On the last day of one of our silent retreats a man spoke about the parting words he had heard from his girlfriend before leaving her the week before. “Now, don’t you go and fall in love with someone there,” she told him. The man looked around at the group of sixty and said, “How am I going to explain that I fell in love with everyone?” I assured him that his girlfriend probably wouldn’t mind that as much.
One of the great gifts of my life comes from witnessing what happens in silent retreats. Participants, many of them strangers to each other, come together and, with the exception of two hour-long group sessions per day, are silent for a week. They are given no spiritual practice or instructions but are encouraged instead to rest as much as needed and to notice throughout the day the clear awareness to which no thought ever sticks.
Day by day, joyousness and surprising bursts of energy infect the participants as they feel the naturalness of being awake and sharing companionship without the stories and ego presentations that usually make up society. People will frequently describe feelings that are familiar from childhood such as waking up in the day and feeling excited for no particular reason. We refer to this as causeless joy or the pure joy of existence. It is sometimes experienced as a current that flows inside, like champagne bubbles of well-being.
The feeling of well-being emerges from our natural condition of innocence. In awakened awareness, the clear perception through which we regard the world is renewed each moment. We are no longer mentally dragging around the hardened crust of history about ourselves or having to wear the weighty armoring of self-importance.
I once spent a couple days on the island of Lanai in Hawaii at an exclusive resort that often attracts guests who are titans of industry. One day I was walking on a path down to the ocean and an older man passed me. I immediately sensed an imperious attitude in his purposeful march and his cheerless determined face that seemed carved out of stone. We looked each other in the eye, and a chill wind blew through my soul. I was reminded once again of the burden of thinking of oneself as somebody in the world, someone with power over others. I felt compassion for the man because, despite whatever wealth he had accumulated, I sensed only his impoverishment at missing what I consider the best of life. If one is not in touch with one’s innocence, there is no heaven to be found, even in the most beautiful places on earth.
The most consistent characteristic of awakened teachers and people I have met is a childlike nature. They laugh, cry, twinkle, and joke, all with a spontaneity born of freedom. Their faces are fluid and reflect a timeless sweetness, even into old age. Poonjaji, a model of dignity into his eighties, could be at times downright goofy–and we loved it. He also exhibited a free-flowing range of emotions. On my first visit to meet him I noticed that almost every day he would laugh and cry several times during gatherings with students. Sometimes his tears would come from the happiness of seeing a person release a long held burden; sometimes he would cry with someone who had suffered a loss. As with a child, feelings would pass through him and be gone as quickly as they had come, leaving no lingering mood behind.
We all love the innocence we see in children. We delight in watching them learn new things and play in wild abandon. We love to hear their questions and reflections about the world because they spring from original awareness and the brilliance that obtains. We wistfully watch them sleeping and remember that feeling of perfect peace. We delight in the company of children because they remind us of our own innocence.
But in awakened awareness, innocence is no longer the special province of children. We, too, delight in learning new things and playing in abandon; our original awareness questions and reflects in brilliance; and we, too, sleep in deep peace. Innocence is a condition not dependent on age but on attitude. It lives in continual surprise, not knowing how things are supposed to go, not needing them to go a certain way.
When I was a child growing up in Virginia, my parents would, on a regular basis, tell my brother Bob and me to get in the car. We would rarely be told where we were going. We might end up at the grocery store or in Florida. Each journey in the car was a wondrous adventure because we could turn up just about anywhere. We not only had no clue about where we were going, we had no notion that our destination was something of which we should be informed. We were truly just along for the ride.
In awakened awareness, we rediscover our innocence. The intelligence sees that, despite the memories of many years, there is yet a presence that has never been written upon in memory and exists only and always now. We are once again along for the ride, and life itself becomes a wondrous adventure as we let it take us rather than chase it down. This doesn’t mean that we passively lie around until someone says, “Go get in the car.” It simply means that we feel and move through the world with hearts of innocence. Wherever fate leads–in passion or quiet–an innocent heart makes the journey heavenly. Where we end up or what we see along the way is of less consequence.
