Conversations On The Leading Edge
Of Knowledge and Discovery
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove
COMPASSION IN ACTION
with RAM DASS
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Our topic today is politics and spirituality. With me is Ram Dass, a noted spiritual teacher and author of many books, including Be Here Now, Grist for the Mill, Miracle of Love, Journey of Awakening, The Psychedelic Experience, and most recently, How Can I Help? During the past decade Ram Dass has been active in social causes, including the prison ashram project, curing blindness in Nepal and India, working with refugees in Guatemala, and working with American Indians on health issues. Welcome, Ram Dass.
DASS: Thank you, Jeffrey.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to be with you. You know, I think if we were to go right to the core of the issue, it strikes me that at the very bottom line, at the root of things, the spiritual premise is that we are all one, and therefore politically we would want to treat the whole world as if it were our own body, in a sense. That would seem to me to be the basic premise of spirituality and politics.
DASS: Well, yes, but there are many levels to understand that. You can understand it with your intellect, and you can understand it because you are that, and that's a very different place to act politically. It's like Mahatma Gandhi said, "When you make yourself into zero, your power becomes invincible." Now, any politician, or anybody in the life of trying to institute social change in society, would like to have that power of the invincible, but it only happens when you aren't, but it is. And that's the one that is really hard -- that you have to in a way die into "not my but thy will" for that kind of potential impact on social change.
MISHLOVE: I think there's a paradox there, in a sense, because if we totally bow to the will of God, it might lead us to not want to resist the current situation.
DASS: It's an incredibly interesting risk, and you've got to trust that when you have surrendered, you will hear clearly. The Tao says the truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing, and your longing to have it different than it is, is ultimately a trap, because it keeps you from hearing the whole gestalt, the whole way things are. And as you hear the totality of it, you trust that out of that will come an appropriate action, a dharmic action. That's the trust of dharma, that's the trust in the wisdom of the universe that is greater than your own personal egoism. So there is certainly an exquisite risk in it. We're so used to working out of "I ought to do it, I should do it" -- getting behind ourselves and pushing. The whole idea of trusting, that if we didn't push something would still happen, is very interesting to explore in people.
MISHLOVE: Well, there must be a fine line between trusting and not pushing on the one hand, and on the other hand being really passionate about social change.
DASS: But again it's where passion comes from. If passion comes out of what I call milking the drama, or comes out of identifying with the emotions, I think it's short of what the possibility is. There is, for example, what's called dharmic anger, where a Zen monk will beat his student out of the incredible amount of love and compassion he has. I would say that if you're deeply enough in love with the universe, then the passion that arises out of it is different than if you aren't, and I think the passion is a passion that comes out of joyful involvement in the universe. But I think it's the passion of a river or a tree; I don't think it has to be like, "Aahhhh!" although it could be.
MISHLOVE: You seem to be suggesting that the quality of one's actions in a political-social arena, or any arena for that matter, is really determined by internal factors. That would make it, it would seem to me, impossible to judge the actions of anyone else, even a Stalin or a Hitler.
DASS: I think it's a pretty tricky business. I think that you can make judgments about actions -- that you don't judge beings, you judge their actions. And actions are good or evil, in the sense that actions increase paranoia and separateness, or they increase unity. So you can judge actions and you can be opposed. I can say, "I don't agree with that action you're going to do, and in fact I'm going to stop you from doing the action," but as Kabir said, "Do what you do with another human being, but never put them out of your heart." If I have to harden my heart in order to oppose you, I lost, we both lost. That's part of the art of the inner and the outer dialog.
MISHLOVE: You know, George Orwell in 1984 refers to Big Brother. One gets the sense that the game is that he's this loving tyrant, or at least his people believe that all of the cruelties are done out of some kind of benevolence. It seems to me that there is a longing that people have for perhaps a benevolent tyrant who will come in and straighten things out for us. Dostoyevsky spoke about how people long to take their freedom and lay it at the feet of a benevolent church that might act in a tyrannical way.
DASS: I think the deeper issue is whether the universe is benevolent or not, because we all see that when you invest in an institution or another person, you are investing external to your own deepest inner truth, and you've constantly got to be running that back against your inner truth. You can't just join a club and then say, "I surrender to the club." Like the whole misconception of a guru is that you surrender to a person. You only surrender to that which is the truth where God, guru, and self are one and the same thing, so when you surrender that way, you're surrendering that way at the same time. I could never imagine surrendering to something that would invalidate my intuitive wisdom, and as long as you keep connecting to that,- you don't have to judge whether it's benevolent or malevolent, you just judge, "Is this harmonious with my inner being?" I don't have to judge you, I just have to keep my own game on a straight path. The question of whether the universe is benevolent or not, that's an interesting one. I was talking with Jerry Brown, who used to Governor here in California. We were talking about that issue, of whether you have to assume a benevolent universe in order to trust deeply enough to surrender. We both could hear the lawfulness of the universe, and I would say that there is an evolutionary thrust that's not a Darwinian kind, it's much more of a consciousness evolution -- the kind of metaphor I play with is the one manifest as the many returning to the one, or something like that. So there's directionality, and in that sense it has values connected with it, but I don't think you'd call that either benevolent or malevolent. You wouldn't call a clock benevolent or malevolent because it's going forward instead of backwards.
