BEING RAM DASS: The spiritual icon’s autobiography
Ram Dass & Rameshwar Das
[Sounds True, 488 pages]
A word that comes to mind to describe Ram Dass’ life and this chronicle of it is protean. Through the decades, this man’s life just keeps spilling out beyond its previous boundaries.
Being Ram Dass is a bit like a chambered nautilus, adding rooms all the time. My picture of who he is continually changed as I made my way through the chapters, all the way to the end of the book.
“Egg on my beard”
Ram Dass, like most of us, occasionally made what he later came to feel were mistakes. When this happened, he’d admit his error and move on. He writes honestly about how, from early on in his spiritual life, his desire for power competed with his quest to live a life of love.
Being Ram Dass details three separate relationships with guru-like figures he encounters in America after he returns from being with Maharaji (Neem Karola Baba). While reading these accounts, my mind would begin rushing to judgment. Here is a man who has recently fulfilled his very heart’s desire. He’s discovered the pure love that he has unconsciously, and then consciously, sought for his whole life! Yet he seems to be vulnerable to spiritual bells and whistles.
In the first of these episodes, he meets Swami Muktananda, who was becoming well-known at the time. Impressed by the man, he accepts an invitation to tour with him. They travel together in America, Australia and then India. At one point, Muktananda gives him a mantra that makes him fly around the meditation cave he’s in.
Gradually, Ram Dass comes to realize that the quality of love he’d known with Maharaji is missing. He describes a situation in India, where Muktananda gives him another mantra, and later, Ram Dass asks him, “What was that mantra about?”
The Swami says, “It will give you great wealth and powers.”
“Unless it gives me compassion,” Ram Dass replies, “I don’t want power. I don’t want power without compassion.” Muktananda then looks at him disdainfully, and walks away. Finally, Ram Dass leaves the scene, rejecting an offer Muktananda had made to become his heir.
A year or so later, Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan teacher, invites Ram Dass to join the staff of Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, for the school’s opening session in the summer of 1974. Ram Dass gives a course called The Yoga of the Bhagavad-Gita. He and Trungpa are the two big draws of the session. They lecture on alternate days in the same hall. In their talks, they sometimes poke fun at one another.
Ram Dass had, on occasion, observed Trungpa’s drunkenness, his extreme lateness to speaking engagements, and other reckless features of his lifestyle. He’d also noted, however, that no matter what condition the teacher seemed to be in, when he finally did speak, his explication of Buddhist doctrine was always impeccable.
Trungpa, whose best-known book is named Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, seemed less than bullish on what he saw as the emotional trappings of Ram Dass’ bhakti path. Ram Dass himself, with characteristic humour, announced at the beginning of one of his classes, “Welcome to Spiritual Materialism 101.”
When the summer session ended, Trungpa invited Ram Dass to be part of Naropa’s permanent faculty, but Ram Dass declined the offer. He had other things he wanted to do.
A year or two later, Hilda Charlton, a New York City friend who gave weekly classes that resembled seances, told him she wanted him to meet someone. She led him to the home of a Brooklyn housewife who called herself Joya Santanya. She claimed to be an incarnation of the Divine Mother. She, too, had a powerful presence. She became Ram Dass’ teacher, and also his sexual consort.
As time went on, he came to feel that although Joya had gone through some spiritual experiences, she hadn’t fully integrated them, and her actions sometimes appeared to him to create chaos.
In this third case, Ram Dass found it necessary to go on the record publicly. In 1976, the Yoga Journal published an article titled “Egg on My Beard,” in which he disassociates himself from Joya in no uncertain terms.
Each of these three figures derived obvious benefits from having Ram Dass around. He was more popular than any of them. His presence brought them publicity and new blood.
As Ram Dass repeated his mistakes, I thought, “What? You still haven’t learned?!” Upon further contemplation, something became obvious to me: while another person’s limitations may be easy to spot, my own are often anything but.
Major themes of a life’s work
The first half of this book narrates the most dramatic phases of Ram Dass’ transformation. The second half concerns itself with following two major aspects of his continuing work on himself: sharpening and clearing the mind through meditation, and living in the heart.
He often uses vipassana meditation as an aid to the former, while his Guru’s example and presence are the keys to the latter. Combining the two, Maharaji had once said, “Bring your mind to one point and wait for grace.”
There is another major dynamic that draws Ram Dass’ attention repeatedly: the relation between an individual’s spiritual sadhana, or their journey inward, and that person’s role in society and its transformation. This is a very nuanced interweaving that entails, among other things, the recognition that only through certain lenses does “the individual” even exist.
Some of the themes in Being Ram Dass are recycled again and again in the book. I find Dr. Carl Jung’s idea of circumambulating the self helpful in understanding Being Ram Dass. Issues and experiences come up that remind us of ones we dealt with years before. A new manifestation doesn’t mean that we failed earlier, but rather, we see the matter from a new vantage point each time, a bit like ascending a spiral staircase. It’s all part of the journey Home.
