In the midst of the turbulence of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Harvard psychology professor Dr. Richard Alpert and his partner Timothy Leary pioneered the exploration of consciousness through mushrooms and LSD. They gained notoriety through being fired from their teaching positions at Harvard, and rapidly became cultural icons. Alpert, who awakened to a different understanding of consciousness as a result of his psychedelic experiences, eventually made his way to India, found a guru, and was given the name Ram Dass (servant of god). He then wrote BE HERE NOW, the book that helped transform members of the psychedelic generation into genuine spiritual seekers.
With a readership of over two million people, BE HERE NOW changed the spiritual landscape of America and continues to touch the lives of thousands of people from all over the world.
Since then, Ram Dass has authored and co-authored many books, including his most recent, BE LOVE NOW: THE PATH OF THE HEART, published forty years after the seminal BE HERE NOW. He has taught thousands of people in workshops and satsangs. He has studied and collaborated with some of this century’s most notable spiritual teachers, including Chögyam Trungpa, Suzuki Roshi, Swami Muktananda, and most prominently, his personal guru, Neem Karoli Baba, affectionately known as Maharaj-ji. In 1997, Ram Dass suffered a devastating stroke that left the left side of his body paralyzed and required extensive therapy to help regain speech and movement. This painful experience initiated another form of transformative teachings, chronicled in his book STILL HERE and the film FIERCE GRACE.
We were not prepared for the impact of meeting Ram Dass and the experience of being in his presence. We opened the door to see this joyous, light-giving older man smiling broadly toward us and waving his hand. What was immediately special about Ram Dass was that the whole scene around him was particularly not special. He was just as he was. When we got settled in the living room, Ram Dass just looked at us; there was an expansive space that we walked into. It felt completely natural to stop and gaze at one other. We weren’t doing anything other than simply being there. In his presence, one feels spirit in action, a finer, higher energy that radiates outward, touching everything and everyone.
Ram Dass’s particular form of communication was enveloping and unusually touching. Perhaps due to his stroke, he communicated through both word and gesture, with hand movements and facial expressions that transmitted what he wished to say. He spoke from his being. Throughout most of the interview, what we felt was as important as what he said. He seemed to speak directly to the heart and not merely to and from the mind. Many times during the interview, he gestured from the head to the heart—indicating our path that we need to travel, from the ego to the soul. Yet identification with the self—with imagined states, with our mental churning, with our ideas about ourselves, and our constant looking toward the past and the future seems endless. How to . . . how to . . . ? was the question uppermost on our minds.
—David Ulrich and Laura Dunn
David Ulrich: You have been exploring consciousness for at least fifty years. And that search has taken you down several different paths including LSD and Bhakti yoga. How can we touch this universal love that you espouse that can unite us?
Ram Dass: Do you know sadhana [spiritual discipline or practice]? I feel sadhana comes from the real self. Sadhana goes from here [points to his head] which is the ego, to this [hand on his heart], which is the real self. And this is the soul. In the depth of the soul is the atman, the oversoul. And that oversoul is really love and compassion, peace, joy, and wisdom. [He says these words carefully, with reverence]. But that isn’t just knowledge; it’s much more. If you want to get to know a tree, the head would merely say, “That’s a tree.” If you go into the heart, you meld with the tree. If you meld, and I meld, we’re melding into something, into oneness. And this is bhakti—giving from here to here, the head to the heart. This is loving awareness, that’s the soul. And you go down to the heart. You say, “I am loving awareness.” In the middle of the chest: “I am loving awareness. I am loving awareness, I am loving awareness,” and you get moving down.
The soul is not ruled by time and space. The soul is infinite. It blends with the One in infinity. I’m talking to you, but that’s only one level, and you and I are one, so one is talking to self; it’s another level. These are planes of consciousness, and I think human beings exist on two planes of consciousness, the soul and the ego.
The soul is not part of the incarnation. It comes into the incarnation. And the soul is not afraid of death because it has done it so many times. And now the ego is individual, and the world at this moment is ruled by nations which are egos. And I find, for example, that the United Nations is very ineffective. But then what would we substitute? We could substitute wise beings from different religions or different states—philosopher kings, if you will.
If you want oneness in society, you have to teach people to go inside instead of going outside, because if they want peace, they need to find it within. I remember being at a peace rally. Everybody was yelling, [He shouts loudly, angrily.] “PEACE PEACE!” That isn’t peace! [Laughter.] Peace is inside, in me and in everybody else. If you want peace, you go down in.
When I was a psychologist, this [points to his head] was my preeminent instrument. This was what I thought I was. And when I went here [into the heart], I said, “I’m home.” Because it was so familiar and yet it was something I had not really experienced. None of my psychology got down to [the heart] before mushrooms and my guru. Those were the two major things.
DU: I agree with you that the intelligence of the mind is extremely limited, that we need to go into the heart and the soul. But I know that much of my life and my being is dominated by the everyday. And that identification is so powerful; it’s very difficult to break that crust of conditioning and intellectual churning.
RD: We start with the ego. When you concentrate on the middle of your chest—this is where loving awareness lives. This is the spiritual heart. Not the beating heart, not the emotional heart. This spiritual heart goes way back—goes back many incarnations. We call it the soul. You come into the individual soul, and that isn’t the end of it. You go through that—to the atman, which is a deeper plane of consciousness. So the head is one plane of consciousness, the heart has two planes of consciousness, and [points to his solar plexus] there’s three planes of consciousness.
When I went from head to heart everything was love. I was so excited to leave behind the ego and all that fear and anxiety. But I was still an individual in a sea of love. From stage two to three,we become love, lose individuality, we disappear. You are it.
