This story appears in the book Toward an Interior Sun: Awakening by a Master, and the Difficult Journey toward Discipleship. In this collection of short stories, Max Reif digs deep to offer an entertaining and insightful account of this arduous spiritual trek. The tales lead the reader from epiphanies of youth, to the life of a spiritual seeker, to a deepening awareness of the maturity required for true discipleship. Learn more about the book.
January 17, 2013
Thirty-seven years ago today, on January 17, 1976, in my 28th year, I walked into a room at the Downtowner Motel in Oklahoma City, following Dr. Richard Alpert, a.k.a. Ram Dass. I had an appointment with him the morning after he’d given a talk at the Oklahoma City Civic Center.
I had flown in from St. Louis, and stayed overnight at a downtown hotel after the talk. I believed my life was over—that if I did not have some kind of brain damage, then I was simply damned. Deep traumatic material had come up from my childhood and had caused me to experience a “nervous breakdown” six months earlier. Five years before that, it had caused an earlier severe breakdown when it had come up on LSD trips. I’d believed my life over then, too. I simply stuck around to see what would happen.
What happened was that a psychiatrist my parents made me see kept giving me stronger and stronger antidepressants. One finally “worked,” filling me with energy. With that newfound energy, I had travelled to Chicago and there, had had an overwhelmingly powerful spiritual experience involving someone named Meher Baba, who claimed to be the “Avatar” of our age, a role equivalent to that of Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha in earlier times.
I believe Meher Baba is the Avatar, and have tried to follow Him for more than four decades. However, several years after my initial “Honeymoon” with Meher Baba, sexually-charged material about which I felt deeply ashamed, and about which I was unable to speak, came to the surface of my consciousness, and my life fell to pieces. Meher Baba was no longer in His physical body, and in addition to my prayers to Him, I considered whether there was a person on Earth who could help me, for nothing seemed to be changing, and I was quite suicidal. I did not feel I could speak to the ladies who ran the Meher Baba Center about this psycho-sexual material.
I ended up, in desperation, going to the spiritual section of a bookstore, and writing to several authors who it seemed “might know something.” One of these was Richard Alpert. At the bookstore, I had opened his book, THE ONLY DANCE THERE IS, to a page that described his visiting his brother in a mental hospital—his brother who “believed he was Christ,” and that he was therefore entitled to steal people’s cars, etc.
It appeared to me that Ram Dass had been kind to his brother. I wrote him a letter which said little more than, “Dear Ram Dass, Is there such thing as eternal damnation? I feel my soul is ruined.” Things seemed that black.
Two or three weeks later, during which interim I’d moved back to my parents’ home from Cincinnati where I’d been trying to finish college (I did, I learned later!), I made a fairly weak attempt at suicide with pills. When I woke up, my mother, on the phone with a doctor, said, “There’s a letter for you on the radiator.”
In the front hallway, I saw on the mantel of the radiator, a small blue envelope with my address handwritten in ink. The return address was NOT the address at which I’d written Ram Dass in New Hampshire, however. It was a number on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, New York City…the street I’d been born on.
I opened the letter. It read:
Your soul is not ruined, and there is no damage to your thought or feeling whatever. Psychologically, you may be a mess, but spiritually you are beautiful and are going to God.
In order to go to God, you have to get all the shit inside you opened up. Why not come to NYC and visit with me? It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours, for starters. It you can’t come to New York, write me in detail about your scene and we’ll work by letter. Just stay totally open and honest and trusting. God loves you and will show you as soon as you begin to love yourself. Blessings surround you. Accept your own beauty.
It was about a month later that I went to meet Ram Dass in Oklahoma City. After a bit of further correspondence, he wrote me that he would be there, much closer to St. Louis, where I was, on a lecture tour, and I booked a flight and hotel reservation.
Even as my mother and I ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant on the way to the St. Louis airport, I expressed my misgivings to her.
“I don’t really know if he’s a holy man, or what he is,” I said. “Maybe I’m making a mistake.”
“Go,” Mother encouraged. We’d made the rounds of psychiatrists, and there seemed no hope there, only dire futures to look towards.
