To some, Ram Dass’ story is as familiar as their own. He is a superb storyteller, with a flair for the dramatic and a keen sense of timing. His humorous tales about his inner struggles have kept us laughing for years.
To others, Ram Dass is an unknown — there were no reporters at his talk here last month — or perhaps he’s vaguely identified with a carny-world of gurus, teachers, and spiritual leaders, with strange-sounding names and stranger ideas.
There’s nothing stranger than his own life, nothing more quintessentially American. At 49, he’s one of the best-known, most widely-respected spiritual teachers in the West. His book, Be Here Now, was a phenomenal best-seller; his ability to translate ancient Eastern ideas into language that penetrates Western minds and hearts is unique. So is his cultural savvy; first, he’s talking about pizza and Jimmy Carter and LSD, then he’s describing the trance-like state of samadhi or reading from the Ramayana.
He was born into a well-to-do New England family as Richard Alpert. (His father was a lawyer and later president of the New Haven Railroad.) He studied psychology, got his doctorate from Stanford, and became a professor at Harvard. By outward appearances he was happy and successful — he had a Mercedes, an MG, a motorcycle, a sailboat, and a Cessna 172 airplane; he played the cello and hosted dinner parties; he was much in demand as a teacher and as a therapist. But something was missing. The academic world “didn’t really have a grasp on the human condition . . . the whole thing was too empty.”
One day, down the hall, a new colleague moved in. The new psychology instructor was Timothy Leary. They became friends; Leary began experimenting with psychedelic mushrooms — which triggered, for him, “the deepest religious experience of my life” — and Alpert was invited to share. On that first trip, he went through a profound ego death, watching all his “personalities” — professor, lover, man-about-town — slip away. Then his body started disintegrating. The terror mounted, panic set in. But then he felt engulfed by calm. He had touched the inner “I,” the universal essence “independent of social and physical identity . . . beyond life and death.”
For the next six years, he kept ingesting psychedelic substances. He and Leary were tossed out of Harvard and Alpert criss-crossed the country, lecturing on psychedelics and the inner realms of consciousness that were opening for him. Eventually, he came to a dead-end: no matter how high you went on acid, you eventually came down. When a friend invited Alpert to accompany him to India, he accepted.
In India, he met his guru — a remarkable saint called Neem Karoli Baba, or Maharaji (in India, the title Maharaji — great king or wise one — is available for the taking by tea vendors or perfect masters). Their first encounter is related in Be Here Now. Alpert kept his distance while the other devotees threw themselves at the old man’s feet. At first, Maharaji teased him about the car he was driving, asking if he’d give it to him. Then he called him closer and whispered that the night before Alpert had been thinking his mother, who had died a year earlier. This was true, though Alpert had mentioned it to no one. He felt a wrenching inside him, and broke down. This was someone who “knew”; the journey was over, he was home.
He stayed on to study yoga and meditation for six months. When he returned to the U.S. in holy robes, his father whisked him away from the airport before anyone would see him. But it wasn’t long before thousands began to seek him out.
In the decade since, the changes have been less dramatic, but no less important. In 1970 he returned to India, “freaked out by how much I was lost in the world,” to have his guru assure him that he would eventually become “pure enough.” His guru died in 1973, which deeply shook Ram Dass, but in the years that followed Ram Dass says he has often met with Maharaji on other planes of consciousness.
In his books, and lectures, he keeps refining his message: his appeal is no longer merely to hippies and rebels, but to a broader constituency; he wears ordinary clothes again and his beard and hair are trimmed short; his own attachments, lusts and fears are discussed with a candor striking for any public figure, let alone a “spiritual” teacher. A few years ago, he became involved, spiritually and romantically, with a teacher named Joya in New York City; it was a disillusioning experience, exposing to Ram Dass his own spiritual greed. After 15 months, he disavowed her teachings — he wrote an article about it called “Egg on My Beard” — and many of his admirers were let down. Among the many inconsistencies of his life during that time: he insisted his own students be celibate, while he was making love with Joya, who was married. “Finally,” he wrote, “I had to admit that I had conned myself.”
