On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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I got a letter recently from a Sun subscriber, who said she enjoyed the magazine more than ever, because she no longer felt put off by its heavy spiritual emphasis. Had The Sun become less overtly spiritual, she wanted to know, or had she become more so?
I asked myself a similar question in December, after I interviewed Ram Dass, Harvard professor turned psychedelic adventurer turned holy man whose name, during the Sixties and Seventies, became synonymous with Eastern mysticism and expanded consciousness and matters of the spirit. He seemed so much more relaxed and open-hearted and human than when I’d first met him, fourteen years ago — so much less “spiritual.” Had he changed, or had I?
Perhaps we’ve all changed, as we’ve learned there’s not that much difference between being spiritual and being truly ourselves; and that some kinds of “spirituality” — because they’re so appallingly self-conscious — do more harm than good; and that acknowledging our humanness may be the first and most difficult step on the path to truth.
Ram Dass has been walking that path for more than two decades, sharing with us every dip and bend in the road. He’s a skilled storyteller with a flair for the dramatic and a keen sense of humor as well as a surprising willingness to discuss his own fears and blunders and sometimes overweening pride. Remarkably adept at translating Eastern ideas into language that’s meaningful to Westerners, he’s more than a mere popularizer; perhaps more than any other contemporary teacher, he’s been a source of inspiration for other seekers, no guru himself but a fellow traveler, a lover of truth with a deep commitment to serving others and a passion for God.
Born into a well-to-do New England family as Richard Alpert, he studied psychology, got a doctorate from Stanford, and became a professor at Harvard. That’s where he met Timothy Leary, who introduced him to psychedelic drugs. They became outspoken proponents of better living through chemistry: Leary’s injunction to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” became a Sixties slogan; Alpert himself took LSD more than 300 times, and shared the drug with ministers, prisoners, scientists, and — to the consternation of the Harvard administration — students. The two were fired in 1963, and spent the next few years traveling around the country, lecturing on the inner realms of consciousness which the psychedelics had helped them explore.
Eventually, Alpert reached a dead-end with the drugs. No matter how high he got, how many doors were flung open, the experience always ended; the doors shut behind him. He knew that getting high wasn’t enough; he wanted to be high. In 1967, he went to India, to see if he could find a teacher. After several disheartening experiences, he was about to give up and go home. Then he met an extraordinary man called Neem Karoli Baba, or Maharaji. Despite the stories he’d heard about Maharaji’s great powers and saint-like love, Alpert was, at first, skeptical. While the other devotees threw themselves at the old man’s feet, he kept his distance. Maharaji teased him about the expensive car he was driving, and asked Alpert if he’d give it to him. Then he motioned him to come closer, and whispered to him that the night before Alpert had been thinking about his mother, who had died a year earlier. This was true, though Alpert hadn’t mentioned it to anyone. “Spleen,” Maharaji said. “She died of spleen.” Alpert was stunned; his mother had, indeed, died of a ruptured spleen. He experienced a wrenching inside and broke down; here was someone who “knew.” Before he realized what he was doing, he, too, had thrown himself at the guru’s feet.
He stayed in India for six months, studying yoga and meditation, and returned to the U.S. with the new name (Ram Dass means “servant of God”) his guru gave him. When he stepped off the plane, he was bearded and barefoot and dressed in holy robes; his embarrassed father whisked him away before anyone could see him.
Soon afterward, his book Be Here Now was published, and he became a new age celebrity. At times, the robes were an embarrassment to him, too; he’s talked of changing into jeans so he could slip out unnoticed for pizza. Stories like this, punctuated by his amazing chuckle — sly and intimate, as if he’s laughing not just at himself but at the whole cosmos — have endeared him to audiences. His candor has meant more to many people than his purity, his revealing stories helping them make their peace with their own human weaknesses and failings.
In his books and lectures over the years, he keeps refining his message, but the core of his teaching — that the universe is a seamless whole, and that we share one consciousness — remains the same. Gone are his ponytail and beard and robes and beads and other paraphernalia. His audiences, too, have changed; he appeals to a much broader constituency than the hippies and rebels who came to hear him ten or fifteen years ago.
He was in Chapel Hill recently to do a benefit lecture for SEVA, the international relief organization he cofounded. (Seva means “service” in Sanskrit.) Originally created to end blindness in Nepal, SEVA’s recent projects include setting up a national network of local groups whose members view service as a path to spiritual transformation. (SEVA, 108 Spring Lake Drive, Chelsea, MI 48118.)
We talked for more than three hours. Although he looked tired when we began — he said he’d been ill the day before — his answers were thoughtful and his presence warm and inviting. His energy seemed to pick up as the interview went on.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the way he talks: telling stories — and stories within stories; quoting holy books; digressing; laughing; gently mocking himself.
Thanks to Susan Davis for transcribing and helping to edit the interview.
SUN: As someone who spends a lot of time helping other people, how do you keep from feeling overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world?
RAM DASS: First of all, I’m not “someone who spends a lot of time helping other people.” I just do what I do every day, and I don’t feel like I’m busy helping people. That’s how I don’t get overwhelmed by it. If somebody calls and has AIDS, I see him, and we’re together, and we do whatever we do together. And if I’m doing something for SEVA, and it has to do with blindness, or going into Nepal to see doctors, or whatever my part is, it’s just what I do. I got over trying to dramatize my life, and that’s what burns you out or what gets overwhelming — when you add the thought processes about what’s going on, over and above what’s going on. I mean, everybody gets up every morning. People say to me, “Travel must be very hard for you.” But I just get up in the morning, go to the bathroom, brush my teeth, get dressed, and then I do what’s on the plate for the day. It may be going to the airport, getting on a plane, writing letters, getting off the plane, meeting people. It’s just what I do. If I thought I was busy helping people, I probably would be overwhelmed.
The deeper answer to your question has to do with balancing planes of awareness. It’s the ability to stand back far enough to appreciate the lawfulness of events, including suffering. Plato says, for example, to see the law and to honor the law as God, you must break your identification with your own suffering, and with your own pleasure. And once you’ve done that, you can just appreciate the law a little bit. Seeing the law, and also feeling your human heart hurting about the suffering — those two balance each other. And that’s the closest I get to what compassion’s all about. When I’m with somebody with AIDS, a young man who has to make these horrendous decisions — like whether to take this new medicine, for which he’s got to stop taking his anti-pneumonia medicine, but if he gets pneumonia he’ll die, but if he doesn’t take this new medicine, the AIDS virus may go through his brain barrier and he’ll go insane — deciding whether to die from pneumonia or go insane. He isn’t prepared. I sit and hold him and we cry and we go through the decision, and there’s another part of me that’s saying, “What an interesting incarnation. What interesting work this guy’s doing.” I see a soul just going through this stuff, awakening through it. I’m meeting his soul. And very often he comes up for air and we see the whole thing from this other place.
