by Kim Ivy
“Suffering brings us closer to God,” Ram Dass begins his Breitenbush conversations. Now this I do not want to hear, I cringe, sitting in the back row, ready to escape to the hotsprings at any moment. “Trauma is a path to God,” he continues. I shift uncomfortably in my seat recalling shrouded events in my own life - it hasn’t been forehead to the prayer rug, for me, I muse, it’s been face first into the mud! “The heart is our best instrument of change.” Oh geeze, now it’s about the heart. Not the heart, again! I’m on vacation!
When Breitenbush Hotsprings called me to teach Qigong at the recent Ram Dass retreat, I said yes without thinking much about it. I read Be Here Now during the beginnings of my own spiritual quests and whereas I found some juicy comfort there amidst the spiritually dehydrated topography of my Midwest youth, my own soul road has led me far away from guru and god-based mythologies. Still, I thought, what a great chance to soak in the hotsprings and old growth, eat some Indian food, and do a little Qigong. I was clear, however, I had no intention of participating in the retreat.
Yet Ram Dass is a very compelling force of nature. Even with the right side of his body limp from his stroke, he is as a king on a throne rather than a victim in a wheel chair. He is also very much the wild man, unruly hair striking out from his bald freckled crown like a white-hot flame unexpectedly erupting from an oasis. And he is the jester, with sharp and penetrating eyes, gleefully sparkling as though having just stolen a piece of thick, rich gossip. So, drawn in by my own unnerving curiosity, I merged happily into the flow of one hundred and twenty other seekers during this week-long retreat. I even took notes.
“I am committed to the truth, not to consistency.” Ghandi. “The Great Way is not difficult for those who are not attached to perfection.” Sing Sing Ming, 3rd Chinese Patriarch. “Gradually but inevitably, we will be happy.” Krishna Das, the Chant master who accompanied Ram Dass on this retreat. “Become the witness before you become the judge.” Ram Dass. “Have patience with your own mind.”
We asked a lot of questions that week. “It was Fierce Grace!” Ram Dass answered when asked about his stroke. (Even the non-note takers wrote that down). “There I was, driving my MG, a stick shift, playing golf and the Cello, and whoosh! In one fell swoop I now need help to go to the bathroom.” “Sure I was depressed, for about two weeks.” “I was in pain, confused. I’m still in pain but this stroke opened up a new vista for me,” he continued, “a lot of who I thought I was is gone now, and without those illusions, I am closer to my soul, to God. And I have more compassion for myself and others.” “I’m grateful!” “I’ve been stroked!” He laughed heartily.
During the workshop we all talked about our strokes. Suicides of loved ones, the untimely cancerous death of children, vicious divorces, sexual abuse. All places of deep pain and confusion within us. “How,” we asked, “do we transform rage into compassion for the events of 9/11?” “I don’t know,” he shook his head. “But we all know how we deal with change, now don’t we?”
There are only two rules in life, Ram Dass said, “keep your heart open and tell the truth.” The truth? I considered my truth. The truth is that sometimes I’m ticked off – I’ve been doing transformative practices for 25 years and I still feel victimized by various experiences in my life. The truth is as I look around the world, I don’t always want to keep my heart open. The truth is, we all feel like that.
Yet, there is a broader truth if I bring the concept of fierce grace into my own life. I do find places new places of gratitude. I am able to review many events that I have secreted away inside my heart, remaining angry and resentful. Holding these events in this way holds my energy and my life hostage. Refocusing and viewing them as sacred moments is truly a challenge, but when I can manage, they no longer terrorize me, but become grist for my spiritual mill. This gives me great freedom.
I actually did take time for myself during the retreat. I soaked, hiked and practiced with my own guru: my Taiji sword. Admittedly, at the feet of this master, as with my own perspective on life, I sometimes think, why bother? For over two decades it has been the same, each time I taste progress, you elude me. But here, in this place, the mighty Breitenbush River rushing behind me, I felt more capable to face the rigors of the practice.
Each morning I stood at dawn on the lawn in front of the lodge. I joined my breath with the breath of the sulfur springs. Every day a large Hawk circled and cried overhead as I unsheathed the sword. I stood on sacred ancient land, sinking my roots into the earth, reaching my head up to the heavens. Inhaling and exhaling, I felt my body begin to turn the blade, both of us circling and twining, searching for the union of metal and flesh. I moved with the prayer that I always have, to someday realize the harmony that is mind melting into body, and both into breath and spirit.
Not again, my mind cringed as the familiar clumsiness began. My cuts hard, motivated by a type of desperation. “Surrender.” I heard the teachings beckon. I resisted, what good will that do? I wanted to become more ferocious. To dominate my awkwardness. As the sword found its place high in the air, the sun glinted off its metal blade and cast a sharp laser flash across the field. I turned, looking for my familiar imaginary opponent.
In the field I found no other, only the reflection of myself within the vastness of nature surrounding me. I inhaled and exhaled, and the awkwardness melted into a knowing deep within my body. There, unified with the river, the hawk, the earth and the sky, my movements softened and became more powerful, motivated by a newfound gentleness. I wound the sword around my body, jumped, turned and landed firmly on the ground. My cut, sharp and exact, joy flowing from my sword.
Sitting with Ram Dass, Krishna Das, and the retreat community at Breitenbush awakened me in unexpected ways. Living in our world today, I feel we are also being unexpectedly awakened. It may now be our singular responsibility to respond to the events around us anew. How? We might ask. Perhaps we apply a sharp cut of Fierce Grace to our own illusions. Perhaps we begin by taking those places of personal rage and grief and surrender them to a higher cause, that of knowing deep unity.
In response to a question about the difficulties presented by the spiritual path, Ram Dass said, “the closer to the gate we get, the harder it gets.” I think this is true. Just remember, only two rules: keep your heart open and tell the truth.