MISHLOVE: Well, I know it's a deep philosophical issue. There's a strong trend amongst existentialists, and amongst behaviorists and atheists and left-wing political people, to suggest that the universe is fundamentally indifferent, and it's up to us to create our own reality, and I guess often people feel that it should be created from the intellect, from rationality.
DASS: Well, I think that's giving us really short shrift, because to me the intellect is a very small system within a much larger context, and to deny the context in which the intellect functions is to leave one little segment of nature trying to subsume everything under it. It's a lot like the drunk looking for the watch under the street lamp, when he lost it up in the alley, but there's a light here. What it also does is it makes the whole world objects. The intellect makes the world objects; you always think about things. And that always puts you one thought away from where it is, so you're always an alien in your own universe when you mediate everything through your intellect. So the fun is to have your intellect -- as Ramakrishna said, "It's a wonderful servant, but it's a lousy master," and I think that's probably true.
MISHLOVE: You spoke a little earlier about making political decisions and judgments in terms of how it fits, I think, with one's heart.
DASS: Not heart, emotional heart, you know. Heart like Chinese hsin-hsin, or the Atman, meaning the deepest place of truth.
MISHLOVE: The core.
DASS: The deepest intuitive place in one's being.
MISHLOVE: That notion would seem to contradict what we see very much in the world about us now, which are religious-political movements -- you know, the Moral Majority, or Islamic fundamentalism, where in the name of a particular religious dogma, certain political planks are established, and everyone within that organization or within that tradition is expected to support a particular political attitude.
DASS: When there is a lot of fear, there's a lot of uncertainty. When there's a lot of uncertainty, there is usually a lot of fear attendant to it. How people react to fear is interesting. Some people just consume more. They say, "I'll get it while I can, because it's all going to blow up anyway." They become more and more materialistic. Some people want to be on the right side when the doors close, so they become fundamentalists in one sense or another. They grab onto right as opposed to evil. They want to be one of the 144,000 that gets in the door. And the other group uses the uncertainty as a way to deal with their inner relationship to uncertainty, and they go inward. You can see the society dealing with the fear that way, and so that real thrust to the kind of righteousness is staying at the plane of good and evil, is staying at the plane of polarities, and it's not seeing, as G. Manly Hall said, that "he who knows not that the Prince of Darkness is the other face of the King of Light knows not me." It's interesting that all these religions in our Western sense -- Christianity and Judaism and Islam -- are really monotheistic. They believe in the one. Like "Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad" [ED. NOTE: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One"]. And yet, they always live within the two. It's like it's all one, it's one except for me, or except for us, and so we end up mea culpa-ing ourselves, because it's chutzpah in exoteric Western religions to think that you are one with the one. We say it's all one, but we don't really act as if it were all one, which is much more like holography.
MISHLOVE: No, we typically act as if we're very distinctly separate.
DASS: Distinctly, distinctly, and we got the bad end of the stick.
MISHLOVE: Original sin.
DASS: Absolutely. Because we fell out of something. And you see it as the One exploring itself through us, through this multiplicity of forms that are all part of the One, and it goes into the dream or the illusion. It gets entrapped in the separateness in order to awaken out of the separateness in order to see itself, and it's just a beautiful dance of this delicate form of the One at play. The whole thing lightens up a lot.
MISHLOVE: What I sense you saying is that you're making a clear distinction between spirituality and religion.
DASS: See, religions do provide exquisite practices to get deeper into the spirit. The problem is that every practice is entrapping. I don't care whether it's meditation or Catholicism or the Torah or drugs or whatever, yoga or whatever it is. They're all traps. And the game of method is that you've got to use the trap and risk being entrapped, with the expectation that it will self-destruct if it really works. The problem is, if it self-destructs the whole priest class is out of business, in institutional religion, so that the game has a funny kind of top, a false top on it, because any institution that starts to have salaries and institutional structures and all that, immediately can't self-destruct. It's not designed that way.
MISHLOVE: You suggest in your most recent book, How Can I Help?, that through service one finds a path to realization, to God, or to enlightenment. I sense that in all religions there is this path of service, and that seems to come as close as religion really gets to political action.