So there’s a part of me that’s perfectly allowing of suffering. And then there’s the human heart that hurts like hell. And it’s that balancing that’s such a beautiful art form. The deepest line I work with, personally and in my lectures, is, “Out of emptiness arises compassion.” That’s the one. Getting to the place where you do what you do. And you’re not milking it for righteousness, and you’re not trying to change the world.
SUN: I wonder, though, when you’re with somebody who’s in a lot of physical anguish, does it ever get to be too much for you? I mean, are you always able to balance it with the deeper perspective?
RAM DASS: Sure, things get me. Last year, I was taking care of my stepmother, who was dying of cancer. I was carrying her to the toilet one night and I suddenly realized that I should have had a catheter to put in her that night. The amount of pain I felt, because I was causing her suffering, was incredible. It was ripping me. Then I see that that’s the work on myself, to see where my mind grabs with guilt.
When somebody gets me really angry, or throws me off balance, or something gives me a sense of revulsion, I use the reaction to go back inside and examine where the holding is. I consider how to open and soften around it, how to allow it, how to release it. In a way, you get to the point where if it can get you, good!
Now, you say, how much can you take? I used to think if I had a whole day ahead of me of seeing somebody with multiple sclerosis, a cancer patient, somebody who’s just lost their child, and an AIDS patient, shouldn’t I have a little fun too? But these encounters are such living truths, they pull me into such immediacy because these people are demanding so much truth and presence — what more do I want of life? I mean, this is the stuff of life! This is the richness of the moment. And to me, the fun is in the moment. I often go to a party and the superficiality of it just bores me. I’d really rather be alone or be with people who are purely seeking, whether it’s seeking surcease from their pain or something else. I come into a city to speak, and people who are dying want to see me, and then there’s the chance to go see this mountain, or this river. And there’s not even a comparison. The depth of a human spirit is, for me, like a doorway to the infinite. I work with Gandhi’s line, “Think of the poorest person you’ve ever seen and ask if your next act is of any use,” and it embraces so much. So when somebody says, “Are you happy?” I say, “Yeah.” “Are you sad?” “Yeah.” “Is this enough?” “Yeah.” It’s not either/or. You don’t deny the pain for the pleasure.
SUN: There’s the temptation, I would think, to distance yourself from difficult emotions, to imagine you’re relating from a higher consciousness when you’re just denying pain. How do you keep a check on yourself to know which is which?
RAM DASS: You ask yourself whether you lose touch with a feeling through the process. See, if you dissociate you lose touch with a feeling. You’re not feeling the pain of it anymore. When you add the other level, the pain is still there. It didn’t go away, you just added another plane to it. It’s a little different. It doesn’t have a pushing away quality. I mean, I really loved my stepmother, and when she died, it hurt like hell. And I didn’t want to go away from the hurting like hell. It was very rare for me to be this attached to somebody. And at the same moment, I was cultivating that other part, which was that it was all right for her to die. This was a process that she was going through and it was quite beautiful. I could feel both of these all the time, and I didn’t want to push one away, and I couldn’t really get lost in either of them anymore.
What I say about grief to people is, don’t be done with your grief too soon. Go back into it. I’m always pushing people back into it. “Are you really done with this?” I say to myself. I keep going back to look and to scrape and to see. And sometimes it takes a long time for a thing to come around again. I’ll say something that was a little too glib and I’ll be done with it. Then later on I can feel a soft spot inside me, like a sickness or a little pus underneath the skin. And I’ve got to go back. I wish I were all wise to know the moment I dissemble, but the ego’s so slithery. Sometimes what you feel when you start to dissemble is a thickening of the vibratory field, a kind of a denseness, as if you’ve protected yourself but life isn’t as alive anymore. That’s one of the clues I use.
SUN: Sometimes it’s guilt that calls us back to some pain we’re not finished with. How do you view guilt? Is it ever useful?
RAM DASS: Well, there can certainly be a feeling that one has done wrong or has done something that’s caused suffering. But guilt, which plays on your unworthiness, isn’t very functional. It tends to narrow your perception of the universe, reduce your effectiveness of action, close you down from your beauty, from life and truth. Guilt and fear are really corrosive in terms of the human spirit.
SUN: So you never feel guilty?
RAM DASS: What would create guilt in me is if I used another person to satisfy my desires in a way that would not bring them closer to the spirit. In other words, if I exploited somebody in a way that left them more separate, more isolated, more paranoid. If you lust for somebody, you see them as an object; and if you look at somebody as an object, you are reinforcing their separateness from God, from spirit. It’s interesting: would you then have guilt about lust or guilt about the actions that stem from lust? Or would you get to the point where you could acknowledge the feelings in yourself, but couldn’t act on them because you wouldn’t want to be that separate from another being? You live with that stuff inside yourself, where there’s the desire as well as the awareness of what you get from living out that desire. There’s a poignancy in it, because it’s part of your human condition. Yet, as you keep working on your consciousness, you’re less and less likely to create new karma. You just don’t want to do it, because you’ve got to live in the world you create.
SUN: Is lust still an issue for you, then?
RAM DASS: Well, I’m fifty-five. It’s getting less so.
SUN: You mean getting older is the only solace?
RAM DASS: It may well be. (Laughs.) It hasn’t gone away completely but I don’t lose my consciousness into it. There’s a thread that stays there now. There’s a part of me that says, “Oh, there it goes again,” and, “How empty it is,” and, “Ah, God, you’re going to run that off again?”
SUN: That’s not the same as guilt?
RAM DASS: No, it’s just observation. It’s not even judging. See, the judging is the guilt, the reaction. You learn to cultivate the witnessing mind, which is just noticing it — noticing you’re human, and that these are the phenomena of humanity. Not that it’s an error or bad. It’s not wrong that I’m human, it’s not wrong that I have all this stuff. That’s the difference. I am much more allowing of my humanity, allowing of my lusts and my laziness and my greed and my hungers and my overeating and my angers.
SUN: How much of this has to do with being Ram Dass, and how much of this has to do with getting older, since as people get older they become more accepting?
