Here and Now
“What is your relationship to the mystery? Are you defending yourself from it? Are you making love to it? Are you living in it?.”
with Ram Dass
When Ram Dass speaks, his voice contains the gentle sanctity of a Gregorian chant. His presence is filled with the warm fuzziness of that favorite stuffed animal you cherished as a child, and he nudges out of you, just by being there, a sense of your own divinity.
As Richard Alpert, he sewed on the psychology faculties at Stanford and the University of California, and in 1958 he began teaching at Harvard. His pioneering research with LSD and psilocybin led him into collaboration with Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner; Aldous Huxley, and Allen Ginsberg. His mind expanded in an inverse relationship to his professional reputation, however and in 1963, together with Leary, Richard Alpert was dismissed from Harvard in a flurry of hyperbolic publicity.
He continued his research, however; and in 1967 he made his first trip to India. There he met the man who was to become “the most important separate consciousness in my life, ” his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. It wss Neem Karoli who gave Richard Alpert the name Ram Dass, which means “Servant of God, ” and baptized his spiritual path through the transmission of dharma yoga.
In 1974, Ram Dass created the Hanuman Foundation to spread spiritually directed social action in the West. The foundation birthed the Prison Ashram Project and the Living-Dying Project, which still operate today, offering spiritual support to prison inmates, and to the dying and terminally ill. In 1978 he co-founded the Seva Foundation, (Seva means “sight” in Sanskrit), an international service organization working in public health and social justice issues, which has made major progress in combating blindness in India and Nepal. Ram Dass is the author of a number of self help hooks, and in the past ten years has lectured in over 230 cities throughout the world.
He has consciously reincarnated within his own lifetime, for when his knuckles began whitening on the ladder of success, Richard Alpert took a leap into the void and, as Ram Dass, has become a bosom buddy of emptiness. He is probably the only person with a photograph of Bob Dole on his altar: It is nestled among images of his guru, Christ, and the Buddha, and at his puja, Ram Dass attends to how his heart expands as he greets each of the first three, then flinches when he reaches Bob–an exercise that shows him where his spiritual homework lies.
We conducted this interview in his home in San Anselmo, California on August ~6, 1994. The house, of Chinese Victorian architecture, is a fitting vessel for a man who is a living bridge for the philosophies of the East and the West. The interview was punctuated with sweet silences and bubbling laughter; and took place in a magnetic field all its own. His perspective on the bends and wiggles in life ‘s road has elicited a humor that ensures that wherever Ram Dass goes, the cosmic giggle is not far behind.
David: I see that you have Bob Dole on your altar. That’s a nice touch.(laughter)
Ram Dass: I take the person who most closes my heart and I watch my heart close as I look at their picture.
David: 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 took in March 1961, but that was just the beginning feed-in to a series of nets. Once my consciousness started to go all over the place, I had to start thinking it through in order 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 started to reflect about issues like the evolution of consciousness.
David: Was there a common denominator between what drew you to study psychology and what drew you to spiritual transformation?
Ram Dass: I am embarrassed to admit what drew me to psychology. I didn’t want to go to medical school. 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. My whole academic career was totally out of Jewish anxiety, and issues surrounding achievement and adequacy. It was totally socio-political. It had nothing to do with intellectual content at all.
David: You talk about that time in your life as if it was a period of simple bad judgment, but wasn’t it also a necessary part of your evolution?
Ram Dass: Well, that’s different. I was, after all, teaching Freudian theory. Human motivation was my specialty, so I thought a lot about all that stuff. That served me in very good stead because it’s an exquisitely articulated sub-system. If you stay in that sub-system, it’s very finite and not very nourishing. But when you have a meta-system, and then there’s the sub-system within it, then it’s beautiful, it’s like a jewel – just like with chemistry or physics.
But when I was in it, it was real. When I was a Freudian, all I saw were psycho-sexual stages of development, and as a behaviorist all I saw were people as empty boxes.
Rebecca: 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.
Ram Dass: Everything I learned has, within that relative system, validity. So, if somebody comes to me with a problem, they come to me living within that psychological context. I have incredible empathy for their perception of reality, partly because of what I’ve been through in it. You’ve got to go into the sub-system 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.
It’s also showed me a certain kind of arrogance in Western science. 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.
When I was in psychology we were getting correlations of 50 on personality variables which was very good – you are accounting for 25% of the variance. But that means that at least 75% was error. It could have been anything! So, it left plenty of space. At the time we really thought we had the theory down cold, but I realize now how hungry I was in that situation.
Rebecca: To fill in that space.
Ram Dass: Yes. I think that everything I went into or was, gives me a legitimacy with people in that field. The whole game of communicating dharma is metaphor – and, in a way, I can talk the metaphor of this culture.
David: Would you say then, that someone who has demonstrated a high degree of success at playing society’s games, becomes a more credible spiritual voice and gains more respect?
Ram Dass: Well, it depends on who the respect is from. 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.(laughter)
What’s fun is that I went from being a really good guy in the society to becoming a bad guy, to then becoming 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. The meeting at Harvard where I got found out was extraordinary. It was a moment where I knew I had left my supply wagon far behind. I was called into the office beforehand by the heads of the department and they said, “we can’t protect Tim, but we can protect you – if you shut up.”
Then, in the meeting, all our colleagues got up and attacked us: our research, our design, our data – everything. They saw it as defending the department against a cult that was in danger of taking it over, because out of fifteen graduate students, twelve wanted to do only psychedelic research.(laughter)
So, when they had all finished attacking us Tim was stunned, because he had had the feeling of everything being wonderful, of loving everybody and everybody loving him. So, I got up and I said, “I would like to answer on our behalf.”
I looked at the chairman of the department and he gave me a look like, well, you’ve made the choice. And I had, because I realized that I could not have lived with the hypocrisy that would have been demanded of me otherwise. The feeling I had was that I was home. It was so familiar and so right that I couldn’t leave it.
But then when I became the good guy again, I find myself riding the bigger wave. I can make a lot of money now, people love me. It’s playing with a different power but it’s not as much fun as being on the little wave. (laughter)
David: How has your experience with psychedelics shaped your quest for higher awareness?
Ram Dass: It had no effect on me whatsoever and nobody should use it! (laughter) The predicament about history is that you keep rewriting the history. I’m not sure, as I look back, whether what appeared to be critical events are really as critical as I thought they were, because a lot of people took psychedelics and didn’t have the reaction I had. That had something to do with everything that went before that moment. In a way I just see it as another event, but I can say that