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

NILS MONTAN: India is an amazing place. There is nothing quite like it. What would you say was the most profound realization you had there?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: That you don’t have to go there – or anywhere else – to find God. God is everywhere . . . and the place we find God is right here in our own Heart. Still . . . India is an extraordinary place for spiritual awakening – though the experience may not be what you expect. Before I went, I had envisioned India to be a place where everyone was in deep states of samadhi (spiritual ecstasy) – floating in bliss, and levitating when they sat down for tea. Instead, I found the culture – at least in the cities – to be absolutely chaotic, frenetic, noisy and crowded. The drivers drive like absolute lunatics, and the air pollution is almost unimaginable. You have to look beyond the surface to find the peaceful, spiritual places – but when you do, they are quite remarkable, and you eventually realize that they are tuning you to the highest place in yourself. I generally say to people who are considering going to India, “If you have any doubt, don’t go. Go to India when your longing for God is inescapable and undeniable. Go when that yearning becomes a desperation in the deepest levels of your being. Go when your hunger for God is like an unquenchable thirst . . . when you feel like you will die if you don’t immerse yourself in God. The irony is, when you immerse yourself in God, you will die . . . but generally only at the ego level . . . and there comes a time when the ego is ready to die, even though it usually doesn’t want to admit that.

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

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An excerpt from an interview with Ramananda John E. Welshons

NILS MONTAN: When did you actually meet Ram Dass?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: In May of 1973 while I was an undergraduate at The University of South Florida in Tampa. I was asked by the Director of the University Program Office to help set up a series of lectures for Ram Dass on the campus at USF.

Our first meeting was just sublime. We met at the Holiday Inn on Fowler Avenue. Krishna Das was with him. After visiting on the lawn at the Holiday Inn for a while, a group of six of us piled into my 1968 Volkswagen Van and drove to “The Natural Kitchen,” a local vegetarian restaurant I frequented. We sat across the table from one another at lunch. In one moment, Ram Dass and I spontaneously locked eyes, and the entire physical universe just melted away. There we were – Ram Dass and I – just gazing into each other’s eyes . . . floating together in The Eternal Light of God . . . while sitting at the local vegetarian restaurant with our forks stuck in our tofu and brown rice! In that moment, we embarked on a delicious adventure that has lasted nearly forty years. As a result of my connection with Ram Dass, I began to feel a deepening inner connection with Meher Baba, and eventually – also – with Neem Karoli Baba. Ram Dass really helped me to integrate the path known as Guru Kripa, or the path of devotion to the Guru. Now – nearly forty years later – Ram Dass is my spiritual brother and dear, dear friend, Stephen and Ondrea are also like a brother and sister, and Meher Baba and Neem Karoli Baba are like my father and my favorite uncle.

I was also very influenced by Dr. Allan Y. Cohen. Allan is a wonderful psychologist who had been a student of Ram Dass and Tim Leary at Harvard, and later became a devotee of Meher Baba. He is a dear friend and an amazing human being. I went to see him in Berkeley, California in the summer of 1973, and gave him a long tale of woe about how I felt my life was meaningless. He chuckled, looked deeply into my eyes, and said, “John, there is a simple prescription for that.” I said, “Really? What is it?” I was desperate. And he said, “Whenever your life feels meaningless, start doing more things for other people.”

A few months later – at the end of 1973 – I went to India and spent many weeks with the close disciples of Meher Baba. That was an amazing, amazing experience. Ten years later – in 1983 – I went again with Ram Dass, and spent time at Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram in Vrindaban. Both of those journeys were life-changing and consciousness expanding. The India stories are far too involved to get into right now. We’ll have to do another interview someday for that. Suffice it to say that India – in those days – was like being on another planet. Very few of our Western comforts and conveniences were available. Much of the time we lived in the same manner that people in rural India had lived for thousands of years – no electricity, no plumbing, no telephone . . . you know? We were thrust into a culture that was so deeply immersed in its very extraordinary – and ancient – spiritual traditions. I mean – like in Delhi, one of the taxi drivers Ram Dass and I rode with kept a small puja (altar) on his dashboard with a photo of Ram and Sita and Hanuman. Every time he picked up passengers he would stop for a moment and say a prayer to Lord Ram – praying that he would get his passengers to their destination safely. I’ve never had a taxi driver like that in New York City!

