The Metamorphic Journey of Richard Alpert
by Sara Davidson
Ramparts Magazine, February 1973, pp. 35-42
….Incredible String Band
On a sunny May afternoon, a 41-year-old man with long, wiry, graying hair emerged from the Boston International Arrivals Terminal carrying a suitcase full of Indian silks and an unwieldy, bowl-shaped instrument called a tamboura. Tall and light of step, he wore a sweater and bell bottom slacks, and his face shone with healthy color. He hesitated at the door to the waiting room, for in his head was flickering an extraordinary film: a film in which he saw himself swallowed by a living wave of white-robed bodies, strangled by hugs, and suffocated by a hail of flowers, grapes and mangos. For the man was Baba Ram Dass, formerly Dr. Richard Alpert, returning to the United States after a year and a half in India, his second journey to the East.
During his absence from this country, a book he had written, Be Here Now, had been published in paperback and sold 200,000 copies. That is twice the trade most bestsellers do, although the book was not promoted and never acknowledged by any national publication. Tapes of his lectures had been played on radio stations, and transcripts were printed in underground papers and scholarly journals. For a year, Ram Dass had been receiving about 100 letters a week, asking and begging for his attention and advice.
A week after his return, Ram Dass reflected, “I was afraid of the karma I had brought on myself with that book, afraid of the numbers that were going to overwhelm me. So I put off coming home, and hung around England for. six weeks. I felt I wasn’t ready to wrestle with fame and power.” Finally he cabled his father that he was on his way to Boston. “I got to the airport all prepared for some Frank Sinatra hysteria scene, and there was nobody there. Nobody! My father was out of town and didn’t get the cable.” Ram Dass took a bus into the city, checked his tamboura and wandered around “really digging this total reversal of my expectations.”
Had he sent word of his arrival to a few strategic people, there indeed would have been throngs at the airport, and I might have been among them. I had read Be Here Now in 1971 and was interested in meeting the author. Although I had had many opportunities to see the folly of this impulse, there, nevertheless, it was: if I could just talk to Ram Dass, get near enough and ask the right questions, certain mysteries and doubts might be resolved –
The concepts Ram Dass expressed matched suspicions I had long held but never fully trusted. What hit the strongest chord was his assertion that one could hold all the keys to the kingdommoney, power, beauty, achievementand still not be happy, still have an unsatisfied gnawing in the gut: “It’s not enough.” You might want success in a project, or a trip to South America, or a house in the country, and as soon as you get it, you find yourself wanting something else.
Most of us, he said, spend the first part of our lives living in the future ~and the rest living in the past. In order T6 ive in the moment, totall fulfilled, one must be free of att~’chm~gt to those unending desires. We have all had tastes of the here-and-now experience: sailing on a perfect summer day, or sitting with a group of especially close friends, when there is an absence of wanting, of needing anything more. For a fragment of time, we’re not worrying about past troubles, or planning what to do when the boat docks or the friends leave. We are, briefly, outside time, outside desire. And by “working on yourself,” Ram Dass said, one can progress toward inhabiting that state more frequently.
I made inquiries about interviewing Ram Dass, for habitually, whenever I have wanted to pursue an interest, I’ve found a way to make a work project out of it. He was back in India, and when I met him a year later, his tuning had subtly changed. The stakes in his game had been jacked up since the last round. He was headed for the gap across which lies sainthood, or psychosiswhatever you want to call ita state beyond the range of perceiving we consensually call normality.
One of the first things he said was, “I’m living in a totally psychotic space now, because in my universe there’s only one other being besides me and it’s God. All day long I’m constantly talking to Him. That’s clearly not a sane statement in the Western rational model.” He said he sensed in India the profundity of the surrender required, “the power of the death, the true death of the ego. I had figured I could go through the whole transformation without ever missing a step. But you can’t take any personality baggage with you. Whoever is left of the old separate being has to die. It feels as if some thing irrevocable has happened and my faith is not quite shakeable anymore. My relationship to my guru and through him feels somewhat beyond the pale.”
Because of this faith, he no longer needs to wear white garments and holy beads, or set up a little altar wherever he goes with his books, candles and pictures of saints. “I don’t need the physical reminders for fear I’ll go under.” Neither does he need to persuade or teach anyone. He will avoid public activities, speaking to large groups and “playing the holy man so much. I’m just going to be another guy and hang out.”
So once again, the master metamorphosis has pulled his disappearing trick. Ram Dass said, “I see my value at this moment as symbolic: somebody who was a psychology professor, was a drug person, and is still all but primarily none of those anymore; somebody who was an Indian student but is not primarily that now either. By changing form, I can help people get the essence of the thing without getting caught in the form. That’s really the fun, because they’ll say, ‘I thought you were !’ and I’ll say, who was that? You were focusing on the wrong thing, it’s just that I was wearing a brown jacket yesterday.” He laughs. “When expectations are broken, people grow.”