RAM DASS: It is clear that not all older people get these perspectives. And the culture itself does not have this perspective, so you can’t say it is intrinsic in all aging. But it is certainly available with aging if you just quiet down a little and listen. The Eastern cultures, where there are extended families and certain clear roles for aging, build it into the system. When you start to lose your hearing, your seeing, you can meditate more. That’s the stage of life you’re at. Well, having lived in that way, which was part of becoming Ram Dass, tempers the way I experience my own life. So it is partly Ram Dass and it is partly aging. I’m really learning a lot of patience. I’m not so interested in how soon I’ll get enlightened, nor even in the future that much. And the past doesn’t have any hold on me. I find this moment as interesting as anything that ever happened in my life.
SUN: Do you have a sense of unfinished business?
RAM DASS: None. I feel like I’m right up to date. If I were to die this moment, it would be perfectly fine. I don’t have a sense of omission. I don’t have a mythic sense of myself. I don’t milk the astral storyline at all. You can’t believe how simple it gets. I used to read about the simplicity of Zen monks, where they just did dishes and walked and I couldn’t understand what was going on. And now it’s just getting so clear to me how simple it all can be. And I think it’s going to get much simpler, much quieter.
There is such a deep desire in this culture to deny death, yet from a spiritual point of view, AIDS may be one of the greatest gifts to mankind. And that’s a hard one to even mention aloud. The same with the Holocaust, or the Bomb. We almost can’t stand looking at God’s work because it’s so scary.
There is such a deep desire in this culture to deny death, yet from a spiritual point of view, AIDS may be one of the greatest gifts to mankind. And that’s a hard one to even mention aloud. The same with the Holocaust, or the Bomb. We almost can’t stand looking at God’s work because it’s so scary.
SUN: Did you have to go through a complicated stage before you could get to that simple stage?
RAM DASS: It’s like going from knowledge to wisdom. Knowledge is very complicated and wisdom is very simple. My guru, when he wanted to chide me, would call me clever. When he wanted to reward me, he’d say, “You’re simple.” It’s the simplicity of just being so in tune with things that nothing seems special anymore, nothing stands out. It’s all just part of a flowing process. It’s such a refreshing, releasing thing not to be cultivating my specialness. I mean, whether I’m doing the laundry or dancing or paying bills — it’s what’s on the plate today. People say, “Well, isn’t that dull? Don’t you want to be excited? Are you excited by anything that’s coming up?” I’m not! Because if this isn’t enough, what the hell is? I can’t think of anything coming up in my life at this moment that excites me. Or, you could say everything in my life excites me, but it doesn’t “excite” me. It’s enough. It’s enough.
Now sometimes, when I’m tired, like yesterday when I was sick and tired, the thought of lying down in that bed and going to sleep excited me. I was really edging toward that. I mean, that’s my truth . . . from moment to moment things will still get me. Fatigue gets me, sickness gets me. And there are times when my heart doesn’t open as fully as I’d like. I might be up in front of a lot of people, busy being up in front of a lot of people, and my heart closes because there’s fear. If I see myself and the audience as a group of souls reaching for light together, trying to figure out what it’s all about, meeting like a club to share notes, then my heart’s wide open. If I think, “Here is a group of people in Chicago who have paid money to hear Ram Dass,” it’s a different vibratory place inside myself. What I’ve learned now is to slow down enough to let my heart catch up. Because initially, when you come out on stage, you start with a routine or something to get the game going. And then you’re off on a certain tack, and it’s very hard to come back in your heart. You can’t get the rhythm shifted. Once, in New York, I came out on stage, and I wasn’t quite ready. I started with a routine, a story of some sort, and after two or three minutes somebody in the balcony yelled, “Ram Dass, my heart is hurting!” When somebody does that you have a choice. You can, with one flick of a facial expression, turn the whole audience against that person, as a heckler. But I heard what he was saying because my heart hurt too. I thought, well if your heart hurts, all of our hearts are hurting. Let’s start breathing together and let’s see if we can get here together. And the lecture just took off.
SUN: Keith Jarrett, the musician, said in an interview, “You have to be completely without mercy about yourself. You can’t say something like, ‘I did this yesterday before I played the concert, and the concert was great, therefore I should do that again.’ Anything that creates a pattern creates an anchor. First it’s conscious and then it’s unconscious. When it’s unconscious it isn’t only an anchor, it’s a habit.” Is that your experience as well?
RAM DASS: It’s like Gurdjieff says, the alarm clock that awakens you one day will put you to sleep the next. I have certain patterns, yet I don’t expect any single component to work every night. Sometimes one works and sometimes it doesn’t. The lectures start at 7:30, and I arrive at a quarter to six, which gives me a chance to find a corner, a dressing room, which is going to be my space. I have a candle, a little bit of incense, a picture of Jesus, a picture of my guru, and I set these up with a few holy books and I put my coat down. Then I walk around and I say hello to all the volunteers and I do the sound check and get the lights right, and make sure the chair’s comfortable. Then I go back and I cool out for about ten or fifteen minutes, sitting in the dark with just a candle. Then as people come in, I meet them in the lobby, hugging and saying hello. It’s as if I’m letting their consciousness determine what I’m going to say. In Des Moines, Iowa, it’s a different group of people than it is in Chapel Hill. So I’m just tuning to the consciousnesses. Then sometimes, people ask for my autograph and my heart isn’t open because they want something I can’t really be comfortable giving. So then I’ll go back to my little corner and be quiet. Then I’ll come out again and try some more and appreciate people coming and reaching out, and the culture that allows us to come together like this. I just get into the awesome beauty of the whole phenomenon. Then sometimes it’s too much for me and I pull back. And I’ll walk up and down the aisle saying hello to people and looking in their faces and meeting them, saying, “What’s your name . . . nice to meet you . . . thanks for coming,” and really feeling it. Making eye contact with each person. And sometimes a soul just leaps out at you and sometimes it’s, “Ooh, it’s Ram Dass,” you know, that quality. And I just keep playing with it. And we usually set it up so that the last three numbers are Aretha Franklin doing gospel, which allows me to really get going into a sort of emotional dancing mode. I go out on stage around the second gospel number so that I’ve got a whole gospel number to get comfortable and get my water poured and everything all set — get really relaxed. By the time the music has ended, I’m really here. I’m relaxed and I’ve met the audience and I’ve been quiet back in the room. But they’re all in different proportions every night. I do have rituals, but they’re kind of liquidy rituals. I try to tune to God and to emptiness, and also be with the people. And people come up and say, “My child has just been diagnosed as having cancer,” or something. There’s the thickness of the humanity. And I must say, there are always people coming up and saying, “I was at your lecture five years ago. It changed my whole life. Your books and tapes, I go to bed with them every night,” which is fun. I love it. Of course I love being helpful to other human beings. I milk it for all it’s worth.
SUN: Do you have a daily ritual?