At the same time, India threw me into a full-scale confrontation with all of my greatest fears and insecurities because there was so little access to modern conveniences, and such a profound awareness of mortality. You know, after landing at Mumbai Airport in 1973, my friends and I got into a taxi to go to Victoria Train Station. I had only been in the taxi for about five minutes when I saw a big truck – like a garbage truck – that went around picking up dead bodies every morning – the bodies of people who lived on the streets and sidewalks who had died overnight. That really set the tone for the first trip. If I had to sum it up on one sentence, it would be “there are so many, many ways to die in India!”

– 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: What was it that captivated you about Ram Dass?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS:  Well, for several years prior to hearing that first recorded lecture, I had been struggling to understand some profound mystical and spiritual experiences that began happening to me in April of 1969, when I was just eighteen. They started the night I first heard Meher Baba’s name. That was all it took. Just hearing his name triggered a series of life-changing, transcendent experiences. Those experiences turned everything I knew and everything I understood about life upside down and inside out. And I had no idea who Meher Baba was! From that moment on, my life has been focused on returning again and again to the extraordinary experience of Divine Love and inner Bliss I tasted that night.

The next morning I sat down and spontaneously began to meditate. I didn’t need any instruction. I just did it. It was like I “remembered” how to meditate. I’m sure the “remembering” came from previous lifetimes. And I have continued to meditate pretty much every day for more than forty years. Meditation has been the central focus of my practice. I later discovered that the style of meditation I spontaneously began to practice when I was eighteen was the Tibetan form of Vipassana. About a year later I began to practice hatha yoga as well.

As I mentioned, I had experienced some deep depression during my teenage years which coincided with my parents’ drinking. For about six months prior to the onset of the spiritual experiences, I had been in Freudian psychoanalysis with a very gifted psychiatrist. I had also been experimenting with psychedelics since 1967. When the spiritual experiences began in 1969, I became convinced that there was a link between spirituality, psychology, and psychedelics. About a year and a half later – when I heard that recording of Ram Dass – he became the link. He had been a Freudian, he had been very influenced by Meher Baba’s teachings, and he had a lot of experience with psychedelics. So Ram Dass spoke in the language of all three of my primary influences, and he – essentially – wove the disparate threads of my fledgling consciousness into a beautiful plaid blanket!

NILS MONTAN: Did you continue to use psychedelics after that?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: Not for very long. Meher Baba had urged those of us who were touched by his teachings to give up the use of psychedelics. Neem Karoli Baba, who became Ram Dass’s guru, also said that psychedelic experience was not a true Samadhi – or a true experience of enlightenment. So I completely gave up psychedelics in 1971, largely because – after hearing what Meher Baba and Neem Karoli Baba had to say – psychedelics just didn’t seem to bring the ecstasy that they once had. Instead of getting me “high,” they started bringing me “down.” I gave them up and I have never missed them.

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: When and how did you first encounter Ram Dass?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: I had known about Ram Dass’s work at Harvard with Tim Leary back in the early Sixties when he was known as Dr. Richard Alpert. Then, in 1970, while I was living in Boston, I saw a poster stapled to a telephone pole in Cambridge that had Ram Dass’s picture on it. It was advertising a lecture he was giving at Boston University. I didn’t go because I didn’t know who “Baba Ram Dass” was. Then in August of 1971, I was visiting another high school friend in Washington, DC. He had a recording of a three and a half hour lecture Ram Dass had given in 1968. It was on an old reel-to-reel tape deck. When I heard that lecture, I was just blown away! I would have to say – unequivocally – that from that moment on, Ram Dass has been the biggest single influence in my life.

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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: Can you tell us a bit about the most important influences on your thinking, and how your spiritual path has evolved?

RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: Wow! That’s a BIG question!