I sat at Ram Dass’ talk at the Civic Auditorium, and recognized the perennial message of the Soul’s Oneness with God and of life as a spiritual journey to a conscious experience of that Oneness. It was precisely the same as Meher Baba’s message. I sat there, though, as though a rain of Love was falling all around, but I was involuntarily covered by some sort of dark umbrella and only my intellect was accessible.
I had spent the morning, after breakfast, walking around downtown Oklahoma City, noticing that practically the whole downtown was in the scaffolds of re-building. I also drew no personal connection to the fact that, everywhere I went that day, on taxicab radios and wafting out of the kinds of downtown storefronts that sold cheap electronic equipment, a new cover of Doris Day’s “My Secret Love” was playing, with its last lines, “And now my heart’s an open door, and my Secret Love’s no secret anymore.”
Ram Dass lit a candle in front of a photo of his guru and we sat facing each other.
“What do you want out of this lifetime?” he asked, looking straight at me.
I started laughing nervously. In a moment, though, I realized there was no reason for laughter, that the question was reasonable and I could answer it.
“Release from suffering,” I told him.
“Do you want to commit suicide?” Ram Dass asked.
“I don’t want to,” I replied, “but if no one can help me, I may have to.”
Then it looked as if Ram Dass didn’t know what to say, like he was searching for words.
And then he asked, almost as an afterthought: “What are you thinking?”
Now, my whole problem was that I was ALWAYS thinking about the “stuff” that was verboten, at least in my psyche, to verbalize. There were deep taboos of shame and guilt around a traumatic childhood experience and the various fetishes and phobias it had left me with. The result had been that I was really not able to live any kind of normal life. Even the compensatory personalities I’d build up had been destroyed, the first by LSD, and this time, hopefully, because it had to be dealt with, and GOD would show me how!
I hesitated for a moment. Then I blurted out some of my forbidden stuff! I looked at Ram Dass, to see if he was going to kick me out of the room.
“Ahhhh,” he said, and repeated the phrase I’d used. “What else?”
I dug deeper into my, so to speak, bag of shit, and came out with some more goodies. I was not playing around, mind you. I felt this was probably my last chance. And I had to level, and basically, “say all the things I couldn’t say.” I also expressed what I could in the second person, verbally projecting it directly onto the person right in front of me, so as to insure that I wouldn’t start going off into abstractions.
Ram Dass responded “Ahhhhhh,” to my second confession. And after that, he seemed to brighten as though actually seeing something, and his response was “You’re BEAUTIFUL! I love you!”
In ten minutes or so, I had nothing left to confess. I looked within, which prior to that moment I’d been too immersed in our interaction to do. And I saw NOTHING BUT LIGHT! I beamed at Ram Dass! He beamed back. We were just two drops of the Sun!
The rest of our time together that morning was spent creating a plan for me to reintegrate myself into the world, on my return to St. Louis. I was to get a job, lose weight, a little bit each week, accept Ram Dass’ love, and write to him and phone him regularly. In the spring, I was invited to visit him in Chicago, and later on in the summer, to come to a retreat he was hosting in Newport, Rhode Island.
Ram Dass was really like a father to me during that critical 6-month period. He was amazingly generous with his time…with his love! I continued to take Meher Baba as my spiritual Master. Originally, I thought it sounded “cool” to think of Baba as my Master and Ram Dass as my “guru.” When I told Ram Dass that, though, he said, “I’m not anyone’s guru.”
Throughout our period of work, he supported and encouraged my connection with Meher Baba. I came to see him, and still see him, as a kind of “specialist” to whom Meher Baba (who once, I’m told, had said to some of His close ones, “Richard is Mine.”) had sent me, for a specific purpose.
My “Ram Dass period” was glorious. The extra weight flew off my body. Everything I did, I did for Love. I had many adventures with this Love. I felt completely safe. It was a case of “Because this person is in the world, I know everything’s going to be OK.”
Eventually, far into that summer, after my two more visits and many phone calls and letters to Ram Dass, he said to me on the phone one day, “Wow, Max, you sound strong!”
“I feel strong!” I replied.
“You know, I’m going back to India soon,” he continued.
“Yes, I’ve heard that,” I said.
“Are you going to miss me?” he asked.
I thought for a minute. Then I said, “NO!” and burst out laughing!
He joined me in my laughter. This Love that we shared…it wasn’t going anywhere!