David Jay Brown
Ram Dass is one of the most respected and best loved spiritual teachers in the world. His books and lectures are responsible for exposing many Westerners to Eastern philosophy, and he has been an inspiration to many people. He is the author of twelve books about topics such as personal transformation and compassionate social action–including the classic book on Hindu Philosophy Be Here Now.
Ram Dass was born with the name Richard Alpert in 1931. He earned an M.A. from Wesleyan University, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University, both in psychology. After earning his Ph.D., he served on the psychology faculties at Stanford and the University of California. From 1958 to 1963 he taught and conducted research at the Department of Social Relations and the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. In collaboration with Timothy Leary and others, Alpert began researching the psychological effects of psychedelic drugs. This research lead to a storm of controversy, and eventually to their dismissal from the Harvard faculty in 1963.
However, Alpert, Leary, and others continued their pioneering research into the effects of psychedelics at the Millbrook Estate in Dutchess County, New York, which members of the Mellon family had made available to them as a center for their psychedelic research. Here artists, writers, scholars, scientific researchers, spiritual teachers and seekers, celebrities and socialites, came to this grand and beautiful estate to explore the mind-expanding effects of LSD, psilocybin, and other psychedelic plants and potions. Millbrook was where the cultural origins of the Sixties counterculture and the consciousness transformation movement began, and it flourished until the estate was raided in 1966 by G. Gordon Liddy, who was then the District Attorney of Dutchess County.
In 1967 Alpert made his first trip to India, where he met the spiritual teacher, Neem Karoli Baba, who gave him the name Ram Dass, which means “Servant of God”. Under his guru’s guidance, he began to study yoga and meditation, and this profoundly affected his life. Since 1968 Ram Dass has pursued a variety of spiritual practices–including Hinduism and Sufism. His bestselling book Be Here Now was first published in 1971.
Ram Dass created the Hanuman Foundation in 1974 to spread “spiritually-directed social action” in the West. The foundation has developed many projects, including the Prison Ashram Project, designed to help inmates grow spiritually during incarceration, and the Living-Dying Project, which provides support for conscious dying. Both projects still operate today. In 1978 Ram Dass co-founded the Seva Foundation (Seva means “service” in Sanskrit), an international service organization dedicated to relieving suffering in the world. The Seva Foundation works in public health and social justice issues, and has made major progress in combating blindness in India and Nepal.
Ram Dass is the author or coauthor of twelve hooks. In addition to Be Here Now, his books include Identification and Child Rearing, The Psychedelic Experience, LSD, Grist for the Mill, Journey of Awakening, Miracle of Love, How Can I Help?, and Compassion in Action. His most recent books are Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying, and One-Liners : A Mini-Manual for a Spiritual Life. Ram Dass has lectured in over 230 cities throughout the world, and a documentary about his life and work entitled Ram Dass: Fierce Grace was released in 2002. To find out more about Ram Dass visit: www.ramdasstapes.org
Ram Dass had a stroke in February of 1997, which paralyzed the right side of his body. Despite the difficulty that he has speaking and walking, Ram Dass continues to teach, write and lecture. To help with the symptoms from his stroke, Ram Dass uses medical marijuana, and is a member of the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), which was started by Valerie Corral, who is also interviewed in this volume. On Nov. 7 2002 WAMM had a fundraising benefit featuring Ram Dass in Santa Cruz, California. At the benefit the Mayor of Santa Cruz, Christopher Krohn, officially proclaimed November 7th as Ram Dass day in Santa Cruz.
I’ve interviewed Ram Dass on three occasions, and have spent some time hanging out with him at various social events over the years. It’s been a real pleasure spending time with Ram Dass, as he had a big influence on the development of my spiritual perspective. I carried his book Be Here Now around with me everywhere that I went when I was a junior in High School, and, to this day, I still turn to it for inspiration. It feels good to be around Ram Dass, as he seems to simply radiate ‘positive vibes’. He has an uncanny ability to make other people feel good about themselves. Ram Dass is a funny, lovable guy, and he has a lot of charisma, but I think that it’s his profound honesty, and openness about his own spiritual evolution, that makes his teachings so powerful.
I first interviewed Ram Dass in 1994 for my book Voices from the Edge, and then in the Spring of 1997 for Tricycle magazine, several months after his stroke. I interviewed Ram Dass again for this book on May 13, 2004. What follows is a composite of these three conversations. During the post-stroke interviews, Ram Dass had trouble finding words. There were a lot of long pauses, but I could tell that his mind and spirit were essentially unchanged, and I found him more inspirational than ever. I spoke with Ram Dass about how Hinduism and psychedelics helped shape his philosophy, what he thought about such timeless topics as God and death, and how the stroke affected his outlook on life.
David: What were you like as a child?
Ram Dass: Cute. I was the littlest member of the family. When I was ten or eleven I played the cello. I was a good kid, except I smoked with my friends. We’d go on our bicycles, in the back of the garage, and we’d smoke. (laughter)
David: How old were you at the time? You mean like early adolescence?
Ram Dass: No, before that. I must have been eleven, or something like that.
David: What originally inspired your interest in the evolution of human consciousness?
Ram Dass: I’m inclined to immediately respond “mushrooms”, which I took in March of 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: What drew you to study psychology?
Ram Dass: I’m embarrassed to admit what drew me to psychology. I didn’t want to go to medical school. I was getting good grades in psychology. 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 sociopolitical. It had nothing to do with intellectual content at all. I taught 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 subsystem. If you stay in that subsystem, it’s very finite and not very nourishing. But when you have a meta-system, and then there’s the subsystem 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.
David: How has your experience with psychedelics effected your view of life?
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