Ram Dass, 88, psychedelic pioneer and New Age guru, passed away on December 22, according to his official Instagram account. In April 2001, Dass spoke to OutSmart in an exclusive article about his sexuality. Read that interview below:
It is a glorious San Francisco day. I zip along the Golden Gate Bridge in a metallic blue Mustang convertible. The sun warms my face and arms as the winter breeze whips around me, a delightful reprieve from the sultry humidity I’ve left behind in Houston. The San Francisco Bay shimmers in the sunlight. I pass Sausalito as the Mustang climbs into the hills of Marin County. I arrive at my destination early and park in front of a simple stucco cottage; which seems out of place nestled into the upscale houses around it. There is a magnificent view of the bay. I feel a bit nervous (okay! like majorly nervous). I am here to have a conversation with Ram Dass for OutSmart. I breathe in the freshness of the afternoon to relax and calm my mind.
I remember the first time I heard of Ram Dass. I was bartending at the Montrose Mining Co. A rather peculiar customer made a musical request of our DJ, JD Arnold. JD played the song. The next night the peculiar customer brought JD a tip: a peyote button wrapped in a page from a book. The book was Be Here Now by Ram Dass.
Reading the page, I was so fascinated by the hallucinogenic scribblings of Hindu mysticism, Western psychology, and LSD trips that I went and bought the book. From Be Here Now I learned that Ram Dass was formerly Richard Alpert, Ph.D., a Harvard professor of psychology. Timothy Leary and Alpert were fired from Harvard for their wild experiments with LSD. (Ram Dass would reveal years later that his sexual escapades with his male students fueled the fires of the scandal). However, Alpert became disillusioned with the ability of hallucinogenics to permanently change his life. When Aldus Huxley gave him a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Alpert recognized it as a map to greater consciousness. He set off for Asia in search of a guide to teach him to read the map.
Alpert found his guru in India. He met Neem Karoli Baba in the foothills of the Himalayas. Alpert realized he had met a special human being, but came to appreciate him the day Baba asked him about the tiny pieces of paper he was eating. LSD Alpert responded. Baba replied, “Give me some.” Baba took 915 micrograms of LSD (the average dose is 50 to 70 micrograms). He waited with interest for the outcome of the acid trip his teacher was about to have. Through the afternoon, with astonishment, Alpert noticed that the acid didn’t change Baba. Occasionally Baba would smile at him as he went through the business of the day. The LSD had no effect on him. Baba lived in an expanded state of consciousness that the drugs temporarily created for Alpert. He knew he had found the map-reader to teach him the mysteries he longed to understand.
Neem Karoli Baba Alpert taught Raja Yoga, a scientific system of transformation which was first written down in approximately 500BC. This ancient system includes hatha yoga postures, meditation, the importance of diet on states of mind, understanding the deeper states of consciousness, and ahimsa (non-violence). After years of study Alpert was renamed Ram Dass, which means Servant of God, and instructed to return to the United States and teach what he had learned. Teach he did. Ram Dass became the premier teacher of eastern mysteries and western pop-psychology. His candor, his humor, and his rascally style endeared him to generations of Americans hungry for transformation. At one time his 1971 book Be Here Now was the most popular book in English besides Dr. Spock’s baby book and the Bible. In addition to teaching his long career includes the championing of environmental causes, hospice care for PWA’s, and health care in impoverished countries.
Over the years Ram Dass has cautiously spoken about his relationships with men. In the early ‘90s he moved from the East Coast to San Francisco, where he found the liberal environment of Northern California helped him open up about his homosexuality. In 1994 he publicly revealed his gayness in an interview with Mark Thompson for Gay Soul. Ram Dass explains that moving to San Francisco made it easier to come out than when living on the East Coast. Despite this bold move, most people in the meditative communities who knew of Ram Dass did not realize he was gay; and many in the gay community had never heard of Ram Dass.
Then, in 1997, at the age of 66, Ram Dass suffered a stroke, a massive cerebral hemorrhage he was not expected to live through. He was just finishing his latest book Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying. An active, healthy 66-year-old suddenly needed help doing the smallest tasks like walking, getting in and out of bed, or going to the bathroom. This dramatic and painful turn in his life gave him a new perspective on living in pain. He added a new last chapter to his just finished book. But survive he has with his humor and candor intact. I am here, now, looking across to Sausalito, waiting for my conversation and hoping to make complete sentences in the presence of one of my heroes and one of the great minds and spiritual teachers of our generation. I take another deep breath, tear my eyes from the view, and walk to the bungalow.