RAM DASS: Well, touring is very tight — it defines almost everything. I usually spend my mornings on the phone doing newspaper and radio interviews for all the tours coming up.
SUN: Do you meditate?
RAM DASS: No. Service is my yoga. I’ll take off now and then for a meditation retreat, but lecturing itself is a meditation. Once I sit down in that chair cross-legged, I really go into another space of quietness in which I’m just watching the forms. It’s very interesting. That is like a two-hour meditation every other day. What I’m trying to learn to do is experience and articulate what karma yoga is all about, which is using the stuff of life as the vehicle of awakening. For years what I did was to live my life, then go back into my room to prepare myself to live it again. Now I’m seeing whether the stuff itself can do it for me. And when the toxicities build up and it’s too much and I can’t handle it anymore, I try to examine it. I almost do go under at times. And those are the times when I’m hanging on by my fingernails and saying, “OK, am I going to just jump back into a meditative place to get my center back, or am I going to keep converting this stuff and keep coming back through it?” And I’m really working at it. That’s the most exciting adventure of my life, in a way. And I expect that by next April when I’ve finished this tour, either I’ll be a basket case ready for a meditation retreat somewhere, or I’ll be full of energy and light, playful and empty — depending on how much I can transmute it. How much is it true that I only want to be free?
SUN: Why do you carry a picture of Jesus? What does Jesus represent to you?
RAM DASS: He represents something I’m beginning to know very well. It’s a feeling of loving somebody incredibly, knowing that you can’t take their suffering away, wishing you could, knowing that it’s all right, all at once. It’s the bittersweet poignancy of the moment.
SUN: The cross represents that same poignancy.
RAM DASS: Exactly. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are such a brilliant, spiritual statement for the relief of suffering of other beings. He’s just saying so clearly, “I am not this body. I took a human birth. You aren’t this body either. If you hear this, you’re free. Look, I’ll go get crucified and I’ll be back in a few days and show you.” In that sense, he did make a statement that could take everybody’s suffering away. Let those who can hear, hear. I love it in its symbolic, exquisite sharpness, its clearness. And how it was misused! Christ would turn over on his cross! Yet, I can sense in him the knowledge that this would happen, too.
SUN: What distinction do you make between Jesus and Christ?
RAM DASS: I think of Jesus as a storyline and I think of Christ as that consciousness, or that love, that is the same as the Buddha mind or pure awareness or Brahma. I think of it as the One. Jesus is a semi-historical storyline that has a certain teaching in the story itself. To say that Jesus is the only way is a perversion. To say that Christ is the only way is a certainty. We are all the Christ and it’s the only way. I just tell people, focus on Christ, not on Christianity.
The highest compliment most people pay me is, “Thank you for being so human.” Isn’t that an extraordinary compliment? I mean, if I put something on my tombstone, it would be, “He was human.” Isn’t that bizarre? After all these years of trying to be holy?
The highest compliment most people pay me is, “Thank you for being so human.” Isn’t that an extraordinary compliment? I mean, if I put something on my tombstone, it would be, “He was human.” Isn’t that bizarre? After all these years of trying to be holy?
SUN: What does the picture of your guru mean to you?
RAM DASS: Sometimes it means nothing to me. And sometimes I feel him loving me so deeply that he allows me to love myself. Sometimes I experience the grace that he allows me to do his work. And sometimes I experience him as laughing at me. Sometimes he’s laughing with me. Sometimes he’s chiding me. Sometimes he’s just snuggling up to me. Sometimes he’s very remote and cold and distant. Sometimes he’s looking at me and saying, “Aren’t you ever going to finish with all that shit?” Sometimes he’s just an old friend. Sometimes he’s like a doorway into this vast, vast, infinitely vast space. He’s always my closest friend, even when I hate him.
When it was discovered that Phyllis, my stepmother, had a growth, we were waiting to find out if it was malignant. The doctor called, and we were both going to listen on the phone because I was going to be with her through all of this. And Maharaji’s picture was there. So I said to Maharaji, “I could never ask you for anything because you know what’s best. But if it’s all the same to you, could you make it benign?” And the doctor came on and said, “It’s malignant and it’s the worst kind. If we don’t get it out in a few weeks you’ll be dead.” And I felt my heart close, just like that, and I thought, “You son of a bitch.” And the next moment I was flooded with such love and such light. I can’t tell you what happened! It was like whoosh! And then I realized this was an expression of his love, too. That’s another way we are in love, through the unbending law of the universe unfolding. And I was closer to him after that.
Once you’ve touched something as real as Maharaji is for me, it’s like a protective shield against your own impurities and everybody else’s. You can get sucked in for a moment but you keep coming back to the touchstone. I would like just to die into him. But I realize that I can’t die into him, I’ve got to die into me. I can’t become a little Maharaji. I’ve got to become a perfect Richard Alpert or Ram Dass and it will be the same as Maharaji. But it means honoring the unique form, not imitating another form. It’s like feeling your way into your humanity without denying your divinity.
This interesting thing happened in Burma. I went to Rangoon to sit. It was the most intense meditative space I’d ever been in. There are 800 Burmese and five Westerners meditating from three in the morning to eleven at night — no surcease. I mean, it’s full-time. You don’t walk anywhere, you don’t read anything. Well, I had snuck into the place with my picture of Maharaji and one hundred poems of Kabir. I’d planned to be there for three months, so I figured one poem a day. And two one-pound bags of M&Ms, one with peanuts and one without peanuts. So each day I would allow myself a poem of Kabir, a look at Maharaji’s picture and two plain M&Ms and two peanut M&Ms. That was a little edge in my personal life. And about the second week, I woke up one morning and I started to hear, “Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram, Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram,” which is the mantra I learned in India in ’67, and chanted for years. I couldn’t stop hearing it. First, I thought somebody was singing it, then I realized it was my mind because the traffic was singing it, the cows were singing it. I thought, “This is not what I came here for. I’m supposed to be following my breath.” I’d try to follow my breath but between the in-breath and the out-breath, I’d hear it! I thought, “Oh my God, I’m going insane!” I couldn’t hold my ears because it was inside. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t want to tell the teacher. I was embarrassed by it. But after about a week I went to the teacher and said, “I’m noticing this chanting going on all around me and in myself.” And he said, “Oh, you’ve been in India?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “You’ve studied in some of those disciplines?” I said, “Yes.” He laughed. “Well,” he said, “take refuge in the Buddha. It will help.” So I went back to my cell, and can you imagine — I’m going to take refuge in the Buddha to get rid of Ram? I’m not being distracted by lust, I’m not being distracted by power or greed, I’m being distracted by another spiritual method. I mean, that’s bad! Can you imagine using Buddha to get rid of Ram? There’s something obscene about this. And here I am, Ram Dass! So I thought, “I am seeking truth. And I believe Maharaji’s truth and Ram’s truth and any method I use purely will bring me to truth and will bring me closer to Maharaji. So I’ll put away the picture and I’ll put away the poems. I won’t put away the M&Ms because that’s not a part of that. But I’ll put away these other things, and I’ll just do the method.” It was the first time I came to grips with the Buddhist teaching about Right Effort, where you take full responsibility for something. See, I’d been under “Not my but thy will” and “I can’t do anything, you do it for me.” And I’d always been afraid of personal power because of my fear of misusing it, because of my history of misusing it, because of my lust and my greed. When I was given power I used it to hurt people or to get something. That’s a real deep neurosis inside me. So I accepted personal responsibility for my spiritual practice. I set Maharaji aside as a father figure who’d do it for me. The minute I did that the chanting stopped. And I started to experience this tremendous force coming down into me. The fear of letting it come into me — because of my identification with it as my force — had made it get weird. And I was so busy saying, “It’s not me, it’s Maharaji, it’s not me” because I was afraid that if I said it was me, it would corrupt me, or I would corrupt it. And the minute I would say, “OK, let it be, let it come through me, it’s OK, and it is my power and the power and my power is an instrument of the power,” there was something that clicked in. It was the first time I had done an extensive meditation retreat when I had come out more moist than when I went in. Usually I’d come out dry as a bone and wanting love and warmth. But I came out soft. I came out feeling closer to Maharaji than I was before. And I think I’ve been much more comfortable with my own power since that time. I don’t think I’m nearly as afraid that I’m going to misuse it. I’m now willing to use my discrimination in ways I never would before.
