Talking with Ram Dass
These dialogues with Ram Dass (aka Richard Albert,PhD.) took place by phone in Saint Louis, Mo.They were in advance of two separate talks that he was to present.The first was at a Seva Foundation Fundraiser on November 11,1986 at the Henry VIII Hotel Grand Ballroom in Bridgeton, Mo.; the second was on February 7,1992 at the downtown Clarion Hotel in Saint Louis, Mo. on the topic of skillful means in service to others.
Gounis: What will you be talking about at your lecture ( at the Henry VIII Hotel Grand Ballroom)?
Ram Dass: The title of it is,”Cultivating the Heart of Compassion” and it’s of course up for grabs every evening because I like to keep it as spontaneous as I can.but I can tell you that the general thrust of it is that we’ve evolved from the Sixties through the Seventies and into the Eighties from really exploring alternative kinds of consciousness,other planes of consciousness;spiritual ,mystical,transcendent space and now we’re understanding that to be free is different from being high.
Freedom comes through form,not in spite of it.We’re all starting to learn,or some of us,are starting to learn how to as Christ said,”Live in the world,but not of the world” and how to accept responsibility as incarnate.I take care of my father and I vote and I demonstrate against nuclear weapons.I feel a certain responsibility to fulfill my role as a human and that’s the way I’m getting closer to God.So it follows from my guru in India having said,”serve people and feed people”,as my way to enlightenment.It’s part of a linage of service.
Gounis: Would you talk about the Seva Foundation?
Ram Dass: Seva’s really sort of the Sixties’ idealism finding a pragmatic expression in the Eighties.It was originally started by Larry Brilliant,who was a hippie doctor in Berkeley in the Sixties and Seventies He was with me in India and then he was with The World Health Organization’s small pox eradication program as a doctor. He was also a professor of public health in Michigan.He drew a group of all of his friends from different eras of his history together,all of whom really loved doing service and trying to relieve suffering.We created this foundation called “seva’ a Sanskrit word that means “service”.
The first project that we took on was blindness in the world because it turns out that eighty percent of the blindness in the world is preventable,it’s curable. We were invited to work in Nepal and we’ve been supporting the Nepalese in becoming self-sufficient in eye care,in performing about a hundred thousand cataract operations.It takes four minutes and cost fifteen dollars for somebody to come by.In a developing Third World country that’s a bargain.
It’s not that blindness is a bigger deal than anything else;it just happens to be what we end up doing.We have also been working with the American Indians with their health problems in the Dakotas,helping the Guatemalan refugees with their weaving crafts in the Mexican refugee camps,doing reforestation stuff.Seva’s an interesting group in that we get our funds not only from individual contributions,but by benefits put on by the Grateful Dead,who are one of our sponsors and also The United Way; so it’s an interesting amalgam.
It’s an interesting amalgam of conservative establishment and sort of liberal hippie.Wavy Gravy of the Hog Farm is on our board,as are people from the Center For Disease Control and the World Health Organization.It’s kind of fun to have that kind of interface around service.
Mainly, we raise funds and provide administration and supplies and help with training programs.We might send an optometrist surgeon over to Nepal or we might help build hospitals and clinics or train assistants or send in transportation vehicles for them to move people to hospitals.We collect medical supplies from pharmaceutical houses and from private doctors and send them to Nepal.
Gounis: How long has the group been in existence?
Ram Dass: We’re only about seven years old. a few years ago we decided to get an endowment so that our overhead could be covered.Larry started a business called “Neti”,which is a Sanskrit word that means “nothing”.It’s a computer software business.It’s concerned with computer conferencing.It was bought by GE and At& T and we’re on NASDAQ now and it covers all of our overhead so that every penny that anybody ever gives goes directly to the field, a hundred per cent.That’s pretty good!
Gounis: Could you talk a bit about your latest book,How Can I Help? Do the proceeds for it go to the Seva Foundation?
Ram Dass: I did the book with Paul Gorman who is vice president of Saint John the Divine here in New York.He had a radio show for years on WBAI.Many people kept writing to Seva or to The Hanuman Foundation asking how they could get involved,how they could help,what they could do? There is an increasing sense in the culture now of people beginning to have an awakened sense of social responsibility,sort of following the yuppie period.
We reasoned in preparing this book, that there are a lot of consciousness and spiritual principles at work on one’s self that have an effect on the way in which you help other beings; whether the help you give them ends up helping them at one level,but hurting them on other levels,or whether it really helps them on many levels.Also,why you burn out has to do with what your perception of what you’re doing is.The book addresses both of those issues.
I haven’t had professional practice as a psychologist in years;but I see a lot of people.I work a lot with AIDS patients now and I work with cancer patients and I work with people with other problems.But I do that all for free and do it all as a sort of way I work on myself,to help other people.But I don’t do it in any systematic way.
Gounis: How is your audience different now in 1986 than it was in the Sixties?
Ram Dass: I thought for a long time that it was just going to be the same group.We’d all grow old together and I’d be a kind of anachronism,but it isn’t turning out that way.I don’t know if it was How Can I Help? or something changed in the culture.What interests me is that my audiences in the old days used to be in the age range of between fifteen and twenty five years old.Now they range from about twenty five years old to eighty, which is much broader than just the same group showing up.
