Interview by Daniel Redwood
Dass has been one of America’s preeminent spiritual teachers for the past 30
years. Born Richard Alpert in Boston in 1931, he received a B.A. from
an M.A. in motivation psychology from
and a Ph.D. in human development from
While he was a professor at Harvard University in the early 1960s, his
research with psychedelic drugs (at a time when these were still legal), and
the firestorm of publicity it generated, led to his ouster along with his
colleague, Timothy Leary.|
In 1967, he set out on a pilgrimage to India, where he met Neem Karoli Baba (Maharajji) and accepted him as his guru, as recounted in Be Here Now, which is widely considered the great classic of Sixties counterculture literature. In India, he began his study of yoga and meditation, and received the name Ram Dass. In the years following his return to the United States, Ram Dass became a revered teacher, attracting a large and devoted following through his books, talks, and spiritual retreats. In addition to Be Here Now, his books include The Only Dance There Is, Grist for the Mill, How Can I Help?(with Paul Gorman), Compassion in Action (with Mirabai Bush), Miracle of Love, Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying, and One Liners: A Mini-Manual for a Spiritual Life.
A brilliant and charismatic speaker who was not content to just talk the talk, Ram Dass walked the walk in many ways. In 1974, he created the Hanuman Foundation, which through the Prison-Ashram Project helps inmates grow spiritually during incarceration. With Stephen Levine, he helped develop the Living/Dying Project (www.livingdying.org), which provides support for conscious dying. Ram Dass was a co-founder of the Seva Foundation (www.seva.org), which for 25 years has worked in the developing world, with projects in Nepal, India, Africa and elsewhere to prevent blindness, which in those places is often the result of preventable infectious disease. Other Seva work involves refugee protection and community self-development.
In 1997, Ram Dass suffered a major stroke. The recovery process has been quite demanding, as documented in his book, Still Here, and the recent film, Fierce Grace. His ability to process language (in both directions) has slowed, but his clarity of insight shines on undiminished.
In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Ram Dass discusses the role of suffering in spiritual development, the struggle between greed and compassion, the contrasting perspectives of the ego and the soul, psychedelics, gurus, conscious dying, and value of the present moment.
Ram Dass’ next book, The Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita, will be published in the spring of 2004.
He will be speaking at Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University on September 28, 2003, at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are available at Lisner and also at Ticket Master and outlets. The regular ticket price is $25, the student price is $18, and there is also a “benefactor” rate of $100. For more information on this appearance, see www.ramdass-dc.us.
DANIEL REDWOOD: What is ur take on the current state of national and world affairs? How does a spiritual teacher make sense of it all?
REDWOOD: What is fierce grace, and what are those fundamental questions?
RAM DASS: Well, after the stroke, I had a hard time for a while, trying to bring together these two points of view. Ever since I met Maharajji, my guru, I’d felt that I’d led a graced life, that he was watching over me. And now, here was this stroke. Stroke ¾ Grace. What was that all about? Had Maharajji been out to lunch, or what? But then gradually, as I began to see the way the stroke was working on me and opening me to deeper levels of my own being, I started to appreciate that in fact it was grace ¾ but a different kind of grace. I called it “fierce grace.”
You asked me what I meant by the “fundamental questions.” I meant questions about who we are and how we got here and what this is all about. After 9-11, a lot of people started asking themselves those questions, asking whether their lives were really reflecting those deeper issues. The presence of all that suffering brought those questions into focus. That’s what Don Juan was talking about, in the [Carlos] Castaneda books, when he said that if you want to be a warrior, a spiritual warrior, you should always keep death over your left shoulder.
I think we’re in for a period of great change. We’re living in a very chaotic time. In the Hindu calendar, it’s called the Kali Yuga.
REDWOOD: For those who are not familiar with the term, what is the Kali Yuga? Does the Hindu tradition offer hope that the chaos be finished anytime soon, or do you think things likely to get worse before they get better?
