Being Here Now by Betsy Toll
Volatile. Fractured. Schizophrenic.
Whatever else 1970 may have been for Americans, it was an intense and volatile year, a time of breaking apart and coming together, of impassioned ideals and profound antagonism, of alienation and division, inspiration and pure vision. The ’60s generation was pushing against the machine, speaking truth to power, and taking spell-binding leaps of faith.
Into that mix – and into my little hippie house near Fort Lewis as my belly swelled with my first baby – dropped a weird little book. A square purple book with brown pages, lettered with rubber stamps pressed over intricate, fantastic, home-penned ink drawings. Wow. Trippy book. Be Here Now.
A sparkling web graced the cover, masking a simple empty chair. The title repeated like a mantra around the web’s perimeter, and along the edge of each quadrant of this mandala was a single word. Remember.
Be Here Now beckoned, and like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, millions of us tumbled into the rough pages of that book, each page its own wonderland, opening ideas, possibilities, and challenges to anyone who dared to read it.
It would be another 15 years before I would meet Ram Dass, but his journey touched me deeply. The possibilities and practices offered in his non-linear, anarchic Be Here Now resonated like a Tibetan gong in the cave of my heart and imprinted on my own journey in many ways.
Taken at face value in the realm of the intellect and ego, the words “be here now” are almost laughable. Easy to categorize and dismiss, with either, “Wow. Very cool. Yeah,” or “Well, duh. Where else are you going to be?”
Taken into the heart, however, that simple phrase, Be Here Now, offers a lifetime of ever deepening spiritual practice.
In late 1985, I met Ram Dass at a “lecture,” as the LA Times put it – at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It was a time of transition in my life, and I fell deeper into the rabbit hole that night. The following summer, my belly swelling once again with my second child, my husband and I headed to Oregon, to spend a week with Ram Dass at Breitenbush. He encouraged us to connect with a rag-tag little group of Seva volunteers in LA when we got home, to help with a project he was working on.
Ram Dass was the voice of Seva Foundation in those years, and our group was tapped by the Seva board to organize a three-day conference called “The Spirit of Service.” I had been engaged in progressive political organizing, so when they asked who would step up as the steering committee’s event coordinator, I raised my hand. The year-long process was exciting, working with Ram Dass was a gift, and the conference itself was transformative for all of us. The rabbit hole just kept getting deeper.
In 1988, we moved to Portland, our landing in this new terrain softened by our connection with a little Seva band here. Over the next 16 years, I coordinated Ram Dass’s presentations and workshops in Portland, relishing the opportunity to share his journey, raise money for Hanuman and Seva Foundations, hang out and hear stories, sip from the cup, and delight in the grace of the work. The world around us changed but the message stayed the same. No new bells and whistles are needed, no new and improved teachings or trips to anywhere. Because ultimately, none of that matters. It won’t get you where you want to go –because there is nowhere to go, no other time or place when you can possibly become free. Just here, just now. The only place, the only time that we can fall into the boundless space of love, the infinite heart of the One, the full presence of Being – is right here, right now. It sounds so easy. It can swallow you whole.
In the years since Be Here Now was published, the ‘60s generation has aged. Ram Dass barely survived a major stroke. Yoga, meditation, and spiritual exploration have faced the neutering, co-opting power of capitalist marketing and American pop culture. Four decades later, conflict, fracture, and volatile divisions are still intense. Our floundering hearts long for safe harbor and deep connection, a way to anchor ourselves in an unstable universe, every bit as much as they did forty years ago.
The secret spelled out in that little purple book still holds. There is nowhere else to go, no other time to come into the Infinite, the embrace of the One, the Pure Land, field of the Heart.
Where else could it happen, and when, if not just here, just now? This very body, this very breath. So easy, so hard. Elusive and clear, a practice for awakening. The title really said it all. Be Here Now.
Betsy Toll has been exploring the relationship between spirituality, conscious social action, and compassionate service since the late 1960s. First introduced to formal meditation practice in 1973, she is the founder of Living Earth Gatherings in Portland, offering weekly dharma circles and community gatherings, and opportunities for social, political, and environmental action. She offers retreats at Breitenbush each spring (April 11-14, 2011) and honors Ram Dass as a beloved teacher and friend.