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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)

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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

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-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.

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– 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.

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-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.

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-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.

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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

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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.

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