Questions Phrased As Statements: Feeling My Way Through A Dark Room
My friend, Ram Dass, used to practice turning people into trees.
In his own words, he put it this way:
“When you go out into the woods…you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”
I never actually met Ram Dass. Born Richard Alpert in 1931, he notoriously emerged in the public eye as an American psychologist at the forefront of psychedelic research alongside Timothy Leary at Harvard. After being dismissed from the institution in 1963, the two dedicated the next few years towards further explorations of “higher states of consciousness” via psychedelics. In 1967, he traveled to India, where he eventually met an Indian Hindu mystic named Neem Karoli Baba (or Maharaj-ji, as his devotees referred to him). In the presence of Maharaj-ji, Alpert experienced an intense awakening to what he described as pure unconditional love, and Maharaj-ji became his guru, changing the course of his life forever. He gave him the name Ram Dass, which means “servant of God.” From then until his death in December 2019, Ram Dass spent his life sharing spiritual wisdom, cracking jokes, and serving God.
At least that’s the “storyline” way of thinking about him. To me, he’s like a rascally pal who comes to visit from time to time to hang out or help me cool down when I get uptight about a situation.
When I first came across his lectures on a podcast called Ram Dass Here and Now as a twenty-two year old in late 2017, I was already going through a profound shift in my spiritual paradigm. I had let go of my identity as a Christian earlier that year to explore what it felt like to not filter my life experience through any one specific framework. I was also becoming more interested in mindfulness meditation. Before I left the country that August to study abroad in Spain, my friend Julio gave me a zine titled “We Are The Cosmos.” It was a dialogue between two characters about how to tune your mind to the present. What struck me the most when I read it was the phrase “You are Awareness.” I thought about it often while I was in Spain, and I felt a growing hunger to learn more.
One night while I was there, I remembered hearing Michael Gungor, a singer-songwriter, author, and co-founder of an art collective called The Liturgists, talk about meeting Ram Dass on a podcast episode, and I decided to look him up to see if this “Ram Dass” had anything to say that could help me explore this idea that I was Awareness.
To be honest, I was on the fence about him at first. I felt vaguely annoyed about the way he talked about his guru and about the fact that he was a Harvard elite who had a spiritual experience in India. “Who does this guy think he is?” I thought to myself.
Still, I found myself returning to listen. I had never heard anyone talk about spirituality in such a playful way. He often referred to it as a game, and to our situations and incarnations — our embodied experiences on earth — as “trips.” I liked that he had a sense of humor about it all, and I found that it helped me lighten up too. I was learning a lot.
One of the first things I learned about was cultivating the perspective of “The Witness,” which basically means living the story of my life but watching it from a place where I’m not stuck identifying with the character in the story. The character’s situation is constantly going up and down, and there’s a lot of drama baked into the whole thing. Meanwhile, behind the layers of thoughts and beliefs and worries — worries about the world and about myself and about how I am being perceived — is a quality of awareness that’s just witnessing it all unfolding, moment by moment, as the exquisite dance of existence — free of judgement.
I practiced working with concepts like that for the rest of my time in Spain, whether I was alone or at school or at the club. After working daily with these new perspectives for a couple months, I felt my heart beginning to open.
When I arrived back home to Austin in January 2018, I wanted to tell everyone how much I loved God or Awareness or existence, whatever, but I realized that just talking about it would diminish the reality to a concept, a conversation topic. That’s when it started to sink in that my life is the expression of this love. I wanted to express my love for God as the love of God in my every action, appreciating the beautiful mystery hiding behind the eyes of every being.
Seeking to learn more about how to awaken to this way of being in the world, I began to study the source material of what Ram Dass and other spiritual teachers were referencing. I read the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and even revisited the Bible through a nondual perspective. I went to a zen center on the weekends and practiced sitting meditation. I began regularly chanting the Sanskrit mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. I listened to a record Ram Dass put together with WBAI FM NY, a radio station, called “Love, Serve, Remember,” a compilation of call-in radio segments, readings of spiritual texts from various traditions, music, and guided meditations.
However, after a couple of months of being back home, life became a lot busier, and I started to feel fatigued and distracted. What initially began as an earnest desire to awaken to my true nature subtly morphed into something that resembled what felt like an arm-chair, hobbyist interest in spirituality. It was fun to think about but difficult to practice.
