David: I see that you have Bob
Dole on your altar. That's a nice touch. (laughter)
Ram Dass: I take the person who most closes my heart and I watch my heart
close as I look at their picture.
David: What was it that originally inspired your interest in the evolution of
Ram Dass: I'm inclined to immediately respond - mushrooms, which I took in
March 1961, but that was just the beginning feed-in to a series of nets.
Once my consciousness started to go all over the place, I had to start
thinking it through in order to understand what was happening to me. It
wasn't until after I'd been around Tim Leary, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts,
that I started to reflect about issues like the evolution of consciousness.
David: Was there a common denominator between what drew you to study
psychology and what drew you to spiritual transformation?
Ram Dass: I am embarrassed to admit what drew me to psychology. I didn't
want to go to medical school. I was getting good grades in psychology and I
was charismatic and people in the psychology department liked me. It was as
low a level as that. My whole academic career was totally out of Jewish
anxiety, and issues surrounding achievement and adequacy. It was totally
socio-political. It had nothing to do with intellectual content at all.
David: You talk about that time in your life as if it was a period of simple
bad judgment, but wasn't it also a necessary part of your evolution ?
Ram Dass: Well, that's different. I was, after all, teaching Freudian
theory. Human motivation was my specialty, so I thought a lot about all that
stuff. That served me in very good stead because it's an exquisitely
articulated sub-system. If you stay in that sub-system, it's very finite and
not very nourishing. But when you have a meta-system, and then there's the
sub-system within it, then it's beautiful, it's like a jewel - just like with
chemistry or physics.
But when I was in it, it was real. When I was a Freudian, all I saw were
psycho-sexual stages of development, and as a behaviorist all I saw were
people as empty boxes.
Rebecca: You seem to be able to incorporate and apply some of the things you
learned as a psychologist to this larger understanding of the human condition.
Ram Dass: Everything I learned has, within that relative system, validity.
So, if somebody comes to me with a problem, they come to me living within
that psychological context. I have incredible empathy for their perception
of reality, partly because of what I've been through in it. You've got to go
into the sub-system to be with the person within it, and then create an
environment for them to come out of it if they want to. That seems to me to
be a model role for a therapist.
It's also showed me a certain kind of arrogance in Western science. Here was
Western science really ignoring the essence of what human existence was
about and presenting it as if concerns about that were some kind of bad
When I was in psychology we were getting correlations of 50 on personality
variables which was very good - you are accounting for 25% of the variance.
But that means that at least 75% was error. It could have been anything! So,
it left plenty of space. At the time we really thought we had the theory
down cold, but I realize now how hungry I was in that situation.
Rebecca: To fill in that space.
Ram Dass: Yes. I think that everything I went into or was, gives me a
legitimacy with people in that field. The whole game of communicating dharma
is metaphor - and, in a way, I can talk the metaphor of this culture.
David: Would you say then, that someone who has demonstrated a high degree
of success at playing society's games, becomes a more credible spiritual
voice and gains more respect?
Ram Dass: Well, it depends on who the respect is from. There are people who
respect me because I was at Harvard and Stanford, and then there are people
who respect me because I left Harvard and Stanford, or I was thrown out of
Harvard - even better.(laughter)
What's fun is that I went from being a really good guy in the society to
becoming a bad guy, to then becoming a good guy again. It's fascinating to
play with these kinds of energies. When you're playing on the leading edge,
it's like surfing. There's a big wave which pushes a little wave in front of
it. The little wave is the exciting one because hardly anyone is on it, and
everyone thinks you're nuts. The meeting at Harvard where I got found out
was extraordinary. It was a moment where I knew I had left my supply wagon
far behind. I was called into the office beforehand by the heads of the
department and they said, "we can't protect Tim, but we can protect you - if
you shut up."
Then, in the meeting, all our colleagues got up and attacked us: our
research, our design, our data - everything. They saw it as defending the
department against a cult that was in danger of taking it over, because out
of fifteen graduate students, twelve wanted to do only psychedelic
So, when they had all finished attacking us Tim was stunned, because he had
had the feeling of everything being wonderful, of loving everybody and
everybody loving him. So, I got up and I said, "I would like to answer on
I looked at the chairman of the department and he gave me a look like, well,
you've made the choice. And I had, because I realized that I could not have
lived with the hypocrisy that would have been demanded of me otherwise. The
feeling I had was that I was home. It was so familiar and so right that I
couldn't leave it.
But then when I became the good guy again, I find myself riding the bigger
wave. I can make a lot of money now, people love me. It's playing with a
different power but it's not as much fun as being on the little wave.
David: How has your experience with psychedelics shaped your quest for
Ram Dass: It had no effect on me whatsoever and nobody should use it!
(laughter) The predicament about history is that you keep rewriting the
history. I'm not sure, as I look back, whether what appeared to be critical
events are really as critical as I thought they were, because a lot of
people took psychedelics and didn't have the reaction I had. That had
something to do with everything that went before that moment. In a way I
just see it as another event, but I can say that taking psychedelics and
meeting my guru were the two most profound experiences in my life.
Psychedelics helped me to escape - albeit momentarily - from the prison of
my mind. It over-rode the habit patterns of thought and I was able to taste
innocence again. Looking at sensations freshly without the conceptual overly
was very profound.
Rebecca: Do you think you would have gotten to that point anyway, because of
the path you were following?
Ram Dass: I don't know, but the probabilities are against it because I was
being rewarded so much by the society to stay in the game I was in. I had
all the keys to the kingdom; a tenured professorship at Harvard, a pension
plan, etc. When I look at my colleagues as a control group, the ones who
took acid aren't in the game, the ones who took acid are. It's as simple as
(Insert) Rebecca: You could look at that and say that it wasn't necessarily
psychedelics that was the deciding factor, but that the prescence of certain
qualities already existent in those people determined whether they took acid
or not - qualities such as courage, imagination, ability to question the
status quo etc.
