“Be here now.”
If any phrase can be seen as a distillation of spiritual teacher Ram Dass’s worldview, it’s this one. The kind of phrase that gets printed on tie-dyed T-shirts with his picture in the middle, the title of his most famous book, a notion that inspired even an ex-Beatle, “Be here now” is a sort of yin to the yang of Timothy Leary’s mid-sixties maxim “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Not so much a call to arms as a sobering entreaty to exist in the present, continually, over and over and over.
Born Richard Alpert in 1931 to well-to-do parents in New England, Ram Dass worked as a prominent psychologist at Harvard University before discovering psychedelics alongside Leary. He took more than three hundred psychedelic trips but eventually found that the drugs failed to answer his spiritual questions. In 1967 Alpert traveled to India, where he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, who gave Ram Dass the name by which he is now known. (It means “Servant of God.”) Six months later he returned to the States, bearded and barefoot and dressed in robes, ready to pass on what he’d learned to legions of countercultural Westerners exploring Eastern spirituality.
For many of Ram Dass’s adherents, the deeper you went, the more rewarding the message. Few were as devoted as Sun founder and editor Sy Safransky, who discovered the spiritual teacher’s then-brand-new book Be Here Now in a stranger’s bathroom in 1971 while he was visiting California communes. A few years later Sy featured Ram Dass in the very first issue of The Sun, describing Be Here Now as a “spiritual autobiography and ‘cookbook’ for the sacred life.” The theme of the issue was the energy crisis, which Ram Dass said is, “like all trauma, an exquisitely designed opportunity to reawaken man.” We are, of course, still hitting snooze on the alarm clock.
It was the first of many times Ram Dass appeared in the magazine. He came back for numerous interviews — the most in the history of the magazine — and Sy printed excerpts from his books and used his writing in the Sunbeams section or the Dog-Eared Page. Twice Ram Dass came to the magazine’s hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to give a benefit talk. (For more about that, click here.) And he was a loyal Sun subscriber in those years when it felt like we had too few to survive. He was an important figure, even for someone as allergic to celebrity as Sy. “I could be coy,” Sy wrote in 1980, “in the manner of New Age testimonials, and suggest I value ‘the truth that comes through him’ rather than the man himself. In a way, I do. But I also cherish the idiosyncrasies of personality, individual uniqueness, and the peculiar ways we do, or don’t, live our truths. I cherish him.”
For decades Be Here Now could often be found in co-ops and dorm rooms and retreat centers and halfway houses — the same sorts of places, I suppose, where you might find The Sun. It’s easy to see why Sy took to Ram Dass and continued to struggle with putting him on a pedestal. “They’re human, these teachers,” Sy once wrote after quoting Ram Dass in an editor’s note, “with their pride, their insecurities, their investment portfolios. If we pretend they’re something they’re not, that’s our own anguish talking, needing to make heroes of some people and diminish others.” Sy interviewed Ram Dass for our October 1981 issue. The excerpts that follow are from Ram Dass’s replies.
Ram Dass died in 2019 at the age of eighty-eight. Readers who wish to learn more about him are encouraged to visit ramdass.org or to read Be Here Now, which hasn’t gone out of print in fifty-two years. All the better if you can find a copy in a stranger’s bathroom.
— Derek Askey
I ’ve gone much further out in honoring and acknowledging my humanity in order to be my divinity, if you will: lying on the beach in Goa, smoking good hash, or being in Florence with Michelangelo or all the things I did this past year, realizing that those were all part of my spiritual growth, although you wouldn’t find them in any textbook. The more human I am, the more vulnerable I am, the more I am just what I am in the moment, the more there is a transmission of living spirit from one human being to another, rather than when I get myself into my more holy stance. After I had been Richard Alpert for three or four months last winter in Europe and India — I didn’t go to any temples, I didn’t do any of that — by the time I got back into Ram Dass, which was in New Zealand and Australia, I experienced an incredible change in myself. I experienced that I was much more vulnerable and felt more human in my daily dealings with everybody — and I felt that everybody who knew me could feel that.
I’m allowing myself to be much more of a rascal, much more relaxed. The retreat I just did at Lama was called “Laid Back with Ram Dass” and it was a sort of a Club Mediterranean of the spiritual circuit. I realized that the more I gave people license to do exactly what they thought they ought to do, the more they could grow. Like, we’ll have silence but if you want to talk, this is where you talk. If you want to hang out at the bar downtown through the whole retreat, that’s perfectly fine with me. How presumptuous of me to decide why you’re at this retreat. I’ll give you all the structures. There will be meditation at 5:00 and hatha yoga at 6:00, but you don’t have to do any of it. And it’s perfectly OK. And that goes against all of the traditions which are usually presented for spiritual work. . . .
