High Times Greats: Ram Dass

If hippies and the New Age movement have a common bond, the thread that connects them is Ram Dass.
High Times Greats: Ram Dass
Courtesy Love Serve Remember Films/Google Empathy Lab

Timothy Leary’s psychedelic sidekick Richard Alpert was a Harvard psychologist before he turned on, tuned in and dropped out. By the time he re-emerged, it was as the spiritually awakening Ram Dass (1931-2019)—author, activist and guru to a generation of Westerners. Here he is in a March, 1995 interview with David Jay Brown and Rebecca McClen Novick, which we’re republishing to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Ram Dass’ death on December 22.

In March of 1961, Richard Alpert, a well-respected research psychologist at Harvard University, had his first experience with the sacred psilocybin mushroom, an experience which was to shape his destiny. Along with his colleagues Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner, Dr. Alpert helped to pioneer some of the most significant research into the psychological effects of psychedelic drugs during the early 1960s. Legend has it that Leary and Alpert, the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn of psychedelia, began a series of extracurricular hallucinogenic activities with Harvard graduate students that eventually ticked off the university authorities so much that they were dismissed. Alpert continued his research for several years at privately-funded centers, including the famed Millbrook estate in upstate New York, admittedly with less scientific rigor but with far more exotic forms of exploration.

In 1967, Richard Alpert made his first trip to India, where he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. It was his guru who gave Alpert the name Ram Dass, which means “Servant of God,” and set him on the spiritual path he has been following ever since.

In 1974, Ram Dass created the Hanuman Foundation to help spread spiritual awareness in the West. The Foundation, in turn, created the Prison-Ashram Project, designed to support spiritual growth among inmates, and the Living-Dying Project, to help support the terminally ill. In 1978 he cofounded the Seva Foundation, an international service organization working for public health and social justice, which has made major progress in combating blindness in India and Nepal.

One of the most vital voices of the spiritual movement that followed the tumultuous 1960s, Ram Dass is the author of the consciousness-raising classic Be Here Now (1971), The Only Dance There Is (1974), Journey of Awakening (1976), Grist for the Mill (1977) and Compassion in Action (1992).

High Times: What was it that originally inspired your interest in the evolution of human consciousness?

Ram Dass: I’m inclined to immediately respond “mushrooms,” which I first took in March 1961, but that was just the beginning feed-in. Once my consciousness started to move into other planes, I had to start trying 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 began to reflect about issues like the evolution of consciousness.

HT: Was there a common denominator between what drew you to study psychology and what drew you to spiritual transformation?

RD: I am embarrassed to admit what drew me to psychology. 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.

HT: But wasn’t that period of your life also a necessary part of your evolution?

RD: Well, that’s different. I was, after all, teaching Freudian theory. Human motivation was my specialty, so I thought a lot about that stuff. That served me in very good stead, because it’s an exquisitely articulated subsystem. If you stay in that subsystem, it’s very finite and not very nourishing. But when you have a metasystem, and that subsystem is within it, then it’s beautiful, it’s like a jewel—just like with chemistry or physics.

HT: 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.

RD: Everything I learned has validity within that relative system. If somebody comes to me with a problem, they come to me living within their psychological context. I have incredible empathy for their perception of reality partly because of what I’ve been through in it myself. You’ve got to go into the subsystem in order 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.

But psychology also showed me a certain kind of arrogance in Western thinking. 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 technique.

HT: Have you been able to become a more credible spiritual voice and gain more respect because of your success in academia?

RD: Well, 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.

What’s fun is that I went from being a really good guy in the society to becoming a bad guy, then to being 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.

HT: How did your experience with psychedelics shape your quest for higher awareness?

RD: Psychedelics helped me to escape—albeit momentarily—from the prison of my mind. It overrode the habit patterns of thought, and I was able to taste innocence again. Looking at sensations freshly without a conceptual overlay was very profound.

HT: Do you think you would have gotten to that point anyway because of the path you were following?

RD: The probabilities are against it. 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 didn’t are. It’s as simple as that.

HT: How did you then make the transition from Dr. Richard Alpert to Ram Dass?

RD: Well, initially it was all very confusing. I was teaching a course in human motivation. I took my first psilocybin on Friday night, and on Monday morning I was lecturing on stuff which was basically lies as far as I was concerned. So that was weird because my whole game started to disintegrate at that point.