In Ram Dass’ latest book, Miracle of Love, he explores more intimately than in his other works (The Only Dance There Is, Journey of Awakening, Grist for the Mill) his relationship to his guru, and the nature of this remarkable man. Reading it, it’s hard to resist the suggestion that Maharaji was an avatar on the order of Christ or the Buddha; at the very least, he was a saint of extraordinary awareness, with a profound love for all of humanity.
Ram Dass is the first to acknowledge he himself is no saint; but his passion is the quest for God, and everyone I spoke to who came in contact with him was moved by the depth of his caring and the clarity of his consciousness. The poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, seeing Ram Dass for the first time, wrote to me:
“I loved him. More than anyone else, I found him to be a poet of living. Taking the erring and righteous reflections of life and drinking them, to be the mirror we all see our faces in. He lives himself and it is what he does: on the edge, like the glow of sunset emanating off the blue rims of sky at dusk. And then he becomes the dark, the distance, the space we inhabit. But he flows from the center of what we experience as life; from the mix and muck and magic of the immense city comes the flow of his being to entangle itself in the starlight and bloodball of sunlight. Take it all into yourself, go from the One to the Two.”
I interviewed Ram Dass May 14 in my home near Chapel Hill. In our next issue, we’ll print excerpts from the benefit lecture he gave for THE SUN.
SUN: Many people who commented on your talk said they appreciated your not being so self-consciously holy anymore. That resonated because so many of us have been going through the same process. It’s always nice to get it mirrored back. . . . For this interview, I asked some friends for ideas for questions. One wanted me to ask, “Who are we, from where have we come, why have we come, and where will we go?”
RAM DASS: Heidegger says, I stick my finger into the soil to find the quality of the soil and when I stick my finger into the soil of existence it smells of nothing. Then he gets paranoid, and asks who’s responsible. Generally, the answer is that it’s none of your business. The rational mind is not a sufficiently expansive mechanism to be able to comprehend the nature of existence, because even that question has implications of time and source, and actually existence doesn’t exist within time and source. It just comes into time, but it doesn’t start at the beginning and end at the end. So the rational mind really can’t know the answers to those questions. It’s like why is the one the many? At one level, it isn’t. It’s all an illusion. At another level, you could say — like Meher Baba says — God takes form in order to know itself. Part of the totality is the separateness, including the oneness. These are all games of the mind. Actually you stop asking the question. Tell your friend you can become the answer but you can’t know it.
SUN: My friend’s other question was, “Can words convey spiritual truth?”
RAM DASS: Words are like the finger pointing at the moon. They point to what is unspeakable. They can take you into their method to get you beyond words. They only work if you don’t get lost in the content. They start moving you in a certain direction, but then you’ve got to let go. They’re not the ocean, they’re the diving board. But you walk out on the diving board to get into the ocean. So we can convey relative truth, not absolute truth.
SUN: What would be a good antidote for someone who’s in love with words?
RAM DASS: To do meditations in which you focus on the silence between words. On the silence out of which the words come. Words are like birds; they come and they go. You can become fascinated with the content, but if you just start to see them as words, not as content — not focusing on the meaning of the words, but on the sound of the words — eventually you become rooted in silence. Then the birds are singing, and the words are appearing. And that’s really a meditative act.
SUN: Do you still meditate regularly?
RAM DASS: Yes, I do a prayer to Hanuman [in Hinduism, God’s loyal servant, often depicted as a monkey] a number of times each day. It keeps me in that role of servant, listening to hear how it comes through, rather than focusing on my own trip. And then need long periods too, every few months. I would like to evolve — and I can feel it happening — to the point where the stuff of life doesn’t catch me anymore. So I’m at play with it, and I’m always in a meditative space. The thing is that it all has a certain kind of clinginess. It’s like static stuff in the laundry. You take it out of the dryer and it clings to things. It’s that kind of clinging, not heavy, thick, grabbing stuff. I mean I don’t get neurotically depressed, but it just slowly clings. I’m still fascinated, for example, by this or that. And there can be no fascination. You’ve got to break the fascination, finally.
SUN: When you say that the fascination needs to go, does that mean that the excitement or sheer creative pleasure goes too?
