Ram Dass has spoken four words to me so far, and the cosmic humor has already begun to flow. Some initial audio trouble has just been resolved, and the famed spiritual teacher’s voice has materialized from my laptop, kicking off our Skype session with an unforgettable opening line:
“Can you hear now?”
Intentionally or not, the last two words of Ram Dass’ question come off as a reference to his best-known printed work, 1971’s “Be Here Now.” That well-loved volume illuminated various principles of Eastern mysticism in a funny, informal style, resonating so deeply with America’s counterculture that at one point, the only metaphysical book outselling it was the Bible. Hearing its core sentiment echoed in the present moment, I feel as though the writer has just handed me his calling card.
“Yes,” I laughingly assure him. “I can here now.”
The 82-year-old yogi beaming at me through my computer screen was once a rich, prestigious psychology professor known as Richard Alpert. After he and his comrade Timothy Leary were fired from the Harvard faculty for their controversial research on the effects of the psychoactive compound psilocybin, Alpert played a crucial part in launching the psychedelic revolution of the ’60s. Eventually tiring of his least favorite effect of psychedelic drugs—namely, their tendency to wear off after several hours—he journeyed to India in search of consciousness expansion methods that might yield more lasting results. While there, he underwent a series of extraordinary experiences that transformed him into an adherent of bhakti (devotional) yoga. Under the name of Ram Dass, he has become one of the world’s most beloved spiritual figures.
By way of introduction, I present the holy man with an offering of humor. “I’m used to doing my interviews by phone,” I confess. “I can’t hide anything from you this way! This must be how you felt sitting in front of Maharaj-ji!”
Ram Dass erupts in laughter at the allusion to his reputedly omniscient guru, Neem Karoli Baba (known to his devotees as Maharaj-ji). As told in the spellbinding “Journey: The Transformation” section of “Be Here Now,” Richard Alpert first encountered Maharaj-ji while wandering through India in 1967. At first mistrustful of the old man in a blanket, he had his mind and heart blown wide open when Maharaj-ji voiced the private contents of Alpert’s psyche, including the circumstances of his mother’s death. The guru’s baffling stunt sent Alpert into a fit of sobbing that lasted for two days. His crying was that of a newborn.
So long, Richard Alpert; hello, Ram Dass.
After spending six months in India with his guru, Ram Dass (Hindi for “Servant of God”) returned to America, wasting little time in defying Neem Karoli Baba’s instructions to tell no one about him. He has spent the ensuing years striving to carry out Maharaj-ji’s simple directive, “Love everyone, serve everyone, remember God and tell the truth.” While he has done much to help relieve human suffering through his work with organizations like the Prison-Ashram Project, Seva Foundation and the Dying Project, what has most endeared him to the worldwide spiritual community is the wisdom, warmth and wit that he brings to his lectures and books.
Ram Dass’ latest written work is “Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart.” Coauthored with his fellow Neem Karoli Baba devotee Rameshwar Das, the book elucidates various practices designed to help readers put the principles presented in “Be Here Now” into action.
A stroke that Ram Dass sustained in 1997 left him with partial paralysis and expressive aphasia, the latter of which dramatically limits his ability to access words. Though he was having difficulty articulating his thoughts on the day he spoke to me from his home in Maui, his intended meaning was perfectly clear at all times. More importantly, when viewed from a transcendental perspective, the aftereffects of his stroke came across as nothing less than the falling away of his final earthly attachments. If he is correct in his belief that we come back lifetime after lifetime, gradually scouring away our impurities until we’re clean enough to merge with the formless, then I sense that he is as close to completing his worldly work as anyone I’ve ever met.
Good Times: At this stage of the game, what aspects of yourself are you still working on? Where do you still get stuck?
Ram Dass: I get stuck in the pains in my body that come with my stroke and with aging. Another one of the things I get stuck in is power. My mother was powerful, my father was powerful, and I was powerful before the psychedelics. That thing in me that wants the power and the glory … I’d much rather be in love. My life, in a way, has been a power/love mixture. Now I’m totally in love—unconditional love.
Obviously, most of us would like to have our attachments stripped away very gently and gradually, but I get the feeling you’ve signed up for the advanced course. Your trump card has always been your verbal acuity and your talent for storytelling. In light of that, do you think your expressive aphasia might be part of a process of shedding your final attachments that keep you bound to the physical plane?
Wow. The aphasia has been a challenge, but it’s been grace, because it silences me! [Laughs] For example, if I’m giving a lecture, which I still do, I say to the audience, “I have trouble with words. During the long silences, don’t get bothered about pity or any of those things. Use the time to meditate.” You know, I was trained in yoga by Hari Dass Baba, and I used a chalkboard [as my sole means of communication] for six, seven months. And I find that much better now, because I can’t get the words out. And the thoughts I express are much simpler, because it’s like writing on a chalkboard.
What do you think was the agenda behind the establishment’s efforts to squelch the higher consciousness movement of the ’60s?
Well, when President Nixon said, “Leary’s the worst criminal in America,” [the irony of that statement] is the kind of thing [that indicates the establishment’s motives]. His agenda was his agenda! [Laughs] But it’s not just one thing. There were people in our department in Harvard who were protecting behaviorism, and we were going inside. They were saying, “These guys take these drugs themselves! We are working with rats!” [Laughs] They were protecting their basic scientific method that two people must see the thing, and that it has to be outward. There were also religious people who were upset by our Good Friday Experiment [a study of psilocybin’s potential ability to reliably induce religious experiences]: “What makes you think you can bring God into your life with a pill?” And that was their consciousness. It was a shift from the ’50s, where it was very secure, and World War II had an arc by the ’60s, where there was a security in beliefs. That’s what they were holding onto. And I see it as a pendulum swing: We were responsible for the Tea Party, I think. We created that anxiety, that fear, and we did it with no thought to history or future consequences.