SUN: Just imagine what will happen when you give up the M&Ms.
RAM DASS: (Laughs.) I’ve been through pizza and root beer — I can make it!
SUN: Concerning the use of discrimination, in the past you’ve been reluctant to comment critically on other spirtual teachers. In recent years there have been a number of scandals which have left people feeling they had been led astray, whether by Rajneesh or Muktananda or whomever. Do you feel any responsibility to speak out for the benefit of others?
RAM DASS: My way of dealing with that has been not to spend my time becoming a connoisseur of clay feet, but rather to take whatever teachings I could get, and to realize that if I came to a teacher with a pure heart, I’d get a pure teaching. If they were doing something impure, it would be their karma. I didn’t have to protect me from them: the purity of my intent would protect me. If I wanted power then I’d get sucked into the power games. But if I wanted God, I’d just take from them that which would help me get to God. I think people get what they get because of what they want.
I have no idea who these guys are. I really don’t. I mean, I look at Rajneesh and it is inconceivable to me that anybody has an ego that needs all those Rolls-Royces. I can only see it as an exquisite chiding of the culture: by taking the symbol of opulence in our culture and making a joke of it, he has created a beautiful Tantric game. At the same moment, the paranoia that attended his scene and all of that ugliness with the people in Oregon turns my heart off. And I wouldn’t have anything to do with it. I trust my own intuitive heart about that, and I trust everybody else’s intuitive heart to know what they’re getting into. So I am inclined to say to people: trust your heart, because I don’t know any more than you know. It might be the greatest Tantric teaching. I mean, Trungpa Rimpoche is a rascal. He’s a hell of a teacher, an extremely profound guy. But he’s also quite a wild man. Parts of him turn me off but I’ll sit at his feet and take tremendous teachings from him. It may be that some parts turn me off because there’s too much attachment in me yet to hear those parts, or it may be that it’s his corruption. I have no idea! So I’ve learned to try not to judge these guys. And I don’t feel I have to protect others. I think the protective mechanism is in individuals. I think they get what they get because it’s what they want. I don’t think there’s any Indian saint who hasn’t had some people cast aspersions on him for something or other. So, it’s hard to know. I mean, Maharaji is thought of as a rascal, as a dirty old man. And maybe he was, I don’t know.
SUN: What is your view of the AIDS epidemic? How do you think it’s changing the awareness of the whole culture?
RAM DASS: I know what it isn’t. It isn’t punishment. In a way AIDS is reconsecrating sexuality, making sex and death connected — making sex precious again, rather than something trivial. It’s like living in the moment with death over your left shoulder. It’s that quality that has come into sex now. “Does this act mean enough to you so that you would die for it?” I think it has weighted the balance toward more commitment in a monogamous relationship so that people will go deeper into relationships rather than jumping from bed to bed. I think it’s gotten people to weigh the meaning of the sexual act more, and possibly to be able to tolerate a lot more horniness without expressing it as immediately as they had in the past. I don’t see any of that as bad. And not good. It’s just what is. It’s not better or worse, just what is. What I noticed in the gay community was that AIDS brought to the surface a tremendous amount of compassion that had absolutely not been there before. I was teaching a workshop for a group of buddies who were going to be AIDS helpers — all young, mainly gay guys. And I looked around and said, “You know, five years ago I couldn’t have been in this room without being distinctly uncomfortable, because everybody would have been focused on everybody else’s crotch, and who they were going to go to bed with, and who was sexually desirable. And suddenly, here we all are, meeting out of caring and compassion for other human beings. We can see other qualities in each other.” We can hate AIDS as a terrible blight, and it certainly has brought the gay rights movement to a screeching halt, but at the same moment, it is having this spin-off.
In my own life, I watched that place in me which goes with my particular sexual patterns, to link sex and death, to be attracted to the sexuality that would increase the risk. I could see that place in me. But it isn’t strong anymore. Ever since I’ve known that, my sex has been what’s called “safe sex.” I saw that tendency in me to take tremendous risks in sexuality, risks that could get me killed. I mean, dark nights in strange countries looking for sex in the middle of the night. That kind of obsessive stuff, where the more exciting and the more threatening, the more sexually exciting it was. I felt that particular link in myself very much over the years. And I could see that AIDS brought that to the light. It’s not strong enough anymore to lead me to be promiscuous. I’ve not been tested for AIDS, which interests me. I feel that if I were going to be promiscuous with another human being, I would have to be tested for AIDS. I don’t think I could take the karma of spreading something to somebody else. But I think that I would almost rather just not do either of those things.
Among homosexuals, the most likely way to spread AIDS is anal intercourse, and that has never been anything that appealed to me anyway. The lowest probability is deep kissing. And mutual masturbation is not a major way of transmitting. So that’s enough for me. That’s fine. See, as you know, I’m bisexual. I have relationships with a woman and with a man and I have had these relationships with the same people for years. I think we’re aware that we may be at minor risk, but we know what we’re doing and we’re willing to live with that possibility.
