In Memoriam Baba Ram Dass

An icon of the New Age world of the sixties and seventies has passed on December 22, 2019. I learned about Ram Dass on a bus in Afghanistan in 1971 when someone handed me his book, BE HERE NOW. A hippie book full of drawings that expose our human suffering, acknowledge our lustful thoughts, hand drawn text to help us get out of the cycle of suffering and be in bliss, it brought the story of a Harvard psychology professor who went to India to meet a famous guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Now you’d think a Harvard scientist studying mind and consciousness will make short work of an Indian Guru in a blanket, sitting in the Himalayas. The opposite happened: Neem Karoli made short work of Richard Alpert and turned him into Ram Dass. Alpert has gone through life as Ram Dass working on his inner transformation ever since and passed away with a large following of friends who will mourn his passing and carry on spreading his message of love. 

I met Ram Dass in November 1971; it was a shock when I realized I shared a hotel rooftop balcony in Delhi with a famous man. I was a seeker of answers about living and he was a student of Mahara-ji, as Neem Karoli was called by his devotees.  I didn’t know then that Mahara-ji would have a lasting effect on me. A year of traveling around India and Nepal brought me eventually at the master’s feet under the pressure of another traveler. I was thoroughly fed up with the whole guru scene among westerners and skeptical of yet another guru. I spent 10 days around the ashram; Mahara-ji did his mysterious work with me, changed my name and sent me off into the world to do “my work”. Mahara-ji passed on to another world the next year and I didn’t visit the ashram again until 2005.

I heard Ram Dass speak a few times in my life in the US. He inspired me and others to sit and listen to our heart and love everyone. I’m sure many members of the New Age Community have done that.  We lived the seventies hoping love would change the world and bring peace. In 2020 that notion deserves question marks. Yet love is an essential ingredient for survival and well-being. 
My upcoming memoir: “When Love is not Enough” will tell you my story of a slow awakening to the truth of living: love is essential, but love doesn’t fix the worldly problems. Ram Dass lived a life of loving kindness, but he couldn’t fix climate change; he too had to lose people, had to deal with physical limitations and demise, and could only serve others when the opportunity arose. 
We can learn from an inspiring man’s life that he can bloom and inspire; he can move others to do the same, but in the end he dies. If lucky someone else will carry his message despite ongoing war and treachery, despite short sightedness and misuse of power, despite climate change, hunger and overpopulation. 
Ram Dass inspired peaceful living and loving kindness; we can carry on doing the same. We live in an era when teenagers are fighting for the survival of the planet, when child soldiers are taught to kill, when children still starve from hunger although 40% of the food produced in the US goes to waste and is thrown away. What’s happened since the late sixties is a shift. A shift in how people suffer and where people suffer. Suffering still happens. Love doesn’t take away suffering, love soothes. 

The big take-away from my encounter with Ram Dass and Mahara-ji has been that we each have our work to do to reduce our own suffering and help others to do the same. Once you have experienced the state of bliss – of non-suffering – you will still find yourself in a body and you still, as Ram Das said in Be Here Now, have to chop wood and carry water. You can honor Ram Dass by living the ordinary life without getting swept away by it, without drowning in it, and find the quiet moments that remind you that peace lives inside you.

The Journey of 2019 in Review

IMG_5470The year, or as the case is the decade, in review gives us pause. Does it do any good? Do we learn from our history? This last year I took a trip to retrace my steps of former years, a review of sorts. You can never go back they say. But I did; I went back to the places that have been significant in my life, my country of birth and the Himalayas in India, Nepal, Tibet. Everything has changed, I expected that, but I wanted to see how I have changed. 

The Netherlands, my native country formed me. The Himalayas have been my place of spiritual seeking, my place of finding myself. I don’t know why I chose the Himalayas, probably combining seventies rebelliousness – an anti-establishment act – and a deep longing for a different belonging than my Dutch-Calvinistic upbringing and environment offered. I wasn’t an exception: 35,000 young people were on the road to India on any day in the late sixties and early seventies. I wasn’t original, nor was I an outlier. 

