The seed of my spiritual journey goes back to the music of George Harrison whose use of Indian instruments and deeply reflective lyrics (e.g. ‘Within You and Without You’ in 1967) bowled me over. On Harrison’s heels, I received initiation, while in high school, into Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation (TM).
I moved along from TM to be a devotee of Swami Satchidananda in 1971. He was so full of love and wisdom (and humor). I had first seen him when he opened the 1969 Woodstock Music festival leading 400,000 of us chanting ‘Om Shanti Om’. By 1971, I was living in his Integral Yoga Institute ashram where I studied Eastern scriptures, underwent yoga teacher training, and was mentored to lead Friday night kirtans. Satchidananda impacted me hugely through his teachings. Simply being in his presence so many times, I experienced so much love radiating from him. By late 1972, I met Ram Dass who had just returned from India after having had a total life transformation from Harvard professor to a spiritual devotee of Neem Karoli Baba (aka Maharaji). I felt an instantly strong bond and a feeling of being ‘totally at home’ in myself when with him. This is an understatement. I couldn’t stay away! I made frequent visits to him at his father’s summer estate in New Hampshire. On the big lawn, he would hold talks, take questions, share kirtan chants and meditation practices, and lead us in Sufi dancing. With no notes, he would speak for hours and it appeared to came from some place of deep ‘knowing’. It was like he was channeling the spiritual wisdom of the ages through his relationship to Maharaji.
My 1974 summer at Naropa Institute in Boulder, CO exploded with wonderful teachers including Ram Dass (lecturing on the Bhagavad Gita), Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Joseph Goldstein, and the wild kirtan wallah Bhagavan Das with whom I immersed myself in classical Indian voice training. And every day, there was chanting with Krishna Das before and after the Ram Dass lectures. KD would often take a couple of us to chant with him in a nearby park. That summer was a rocket-fired pivotal experience of waking up.
Ram Dass and Neem Karoli Baba have been my major mentors over the many decades. In the early years, RD made time to get together with me and hash through the ‘pressing concerns’ of my life. The most opening experience was in 1973 sitting alone with Ram Dass for a few hours to help me with the suffering of an addiction. After some minutes, he whispered that Maharaji (Neem Karoli Baba) was now in the room to join us in this project ( Maharaji had left his body some months before this meeting). The ‘help’ was an overwhelming experience of total unconditional love. I wept and wept as Ram Dass held me as I experienced Maharaji’s presence. And I’ve felt so deeply connected to both Maharaji and Ram Dass ever since.
However, things changed. After my first marriage dissolved, I simply dropped everything that was a spiritual practice, and pushed it away like it never existed. I found that being in my head as an academic was far easier than doing ‘spiritual work’. I went back to smoking 3 packs of cigarettes daily among other things. However, at the urging of a friend, I attended a weeklong Omega retreat in 1987 with Ram Dass (accompanied by Krishna Das). I had avoided them for some years prior to this retreat.
Once again, I surrendered to wanting to wake up my consciousness. Krishna Das, whom I had not seen since the 1970s, now re-emerged into public settings with his kirtans. I was smitten with kirtan all over again. I instantly felt that ‘at home’ feeling in my heart when hearing him. The experience of feeling ‘at home’ in my heart created an impetus to continue the kirtan practice again. In the early 2000’s, a local kirtan wallah named Shubalananda greatly encouraged me and graciously invited me to accompany him with my harmonium at his kirtans.
And here I am again, leading kirtans for the past 14 years all over the Northeast, completing a circle that began when I first led kirtans 48 years ago in 1972.
It is my delight and honor to share this practice with you!