.David: How did you then make the transition from Dr Richard Alpert to Ram
Ram Dass: Well, initially it was all very confusing. I was teaching a course
in human motivation. I took my first psilocybin on Friday night, and by
Monday morning I was lecturing on stuff which was basically lies as far as I
was concerned.(laughter) So, that was wierd because my whole game started to
disintegrate at that point.
I still stayed as Mr Psychedelic Junior in relation to Tim, and publicly my
gig was turning on rich people and dealing and giving lectures on the
psychedelic experience. By 1966, I looked around and saw that everybody who
was using psychedelics really wasn't going anywhere. I was around the best
of them, but even if they had the Eastern models, they couldn't wear them -
the suit didn't fit. I realized that we just didn't know enough. We had the
maps but we couldn't read them.
Then I went to India in the hope that I could meet somebody there who could
read the maps. I met Neem Karoli Baba and he gave me the name Ram Dass, and
that put it in a bigger context than the drugs. The experience wasn't any
greater than the drug experience, but the social context of it was entirely
changed. Neem Karoli took acid and said that it was known about for
thousands of years in the Kulu Valley but that nobody knew how to use them
any more. I said, "should I take it again?" He said, "it will allow you to
come in and have the Darshan of Christ. You can only stay two hours. It
would be better to become Christ than visit it, but your medicine won't do
I thought that was pretty insightful. LSD showed you an analog of the thing
itself but something in the way we were using it couldn't bring us to the
Rebecca: Acid seems to temporarily push the neurosis out of the way away,
like moving through a crowd into the space of the innocence you mentioned
earlier. When the drug wears off and the crowds of neurosis swarm around us
again, have you really dealt with anything?
Ram Dass: But the way the neuroses comes back is different. The way I talk
about it in my lectures is that they go from being these huge monsters that
possess you, to these little schmoos that come by for tea.(laughter) I have
every neurosis that I ever had. I haven't gotten rid of a single one!
Rebecca: Many people experience a kind of existential guilt because they
find that they can't live up to the inner potential they've seen during the
Ram Dass: I've had all of that! I've had all the bad trips, all the guilt
and anxiety and psychosis. In my lectures I sometimes say, "I've had
hundreds of drug sessions, and a lot of people say that someone who has done
that is basically psychotic. I have no idea whether I am a psychotic or not,
because a psychotic would be the last to know, right? All I can say is that
you paid to hear me." (laughter)
Rebecca: Do you see Richard Alpert and Ram Dass as two separate entities or
more like siamese twins?
Ram Dass: I've been through different stages. There was a stage where I had
to push away Richard Alpert to become Ram Dass. I saw Richard Alpert as a
real drag and then I saw him as poignant. If Ram Dass came into Richard
Alpert's office, Richard Alpert would have hospitalized him. I would have
seen myself as very pathological and very disturbed.
Rebecca: What would the diagnosis have been?
Ram Dass: Oh, Schizophrenia. Psychologists don't have the distinction
between vertical schizophrenia and horizontal schizophrenia, and they would
see a number of different identities in me. Once, Tim and I went to New York
to do an all night radio show. We split a sugar cube of acid, but it turned
that most of the acid was on my half. (laughter)
We got to a party at Van Wolf's house and there was a woman sketching people
on the wall. She had already done Allen Ginsberg and Tim, and she asked if
she could do me, and I agreed. I stood there and I thought, `I'm a young man
looking into the future.' I had to be somebody. She sketched me. Then I got
bored with that and I thought, `I'm really her lover.'
I didn't change any facial expressions, I just thought the thought. And she
erased what she had done. Then I thought, `I'm actually just an old wise
She erased it again and finally she said, "I can't do your face, it's just so
I'm not yet evolved enough so that Richard Alpert and Ram Dass are one. When
somebody calls me Richard, I wince a little bit because I'm still holding on
to wanting to be Ram Dass. Ram Dass represents that deep place in my being.
Richard Alpert never represented that to me.
Rebecca: You're ready to put Bob Dole on your altar but not Richard Alpert?
Ram Dass: (laughter) No. I'm not ready for that yet.
David: What is your concept of God ?
Ram Dass: (long pause) I think it's a word like a finger pointing to the moon.
I don't think that what it points to is describable. It is pointing to that
which is beyond form that manifests through form. `A God defined is a
God confined.' I can give you thousands of poetic little descriptions. It's
all, everything and nothing - it's all the things that the Heart Sutra talks
about. It's God at play with itself. God is the One, but the fact is that
the concept of the One comes from two, and when you're in the One, there's
no One - it's zero, which equals one at that point.
Rebecca: What is your experience of God?
Ram Dass: Presence - but not a dualistic presence. The dance goes from
realizing that you're separate (which is the awakening) to then trying to
find your way back into the totality of which you are not only a part, but
which you are. It's like holography. You are the whole thing and you go
through stages of approaching that understanding.
Like my relationship with my guru. First I had the person and then he died.
Then I had the pictures and the stories, and I got bored with that. Then
there was the feelings of the qualities of his being: humor, rascality,
sternness. And then there was just presence. And then, there was just this
feeling of being. Not even the experience of a presence.
That's the quality of emptiness, even emptiness of the concept of something.
The Chinese patriarch says, even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment
is to go astray. It's that moment when all of the dualism just keeps falling
away and falling away.
Rebecca: When you talk about God it's seen as your job so it's okay, but when
others mention the G word, the response is usually either pity or
Ram Dass: Because it's been pre-empted by third chakra power trippers.
They're using God in contexts like `my God' or `the God' or `unless you
believe in God...' or `do you believe in God?' It's power in both directions
and it's the reductionistic nature of the way the mind works. What the word
God means is the mystery really. It's the mystery that we face as humans.
The mystery of existence, of suffering and of death.
The question is: What is your relationship to the mystery? Are you defending
yourself from it? Are you making love to it? Are you living in it? These are
all different stages of the process.
Rebecca: How can people speak about God without getting into these sticky
Ram Dass: I think the word God is going to have to be put to rest for a
while. I'm using it less and less. I've been trying a different thing now
and I've been saying to people in my workshops, "I challenge you all within
a year to be living on two planes of consciousness simultaneously." They
said, "which two?" I say, "any two." (laughter) That's not talking about
spirit, it's not talking about God, but it's doing exactly the same thing -
it's shifting paradigm and context.