From my first year-long journey around India and Nepal I brought back notions of spirituality, new ways of improving myself (the Calvinistic need of bettering oneself in the eye of God ran deep), and a thirst for living in community with people who weren’t afraid to be innovative. 

Holland felt stifling, small. I wanted something different. I emigrated to the West Coast of America and joined the back-to-the-land movement of the seventies. My explorations into alternate realities, alternative medicine, food styles, and living arrangements gave me community, a new family. I practiced skills and habits that promoted an emotionally healthier life than the restricted formality I had experienced growing up; I thought. The New Age paradigm had me in its grips.

Life unfolded and despite the newfangled notions of personal reality, unconditional love, and spiritual materialism, our family followed the predictable path of educated, middle class, privileged white people. We bought a home, a safe place to live and raise children, we accumulated modest wealth, comfort and opportunity for implementing new ideas on a small scale. My life didn’t look so different from my parent’s life; morals and values hadn’t changed. Had I changed considering what I was seeking earlier in life? Was I happier? More enlightened?

Then the next predictable life thing happened: misfortune and illness. Meditation doesn’t stop chronic illness; Love doesn’t heal dementia; alternative medicine in China doesn’t turn the tide of decline.

In 2005 I went back to the Himalayas to escape the misfortune, the illness and figure out a new direction. I found what I was made of: physically strong stock, a mind comfortable with emptiness, a body and mind that can walk itself into happiness. New Sarum Press will publish my memoir of that journey in 2020.

Life and loss taught me I create my happiness; it taught me belonging is a state of mind that changes like the tide of the ocean, the season, or the time of day. 

IMG_6092Back in the Himalayas this year, I walked, I watched, I embraced community. At my slow travel pace, I found the stories of the places I re-visited. The places have changed: prosperity is entering people’s life like a glacier moving forward burying everything known in its path, while the real glaciers have receded and the lack of water will drive people from their homes. Global migration is real and unstoppable, both in Europe and Asia. I found that the search for spirituality is trading places with hungry commercialism. Addiction to cellphones is replacing the need for community even in roadless nomad areas. 

And I? How have I changed? I no longer run away from my roots, I accept my not so exotic earthy sturdiness that came with my Dutch upbringing. I question the form of the ancient Eastern teachings, but I have absorbed the quiet stillness that comes with being present in the moment. I no longer need to find answers in foreign places, to look for teachers elsewhere. I am my own teacher. I can find answers on a trail in my own backyard, or on my meditation cushion. 

P1020608At the end of this journey of traveling with strangers, being fed, and cared for by nomads and innkeepers alike, I feel more love for humanity, even the ones who are making a mess of this world. You could say that after finding my thirst for inner clarity in India in the seventies, and reclaiming my self-belonging in 2005, this year upon my return to the Himalayas I’ve found a home inside myself. 

Like many people migrating the globe, I traveled around the world to find where home is. I discovered hope for the future in the heartfelt effort of a Ladakhi nomad teenager who walks 4 hours daily to school and back to better his future. I felt sadness over the belief of the faithful as the religious commerce at the temple of Swyambu in Nepal and the monasteries of Tibet sold them salvation. I looked the end of my time on earth into the eye at base-camp Mt Everest as the misty snowy clouds shrouded my vision and my slowed breathing made me feel I could dissolve into the clouds. I found that life at 72 can start anew after climbing over 18,000 ft Dolma-la pass at the base of Mt Kailash in Tibet.

The story of my journey is archetypical, a story of loss and renewal. Many years and many miles later I have arrived at the feeling of being at home within myself. It could have happened in one place, one town on an island. For me it happened, one foot in front of the other, one journey after the other, even a re-tracing of my steps to know that home is where the trail ends.

 

Eve.r.est: a Return to the Tallest Mountain

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Long ago, when I began my quest into the why’s and how’s of this world, I had a face-to-face with Mt Everest. It was accidental; I hadn’t felt the allure of the highest mountains, not then. Humbled I stood there, surrounded by the giants of the world, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. I took in the notion that I stood on a very high place on the planet, Kala Patar, 18,200 ft above sea level. Oxygen deprived, I could only climb a few steps at a time. I couldn’t foresee what this experience would mean in my life.

