The Ram Dass Experience
By Kay Walburger
Ram Dass’ name stimulates excitement, gratefulness, expectancy, and love! From the moment I was given the privileged assignment to interview Ram Dass, I could Feel how thrilled everyone was for me. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I barely knew anything about this world-renowned person who has impacted many lives in positive ways for so many years. I only had a vague memory of him as a controversial Guru to the youth of the sixties.
Darby Davis, publisher and editor of Awareness Magazine, thinks very highly of him, is enthusiastic about his books and tapes, and had attended one of his weekend workshops just before he had a stroke in February 1997. She has entrusted me with the cover story of Ram Dass for the September/October issue. Her faith in me as a professional writer, interviewer, and storyteller spurred my ambition to write the quintessential story on Ram Dass for our readers. I NEEDED HELP! So, I went in search of Ram Dass.
He was easy to find in the memories of many of my friends and associates. They spoke euphorically of his influence in their personal lives. Most told me how much his wisdom had helped them through a difficult time in their earlier lives and how much they revered him. When I began to probe deeper for exact words, they were vague and could only remember the experience without details or quotes. This was strangely encouraging to me as I felt there was a treasure worth searching out.
Ram Dass’ new book on aging, “Still Here”, alluding to his first book in the sixties “Be Here Now”, was getting good press, and as people began to send me newspaper articles with background information, I began to remember more about him myself. Nevertheless, I was starting to become concerned about how I would ask him questions. I knew so little about his work; how could I find good questions that would not be trite or ignorant? I began to do research in the library and on the internet. Part of me started to feel panic and another part of me, my wise-woman self said, “Trust Ram Dass and the process to evolve.”
The day and appointed time finally arrived as I contacted him by phone. It was the most amazing experience to be talking in person to this man like I would to any of my personal friends. He was warm and receptive. I began to ask those questions that sounded so dumb to me, but soon learned they were important questions because he holds no judgment. The answers were not as important as the way he listened and always went to the core of the questions, speaking with candor. He was amazingly profound! It Is very difficult to interview someone so profound because their answers are often short and simple! That is an interviewer’s nightmare. We need words to fill our pages.
After a while I gave up being an interviewer and began to talk to him like a ‘real’ (joke) person. That’s when it became fun! He soon had me laughing uproariously, which tickled him and set a new tone to our talk. We continued for about thirty minutes and I thanked him with heartfelt gratitude to have shared this soul time with him, or as he called it “souls hanging out together”. Then, to my surprise, he thanked me with such sincerity, I felt a ‘Rush of Divine Bliss!’
What have I done, I thought. After I hung up the phone, I came to my senses. I didn’t ask great questions and certainly did not receive the type of answers needed to write the quintessential Ram Dass Story! Again I felt panicked! What was I going to write about? Just then the phone rang and one of my friends asked me how the interview went. I was enthusiastic as I started to tell her about what had happened and how great I felt. Then a realization flashed through my mind, that the Ram Dass experience is the story!
The Ram Dass
A group of friends and I traveled in several cars to hear Ram Dass speak live in Santa Monica, California. That would be my first personal experience of him before my phone interview. My friends were all very excited and shared stories of how he had helped them get through difficult times by expanding their awareness and perspective of getting the most from moments which seemed sad or difficult. I felt expectant because these were clues for me to think about when I would eventually interview him.
The auditorium was very large and hundreds of people were gathered around the premises. You could feel the excitement and with an unusual calm. The program started a little late, but at last Ram Dass arrived in his wheel chair. He was greeted with a standing ovation from his fans that was so full of love you could feel it! He sat center stage and began to speak with complete openness about his speech challenges since his stroke.
He referred to the long segments of silence between words or sentences. He said we would need to ‘surf the silence’ as his mind searched for ‘clothes’ for his thoughts. This reference was to the fact that his mind had great thoughts and feelings but had to search for words to wrap around them as one searches the clothes closet for a ‘wardrobe’.
The experience of his stroke had immersed him in silence for a while and now he uses fewer words. “People who didn’t like me much, now like me better because I seem more human to them. They prefer fewer words,” laughed Ram Dass.
He also confessed “I was so busy being a ‘Holy Man’ and living comfortably in other realms of awareness that I disregarded my body. I now acknowledge that ‘this life’ is equally as important as the ‘spiritual life’. Now I attend to my body, diet, etc. I used to help others, now I need to ask for help. At first my ego made a big thing about the stroke. I seemed to lose my faith. Illness took away the achiever in me. It shattered my self-image and gave me a new perspective on aging, changing, and dying. It brought me into intimate contact with pain. I found pain to be a worthy adversary for my spiritual practices.”