RAM DASS: In the Hindu scheme of things, creation passes through four stages. The first stage is called the Sat Yuga. It’s said that in the Sat Yuga, the Bull of Truth is standing on all four legs. People are truthful with one another, things are harmonious. Justice prevails. Then comes the second stage, the Tret Yuga. Now the Bull of Truth has only three feet on the ground. An element of what’s called adharma, or injustice, has entered the world. By the third era, the Bull of Truth is standing on only two feet, and things are getting pretty bad. And finally there comes the fourth age, the Kali Yuga. That’s us. The Bull of Truth is balancing on one leg, and everything is pretty much in a state of chaos. Look around ¾ doesn’t that pretty much describe where we’re at?
At the same time, there’s this other thing going on, this developing consciousness happening, which I see as a prelude to a new kind of coming together, to merging as one. As one consciousness, which is the next step of evolution, I think.
REDWOOD: Merging as one sounds heavenly. What are some signs that would indicate when the merging is occurring? And can you help us picture what the world would be like after this merging?
RAM DASS: Well, if we really experience ourselves as part of one consciousness, then our compassion is just obvious. Wouldn’t your right hand do anything it could to remove your left hand from a fire? It’s like that ¾ it’s all just our suffering.
REDWOOD: It seems that in this period, before the merging, the separation seems to grow larger.
RAM DASS: It does. I think we are faced with our own greed nowadays.
REDWOOD: Do we all have greed within us?
RAM DASS: Yes, and that’s why the [most] greedy people get away with everything. I think our greed has overcome our compassion.
REDWOOD: Must there be great suffering in order to learn the lesson that being compassionate serves us more than being greedy ?
RAM DASS: Suffering is a fact of life, a fact of this incarnation. You know, after he became realized, the first thing Buddha said was, “There is suffering.” I find that the major learning in this incarnation concerns suffering and love. These are the two teachings. A young Indian lady said to my guru, “Baba, I’ve had suffering, suffering, all of my life.” And everybody felt sorry for her. Baba replied, “When I have suffering in my own life, it brings me so close to God.” See? That’s the two perspectives on suffering. The ego perspective, that suffering stinks. The soul perspective, that it’s sandpaper.
REDWOOD: And we move back and forth between the two.
RAM DASS: We sure do. We sure do. Three planes are extant in all of our life. But we focus on one or another, and that’s what we take our life to be.
REDWOOD: You’ve mentioned the ego and the soul. What is the third plane? And what advice do you have for people trying to shift to more of a soul perspective?
RAM DASS: I see us humans as three-plane beings. The first plane, number one, we can call ego. It’s our bodies, our personalities, all that stuff. The second plane, number two, we could call the soul. That’s our astral self, the part of us that will go on after this incarnation comes to an end. And the third plane, number three … we’ll just call that “Number Three.” Because as soon as you give it a name, you get into trouble. Wars have been fought over what to call Number Three. All of us have all those planes available to us all the time, but we’re usually so busy identifying with number one that we ignore numbers two and three. We treat it is static.
REDWOOD: Looking back over your life, what were some of the best choices you made?
RAM DASS: To have the mother and father I had. To follow my intuition, to follow my heart. Specific choices: studying psychology at Tufts; taking the mushrooms, the psychedelic mushrooms; going to India; and trusting my intuition when I came before my guru the first time.
REDWOOD: Not running away.
RAM DASS: Not running away. Not running away.
REDWOOD: You mentioned taking the mushrooms as a good choice. When all is said and done, what do you now feel are the pluses and the minuses of taking mind-altering plants and chemicals?
RAM DASS: It is a method of spiritual development. It certainly served me that way. The minuses are that the cultural overlay to drugs is paranoia and recreational use. It’s too bad, because they are an avatar.
REDWOOD: What is an avatar and how does this relate to psychedelics?
RAM DASS: An avatar, in Hinduism, is a form of God as the preserver taking birth. Vishnu, the preserving force, incarnates on earth as a being like Ram or Krishna. The avatar comes to slay the demons, and to bring back dharma, the rule of justice and law. Avatars are forms that awaken us to the possibility of the divine in human life. Psychedelics did that for many people, including me. They reawakened spirituality, the reconnected us to those other planes of who we are, to our number two and number three. So they were avatars, but avatars that came in a form we as Westerners could recognize. “Better living through chemistry.”
