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Ram Dass Delivers Loving Awareness

Photo of Sarah Marshank, Ram Dass and Steve marshank

As a ten year wedding anniversary gift my husband arranged for us to spend five days in private retreat with Ram Dass. There’s a cottage on his property in Maui set aside for retreatants like us. Over the years a pilgrimage of folks have found their way to the cozy two room hermitage seeking spiritual restoration.

For those who are unfamiliar with him, Ram Dass is an American spiritual teacher. He is well known for early experiments with Psychedelics as a Harvard Psychology professor (and got fired for it) and is the author of the seminal book Be Here Now based upon his experiences in India with his guru Neem Karoli Baba..

I used to listen to Ram Dass cassette tapes in the early years of my monk life. Ram Dass’ teaching on extricating one’s attention from fixating on the ego was articulate and thorough. (You can find them here I especially appreciated his analogy of a TV. He referred to the old fashioned kind where you had to actually get up off the couch in order to change the station.

“When you find yourself trapped in a thought pattern just change the channel,” Ram Dass said with conviction. “Turn the dial to channel of the Witness where you can observe your life’s drama like a movie without being caught up in it.”

This simple teaching was instrumental in guiding my meditation practice. I used the Witness like a crow bar, extricating myself from my obsession with my personal story (we all have this fixation-it comes with the territory of being human) in order discover a spacious open awareness (this we must discover and cultivate through effort). It took rigor and persistence to train myself to focus elsewhere. I haven’t met anybody who it came naturally to. After all, we weren’t taught this skill as kids.

They say that learning new tricks as an adult is hard. Rather, it feels hard. Harder than we remember it was to learn something new as a child. But I’ve watched my three granddaughters learn to walk, and it didn’t look easy nor were they particularly delighted about all the thwarted attempts.

Rather, I saw them hungry, curious, driven by some force wanting to evolve, to stand up, to become a walker and no longer a crawler. I believe the same drive to grow and evolve remains in us as adults, but is often stifled… buried under insatiable unexamined desires and distractions that drag us onto one rat wheel after the other.

The second day of our Maui retreat my husband and I met personally with Ram Dass for the first of three private meetings. Since his stroke 25 years ago Ram Dass moves slowly. His thoughts come steadily but in their own timing. After a while of sitting together in silence, he began to speak.

The Witness is loving awareness,” he said. I wondered if he was reading my mind or recently spying on a Selfistry retreat through some supernatural spiritual power he’s attained over the years.

“I am loving awareness,” he continued and then repeated again like a mantra.

It’s hard to sit with Ram Dass and not have one’s heart crack open. I’ve been practicing for years to live from my heart, not as an emotional experience, but as a state of being. This is the edge of my own personal development and probably why I gave birth to Selfistry — so that I could have a way, a system, a map, and a method of continuing to deepen into Source and broaden my expression of that Source into my human life. Through my entire being, but especially through the heart.

When I shared a bit about Selfistry with Ram Dass, his eyes began to twinkle as a broad grin appeared on his face. He liked it. A lot. He kept making a triangle with his left index finger, diagraming the trinity of the realms, appreciating Selfistry’s map of our human experience in such an elegant form.

Ram Dass continued offering his perspective. Referring to Source as the One, he said that the One imbues five qualities of its existence through the Soul into the ego or personality. The five attributes are Love, Compassion, Peace, Joy, and Wisdom.

I realized that Ram Dass was equating the Witness in Selfistry with what he calls Soul, underscoring the connection between the Soul and the Heart. This wasn’t the first time the Soul has arisen within the system of Selfistry. Because it’s so loaded, I won’t formally bring that word into the Selfistry lexicon, but I agree.

Based upon Ram Dass’ definition of the word Soul, the Witness in Selfistry is the realm of the Soul.

Chew on that.

Two days after we left Ram Dass I attended a book club in Denver via Zoom as the guest author. As we spoke about themes in the book, a beautiful question emerged.

“Where did you find the courage to trust yourself and leave Sam?” Shawn asked.

Searching inside myself for an answer and finding difficulty locating it, I returned to the questioner.

“I’m not sure,” I told her. “I wonder from where inside you have you found the courage to overcome difficulties in your life?”

“For me,” she answered, “it was the love of another. I did courageous things for others.”

I found that interesting. Being the “selfish” person that I am, after my breakdown from the second abortion, I rarely found courage out of love for another. It was more about survival.

That’s when it hit me.

Maybe it was self love where I found my courage. More to the point, maybe it was love itself that was the courage.

When I said this we all got quiet.

Love is courage.


Later that day I was sharing the aha moment with my husband when he dutifully informed me that the etymology of the word courage comes from “heart.”

“What?” I shrieked. “No way!”

We googled and giggled.

There it was.

Of course.

Love equals Courage.

It’s been that way since forever.

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