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NILS MONTAN: Can you describe some of the experiences you had in the 1960’s and later with Meher Baba, Ram Dass, Neem Karoli Baba, and Baba Muktananda?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: Well, unfortunately, not really. Or – perhaps I should say – not adequately. In William James’s classic outline of the four primary characteristics of mystical experience, one of the characteristics was “Ineffability.” It’s that frustrating predicament in which you can’t adequately describe – in words – what has happened to you at the Soul level. But if you encounter someone who has had the same experience, no explanation is necessary. You can just kind of nod at each other and smile. When I recently spent time on Maui with Ram Dass, we were reflecting on some of the experiences we have both had. We just kept falling into that knowing nod and smile. I would start to describe a state of consciousness I had experienced, and he would just say, “Yup . . .Yup . . . Yup . . . ” And that was that. I never had to finish a sentence. I didn’t have to explain or describe. He just knew.

I will say this; The Bardo Thodol – known more commonly as The Tibetan Book of the Dead – contains the most vivid descriptions of what I experienced – specifically in the sections where “The Void” and “Clear Light” are described. What really amazed me – as it had amazed Ram Dass, and Tim Leary, and Aldous Huxley, and Huston Smith, and probably tens of thousands of others – was that The Bardo Thodol was written about 2500 years ago. It is a Tibetan Buddhist document that had nothing to do with psychedelics. And yet it portrays, in vivid detail, the experiences that we were having with psychedelics in the 1960’s.

I think it is essential to point out that although many of us had these experiences while using psychedelics, the experiences – themselves – were not an “effect” of the drugs. The drugs merely paved the way for us to experience something that is always inside us . . . inside ALL of us . . . inside everyone and everything. Psychedelics were just a means of overriding our habitual thought patterns and psychological identities. They paved the way for us to see “The Divine Light,” or “Brahman,” or “Nirvana,” or “Christ Consciousness,” or whatever you want to call the Ultimate Reality. They paved the way for us to see that the Source and substance of everything in the Universe exists eternally within each of us.

But drugs really aren’t a complete, or particularly safe path. As Meher Baba pointed out, they can cause a lot more damage than whatever good they might do. I know a comparatively small handful of rare beings – like Ram Dass – who have had profound and positive spiritual transformations from psychedelics. I know a lot more who had their consciousness essentially shattered by psychedelics, and who have struggled psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally because of them. Some are now dead as a result – either directly or indirectly – of their use of psychedelics. Not that the drugs themselves were toxic, but the drugs sometimes caused both short and long-term psychoses that made people essentially non-functional. They also can unleash latent bipolar and schizophrenic tendencies. And they have a tendency to inspire mind states of vast, sweeping, delusional spiritual grandiosity. I still see that fairly frequently in younger people who have been using psychedelics.

On the other hand, the Presence and Grace of the Master – or the Guru – is a much different phenomenon. A true Guru is living in a state of total – perpetual – immersion in the highest states of consciousness. Light and Love just radiate from them. They are totally connected with The Source, with The One. Just being in their presence is a great spiritual blessing. And since they are connected with everyone and everything . . . eternally . . . you don’t have to even be in their physical presence – and they don’t even have to be in a physical body – in order for you to feel it. Sometimes all you have to do is ask. And sometimes they “visit” you spontaneously. But the Grace that flows from such a Being is just incredible. And while they may turn your world upside-down, they’re not usually going to cause you to be psychotic . . . for very long, at any rate! (laughs)

An excerpt from an interview with Ramananda John E. Welshons

NILS MONTAN: What was your experience in graduate school like?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: I had an absolutely wonderful time in the Religion Department at Florida State University. One of the things that attracted me there was that I was offered a graduate assistantship with the opportunity to teach “Death and Dying.” I also worked as assistant to a professor who asked me to help him teach a course called, “Religion in America.” Those were great years. Dr. Walter L. Moore – an absolutely wonderful man – was the Chairman of the graduate program. There were some magnificent faculty members: Dr. Lawrence F. Cunningham, Dr. Richard Rubenstein, Dr. Leo Sandon, Dr. David Levenson. I also had the honor of working with David as his research assistant. He was incredibly brilliant – a terrific chef –and a great friend. I also had an amazing graduate seminar in Buddhism with Dr. C. Robert Linne. One of the course requirements was that we do Vipassana meditation every day and keep a journal about it. He said (as had The Buddha) that the essence of Buddhism was not belief or faith, but direct personal experience, and if you were going to understand Buddhism, you had to have the experience. It was fascinating to watch some of my fellow students – who were much more inclined toward an academic understanding of Judeo-Christian theology – find their way into a daily practice of Buddhist meditation.  It was all just delicious.

