By Harshada David Wagner
A conversation with the grandfather to a generation of yogis and author of this spiritual classic, be here now.
As a western teacher and practitioner of yoga, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Baba Ram Dass. He was instrumental in bringing the practices of yoga to the west and introducing eastern spirituality to the hippy generation of the 1960s. As a child of the ’70s, I was fortunate enough to be born into a time when I could have access to the wisdom of the east. It was Ram Dass who, through his books, first taught me about the path. Through his books, audio recordings and constant benevolent presence, I, and countless others, were brought into the world of sadhana, meditation, bhakti and grace.
Born Richard Alpert in 1931, Ram Dass first won public attention while working with fellow Harvard psychologist, Timothy Leary, conducting experiments (often on themselves) with psychedelic drugs like LSD. In 1963, they were both thrown out of Harvard together for their pioneering work using psilocybin (magic mushrooms). In 1967 he traveled to Kanchi in India (near Nainital) where he met his guru, the mysterious, enigmatic master Neem Karoli Baba. The temporary experiences he had with chemicals paled in comparison to the profound mystical experiences he underwent in the presence of his guru. Neem Karoli Baba initiated Dr. Alpert, giving him the now famous name, Ram Dass.
Ram Dass became an avid disciple of Neem Karoli and dedicated himself to the path of transformation. He learned yoga and studied esoteric philosophies of vedanta, tantra, and bhakti yoga. He offered service to Neem Karoli Baba and began to share his guru’s teachings with thousands of western students. At that time, many young idealists were looking for the next step in their spiritual evolution and yoga seemed just the ticket. While other westerners were coming to India in search of hashish and Goan beaches, Ram Dass’s students were coming in search of the Truth.
When he returned from India, he wrote the landmark spiritual diary, Be Here Now, which coined the phrase and also sold countless copies. It is an amazing illustrated map of the spiritual path written in a very enjoyable way. It was this book that I first encountered – and this book that awakened in me the spark that eventually led me to my guru and my life’s calling. Since then he has written numerous books including Paths to God, Miracle of Love, and Still Here, and has worked with thousands of students the world over.
Ram Dass is a practitioner of gurukripa, a very ancient form of bhakti yoga in which the practitioner endeavors to follow his guru’s teachings and cultivate a relationship with what is known as the guru’s kripa or grace. Grace could be defined as a kind of inner mystical support or unconditional, transcendental love that flows through a being who has become one with the Absolute. His unflinching devotion to his guru and the way that he embodies his guru’s grace is both inspiring and iconoclastic. Totally western and totally surrendered at the same time.
In 2001, Ram Dass suffered a massive brain hemorrhage which impaired his speech and left him partially paralyzed. For most people, spiritual life is a private affair – not for Ram Dass. From the very beginning, he has laid his process bare for all to see, taking us along with him through his sadhana process. Since his stroke, he continues his teaching and model living, now sending back reports from the inner front of aging, disability and dying.
Last June, I had the great privilege of meeting Ram Dass in Hawaii where he is currently living. The house, owned by one of his students, was spacious and fragrant and filled with light – the Hawaiian sunlight – but also a meditative, ethereal light. There was a chant playing softly on the stereo and the sweet fragrance of incense in the air. Ram Dass was there in his wheelchair welcoming us as we arrived – he looked like an ancient sage. His speech was slow and somewhat aphoristic, but his wit, wisdom and clarity shone through. We spent the afternoon discussing yoga, divine love, and the spiritual life. Excerpts:
What is your secret for longevity on the path?
My living relationship with my guru. He’s like a good friend with me during my life. Any other relationship dims compared to the one I have with him because he’s just full of consciousness. He sort of keeps me on the path. He shows me that there is much more there than what we are settling for.
You wind your way through siddhis and you can get stuck very easily. You have the siddhis and you say, ‘Let’s see ooh – I use that one!’ When you have a guru, that’s not how it is. You don’t use anything. He uses me. Why do I stay? I think it’s satsang – contacting the guru and people who are on the path. I’m not saying people who want to be on the path.
How would you describe the difference?
People who want to be on the path usually are mostly in their mind. They visualize the path but are really caught in their minds. People on the path are immersed in Knowing.
How has your experience and understanding of love evolved over the years.
There’s a teaching which my guru gave me. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he would bring me up from the back and say, ‘Ram Dass, love everybody’ and Tuesdays and Thursdays he’d bring me forward and say, ‘Ram Dass, you are to tell the truth’. And those are the things: tell the truth, love everybody. Finally, he brought them together.
I had a very interesting experience. At that time, I couldn’t stand most of my guru brothers and guru sisters. One day, I was coming into the temple and one of these persons brought me a plate of food. I was so mad that I took the food and I threw it! My guru was on the other side of the courtyard – I didn’t think he saw it.
He said, ‘Ram Dass! Something the matter?
‘I said, ‘I hate those people.’
He said, ‘I thought I told you to love everybody?
‘I said, ‘Yes – but you also told me to tell the truth. The truth is – I hate those people.’