I’d say that about seventy percent of my audience has never taken any drugs, has never been to India, are not into Eastern philosophy particularly. It says something about how the psychedelic culture, or whatever the consciousness was in the Sixties, got into the mainstream culture somehow, through rock music and so on, the Beatles the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and so on. It has permeated the culture. There’s some reason why these people are coming; because I’m saying the same thing that I was saying roughly twenty years ago.
Gounis: Have your ideas changed since then ?
Ram Dass: I don’t think that I am identified with any particular religious tradition anymore. I’ve gotten so much training in Buddhism and Hinduism and Christian Mysticism and Sufism and Hassidism and Taoism and so on, all the “isms”, but I don’t think that I am pushing a particular one anymore. I’m really much more interested in karma yoga or the yoga practice of service as a vehicle for awakening. I see myself as in the role of being a spokesperson for a process that a lot of us are going through. I don’t experience myself as being any higher than my audience or knowing more than they do. I think that I just might say it well. I really see myself as a mouthpiece rather than a leader in the sense that I know and they don’t.
Gounis: Has the problem of AIDS made you more tuned in to what your particular point of view has to offer the gay community?
Ram Dass: I think so. I do a lot of training of the Buddies in the Boston Coalition and I work with AIDS patients in San Francisco. The crisis around AIDS has catapulted the gay community from being a primarily sexually focused, very judgmental, very insensitive group of people into a very deep kind of compassion and caring for their fellow human beings. The gay community is very impressed and rightfully so, by the amount of caring that they’re generating from their own community in this crisis.
I myself am bi-sexual so I know both scenes pretty well.AIDS has allowed this group to meet around values that were never manifested in the gay community as long as I can remember. I did a workshop with Steven Levine, who has worked with me with dying people. We did it in San Francisco, a video series. About five hundred AIDS patients and doctors and nurses spent the day talking and it was incredibly beautiful. I was so touched by how open everybody was. Part of it is situational openness created by the crisis. If a vaccine were found or the crisis was over, most of these people would return to their other values rather quickly, but some of them wouldn’t.
I really am impressed when I work with people who are dying from AIDS how, as with anybody dying, if you are in the right space with them, they really awaken to incredible heights of spiritual identity.
Gounis: Does the message that you give in your lectures these days have any special relevance to the black community or to feminists? Have your feelings about the materialism of the various political movements changed over the years?
Ram Dass: Those are a lot of interesting questions that you’re raising. It’s hard to really group them together without doing harm to them. But a lot of the people that you mention have agendas that are really sufficiently pressing so that they really don’t have time for much work on inner consciousness.
The blacks have really a whole lot of work to do in terms of just equal rights and finding their way into the middle class and gaining acceptance. There is a lot of political and social stuff that they have to deal with that makes them under represented in my audience. They have other stuff to do at the moment. When people are hungry, they really don’t have time to meditate. They have to figure out how to get food.They say that God comes to the hungry in the form of food.
It feels to me that in many of these issues, people have gotten trapped in over identifying with whatever their minority status is, or their persecuted status is; whether it is black or woman or Jewish or homosexual or whatever it is. That traps people because what I teach and what I understand is that who we are is much more than any of our social roles or sexual roles or physical identity. There is a whole other realm of our being and we shortchange ourselves tremendously when we just identify ourselves with these roles. For example, now there are more women that are ready to hear that -that you are awareness first that happens to be a woman – rather than just “I’m a woman”, which is just a very limiting definition of yourself. The same thing as being a mother; when your kids grow up and you have anxiety because your identity as a parent isn’t functional anymore, as opposed to helping someone understand that they are a human being, they are an awareness. They are maybe a soul that happens to be a mother at a certain point in their life.
A lot of the philosophical materialism that is so extant and rampant in this culture is a root of suffering in people because they keep trying to grab hold of something and as Buddha points out, it’s all changing all the time.
Aldous Huxley wrote a book called The Perennial Philosophy that sums it up. It’s the same philosophy written in a lot different ways; different strokes for different folks.
There are, obviously, more or less pure transmitters of these messages, however.The predicament is that many of the Eastern spiritual seekers who came to the west as teachers were very vulnerable to the seductions of the Western value system. They had never had the presence of women so available, for example. that certainly isn’t the case in India. They didn’t have the presence of such affluence and such sensual gratification and a lot of them succumbed to it.They were just vulnerable, much more than they thought that they were, and vulnerable to power too.
That led the culture, which takes anything that is strange and unusually and tries to approach it reductionistically, to make it like “it’s nothing, really,but…” and led them to reject in total which was really a matter of individual difference. You have to listen with your intuitive heart to know what is valid. I don’t even think that you can spend your time deciding whether somebody is pure or not. The decision really has to be,”Do they have something that I can use in my own spiritual growth?” You take what you can use and then if they are doing it for impure reasons, that’s their predicament.It won’t do you any harm if you come at for a pure reason.
I’ve had impure teachers, or teachers that were caught in power or in sex or something, but from my point of view I got something from all of them.What they were left with by trying to rip off or whatever is their problem not mine, because I myself was just growing from them.
