Ram Dass was an important figure for many people who came through the counterculture of the 1960-70s. Those who, having “countered” their Judeo-Christian religious upbringings, were nevertheless still seeking to anchor their world from some kind of spiritual base beyond the rampant materialism and status-seeking of modern industrialized life.
When Dass (it feels strange to refer to him by only his last name per writing protocol; it’s as if he had but one name, said in full every time: RamDass…) died just before Christmas, I noted a kind of complex but common feeling that I suspect most everyone experiences when death takes not a family member or friend but a public figure with whom we do not have a personal relationship, but who had an impact on us in the past.
The person’s death takes us back to that time—who we were and were coming to be, and how the person may have affected that becoming.
It’s not mourning as such (though it can be), but instead a kind of wistfulness and travel back through a period of our personal history.
RamDass had made a name for himself as a Harvard psychology professor named Richard Alpert, working alongside Timothy Leary in various LSD experiments that got pretty much out of hand as they shared the still illicit, strictly controlled drug with students, and not always via the strictest of scientific protocols.
Somewhat contrary to the claims of life’s ‘perfection,’ RamDass’s brand of hip Hinduism carries within it that tradition’s separation of the body, in all its transience and perishability, from the eternal ‘self’ or soul, with the body relegated to a decidedly inferior position.
Leary went on to become a kind of rebellious King of Psychedelia, espousing, with an ever-present twinkle in his eye, the mainstream-rejecting mantra, “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out.” The pair found themselves bounced from Harvard in 1963, which made them more famous (or at least notorious) than ever.
Alpert, meanwhile, headed off to India, where he quickly found his guru, a new name, and his own mantras and chants, with a distinct Hindu tinge (“Om mani padme hum…”).
Soon enough, he returned to America, addressing rapt audiences drawn to his natural charisma and the slow, soothing cadences of his now fully spiritualized voice assuring you that things were going to be O.K., especially if you could just Be, that’s all.
Just Be in the moment and follow your breath and take it all in, it’s all good, all exactly what it is, no rush to get enlightened about it or make something more of it than it is, no matter how many more lives it takes you to figure out the simplicity of all that.
“Be Here Now” was both message and title of his first book in 1971, chock-full of illustrations, baroque typography and aphorisms chronicling his adventures in consciousness with both LSD and meditation. The latter was overseen by his ever mischievous guru, Neemkaroli Baba.
So high and unflappable was Baba’s consciousness, RamDass claimed, that RamDass gave him staggering amounts of LSD, only to see Baba completely unaffected and playfully begging for more.
The book sold more than 2 million copies—one of them to me.
That was followed by the more conventionally prosaic, “The Only Dance There Is” (1974), and “Grist for the Mill” (1976), which I devoured in rapid succession as I began a graduate program in psychology and religion in 1977 and felt my world changing underneath me.
Reviewing those volumes in some depth these past weeks (I knew hauling my home library with me in my recent migration would pay off!), I couldn’t help but note RamDass’s nothing-if-not-inexhaustible fidelity to his role as a guru through subsequent decades. So I am struck, for one thing, with a kind of affection for the sheer tenacity and sincerity of the man, whom I am quite certain, given his advanced age (88) and the stroke that compromised his communication and mobility back in 1997, left him more than ready to rest in peace.
That said, I found much of the material wanting, in the way that thinkers and books can sometimes be when you return to them years later. So let me sketch out a few reasons why for the rest of this post.
The Humancentric, Magical Thinking—For all of his and most every mystically oriented spiritual teacher’s command that we “die to the ego” and transcend our puny self-consciousness in order to merge with the infinite, all-embracing emptiness/fullness of God, RamDass continually leaves the impression that humanity—in the person of YOU, the reader of his book—are just about the entire point of the universe.
This, from a Q & A segment in “Grist for the Mill”:
You say every life situation is a perfect lesson; how is that so?