So he came very close – nose to nose – and said, ‘Love everybody AND tell the truth!’
On my puja table is George Bush – you see? There’s my guru, there’s Sai Baba, Nityananda, Ramana Maharshi, other good people – and George Bush. Every day I say hello to them. I say hello to my Maharaji and Anandamayi Ma and my heart goes wild – I think of them as pure Soul. Then I look at George Bush and I say (in a formal voice) ‘Hello, George’. And I see that I am not willing for him to be a soul. That’s something in me – it’s not in him. In effect, I am saying, ‘There is a person who I do not love’. That’s the truth.
My Maharaji said, ‘Love everybody and tell the truth.’ So I have to love the soul that is called George Bush, the soul that has taken on heavy karma – the heavy karma of all the shit he’s got to do. I cannot like the karma, but I’ve got to love the soul. That soul has got a road to hoe. I can love George Bush because I love the soul and I can therefore be true to my commitment to my guru.
In your sadhana – what has most surprised you?
I think that my turning out to be Ram Dass and not Richard Alpert is surprising.
Up to Harvard – all through school years I had an image of myself… and that image never had in it the way it’s turned out. I remember one of the extra courses I taught at Harvard was Career Counseling (laughs). They were Harvard students…how many choices did they have? Lawyer? Doctor? Even about my own life, it was like I had blinkers on – I could be a doctor or a lawyer, that was it. I couldn’t have imagined this – this is too aberrant. Ram Dass – a person on a spiritual path – because up until the time that I experienced psychedelic drugs, I didn’t know a spiritual path. It was that flip. After that, I was in a different game than I had thought of before.
Do you feel like you are still in that game today?
The Spiritual Game? I think so. I convert things in my life to how they can help me as a soul get closer to the One.
And that’s the game?
Yes. For instance, I could say, ‘This is an interview for a magazine!’ I can think, ‘Oh, sugarplums!’ Or I can see it as something that could catch me and keep me from being free. I’m reacting to how it plays in Soul Land (laughs).
Then the trap becomes the means.
The timeless present… tell us about your practice of the present moment and the power it has.
The past and present are only mind games. Let’s take this moment… the wind…the satsang that we have…the airplane overhead, my guru’s here in this moment… (at this point we all went into a deep state of meditative absorption) If you go into the moment, the texture of it, the trivialness of it… the lack of concepts of spirituality, what we’re feeling in our bodies, you experience that in the moment it is God. Any place in the past and future is in your mind. Everything is here, now. And it’s joyful – because you’re in contact with God’s manifestation – and you are God’s manifestation.
Sitting here with you it’s easy to get into the present moment, but how do we do it in hard times or while living in a big city with lots of distractions?
The only thing about a big city that’s distracting you is your desires. Otherwise, the big city is like a forest.
It’s like a big buffet feast!
Yeah. ‘I’ll have that and I’ll have this!’
I find that from a spiritual point of view, even a crowded commuter train can be divine. We’re around all these people and we’re just loving them.
(Big smile) Yes, you love them… you love them. They’re souls! They’ve got an incarnation and you see that you see that incarnation, and how they’re stuck in their incarnation. The compassion in your heart is there.
Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes I just feel the love, but sometimes I get in touch with the bondage part of it and it kind of cracks my heart or something. Do you know what I mean?
Yes – but that is compassion. When you wear your compassion glasses, you are everybody. You are everybody…
Around 20 million people go to yoga classes every week in the US. Most people in the west practice hatha yoga and this is the only contact they have with yoga. It seems there may be some misunderstanding about the true meaning of yoga. What do you think about the yoga movement in the west?
Hatha yoga is one type of yoga… I think the teachers of yoga in the west are heaping bad karma on themselves. Their students come for something and they direct them into something else. If they see yoga as stretching, then that teacher is leading souls astray. They have made the yoga achievement-oriented. ‘Look, how well I can do it’. They’ve taken a beautiful method and westernised it. When you get something from another culture and then acculturate it to your own culture – you’re not learning.
If your motivation for yoga is to make your body beautiful, you are using the path, the practice, to keep yourself stuck in this world.
How do you define yoga?
Yoga is merging with the One. That’s yoga. That’s yog’. If you use the asanas as communication with the One, then you’ve got it. My yoga is gurukripa, which means grace of the guru which is part of bhakti yoga, which is the heart yoga.
What is Ram Dass’s practice these days?
Living life. Anything that comes up in life has been given to me as grace from my guru – that’s that and when there’s anything where I can’t see that, then I’m worried. I’m in Grace. I use contemplation – I sit and look at my neighbor (my neighbor being the ocean) and I just sit with the ocean and let my mind go where it goes, but my awareness is the ocean.
What would you say has been your greatest contribution as a leader and as a teacher while you were here?
Introducing society to Maharaji – that’s grace; that’s really grace.
Life Positive readers may want to check out
ramdasstapelibrary.com. This is a site designed to sell Ram Dass’s
books and numerous sound recordings of his talks. All proceeds
from the sale of Ram Dass’s books and recordings go towards his
medical expenses. Tax deductible contributions can also be
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