Many years ago, I was given of the most influential books in my life, called How Can I Help. This book helped me begin to observe what it means to be myself and how that impacts my daily interactions with other people. Yesterday, its author, Ram Dass, died and he will be in my heart today.
I was leaving to go to Madagascar for six months when one of my best friends gave me a book by Ram Dass. I wasn’t familiar with him at the time, but he quickly became a mentor to me in those pages. Being in Madagascar provided me with an opportunity to shape my understanding of life and the world. How Can I Help shows us how we tend to live life jumping from various identities to another. We are parents, partners, employees, co-workers, leaders, learners, seekers, grievers and consolers and a myriad of subtle roles within each of those identities. We play those roles as we think we are supposed to as best we can. In a place like Madagascar, a country of tremendous poverty, its easy to fall into the roll of the helper.
We think of being a helper as a good thing. But when we see ourselves as a helper, we project through the lens of a helper and the other person receives through the lens of a beneficiary. But what can make the biggest difference in someone’s life is to just be present with them, as an individual human being, without the fiction of any roles.
We don’t have to be strong, brave, confident, helpful, giving, useful, funny, attractive, a role model, a servant, wise, someone who knows things or someone who can hold it together. That doesn’t mean that if we live as ourselves, others may see us in some of those ways. But as soon as we identify with a role, we begin trying to project the characteristics that we feel someone in that role is supposed to embody. If we can just begin to notice how our identity changes throughout the day as we move through different roles. If we can begin to recognize that those identities are not our true self, we can start to shed all of that. Only by shedding those identities can it become apparent that even the seemingly positive roles can feel like a burden. Its like not being aware of all the background noise in life until the electricity goes off. Or until the we stop talking out loud or in our head and just listen. We don’t notice everything we carry around until we just stop and let it go. Even then, other “new and improved” identities might try to work their way into that space and its easy to pick those up too.
How often have we ever just been ourselves and not tried to project anything. It’s here, in this space that we can truly be the most helpful to others and to ourselves.
I thought I had learned in life and in college how to change the world, how to be a great change agent. Yet, by reading this book while I was surrounded by poverty in Madagascar, I came to see that we all could be helped by each other in various ways. There didn’t need to be roles who is the helper and who is the one being helped. I think this is a more effective and more rewarding way to engage the world.
I will miss you Ram Dass. May your ways always be a guide to me in my life.
Here is a wonderful obituary published in the magazine Trycicle.