Category Archives: The Spiritual Path

Age Against the Machine

Checking my calendar for the week, I see it filled with medical appointments, errands, calling the cable company to fight about the bill, PT for my knees, aerobic exercise for the heart, and mental gymnastics to counter forgetfulness—“Who was, you know, what’s his name’s daughter?”

As with many of us, aging is bringing “issues” that make it tough to do things I did with ease just a few years ago.

As far back as kindergarten, I’ve been driven to shine, to achieve, win the race, be first in class, selected to give the speech or lead the dance. That drive has always been in my bones, but what to do with it now, when I often feel irrelevant? There are fewer opportunities each year to do the creative work I love.

On my last birthday (the number was, as a friend, said, “an outrage”), my sister, Terry, and I planned to spend the day together. We were in Hawaii, where she lives, and she asked if I wanted to start with a two-hour meditation led by Dr. Dean Nelson on Kailua beach–the most beautiful sweep of sand on the island.

I’d been doing spiritual practices for 40 years. I’ve gone to retreats and classes, heard wisdom from countless sources, and been blessed with friendships with spiritual teachers. But a few years ago, I decided it was time to just live it–apply the wisdom moment by moment, rather than attending more teachings. So I’d resisted Terry’s previous invitations to sit with Dr. Dean, but as this birthday loomed, I was feeling downhearted, and thought, why not? “If you don’t like it,” Terry said, “you can just walk on the beach.” Continue reading

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Ari Shavit Proposes 3rd Way for Israel/Palestine peace

One day after the Jerusalem synagogue attack last week, Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land, proposed a Plan B—an alternative peace process that is gradual and informal, and offers a “horizon of hope.”
When I spoke with him in Denver on Wednesday, Shavit said that formal talks to attain an all-inclusive Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty have always failed, creating a vacuum that has led to accelerating violence. “It’s on the brink now of spiraling out of control.”

What happened in Jerusalem is perilous, he said, “first because you see the influence of ISIS. To attack people while they pray in such a barbaric manner—using meat cleavers—you can see ISIS penetrating the minds of young people in the region.”

The second cause of alarm is that “it’s becoming a religious war,” Shavit said. Before it was primarily nationalistic, but now, “we have a struggle between religious Jews and religious Muslims over the holy city. And the combination of a religious war with ISIS inspiration is a lethal cocktail.”

Shavit repeated this Wednesday night at a sold-out talk capping the Denver JCC’s festival of arts, authors, movies and music. Since publication of Shavit’s book a year ago, his talks across the country have sold out. The book was an instant phenomenon: a captivating and sometimes startling history of Israel that presents all points of view. It soared onto the best-seller list, was praised and occasionally attacked by people from both the left and right, and won the Natan Book Award and the Jewish Book Award.

I found Shavit to be a great bear of a man with a rich, baritone voice. He’s tough-minded but owns an endearing humor and humility. Describing how he wrote the book as a personal historical narrative, he said, “I like my book, and sometimes I even like myself.”

In our interview, Shavit said it’s not realistic to try for a comprehensive peace agreement now, “although I would love to have one.” There’s too much violence and instability, he said. “There’s no leader for peace, no Martin Luther King or Gandhi in the region, and extremists are getting stronger on both sides. We need an alternative peace concept that will give hope and be an organizing principle for stability in the Middle East.”

The alternative he proposes is: a two-state dynamic that proceeds gradually, and will lead, in the long term, to a two-state solution.
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Your Crazy Time?

There was a story Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi told me that I wasn’t able to include in The December Project. It’s about Maimonides, the venerated rabbi, physician, astronomer and philosopher of the 13th century who’s considered one of the key Torah scholars in Jewish history.



Reb Zalman first learned about Maimonides at 14, when he’d just escaped from the Nazis with his family, stealing over the border to Belgium.  After the horrors he’d witnessed, he thought that the God he’d been taught to believe in at his yeshiva had “finked out.” Zalman could no longer accept that there was a “world to come,” when the Messiah would resurrect the dead, the rivers would flow with wine, and bagels would grow on trees.