“May you walk in beauty.”
In awakened awareness, seeing beauty results from one’s perception and not necessarily from the thing perceived. What we often describe as beautiful is merely a conditioned interpretation that is entrained to see one thing as beautiful and another as revolting. Awakened awareness, however, overrides this conditioning and is able to see beauty in the most unlikely of places because it sees the universal essence of things.
Some years ago, I was in India to visit Poonjaji when a dramatic shift in my perception occurred. I had become, over many trips during the previous twenty years, more and more allergic to India. By that I mean I had developed such revulsion for the sights, smells, and sounds that accost one’s senses every day there that I went around with a slight feeling of nausea. Nevertheless, India continued to draw me because of its rich spiritual heritage and the great teachers who lived there. I also enjoyed being occasionally unplugged from the hectic pace of Western life, and, in the old days at least, India provided a feeling of stepping into the colonial past the moment I emerged from the plane onto the subcontinent. But I had long ago lost all romantic notions about much of India and instead noticed its disease, pollution, poverty, and superstition. It seemed after a while that my eye fell upon ugliness at nearly every turn.
Being with Poonjaji changed all of that. I began to sense the presence of the life force in myself and, soon, in everything around me. While I was showering one day, the bath tiles came alive as I imagined, could almost feel, their subatomic particles swirling within. When walking, I no longer experienced myself as a separate body but as a movement in and through an all-encompassing landscape. This perception in turn produced feelings of warmth and appreciation for every strange, wonderful, or ordinary thing I chanced upon. Now, wherever my eye landed, my heart was lit up by the indwelling presence it recognized there. The wart hogs eating garbage on the side of the road became beautiful to me because I could feel my own essence and sense that same essence in them. They and I, embodying different forms, were just part of the unbounded panorama of existence.
In Zen they say, “When you wake up, the whole world wakes up.” One’s awakened awareness recognizes its own nature in everything, seeing its source as the source of all. One then perceives in love and wholeness, experiencing beauty not merely in certain objects, people, or places but as an awakened heart intelligence at one with its world.
So often our definition and appreciation of beauty comes from a limited awareness. Sure, we can see beauty in the creamy pink cheeks and shining eyes of a child, in the purple and red glow of sunrise over a snowy field, or in the languid grace of a gorgeous woman. Identifying these as beautiful requires no special intelligence. Our genes and cultural conditioning do that work for us. We easily respond to typical triggers of instinct and what we have been taught to define as beauty.
But in awakened awareness the experience of beauty is not about how a person, place, or thing looks; it is about how the one who is looking feels. We are able to see beauty even in what our instincts or cultural conditioning define as horrid. This is not in a Pollyanna sense of seeing a silver lining in every cloud or telling stories that deny the horrid. The horrid is also seen and noted in awakened awareness but is accepted as part of the whole. As a human animal we may move away from an unpleasant smell, but we need not experience the smell as an alien force, separate from totality. Rumi said, “Imagine the delight of walking on a noisy street and being the noise.” In awakened awareness we are not mentally carving up the world into what should be included or not. We sense the world as a vast extension of ourselves. We belong to it and it belongs to us. Imagine the delight.
The beauty that we experience in outward manifestation is a direct reflection of the beauty of our internal reality. Have you ever noticed how someone you love or one who has simply been kind to you may suddenly look beautiful even though you might have once considered that same face to be plain? What was it that changed? In awakened awareness we are not solely dependent on visual stimulation to experience beauty because we recognize that the greatest conduit for the experience of beauty is love. When we love, we see beauty; we speak in beauty; we walk in beauty. In love, we are beauty itself.