DASS: Yes, but the difference is where you do the service from. There are an awful lot of religious organizations that do service, but they do service like, "We'll help the poor." That's not exactly karma yoga, or the use of serving somebody to transcend the dualism between the server and the served. I'm talking about it as a very precise method of enlightenment -- of serving where there is no server, because the Bhagavad Gita says, "Be not identified with being the actor, and be not attached to the fruits of the action." But still, you do it. Now, how do you help somebody where you're not attached to how it comes out, and you're not busy being the helper? That's the art form. Then you're just doing what you're doing because you're doing what you're doing. You are the help. You're not the helper, you're the help, and who's getting helped remains open to question. If you're not getting helped by being a helper, forget it. You must be standing in the wrong place.
MISHLOVE: It seems that the Bhagavad Gita really puts the issue in its starkest form --
DASS: Doesn't it ever.
MISHLOVE: -- when you consider that what's being discussed here is warfare -- in fact, warfare against one's own family.
DASS: Well, that's an interesting one, of which level to take that at, because you also can take that metaphorically, of the warring between the ego and the higher self, and the whole internal battle. I mean, the fun of the Bhagavad Gita is that you can play with it at so many levels, like any good holy book. Any good holy book is a multi-leveled smorgasborg of possibilities of interpretation.
MISHLOVE: I have seen some very right-wing mercenary type people wearing T shirts with a slogan to the effect of, "Kill them all now and let God sort out the ones later."
DASS: Wow. That's an extraordinary T shirt.
MISHLOVE: You haven't heard that slogan.
DASS: No, I haven't heard that one.
MISHLOVE: It seems that some people take almost a religious or a spiritual attitude that they're going to do what they think they have to do, and if they kill people, God will figure out who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, and they're not to blame.
DASS: Isn't that interesting? I don't even know how to get hold of that one. I mean, the karma of an individual who will kill somebody because that individual feels they have the right way or the only way, already their mind has made another person to them. So what they're saying is they're going to kill all the thems. There are two ways to kill the thems. One is you go da-da-da-da-da-da with a machine gun, and the other is you extricate yourself from a world of us and them in your own mind, and you've killed all the thems, and there's only us left. I was in Guatemala, and one of the women, these widows whose husbands have been murdered before their eyes, one of these women said to me through a translator, "Thank you so much for leaving your home and family to come and help us." I just opened to it and I said, "I didn't. You're my home and family." I mean, who's leaving what? And I felt the truth of that at the moment. She was defining it in terms of that she was them, but I didn't see her as them. She was us. And that's part of the excitement of being willing to risk in service -- seeing the beloved in all the forms and yourself in all the forms. Instead of averting your eyes from pain and suffering, turn around and embrace it into yourself, without being afraid you're going to be drowned by it, because you know you can say no without closing your heart. These are all a part of a piece, the beautiful services a yoga is.
MISHLOVE: If one carries your position to its logical extreme, it means being willing to look at the grossest, most hellish misery on the planet.
DASS: All of it.
MISHLOVE: And embrace it.
DASS: All of it, all of it. You look just directly at -- you learn how to keep your heart open in hell. You see the horrible beauty of the universe. I remember once I was teaching down at Big Sur, at Esalen, and they gave me a house to house-sit, and it came with a cat. The cat and I became buddies, and every day the cat would come in when I was meditating in the morning, and bring in its morning breakfast, which was a lizard or something, which was usually still alive. It would sit down between my legs to eat, to be with me. I would be sitting there being with God, and I'd hear, "Squeak, squeak. Crunch, crunch," and I didn't know who to hate. I mean, I loved the cat, but suddenly the cat was a killer. And I loved the lizard, because I identified with -- you know, and I went through all the changes, and I saw it is the phenomena of nature. You've got to be able to look at it all and say, "Yes, I acknowledge it, I acknowledge it," without being so busy reacting to it that you don't -- because you don't even understand why it is that way. My ability to see around the edge of, as Rilke said, the billboard at the edge of town, being able to see just around the edge of the veil -- and I can just see a teeny little bit, just like we all can -- leads me to understand the game is much farther out that I thought it was. I mean, I can understand the term, "Suffering is grace." I can't live it. I can live it at moments, with little sufferings. But I can understand that there is a beautiful unfolding of awareness through suffering. That's what my work with the dying is about.
MISHLOVE: I remember once when I was a teenager I heard a rabbi talk about what he felt was the essence of Jewish ethics, and he said, "If I saw another man and he had no clothes, and all I had was a pair of pants, I would take my pair of pants off and give it to him." And it struck me that, well, that's very beautiful, it really is, but I don't live my life that way, and I don't know anyone else who does. And yet I think I hear that coming from you -- that when we recognize the One as being ourselves, how can we not want to share our last pair of pants?
