Having been born and raised a Catholic, I was taught that I could be filled with God’s grace by living a good life, free of sin. I can never forget my catechism class when they likened grace to the contents of a cup that could be filled by prayer and virtue and reduced correspondingly by venial or mortal sins. Later, I found the Church’s teachings to be divorced from what I intuited may have been the esoteric teachings of Christ. I began to study other traditions, often more Eastern in their origin. However, the teachings of the Church left an indelible impression, and like many, I was inspired by our first Catholic President, John F. Kennedy. A little later, I looked into teachings such as Yoga and Buddhism and was deeply touched by the seminal book by Ram Dass, Be Here Now, published in 1971.
Searching for my own spiritual path, I began to compare and contrast the concepts of the Church with Buddhism and other teachings. One of the questions that came alive for me was the difference or similarity between the biblical charisma and the Buddhist concept of presence. Can a human being be filled with grace through virtue, as Catholicism teaches, or is some form of precise inner work of attention and meditation necessary for the state of presence taught by the Dharma traditions?
It’s a little-known fact about American politics that the first public debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon took place in 1947 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a small steel town adjacent to Pittsburgh. Long prior to their widely viewed televised debates of 1960, Kennedy and Nixon faced off in western Pennsylvania as junior congressmen “to argue the merits, or lack thereof, of a piece of legislation informally known as the Taft-Hartley bill,”1 governing the relationship between labor and management. The debate was organized by the mayor of Pittsburgh.
My mother was in her mid-twenties at the time, unmarried, with a great deal of intelligence, beauty, and charm, and living in her hometown of McKeesport. As an assistant to Pittsburgh’s mayor, she helped with the logistics and the hosting of the debate. It is not surprising that Kennedy was smitten with my mother and went out with her while he was in town. Thirteen years later, when Kennedy was elected President, he not only galvanized my youthful idealism, but he inspired a nation. I pressed my tight-lipped mother relentlessly about the nature of the man inside his political visage. All she would say was, “His charisma was enough to knock you over.”
I have thought much about this over the years. What gave his bearing such power and why did she describe it as something potentially destabilizing? Over time, I reasoned that Kennedy’s charisma could only be both—an unearned capacity and an earned potentiality: a gift from the gods in the shape of good genetics; a legendary family of privilege and service; a fated role in history; and a certain fortitude of character from his war years and formative young manhood that inspired his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage.
My teenage dreams for the future of our country were focused through his energy and charisma. His words were powerful, visionary, and, for a short time, united us into a single people devoted to a bright future. Kennedy’s speeches and his capacity to inspire touched something deep within me and I continued to hold the question of the source and meaning of his charisma.
Over the course of my life, I have met other people who expressed a powerful sense of inwardness that derived from their force of character and personal development—a quality that resides on the same axis as charisma but is notably and inexplicably different. These individuals emanated a strong sense of what I would call presence that impressed itself upon me differently and more deeply than mere charisma. In contemplating this phenomenon, I struggled to formulate a working principle for myself that I articulated in the following way:
Charisma is a condition; presence is a state of being.
The concept of charisma has two distinct but overlapping meanings. The origin of the word comes from the Greek kharis, which means “favor or grace.” Early Christian theological writings of Saint Paul often refer to charisma as divine grace, or gifts of the spirit. The other meaning of charisma comes from the social sciences and points loosely to what is known as personality charisma, often referring to a person with a certain kind of magnetism that can attract and mobilize others, defined as “charismatic authority” by sociologist Max Weber.
Most evidence suggests that Kennedy was both touched by grace through his piety and faith and given great personal charisma through his birth and privilege. He was a dynamic, public individual and the first Roman Catholic elected to the Presidency. The influence of Kennedy’s faith has not been thoroughly explored in public discourse, yet we know that Dave Powers, Special Assistant to the President, found Kennedy on his knees in prayer beseeching guidance during the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile crisis. Kennedy wrestled with his conscience and resisted the generals’ call for a military strike on Cuba after thinking about the civilians—especially children—who would be killed through overt action. During the crisis, Pope John XXIII sent his well-known message to the American and Russian embassies begging the world leaders “not to remain deaf to this cry of humanity,” and he subsequently wrote Pacem in Terris, promoting peace on earth through diplomacy, as one of the many seminal documents arising from the Vatican II conference.
In campaign speeches in 1960, Kennedy invoked a quote from Abraham Lincoln during his own presidential campaign in 1860: “I know there is a God, and I know He hates injustice. I see the storm coming, and I know His hand is in it. But if He has a place and a part for me, I believe that I am ready.”2 This quote was also found on a slip of paper retrieved from Air Force One following Kennedy’s tense meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna conference of 1961, after which Khrushchev built the Berlin Wall. The public seemed to trust Kennedy due to his unstinting moral efforts of working towards what is good and right for humanity. His grace seemed both destined by fate and earned through his character and piety before God.
