taking psychedelics and meeting my guru were the two most profound experiences in my life.
Psychedelics helped me to escape – albeit momentarily – from the prison of my mind. It over-rode the habit patterns of thought and I was able to taste innocence again. Looking at sensations freshly without the conceptual overly was very profound.
Rebecca: Do you think you would have gotten to that point anyway, because of the path you were following?
Ram Dass: I don’t know, but the probabilities are against it because I was being rewarded so much by the society to stay in the game I was in. I had all the keys to the kingdom; a tenured professorship at Harvard, a pension plan, etc. When I look at my colleagues as a control group, the ones who took acid aren’t in the game, the ones who took acid are. It’s as simple as that.
(Insert) Rebecca: You could look at that and say that it wasn’t necessarily psychedelics that was the deciding factor, but that the prescence of certain qualities already existent in those people determined whether they took acid or not – qualities such as courage, imagination, ability to question the status quo etc.
.David: How did you then make the transition from Dr Richard Alpert to Ram Dass?
Ram Dass: Well, initially it was all very confusing. I was teaching a course in human motivation. I took my first psilocybin on Friday night, and by Monday morning I was lecturing on stuff which was basically lies as far as I was concerned.(laughter) So, that was wierd because my whole game started to disintegrate at that point.
I still stayed as Mr Psychedelic Junior in relation to Tim, and publicly my gig was turning on rich people and dealing and giving lectures on the psychedelic experience. By 1966, I looked around and saw that everybody who was using psychedelics really wasn’t going anywhere. I was around the best of them, but even if they had the Eastern models, they couldn’t wear them – the suit didn’t fit. I realized that we just didn’t know enough. We had the maps but we couldn’t read them.
Then I went to India in the hope that I could meet somebody there who could read the maps. I met Neem Karoli Baba and he gave me the name Ram Dass, and that put it in a bigger context than the drugs. The experience wasn’t any greater than the drug experience, but the social context of it was entirely changed. Neem Karoli took acid and said that it was known about for thousands of years in the Kulu Valley but that nobody knew how to use them any more. I said, “should I take it again?” He said, “it will allow you to come in and have the Darshan of Christ. You can only stay two hours. It would be better to become Christ than visit it, but your medicine won’t do that.”
I thought that was pretty insightful. LSD showed you an analog of the thing itself but something in the way we were using it couldn’t bring us to the thing itself.
Rebecca: Acid seems to temporarily push the neurosis out of the way away, like moving through a crowd into the space of the innocence you mentioned earlier. When the drug wears off and the crowds of neurosis swarm around us again, have you really dealt with anything?
Ram Dass: But the way the neuroses comes back is different. The way I talk about it in my lectures is that they go from being these huge monsters that possess you, to these little schmoos that come by for tea.(laughter) I have every neurosis that I ever had. I haven’t gotten rid of a single one!
Rebecca: Many people experience a kind of existential guilt because they find that they can’t live up to the inner potential they’ve seen during the psychedelic experience.
Ram Dass: I’ve had all of that! I’ve had all the bad trips, all the guilt and anxiety and psychosis. In my lectures I sometimes say, “I’ve had hundreds of drug sessions, and a lot of people say that someone who has done that is basically psychotic. I have no idea whether I am a psychotic or not, because a psychotic would be the last to know, right? All I can say is that you paid to hear me.” (laughter)
Rebecca: Do you see Richard Alpert and Ram Dass as two separate entities or more like siamese twins?
Ram Dass: I’ve been through different stages. There was a stage where I had to push away Richard Alpert to become Ram Dass. I saw Richard Alpert as a real drag and then I saw him as poignant. If Ram Dass came into Richard Alpert’s office, Richard Alpert would have hospitalized him. I would have seen myself as very pathological and very disturbed.
Rebecca: What would the diagnosis have been?
Ram Dass: Oh, Schizophrenia. Psychologists don’t have the distinction between vertical schizophrenia and horizontal schizophrenia, and they would see a number of different identities in me. Once, Tim and I went to New York to do an all night radio show. We split a sugar cube of acid, but it turned out that most of the acid was on my half.(laughter)
We got to a party at Van Wolf’s house and there was a woman sketching people on the wall. She had already done Allen Ginsberg and Tim, and she asked if she could do me, and I agreed. I stood there and I thought, `I’m a young man looking into the future.’ I had to be somebody. She sketched me. Then I got bored with that and I thought, `I’m really her lover.’