Ram Dass once said he felt “blessed by having been given everything that Western society could offer: affluence, lots of love, the best education, and the fruits of advanced technology, including drugs, the best drugs. All that was part of my preparation to now know something else.” The affluence came from his father, George, a dignified, Republican financier-philanthropist, who was president of the New Haven Railroad and helped found Brandeis University.
When Ram Dass talks about Richard Alpert, he tends to paint him, often hilariously, as a tormented, miserable wretch. But those who knew him as a student and later at Millbrook say he was always warm and charismatic, with an infectious sense of humor and zest. David McClelland, a psychology professor for whom Alpert worked at Harvard, says he was an excellent and ambitious scholar, who gained rank with rare speed. “No one observing him would have known about the inner anxiety, and he didn’t talk about it.”
At Harvard, Alpert taught psychology and practiced psychotherapy. He flew his own plane, collected antiques, cars, a sailboat and scuba-diving equipment. Although he had spent five years in psychoanalysis, he says, he was tense and suffered diarrhea every time he lectured. He drank heavily and was a closet homosexual, “living with a man and a woman at the same time in two different parts of the citya nightmare of hypocrisy.” He looked at his colleagues on the A team at Harvard and saw that none seemed fulfilled or content. He feared he himself would wake up 40 years later no less neurotic or more wise, and he panicked. “I thought, the best thing I can do is go back into psychoanalysis. But then I started to have doubts about the analyst. Is his life enough? Whose life is? Who’s saying, right, it’s enough?”
He was, at this time, an atheist, and had difficulty even pronouncing “spiritual.” But on March 5, 1961, a tab of psilocybin was to blow out all the old holding pegs. One of his faculty drinking buddies, Timothy Leary, had started a research project with mind-altering drugs, allegedly to explore their potential benefit for criminals, addicts and sick people. Alpert was brought in as the steadying influence, to control Leary’s wild flights and keep the research within respectable scientific bounds. But the first time Alpert took psilocybin with Leary, he discovered an exalted place inside himself where an “I” existed, an essence deeper than his social and physical identity, a steady center unaffected by the play of time. And this “I” was all-knowing. The more drug trips he took, the more he trusted the inner voice, and the less reinforcement he needed from the environment. In 1963, when he and Leary were fired from Harvard in a ritual of public exorcism, they barely broke stride; moving to Millbrook, New York, they set up the Castalia Foundation to study the mystic aspects of drugs. They created the word “psychedelic”mind revealingand for seven years used their bodies as test chambers to discover a permanent route to higher consciousness. They took new drugs as fast as they were invented, but each seemed to have built into it a crash back to the ordinary waking swamp.
By 1967 Alpert was in a state of despair the dimensions of which must have been truly hideous. He had cut all his lifelines and was adrift in the midst of nowhere. He could not go back to the straight world, and after hundreds of acid visions, neither he nor anyone knew how to make constructive use of the experience.
His mother died early in the year, and when a friend invited him to travel across India, he accepted not in hope of learning anything but because, oh well, what else? He watched the countryside go by and his depression never lifted. Then, in Katmandu, a chance encounter with a gigantic, blond, 23 year old American boy led him to an ashram in the Himalaya where he met his guru, Maharaji (a title meaning Great King).
For each of us, it probably takes a certain kind of jolt to break the shackles of absolute faith in the rational mind. For Alpert, it was meeting a twinkly, fat, old man wrapped in a blanket, who immediately told him exactly how his mother had died, and indicated that he knew everything in Alpert’s head. At first, Alpert says, his mind raced to come up with an explanation. Then, like a computer fed an insoluble problem, “my mind just gave up. It burned out its circuitry.” There was a violent wrenching in his chest and an outpouring of tears. “All I could say was it felt like I was home. The journey was over.”
I have heard an assortment of rumors about Ram Dass and they all center on what “really happened” in India. According to various, comically murky sources: Alpert was on morphine; Bhagwan Dass was on heroin; Alpert followed Bhagwan Dass because he was sexually attracted to him; Alpert never went barefoot; Alpert spoke constantly about his mother and it would have been no feat for the guru to pick up the vibe. The need for these rumors is puzzling, because the undeniable fact is that something happened in India and Alpert came back transformed.
In his book, he describes studying yoga in the Temple of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey God who exemplifies the perfect servant. Dass means servant, so Ram Dass, the name Alpert was given, means servant of Ram, or God, as Ram was one of the incarnations of the God Vishnu, the preserver, Baba means father, and is a term of endearment and respect.
