Interview by Abigail Lewis
Forty years ago, a little paperbound book was published with a simple title and message, Be Here Now. In the three words of its title, the author succinctly summed-up one of the core values of a “conscious” life before he even got to the first page. Although many have tried, nobody since has articulated it better in three words or three thousand.
The author, a nice Jewish boy from Boston then known as Richard Alpert, must have been smart to begin with, because after he completed his Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford, the university hired him. Subsequently he went on to teach psychology at Harvard, but conservative academia took exception to some of his now legendary research methods — the use of psychedelics for consciousness alteration in pursuit of transcendence and transformation — and sent him and fellow researcher, Timothy Leary, packing.
These days there is barely a campus in America where psychedelics can’t be found. Seekers in droves have experimented with not only LSD, the substance that caused havoc at Harvard, but mescaline, psilocybin, peyote, Ecstasy and a number of lesser-known hallucinogens. But back in the ’60s, no directions came with this new tool, so Alpert took himself to India in 1967 for some guidance in the kind of spiritual, inner exploration he was doing with psychedelics. There he met Neem Karoli Baba who became his guru in the true sense of the word, in that “he represented the accomplishment of the inner freedom of a human being, rather than just pointing at it.” His guru instructed him to serve and feed people, and gave him the name Ram Dass, meaning “servant of God.”
Ram Dass took his assignment very seriously, and founded the Hanuman Foundation “to foster spiritual education and compassionate action in the world.” He also helped form the Seva Foundation, an international service organization.
This interview with Ram Dass transpired and was originally published in Whole Life Times in 1996, before the crippling stroke from which he is still recovering. In speaking with Ram Dass then, it was clear that freedom played an important role in his life. As he explained it, “To be free means standing nowhere and being everywhere.”
There seems to be no more profound secret to finding this freedom than to be here now, whenever, wherever you are. Ram Dass’s changed physical circumstances have enabled him to explore that in ways he never could have anticipated when he created his “new mythology of aging.”
How do you, a former rebel and wild child, feel about being an elder?
I think that if both you and I look inside ourselves, we’ll realize that at our deepest place, we don’t have any age. We just are. We at moments have an identity with our body and say, “Oh, I’m aging,” and we look at ourselves from outside in. The society looks and says, “Look at that gray-haired man.” But I don’t think our inner experience is one of age. To deny that the body is aging leaves you off balance, but to get obsessed with it and to identify with it as your primary identification also causes a tremendous amount of contraction and fear. I think it is, “Yes, I am aging, just like I have a 23-year old MG, but I’m not my MG.”
Yet many people panic about aging. What do you perceive to be at the root of this?
I think that the measure of a fulfilled life in our society is somewhat impoverished in that we focus on the achievements, the material accomplishments, the product rather than the process of life. So when we get near the end of our life, we are assessing our adequacy in terms of our product. I see life much more as a continuing living process in which products are merely things along the way.
The culture sees aging as loss and diminishment. We value knowledge rather than wisdom. In a traditional society, elders pass wisdom on to the youth; in a non-traditional society, knowledge makes people obsolete, so we are frightened of obsolescence in a hell-realm of our own design.
You talked about bringing an inner practice to bear on the phenomenon we call “aging.” How do you do that?
My own experiences through psychedelics and through my guru, my Eastern studies and so on have deepened very powerfully both my faith and connection to planes of consciousness, or non-ordinary states of consciousness, or spiritual dimensions of life — whatever you want to call them. And as I establish myself in the identity as a soul, and from that perspective look at the dance of my ego in life, which includes aging, it’s from a very different place, and the inner experience is very different. I am appreciating it without feeling trapped by it, and the nature of the experiences of aging turns into an interesting set of phenomena — a part of me that’s unfolding in a very orderly, natural way. I don’t feel alarmed at the thought that I’m going to die, and I don’t feel I’m in denial. I can feel me as a separate entity pushing against it, but I can also feel the sense of a greater dimension in which I exist other than the physical plane.
Many of my contemporaries have aging parents who are fearful about death. Is there a way to introduce this perspective to a person who seems disconnected from, or unaware of, these non-ordinary states of consciousness?