When I started realizing that One in me, that One as me, I kept saying, “I’m home, I’m home,” and I had just begun to notice that the home is inside. This heart is the treasure that we all have. Yet when I was teaching at Harvard I didn’t know it. That was my cross; that is our cross.
This [heart] witnesses the incarnation, it witnesses the thoughts. I can witness my thoughts. You can too. Most people identify with their thoughts, but you’ve got to bring it down to identify with the witness of your thoughts. The past and the future are thoughts, nothing but thoughts.
Now when I want to get rid of a thought, what happens? Because they feed on negative energy, I can’t just say or think, “Go away.” I usually . . . love them, I love the negative thoughts, just love them. I love them all. I love the wall. [Laughter]
DU: Through your being and your words—when you point to your heart—I already feel a connection to something greater. It’s remarkable, isn’t it, how when people begin to move beyond the ego there can be a collective field that we all participate in.
RD: We don’t participate in it, we are it. I Am the Ego. I am the Soul. For example, I went to India to meet my guru. Now, I would say to somebody, you’ll meet your guru when you’re inside. That’s what Ramana Maharishi said, “God, guru, and self are together.” The ego is a tool. You don’t separate it. It’s a tool for the spirit.
I feel privileged that I have Maharaj-ji as a traveling companion. He’s with me all the time of my life. I know he’s around, because I feel presence and then I go to my imagination and we talk. He inhabits my imagination. It’s like talking to Buddha and Jesus. Having that perception in my life is brilliant, because my ego doesn’t have a chance. You find a resonance with the One inside you.
DU: What role does suffering play in bringing us closer to the One?
RD: I had a stroke . . . [gestures to the paralyzed side of body]. Before I stroked, I was feeling strong, feeling grace. And then I had my stroke. For the first two weeks I had a terrible depression, and everyone said, “He’s depressed because of the stroke.” But I wasn’t depressed because of the stroke, I was depressed because the stroke shook my faith, and I was without faith and that was . . . that period was very useful to me, very useful.
Suffering brings your heart to bear. It gets you where you are! I had a picture of Maharaj-ji in the hospital, and I said to him “Why this, did you go out to lunch or something?” I was used to having his grace, a graceful life. I asked, “What happened to you?” And he said “nothing.” Grace. Suffering is grace.
DU: In the novel MOUNT ANALOGUE, René Daumal talks about how we go from encampment to encampment as we climb the legendary spiritual mountain. But before we can go on to the next encampment, we have to go back and prepare the encampment for others. Do we have a responsibility to help others on the way through our own spiritual work?
RD: When I look at souls flowering, it’s like a field—it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. And I am helping that flowering as my path to God.
In fact what is happening is the satsang (spiritual community) is evolving. The satsang is—within the mass culture—like little mushrooms here and there, and somebody, maybe a Christian and a Hindu and a Buddhist, come together; doesn’t matter, because those are paths. They’re paths to the One. But those satsangs are what the world needs. And as I say—heart to heart—that’s what satsang is.
If we are down here [heart], One, then we would finish with the kali yuga. We’d a have new life, a new era. I realize that when I am talking to people, I know they are all egos and they are all souls. By mirroring their souls, I want to get them to an identification with their souls. If we come together in the right way—you, you, you—we will experience love for each other, and that’s The One.
DU: And you have helped many souls to flower, through your books and your teaching.
RD: HE has. Me, I’m the little guy. Grace is here, it’s here [he makes a wide sweeping gesture that includes everything]. Look, we’re having a wonderful conversation—grace is here!
After taking our leave of Ram Dass, we were high, intoxicated with his loving presence. Yet, basking in the light and inner fire of a master does not alone lead to enlightenment. What contact with Ram Dass engendered was an increased commitment to our own inner work, a heightened sense of our wish and our feeling of a need to awaken, to become more inwardly alive and conscious, inclusive of the heart, head and body. Contact with a semi-realized being, one who has not shirked from the challenges of the inner path, who has traversed the Way with dignity and an unshakable commitment, helps us by exemplifying and demonstrating what is possible for us.
This teaching, as it comes through Ram Dass, seems to help gather together all our divergent parts. We unite—come to a truer inner knowingness of yoga of union. Laura said it best after sitting down to eat dinner after the interview. She said: “Ram Dass simultaneously reminds you of all that you are, and all that you are not.” ♥
“Now if I come … with eyes that are tuned to other planes of consciousness, and if I can center and not get lost in my old reactions to a situation, suddenly there it all is: Living Spirit again. I think that we are all being prepared—all of us—to serve in that capacity of reinvesting our society with Living Spirit. And that happens through our becoming Living Spirit—because the only thing you really transmit to another person is your Being. The fancy words don’t mean a thing.”
—Ram Dass, PATHS TO GOD: Living the Bhagavad Gita. (New York: Random House, 2004).
From Parabola Volume 38, No. 1, “Spirit in the World,” Spring 2013. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing. Four times a year Parabola has explored the deepest questions of human existence. Without your support, we would cease to exist. Please consider helping us by making a donation.
David Ulrich is a photographer and writer who teaches at the University of Hawaii Manoa, and who is a consulting editor to Parabola. His photographs have been exhibited frequently and internationally, and he is the author of the book The Widening Stream, among others. Information about him and his work can be found at www.creativeguide.com.
LAURA DUNN is a yoga teacher and practitioner in Hawaii. She works as a designer and has a background in art. A large part of her yoga practice involves the “bringing together” of the fragmented self. She teaches students to adopt an attitude of discipline, patience, and non-attachment.