I absorbed the experience and descended to the Everest glacier. After walking off the glacier, I flew back from Lukla to a life of wants and desires, a life of searching for answers that would satisfy, a life with a purpose. I never gave summitting Kala Patar much thought, I was young and strong, but I wasn’t a mountain climber; I was a tag-along in a relationship with a climber, a relationship that didn’t last.

Much, much later in life I became a long distance hiker. I walked away my grief over the losses in my life; I walked myself whole; I walked myself into belonging. Doing so I climbed to heights above tree line, I yelled at the skies. I marveled at the light showing itself over the craggy peaks and passes at dawn, and let go of being the center of the world as the light disappeared at sunset. The world continued as day turned to night, night to day, no matter the upsets, the problems, the joys and lost relationships. When it was dark I rested, when it was light I turned toward that light with each step and found my belonging in the empty heights of the tallest mountains. 

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One day when I stood on top of a 14,000 ft pass in the Sierra Nevada in California, I heard the voice. It said: “Go now while you can; go to Tibet and Mt Everest.” 

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A year later I stood on Pangla pass, at 17,224 ft in Tibet with a view of the Himalayas, a view of Mt Everest (Chomolungma in Tibetan), Lhotse and Makala in the distance, but visible. The next day I made my way to the Mt Everest base camp monument at 18,300 ft elevation, one slow step after the other. It was snowing, and the clouds shrouded the mountain. I passed Rombuk monastery and saw a field of cairns stretching out toward expedition base camp. Cairns are stacks of rocks, one rock balancing on top of the other showing a tenuous and temporary relationship; they’re placed to mark a trail, to draw attention to a view, a place of significance. When I saw this field of cairns leading up to base camp, I felt the urge to make my own cairn. While picking up rocks that would be suitable and called out to me, I came to a rope with small flags strung across the landscape, a barrier to keep people from entering the base camp terrain, closed off for the public to allow clean-up. To get closer to the mountain, I stepped over the line. Then I saw a rock suitable as a base to build my pile. The pile became a symbol of me, my life energy, as I had struggled to breathe and carry to this point. Minuscule Edelweiss surrounded the base. I noted that even here in this rugged, desolate terrain flowers can exist. The pile grew as I placed rocks I found nearby, naming them one by one and letting them become representative of the loved ones in my life. When I looked up toward the mountain, misty clouds moved through, surrounding me and leaving me feeling alone in the landscape. I felt I could disappear in the snow, mist and fog. This is what dying will be like, I thought. Tears welled up, my body sobbed with a gut wrenching sadness I didn’t know lived inside me. I saw my life-ending as a disappearance into an invisible world so much bigger than I, a place of ‘ever-rest’.  I cried not because I feared dying, but I knew that the hardest thing about dying would be the saying goodbye to those I love. As I placed the rocks, I offered my life and loved ones to the mountain. I had returned to Eve.r.est, or Chomolungma meaning “Mother Goddess of the world” for a deeper understanding. Not knowing myself and my life when I first met her in 1972, this time she moved me to understand what ever-rest is: not just a mountain named after an Englishman but a place that reminds me how I will disappear when the time comes.

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From Spirituality to Commercial Religion part II, the Chinese Dilemma

From Spirituality to Religious Commerce part 1

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View from Swyambu temple of Kathmandu valley 2019

My memories of Swyambu in Nepal are images of a rural village, a teashop-stop with a few houses along a road that circled around a hill crawling with monkeys. On top of the hill a white stupa with painted slanted eyes dominated the view. I lived on that road in a rented apartment for two months. Daily I went to the well to get water and smiled at the local women. The slanted penetrating eyes of the stupa saw my everyday activities of carrying water and sweeping the floor. Eyes that would become famous in the fight against unnecessary blindness through the SEVA foundation which Ram Dass and friends started in the 1978. 

