How does a sports-crazed boy from the outer-western suburbs of Sydney grow up to become a student of Patanjali’s 2500-year-old Hindu text, the Yoga Sutras, a meditation teacher, a spiritual retreat facilitator and a yogi? Through the wisdom of Ram Dass—and a whole lot of grace—that’s how!
More than 20 years ago, in my role as an up-and-coming young salesman, I went to a seminar on how to become better at sales. On the list of presenters were many of the great motivational speakers of the day, including Zig Ziglar and Joe Girard (world’s greatest salesman).
But it was two other speakers who had a slightly different message, Dr Deepak Chopra and Dr Wayne Dyer, who shared new and excitinwg concepts with me, ones that I had not heard in church or anywhere else. This was the beginning of a journey back into peace, a journey that continues to this day.
I began to explore a new sense of spirituality and with it came a passion for listening to recordings of spiritual lecturers. Dr Chopra, Dr Dyer, Marianne Williamson and many others peacefully marched into my awareness. As a person who learned through constant listening and repetition, these recordings were the initial method to go within. They taught positive thinking, meditation and forgiveness, and as a salesperson who spent many hours driving, they were the perfect tool for the awakening of my soul.
While driving around on my sales route, engrossed in one of Dr Dyer’s cassette tapes, he mentioned a fellow named Ram Dass, and the story he told intrigued me. “Who or what is a Ram Dass?” I wondered. I pictured an Indian man in orange robes with a long beard and a painted dot on his forehead. Curious, I enquired at the nearest Angus & Robertson store—they had never heard of Ram Dass. I visited my local New Age bookshop, which did know of Ram Dass, but did not have any books or tapes in stock.
I played each tape over and over, and even after 10 listenings I would learn something new.
Slightly discouraged, my spiritual voyage continued unabated. Buddhist monks Thich Nhat Hanh and Sogyal Rinpoche taught me mindfulness and compassion. Spanish mystics Teresa of Ávila and St John of the Cross reawakened my love for Jesus Christ. But there was something still longing in the back of my heart-mind, a deep unexplainable desire to learn more about this Ram Dass character, a person who I had never seen a picture of, never read any of his work or heard his glorious tones.
This desire was subtly present for six months, then divine providence stepped in and a customer who I visited in my worldly sales job unexpectedly gave me two worn-out old cassette tapes of Ram Dass, saying, “I thought you might like these”. And so my dance with this sage began.
I played one of the tapes the moment I returned to my car and drove for the next three hours until I had finished both cassettes. Within weeks I had ordered more tapes from the Ram Dass tape library and had also hunted down a copy of his first book, Be Here Now, and began to hungrily consume each tasty morsel like a ravenous animal.
My heart and mind were insatiable: I listened, I read, I implemented and experienced Ram Dass’s message of being here now, serving people with deep love and awareness. And without me knowing, he was ever so skilfully teaching me Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
I played each tape over and over, and even after 10 listenings I would learn something new. The authenticity in his voice, the honesty from his heart, the humour in his delivery opened me to so many ideas—things that I could not have even conceived. Ram Dass’s teachings on yoga asana and pranayama were mind blowing, while his interpretation of the Yoga Sutras helped bring my mind into the more aware, more present and ever-unfolding state that it is today.
A worldly bachelor, he attended socially elite gatherings and collected possessions, from antiques to cars and even an aeroplane, however contentment still evaded him. Then, with his friend and colleague, Timothy Leary, he began to experiment with psychedelics, which led to the awakening of realms of consciousness that he had previously not experienced.
After much experimentation, Alpert concluded that psychedelics expanded his consciousness but inevitably he came down. This realisation is true today, with recreational drug users searching for happiness, also expanding and reaching new levels of consciousness, yet not being able to maintain this high. So Alpert looked to the East for the answers, reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Bhagavad Gita. He travelled to the foothills of the Himalayas in India, where he met his guru Neem Karoli Baba (also known as Maharaji).
This transformational meeting saw Alpert renamed Ram Dass. In Hinduism, “Ram” is a name of God, while “Dass” means servant; consequently, Richard Alpert became the servant of God.
