December 26, 2019

The Words That Moved Me

Pull up a chair by our digital fireside as Jeff reads three pieces that influenced him this year — a letter from spiritual teacher Ram Dass, a speech by Robert Kennedy, and a short story from singer-songwriter Portia Nelson. We hope these words move you, too.


Hey, it’s Jeff and welcome to the Commune podcast. While part of me wishes you are listening to this in real time huddled with your family in front of a crackling fire and an old radio, mug of hot cider in your hand, I suspect you’re on a highway or a treadmill. Nevertheless, it’s Christmas time and while you might not be listening to this during the holiday season, I hope you’ll indulge my 1940’s inspired fantasy. I suppose it’s just a strange time of year as we ponder how we went from celebrating the birth of a spiritual prophet in Nazareth to waiting for a cheery, rotund man from the North Pole to shoot down our chimney. Really, I just want to express my gratitude to all of you that have supported the podcast and urged me on. It’s an honor to do this work. So, thank you.

This week, I am exploring a different format on the podcast. I want to share with you a couple of selected writings and speeches that have influenced me in different ways. I keep coming back to them over and over which I suppose tells me something about myself. I will read them and share some commentary. And I hope that they’ll move you as much as they’ve moved me. 

This year, I had a friend who lost a daughter. She was 2 years old and choked at the breakfast table in front of her parents. Of course, they did everything they could to save her but to no avail. As the father of 3 daughters myself, I haven’t been able to shake this, to comprehend and accept the dis-order of it. We have spoken a lot about grief on the show and how to find meaning in suffering. I came across a letter written by the spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, that he wrote to a family who had lost their young daughter, Rachel. Here is his letter:

Dear Steve and Anita,

Rachel finished her work on earth, and left the stage in a manner that leaves those of us left behind with a cry of agony in our hearts, as the fragile thread of our faith is dealt with so violently. Is anyone strong enough to stay conscious through such teaching as you are receiving? Probably very few. And even they would only have a whisper of equanimity and peace amidst the screaming trumpets of their rage, grief, horror and desolation.

I can’t assuage your pain with any words, nor should I.

For your pain is Rachel’s legacy to you. Not that she or I would inflict such pain by choice, but there it is. And it must burn its purifying way to completion. For something in you dies when you bear the unbearable, and it is only in that dark night of the soul that you are prepared to see as God sees, and to love as God loves.

Now is the time to let your grief find expression. No false strength. Now is the time to sit quietly and speak to Rachel, and thank her for being with you these few years, and encourage her to go on with whatever her work is, knowing that you will grow in compassion and wisdom from this experience. In my heart, I know that you and she will meet again and again, and recognize the many ways in which you have known each other. And when you meet you will know, in a flash, what now it is not given to you to know: Why this had to be the way it was.

Our rational minds can never understand what has happened, but our hearts – if we can keep them open to God – will find their own intuitive way. Rachel came through you to do her work on earth, which includes her manner of death. Now her soul is free, and the love that you can share with her is invulnerable to the winds of changing time and space.

In that deep love,

include me.

In love,

Ram Dass

As my friend Russell said when I sent this letter to him, “There is God in it.”  These words so eloquently woven help us bear the unbearable, to surrender to the inscrutable. To be alive is to endure pain. And the only option to avoid grief is to also avoid love. And what kind of life is that. Ram Dass does not ask us to avoid pain, he invites us to stand squarely in it.  

Now is the time to let your grief find expression. No false strength.

What a relief to not have to suppress pain, to store it, to harbor it. Instead, feel it. Let the salve come through the wound. Sit in the human experience, meditate on it. And, then, find the spiritual connection that lives in your infinite soul unbounded by time and space. And, when this infinite love blossoms, you may find the meaning in the suffering. 

Ok, now for something completely different. This next passage is an excerpt of a speech given by Robert Kennedy during his campaign for the presidency on March 18, 1968 at the University of Kansas. Kennedy was one of my absolute favorite public speakers in history. His improvised address in Indianapolis the evening of the assassination of Martin Luther King was so inspired and moving that it stunted impending riots. He was a scholar of Ancient Greece, not only its literature and philosophy, but also its commitment to idealism and public discourse. He never spoke down to people. On the contrary, he lifted us up through his eloquence. I’m not sure you would call him a spiritualist but he gravitated to the parts of life that mattered most. Here’s part of the speech from the University of Kansas: 

Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all. 

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. 

It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. 

It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. 

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. 

And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.    

If this is true here at home, so it is true elsewhere in world. 

We’d be hard-pressed in today’s era of neo-liberalism to hear a presidential candidate give this critique of capitalism and its metrics of success. Kennedy intrinsically understood that meaning and connection was not derived from the accumulation of material goods. His embrace of values that promoted the common good and our shared destiny over the excesses of individual materialism would be a prominent piece of his legacy and has profoundly impacted me and the way I look at society and political theory. 

We can only imagine what our human condition would have been for less than 3 months after this speech, Robert Kennedy would be dead, assassinated like his brother and like Martin Luther King.

On June 5, Kennedy had scored a major victory when he won the California primary. Leaving the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel, he went through the hotel kitchen.  In a crowded kitchen passageway, Kennedy turned to his left and shook hands with hotel busboy Juan Romero just as Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian, opened fire. Kennedy was hit three times.

As Kennedy lay mortally wounded, Romero cradled his head and placed a rosary in his hand. Kennedy asked Romero, "Is everybody OK?", and Romero responded, "Yes, everybody's OK." Kennedy then turned away and said, "Everything's going to be OK.”  After several minutes, medical attendants arrived and lifted the senator onto a stretcher, prompting him to whisper, "Don't lift me." These were his last words. 

Ok. The last segment is, thankfully, a bit more light-hearted. I first heard this passage from the great Wayne Dyer when I hosted him at Wanderlust Squaw Valley in 2012. It comes from the singer, songwriter Portia Nelson, who supposedly during a workshop was asked to write the story of her life in 5 chapters only using notecards. Here is the result:

Chapter 1 of my life:

I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk

I fall in.

I am lost...

I am hopeless.

It isn't my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2 of my life:

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don't see it.

I fall in again.

I can't believe I'm in the same place.

But it isn't my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3 of my life:

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in... it's a habit

My eyes are open; I know where I am;

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

Chapter 4 of my life:

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

Chapter 5 of my life:

Finally, I walk down another street.

I love this little piece. So simple, yet utterly relatable. Bruce Lipton says that 97% of what we do every day is unconscious. We wind up patterns of behavior, some that do not serve us, and become subconsciously enslaved to these patterns. Sometimes, we need to fall in a hole to recognize them and unwind them. I suppose the path to wisdom includes an awareness of our patterns and behaviors, and a commitment to change. Maybe even someday we don’t the hole, the crisis, to consciously address our habits. 

You can find this story and others in Portia Nelson’s There's a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery which has become a mainstay of twelve-step programs.

I hope you enjoyed the brilliance of these shining stars. Ironically, as I recorded this today, Baba Ram Dass passed away, joining Robert Kennedy and Portia Nelson in infinite time. Thankfully, their words stay here to comfort us, inspire us and help us find another street.  

Thanks for listening to the Commune podcast. Sure, leave me a review. But, more importantly, send me an email at [email protected] I want to hear from you.

In honor of Ram Dass, I sign off today with his postscript. I am Jeff Krasno. Happy holidays, and, in love, include me.

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