By you yourself being in it; you’ve got to be it first. Because if you talk about it but you’re not it, you’re conveying a falsehood in a way that makes it more difficult for somebody to connect to the place in themselves where it’s true. I spend a lot of time with people who are in deep trauma physically, or close to death, or dealing with terrible struggles, and my job is to empathize and emotionally appreciate them as a fellow human being, and also to cultivate space in myself which is very quiet and very present, and very allowing of the universe to unfold as it will. As I rest in that and in my truth, it creates a space where they can rest in it in themselves as well, if it’s appropriate for them to do so. I mean, I don’t have a moral right to try to do something for somebody else who doesn’t want to do it. When you love someone, you so want to take away their suffering, and then you realize you don’t have any moral right to do that. How do you know what their suffering’s there for? All you can do is be an environment where if they want to let go of it, you’re right there and you’re not going trap them in it with your mind.
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What I find is that if I want them to change, I’m sending out some kind of subconscious message that awakens their paranoia; they feel somebody is trying to do something to them and they push against it. If I really don’t want anything from them, sometimes they can come out and play. They can come up for air and suddenly we’re meeting as souls behind the dramas of ego. With an older person who didn’t grow up in a cultural setting that would make the stuff I talk about relevant, often their will weakens in age or illness, and there’s a window of opportunity where they allow things in that their mind would never allow in before. It’s quite extraordinary.
I’ve actually heard a lot of people say things like, “My father/mother was more loving to me than ever before.”
Exactly. They are being people in a new way that they don’t even know themselves, and yet, they do because it’s the truth of who they were inside, but they were cut off from it their whole life.
How would you relate to someone who has dementia?
Just be in their space. The minute you try to demand their linearity of thought you create fear in them because they can’t do that, and you’re saying, “I’m identifying you with your manifestations, with the things that come through your brain. Therefore, I want you to be familiar to me in that way and you know perfectly well I’m your daughter.” You know, that kind of thing, instead of just kind of floating with them in the different manifestations of their mind. A lot of the angst in Alzheimers is created by the people who are the caretakers by attempting to hold onto linearity. I’m easy about all this because I do not identify awareness with the brain.
Where does service fit into all this?
I think the more mature you get spiritually, the more you see that your agenda has become very simple. Your agenda is to awaken, to become as free as you can be, and to relieve the suffering that you find about you. I don’t know what else there is to do.
The relief of the suffering can take any form. You’ve got to listen to hear what your unique predispositions are, but I find that the deeper I get into my integral truth, the more the boundaries break down between me and others. The more that happens, the more I experience the unity of things. The more the suffering of somebody is the suffering, it’s my suffering. You become compassion in response to your own suffering, but it’s your own collective suffering, and it’s your own collective compassion as well. So it’s nothing personal.
At one point, you said that “to open yourself to the suffering of the universe is like sticking your fingers into a transformer cable that is carrying electricity.” How do you keep yourself from burning out?
By examining which self it is that burns out. See, when you say, “This is unbearable,” what you’re saying is, “This is unbearable to who I think I am.” What I would suggest is maybe who you are possibly could bear this, but it may not be who you think you are.
Like a couple’s daughter is raped and murdered and it’s clearly unbearable. If you are going to stay as a mother, what this is going to force you to do is to die into some kind of deeper space until you see the world as God sees the world, and then you’ll understand why this is.
It hurts just thinking about it.
It’s agonizing, it’s unbearable, and therefore you don’t try to bear it and spend the rest of your life having it unbearable. You just become that which embraces suffering into yourself, and keeps your heart open in hell, and all those nice little phrases. And then you are with what is. Because if you can’t look at the universe the way it is, if you’re busy with denial of suffering because it’s unbearable, there’s not much clarity in you as to what the action is you can do to relieve the suffering. So that’s why you work on yourself, as an act of compassion really.
Compassion for yourself?
For everybody, because there’s only self.
There was a story in the newspaper about an 89-year-old woman, the last of her generation in her family, who had been active all through her 70s and now is declining physically. She complained, “I’m living too long already. What’s the point?” What would be your response?
Let’s take her expression first: “What’s the point?” That’s a good question for her to ask. And she should say, “Maybe there’s a point. Maybe I was so busy dancing and doing that I was a little rushing away from being, and maybe now that I can’t, I’m arthritic, I can’t move, and the food tastes lousy, there’s nowhere to go, I’m bored beyond distraction… how interesting. Now what?” And this may be the ground for her to meet herself in an entirely new way and move into another level — going from being a doer to being a be-er — and it may be the greatest gift she’s ever received.
It’s amazing how our mythology makes us even disbelieve the possibility of what I just said.