David: Your guru was an extremely significant figure in your life. Could you
describe what you have carried with you as a result of your relationship with
Ram Dass: He is the most important separate consciousness in my life, even
though he died in 1973. He's more real than anybody else I deal with. It's
like having an imaginary playmate that is so hip and so wise and so cool and
so empty and so doesn't give a fuck and so loving and so compassionate - so
any way you can go. It's such fun.
He is the closest I've ever come to finding unconditional love. He didn't
even want to stay alive. Most people you meet might say, "I'm an
unconditional lover," but you go to kill them and they go, "nooo!"
But it's not him, he's just the form of it. Once, Maharaji was warning this
girl off this dubious guy she had met. She said, "he's only my friend" and
Maharaji said, "your only friend is God." I really heard that. Your only
friend is the reflection of the mystery in each form. And that's what you
want to be friends with - not with the story-line.
Rebecca: Do you feel that you're coming even closer to him as time goes on?
Ram Dass: Yeah. When I think of who he was - this giant of a being - the
idea that I could be him is such chutzpah that I can't even entertain it in
my mind. But I can see that as fast as I can, I'm dying into him. The heat
is being turned up so fast and I'm aware of it. If you put a frog in boiling
water it will jump out, but if you put it in cold water you can boil it and
it won't move. I'm aware of the heat being turned up, but I don't want to
Rebecca: A lot of Westerners have a hard time understanding the guru/devotee
relationship. Could you describe this relationship as you understand it?
Ram Dass: Ramana Mahashi said, "God, guru and Self are one and the same
thing." The real guru is not anybody busy being somebody. If you asked
Maharaji if he was a guru he would say, "I don't know anything, god knows
everything." The guru is a door-frame. You don't worship the door-frame,
you're trying to go through the door. It's like that saying about, if you
meet the Buddha on the road, slay him.
You don't owe the guru anything but your own liberation because that's the
only way you come into the guru. What the guru does, as far as I can see, is
mirror for you where you aren't. The guru shows you all your neuroses writ
large, because there's nothing you can project into the guru. You keep
trying to make him into somebody like you, but he isn't because he doesn't
want anything - and you still want something.
That understanding can come through books or on the astral plane - it
doesn't have to come through a physical guru. But once you've tasted this
stuff you can get very attached to your method of getting there. Many people
who get closest to God through sex, get very addicted to sex. They get
attached to the method rather than to what the method is for.
The guru is just another method, and it's a trap. But you have to get
trapped for it to work and then you just hope it ejects. If the guru isn't
pure they won't let you eject, they won't let you go. You'll know in your
intuitive heart that you're being had, but you might not want to admit it.
Rebecca: Again there's that Western suspicion because of the history of
Ram Dass: Right. The true guru doesn't want any worldly power - it's a joke
Rebecca: Did you find yourself testing your guru a lot in the beginning?
Ram Dass: He so overwhelmed me with his first gambit that there wasn't any
way that I could test him any more. He just did it to me so thoroughly that
there couldn't be a question. He could have gone in there with a shovel but
he went in with a bulldozer! (laughter)
I was coming up a hillside and I saw him sitting under a tree with eight or
devotees around him. I'm standing at a distance and the guy who is with me
is on his face touching this his feet, and I'm thinking, "I'm not going to do
Neem Karoli Baba looked up at me and said, "you came in a big car?" We had
come in a friend's Land Rover that we had borrowed so this guy could come
and see his guru to get his visa. So I said, "yes." And then he said, "you
will give it to me?" Now, coming from Jewish charities as I do, I had been
hustled, but never like this! I was speechless. The guy I was with leans up
and says, "if you want it Maharaji, it's yours." I protested and said, "you
can't give David's car away!" I was aware of everybody laughing at me, but I
was very serious. (laughter)
Then Neem Karoli said, "take them and feed them." So we were taken down to
the temple and fed lunch. Then he called me back up and he told me to sit
down. He looked at me and said, "you were out under the stars last night,"
Then he said, "you were thinking about your mother." My mind started to get
agitated and I started to entertain hypotheses as to how he could have known
that. Then he said, "she died last year," and the dis-ease kept growing.
Then he said, "she got very big in the belly before she died." My mother had
died of an enlarged spleen. And then he closed his eyes and he rocked back
and forth and he opened his eyes and looked at me, and in English he said,
When he said that, my mind just couldn't handle it. I just gave up.
Something shifted and I started to feel a wrenching pain in my chest. There
was a radio show on many years ago called Inner Sanctum and they opened this
screeching door at the beginning of every show. I felt like this door that
had been long closed was being violently forced open. I started to cry and I
cried for two days. And after that, all I wanted to do was touch his feet.
I had recognized that not only was he inside my head, but that everything I
was, he loved. There was not a part of me that he didn't know, and he still
loved me. So, all the models of `if they only knew that little thought that
I don't even admit to myself, they wouldn't love me,' didn't apply.
This wasn't an intellectual process. It was a direct experience of that
quality of unconditional love. It took that long (snaps his fingers) and all
the rest of it has been basically irrelevant. I cherish everything that came
after and I got all kinds of teachings, but the thing happened at that
moment. He didn't do anything, he just was it. He was an environment where
my ripeness to open had a chance to express itself.
Rebecca: Did you get a lot of flack from your peers and friends when you
came back to the United States from India?
Ram Dass: Well, I came back wearing a dress, I was barefoot, I had long
hair, a long beard and beads. I wouldn't have noticed flack if it had hit me
in the face!(laughter)
David: What was Timothy Leary's reaction?
Ram Dass: I don't remember precisely. Tim and I weren't very close during
that period of time. He had been to India just a few years before I had, so
he understood the context from which I was speaking. When we started to come
back together again, we had by then gone in such different directions that
there were certain topics that we kind of agreed not to deal with.
