Thank you Ram Dass for a lifetime of devotion . . .
We’re Always Here, It’s Always Now
Ram Dass (b.1931 – d. 2019))
By Amy Edelstein
Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha!
Gone/Gone/Gone Beyond/Gone Beyond Beyond Hail the Goer
Beyond even conceiving of a place Beyond which you can go beyond
Who’s adventurous enough to want to go On that journey?
Do you realize when you go on that journey In order to get to the destination
Can never get to the destination?
In the process YOU
Must die Must die
Pretty fierce journey pretty fierce requirement We want volunteers
It was 1978 and I was upstairs on the third floor in the black light room at my friend Sugar’s house. She liked to be called Mags for short, after the Grateful Dead song “Sugar Magnolia.” It was a typical afternoon, with the lights off save the fluorescent black light, purple in hue, that made the psychedelic posters glow along with the day-glow graffiti decorating the walls. “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” “Om.” “Make love not war.” “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream” Carlos
Santana would be wailing on his guitar on a perfectly clean LP, one of the rules of the black-light room was no fingerprints allowed on
Sugar’s older brother’s albums. There were no chairs in the room, the floor covered with low mattresses and lots of fringed pillows, cotton block-printed Indian tapestries, Mardi Gras beads draped from the doorway. A small altar to Swami Yogananda with an incense holder and a Ganesh statue—the remover of obstacles and bringer of peace. A wooden orange crate turned on its side that housed sacred books: the Bhaghavad Gita, Autobiography of a Yogi, books by Alan Watts and DT Suzuki, and Be Here Now.
Be Here Now was the most fun, you could start anywhere—and we did. You could turn the book any direction and read the illustrations—which we did. On one page there was a strange- looking monkey god opening a window to the universe in his heart. Advice on what to read and what position to twist your body into to release yogic energy on another. How to relate to money. Time. Work. Study. Mantra. A starter kit to the exploration of consciousness. A story about Being, Bliss, Oneness and God that, like Alice in Wonderland, took you in and in and in and in, with some unexpected and time-dated events and half-insights along the way. It was a journey. It was a wrinkled roadmap from someone on the path, coupled with a piper’s call to set out for yourself.
It was in that black-light room that my best friend relayed stories about mysterious India and exotic Kathmandu from her much older brothers. They were like demi-gods to us—they had long hair and blessed malas around their necks. They’d been to that magic land and come back to tell about it. One was heading out again with the Peace Corp, the other going to law school for social welfare, his way of living out a life of service and devotion. Surrounded by the scent of sandalwood incense, Sugar and I made a pact to go to the Himalayas someday. It was in honor of that pact a few years later, that I turned left in Bangkok and made my way north to Kathmandu rather than continuing my studies of Japanese for Business Purposes in modern-day Tokyo. It was a turn from which there was no return, and now seems like it was the only choice, that there was no other way. It led me into many adventures of the kind Ram Dass inspired in his odd-shaped book with the indigo and white cover.
“Except ye be converted &
Become as little children Ye shall not enter
The Kingdom of Heaven” Unless you
Start again Become that trusting Open surrendered being The energy can’t come in
That is the kingdom of heaven The energy
It is the same thing COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS
Categorizing the Uncategorizable
Be Here Now is something of an unusual addition to this collection. Does Ram Dass fall into the same category as the mystic Mirabai or the God-realized Ramana? Does his philosophy qualify among innovators like Whitehead or Emerson? Is he a social activist like a Heschel or Vimala Thakar?
I included this half-comic, half-sutra book in this series because of the effect it had on myself and so many others. For that alone, though for much more as well, we owe Ram Dass thanks and praise, even if as you read you wonder reasonably at times about some of his instructions and conclusions.
Ram Dass’ experiences beyond the mind are undeniably powerful, both those that were catalyzed by psychedelics and those that were brought about by transmission from his guru Neem Karoli Baba. But by his own admission and accounts of others who knew him well early on, his life and antics hardly model that of a fully awakened Buddha. He is a product of his culture and time, neither a saint nor a model of perfection—and he doesn’t claim to be either. But let’s look a little further.