Alpert followed a ritual of study, meditation, a cold bath at 4 a.m., vegetarian diet, exercise, breathing and cleansing practices. He vowed sexual continence, and for six months he was silent, using chalk and a slate to communicate. As a result of not speaking or expending sexual energy for so long, when he returned to this country he was like a spring uncoiling with tremendous force. He met with Tim Leary in San Francisco, who suggested he simply hadn’t finished with his sexual trip. “If you’re turning incident later, he said, “I saw it all of your energies into your own strange man with a beard, driving a being, it becomes autoerotic, masturbation.”
Alpert laughed, and later told an interviewer, “I haven’t cured my neurosis, I just got bored with it.
The notion of destroying the ego is scary because we tend to think that if there is no ego, there is nobody to be conscious of anything, and so we no longer exist. But if you can conceive of yourself as a spark of divine essence, a bit of life force, which is being expressed through your thoughts, feelings, body and behavior but is not seated in any of those, then you are open to what Ram Dass suggests: “a complete perceptual reorganization of who I am. I am without form, without limits, beyond space and time. I am light, love, consciousness, energy. It’s a hard one. I’m still doing it.”
In this framework, the ego is only a surface casing; all the searing emotions which seem to lie deep within you are but twitches in that outermost crust. “It’s interesting, because as a psychologist I always treated the personality as real and terribly serious. That’s what the whole growth movement, the encounter thing, all of western psychology does. But it’s not real, it’s all just stuff. Pain, pleasure, anger, guilt they’re only mind moments, and there’s always a new moment.
Even the mind is not really you. “Cogito ergo sum is a lie. We exist behind our thinking.” Ram Dass says there are other ways of knowing besides through the senses and the mind, and quotes Albert Einstein as stating:
“I did not arrive at my scientific discoveries through my rational mind.” The other way of knowing is intuitive, subjective, and requires transcending the rational mind. The mind must be transcended because it works in time, and can only think with an object.
“The place we’re aiming for. Heliopolis, highsville, lives outside time, and there is no subject object. There is no knower who knows a thing, no experiencer having an experience. The knower is the knowledge, the experiencer is one with the experience.
That’s why they say LSD is a false samadhi, because there’s still an experiencer. The drug doesn’t kill the ego. If it were a real samadhi, you wouldn’t come back.”
The trick, though, is that when you do reach the end of the line, you re exactly where you started, but everything is in different perspective. When you give up your attachment, your anxious need, for money or power or sex, then you’re free to make money, wield power and have sex. When you transcend your mind, you still use your mind, but it’s a servant, not your master. When you crack the ego and feel your personality as completely unreal, you don’t lose your personality. All holy men have distinct personalities. But you no longer identify with that personality.
At the end of his talks, Ram Dass always told people that whatever course they were following was perfect, because “it’s all predetermined anyway. The very moment you wake up is determined. There are no accidents in this business. The guru is inside you, you don’t have to go to India. The next message you need is always right where you are.”
Ram Dass returned to India in November of 1970. The book was being hand lettered at the Lama Foundation, a spiritual commune in New Mexico, to which he had assigned all rights and royalties.
There were also, by this time, more than 160 hours of Ram Dass tapes in circulation. WBAI in New York played them through 1971, and that summer, a group of listeners formed a meditation group in which Hilda Charlton, a woman who had been seeking God for many years, became spiritual leader. Meanwhile, rumors flew back from India: Ram Dass was coming home in December, January, February, never. His head was changing. He would not teach or give interviews anymore. I decided to write him, telling him about myself and my interest in an article.
He answered last March, saying he would be in America soon and we might “share a moment.” If writing an article brings you closer to God, he said, “it is good sadhana (spiritual work), which is all there really is. Your letter felt good, so it all seems OK. You can keep contact through Marty Malles in Brooklyn.”
I called Marty Malles, and we had a strange conversation in which I spent the first half stammering and the second half laughing with him. He said he was 34, a salesman of ladies’ underwear, and had just been to India with his wife and two children on his annual three week vacation. He had been following Ram Dass since 1969, and Maharaji was now his guru. “You’re calling because Maharaji sent you to us. Maharaji shines through Ram Dass. Maharaji wrote that book, and if it touches you it’s because Maharaji loves you.
He asked me to come to the meditation group. I walked into the apartment on Riverside Drive, found the usual jumble of shoes by the door and about 70 people sitting in near darkness reciting “Affirmations:” “I am God’s perfect child, I am free, I am free, I am free.” On a corner table were pictures of Ram Dass, Christ, Maharaji, Sathya Sai Baba, Pir Vilayat Kahn, and Hilda herself. “My God,” I thought. “These people are serious.”