Tim is a little bit of a mystery to me. He seemed fascinated by the
conceptual play around the psychedelic experience, while I was much more
about dying into emptiness. But I didn't have a vested interest in being an
intellectual or a scholar. Tim goes out of conceptual space obviously, you
only have to read Psychedelic Prayers, but the venue that he wants to hang
out in, is the conceptual mind. That isn't my domain.
Kalu Rinpoche, who is an incredible Tibetan lama, said, "Ram Dass, you have
three things to do in this life: honor your guru, deepen your emptiness and
deepen you compasssion." And that's just what it feels like to me. I live a
lot with mystery. Tim sees mystery as a challenge. I see it as a delightful
place to play, so, when somebody tells me they have just solved a mystery, I
am only passingly interested.
Rebecca: That's a classic East-West dynamic.
Ram Dass: Very much so. I spent many years being very defensive about the
fact that I was not schooled in Western metaphysics and philosophy, but it
left a blank slate on which I could write when I went to the East. Then I
came back and I could view Western philosophy from that perspective.
I see this role of mediating between the East and West as a delicious dance.
I went Western and then I pushed West away to embrace East. Then I came back
like a virgin afraid of the West, and then slowly over the years stuck my
toe in again. I shaved the beard, put on the pants, got the credit card and
the MG and a house in Marin, and oh my God what happened! (laughter) It's
like being in the world and not of it. It has to come at a point where it's
not scaring you or trapping you. It's empty form.
Rebecca: You've compared the process of persistent self-analysis to playing
with one's feces. Where do you think self-analysis can take us, and what are
Ram Dass: It depends on your intention in having fecal play. It can be as a
practice of mindfulness - in order to find a place of witnessing and seeing
it for what it is. Then there is being in the drama and self-analysis can be
just a way of exacerbating the drama and making your identity in the
storyline more real.
Unfortunately this characterizes most of the dialogues between therapists
and patients. Everybody is so caught in the stuff that they are just
reinforcing caughtness even as they are trying to get you out of it. It's
like rearranging furniture in the prison cell rather than trying to get out
But as an exercise in mindfulness, self-analysis can be very useful. It can
help you to deal with the phenomena of your life as they rise. You notice
them and the noticing gets stronger and stronger until you're not going into
them so much. That's a stage, because you're still distant from them and
then you have to come back in until you're in them and not in them at the
I think the fallacy is that if you're standing in one place, you can't be
standing somewhere else. I think that freedom is being conscious on all
levels simultaneously. Freedom is not standing anywhere. You have no
perspective, and then you just adopt a perspective for a functional
situation. The situation brings you into perspective at that moment, but
you're not resting in perspective. Is that clear?
David: Yes..... it's just difficult to do.
Ram Dass: Well, as long as you think you're doing it - that's a place.
(laughter) That was the beauty of Trungpa Rinpoche, a wonderful Tibetan
lama, he sat down and said, "I want to show you a new form of meditation,
let's do it together." We sat down looking at one another and after a while
he said, "Ram Dass, are you trying?" and I said, "yes, I'm trying," and he
said, "don't try - just do it."
Rebecca: You speak about operating from the point of view of God's
instrument, but isn't there a risk of becoming self-righteous with that
perspective and thinking, "well, I'm an instrument of God and God is never
wrong, therefore I am never wrong," and losing the self-consciousness
required to keep one's ego in check ?
Ram Dass: I think that if your intention is freedom, then you will get
caught in that, but you won't stay in it. You'll get caught in `I represent
the Godfather so don't screw around with me,' and then you'll see that
that's a horrible place to be standing in. That's ego.
The mechanism that corrects you is not even the grossness of that conceptual
understanding. It's almost a vibratory thing. You feel a thickness or a
heaviness and you just know that you're caught. You don't even know how
you're caught - you don't know whether it's lust or anger or fear, and you
don't even give a damn which one it is, you just start your mechanisms to
remember, to bring your consciousness out of sticking in a place. You can be
stuck anywhere, in `I am God' or `I am empty'.
I've lost it thousands of times, and what I've done is surround myself as
best I can with people who bust me. When I get caught I can get very
resistant to admitting that I'm caught. It's the use of one thing in the
service of something else. I kid about it and say, "wouldn't you like to
come up and see my holy pictures?" My guru put it very succinctly, he said
"siddhis (spiritual powers) are pigshit." (laughter)
Rebecca: Do you still find yourself getting caught on occasion?
Ram Dass: You have to want something a little bit, but the wanting is really
going down a lot.
Rebecca: What is karma?
Ram Dass: Karma is another way of saying that everything is related to
everything else in the universe in a lawful way - future, past and present.
A limited interpretation of karma has to do with looking from the past to
the future, but actually it's all inter-related. You just feel the unfolding
of the process of interaction leading to a certain moment.
If you chart it you can plot it somewhat and see that this came from there
in a series of cause and effect, but actually it's not linear at all. You
are already enlightened, so you are actually going from where you started
back to where you started. You're nowhere because nothing happened and in
that moment you realize it - aaaargh! (laughter)
They say that when a being becomes free, all that is left in form is old
karma running off. When you do an act with intention, it's like a pebble
dropping in a pond. It creates waves - it's an action. When you become no
longer identified with that which has motives, (they are there but you're
not identified with them, you're just awareness) then you're not creating
new karma. When the old karma runs off - you aren't. That's what a being
that finishes is. You run out of karma.
In other words, in the course of things with everything interacting with
everything else, you just cease to exist as a separate thing. It's still
everything, because you were everything already. Nothing happened to you, if
there is a you.(laughter)
Rebecca: The concept of personal karma is becoming more and more popular,
but it's often seen as a justification for
non-intervention in the sense of; I have my karma and that homeless person
asking me for a quarter has his karma, and who am I to intervene with
anybody else's karma?
Ram Dass: His karma is that you have that karma - your karma is not
intervening. He stays hungry, so that's his karma. Everybody is everybody
else's karma. The fact that you saw the homeless person is part of your
karma and it's having an effect on you all the time. You are my karma and I
am yours at this moment.