RAM DASS: No. The difference is that there is delight and playfulness and enjoyment and ecstasy, but there is no need for them. You enjoy them — when they’re there, but when they’re not, they’re not. The clinginess of the need makes the problem. The fascination is in grabbing for it, looking for stimulation all the time. If you don’t need stimulation, you can have it. Maharaji would say,“You need this cup of tea? You want it? Don’t drink it.” And you learn how to work with enjoying the cup of tea because you don’t need it. Enjoying the play of life, because you don’t need it.
SUN: What are you afraid of?
RAM DASS: Well, there are levels of that. When I’m very much in my psychological personality, I’m afraid of being unloved, being rejected, being judged, being laughed at, persecuted, hurt. The minute I quiet down, I’m really not afraid of anything. But I go in and out of those places. Every time I experience fear, I know I’ve gotten caught in a space, and it’s almost just a device for getting me to quiet down. I just know I lost my center. I’m interested that when I get into crisis situations, there’s no fear, because I get pulled out of myself. As long as I’m busy being me, I’m afraid almost all the time. Just like a lot of people. It’s poignant, and that’s about it.
SUN: What difference do you see between your public persona and your private self?
RAM DASS: Hardly any. I have made it a policy to make private public to the point where I don’t have to change. Who I am here is who I am on the stage. There are a few things I haven’t yet integrated into sharing publicly, because I don’t know quite how to do that, because of other human beings that I don’t want hurt. I am presently in a relationship with a man, a sexual relationship. I’ve been living with him for ten months. This is a young fellow, an artist out in California. And I haven’t yet figured out a way, because in his world and his life it wouldn’t be comfortable for him to be publicly defined as someone who lives with a man. It’s okay with me — I don’t want to hurt him, so I don’t want to focus on him. Because the minute people know there is somebody in my life that way, everybody with that kind of greed for gossip would want to know who he is and what it is, and they’d have his pictures and all that stuff. I don’t think that’s fair to him. So, it’s only out of that reason. But it’s not a difference in the quality of my being. He’s as much my work on myself as anything. As far as I’m concerned, my game is going to God. That’s all I know. I know that more and more clearly all the time. And I’ve said to him, I’d give you up in a second if I didn’t think this was useful to get me to God. I love you and you’re wonderful and I yearn to be with you and I’m happy when I’m with you and I love the intimacy and I yearned for it for years, and I’m finally letting myself have it and it’s wonderful. And it’s not worth shit if it doesn’t get me to God. And that’s really the way I feel about my life now. I think that if these lectures weren’t a payoff for me, in terms of me having to deal with power and fame and money and all this stuff, and trying to deal with it compassionately and consciously and without attachment, and working with my attachments to it, if it was not feeding that process, I wouldn’t do it. It’s not out of altruism. Because I realize now that those things are so interwoven that the work you do on yourself is what makes you free to liberate — you become a force that liberates other people. And you’re not a force that liberates other people if you’re too attached. So, I really can only work on myself as my offering to other human beings. I’m not doing it for them, nor am I doing it for me. I’m doing it because it’s what I do. But it has that effect. At one lecture recently, I got up and said to everybody, “I don’t want to be here tonight, to tell you the truth. The only reason I’m doing it is for the money.” And it was interesting, because there were a couple of thousand people who came to hear me. I felt that they should deal with that truth. If I don’t start from truth, forget it. Because every time I phony it, in the first few sentences of a lecture, I have to live the whole lecture with the phoniness I created. It was like last night, I really didn’t know how to begin. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, or what I was doing. So I said, well now you could start this way or that way, and I was just sort of figuring, let the audience deal with this issue, too. Why should I sit inside, making these decisions as if the audience is them. They’re not — they’re us. With us, you don’t have two personas, you have only one. I don’t have to straighten up and smile and look holy and get it together. I went into a gay club in some city I was in. It was a private club and you had to join, and to do it they took a picture of you to put on a little card. So they were taking my picture and the guy says, “Hey, aren’t you Ram Dass?” It was such a beautiful moment. It was like, Maharaji, you couldn’t have done it better.
SUN: That reminds me of your Deep Throat story.
