thirty-five years ago at the Hilda Charlton Thursday night teaching and kirtan. A hundred seekers at St. Luke-In-The-Fields Episcopal Church on Hudson Street in Manhattan. Ram Dass had taken my friend and neighbor, Danny Goldberg, to the meeting a week or two before, and Danny had so immediately fallen in love with it that he strongly exhorted me to go. Despite my lingering British bloody-mind skepticism, I went.
It simply changed and rearranged my whole life, no hyperbole. Out of the visions and wisdom of Hilda, the Masters came through that meeting in a line, from Maharajji to Yogananda, from Ramana Maharshi to Shirdi Sai Baba, from Anandamayi Ma to St. Francis of Assisi, and all the other saints in between. It put me on the path. I was swept up in the Maharajji satsang very soon after that, and instantaneously, felicitously, became a happy part of their amazing multi-dimensional, multi-talented, multi-devotional family. And, kinda crucially for me, they were the most fun, wisest, and wittiest spiritual types around.
I was so so FORTUNATE to have this happen to me. I wasn’t there, in India with Maharajji. But I was present at countless meditations and kirtans where it felt like the guru was there. And Ram Dass’s experience became ours for free, and his very presence elevated my mood and left me with an altered, richer awareness. Krishna Das’s killer chanting was the cream in the coffee.
When Ram Dass returned to Hilda’s, after Maharajji’s mahasamadhi in 1973, his words were precious and moving. Nothing sentimental, just solid sentiments. How do you go on when your guru is gone? The loss was inestimable, but Ram Dass effortlessly assured us of His continuing presence that night and has ever since.
In May of 1976, I went to a Bob Marley concert at the Beacon in New York City. Ram Dass and other friends were there, and by the end of an astonishingly riveting and healing show, we all literally fell out on to Broadway. Ram Dass was so completely elated and inspired by Marley’s music that he just took off on to the street divider and danced and leaped around like Nijinsky. We followed him, equally stunned by Bob’s brilliant high chakra reggae music. Then, in that moment, that being there then, still in the magnetic trance of The Wailers’ music, Ram Dass became yet again the light-filled Pied Piper, leading us out of our conditioned rodent-like repressions, like he often did and does as a friend, as an unparalleled orator, as a seminal author, as a blessed and eloquently communicative witness of the guru.
Ram Dass was just totally taken by Bob’s music that warm night and was so innocent yet grown-up about the way he danced on the street. There was nothing remotely hippie dippie about it. It was the dance of the human carbon-based upright biped totally in the present, being here now big time, and the whole tableau of all of us high as kites stays with me to this day, this second.
Towards the end of the Seventies, I went through an extraordinarily painful decline-of-marriage and then divorce. My head was on fire with anger; my body was feeling the effects of depression, despair, Debbie Downer par excellence. One night in our Upper West Side apartment, I just was having a time of it with crowds of tamasic, unpleasant thoughts rolling around in my mind, got freaked out and nervous, and felt like I needed to talk to someone. I called The Hanuman Foundation (had never done this before), twenty blocks uptown, and Ram Dass answered the phone. He knew my basic situation but when he heard the sadness and low energy in my voice, he unhesitatingly suggested we talk immediately at the Foundation. I cabbed up there and Ram Dass spent a potent two hours with me, going through my shit and cleaning up a lot of it. It helped me immeasurably. There are millions of others who have been helped, need I add.
I have never gotten over how G-R-E-A-T a public speaker Ram Dass is. His chock-full-of-anecdotes talks were sometimes a rollicking, verbally genius journey down something that was going on with him back then and sometimes they were pure teachings of bhakti realization, the balm-like directness of the effects of guru and kirtan, the ineffable but tangible power of darshan. So Ram Dass’ lectures were as exquisite as Proust, as smart as Lenny Bruce, as gentle and healing as Yogananda. Even though I hung out with Ram Dass, when he spoke in front of lots of people, his insights penetrated my psyche and cleared up the emotional statics of guilt, remorse, disappointment, confusion, on and on.
So what you got was the mix of high plane consciousness articulation and absolutely down-to-Earth exegesis of daily, erring human life. Ram Dass’s honesty was always like a flash of lightning for me—it cut through the confusion and allowed you to release yourself from unnecessary anxiety. The two streams of Ram Dass’s speeches at that time created a unique whole, holy guide diary for us all. It amounted to a medicine man transformative effect. A shaman with the verbal skills of Spalding Gray, the flashing, incisive humor of Richard Pryor. No kiddin’. You left the place clearer and lighter than when you came in.
That frighteningly gifted side of Ram Dass was one side of the coin. Talking about Maharajji was the other, lovely and thought-provoking side—putting you right there in India during the days of the guru and the Westerners. Replete with Maharajji epiphanies. And always the interlaced funny side, just to keep things in perspective…
In recent years, I have been extensively filming Ram Dass in Maui and what a pleasure! What a total pleasure! Still learning and laughing with him, still here with his guru and mine.