There is a story told by the late Japanese potter Hiroshi Eguchi of a visit to his pottery store in Nagasaki by Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan in 1948. Blind and deaf since birth, Keller had by that time spent more than sixty years in a relentless love of learning and discovery of beauty. The potter Eguchi had seen his city devastated by the atomic bomb just three years before and felt embittered toward Americans. Nevertheless, he consented to show the two women around his store and was intrigued when Keller picked up a special old Imari pot. As she examined it with her hands she exclaimed, “Oh, how lovely.” Eguchi indignantly thought to himself, “How can this old blind American lady understand the beauty and value of this pot!”
Seven years later, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan made a second trip to Nagasaki and again visited the pottery store. Imagine Eguchi’s surprise when Keller asked him to show her the Imari pot she had “seen” years before. On hearing this, Eguchi realized he had previously misjudged Helen Keller’s capacity for appreciation. He would later write of this episode, “It is not by our eyes that we appreciate pottery. It is our hearts that feel the beauty of pottery.”
Perhaps Eguchi lived long enough to realize that it is our hearts that feel the beauty of everything.
“If the only prayer you say in your whole life is “thank you,’ that would suffice.” —Meister Eckhart
Gratitude is a precursor to delight. To be truly happy is to live in gratitude. In awakened awareness, we feel grateful simply for life itself. That we exist at all, witnessing the wonders of life for the span of our existence, is an immeasurable gift and reason enough to live entirely in gratitude. Yet, as our awareness deepens and expands, we find gratitude for all kinds of things, great and small, happy and sad, within that existence.
In Dharma Dialogues, people often ask me about the meaning of grace. I reply that grace is gratitude. In fact, the words “grace” and “gratitude” share the same Latin root. Living in grace means accepting whatever comes one’s way with thankfulness. Grace is not, as is commonly misunderstood, a situation whereby everything goes your way. People will mistakenly think that they were in some sort of grace because they were bumped into first class or chanced to meet the right person at the right time or any other such lucky occurrence. But true grace is an attitude of acceptance and appreciation for whatever comes our way, the hardships as well as the joys. Grace is the openheartedness that whispers “okay” while everything is falling apart.
There is a story of an old wise woman named Suko who lived in Japan and was known for her great joy. One day a man came to visit her and said, “I am very self-centered and unhappy most of the time. Please tell me how to become joyous.” Suko replied, “Whatever happens to you, simply say to the universe, “Thank you; thank you for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever.'” She told him to come back in a year and report to her his progress.
The man left and one year later returned to Suko. He reported that he had been doing what she had told him. He had been saying “thank you” for everything. But, alas, he was still self-absorbed and miserable. “Now what?” he asked.
And Suko said, “Again say, “Thank you. Thank you for all of it. I have no complaints whatsoever.'” It is said that the man realized in that moment the true power of gratitude, that there was no exception to what one can be thankful for, and that even his misery could be seen with appreciation. It had worn down his resistance, humbled him, and brought him to the wise woman. As the story goes, he entered into a stream of everlasting joy.
Some years ago when I was living in Portland, Oregon, the writer Andrew Harvey came to visit me when he was in town to lead a workshop. Upon his arrival on an unusually hot summer day, we went to the
famous Japanese Gardens of Portland and then drove into town to do some errands. Errands completed, we walked back to where I thought we had parked the car, but the car was nowhere to be found. As we
searched block after block, my mind raced to the possibility that the car had been stolen, as I knew that this particular area of town had a high rate of car theft.
Onward we paced in the midday heat. After nearly an hour I noticed that Andrew, who had a bad back, was beginning to move a lot more slowly. Tentatively, I asked him what was in his luggage that had been left in the car. “Well…my passport, the notes to my new manuscript, and seven hundred dollars in cash,” he said. “But you have lost your whole car,” he added sympathetically.
