By Virginia Lee
As a pioneer of consciousness expansion in the West in the 1960s and ‘70s, Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert) has been an icon for spiritual seekers around the world. Now debilitated by a stroke, he shares his thoughts on life, death and LSD
As an interviewer, it has been a lifelong goal to interview Ram Dass. As a spiritual seeker, the chance to spend a moment or two with him was one I had waited for since 1973. That moment finally came, and this interview is the result.
To those of us who were spiritual seekers in the US in the 1960s and ‘70s, Ram Dass was the guru for our generation. As kids, we were exposed to everything from political assassinations, race riots, and the Vietnam War, to a revolutionary era of rock ‘n’ roll and the mind-expanding potential of LSD. In a world where anything was possible and the nature of reality itself was being questioned, we were trying to make sense of the phenomenal social changes happening around us and the moral dilemma before each of us: sell out to The Establishment or choose the path with a Higher Calling? We were in search of an identity and looking for answers obviously lacking in the society and culture we grew up in. Collectively, we were redefining consciousness itself, and without the likes of Ram Dass, many of us would not be who we are today.
Born Richard Alpert in 1931, Ram Dass enjoyed the life of a Harvard psychology professor until he met Timothy Leary in the early 1960s. Everyone knows about their experiments with LSD, which led Leary to say: “Turn on, tune in and drop out.”
Alpert did just that in 1967 when he made his legendary pilgrimage to India where he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Ever since, Alpert has been known as Ram Dass. When he returned from India, Ram Dass shared the experience of his search for enlightenment through the classic Be Here Now, published in 1971. I remember my own journey of awakening while reading it in the early 1970s, when I finally saw a clear path out of the drug culture and into the realm of yoga, meditation, and spirituality. The realisations I had while reading that book continue in my life and have affected the choices I’ve made since. And I know I am not alone.
Since writing Be Here Now (which is in its 34th printing and has sold over a million copies), Ram Dass established the Hanuman Foundation (to promote spiritual well-being), the Prison-Ashram Project (to help prison inmates spiritually), the Seva Foundation (to wipe out curable blindness in India and Nepal, among other projects), and the Living Dying project to help the terminally ill face death. Aside from being a prolific writer and teacher, his life has been one of service and helping others.
But now, the roles have been reversed. In 1997, Ram Dass suffered a crippling stroke. Although he survived, he is now confined to his wheelchair, and has spent recent years dealing with the cycles of depression and acceptance of his limited physical abilities. Having once been the helper, he is now the one being helped, and has had to adapt his life, and attitude, accordingly.
Characteristic of Ram Dass, he regards his post-stroke condition as ‘grist for the mill’. It has become an entirely new spiritual exercise of being in the moment. His words are not as abundant and flowing as they once were, but they are still powerful in their message. During the interview, Ram Dass spoke slowly, as he thoughtfully chose each word, often pausing to find just the right one. I like to think of these words as distilled spirits. So drink deep, and enjoy Ram Dass, while he’s still here.
How has your message evolved over the past 30 years?
I think I’ve become seasoned. I think I was very naïve, and I’m not so now. I used to think it was all happening too quickly. And now I see that it happens very slowly. By ‘it’ I’m referring to life, realisations, social change, things that happen more slowly than I thought they would. In those days, I just looked at the short-term effects. And now I look at the bigger picture. I was an achiever and now I’m not.
It’s actually very liberating. Before, I was caught in my ego. And now I am a soul. That makes things different because the ego is worried about death. But the soul doesn’t worry about the death of any particular incarnation.
In your book Still Here, you say that you are happier since your stroke in 1997. Why is this?
It’s a comfortable role. The wheelchair gives me a great seat every place I go. I’m dealing with the fact that my body is old. The stroke brought me to my appreciation for this place of existence. I had always been busy living in other spiritual planes and never really acknowledged my body. But the stroke said: “It’s time.”
Didn’t you have your stroke right when you had finished the first draft of Still Here?
That’s right. I thought my leg had collapsed underneath me just because I was thinking about what it means to be an old person. Somehow I thought my mind had created the whole experience for me. Of course I didn’t realise that the stroke had happened. I couldn’t quite distinguish which reality the collapsing leg had happened in.
Were you afraid at all?
How has having a stroke altered your perception of life?
It brings the notion of illness down to size. If you look at me as a man who’s had a stroke, that’s one perception. But if you look at me as a soul, that is a completely different perception.
The stroke has brought me closer to my guru. At first, when I came to and people told me I was a stroke victim, I thought that my guru must have gone out to lunch. Then I started talking to him about my feeling that he had abandoned me and found that those conversations increased my faith. He had been giving me faith all the time, but I wasn’t experiencing it. Ironically, the experience of faith is reliant on your faith. What occurred to me is that I didn’t have the faith to handle the stroke. As I went deeper and deeper into my faith, I came out to a place where the stroke doesn’t matter.
How do you communicate with your guru?
First, I note his presence in the room. Then I shift into my imagination, and I imagine the conversation while the presence is there. Some people say that I am imagining things since my guru is dead. So I just say: “Yes, that’s what it is.” Will those who see you as a guru be able to contact you when you’re no longer here?
