(From an interview I conducted with RD when he was on Maui in 2002) – First published in 1971 Ram Dass’s best-selling book “Be Here Now” introduced millions of Westerners to Eastern religion and philosophy. A prominent Harvard psychology professor, then known as Richard Alpert, Ram Dass had dropped his former identity after a life-altering meeting with a guru in India a few years earlier.
One of America’s leading proponents of meditation and spirituality Ram Dass spent more than three decades traveling the globe teaching about living in the present moment, creating a life of service to others, and aging gracefully.
Five years ago he experienced another life changing event when he was rocked by a stroke that left him partially paralyzed.
For Ram Dass, illness and recovery proved an unexpected gift. “I was galumphing through life before the stroke,” he reported in the documentary “Ram Dass Fierce Grace,” which screened at the Maui Film Festival. “I’m at peace now more than I’ve ever been. The peace comes from settling in to the moment.”
Ram Dass recently talked about the impact of the stroke, his latest books and the dramatic meeting with his teacher that changed the course of his life.
Written in part after his stroke in 1997, Ram Dass’s book “Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying,” explores the challenges of aging in a very personal way, touching on such topics as loneliness, powerlessness, loss of role and meaning, and depression, while clarifying the root causes of human suffering and its remedy.
“I was 65 and I couldn’t really figure out how to end the book because I really wasn’t old old and I didn’t know how be old old,” he reports. “So I started to visualize how I would be old old. It was the stroke that gave me feelings of that. Likening the stroke to aging I’ve had comments like Laura Huxley saying, ‘I’m planning to die healthy and you’re equating oldness and sickness.’ I’m in an interesting experimental situation, I’m doing both.”
One of his greatest challenges in adjusting to the stroke arrived early on with a temporary loss of faith. Up to that moment he had lived believing that all events unfolded in his life touched by his guru’s grace. He now views the stroke from the perspective of receiving grace.
“When I had the stroke I went into a depression of about two weeks,” he reveals. “I hadn’t been in one of those for ages. It was caused by physical pain and psychological pain and having to be so dependent. The final pain was spiritual pain. Up to the stroke I had felt that I lived a graced life. No matter what happened to me there was grace. Then the stroke came along, I said my guru must have been out to lunch. I couldn’t get hold of it. I was in my bed and (metaphorically holding) stroke in one hand and grace in the other and they didn’t come together for about two weeks. I saw that I couldn’t experience his grace although it was coming to me because I didn’t have the faith, and that faith went with the stroke. My faith came back and the grace came back.
“Driving my car in the old days I used to say Marahjji (his guru) I would like a parking space in front of the bank and just as I would get there a car would pull out. That was grace. Now I have one of those blue stickers, so if that isn’t grace…”
The impact of the stroke he says allowed qualities to blossom that might never have come out before, such as a deepening inner peace. “I didn’t even know that peace was in me,” he adds.
At times in conversation there are long pauses and sometimes he struggles to find the right words, but humor hasn’t left him and he still communes with insightful wisdom.
In the “Fierce Grace” documentary Ram Dass suggested he still has much inner work to do.
What work could that be?
“I think I have to face my death some more because I have treated it with lightness, which I think is a part but it also must be serious,” he suggests. “I teach people about death and to counterattack their emotions to death I’m generally upbeat. It’s show business because I haven’t got my own death settled.”
Richard Alpert, the man who would become Ram Dass, burst onto the national consciousness in the early 1960s, when he and fellow teacher Timothy Leary were fired from the Harvard University faculty for conducting LSD experiments with undergraduates.
After a few years of psychedelic research in upstate New York, Alpert headed to India and had his mind blown by an Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba. At their first meeting Neem Karoli Baba began telling the astonished Alpert all the details of what he had been thinking about the previous night.
“He used that miracle to blow my mind to keep my mind busy so he could operate on my heart,” Ram Dass recalls.
In an instant the psychology professor realized that he faced a being who could truly see him for the first time. “I kept looking down on the ground and I’m thinking he knew that, and then I kept on thinking of different things he could know,” he says. “I catalogued all of them and his head was in front of me. I didn’t look at him. Finally I got the courage to look at him and he was looking with unconditional love. Up until then I had experienced that if I let in people to what I was really like they couldn’t love me, and he did, and that’s why he’s a guru.”
Responding to an inquiry about life work his teacher suggested Ram Dass serve and feed people. “He said, ‘you like to feed children,’ and I never had a thought about feeding kids,” Ram Dass laughs. “I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said, ‘do you know Gandhi?’ I said, I know of him. He said, ‘you be like him.’ I went out and bought those little glasses, but that didn’t do it. And then I found a Gandhi quote and it said, ‘my life is my message,’ so I adopted that. I decided the way I lecture and with my tapes and books I’m feeding souls.”
While he has touched so many lives and inspired countless numbers with his books and talks this teacher doesn’t feel any great sense of accomplishment. “I’m sort of a middleman, it’s my guru that feeds people,” he concludes. “Nowadays my icon-ness is a drag. I live in everybody’s projection. It’s very interesting to play that role. It’s not the role, it’s what the essence is all about.”
Ram Dass departed this realm on Dec. 22.2019. He was most recently immortalized in the documentary “Becoming Nobody”.