Mention the name Ram Dass these days and you're
likely to be met with a blank stare. Some people might pause for a
moment and mutter, "Ram Dass . . . Ram Dass . . . I know I've heard
the name . . ."
You can forgive the look that
suggests they're contemplating an acid flashback -- Ram Dass's name
has been linked with hallucinogenic drugs since the 1960s, when he
and Timothy Leary conducted their legendary mind-expanding tests
with Harvard University students and together set the wheels in
motion for the psychedelic age.
The Jewish academic-turned-mystic-and-guru became the
countercultural It boy of the late '60s and early '70s after he
returned from an enlightenment-seeking trip to India and brought
back a message about the importance of consciously living in the
present -- a philosophy that earned him the adulation of the love
generation. Some time around the onset of 1980s consumerism, he
slipped out of the Zeitgeist. But the man famous for his
Eastern-based Be Here Now approach is still probing life's
mysteries, and still aiming to connect with the generation that once
Today, Ram Dass describes himself as "an uncle" to the boomers.
And like them, the aging spiritual teacher is increasingly
interested in the issues that arise as you edge past middle age and
head closer toward the end of life. "I'm mapping the terrain of
aging and death," he says on the phone from California, before
embarking on a speaking tour that will bring him to Toronto tomorrow
for a public appearance and screening of a new documentary about his
life called Fierce Grace by Mickey Lemle.
One of the reasons for Ram Dass's preoccupation with death and
aging is obvious: He suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1997
that nearly killed him.
Six years later, the rehabilitation process still under way, he
is confined to a wheelchair and suffers from aphasia, an impairment
of the ability to find words. His mind is clear, but his speech is
slow and halting, interrupted by long pauses. He describes his head
as a "bombed-out dressing room," where his concepts become "clothed"
in words. The clothes are in the closet, but he can't open the door.
It seems a cruel irony that a man who was once known as a
brilliant speaker and maestro of wordplay is reduced to expressing
himself through roundabout metaphors and sentences that trail off.
But despite his difficulty speaking, he comes across on the phone as
inexhaustibly patient and focused.
The stroke was a blow to his ego, he says, bringing up a subject
that has often been central in his work. His 1971 book Be Here
Now explored the importance of quieting the mind and
transcending ego so "you can hear how it really is, so when you are
with a candle flame you are the candle flame and when you are with
another being's mind you are the other being's mind. When there is a
task to do you are the task."
But we all struggle with ego. Even Ram Dass, forever trying to be
honest about his own shortcomings, has admitted to having a big one.
So it was only after the stroke happened -- and he was forced to
live closer to the "soul level" than the "ego level" -- that he
finally allowed Mickey Lemle to make the film. Mr. Lemle had been
after him for a while to make a movie documenting his life.
"I figured it's a dharmic film," Ram Dass says. "That's why I did
it. It was after I got over thinking about this film being about me
that I could do it. I was just a participant."
So the documentary about Ram Dass is not about Ram Dass?
"No. He transformed me into a saint, and that's Mickey's take on
me. It was 60 hours of film from which this film became an hour and
a half. So the things that are on the cutting room floor are me."
What's left is a documentation of his recovery process -- with
its "suffering and pain and death and spirit" -- and some
fascinating archival footage.
Ram Dass -- whose family name was Richard Alpert -- was born into
a wealthy Jewish family in 1931. He received an MA from Wesleyan
University and a PhD from Stanford. In 1958, he scored a position at
Harvard, where he began the now legendary drug research project with
Mr. Leary. The tests mainly involved psilocybin (a synthetic version
of magic mushrooms), which they administered to about 200 people and
monitored its effects. "We gave it to jazz musicians and physicists
and philosophers and ministers and junkies and graduate students and
social scientists," Ram Dass wrote in Be Here Now.
Interest in hallucinogens began to peak on campus, and students
started trying to get their hands on the "consciousness-expanding
materials" (which weren't technically illegal substances at the
time). Mr. Leary and Mr. Alpert were dismissed from Harvard in 1963,
charged with breaching an agreement not to administer the drugs to
Undaunted, they set up shop with private funding in a 50-plus
room mansion in Millbrook, N.Y. Over several years, many Sixties
icons came to share in the psychedelic experience -- Abbie Hoffman,
Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. If you weren't
tripping at Millbrook, you were nobody.