There are certain relationships that are given, like with my father. I can’t impose a criterion on why I’m with my father. I’m with him because he’s my father. I honor that, I love honoring it, it’s part of my being, my humanity, that I’m his son. I’m with him and I don’t demand anything when we’re together. I work with what happens and that becomes the stuff through which I grow. And he grows or doesn’t grow as he chooses to grow or not grow. And we’re just together, looking at the ball game, playing Yahtzee, taking little side trips, whatever we do.
But when I intentionally go into a relationship, it’s primarily designed for liberation. If I’m in a relationship with somebody and we get lost in a drama, in our habitual responses, all I’m doing is increasing his suffering. I’m not liberating him. All I can do for him is to become free, because my freedom helps him become free. If I’m trapped, he gets trapped, too. So, it sounds callous but it’s the most compassionate thing I can do. I mean, the worst thing is to be kind to somebody, in a way that makes him an object: I don’t want to tell him this because it would hurt him or I don’t feel like I’m growing but I’ll be kind. Those kinds of relationships, in the long run, are more corrosive to human dignity and human liberation and to the end of suffering, although that’s mostly what we do in relationships. We’re very kind with each other. But I find that truth, which is fiercer, is often kinder in a more profound sense. I’m not saying this very well. But I know what I’m trying to say.
In the relationship I’ve been in, I got to the point where I felt “we’ve gone as far as we can go” and then said to him, “I think we’ve gone as far as we can go.” And that’s been a catalyst for us to open to another place and start to go deeper. But it’s painful to say that because it’s scary. You’re jeopardizing the whole thing. You’d better be willing to risk the end all the time, to have the new beginning. You’ve got to keep risking it all. Saying that if it doesn’t liberate me, I don’t want to be in it means I don’t want to be just two personalities locked together. I want to be two manifestations of God, dancing together. Which is a liberated relationship. It’s a relationship where there’s two dancing as one, not two locked in their separateness. To me, the prison of two people locked in their own separateness, which is being together out of habit or out of kindness, is just too horrible.
There is a tremendous amount of separateness and fear that leads people to settle for living an interesting kind of hell of the comfort of familiarity, but no living spirit. I used to travel in my van and I’d often be in places where there were a lot of motor homes of retired people. And you would watch the relationships, talk to people and have a drink with them and play with their pets. And you could sense often these walking mechanical scenes. It’s like old shoes: they’re comfortable, but there’s nothing living happening. It’s presumptuous to say, except, as I get deeper in as a therapist with people, I feel that. It’s like sleepwalking until it’s all over. There’s a kind of ghastliness about that. That’s very common. We are all prone to it because we are getting a certain payoff and we don’t want to risk going for broke. We’ll settle for 22 percent rather than going for even 30 percent. And we settle very quickly. Very quickly. I watched us do it. . . .
What I think separates you from the living spirit is your fantasies. You end up making love to your fantasy projection. Often in relationships, I’ve experienced that I want somebody to be a certain way and I have a model of what kind of intimacy I want and need. And I’m just trying to fit somebody into that slot, to be that for me, and a sensitive somebody screams and says, “Look! I’m not an object to be manipulated in your fantasy. I’m right here.” And when both of you let go of fantasies about how it ought to be or what you think you need or who the other person is, you begin to hear more clearly together. . . .
If I have the fantasy that I’m going to enter into a relationship to become liberated, that’s a fantasy. And then I demand the other person fit into what it is I want them to be — for me to become liberated, for them to become liberated — and that means we’re going to be truthful and we’re going to be this or we’re going to be that. But the other person is a person and they are who they are. And I’ve got to buy who they are. And then I say, “Well, I’m not going to do that, because then I have to give up my fantasy and I really wanted that fantasy more than I want them.” I went through periods in Europe last winter when I was climbing the walls, just screaming in pain. I think both of us were. Because neither of us would give up our fantasy. And then comes the fact, though, that we stayed in the situation because that was the thread of shared awareness we had behind the screaming, raging pain. Not screaming at each other so much — there were a few times when at a restaurant I threw something or something like that — but generally it wasn’t that melodramatic. It was just this turned-off place we’d both be locked in. But there was a shared awareness behind it. And that gets stronger. I was just staying overnight with Bo and Sita [Lozoff, founders of the Human Kindness Foundation] and they’re just having their fifteenth wedding anniversary. And talking about how deep the communion gets when people finally surrender into being together, just the way they are, not the way they think they ought to be. And how much living truth starts to emerge. Because I’m more and more aware that God is how things are. God is not apart from how things are — which is very Zen. Maybe I’m finally hearing Zen. . . .
