BEING RAM DASS: The spiritual icon’s autobiography
Ram Dass & Rameshwar Das
[Sounds True, 488 pages]
“When the flower blooms, the bees come of their own accord.”
– Sri Ramakrishna
There are some lives that are “larger than life,” in the sense that they become a pattern for other lives. They are, in some sense, what Dr. Carl Jung called archetypal. The life of Richard Alpert, later known as Ram Dass (1931-2019), was such a life.
It’s typical that an archetypal pattern is potent for some, but not all people. No doubt, there are still people who have never heard of Ram Dass. However, for a large number, beginning with his contemporaries in the 1960s, Ram Dass’ life and transformations—the “lives within lives”—are one of these significant patterns.
For the 10 years before he passed away on December 22, 2019, due to complications from the stroke he’d suffered more than 20 years before, he worked on this autobiography with his longtime friend and Guru-brother, Rameshwar Dass, whose voice also narrates the audio version that I’m listening to.
A number of the stories in the current volume are versions of ones that Ram Dass told in his lectures, or in the introduction to his best-known book, Be Here Now. Many, though, are told here in much greater detail than in previous versions. Furthermore, for the first time, all the phases of his evolution are woven together in a single narrative, enabling the reader to get a sharper picture of this life and its rather epic quality.
Soul brothers and sisters
I realize that in this review, I’m speaking not only to fellow Baby Boomers, but to several generations who have come of age since those years when we were first learning of the psychedelic explorations and later, the firing of the “infamous” Timothy Leary and his partner, Richard Alpert, from their positions at Harvard University for giving LSD to an undergraduate. (The powerful first chapter, in fact, takes place in the office of Harvard president Nathan Pusey, as “Dr. Alpert” ruminates on all that has transpired up to that point, awaiting Pusey’s judgment. The drama of this “in the middle of things” beginning totally roped me in as a reader.)
A couple of years after that incident, word spread that the aforementioned Dr. Alpert had become the bearded, white-robed, mala-bead-laden “guru” (a word that Ram Dass never used to describe himself), giving talks about his pilgrimage to India and his transformation at the hands of “an old man in a blanket” whom he’d met at a Temple in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The story quickly became the stuff of legend: how, in Katmandu, Nepal, in 1967, Richard had walked into a restaurant called The Blue Tibetan. There, he noticed a tall, shaggy American dressed as an Indian Sadhu. He intuitively felt a conviction that this fellow knew the Truth he himself was seeking.
I had seen Richard Alpert speak as part of a Symposium given at Northwestern University, earlier in 1967. He was a bespectacled, suit-and-tie attired panel member speaking in a somewhat professorial tone.
A couple of years later, one of my high school friends who had been a student at Harvard and had attended some of Ram Dass’ first lectures after his return from India, told me about them on a visit back to our hometown. He also showed me a copy of the first edition of Be Here Now, published as a sheaf of unbound pages in a low cardboard box, under the title From Bindu To Ojas (rough translation: From Binding to Freedom). Most of what I saw and heard that day passed me by, but a little bit stuck.
A year or so later, I had my own experience of Oneness, as a powerful force of Love came flowing out of a poster of Meher Baba and transported me temporarily to a state of union similar to what Ram Dass experienced when he met his Guru (see COMING TO BABA: My 43-Year Romance With Meher Baba).
Many in my generation found their lives somehow mirroring that of Ram Dass. This period, of course, was one of cultural dislocation and breakdown in America. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy were only two of many recent traumas to our national psyche.
Ram Dass’ life, as he mentions in the book, threaded its way through such pain and disintegration to the Soul. Many in my generation have thus felt like his “soul brothers and sisters” for half a century now. Whatever we were doing, he had either done a little while before, or was doing alongside us.
Over the years, he spoke in most of the large cities in America, and indeed, much of the world. These talks were always the most intimate of gatherings. They affirmed what so many of us were learning ourselves. It was like a huge community of seekers and people who—whatever their own spiritual, social or personal identifications—were themselves on this “journey to the East,” whose ultimate value was the Oneness of all beings in Love.
I know that the archetypal pattern of Ram Dass’ life remains relevant to the generations who followed us Baby Boomers. For quite some time now, Sages and others have been saying that the world is on the cusp of a new age of Intuition and brotherhood/sisterhood. This presentiment is not limited to a single generation.
It is fortunate that Ram Dass continues to live in books like this one and his earlier works, as well as in films and on many, many videos. His kindness and sense of humour helped get his message across, even to many who didn’t share the cultural trappings of his own lifestyle.
Back in 1976, I remember seeing many RAM DASS FOR PRESIDENT bumper stickers in America. For those making the turn toward the Oneness residing in all, he remains a timelessly eloquent spokesperson, an “everyman” on the Spiritual Path.
The early life of Ram Dass
He was born Richard Alpert, to well-off Jewish parents in the U.S. city of Boston, Massachusetts. His father was a powerful man, a lawyer who later became president of the New York/New Haven Railroad.
Being Ram Dass goes into great detail in describing the joys and difficulties of Richard’s upbringing. Like many children, he went through periods of social isolation, alternating with other phases when he enjoyed a measure of popularity. Gradually, he began to notice how he could mitigate his suffering by building on serendipitous positive experiences. He began to see what his strengths were and to use them as springboards to distinguish himself and improve the quality of his life. In secret, he also struggled emotionally with bisexuality, from the onset of adolescence.