This woman gets a lot of people who go along with her, saying “You’re right. Well, let’s get Dr. Kevorkian and get this done with because you should be able to dance, and if you can’t dance, we’ll let you kill yourself.”
That was my next question.
I have no moral thing as to when people check out. People have a right to do with their consciousness what they choose. I don’t think a government or a fellow human being should tell each other what to do. I’m very reticent to take away people’s freedom, and that’s their freedom to kill themselves. But if somebody asks me, “Should I kill myself?” I’d say, “Well, it sounds like you’re in an interesting time. Why don’t you sit with that question for about 10 years and see.”
The census bureau tells us that there are currently 30 million Americans over the age of 65. When science prolongs our lives, is it doing us a favor?
The role definitions of who we are can’t be connected to any particular level of energy, any particular level of productivity. It’s got to go deeper than that so that at the age stage, which I’m calling it now. We need rituals for acknowledging it, we need roles within it, we need a kind of respect for it. We’ve got to realize how impoverished our society is by the absence of respect for aging, and how we’ve thrown out all the babysitters in order not to face our mortality. There’s some delicious things. I don’t see the fact that we’re living longer as either great or terrible. I see it as a phenomenon of our love of technology and it’s how we deal with it. You can make everything into a hell or into “Wow, this is an interesting time, I can hardly move.”
Most people in our culture don’t experience death until it’s their own. Do you think if we were more involved that it would lessen people’s fear?
I think it would change it a lot. I live in India a lot where the dead bodies are in the rickshaws going to be burned, and people die in homes, and so most children have been in the presence of death and it’s not sanforized. It’s not hidden. The result is that the people in India are so much more at peace with it. They see it as part of the natural cycle. I often get this incredible image of autumn in New England when all the leaves are turning, and somebody’s out there with a paint can trying to paint them all green again.
What do you mean when you talk about the “vertical process of other planes of awareness?”
It’s about ego, body and soul. When you think about changing your personality, you’re really just changing on a horizontal plane. You’re going from one room to another. But if you alter your state of consciousness, you start to experience an identity that is greater than the ego structure. Instead of going from room to room, or as Gurdjieff says, “from prison cell to prison cell,” you stand above the house. Gurdjieff said, “If you would escape from prison, the first thing you must realize is you’re in prison. If you think you’re free, no escape is possible.” So when I say vertical, it’s just a metaphorical grid.
Where are you now on your own spiritual path?
How would I know? Total delusion and psychosis — I fell off the path and there’s no hope. Where am I? (Laughing.) That’s a great one. Certainly, a hell of a lot of stuff inside of me has changed in the past 30 years, and if I were to try and quantify it, I’d say my faith is very deep. It doesn’t flicker nearly like it used to, even when all the shit comes down the pike.
A sense of a method system of which my life is but a part.
Where do you turn for inspiration when you do fall off the path?
I turn to my guru, and he’s been dead for 23 years. I turn to my own inner quietness. I turn to God. I turn to emptiness. I turn to becoming like the sky. I turn to letting go of my mind — what falls off the path is the clinging of the mind. See if you have that sequence where you realize that falling off the path is merely the awareness God identified with certain thought forms, then you can always go back to square one, which is do the next turn of the beads with your mantra, or follow your breath in Vipassana, or whatever you do… practice. I have a lot of faith in my practices, and I have faith in the fact there is something to remember, and I am constantly living my life to remember it. When you ask, “Where am I now?” I’d say there is a lot more equanimity, a lot more compassion for myself and other people and the world, the earth. There is lot more really unbounded joy in service, in being part of the stew of life, and bringing to it this kind of equanimity and playfulness and rascality.
When last we spoke, you were in long-term relationships with both a man and a woman. Has this continued to work for you?
The term “in relationship with” is a little weird now for me. I would say that I love a tremendous number of people, and some people I seem to be living with, and some people I don’t seem to be living with. Some people I have this business with, and some that, and it doesn’t seem to be a different quality of love. I don’t feel that I have special people. I really love the people around me very deeply but I don’t think I’m in relationship in that sense. What I treasure is that kind of intuitive wisdom and love and sweetness and innocence in human spirit, and I find that in lots of people. I was on the phone with a guy in New Mexico this morning, and I’ve never met him. He’s had three cancer surgeries; the last one left him blind. He’s in his 30s or 40s, with children and a wife. He’s almost blind. He can just see like stars at night but no moon. He wakes up every morning and he opens his eyes and sees he’s blind, and he has to deal with that. He’s flat on his back and the spinal cancer is getting him. We were on the phone for about 45 minutes, just hanging out, and at the end he said, “You know, this is very strange — I don’t even know you but I love you.” And I said, “It isn’t strange to me. I love you, too. Here we are, baby.” You know, I felt like I had been living with him forever, and he’s no more or less intimate than somebody that I cook supper with. It’s just different.