As we walked, Andrew remarked on the beautiful architecture of the buildings we were passing. He noted that, given the propensity for rain in Portland, we were lucky to be dry in our current endeavor. He stopped to admire a small vegetable garden in a front yard. Each time he spoke, it was to appreciate something of beauty. Soon, I found my own resistance to the lost car situation melting away. If the car was stolen, it was already gone. We would file the police reports and find a way home. There was no point in missing the lovely architecture and gardens along our way. So after a while, I too began to notice little aspects of sweet life that passed before me on that summer day: the smells from the street food vendors, an old lady smiling in a wheelchair with face turned to the sun, a boy unwrapping a newly purchased kite. We walked in a state of grace, in gratitude.
Eventually we found the car where I had evidently parked and mindlessly left it hours before. Although finding the car was a great relief, the time spent searching for it had been somehow delightful. Wherever there is real appreciation, delight is not far away. The attitude of gratitude is in itself one of the most valued components for delight. This attitude does not depend on the objects for which we are grateful; it is entirely subjective, a way of perceiving, a lens through which we view the world. The lens of gratitude.
A few years ago my brother Glenn became extremely ill and was subsequently diagnosed with AIDS. Having spent his life seeking things outside of himself and in the future for happiness, he had been unhappy for his previous thirty-two years. The diagnosis of AIDS and the prospect of having a shortened life forced his awareness into a deep appreciation of what time and experience is left to him. He is now happier than ever before. He would not say he is grateful for having AIDS. But having AIDS has made him grateful for life.
If we could know the day and hour of our death, we might well experience an appreciation for every breath, sight, sound, or touch. And though most of us do not know the exact hour of our death, we can be sure that it will come soon enough. Perhaps at the juncture between being and being no more, we will appreciate the gift of life, but why wait until the end to do so? The gift is no less precious now. Why not let our intelligence be wide awake in gratitude and thereby find delight in each day of this priceless existence?
a contagion of joy
“Let joy be unconfined.”
For nearly a year while living in the San Francisco Bay area, I would go from my home in Marin County into the city of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge in the late afternoon. There was in those days a toll taker, an older black man of infectious delight, who seemed to me an embodiment of awakened awareness. In the few seconds it took to hand him the toll or for him to return change, he always offered a sweet word and a smile. I found myself making sure to get in his lane as I approached the tollbooth, and after a while it felt like visiting an old friend. No matter the weather or the amount of traffic on the bridge, he was impervious to gloom. “What a beautiful day,” he would beam. “So nice to see you.”
I noticed on quite a number of occasions that if the car ahead of me had children in it, the toll taker would hand something to each of them. One day when there was no one waiting behind me, I asked him what it was that he gave to the children. “Oh, that’s from my stash of Tootsie Rolls,” he said, showing me a jumbo bag of the candies. “I like to give the little ones a treat because some of them are on long road trips.”
Once, while sitting in traffic on the bridge, I tried to mentally calculate the number of people with whom the toll taker might come into contact in an eight-hour shift. I tried to imagine how many people his friendliness might be affecting, if only a small fraction of them were responsive to it. I don’t remember the number of my estimate now, only that it seemed significantly high. I know that in my own case, those few moments of meeting him each day were a reminder of joy, and I marveled at how much delight this one man, in an unenviable job, was potentially spreading around. “This guy should work at the U.N.,” I thought to myself.
Our happiness is a gift not only to ourselves but to everyone in our lives. Whether we are exuberant in our expressions or merely twinkling in silence, joy can be contagious for those around us. Most of us know the experience of laughter starting up in perhaps an inappropriate context and being impossible to contain. Soon no one remembers or cares what started it, but the whole thing has become too hilarious to stop. In this same way, a current of joy can spread from a particular person and after a while those around him or her cannot remember its origins, only that they are feeling helplessly delighted.
Our happiness also gives the gift of a lack of worry about us to our loved ones. They can cross us off their list of anxieties. In fact, when loved ones think of us in their own moments of difficulty, it soothes and reminds them of well-being, of safe harbor. A beam of light rushing into a cavern of darkness.