In San Francisco, there’s a whole list of AIDS patients that I see. It’s a strange experience to be with a young guy, somebody I am attracted to, and he’s got the worst symptoms of AIDS, and I’m loving him so much, and holding him. And it’s right on the edge of everything all at once. It’s the holding unto death, and it’s the lusting and the desiring. God, I can’t tell you how much of everything it is at that moment. And anything less than that would be giving him less than my truth. And you’ve got to give your truth to another human being. And I’ll say to him, “I’d love to make love with you now, but I really don’t think I should die for that.” It’s interesting. Many of these people with AIDS want to test the limits with everybody: “How much do you love me? Die with me.”
SUN: I’d like you to address the general question of relationship. Wendell Berry, in a poem called “Marriage,” wrote, “We hurt and are hurt and have each other for healing. It is healing, it is never whole.” Is it possible to feel completely whole with another person?
RAM DASS: I think it’s possible but I don’t think it’s probable. It may be possible for a moment, but to keep it continuously that way takes such conscious effort. The love that’s beyond romanticism has to so permeate the relationship that all the deceptions and posturings and judgements bow before it. And that love is cultivated through the yearning of those two beings to use their relationship as their major spiritual work. It’s a full-time job.
SUN: Do you yearn for that kind of relationship yourself?
RAM DASS: I really love my friends deeply, my lovers and my friends. My relations with all of these people have incredible beauty, and yet the idea of living with any single one of them doesn’t appeal to me at all, because every relationship brings out certain qualities in me but not others. And I like the kind of changing panorama that keeps bringing up different parts of my being. I notice that some of them just go into the shadows when I’m with any one individual. I mean, it’s not a question of whether I can do it or not. It’s a question of why would I do it? I don’t yearn for it, no. I did. Or I thought I should. I thought I must be missing something and that I must be terribly afraid. But then I was with people and I went in so deeply with them, and I saw that we could keep exploring, but that wasn’t enough for me. I can’t tell . . . I can’t even hear in my voice whether that’s dissembling or not.
SUN: Five years ago, you were describing a relationship you were in with a man, and you had just come through a difficult winter which had sent you back into therapy. There was a lot of jealousy and difficult feelings associated with the relationship. And you said at the time that a desire for a kind of intimacy had been very great in you, and you were finally acknowledging that.
RAM DASS: What happened was that I gave up my romantic images of that relationship, and then we started to become friends. As our friendship has deepened, we have become lovers again, but in a whole other way. Not out of any grasping, but out of celebration of just this delight in being together. And yet there are no temporal or spatial demands of each on the other. I mean, I could see him twice a year and it would be fine, talk to him maybe once a month on the phone. It would be all right. There’s no “I miss you.” There’s just a tremendous joy in being together, and a real appreciation that we are really in here together. So, in a way, all that was part of that process.
SUN: So you don’t miss anybody and don’t miss missing anybody?
RAM DASS: That’s exactly right!
SUN: It sounds pretty good.
RAM DASS: Yeah, I know, but. . . .
SUN: Where are the M&Ms?
RAM DASS: (Laughs.) I shouldn’t have gotten off so easily. Maybe I’ll end up a bitter old man, alone in an old folks’ home, rocking back and forth, everybody having forgotten me. My Jewish training isn’t letting me off the hook just yet. “Sure,” (in a Yiddish accent) “he didn’t need anybody! Sure!”
SUN: There are other aspects of relationship I’d like you to talk about — for example, the relationship between the individual and society. “Changing society” and “working on oneself” are often viewed as quite different and incompatible. Yet I know you have spoken about how they aren’t really separate. How do you reconcile them within yourself?
RAM DASS: I’ve been directing a lot of attention to how they are not separate. Recently, I was walking on the Great Peace March, and one evening I said to the marchers, “You’re making this brilliant statement, just by doing the thing you’re doing. But use it to work on yourselves. If you want peace by the end of this march, something about this march should have made you more peaceful, so that the means and the ends are peace. Because at the end of the march, peace isn’t going to appear. You’re going to go out into life, and the march should have prepared you to carry forth the torch of this march, so that the rest of your life is the Great Peace March. To the extent you’re filling your mind with anger because there’s not enough media coverage, you are perpetuating the problem you’re trying to get rid of. So, it really behooves you to work on yourselves, to become an instrument of the thing you represent.”
Dan Ellsberg and I have had this very intense dialogue. Dan was chiding me because I kept saying how important it is that activists sit and learn how to be quiet. And he said it’s not only important that you learn to sit, it’s important where you sit. I think it is exquisite when you can integrate both of those.
I have a sense of the shared consciousness in the world. For example, I’m helping to support a friend who’s doing a three-year meditation retreat in southern France. Now, is he helping the world or not? My knowing that he’s there, committing himself to that — I’m a part of him that’s doing that, and he’s a part of me that’s doing what I’m doing. In a way, we’re standing on each other’s shoulders. It’s too narrow to think everybody should be doing any one thing.
You can’t wait until you’re enlightened to serve people. You know that your service, because it’s from a less than enlightened place, is relieving the suffering only a certain amount, and in some way digging the hole deeper. In view of that, you use your service as a way of working on yourself in order to become pure, in order that your service might become pure. So there is a circle. It can come through social action, which is what I’m trying to figure out how to do. Social action is a vehicle for working on oneself. It’s like when I say to an audience, “I am really not here for your well-being. I am here because this is what I do and I’m trying to learn how to do it purely. What you get out of it is your karmic predicament. It’s not mine. If I get caught in yours, that’s not going to help you or me.” It’s a hard one to say or to hear. People say, “Thank you for being here.” Why thank you? I didn’t do it for you.
SUN: You say you’re not here for them, but it’s also true you are here for them.
RAM DASS: I know. In fact, I used to say, “I don’t care about you,” and it was cruel and it wasn’t true. In the sense that the Bhagavad Gita enjoins us not to be attached to the fruits of our actions, what I’m really saying is, “Look, I’m doing this because I’m doing this. If I’m attached to what you get out of it, it is a lesser doing.”
SUN: Does this have anything to do with the fear you spoke of earlier? Isn’t there an element of that in pushing away other people’s appreciation of you?