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Swyambu in 1972

I remember living in Swyambu as an expansive, mind-altering experience. On the full moon in May (Buddha’s birthday) when I was there, the long horns of the Tibetan Buddhist monks sounded their deep resonant sound from the top of the hill over the green valley. Pilgrims doing their prostrations filled the road around the temple. The air was thick with spirituality. It was contagious and sent me searching to find a practice that would give me insight and answers to life questions.

Almost fifty years later I’m back to visit the temple and see how I’ve changed. My travel partner and I take a taxi to the temple to avoid getting lost in the concrete jungle of streets and houses that have sprung up between Swyambu and Kathmandu. What used to be a half-hour walk through the countryside from the temple to downtown Kathmandu is now a chaotic, noisy maze of streets filled with cars, motorcycles and rickshaws. Construction is going on everywhere; infrastructure to connect the neighborhoods and funnel the traffic is absent. Everyone is on a mad dash to weave their way through the chaos. We let the taxi driver do the work of finding the back alleys and drive us to the temple.

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I’m not used to living with chaos. My daily life is ordered, spacious, quiet. The chaos of Kathmandu makes me tense and belligerent. I don’t want to fight traffic, hawkers, and shopkeepers demanding my attention so I choose the taxi-bubble protected by doors and windows. I envy the lithe, relaxed movements of the motorcycle riders who sway and turn like fish in a school of their kind without bumping into each other. They’re used to this environment; they don their breathing masks and helmets and follow the stream. 

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Buddha statue at bottom of stairs leading up to Swyambu temple

The taxi driver asks if he should wait for us for a return ride. We decline. We don’t know how long we’ll want to visit the temple and its current scene. I look up to find the familiar stupa with its slanted eyes. The tip of the stupa is visible, but the eyes are not. The stairs seem steeper and higher than I remember. I climb the stairs. The weather is humid, and the climb feels like a 1000 feet elevation gain. It takes will to reach the top. The hill is now covered with thick foliage and obstructs the view of the temple. I remember sitting on the walls of the steps with the monkeys jumping around me. The monkeys are still here, but they don’t pay attention to me or the many visitors. Near the top of the stairs is a ticket office. If we want to see the temple, we must pay. I swallow the commercialization of this religious place, and pay. 

IMG_5957At the top of the stairs the slanted eyes on the stupa become visible. Small temples and altars surround the stupa; smoke rises to the heavens, people sprinkle offerings of food and flowers everywhere for the gods who no longer live here. Tourist stalls sell spiritual curiosities. The walkway around the stupa is short and narrow, and there’s no room to do full body prostrations. I remember the road that circled around Swyambu in 1972 where Buddhist devotees would do their prostrations to improve their karma for their next life. No-one is doing prostrations now. A party of Japanese photographers take pictures of dressed up geisha’s with the temple in the background. They use the temple for commerce. 

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author with buddha statue in 1972

 The belligerence I felt in the chaotic traffic turns to sadness. How can I find the inspiration I found so long ago in this spiritual circus? I look around at the valley below filled with houses and can’t find the road that used to circle around the temple. The only road I see is a pathway descending on the North side to a parking lot lined with more spiritual souvenir stalls. I want to find a place to sit like I did 50 years ago, when I was a young western woman in a Tibetan dress practicing newfound spiritual techniques. But I can’t find a place to sit and have to go to the backside of the temple to find a quiet place. This religious site doesn’t inspire me any more. The sadness constricts my chest. I wander by a pool of water with a statue in the middle. Visitors lean on its wall and toss coins while making wishes for a better life. I just want to get out of here. The past is gone; there’s only the present. Swyambu has become a religious icon without spirit. 

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author sitting near small stupa in 2019

We walk down the road on the North side of the temple to what must be Swyambu village and I recognize what looks like the main street, now lined with houses and shops. Will the increasing population crowd out the temple? Can spirituality exist in this maelstrom?