RAM DASS: Standing in line to see the movie when the guy came down the street and recognized me. Those are all the same story. And they’re just about getting rid of all that private stuff. Listen, if I’ve got lust to deal with, I’ve got to deal with it. We’ve all got it. So, why should I assume that everybody in the theater has got it and I don’t?
SUN: What’s been your greatest disappointment in the past couple of years?
RAM DASS: Well, disappointment is a funny thing. Disappointments are exquisite clues to where you’re holding. And if you want to awaken, a disappointment becomes a great thing, so you get to love them as much as you hate them. They’re hurting you, and at the same moment they are awakening you to how you’re clinging. I really wanted Hanuman in America and I went to India and I had a fifteen hundred-pound statue of Hanuman prepared. A beautiful thing. I had it shipped to America and thought that the American satsang [communion, or spiritual community] would create a land and a temple, and so on. And then I realized that they couldn’t quite get it together. At the moment, it’s in a beautiful room in a home where we all come and visit it in Taos, New Mexico, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I can feel that now. But there was a period where I still had the model that everybody should get together and create a space, and they couldn’t do that because there was just too much dissension within the group. And there was disappointment in that. Then I saw that was just my model of how everybody should be a certain way, and I really enjoyed the fact that they were what they are, rather than what I thought they ought to be. I think I’ve been disappointed when I’ve wanted to share intimate space with someone who didn’t want to share with me. Not having fulfillment as a lover. I’ve had disappointment like that.
I don’t get neurotically depressed, but it just slowly clings. I’m still fascinated, for example, by this or that. And there can be no fascination. You’ve got to break the fascination, finally.
SUN: Do you get jealous?
RAM DASS: Yes, I get jealous, but I never get totally jealous. I don’t lose the space. The jealousy is part of my human condition, of my separateness from wanting that intimacy. I’m just beginning to experience what the quality of intimacy is with another human being and how it keeps me from God. And that’s one that I’m just beginning to play with now in my relationship. Because I see that intimacy is something that preserves your separateness. I don’t know how to describe that. It’s not union, it’s intimacy. When somebody I would like to have oriented around me orients in another way, and I lose that, my separateness screams. My spaciousness notices it. That part of me that wants God is in a way delighted. There’s all these different levels going on in me at once. Can you hear what I’m talking about?
SUN: Yes. When I get into that, the sense of how far I am from God in that moment hurts so much.
RAM DASS: Yes. But you get over that one. You stop picking on yourself so hard. Because otherwise, you’re using everything in order to become unlovable by God. And actually, God loves you all the time anyway. So, it’s only your mind, your guilt, your own stuff that’s taking you away from God. I realized that God doesn’t go away from you; you go away from God, you go away from the spirit with your own mind. So to feed anything that keeps you away from God is silly, which includes not only the jealousy, but the guilt about the jealousy or the self-pity because you’re so far from God — all those thought forms. It’s not the content of the thought, it’s just the thoughts themselves that keep me from God.
SUN: What do you do when the teachings go dry, when your inspirations don’t nourish anymore?
RAM DASS: There are three alternatives. You can sit with the dryness because it is all spiritual materialism and the dryness is as much a teaching as the wetness. So you sit with that because that is God, too. And to assume that the dryness means you have fallen from grace is just another part of the journey. People come and say, “I have fallen from grace, I’ve lost it,” and I say, “That’s interesting, what does that feel like?” And that’s part of it too. So one strategy is you just sit with it. Another is, you reinvest your method. Like sometimes Maharaji becomes a mechanical name I recite, in a mechanical set of rituals, and then I really stop. Like when I bless food, sometimes I am sitting around a dinner table or at a restaurant with my father or other people, and the food comes and everybody starts, and I want to bless the food but I don’t want to interfere with everybody so I do a quick blessing and I realize I did it mechanically and nothing happened. Then I stop myself and close my eyes and sit there and start the whole thing all over again. I demand it come alive. I demand Maharaji come. In order to do that, I have to let go of time and space and the whole scene. I have just got to go into that. And I demand it of myself before I will eat. I will only take food that has genuinely been offered. So that every time I eat, which is numerous times a day, is a good opportunity for me to see how close I am to the living truth and I have got myself trained now so that I won’t eat until it turns living. So in that sense I reinvest it. Another strategy is to realize that there are other methods and sometimes you move into another method for awhile. Like if it is not working as a heart method, I may turn to study and read some Vedic books for awhile. Or if I am bored reading books, I might hang out with satsang or go sit with Hanuman. Or take a meditation course or something that will come in from another oblique angle and cut through. Those are all different types of things and I use them all.