Mr. Leary continued down the psychedelic path and then onto a
technological one, eventually adding "cyber guru" to his résumé
before broadcasting moments leading up to his death on the Internet
and then having his ashes shot out into space alongside those of
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
Mr. Alpert eventually became disillusioned with psychedelics and
in 1967, he set out for India. But he has fond memories of his
friend, whom he describes as his first guru. "He took me from a
social scientist into a mystic," he says. "We had a lot of fun. We
were adventurers. We were, like, riding on the African Queen."
He met his second guru, Neem Karoli Baba, in India. At one point
during the time they spent together, the spiritual leader expressed
an interest in trying some of the pills his student kept in his
backpack. Neem Karoli took 915 micrograms of LSD, a massive dose for
a first-timer, but the drug had no effect on him. The feat convinced
Mr. Alpert that his guru was already living in an expanded state of
consciousness and that psychedelics were not necessarily the only
route to enlightenment.
Mr. Alpert returned from India with the name his guru had given
him, Ram Dass, or "Student of God." His guru had told him to "serve
people" and "feed people." Ram Dass would feed their minds and teach
compassion. Most importantly, he would teach them to "be here now,"
to live absolutely in the present and not get dragged down by
memories of the past or fantasies of the future.
The book Be Here Now chronicled his transformation from
"neurotic Jewish overachiever" to spiritual teacher. Some of it may
seem inane and silly -- your basic Idiot's Guide to Eastern
Philosophies -- but the title sold two million copies and set hordes
of hippies on a new path in search of enlightenment. They flocked in
droves to be near Ram Dass, camping out at his family property in
"Get those hippies off my lawn," his father, George, is seen
commanding in archival footage in Fierce Grace. But the
followers stayed, and George eventually warmed to them.
Today, Ram Dass's message is one of awareness and acceptance --
especially of suffering. Referring to his own physical condition, he
says that it's okay that he "was stroked." Suffering should be
embraced, he says, since it brings us closer to God.
And all suffering, he says, is common suffering. His is no
different from yours. "When Sept. 11 came, I went to New York and I
said, 'This is like my stroke. This is fierce grace.'
"If you can, in your perception, deal with dying without negative
emotions then you can see the grace."
Ram Dass has shown the "grace" over the years by attending to the
terminally ill and offering spiritual support and care. Through the
Hanuman Foundation -- which he's a founder of -- he has developed
initiatives like the Prison Ashram Project, designed to help inmates
grow spiritually during incarceration, and the Living/Dying Project,
conceived as a "spiritual support structure for conscious dying" --
the concept of bringing consciousness and awareness to death.
He has also published several other books, including Still
Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying, a guide to facing the
autumn years. None has generated the same level of sales or
attention as Be Here Now did. Gurus just don't get the kind
of appreciation they used to.
He also co-founded the Seva Foundation, a project to establish
sustainable eye care programs in developing countries (proceeds from
his current tour benefit Seva).
Between pursuing these interests and undergoing physical therapy,
Ram Dass also offers spiritual counsel. He always has been, in some
form or another, a teacher.
"People consider me a guru," he says, "but I don't know, because
a teacher points the way, and a guru is the way, so I guess
I'm not a guru.
"I'm a teacher."
Elizabeth Bromstein is a Toronto freelance writer.
Lessons from Ram Dass
Be Here Now . . . is a spiritual method. When you are in the
moment, the moment is -- it's like baklava -- it's got planes of
consciousness. Just this moment -- this moment. Just take the moment
and go into it and you go into a place in your own being where you
If you surrender your ego and you're sure you've done it, you can
have your ego back, because your ego is the plaything of the soul;
because the soul makes the ego, just as God makes the soul. These
three levels are three planes of consciousness.
Those of us who are aging have memory problems. But you know
what? That's just a clue that you don't need that memory any more.
Souls don't have memories, they live only in the present. Ego is
what can't stand a memory loss. Soul is only a moment, being in the
moment. Keep in the soul, and you will meet so many interesting
The quieter you become, the more you can hear.
One time I had the opportunity to visit a mental asylum. I met a
patient there who told me he was God. I said to him: 'So am I.' He
was quite upset because he wanted to be the only one.
You see, we all want to be God. But the fact is we all are God.
If you think you're free, there's no escape possible.
Sources: Pacific Sun, Guerrilla News Network, Prophets
Conference Web site