The human appetite for devotional guidance remains as voracious as ever. In the last half century, that guidance has come increasingly from the East, in the form of proliferating yoga studios and self-help best sellers, the rise of meditation, and the slowly increasing awareness that the earth’s health has a direct relationship with our own well-being. Many figures have been responsible for the migration of Eastern thought into Western culture: Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki opened minds to Zen Buddhism, B. K. S. Iyengar opened bodies to yoga, and Ram Dass has spent fifty years opening what he calls our “spiritual hearts.”
Ram Dass is the gentle uncle of the new age, softly orating to barefoot devotees on grassy hillsides, forever laughing. He never formed the relationship with pop culture as, say, Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle did, and never experienced the ethical backlash that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Bikram Choudhury faced. Instead, Ram Dass has worked quietly toward a position of total vulnerability with his audience, folding his failures, maladies, and difficult life choices into his teachings.
At the heart of Ram Dass’s spirituality is the story of his metamorphosis. Born Richard Alpert, he was trained as a PhD in psychology and worked alongside Timothy Leary during Harvard’s brief period of psychedelic experimentation—a moment that also produced the popular health adviser Dr. Andrew Weil. But at the age of thirty-six, he rejected the academic path, abandoned his neurotic intellectual tendencies, and traveled to India. There he found his new path as a student of Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, who gave him the sacred name Ram Dass (which translates to “servant of God”) and foresaw his future as a spiritual teacher.
In 1971, Ram Dass wrote of these experiences in Be Here Now, the work for which he is best known. An experimental tome of images and text, memoir and philosophy, poetry and aphoristic teachings, the book is a kind of source text for hippie metaphysics. Its influence on culture has been enormous—in part due to endorsements by Steve Jobs and George Harrison—and it is largely responsible for the form and tone of contemporary new age literature.
In 1997, at sixty-five years old, Ram Dass suffered a stroke and, as a result, expressive aphasia, which left him initially speechless. He considers the experience to be a moment of great spiritual failure, as he was unable to transcend his state of suffering. But he also interprets it as an act of grace that revealed the work he needed to do for the rest of his life.
In the twenty years since the stroke, Ram Dass has regained many aspects of speech and language, though he often lands on words from peculiar directions and after canyon-sized pauses.
He now writes collaboratively, often with Rameshwar Das, most recently Polishing the Mirror, which continues the tradition he began with Be Here Now. He also gives occasional lectures and holds retreats in Hawaii, which is where he was when I spoke with him and Rameshwar Das over Skype. During our conversation, his language developed from slow and hesitant to fluid and conversational. He punctuated most answers with a laugh.
I. “BODY BEAUTIFUL”
THE BELIEVER: In your writing, are you trying to create a source text?
RAM DASS: Well, I, back to, to, to them, the sources, to sources, and so I’d say yes—yes. Yes.
RAMESHWAR DAS: I think a lot of what Ram Dass has done is to bring some of those source texts into the contemporary idiom, so it’s very much of the moment and of experiences that perhaps we all share.
BLVR: And do you think your texts function in the same way as those early source texts functioned?
RAMESHWAR DAS: Well, I get people saying that they are, you know. They open Polishing the Mirror, or the Be Love Now books that we’ve worked on together, and people find them really functional in their lives. They find something they need very—it’s sort of like, you know, you could open it anywhere and there’s something you can use.
BLVR: And do you think that’s how these source texts were originally being used—in a functional way like this?
RAM DASS: Yeah.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Yeah, I think so, too.
RAM DASS: Yeah. In fact [pause] the Hindus in India [pause, clears throat] find the Bhagavad Gita, which is one of the source texts, um, they carry it with them, or use it in—in everyday life.
RAMESHWAR DAS: There’s a nonprofit in India called the Gita Press that has published millions of copies of the Bhagavad Gita, you know, these small three-by-three-inch pocket versions that you can carry around, because it’s a manual of how to act in your life.
BLVR: When you were starting to write this kind of literature, did you have—other than the ancient source texts—did you have models at that time, in the ’50s and ’60s? Were there writers who were continuing this tradition whom you looked to?
RAM DASS: Well, the major model I have is not a writer but my guru—or our guru, Neem Karoli Baba.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Alan Watts really performed that cultural bridge function.
BLVR: He was the first of this whole lineage of writers.
RAMESHWAR DAS: I went to one of the book fairs in New York and I was almost overwhelmed by the amount of spiritual literature that’s out there now. The culture has changed a lot in the forty years since Be Here Now came out.