I don’t feel that everything that’s Eastern is wise. I think that would be naive. Just like all disembodied beings and all the medium-mystic visitations…just because somebody doesn’t have a body, doesn’t mean that they know everything. Again, you can’t relegate the judgement that your heart makes about other beings to any kind of Nielson rating of spiritual knowledge.
I mention psychedelics at my lectures and if anybody wants to talk about them, I’m delighted to talk about them. I would be a terrible hypocrite if I didn’t honor what they’ve done for me. In this culture, it’s not exactly the most open minded time to discuss the merits of chemicals. Many people have been very naive in massing together the tryptamines and the opiates and things like that. They are very different chemicals and they are used in different ways. Just as aspirin is different than insulin. It’s an oversimplification and I think that the government is using the drug issue as political fodder.
Gounis: Does that get in the way of you getting your spiritual message across?
Ram Dass: There are a lot of things that would probably reduce my visibility if I were mass marketing myself. Any flake named “Ram Dass” who was thrown out of Harvard for drugs has a number of strikes against him. (laughs). But in a way it’s like the barriers at the gates of the inner temple; the people that get through really want to know something.
I really am not a mass market type person. It’s interesting, but I don’t know if I really care about that. I give away my money anyway,because I don’t need it. I don’t have many responsibilities. My father can take of himself financially. I really think that I’m through now the kind of emptiness of fame and all that stuff, because, really, that plus fifty cents gets you on the bus. It doesn’t keep you warm at night.
I’ve been doing this stuff for twenty years. I’ve watched my fame as sort of a big fish in a little pond sort of rise and fall and then rise. Sometimes I’m a bad guy; sometimes I’m a good guy. I was thrown out of the American Psychological Association in the Sixties when I was with Tim. In the Seventies I was invited to give an address to them. So, if you wait long enough it all comes around. A few weeks ago I spoke to the Harvard Club in San Francisco and I presented myself as the first professor thrown out of Harvard in the twentieth century. I thought that they’d like to see what happens to a loser. (laughs)
Tim Leary now is into things like virtual reality and cyber-punk. We hang out. We’re friends.I love him a lot.When I’m in L.A. We go out to dinner or something like that…we don’t have much business. He’s very much interested in the mind and thinking systems that are computer generated possibilities. I’m much more an emptiness or void type person (chuckles). I’m more of a mystic in a way than Tim is. He loves the human thought process.He’s absolutely fascinated by thought; so in a way we go in different directions. For years we were putting each other down, even though the love was always strong, but now I don’t put him down. I’m just not interested in those things particularly. He just likes to play the field and be an outrageous provocateur. That’s the role he plays.
If you sort of keep a sense of humor about it all, and you begin to realize that the way that the media stuff works is that good stories and bad stories are finally all just energy. I had a completely scathing article written about me in the New York Times. It was the cover article of their Sunday magazine. It was edited by a very irate editor whose wife had become interested in spirituality and he was very threatened by it.He took me apart as a way of getting back at her. I read the original article and it had been very positive.
The first day that it came out I thought.”Oh God…!”but then slowly as the weeks went by, everybody forgot what the content was. It just increased my visibility,which is very strange. It’s just like people like Halderman and Ehrlichman and all these people just became famous and the line between infamy and fame gets very blurred in this culture. Extremely interesting. As long as I have integrity in my heart and I’m as straight as I can be and I don’t rip-off people and I work on myself, that’s what I can do and society is going to do whatever it does with me. It’s society’s problem in a way.
Gounis: Does your association with the drug issue damage your credibility?
Ram Dass: I don’t run away from it at all. I am very forthright in my criticism of the way that the government is dealing with it. I talk about it as something that should involve education in the culture not prohibition.
We should make the distinction between chemicals that are useful and those which are primarily going to be involved in addiction and escapism, I really think that coke and crack are really not very compassionate chemicals. But I think of the problem as being somewhat blown out of proportion. It is also a threat to the fabric of society, especially a society that has been built on achievement and improving the gross national product every year. There are real problems with the mis-use of anything that has power in it, automobiles or airplanes or anything or guns or stuff like that. I think that licensing and education are much better than prohibition.
I’m sorry that ADAM or XTC became illegal. I think that they were very useful in relationship therapy. Recently I was given some interviews in San Francisco on KGO radio and places like that and in one interview I could hear the interviewer having to distance himself from me because I was too provocative about drugs. I’m not trying to advocate drugs. I think that in a way they are a funny kind of anachronism because I think that a lot of the values that we broke through in the Sixties with chemicals have now been incorporated into the culture. So I’m not sure that they’re necessary anymore. I’m not advocating them, but I think that I would be terrible phony to not acknowledge what they have done for me.
Gounis: Do you feel that people get the same kind of psychic jolt taking drugs as doing yoga or do they just receive it in smaller doses over a longer period of time?
Ram Dass: One way of looking at it is that it’s almost a kind of dialogue between the heart and the mind or the intellect, if you want to call the mind “the intellect”. Our hearts often get kind of pushed under because our hearts – the expression, “my heart goes out to you” – will give away the store and our intellect always says,”Watch out, be careful.”