Around that time, I heard someone talk about their routine of floating in a sensory deprivation tank as a part of their meditation practice and how it helped them get really quiet inside. Pretty soon, I wanted to see for myself what it was like, so I looked up a float spa in town and booked an appointment.
I arrived a little early, and a woman named Tera gave me a cup of tea to sip on while she got my room ready. I had brought my copy of Be Here Now, a publication Ram Dass put together in the early ’70s with the Llama Foundation, with me to flip through while I waited. It’s part memoir, part metaphysical art zine, part manual for living a yogic life. Usually I’d just read it while I smoked a joint. I was about to reach for it in my bag when I saw another copy of the book already on the table in front of me. I picked it up and took it for a test drive, noticing the differences in the way this copy felt compared to mine. The paper felt softer and its creases were deep. I was wondering how many people had flipped through this copy when I caught sight of the float spa guestbook on the same table. I cracked it open in search of treasures.
I encountered entry after entry about blissful states of consciousness, feelings of surrender, etc. I was really eating it up, imagining what I would get to write after experiencing an hour in a float pod, cut off from the noise and troubles of the w o r l d. I was deep in the middle of reading about someone’s experience of “floating in the cosmic river” when Tera came back in to show me to my room.
The room was small and square, with a white elongated egg-shaped tank filled with salt water placed in the middle. In the corner was a walk-in shower for pre- and post-float rinse offs. After Tera explained the controls on the tank, which included “colored lights and a music player if I wanted,” she gave me a towel and a pair of ear plugs and left the room.
I turned the shower on and began to rinse off. “Well I’m not gonna put music and lights on in the tank,” I scoffed to myself, “I came here to experience silence and darkness — those will just be distractions.” Then something within me started to feel embarrassed for being so zealous. I shook it off and tried to be present. “That’s why I am here,” I thought, “to practice being present,” and tried to just let myself feel the sensation of the warm water splashing on my shoulders for a moment.
I’ve always seen myself as a person after God’s own heart. Eclipsing the guilt and shame that were woven into the fabric of my evangelical worldview growing up as a pastor’s kid, the idea that everything and everyone in the world – including myself – is a creation of God absolutely captivated my heart, and I felt deeply connected to the universe as a part of Creation. This felt connection planted the seeds of curiosity, wonder, and appreciation in my heart. I began to ask questions about the world, and the more I learned, the more questions I had.
In high school, as my parents and I moved further away ideologically from Christian culture, I began to wrestle with fundamental questions about how I viewed God, Jesus, the Bible, and the universe. This developed into a six year process of deconstruction, oscillating between periods of what felt like clarity and radiance to complete disbelief in the whole thing.
First, I was concerned with questions of God’s existence, wondering if I would ever be able reconcile my faith with my growing love for science. After arriving in Austin for my freshman year of college in 2014, I joined a student organization called Labyrinth, a scrappy little community mostly consisting of queer people of varying beliefs who “[took] the Bible seriously but not literally” and “[asked] hard questions about God, life, and spirituality” through the lens of Christianity. Labyrinth was exactly the kind of community I was looking for. I loved getting to hear other people’s perspectives and engaging in long conversations with the minister, Rev. Amelia Fulbright, over theological questions or just general life stuff. What I really appreciated about being there was that no one tried to get you to believe anything; it was all about making a space to help each other grow and enjoying each other’s company.
In my time at Labyrinth, I flipped back and forth between believing and not believing in God (and not knowing what that even meant) for a couple of years, until I gradually started to feel that maybe it didn’t matter if I believed or not. By 2017, I was beginning to see religions and spiritual practices more like artistic mediums that we can use to experience God in our hearts and in the world – naming the unnameable; not to define, but to encounter.
It began to not make sense for me to think of God as something to believe or not believe in. Those kinds of conversations turn God into an object. Into a thing.
I started to lean into the feeling that God isn’t a thing.
“But if God isn’t a thing,” I had wondered, “then what is God? A story? A process? Isn’t a process a thing? Certainly any concept of a process is.” So how the hell was I supposed to think about God?
As I finished up my shower, a wave of excitement washed over me. I had really been looking forward to floating, and now I was finally about to do it.