After nine months staying in a remote temple in the Himalayas, with intense daily spiritual practices (sadhana) including hours of asana and pranayama, fasting and silence, meetings with Neem Karoli Baba (darshan), his now much-loved guru, Ram Dass unfolded and became a being of great love and compassion.
People flocked from near and far to experience this new Western yogi.
Returning to the US with long hair and a long beard, draped in mala beads and a white robe, he began to share his experiences and spiritual practices, including yoga asana, meditation and the Yoga Sutras, on his father’s property in Franklin, New Hampshire, and thus started one of the first Western satsangs. From the highly intellectual to the poor college student, spiritually-minded people flocked from near and far to experience this new Western yogi and to hear what they already knew deep inside but had forgotten.
In the following years Ram Dass travelled the world, teaching through lectures, retreats, recordings and books. In 1971 he published Be Here Now, which became a spiritual classic with more than one million copies sold. Since then he has written many other books, including Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying, How Can I Help? and Miracle of Love: Stories of Neem Karoli Baba. He also began the Prison-Ashram project, and was one of the founding members of Seva Foundation, an organisation that helps to restore the sight of the poor in third-world countries.
In 1997, Ram Dass suffered a stroke which caused partial paralysis on one side of his body. This stroke became another teaching, another tool for his enlightenment. He looked upon it as an opportunity to find peace even within the bonds of physical limitation. In his 2001 movie Ram Dass, Fierce Grace, he explains that he could be upset about someone driving him around in his new car and having lost his independence due to the stroke, or he could see it as a blessing, as he now had a chauffeur. The stroke provided a new perspective on life, the body, the soul, and how to overcome affliction with grace.
Ram Dass now lives in Maui and shares his message of being present and loving through internet get-togethers, Heart-to-Heart Skype sessions, monthly satsangs via webcast, Facebook hook-ups as well as personal and public retreats. He is recovering well from the stroke, and his speech and movement continue to improve due to his diligence and openness to all healing modalities.
This year, Ginny and I made our fifth visit to Maui to spend another few moments with our teacher and our beloved friend. Unhurried speech and curtailed movement have not hampered Ram Dass’s ability to share his message and be a lighthouse of love for spiritual seekers. I’ve witnessed him freely sharing with all those he meets. His ability to stay with you and be with you and reflect for you whoever you need him to be is something I have not seen in others in this life. He can be your wise and wonderful teacher, or kind and caring friend. He is truly a master of love. My love for him is beyond explanation.
Meet Ram Dass
Interview by Greg & Ginny Clarke
In the 1960s you experimented with psychedelics. What did this experience bring?
Prior to that I was a social scientist, a Freudian. These were boxes I couldn’t get out of. Psychedelics helped me get out of these boxes. Psychedelics showed my spiritual heart and they prepared me to meet Maharaji [Neem Karoli Baba]. I would never have gone to India, I would never have been seeking what I was seeking, if it were not for the psychedelics. It made me comfortable with my inner spaces. It made me realise there was much more to life than my culture had taught me. It made me trust my inner voice.
What made you move from psychedelics to spirituality?
With psychedelics, I was on the edge of spirituality. The psychedelic community was not spiritually maturing… they were still in their egos. I kept feeling there was more to life and there was more inside of me than I was getting with psychedelics. I didn’t find it in the West. I explored mystical Christianity, I explored mystical Judaism and Sufism (mystical Islam). I couldn’t get deeply into them enough and I didn’t find mystical hearts that I could open to. The negative part of psychedelics is that you come down. Aldous Huxley handed me The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which showed people in the East were familiar with planes of consciousness that we were experimenting with. I went to the East to find a map reader—to find someone comfortable with these concepts, which we weren’t yet comfortable with.
What does “yoga” mean to you?
Coming together. It is “yoke”; they yoke cattle together. It is bringing spiritual life into one’s life, and oneness is the end product. That oneness is in-between form and formless, and yoga is to achieve that place in yoke.
How has yoga changed for you over the past 45 years?