I didn’t change any facial expressions, I just thought the thought. And she erased what she had done. Then I thought, `I’m actually just an old wise being.’ She erased it again and finally she said, “I can’t do your face, it’s just so liquid.”
I’m not yet evolved enough so that Richard Alpert and Ram Dass are one. When somebody calls me Richard, I wince a little bit because I’m still holding on to wanting to be Ram Dass. Ram Dass represents that deep place in my being. Richard Alpert never represented that to me.
Rebecca: You’re ready to put Bob Dole on your altar but not Richard Alpert?
Ram Dass: (laughter) No. I’m not ready for that yet.
David: What is your concept of God?
Ram Dass: (long pause) I think it’s a word like a finger pointing to the moon. I don’t think that what it points to is describable. It is pointing to that which is beyond form that manifests through form. `A God defined is a God confined.’ I can give you thousands of poetic little descriptions. It’s all, everything and nothing – it’s all the things that the Heart Sutra talks about. It’s God at play with itself. God is the One, but the fact is that the concept of the One comes from two, and when you’re in the One, there’s no One – it’s zero, which equals one at that point.
Rebecca: What is your experience of God?
Ram Dass: Presence – but not a dualistic presence. The dance goes from realizing that you’re separate (which is the awakening) to then trying to find your way back into the totality of which you are not only a part, but which you are. It’s like holography. You are the whole thing and you go through stages of approaching that understanding.
Like my relationship with my guru. First I had the person and then he died. Then I had the pictures and the stories, and I got bored with that. Then there was the feelings of the qualities of his being: humor, rascality, sternness. And then there was just presence. And then, there was just this feeling of being. Not even the experience of a presence.
That’s the quality of emptiness, even emptiness of the concept of something. The Chinese patriarch says, even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray. It’s that moment when all of the dualism just keeps falling away and falling away.
Rebecca: When you talk about God it’s seen as your job so it’s okay, but when others mention the G word, the response is usually either pity or embarrassment.
Ram Dass: Because it’s been pre-empted by third chakra power trippers. They’re using God in contexts like `my God’ or `the God’ or `unless you believe in God…’ or `do you believe in God?’ It’s power in both directions and it’s the reductionistic nature of the way the mind works. What the word God means is the mystery really. It’s the mystery that we face as humans. The mystery of existence, of suffering and of death.
The question is: What is your relationship to the mystery? Are you defending yourself from it? Are you making love to it? Are you living in it? These are all different stages of the process.
Rebecca: How can people speak about God without getting into these sticky areas?
Ram Dass: I think the word God is going to have to be put to rest for a while. I’m using it less and less. I’ve been trying a different thing now and I’ve been saying to people in my workshops, “I challenge you all within a year to be living on two planes of consciousness simultaneously.” They said, “which two?” I say, “any two.” (laughter) That’s not talking about spirit, it’s not talking about God, but it’s doing exactly the same thing – it’s shifting paradigm and context.
David: Your guru was an extremely significant figure in your life. Could you describe what you have carried with you as a result of your relationship with him?
Ram Dass: He is the most important separate consciousness in my life, even though he died in 1973. He’s more real than anybody else I deal with. It’s like having an imaginary playmate that is so hip and so wise and so cool and so empty and so doesn’t give a fuck and so loving and so compassionate – so any way you can go. It’s such fun.
He is the closest I’ve ever come to finding unconditional love. He didn’t even want to stay alive. Most people you meet might say, “I’m an unconditional lover,” but you go to kill them and they go, “nooo!” (laughter)
But it’s not him, he’s just the form of it. Once, Maharaji was warning this girl off this dubious guy she had met. She said, “he’s only my friend” and Maharaji said, “your only friend is God.” I really heard that. Your only friend is the reflection of the mystery in each form. And that’s what you want to be friends with – not with the story-line.