SUN: What do you read?
RAM DASS: Well, mainly I read books that people want me to write comments on, or write prefaces for. I’m becoming the world’s leading preface writer. Which throws me into interesting material. It’s as good a way as any to read material. That’s the new material. Then I have my old tried and true things that I read. I reread the stories about Maharaji, I reread Ramakrishna, I reread The Third Chinese Patriarch, The Diamond Sutra, Chuang Tzu. I mean, I’ve got dozens of those kinds of books around that I read and reread and pick up. Bhagavad Gita, and stuff like that, the Ramayana. And in a way, those books about God are always feeding me. And that’s what I’d rather read than almost anything else. I also read murder mysteries. I can read two murder mysteries a day very easily. I read those as a way of extricating myself from the dramas of the rest of my life. There’s always the point between wanting to go more into God, reading about God and being by myself, and trying to stay in the world and do my thing. There are always those kinds of pulls in me. Maharaji says, “There will come a time, Ram Dass, when you will be with God and you won’t want to lecture anymore.” Well, that time obviously hasn’t come yet, because here I still am. And when I don’t want to lecture, it’s usually because of ego reasons, it’s not because of God. I’m still at the stage where the higher I get, the more I want to share it.
SUN: Telling others what I’ve discovered has always been important to me, which is why I do what I do. But I ask myself, sometimes, why do I need to share this, rather than just experience it?
RAM DASS: In Rene Daumal’s book, Mount Analogue, they climb the mountain of unconsciousness and at each plane there are cabins, and farms. Each day the party goes on, leaving behind one of its members to keep the fires going and milk the goats. You go up a way, and you share. Then you go up, and you share. That’s a cycle of processing. On the other hand, when I was silent for six months or when I’m alone for a long period of time, I go into much farther out spaces than I ever do when I’m sharing. Because I’m a people junkie in the sense that I still need people, and part of my sharing is my needfulness. I can hear the statement, “Your life is your message.” I can imagine people saying, “Whatever happened to Ram Dass? Well, I hear he’s off in a cave somewhere. It’s been five years since we’ve heard from him. Well, what happened?” And that’s the statement. I’m not sure that isn’t a statement that would have as much power as all the other little games I’m playing. So, I think it’s a much more far out dance than I’m yet playing it to be. I’m just getting up the courage to let go of some of the cultural, habitual ways of expressing consciousness or love or being or something, to explore more far out ones.
When I’m very much in my psychological personality, I’m afraid of being unloved, being rejected, being judged, being laughed at, persecuted, hurt. The minute I quiet down, I’m not really afraid of anything.
SUN: What do you think are habitual ways, in terms of your lectures and writing?
RAM DASS: That when you have something that is useful to society you share it. That’s a good one. That’s a cultural thing. Good guys share it. But what happens is, by doing that, you settle at a certain level of sharing. While if you’d hold back a little more, you’d just be sharing from another level. But the question is, what’s your tolerance to hold back? If you’re holding back against, it doesn’t work. You’ve got to just be pulled towards God so much. I can imagine getting to the point where I just sit in one place and people can come or not, but I don’t care. I don’t even notice whether they come or not. But now if I’m in one place and they come, I’m suddenly in the hotel business. Where are you going to sleep? What are you eating? So I keep moving all the time so I don’t have to be in the hotel business.
SUN: How much do you feel Maharaji?
RAM DASS: More and more and more all the time.
SUN: Do you see him?