They began to sing “Praise be to Jesus,” and I recoiled. Seventeen years of Jewish cultural conditioning had given me no faith in God or reverence for the Hebrew tradition, but it had left me with a visceral antipathy to Christ. With each chorus, the group substituted the name of another saint, and when it came to praising Ram Dass, I found myself joining in. Marty led a meditation, there was singing, ever more joyous, and when the lights came on, everyone was in each other’s arms.
I went regularly to the meditations, and for long periods, forgot that I had originally come there on business, to get to Ram Dass. Then a report would filter in about Ram Dass’ whereabouts and shock me into a state of confusion. I was not sure, anymore, why I was so compelled to reach him.
One Friday in May Marty came to pick me up for the meditation. As we were walking out the door, I said casually, “I bet he’s in Boston right now.” Marty went to the phone and dialed George Alpert’s number. Ram Dass answered the phone.
“Hi!” he said, in that buoyant voice I recognized from the tapes. “Did you finish your article?”
“No, I haven’t started it yet. I’d really like to talk to you.”
“Well,” he said, “I don’t know where I’ll be from moment to moment. I’m not living in time.”
“Could I come see you in Boston?”
“You could,” he said, “but you might get here and not find me, and you’d have a round trip to New England.”
I said that wouldn’t bother me, but I had heard he might want privacy and I didn’t want to intrude.
There was a long pause, and then Ram Dass said: “If you can find me, you can have me.”
I was on the first shuttle flight the next morning. It was pouring rain when the taxi dropped me at the orange brick townhouse. I pressed the buzzer and shouted through the intercom, “Is Ram Dass there?” I heard muffled voices: “Oh what, Sara, New York, groan just a minute.” Phyllis Alpert, George’s second wife, answered the door in a pink housecoat. It was just after nine, a Saturday morning, and I had woken everybody up. I sat alone in the immaculate living room. After some time Ram Dass appeared, put his hands in the temple pose and nodded. “I took you at your word,” I said.
I sensed in him an openness, an almost palpable receptivity, yet there was also a kind of crystalline sternness. He went to the kitchen to brew Indian tea. “How does it feel to be back?” I asked. “I can only think about the tea now, unless you want a superficial answer.
He brought out the tea on a silver tray and took me to the back room. “This is where I hang out.” It was a cozy, well appointed study, with an oriental rug, a wall of dark wood bookcases, a white fireplace with fluted columns and cherubs, and a gold velvet convertible sofa on which the bedclothes were left as Ram Dass had climbed out of them shortly before. We sat on cushions on the floor. There was a damp chill, and Ram Dass, wearing pants and a tunic of thin white material, put on a jaunty, plaid, Scottish wool cap, and wrapped himself in a mohair blanket. He was much taller than I had envisioned about 6’2″. His crown is bald, but from the sides and back of his head and from his face, hair sprouts in a wildly capricious assortment of lengths. His blue eyes, fixed unshakeably on me, were open so wide they seemed more vertical than horizontal.
I told him I had been asking myself why I had pursued him so single pointedly, and it became clear that I was to try to write something. I had questions to ask which he could answer or not. He nodded. It was all so easy. “You have me. Go ahead.”
He picked up the tamboura and sang devotional songs, ending with “Sri Ram.” After a silence, he opened his eyes; I turned on the tape recorder. I asked what being with Maharaji this time had meant to him. “Wow. I’m speechless.” He shook his head and thought a few minutes. “I went back to India with the fantasy that I would be going back in, that I had been out in the world, the marketplace, and now I was going back to the cave to recharge.” He laughed softly. “Maharaji knocked that into a cocked hat. In a year and a half in India, he allowed me exactly 11 days when I was not surrounded by Westerners, doing the same thing I do in America. You see, when I was speaking and running ashrams in New Hampshire, all the people who gathered wanted me to help them with their trips. So for like 19 hours a day, I was rushing around being there for everybody, and I started to feel starved to death because nobody wanted me. They wanted it but not me, and I was starving and I rebelled. I got to hate them all because they were my murderers. So I went to India thinking, now I’m going to get away from them all, and preserve my ego in a cave. Far out. Can you hear that inversion? But lots of them followed me there, and every time I tried to be alone, Maharaji would send huge numbers after me: ‘Go be with Ram Dass. Ram Dass is your guru, he’ll help you. Like, kill him, kill him faster!