- Nils Montan is a writer and social commentator who lives in Santa Fe and Southern Brazil

-An excerpt from an interview with Ramananda John E. Welshons

NILS MONTAN: Didn’t you also meet Swami Muktananda?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: Yes. And he was another significant influence. I first encountered him when I was in graduate school at FSU in 1977. I went to the local Siddha Yoga center in Tallahassee and saw a video tape of him. That night, immediately after seeing that video, the quality and character of my meditation experience changed dramatically. I went home and experienced extraordinary waves of kundalini energy – and shakti – that I had never previously experienced. And I thought, “WOW! If he can transmit that kind of shakti through a video, he must be a pretty amazing teacher!”

A few years later – in 1980 – I met Baba Muktananda at his ashram in South Fallsburg, New York, and went back to visit him on several occasions after that. As soon as I met him, I didn’t want to leave the ashram. I wound up staying for four days, when I had originally thought I was just dropping by. I just went up to the front desk and said, “Can I have a room. I don’t want to leave.” I just wanted to keep floating in his aura. His influence on me was profound, but primarily energetic. He specialized in transmitting shaktipat. He could awaken amazing outpourings of spiritual energy – or kundalini – just through his glance, or his touch, or his Presence. He could intuitively remove blockages in your chakra system. Being with him was like getting your atman (soul) steam-cleaned and revitalized. He was like a transmitting station for all the spiritual energy in the Universe. It was truly mind-boggling. I would have to say that he was the most powerful teacher I have ever met in physical form – and I have met some amazing teachers! Being in Muktananda’s aura was just awesome. The atmosphere at his ashram was palpable. It was like walking into a warm, thick ocean of shakti, and bathing in it for as long as you stayed.

But Baba Muktananda’s influence on me was just in one specific area – like a medical specialist you go to for a specific treatment. Meher Baba and Neem Karoli Baba are much more like “general practitioners,” and I feel them much more deeply in my heart. They are not just teachers of Love . . . they are Love. Muktananda – for me – was more like a skilled surgeon who could unlock specific energies and clean out certain channels.

-Nils Montan is a writer and social commentator who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Southern Brazil.

- An excerpt from an interview with Ramananda John E. Welshons

NILS MONTAN: So what happened after college?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: After I graduated in 1975, I became fascinated by Ram Dass’s interest in working with people who were dying. He was referring to it as the “highest” spiritual practice he had ever come upon. He was the one who originally inspired me to spend time studying with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I went to meet her at a conference in Berkeley, California in March of 1976, and studied with her right after that. My friends Stephen Levine and Dale Borglum were also there. Elisabeth was another great influence. I was so moved by her simple, sweet, compassionate consciousness – and the very precious manner in which she embraced the unvarnished Truth of life and death. She gave a two-hour keynote lecture. About thirty minutes later I found myself alone with her in the elevator at The Claremont Hotel. I looked at her and said, “Dr. Ross, what made you the way you are?” And she looked at me and said, “Vell, Dahlink, eet’s seetink et zuh betsites of my dyink patients” (sitting at the bedsides of my dying patients). Then she sort of looked me up and down, and said, “Maybe you should try it!” It sounded a little crazy to me, but I thought, “She is like a saint. Whatever she’s doing, I want to do it too.” There was also a wonderful fellow named Charlie Garfield at that conference. A workshop I took with him was another major turning point.