I was doing pranayama and meditation on a strict schedule. I don’t do that anymore. I’m much more of a karma yogi now. I take what comes on my plate, what comes in front of me and use that to get to The One, to Maharaji.
In your earlier lectures you spoke a lot about the yamas and niyamas and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Have these been a useful tool in your evolution?
Yes, they have been very useful. They are the background of most of the stuff I do. In fact, most of Patanjali I have digested so much that it is part of my world view.
What has been the difference in writing Be Here Now and Be Love Now?
In Be Here Now, I really saw Maharaji as a miracle man. As I proceeded my sadhana, his instructions to me were to tell the truth and to love everybody. I started to focus on my heart, and it was only recently that I realised the way he did that at my first visit was very subtle. He opened my heart and then his love came, and I experienced it as unconditional love. During the period of writing Be Love Now, I experimented with unconditional love and came to realise that to show unconditional love to another person, you have to be love itself, like Maharaji was. Now if I can set my ego aside, I would love to be that, too.
How does it feel to be 80 years young?
I feel inside considerably younger than 80. It’s a shock, because in my younger days I considered a person of 80 to be over the hill. A lot of my motives and attachments that were motivating me when I was younger—things I thought were so important—have just disappeared and I’m more in eternality and less in time and space. I think that’s ageing.
What does an 80-year-old yogi do for fun?
I consider joy more important. First there’s passion, then there’s happiness—those two include fun. Then there’s joy. I find joy in nature, the mountains, the ocean. It’s fun when I can share the spiritual journey with people—that’s fun for me. And I have fun with my cat; I just get into bed and he immediately sits on my chest and we talk with one another and that’s fun.
You spent many years travelling the world giving lectures. Now you live in Maui and share your message via the internet. How do you see this evolution as a spiritual teacher?
Because of my age and because of my stroke, travelling is hard for me. This happened at a moment when technology made it easy for me to stay in one place and communicate with other people around the world. When I came to Maui I came with a quality of life which was very content; it was content in the sense that the land itself, Maui, felt healing. It felt the right place for me. I hadn’t felt that in many years. Before Maui, I was on a plane every other day doing lecturing. I swore off planes and settled into this land and I wanted to make myself as much part of the land and the land part of me. So many people have lived that way, but it was usually hard in the past for me to live like that. The internet has provided communication with so many around the world. With the Heart-to-Heart sessions using Skype, I have experienced spiritual heart connecting with spiritual heart with the satisfactoriness that I didn’t believe electronics could pull through.
You met your guru in the 1960s. What role does Maharaji play in your life now?
He’s a presence or a travelling companion, or a being that’s further along the path. Now that he’s dropped his body, all of our interaction is inside rather than outside. I talk to him most always in my imagination. Every day he keeps me focused on the path. When seeing my life through his eyes, I keep from making major errors. The soul gives my life purpose. I love him more than I can even imagine. And he’s Hanuman, so my name is Ram Dass, that is Hanuman, too. I feel part of the Hanuman lineage, which means to me, a life lived to serve The One.
What advice would you give to a yogi or spiritual practitioner today?
Don’t get caught in the world. Focus on the inside rather than the outside. Identify with your witness. See but only be. In the Kali Yuga, in this mixed-up world, Bhakti Yoga is a good yoga—singing with the heart. Get satisfaction from your sadhana. Don’t be goal orientated, as Krishna pointed out in The Bhagavad Gita.
How does a yogi take their practice of asana, pranayama and meditation from the mat or the cushion and into their daily life?
Add in karma yoga: this brings yoga into daily life. Start to identify with your witness. Be present in your asanas and have patience. From the vantage point of your soul, you can then witness your roles.
What is the relevance of spirituality in the modern world?
It gives you perspective that you can be hopeful in this world.
For more information on Ram Dass, visit www.ramdass.org. Ram Dass’s books and recordings are available at www.ramdasstapes.org.
Greg Clarke (Hanuman Das) is co-founder of Living Peace Yoga and Meditation in Newcastle, NSW. He teaches meditation and self-enquiry and holds workshops and retreats in Australia and overseas. Visit www.livingpeaceyoga.com for more information.