Maharaj ji helped me heart-to-heart. And I can help anybody heart-to-heart. But then, so can you. And so, if anybody loves me enough, they will get through to me when I am dead. Because the string that goes across soul-to-soul is the string of love. It exists beyond the time/space continuum.
To you, what is the greatest challenge of aging?
The changes in my body. I never know when I feel a pain or something changes if I’m supposed to do something about it. The whole issue of maintaining a body is rather hit or miss. That’s the worst challenge.
People who feel they have to be careful around me because I’m old and fragile make me feel uncomfortable. I know they mean well but it creates anxiety. But it does give people a chance to exercise their compassion. I like that part of it.
Before my stroke, I was very much into helping others. My book How Can I Help? is about the power of being a helper. Now I am experiencing the opposite, the powerlessness of being a dependent person. I am the one being helped. At first, I was freaked by that and then I got used to it. I’ve found that the heart-to-heart resuscitation goes both ways. In the role of a dependent person, I can contact the heart space and the soul of a human being. I get to make people feel really good.
How do you spend your time?
I sit by the window and let my consciousness play upon planes of existence. I go beyond time and space, and from there I witness life. When my partner goes surfing, I sit in the car and watch the people go by, and the dogs, the birds, the whales and things. My consciousness goes into them.
As a teacher, what is your greatest teaching?
I wanted to work with people about planes of consciousness. But in the psychedelic realm, there are so many planes of consciousness, I decided to focus primarily on the three planes where most human beings are: the physical plane, the soul plane and the mystical plane.
I’m currently teaching this view of humans as three-planed beings, but it’s something that has come from my mind. Since it didn’t come from my heart, I question if it’s a pure teaching. This is a predicament for me, but I believe that a metaphor is good as long as it takes one in the right direction.
Over the years, you have dedicated a great deal of your life to understanding death and dying. How has it helped you prepare for your own death?
One of the things I’ve gained from this work is the absence of anxiety about death. That work became obvious to me though the use of psychedelics, and it was because of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Death has such great importance in this society that it affects everything. I learned from my guru that death is not the enemy.
Is death just another moment?
I do see it as another moment. Yet it’s the end of an incarnation and going to other incarnations.
Is that something you’re looking forward to?
Are you curious about it?
No, I’m just being here now.
Do you believe it’s possible to get messages from the ‘other side’?
I have gotten postcards from the other side, mostly from my guru. My guru says that we know the moment of our death and I don’t foresee mine for a while.
Do you still read the Tibetan Book of the Dead?
No. I don’t really focus on my own death. I only focus on other people’s deaths because they bring them to me.
How is the attitude toward death different in India?
It’s very different because the Indians live as if they are their souls. And Americans live as if they are their egos. Egos are frightened by death because it means they are going to cease to exist. Whereas, Indians see death as an ending of a chapter of a book they are reading. In India, a dead body goes riding through the city on a rickshaw to the place where they cremate bodies by the river with nothing more than a sheet over it. In our culture, we wrap bodies in clothes and put them in boxes so that we don’t see anything.
Spiritual practices help us move from identifying with the ego to identifying with the soul. Old age does that for you too. It spiritualises people naturally. Then for those who don’t get it, death does it for them. In old age, when people lose their memories, it can sometimes be a wonderful thing. It makes them live in the present.
Can you talk about what it means to be an elder?
I’ve been having a battle about this with a dear friend who would like us to play the role of wise persons. My position is that as we delve into the well of wisdom, we become wise, and it doesn’t matter what our role is.
What can we learn from how traditional cultures deal with aging?
They treat the age stage as the culmination of what a person’s life has been about. They don’t worship youth as the ultimate state of being. Like life cycles in nature, old age is about harvesting whatever your life’s work has been. It’s a well-kept secret that aging is the greatest stage in the life process.
Do you still use LSD?
Not since I had the stroke. I don’t want to push my brain. But I do use medical marijuana.
Do you still regard it as a door to enlightenment?
Yes, yes, yes, yes.
In many ways, you and Timothy Leary were the pioneers of consciousness for the 20th century in the West.
I think Tim was, but I don’t think I was. I took care of the children and cooked the food and stuff like that. I kept the finances together.
Being an icon is uncomfortable. People don’t treat you like a real person. They treat you like you’re a god or something. But I’m delighted to have played a part in the opening of human consciousness.
What do you see as your life’s work?
First, I thought my life’s work was psychology. And then I thought my life’s work was psychedelics. Then I thought my life’s work was bringing eastern philosophy to the West. And now I’m going to the Rainbow Gathering and stuff like that. Whatever I’m doing now is my life’s work, even if it’s sitting by the window.
My guru said: “Be like Gandhi.” And Mahatma Gandhi had one line that said it all: “My life is my message.” That’s what I’m trying to do.
Looking back on your life, is there anything you would have done differently?
What has been your greatest accomplishment?
Taking psychedelics. I wouldn’t be who I am without that experience.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a free spirit.
Virginia Lee, who lives in California, USA, is a former associate editor of Yoga Journal. She’s author of The Roots of Ras Tafari and Affairs of the Heart.
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