Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Rameshwar Das. Rameshwar is a writer, photographer, and longtime friend of well-known spiritual teacher Ram Dass. Most recently, he was Ram Dass’s coauthor on the new book Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart.
Rameshwar first journeyed to India in 1970, where he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Today, he lives with his family in Long Island. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Rameshwar and I spoke about suffering as a doorway into grace. We also talked about what it might mean to live a path of devotion, and even to maintain a sense of devotion in the face of tragedy. We also talked about what is meant by “polishing the mirror” and the idea that guru, God, and self are all the same. And finally, we talked about the relationship between faith and the recognition of love. Here’s my conversation with Rameshwar Das.
Rameshwar—the only way I feel I can be really be true in this conversation, here at the beginning is to bring forward the really difficult and strange timing of the publication of this new book Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart. Such a beautiful and strong subtitle—living from your spiritual heart. With the very tragic [and] unbelievably difficult loss of your daughter due to an accident—your 14-year-old daughter in a bike accident with a car—and how these things happened all at the same time practically. Within hours of each other. The release of the new book and this loss. And I’m wondering if you can share for us a little bit about these two things coming together inside of you.
Rameshwar Das: Well it’s hard to express some of it, of course. You know, the love and attachment that you have for a child is so incredibly profound. You know, you don’t realize it most of the time. You’re just being a mom and dad and hanging out, going to lacrosse games, and running the taxi around town and that kind of thing.
I actually was out visiting Ram Dass in Maui when it happened. I got this call from my wife with sirens going in the background. There was a period—I just went back to the house (I had been out for a morning walk), and I was just sitting with Ram Dass and Dassiman—who runs his household—and a couple of the guys there. It was one of those crystalline times when you’re completely on another plane. I was just trying to be with her in my inner way so intensely. And I do think I felt the moment when she left her body. In a sense, it was kind of grace being with Ram Dass then because he really helped me stay in my heart and not totally give into that grief, which I was going in and out of. It’s kind of like getting hit by lightening, I think. It was just so out of the blue.
TS: When you say that you think you might have felt that moment internally when she left her body, what did that feel like?
RD: It felt like going from—it’s hard to describe. It [felt like going from] presence to absence. I had felt very much there with her—at least in my thoughts and feelings. And then it was just like a thread parted or something like that.
You know when you’re experiencing things on that interior level, it’s hard to know what’s real. But that was certainly a feeling. I think at that point I began to feel her and relate to her in a different way. More as a soul or a spirit. Not that that was a conscious thought, but it was such a tumultuous time for me it just kept pulling me inside.
Then I had to arrange to get on a plane back to New York. I had to take a red-eye flight to get back and meanwhile my wife and son were dealing with the police and all those kind of intense physical plane stuff that comes with that. Then I got off the plane in New York and the pilot said, “To all you dads, Happy Father’s Day.” That was kind of the coup de gras at that moment.
So it’s been very sad, but also there’s just been this intense love coming through it.
TS: Now, I’m curious if you could speak some [on] that. There’s a section in the book where you and Ram Dass talk about “from suffering to grace,” and actually make this connection for people [of how] suffering can be a doorway into grace. Here, it’s in the book and there, it ‘s right there in your life.
RD: Yes, it’s kind of like the spiritual practice, “The Rubber Meets the Road.” Well, if this was the test, I don’t feel like I passed anyway! [Laughs]
It was pretty tough going. But there was that element of grace in it. First of all, I had kids late in life and my kids opened my heart in a way that I never had really expected. Just that really elemental love. And then when this happened—when Annamirabai died—at the same time as the grief, that love just intensified. It really was like getting ripped open.
I’ve tried to stay with that, and that is a grace. Not a practice I’d recommend to anybody. It certainly has been a real deepening. I have felt her kind of enfolded in Maharajji’s blanket. You know there’s that word for the shelter of the guru—the sharanof the guru. And I felt like she is taken care of and very much kind of guided and sheltered in that love. So I’ve tried to stay with that. Sometimes you just subside back into whatever the other stuff is that’s going on that we had to deal with—police, lawyers, insurance, and the worldly end of it.
TS: I’m curious, Rameshwar, what you might say to somebody who is perhaps suffering in their life at this time? Maybe not from a loss of the same magnitude as yours, but suffering in some way—who knows what it might be. What advice or directives or suggestions [do] you have for how they might be able to find way into the grace in their experience?
RD: Wow. I don’t know. Everybody has to find their own way, certainly. But I think [that] staying with it and not trying to escape from it with all of the ways and rituals we have for cutting ourselves off. Sometimes I think that’s one thing that is really important in that. You know, the force of something like this—whether it’s a sickness or a death—one’s own psychological suffering does turn you inward. I think that staying with that is really a way of getting the teaching that comes out of the suffering.
