There’s a peculiar thematic inconsistency to the stuff that shows up on our yoga studio’s freecycle shelf. An eclectic collection of everything from dusty macramé wall art and My Little Pony sippy cups to the occasional tempting pair of hand-painted earrings.
My eyes landed a couple of weeks ago on a worn and dog-eared copy of a 1974 Ram Dass book, The Only Dance There Is. It’s a 174-page transcript compilation of talks that he gave in Kansas and Maryland in the early 1970s. It’s packed with vignettes chronicling his experiences and insights.
A third of the way through the book, he shares the story of his hasty return home from India to Boston to be with his father following his mother’s death.
Dad picks up his barefoot, unshaven, lute-carrying hippie son at the airport and shoos him into the car.
“Get in quick before anybody sees you.”
He finds his father deeply depressed and dispirited, unable to stop talking about the meaninglessness of his 72 years of living and his hopelessness about the future. Ram Dass quietly spins out his mantra to dissipate what he describes as “this huge big black cloud of pollution” in the car coming from his father.
When they get to the house, his father suggests that his son take a rest after his long journey while he gets busy with one of his hobbies: making raspberry jam. Ram Dass skips the nap to help out in the kitchen.
Each time dad returns to his heavy story, Ram Dass brings him back into the here and now: “Should the bubbles all rise to the top? Are the bottles right? Where do we put that?”
The focus of their conversation begins shifting to what’s going on in the present moment. His dad’s demeanor softens.
“The whole model of himself as somebody who’s old and about to die and his life is lived out and all this stuff about his failures and unhappiness and the bankruptcy of the railroad and all that stuff, that’s all sort of falling into the past and here we are making raspberry jam. We’re just two guys making raspberry jam, right? Now we finish making the raspberry jam, and he’s happy, see, he’s smiling . . . he’s coming into that place, and it feels good. everyone wants to feel good . . . we start to spend a great deal of time together and as we spend more and more time together, he’s living more in the here and now.”
One of my go-to teachers offered advice in his blog last week on keeping our wits and staying calm while we’re inside the eye of all the personal and planetary storms we’re riding through. He prescribed pausing and pulling back, over and over, into the present moment.
Anxiety Over What Isn’t
On any given day, there’s a pitched competition for our nervous systems’ attention between what’s enriching and what stokes anxiety. Fear and anxiety, he wrote, often emerge from our “anticipation of events that have not yet happened.”
These are times of wildfires, hurricanes, and political chaos unfolding alongside the spellbinding glitter of autumn’s incandescent colors and unfathomably beautiful Beethoven symphonies. Where do we put our attention? How do we unmask the courage to get through these times, engage in meaningful social action, and claim the calm inside the hurricane’s eye?
The contemplative practices that bring us back to the business of boiling and stirring the mashed berries in the pot right in front of us are an intelligent place to begin. They fortify our internal resilience and help us to get, and stay, in shape to be competent and loving agents for change.