Perhaps what made Kennedy such a formidable, public force was his innate charisma combined with deep idealism, a firm, unwavering commitment to world peace, and a deep internal faith.
In this vein, Saint Paul writes: “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge…to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing…, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.”3
Pauline thought is significant and serves to unify the two, overlapping meanings of charisma. To each person is given a certain, individual gift of the spirit. In other words, each of us is born with essential traits and conditions which we are charged to cultivate and develop during our lifetime. Kennedy, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others were given the innate gift of moral leadership in a broad, public sense that may or may not have penetrated to other areas of their lives. Their charisma was intricately tied to their public service and fate. Furthermore, charisma is not a state that necessarily comes into being through personal evolution and we see many examples from history of those with certain kinds of charisma who exploited it for personal gain or to evil ends such as Hitler or Mussolini. Their charisma served to violently destabilize millions of people.
In my experience, each person has their own special gifts, their own charisma through which they may express a unique quality and open to insight and intuition. For some it may be the arts, for other interpersonal relations, or for others scholarship or some kind of craft. And for some individuals, their special quality may reside in teaching and inspiring others.
Charisma, however, does not imply awakening. Deep conflicts were evident in Kennedy’s character. Kennedy was well known for his compulsive womanizing and, even after a brief association, my mother knew what he wanted and witnessed conflict between his impeccable public role and his personal demeanor, which she deemed “untrustworthy” as she “declined his persistent invitation” to visit Washington D.C. The breath of divine grace may be a gift of the gods; the gods (or fate) may speak through certain individuals in unique ways—but it is filtered through their personal evolution, their conscience, their desires, or their ego. The choice is theirs. Free will is fundamental to the human experience.
Nearly fifty years after Kennedy’s death, I had the good fortune to meet and interview Ram Dass for Parabola—during which my mother’s comment on Kennedy’s charisma lingered in my mind. Upon entering the beachside home of Ram Dass on Maui, my partner and I were graciously received by one of his assistants. In a hallway to the right, off the entryway, we heard a booming, resonant hello. My first impression was of his voice; it expressed uncontained joy that I felt immediately in my body, in my heart region. We turned to see what I can only describe as a luminous, light-giving sun sitting in a wheelchair.
Ram Dass, formerly known as Richard Alpert, was a Harvard psychology professor who teamed with Timothy Leary to explore the effects of LSD on human consciousness. A few years later, he went to India and found his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, affectionately known as Maharaj-ji, and wrote the seminal book Be Here Now, which touched many and led an entire generation to the spiritual path. After his return from India, Ram Dass spent the next half a century pursuing the paths of bhakti or devotional yoga and the practice of karma yoga or spiritual service, through which he tirelessly taught and inspired others.
During our afternoon with Ram Dass, my strong impression remained that, in spite of a massive stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body and limited his ability to speak, Ram Dass was imbued with a grace that was both gentle and powerful, that came from him and through him simultaneously, and was both a reflection of the divine and the sum total of his own inner work. Further, it was nourishing and not in any way destabilizing. In his pres-ence, one felt spirit in action, a finer, higher energy that radiated outward, touching everything and everyone. Quite simply, he radiated a luminosity and clarity that we had experienced only in contact with rare individuals who had traversed the inner path with grace, diligence, and heart.
After taking our leave of Ram Dass, we were high, intoxicated with his loving presence. Yet basking in the light and inner fire of a master does not alone lead to enlightenment. What contact with Ram Dass engendered was an increased commitment to our own inner work, a heightened sense of our wish and our feeling of a need to awaken, to become more inwardly alive and conscious, inclusive of the heart, head, and body. Contact with a semi-realized being, one who has not shirked from the challenges of the inner path, who has traversed the Way with dignity and an unshakable commitment, helps us by demonstrating and exemplifying what is possible for us.
What was notable about our experience of Ram Dass was that his radiating presence so clearly derived from his personal evolution and his efforts towards awakening. We saw no evidence of deep fault lines, compared to my mother’s conflicted response to Kennedy’s charisma. The powerful presence of Ram Dass seemed to stem from an inner integration—an inward attention held in the body and heart—that served to open him to finer or higher influences. His message to the world was and is so important, so essential to our collective well-being and the health of the planet. “Go inside. The outside is seductive. Inside, you’ll find loving awareness.”4
Of course this is easier said than done. What does it mean to “go inside?” Despite his paralysis, Ram Dass was gracefully centered in his physical body and available to the wisdom of the heart. Attention and sensation in the subtle body as well as the wisdom of the heart are integral to the Dharma traditions. Many of us attempt to treat the body with respect and to acknowledge its deep role in inward work. We might engage in yoga, meditate to clear the mind, engage in fitness and wellness regimes, strive towards a mindful state to become calm and peaceful—but what does it mean to inhabit the body with inward attention?