Let’s take a look at that from the perspective of everything being perfect and everything unfolding exactly as it should. Do you think these seemingly opposing forces are somehow keeping things in balance?
When things are off-balance, it’s perfect, too.
The physical plane is one plane of consciousness, and the other planes of consciousness are in our imaginations, sort of. And [the establishment] wanted to keep things physical, keep things [oriented toward] machines, money and [imitates the steady rhythm of an assembly line]. They could handle that. We were going out in other planes of consciousness, which is where the spirit is, the soul is. To them, that was very hazy.
Well, I want to talk about those other planes of consciousness! I’ve always loved the story of your first psilocybin trip in “Be Here Now,” where all of your worldly identities walked out on you, and you watched your body dissolve, yet you found that you were still there. Someone strictly oriented toward physical-plane consciousness might write that off as mere hallucination. Can you explain what it was about that experience that let you know it was more than that?
There was a gut feeling that I was home. “Oh, my god! I’m home! I’m home in the Universe!” I had never been that “home.” [Laughs] That trip was roles-to-soul: I had never been in my soul, because [other people] were so captivated by my roles that I never got a chance to go inward. It was very interesting that the trip occurred at Tim’s house, and my folks’ house was a few blocks away. [At the end of the trip] I was shoveling [snow from] my parents’ walk—and, of course, I didn’t know that it was 3 in the morning! They were upstairs, and they just said, [frowning, pointing his finger and speaking in a deep, authoritarian voice] “Nobody shovels snow at 3 in the morning!” I was the young buck shoveling snow in the walk of the old people! [Laughs] I was reacting to my inner voice, but always, always, always, up until then, I was reacting [submissively] to authority. And that was a very key point.
There it is: the birth of the psychedelic movement! [Laughs] Other than that trip, what are some of the direct experiences you’ve had that convinced you that there is a soul that exists with or without a body?
I was taking LSD with Caroline [Winter], the girl I was with [prior to my first trip to India], and we were making love, and I got thrown out of my body. I was on the ceiling, looking down at this whole thing. There was a luminous cord between [my physical and astral bodies]. I now have that in my mind: that there are two beings in me, and the second being, the soul or the spiritual body—is not something that you can take surgery to and pull out. It’s something on a different plane.
How long were you out of your body?
An hour or so, I think.
Did you feel yourself reenter your body?
I was climbing down that luminous cord. I was reentering the body out of fear. I don’t think I’ve fully reentered! Now I am identified with my soul, which creates love instead of fear. Fear is ego; soul is love. And I am eternal. In April, people wanted to throw a birthday party for me, and I said, “Well, that’s silly, because only my body is having a birthday! How are you going to throw a birthday party for an eternal being?” [Laughs] I’m sitting here inside, watching my life, watching my body do its thing, watching the society do its thing. And so, it was a choice. When I came to Maui, I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t fly. So I’m an island boy. Nestling into this environment, I know contentment: contentment I never knew. And I’m content about my stroke and all that business. The stroke is a new phase of my life. The stroke has kept me from golf, playing cello, my sports car and things like that. It forces me to go inward. And that’s why I think the stroke was grace.
Ram Dass, it sounds to me like you’ve made it! You’re a liberated being!
[Laughing delightedly] You think? [More laughter] No. [Stops to think] I’m not. No. [Pause] I’m caught in my individuality. The soul comes from God: from its light, its love, its peace and its consciousness. That’s part of God. Not that “man with a beard” God. And the soul has its business of incarnations, to the end, when the soul goes to God. The individual soul now melds with [the Oversoul]. Maharaj-ji melds with God, and I’m still a separate soul. I see love; Maharaj-ji is love, is the universe. I see the universe. Everything [I see] is love, but I’m not everything. Not yet.
Are psychedelics still a part of your spiritual path?
Well, the stroke affected my brain, and I don’t really experiment with my brain anymore. And I stopped pot two years ago. I was giving lectures here [on Maui], and I used to smoke before every lecture. That was just my rule. The five guys in the front row would nod [mimics listeners grinning and nodding enthusiastically], and people would say, “You’re so articulate!” I’d say, “Sure. It’s the pot.” Then I forgot to smoke, and I gave a lecture, and it was the same thing! They were responding to me, not the pot. Since then, my mind has been very clear. It’s hard to get it out, but it’s very clear.
Krishna Das, Bhagavan Das and Jai Uttal have all told stories of Maharaj-ji visiting them in dreams. Has that ever happened to you?
No, because he visits me in this dream, and he reminds me that this is a dream! [Laughs]
Is there part of you that takes satisfaction in knowing that you’ve played an important role in history and in the evolution of human consciousness?
Part of me, yes, but I suppress it! [Laughs] That’s ego stuff. At the bigger spiritual plane, I feel very Hanuman-like: serving God, serving spirit by existing. That feels really good. So, as a social thing, yech! As a spiritual thing, wow!
Ram Dass, what can I say? Huge respect; great love and gratitude. Before we sign off, I want to make sure you’ve said everything you want to say.
[Points at his mouth to indicate that he’s tongue-tied] No! [Laughs] The [real] interview comes between our hearts. The words don’t really capture it. You’re a word merchant, and I’m a word merchant, and we go into this word thing, but we also have hearts, spiritual hearts. I know you as a fellow soul, in the place between the words.
Learn more about Ram Dass and his book, “Polishing the Mirror: How You Live From Your Spiritual Heart,” at ramdass.org.