AUGUST POST: FOR OLD PEOPLE ONLY

Recently I was searching my bookshelves for Be Here Now. It had been an important book for my friends and me a half century ago. There was nobody more fully into the spirit of the 60’s than its author, Richard Alpert, the Harvard professor who, along with Timothy Leary, was fired for his open engagement with mind expanding drugs.

Especially exciting, I remember, was the chapter, “The Transformation of Richard Alpert, Ph. D., into Baba Ram Dass.” It centers around his time in India with his beloved guru, Maharaj Ji, who lives in an expanded world that Alpert can approximate with large doses of LSD, but cannot sustain once the drug wears off. Ji can read his thoughts as if they are spoken words, for example, and how strange Alpert feels to be suddenly bereft of that privacy that we all hold precious in one way or another.

Ji’s the one who changes his name to Baba Ram Dass, which means Servant of God.

My copy of Be Here Now has apparently gotten lost along the way. However, I do find Grist for the Mill, which Ram Dass wrote in the 70’s. By then he has become even more sobered by the fact that consciousness expanding drugs can give you a glimpse of a far bigger universe (that you live in and that lives in you), a thousand times grander than your limited, socially conditioned consciousness can comprehend, but they cannot take you there to stay. You always come back down to the mundane, or even lower, because now you’re somewhat dragged out. On a smaller scale, it’s like the afternoon blahs after a morning pumped up by several cups of coffee.

In Grist, Ram Dass still values his breakthrough LSD experiences, but his emphasis now is the importance of working on your everyday sober life, or as he puts it, “cleaning up your game.” Yes, our lives are big. To be born into this world is a huge thing, a grand thing, an opportunity not to be squandered by falling asleep to it. But at some point along the path, most of us sense — some acutely, some vaguely — that we have done just that, have fallen asleep and are missing our lives somehow, even if in honorable ways, like holding down a job, taking good care of ourselves, etc. In mastering the externals, we have lost sight of the miracle we are part of in this whirling universe, with the sun and the moon and the blowing wind.

Enter mind expanding drugs, to help us see again how big life is. But on the other hand, our lives are little too. A tree among trees, a stone among stones. We’re nothing, really — literally nothing when one considers death. The trouble with mind expanding drugs is that they inevitably expand the ego, too. “Look what I know that other people don’t. Look at what I am able to see that other people can’t.”

By the time he writes Grist, Ram Dass has become aware that awaking to grandness of life, as Maharaj Ji has obviously done, goes hand in hand with a considerably reduced ego. “Cleaning up your game” means working on your littleness, which obviously moves in the opposite direction from mind-expanding drugs and ego grandiosity.

Well, there it is once again — the right book falling into my hands at the right time. Not that I was ever a heavy experimenter with LSD, like Ram Dass was, but youth itself will have its measure of grandiose ego dreams, and middle-age will most likely be still caught in the habit of them. My youth and middle age were no exceptions. Ego dreams – thinking big; wanting to be ever bigger — seemed to be part and parcel of my vitality. In that sense, approaching old age has been like coming down from a drug trip. The becoming littler part of my life – incompatible with grandiose tendencies of youthful thinking — now begins to focus up, if I dare to let it.

Even the dream of being “me” begins to disintegrate. My more youthful ways of knowing myself wants to scream: this cannot be allowed! The ego requires first and foremost that “I” will last forever. A crude take on this would be that “I” will be a good person that God will reward with eternal life in heaven. A more sophisticated version would be that “I” will write a book, paint a painting, or do something that extends my life beyond my physical death, if only as a person to be admired in the minds and hearts of others still alive.

Seeing through the ego’s little gambit here is like walking through the valley of the shadow of death. But for those who read and respond to the whole body Ram Dass’s work, it’s a journey that has to be ventured. And the first new light in these dark shadows is the realization that just because I as an individual will disappear forever doesn’t mean that life isn’t grand.

Nonetheless, for a good long stretch in the valley of the shadow of death, the growing awareness that the egoic me has no real substance feels like a huge and final defeat. The persistent question is: then what is left? What new sources of vitality are available? Because if one has no enthusiasm for life, what’s the point?

Ram Dass has been a good guide here. Even though I haven’t read him much of late, rereading Grist has reminded me that he got inside me early and went deep. And in this renewed reminder to clean up my game has given me the best answers to the above questions thus far.

. . .

Recently I was preparing to go to Canada for a four week vacation. In order to leave my house and regular rhythms behind, even for this short while, there were many details to take care of. Find someone to cut my grass and water my plants. Stop delivery of my mail. Pay the bills.

There was a slightly odd odor up in attic. A decaying mouse maybe. Should I track it down now, or could it wait? Should I pack enough clothes to last the whole three weeks, or half that and spend an afternoon in some Canadian laundry-mat. Many things to think about, right down to deciding which lights to leave on to discourage
trespassers.

On the day before I left, I was hustling from this place to that, talking out loud to other drivers who were tailgating or not bothering to use their turn signals, calling them assholes and other names. At some point, I started talking to myself as well, calling myself an asshole for being a person who calls other people assholes.

Talk about falling asleep, fretting the morning away, as if there were better mornings coming. Finally, I took a breath and confessed to myself that this extra busy-ness of getting ready to go on vacation only reveals who I almost always am, though usually more under the surface: an irritable person; a person consumed in petty worries.

This is the work Ram Dass is talking about when he says “clean up your game.” Don’t live in dead bad habits. Or, worse, in destructive bad habits. Observe yourself closely and grow out of them in the little ways that are available to you right now. During the rest of the morning, I held one thought in mind. Tomorrow never comes. Be the person I want to be right now, a friendly, relaxed person, upon whom no opportunity is lost. From that point on, whatever situation I was in, getting my oil changed, meeting the man with my sack of garbage, etc., I smiled into the moment life offered to me right then.

Now here is change you can believe in, Ram Dass would say. Nothing grandiose about these little baby steps forward – or, let’s say these little old-man steps forward. Forward to where? Forward to now. Even irritability becomes interesting when I see it anew, as an opportunity to reshape myself towards being here now.

Nothing like approaching old age for getting down to real work. “Be here now” opportunities come up by the hundreds every day. Be alert to them. Last chance to smarten up. As easily as youth can be wasted on the young, old age can be wasted on the elderly.

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