The Art of Life

"The essential work of developing a spiritual consciousness is quieting the mind and opening the heart"
Ram Dass Kathleen Murphy

“Polishing the Mirror”
Ram Dass and Rameshwar Das
Sounds True, $16.95

I well remember thinking it curious that, having traveled 7,000 miles to Leh, the Himalayan capital city of Ladakh in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state, the instructors in both the meditation and yoga classes at the Mahabodhi International Meditation Center were not tiny, white-bearded Indian gurus but young Englishmen. Nonetheless, they were learned and eminently qualified, and led strenuous and bracing workouts for mind and body. Perhaps it was their Western-ness that made them adept in conveying Eastern wisdom to foreigners like me.

Decades earlier, Richard Alpert, a privileged Harvard professor, had glimpsed an expansion of consciousness and alternate reality through the use of psychedelics. Along with a colleague, Timothy Leary, Mr. Alpert was dismissed from Harvard. He traveled to India in 1966 and became a disciple of Neem Karoli Baba, a Hindu guru also known as Maharaj-ji who gave Mr. Alpert the spiritual name Ram Dass. He returned to the United States the following year, where he began to share what he had learned.

Mr. Dass’s 1971 book, “Be Here Now,” quickly became a sort of spiritual guidebook for Westerners in which he shared the guru’s teachings on attaining God consciousness and identification with one’s soul through meditation, yoga, and renunciation. Subsequent books included “Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita,” “The Only Dance There Is,” “How Can I Help?” and “Be Love Now: The Path of the Heart,” the latter written with Rameshwar Das, a writer and photographer who lives in Springs.

“Polishing the Mirror: How to Live From Your Spiritual Heart” is another collaboration of Mr. Dass and Mr. Das. In it, they recount many teachings and experiences with Maharaj-ji, many of them deceptively simple statements that offer an alternate way of looking at life and its purpose. Many other historical figures, from Jesus and Buddha to Albert Einstein and Mohandas Gandhi, are referenced, and experiences both ordinary and extraordinary are recounted.

“The essential work of developing a spiritual consciousness is quieting the mind and opening the heart,” the authors write. The key is to awaken from ego consciousness, “your limited self,” to “the Self, the universal spirit present in each of us, the God consciousness.” Many pathways are laid out, particularly in the final chapter, in which methods of creating a daily spiritual practice — polishing the mirror — are detailed. Meditation, not surprisingly, along with recitation of a mantra, reflection, chanting, and silence, are recommended and described.

Mr. Dass, who suffered a severe hemorrhagic stroke in 1997, a life-threatening infection in 2004, and a broken hip in 2009, encourages readers to embrace change, including aging and death. He describes extensive experience sitting with terminally ill people in the West and observation of suffering in India that may be impossible for Westerners to imagine, let alone comprehend. He and Mr. Das also offer meditations and other techniques for opening the heart to unconditional love, serving selflessly, accepting fear and suffering, and realizing that you are neither your body nor your ego, but your ever-present soul.

The art of life, the authors write, “is to stay wide open and be vulnerable, yet at the same time to sit with the mystery and the awe and the unbearable pain — to just be with it all.” Mr. Dass has been “growing into that wonderful catchphrase, ‘be here now,’ for the last forty years. Here and now has within it a great richness that is just enough.”

The notions of “I” and “me,” the meditation instructor at the Mahabodhi center used to tell us, inevitably give rise to the notions of “you” and “yours.” This, Mr. Dass and Mr. Das write, is maya, the illusion of subject and objects, of separateness. In a discourse on bhakti, or religious devotion, they explain that “Love has a built-in power to carry us beyond the limitations of our separate being, our ego, to the atman, our higher being,” or soul. “Our personal emotional love gets absorbed into the all-encompassing unconditional love of the One.”

Turn to any page of “Polishing the Mirror” and receive wisdom through the easy-to-comprehend sensibility of Westerners who found it at its source. To our great fortune, they returned to share it freely.

“Polishing the Mirror” is now out in paperback.