“Having the point of view of a disabled person, having come through a catastrophic physical event, I can write about aging in a way I couldn’t have before. It also gave me the chance to spend some time contemplating life and death, which is usually part of the later stages of aging, when aging itself forces the issue.”
The irony of Ram Dass’ stroke in February 1997, a massive cerebral hemorrhage with approximately 10% survival rate, was that he was in the midst of writing his latest book on aging and was searching for the ending. The phone rang and when he went to answer it, he fell. The voice on the other end asked if he was all right? He could not speak but was asked to tap a reply, and he tapped “No I don’t need help.” Luckily for all of us, the friend called his assistants to check and soon the paramedics were helping him “. . . but the thought of dying was nowhere in my mind!”
Three hospitals and hundreds of hours of rehabilitation later, he gradually eased into his new post-stroke life, life in a wheel chair, partly paralyzed, receiving round-the-clock care and a degree of personal attention. At last he had the ending to his newest book “Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying.” “Before the stroke I wrote a great deal about the terrible things that can happen in aging, and how to cope with them. Now, I am happy to say that having gone through what some would view as the worst, it’s not so bad after all. The elderly want to be both spoken to and heard. This book has a message of hope for them and our whole society, and expects to assist in correcting images of the market-driven culture towards the elderly.”
Ram Dass finished his talk by calling for questions from the audience. Most of those who wanted to speak found it difficult to get past the personal emotions they were feeling for him. They praised his life’s work and thanked him for his wisdom and what it had meant to them. Many seemed to waste time rambling on about things, and if there were a question, it was lost somewhere in the rhetoric. Some of us were very impatient with those who ate up this precious time, not sharing it with the many who wished to address him.
Ah! But this was our special reward, as Ram Dass did not judge the person as wasting his time. He addressed the soul of the person before him and connected with them in such a mystical way, we were each blessed by his responses. He also had the amazing ability to go straight to the heart of the question and give a simple and so profound an answer that we all sat there amazed by his heartfelt love and wisdom.
This was my first Ram Dass Experience and I was thrilled and amazed by the essence of love he exuded. He told us from the day of separation from our mother’s body we had been on our quest to return to the One! That we were knowingly, or unknowingly, in search of the Beloved!
WOW! What feelings of elation my friends and I felt as we started home together? We were walking two feet off the ground. We were amazed at the love surrounding Ram Dass, and had not only surfed the silence, but also surfed the intense love in the room. Hundreds of people came that day for The Ram Dass Experience and went home blissed out! Was Ram Dass our Beloved, or was he our guide to our Beloved?
Search for the Beloved
The story of how Ram Dass received his new name meaning ‘Servant of God’, changing it from Dr. Richard Alpert, Ph.D. is wonderfully told in his first best seller “Be Here Now”. This is a narrative, simple, enjoyable to read, and his honesty and candor are his trademark. He tells how his life of achievement, affluence, academic and social prestige was soon to change.
On March 6,1961 he took Psylocybin, one of the psychedelics (a synthetic of the magic mushroom, from Mexico. They called it Tionanactyl-flesh of the Gods). His real life seemed less real and lost its luster. In an altered state of consciousness he had glimpsed a Divine state of Knowing and Wisdom, more true to him than all his theories and therapies had ever been. “At that moment, I thought I’ve got it made.” That was the first of many LSD experiences.
He tells, “I was at the highest point of my academic career. I had just returned from being a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley. I had been assured of a permanent post being held for me at Harvard, if I got my publications in order. I held appointments in four departments at Harvard: the Social Relations Dept., the Psychology Dept., the Graduate School of Education, and Health Services (where I was a therapist); I had research contracts with Yale and Stanford.
“In the worldly sense, I was making a great income and was a collector of possessions. I had an apartment in Cambridge filled with antiques and I gave charming dinner parties. I had a Mercedes-Benz sedan, a Triumph 500 CC motorcycle, a Cessna 172 airplane, an MG sports car, a sailboat and a bicycle. I vacationed in the Caribbean where I went scuba diving. I was living the way a successful bachelor professor is supposed to live in the American world of ‘he who makes it’. I wasn’t a genuine scholar, but I had gone through the whole academic trip. I had gotten my Ph.D.; I was writing books. I had research contracts. I taught courses in Human Motivation, Freudian Theory, and Child Development. What it all boils down to is I was a very good game player.”