My own mother had actually helped me to embark on that path, and – at the time – I didn’t realize it. When she was dying from brain cancer in 1969, she insisted on coming home. No one died at home in those days. There were no hospices or hospice-style organizations. Our family doctor recommended against having her come home because he wanted to protect the family from what he felt would be an overwhelming emotional burden. In those days, people who were dying were generally left isolated and alone in some hospital or nursing home while all of their doctors, family, and friends were ignoring the truth and lying to them – you know, saying, “You look GREAT! You’ll be better soon!” And then they would step out of the room and say, “My God, she looks awful. I don’t think she’ll last a week.” So my mother wanted no part of that kind of hypocritical nonsense. She knew she was going through the most profound transformation of her lifetime. She wanted to be in her own home with her own family. My father arranged to have a hospital bed set up in the guest bedroom, and provided around-the-clock nursing care for her. The time she and I shared together in the last few weeks of her life was SO precious!

NILS MONTAN: What happened in those weeks?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: Well, because of her brain tumor she became aphasic – unable to speak. So she and I would just sit in silence and hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes. And what we shared in those extended periods of silent connection was SO amazing! It felt like we were both getting a glimpse of eternity – just looking in each other’s eyes. It was much like the experience I had four years later looking into Ram Dass’ eyes. I mean, my mother and I would just transcend together. It was amazing. Thanks to her, I had some profound training before I ever met Elisabeth. At the time, I didn’t even realize that my mother was giving me the basic experience to do something that would become one of my primary roles later in life.

A few years later I began working with Stephen and Ondrea Levine – setting up lectures, workshops, and retreats that focused on dealing with grief and dying. They have also been major influences in my life. Just being in their presence was so sweet. They were like the perfect older brother and sister. We would just float in sweetness! Stephen helped me to bring my meditation practice into clear focus, and gave me a much deeper connection with the core teachings of Buddhism. He is the one who taught me – by example – how to teach meditation.

- Nils Montan is a writer and social commentator who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Southern Brazil.

-An excerpt from an interview with Ramananda John E. Welshons

NILS MONTAN: Speaking of The Beach Boys, wasn’t there a period when you were spending a lot of time with them, and with some other famous musicians?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: Well, actually, yes. I was working on my first book, which was titled The Mystics of Rock and Jazz. It was an in-depth look at many of the musicians of the 1960’s and 1970’s who had gurus, or were influenced by meditation and Eastern thought. The Beach Boys had spent time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi just after the Beatles met him. So I was interviewing them – especially Mike Love and Al Jardine – who had both become teachers of TM. I was also spending time with Carlos Santana and Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, who were both with Sri Chinmoy. I was communicating with Pete Townshend of the Who about his connection with Meher Baba. He was kind enough to put me in touch with George Harrison, who had been influenced by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Swami Prabhupada of the Hare Krishna movement. I spent time with Charles Lloyd, a wonderful man and a wonderful jazz artist, and was planning to interview Turiya Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane’s widow, Pharoah Sanders, and Carole King, who was with Swami Satchidananda. I worked on that book for about three years, from 1974 to 1977, but it was never published.

Nils Montan is a writer and a social commentator who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Southern Brazil.

-An excerpt from an interview with Ramananda John E. Welshons

NILS MONTAN: What forms of meditation have you practiced?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: Well, I practice and teach a Theravadan Buddhist form called Vipassana – or “Mindfulness” – Meditation, because it is so accessible, so practical, and requires no form of dogma or belief system. My practice was greatly enhanced with guidance from Ram Dass, and the many years I spent working with Stephen Levine. I also spent much time absorbing the teaching of Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and S.N. Goenka. In addition to Vipassana, I have also practiced the Tibetan form known as shamatha-vipashyana, and I worked for several years in the early 1970’s with the Tibetan “Great Mantra” – “Aum Mane Padme Hum.”

