In a talk he gave in 1986, Ram Dass spoke of a conversation he had with his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, known as Maharaji to his devotees. It went like this:
Ram Dass: How do I get enlightened?
Maharajii: Feed people.
Ram Dass: How do I know God?
Maharajii: Serve people.
Bingo. End of conversation. That’s all we need to know.
I come back to this basic teaching of Maharajii when I feel like I’m getting stuck in my head around spiritual practices whose purpose is to release me from being stuck in my head! In other words, when I catch myself going down the me, me, me road.
“I need to let go of these nervous emotions around the tennis tournaments I’m playing in.”
“I need to concentrate harder during my meditation sessions.”
“I need to work on being more mindful in my daily life.”
What’s the common, dominant word in those three examples: ‘I.’ Yes, that work needs to be done. And ‘I’ am the one who needs to do that work.
Self-absorbed spiritual seekers
But too often, in my estimation, spiritual seekers get consumed by their ‘work.’ “Sorry, can’t hang out with the kids. I need to meditate for an hour.” We become self-absorbed. And if we’re not careful, our spiritual work can become isolating and lead us to avoid the world.
That’s why, in the midst of one of these isolating, me-centric periods, it was so heartening to come across this Ram Dass talk. I felt my entire inner being just relax and say, “Yep. Kind of drifted from the whole purpose of this stuff.”
The purpose of spiritual work
What is that purpose? The purpose is to get quiet inside and shed as much egoic baggage as possible so that our present, conscious selves are strengthened to the point that we can be a force for compassion and good in the world.
The ultimate purpose of spiritual work isn’t to feel wonderful and blissful 24/7, though that can often be the result. That’s just my opinion, but it’s an opinion shared by most of the great luminaries like Ram Dass (of course), Eckhart Tolle, Mickey Singer, and Maharajii (also, of course).
I know this is an obvious truism, but it just feels better to go out and serve others. One of the reasons for this is obvious — when we’re serving others, what we’re NOT doing is sitting around constantly thinking, “What do I want? What can I do for me? Should I get a massage? Grab some sushi? Watch a movie?”
What’s wrong with that? Look no further than basic Buddhism, which tells us that we all suffer and that desire is at the root of it.
My Zen, selfless mom
My mom was the quintessential example of the selfless, serve-others-first person. In my article about her, I stressed that this Zen, selflessness of hers was completely uncalculated and unthought out. It was just who she was. But there is no doubt in my mind that the incredibly good fortune she had in life was payback for all the good she did for others.
But let’s look closer at what Maharajii told Ram Dass. Maharaji says that to become enlightened and to know God, we need simply feed and serve people. Instead of using the two words ‘feed’ and ‘serve,’ he could have used one: Love.
How do we become enlightened? Love others. How do we know God? Love others.
Why is that? Why is love such a big deal? Well, I’m finally realizing that when people say ‘God is love,’ they’re right. Literally. I believe that God is love and love is God.
I’ve always been a fact-based, rational type and I’ll admit right now that, of course, none of this is scientifically provable. But there is one area that amounts to more than just words and faith.
A brilliant white light of love
Near Death Experiences. One of the most common similarities recounted by those who have temporarily died is of being next to a brilliant, white light. These common accounts describe that white light as being an enormously powerful ball of love that made them feel better, by an exponential factor, than they’d ever felt for even a moment of their earthly life. This light communicated to them two main things: 1. That they were loved infinitely more than they could ever imagine, and 2. That everything was going to be okay.
I submit that light is a manifestation of God. And that light’s essence is love.
I further believe that this love is the force that underlies the entirety of the universe.
Love has been central to my best experiences
This all makes sense as I look at my earthly life. In retrospect, I realize that the most authentic, worthwhile, and energizing experiences I’ve had have had love at their core. Not the love pangs I felt when my high school girlfriend sat on my lap at Disneyland back in the day.
I’m talking about the warm feeling we get when we help somebody with something, big or small. Helping an older woman get her luggage down from the overhead bin. Or being there and really listening to a friend who is in crisis. Those are the only experiences that contain any real, lasting energy.
Winning tennis matches, being part of an Emmy-winning writing staff, and getting into a prestigious college. All of those things have infinitely less powerful energy feel to them. Why? Because they have nothing to do with love and everything to do with burgeoning my ego.
So what to take from all of this? Orient your life such that giving love is central. It’s the key to true happiness.
But it’s hard to offer love when we have a boatload of emotional baggage trapped inside and a busy mind that won’t stop tormenting us.
So we focus our work on quieting down inside and letting go of our stuff. How? Meditate and practice mindfulness. And let go. Let go. Let go.
And remember: That love (God) is inside us all. The work of our lives is in accessing it.
The great Indian saint, Yogananda, described this entire path in one beautiful sentence:
“There is a river of love flowing inside you. Find it. Get in it. And drown.”