We find a taxi that will take us to the old downtown of Kathmandu. When I step out of the taxi on Durbar square a motorcycle slams into the open door and falls to the ground. Fish don’t mingle well with taxis. After an excited conversation between the taxi driver, the motorcycle rider and 5 police men, we are free to go. I give the motorcycle rider some money for his trouble and discomfort. The taxi driver takes the motorcycle-rider to the hospital for a checkup. I hope he will find his way back into the school of motorcycle-fish soon and live his life of adapted chaos in a world that is no longer peaceful and inspirational. A few orange-clad sadhus (holy men) are sitting at the side of the temple in Durbar square. They let me take their picture for some rupees. Even holy men need to make money….

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A Life of Doing Nothing

Cut off from the internet and phone we enter the Zanskar region, a half day drive over a brand new dirt road full of potholes, bumps and switchbacks. My eyes strain to find the trail I walked 14 years ago, the camping spots where I pitched my tent. Tears well up when I see the enormity of the bare and craggy mountains displaying bands of color that remind me of the painted hills in Oregon. This is a wild land where I’m a speck on the palette of Mother Nature.

We arrive in Lingshed, my end point last time, now starting point of a trek deeper into a roadless region. We set up camp and take a rest/visiting day and wait for the packhorses to arrive from a nearby village. I have to correct, my hiking friend and I don’t lift a finger to set up camp. As guests we are waited on hand and foot; a new role for me, the practice of receiving. The morning starts with chai delivered to our tent, followed by a basin of warm water for washing. Once we’re up, breakfast waits, we drink more tea and have more cups of tea throughout the day as we eat in our mess tent or get them delivered in a thermos along the trail.

We visit the monastery and nunnery, and notice the electricity and solar hot water set-up. We listen to an all-night hammering as a visiting monk directs the last effort for building a water storage tank. Progress and change cannot be stopped even here so far from the faster paced world.

The next day our work is to pace ourselves as we climb to greater heights, stop – catch our breath on the switchbacks, allowing our body to make the most from the 60% oxygen we’re getting with each inhale. The mind is empty, or in slo-mo as we take in the heights and depths with awe. We need a focused mind on some stretches, one misstep and we will slide into the depths. Fear sits on our shoulder and we have our conversation with god, or more culturally appropriate, we recite our Om-mani-Padme-hum to appease the forces around us.

Our guide, a friend and contact from long ago, is our guardian angel who watches us closely, adjusts the pace, reaches a hand when needed and asks us about our altitude symptoms. We’re lucky we have few, part due to taking time in Leh and going slow on this trek. When we reach Hanumala-la, the highest pass (15,200 ft) on day 3, we feel triumphant and grateful at the same time. I’m older and slower but not less capable! On the downhill I think of all the people in my life who’ve been instrumental in getting me to this place on the roof of the world. I’m without worry as Karma is constantly anticipating and taking care of my needs.

We walk, but the place to go is arbitrary. We relax to the sounds of the water rushing by our camp. We widen our horizon as the clouds drift in a brilliant blue sky resting briefly on the tops of the tallest mountains in the world.

Every so often clarity about issues back home rises to the surface and we know that this life of doing nothing, going nowhere is doing its deep transformative work. Step, breathe, step, another switchback up; step, focus, step, another downturn on the path. With our hiking poles we become four-legged creatures who, like our pack animals sway our way to the next stop, the next moment of ‘doing nothing’.

Quaint Comes at a Cost

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Latrop, Sauerland

I hiked 4 days in the German countryside. You may envy me when you see the picturesque hiking photos of quaint villages with slate roofs dotted among green rolling hills, topped with conifer and evergreen forests, but there’s a price for quaint and ordered nature. The Germans manage the forests, exemplary for production, reproduction and environmental responsibility. The hills are green, mono-culture fields and grazing lands. Corn and hay they grow isn’t enough to feed the animals. Animal feed is imported from Brazil where agricultural practices aren’t always that pretty. Not all material for the slate roofs, required building practice in the area, hales from the local slate mines. Local slate is expensive as salaries and mining practices raise the cost. Slate from Spain and Argentina is cheaper and used to augment the local industry. Quaint and ordered landscapes come at a global cost. 