I have also practiced Transcendental Meditation, which I was initiated into back in the 1970’s. I actually received the beginning instruction from Mike Love of The Beach Boys in 1974. TM is a wonderful form of meditation, too. But I don’t teach it because I never took the teachers’ course, and they ask you to agree that you won’t teach it unless you have. The TM organization got a little cult-like and nutty, and the cost for receiving the teaching increased to a level that seemed just ridiculous. But if you strip away all of the institutional craziness, TM is still a beautiful meditation practice. Vipassana feels a bit more pragmatic and practical to me. It gives you specific tools and insights that allow for the translation of inner bliss into outer action. For me the two practices form a nicely balanced combination. I generally work with the mantra practice for about thirty minutes in the early morning, and then do Vipassana practice for ten to twenty minutes. Later in the day I do another period of Vipassana for twenty to thirty minutes. I also carry a mala (Indian prayer beads) with me all the time, so I can do japa meditation (repetition of the names of God) whenever I have a few moments – like standing in line at the grocery store, or the bank, or out on a walk, or even when I’m lecturing or counseling people. It’s nice to try to keep the state of meditation flowing all day long.

 Nils Montan is a writer and a social commentator who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Southern Brazil.

-An exerpt from an interview with Ramananda John E. Welshons

NILS MONTAN: What was your undergraduate education in Religious Studies like?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: While I was at the University of South Florida, I studied with a wonderful professor named Dr. Daniel E. Bassuk. Dan had a very colorful history: He was born a Hasidic Jew, and later become a Zen priest, and then a Quaker. He had quite a rich and diverse background. He had spent time with Alan Watts and was very fond of Huston Smith. Dan’s classes in the early Seventies were like a satsang – a spiritual community. We met two or three evenings a week in a classroom on the campus of U.S.F., and explored everything from Watts’ teaching, to Ram Dass, Huston Smith, Suzuki Roshi, Lao Tzu, Yogananda, Ramakrishna, Roy Eugene Davis . . . William James’ work, and Rudolf Otto’s work. We read things like Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. We chanted and did kirtan with a group from the local Hare Krishna temple. We took hatha yoga instruction from an Indian woman who was a professor at USF. It was a very eclectic approach, and a very unique form of teaching. Amazingly enough, we got college credit for those classes! Dan’s classes were legendary at U.S.F. He would allow anyone who could fit into the classroom to sit in, so there were always rows and rows of people sitting on the floor and propped against the wall. Dan was a truly remarkable teacher. He was like a great roshi masquerading – in jacket and tie – as a college professor. He died a few years ago. We stayed in close touch over the years, and I had the opportunity to spend some very precious time with him and his family as he was dying.

My other favorite professor was Dr. James F. Strange – who is one of the foremost Biblical archaeologists in the world, a prominent Biblical scholar, and a general all-around genius. He has one of the most encyclopedic minds I’ve ever encountered. One moment he’d be talking in great depth about the Talmud, and the next moment he could give an incredible dissertation on John Coltrane’s saxophone solos. I did a fascinating research project under his guidance in which I compared St. Francis of Assisi and Ramakrishna. I still keep in touch with Jim. I think he is the only professor now on the faculty at USF who was there when I was a student. He is a wonderful, wonderful man.

It was during those years that I first encountered the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – three primary texts from the Hindu tradition, that have continued to guide me ever since. I re-read them all, year after year. Whenever I am asked what my favorite book is, I can say – without hesitation – The Bhagavad Gita. It is just SO beautiful!  So clear, so concise, and so comprehensive. It is such an amazing book! You can read in two hours, and then spend fifty lifetimes endeavoring to digest it!

NILS MONTAN: Is there a particular translation of The Bhagavad Gita you prefer?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: I really like the one by Juan Mascaro. It’s very simple, straightforward, and clear. That’s the one that Ram Dass used for his famous Bhagavad Gita course at Naropa Institute in Colorado in 1974. The translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood is also a beauty. Some of the other translations are a little dry. And there are some that get a bit ponderous. Many contain a lot of unnecessary commentary – or they just don’t seem to resonate with the spirit of the Gita. They are obviously written by people who are either approaching the text from an intellectual, academic perspective, or have a big ax to grind – some specific path they are endeavoring to persuade the reader to adopt. But the Gita doesn’t require any of that. Just the pure teaching is enough – just the simple, clear Light of Krishna’s Love that pours through every page. It’s just so sweet. And so profound.

-Nils Montan is a writer and social commentator who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Southern Brazil

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