The intellect is an instrument for the protection of our separateness, while our heart is almost a doorway into our unitive nature with all things . The intuitive heart is a spiritual doorway for us. By cultivating that quality of heart space that comes through service, through opening to the suffering of others; it’s as if you’re getting closer to that doorway into a deeper part of your own being. It is not primarily a rational process, but really cultivating the quality of compassion. It’s something that you have naturally, but it’s well covered over by the mind. We must learn to create conditions where it can find its natural expression.
Gounis: Can psychedelics make that happen faster for some people?
Ram Dass: Psychedelics broke through the conceptual structures of the mind to give people a direct experience of the unitive nature of things, of the fact that other people are their brothers and sister in a real sense, not in an intellectually abstract sense.Those things make a lifestyle in which you deny the suffering of others a hard thing to maintain.The yuppies have had a lot of struggle because they know too much to be living with the values that they have and they’re looking for a way to integrate these things.
As long as you close your heart in order to try to have pleasure, I think that you turn off the planes of consciousness where you would find true joy for yourself. So I really see service as a spiritual path in a very definitive sense, especially in this culture.
Gounis: How does an attitude of truth and openness function in an environment where governments are using deception and disinformation as a regular, basic mode of operation? Do you feel that civil disobedience becomes almost obligatory?
Ram Dass: Let’s talk about disinformation first. When dishonesty is the coin of the realm you really have to return to an intuitive sense of the truth of things.I don’t think that you use your analytic mind because we’re so good at perceiving that at this moment. I don’t think that a person knows the real truth intellectually. I think that intellectually you have knowledge and facts. But I think that there’s an intuitive way that you sense the truth of another human being and the depth of their being. In a way we’re getting sophisticated to the way in which we are manipulated. When everything is a con, in a funny kind of way you become free of cons.
Gounis: How influenced are you by the particular city that you’re speaking in? If you’re in Washington, would you approach it the same way that you would in San Francisco, or Hollywood or wherever ?
Ram Dass: I’m giving myself a break. Gandhi said about himself that,”My life is my message” and I am really trying to grow into that. It’s not what I’m saying, it’s what I am and I say what I feel has to be said at that moment. In a way it’s all dharma, or all spiritual teaching, but it’s done with metaphors that vary from moment to moment and audience to audience. So that if I’m talking to a group of psychotherapists, it comes out in metaphors that are that way. If I’m talking to the Young Presidents Club in San Diego, It come out in an entirely different set of metaphors. And what I do is in the lectures, which I’m doing now every other night for the next three months, I stand out in front as the audience comes in and I welcome people and say hello and look at people and listen and feel. I let what I hear determine what I say and kind of empty myself and let the metaphors flow out of what I experienced in the lobby as I welcomed people and listened. In a way it keeps it alive and fresh for me. I can feel the difference in the general vibration of the cities and it comes out in different metaphors.
1992 Conversation Begins:
Ram Dass: Maybe the reaction against the Eighties may lead to an increase in awareness and appreciation and in a desire for service to others. I really think that the selfish preoccupations that were part of the Eighties years were not really harmonious with what the people of America’s heart is about. It hurts a little bit to project into the world and for each other that I just want to get what I can for myself. I think that we went as far over on the pendulum swing that way…with the kind of quick profits and all of that and the kind of harshness of that that we could go.I think that there is a return now to something else.
Gounis: Is it close to the Sixties’ ethic?
Ram Dass: There’s certainly a kind of an echo of it; I have a feeling that the intensity of what happened in the Sixties has been reverberating back and forth in this culture,and that part of what the years under President Reagan were,was in part a reaction against that (Sixties ethic)…and the continuing years under President Bush.I think that there have been these pendulum swings,which have been pretty extreme.Because I think that the Sixties events; civil rights; Vietnam protests and psychedelics awakened in many of the people in the society a fear of chaos and that leads to a kind of ultra-conservatism,fundamentalism, a kind of renewing of the things that make people feel like they are in control.The human spirit is not something that is so easily controllable.The heart knows another kind of wisdom.
Gounis: So are you picking up the vibration on your lecture tours that people are ready to go with what’s in their hearts more so then what’s in their pocketbooks?
Ram Dass: I’ll have another book out by the time of my lecture (in St. Louis)called Compassion in Action that I did with Mirabai Bush, but I was amazed…my other book How Can I Help ?got an unbelievable amount of resonance in society.It’s used in all kinds of doctor and nursing’ courses,and in universities.I was amazed that it mainstreamed as much as it did.
And the other thing that is kind of far out for me is that after the years of the Sixties and early Seventies when I was so busy on college campuses…that all died out, and I started just doing public lecturing as the students in colleges became more conservative and more preoccupied with those professions that would bring them good economic gain.Now I notice that I get more and more invitations from high schools.That to me is a clue…and when I’m with these high school kids their consciousness about ecology… I mean,that’s their issue! They’re so vital and alive (about this).Their awareness of the associative part of biotic communities and human interaction is so profound; that I get excited with them.
Gounis: Will you be doing the lecture in Saint Louis under the sponsorship of the Seva Foundation? Are you still active with them?
Ram Dass: I’m deeply active in the Seva Foundation and I love it so much.We are still in the cataract business.We’ve been in Nepal doing cataract operations for twelve years now.We’re really involved in almost seventy thousand sight restoring operations a year between Nepal and India.And we just finished an eye hospital in a poor region of Nepal; also I’m going to spend time in India this year working on an eye institute to train community ophthalmologists for Africa,Indonesia, all the developing countries to help them get their eye programs together.That program is still very active.We are also working in Guatemala and with the Native Americans on a whole lot of other projects.