Inhabiting the body brings a greater sense of presence, unmistakable in one’s experience of self and inwardly recognizable in others. Professor and author Jacob Needleman reflects upon the quality of hope we feel in the presence of a man or woman who may inspire this deepening connection to ourselves. He speaks of men and women who “glow with the light of metaphysical health,” who can open our minds and inspire our feelings: “There is no greater mystery than authentic human presence.…It is when we meet the mysterious being of a developed man or woman that we see something of what consciousness and selfhood really are.”5
Needleman goes on to reflect upon the location of attention within the body: “As for modern psychology and medicine, they take us no farther than psychophysical health—a desirable goal, certainly, but by no means indicative of higher levels of inner development.…We turn with astonishment to find, for example, in the Orthodox Christian tradition, directives such as that of Gregory Palamas in the eleventh century:
“You see brother, that not only spiritual, but general human reasoning shows the need to recognize it as imperative that those who wish to belong to themselves…should lead the mind inside the body and hold it there. It is not out of place to teach even beginners to keep attention in themselves….”6
The striving toward a centered presence of the human body is necessary for those who wish to belong to themselves. There is a force in the words alone: I wish to belong to myself. Without the participation of the body, we are nothing more than thinking machines, incapable of the comprehensive understanding and genuine insight that derive from an inclusive attention. In the centered presence of the body, we come home to our true nature and a heightened sense of being.
Many spiritual teachings encourage the location of attention within the body. The discipline of sitting or walking meditation involves a relaxation of the self, a release of energy through the letting go of tension, and a redirection of energies through the centers of the body. An active stillness is sought by quieting the mind and body. The aim of this practice is growth of being toward wholeness and inner unity, where we strive to evolve into one indivisible self, opposed to our usual fragmentation and disassociation. And we endeavor to find a centered state, not only in our quiet moments, but also in the midst of movement—in the very heart of our lives. Through inward quiet and a free attention, where our energies are not locked in unnecessary tension or scrambled within our ranging thoughts, a new form of clarity may emerge: a clearing of the inner turbulence. We can begin to see what is, with a heightened clarity, and experience the moment in a deeper, cleaner, and simpler manner.
This type of work may bring us into a state of presence, a kind of livingness or spiritual vitality—so different than the more supernaturally imbued charisma. We may begin to sense a resonant pool of bundled, still energy radiating outward from the solar plexus, the pivotal locus of the heart. Energy arises from the solar plexus that keeps us firmly rooted in ourselves and deeply connects us with the outer world. Ram Dass reminds us: “When I was a psychologist, this [points to head] was my preeminent instrument. This was what I thought I was. And when I went here [into the chest], I said, I’m home. Because it was so familiar and yet it was something I had not really experienced. None of my psychology got down to here [the heart]….
“This [heart] witnesses the incarnation, it witnesses the thoughts. I can witness my thoughts. You can too. Most people identify with their thoughts, but you’ve got to bring it down to identify with the witness of your thoughts.”7
What Ram Dass implies is quite remarkable and often counterintuitive to any spiritual practice that relies mostly on ideas. He suggests that the body is the actual gateway to the heart as well as the witnessing mind. “So the head is one plane of consciousness, the heart has two planes of consciousness, and [points to his solar plexus] there’s three planes of consciousness.
“When I went from head to heart everything was Love. I was so excited to leave behind the ego and all that fear and anxiety. But I was still an individual in a sea of love. From stage two to three, we become love, lose individuality, we disappear. You are it.
“When I started realizing that One in me, that One as me, I kept saying, ‘I’m home, I’m home,’ and I had just begun to notice that the home is inside. This heart is the treasure that we all have.”8
In these uncertain times, Ram Dass offers us a pathway to personal integration and the potential for a bodhisattva’s vow towards the world and others. He fosters the concept of seeing and living the truth of our situation as “fierce grace”: “The dark moments we are handed in life give us the chance to dig deeper into ourselves as human beings, to turn our lives away from separation and into compassion and interconnection.”9
I dedicate this essay to the loving memory of Ram Dass, who left this mortal plane on December 22, 2019. Among his final words to us are these that convey the essence of his extraordinary life and teaching.
“We are all just walking each other home.” ◆
This piece is excerpted from the Summer 2020 issue of Parabola, PRESENCE. Find the full issue in our online store.
1 David Stokes, The Great Pennsylvania Debate – In McKeesport (Richard Nixon Foundation website, 2008: www.nixonfoundation.org).
2 John F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Speeches (JFK Presidential Library and Museum website: www.jfklibrary.org).
3 Corinthians I 12:7-11.
4 Author conversation with Ram Dass, A Visit with Ram Dass (David Ulrich blog, 2012: www.theslenderthread.org).
5 Jacob Needleman, Hope: What Kind of People are Really Needed (Material For Thought, San Francisco, Far West Editions, 1995).
7 Laura Dunn and David Ulrich, Grace is Here: A Conversation with Ram Dass (New York, Parabola Vol. 38, No. 1, Spirit in the World, 2013).
9 Ram Dass and Raghu Markus, Ram Dass on the Need for Inner Social Action (Be Here Now Network, 2017: www.beherenownetwork.com).