I stepped out of the shower, hesitating for a moment, unsure if I should dry off before getting in or just go for it. I decided it made the most sense to just get in, so I tip-toed over to the open tank, climbed in, and shut the hatch. As I was settling down into the water, though, I noticed a sliver of light peeking through the entire perimeter of where the lid met the tank. “Ugh, I left the main light in the room on,” I sighed to myself and climbed out of the tank, dripping wet, to turn it off.
I shuffled back over to the tank in the dark, opened the hatch, climbed in, and closed it once again. The light was gone. “Finally, this is it,” I thought, as I laid back to float. But as soon as my ears went under, water naturally rushed in to fill them, and I quickly sat back up, remembering the ear plugs Tera had given me to put in before floating.
Again, I climbed out of the tank and stumbled around in the dark looking for the ear plugs. I couldn’t find them on the towel where I thought they had been. My jaw clenched in frustration. I searched around the area some more, and my eyes started to get used to the darkness. Eventually, I found the earplugs in a packet that had fallen on the floor. I ripped open the package and tried to stuff the plugs in my ears, but they kept falling out. Exasperated, I dug in my bag for my phone, turned on the flashlight, and read the instructions on the package that said to make sure my ears were dry before inserting the earplugs. I grabbed the towel nearby and hurriedly patted my ears down before trying again.
That seemed to do the trick, so I inserted the earplugs, walked back over to the tank, took a deep breath, and climbed back in.
As I laid back down into the water, I noticed immediately that I could still hear that underwater sound, and it bothered me. It then occurred to me that the earplugs were meant to keep water out of my ear, not sound. Just as I was starting to understand the absurdity of my frustration, plunk — one of the plugs came out. I reflexively reached out to grab it before it floated away, and in the process, accidentally splashed a bunch of salt water into both of my eyes. Trying not to panic, but also writhing in pain, I found an emergency spray bottle and towelette to sooth my salty eyeballs. As I sat there spraying myself in the face repeatedly with a squirt bottle, naked, in the dark, in an egg-shaped tank filled with water, I burst out laughing.
I remembered something Ram Dass had said about appreciating the humor of our karmic predicaments, and I couldn’t help but feel amused that I had been exerting so much effort to relax and float in water.
Then it dawned on me. That was the crux of the whole issue: I was trying really hard.
This seemed to be a microcosm of my entire approach to spirituality: trying really hard to awaken, trying really hard to love, trying really hard to know God.
It’s like how I used to look into my shower mirror that reflected the wall mirror, creating the appearance of an infinitely cascading hall of mirrors. I could never quite fully see the infinite cascade due to the large head that always blocked the view — my own head.
It’s a gradual process, but I’m starting to see that as long as I think I am getting closer to knowing, I can never arrive, because the self that wants to get there so badly is the very thing obscuring the view.
Here’s another way to put it: I constantly feel like I am falling short. That usually results in me putting myself down in someway, which leads to more feelings of frustration and inadequacy — sorry, the only infinite cascade we have here is S H A M E.
When I heard Ram Dass talk about turning people into trees and allowing and appreciating people just the way they are, I thought it was a nice idea, but I didn’t consider how that also applied to me. Oh yeah… I’m people, too. Oh yeah… who I am is enough. Oh yeah… it’s actually all okay. Oh yeah, oh yeah…
The delightful paradox about what I am learning is that the less I try to get it “right,” the easier it is to get out of my own way and embody the Love that I always try so hard to be.
My idealized concepts of God and who I think I should be and what I think I should do are all little sandcastles, graciously washed away by the waves of the Ocean.
After I had my long laugh and my eyes stopped stinging, a playful mood swept over me and I began to wiggle and splash around the pod (with my eyes closed, of course), pushing against the sides with my hands and feet. I thought that this must be whatever the opposite feeling of claustrophobia must feel like. My frenzy lasted for a good minute, and then I stopped to catch my breath.
Finally, I relaxed and sunk into the feeling of not needing to do anything or be anyone in particular. My previous thrashing, which had stirred up the water, settled down into small waves that were now rocking me gently.
Making the waves, riding the waves; making the waves, riding the waves, ahhhhh…
And for a moment, I felt held.
Aaron Chávez is a musician and animator living in Austin, Texas. He enjoys participating with others in appreciating the dance of life through contemplative practices, art, and games.