This month's column is about love. Not the Valentine's Day variety. The Siren's Call is interested in love as an elemental force — as something experienced by mystics and glimpsed by poets. Dante caught a glimpse — this column recently looked at his masterful poetry — in the final lines of "Paradiso," where he tells readers that his mind and will are
Like a wheel smoothly turning without a sound
Spun by the Love that moves both sun and stars.
(from a new translation by Burton Raffel, published by Northwestern University Press)
Love can literally move the sun and stars. For Dante, it's a cosmic principle.
For Ram Dass, love is a flow of energy.
The point of our lives isn't to have a big 401(k) portfolio, a condo on Maui or the winning lottery ticket. The point, writes the 79-year-old spiritual teacher in "Be Love Now: The Path of the Heart" (HarperOne: 336 pp., $27.99), is to stay in that flow.
And it isn't easy, not even for someone like Dass, who introduced Eastern meditative practices to many Western readers with his 1971 bestseller, "Be Here Now." He still finds himself tempted by a thousand daily distractions.
"Every time I feel the heaviness that comes with getting caught in one of my desires that pulls me away, puts me to sleep, or distracts me with an attachment, I immediately start a mechanism of reorienting or centering, of coming back into the moment, of opening the flow of love again," he explains. "I think, 'What am I doing here?'"
"Be Love Now," like "Be Here Now," is equal parts memoir and manual of meditation. It's hard to believe the two books are separated by more than 30 years. The writing in "Be Love Now" is as fresh and charged with insight as the earlier one — especially as Dass recalls his time in the Himalayan foothills with Maharaj-ji, his beloved guru; and his letting go of his identity as successful Harvard psychology professor Richard Alpert (his new name, "Ram Dass," refers to being a servant of God). Even when he describes one of those centering mechanisms, his language is vivid and unexpected: "You create a vibrational field that starts in your heart and eventually becomes the universe…You are opening a door so that grace can enter in."
Our culture today is so hostile to this opening — whether you call it love, stillness, nirvana, peace surpassing understanding, etc. Everything tries to shatter us, pull us from an effort to find it. The TV's loud, the cineplex lights are blinding, your takeout food has you salivating so hard that you can't think of anything else — and on and on. And what you miss is a chance to listen to what Dass calls one's heart-mind, a deeper reality of the self, because our egos keep getting in the way. "If you identify so strongly with the ego that you think that's all there is," he warns, "that limited view can keep you from your deeper Self."
To reach that deeper self, Dass says, let go. Be aware of how the conscious mind constructs attachments, how narrowly it defines happiness, ambitions, fear and love. Then, let go. Find a teacher and a community sharing your quest; listen to the wisdom of older individuals and learn from them; and, above all, practice meditation.
Certainly Dass has critics … and some of them excel in showing their ignorance. On YouTube, for instance, comments to recent clips joke that his slow speech and long pauses in conversation must be from taking too much LSD (he and Timothy Leary conducted the Harvard Psilocybin Project in the 1960s). Do they know that he suffered a massive stroke in 1997? Doesn't' sound like it. Dass' painful recovery is recounted in a candid, engrossing preface by writer Rameshwar Das, who helped him to assemble this new book.
Though many teachers and friends pass through these pages — Dass writes about a variety of teachers, including Swami Muktananda, Dada Mukerjee, Anandamayi Ma and others — the heart of this book is Dass' relationship with Maharaj-ji. That little old man wrapped in a plaid blanket taught Dass how to let go of his attachments. Sometimes, Maharaj-ji would assign a task to Dass and then mischievously undermine Dass' responsibility to make him aware of his pride (a guru, Dass explains, "is constantly showing you where you're not, your most secret places where you're holding on to your stash of attachments").
Even though Maharaj-ji died in 1973, death didn't end their relationship. Dass still feels Maharaj-ji's presence — he doesn't write of him in "Be Love Now" in a nostalgic way. This beloved figure is someone still active in his life. In this way, Dass' book can be very consoling to any person or family suffering from a loss. Death, Dass tells us, is really a doorway:
"If I go deeper in myself, the love is greater. It's not just superficial. It didn't go away when he died. I used to feel I could only get that love in India, but now all I have to do is plumb the depth of the moment… Now he's just here, laughing behind it all. And it's still all love."
The same is true of the friendship between the great Sufi mystic Rumi and Shams Tabriz, a wandering holy man, who met in 1244 AD. The circumstances of Shams' death are vague — some believe Rumi's followers were jealous of Shams and killed him — but regardless of how it happened, this death did not end their relationship. Nor did Rumi's poetry simply mourn this loss. Instead, the poetry of Rumi explores their friendship and how aspects of their special bond, like shards of a mirror, reflect the divine.
And thanks to Coleman Barks, much of this poetry is available to us today in lyrical translations that are as clear as fresh brook water.
"The Big Red Book" (HarperOne: 490 pp., $29.99) — also known as the "Divani Shamsi Tabriz," or "The Shams" — honors their friendship, capturing Rumi's awareness of his dead friend's abiding presence much as Dass does his guru's.
Each of us has a secret companion musician to dance to.
Unique rhythmic play, a motion in the street
that we alone know and hear.
An emeritus English professor at the University of Georgia, Barks has spent 34 years working on Rumi's poetry — you could even say that Rumi has been the secret companion musician Barks has danced to. In an introduction, Barks writes of first encountering Rumi's work in 1976 thanks to poet Robert Bly and how, ever since, he has sought to take more scholarly translations of the work and give them a freer, livelier feel.
Fall in love in such a way
that it frees you from any connecting.
Love is the soul's light, the taste of morning,
no me, no we, no claim of being.
Rumi was born in the 13th century in the area known today as Afghanistan. He resettled with his family in Konya in Turkey to get out of the way of Genghis Khan. There he ran a thriving medrese, a spiritual community, and was renowned as a scholar. But it was his meeting the restless, itinerant Shams, Barks explains, that plunged Rumi to greater spiritual depths. So deep and vast was Rumi's development, in fact, that when another poet saw Rumi walking behind his father (who was also a learned, holy man), the poet said: "Here comes the sea, followed by an ocean." Rumi is roomy — that pun comes from the contemporary spiritual teacher Osho, and Barks includes it in one of the commentary sections in this book.
"The Big Red Book" does not have an urgent narrative — one might dip in it, say, like taking a swim in the ocean.
I am a sky where spirits live.
Stare into this deepening blue,
while the breeze says a secret.
Wisdom, Rumi shows us, doesn't depend on a vast amount of travel or adventures. In other words, you don't need to rent a villa in Tuscany to gain insight into yourself. What you need to do is just train yourself to be aware of that flow of energy that Dass also writes of. "Flow inside me," Rumi says, "source of the source of joy…" And the best way to do that is to stay put.
Owchar is deputy book editor of The Times. The Siren's Call appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books.Copyright © 2015, CT Now