Andrea, one of his aides, lets me into a small living room, which is a little cluttered and sloppy. Stacks of paintings lean against and flank the walls on each side of the fireplace. Pictures and statues of Hindu saints and gods appoint the room. To the right, I see a study, and from inside it, Ram Dass is rolling his wheelchair toward me. He gently welcomes me and motions me to sit by his desk. There are pictures of his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, a picture of Timothy Leary, and a psychedelic portrait of Ram Dass done by Leary. The large window that frames his desk overlooks the water. Beyond an enormous cedar tree, I can see the boat slips of Sausalito across the bay. He tells me that he spends much of his days sitting here taking in the view. I can imagine him sitting here alone when his fans and questioning reporters (or both, like myself) are no longer seeking his service, meditating on the rise and fall of the many moods of the bay.
Ram Dass is a big man. Confined to a wheelchair, he is still an imposing figure. His right arm and leg are paralyzed, and his right eye has a slight droop. He is wearing khaki pants, a polo shirt, and a yellow flannel overshirt. His wild hair is roughly combed and parted to the left. I am disappointed to see that he is wearing yellow-tinted glasses, for I have often heard descriptions of his blue eyes, so intense they can transfix an audience. His words are clear but the stroke has affected his ability to speak. “I have the concepts in my mind,” he says. “But the dressing room for the concepts harmed.” His speech is filled with long pauses and punctuated with false starts as he grasps for the right words. “Surf the silences with me,” he asks me. “The silences allow for a deeper connection.” His comfort with his speaking allows my own fears about making complete sentences in his presence to relax.
I ask why Ram Dass has chosen at this late stage of the game to come out. He tells me a story about his childhood. “When I was in prep school I was caught wrestling naked with one of my classmates. I was completely ostracized by the whole school. Nobody could talk to me. I was humiliated. Finally, the captain of the swim team decided to be my friend. That was a very kind thing of him. The attitude of the East Coast has always felt oppressive. Harvard felt the same way. Living out here (on the WestCoast) is much more liberal. He says he didn’t want people to be distracted from his message. To fixate on his sexuality and miss the truth he wanted to share. He adds, “Truth is a fine thing between people. My life and my work have been about truth. All my life has been about teaching the truth. My homosexuality is the one thing I have not been truthful about. Now it is important to be honest.” I remember a quote by Mahatma Gandhi that Ram Dass is fond of using. “Only God is truth. I am a human being. Truth for me is changing every day. My commitment must be to truth, not to consistency.”
The conversation turns to his body, his recovery from the stroke and living in a wheelchair. “Terrible grace.” he says, “The hardest part of this was my ‘loss of faith.’ For the first few weeks after the stroke, I felt completely abandoned by God and my guru. How could this have happened to me? Now I see it as a gift.” He feels he is learning new lessons at this stage of his life. He was “fiercely” independent before the stroke. Traveling, driving a sports car around town, teaching. He was always the teacher and caregiver. “Now I must accept care from others.” There are three simple levels of consciousness. There¹s the ego level where most human communication takes place, the level of the personality, our wants and needs. Then there is the soul level where we connect with a broader perspective. This is the level where the spirit is fed. “I like to call this level soul friend”. The third level is god consciousness. There are no boundaries. There’s no difference between me and the cedar tree out there, or the bay. I am all that is. This is the level that the great spiritual teachers speak of. When I look at my stroke from the level of soul friends I can see a broader perspective. On the level of the ego I am being nursed and cared for by my aides. At the soul level, I am learning to receive and they are learning to give. We are soul friends at that level.
I want to explore the distinctions between pain and suffering. I read a quote by Carl Jung, “Neurosis is the absence of legitimate suffering.” As I read Ram Dass takes off his glasses to wipe his face. I see a flash of azure blue as his eyes focus on the view outside the window. He replaces his glasses and thinks about Jung¹s quote. Pain is an inevitable part of life.
Spiritual practice teaches us to open to pain, to accept it as a part of life. Our suffering comes from not accepting what’s happening in the moment, be it pain or pleasure or peace of mind; from trying to avoid the reality of life. Most of our suffering comes from that place where our personalities have separated from our true selves. We generate all kinds of neurosis to mask the pain and loneliness of that separation. Responding with care to a person in need is a beautiful thing. Sometimes people get caught in the ego-role as caregiver. They don¹t feel valuable unless they can give you something. “That’s a neurotic response to suffering.”