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Bad Fredenburg, Sauerland

In the USA nature is messy. Where I hike, fallen logs may cross or block the trail. Vistas from the ridges include clear-cuts and eroded mountain sides. The trails are often narrow and overgrown with wild berries, grasses and wild flowers; rocky or sandy trails slope dangerously toward a deep canyon. The occasional homestead sports rusted machinery and dilapidated buildings. The USA is too big to control. Messiness and decay is visible.

I have nothing against proprietary orderliness; I encourage it. Let’s keep our dens in order is my motto. The tightness I felt in my chest when I walked around the manicured woods and the ordered villages came from feeling boxed-in. The societal rules have eliminated the wildness in the German landscape. Where is the personal expression; where is mother nature’s wildness? Personal expression is relegated to artistic and craft domains. A carved door, a pattern in the slate wall, an ingenious product.

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I visited an ordered University Hortus, a garden that held species from all over the world. Afterward I went to a Museum exposition on Medieval gardens, where I read: “Gardens are a demonstration by the monarch that he can subjugate nature to himself and thus a sign of his power.” If orderliness in nature as I experienced it in the German countryside, is a sign of power than the wildness I experience in the US is a sign of potential, an opportunity to rise to great heights. 

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Humans have lived in ordered societies since tribes roamed the earth. Societies offer protection and a chance for survival. I ask myself how much order is enough? Can too much order stamp out creativity, exploration and responsibility? Social-democratic systems that take care of people from cradle to grave popped up after world-war II in Europe; it was an effort to share and take care of each other after experiencing and witnessing the horrors of a war based on neo-nazi ideas, horrors of believing that one race is superior to another. The social-democratic systems provide healthcare for everyone; everyone has a home to live in, everyone gets a job or if a job is unavailable unemployment coverage; everyone gets yearly vacation pay on top of their salary. The streets get cleaned, the parks are neat, the trains run on time. Who wouldn’t want such a society? 

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There’s a catch. High taxes, restrictive building codes, restrictive business practices keep and pay for an ordered society. Large administrations make and apply the rules to make sure you don’t step outside the societal box. While the rest of the world wants free trade, creates start-up companies, takes capitalism to its highest reaches (good, or bad), the members of the ordered societies lag, have to jump through hoops before they can join the wild plays OR go rogue as Volkswagen engineers did to be competitive in the marketplace and yet comply with the pollution standards for diesel-operated cars. The members of the ordered societies want their cake and eat it too; the riches and the securities. Those who live here have forgotten or don’t know the ravages of war anymore and entitlement has replaced a sharing society. Stories of aging boomers who expect the state to take care of them even if their own monetary contribution has been minimal, abound. People who see the state as their caregiver, their medical provider, their retirement fund, their family replacement, want to travel and go on paid vacations, have someone organize a ‘nice’ life for them until they die.

I’m generalizing. Not all people fit this mold, but it helps to see that each societal form has its pros and cons. We’re in the race for presidential elections in the US; it’s a time to think about what society we’re in, and for what we vote. The freedom US citizens hold so dear, is a freedom that comes with draw-backs and opportunities. Freedom that allows each of us to make it big or to suffer. It’s a raw society, a young society, a wildly diverse society. In this society you can stand on top of wilderness pass at age 72, knowing you got there on your own power. But in this society you need your friends and family to help you grow old, relations matter and caring for each other is a tool for survival. We are a society of explorers and dreamers who need each other. Let’s not forget that it’s up to us to be kind, to share, to develop and maintain a healthy balance between safety that springs from order and planning, and opportunity that comes from initiative and taking chances. Make your security arrangements but dare to leave the well-trodden paths behind and give yourself a chance at discovery no matter what age you are. 

I’m on my way to the Himalayas. I’ve done all the planning and safety measures I could put in place. It’s time to take a chance on fate, and find insights at new heights.

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trek to Lingshed, Ladakh 2005