Which is sort of choiceless. I don’t think you choose to go into that. I certainly didn’t. I’m not a particularly hermetic or ascetic type. It’s not my natural direction, but it certainly has pulled me inward. I have felt like I’m almost between two worlds. I would say to people, “Follow that inward current.” And that is an element of grace, because it does take us into the place inside us that is not suffering—or is just feeling love at the same time as suffering. And they do all come together, don’t they?
TS: Now, you mentioned the grace of “Maharajji’s blanket surrounding Anna” your sense of that. For people who are unfamiliar with Maharajji and your relationship with him, could you share that with us? How you first met him and how he became your guru?
RD: Well, I’m always indebted to Ram Dass, however that came about. I met Ram Dass when I was still in university. This goes back to 1967 or so. He had just come back from India. I knew nothing about yoga or Ram Dass, for that matter. I figured I was going to meet Richard Albert. He gave a talk that started at 7:30 in the evening, in a student lounge. People were sitting around on couches—you know, just sort of spread around. I was expecting the annals of LSD, but instead I got the guru from India. It was quite a remarkable evening for me. It was like one of these kinds of shifts in the figure and ground—where you go from the center of the universe to being a speck of sand on the beach.
It was just very deep. And after awhile, somebody just turned off the lights and it was just his voice coming out of the darkness. I think he spoke until 3:30 in the morning. So it was a pretty charged atmosphere. He had been living up in this little ashram in the Himalayas and had been mostly on silence for six months. So he had a lot of words backed up there.
He had travelled to India before and, through this [apparent] series of coincidences. had met this old man up in the Himalayan foothills who was known—[the] honorific for him is Maharajji, which means “great king.” You know, that is something that if you get in a taxi in Delhi, the driver will say, “Maharaj, where would you like to go?” So it’s not exactly—it’s just generic. So it’s this old man wrapped up in a blanket, living in the Himalayas. He was living in the spiritual heart. There was just so much love coming from him.
After I met Ram Dass, a couple of years later I went to see Maharajji in India—after extracting the information from Ram Dass, who had been instructed not to tell anybody about Maharajji. I travelled with Krishna Das and Danny Goleman, both of whom have gone on to have more illustrious careers than me. But that’s OK. They’re still wonderful brothers.
It was a very magical time, being with Maharajji. There were very few Westerners around. He wouldn’t even let us stay at the little temple. We stayed at the town nearby and would come every few days when he would allow us to see him. It was just a very profound time. I was quite young. I was in my early 20’s. When I got to him in India, it was that same kind of shift in point of view that I had when I first met Ram Dass. So he had really come through Ram Dass.
I guess [that] these relationships are kind of imponderable. The relationship with a guru or a saint of that type is so deep and subtle that you don’t really know what it’s about most of the time, but it has felt completely natural and right.
TS: It’s interesting to talk about your relationship with Maharajji at a time in the culture where I think the word “guru” is not all that well received these days. It’s like, “Really? Really? Isn’t that—”
RD: No. I mean there’s fashion gurus, and sex gurus, and money gurus.
TS: Those kinds of gurus—ye—but, a true spiritual guru. There’s a sense of, “Didn’t we kind of get rid of that?”
RD: [Laughs] Get rid of that.
TS: Yes wasn’t that part of the twentieth century, aren’t we beyond that? How do you respond to that?
RD: Well, as I say, it’s kind of a subtle thing. I feel, in my life, it’s been an incredible blessing in my life to have met a being like that because he’s like my inmost being. And that’s a lot of about where this Polishing the Mirror title came from—because he’s like a reflection of our inner being. Or mine, anyway. [Laughs]
I mean, some people would come to him, [and] he’d seem like a nice man. They’d have something to eat and they’d leave and that was that. You know, clearly these are relationships that have gone on for a long time—if not many lifetimes—and it’s kind of spiritual family. It’s like you’re stuck with your relatives.
RD: So I’m blessed with Maharajji.
TS: When you say he’s, “. . . like a reflection of my inmost being,” and that that relates to the title of this new book with you and Ram Dass on polishing the mirror—can you help me understand that a little bit more?
RD: Well the phrase is used in different places. I think it’s used by the Buddhists too, but it comes from the invocation to the Hanuman Chalisa. It says, “I take the dust of my guru’s lotus feet to polish the mirror of my heart.” So it is that idea that the spiritual heart is a little covered. What spiritual practice is—rather than trying to achieve something or get somewhere—is really just uncovering that true reflection of the spirit. Something like that. I don’t know—it seems to be a good metaphor with a lot of dimensions.
TS: I still want to know more about what you mean that, “Maharajji is my innermost being?” What [does that mean] to you?
