An Interview with
Founder: For a World We Choose Fdtn.
Introduction to the Interview
Throughout his 30-plus year odyssey with higher consciousness, Ram Dass (also known as Dr. Richard Alpert) has shown an exquisite ability to translate the ageless wisdom of the East into the contemporary realities of the West. What makes him so appealing as a reflective mirror of "who we are" and "where we are going" is his impeccable sense of humor as well as his unpresumptuous attitude concerning his own shortcomings. His genuineness of spirit has made him a much-loved spiritual folk-hero in our culture.
Ram Dass has worn many hats throughout the years: social scientist at Harvard, LSD experimenter with the late Timothy Leary, disciple of Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba, and author of many books, including Be Here Now, Grist for the Mill, How Can I Help?, and Miracle of Love. Early in 1997, Ram Dass suffered a cerebral hemorrhage which partially paralyzed the right side of his body and significantly impaired his ability to speak. With the help of physicians and an outpouring of love from his well-wishers, he is on the road to recovery.
This exclusive interview, which was given in a private home in Santa Monica, California in the late 1980's, is just as relevant today as it was then.
ER: Welcome Ram Dass. I'd like to begin by sharing an observation. I've noticed a dramatic shift in your focus compared to your earlier writings and teachings. You now emphasize daily experiences as a path to awakening, in contrast to the traditional spiritual practices of meditation and yoga to transform consciousness that you used to emphasize. Would you comment on this?
Ram Dass: I think most of us have had the feeling that we live life in the marketplace and then we go off to the cave or to the meditation mat to replenish ourselves. I became interested in whether I could take the actual stuff of the marketplace and use it as a transformative force, which is really a tantric process.
EJR: So while you're waiting in line at the bank you can do your spiritual practice.
Ram Dass: Exactly. But you're not doing a spiritual practice that involves going away from waiting in line at the bank. What I used to do is wait in line and I'd do mantra or breathing. I'd go into my vipassana meditation. But now I'm interested in whether waiting in line at the bank can itself be the thing. I notice my impatience, notice the feeling in my feet as I am standing there, notice the different levels of reality of the people I'm looking at. Am I seeing a bank teller or am I seeing the Divine Mother as a bank teller? I allow myself to play with the moment more, still dealing with the stuff of the moment rather than going away.
EJR: How would you describe your basic message that you share with others?
Ram Dass: A lot of it is colored by the fact that I work with the Seva Foundation, a social service organization that serves people in third world countries. By going into third world countries and serving, by actually feeding and helping people, I've been led to focus a little more on how people here try to be happy by ignoring other people who are unhappy. Part of the pain of this culture is our denial of sisters and brothers and other parts of humanity, and it just doesn't work. It leads to sleeping pills and to a kind of nervous fun which isn't a deep happiness. The example I use is that image of me naked at the beach in Marin County, throwing a frisbee in the sunlight. As I was about to throw the frisbee, into my mind came the inscription over Gandhi's tomb which is, "Think of the poorest person you've ever seen and ask whether your next act will be of any use." And then the question is, do you throw the frisbee or don't you? That's a whole discourse right there. And what does it mean to be an American, what does it mean to be affluent, what is our dharma that involves the poorest person we've ever seen without looking away...and it also involves the frisbee. And that's the balance I'm trying to explore in myself. I think that people will find a tremendous joy and fulfillment in service to other human beings, and that often this is what is missing in their lives.
EJR: In your writings, you continually make the point that for service and helping to be selfless and ultimately valuable for all concerned, an openness of heart is essential as well as a downplaying of the distinction of helper and helpee.
Ram Dass: Yes, you have to look at not only what you're doing but how you're doing it, because that's the whole package. The identification with the doer is what keeps entrapping you in the dualism because if you're the doer, then whoever you're doing it to is who is being done to. It separates you. I am "helping you" and you are "being helped" at one level. At another level, we are just two beings meeting in our incarnations acknowledging each other. And that playing is what enriches the whole helping. That's where the whole helping thing becomes just a form of dance. And if it doesn't work that way, something is wrong. That is what burns people out. They think they have to do something for somebody else, and identify with what they are doing rather than with the quality of their being.
EJR: In light of the everpresent threats to global security, how do you feel this level of service affects our future?
Ram Dass: Well, I'll tell you. I don't think too much about the future. Not because I'm hiding my head in the sand but because I figured out a few years back that whatever the future was going to be, the thing I had to do at this moment was to quiet my mind and open my heart and do what I could to end suffering. And that involves doing what I can to help the world situation, but I don't think it's the only way or that one should put all one's juice into it, but I certainly think it's worthy of energy.
I don't have a fear and urgency feeling inside myself about the state of the world affairs and everything collapsing. I have this spiritual friend, Emanuel, who isn't embodied and talks through a woman named Pat Rodegast, and Emanuel said, "Don't be silly, school's not going to be out that soon. How presumptuous of humans to think they can end it all by their mind."
We must be instruments for the force of awakening and light without getting despairing. You can live with the complexity of the human condition to acknowledge that this incarnation as a human being has in it all this stuff, and to see that as profound as LSD was in terms of awakening consciousness, it is no more profound than the disaster of the Challenger space craft or the nuclear bomb threat that hangs over our head. That is Casteneda's "keep death over your left shoulder." This is getting a whole society to live in the presence of death, which is one way that life starts to have a more immediate meaning to it. A lot of our social institutions aren't really ready to realign to that kind of philosophical shift, but they are having to do it anyway.
EJR: When people have that feeling that death is over their left shoulder then they automatically reprioritize their lives to do important things, that which is meaningful.
Ram Dass: Absolutely, it changes a lot. And it changes in many directions. It changes into yuppiedom at one end, and into getting your moral, philosophical and consciousness act together on another end. It takes people in different directions.