He was angry and wanted to fight, and since he couldn’t fight God, he was looking for a stand-in. He visited a Torah class and called out, “Do you really believe that when the Messiah comes, the dead will crawl out from their graves to be resurrected? This is stupid! Opiate of the masses. Rob the people in this world but promise they’ll get something in the next.”

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How the Rabbi Got His Name

Reb Zalman in Hasidic garb

Reb Zalman in Hasidic garb

Back in the ’70s, when I met Reb Zalman, the subject of my new book, The December Project, his name was Zalman Schachter.  The last name means ritual slaughterer, which, in old world Jewish communities, was a position of honor second only to the rabbi.

I saw him occasionally through the years, but when I moved to Boulder, CO, in 2002, I found him teaching at Naropa University as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.  I figured he must have married a woman named Shalomi and hyphenated their names.


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Guru Unmasked

I rarely go to see a movie twice, but after watching Kumaré, I went back to see it again the next day. Directed by Vikram Gandhi, the film is hilarious and profound, playful and edgy. A bright, indie film maker conducts an experiment: putting on the orange robes of a guru, he sets out to see if people might find the same inner peace and nourishment from a made-up religion as they do from a “real one.”

Kurt Vonnegut played with this concept in Cat’s Cradle, as do Trey Parker and Matt Stone in The Book of Mormon, which begins a national tour in August for which tickets have sold out in hours. I suspect one reason that Mormon has struck a nerve is that it reveals, under the ribald comedy, a truth that is the central point of Kumaré: religious practices can be made to look absurd, but they can act as a placebo to make people feel happy and inspired.

Vikram Gandhi as himself

Vikram Gandhi was born in New Jersey to parents from India, who forced him to attend Hindu rituals and pray to gods that included a flying monkey and an elephant with a man’s body. He saw it all as embarrassing claptrap that “somebody made up” long ago. He studied religion at Columbia University, which made him more of a skeptic. But at the very time he was trying to throw off his Hindu heritage, he realized that millions of Americans were embracing it. He started making a documentary about yoga and concluded that the gurus he filmed were largely “making stuff up.” He traveled to India, where he found the swamis “just as phony as those I met in America.”

Vikram grows a beard and long hair, wraps some orange cloth around him and begins walking barefoot and carrying a staff with a giant Om symbol. Then all he has to do, he says, is “imitate my grandmother’s voice”—a sing-song Indian accent.

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Who Has the Magic Coin?

I’ve been meeting with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to collaborate on a book he’s calling “The December Project.” I see it as lessons from a rabbi in his later years that you can use for all your years.

On July 1, I’m about to leave Reb Zalman’s house and fly to New York for a magazine assignment. “Wait!” he says, “I want to give you something.” He leads me into his prayer room, which I call “the cave.” It’s small and dark, lit by 3 blinking orange lights that are always burning.

He keeps four charity boxes by the chair where he prays. Opening one, he hands me a coin minted in 2000 that’s worth one dollar and bears the image of a Native American woman with a papoose on her back.

“The Talmud says that emissaries of a mitzvah (good deed) are not harmed,” Reb Zalman says.

He tells me to keep the coin with me and exchange it for one of my own dollar bills. “When you get to a place where you’ll see someone who suffers, you’ll be my emissary and give them something.” He adds that he has a “double purpose. The coin I’m giving you has a female picture instead of a president. I want it to help you do excellent work.”

It felt good, carrying the coin with the Indian woman in my purse. It seemed to be giving off a secret magnetic charge. BUT…as I walked through the streets of New York, I didn’t see any homeless people as I always had before.

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Ram Dass Has a Son!

Ram Dass was working on his new book, Be Love Now, written with his longtime friend, Rameshwar Das, when a letter arrived from a stranger: “I believe you may be the father of my older brother.”

What?! Ram Dass dismissed it at first, thinking, “Someone’s trying to hustle me.” A world-renown spiritual leader, Ram Dass was formerly Richard Alpert, the psychology professor at Harvard who was fired with Timothy Leary for experimenting with LSD. He’s bisexual with a preference for men, has never wanted children and teaches that spiritual love is of a higher order than personal love. He famously said, “If you want to see how enlightened you are, go spend a week with your family.” Having a son—if true—would challenge his beliefs about love.