RD: Well, the great Indian saint, Ramana Maharshi says, “Guru, God, and self are all the same.” Not meaning that a self—in the narrow ways that we just identify our bodies and our minds—but that inner self, that deeper place.
So the guru is like an inner presence—when you are really in the presence of a guru, it’s also inside you. You see that person outside, but that’s also a reflection of the inner being. And in that sense, I mean that Maharajji was pure love. You’d sit with him and you’d feel like you were just in this state of complete love. And it wasn’t—I’m certainly not that pure, but in his presence, at times I felt that way. He was able to awaken that sense that, in a way is kind of a reflection.
I’m not talking very clearly about this, am I?
It’s both [very] subtle and difficult to verbalize. I think that the real guru is inside you. That’s that best way to express it. When you meet somebody who is in body and talks to you and feeds you or whatever it is that’s going on—you can feel that they are also inside you. That is something like a guru, I guess.
Crazy thing, isn’t it? It’s not what one grows up expecting to meet. I grew up in Westchester County in New York and it was a little discontinuous with my upbringing. [Laughs]
TS: In the book Polishing the Mirror, there is a section on the path of devotion. It does seem to me that people who feel part of this soul family with Neem Karoli Baba—the way that you and Ram Dass feel part of that soul family—have a particular gift and passion for the path of devotion. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that—about what it means to follow the path of devotion.
RD: The devotional path is interesting, because it’s using what you’d call dualism of subject and object—me and you, this/that, outer world/inner world—to get into the place of oneness and connection, is through love. It’s known in yoga and India as the “DEC Path” because that inward pull can be very ecstatic, and sometimes painful because there’s that longing to be with the one you love. So it’s sort of a natural, inward pull.
To some extent, it’s kind of like falling off a log, but then there’s the other part of it where it starts to get deeper and you begin to get pulled more inward. I think that’s the point where devotional practice is like any other practice, like Buddhism or meditation or karma yoga. Activity; doing service. The sweetness of the love just keeps pulling you in. It’s like you get hooked. The hook get set and you just get pulled in, slowly but surely. You can run out the line for awhile, but every once in a while, it starts pulling you back in. Essentially, once you’ve been hooked on that love, it’s kind of over. There’s nowhere to go anymore.
TS: Sometimes when tragedy happens in people’s lives, their devotion isn’t there. It’s there when things are going well, but when things aren’t going well, it can be a challenge. How have you felt this sense of devotion in you being impacted [by] the loss of Anna? If you have felt it being impacted?
RD: In a funny way, I think that devotional feeling—that love—has merged with my love for her because she’s gone into that spirit realm and I almost feel like she’s part of Maharajji. As I’ve been able to occasionally quiet the clamor of emotions—you know all the stuff that goes on around of losing someone that’s so precious to you and that attachment to the form—you just having a sweet teenager in your life. But when I can quiet down, I feel like this kind of mist of love around me. Not always. It changes certainly from day to day and moment to moment. Sometimes, it’s hard to quiet down. She’s pretty sweet being somewhere or other.
I feel like that love has really spread. Certainly, if I was just submerged in the loss, it would be more painful. I mean it’s painful enough as it is, but knowing that she grew up in a loving environment [and] that I can still feel that for her, that hasn’t gone away. Her body’s gone. Her body died and we put her ashes in the ocean. But I certainly still feel that love for her.
I guess the heart opening continues and this has certainly been an intensely—almost violent—opening, but it is really deep in there too. So as I say, I don’t recommend it to anybody but it has a lot of love inside too. I’ve felt Ram Dass’s support and Maharajji around me. As you say about the people that you’ve met who’ve been with Maharajji, there is that sort of sense of spiritual family, or family of the heart, or whatever you want to call it. It’s very profound.
TS: Rameshwar, for most of us—most people won’t meet a saint like Neem Karoli Baba and feel that type of devotion. Also, many of us won’t be placed in a situation to endure the type of tragedy that you have—the loss of a child. And yet, I do think that this longing exists in people to live from the depths of their spiritual heart. So I’m curious what you might say from your work with Ram Dass on Polishing the Mirror—what would be some real help that you could give people who want to deepen their sense of living from their spiritual heart?
RD: It’s interesting watching Ram Dass. You know, he had a stroke in 1997.He almost died and he’s really been somewhat incapacitated since then. It hasn’t stopped him much. For a while he was still traveling and speaking. My wife and I took our kids to India in 2004, and he came with a group of people for about three weeks. It was really joyous. I don’t think he thought he might get back to India. He was still in the wheelchair and, you know, it’s not easy traveling that way. Especially in India—it’s not exactly handicapped accessible shall we say?