The universe is made up of experiences that are designed to burn out your reactivity, which is your attachment, your clinging, to pain, to pleasure, to fear, to all of it. And as long as you’re vulnerable, the universe will find a way to confront you with it. That’s the way the dance is designed.
Hmmm…Before we even get to the specific claim in the question about the “perfection” of all life situations, let’s consider the extraordinary assertion about the universe’s content and “design.” LiveScience tells us this:
“The universe is filled with billions of galaxies and trillions of stars, along with nearly uncountable numbers of planets, moons, asteroids, comets and clouds of dust and gas—all swirling in the vastness of space.”
And the composition of those “billions and trillions of objects”?
“Almost completely…dark energy, dark matter, and ordinary matter. Other contents are electromagnetic radiation…and antimatter.”
RamDass tells us, though, that the universe “is made up of (human) experiences,” the purpose of which is to “burn” away all “reactivity, attachment and clinging.”
This sounds absurd any way one tries to translate or conceptualize it, even if one considers “universe” as a euphemism for God as a controlling cosmic force up there “designing” like mad for…what?
Human experience alone?
A few billion mortal creatures on this tiny planet of a minor solar system amidst billions of galaxies is the absolute point of it all? Seems like an awful lot of trouble for “the universe” to go through to get those humans to wise up.
And then the notion of “every life situation being perfect.”
It goes along with another astonishing statement from the same book:
“If you follow your heart nothing will happen to you, you are protected. As long as your actions are based on your pure seeking for God, you are safe.”
If there is a more definitive example of magical thinking in this world, I have yet to encounter it.
Perhaps it feels harmless enough to say such things when one is seated on the swami’s cushion trying to get an audience to reframe the problems in their lives as “opportunities.”
Indeed, a goodly number of therapists and self-help books try for some version of the same, and if those “problems” are garden variety such as failing a test, or your children going all rebellious on you, or not getting the dream job you just knew the “universe” had created for you, faith that all will turn out well can serve a useful purpose as perspective restorer, as psychological distance from the ups and downs of daily life.
But these “It’s all perfect” and “You are protected” refrains are meaningless and of thin spiritual gruel indeed when you or your loved one just got diagnosed with terminal cancer, or your child has been gunned down in a school hallway. All breezy talk of “perfection,” as if life’s abundant horrors merely represent some thorny existential knot “designed” to further purify your consciousness, rings both hollow and cruel in such circumstances.
Glibly positing any sort of “perfection” in an inherently imperfect world is an abstraction, an idea, perhaps fun to toy with conceptually in a dharma talk or at the pub over your third beer, but wholly insufficient when we are faced with truths and terrors too awful for breezy abstractions to address.
The Implicit Disdain for the Body—Somewhat contrary to the claims of life’s “perfection” cited above, RamDass’s brand of hip Hinduism carries within it that tradition’s separation of the body, in all its transience and perishability, from the eternal “self” or soul, with the body relegated to a decidedly inferior position.
Buddhism goes Hinduism one better by positing that even the “self” is delusion, with the ultimate goal being to dissolve that “self” into the oneness of all phenomena, to transcend subject and object, outside and inside, body and spirit, you and me, God and us, all “things” finally becoming “no-thing,” emptiness, void.
In both traditions, the body itself is seen as an impediment to all such attainment, a problem and source of suffering. And so it often is.
One way Asian religions deal with the body’s mortality is to claim that the “self” is not limited to one body, but is instead reincarnated, returning again and again over eons in an exhaustive effort to finally overcome the cycle of birth-death-rebirth and rest into the arms of the infinite.
In this formulation, the human body is all too often treated as disposable, something to conquer and relativize as illusory, transient, ultimately meaningless. Hence the pat euphemism that many Asian religions and their New Age adaptations apply to death: So-and-so “dropped his body” last week.
“Dropped his body?”
The phrase has always rankled me, as if this precious locus of all our life experiences, joys, relationships, loves, pleasures and even thoughts via our wondrous brains are no more than a tissue we “drop” into a trash can we pass on our way to a meetup with our disembodied, eternal soul.