The book unfolds a picture of him slowly accruing the confidence required to handle the intense demands of the life that awaited him. At one point during Richard’s graduate schooling at Stanford University on America’s West Coast, his father, who had just assumed the presidency of the railroad, phoned him in tears, saying, “I don’t know anything about running a railroad!” He begged his son to return to Boston and help him.
Richard was unwilling to forego his training in psychology, which marked the beginning of his investigation of the mind, which slowly led him towards and eventually into the realms of the spiritual. However, he agreed—amazingly—to “commute.” He began a regimen of twice-a-week 13-hour flights on propeller planes, the only plane type available in the late 1950s.
He spent three days each week in Boston helping his Dad, then flew back to Stanford to fulfill his obligations there. This went on for some time. My mouth fell open as I learned this. It shows, I feel, what a powerful personality Richard was, even before meeting Timothy Leary, and long before his trip to India.
The sincerity of seeking
I was the recipient of Ram Dass’ kindness in 1976. He helped me overcome sexual shame that had been blocking my life.
My breakthrough took place during one two-hour meeting in Ram Dass’ motel room in Oklahoma City, where I had flown from St. Louis in order to meet him there the morning after his lecture at the Civic Auditorium. For around the next six months, he lovingly became like a second father to me, in order to help me integrate this breakthrough into my life (see HAPPY RE-BIRTHDAY TO ME!: A personal essay by Max Reif).
I mention this to emphasize how kind Ram Dass was. He had a beautiful disposition, and was nearly always easy and inspiring to be around. Once, when I was discouraged, he told me on a phone call, “Max, you’re gonna turn out beautiful, whether you like it or not!”
However, as I made my way through Being Ram Dass, I found myself feeling threatened by certain chapters, especially the ones about his life as a psychedelic “psychonaut.” I took eight psychedelic trips myself. They led me into areas I wasn’t able to deal with, and I broke down for awhile.
Ram Dass, on the other hand, lived in “psychedelic communes” where, in addition to frequent LSD or psilocybin trips—during one period, every day for three weeks—the “extended families” living together would do a communal trip once a week. These chapters introduced me to a level of interpersonal intensity that at times made me want to run and hide. They led me to do several extensive journaling sessions.
I continued with the book not only because of my personal connection, but because, in spite of its intensity, I felt Being Ram Dass to be a document of deep honesty and authenticity. By that, I mean that it followed its subject’s life as it had actually been lived. It allowed me to “live Ram Dass’ life with him”, practically from its inception. The reason I was interested in doing that was that from nearly the beginning, I recognized this life as a sincere quest for Truth, and even more than that, for Love.
When Ram Dass takes psilocybin for the first time, he exults not because it “blew his mind,” but because it enables him to see (for the first time) that he is not his mind, but a Soul.
Later in his psychedelic career, Ram Dass comes to feel that all the tripping isn’t getting him anywhere. It isn’t taking him closer to being that soul and heart, all the time. It isn’t taking him home. And so, out of disillusionment with everything around him, he sets out for India with a friend who had purchased a land-rover, having not the slightest clue whether he will find what he seeks. The rest is history.
During the period when his disillusionment with the potential of psychedelics was setting in, Ram Dass corresponded with Meher Baba, whom he recognized as one of the world’s living spiritual authorities. Meher Baba’s secretary replied at the Master’s behest, telling him “To a few sincere seekers such as yourself,” LSD could initially serve to arouse spiritual longing, but could then serve no further constructive purpose.*
That sincerity of Ram Dass’ seeking is why I signed on for the duration of this book.
Neem Karoli Baba
The pivotal 16th chapter of Being Ram Dass narrates his meeting of Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaji). I’m not sure if the language has even been edited from previous spoken and published versions of the story. Either way, I find the prose exquisite.
Silence “speaks” a great deal in this story. There are no extra words, only those necessary to convey the transmission—miracle—that took place: a journey from the mind to the heart. Richard Alpert, the seeker, after travelling thousands of miles on a sort of desperate quest of faith and longing, comes home—to himself.
A return to the United States
This review covers Part I of the book and some of Part II. After being trained as a yogi for six months in a Temple during the northern Indian winter on Maharaji’s order, Ram Dass returns to America. Maharaji has not given him any instructions by about what to do there.
After a few weeks, Ram Dass begins to respond to some speaking invitations that have trickled in. His audiences are expecting talks about psychedelics. What they get instead is the odyssey of his recent transformation. People are riveted. One engagement lasts from 7 p.m. until 3 in the morning!
More and more people begin to seek him out, until within a year or so, a community of seekers and students has materialized, living on the grounds of his father’s estate in New Hampshire, where Ram Dass himself had taken up residence. This takes us to into 1968.
I feel like I’ve already gone through several lifetimes with Ram Dass. And yet, half of the book remains! I will cover the rest of Being Ram Dass in Part II of this review, which will be published at a later date.
* Meher Baba also affirmed that psychedelics, with proper medical supervision, can indeed be useful in psychotherapy.
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image 1: ©Rameshwar Das; image 2: Max Reif; image 3: BoingBoing (Creative Commons) image 4: ©Rameshwar Das; image 4: Jon Seskevich; image 5: Left – Meher Nazar Publications; Right – Wikimedia Commons; image 6: Wikimedia Commons