Remembering Spiritual Leader Ram Dass

Jan 17, 2020
Originally published on January 21, 2020 12:16 pm
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the early 1960s, Richard Alpert was a Harvard professor of psychology conducting clinical research into the use of psychedelics. But then he and his colleague Timothy Leary were fired from Harvard in 1963. After continuing his experiments off campus, Albert went to India in 1967, where he met his guru and studied yoga and meditation. His spiritual teacher gave him a new name, Ram Dass. And when Ram Dass returned to the States, he was perceived as something of a guru himself. His 1971 book of advice, "Be Here Now," became a bestseller.

When Richard Alpert became Ram Dass, his father mocked the change. And there was an enormous rift between the hippie hero son and the father who had served as president of the New York, New Haven Railroad. But in the last years of his father's life, Ram Dass lived with his father and cared for him. Ram Dass died last month at age 88. Here's an excerpt of his interview with Terry from 1990.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Can we go back a few - a bunch of years? (Laughter) Let's go back to the early '60s, when you were Richard Alpert. And you were a professor of psychology at Harvard University and were one of the first people - one of the very first East Coast people to start experimenting with LSD. What use were you putting it to in your official capacity in the university?

RAM DASS: Well, is - I'm a research psychologist. And that's a study of the mind, psyche logos. And these chemicals are incredible in overriding habitual ways of seeing the universe and allowing a fresh way of perceiving. And they connected me to levels of my awareness that my Western psychological framework didn't cover. And so, just as a student of the mind, I started out with that exploration.

In the process of my early experience, I had what later I could acknowledges spiritual experiences, which for a Western social scientist, spiritual stuff was seen as like an anthropologist would see it or a Freudian would see it as sublimated something or other or, you know, the creation of the human mind. But I really tuned in to a larger context in which I exist other than my material sensual thinking context.

GROSS: So you started using LSD as part of your academic research. But once you started actually taking LSD yourself, that academic research no longer seemed relevant.

DASS: Well, I'll tell you, it was because we did studies to show - and I think that it's - painful to me that in our zeal to say no to drugs, we have not differentiated between the tryptamines, for example, the psychedelics, which have potential for social change, for use. Like, we worked with prisoners in prisons, where the recidivism rate is so bad. We - working in marriages, working with dying people to help them extricate themselves from identification with being that which dies.

There were tremendous potential uses, all of which have been - the research has been wiped out by the society's fear of drugs other than for liquor and, you know, things like that. But - so our research continued to - we started in a naturalistic way because those kind of chemicals were seen in our society as psychotomimetics. That is, they were used by psychiatrists to parallel schizophrenia.

And while in other cultures they were used for religious and oracular processes, and we said instead of laying a trip on them, let's just give them to people and get reports back. And let's see how they use them, and build a new kind of context for them. And then we began to see how set and setting were so important, that a person could have them and have a religious experience. They could use them to escape. They could use them for creative work. They could use them for therapeutic change.

GROSS: You and Timothy Leary at Harvard started using LSD. And then Ken Kesey on the West Coast started using it, I think in very different ways and a different setting. Did you have any conflicts with Kesey about what LSD should mean in the society, how it should be used, who should be taking it?

DASS: Well, we were somewhere in the middle because there were - I mean, we had Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts and all these people. There was a community of us that were researching. And in a way, we were saying, let's keep it reasonably quiet so we can research - because it's very controversial, and it's going to upset the culture, at the same moment, we were opening the door at Harvard with students and so on. So we were partly responsible.

Ken blew it apart in a way with the acid tests because he made it a street scene. And that frightened the society so much. It forced the laws. It forced legislation probably a couple of years before it would have happened. And maybe the research could have gotten more entrenched had there been a little more space.

GROSS: Well, eventually you went to India, studied with a teacher who became your spiritual teacher. Can you tell us something about him and about the kind of spiritual path you took with him?

DASS: Well, meeting him was - the power of that initially was that everything that I took LSD to touch in my being, I realized he was. In fact, he actually took 900 micrograms of LSD, and nothing happened to him because - it's like, if you're in Detroit, you don't have to take a bus to Detroit. I mean, he was that quality. He had integrated it. So it showed me the potential that a human being - he showed me what a human being could be in terms of freedom from a fixed model of himself and a quality of love that was - I experienced as unconditional because he was resting in a place in himself where he didn't want anything from me. He didn't want my money. He didn't want anything. He didn't want my love. He didn't want anything from me. He didn't even want me to change. He didn't want anything. And I'd never been in the presence of somebody who didn't want something from me.

I mean, that was a big thing for me. That opened my heart a great deal. And he died in 1973, and I would say he is the most real - I don't know how to say it - entity in my consciousness still now. That - once you have a friend like that who has that quality of compassion and has that quality of emptiness and that quality of the giggle, the cosmic giggle, you just carry that with you, and that's the way in which he continues to influence my life.

GROSS: I want to ask you a question about your father who we were talking about earlier. He died in the past year. You had been living with him when you weren't on the road and helping to take care of him. He - I don't know how he was when he died, but at one point in his life, he was a wealthy man. Was there an inheritance, and how did you decide to use it?

DASS: My guru said to me - early on, he said, your father has money? I said, yes. He said, he going to leave it to you? I said, well, he's going to leave me a portion of it. He said, you're not to accept your inheritance. I said, boy, that's interesting. I mean, to tell that to a Jewish boy is something, you know? I couldn't tell my father because he had raised it - you know, earned it for his kids. But - and he trusted me so much. He made me the executor and all of that. But what I've done is I divided what went to my brothers and my nieces and nephews, and then the rest of it, I've given away.

GROSS: So you never told him that you weren't going to personally...

DASS: No.

GROSS: ...Accept it.

DASS: No. I felt that that would be hurting him.

GROSS: So you thought it was OK to not tell him the complete truth about this. There's times that...

DASS: He never asked me.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

DASS: (Laughter) He just assumed. But there was some subtle thing that happened between us because the minute my guru said that, that money no longer was mine. And in some deep psychological way, that changed my relationship to my father. After that, I wanted him to spend his money. I wanted him to - you know, there was no longer my money that he was using. And I helped him get married. I gave away the bride in his second marriage. I was close friends with them. I helped them enjoy themselves as much as I could, and he sensed that. He sensed that I didn't want something from him. And I think that's why he trusted me to give me power of attorney, to make me executor, you know, as I'm not a lawyer. And so...

GROSS: Not wanting something from you - that's what you said you felt...

DASS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Towards your teacher - that he didn't want anything from you.

DASS: Exactly.

GROSS: That's very important to you.

DASS: It's quite an art, isn't it? Yeah, it's quite an art.

GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.

DASS: A pleasure, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Ram Dass speaking to Terry Gross in 1990. The spiritual teacher died last month at age 88.

Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers reflects on Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini as we approach the hundredth anniversary of his birth. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JAMES HUNTER SIX SONG, "I'LL WALK AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.