Many years ago while forming a service organization that dealt with numerous international tragedies, I became agitated and depressed. The truth was that, as laudable as the organization was, I didn’t like the work and brought little joy to it. I was there because I thought I should be, and at least some of my motivation concerned the way my being involved with such an important project looked to others. One day, my friend Howie Cohn came to have lunch with me. He had just returned from a trip to India in which he had met the man who would eventually become my own teacher, Poonjaji. As we walked to the restaurant, I could feel the heaviness of each of my steps in comparison to Howie’s lightness of foot and heart. He talked very little of his time with Poonjaji, but a warmth of joy poured from his every move and word. His mind was clear, refreshing, and playful. I found myself laughing deeply for the first time in weeks.
When I returned to the office, I knew I had to leave that job (and soon thereafter did). If we are not bringing joy to a circumstance, our service is questionable. We may be trudging on like good soldiers, but it is not inspiring. When we are awake in delight, our very presence is encouraging. Even the thought of us is helpful to someone in difficulty. In times of unhappiness I often envision the face of the Dalai Lama and am immediately reminded that there is a possibility of joy in the most trying of situations. The Dalai Lama consistently radiates happiness even though he is daily aware of enormous suffering in Tibet and elsewhere. This is, of course, not to deny sadness. It is simply to know the channel of delight that prevails in awakened awareness; it prevails in sadness as well.
Years ago, a man whose girlfriend had just been murdered attended one of our retreats. Understandably, this man had enormous sadness coursing through him, along with a general numbness to the world. We held his suffering in our hearts in a gentle sharing of that horrific loss, an amortizing of the burden. Yet so strong was the power of being with others in retreat that after a few days he was able to feel himself, to cry, and to begin to appreciate the beauty that surrounded him. He even managed to experience delight; several times during the group sessions I noticed him heartily laughing as day by day he brightened in the contagion of love and joy that surrounded him. And although he may well have dipped again into grief upon leaving the comfort of the loving retreat community, he had at least been reminded of the well of happiness still possible, despite the terrible loss he had suffered.
Delight is the natural antidote to misery. In awakened awareness we let our delight shine just a little brighter in the company of others in case anyone else’s lantern of joy has dimmed. And just as with the lighting of one lantern from another, there is only a surge of brightness in the combined illumination, with no diminishment of light to the original lantern. A gift that renews and enhances itself merely by giving.
the moon is always full
“Be in love with your life.”
–Jack Kerouac, List of Essentials
Throughout each month we refer to the moon in its various stages according to our view of it. We call it a sliver moon, a quarter moon, a half moon, or a full moon. The moon, in its wholeness, might be surprised by how many billions of people have seen it as otherwise, since the moon, unto itself, is always full.
Just so, in awakened awareness, we know we are whole in ourselves, no matter what anyone else’s perception of us might be. Our lives and experiences are uniquely our own, tapestries whose every thread is in its place, even as they continue to be woven. No one else can fully know the quivers of inspiration or tender silent observations that comprise our mental landscape. We revel in them mostly without articulation or need for acknowledgment. It is a secret delight.
For much of my adult life I had the notion that surrounding myself with exciting people and having exotic adventures around the world would enhance my person. It seemed, too, that having these kinds of experiences and people in my life would induce admiration from others. I would be an enchanting person in their eyes and, without any conscious decision about this, I felt I would be a deeper and happier person in myself. Wanderlust and an appetite for experiences that seemed edgy, radical, or even dangerous prompted me to keep on the move, relentlessly notching new places, ideas, amazing characters, and all kinds of mind experimentation onto the belt of “me.” I became, in my mind, a collection of intriguing adventure stories and a hub for fascinating people.
In this pursuit I also felt that the lives of people in more simple, stay-at-home existences were small and stifling. Oh, there were the exceptions, of course. Emily Dickinson stayed put in her home in Massachusetts and wrote great poetry. Shakespeare probably didn’t get around much but intellectually changed the world. These and other gifted people managed to have extraordinary interior lives without a lot of travel or the company of exciting society. But secretly, I thought that most people who were living quiet simple lives, perhaps raising a family, working a job until retirement, or farming some land, were generally boring and likely narrow-minded.