BLVR: With globalization, do you think Western minds are more receptive now to Eastern thought than they were back then?
RAM DASS: Yes, oh, by far, yes.
BLVR: Can our Western minds understand that kind of Eastern thought in the way that someone raised in an Eastern culture can?
RAMESHWAR DAS: Well, what I’ve seen in traveling back and forth to India over the years is that the Indians have become more Westernized and technology-oriented and certainly there’s a huge middle class that wasn’t there before that’s very materially oriented. And the West, on the other hand, has really gravitated more toward the inner search, and I think this kind of approach fits in with that pretty well. I mean, it’s not an accident that there are yoga studios on every corner now.
BLVR: And how does that strike you, yoga becoming this new exercise phenomenon? It seems people aren’t always quite aware of the whole tradition behind it, but they’re happy to do the exercises. How does that strike you?
RAM DASS: Body beautiful.
BLVR: Body beautiful?
RAMESHWAR DAS: Well, there’s two aspects of it. My wife’s a yoga teacher, and the sort of fashionista yoga stuff really bugs her sometimes. But the practices of yoga are really still designed to take you inside and build the base for contemplative practice, so even when people are doing it as an exercise routine, it has its effect, I think, and takes people inside slowly but surely. So, you know, while it’s been co-opted by the Western sort of fitness movement, it still has its own integrity.
BLVR: Are you trying to write to inspire different states of being? Is this something that you’re interested in doing through words?
RAMESHWAR DAS: Is there a different state of being?
RAM DASS: Yeah. State of being… but it goes behind words. Behind words. [Long pause] When I met my guru, he was— he was a very different kind of being than anybody I met in the West. Or met in the literature of the West. And I wanted to share this jewel with the West. And I felt that this was… [Long pause]
RAMESHWAR DAS: Well, your guru told you not to talk about him, for starters, so—not supposed to be any words. [Laughter]
RAM DASS: When I left India my first time, although he had not allowed people to write about him, he said—he said he gave his blessing, for my book, but I had no book. I came back to New York and gave a series of lectures where I just bubbled over with his love and wisdom, and then that started into the literature.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Those talks became Be Here Now eventually, [and] turned into that book, with a whole series of kind of connected coincidences that produced it at a commune in New Mexico.
BLVR: A lot of this spiritual literature comes out of the spoken word, or the homily, which is then transcribed.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Yeah, and Polishing the Mirror—actually a fair amount of it is based on talks. I mean, we adapted and reworked it to sit in a book, but that’s also where it comes from.
BLVR: Is that a satisfying way to write?
RAMESHWAR DAS: Yeah, when we write together we’re talking it to each other. So very much in the moment that way.
BLVR: Have you read any novels that create the sort of experiences of reading these source texts?
RAMESHWAR DAS: Siddhartha. And Stranger in a Strange Land. [Robert] Heinlein came up with the term grok, which was an interesting way of perceiving.
RAM DASS: Grok.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Grok. It’s kind of to perceive on all levels at once.
RAM DASS: It’s a—to grok something is when [you perceive] something with your whole being, that you understand it with your whole being.
RAMESHWAR DAS: I mean, there’s been some good spiritual fiction.
RAM DASS: Aldous [Huxley].
RAMESHWAR DAS: Yeah, Aldous. Island.
RAM DASS: Yeah, Island. Great—very depthly—Island.
RAMESHWAR DAS: And Gurdjieff ’s Meetings with Remarkable Men, which you can’t tell whether it’s fiction or not. [Laughs]
BLVR: Right. Which is probably the case with many of these source texts and myths.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Right. The Don Juan books are like that, too. Carlos Castaneda. [Pause] Fiction is a good vehicle.
RAM DASS: I wish I could write fiction.
II. THE PSYCHOLOGIST
BLVR: Do you still feel like a psychologist, or has that aspect of yourself been eliminated?
RAM DASS: [Long pause] I’m not a psychologist anymore. I— before psych, after psychology, I came, I came—psychadelesis, and then spiritual… [Laughs]
BLVR: So you don’t feel that there’s any sort of connection between the psychology work you were doing early on and the spiritual work you’ve done in the years since?
RAM DASS: No.
BLVR: Just a complete break?
RAM DASS: Yes. You know what psychedelics means.
BLVR: With your mentor, your guru, you were saying that he didn’t write things down.
RAM DASS: No. He even—talk isn’t relevant. All he’ll say is jow, which means “get out of here.”
RAMESHWAR DAS: Beyond language.
RAM DASS: Beyond.