Seva is one of the recipients of some United Way funds,but Seva raises its own funds primarily.Really we’re a grassroots organization.I think that a lot of the people that resonate with the kind of idealism that we felt in the Sixties are delighted to see that kind of idealism manifest itself in some kind of practical and caring way and want to be part of it.
Gounis: What are your audiences like now in 1992?
Ram Dass: It’s interesting.They’re very heterogeneous.I’d say that they mainly range from…on one level I would say,”We’re all growing old together; my audience is growing old with me”,but its a much broader range than that.It’s probably from twenty,twenty five to about seventy five and probably the mean age is around forty and much more heterogeneous in terms of cultural background or sort of professional interests and stuff.It’s still way under represented in terms of ethnic minorities and that hurts my heart, but I realize that they have other business,if you will. To demand justice in the society and all the things that people like Martin Luther King stood for.
Gounis: I remember in 1972 when you were at Graham Chapel at Washington University and you mentioned a conversation that you had with Huey Newton,where you talked about the black people’s struggle of just simple survival and that it was quite a job just to survive and maybe aspire to some kind of white middle class values and then after achieving that,those same people could be more concerned with their spiritual development.Is that the dharma that you’re still talking about?
Ram Dass; That is still the dharma.Two nights ago I was at San Quentin Penitentiary for a church service; I just went there as a visitor.And I looked around at the crowd that was in the chapel and I’d say ninety percent of them were black,and I realized that we’re just…I mean, I think one in ten black males are now in prison (ed. 1992 statistics). We have a horrendous situation in which we are so (long pause)… under-hearing the minority groups in this country.It is economically linked now and linked to opportunity.People that are African American or Latino,Chicano or other minorities,Cambodians or whatever;they really have a hard row to hoe in this culture.You know we talk about ourselves as being a melting pot and mixing and so forth,but it’s not…we still have a enormous amount of injustice
We have to acknowledge that we have a major problem,which I certainly don’t think our government is doing.And I think that we have to face the economic imbalances in our society-the way that the haves and the have nots are getting farther and farther apart; these kinds of permanent underclass conditions that we are creating.
As we brew it -the free market economy and capitalism around the world-this is one of the unfortunate spin off things about it.That it,unfortunately,doesn’t trickle down as President Reagan has suggested it might.
I’m afraid that it is going to take a little more trauma for the culture to realistically reassess it,because it really does involve the people that are a little more affluent giving up some of their privilege to make the game work.that’s where the crunch is going to come .
Gounis: So you’re talking about a pretty major transformation.
Ram Dass: Yes,I’m talking about a pretty major transformation.Part of it can come through the human heart.I was teaching a course around homelessness in New York at Saint John the Divine,and there was a woman in the audience and she got up and said -we were all telling stories,the people had been working in the community; that was part of the assignment.They all had to be participants around some homelessness issue.And this woman said,”When I go to work every morning,I take a bus at the corner; and for the past eight months there’s been a man standing there with a paper cup jingling it for coins.He’s like our local homeless man,and I’ve gotten to know him.I’ve actually worked up a little budget in my mind; I give him two fifty a week and I spread it around during the week.But I came to realize that in all that time that I had never acknowledged his existence as a human being; I just treated him as an object.When I thought about why that was; I realized that I was afraid.I thought,’What am I afraid of? I’m not afraid that he’s going to rape me or steal my pocketbook or anything’. I was afraid that if I opened my heart to him; he’d end up living in my living room.”And in a way her fear of boundaries,of not being able to set boundaries, of losing it all…You know when you walk in New York or any major city now,the number of homeless people you’re stepping over and around…the number of people that are asking you for help.The question is,”What do we do in our society in response to that?” What we do is that we armor our hearts.My argument still is,and I’ve been saying this for some years,the cost of that armoring is more than we’re reckoning; in terms of our own lives; of the lives of the people…the haves are losing the softness of the heart.My sense is that there is a place in the human heart that is in pain in this society; now how you get that to resonate enough so that the people would say,”I’d rather have more of my heart and less of my materiality.”
I don’t know.I just feel that all that I can do is talk to that resonance and hope that the change occurs with less trauma rather than more,because as the population distribution changes…As the demography changes,people aren’t just going to stand for what it’s been for much longer…and they won’t have to.It’s a little bit like South Africa was, although it’s not as visible.
When you look at what the values that we in America are proud of and espouse,one of them is compassion.It’s interesting,we have a very high level of volunteerism in this country.It’s well over fifty per cent of people that volunteer for something.So it is there in our ethos.We haven’t caught up with the realities of the economics yet and the justice part and the intensity of the melting process that we have to go through.
Seva is not a membership organization.We’re more like a seed organization that comes together to encourage people to find people of like mind in their community and then find some way to do service.For a while we actually help set up such groups around the country.We found out that people that ask us to set up a group were then waiting for us to lead them all the way,but we were more interested in having people feel the need and helping to guide them into how they might do it,but have them do it on their own; because that’s kind of the first business,finding out where and how you can serve.There are incredible opportunities around every human being,starting with their family and their neighborhood…before they get into,you know, having to go to Guatemala and Nepal.