His philosophical contributions, blending psychological research into higher and altered states of consciousness very much follow in William James’s footsteps. His fearless plunge into the counter- culture movement did more to influence a generation, and that generation’s children, than many other figures during that time and in ways we can hardly chart. Ram Dass’ contribution brought Eastern concepts about states and levels of consciousness into the vernacular and made the Eastern esoteric accessible. This he did in spades through Be Here Now and through his gift for convening, teaching, and seeding a vibrant counter-cultural movement.
As for the spiritual activist, it’s hard to accurately research all the causes and monies he has fundraised for. His guru’s admonition to live a life of service is one that fit Ram Dass’ personality and gifts and he has continued to extend himself all the decades since that initial meeting. Among his best known causes is the nonprofit Seva. Over the last thirty-five years as a friend and a spokesperson for Seva (which means sacred service in Sanskrit), he has helped raise funds to restore sight to 3.5 million people with curable blindness. Ram Dass, like all iconic figures, defies the categorization that wants to sort all mystics into only two bins— the profound and the dilettantes. Now sixteen years after a serious stroke, he is at eight-three years old moving into his twilight years. History shines a warm glow on his contribution. It smoothes out wrinkles and erases blemishes. And given his longevity and dedication to his path, we can without reservation honor his courage and fearlessness, extend gratitude for his convening power and authority, and cherish his story, spun to the rhythm of Spirit and the melody of the Soul.
Who Is Baba Ram Dass?
Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, was a consummate Jewish American academic overachiever. Although by his own admission he was “not good enough to get into Harvard,” by 1961 he had a post there in not one but four departments—the Social Relations Department, the Psychology Department, the Graduate School of Education, and the Health Services where he was a therapist. He had a good and accomplished life, and he enjoyed it. Money. Prestige. Respect. Adoration from enamored undergraduates. Contact with leading thinkers. And all the extras that came with that life: Planes. Boats. Liquor. But no inner happiness or peace. Unlike many of his echelon of the privileged and intelligent in American, East Coast, academic culture, Ram Dass was exceptionally driven to live a life of intensity. To obsess and to question. To experiment and overturn bastions of thinking.
The infamous turning point for him was the perspective brought about by hallucinogenic drugs, the portal into a new sense of reality, a different outlook on the universe. His experiences with Psilocybin (a hallucinogen sourced from a mushroom substance) and with LSD gave him intense but fleeting experiences of a unified consciousness, a presence of an all-pervading love, and a tactile experience of the “life force.” Just like in Alice’s Wonderland, “things were not as they seemed.”
An academic, psychologist, and scientist by profession and by nature, Richard Alpert wanted to explore and document the effects of the experiments he was undertaking with his colleagues Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Aldous Huxley (who was then at MIT). He started an experimental program at Harvard, keeping data on the experiences they and others were having. Needless to say, it wasn’t that well received, though his experiments are notorious and probably among the most popularly known of any that were undertaken by the faculty that worked in this institution’s hallowed halls.
Then an act of fate and grace stepped in. A friend of Richard’s brought him to India where he met the late Himalayan guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Ram Dass was a little more than ambivalent about meeting—and surrendering to—a teacher. Baba knew and responded to this Harvard psychologist in ways that penetrated Alpert’s defenses and heart. Out of this visit, Ram Dass translated as “servant of Ram” emerged. The story is vividly described in the introduction in Be Here Now so I won’t retell the encounter that changed his life and inspired millions since.
TIME & SPACE EXERCISES
- Ask yourself: Where am I?
Ask yourself: What time is it?
Say it until you can hear it.
What a Long Strange Trip
I encourage you to pick up a copy of Be Here Now. Some of the proceeds of the sales still go to various humanitarian projects around the world so consider it a cause well served. It will also open your mind to that era when so many of us actively sought to expand our consciousness, not just to understand the world differently but to see beyond the conditioned and habitual ways we see. Through the lens of Be Here Now, we meet up with the challenge and call to become ecstatic servants of God just as we are, buoyed by a Spirit of freedom and abandon, trusting of the world, and open to an outcome wherever the magical mystery tour may take us.