RAM DASS: I hear your point. I’m a little sloppy because I’m still counteracting the feeling I get when people say, “What courage you have!” In my lectures, I talk about Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta, picking up a leper lying in his own vomit. And you look at that and say, “What courage she has!” But if you listen to her, she says, “I’m taking care of Christ in his distressing disguises.” She’s in love with Christ, so she’s taking care of her beloved. She’s being with her beloved at that moment. Now, can you imagine lying in bed with your beloved, and somebody comes up and says, “What a courageous thing you’re doing!” It’s as bizarre as that. But people look at one level and not at another level. And there is a level at which I look out at the audience and they are so beautiful and their reaching is so pure, and my reaching is so pure, and how can we do anything but help each other as much as we can? The highest compliment most people pay me is, “Thank you for being so human.” Isn’t that an extraordinary compliment? I mean, if I put something on my tombstone, it would be, “He was human.” Isn’t that bizarre? After all these years of trying to be holy?
SUN: That’s really what everybody hungers for, isn’t it? People are so afraid, so ashamed. We put a lot of energy into hiding.
RAM DASS: What I’m trying to do publicly is not hide my humanity. And that gives other people license. You know it’s interesting — every time I, as a public figure, get up and say, “Look, I’m bisexual,” or, “I have homosexual relations,” something happens in which people suddenly feel it’s all right for them to be whatever they are.
I went into a hall the other night and people said, “Oh, Ram Dass is coming.” Loving, smiling, happy people. Now we put out a brochure telling the people who are organizing the lecture all the things they should prepare. One of the things I really like is a mini-boom, which is a microphone with an arm out. I can put it behind me or have it low and it doesn’t get in my way. I sit cross-legged so if there’s a straight up-and-down mike, it doesn’t get in close enough and I’ve got to spend the whole evening leaning forward. So I walked into this hall and was full of love and happiness and I look at the stage and there’s a straight up-and-down mike. I said, “Where’s the mini-boom?” The manager of the building said, “Well, that’s all we have.” I said, “Well, it was specified that there be a mini-boom.” I was getting really tight, because I saw that all evening I would be reaching for the mike, and it changes the consciousness. “Well, if that’s all we have,” I said, “we’ll have to use it.” But I was really making everybody pay. And I was watching myself be caught in it. As I got up to lecture and I was speaking about love and the heart, I said to the audience, “I’ve got to tell you, as I walked in here, I turned into the worst shrewish bastard in the world. I just didn’t realize the microphone was my guru in drag, coming to say, ‘I’ll get you this time.’ ”
SUN: It’s been twenty years since you met Maharaji. The Sixties and the Seventies came and went. When you look back on that time, what seems significant and enduring?
RAM DASS: I think what happened in the Sixties in terms of shifting consciousness is much more profoundly entrenched in the culture than the culture yet realizes. Something very deep did happen to the culture. The reaction against it in the Seventies, yuppiness and all that, is partly in response to the impurity of the Sixties — because, besides its purity, there was impurity in it, too, as there is in any human venture. But the deepest change I saw was the loosening of a kind of monolithic, absolutist way of looking at the universe, into a kind of a relative reality framework. Then, that got institutionalized through rock-and-roll music, Dylan, the Beatles. It fed into the consciousness of the generation and it permeated the culture. I know it’s happened because when I look at my audiences in most of the cities, I would say that seventy percent of them have never smoked dope, never taken drugs, never been to the East, never read philosophy, and yet there they are! And I’m saying the same thing I was saying twenty years ago. Who are they? Where did they come from? Why would they want to hear Ram Dass?
When you consider the Bomb, the media which allow us to transcend space, computers which allow us to get out of real time, transportation which makes the world shrink, psychedelics, the change in the power balance in the international political scene — all of these things are great for the awakening consciousness. I mean if I were playing God, this might be the way I’d do it. Throwing in AIDS along the way, too. It’s really far out to consider these possibilities, that all this isn’t some monstrous error, but an exquisite process of forcing awakening.
SUN: Do you have a sense of what might be emerging from this? Do you look into the future?
RAM DASS: I’m inclined to think of evolution individually, not culturally. I would be naive if I didn’t acknowledge that we’re more sophisticated about a lot of things, but the greed, hatred, lust all seem to still be around in profusion. And working with that stuff seems to be the essence of what a human birth is. So maybe the forms are changing, but I’m not sure the essence of it is changing at all.
I’m asked night after night, “Is this the new age, or is it Armageddon?” And I say, “I thought I should have an opinion about this, but as I examined it I saw that if it was going to be Armageddon and I was going to die, the best thing to do to prepare for it would be to quiet my mind, open my heart and deal with the suffering in front of me. And if it was going to be the new age, the best thing to do would be to quiet my mind, open my heart and deal with the suffering in front of me. It turned out it didn’t matter. So I don’t care.” That really is the way I feel about it.
SUN: What thoughts do you have about drugs, and the concern today about drug use?
RAM DASS: I think cocaine is a lousy drug of social choice. It’s like alcohol. Our culture seems to have an amazing skill at picking lousy politicians and drugs.
SUN: Do you do drugs anymore?
RAM DASS: I’ve taken MDMA three times this year. I took acid last year. I’ve smoked marijuana two times in the last six months. That’s about it. I’m not busy not taking them. I don’t seem to have much yearning to take them.
SUN: Did those experiences feel useful? Did you have any regrets?
RAM DASS: I’d say both. They were a little useful, and I also regretted doing it. I don’t like what they do to my body, first of all. They’re very hard on my body and as you get older you really notice it more. And afterward they always seem like . . . it’s like sex that came out of lust. What the hell did I do that for?
SUN: Have you ever taken a drug, believing it was the best way to achieve a certain state of awareness, and then concluded, before the experience was over, that taking the drug wasn’t necessary at all?
RAM DASS: Yes, that’s exactly the way I’ve felt. But I won’t make any general conclusion about it. Because now and then, when I take a drug, I get some direct experience that’s worth something to me.
SUN: Do you feel vulnerable acknowledging that you do drugs occasionally?
RAM DASS: Well, my audience usually includes a good smattering of people who are in drug rehabilitation programs and Al-Anon and AA, and they don’t want to hear this. I don’t really like to push against people and antagonize them. I don’t talk drug talk in my lectures. But in the questions and answers it always comes up and I always answer the question as directly as I can. I don’t say more and I don’t say less but I answer the question. I don’t feel it’s my cause, any more than gayness is my cause.
SUN: Are there any questions that are significantly embarrassing or uncomfortable?
RAM DASS: I think it has to do with who’s in the audience. I mean, there are certain kinds of groups where a drug question is hard for me to deal with, because I want to be truthful and yet most of the audience doesn’t want to hear it. Or sometimes my sexuality would be uncomfortable for the audience to live with. I mean, I’m a Biblical affront to them, and yet they like me, and it’s really pushing them. I don’t want to push. I don’t have an ax to grind. Other than that, I kind of like the ones that push my buttons. I like it when I’m slightly off balance. That’s nice because I feel it’s the most living moment. I also like it when I’m completely in control, and I’m just prancing, high as a kite. I love that too.