Of course, time has a way of humbling us and forcing us to reconsider long held opinions. It became clear that, despite my dedication to the glamorous bohemian life, the addition of experiences did not necessarily induce a deepening of quality, insight, or happiness. It also became clear that the so-called ordinary life of most people was not necessarily limited in quality, insight, or happiness by the fact that they didn’t travel much or have sophisticated friends. In other words, the delights and profundity of any life depend on the internal relationship we have with our own wholeness and not on the external accumulation of experiences and people.
Leo Tolstoy told a story about three Christian hermits living for decades on an island near northern Russia. Learning of their reputation for holiness and asceticism, a bishop decided to pay them a visit and to teach them what he could. Upon his arrival on the island, the bishop said, “Tell me, how do you pray to God?”
“We pray in this way,” replied the hermits. “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy on us!”
Smiling, the bishop recognized their misguided attempt to honor the Holy Trinity but patiently explained to the hermits that they did not pray correctly. For many hours he expounded on faith and taught the hermits traditional prayers, making them repeat phrases a hundred times over. Taking leave of them, the bishop thanked God for having sent him to help such worthy but confused men. Back on the ship that night the bishop could not sleep, so excited was he by his accomplishment with the hermits. After several hours had passed, however, he noticed something bright and shining, moving on the moonlit sea. As the vision came more into focus, he plainly saw that it was the three hermits running across the top of the water at a fantastic speed.
“We have forgotten your teaching, Servant of God,” announced the hermits as they approached the boat. “As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped for a while, it went all to pieces. Please teach us again.”
Stunned by what he had just witnessed, the bishop bowed low before them and said, “Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you.”
Living in wholeness gives each of our lives power and dignity, no matter the apparent limitations of our circumstances, knowledge, or life experiences. Accepting life without second-guessing how it should have been or might be allows us to truly enjoy life as it is. Recently I saw a documentary about some Hispanic ghetto kids in a school in Los Angeles. The film particularly focused on a young, slightly overweight girl named Mayra who appeared to be about nine or ten years old. Very bright and talkative in fluent English, Mayra revealed her innermost self in a way rarely seen among young people, and each word she said made her more endearing.
I was especially struck by Mayra’s joy as she proudly showed the filmmaker around the one-room tenement in East Los Angeles that she shared with her sibling, mother, and uncle. With everything neatly in its place, she pointed out where each of the family slept in various bunks, and she meticulously went through the carefully arranged sections of the one and only closet allotted to them, noting which grouping of clothing belonged to which family member. Mayra spends most of her days alone in this room after school while her mother and uncle work at menial jobs to support the family. Yet seeing her clomping around in her mother’s high heels and dancing a few steps for the camera, I felt she may as well have been on a stage in front of thousands, so great was the pleasure she seemed to take in the act.
In awakened awareness we no longer demand that the context of our lives provide our happiness, nor do we hope to view our wholeness through anyone else’s eyes. Mayra has not yet learned to diminish her experience by telling herself that the circumstances of her life leave much to be desired or that others might feel sorry for her. Her joy is the happiness of one who simply feels fine about herself, a full moon dancing in a tenement.
“He who binds himself to a joy
Doth the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”
Contentment is perhaps the most underrated aspect of happiness in our culture. Mostly we are conditioned by advertising and society to equate contentment with boredom. From an early age we are inducted in the message that happiness means wanting and getting things. About a week after the destruction of the World Trade Center and the loss of nearly three thousand lives, our government and media called upon its citizenry for their help. What they suggested was not to count our blessings, or to realize life’s uncertainty and be more kind to one another, or to diminish our dependence on foreign resources. No, according to the government and advertising media, the most important and patriotic act for us in the face of the national tragedy was to purchase products. Spend money. Get back to consuming. Like Manchurian Candidates programmed to shop, we are expected to go along in a nearly robotic buying trance upon which even a large-scale catastrophe should barely impinge.