It’s too bad that the society can waste them this way. It could be a great creativity that the culture could benefit by. I think one of its pluses is that it gets a person free of the culture, and very few cultures want to have things like that around, because it damages the existing culture. But it also leads to creative new culture.
REDWOOD: If one of our readers recently experienced a stroke, what counsel would you offer them?
RAM DASS: I think good counsel would be, don’t compare the past with the present. It is what it is ¾ the present. And the sufferings of the body and the sufferings of the psychology (in becoming a dependent person), don’t get into dwelling on those things. Don’t go into them. Whatever it is, it all goes with the territory. It doesn’t pay to feel sorry for yourself.
REDWOOD: But if and when you do feel sorry for yourself, and I assume that just about anyone would experience this at least some of the time, how do you climb out of the hole?
RAM DASS: By taking a different perspective on your situation. By witnessing it instead of getting totally lost in the experiencing of it. When you’re witnessing, it’s not, “Oooo, I’m suffering.” It’s just, “Ah, there’s suffering.” But it’s a boot-strap operation, getting a foothold in these other planes. Meditation can help sometimes.
REDWOOD: Your book, How Can I Help? is a classic about applying spiritual principles in the service of others. You were one of the founders of the Seva Foundation, which appears to be doing a beautiful job of putting this into practice. What is Seva and what are some of its current projects?
RAM DASS: In Sanskrit, seva means to serve, to serve God. Seva has had blindness projects since the beginning, in Nepal, India, Africa and around the world. There are also projects with American Indians on fetal alcohol syndrome, and much more. (For further information, www.seva.org).
REDWOOD: Your book, Miracle of Love, tells the story of your relationship with your guru, Neem Karoli Baba, the Indian spiritual teacher who influenced you deeply. Is the guru-disciple relationship something that works well inside American society? What are its virtues and its potential pitfalls?
RAM DASS: Its virtue is that it works through the heart. It’s called guru krippa, the method of guru grace. You experience the grace and to do that takes faith, faith in the guru. And it’s true that the guru business is kind of rough in this culture, because we react very negatively to the word “surrender.” I surrendered to God within myself and within my guru. But I didn’t surrender to my guru, to that person in India. I surrendered to that which is within all of us. In Hinduism, it is said that God, guru, and Self are one. The guru way involves a human relationship, which gets my heart going. It’s much harder to pray to emptiness than it is to pray to a guru.
REDWOOD: I want to ask about your plans for the future. And actually, before I ask that, I want to ask about the whole idea of planning for the future. How much planning is healthy? Does it take us too much out of the present moment?
RAM DASS: The minute you asked that I thought of the fact that the best thing for a conscious death is that the person is present in the moment. And I saw how little I actually was in the present at that moment. I should practice it all my life, and that will be the best thing I can do. And that will be living life to the fullest, I guess.
REDWOOD: How does one prepare for a conscious death?
RAM DASS: By living consciously right now. By being fully present with this moment.
REDWOOD: In terms of the ways you may be spending your time in the future, do you have plans for new books or other projects?
RAM DASS: I’ll tell you. You know what plans do? Just like my calendar, they take me away from the present. And I’m just going to live in the present!
REDWOOD: It’s enough!
RAM DASS: I’m going to be here now! [Much laughter].
REDWOOD: I must tell you, I still have my original copy of Be Here Now, the one printed on brown paper bound with twine, that you could get for free by writing to the Lama Foundation way back when. I’ve taken it with me through all of my travels. I still love it.
RAM DASS: That’s a collector’s item.
REDWOOD: Then I guess I’m a collector.
Dr. Daniel Redwood, the interviewer, practices chiropractic and acupuncture in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is the author of A Time to Heal: How to Reap the Benefits of Holistic Health, Contemporary Chiropractic, and the forthcoming textbook, Fundamentals of Chiropractic, and is Associate Editor of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. A collection of his writing is available at www.drredwood.com. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com
©2003 by Daniel Redwood
1997-2003 © Ram Dass and the Ram Dass Tape
A Non-Profit Site