In this new book Compassionate Action, Mirabai has written half of the book on the very simple processes to get involved in service,about listening to your heart and getting information and trying it out and getting feedback, just a whole set of techniques.That’s sort of the way that we’re contributing at this point.
The first thing is to be in some kind of human interaction with a person where there is some real caring involved: reading to a blind person in the community; helping the elderly; bringing meals to AIDS patients; visiting a nursing home; helping with an ecological problem in the community; getting out the vote.There are just so many ways to care with compassion for another human being.
I work a lot with people that are dying from AIDS and cancer…and I sort of hang out with them through that process; and I just get so fed by the process of reaching and trying to help somebody.Especially once you are in a one on one situation,who the helper is and who is getting the help gets very unclear; because the process itself is just two human beings being together.Whoever has the resources and whoever doesn’t, there is an exchange.After awhile the focus isn’t on the identity with the exchange,but the identity on being together and at that point there is real growth.Whether it’s in Guatemala or Nepal or working with AIDS patients,I come away feeling so privileged to be able to interact that way with another human being and very fed just by meeting God in that form at that moment.
Up until two years ago, I had just spent ten years being attentive to my father’s last years and making sure that he was taken care of,actually living in the basement of his house because I don’t have a family; I don’t have children.So I helped him and my stepmother through his death.At first I did it as,”Aren’t I good guy to be helping my father?” and then after awhile I was just doing it because it was my part to play.It was the way of things that one honors their parents and I began to feel the richness of the family web as a feeling thing; and that all of our zeal to be independent that came along also in the Sixties…we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water…The web of the extended family is a very powerful emotional support system and it’s a fabric of the society that the breakdown of which is what is leading to so much preoccupation with surrogate families like Twelve Step Programs and all these kinds of other surrogates which are substitutes for something that we had and threw away.
Gounis: Do you think that there is no turning back now,that people will continue to substitute?
Ram Dass: No, I think that there is a turning back.I think that the kinds of things that I’ve been pointing out like that kind of interest in compassion and turning back to family is still small in society because in the Sixties there was really a very small percentage of people that went way out and they are the ones that are leading it back in now; so mainstream society is kind of trailing in that regard.
There is a return now to realizing that divorce rates and serial monogamy and… the obsession with individual freedom without the sense of the emotional bonding that goes with some sense of human responsibility with each other.I think that the pendulum is on the way back too.
I think that it was important that the society goes through all of these processes.I’m not ashamed or apologetic about what we’ve gone through,but I also see that there is a maturing in the process and that there was a kind of naivety about our idealism in the Sixties.The reaction to that can be a kind of cynicism at worst or just a kind of growing up and maturing of that process; so that you put it along with responsibility.
I remember when we started the Blindness Project with the Seva Foundation,we thought that we’d be in it for five years;and at the end of five years we hadn’t even made a dent in the problem in Nepal.And I remember thinking,”Oh my God! This is gonna go on for years and it involves human lives and salaries and all this…” And I realized that in the Sixties that we had been so much of a “quick hit” kind of consciousness…you know,try it out if it doesn’t work dump it and try something else.
The Nepal project was requiring that I cultivate patience and commitment and long term responsibility in the same way that family does.I could feel being forced to grow in way that was very healthy for me; because I really feel that I myself was out of balance in the Sixties.
Gounis: So what you’re talking about is a maturing of the instant gratification culture.
Ram Dass: Yes.You go from a society in the kind of Protestant ethic where you delay gratification,then we had the rebellion to that where you go to immediate gratification and now we’re trying to find some balance.
It’s interesting even with being involved with an organization where you have to raise a quarter of a million dollars …and even dealing with all these heavy things like death and blindness…Wavy Gravy the clown,who is member on our board says,”If you don’t have a sense of humor (about this work) then it just isn’t funny.”(laughs)
For me personally,my life has gotten lighter and lighter over the years.I mean I thoroughly enjoy the melodramas of my life.In a way that most people would think is macabre,because I’m actually happy and I work with dying people and pain and suffering.I don’t get off on it in a sadistic way; I just get off on it in the joy of the human spirit meeting.And in conquering my reactions against these evils, so that I can keep my heart open in hell.That’s what I figure that I’m learning to do.
The Kennedy Assassination was probably the first thing in the Sixties that started to tarnish the unadulterated idealism.Kennedy was such a symbol of the fact that we had won; that we had awakened into this kind of potential possibility of renewal and refreshing of the culture so that it would be a compassionate culture and that it would be a just culture.It was a shift to youth,that kind of spirit; then we had those years of Camelot in which it was all wonderful (and mythical) and always sun shiny everyday and it only rained at night and all those wonderful things.
And then with the JFK assassination and then followed by Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and Martin Luther King there was a crashing down…a feeling,I remember the feeling that somehow there were dark forces in the society that were very reactionary that were intimately involved with that process.I do remember that none of my friends believed the Warren Commission.I was out of Harvard by then.At that time I was at Millbrook,New York in psychedelia with Tim Leary.
