“Living in the fullness of the moment with joy and suffering, witnessing it all in its perfection, our hearts still go out to those who are suffering.” Ram Dass
Ram Dass in Polishing the Mirror: How to Live From Your Spiritual Self (Sounds True, 2014) wants us to live “with joy and suffering,” reminiscent of the “Mirth and Mourning” of Julian (see blog post of Jan 23, 2012). Both spiritual teachers understand the necessity of these dueling emotions. This is my second article on this book since I am in awe of Ram Dass and his work. There is so much more we can learn from him. I also want to mention On Being Ram Dass by Ram Dass with Rameshwar Dar (Sounds True, 2021), published after his death. This book relates his fascinating life events told with his usual humor. The end of that book describes his death after decades of being in a wheelchair, dependent on others. Ram Dass understood suffering.
We can learn about emotional as well as physical distress from Ram Dass. He was a gay man born in 1931 to a prominent Boston family. For too many years, he felt compelled to hide his sexuality. He also had to deal with his family’s lack of support and approval for his chosen lifestyle when he returned from India dressed in a white robe with a long beard, and renouncing materialism. Not the accepted look or outlook for the Boston society of his day. Then after a stroke, he spent the last decades of his life in a wheelchair. Yet he never lost his faith, never complained, nor ever feared death. And he taught until the end. He lived life with joy, despite the hardships he endured. His message is “with joy and suffering.” He remains an inspiration.
“I can’t help being filled with awe at the magnificence of how it all works. I also realize suffering is a part of the way it all works.” Ram Dass
He helps us understand the bigger picture of life, using an example of cropping a picture too narrowly, allowing one to see only part of it, perhaps the clouds. “If cropped at a wider angle, you see the blue sky all around it.” That more expansive view shows the joy and magnificence of life. Suffering plays an important role but does not define our lives. There are many types of affliction from physical pain to levels of mental anguish or severe depression to financial hardship. Those hurts affect us, our loved ones, our community and the world. Ram Dass wants us to recognize that “suffering is a part of the way it works.”
“Something happens when you stop trying so hard to avoid suffering.” Ram Dass
“Suffering is sometimes the sandpaper that awakens people.” Ram Dass
Ram Dass’ stroke was part of his spiritual awakening. A friend of mine refers to cancer as her awakening. Mine was an arrest and conviction, something I wrote about in The Trust Factor (Sunstone Press,1997). Many of you have your own incident that defines your transition. Any spiritual understanding includes suffering. Do not just try to fix it. That is not our job. As Ram Dass points out, thinking we can “fix it” is arrogance. Be open. See how any hardship benefits the soul. He claims, “The more conscious you become, the more you recognize that suffering is how the teaching you need in the moment is coming down.”
“The saving grace is being able to witness the suffering from the perspective of the soul.” Ram Dass
There are three vantage points, or planes of consciousness, he explains. First is ego, the plane of personality. The second is the individual soul. The third is the mystic part of us, that small voice within, or the One. Near the end of his life, Ram Dass could not get himself out of bed or his wheelchair and had to accept help from many caretakers. He hurt but reminds us “I am not my body.” He acknowledges that the pain and lack of mobility did not help his ego, but did “benefit my soul.” How we experience suffering depends on our attachment to ego. Moving beyond personality to soul allows us to observe a higher meaning to our lives.
“Can you respond to suffering without closing down and still keep your heart open?” Ram Dass
“…clear the mist of desire from your mirror” or “polish the mirror,” as Ram Dass suggests in the title of his book. Then we can start to reflect on things as they are, not on how we wish they were. Pain exists. Do all that you can to relieve any hurt for yourself or others while working to keep your heart open. “Love and compassion are emotions that arise from the soul. When you identify with your soul, you live in a loving universe.” That is Ram Dass’ universe, the one he wants us to embrace.
He encourages us to accept life as it is, despite any pain, and open our hearts to compassion. That is living “with joy and suffering.”
“When you bear what you think you cannot bear, who you think you are dies. You become compassion.” Ram Dass