An excerpt from Ram Dass’ Grist for the Mill: Awakening to Oneness. For more in Dass, read “America’s Guru: Ram Dass at 82” in the current issue of Tricycle.

In the mid-sixties there seemed to be an expectation that if we got high, we’d be free. We were not quite realistic about the profundity of man’s attachments and deep clingings. We thought that if only we knew how to get high the right way, we wouldn’t come down. And that was our attempt. Then in the late sixties, there was the idea that if we joined the movement and became part of a model of how to stay high, we’d be able to do it. So in the late sixties and early seventies, there was a tremendous interest in mass movements.

Now people are realizing that it’s somewhat of a long haul. They’re feeling transformations in themselves, but they’re working with their lows as well as their highs, they’re cleaning up their games. And the reason we clean stuff away and don’t just get high, why we focus on our depression and our negativity and all of our heavies, is because we’re getting hip to the fact that if we push stuff under the rug, sooner or later there is karmuppance.

I was invited to visit “death row” in San Quentin. To be honest, I sat outside the prison before I went in, in my rented car, looking at San Quentin, thinking, I’ll be happy to go in; and I’ll be happy to come out—because there is a certain kind of paranoia in the searching procedures and the authority structure that I have to keep dealing with in myself. I went in and was met by all the yogis who teach there and the acting warden, who was a very nice guy. And we were immediately whisked up to death row. There are actually two rows, because there are so many of these fellows; they are in separate cells, segregated in two long rows separated by a wall.

As I went up to each cell, out of the thirty-four men, there were not more than five who did not receive me openly, clearly, quietly, consciously. The feeling I had was that I was visiting a monastery, and that these were monks in their cells, for these men, who are facing death, have been pushed into a situation that has cut through their melodramas, and they are right here. We sat together in groups of ten, and as part of the meditation, we were sending out thought forms of love and peace to all sentient beings in the universe. I became so affected by the vibration of the space that it was very hard for me to move on to the next group. There was light pouring out of these beings’ eyes.

And we got so open that I was able to say, without any of us freaking, “I can’t tell whether what’s happened to you is a blessing or a curse, for there is very little chance that we would be sharing this high a space, or even would have met, were you not in this situation.” To prove my point, I’ll tell you that I spent half an hour on one of the other segregated mainline cell blocks. And of these beings, the percentage of those open was just what you’d expect in our society. Maybe one out of a hundred was right there with me. From the rest, you could feel the cynicism, the doubt, the putdown, the sarcasm.

Now, the bizarre humor of all this is that if Supreme Court rulings were to stop the death penalty, these men would all become lifers and almost all of them would lose this consciousness. Yet if they die, they will have this consciousness right up to the moment of execution, which does not mean that all the karma accrued to them—because in most cases, they have been involved in killing another human being—is over, because one can go into death with “ram” on his lips, with Christ in his heart, high and clear. But whatever stuff is covered over by his situational high at the time of dying, as his ego structure starts to lose its control, the stuff that’s left will bubble up again, and he is going to have his karmuppance, he will once again renew his karmic run-through.

There is a story about an old Zen monk who was dying, who had finished everything and was about to get off the wheel. He was just floating away, free and in his pure Buddha-mind, when a thought passed by of a beautiful deer he had once seen in a field. And he held on to that thought for just a second because of its beauty, and immediately he took birth again as a deer. It’s as subtle as that.

We can’t cheat the game by getting high—that’s the point. The situation these fellows are in is forcing their openness and awareness, but it’s not totally burning out their karma. It will help. One moment in which they feel compassion for the person they may have murdered will do much for their karma, but it’s not going to purify all of it.

It’s like when we begin to see the work that is to be done, and we go to an ashram or a monastery, or we hang out with satsang. We surround ourselves with a community of beings who think the way we think. And then none of the stuff, the really hairy stuff inside ourselves, comes up. It all gets pushed underground. We can sit in a temple or a cave in India and get so holy, so clear and radiant, the light is pouring out of us. But when we come out of that cave, when we leave that supportive structure that worked with our strengths but seldom confronted us with our weaknesses, our old habit patterns tend to reappear, and we come back into the same old games, the games we were sure we had finished with. Because there were uncooked seeds, seeds of desires that sprout again the minute they are stimulated. We can stay in very holy places, and the seeds sit there dormant and uncooked. But there is fear in such individuals, because they know they’re still vulnerable.

Nothing goes under the rug. We can’t hide in our highness any more than we’ve hidden in our unworthiness. If we have finally decided we want God, we’ve got to give it all up. The process is one of keeping the ground as we go up, so we always have ground, so that we’re high and low at the same moment—that’s a tough game to learn, but it’s a very important one. So at the same moment that if I could, I would like to take us all up higher and higher, we see that the game isn’t to get high—the game is to get balanced and liberated.