It was quite a blow.Nobody knew quite how to respond to that.I remember just watching the pictures of what was going on down in Texas.In those days we were so attempting to get a fair hearing for the role of psychedelics in society; and we were just beginning to make inroads into the government… even into the Kennedy family.So it was somewhat of a blow to our plans.
We knew the inside of the Kennedy family a little more probably than the the general public did,considering the Kennedy image making.We knew that there was a kind of hip sophistication,almost decadence with the Kennedys.I grew up in Boston.I knew a lot about them.They were tough politicians.They were very pragmatic.I knew all that.
And there was a doctor in New York,Doctor Jake. He prepared vitamin shots for all the musicians and actors and all.Which were whatever they were.And there’s this great picture in one of the books of Kennedy down in Hyanis,of him with all of “his crowd” and they’re all standing at the back of a station wagon with Doctor Jake and they’ve all got one sleeve rolled up.(laughs)
Gounis: (laughs) Lenny Bruce isn’t in that picture is he?
Ram Dass: (laughs) No that wouldn’t have been expedient politically! It was sort of like an” in joke.”
Gounis: That’s an interesting one! On the subject of your audience again; one of the tags that has been put on Ram Dass in the Eighties has been “New Age Guru”.How closely do you identify with that whole phenomenon of channeling and New Age ideas and so forth? I know that its a new tag for ancient ideas, but would you talk a little bit about that?
Ram Dass: The ancient ideas I love.I certainly believe that there are beings on other planes and that there are all kinds of forces and phenomenons that we are responsive to; and there are all kinds of alternative medical techniques that we are naive about in our zeal to be allopathic doctors.I’m interested in that stuff to the extent that it’s grounded and really thoughtful.I think that there is a lot of New Age hype and I think that the term has become something that is kind of ripped off a lot by people that are trying to market themselves or their products.The term doesn’t appeal to me. And I’m certainly not a guru in the real sense of guru,because a guru is an enlightened being and I’m sure as hell not that.
Gounis: Would you see channeling to be in the realm of spiritual work?
Ram Dass: Oh yeah,in fact I’ve written prefaces for books about a channel named Emmanuel.
Gounis: Would you talk a bit about the dynamics of what actually is happening there? Certain teachings say that beings reincarnate every one hundred and twenty years and some say after seven years; and yet in some of this channeling they’re talking about certain spirits who are three thousand years old.What is the availability of these spirits? What exactly is happening there?
Ram Dass: Well, I think that the intricacies of the games of the beings that aren’t incarnate on this plane of reality are incredibly extensive.The predicament is that “time” starts to change its meaning on one plane after another.Our linear time is unique to certain planes and it doesn’t exist on others.And part of the wisdom that comes from beings that are enlightened is that their awareness functions in planes where “time” isn’t.It’s where past,present and future are all “present”. So that’s how they know the past and they know the future because it’s all available to them.We live in linearity because of the attachment of our minds; and our bodies are in linearity,linear time.So once a person dies, the planes that they may go to may have entirely different time dimensions.A thousand years could feel like a moment.When you’ve been in the Hindu tradition, they deal with yugas and kalpas which are like four hundred thousand years.Our recorded history here is only…I don’t know…only four or five thousand years old,and they’re dealing with four hundred thousand years...and cycles,these vast cycles.I remember somebody asking the Dali Lama what he thought about the Big Bang theory in physics and he said,”Which one?”
I think that time is a very interesting concept to play with.When you start to talk about planes of reality,the kinds of levels of awareness that William James was talking about philosophically.There are beings who have lived on this plane,who are not incarnate on this plane at the moment; others die and then they do reincarnate on this plane.There is so much humor because a lot of the people that come through as channels are real jerks! I mean just because somebody dies and doesn’t have a body doesn’t make them wise.You really have to listen with your intuitive heart to hear if the person is off the wall or not.There has been a lot of channeling hype in this society.The only litmus test is your innermost sense of truth.It is best to be questioning and say,”Is anything that this channel saying of use to me? Can I use it to grow?”And if you don’t intuitively feel that you can,then you don’t have to judge it as no good.You just have to say,”It’s not relevant to me.”
Gounis: When you’re talking about planes of existence,you’re talking about the soul leaving the body and then going into a state of mind or state of mental energy?
Ram Dass: Well, a state of subtle form.
Gounis: Would it have a connection to mental energy as we know it?
Ram Dass: It wouldn’t be like brain.It wouldn’t be like thought in the sense that “we think”; but it would be awareness like “we are.”And that awareness would have its own karmic sheath or psychic DNA predisposition.
Gounis: Are you coming close to saying that there is some kind of manifestation of intelligence and personality then?
Ram Dass: There appears to be,but that is hard to know whether that is in the sender or in the receiver.There was a great line in Autobiography of a Yogi by Yoganada,which is wonderful book; it’s a great introduction to all this meshuggah stuff.In that book it’s talking about these very high beings that when somebody dies,they meet them.And they meet them in a form that’s familiar to them.When Tibetans die they meet Tibetans entities; and when Christians die they meet Christians entities.But it’s the same entity; it’s just that they have a big wardrobe in their closet.(laughs)It’s like,”Oh, I’ll go to that person as Buddha or I’ll go that person as Christ”…I know that this all sounds very “cute”but…
Gounis: Not really…what you’re talking about are points of reference or familiar forms that the mind has established on a physical plane.