EJR: So maybe all these problems we're having are in a way part of the play written to help us work it all through.
Ram Dass: Very much so. I am just so awed by God's paintbrush and how the paint goes on and the wildness of the design and how close to the edge we play. Because I deal with death so much, with so much pain in cancer patients and young AIDS patients and so on, so much dealing with the loss of pride and expectation and all that really nitty-gritty stuff that people generally want to go away from, it changes my view of what the game of life is all about. I watch pain awaken the spirit in people; pain is a thing that undercuts the ego.
EJR: That suffering is a vehicle for inner growth.
Ram Dass: Exactly. And that's the one that is hard for this society to recognize. That is one of the highest mystical teachings, that suffering is great. But who wants that? To hell with that...later, baby.
EJR: When one is suffering, it's very easy for the heart to close down. In my own life when I'm hurt or feeling angry, it's often an automatic response. What do you tell your own heart when you feel it closing down, when the stimulus is just too strong and you're ready to run for the hills?
Ram Dass: When my heart starts to close down, first of all it's incredibly painful because you get addicted to having your heart open and staying in that kind of liquid space of just being in love with the universe, like the divine beloved is just everywhere. When it closes down it hurts. What I do is I sit with it the way it is. I don't try to push away my closed heart, that just closes it further. I just say, ah ha, my heart is closed, and I realize that what is closed will open and what is open will close so that I start to have a little patience about it. And then instead of trying to open my heart by thinking loving thoughts, usually what I do is go back into my breath because the thing that closed my heart was a thought that I had. It was nothing out there.
Nobody did anything. They just do what they do. It was my interpreting what they did that closed my heart. And so I can see that what I've done is get stuck in a thought form. And what I can do now is go directly into my mind and go back into the rising and falling of my breath until I get to the point where the thought dislodges and I'm just with the thought of the rising and falling, and then at that moment that whole constellation of thought that closed my heart isn't around anymore.
EJR: Do you actually identify what the thought was?
Ram Dass: I used to do that. I'm an old psychotherapist so I would say, "why are you unhappy?" or "why is your heart closed and what caused it?" Now I'm not so interested. When you go into the causes then you move into the psychological reality. You're treating it as real. That's one strategy, but it's only one strategy. Sometimes treating the psychological as thought and going back behind it is a much more efficacious manner to get on with it. It is a bottomless well of trying to figure out why it is you're angry, why it is your heart closes. It just never ends.
EJR: You work a lot with AIDS patients. How do you see the AIDS epidemic affecting our society?
Ram Dass: The issue is touching the roots of a lot of philosophical positions we've had in this society. And it has shown a shift in the values of what we deem important in human relationships. I was working with a group of seven volunteers that were working with AIDS patients in Boston. These were all buddies of AIDS patients and all seven of them were gay. I've been bisexual all my life and I lived in the gay community and I realized that this was the first time that I was with a group of seven gay people where the dominant theme wasn't sexual.
Usually the dominant value system when such a group would meet would be sexual attractiveness and who's making it with who, but suddenly we were all meeting around caring and about whole other qualities, qualities of ourselves. There was a whole new love and tenderness, and I said to them, "Did we lose or did we win?"
AIDS may be awakening us out of a kind of monolithic value system into a much richer appreciation of who we are as human beings. It's a horrible way to do it, but nevertheless it's a much deeper thing than just a physical illness, because it's touching the society in a very deep way. It's bringing forces into the game that are more powerful than the ones that humans can control.
EJR: Do you feel it's significant that you're not married?
Ram Dass: Sure it's significant that I'm not married. I mean, I love children and I love women and I would like to be married in some ways. And then in some ways I wouldn't. I live with a woman and I live with a man and everybody knows everybody and it's all wonderful. I don't live with them together. They live in different parts of the country. And I don't live with them on a regular basis but we are extremely close and trusting and true and we are spiritual companions and there is also physical intimacy. And I'm perfectly content with that. I really don't feel that I wish to share the journey with one other consciousness because I've never found another consciousness that is light enough to play in all the places I want to play. And I don't want to limit the way I play by carrying one person along through the whole thing. That's my trip, I don't think that's a model for other people. It's my unique karma. I think people should be their own guide in these matters and trust what they feel. I have to deal with loneliness and all that stuff. But I can deal with it without crumbling and closing down and getting bitter. I like to say all this stuff because there are a lot of people going through a lot of these things and I want to share that.
EJR: What do you do when you are feeling lonely?
Ram Dass: I just sit with it. There's a lot of sadness in the universe and it's all right to be sad, it's all right to feel all those feelings. That is part of my makeup. I don't try to cover or deny the sadness. Actually, my life right now is just incredible. It's so rich and thick and filled with such grace I can't believe it. It's funny 'cause I can look at my life and see how another person can see it and say, "Poor guy, he's going bald, he lives with his father, he doesn't have a wife, doesn't have a family, geez, he's driven, he's on airplanes all the time, you know, poor slob, he doesn't have financial security anymore, what's going to happen to him?" It's very funny. I'm really finding it getting very far out for me now, just very far out. And it has a combination of a clarity and sweetness, and I just sit with the memory and presence of my Guru and laugh.
EJR: Part of it could be that you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing and doing it so well.
Ram Dass: Exactly. If you're doing what you are supposed to be doing, it just gets impeccable the way you're doing it.
EJR: Do you have any parting shots or message that you would like to leave us with?
(At this point, Ram Dass closes his eyes and goes inward for at least 15 seconds, at which point the tape which is recording the interview runs out. We both laugh, and Ram Dass says:)
Ram Dass: It's perfect, the message is silence. That's my parting shot.