It's so profoundly subtle because who I see you to be is a projection of my
karma. The way karma manifests is in desire systems. If I don't have any
attachments at all, what I see is something entirely different. To see
symmetry, to see familiarity, to see warmth when I look at you, I'm having
to do all this stuff with my mind. Who you really are, I have no idea -
until I have no karma.
David: It sounds as if it's all so organized that there is little room for
Ram Dass: I've been grappling with the concept of free will for a long time,
and this is what I've come up with. To the extent that we are in form (and
that includes thought) we have no freedom, because of the nature of karma,
of everything being lawfully related to everything else. So then when
somebody says free choice, does that mean anything? Who has choice?
I can think I have choice. I can say, "I'm going to go to the movies
tonight," but if you knew enough about me and if you could handle a
multi-variable approach, you could predict that I would say that. If you
knew enough about my gene structure and the shape of my hands and my
father's behavior, you could predict my position in the chair at this
moment. So where is the free will? The fact is, that only when you aren't
anybody do you have free will.
Rebecca: So you're saying that you only really have free-will at the point
where the concept of free-will is meaningless - when you no longer even have
the desire to have free will.
Ram Dass: Right. When you want something, you see only the manifestation of
the outward container. God is free, or the formless is free, or non-dualism
is free. Awareness has no form and so you as awareness are free basically,
but every way it manifests through form is itself within law. One of the
things I got from Maharaji was a sense of his seeing the universe as just
law unfolding. There is nothing personal about it, it's just stuff
And he was offering to meet me behind it, where we are free. I couldn't
handle the fact that he understood the nature of suffering and I learned
that the line that goes, `out of emptiness arises compassion' has that
mystery right in it. You'd better be empty of intention and desire. The Tao
says `the truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing.'
David: So are you saying then that being embodied in form means that
everything is predetermined?
Ram Dass: No, it's not predetermination. Everything is related to the future
and past - what's pre?
Rebecca: Be here now.(laughter)
Ram Dass: (laughter) When somebody says to me, "don't I have free will?" I
say, "it depends on who the `I' is. Most likely if you think you are
somebody who could have free will, then you don't." You are free will, but
you don't have free will. So, if I'm facing a choice, I always know I'm
standing in the wrong place. Mostly nowadays I'm watching my life to see how
it came out, rather than what to do about it.
Rebecca: Isn't there some creative quality? Aren't you given a riff on which
you can them improvise?
Ram Dass: Yeah, but the improvisation isn't really creative. It's creativity
the way we think about it, because it surprises us, but it's still lawful.
(Insert) Rebecca: How do you explain in karmic terms why, once you have set
yourself upon a path to the absolute, signposts and guides seem to appear
out of nowhere?
David: Could you share with us the experience you had swimming with John
Ram Dass: (long pause) I went with my friend to Redwood City, Marineworld
because I had been invited by John and Toni Lilly to swim with Joe and
Rosie. It was a cold, grey day. I stood on the edge of the tank and I
thought, "I'm too old for this. I don't want to swim with the dolphins
anyway!" (laughter) The problem was that everyone was standing around
watching to see what Ram Dass would do with the dolphins. It was a real drag.
So I get into the water, and as the dolphins go by me I realize that they're
much bigger than I thought they would be - and I could feel their power.
Then one of them, Rosie, began just hovering right next to me, so I reached
out to touch her. Now in my model, if it's got a tail it's a fish, and when
you touch fish they go away - but she didn't go away. Then I ran my hand
down her back. It was the silkiest thing I had ever touched. It was like
water with form. A thrill went through me. Still she didn't move.
Suddenly I realized that she had opened to the contact. The recognition that
her consciousness was right there, allowing me to do that, did the same
thing to me as Maharaji's "spleen" (of course, my mind is much more blowable
by this time - I'm ready to remember.) Up until then I'd been thinking, what
am I supposed to do with the dolphin? But while I was touching her, I gave
up and my heart just opened.
When that happened, she flipped until she was upright right in front of me.
My heart was so open that I leaned forward and kissed her on the mouth.
Unstead of pulling back, she started insinuating her body into mine. I was
going into ecstasy, I was saying, "oh Rosie, oh Rosie," (laughter) and I
started to get an erection. Then the thought occurred to me, "is this
legal?" And all the time I'm smiling and everyone is watching to see what
Ram Dass is doing with the dolphins.(laughter)
Then she swam around and came in under my arm, and I thought I'd really like
to swim with her. I grabbed her dorsal fin and she went down and my hand
slipped off the fin, so she came back and I grabbed it again. I didn't want
to grab it too hard because I didn't want to hurt her. She went down and it
slipped off again, and she kept coming back under my arm. So I thought, what
I really want to do is to hold her underneath the stomach, so I grabbed a
fin and I held her.
She went down and she was very active so I thought, I must be bugging her so
I let go and I came to the surface and she came right in underneath my arm
again. So I grabbed her and held on and we started to go wild through the
tank. It was just incredible! I got to the point where my breath started to
give out and I thought, Rosie, this is lovely, but I'm one of the those
other creatures! And with that thought, she immediately came to the surface
while I got a breath and we went back down. This went on several times.
Once we came up and people were taking photographs. I got to hamming for the
camera and I forgot to take a breath and she went down. I thought, this is
where we part company Rosie, and she came right up so I could get air. Then
I started to get so cold that I was blue and shaking. She pulled away from me
went and got Joe and they both nosed me over to the platform and out of the
David: How wonderful! Have you ever had an experience that you would label
an extra-terrestial contact?
Ram Dass: No. I assume there are lots of beings on every plane all around
the place, but I myself have not had experiences of that kind. By
extra-terrestial do you mean beings on the physical plane like other beings
in the solar system?
David: Not necessarily. A lot of people have used the term extra-terrestrial
in the context of a psychedelic experience where they've encountered entities
they feel have evolved from somewhere else either from another planet or
Ram Dass: I've met many beings on other planes but I don't call them
extra-terrestrial. Maharaji is not on this plane any more - but he's there.
He's present as a separate entity, and the form I see him in is the form my
mind projects into him.
I've also written prefaces for three volumes of the books on Emmanual.