Most of us find that the veils of the illusion, of the clinging, are very thick, and we want to do things to burn up these veils, to purify ourselves and get on with it. And even though the whole model of getting on with it and going from here to there is itself a trap, we still can skillfully use that trap to clear away other obstacles that are hindering us. Then, ultimately, we can give up the trap of attachment to the method itself.

We are coming out of a cultural tradition in which, once you saw where you wanted to go, you took the most direct and aggressive path to get there. And impatience is part of the quality of our tradition. It’s what made our country great. But the predicament we face is that the beginning of this awakening often comes long before we are really ready to let go of all the ways in which we cling. Some of these methods just become very powerful means of up-leveling old games, of reinforcing heavy ego trips. I know people who’ve meditated for years who wear their methods like merit badges. “I’ve done six vipassana courses, three sesshins, and a double dervish. I get up at four every morning. I can sit without moving for hours. My mind goes absolutely blank.” they’re professional meditators. They have, to some degree, mastered their method, but they have not loosened the hold of grasping and greed. Their method has just become another form of worldliness. Nothing much is happening, because it’s such an ego trip. There are, for instance, people who can go into samadhi and stay there for long periods, but when they come back, they’re no wiser than when they entered that state.

It’s like the story of the king who promised a yogi the best horse in the kingdom if he could go into deep samadhi and be buried alive for a year. So they buried the yogi, but in the course of the year, the kingdom was overthrown, and nobody remembered to dig up the yogi. About ten years later, someone came across the yogi still in his deep trance and whispered, “Om,” in his ear, and he was roused. And the first thing he said was, “Where’s my horse?”

Spiritual work can be like gambling on a game of roulette. You put your money down, and the ball goes around and drops into the slot your money was on. And they say, “Do you want to take your money or let it ride?” Anywhere on this journey, we can take our money and pull out and go spend it. Or we can let it ride. Do we want to just double our money, or do we want to go for broke? Do we just want a little social leverage, or do we want to get done? It’s no different than Mara confronting Buddha as he sits under the bodhi tree, for as we get closer to the inner gates of freedom, of enlightenment, of liberation, the subtle clingings will be fanned all the more, and the opportunities for gratification keep increasing. Because of the one-pointedness developed through meditation, we become able to cut through our own limits of consciousness and see some of what it’s all about. But if we have power needs, we are then all too ready to use what we see to have power over other beings. If our spiritual work has come out of wisdom, not out of a need for power but out of a yearning for God, then when the powers come, we just notice them, realizing they are going to take us on tangents, consume them, and keep going. We just have to trust the light and let our money ride. For as long as we think we are “somebody,” we aren’t yet quiet enough to be in tune with all of it, and thus any action taken is done from our own particular separate perspective.

As long as we are in an incarnation, there will be action. As long as there is form, there will be change. But it depends on who is doing the acting or who thinks acting is being done that will determine whether that act is part of the flow of things or antagonistic to it. It’s like the story about the prince’s butcher. The prince asked the butcher how, although he had been cutting with the same knife for nineteen years, it never needed to be sharpened. And the butcher explained that he is in tune with what he is cutting, that the knife finds its own way into the joint, above the bone, through the muscle, that it doesn’t hit against the joint, that it just finds its way around the bone. Because he is tuned, he is what he is doing. He isn’t busy being a butcher cutting a piece of meat—he is awareness, and that awareness includes the meat and the butcher and the knife. There is an act happening, but there is no doer of the act because there’s nobody who thinks he’s a butcher.

When we are in harmony with the way everything proceeds from everything else, we cannot act wrongly. For not only are we in tune with the particular act we are doing in terms of time, but with all of the ways in which that act is interrelated with everything in the universe. It is a level of awareness from which actions are manifested that have no clinging—not even clinging to the effects of the act. We are not holding on anywhere. We’re right here, always in the new existential moment. Moment to moment, it’s a new mind. No personal history. We just keep giving up our storylines.

Each person gets his karmuppance. If we focus on God, we get God. If we want power, we get power. If we want more of something, we get it. The horror is that we get everything we want—sooner or later, if not in this incarnation, then another. And often when we finally get it, we don’t want it. The process of karmic fruition speeds up, because, as we get closer, we see ourselves living out old karma, old desires. As our life gets freer and freer of attachments, we create less and less karma, for karma is created by an act done with attachment. When we’re not clinging to senses or to thoughts, we are not creating more karma. There is no one intending anything to happen in any way; there is no one separate to act in a separate way. When there is no attachment or identification with thoughts and feelings, there is no reactive push into action creating more doing, more karma. Not identifying, not being separate, cooks these seeds and consumes the grasping for more.

We get to the point where our acts are not done out of attachment but instead are just done as they’re done, and no new stuff is being created. There is just old stuff running off, but nobody being affected by it because there is nothing in us that clings to a model of who we are or aren’t. It all becomes just passing show. There is no investment in its representing us as “individuals.” It is just the outcome of previous input, just old conditioning clicking along, just more grist for the mill.

Excerpt from Grist for the Mill: Awakening to Oneness, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins. ©2014 by Ram Dass.

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