“Love everyone,” Ram Dass said, guiding us in the final meditation of the 8th annual Open Your Heart in Paradise retreat, where I found myself last December literally at the feet of my guru in a thatched hut — among 350 other attendees blessed out in the Maui heat. (It was a rather large thatched hut).
By then, I couldn’t stop crying. In fact, as soon as I secured travel plans, the mere thought of eye contact with the legendary Ram Dass sprouted tears. I didn’t think much about it at the time, aside from the obvious: Being in the presence of unconditional love brings out the verklempt in a Jewish girl, especially given said Jewish girl was brought up by a Jewish mother in Los Angeles, where unconditional love, or love of any kind, was more of a sport.
Nonetheless, that sport ultimately did lead me to a particular pack of Hind-Jews and Bu-Jews, and then, literally to the feet of king Hind-Jew, so in that regard I am endlessly grateful for my upbringing, for following the clichéd path of my “unlovable” Jewish elders straight into the arms of Ram Dass.
The retreat was tropical perfection, what with daily yoga, meditation, dharma talks, vegetarian meals, kirtan, unbearably beautiful tropics, with ample lagoon and cliff to explore; the days were a welcome routine into being, away from the homeland of doing and I luxuriated in the stillness.
And everyone was there. I mean everyone: Ram Dass, Krishna Das, Sharon Salzberg, Jai Uttal, Mirabai Bush, along with a handful of other Das’s I didn’t know, who were all basically saying the same thing: do your spiritual practice, avoid getting caught up in the drama, and love everyone. Or do the best you can.
Ram Dass, among those I am eternally grateful for showing me the path of love, spent the majority of the retreat gazing dreamily at the attendees below, telling us in his predictable cadence, “I…Love…You,” reminding us that we are all “souls,” an image I could glimpse and embody for exactly one second: an entire room full of sunflowers, smiley-faced yolks waving in the wind, an endless field of golden warm at his feet.
“Love Everyone,” Ram Dass repeated, as he is known to do, just as we devotees are accustomed to hanging on the sweet vine of emptiness that bridges one word to the next. “Love Everyone,” he says again. “Even terrible you.”
By then I’d been crying for good reason, but “terrible” me? He’s not supposed to know; while I’m well aware that my own sense of terribleness is an outdated story I needlessly carry, it’s still a private matter, between me and my shame! And when I have a chance to ask about it, standing face-to-face, in passing, I am speechless. I can’t talk to the man, to whom I want to tell everything. All I can do is lean into him, cry and babble an awkward “thank you, Ram Dass,” before running out of the room. A knowing attendee looks at me and nods, offers a hug. Guess what? I cry into her arms.
Later when I ask author Parvati Markus about the relentless tears — which she references in her new book Love Everyone, a compilation of stories told by Westerners transformed by hanging out with the famed Indian Saint, Neem Karoli Baba (Maharajii), in the ’60s and ’70s, (without whom none of this “loving everyone,” heart opening in Hawaii would be possible) — as having a lot to do with “bringing out the darkness,” I figure there has to be more to it than that.
But her answer back is brief: Recalling her experience with Maharajii, she says, “Many of those tears were from an overflowing heart opening wide, while others were from seeing your own shit.”
What? I wanted the tears to be about enlightenment.
But I know she’s right. I know that sitting so close to love so pure elicits a relief so humongous it is almost too much to bear and the “dark” is how little of that love I am able to take in. Because I came all this way and darn, it’s too much. And even though I get that the whole point is to recognize that transmission of love from a universe that, when in wise mind, is all “souls,” I berate myself for coming all this way to open my heart and I cannot.
I know I can try again, to be with unconditional love that is all around; I can try with the trees, with my boyfriend, with my breath, my Durga, my son, my friends, my enemies, and by golly, myself, for I, too, am a “soul,” but by then I’m way too up in my head and I can neither let the love in…nor out. I come home in a funk.
I stopped meditating. Who was I kidding going to Hawaii to see Ram Dass? I became careless and shut down. And then the holidays. And the real dark: One morning rushing to take my son downtown to see Santa, I snapped at him and he retreated into his room, hurt. Then I beat myself up about it with guilt, and carried on like that until I happened to randomly catch sight of my little cheap plastic smiling Buddha, laughing on my altar. He was smiling at me. He didn’t care.
And then I thought back to Ram Dass and “terrible, terrible, me” and I realized that even when I turned on myself, he didn’t care. He still loved me and always would. I suppose it might have been a Jesus moment if that were my religion of origin, but the point was clear: Buddha (Jesus, Ram Dass, Baba — who have you) loved me no matter what.
Eventually I wiped away my tears and went to the den where my son was laughing, watching Sponge Bob.
“Still wanna go see Santa, honey?”
He nodded enthusiastically, zipped off the set.
Tentatively I made my way beside him on the couch. He let me. I outstretched a hand.
“Sorry I yelled at you, honey… I –”
“Whatever, Mama. Let’s go.”
Apparently he didn’t think I was so terrible either.