Emmanual speaks through a woman called Pat Roderghast and he is an
absolutely delightful spook. I know Pat very well and I know Emmanual quite
well now. I asked him what to tell people about dying and he said, "tell
them it's absolutely safe." What a superb one-liner. He also said, "death is
like taking off a tight shoe." He's just like this friendly, wise uncle.
In the preface I say, I don't know whether this is vertical schizophrenia or
whether it's a separate entity, and I don't really care. I'm experiencing it
as a separate entity and my criteria is whether I can use the material, not
whether it's real or not.
Rebecca: How do you act or feel differently when you are in the presence of
a dying person?
Ram Dass: Well, theoretically I don't act any differently because we're all
dying. Basically, the human relations boil down to creating an environment
in which another person can manifest as they would manifest. That's what
love is. You're in love with the universe and you want it to do what it
needs to do. You're creating an environment that is the least limiting.
So, my job isn't to have somebody die my philosophical or metaphysical
death, my job is to create a space of listening and quietness and presence
with no boundaries. My job is not to use a denial of their experience out of
my fear as a way of distancing myself through being kind and helpful or
whatever, because that traps them in objectivity.
There is one awareness in which some of it is dying and some of it is
visiting some of it that's dying. To me then, the one awareness frees both
of us immensely, and it frees them of being busy dying. If they're ready to
let go of dying then it's really great fun. It's woooooow! It's oooooooh!!
(laughter) If they're busy dying, it's none of my business. I'm not going to
say, "come on, you know you're not really dying," I have no moral right to
Rebecca: The ability to create that space in yourself must take some
Ram Dass: What happens is, wherever there is desire, there is clinging in
you. Situations that awaken that clinging are the ones that are really
Death is certainly the most clinging situation that humans have to deal with.
So, I'm attached to working with dying people because it's the closest I can
get to one of my deepest clingings. I can slowly watch my heart open and
close, and I can stay mindful in it. I see also how there is a certain cosmic
giggle about the whole thing, but that's just so socially unacceptable - even
David: Can you describe one of the most profound experiences you've had
working with a dying person?
Ram Dass: The most profound awakening I've had recently, was two years ago,
working with a woman who was dying of AIDS. I just fell into love with her
like the way I've been talking about. That's what it is, it's being in love
with somebody, in the sense of no boundary and no model of how they should
be. I could open myself, and being that open, you experience what they
I watched how I stayed open, right until she couldn't breathe any more and
she was dying from asphyxiation. I watched my awareness disengage itself. I
couldn't die with her. I couldn't love her through death, I could love her
to death.(laughter) That's an interesting moment for me, to see where the
automatic defense locks in and I get pushed back into my separateness,
because that's the moment where I'm not with her.
Rebecca: How could you have gone further?
Ram Dass: If I were not caught, then whatever was catching her would have
been totally in her. I wouldn't have been perpetuating it, so she could have
let it go faster.
I meet somebody and they think they're real. My job is not to deny that
reality, but to have a context in which that is not the only reality. So I'm
always here in case they want to let go of that one. I don't demand that
they let go of it, but if they would like to let go of it - I'm here. If
you're a Christian you can speak about focusing on the soul as well as the
manifestation. You're constantly saying, are you in there? What's it like
being you this time?
Rebecca: How do you help a person in their dying process?
Ram Dass: By working on yourself to keep unencumbered by clingings of mind,
so you stay in compassion. That's independent of whether you give them water
and plump their pillows and hold them and all that stuff. The question is,
where do you do it from? That's more interesting.
We're not dealing with the issue of whether you do it, if somebody is
thirsty, you give them water, naturally. The issue is how you do it. In
order to not create suffering, you can only work on yourself. That's the
gift you give. The process of working with somebody as they're dying is an
exercise on yourself to keep you in love and watching when you fall out of
love from moment to moment.
Rebecca: It must be a challenge to maintain that kind of openness when the
person dying is expressing bitterness or anger.
Ram Dass: There can be anything. There can be sweet happiness that's phony,
there can be pain and struggle - but all you can do is create the space
where they can do what they need to do. They might come on with their whole
trip of this is terrible, but there's nothing they get out of you. Sometimes
they come on strong, and then they see that nothing has happened in you.
I remember a woman coming to see me and telling me this terribly sad story
about her being a seamstress and having a child and how her child is now
forging checks. And I listened very carefully and at the end I said, "I hear
you." That didn't satisfy her and she went and told the whole story again.
She was used to using that story like the ancient mariner. And the second
time I said it, this smile came upon her face and she said, "you know, I was
a bit of a rascal at that age too." She had come up for air.
Rebecca: So you offer someone another option to the drama.
Ram Dass: Yes. It's available, but you don't try to get them into the other
option. The minute you try to change somebody, you play into the unconscious
paranoia that is in everybody, and when they feel manipulated they push
against it and it isolates them even more.
Rebecca: What is your position on euthanasia?
Ram Dass: A human birth is an incredible vehicle for working on yourself and
you should milk it for as much as you can get out of it. But if you've had
enough and you can't cut it, you should certainly have the "choice" to end
it, even though it's not really your choice - your karma just ran out for
I have nothing against that. You just go on from that point instead of from
another point. I can't see that there's any rush - it's a circle. Where's
everybody going anyway?! (laughter)
Rebecca: So you don't see some heavy karmic consequences from bailing?
Ram Dass: No. If somebody asks me, "should I?" I say, "well, I wouldn't."
But I don't know, I might if I got into a certain situation.
David: What do you believe happens to consciousness after the death of the
Ram Dass: I think it's a function of the level of evolution of the
individual psychic DNA code, or whatever. I think that if you have finished
your work and you're just awareness that happens to be in a body, when the
body ends it's like selling your Ford - it's no big deal.
Then the question is, what of you is left after that? If you're fully
enlightened, nothing of you is left because nothing was there before. If
there's something before, there will probably be something after, and it
will project onward. I can imagine beings that are so dense and caught in
life that when they die, there is no place in awareness that they can
conceive of the fact that they're dead. The word conceive in this context is
strange because they have no brain, so it really raises questions about who
is thinking this. (laughter) But I think that identifying the brain with
thought is a mistake, I think that the brain is a way of manifesting the
thought but I don't think that it is actually an isomorphic thing.