RAMESHWAR DAS: The feeling around him of a kind of palpable energy—and it still comes through at times. People still experience him in dreams and meditation. One guy saw him driving a taxi in Chicago.
BLVR: Most people don’t get the chance to meet spiritual figures, so the closest we have is the literature.
RAM DASS: But when I meet people who have met him through words, they have the spirit, that spirit of him. Of him. He translated in words, and they are not holding it in words. They were holding it with their heart.
IV. “I WAS OUTWARD”
BLVR: How do you feel that your own sense of language has changed since you experienced your stroke?
RAM DASS: Well, after the stroke I was—I was silent, I—part of a stroke is—
RAMESHWAR DAS: Aphasia.
RAM DASS: Aphasia, which you can’t—you understand the concept but you can’t—into words. It’s like—your, like, clothing closet of words, the clothes of the words—and then try to communicate. And it was very frustrating. And… [Long pause]
RAMESHWAR DAS: It’s interesting: in the process of working on these books, I’ve seen your verbal facility coming back more. And you know what you want to say.
BLVR: Do you feel that you come to a different kind of language now, through the aphasia?
RAM DASS: Yes. Yes, yes. Because the inward stuff gets into the words, which I never have—never. I was outward. I was outward. And now finding the words in my internal spirit.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Wavy Gravy said that you used to be the master of the one-liner, and now you’re the master of the ocean liner. [Laughs]
RAM DASS: Yeah. The ocean of love.
BLVR: Have you felt that the stroke has allowed you to experience any different states of being?
RAM DASS: States of being. Yeah. The stroke, um, cut out a lot of my external trips: my sports car and golf and my cello. This [points to hand] is just not much use with a cello, and since I was—forced inside, and finding myself living in my inside. And that has made me be part of my soul. And that’s perceiving my incarnation from here [points to heart], rather than from here [points to head]. And since this is words, I start from here, go over there.
BLVR: I see. Before you were in your mind all the time.
RAM DASS: Harvard professor? Yeah, oh, you get paid for this.
BLVR: Does this have any connection with the work you did with psychedelics, the sense of going internal?
RAM DASS: Yes. Yes. Yes. Mushrooms took me into these states, but they’d only last for a few moments. This is—this is long-term. Now I’m long-term.
RAMESHWAR DAS: I think one of the descriptions I’ve heard of meditation is apt: it’s subtle changes over long periods of time. So that’s where, you know, practicing, practicing comes into it. You can’t break down the door and stay there. Maharaj-ji said you could have the darshan of Christ [the experience of seeing Christ], but you have to come back after two hours. So that’s yoga and meditation and kirtan and mantra and all those practices, and of other traditions. They’re designed that way.
BLVR: In the mantra and kirtan forms of chanting, do you feel that these are basically phenomena of sound rather than words? Are the words beside the point?
RAM DASS: In kirtan, the words are the point because the words are the names of God, and they pull you toward the one, toward the one. Just toward.
RAMESHWAR DAS: But what you said is apt also because both mantra and kirtan are vibrational. In the sense that—not just in the sound part of it, but in the ways that those names and, you know, what they call syllables in Sanskrit reverberate through your being, and pull you inward.
BLVR: Do you ever think about that when you write, about the sonic vibrations of your words?
RAM DASS: No. [Laughs]
BLVR: Some spiritual writers write in a way that’s very cyclical, repeating things over and over again, like a chant, to get the ideas into the reader in more-unconscious ways.
RAM DASS: When I write, I write to the reader, to the reader, to the reader as a being. Write for the heart, for the mind. My being talks to their being.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Well, you’re using words to awaken that sense of being in the reader.
RAM DASS: Yeah, that’s right.
RAMESHWAR DAS: It’s like koan practice in Zen. You’re putting paradoxical ideas out there that help people to look at themselves.
RAM DASS: But most of my writing is not for helping people, but resonating with people.
BLVR: Can you say what the difference is?
RAM DASS: Helping is a role that I am not…
RAMESHWAR DAS: It’s not therapy anymore.
RAM DASS: Yeah. I was a therapist. I wrote the book with Paul Gorman, How Can I Help? and of course now it would be How Can You Help Me? [Laughs]
BLVR: Helping is a form of action, of doing. Resonating is less of an action.
RAM DASS: That’s right. And resonating is—is honoring the inner, inner stuff that my audiences have—need. You know? I treat them as myself. Yeah.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Shared experience. Or, not experience. Shared being.
RAM DASS: And each person has their own karma. I like to contact the being behind each karma. You see, it’s—we have roles, we have an identity with our roles. A role of mother, the role of father. The role of writer—roles here and soul here. Role to soul.