I was still “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. But 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 suits didn’t fit. I realized that we just didn’t know enough. We had the maps, but we couldn’t read them.

So I went to India in the hope that I would meet somebody there who knew how to read the maps. I met Neem Karoli Baba and he gave me the name Ram Dass. My experience with him created a broader context than the drugs had. 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 chemicals like it had been known about for thousands of years in the Kulu Valley, but nobody knew how to use them anymore. I said, “Should I take it again?” He said, “It will allow you to come in and have the darshan of Christ, but you can only stay for two hours. It would be better to become Christ than visit him, but your medicine won’t do that.”

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 thing itself.

HT: Do you see Richard Alpert and Ram Dass as two separate entities or more like Siamese twins?

RD: I’ve been through different stages. There was a stage where I had to push away Richard Alpert to become Ram Dass. For a while I saw Richard Alpert as a real drag, and then later 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.

I’m not yet enrolled 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 onto wanting to be Ram Dass. Ram Dass represents that deep place in my being. Richard Alpert never represented that to me.

HT: 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 him?

RD: 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 who 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. He is the closest I’ve ever come to finding unconditional love.

HT: A lot of Westerners have a hard time understanding the guru/devotee relationship. Could you describe this relationship as you understand it?

RD: Ramana Mahrasshi said, “God, Guru and Self are one and the same thing.” The real guru is not busy being somebody. If you asked Maharajji 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.

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 onto 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.

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. For example, 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 like all methods it’s a trap. But you have to get trapped for a method to work and then you just hope it ejects. If the guru isn’t pure, he won’t let you eject—he won’t let you go. You’ll know in your intuitive heart you’re being had, but you might not want to admit it.

HT: Did you find yourself testing your guru a lot in the beginning?

RD: He so overwhelmed me with his first gambit that there wasn’t any way that I could test him anymore. The first time I saw him, I was coming up a hillside and I saw him sitting under a tree with eight or ten devotees around him. I was hanging back, standing at a distance, but the guy who’d accompanied me was on his face touching Maharajji’s feet, while I was thinking, “I’m not going to do that.”

Neem Karoli Baba looked up at me and said, “You came in a big car?” I said, “Yes.” Then Maharajji said, “You will give it to me?” Now, I had been hustled before, but never like this! The guy I was with looked up and said, “If you want it, Maharajji, it’s yours.” I protested. I was aware of everybody laughing at me, but I was very serious.

Then Neem Karoli said, “Take them away and feed them.” So we were taken down to the temple and given lunch. Then Maharajji 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. You were thinking about your mother.” It was true, but I hadn’t told anyone about it. Then he said, “She died last year.” My uneasiness kept growing. Maharajji 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, “Spleen.”

When he said that, my mind couldn’t handle it. I just gave up. Something shifted and I started to feel a wrenching pain in my chest. I felt like a door which had long been 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.

It was a direct experience of that quality of unconditional love and all the rest of it was 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.

HT: Did you get a lot of flack from your peers and friends when you came back to the United States from India?

RD: 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!

HT: What is karma?

RD: 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 interrelated. 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 causes and effects, but actually it’s not linear at all. You’re already enlightened, so you’re actually going from where you started back to where you started. You’re nowhere because nothing happened and in that moment when you realize it— Aaaargh!

HT: The concept of personal karma is becoming more and more popular, but it’s often seen as a justification for nonintervention, 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 anyone else’s karma?”

RD: 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 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 entirely different. To see symmetry, to see familiarity, to see warmth in you—that’s all stuff I’m doing in my mind. Who you really are, I have no idea—until I have no karma.

HT: It sounds as if it’s all so organized that there is little room for free will.

RD: 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’ve decided to go to the movies tonight.” But if you knew enough about me and if you could handle a multivariable approach, you could predict that I would say that. Or 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, only when you aren’t anybody do you have free will.

HT: Isn’t there some creative quality? Aren’t you given a riff on which you can then improvise?

RD: Yeah, but the improvisation isn’t really creative. It’s creativity the way we think about it, because it’s a surprise to us, but it’s still lawful.

HT: Have you ever had an experience that you would label an extraterrestrial contact?

RD: 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. I’ve met many beings on other planes, but I don’t call them extraterrestrial. Maharajji is not on this plane anymore, but he’s there. He’s present as a separate entity, and the form I see him in is the form my mind projects onto him.