DASS: I hear the question. See, it's a very delicate one. Simone Weil, a philosopher, she was a wealthy Belgian, I think, and then she wouldn't take any more than the poorest person in the world had, and the result was she starved to death, in her twenties I think. Now, there's something interesting in that story, and there's always also something that is poignant about it -- that you and I have a unique predicament, a karmic predicament, that we were born in this time in this place with these potentials, these opportunities. I'm not sure all people have the same game in life. I'm not sure that I have to be just like everybody else, so that there may be a way in which -- I don't know, I've got to listen carefully to hear; I'm not rationalizing having more than another human being. But I know, like my guru said to me, "God comes to the hungry in the form of food." Now, if I am worrying about my survival every day, there's no way I can be here with you, and if I can't be here with you, all of us can't be sharing.
MISHLOVE: Nor could I be here with you.
DASS: Exactly. So in a way, we are part of the microcosm of human consciousness. We have a part to play, which means we have to have the pants in order to play. So I'm not sure I would give away my pants at that level. I'd explore it. I'd stay with the moment. See, I either would or I wouldn't, is sort of the way I'd deal with that. I'm not trying to con out of it, but to deal with it.
MISHLOVE: Well, it's an issue. Maybe another way to look at it might be --
DASS: And I don't think I'm a bad Jew for not giving away my last pair of pants, by the way.
MISHLOVE: Well, that's an extreme example, but how about, for example, building elaborate houses of worship -- cathedrals, synagogues, and churches?
DASS: Well, you can look at those both ways. I mean, I wouldn't do it, but at the same moment I can see that for people in very poor countries that have very little mythic identity to give them joy, when they go into their cathedral, and they look up, and they worship and light incense, and there's the beautiful Christ, I can see that they get their lives enriched in a way that a lot of the regular daily stuff of their life doesn't do. You could say that the Church is milking it so that they're not getting an extra meal, but maybe it's feeding them in another way, which is its justification. I don't think it's a black-and-white issue in that way.
MISHLOVE: It seems to me what you're expressing here is a willingness to accept reality as it is.
DASS: That's a big one, isn't it? To accept our humanity. And to accept that an institution could be serving, and it could be a corruption of what it was intended to do, and it's probably a little of both, and so are we, and we've got to deal with that. We've got to accept our own humanity first, and really accept it, not judge it so much. I've really shifted from being a judger of everything to being an appreciater of it -- to just appreciating how it is. And it brings me to a much more intimate relationship. The judging mode is always distancing myself from everything, so I'm not even judging judging now.
MISHLOVE: It would seem to me that you must be much more skillful as a social activist or as a political actor in any sense. If you're not judging people, that should mean to me that you could communicate with anybody.
DASS: Well, ideally, yes, and that's what I'm working on. What I'm doing is I'm going closer and closer to the fire all the time, because it's very easy for me to stay in my own little bailiwick, around all of the people that are my yea-sayers, my constituency, and everything I say, they say, "Oh, Ram Dass, oh, that's great wisdom." It's quite different to mix it up with some social activists who say, "Ron who?" I mean, they don't know me from anything, and you've got to be there with the truth of your being in that situation. That to me is beginning to be exciting. For years I wouldn't do it, I wouldn't risk it. I think Vivekananda once said, "Debates are for schoolchildren," and I thought, I will just represent what I represent, I'll do what I do, and the people that want to play will play, and the others will do what they do, and that's OK. I'm not judging them; we have different business. But now I see that we can maybe talk together, and that's going to be interesting. That's really the Sixties anti-Vietnam and the Sixties spiritual turning inward, starting to find their way back together again, which I think is kind of interesting.
MISHLOVE: It seems as we're moving into the Nineties that we're at a point where all of the old definitions of who we thought we were are falling away, and we find ourselves dialoguing with people we didn't imagine we would.
DASS: Well, how much more could that be than with the invention of the telephone, or the invention of the radio, or the invention of television, or air travel? I take care of my father, and he's ninety. He was born in 1898, and when I'm thinking about this as a time of great change, I think of what changes have occurred in that man's life. He and I went on rides and saw the tracks that the horse and buggy that he went on made when he was a child. He lived in that world. And I realized the immense changes in our culture. Sometimes consciousness has gone along with it, and sometimes consciousness has just gotten more deeply entrapped in externalities. That's what interests me -- not the evolution of technology, but the evolution of the way that technology allows the liberation of consciousness.
MISHLOVE: Well, people have always commented, so long as I can remember, that our inner growth hasn't kept up with technology, but perhaps we're seeing --
DASS: I'm not sure about that.
MISHLOVE: Perhaps we're seeing the evolution of inner growth.
DASS: I mean, when you think of us living with the bomb. I grew up at a time we didn't have a bomb.
MISHLOVE: I'm going to have to cut you short now, though. Our time is out, Ram Dass.
DASS: The bomb just came.
MISHLOVE: Thank you so much for being with me.
DASS: Jeffrey, it's been a pleasure.
MISHLOVE: It's been a pleasure for me too.