Always at the forefront of change, Ram Dass led the baby boomers to psychedelic drugs, Eastern spirituality and social activism. Now he leads the graying boomers toward aging and sickness, using his experience of a stroke to proclaim old age a spiritual opportunity.
The words are spoken slowly and carefully. “This stroke is wonderful.” It would be a surprising statement from anyone but Ram Dass, a man whose life has already taken so many surprising twists.
From establishment professor (Harvard), to psychedelic guru, to America’s best-known devotee of Eastern religion, to advocate and example of selfless service, Ram Dass has for forty years been a shaper of the baby boom world. Now he talks to boomers from experience of the old age and illness to come, and how to find the spirituality in it. He is grateful for the opportunity to communicate the stroke has afforded him.
“People can hear me,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I can talk about suffering, I can talk about aging and I can talk about illness. This illness has opened the hearts of many people, even people who didn’t like me. I tried for years to open people’s hearts, and I have never so accomplished it as with this illness.”
The massive stroke he suffered in 1997 left him in a wheelchair with his right side paralyzed and his speech hindered. Now, the once loquacious intellectual searches to make the connection between the thoughts in his mind and the slow-coming words. “In my brain I have ideas,” he explains, “but I don’t have the dressing room that would dress them in words. So, I hunt for words. And that leaves me with a poetic use of words.”
At his home in Marin, California, Ram Dass, now 69, lives a simplified life. Three hours a day he is occupied with what he calls “stroke stuff”: physical therapy, Feldenkreis, acupuncture, swimming, doctors. For another three hours a day, he visits with friends or people seeking spiritual counseling, and so forth. And for the remaining time he writes on his computer or works with his secretary. Still Here, his book on “Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying,” has just been published.
“Prior to this I was a golfer and a sports car racer, a cellist, and a helper,” he explains. “Now, I’ve got to ring a bell when I wake up and when I go to the toilet and when I go to supper, I’ve got to ask, ‘Will you help me?’ That dependency is a no-no in our society. I am an addict about helping people, and now all I want is ‘Will you help me?’ So, that’s quite a change.”
Yet he does not feel frustrated by his limited physical capability since the stroke. On the contrary, he says. “I feel as if the stroke opened up a new incarnation. I am staying home, I am learning quietness, silence, because the speaking is not so easy. I have given speeches to audiences since the stroke. I teach them how to respond to the silence. We all start to ride the silence, like surf. And we ride into our inner silence. Then we have a room full of aware people who are there, and who are resting in their inner silence.”
Ram Dass has always been in the vanguard of the social changes identified with the baby boom, although he himself is of an older generation. Ram Dass, then Richard Alpert, was already a practicing psychotherapist in 1955, and by 1961 he held a prestigious teaching position at Harvard’s Center for Research in Personality. There he became fast friends with a fellow professor named Timothy Leary. Near Cuernavaca, Mexico, the two encountered psychedelic mushrooms, and then moved on to LSD and other hallucinogens. They actually got recognition and funding for their drug experimentation by calling it “The Harvard Psilocybin Project,” but finally, in 1963, they were kicked out of Harvard amid much media coverage. Aldous Huxley introduced them to the Bardo Thödröl (The Tibetan Book of the Dead), and with Ralph Metzner they rewrote it as a manual for tripping called The Psychedelic Experience.
In 1967, searching for something deeper than the temporary experience of drugs, he traveled to India. There he met his guru, the Hindu master Neem Karoli Baba, and received the name Ram Dass, meaning “Servant of God.” He returned to America not just with a new name but a new message—bakhti, love. He taught seminars on the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, sponsored visits from a number of Eastern spiritual teachers, and organized the famous “Be-Ins,” which featured Hindu-style chanting, singing and dancing in a festival-like atmosphere.
In 1971 Ram Dass published Be Here Now, part memoir, part exhortation, part spiritual cookbook. It was a campus staple of the day and it inspired many thousands of people to look more deeply into Eastern traditions. Still remembered fondly by baby boomers for its wry yet sweet voice, if not for its profundity, it continues to sell to new generations, about a million copies to date.
In the introduction to Be Here Now, Ram Dass wrote that he “returned from India floating about on an ocean of love carried by the winds of desire of beings he can serve.” And his core theme—helping others—has remained essentially the same since then. Through the 1970’s, Ram Dass wrote and lectured on social service, working with the dying and in prisons through his own Hanuman Foundation. But it was with the birth of The SEVA Foundation in 1978 that Ram Dass’ vision of spirituality and social service found its most effective vehicle.