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What happens is sometimes our practices for getting into deeper spaces of truth and love are sexuality, sometimes they’re relationships, sometimes they’re spiritual beliefs, sometimes meditation, sometimes surfing… whatever they are, cooking a bouillabaisse, crocheting, we get so that we get hooked on our methods, and we start to identify the universe in terms of our methods, and they’re just methods. The result of the method is the same thing, however you get there, but a lot of people get so hooked on their method, like psychedelics or sex or whatever, that they identify their lives only in terms of their method. I don’t do that.
You were quoted as saying that there are people with whom you’d love to have sex but “I can’t afford the karma.” Why is that a karmic dilemma?
It has a little bit to do with whether or not it creates suffering. I could be with somebody, and I could shake their hand and walk away, and I could be with somebody and I could have intercourse with them or reach sexual climax and walk away. But there is a way in which other people very often can’t do that. Once they have had that connection with a human being manifested in that physical form, they start to feel possessiveness, fear, loss, desire, all kinds of stuff. And then they suffer, or then I am busy fulfilling their projected needs, and then I’m suffering.
And so you get to anticipate that, and you realize that if you can be with someone who is free of all that, you can do anything you two want and it’s perfectly all right because nobody’s going to cling. Otherwise, be careful, because you could create a lot of suffering.
I hear that they’re trying to legalize Ecstasy in England. What are your thoughts about it?
I have good news and I have bad news from my point of view. I think it is a very useful designer drug for awakening people to their own compassion, and their love and appreciation of the universe. That’s wonderful. You can take an old dead relationship where they’re all cut off from each other, give them both Ecstasy, they take one look at each other and they fall in love all over again. That’s great.
There are some predicaments with it. One is that often for me it has a little harsh re-entry because there is a speed component in it. That tends to leave you a little edgy or agitated, and you might have the memory of all the beauty and compassion, but you may not have the maintenance of it. It’s not a stabilized thing; it’s showing you a possibility. I experienced that after about 40 times, so that I kind of got bored with it because it takes me to a plane of consciousness which is absolutely lovely and beautiful, but it’s not freedom, and freedom has to be freedom of method as well. It doesn’t take me to freedom. I’m greedy.
There’s no magic pill is there? I mean, there have been times in my life when I’ve felt that certain things have brought me freedom.
They bring you nearer. We are the magic pill, that’s what turns out to be so funny. There’s no need for a magic pill. That’s what the whole metaphor of a magic pill is, as though there’s something to cure. If you suffer, I guess you need a pill. Suffering is a state of mind. So there we are.
Is there a spiritual role for business in our corporate culture?
What’s the most powerful social institution in the world at the moment? It’s not the church, it’s not the nation-state, it’s not the schools, it’s not the army. What it is is business and so, if you’re going to bring about some change in society, you might as well work the energies of the most powerful social institutions. So I just have to get over my fear and my aversion to issues of money and greed and profit, and all those things which is good for me to get over anyway. It’s a good curriculum for me. What I’ve said is if I walk into a room with five people and one of them is rich, I see four people as God and one rich man, and so my work is to see five people as God.
Sometimes it seems the world really is changing and becoming more conscious, but there is so much social and political strife that it’s easy to feel totally despairing about the state of the human race. Are we making any progress in our evolution?
I think these are moments of very profound change, and I think it’s very scary during moments of profound change not to get frightened and contract. A lot of people really get down on the times. They get frightened. If you get frightened, you contract. If you contract you get prejudiced. If you get prejudiced you get violent. I find this moment in history, including my own age and everything, a very tasty moment, and I realize that there is a lot of change going on and a lot of dissolution of social systems, inner city strife, economic instability, potential ecological disasters at every turn, all of it. I feel that it is possible for us to see all this as really transformation in process, and if we listen carefully and we keep purifying our own hearts and our own minds, we can be instruments of transformation that make something new emerge that is of value and will in the long run relieve more suffering.
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Tags: Abigail Lewis, aging, Be Here Now, dementia, dying, Hanuman, Ram Dass, Seva