Friday, August 7, 2009

Be Here Now & Read Autobiography of a Yogi

At Santa Fe Community College, a lot of the cool kids were raving about a new book with a purple cover called "Remember, Be Here Now." I was so not cool, but wanted to look cool, so I bought the book in 1972 and carried it around, hoping someone would notice. I tried to read it but it was too far out for me then. I wasn't ready for Ram Dass and, to be perfectly honest, I didn't understand what "being here now" meant. One section of the book had brown pages and reminded me of a coloring book so I colored pictures of lotus flowers and caterpillars, ignoring my old conditioning that warned me that nice girls never write in books (or God forbid, color outside the lines).

"Be Here Now" was one of the most influential books of the 1970s . It spoke to a generation's search for meaningful spirituality. Later it became one of my favorite books as well. Later still, one of the great joys of my life was going to Tampa, Florida with Gordon to hear a lecture by Ram Dass. He was down-to-earth and funny. We all laughed when he said, "I only have two different talks, the five dollar one and the ten dollar one. This is the five dollar one." After the talk, I happily waited in line for one of his neverending hugs. I'll never forget it. It was the kind of unrushed hug where you know the other person will not break away first.

We saw Ram Dass again when he came to Gainesville on Feb. 2, 2003. “An Evening with Ram Dass” was presented by the University of Florida Center for Spirituality and Health. More than 2000 of us gathered at the Reitz Union ballroom on UF’s campus. The evening turned into an unplanned reunion for everyone who had ever been part of the new age/holistic/metaphysical commmunity who had not moved away. Many of us had been touched deeply in the past by the messages of this wonderful teacher we had come to see. Ram Dass was there to speak about his encounters with Eastern religion, his dedication to compassionate service, and his experiences with conscious aging, illness and death. He shared from his book "Still Here," which he was led to write when he was "stroked" in 1997 and how the massive stroke caused him to slow down and settle into the moment.  The book was aimed at the growing numbers of aging baby boomers and their collective fears about getting older, with the possibly of having a debilitating end-of-life illness, and ultimately, their own death.

My dear friend, Rev. Linda Joy, described Ram Dass as "shimmering with Light as he sat in his wheelchair." I could not have found truer words for this man we loved. Linda Joy reminded me that George Tortorelli played the opening flute that night, followed by a showing of the 2001 documentary "Ram Dass:Fierce Grace." The movie followed Ram Dass from his childhood as Richard Alpert, the son of an affluent Boston lawyer, through his days as a Harvard faculty member who, with Timothy Leary, was expelled in 1963 for experimenting with LSD.  After traveling to India he met his guru, Maharaji Neem Karoli Baba (called Maharaji) and was given the name Ram Dass, which means Servant of God. The movie chronicled the "glory days of hippiedom" through the use of archival film of the counter-culture of the sixties and seventies.

Early in the movie we heard the often-read compassionate letter that Ram Dass wrote to comfort the family of a murdered daughter. If you have never read his touching "Rachel's Letter" it can be found at:
Ram Dass' official website is 

By my late twenties, I had outgrown the church of my parents' preference, as well as the "once-removed" church I tried next. Still, I had a spiritual longing eating away at me deep inside. It motivated me to explore the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in 1977. The Fellowship was on NW 43rd Street and the people were friendly and welcomed me. One Sunday, the speaker was Alice Christensen, the mother of a member of the Fellowship,  She was a disciple of Swami Rama of Haridwar, India. She was also the guru of The Light of Yoga Society. I had no idea a woman could be a guru, yet there she was, an American yogini wearing regular clothes, standing right in front of me. We were starting to attract some very interesting spiritual teachers to Gainesville.

(In 1982 the Society was renamed the American Yoga Association. Their two centers are located in Sarasota, Florida, and Cleveland Heights, Ohio. )
I was drawn to Guru Alice, so after the service I went up to her to ask the question that nagged at me. I told her I was confused about what to do to find my true spiritual path. Could she suggest something that might help me? She looked me straight in the eye and without hesitation calmly said, "Read Autobiography of a Yogi" by Paramahansa Yogananda. So I did.

Then Suzy Coleman (now the talented artist called Aliye Cullu) turned me on to Yogananda's Self-Realization Fellowship lessons which she had studied, so I subscribed to them by correspondence. I learned about Kriya Yoga. I fasted. I became a vegetarian. Most of all, I learned to meditate and a new inner world opened up for me. Soon I learned there was a Gainesville group dedicated to studying the teachings of Yogananda.

Seems groups were sprouting here for every possible spiritual path one could think of that might be considered outside the mainstream. We had then, and still have, many wonderful mainstream houses of worship for all denominations, though the Eastern teachings were relatively new here at that time. The Beatles got a lot of the credit for their popularity after they met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who introduced them to Transcendental Meditation in Rishikesh, India, in the 1960s. The Beatles spent some much-publicized time in India, making it popular for Americans to study the spiritual traditions of the East.
Today the entire text of Yogananda's life-changing autobiography can be read online for free, complete with photos, at .
Self-Realization Fellowship's website is
Aliye's beautiful paintings can be seen at

I just discovered Yogananda himself chanting "O God Beautiful" on YouTube! What a surprise!
Here are the words and the link to the video which has many beautiful still photos of Yogananda.
O God Beautiful
(From Nanak’s Song)
O God Beautiful; O God Beautiful;
At Thy feet, O I do bow.
In the forest Thou art green;
In the mountain Thou art high;
In the river Thou art restless;
In thy ocean Thou art grave.
O God Beautiful; O God Beautiful!
At Thy feet, O I do bow!
O God Beautiful; O God Beautiful
To the serviceful Thou art service;
To the lover Thou art love;
To the sorrowful Thou art sympathy;
To the yogi Thou art bliss.

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