Ram Dass: Yeah.When I had my first kind of mystical experiences… the first thing that I said when I came back was,”These are ineffable.They’re indescribable.”I had no concepts for them.And then slowly as I got into Tibetan literature, like the Tibetan Book Of The Dead…I could’ve found it any mystical tradition.I could have found it in The Kabbalah…or Native American mysticism.I found metaphors.The non-conceptual experiences that I had, formed themselves into these metaphors,if you will.The minute that you impose a template then you began to see only what you can through that template.
It’s like just the word “tree”; when you walk down the street and you look; what you’re seeing is dark and light and shadows and all that kind of stuff -just you know, light waves.And you’re looking and you say,”That’s a tree.” And the minute that you say,”That’s a tree”; it turns into “tree-ness”.And whatever that is left that is not “tree-ness” you don’t notice anymore.We do that out of the need to make efficient our perceptual apparatus,so that we aren’t overloaded with unstructured information.
It’s interesting when you try to get back to the innocence of apperception behind your own conceptual mind; and notice the way in which your concepts keep making reality out of what is…and that’s exactly what this same phenomenon is.Is that too weird?
Gounis: No,it’s interesting.What you’re saying right now sounds very,very close to what I heard you say twenty years ago and connected so profoundly with at Graham Chapel (Washington University)…these same terms,and what you were talking about.It made sense because when you talk about “form” and “substance” and being light and flexible,you can take that kind of attitude into your daily life and things become a lot more tolerable and more fun and a lot more workable.
Ram Dass: A lot more,because you see that you’re living in your own projective systems and you begin to become very playful with them.
Ram Dass: You know,you look at a boss that you’re dealing with,and you’ve made her or him into this one reality,but then you start to play in your own mind with realities and you see that person as another being.I practice a lot looking at people like on the bus or something like that and I look at them as God in drag,you know.(laughs) And I say.”Wow didn’t central casting do a great job with you? You really sucked me in.I thought that you were real.” (laughs)
Gounis: That comes back to your statement too that what it comes down to is every being is just you and God.
Ram Dass: Exactly.There’s only one of us at play! You say that I said the same thing twenty years ago -that’s horrible! (laughs) I haven’t changed.It’s a perennial philosophy.I was wise twenty years ago; I’m still wise…(laughs)
Gounis: ( laughs) It’s to your credit, that you’ve made it interesting for twenty years…
Ram Dass: It’s more fun than ever.That’s what’s far out.It really is…except for terms like “far out” (laughs)…I gotta talk differently; I gotta say,”It’s awesome”; that’s what…I’m an awesome dude,that’s what the high school kids say…”Hey man, you’re an awesome dude !”
You know, I live my life as if each human being that I meet is attempting to be straight and truthful,but I’m not naive about it.Yet I don’t want to cultivate a paranoia where I distrust everything in the world.But knowing…one my friends, one of the members of the Seva board is Dan Goldman; he writes for the New York Times,and just knowing the way that the news is manipulated…I’m horrified at how the media manipulates human consciousness in this society…not you of course (laughs).
Gounis: You’ve kind of seen it first hand with how they’ve manipulated the role of “Ram Dass”. True? There have been some articles in your career that have put you in a certain category…
Ram Dass: To me it’s just fun.You know, I’ve gotten to the point where when somebody interviews me for the press and then writes an article, they’re writing about themselves.They’re writing about their own projections. I have no idea who I am and it’s kind of fun to watch all these different images.It’s like going into a hall of mirrors, you know.
I’m about to give a lecture in Los Angeles on Judaism and spirituality and I was a born a Jew and I am a Jew…I’m also a “Hin-Jew” or a “Bu-Jew” (laughs)…So in a conservative Jewish publication, I read this article that said,”Ram Dass probably more than any other member in this society, has taken more Jews away from Judaism.” And I thought “Wow, that’s a bum rap. I’m still a good Jew. What are they doing to me ?!” So I’ll get them on this lecture; I’ll out Jewish them !” (laughs)
Wilhelm Reich has been a considerable influence. I haven’t extensively studied Reich.I’ve read books about him and I realize that the orgone therapy was touching some very, very profound kundalini issues and energy and the way that energy is directed.From my study of Freudian libidinal theory I really felt that Reich had some very profound insights into the way in which energy works and energy fields work, but that’s roughly the extent of my knowledge of Reich.When I was taking my Ph.D he was treated by the traditional psychology as crazy; but then when I got into psychedelics and hung out with Tim (Leary), we began to see that Reich was a brilliant guy who was misunderstood and given a really crappy time by this culture.
Gounis: And labeled as a nut primarily for political reasons.
Ram Dass: Exactly.He was really mistreated.He was a good example of the way when the society gets frightened by somebody who getting near the truth that might upset the apple cart, can do them in.
I think that the reason that I’m a survivor is…I must be very impotent. (laughs)
Gounis: (laughs) You’re saying that they’re not afraid of you.
Ram Dass:They’re not afraid of me. I’m irrelevant, you know, it’s kind of nice…(laughs) I’m just kind of a weirdo, but a kind of benign weirdo.A toothless lion.