SEVA, which means “service” in Sanskrit, was founded in Michigan by a group who had helped conduct the campaign to eradicate smallpox in Asia. Now they saw the potential to fight needless blindness in Asia, largely caused by cataracts. The foundation, according to its thirtieth anniversary report, “was dedicated to developing a model of ‘service in action,’ to helping others and deepening their own spiritual process.” SEVA’s original supporters and board members included Ram Dass, Wavy Gravy, and a number of other activists, spiritual people and medical professionals.
SEVA led campaigns in India, Tibet and Nepal to restore peoples’ sight through cataract surgery. SEVA’s current executive director, James O’Dea, tells wonderful stories about the people he has encountered through SEVA, such as the ninety-year-old Nepali man who was carried to a remote clinic by his relatives.
“The old man had cataracts in both eyes,” O’Dea recalls. “The cataracts were removed and when they took the patches off his eyes and he could see, he said, ‘Oh My God, Oh my God, what a miracle!’ Then he said, ‘Give me a STICK!! I want to beat my grandchildren, because they should have known, and they should have told me, that God himself had descended to the planet Earth, and given the gift of sight.’”
“You learn about suffering,” says Ram Dass of work like this. “You learn how it is to grow up in cultures other than this one. Society, a spiritual teacher, a wise person, or a mother, are the incarnation [of God]. I don’t take the incarnation as my goal. I serve people as my path.”
In 1986, SEVA expanded its work to include poverty-stricken Mayans in Chiapas, Mexico who had fled oppression in Guatemala. Six years later, SEVA team members escorted Mayans back to Guatemala and stayed with them there to protect them and help them rebuild.
“I learned in Guatemala,” says Ram Dass. “A mother came up and talked to me. She had had her parents killed in front of her, and her husband killed in front of her, and her own son killed in front of her, and we looked at each other. We were eye to eye. With that suffering, she had a consciousness. Her consciousness was rare in human beings. She was very much like a Zen monk, or a lama, or my guru. She was quiet inside. All that suffering has prepared her to open up.”
From 1978 to 1994, Ram Dass worked energetically as a SEVA board member and led cross-country fundraising marathons in which he explored with the audiences “the relation between service and spirit, compassion and action, and personal growth and social change.” He wrote two books on social service and spirituality: How Can I Help? (with Paul Gorman) and Compassion in Action (with Mirabai Bush).
“Karma yoga—that is what I thought of that organization at that time,” he says. “We were Karma yogis. Working through SEVA in India, I learned the dedication in the hospital. The dedication of the staff, and they do it for their spiritual work.”
Ram Dass’ vision of such spiritually-oriented service is actually a core Hindu practice. Karma yoga, or “selfless-service,” is spelled out in the Bhagavad Gita, as “one of the ways to reach God.” But although Ram Dass remains friends with SEVA and its staff, he feels that the organization has diverged from this view.
“When I was in SEVA, it was spiritually-based,” he explains. “Now, it’s become a social action organization, like the Red Cross, or something like that. I’ve represented that rapprochement—the spiritual work with the social action—and I think that is my area. There are non-profits that are into doing good. SEVA is one of them. But doing good is not a motivation that will liberate you or the people you want to work with.”
James O’Dea feels SEVA does maintain a spiritual perspective, but he says how that’s understood and applied must inevitably change. “Each generation has its way of interpreting itself,” he says. “This generation of SEVA is very much derived from the depth of spiritual intention of its founders, but interprets the needs and the ways to respond to that differently.”
SEVA’s projects now are very big, and very bold. Last year, SEVA transferred to India the technology to manufacture the most advanced suture available. O’Dea calls this “an approach of compassionate capitalism,” and one can see why Ram Dass’ agenda of liberation through selfless service might not fit in with such modern, large-scale projects. His model of service is more personal, one-to-one, and he describes service as the ability to be with someone without “ego-involvement.”
“I work with dying people,” he says. “That, to me, is one of the highest things that I do. I learn that I have to be a rock. I have to be a witness. It is how I see the person. I have to get out of my mind and be with the person.
“If somebody has AIDS and I walk into the room,” he explains, “I can see ‘a person with AIDS.’ Then what happens is my consciousness will reinforce that person’s definition of themselves as ‘a person with AIDS.’
“Instead I could see a fellow soul. A fellow witness of karma. Or they may be a fellow aware person. And I talk to them as if they are who I think they are. If I see them as a soul, then through our conversation they see themselves as a soul, and they don’t see themselves as a social category. Even when I am a ‘helper’ and they are a ‘helpee,’ we don’t have to characterize ourselves that way. We are fellow souls.”