We see bodily life discounted in this tale of his guru’s dying, too, when RamDass reports that his disciples begged his guru,
“’Don’t leave us, don’t leave us.’ And Ramana Maharshi said, ‘Don’t be silly, where could I go?’ Which seemed to me to be the most concise statement of the illusion of the body.”
“The illusion of the body?”
This phrase jars, too, making me want to pinch (or punch!) the person expressing it, and then ask them, “There! How do you fancy THAT illusion?”
Unlike Christianity’s idea that actual physical bodies are resurrected to join God in heaven (a concept with its own troublesome set of questions we will not address here), Hinduism’s reincarnation, which we partake in as different people and even life forms, seems particularly prone to this diminishment of incarnate life. (“My medium told me I was a cow in a former life” isn’t completely a joke in some circles…)
So if you’re poor or no good at math or were born with two heads or an anger problem, no worries, you’ve got thousands of lives worth of soul-cleansing and body-dropping still to go.
Buddha reportedly had 99,000 incarnations, RamDass tells us. Sounds rather exhausting, actually. (My own fondest wish is that I step off my karmic wheel with one last grand lifetime as a dog to a wealthy and active childless couple. Surely that is the epitome of the soul’s journey to wholeness!)
There is also this cavorting with his guru from embodied to disembodied consciousness that RamDass talks about in “Grist for the Mill”:
“Sometimes in the past I would sit with him, and I would see that physical body and then I would quiet down in meditation and I would feel his presence on another plane. And then I would shatter that one, and meet him on yet another plane. My body would start to shake with Shakti, from the amount of energy coming from these different planes. I would move through plane after plane of meeting him in different ways.”
One of the interesting ironies of westerners turning to eastern religions is that many do so after rejecting the literalism and dogmas of reported phenomena such as the virgin birth and heaven. Then they turn right around and embrace as fact tales of reincarnation, perfectly enlightened gurus, or two people “shattering” planes of reality as they skitter around in disembodied states of play.
They never seem to entertain the notion that those reports might be the product of a lively imagination and the dramatic impulses that fueled RamDass’s storytelling.
Ditto the glomming on with literalist fervor to the symbolic precept of karma, which is simply a variation on Christianity’s hell, a way of warning all God’s chillun: “Don’t do that bad thing! You’ll pay for it in spades later!”
The Sadly Mistaken Cultural Assessments—I’ll limit this to one example, which will speak—sadly, tragically, head-shakingly—for itself. It’s from “The Only Dance There Is,” published nearly a half-century ago:
“It is true that in the West at the moment there is a fantastic breaking down of attachment to the models that kept man locked in one particular organization of the universe. Things like nationalism, religion, racial and social-economic groups are suddenly all anachronism.”
Oh, oh, oh, if only to dream…
There are many more such sweeping statements sprinkled throughout RamDass’s works, loving, heart-centered, glass-pretty much-full optimist that he was.
It’s not that RamDass didn’t do much that was good. Certainly, he was one of the architects—along with a host of others—who opened westerners’ minds to perspectives beyond the straitjacket of scientific rationalism. That rationalism can always stand to be tempered by the poetry of subjective experience, the gropings of language to describe the extraordinary, ineffable aspects of life when words fall short and the heart and senses sing supreme.
And who can argue with his relentless, bottom-line plea that we need more love in this world, pure and simple?
But in his reaction to his own upbringing (his father was a lawyer and railroad president) and the emerging zeitgeist of ’60s counterculture, RamDass’s thought also veered frequently toward a kind of intellectual flabbiness, which didn’t so much transcend rationalism as simply deny it, relegating it as inferior to the comforting maxims he spun from his considerable storehouse of religious myth, psychedelic experience and pop psychology.
As we are prone to say these days about people we love dearly but consider slightly ditzy in one way or other: “God love ‘im!”