“It was an incredible period, the longest I’ve ever gone through with no conceptual understanding of what’s happening to me. Because I’m so good at describing things, but Maharaji’s so far out I can’t even find him! At moments he seems like a bungling old fool. Other times he’s a wizard, he’s divine, or he’s just a nice teacher. Every time I label him he immediately crashes the label.”
On his first visit, he said, the guru had been a remote, loving presence; this time he did more direct, intensive teaching. “He took me through fierce trips about anger, jealousy, sex, greed, and attachment to the physical body. I saw that my bonds to him were much deeper than I had planned them to be. It was as if I had surrendered more, so the next level of operation could take place.”
At their first meeting, Maharaji asked Ram Dass why he had come back to India. Ram Dass said because he was not pure enough. “I asked him for only one thing, one boon that I could be pure enough to be an instrument of his service. I said I don’t want to be enlightened, I just want to be pure enough to do whatever work I’m supposed to do. He gave me a mango to eat, hit me on the head and said, ‘You will be.'”
Maharaji sent Ram Dass on a pilgrimage of temples in Southern India, and then Ram Dass arranged to spend the summer monsoon season in a remote mountain ashram meditating. “I saw that my mind was out of control. I knew a lot, I was becoming wise in certain ways, but I felt that I couldn’t go further until I quieted my mind. So I arranged for the essence meditation teacher to come, and I put up money for a new water system, just to try to snake it all beautiful. I told Maharaji about it, how. I was going to go very deep, and then I looked at him, like, aren’t I good? And he said, ‘If you desire it.’ That was the first inkling I had that my craving for meditation was one of my ego desires, that there was a power thing in my meditation, it wasn’t pure. Maharaji didn’t say meditation was bad or good, but he said the way you’re doing it is from ego. He kept showing me that my path, my dharma, is one of devotion and service, my route is the route of the heart.”
Ram Dass went to the mountains anyway, thinking, “at least he’s still gonna let me do it.” But a week later the teacher wrote that he couldn’t come, and Maharaji sent 30 Americans to follow Ram Dass. “That ruined it. I gave up. I figured Maharaji’s just stronger than I am. So I set up a place for the 30 of us and we had a beautiful summer.” Each person had his own cell to meditate, they were silent at meals, and Ram Dass worked with people individually. On Sundays they read the Bible, and on Tuesdays they fasted, worshipped Hanuman and read the Ramayana, the story of Ram. “Ma haraji’s presence was very powerful. When we saw him later he told us everything that had happened. When I meditated I felt him so near me, he was like a shadow that I couldn’t see no matter how fast I spun around. Then I started to feel this great loneli ness, that he had gone away from me. It took a while to realize that we were merging …1 was just drunkenly falling into him through love, and ultimately there would be only one of us.”
In the fall, he attended a nine day holy fire ceremony, at the end of which people took a coconut shell, put whatever they wanted to get rid of in to it and threw it to the fire. Ram Dass decided to throw sexuality in the fire. “‘My God, I’m 40 years old, I’ll give it up,’ I thought. And right afterwards I went through the most ferocious anger I’d ever experienced. One of the things that freed me to be angry was that I saw that every relationship I had was sexually toned. With women and men, young and old, there was always a slight, gentle titillation, and the min ute I stopped seeing myself and others as sexual objects, that whole pull to get that little rush wasn’t there.”
Ram Dass and the group were now back with Maharaji, and Ram Dass re sented the fact that he wasn’t alone with the guru as he had seen the first time. Maharaji made him com mander in chief of the Westerners,” told him to love everyone and always tell the truth. “I figured I’ve never really told the truth that much,” Ram Dass said, “and the truth is ‘I hate all these people. This one’s obsequious, that one’s whining and selfish, this one’s too messy, that one’s too neat. It got so that out of 34 people, there wasn’ t one I could stand. So I thought I’ll be truthful about it.” He stopped speaking to them all, and for two weeks wouldn’t allow anyone near him.
One day at the Temple, in front. of Maharaji, a boy brought him a leaf of consecrated food and Ram Dass threw it at him. “Holy prasad, living grace! And I threw it at him because I hated his guts.” Maharaji called him over and said, “Something troubling you?” Ram Dass said, “Yes, I’m angry. I hate everybody but you.” Maharaji asked why, and Ram Dass said, “because of the impurities which keep us in the illusion. I can’t stand it any more. I can’t stand it in anybody including myself. I only love you.” Then he broke into racking, screaming sobs. Maharaji sent for milk, and sat patting Ram Dass on the head, feeding him, crying with him, and saying over and over, “You shouldn’t be angry. You should love everyone.” Ram Dass said, “But you told me to tell the truth and the truth is I hate everyone” Maharaji said no. “A saint doesn’t get angry. Tell the truth, and love everyone. There’s only one. Love every one.”
