‘Fierce Grace’

Ram Dass

Until spring arrives and we get busy in the gardens once again, you’re going to hear from me about films I’ve seen. Other than hugs and kisses, reading, meditating, attending classes, nurturing houseplants, creating vegan meals, sprouting wheatgrass, doing yoga, and cuddling with the floofers, great documentaries and other films are what keep me sane indoors until the blesséd growing season returns.

Last night, we saw the documentary ‘Fierce Grace’. A definite two thumbs up for this one. ‘Fierce Grace’ is the life story of Ram Dass, one of the most world’s prominent spiritual leaders of the late 20th century-to present.

The film gives a light treatment to his early life. He was born Richard Alpert to an accomplished Jewish family in Boston, attended prominent universities (including Wesleyan, my alma mater), worked as a professor at UC Berkley and eventually Harvard, fathered a child, met Tim Leary, tried LSD, gave psilocybin to a student and was dismissed from Harvard, traveled to India, met Neem Karoli Baba, took refuge, became his student, embraced spirituality, changed his name, wrote books (including the seminal 1971 book, ‘Be Here Now’, a copy of which I own), became a guru, came out as bisexual, founded the Hanuman Foundation, joined the faculty at the Metta Institute, worked as a therapist, moved to Maui, and gave away his money (up to $800,000 a year).

But this film focuses largely on the years since Dass had a catastrophic cerebral stroke in 1997, at the age of 65. The stroke left him paralyzed on his right side and suffering permanently from expressive aphasia – an inability to form complete sentences or recall certain words. He’s been wheelchair-bound and in physical and speech therapy in the 20 years since.

The stroke thrust Dass into a very dark depression. He said afterward that he had lost all connection to God: spirituality didn’t interest him at all. He felt no love for himself or others. He was angry that the stroke had happened to him. He indulged in a lot of self-pity. His wonderful mind was closing down.

But slowly, and with determination, he came back from that cold, cold place. He emerged with an enlightened mind and a desire to instruct others who have suffered devastating losses. He called the experience ‘fierce grace’. He then wrote revolutionary books like ‘Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying’, ‘Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita’, ‘Be Love Now’, and ‘Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart’. And he agreed to be filmed for this documentary.

What I love-love-love about Dass’s life story is not his many accomplishments, but his common humanness. As advanced a being as he is, he has lived a life as fraught with mistakes and obstacles as anyone else’s. He never did nor does he now elevate himself to the level of mystic or holy man, even though he is considered both by millions.

My personal history is also replete with what our culture calls ‘success’ – stable family, reasonable wealth, academic accomplishment, world travel, successful careers, authoring, publishing, teaching, etc. – but it also includes chapters that I’d like to strike from the record. Dass’s life reinforces my belief that aspiring to live with compassion and seeking the face of God are not impeded by a mixed personal history. Despite who I am or who I’ve been, I may still strive to wake up and walk with the seekers, all of whom are like you and me.

We are all human, and we all fall. I’ve understood this for a long time. Understanding it has made it possible for me to encounter people who harm or deceive me, and yet still love them and not respond in anger or retaliation. 

Rage and revenge accomplishes nothing. By living in anger, you only make a hell for yourself. Responding to each person and event with pure love and compassion has made it possible to rise from the ashes of whatever hardships have come my way. It’s made others’ lives holier. It’s made my life holier.

And even when the darkness comes – and it does, as it did with Dass – there’s a craving to climb out of that cold place and walk in the light again. So, we work our way back to higher consciousness, and once we have, we share what we’ve learned with others. And in the process, continue to learn ourselves.

I’m very fortunate to have access to films like this one. They’re out there, but not everyone knows about them. I keep stumbling across these gifts and gathering up their messages. Each time the ending credits roll, I ask myself why I’m such a lucky girl. Who keeps throwing these amazing stories in my path? Films like this one teach me how to ask questions, love purely, reach for truth, spread peace, extend compassion, and live honestly.

Peace and love to you.

Popular Posts