Breakfast in Sihanoukville or “Nearer My God to Thee”

Is that an intriguing title or what? Let me explain:

This little café is in an unlikely setting for a retreat. It’s on the busiest street in Sihanoukville, is usually crowded and with little parking space, it’s often hard to get into, much less park my motorbike or even my bicycle in front of. Nevertheless, it’s one of my “magic” spots in Sihanoukville. Maybe it has something to do with the great fresh baked bread and pastries or the friendly and efficient staff or maybe it’s just magic, plain and simple. All I know is that every time I come here, I feel respite from the world.

click image for source

This morning I really needed respite and as soon as I sat down, it happened again: I felt at peace with the world and was content to set my mental and emotional baggage down and just ‘be’ for awhile. Then something weird happened: the words, “nearer my God to thee” popped into my head out of nowhere.

I knew they came from somewhere and that they were Christian in origin. I also knew that under other circumstances I would have found them annoying, like something a Jesus Freak, evangelical preacher or devout grandmother might say. Under these circumstances, though, they were quite comforting and reminded me of a day back in 1972 when similarly “Biblical” words popped into my head. That memory inspired me to do what I’ve been promising myself and others to do for ages and continue my Guru Who isn’t My Guru series of articles and that’s exactly what I’ve done this afternoon. Although it’s third on my list, it’s the chapter I’ve written first, about the time when Neem Karoli Baba told me to “go home and read the Bible.”

Neem Karoli Baba Kainchi ashram

Neem Karoli Baba Kainchi ashram (click image for source)

As you can see, that was in a decidedly more appropriate setting for a spiritual experience, but then again, the setting should be incidental. At any rate, I’m all blogged out now and just wanted to grab your attention. Just click the link above and read about what happened after I did what Neem Karoli Baba told me to do.

 

Spirituality versus Activism

This blog has taken a turn in recent weeks as I write about social issues. When I began A Cookbook of Consciousness, it was in order to share my thoughts about higher states of consciousness. I was working on Sea of Joy at the time and was tired of keeping my thoughts to myself.

After Obama was elected, I assumed that America would back off its imperialistic ambitions and focus on fixing the U.S. economy. Like so many others, I was wrong. This, and the writing of The Curse of the Internet, led me to take an interest in politics and economics. The more I learned, the more upset I became. Although I’m just another voice crying in the cyberspace wilderness, I felt like I had to express my views on the important issues facing us today. In essence, I became an activist. I was a reluctant one, though, because in the past, I believed that spirituality and social activism didn’t mix. I’ve changed my mind.

Ram Dass and Friends

Ram Dass and Friends

A minor miracle helped make my mind up. When I opened my email last week, an old newsletter from the Ram Dass Love, Serve, Remember Foundation miraculously opened. I say miraculously because it simply opened by itself. It contained this quote by Ram Dass:

You use the things that are on your plate, that are presented to you. So that relationships, economics, psychodynamics—all of these become grist for the mill of awakening. They all are part of your curriculum.

At that moment in time, I was having second thoughts about my decision to take on the responsibilities I’ve taken on in the past five years. I used to live a quiet, almost hermetic life and lived in an almost constant meditative state. Since moving to Cambodia, I have had to confront life head-on as I face the challenges of life here. Had I abandoned the spiritual life? That miraculous email, which I had only cursorily read the first time I saw it, convinced me that I had not.

I’ve been taking a lot of time off of my regular writing assignments to read and write about the social issues that face us today. You’d have to be blind not to notice that we’re on the edge of an economic and, more importantly, political precipice. I’m well aware that I don’t have a following, but also strongly feel the need to express my views. Is my foray into activism just a waste of time?

Although it isn’t as spectacularly miraculous as having an old email spontaneously open, this morning a new Ram Dass “Words of Wisdom” quote came to my inbox. This is what it said, in part:

does working on yourself have anything to do with whether you protest, march, drop out, drop in? No, it has nothing whatsoever to do with that, because at any moment you are consciousness involved in a nature package

Let me make it clear: Ram Dass is not my guru. I met him when I was in India. We both were drawn to the same guru – Neem Karoli Baba, the “guru who is not my guru.” However, in these two instances, at least, I believe that Maharaj-ji was speaking to me through Ram Dass. I am at peace with myself again. Acuun Trann (thank you), Ram Dass. I don’t have words to express my gratitude to Neem Karoli Baba. That’s okay. He knows what’s inside my heart.