Way back in his work at Harvard and elsewhere during his psychedelic explorations, Ram Dass was concerned with harmony among people in groups (whereas Tim Leary was more interested in breaking down barriers). That positive focus continued for Ram Dass. One research project at Harvard had dealt with whether a psychedelic experience might lessen recidivism for prisoners.
Later, in 1973, Ram Dass started the Prison Ashram Project with a couple named Bo and Sita Lozoff. The venture was based on observations that the austere surroundings of a prison resemble those of a monastery, in some ways. Bo Lozoff wrote a book with the brilliant title We’re All Doing Time: A Guide for Getting Free, which is still circulating and has been translated into many languages.
Similarly, Ram Dass began his work as a spiritual companion to the dying fairly early on in his ministry, after connecting with a death-and-dying pioneer, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She attended a retreat he sponsored in 1976, and Steven Levine, a Buddhist teacher, taught meditation at that retreat. In 1977, Ram Dass enlisted him and his wife Ondrea to begin what they called The Dying Project.
For several years, the Levines opened their home telephone line 24/7, to people anywhere who were in an extreme situation involving life and death. Transcripts of their amazingly intuitive and compassionate conversations with those who were near death or gripped by inconsolable grief comprise Steven’s book, Meetings at the Edge: Dialogues with the Grieving and the Dying, the Healing and the Healed. In my mind, it’s one of the great, yet under-read spiritual books of the past several decades.
Steven and Ondrea are also known for the book Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying and for a number of other titles on spiritual subjects.
The work of Ram Dass and the Levines has enormously furthered the cause of conscious dying in the West, though there is still a vast distance to go. Ram Dass says: “The best preparation for death is to live in the present moment. If you are living in the present moment, then when the moment of death comes, it is just another moment. But you can’t tell someone else to live in the present moment unless you live here and now yourself.”
The real crux
The parts of the book that grabbed me the tightest and the deepest, over and over, were Ram Dass’ sharing of the stories of intimate human situations in ways that brought them totally alive for me.
One of these stories begins in 1985, when Ram Dass accompanies his friends Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, both vipassana teachers, to Burma for a three-month retreat with their teacher. Two months into the retreat, he receives a telegram from his stepmother Phyllis, whom he has described in the book as the only person in his family who actively supports his spiritual activities. She writes, “I am sorry to disturb your meditation. I am being operated on for cancer on Tuesday. I thought you should know. Love, Phyl.”
The meditation teacher tells Ram Dass, “This is your chance for enlightenment, don’t blow it.” But the call of his heart is to go to someone he loves. He immediately flies back to Boston and spends the next six months taking care of Phyllis, holding her and just being present with her in love.
One day, as he’s holding her in her bed, she says, “Richard, help me to sit up.” He does. And then, he reports, she takes three deep breaths and dies. Ram Dass adds that this is exactly the way many Tibetan yogis have died over the centuries. “How did Phyllis know to do that?” he asks rhetorically.
He stays in Boston after Phyllis’ death to care for his Dad, now 88 and getting weaker. He utilizes this experience to re-establish a heart connection with the powerful man who dominated the family during his upbringing.
Ram Dass’ father dies two years later. Caring for him is yet another example of the way Ram Dass lived out the teachings he’d been given. He truly saw every experience, every situation, every relationship, as a spiritual opportunity. He always came back to the heart.
These and many other sections of the book gave me a chance to actually breathe the rarified air of love that comes through in Ram Dass’ recounting. Indeed, his presence with Phyllis, his father and so many others was the same presence I experienced in my own dealings with him, although in my case, the death he midwifed was the death of part of my limited ego, not my physical body.
This love is, for me, his essence. Being Ram Dass goes on to detail various other activities and journeys: the many projects he initiated to bring seekers into the social arena with both awareness and love. They involved helping the homeless, being a witness of conscience in matters regarding nuclear arms, and helping teenagers create an environmental awareness group, among others.
Then there is the whole saga of the SEVA Foundation, of which Ram Dass was a co-founder. Dedicated to selfless service, the Foundation has restored eyesight to thousands of blind people, beginning in Nepal and now including some 20 countries.
SEVA has also provided seeds and other aid to women in Guatemalan villages that had recently been ravaged by the army. Ram Dass used it as one of his many vehicles for karma Yoga.
Being Ram Dass also tells the story of his discovery, at age 73, that he had a son. It tells of his 19-year intimate relationship with his partner Peter. And there are many more nuggets.
In 1997, as many know, Ram Dass suffered a severe stroke that nearly killed him and paralyzed the right side of his body. It also left him with total aphasia (inability to speak), a condition he was able to partially overcome with a great deal of therapy.
There was a certain irony in his having the stroke when he did. He’d been working on a book about aging, but felt there was something missing. After the stroke, he realized that in those first drafts, he’d been talking about effects of aging. Now he was dealing with their full thrust.
The stroke, though, also caused him to lose his faith. Once again, Ram Dass makes his life an open book as he shares this ordeal and the manner in which he rediscovers the precious presence of Maharaji. The kind of extreme situation in which he’d partnered so many people had now befallen him. He’d felt, for a time, objectified in others’ eyes as “a stroke victim.”