RAM DASS: There are different levels of seeing. Every now and then, I have a vision in which he actually comes. At other times, I create an image of him — a visualization. At other times, most of the time, I merely experience his presence, more or less thickly. And that gets to be a good deal of the time each day. Like last night, when I was lecturing, there were moments when the lecture started to get very spacious. While I’m talking I’m also talking to him about the whole thing. He’s really right there. I mean, he comes. The thing has taken over. It’s no longer me doing it. It’s just another quality. And I ask him to do it. I say, this is your trip, not mine; I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here. If you want to share dharma with these people, do it. I’ll try to stand out of the way, but it’s your business, not mine.
SUN: What does being Jewish mean to you?
RAM DASS: It’s certainly still a very active issue for me. I still feel there is a lot of reactivity in me about it. I am always open to a new possibility of finding a heart doorway through, into the living spirit of Judaism. But every time I try and open it, I end up meeting a lot of belief systems and a lot of proselytizing and rigid stuff that turns me off again. My way would be through a Hasidic rabbi, for example. There’s someone in Palo Alto who brought over a rabbi from Israel who has an ashram or monastery there where people gather just to study the Rabbi Nachman stories — wonderful stories. I helped pay for his trip. We had brought him out to California with a translator to this gathering of liberal growth movement-type people who were sort of Jewish, but not quite. He ended up giving his lecture about the Jews as the chosen people, in which everything in life was designed — everything, I mean — to help the Jews become the chosen people. I couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t have picked a topic that would have been more inappropriate to the situation. The rabbi that brought him was absolutely appalled because he could see how he was losing his whole scene. So I ended up just giving money to the center because I love the Rabbi Nachman stories. But I realized that wasn’t my route through, so I’m waiting. I’ve never even gotten to Jerusalem yet, because I just haven’t felt in my heart the rightness of it. I know that there are things about Judaism in terms of a quality of emotion, a quality of love of intellect, a quality of compassion, a quality of long-sufferingness, that are deep within me, and I know that I am incarnated as a Jew just this time. I mean, I’m not always a Jew, and I am not a Jew. I am in a Jewish form this time, and that’s what the Jews find offensive. That my identity isn’t first as a Jew, and then as a man, human being, and everything else. Because that’s the thing about Judaism — it’s a . . . first you’re a Jew — and I don’t feel that at all. I feel it’s merely part of the dance this time. And it’s interesting to be part of a persecuted minority group, and so on. I think that’s a certain kind of work one does on oneself through that.
SUN: Someone wanted me to ask, in line with what you said last night about goodness, what you feel about Mother Teresa.
RAM DASS: I don’t think she is a saint. I think she is a good woman. A very good woman, but I don’t think she is a saint. When she was told she got the Nobel Prize her first statement was, “I don’t deserve it.” And then she corrected herself and said, “In Christ’s name . . .” or whatever. She is a good woman out of the deepest sense of good. She is really far out. She is a very lovely, very high being and I am glad she is around. But I don’t sense a freedom in her. See, my standard is always Maharaji, that sort of cosmic playfulness where life and death are all to be laughed at. The ultimate goodness comes from non-attachment to goodness. It is very hard within the Christian metaphor to get beyond good and evil. Hardly anybody does, because the mystic Christ is so hidden within Christianity. I think that is one of the hardest metaphors to get through, that ultimate polarity of good and evil. See, Krishna is much easier than Christ. The Ramayana is hard also, because that is a good and evil book too. But, Hanuman is more like Shiva. He breaks the fruit trees, and he is like a kind of rascal or the trickster in the American Indian tradition. Those are different from the Christian. You never get the feeling of the trickster or the playfulness. Christ isn’t playful. He is never laughing. You never think of him having a good time, or cuddling up either to Mary or to John. That is really terrible stuff to say. Sacrilegious. I think that the good and evil issue is just so subtle. It is very hard for any of us to get outside of it. I think that a lot of people think they get outside of it by spurning righteousness or spurning goodness, and that isn’t it. I can feel people continually pulling on me with a sense of, “If you were good you would do thus and so.” Like they will call up needfully. “If you were good you would fill my need.” And I sit with it, watching it act on me, seeing that at the level of my personality I really want to be good, I want to be known as good. The less I am in my personality the more I notice that I am willing to pick up this discrimination and act in a way that is dharmically useful, even though it isn’t seen as good. And it gets exciting. It gets interesting at that point. And that is why in the last analysis I have a hard time judging people like Trungpa Rinpoche, or Muktananda, or people like that. Because they are not good. Muktananda is a little goody. Sort of, but, he is also a tough customer. And that toughness can come out of clarity. Someone said of Trungpa, when you go to the top of a mountain with a bird and the bird flies, don’t think you can. I realize that there is a certain kind of tantra that I am afraid of, because it is not rooted in good, in good and evil.