In the end, is it perhaps only that RamDass’s timing was off, and in another 99,000 or so incarnations, we will indeed free ourselves from ”one particular organization of the universe” and all become wholly enlightened carriers of the love he says fuels and is the ultimate source and purpose of the cosmos?
Fine illustration of Ram Dass’s fundamental precepts here, loving, encouraging, affirming—and overblown—as they were in his charmed and adventurous life.
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Ram Dass by Gary Dale Burns, Catskill, NY https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalwinter/
Droplet on branch by Waldemar Brandt, Schelswig-Holstein, Germany https://unsplash.com/@waldemarbrandt67w?/
Body in black & white by Emiliano Vittoriosi https://www.instagram.com/emilianovittoriosi/
Having been raised in a fairly strict and guilt-laden Catholic upbringing I discovered the teachings and ideas of RamDass in the early 70’s with absolute joy and gratitude. To think I could be accepted and valued despite (because of?) my flaws, to extend that acceptance to others, to entertain the dawning of an idea that nothing and nobody is perfect and that our imperfections do not damn us, to dream that even to a small degree it is possible to trust that the mess of daily life is pretty natural and not a catastrophe: it was indeed a new way of looking at things, and both a worthy and welcome new perspective.
Of course it was also a bit simplistic, and papered over a million glaring realities like genocide, and the injustice and pain of starving children for example, and the value of setting healthy goals and boundaries in one’s personal life.
All that is true as well.
However I will always be grateful for what I took away as the essence of his message, which i see as an invitation to slow down and breathe, to treasure the present moment, to value small and ordinary experiences and interactions, to love yourself and the other beings of the earth while we are here. Now.
Agree in full, Angela. When I first came across Ram Dass and a few other sources from the east—Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, The Tao Te Ching, Alan Watts—I felt like the top of my head had been blown off and then put back together in a new arrangement. It was remarkably invigorating to slip out from under my western civ background and orient to a whole other way of thinking about and parsing the world. And it still richly informs much of my perspective today
That said, it didn’t take too long before I felt a gnawing that it, too, was not the complete picture of life and death, flourishing and struggle, and that in its rather ingenious solution to the problem of suffering—just observe and detach from it all—it too easily fell prey to commingling detachment with not caring, with shrugging one’s shoulders and fobbing all suffering off as mere delusion and attachment. Correct diagnosis, perhaps, but a faulty solution, in that it tends to lack or understate the true and enduring tragic sense of life.
I’m still thinking through a lot of this with respect to how it differs from Christianity, and think I may pick up that thread again soon in another post. Thanks for helping it along!
My dear friend,
As someone (that being me) who has settled on a worship of the mystery of existence as my go-to spiritual practice (such as it is), I greatly value those explorers such as Mr. Dass, while never forgetting for a moment that they, just like the rest of us, are making it up (their belief system) as they go along. He (like you) was just more willing than the rest of us to share it through his writings and talks – as silly and flawed as much of it now seems in retrospect. Anyway, rather than question your erudite analysis of his contribution to deep thinking, I wanted to share a personal anecdote about the man. Back in 1985 my soon-to-be wife and I, after attending one of his lectures, sent him a wedding invitation. Recently, while sorting through a box of old love letters, father’s day cards (“Greatest Dad Ever!”) and assorted other papers and documents I once, for some reason, considered worthy of saving, I came upon his hand-written response to our invite. In it, he thanked us kindly, wished us a successful marriage and said that unfortunately he wouldn’t be able to join us since he would be celebrating another joyous occasion that day – his birthday. Now that’s one of his writings I will always treasure!
Anecdotes have a rich place alongside critical analysis, Robby! His response sounds perfectly in line with who he was; doesn’t surprise me a bit. His role was as soother-in-chief rather than rigorous dialectician. Very happy you shared this with us.
But hey man, wish you’d have invited me—I’d have actually come! :-)
A couple of thoughts after reading only the first part of your article: Om Mani Padme Hum is primarily chanted by Tibetan Buddhists. Emptiness in Buddhism is not a void. Also both Buddhism and Hinduism view and utilize the body as valuable and essential for spiritual awakening.
