Spiritual teacher and author Ram Dass once wrote, “It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.” This is one of the hardest teachings for us humans to grasp: We are instinctively locked into the habit of making often disastrous meanings out of every event that happens, or doesn’t happen, in our lives.
But this is a particularly good moment to consider the words of Ram Dass—in part because it’s the new year and we’re all reflecting on what our path actually is, and in part because the teacher who gave voice to them just left us this past December, at the age of 88.
Ram Dass was the author of the acclaimed book Be Here Now, a square-shaped compilation of drawings and handwritten wisdom teachings on presence, which has since sold more than 2 million copies and has forever changed the landscape of Western thought and spirituality. Born Richard Alpert, and later named Ram Dass (Servant of God) by the guru Neem Karoli Baba, he led a full and inspiring life. He studied psychology at Stanford and taught at Harvard; he was a pioneer of the LSD movement; he was queer and spoke about it publicly, which few spiritual teachers have; and, despite the fact that he was the survivor of a major stroke in 1997, which left him in a wheelchair and with permanently affected speech, he taught and led retreats up until the very end of his life.
When he could no longer travel, he was often video-conferenced into large yoga gatherings (I was lucky enough to be at a few of these) to grace us with his glorious smile and, as a result of the stroke, brief but potent words of wisdom. Ram Dass wrote 13 books in total, and reportedly gave all of his royalties to charity. His spoke at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in 1967, and made the Bay Area his home for a good part of his life. To be in his presence was to be with a person who truly was “here now.” The day he died, December 22, was the day after the winter solstice—the first day of the year that the light increases—and the first night of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday knows as the Festival of Lights (Dass was Jewish by birth). He lived his whole life orienting toward the light, and he died the very same way.
His advice to take each thing that comes into one’s life as a step on one’s path is not only an instruction about acceptance, but also a contemplation on meaning: The meaning of all things, he is saying, is simply the journey to awaken, an experience he often spoke about as residing in a permanent state of love.
As we step into the new year, many of us are trying to make meaning of it all, though not always so successfully. That’s because meaning-making often happens unconsciously, and not necessarily to our benefit.
For instance, some event occurs and your brain, based on a split-second analysis of your past experiences and fears, makes a quick decision about what that event means about your current life situation—and even about you as a person. Let’s say your new romantic interest ghosts you, or your latest job interview turns into a dud. Rather than taking these things at face value, our minds often make meaning out of them, telling us we’re certain to be alone and unlovable, or broke and unemployable, forever. This is the kind of meaning-making your therapist warns you against, the connecting of dots that don’t necessarily have a connection. Other animals do this kind of meaning-making, too. My cat and I were evacuated from my apartment this past May because the house next door was burning. Now, every time a fire truck comes down the street, my cat looks at me wide-eyed, terrified that I’m about to shove him back into the cat carrier, and drag him out onto the street at 2am.
Another more conscious, but still limiting, way we make meaning is by intentionally placing a specific type of importance on a concept—like an annual event or rite of passage—and deciding what it should mean. For instance, many religious traditions are celebrated to signify the child becoming an adult. Or, when the new year comes, we give it the meaning of a time to turn our lives around (“2020 is going to be a great year! #newdecadenewlife #yesto2020 #2020mybestyearyet!”)
Creating positive intentions for the new year is an age-old practice predating even Instagram, and it can be useful to apply meaning to the new year as a way of orienting ourselves to a brighter future. But things, of course, don’t always go as wished. For instance, in 2018, on New Year’s Eve, I spent the night meditating up at the Zen center in hopes of having an auspicious year. After midnight, I celebrated with other meditators by taking turns ringing the giant bonsho bell, each with our own chosen intention in mind. It felt so important at the time, but I actually don’t remember the intention I made that night. That’s because, on January 4, my appendix ruptured with major complications, and I forgot most of what I’d intended for 2019 as I fought one infection after the other for the next 12 months. As Ram Dass once said, “Our plans never turn out as tasty as reality.”
When our plans turn out differently than we hoped, as mine did, we might question if anything has meaning at all. We might, in fact, get nihilistic real quick. But true meaning can be found even in the greatest disappointment. That’s not to say we have to agree to the old turn of phrase “everything happens for a reason.” Meaning is not the same as a reason. A reason tells us that there was a point, a master plan of some kind, that created our misfortune. Meaning doesn’t do that. Rather, and usually after we’ve had time to grieve, meaning allows us to accept that the event did happen, and then allows us to give the experience context. The meaning I found in my own experience was a lesson in courageousness. Meaning gives us a path to walk on, a place to sit our weary bodies, a landing pad for our heart and our hope.
With some mental or spiritual training, or a hit of unexpected insight, we can open to this type of meaning-making—one that is more conscious and highly developed. We can use reflection (rather than reaction) to create meaning for an event or situation that has already transpired. Ram Dass always spoke about his massive stroke, which hit him at only 65, as a teacher and an inspiration that made him wiser and more empathetic. Opening to this meaning of his situation enabled him to place it in a context that would benefit his life, and the lives of others.
We can also apply meaning to orient us toward how we want to live, regardless of circumstance. Ram Dass was known to spend hours reciting the mantra “I am loving awareness.” Every talk he gave and every book he wrote had only one true message: teaching others how to be a conduit for love. Love wasn’t temporary or personal to Ram Dass. Love was just … love. In his book Be Love Now, he wrote, “Unconditional love really exists in each of us …. It’s not ‘I love you’ for this or that reason, not ‘I love you if you love me.’ It’s love for no reason, love without an object.” Love was his life’s meaning.
It’s hard to know what 2020 will bring for each of us, for the world at large, for the planet itself. It will be both significant and insignificant, prosperous and failing, uplifting and devastating. It will be all things. So, rather than simply setting intentions for the coming year, why not consider what we want our lives to mean, and let our actions come from that place as best as we are able, day by day, moment by moment? Perhaps a deeper meaning will arise, one that feels so much juicier than a goal or resolution. Maybe we’ll learn to lead with courage or wisdom or even love—for no reason at all.