Ram Dass is ready to die.
David Marchese, New York Times, Sept. 1, 2019
Photograph by Mamadi Doumbouya
For more than 50 years, Ram Dass has watched as other nontraditional spiritual leaders have come and gone while he has remained. He has been active since the early 1960s, back when he was still known as Richard Alpert and worked alongside his Harvard psychology department colleague Timothy Leary, researching the mind-altering effects of LSD and psilocybin and helping to kick off the psychedelic era.
Later, as did many people before him, he ventured east, spending time in India as a disciple of the Hindu mystic Neem Karoli Baba. Upon his return, newly known as Ram Dass, he wrote the philosophically misty, stubbornly resonant Buddhist-Hindu-Christian mash-up “Be Here Now,” in which he extolled the now-commonplace, then-novel (to Western hippies, at least) idea that paying deep attention to the present moment — that is, mindfulness — is the best path to a meaningful life.
Published in 1971, that book, an early classic of New Age thinking, has sold around two million copies, according to his website; Ram Dass, who has since written a dozen other books, continues to find new readers via praise from the likes of Lena Dunham and the presidential candidate Marianne Williamson.
The 88-year-old’s archived lectures have also found second lives as popular podcasts, and he has been the subject of multiple documentaries, including the life-spanning “Becoming Nobody,” which premieres on Sept. 6. “First I was a professor,” said Ram Dass, who in 1997 suffered a stroke that affected his speaking ability. “Then I was a psychedelic. Now I’m old. I’m an icon.” He smiled knowingly. “There are worse things to be.”
In “Be Here Now,”1 I would never argue that the contents of “Be Here Now” have a ton to offer as a systematic philosophy, but there is something comforting about its litany of exhortations, like “When you know how to listen, everybody is the guru.”
You write about going to an ashram in India and spending months in deep meditation. Most of us can’t drop out like that and can find it hard enough to not check our phones every five minutes or get away from work email for a day, let alone spend hours a night focusing on breathing, as you did.
All of which is a preamble to asking: Is modern Western life anathema to the effort needed for the kind of spiritual development you espouse? Yes. Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts: Those are the daily attention-grabbers that make it so that you can’t come from your mind to your heart to your soul. The soul contains love, compassion, wisdom, peace and joy, but most people identify with the mind. You’re not an ego. You’re a soul. You’re not psychologically full of anxiety and fear.
Speak for yourself. If you identify with the ego plane, you’ll find you’re in time, you’re in space, you’re a little body. But go to the spiritual heart, and there will be a doorway to the next plane of consciousness: soul land.
Once he called me over after I threw a plate of food at a Westerner at the ashram. Maharaji said: “Ram Dass! Is something the matter?” I told him my complaints about the Westerners who were hanging around, and he got a glass of milk and fed it to me, and he said, “Now, you do it for them.” So I fed the milk to every one of the Westerners. It made me feel good in my heart. Feed them. Love everybody.
Well, along those lines, your belief is that the universe is unfolding perfectly. So how do we, as human beings, make sense of that perfection given the impending awful catastrophe of something like climate change? Humans can have consciousness on two planes.
For example, when you are a reporter at The Times, it’s a game. It’s a dance. How many people do you have to impress? It’s stuff like that. But the soul has in it the witness, and it witnesses our whole incarnation. The soul watches the game without judgment.
Am I playing the game the right way? Um, no.
Ah, Christ. Is there at least a “but” coming? But your intellect will keep you on track! I sense that you are in your spiritual work. You are a soul. Your baby is a soul. Your wife is a soul. The reader is a soul. The editor is a soul. I am a soul. But many of those people don’t identify with their soul. There’s a metaphor that Maharaji described for me: There’s a fisherman, and he’s got a pole, and you’re the fish and I’m the worm. In India, they say: “Don’t look for a guru. The guru looks for you.”
You believe that the “I” is an illusion, and in your most recent book3 That would be “Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying.” It was written with a co-author, Mirabai Bush.
There are quick references to your being gay, which isn’t something I’d seen you mention before. But what does individual sexual orientation mean if the “self” is just a construct of the ego? It’s part of a dream. From when I was a teenager until I found Maharaji, I was homosexual in my head. In high school, prep school, I was attracted to men. That tendency shaped my life. Owsley — you know Owsley?
Yeah, he was a sound engineer for the Grateful Dead.4 In addition to working for the Dead, Owsley Stanley was an early maker and distributor of LSD.