I would have to say that the first big spiritual event in my life was being miraculously healed from Polio in 1953 when I was three years old. That was – and continues to be – a profound influence. The doctors had said that my case was “hopeless” – that there was a 99 percent chance I would die. But my father was a student of metaphysical Christianity – teachers like Emmett Fox, Norman Vincent Peale, and Mary Baker Eddy – and he wasn’t going to take that lying down. So my parents asked all of their family and friends and business associates to pray. Within a few days hundreds of people were praying in Protestant Churches, Catholic Churches, and Jewish Synagogues. One night, just after praying with our minister, my father had a vision of Jesus standing next to my bed in the hospital. Twenty minutes later, at 2:30 in the morning, the hospital called and said, “there has been a miracle!”

It took a few years, but when I was finally old enough to begin to understand the implications of that experience, I started to realize several significant things: First of all, I realized the power of prayer – of group consciousness. But I also realized that children can die. Since my life had been spared, I began to sense that I had better do something meaningful with it. I have often felt that I only get to stay on this planet as long as I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

The next great influence began when I was eleven years old, and I watched my happy family dissolve into madness as my parents both suddenly descended into a very sick pattern of alcoholic behavior. Though they were affluent and had everything – materially – our culture says we need to be happy, they were miserable. That made a profound impression on me. Through their suffering, I began to see the essential spiritual emptiness of much of what our culture values and believes in.

As soon as that chapter of my life began, I felt totally depressed and lost. One Sunday morning I was sitting in church, and I started to gaze at a beautiful painting of Jesus. The minister was droning on and on, and I wasn’t really listening. I was just looking at Jesus. And a voice inside me said, “Why can’t He be here now?” And the answer that arose inside me was, “He Is.” At that moment, I transcended into another realm of consciousness – overtaken by waves of the most delicious bliss I had ever experienced. No sermon, and no Bible reading had ever taken me to that place. But the simple inner reflection on Christ’s eternal, omnipresent Being did. I felt His hands sweetly caressing my shoulders and my head, and tears of joy flowed down my cheeks. I think that was the first time I consciously experienced “darshan” – or, the Presence of the Master.

Around that same time I first heard Martin Luther King speak. Again, I was moved to tears. I had goose bumps and waves of energy running up my spine. I had never heard a speaker who moved me the way Martin did. I just sat there crying and smiling. He spoke with such strength and clarity. The minute I heard Martin speak, I got it. I got the simple truth that we are all God’s children – there is no one higher or lower, no one better or worse. All are loved equally by God. Later, I became aware of Dr. King’s hero, Mahatma Gandhi, and Gandhi became a huge influence on me.

When I was eighteen, I encountered the teachings of Meher Baba, who lived from 1894 to 1969 and was one of the greatest saints in India’s history. Shortly after that I came into contact with Ram Dass, first through hearing a tape of a lecture he had given, and later through his classic book, Be Here Now. Through Ram Dass, I connected with Neem Karoli Baba, another great Indian saint. A few years later Ram Dass introduced me to Stephen and Ondrea Levine. Stephen is the author of some magnificent books, including A Gradual Awakening, Who Dies, Meetings at the Edge, and A Year to Live. It was Stephen who really helped me get grounded in Buddhist thought and meditation practice.

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

Here is an excerpt from my new book, ONE SOUL, ONE LOVE, ONE HEART: The Sacred Path to Healing All Relationships, due to be published by New World Library in October 2009

Buddhist meditation practice recognizes that in order to be “free,” in order to be a “full” human being, we need to cultivate the ability to open to all of the experiences of our humanity . . . all of the experiences of our life “in form” . . . the beauty and the horror . . . the joy and the suffering . . . the clarity and the confusion. In that process, we cultivate natural compassion in our minds and in our hearts. We learn to open our hearts in the presence of whatever the Universe offers. We cultivate the ability to look at all of it, to experience all of it, with awareness, compassion, and love. As my friend, Stephen Levine, used to say, we learn “to keep our hearts open in hell.”

Our culture has encouraged us to do the opposite . . . to look at all of it with our hearts closed. The constant barrage of images of graphic violence, graphic injury, human suffering, profanity, and ruthless, cold-hearted cruelty on television, in movies, and in professional sports have now created generations of young – and old – Americans to whom cruelty and violence are equated with entertainment.