He goes on to tell how he was a 9-5 psychologist, who at 5 p.m. was just as neurotic as before he went to work. He spent five years and $26,000 in therapy and was as neurotic as ever. “I felt what I was teaching didn’t have a grasp on the human condition, were only theories of achievement, anxiety and defense mechanisms, etc. and weren’t getting to the crux of the matter. In this state of mind his anxiety-ridden, high-achieving and game-playing roles, his psychedelic experience was a door opening to a different perspective on life and how to live it.
“Now I thought at that moment, I am a new beautiful being — I am an inner self — all I will ever need to do is look inside and I will know what to do and can always trust it, and there I’ll be forever.” There was one problem Alpert had to face. It was coming down! He was changed, true enough, but the next day he had to play roles and games as if nothing had happened. This became increasingly intolerable after each blissed-out LSD trip in altered states of consciousness.
Timothy Leary, who had first introduced him to LSD, and other respected collaborators, Ralph Metzner, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, and others eagerly perused exploration of human consciousness using controversial hallucination chemical research. The unorthodox methods led to Alpert and Leary being dismissed from Harvard in 1963. In a few years they had gotten over the feeling that one experience was going to make one enlightened forever!
“For five years I dealt with the matter of ‘coming down’. Alpert found it terribly frustrating to enter the kingdom of heaven where he saw how it was, as he felt new states of awareness, and then to be cast out again and again. He began to feel an extraordinary kind of depression set in. He knew whatever he knew wasn’t enough! By 1966-67 he needed a way out; he had no more jobs and didn’t feel he had complete answers.
As destiny would have it, a young millionaire who was now becoming a Buddhist and wanted make a journey to the East to look for holy men, invited him to come along and this became his way out. For months they trekked around in search of something he could not explain, and soon feeling depressed he gave up hope of finding ‘it’! One day an extraordinary man walked in, came straight over to his table and sat down. He was 6’7”, had long blond hair and beard, was an American wearing holy clothes — a dhoti (a cloth Indian men wear instead of pants). “I met this man and I knew he ‘Knew’. That was the look I had been searching for and he was as solid as a rock! We continued to talk for five days and I was still staggered by him.
“My friend was leaving for Japan and I had to choose to go first class or start a barefoot pilgrimage back into India with this guy! I had no money and he had no money, but I came here to find something I think he knows. I’ll follow him. How absurd — who is writing this bizarre script? Here I am — I’ve come halfway around the world and I am going to follow through India, a 23-year-old guy from Laguna Beach.
“It was an incredible journey of learning and experiencing myself as a holy man because when I was with him people rushed out to feed us and care for us. This journey brought me to meet his Guru, Maharaji.” Maharaja knew things about Alpert that no one could know. He was compassionate and wise; they gave him a room and clothes, and began to teach him what he came so far to learn. They had strange ways of teaching because they would write an idea on a chalkboard and let him internalize it.
He learned mantras, yoga, meditations, and how to be nonjudgemental and compassionate with himself and others. He learned how to step outside the dramas of life and be the silent witness. Then one day he returned to the U.S. as Ram Dass, ‘Servant of God’, to share with the Woodstock Generation a way of being here now — in a way that enriched the quality of life spiritually and fostered inner peace.
Ram Dass is still here. He is still doing what he loves, being part of the ‘advance scouting party’ going out there into life’s mystery and bringing back stories and reports that encourage others to go for ‘it’ with hopefulness. He reminds us that the Beloved is always with us and to become mindful of the Beloved, so our journeys will be more enjoyable and blissful most of the time! As it turns out the Ram Dass Experience is an experience of ourselves as The Beloved! Who Knew? Namaste.
For Ram Dass’ schedule, or to order tapes and books, please see his website at www.ramdasstapes.org . or call (800) 248-1008.
Unity of Tustin will be holding a benefit for Ram Dass on October 18 from 7 to 9 p.m. He will speak on “Accepting Change and Loss; Aging Gracefully; Embracing the Inevitability of Death; Aging As A Healing Path; Wising Up, Slowing Down and Looking Within; Relieving Pain, Facing Loneliness, and Transforming Grief”. His talk will be followed by a book signing. For ticket information, please call (714) 730-3486.
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