SUN: Are you still a good Jewish boy?
RAM DASS: Yes, that’s the one. And I go in and out of it all the time. You’ve got to deepen your meditation a lot to get through that. You have really got to invest in your meditative stance.
SUN: Where do you get your news?
RAM DASS: I watch the news on television. I don’t buy papers, but I read them when they’re around. I read weekly magazines, like Seven Days, Newsweek. Usually on the airplanes. I go in and out of phases with television. I can’t think of any regular shows that I would schedule my life around seeing. I used to have special shows, but they’ve gone.
SUN: What did you like?
RAM DASS: Well, I liked that police show that happened in the precinct. Barney Miller. I watch Dick Cavett; some of his interviews are kind of interesting. I like when the symphony’s on, or operas. And there are specials I watch, like the Christ series around Easter time. That was beautiful. There are some finer things; they’re just few and far between. You just have to use some discrimination. But it doesn’t have a pull on me anymore. I’d rather sit quietly looking at the screen with the machine turned off. That’s more rich for me usually. The problem with television is that it’s a little too linear. What I like is when I have a machine with a button and I can run three or four shows at once, and just keep going back and forth. Then I get just about enough stimulation from the thing.
SUN: Did Maharaji ever say anything about the future in terms of world catastrophe, nuclear war?
RAM DASS: He didn’t even give me the sense that the demise of humanity was imminent. Maybe it was so trivial to him that he never bothered to mention it. But he never gave me the sense of it being imminent. He would say things like, “India is like a golden bird and it can survive and it will go on” and you got a feeling that like your car, it just sort of will go on, sort of clunking along. That kind of quality about life and the world. And that periods come and go, dark ages and light ages. You just got a feeling from him that there was a much more profound root and wisdom in it all than we could see. Somehow from him I got the sense that I would live to an old age. I don’t remember why, but whatever happened that gave me that feeling, the result is that I never, like on airplanes, think I am going to die, because it just seems irrelevant to me. He never talked much about world conditions. When somebody said to him — it was a great line — somebody said, “Maharaji, what can we from another culture (this was during the Pakistan-Indian war) learn from this war?” Maharaji said, “Learn how to be peaceful.”
If these lectures weren’t a payoff for me, in terms of having to deal with power and fame and money . . . I wouldn’t do it. It’s not out of altruism.
SUN: So, you don’t get hooked by all the scary stories?
RAM DASS: I am in a funny situation. One of the ways I pick up information is that I have a lot of friends who are very deeply involved in this and that. I can sit down with Dwayne Elgin who is just finishing a book on voluntary simplicity and was a presidential advisor on issues of life style and worked for the Stanford Research Institute. In Santa Fe, David Padwa is one of my closest friends. David is probably the most brilliant human being I have ever met. He can look at a page and then close the book and tell you the whole page. He never forgets anything he ever knew. You ask, how do I know the news? See, David went to the University of Chicago at fourteen. Had to wait until he was twenty-one before they would give him his international law degree. He was working for the United Nations after that as an advisor in economics and maritime law. Started his own business called Basic Systems. Built it up to a business, sold it to Xerox, took his $5 million profit. He took off, went and studied Buddhism in India in the mountains, and so on. Then he started another business a few years ago called Grassland Seed Corporation. He is now perhaps the largest independent seed owner in the world. And he is interested in things that can change the entire food chain supply system in the world. He is a very conscious being. He is tuned to oil, politics, structures. He knows Russian history. So I will go and take a hot tub with him and we will sit for a few hours and I will have just saved up a series of questions like, “What is Russia’s predicament at this moment?” He’ll discuss the political, the economic, the Chinese rice fields on the border of Russia, how much grain the Russians can take in through their ports. How many metric tons and what kind of a drought they would need before they would have to invade China to survive or their government would crumble because of food riots, and how thin the chains are of food around the world. We will just have discussions for hours and I will use him as a resource. Like reading the encyclopedia, except it is up-to-date. Now I