So, I suspect that some beings go unconscious, they go into what Christians
call purgatory. They go to sleep during that process before they project
into the next form. Others I think go through and are aware they are going
through it, but are still caught. All the bardos in the Tibetan Book of the
Dead are about how to avoid getting caught.
Those beings are awake enough for them to be collaborators in the
appreciation of the gestalt in which their incarnations are flowing. They
sort of see where they're coming from and where they're going. They are all
part of the design of things. So, when you say, did you choose to incarnate?
At the level at which you are free, you did choose. At the level at which you
not - you didn't.
And then there are beings who are so free that when they go through they may
still have separateness. They may have taken the Bodhisatva vow which says,
`I agree to not give up separateness until everybody is free,' and they're
left with that thought. They don't have anything else. Then the next
incarnation will be out of the intention to save all beings and not out of
personal karma. That one bit of personal karma is what keeps it moving.
To me, since nothing happened anyway, it's all an illusion - reincarnation
and everything - but within the relative reality in which that's real, I think
it's quite real.
Rebecca: It's interesting how in Buddhism you learn about the general
definition of reincarnation and then as you go up the lineage, this
definition becomes increasingly relative.
Ram Dass: Right. You're the Buddha already, you're only in drag. And then
you wake up and realize you've been had by your own mind.
Rebecca: One of the things that comes up time and time again in your
writings is that when a person is involved in service, they do a lot better
when they can operate from a position of full acceptance of the other's
condition, whether that person is a drug addict, a mass murderer or a
terminally ill patient or whatever, and not operate from the desire to
change the behavior or conditions. Can you elaborate on this as many people
would say that the purpose of service is to change certain behaviors and
conditions that are perceived as harming another?
Ram Dass: The purpose of service is to relieve suffering. Now the question
is, what is the nature of suffering? Maybe if the person is thirsty the
purpose of service is to give them a glass of water. God comes to the hungry
in the form of food.
Rebecca: What if they're dying of thirst and they say they don't want a
glass of water? Do you think that a person is ever justified in assuming
control of anotherís welfare?
Ram Dass: I think that if you're dealing with a very young child where you
are responsible for their biological survival, then you have some grounds
for having a preference that is different from theirs. But if you're
deciding what is best for somebody else and you're dealing with an adult
consciousness - therein lies the tyrannical state.
David: But you may still be relieving suffering though, even if your efforts
aren't being appreciated.
Rebecca: I had a lot of friends who were sent to mental hospitals instead of
universities. Most people would think that's too bad but I think they came
out with more cylinders than many who went to university.
I don't know how it's going to come out. I see people suffering in their
dying so intensely. They've had big egos all their life and that suffering
and pain finally wore them down until they just gave up. And at the moment
they give up, it's like a window opened and there they are in their full
Now do I say that the suffering stunk? It was terrible and I would have
taken it away from them in a minute if I could. My human heart doesn't want
them to suffer, but when I look at it I say, "boy, the game is more
than I thought it was." That's why I include suffering as part of the mystery.
You and I can only meet through roles. So, let's say you come to me and I'm
your therapist. You came to me to change you, and my job is to relieve the
suffering that brought you there. Part of my job is for me to help you see
the forms of your pathology, but the deeper suffering that I understand is
your separateness, your isolation. Therefore, what I can offer you is my
being and my presence. That's the real gift. You and I may come together
through the form of therapist and client, but we may meet as just two beings
who are dancing into love through the form of those roles.
Somebody might ask me if they should go to therapy, and I would say, "yes,
but try to find a therapist who doesn't think they're a therapist." If they
think they're a therapist, they have an agenda and they are caught in their
mind which is treating you as an object to be manipulated for your own good.
Rebecca: You talk about how suffering can awaken us more than pleasure can,
but I'm wondering about ecstasy. The ecstatic experience of God seems to be
able to link up with the compassionate acknowledgment of suffering in the
same way that suffering is able to lead us back to the ecstatic experience.
Is ecstasy as valid a path to God as suffering is, in your view?
Ram Dass: I'd much rather use the ecstatic path. I'm no fool! (laughter) I
guess the thing is that ecstasy is easy for the ego to socialize in and
protect itself. Suffering has an effect kind of like dripping water on stone.
It eats your ego away.
Suffering confronts you with where you are holding. It shows you your stash;
the attachments which you have been hiding from yourself. If you have no
attachment then you wouldn't be suffering. When you are suffering, you say,
why am I suffering? I'm suffering because I'm holding onto a model of how it
should be other than the way it is.
Pain is a strong stimulus and what model you have of what pain is has a lot
to do with how you cope with it, and whether or not you can open to it being
a part of you rather than trying to isolate it. One of the things with pain
is that you tend to try to make it separate from yourself.
The art is to be mindful of it and yet fully with it. It's the pushing
against something that gets you into trouble: pushing against aging, pushing
against the weather. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't be an activist
and push against things. It doesn't mean that you don't have opinions, it
means that you're not attached to your opinions. As Don Juan said, you huff
and puff and make believe it's real, even though you know it isn't.
Rebecca: How then do you think we can avoid the kind of polarization that we
see in the abortion issue for example, where both sides seem beyond the
point of being able to communicate with one another.
Ram Dass: If I were in a position to have some say, I would bring some of
the leaders from each group together for a retreat where I would invite them
just to listen to each other. You not only have to hear the other person,
but they have to feel that they have been heard. If I feel you've heard me,
then you and I can start a dialogue, but if I don't feel that you've heard
me, then I'm in opposition to you.
The question is, how do we create a meta-identity? We all think life is
beautiful, we all think that life is sacred, but we also think that freedom
from suffering is sacred. It's not sacred versus profane. It's not people of
ill-will on either side. Everyone is trying to be as true to the light as they
Engaging everybody in the meta-game is a tricky one. You want to help them
break their identification with their position. They're not giving up their
position, but their primary identification can shift from being an
abortionist or an anti-abortionist, to being a human being who has an
opinion about abortion. That's a different place. Then everyone can sit
around and say, what do we do about this? If everybody lays their cards on
the table, the game is possible.