SUN: Are you always honest with everybody?
RAM DASS: No. I think I’m too enamored of the good story. I’m too much of a storyteller. I notice the way I cut edges to make the story fit a more beautiful image. I am truthful about the big things but not about the little things. I don’t know how to deal, for example, with feeling lousy. I don’t know how to deal with coming before an audience that has come out of the hills and driven hundreds of miles and paid money to hear me, and really feeling that I don’t want to talk. I don’t know how to handle that. If I say to them, “I don’t want to talk to you,” it’s not right, and yet that’s my truth, and if I don’t say my truth, it’s all a lie.
SUN: But when you’re asked a direct question, do you ever find yourself not being truthful then?
RAM DASS: I’m sleazy. I won’t say a direct lie, but I will infer something that could be a lie, make it appear a certain way by the way I use words, take the edge off, take the pain away from myself. I feel myself do that. I’m working to get straighter and straighter. But I’ve got to feel safer and safer. And sometimes I just don’t feel safe enough to be that truthful. I like only to protect myself. That would be my only reason to lie.
SUN: Are there particular areas where you feel less safe — drugs or sex or money?
RAM DASS: They’re changing so fast, it’s almost as if we’re talking about a historical thing. I almost don’t care about these anymore. But I would say, yes, those three things.
SUN: How is money controversial?
RAM DASS: A guy came up to me the other night. He looked like a street person. He was an older man, about fifty-five; he had a certain kind of twinkle, and a certain wisdom. But he was all smelly and seedy and I don’t know how he got into the lecture hall. I can’t imagine he paid to get in, but there he was. And he came up front and said, “Very interesting. You know, you should give up your money and your credit cards.” I said, “Thank you. I hear you.” And he smiled and shuffled off. I mean, it wasn’t heavy-handed. He just laid that on me and I heard it very clearly.
I’m almost at the point where I’m just ignoring money and using what I need and assuming there’ll be enough, and not worrying about it. I think that’s the way I’m free of it. But I don’t really know, because it’s so easy to come by. I really don’t know what I’d do if I were thrown out in the street without my wallet and without being Ram Dass. I assume I’d look for a job and get a room in a rooming house and what would happen would happen. And if there wasn’t a job I’d be one of those people in the soup kitchen. If it wasn’t that, I’d be sitting in a park and I’d be cold and hungry and then I’d be dead. I think I could go through all those stages and stay pretty conscious through all that. But I think it would be phony to do it intentionally.
I live in a rented house with my father. It’s a very wealthy neighborhood, a Republican alcoholic neighborhood. It’s on the ocean, very posh. The rent is exorbitant, $2200 a month. My father is so old, he goes from the toilet to the bed. But he’s familiar with this place.
It looked like they were going to sell it out from under us, which I thought was great. Because I didn’t have the guts to move him, but if they sold it, we would have to move. Then a friend suggested that we all get some land together with a couple of houses in western Massachusetts. So we found a house with beautiful acreage and a beautiful river and it was $260,000. And I was going to have to put $100,000 down. I — who usually has $300 in the bank — was suddenly figuring out where I am going to get $100,000. Well, I started to scrape and pull and suddenly it was appearing. I had control of my father’s estate, so I was borrowing money from him, and also holding on to money instead of letting it go through me so fast. The more I was doing it the less pleasant it felt. Then a structural engineer said this house was no good. And my friend found another house that was even better — $400,000. Well, I figured if we spent $260,000, why not $400,000? It’s all numbers anyway. Then I noticed that the thought that I was going to be carrying a mortgage of so much a month was influencing my decisions about my lecture schedule. Usually my whole decision is based on, is it in my best spiritual interest, is it the most dharmic thing to do, will it be timely? Suddenly, it all had to do with my mortgage. And I was accepting things that were paying a lot of money that I didn’t want to accept, just because they were going to cover that mortgage. And I got sick to my stomach. The house was assessed to be a steal for $400,000. It had a pond, 100 acres. We could have big meetings there. It would be lovely. I mean, it was everything. In the meantime, the people who owned the house we were living in pulled it off the market and said they’d give us a new lease. I pulled out of the other thing. I thought, I just can’t do it. And everybody was very perturbed with me. Everybody was all ready for the move. We’d gone through the whole exercise, down to the lawyers and the financing. I know now I’ll never own a house. And I have a lot of compassion for people who have families and who have to own houses and who have to pay mortgages. That was good for me to do.
I’ve wondered sometimes whether my lifestyle has insulated me against pain. When somebody says their child has been raped and murdered, I can sit down and write a beautiful letter, but I wonder . . . my child hasn’t been raped and murdered. I wonder how really compassionate I am. But what can I do? I can’t manufacture it. It’s just an opening of the heart, deeper and deeper. Often people can say to me, “It’s easy for you to say.” And I think it is. It is easy for me to say. But then, how can you equate sufferings?
SUN: Victor Frankl, who survived the concentration camps, said human suffering is like a gas. Just as gas pumped into an empty chamber will fill the chamber completely, so will suffering fill the soul, no matter whether it’s about something great or small.
RAM DASS: Somebody has a blemish on his face, and somebody else has multiple sclerosis, and both of them are suffering. It’s really hard to judge. I just address the suffering itself. Suffering is suffering, you could say. If you’ve had great pain in your life about anything, you know what suffering is, and you’re speaking from that place.
SUN: Then there’s the kind of suffering that arises simply from being caught in the separateness of an incarnation.
RAM DASS: That’s true. But as you realize that and open your heart to it, you can then allow everybody’s suffering to be your suffering. As long as you’re not caught in your own separateness, you don’t have to push it away, you don’t have to do all those things that create more separateness and more suffering.
Last year my dear friend Cameron visited me shortly after he’d been diagnosed with AIDS. I gave him my copy of The Sun with the Ram Dass interview [“The Heart of Compassion,” Issue 135]. I’d found it so healing and wonderful, and wanted to share it with him. Soon after, Cameron told me that he’d subscribed to The Sun.
This summer I learned that Cameron was dying. I visited him in Maine, where he was being cared for by friends. It was clear that he had been preparing to die — simplifying his surroundings, getting rid of his possessions. Yet, sitting in his living room near the hearth, was an impeccably-stacked pile of Suns. It meant a lot to me that Cameron was still keeping The Sun around. I felt so loved and supported by your presence at that moment.
He died on Labor Day. In a few hours I’m going to a memorial service being held for him at the Friends Meeting House.
Thanks for giving me something I can share with friends whom I love as much as I’ve loved Cameron.