I spent several years serving my beloved teacher Ram Dass on Maui. It was during this time that I committed myself to the practice of kirtan and bhakti yoga, the yoga of service and devotion to God. I also received the rare chance to be in close proximity to a man who truly lives from the heart. Whether he is lecturing on stage, at the dinner table with friends or alone in his room, Ram Dass rests in and acts from a place of love. I believe that this is the most important thing anyone can learn- to live from the heart, to act from the heart, to sing from the heart.
This is Ram Dass’s main teaching today, and it continues the teachings of his guru, the great saint Neem Karoli Baba, who said “Love everyone, serve everyone and remember God.” I try to make these three words, love, serve and remember as the foundation of everything I do. I can’t think of any better map to navigate life with.
I want to do anything I can to develop these qualities in myself, thus I often find myself singing, teaching, and serving whenever and wherever anyone will let me- this has included a wide variety of settings from yoga studios, music festivals and retreat centers to homeless shelters, hospice clinics and correctional facilities.
I spend a large portion of my time singing kirtan. Kirtan is a practice of bhakti yoga, or the yoga of love and devotion towards God. As it says in Be Here Now, “The way bhakti works is you just love until you and the Beloved become One.” It is the call-and-response chanting of the various names of God/Goddess from the ancient Sanskrit language. All of these Names point to the deepest reaches of our own heart space where our True Nature resides.
I sing the Holy Names for one simple reason- I have to. This is the medicine that works for me. It is what constantly renews and reminds me of my faith, and it is the Light that shines on the unconscious parts of my being.
Karma Yoga is also a large facet of the Bhakti Path. Karma Yoga is the path of selfless action. I still remember the day that Ram Dass said a few simple sentences that changed my life. He couldn’t have known the effect they were going to have. In fact, they weren’t even directed towards me at all.
Ram Dass was skyping into a training for those who work bedside with the dying. Whenever he gave lectures via Skype, I was the tech guy. Besides setting up the camera and ensuring everything worked properly, I also needed to be present in case anything went wrong. This gave me the privilege of sitting in the room and listening to all of his talks.
Ram Dass has worked with dying over the last 50 years and has taught many to do the same. His message is that the best way to sit bedside is to use it as a vehicle for your own awakening. To be “a soul, not a role,” as he puts it.
Today his message was the same, but he also said something that I had never heard before.
“Your job is to be a loving rock, so the dying person can push against you and pull against you, and you stay rooted in love.“
In that moment it all became so clear. That’s what I want to do with my entire life! It wasn’t so much the specifics of dying that I was drawn to, although I did become a hospice volunteer, but the greater calling to become a loving rock at all times and for all people.
Of course, how to actually do that is another question. (If I figure it out, I’ll let you know 🙂 ) In the mean time, I’m working on it…
Activism plays a big role in my spiritual practice and my dharma, whether that means political action- attending protests, tree sits, or writing about capitalism, or social action- working with those who are homeless, dying, in prison, or other marginalized populations. I also offer workshops for social and political activists to provide tools to be more effective in their activism and to use it as a vehicle for awakening.
I draw my inspiration from my beloved teacher Ram Dass, the great Indian Saint Neem Karoli Baba and the monkey god Hanuman. In the Ramayana, a popular Indian epic, Ram (God) says to Hanuman, “Who are you?” Hanuman replys, “When I don’t know who I am, I serve you. When I know who I am, I am you.” This captures the essence of what the sacred can awaken in us: a life-long calling to be in service and devotion to Love. It is through this service and through this devotion that we begin to realize we are not separate. Love is the very nature of our Being. It is who we are.