 

Being There Now with Be Here Now

I ran across Eckhardt Tolle’s bestseller, The Power of Now the other day. It’s an interesting book and highly recommended, but that’s not what this post is about. As soon as I saw the title, I went on a trip back in time, to when Ram Dass’s Be Here Now was the Now book of the moment. That’s what this post is about.

I met Ram Dass back in about 1969 or 70, after his guru, Neem Karoli Baba told me to go see him in Nainital, a beautiful city in the foothills of the Himalayas. I didn’t hesitate to go, but it wasn’t for the obvious reason – that Ram Dass was famous. In his incarnation as Richard Alpert, he was famous as the infamous (in conservative circles) Harvard professor who, along with Timothy Leary, helped popularize LSD. When he  traveled to India seeking enlightenment, he was introduced to Neem Karoli Baba and subsequently became Ram Dass. It’s a long story and one he tells best himself. If you want to read his story, check out his website.

The reason I did as directed was simply because Neem Karoli Baba told me to. I had only gone to see Maharaji out of curiosity, because he happened to be in Vrindaban at the same time I was, but after just one brief visit, I was already under his spell, if that’s the way to put it. There was just something about him. He shattered my preconceptions about what a guru should be like, but remained compelling to me in spite of my firmly held yoga purist’s convictions and prejudices.

I went to see Ram Dass as told and found him to be a really nice guy – warm and friendly and unpretentious. I also met some other devotees of Neem Karoli Baba. They came in all sorts of personality packages, but I found them refreshing. At the time, the world of Western Hinduism as I knew it was the world of yogic discipline. My summer job at the time was teaching hatha yoga and meditation at a retreat in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. Maharaji’s followers didn’t seem “spiritual” at all. They just liked to hang out with Maharaji. No, they lived to hang out with him. I could relate to that, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why.

This will be a very long blog post if I don’t get to the point. The original title of this post going to be, “A Journey into Darkness.” It was going to be about how I let myself be driven by fear for a good portion of last week and the terrible realization that this and other negative emotions – everything from despair to greed, anger and pride – seem to be the driving force behind so many people’s entire lives. I’ve been aware of this intellectually for years, but the other day it hit me like a sledgehammer.

There were remnants of fear in my consciousness this morning when I sat down to work. I was going to bang out a quick blog post and then get back to work. Because I had been reminded of Be Here Now, I thought I’d google Ram Dass and see what he was up to. Then I randomly clicked this link and my eyes fell on these words from Neem Karoli Baba:

“The real contentment comes only when there is no desire, no hankering in your mind for anything. How can you say that you have got everything and do not want anything more when you are holding an empty vessel in your hand? You might be saying this with your mouth, but there would always be the worry in your mind about how the pot could be filled, always looking from side to side with the expectation that somebody will come and fill it up. Well, how can you call this contentment? When one sees that when the pot before him is full to the brim, it is emptied, and when it is empty, it is refilled of its own – that is contentment. If anyone wanted to give him anything, he would show that the pot was full already. What would he do with anything more? Even if he wanted to share it with others, where would he put it? This is the real contentment and it comes only through the grace of God. When you have full faith in Him, full reliance on Him, when you can surrender everything to Him, then that grace comes to you by itself – you do not have to ask for it or make any effort. Such is the value of faith in God.”

Neem Karoli BabaNeem Karoli Baba doesn’t look much like your stereotypical guru. He didn’t act like one, either. The only words of spiritual advice he ever gave me were, “love everybody and eat jalabis” and, when I asked him if he was my guru, he gave me an emphatic “No!” Jalabis are delicious Indian sweets, by the way, not a mysterious psychedelic drug. Make of his words what you will, they have been with me ever since that day.

I want to go on writing forever about the year I spent in India. To say it was magical would be an understatement. It’s time to close now, though. Thanks for visiting.

notes: I originally posted this about 2 years ago. I’m the guy with his hand on his hip at the top of the photo. It should be obvious who NKB is.