have him on one end and he is in the business world, the money markets, has a tremendous grasp of history and political, economic, stock market manipulation, stuff like that. On the other hand, I have all of these friends who are very active in anti-nuclear things, in social action. And as I run my questions through all these different people I find all these different opinions, held with great dedication and honesty and integrity. I am very tempered by the nature of the resources I have to work with, because I keep finding that everybody has an ax to grind. The anti-nuke people, of which I am more or less one, deny certain information which makes the issue not exactly the way they present it. There is an emotional reactivity that gets in there that makes you distort what you are hearing. As a scientist I know that stuff is not clear enough — those data aren’t clear enough yet. I mean Allen Ginsberg, who is one of my resource people, will come and say, “Well, I was at a meeting and the waste toxicity is over the critical point. We have done ourselves in now. It is all over.” So I’ll say to David, “Hey, David, Allen says. . . .” David says, “Oh, that is a crock. We have this and this and there is this safeguard and this is happening and this is happening.” And I say, “Are you sure you are not just hiding from it?” “No, no, we have got this waste possibility, and you know. . . .” And I say, “But what if there is an earthquake?” I end up without a clear view, so I can’t say that is bad, that is good. And I realize that this isn’t good guys and bad guys either. Not at all. I was one of the people in 1948 who was thrilled about peaceful use of atomic energy because that was going to change the starvation levels and the freedom of people. Suddenly free energy for everybody with atoms forever. And we did that out of goodness and then we saw we had made an error. We hadn’t anticipated the fallout from it. The people that are committed to technology, obviously, have a certain blind spot — David is one of these people — where they feel technology can solve every problem. The people that are anti-technology are committed to the idea that technology will slowly do us in. The relation between our intellect and our wisdom is what is at stake here. A lot of technology can be reabsorbed and redirected through wisdom. And I feel that it behooves people like me to work on wisdom and not get caught in reactivity to these issues. By reducing the size of technology we are putting humans back into perspective in a certain kind of way. That is changing the game again. When I first worked computers, the 650 I worked was two huge rooms. Now that same thing you carry in your pocket, which is bizarre. The intellect itself can be a master or servant, and technology is merely the stepchild of intellect. It, too, is a master or servant. We are almost hypnotically entranced by technology. Just like by psychiatry, just like by drugs. There is an addiction to technology that we are just coming out of now. Wisdom undercuts addiction.
God doesn’t go away from you; you go away from God, you go away from the spirit with your own mind.
SUN: Even positive addiction?
RAM DASS: Even positive addiction. All addiction. I mean the last addiction is the addiction to God and even that must be undercut.
SUN: Would you be President if the job were offered to you?
RAM DASS: I just did a lecture with William Irwin Thompson, who gave a long discourse about separating authority and power. When I was twenty-four, my father became president of the New Haven railroad. I became assistant to the president. I was the route through to my father and he was handling the financial end of Wall Street, and I ended up running the railroad at twenty-four years of age. Seventeen thousand employees. And I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and the power of it was so corrupting to me, I finally couldn’t stand myself and I had to get out. But there was a point where everybody was nice to me because they wanted something of a worldly nature. When you have power suddenly people are coming towards you and orienting you for something worldly. When you are not in the power domain, they don’t. You are irrelevant to power players. You are only relevant to people who want something else. Maharaji kept calling me Guru Ram Dass. That was the guy that lived in the mud hut next to the palace. And when the king offered him his kingdom Guru Ram Dass said, “I accept it. Now you run it for me.” And I think I would much rather be a friend of the President than the President. I would rather have no power at all. You know, I would rather simplify my life and simplify and simplify. I really feel I am in training to be a wise man, not to be a powerful man. I mean Mahatma Gandhi is much closer to my model. He never held public office. He was a friend of it. He was the spiritual guide. And that is a much more appealing role to me.