He looked at the group and saw standing between him and them “this huge mountain my pride. For me to give up the anger, I had to give up my whole rational position, my reasons for being angry, without sitting down first and talking it over and winning a few points for my side.”
Maharaji sent him off to eats and called the others over and said, “Ram Dass is a great saint. Go touch his feet.” This made Ram Dass cringe and feel more furious. “I saw my predicament I was going to have to do this all myself.” He cut an apple into small pieces, went to each person and looked in his eyes “until I found the place in him I loved. Then I let all the rest wash away, silently. I fed them all, and when I was finished there was no more anger. Later I got angry again, but it went through very quickly be cause I relived that whole moment. I saw that anger is only because you’re attached to what you were thinking a moment ago. It’s not real, it’s only a mind moment. Yes I was angry then OK, now is now, and if you’re right here, everything starts all over again.”
It was still in the back room in Boston, Ram Dass had been talking for three hours. I took an apple from my bag, cut it and we shared it , He showed no sign of weariness or impatience, so I put a new cassette in the machine, and asked what he feels are his impurities.
“I’m afraid of my desires. Like you being here, your desire to interview me that comes out of desires I had which led to the book and the whole scene when I came back from India. When I went there, I had used up the psychedelic thing. I was sort of remotely known as a partner of Tim Leary’s, and I could very easily have just disappeared into the background. But I didn’t, because I had desires. When I saw those hippies in New Hampshire and said, ‘I am not that kind of connection’ there it was. All I had to say was, ‘Gee no, I don’t have any acid,’ get in the car and drive off. And I still would be that anonymous being.”
Theoretically, if Ram Dass were pure enough, it would be irrelevant whether people mobbed or ignored him. But he is still determining, controlling, how he wants to serve. He refuses to appear on a public stage, but says he finds it “useful for my own consciousness to work with individuals.” Maharaji instructed him not to have ashrams or students, and not to stay in any place longer than five days. But when people manage to slip through the net and find Ram Dass, he will sit down with them and ask questions designed to unleash the secret horrors they are keeping chained with in. All the while, Ram Dass is looking in their eyes repeating a mantra to himself. “Whatever they say gets completely neutralized the minute they bring it into my consciousness. Because I don’t care. I know it’s not real and they feel this tremendous re lease.”
I asked him if one could bypass neurosis through spiritual work. What happens to a depressed person the day after he sees Ram Dass, or the hour after he does his meditation? Ram Dass said at the moment “when we’re here together and not caught in any of that stuff you can call it high it’s a very real feeling. Now the next mo ment you may go back to the old place, but the experience of the other moment we had loosens the hold just a bit. It’s new input. A new kind of valid experience.”
He said spiritual work is everything that happens in your life. “Every neurotic hassle I’ve had was part of my awakening, which, is why I tell people not to do anything about neurosis, just go to God and let neurosis worry about itself.”
Ram Dass said he is at a point where he welcomes rather than tries to avoid pain, because he understands that suffering is purification. “And it’s got to be real, not make believe suffer ing, where your faith is gone and you’re in despair, suffering is the fire that bums away attachments. Despair is the prerequisite for the next level of consciousness.” He said he has little interest in taking drugs because “when I’m down it’s higher for me than when I’m up. When I’m up, I’m overriding the spots I have to work on, and I’m more interested in doing the work than in remembering how groovy it is. I know how groovy it is.” He said drugs take people to one plane while excluding the others. The state of be ing happy or high is implicitly defined by its opposite being miserable or down and a truly conscious person is beyond all dualities. He is both present at and absent from all states and levels. ‘That’s why when Maharaji takes acid, nothing happens.” So if you’re charting levels of consciousness, with heaven, bliss or satori at the top and hell at the opposite pole, he said, “you’re not finished. You’re seeking experiences, and all experiences are to be transcended. When you meet a realized being, you see that there’s no where he isn’t, nor is there anywhere he is.”
Ram Dass find himself feeling, thinking, and experiencing less. “It’s like watching emotions and passions fall away.” Sexual desires still ripple up, and in London he spent time with Caroline Winter, the woman he lived with before the first trip to India. “We feel like we’re already married in heaven but we can’t get it together on the physical plane, we can’t be conscious enough. She’s seeing Maharaji now, and I don’t know, maybe we’re going to be 50 year old married people with ten kids. I can’t write the script of this, because sex is one of the last ones you ever get conscious about.”