Rebecca: So you're talking about developing a respect towards the other,
even if that other doesn't agree with you.
Ram Dass: Yeah. It's like in politics. Everybody is using all of the
external symbols of the fact that they're doing that, respecting the other
and trying to understand the other, but they're not doing it. All alignment
has been pre-empted in the service of third chakra ego power. It's inevitable,
Rebecca: You talk about learning to use all life experiences, whether good
or bad as grist for the mill and potential for spiritual growth. And I think
about the people in Rwanda and what they're going through; the disease and
the famine and the apparent meaninglessness of it all, and I wonder what
kind of spiritual growth they are achieving or have even the possibility of
achieving from that.
Ram Dass: (long pause) That's the mystery. That's the mystery of suffering.
If you could stand back enough to see the whole trip it might look quite
different. Say you have freeze-frame photography and my arm is moving from
pointing downwards to straight up in the air. If the middle frames are
missing, then you see one situation and then another, with no apparant
connection between them. You're seeing the horror which is Rwanda, but
you're missing out on witnessing the beauty.
I would sit in front of Maharaji and I felt like he had a deck of cards of
all my reincarnations. I could sense that he saw my incarnations in a
context that I couldn't see. It all seemed terribly real to me. If you look
back at the events of your life, you'll see that when you were in them, you
didn't see the context. I look back at my miserable times and realize how
profoundly that helped me in where I am now.
Rebecca: So, if you see suffering in the context of a continuum then it
becomes easier to understand.
Ram Dass: It all has to do with your time-frame. For the people in Rwanda,
it's hell. None of this doesn't mean that you don't do what you can to
relieve the suffering. You do what your heart calls you to do. Saying that
it's all karma, isn't a justification for non-action. That is a confusion of
levels of consciousness. On the level of the human heart, you do what you
can to relieve another's suffering. On another level, it's all karma.
Rebecca: How do you move within your meditation space so that you stop
getting trapped in the, now I'm meditating, now I'm not syndrome, so the
high can keep leaking into your life?
Ram Dass: You give up not meditating. It's called meditation action. There's
no way out of it. Meditation means to be constanty extricating yourself from
the clinging of mind.
Rebecca: So, it becomes part of the fabric of your life, rather than another
thing on your list to do like the laundry or something?
Ram Dass: That's right. People ask me, how much meditation practice do you
do? Sometimes I say none, and they give me a worried look,(laughter) but the
other answer is, all the time! I don't do anything else but meditate.
David: What are some of the current projects that you are working on?
Ram Dass: There are several on the burner. I've just accepted a contract on
a book on aging which will allow me to take about two years off to write.
I'm hoping to understand the dysfunctional mythology around aging;
aesthetically, cross-culturally and spiritually.
I'm also on the board of a group called Social Venturing Network - exploring
the relationship between spirit and business. Out of that core group, we've
started three organizations in the past year. We've started Businesses for
Social Responsibility, we started Students for Responsible Business and
we've started a European SVN. We have two conferences a year and it has
about 500 people involved, including Ben and Jerry's and The Body Shop.
Working with dying people is dealing with my issues about death and working
with business people is dealing with my issues about money and power.
I've been doing major fundraising work for SEVA for fifteen years which has
been involved in relieving blindness in India and Nepal. I have one project
in South India. The hospital have been given one and a quarter millions
dollars by Lions International to set up an international community
opthamology institute. It's to train people to carry opthamology programs
into Indonesia and Africa. But I'm phasing down a lot of the service stuff
because I really don't think I can carry it all at once.
I have to listen - we all have to - to hear how we honor all of the
different levels of the games we are in. I'm a member of a family, I'm a
member of a nation-state, I'm a member of the community, I have a sexual
identity, I have an age identity, a religious identity. It's important to
feel how your incarnation takes form through these identities, and to ask
yourself, what does it mean to live with integrity within each of those
That's something that I have had to learn because I used to be so busy
seeing the spiritual journey as something that you did by yourself.
Rebecca: You've said that everyone should try and work from the edges of
their experience. What did you mean by that?
Ram Dass: As chaos increases - and there's a lot of inertia in the system
that seems to suggest that is the direction we're going in - it behooves us
to prepare ourselves to ride the changes. If, in the face of uncertainty,
people are busy holding onto something, the fear increases, then the
contraction increases, and prejudice increases. The question is, what are
you adding to the system to shift the balance? What you're adding is
yourself, and what yourself has to be is somebody who can handle uncertainty
and chaos without contracting.
I've gotten over the feeling of being somebody special. You've come with a
camera and tape-recorders, but that's your trip, it's not mine. I really
experience the web of inter-connectedness of all beings. It's like C.S
Lewis' line, you don't see the center because it's all center.
Rebecca: There are so many people who spend all their time dreaming about
being somebody special.
Ram Dass: And the horror is to see people who thought that that would be
something and then got it. Then you see them trying to hold onto it, even
though they know it's empty. I've been in a hall with thousands of people
applauding and bringing flowers and loving me, and then gone to the hotel
alone, feeling the absolute wretchedness of it all.
David: Could you sum up the basic message of your life?
Ram Dass: (long pause) I would say that the thrust of my life has been
initially about getting free, and then realizing that my freedom is not
independent of everybody else. Then I am arriving at that circle where one
works on oneself as a gift to other people so that one doesn't create more
suffering. I help people as a work on myself and I work on myself to help
I've been perfecting that circle for thirty years. It's karma yoga. It's the
Bodhisattva vow. My life is about applied dharma. On a socio-political level
- I'm a survivor. Once that faith and that connection and that emptiness is
strong enough, then I experience looking around for the fields I can play in.
I work with AIDS, with business, with government, with teenagers, with
people dying of cancer, with blindness. It doesn't matter, because your
agenda is always the same. Do what you can on this plane to relieve
suffering by constantly working on yourself to be an instrument for the
cessation of suffering. To me, that's what the emerging game is all about.
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