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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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
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/