It was late afternoon now. I had been checking off my question list and watching the tape recorder to make sure I was getting it all, and the re porter in me was no doubt about it thrilled. But another, subtler voice was still unsatisfied. I asked Ram Dass if we could do some personal work, the kind he had described earlier. He agreed, but said because he was recu perating from hepatitis, he did not have the energy at the moment. We arranged to meet the next morning.
As I left, I turned impulsively to hug him. He laughed with intense sweetness and joy, held me and patted my hair. Then he said abruptly, “Maharaji told me not to touch people.”
Sunday, ten a.m. Ram Dass was sitting in front of a window; because his face was backlit by brilliant sun, the features were difficult to distinguish and at times dissolved into blackness.
“There is a Sikh saying: ‘Once you know that God knows everything, you’re free,’ ” Ram Dass said. “We all have rooms in our head we keep closed and guarded, as part of our social pos ture. That guarding is energy, and it makes the things real. Freedom lies in realizing that everything you were protecting isn’t who you really are.”
He said he would look in my eyes as a focal point, “nothing personal about it. And I just do mantra. And our base camp, the base from which we work. And all this verbal … ahlala lalala . . . this is just stuff. That’s the most expressive word I can find to de scribe what all of our attachments are. It’s beautiful stuff, it’s the Divine Mother, it’s illusion. It’s all to be en joyed without attachment.” He was si lent a while. “As I look in your eyes, you’re direct, you’re honest, but the level of your trust is something else. There’s nothing you can say to me that makes any difference. So the simple question I’ll ask again and again is: if there is anything you can bring to mind that would be difficult, embar rassing or painful to share, share it with me. When I ask the question, say whatever comes. Don’t judge it, just let it spill out.”
I waited. Nothing came to my head that felt particularly difficult or em barrassing to say. I began to talk about falling prey to self pity and self loathing.
Ram Dass: “The other side of that coin is self love. It’s attachment to good and evil. It’s judging, you’re judg ing yourself, are you good or horrible, admirable or pitiful? You identify with the judge. You think you are the judge. But the judge is just more stuff. Behind that, we are neither good nor evil. We just are.”
He asked the question again, and two words danced forth bringing tears:
“Long … suffering. You said suffer ing purifies, but I feel I’ve suffered enough. I’ve had enough punishment. I don’t want any more pain. I don’t care
if I stand still for eternity, I don’t want to suffer anymore.. It’s the whole self pity thing, nobody else suffers as much, it’s all unfair.”
Ram Dass: “Can you hear that? All right. It’s very hard to extricate your self from your own melodrama. Self pity’s a very powerful attachment. But evil and self pity are just more stuff. It’s stuff and ,you’re right here. And there’s self pity. There it is.”
By now, despite the fact that I was crying and wringing kleenex, it was as if I were playing in a soap opera. It actually didn’t feel real at all.
Ram Dass said, “There’s nothing to fear. What is the worst fear death. If you die, so there’s death. You’ll work through it and start again.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“You don’t have to. Here we are.”
The interplay went on for several hours. I heard a soft bleeping noise, but dismissed it as probably something like a telephone off the hook. r kept talking, until he said, “I think that’s your machine.” I looked down. The wheels had stopped turning, a red light was flashing, and tape was spewing out the slits of the casette like spaghetti. This was, curiously, the first time in my professional life I had decided not to worry about whether the machine was working. “You’ve got to keep it all together, not get lost in the clouds,” Ram Dass said.Iputin a fresh casette, and he added, laughing, “Wait till you hear all the self pity in there!”
He was focusing on the judge more and more, calling it “Her Honor.” I would describe something as “incredi ble” and he’d interrupt: “Incredible is a judgmental word.”
“I feel like there’s nothing I can say. You’ve stripped me.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. There’s lots more. We haven’t even begun yet.”
“But if I’m not to judge, I don’t know how to operate. You’ve taken away everything I use.”
“You’re still using things you can’t even see yet.”
If this sounds harsh, it did not feel that way at all. I sensed his complete, unconditional acceptance: while he was smacking my ego, he was in no way attacking me.
I could read nothing in his eyes, however. No sympathy, encourage ment, discouragement, pressure. I told ferentLy. but I’m beginning to think Ghandi was absolutely right on when he said if you’re in true harmony with the universe, the only time you have sex is to reproduce .”
On the issue of women, he was more insistent. “Most women’s major work is to understand why they were born a woman. It wasn’t random. You take a woman’s body because you have certain work to do, and it’s my understanding that it’s not a full incar nation if you don’t honor your bio logical impulses to reproduce, and nurture children. The idea is not to end up more womanly, or restrict yourself to the house, but to under stand what your incarnation is about. Just as I have to understand my incar nation, why I didn’t come out a man in the full sense.”