I don’t see an evil conspiracy on the part of the government and corporations. Those organizations are comprised simply of people, just folks. But there are a number of fallacies under which many of the people in those institutions operate. They assume that wanting more and always being hungry for the next thing is a desirable condition. They are engaged in this assumption, not to pull one over on an unsuspecting public, but because they, too, want more things and are trying to get them. They just happen to be in positions of power that allow them to readily do so by convincing masses of people likewise. It’s a pyramid scheme on a large scale. Unfortunately, the players are slow to notice that this is not leading to happiness and that the runaway train of consumption is killing much of life on the earth. If we were all more content, we would consume less. Contentment therefore becomes one of the most revolutionary acts a person in Western culture can experience. But feeling content goes against all cultural norms and conditioning, and that is why it is so rare.
In awakened awareness, however, contentment seeps into one’s being like the smell of ocean on a tropical breeze. Because one is not distracted by stories of what is missing, one’s appreciation of what is here becomes subtler. A former entertainment lawyer and television writer who attends Dharma Dialogues told me recently that he can scarcely believe his ability to watch birds from the window of his apartment and feel completely content. He no longer has a need to be bombarded with media stimuli in order to feel entertained. In fact, he has begun to experience such bombardment as an assault on his senses. His taste has become more refined. Content with simpler things and less interested in elaborate drama, he experiences now a peace he had never known during many years of seeking and acquiring.
Perhaps the greatest example of contentment that I know of is the life of Ramana Maharshi. One of the most revered of contemporary Indian sages, Ramana had an extraordinary awakening in 1896 when he was just sixteen years old. After school one day, young Ramana was overcome by the thought of death. How could it be that everyone was destined to die? More to the point, how could it be that he was going to die? Stricken with fear, he lay down and allowed his awareness to examine what exactly it was that would die and what could possibly remain. In the span of twenty minutes he realized what he called the Self, the substratum of existence, which infuses everything. Because he recognized his fundamental nature as that substratum, the fear of death left him and never returned. Moreover, he was filled with love, an appreciation of the Self in all its forms. So absorbed was he in this newfound delight that he could no longer bear the mundane activities of life as a schoolboy. Ordinary studies seemed to him a distraction from his immersion in Self. Six weeks after his realization, he left home and went directly to the mountain Arunachala, a sacred pilgrimage spot that had always held a mysterious lure for him.
There, on and around the mountain, Ramana spent the rest of his life. So great was his contentment that until his death in 1950 he never left Arunachala, even for a day. For many of his initial years there he lived in complete silence, dwelling in caves, clad only in a loincloth. After some time, devotees began to collect around him, drawn by the silent love that emanated from him. Eventually, an ashram formed to accommodate the devotees and visitors. Scholars, writers, heads of state, spiritual teachers, and seekers from around the world also came to sit in his presence. Over the years, Ramana would occasionally answer questions but mostly he remained silent, helping out with ashram chores, tending to the animals, or resting on his dais. Having never sought the world, the world came to him.
I was a young woman when I first saw a photo of Ramana Maharshi, taken in his later years. I remember looking at the picture and having the thought, “That is what I would like to look like at that age.” His face radiated contentment; his eyes gazed into forever. It was perhaps the most beautiful face I had ever seen. I attempted to read a few of his teachings, but they were too simple and direct for my complicated spiritual needs and beliefs at the time. It was a long journey to come home to them. Who could have known that in meeting Poonjaji nearly twenty years later I would find myself with a teacher whose own living teacher had been Ramana Maharshi?
The deepest contentment comes from recognizing the pervading life force in everything. It is the experience of witnessing an infinitely creative intelligence endlessly manifesting itself. We call its comings and goings life and death. But from another perspective, all is consciousness, endlessly rearranging itself into form and formlessness. There is no need to demand that its creatures of form should continue past death in some manner when the underlying reality from which they spring is infinite. Knowing this, we are witnesses to eternity, if only for a very short while.