I’ve written prefaces for two volumes of the books on Emmanuel. Emmanuel speaks through a woman named Pat Rodegast; he is an absolutely delightful spook. I know Pat very well, and I know Emmanuel quite well now. I asked him what I should 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.

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, but my criterion is whether I can use the material, not whether it’s real or not.

HT: How do you act or feel differently when you are in the presence of a dying person?

RD: Well, theoretically I don’t act differently, because we’re all dying. My job is not to deny their experience out of my fear, as a way of distancing myself through being kind or helpful or whatever, because that traps them in objectivity. There is only one awareness, in which some of it is dying and some of it is visiting the part of it that’s dying. To me then, seeing the one awareness frees us both 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! But if they’re busy dying, it’s none of my business to change them. I have no moral right to do that.

HT: The ability to create that space in yourself must have taken some practice, though.

RD: What happens is, whenever there is desire, there is clinging in you. Situations which awaken clinging are the ones that are really fruitful. Certainly dealing with death is 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 watch my heart open and close, and I can stay mindful in it. I can also see how there is a certain cosmic giggle about the whole thing—but that’s just so socially unacceptable, even to me.

HT: How do you help a person in their dying process?

RD: 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 an act—if someone is thirsty, you give them water naturally. The issue is how you do it. In order not to create suffering, you can only work on yourself. That’s the gift you give.

HT: It must be a challenge to maintain that kind of openness when the person dying is expressing bitterness or anger.

RD: 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, but then they see that nothing has happened in you.

HT: What do you believe happens to consciousness after the death of the body?

RD: 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 which 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.

To me, since nothing happened anyway, it’s all an illusion—reincarnation and everything. But within the relative reality, I think it’s quite real.

HT: You talk about how suffering can awaken us more than pleasure can, but I’m wondering about ecstasy. Is ecstasy as valid a path to God as suffering is, in your view?

RD: I’d much rather use the ecstatic path. I’m no fool! I guess the thing is that ecstasy is easy for the ego to socialize, while suffering has an effect kind of like dripping water on stone. It eats the ego away.

Suffering confronts you with what you are holding. It shows you your stash—the attachments which you have been hiding from yourself. If you had no attachments, 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.

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.

HT: You talk about learning to use all life experiences, whether good or bad, as potential for spiritual growth. What about the people in Rwanda and what they’re going through; what kind of spiritual growth do they have the possibility of achieving from that?

RD: That’s the mystery. That’s the mystery of suffering. If you could stand back far 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 pointing straight up in the air. If the middle frames are missing, you see one thing and then another with no apparent connection between them. You’re seeing the horror which is Rwanda, but you’re missing out on witnessing the beauty.

For the people in Rwanda, it’s hell. None of this means that you don’t do what you can to relieve suffering. You do what your heart calls you to do. Saying that it’s all karma isn’t a justification for inaction. 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. But on another level, it’s all karma.

HT: What are some of the current projects that you’re working on?

RD: There are several on the burner. I’ve just accepted a contract to do 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 Venture Network. Out of that core group, we’ve started three organizations in the past year: Businesses for Social Responsibility, Students for Responsible Business and a European SVN. We have two conferences a year and there are some 500 people involved, including Ben and Jerry’s and The Body Shop. It’s about exploring the relationship between spirit and business. 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.

For fifteen years I’ve been doing major fundraising work for Seva, which has been involved in relieving blindness in India and Nepal. I also have one project I work with in South India, but I’m phasing down a lot of the service stuff, because I really don’t think I can carry it all at once.

HT: You’ve said that everyone should try and work from the edges of their experience. What did you mean by that?

RD: As chaos increases—and there’s a lot of inertia in the system, which seems to suggest that chaos is the direction we’re headed in—it behooves us to prepare ourselves to ride with 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. It’s like C.S. Lewis’ line, “You don’t see the center because it’s all center.”

HT: Could you sum up the basic message of your life?

RD: I would say the thrust of my life was initially to get free, and that I then came to realize that my freedom is not independent of everyone else. So now I see it as a circle in which I help people as work on myself, and I work on myself to help people.

I’ve been perfecting that circle for thirty years now. It’s karma yoga. It’s the Bodhisattva vow. My life is about applied dharma. Once the faith and connection and emptiness are 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.

David Jay Brown and Rebecca McClen Novick are the authors of Mavericks of the Mind (The Crossing Press, Freedom, CA, 1993) and Mavericks of the Mind, Vol. 2, from which this interview is excerpted.

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