If I had not known of the joyous awesomeness that is Ram Dass, I never would have read this book. I’ve had a lot of luck in my life judging books by their covers and this one would not have received a fair trial. It is a perfect square, with a cover that reads the same whether you’re holding it like a literate adult, or glancing at it sideways, semi-conscious, or doing a headstand in front of it, and that is only the beginning of its material weirdness. Look at the pages, and you’ll see there is a small stack of white, regular booky-looking sheets at the front of the stack, and slightly more at the back, but they are held together by the central 2/3 of the book: dark brown pages with the texture of grocery bags. Look a little closer and you’ll find section one printed in blue type with blue-tinged images, section three in the same style, but with sepia tones, and the great middle section apparently hand-written in constantly shifting sizes, directions, and style, ALWAYS IN ALL CAPS, and lovingly illustrated with shapes, flowers, animals, and lots and lots of naked people, frequently obscuring the text itself.
I would never have bought this, had I known what it looked like.
I did not know because I purchased the book online as part of a chance to win a trip to “Ram Dass’ Love Serve Remember Meditation Retreat on Maui!” Yes, I bought a spiritual book in the hopes that I would get a free ticket to a tropical island where I could luxuriously listen to lectures at a fancy hotel and meditate to the sounds of the ocean and the view of hot surfer boys. I get the irony. But is it no more ironic that the offer was made at all? Or was the offer made to entice the weak and needy, to reel in those who might not yet have walked down the spiritual path? Real meditators would not have been tempted anyway. (shit)
Too late now. I got the book and made myself read it. The graphic design (if you can call it that) was a horrifying reminder of the kind of hippie posers I grew up around – people obsessed with new age styles of dress and superstitions and rules, but with perhaps less true kindness, decency, and trust than the average Jane; people who clung to specific teachings and goddesses and rituals in the hopes that it would pull them out of their misery, without ever taking responsibility for the darkness they nurtured and generated themselves.
I’m working on getting past my kneejerk reactions to – well, everything – so this was a good test.
The first section of the book is a mini-autobiography of Ram Dass, née Richard Alpert, mostly documenting the time from when he first “turned on” until he left the Maharaj-ji in India. It’s peppered with a lot of notably dated slang like dig and far out and drag, but still a really good read about his spiritual awakening, his dark night of the soul, his stories of the Maharaj-ji (if you have not heard any stories about Neem Karoli Baba, check some out; they’re pretty impressive), and how he got to the path he’s on.
The middle section – the bulk of the book – is hard to read. Physically hard to read. Words are written over amateurishly reproduced sketches, phrases get lost in the fold of the spine, it’s hard to tell where lines of text continue or break off, since there is no clearly defined format. But if you can will yourself through all of that, and approach the art and artistry with a big dose of humor, there’s good stuff hidden inside. Most are anecdotes, teachings, or observations too long to reproduce without losing many of you, but here are a few little gems:
As long as we’re greedy for experience, we’re going to be around for quite awhile. We’re not going to elect to go on the [hippie slang warning!] crisp trip because that’s the end of the Experiencer.
When you know how to listen, everybody is the guru.
The final section is “Cookbook for a Sacred Life.” There’s some wisdom (“every time you satisfy a desire you strengthen the habits connected with it”) and yoga poses (which weren’t sold on every street corner in 1971), and some good advice (“you may [politically] protest if you can love the person you are protesting against as much as you love yourself”), and, in my opinion, some ridiculous precepts, but more than that the whole concept bothers me. If we all have Buddha nature and enlightenment is possible (if unlikely) at any moment, the sacred life should become clear to us naturally; we won’t need someone to tell us how to behave. I mean, I’m fine with The Eightfold Path, but I believe the actions that define that path are deliberately left to the interpretation of the practitioner. When you start telling me what to eat and when to wake up, I say: leave that to the religions I’m avoiding.
Is it worth reading? Sure. Not just because of the groovy stories and many little pieces of wisdom, but because the act of reading this hippie scrapbook is in itself an exercise in remaining equanimous, non-judgmental, patient, and loving.
Or you could skip all that and just find Ram on youtube.