He had an amazing time and he came back and went to teach a retreat in Maui. At the end of it, he ended up in the emergency room with a high fever. He had had an infection that got into his blood stream when he came back. He almost checked out again. It was a slow recovery. So, [he’s] stayed on Maui pretty much since then. I think he’s been off the island once in almost nine years now. He’s just deepened more and more into his heart because his mind is just as sharp as it has been. He had aphasia from the stroke, so it’s not as easy for him to talk. So he’s quieter more.
Since he stopped traveling, he’s even more inward and just loving and funny and sweet and really deep. I’ve seen that deepening of the heart with him. He was always sort of the master storyteller. He’d do a talk and he’d have three stories going at the same time and they’d all culminate in the same line at some point. Now, it’s much quieter and just very deep. I think that what we can all take from that [as] we can quiet ourselves, that heart place begins to manifest of its own. You do use whatever practice you’re into and that’s a lot of what Polishing the Mirror has in it—ways of approaching that heart place.
Different people have different ways of going about it. I use mantra and meditation. Krishna Das chants. Danny’s had a very psychological approach to things. He wrote that Emotional Intelligence book. Other people do service. There’s not one way, but it’s certainly that heart place is the same in all of us.
TS: Can you talk a little bit about the process that you and Ram Dass engaged in together in creating Polishing the Mirror?
RD: Oh, when we write together?
TS: Yes, how does that work?
RD: It’s kind a different for different things. At times, we’ve sat and talked together and I’ve recorded things and written them down—transcribed things. Then we’d go back and work on it together until we get it to a place that feels right. Sometimes, I’m doing kind of what you’re doing with me, which is sort of interviewing him.
For me, it’s really a privilege to work with him. It’s such fun, because Ram Dass just plays [with] those edges of the mind and the heart.
I guess I end up doing the computer work and stuff like that and helping with the editing. I feel mostly like an editor, I suppose. But it’s very beautiful exploring with him. I feel like we’re kind of poking around in our inner beings together. It’s very sweet.
TS: Now, Rameshwar, you mentioned how there’s a sense of family in the people who have gathered around Neem Karoli Baba over the last few decades and devoted their life really to serving his work in the world. I’m curious: how would you name that work in the world—the work that you are serving in your life?
RD: I don’t want to glorify it, particularly. I feel like it’s me working out my karma most of the time. It’s just dealing with what comes down the road and sometimes trying to make it resonate for other folks too. I think we’re all mirrors for each other in that sense. You know when you are being with someone, you’re just being with them to the extent that you can get out of the way and just be. It becomes a kind of experience of merging together.
That’s what Maharajji is. Maharajji is the place where we’re all the same. You know when you get out of your thoughts and your feeling and don’t get so hung up on what kind of clothes you’re wearing. We’re not too different underneath. I think it’s trying to find that place of sameness, or oneness, that we all share.
I guess it sounds very high-falutin’, but there’s all kind of philosophy that goes around it that can be Hindu or Buddhist or Christian or whatever package it comes in. But Maharajji’s main teaching was—in Hindi it’s saba éka, which is, “It’s all one.”
And sometimes you’d feel like he was looking at us like, “Don’t you get it? It’s all one.” Like we were kids in a preschool or something like that. And he’s looking at us all running around, wandering through the universe.
So it feels like family in the sense that we’ve probably all been doing this quite a number of births and deaths. And here we are hanging out on the wheel together a bit. Certainly, this death has shown me that it can vanish in an instant, so the aspect enjoying our time together is really precious too.
TS: I just have one final question for you Rameshwar. There’s a line in Polishing the Mirror: “The whole game is based on faith.” And I’d be curious to know, here at the end of our conversation, what is your faith? How would you define it?
RD: That’s a good one.
I think that love and faith are very deeply intertwined. Part of that faith is knowing that that love is here too. You know it’s not just words. Our presence being together is something or nothing or the void. But it’s here. That faith that we can hang out and share together, that’s kind of faith to me. Also knowing that there are beings like Maharajji helping us along as we stumble through. That’s a good thing to know too. I think everybody has some—whatever you want to call them—guru, or guardian angel, or patron saint. That inner place that guides us. I think just getting in touch with that—even the least little bit—even that one experience that shows you that at some point in your life is part of faith. And that’s all I know. And it ain’t much. A lot to do, Tami.
TS: I feel the love shining through.
RD: Maharajji used to say, “Isn’t it? What to do?”
TS: As I said, I feel the love shining through.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Rameshwar Das, who along with Ram Dass, has written a new book with Sounds True, it’s called Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart. It’s a beautiful book that includes chapters on conscious dying and aging, from suffering into grace, sections on karma yoga and our work in the world, as well as living the path of devotion and also includes many meditations that one can engage in in a self-guided way and a whole collection of suggested practices for opening and expanding and deepening the spiritual heart. Rameshwar, thank you so much for being with on Insights at the Edge and God bless.
RS: Thank you Tami. You do a good interview.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.