Nevertheless, there are moments when we simply can’t ignore our inherent sense of connection. The extraordinary devastation of the Asian Tsunami in December of 2004 was one such event. The unimaginable human toll – approaching a quarter of a million people killed instantaneously – happening as suddenly, as incomprehensibly, and as violently as it did – shattered, for a time, our ability to be callous and indifferent. The recognition of our shared vulnerability and the inherent uncertainty of life in form are potent Truths that have the ability to override the ways we have programmed ourselves to be detached.

In such moments, we spontaneously respond with compassion. We spontaneously reach for the phone to call and offer financial support. We agonize over the sobbing children whose parents suddenly vanished . . . the sobbing parents whose children suddenly vanished. Some of us pack and go to the airport and fly to the scene of the disaster to offer kindness, support, healing, and love.

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I remember one day in particular when everything changed . . . for a time. I met neighbors I had never met before. Absolute strangers spoke openly, and freely to one another. There were no strangers. The unpleasant man at the convenience store was warm and friendly. The toll collector on the New Jersey Turnpike made eye contact and gave me a sincere greeting. He asked if I was “all right.” People were unusually courteous and thoughtful. They weren’t speeding on the highway. They weren’t pushing and shoving to get ahead in line. Families hugged each other and walked to church holding hands. Kindness and generosity were everywhere. No one cared about the color of anyone’s skin, where they were born, or how much money they had. No one cared how fashionable another human being’s clothes were. Everyone seemed concerned about the welfare of fellow human beings.

I thought I had stepped into Heaven.

It was September 11, 2001.

And though, just twelve miles away, there was a vision of Hell at “Ground Zero,” with smoke and fire and thousands of people lying dead, crushed, or incinerated in the incomprehensible mound of flaming rubble, all around that inexpressibly horriible disaster people were acting like angels – kind, courteous, thoughtful, friendly, generous, courageous, and loving. There were no republicans or democrats. No conservatives or liberals. No cool people. No squares.

Just loving open hearts. Just human beings sharing a moment of conscious awareness. Everyone felt connected, recognizing that we are all in this together. We like that feeling. We like it because it is such a vivid expression of our True Nature. Through our shared heartbreak and vulnerability, we were allowed to glimpse who we truly are. Faced with a series of events our minds couldn’t categorize or comprehend, observing the heartless, wanton destruction an angry mind is capable of wreaking . . . our hearts opened. And when our hearts opened, what poured out of us was love. When our minds quieted, our hearts opened.

The experience was so profound that in the weeks that followed I participated in a number of conversations where someone would ask, “Don’t you wish we could go back to September 10th, back to the time when we didn’t have to worry about all the things we have to worry about now?” And someone else would inevitably say, “No. It’s nicer now. People are being more kind, more friendly, and treating each other much better. I’ve met neighbors I never met before. I’ve made friends I never had before.”

During interviews with newspapers, and on radio and television in the weeks immediately following September 11, 2001, I often spoke about this extraordinary transformation. The interviewers would ask, “Is it going to last?” I really didn’t like the answer that came into my consciousness, but I think it has proven to be true. “It will last only as long as people feel a sense of imminent danger,” I would say. “If that begins to wear off, and if we begin to feel less threatened, we will probably go back to our former sense of disconnection. We’ll start being rude and self-centered again.”

Three and a half years later, in 2004, we went through a presidential election that was described as “the most divisive and mean-spirited election in history.” In its wake came a period of remarkably abrasive political and social discord. We became engaged in a very controversial war that has divided the country almost as dramatically as did the Viet Nam War. When we talk about the warm, open, loving atmosphere that permeated our society in the days and weeks following September 11, 2001, people look back wistfully – almost longingly – and say, with an obvious air of nostalgia and melancholy, “It didn’t last. Within a few weeks it had faded away . . . “

But we tasted a possibility. And that possibility gave us a glimpse of who we truly are when our minds get out of the way and we open our hearts. Love, connection, and compassion are always within us. They are who we truly are.

“To have loved one soul is like adding its life to your own. Your life is, as it were, multiplied, and you live virtually in two centers. If you love the whole world, you vicariously live in the whole world . . .” – Meher Baba