I am no great awakened being but I have been deeply investigating Buddhist teachings for some 35 years now. There is a distinction made between relative and ultimate truth which can make individual concepts appear paradoxical when the usual level of rationality is applied. Ultimate truth can never be captured in concepts. It can only be experienced directly.
Thanks for this, Jeff. You’re right about om mani… primarily being a Tibetan Buddhist chant, but it apparently has enough Hindu roots (as all of Buddhism does) for Ram Dass, eclectic as he was in any case, to have used it regularly in his books, tapes & such, so I simply followed his lead.
I’m no academic and don’t desire to be, but I do know the distinctions (and similarities) between emptiness and void are deep and entangled throughout eastern religions, and are even so within Buddhism itself, depending on which sect and school and language one is discussing. All of which feels quite beyond the scope of this post and its intent.
I sometimes think of paradox as my middle name, by god, so I am all on board with things “not making sense” as one uses rational discourse and questioning to finally break beyond into some kind of seemingly paradoxical, transrational realization. But I don’t think transrational is ever “irrational” in any way—it goes beyond rationality but as I mentioned above, does not negate or deny it. Every phony guru attempts to do the latter, with the dismal results we have all seen. Though I did and still do have much respect and appreciation for what Ram Dass accomplished, some of what he said could be just plain irrational, airy and dumb (as I’ve been more than a time or two myself in this life…), light years away from “ultimate truth,” and it was this I was calling attention to in a kind of whole-picture view of his legacy.
Not long after my introduction to the work of Ram Dass in the mid-70’s I was introduced to an LSD trip in the desert of Southern California. Employed at the time in L.A. corporate sales, the combination of these mind-opening, world opening experiences proved far too powerful for me to remain “respectably employed” as viewed by my Depression-era parents; proud of the coat and tie and company car, they were. Not long after the spiritual excursion into the desert, and deeper into Ram Dass literature (seemingly with a more clear experiential sense of his wisdom), my moment came. it was on the Hollywood Freeway, stuck in my company car in L.A. traffic. It just doesn’t need to be like this, came the bolt of insight. This of course led to hatching a plot to escape L.A. corporate life in search of service to humanity and a more meaningful life. Now approaching my 7th decade, I can report: mission accomplished. Thank you, Andrew for this homage to, and reminder of, Ram Dass.
Pretty classic tale there, Jay. If I were a scriptwriter, I’d gladly take on that Hollywood Freeway scene, only you didn’t go nuts in the way that Michael Douglas did in “Falling Down,” so it may lack the overt, explosive drama Hollywood feeds on!
My main concern here was a fear I was being churlish about a figure many people, myself included, got a lot out of at a certain time in life. So I am also glad you felt this to be an homage, albeit a rounded one, of a helpful, heart-centered teacher and doer who got a good part of the big picture right but some (important!) things muddled. Not perfect; just human. He freely insisted on as much (when he wasn’t caught up in being a guru…) :-)
Andrew, I did not for a moment (and still do not) believe that you were being churlish or unfair to Ram Dass. Indeed, I agree with your take on the human centric/Magical Thinking element of his work. It resonated and appealed to me thirty some years ago, but now seems a bit superficial, and almost annoying. Perhaps that is due to my own loss of innocence and idealistic aspirations; personal inclinations extinguished after more years on the planet.
