I’ve just returned from one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life: the Ram Dass Retreat in Maui. I’d previously read some of Ram Dass’ books, listened to many of his lectures and heard podcasts of people that had attended his retreats. By myself, I can read and theorize; I’ve only experienced fleeting, elusive glimpses of what others describe, not realizing how cynicism and control-freakism clouds my life.
I had never been to a spiritual retreat before. The purpose of a retreat is to provide the space necessary to deepen the connection with soul and/or God. Although you can integrate spiritual practices learned in a retreat into daily life, it’s difficult to make profound realizations when you’re always caught in the rat race.
Malgré tout, I knew I had to make this happen or bust. There was a calling.
Who is Ram Dass?
Ram Dass is an American spiritual teacher, who was previously Richard Alpert, a prominent Harvard psychologist. He later dove into intense psychedelic research with Timothy Leary, and they were were fired from Harvard in 1963. Alpert was canned for allegedly giving the hallucinogen psilocybin to an undergraduate student.
After more experimentation with psychedelics and much soul searching, Alpert went to India in 1967 and would ultimately meet Neem Karoli Baba or “Maharaji” (1900-1973), who became his Guru.
Maharaji was a devotee of the Indian deity Hanuman and an adept of bhakti yoga. He is known as “the old man on a blanket”, which was his only possession. He had a profound effect on a number of Americans exploring India in the 60s and 70s.
At first, Alpert was skeptical of Maharaji. In his book Be Here Now, he writes, “I’m not going to touch his feet. I don’t have to. I’m not required to do that.” Later that day, Maharaji mentioned Alpert’s mother: he somehow knew how she had died and that Alpert had been thinking about her the night before under the stars. Alpert was overwhelmed and “cried and cried and cried.” He had the profound realization that he was “home”.
Maharaji named Alpert, “Ram Dass”, which means “Servant of God”. Ram Dass was one of the first to bring yoga, meditation and eastern spirituality to the west and has influenced thousands of people.
Today, Ram Dass is 85 years old. He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1997 and has been wheelchair-bound since then, but the purity of his message has only deepened.
Many of us wanted to meet Ram Dass while he was still “in his body”, and to learn from other great teachers who also spent time with him and Maharaji in India: Lama Surya Das, meditation teacher Rameshwar Das, yoga teacher Saraswati Markus, Raghu Markus and Mirabai Bush (amongst a handful of others who have taught at previous retreats).
What happens at these retreats?
The retreat began every day with meditation, Qigong and yoga with incredible live music from the duo Shantala, followed by talks and discussions in the afternoon, chanting mantras and evening sacred music called kirtan. We learned a multitude of techniques that will help us to live more in the present and in a state of loving awareness in our regular lives.
But the main takeaways were beyond words, theory and techniques. We learned about the power of satsang or spiritual community, as well as unconditional love, impermanence, acceptance, non-judgment and unity.
Every one of the 300+ participants were completely blown away – our hearts broken open into a blissful loving compassionate state, just from being in the presence of Ram Dass, the other wonderful teachers – and each other: the satsang. Even the most skeptical among us could feel the presence of Maharaji.
This one man, Maharaji, showed a group of people kindness, non-judgment and unconditional love. It’s the same with Buddha, Jesus and many other great saints. This group then cultivated this seed within themselves to then transmit it to thousands more people. These communities then in turn passed this seed onto us, so that we too can grow and transmit it to others. Imagine if everyone in the world could come into contact with this!
The 5-day retreat culminated with all of us throwing flowers and jumping into the sea and the swimming pool with Ram Dass under a huge rainbow and blessing each other with banana leaves, exclaiming “Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh joy! Oh joy!” and basking in our bliss.
Ram Dass is so good at giving each of us what we need. We’ll all hold these wonderful memories in our hearts so that we too can love, serve and remember.