BLVR: Do you think that all people would benefit from meditation? Or are there some people who you think wouldn’t?
RAMESHWAR DAS: I mean, as Ram Dass was saying about everyone having their own karma: it’s not one-size-fits-all. It’s just what takes you in, and for some people it’s singing. For some people it’s service or social action, for some people it is meditation or yoga, and for some people it’s just dealing with daily life in a way that allows them to see it from another perspective.
RAM DASS: Karma yoga.
RAMESHWAR DAS: That’s what the Bhagavad Gita is about.
V. A HEAD GAME
BLVR: Ram Dass, you had said that when you experienced your stroke, you felt that you failed a test. What did you mean by that?
RAM DASS: I was close to death, and I didn’t rush into my spirit. I spent the time in the hospital just looking at the pipes on the ceiling.
RAMESHWAR DAS: I mean, he’s counseled people on how to die for so many years. [Laughs]
RAM DASS: I thought I—I ate something. [Laughs]
BLVR: You weren’t aware you were close to death?
RAM DASS: No. People were around me, but I didn’t—I didn’t even.
BLVR: And why did you feel that you’d failed?
RAM DASS: I failed because this was a trauma, a trauma, and I’m not reacting to it spiritually.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Like Gandhi when he was shot, and said, “Hey Ram.”
RAM DASS: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, that was a good one. [Laughs]
BLVR: That’s how someone should act, in your opinion.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Practice.
BLVR: And do you think that is something you could achieve with deeper practice?
RAMESHWAR DAS: That was practice.
RAM DASS: Yeah. That awareness of my failing from spiritual side, maybe give me juice to the next step.
BLVR: It showed you where you were lacking.
RAM DASS: Yeah.
BLVR: And how have you addressed that since?
RAM DASS: Well, I—I’ve experienced that the stroke was grace. It was grace, for me, to play, to get inside, grace. I was dependent. These are things that I—those, those were graceful things. You know, pushed. And just go inside, to be—you’re a quote “author” and it’s a cultural thing, that role, to get into your head. But it’s a head game. It’s a head game. And I wanted to get down to my spiritual identity. And the stroke placed me at the spiritual identity.
BLVR: And do you feel that way more now than you did before?
RAM DASS: Yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes.
BLVR: Because you are older, closer to death, because of that shocking moment of the stroke?
RAM DASS: Shocking moment. Shocking moment. Just what I said before, I was—all the external things were taken away from me, and then I was forced into, forced into—“Wow.” [Laughter]
RAMESHWAR DAS: But it was a pretty fierce practice.
RAM DASS: Huh? What do you mean?
RAMESHWAR DAS: I mean, as far as recommending it as a spiritual path, I think that goes in the “Don’t try this at home” category.
BLVR: In that sense, do you feel you could turn anything into a spiritual practice?
RAM DASS: Yes. Anything.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Anything. Having this interview right here is part of it.
BLVR: And dialogue is truly a form of one of the most ancient spiritual practices, right? Working out ideas between two people.
RAM DASS: Right, right. Very good. Yeah. Yes. Bhagavad Gita is all dialogue. Gita are having the dialogue, it’s in the middle of the battlefield, in the middle of the Mahabharata, this giant war, and Krishna is instructing Arjuna in this dialogue about how to conduct his life and how to know God. And they’re, you know, standing in the chariot in the middle of the battlefield and the battle is about to begin. Now, that’s a dialogue.
BLVR: [Laughs] And you two are often in dialogue when you’re writing: the writing really is a form of dialogue even if it doesn’t come across that way, right?
RAM DASS: Yep. But you’re also dialoguing with your reader. And where… their sticking points [are]. Like Krishna artfully speaks to Arjuna.
RAMESHWAR DAS: Yeah, I mean, at the beginning of it, Arjuna says, you know, These are all my relatives on both sides of the battlefield; I can’t kill them. And Krishna says, It’s already happened, in the larger scheme of things. And these are just beings in their incarnations. And then he shows him that he has the entire universe inside him.
BLVR: You’ve dialogued with many of the major spiritual leaders of our time, right? Eckhart Tolle. Terence McKenna.
RAM DASS: It was a playful, playful person. But I don’t like dialogues because—because they—people speak much faster than I think.
BLVR: You used to be fast, though. You used to be a very fast speaker.
RAM DASS: Yes. I didn’t always plot out what I was talking about.
BLVR: You were speaking faster than you could think.
RAM DASS: I was speaking faster than I could feel.