Spirit Leaves: The Professor and the Guru

Ram Dass (courtesy of RamDass.org)
Ram Dass (courtesy of RamDass.org)

THERE ARE NO ACCIDENTS. In browsing my favorite thrift store, I came upon an invaluable treasure. The synchronicity of this particular find was instantly exhilarating. Eagerly I clicked open the bulky, interlocking plastic snap case, thirsty for more spiritual input. Inside was a well-preserved set of eight cassette tapes; someone had recorded a series of lectures by Ram Dass.

Ram Dass, a Harvard professor with a doctorate from Stanford, became enamored of Hindu culture and spirituality and traveled to India to meet his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Thirsty for growth and longing to attain realizations, only later would Ram Dass come to grips with his initial arrogance, a tendency to be self-possessed of the importance of one’s own mission in life. In the early persona of the academician and spiritual querent, I saw a reflection of myself.

Ram Dass braved planes, trains and buses. Once inside the ashram, the professor did all he could to engage his guru’s attention. Unfortunately for the young lecturer, his esteemed guru Neem Karoli Baba had more pressing concerns — like the degree of hunger, disease and poverty within his beloved India. To his horror and astonishment, Ram Dass was virtually ignored as the guru devoted his attention to other spiritual aspirants.

Ultimately, Ram Dass confronted his guru with tears and protestations. “What can I do, Holiness?” He implored pathetically. “What assignment do you have for me? I know I have a larger purpose in life. Please, tell me — what should I do?”

Baba, as he was lovingly known, closed his owl’s eyes of wisdom and said quietly, “You want to do something with your life? Feed the people.”

That was it? Feed the people? Ram Dass had traveled a long way, both physically and spiritually. He had lectured to hundreds of students at home, meditated with thousands more abroad. Had he finally gained a personal audience with his spiritual guide and mentor, only to be told something so utterly innocuous and trifling?

This is what I have gleaned from the stories of Ram Dass and other spiritual teachers. We begin to live a spiritual life the moment we accept how profoundly insignificant we are in the cosmic scheme.

I learned this myself while fasting and praying upon a butte overlooking beautiful Lake Sacagawea. I awaited great visions, only to be reduced to a shivering, crying child assailed by wind, rain, cold, bellowing cows, a swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, and a few bees. Humbled, I wept and prayed for the Guides to come closer to me and listen, and at last, they did.

To Baba, every living being is a face of God — another mask of the Beloved. The Nueta — the Mandan People — have always known this. They regard everything that exists as Holy. When they pray, they say Numak k ki ama wa (All my Relatives). They say this to affirm that every being is Sacred. Thanks to my teachers, I have come to realize that every sentient being is worthy of my love and devotion. As I step outside the filter of my own importance, I am more able to sense the spirit of every tree, every leaf, every bird, every snowflake, every human being.

Recently, I attended the Edge Life Expo in Minneapolis. At a booth featuring Tibetan devotional items, a beautiful woman named Karma said something that stopped me in my spiritual tracks. We were having a spiritual conversation about Buddha and his many manifestations, and she said to me, “Some of these Beings have stayed around for millions of years just to help us.” Her comment made me lower my head, almost involuntarily.

I have to work on myself all the time. I meditate, pray, sing devotional songs, read and reflect. I do not yet awaken automatically in a state of grace every morning. I have to make an effort. The Guides and helpers are with me all of the time now, and I realize that, there but for the grace of those of clearer, more compassionate vision, go I.

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Janet Michele Red Feather, J.D., M.A., is a ceremonial singer who has learned over 60 traditional songs in Mandan and Lakota and sings in nine different languages. Janet was a full-time defense litigator in California for nearly eight years. Her life changed significantly after she traveled to North Dakota in 1993 to fast and pray for a way of life. A regular columnist for The Edge, she has also appeared in Psychic Guidepost, FATE Magazine and Species Link. Her book, Song of the Wind (2014, Galde Press), dealt with her experiences as an empath, and her journey through Mandan spiritual culture. She is currently a full-time, tenured English faculty member at Normandale Community College, having taught Composition and Literature for a span of 20 years.


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