Peter Reichard with Ram Dass

Two weeks after the letter arrived, a friend of Ram Dass offered to check it out. He spoke with the putative son, arranged for DNA tests and the results came back in October of ‘09: Ram Dass is the father of Peter Reichard, a 53-year-old banker in North Carolina who’d never heard of Ram Dass and was raised with no religion.

When I heard the news, I was shocked. What would the son of Ram Dass be like, and how had this come about? I spoke with them both and learned that Peter was conceived in 1956, when there was no birth control pill and DNA had not been discovered. Alpert, then a lanky grad student at Stanford, had a brief affair with Karen Saum, a feisty and beautiful history major who was planning to marry another man, living in New York, whom we’ll call Hans. She and Hans had agreed to have an open relationship until they began their life together.

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This is a serial about love and awakening. Previously: After making love with me most of the night, Billy leaves in the morning to see another woman. Click here to start with Part One.

Two months before I began seeing Billy, I went to a 5-day retreat with a terrific spiritual teacher, Adyashanti, determined to ask him about a subject that’s not “spiritually correct” — my relationships with men. What I learned from our interaction did not sink in immediately, but it prepared the ground, planted seeds for a new way of feeling and behaving in the arena of sex and love.

Adya, as he’s called, was born Steven Gray in San Jose, CA. He came across the word “enlightenment” in his teens and became driven to attain it. He practiced Zen ferociously and read every spiritual book he could find, but after 12 years, felt he was getting nowhere. Then a question struck him: “Who is seeking enlightenment?” He couldn’t really answer that, and realized it was futile to search any further until he found out who or what was seeking. This led to a spontaneous awakening in his 30s. He now has 5 books and hundreds of cd’s in circulation, and you have to enter a lottery to attend one of his retreats. People call him the Brad Pitt of the spiritual world, because, well, you be the judge.

I expected to find about 60 people at the retreat in Monterey, CA, and was startled to see 350. We were asked to be silent the entire 5 days except during Adya’s talks, when we could voice a question. I kept rehearsing in my head how I would phrase mine, and that was preventing me from hearing what Adya was saying. I was frightened: I knew lots of people in the room and was ashamed of what I had to say.

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While floating in the pool, watching Ram Dass use the buoyancy of the water to exercise his legs, I wondered, as I often have: How did Ram Dass learn what he did so quickly? He’d had no interest in God while growing up or teaching at Harvard. In his thirties, he was a skeptic when he first traveled to India, until he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaji). Ram Dass spent only eight months with the guru, then returned to America and began to teach complex spiritual ideas in a way that could reach and inspire Westerners. I know other seekers who’ve spent years in monasteries or studied with masters for decades and have only acquired a fraction of the wisdom Ram Dass embodies.

 Ram Dass clearly possessed a gift, although he’s always said it was the grace of the guru. Maharaji died in 1973, but Ram Dass has continued to feel his presence.

In 2004, Ram Dass had told me, “I have a new game. In the past, I’d always say, `Maharaji told me this…’ or `Maharaji said that…,’ and I realized: I’ve been using Maharaji as an explanation for why I know what I know.” This strikes me as so accurate and obvious that it’s surprising Ram Dass hasn’t stated it before. He says he feels himself melding and merging with the guru. “We’re becoming one.”

Two years later, in Maui, I ask Ram Dass if he still feels that merging.

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Published November 7, 2006

In August, as I was leaving on a trip to the West Coast, I got a call from David Brittan, who said he edits the Tufts University Alumni Magazine and wanted to hire me.

I’ve never written for an alumni magazine and did not go to Tufts. Brittan said he’d read a piece I wrote for the N.Y. Times about Ram Dass, the beloved spiritual teacher, and wanted me to write a profile of him for Tufts. “Ram Dass went to Tufts,” he explained.

“Ram Dass lives in Maui,” I said.

“We’ll send you there.”

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