Yes. I was hanging around backstage, and he took a tab of acid and put it on my tongue. Then a girl had a tab of acid, and Owsley shepherded us to the dance floor. She and I had a jovial time from that dance and on through the next probably three months. Then years later I got a letter from a guy. He said: “I believe that you are the father of my older brother because I found you on the internet and you look like him. For 50 years my mother did not talk about it.” She was a graduate student at Stanford, and she became linked to me. You can imagine my surprise that I had a 50-year-old son. So much for being a good homosexual!
I don’t mean to be crass, but how has suffering the cognitive effects of a stroke inhibited your ability to move toward enlightenment? Well, the stroke5 Ram Dass’s stroke left him severely debilitated, impairing his mobility as well as limiting his verbal communication to short, concentrated bursts.
It took away my cello playing, golf, making love. So all I could do after the stroke was go inside and concentrate on my spiritual side.
Why do you think younger generations are showing a renewed interest in New Age thinking and practices? Nostalgia for the ’60s and ’70s. They’re tired of our culture. They’re interested in cultivating their minds and their soul.
Do you ever worry that all these individuals turning inward rather than outward are doing it as a way of avoiding political engagement? Social action and spiritual work are not mutually exclusive. The witness witnesses the politics or the many games we play. In the long run, this is beneficial to individuals and the culture.
If you had an audience with President Trump, what advice would you give him that would be helpful to him in his job? Identify with your soul.
That could take some work. No.
No? Am I being unfairly judgmental? On my puja table6 An altar on which divine offerings are given in a ritual manner is Donald Trump. When I look at his picture, I say to him, “I know you from your karma, and I don’t know you for your soul.” And I am compassionate about that soul because he has heavy karma.
When I went back and read the work of your old colleague Timothy Leary, he was all about expressing the hope that widespread use of LSD could transform society for the better. That didn’t happen. Is it possible that you and Leary were aiming at the wrong targets when you were promoting the revolutionary possibilities of psychedelic drugs? Maybe they can be revolutionary only on the individual level and not societally.
Tim was a social scientist, and he was experimenting with social situations. That’s where his focus was. In the last period of Tim’s psychedelic world, he heard the mantra: “Turn on, tune in and drop out.” That’s radical. That’s radical.
Ever want to take acid for old times’ sake? Yeah. I think I want to delve into planes of consciousness. I gave my guru in India LSD, and he said that plants with similar effects were around in the olden times and that by taking them you could stay in the room with Christ for only a few hours instead of living with the Lord. That’s why I went to the east. They had methods for living with the Lord.
You talk about your guru as a perfect teacher. But at the risk of sounding glib, no one is perfect. Maharaji guides me, and I feel secure in that guidance, so I feel secure in my teaching. “Ram Dass” means “servant of Ram,” and the highest ideal of that is Hanuman,7 In Hinduism, the figure of Hanuman represents devotion to the deity Rama.
Who is completely selfless in his service and love. I serve Maharaji with that love. This is all not to do, at the ultimate level, with a body. It’s to do with that thing that’s beyond.
You’ve said that you’re ready to die. When did you know? When I arrived at my soul. Soul doesn’t have fear of dying. Ego has very pronounced fear of dying. The ego, this incarnation, is life and dying. The soul is infinite.
O.K., here’s something I’m struggling with: You teach that we’re supposed to be free from desires. I can imagine myself being free from the desire for prestige or money or some unattainable person’s attention. It’s much harder to imagine being free from the desire, for example, that my loved ones not come to any harm. Are we even supposed to let go of desires like that? Yep! Desire is desire. Attachment is attachment.
When I came back to the U.S. from India, I came back bringing the message of Maharaji. I had never experienced the love that he showered on me. It was unconditional love. Everything in my life had been conditional love. When I was a good boy, then they loved me. When I was a good student, they loved me. When I was a good lover, they loved me. I thought that I could come back and show unconditional love. The core message is that kind of love.
About that core message: I’ve read “Be Here Now” probably a half-dozen times. I’ve listened to countless lectures of yours and read a bunch of your other books. And I have to say that I still find it difficult to explain exactly what your philosophy is beyond the phrase “Be here now,” which is admittedly a very useful phrase. So while I have you: What is your philosophy?
“Be here now” is: In each moment, go into the moment. Our minds take us back and forth in time. I teach a moment. And I teach that we identify with the ego. The ego is a mind warp, and most people don’t identify with their soul. They’re worried about excess meaning. The soul witnesses the ego and witnesses thoughts. “Be here now” gives people an opportunity to reidentify outside of their thinking-mind ego and into that thing that’s called the soul. It is the perspective from which we could live a life without being caught so much in fear. To reidentify there is to change your whole life.