Like Angela, Robby (great wedding story!), Jay and yourself, I came to “adulthood” in the late 60s/early 70s and Ram Dass was a profoundly positive influence on my developing world view. Not unlike many other questing folks (e.g. Tim Leary, Ralph Metzner, Gordon Wasson, Aldous Huxley, Terrance McKenna etc) it was the ingesting of psychedelics that catalyzed my view that “reality” includes other dimensions I had not even imagined. One of most profound aspects of these experiences was the sense of total connectedness, dare I say “oneness,” that had nothing to do with dogma or belief, but rather direct, first order lived experience… experience that I can regularly contact today via a walk w/my dog, sitting in silent meditation, etc. So following the public life journey of Ram Dass was always of interest to me, while the Hindu trappings and associated story lines (reincarnation etc) did not ring my bell I found delight in his story telling, analogies, and basic sweetness of his core message (Love/Serve/Remember). I find it easy to overlook some of his goofier statements and outlandish pronouncements, simply coming back to his core message and how he lived his life (as I understand it) exemplified by Gandhi statement of, “…my life IS my message” – or as Unitarian Universalists would perhaps say, “Deeds not Creeds”. Ram Dass’s work with the SEVA Foundation bringing sight to thousands in third world countries, Prison Ashram Project, Living/Dying Project, etc. speak volumes here. Ram Dass was certainly no saint, in fact his willingness to be so open about his all too human failings and short comings was part of his charm and effectiveness as a public persona/teacher. It’s interesting to me that the current renewal of controlled medical studies re: the use of LSD, psilocybin, etc in treating depression, end of life anxiety, etc are producing rather stunning results (see Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence) validating much of what Ram Dass and the Harvard crew were exploring in the early 1960s. I have little doubt Ram Dass and his contributions to human flourishing will continue to resonate long after his passing. Thanks for another provocative post Mr. Hidas!
Kevin, I think y’all are just kinder and more forgiving than I am, in the end. And I mean that. Not that I don’t forgive Ram Dass for his sometimes misbegotten pronouncements. I don’t really believe in gurus or enlightened beings in any case, so all regular humans, which are all there are in my book, depend on forgiveness, which I do believe in, with all my heart.
Maybe I think he could have just worked a little harder, assuming that quite serious role of teacher that he did, in filling in a more realistic, tragic picture for naive people who may have bought into notions like their sincerity and prayer would protect them from all harm. He had too big an influence on people not to consider the seriousness of all his words. But this was his flaw, yes? I think you and the others above have been able to see beyond that better than I have, to the very “larger picture” that Ram Dass looked to himself for his sustenance and power. I may have to think more about this from the context of my own flaws—I’ll get back to you on that! Thanks for helping to further round out this discussion.
Andrew, thank you for this insightful writing on the passing of Ram Dass. I have been, I guess I would have to say, a closet follower of Ram Dass for many years. I had about eight or ten audio tapes that I would play quietly, listening to my ear phones, after we went to bed and it was dark and I couldn’t fall asleep. I listened so often I practically had them memorized. They inspired me and enriched my life. I didn’t talk about him to my friends or family because I didn’t want to have to explain or defend what he was saying. He had a lot of wisdom and I was receptive to his words, but I never could quite accept it all. As you said, “it was never the complete picture of life and death”.
Delighted to hear from you and so glad you shared this lovely anecdote, Betty! I bet Ram Dass would also get a huge kick out of the image of you listening on your headphones, quiet in the night. No doubt more soothing (and enlightening) than a sedative…
I agree with most of what you have written here, Drew, and have always thought that Ram Dass’s sense of spirituality was undoubtedly informed by all the psychedelics consumed (how could it not be?!). My respect grew for him enormously after his stroke — which was major — as he persisted and persevered through his rehabilitation with a tenacity for recovery that was inspiring to me, especially since the stroke affected his speech the way it did. That said, I always found his version of Hinduism — and, in fact, Hinduism itself — to be lacking and inconsistent from a spiritually logical point of view. Yet, he was a “seeker” and did find some truths that were wonderful reminders. Not a week goes by when his profoundly simple advice doesn’t comes to my mind: “Be here now.” And for me, it has been a powerful concept that has helped to guide me on how to best live my life.
Indeed, Susan, you obviously have a lot of company in that appreciation. I keep reminding myself that Be Here Now sold 2 million copies—a truly staggering number—and its message nearly half century later remains a well-established cultural and spiritual meme. One more way he lives on, all talk of reincarnation aside!