At one point, he realizes that even all the satsang brothers and sisters who visit him are seeing him that way. He feels that only the cleaning lady in the rehab centre sees him as a human being.
Ram Dass makes a full emotional recovery and goes on to teach again. However, as the years pass, travel takes more and more of a toll. Finally, after a retreat in Hawaii at which he’s become ill, he is unable to leave the island. His friend Dr. Wayne Dyer, who lives on Maui, takes charge of fundraising for Ram Dass, whom over the years had given away most of the royalties from his books and projects.
Ram Dass settles in a rented house on Maui, and finally moves to the home by the ocean in which he spends his final years.
The final chapters
In his last decade, although Ram Dass continued to teach and counsel people virtually, his life began slowly turning inward.
He began his ninth decade in 2011, and the final chapters of the book are mostly a soliloquy about life and its broader counterpart, Existence. He writes movingly and at length about how Maharaji continues to be his guiding presence. He even sketches a verbal picture of what their reunion might be like after his earthly death, and how the continuing journey might conceivably begin to unfold from there.
It’s all an intuitive vision shared in love—the fruit of a lifetime of discovery and contemplation.
And yet, even this eloquence, I feel, doesn’t approach the person I knew in the mid-‘70s when, not knowing me from Adam, so to speak, Ram Dass replied to my desperate note that began, “Dear Ram Dass, is there such a thing as eternal damnation? Because I think my soul is ruined.”
A couple of weeks later, I received this loving note from him on a little piece of notepaper:
Your soul is not ruined and there is no damage to your thought or feeling whatever. Psychologically, you may be a mess, but spiritually you are beautiful and are going to God.
In order to go to God, you have to get all the shit inside you opened up. Why not come to NYC and visit with me? It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours for starters.
If you can’t come to New York, write me in detail about your scene and we’ll work by letter. Just stay totally open and honest and trusting.
God loves you and will show you as soon as you begin to love yourself.
Blessings surround you.
Accept your own beauty.
In a few more weeks, we met in Oklahoma City, where it turned out he had a lecture scheduled, and the love that he brought dissolved a lifelong barrier of deep shame.
He then remained lovingly present in my life, and we had regular contact and several visits over the next six months, as I got stronger and began to gain a footing in the new life he had been the “midwife” for.
I feel Ram Dass was greater than he gives himself credit for being. It’s all quite a paradox: the “greatness” is the result of self-effacement. It’s like the story he quotes in the book about Hanuman, when Ram asks Hanuman who he is, and Hanuman replies: “When I don’t know who I am, I serve you. When I know who I am, I am you.”
My experience of Ram Dass, when he was more or less the caretaker of my healing spirit, is that “he” wasn’t even there much of the time. I had a little nickname I used to call him by, just to myself: “Old Skullface.” When he tuned into someone … to me, anyway … he’d more or less disappear. Once, when I looked at him, I did basically see just a skull, as his radiating spirit filled the room and brought more healing love to me.
I felt his purity was such that he was a thin veil over “the Friend”—the Beloved—God. And in fact, I have no other way of understanding the love I experienced in his presence, and the transformation I experienced in myself, which has now maintained itself for 46 years: from someone going from psychiatrist to psychiatrist in vain, facing a prospect of a life of some kind of custodial care, to someone who has lived a full, active life as a school teacher, an artist, a poet and writer, a musician and a husband.
I remain a devotee of Meher Baba. Ram Dass remained a devotee of “Maharaji.” However, the One I felt present so often in our interactions was the One beyond name and form.
One friend of mine who had the good karma to meet Meher Baba face-to-face as a boy has shared a story about the time when he was first shown, alone, into the room where Meher Baba, silent for his last 44 years, was sitting in a chair waiting for him. As Charles entered the room, he thought about this man, Meher Baba, whom his mother and aunt had said was God.
Charles thought to himself, yes, this is God. But, his name isn’t really Meher Baba. This is really the Nameless One.
My friend was, I believe, eight years old at the time. He saw with a child’s honest eyes. He knew what he was perceiving.
The reason I feel Ram Dass was able to affect people of all paths, and I’m sure, at times, of “no path,” was that he really was what his name translates as: the servant of God. Ram Dass has been one of the people in my life who has shown me how that Divine Presence can lighten a heart, take away every care, and make anything possible. During the period when he was taking care of me, I felt quite simply, “Because this person is in the world, I know everything is OK.”
He was relentlessly optimistic because, hey, if we’re all really God, and you’re at a place where you can actually tune into that—what a profound inspiration you are, to those who cross your path!
And that is just what Ram Dass was.
Missed Part I of this review? Go back and read it here»
image 1: ramdass.org; image 2: (c) Photo Rameshwar Das; image 3: Mark Dixon; image 4: Mark Dixon; image 5: (c) Photo Rameshwar Das; image 6: (c) Photo Rameshwar Das; image 7: (c) Hanuman Das/ John Kane; image 8: (c) Photo Rameshwar Das