This view does not preclude sym pathy to women’s liberation, he said. “I honor people’s efforts to end inequality and relieve suffering, and if it’s your dharma, your path, to be in women’s lib and change things, change them. But don’t get caught in thinking that’s what it’s all about.”
People involved in political efforts, he said, tend to confuse external and internal freedom. “They’re not the same thing. No matter how much another person suppresses you, even if he crucifies you, it has nothing to do with your internal freedom. These are the hardest things to accept the rela tionship of the spirit to the external world. Political work is a noble way to spend your time here, so long as you do it without attachment, and with the understanding that it’s not the w1i~~ Because there are people who have all the freedom, all the things these movements are designed to give everyone, and they’re not ful filled as human beings.”
He said, the highest thing anyone can do for society is to work on him self, because “every advancement in man’s condition has come about by someone becoming a little more con scious. War is the result of lack of con sciousness. So is hunger. There’s enough food to feed every human be ing that exists, but the consciousness of man is such that he says, it’s my food, not yours.”
I asked Ram Dass what he does about money, and what has happened to the book royalties, which I estimate to be more than $100,000. He said the money is used by Lama Foundation to subsidize a “mish mash of spiritual projects.” Lama gives Ram Dass living expenses, and his father is “always waiting at the post to give me money but I rarely take it. I could do lecture tours, you know, and make $1,000 a night, but I would like not to be con nected with money in any way. Nothing I have is for sale.”
He was starting to rock back and forth on his heels, and indicate, by sighs, that the interviewing had gone on long enough. But before I left, I. wanted to check something out. There had been contradictions in his theories, and some of his statements about India seemed jejune, but what troubled me was something I had learned the day before from a group of New Yorkers who had driven up in the rain seven hours over flooded roads to see Ram Dass. When they reached Boston, .he said he couldn’t see the group, and there was no reason for them to have made the whole trip. Cathy, the exuberant young wox~nan who organized the caravan, said she felt disappointed , because “nothing passed between us. He didn’t even ac knowledge the connection.”
This had set off in me a rush of emotions. Why was he giving me so much of his time? Why did he say yes to me and rebuff the others?
When I asked, Ram Dass curled up like a cat. “Let’s see if I can recon struct this. I think the fact that you were doing an article had something to do with it, not because of publicity but because it was a collaborative ef fort that would push me to formulate things. When Cathy called up all gush ing and emotional, I thought, oh, why do we need this hysterical home coming scene?
He rested his chin on his hand. “Cathy’s a beautiful being, but there’s a place in me that doesn’t like that kind of woman. When a woman is overbearing and smothering, I can’t stand it.” He made a sour face. “I want to shove her away. But I have to wrestle with that that’s where I haven’t finished my work. I can’t see the God in her.”
I started gathering my things. Ram Dass said, “This has really been inter esting. I can see from when you probe certain areas that there are subtle
places where I’m not pure. I’m not all done with it.”
“You never said you were.”
He laughed, and stretched out his long legs. “Yeah, but I implied it.”
Several weeks later when I was back in New York, a friend called to tell me Ram Dass was passing through and would be at the’ meditation group that night. Within six hours, word of mouth brought out more than 250 people.
At about half past seven, a man wearing a faded yellow po1o shirt, brown pants and orange socks walked through the door. Heads turned. “Is that Ram Dass?” He would not take the seat of honor, but squeezed into ‘the row facing Hilda. Hilda said “I’m not going to ask Ram Dass to speak, so it’s up to you kids. If you have enough will..
“I give up!” Ram Dass laughed. He rose on his haunches, and turned toward the crowd. As the words began, the figure in faded clothing became something else a perfect showman. He repeated stories he had told me during the interviews, but now they were polishecr little dramas, complete with sub plots and comic relief. “I didn’t really want to end up on the path I’m on,” he said at’ the start. “I wanted something much more esoteric and exquisite. I wanted to know some secrets, and give myster ious initiations, and have powers, and be able to do things to people, and just have a little shtick to go along with it. But all I know is to love my guru, love everyone, and see God everywhere. You can’t earn a living telling people that!”
He spoke more than an hour, and seemed, in the outflow of stories and ideas, to lose his consciousness of self. For he sat back, finally, onto the tier of cushions that had been so carefully built for him.
“I know the day will come, and not too distant, when I’ll walk into a room and nobody will say, ‘There’s Ram Dass.’ Because it’s, ‘There’s everyone. It’s all the light. Ultimately you will feel the light in yourself and you’ll see it in everyone you look at, everyone! Then you’ll realize there’s nobody special. No heroes and no villains. It’s just all of God’s children.
May 21, 2000, Sunday The Dass Effect By Sara Davidson