I remember a lecture Ram Dass gave once called Service in the ‘90s. He spoke eloquently about the need for service in the world and his work with People with AIDS. He emphasized the importance of caregivers to be really present with the dying. Ram Dass described the window of healing that can take place when the caregiver is present at the level of “soul friend” and the ego of the dying person cracks open to a greater level of consciousness. He tells me a story. “Some friends invited me to come visit a friend of theirs who was dying in the hospital. I came and was completely caught in the role of “Holy Man” visiting the AIDS patient. My friends played it up and I was caught in my ego-role. I visited with the patient and left. As I was leaving I thought to myself, ‘That wasn’t very much’. I walked into the stairwell of the hospital and I prayed to God and my guru for a long time. I went back to that man’s room and we had a good visit human to human, soul to soul. That day changed the way I work with other people.” Presence is the most valuable gift we can give another human being.
Our talk turns to and hallucinogenics. I read a quote of Timothy’s. LSD shows that “spiritual ecstasy, religious revelation and union with God were now directly accessible” to everyone. I ask Ram Dass what he thinks of hallucinogenics as a spiritual path. His eyes grow wide and sits straight up in his wheelchair as he exclaims, “It is a fabulous path. Everyone should try it!” I laugh and tell him the story of the peyote button and my first introduction to his work. He laughs and says, “If you’d taken the peyote you wouldn¹t have needed to buy my book.” On his web site (www.ramdasstapes.org) there are photos of Ram Dass, sitting in his wheelchair on a mountaintop, at the annual Rainbow Gathering. That’s the outdoor gathering of the hallucinogenic culture held in remote areas where LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and pot fuel ‘60s-style celebrations of God, Goddess, Mother Earth and the joys of Love and humanness.
One concern of mine is the rise of fundamentalism in the world. To this Ram Dass replies, “Fundamentalism is one of the last stages of enlightenment.” I am so surprised to hear this from my own place of spiritual superiority. The fall from righteousness is so terribly humbling that it breaks open and frees the soul. But the best way for those of us on the spiritual path is “to respond to fundamentalism with our intuitive hearts. Pull ourselves out of our egos and our spiritual roles and listen with care and compassion.” It is responding from this place that will begin to soften the hearts of the fundamentalists.
I ask about the future of the gay movement as he sees it. Dass begins by saying that there is “still so much guilt and shame to be found in the gay community.” And there are so many roles that gays get caught in. I still work with my guilt and shame. “I was standing in line at the adult movie theater once. I was in Chicago. And this hippie came walking by and saw me and recognized me. He stopped and started a conversation. As we talked I could see him registering where I was and his brain was scrambling to comprehend that Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher was standing in line at the gay porn theater. In my mind, I was trying to decide whether, to be honest, and go into the theater or to just walk down the street with him to get a cup of coffee. I chose to go into the theater. It took a lot of courage for me to do that. My own guilt and shame were so strong. It was the perfect opportunity for me to Be Here Now!” As for the young gay kids coming out and growing up I say this, “Don’t label yourselves. Allow your minds and your souls to connect with everyone you meet.”
In his interview for Gay Soul Ram Dass spoke of a longtime companion. I ask if they are still together. He answers candidly that he cannot talk about this relationship. He says, “I got into a lot of trouble for that interview. I choose to be open and honest about my life. When it affects others I must respect their privacy.” What does he think two men need to cultivate as lovers to succeed with a life together? “Be soul friends,” he says. “All your differences happen at the level of the ego.
If you focus on being soul friends then the tension and difficulties that life brings you will take care of themselves.”
We finish our conversation a few minutes early, and I summon my courage. Might I look into your eyes without your glasses? He smiles, takes his glasses off, and turns toward me. I look deeply into his gaze. Melting is what I feel. My mind sharpens and slows. I breathe calmly. Some psychologists talk of body armor and personality. As I continue looking into Ram Dass’s eyes, I feel long-held tensions in my body and my mind relaxing. I feel a sense of peace I’ve rarely known. A flood of appreciation for this man and his kindness to me fills my heart. I bow silently. “I feel that I have been in the presence of greatness today,” I say, “Thank you.”
Ram Dass smiles and waves his hand toward the bay shimmering outside his window. “But we are in the presence of greatness every day,” he says. As I make my exit I remember another of Gandhi’s quotes that Ram Dass is fond of using: “My life is my message.” Ram Dass has often said that he is an advance scout for his generation: first with psychedelics; then eastern mysticism and spiritual practice; and now aging. The grace, candor, and humor with which he lives his life are an impressive message indeed.
This article appears in the April 2001 edition of OutSmart magazine.