I think it’s all right to seek pleasure and happiness, seek ease of living, as long as you aren’t attached to what you’re getting. I think there’s a tricky business about juicing up your own power trips because they’re really based on your separateness. I mean, wanting prosperity is based on the idea that you don’t have it to begin with. And that particular kind of prosperity is unfortunately an external kind of prosperity that isn’t going to do it for you anyway. You can say, “If you’ve already got enough, then you can ask for it all. If you don’t have enough, you’d better watch it.” Because if you’re going to do it out of deficit mentality, you’re not going to get it. Whatever you get isn’t going to fulfill you. Like the statement “You have the power to get whatever you want.” The question is: Which you is it that has that power to get whatever you want? Because the truth of that statement applies to the creative spark of the living soul, of the living spirit. It doesn’t respond to your ego. You don’t have the powers of ego to get anything you want. And a lot of it is converted into how to use it as an ego game to get what you want and that to me is a profaning of spiritual truth.
That’s a lot of what this prosperity-consciousness game is about. It’s saying you have choice and responsibility and free will, your ego. And that’s not really what has choice and responsibility and free will. The more you identify with that creative spark which does have all that stuff, the less you want anything other than the way it is, because it’s already so much. I don’t wish I were younger, or I had hair. It is what it is. And when I’m broke, I’m broke, and when I’m rich, I’m rich.
I’ve got nothing against prosperity or people wanting it or enjoying it, but I think that it tends to soup up the ego identification. And I think it’s digging everybody’s hole deeper. In that sense, the spiritual movement has got a very middle-class quality to it, and that’s not the spiritual movement any longer. It’s merely some permutation of the growth movement. There’s a tremendous amount of power-tripping in what are called the “New Age” ventures these days — people wanting to play with worldly power from spiritual vantage points, people wanting to play with astral powers, people just wanting to play with powers, so to speak, to “do good,” but that’s still power-tripping. . . .
I used to really dichotomize my life between the sacred and profane. But the profane is the spiritual. That’s part of what’s exciting. Fifty percent of my life, at least, was unacceptable to me before, and now 100 percent is getting acceptable. Because my greed is as much part of God as anything else. Why am I so busy saying, “If I were only not greedy, I would be with God”? I extricate myself from my identification with my greed and appreciate that greed is part of what the human condition of separateness is. If you’re separate, you’re feeling vulnerable and frightened, you want to possess and collect — that’s natural, for a human being. Part of it is merely recasting it; it’s a perceptual shift. Rather than trying to get rid of the thing, it’s trying to sit with it until you see it. . . .
I think I am experiencing a deeper and deeper acknowledgment of myself. I’m not trying to change myself, but indeed I do change. . . . The motivation isn’t to change, but in fact change happens, just by the juxtaposition of all the things in my consciousness. And it’s the same thing as [Indian guru] Ramana Maharshi saying, “I didn’t eat, so they said I was fasting.” It’s that one, you know. I realize now that so much of it is timing, that for so many years I was busy getting behind myself and pushing and trying to become holy. And now I’ve given that up. . . .
Maharaji [Neem Karoli Baba] doesn’t come to me in visions, particularly, or in dreams. He’s not solid, like you are. It’s like being in a dark room and knowing there’s somebody else in the room with you. And I just know he’s with me. I’m usually embarrassed to talk about it because it’s so psychotic from a psychological point of view. But I don’t feel any question that I am protected by him, loved by him. I think he would let most anything happen to me because at this point I could use most anything in order to develop. When I get into a really tough situation in working with somebody, I almost always ask his help. Ever since I wrote Miracle of Love, letters that come show me that he is giving darshan [wisdom] to people. Even though he isn’t in his body, he’s a living presence for lots of people. And sometimes the power of that transmission comes through me to other people. I can feel him doing it to them. I feel very mediumistic in that sense.
I never ask Maharaji to change something or make it other than what it is. I can merely try to be with him through it, which is different. I don’t ask him for success or that something I’m doing work, because how the hell do I know how it’s supposed to be? . . .
When I look at who comes to my lectures, and I’ve said this before, it’s a much more heterogeneous group than ever before. They are coming out of the woodwork. They all hear each other clearly. We hear each other. I don’t talk down to anybody, as you know. And they’re not flower children. They didn’t all take acid. They didn’t all come through any one set of experiences. And yet we’re communicating on a higher level of dharma, consciousness, than we’ve ever done before.
But I also face the fact that colleges are more materialistic than they ever were before, that the kids want degrees and good jobs and there’s lots of fear in the culture and the fear leads to increased materialism, increased righteousness, the Moral Majority, increased inquisitions, increased horror shows. That’s all more in evidence, too. I’ve watched what was the “spiritual New Age” turn into a middle-class boutique. And that’s our humanity.
No, I don’t feel any great things happening. I just feel it’s more of the same. I feel I have a part in more of the same, just as you do. I don’t feel I have to grab on to the coattails of a great myth in order to justify my existence. I don’t think I have to be part of the critical moment in history. You know, I’m more of a historian than that. Being in Florence last winter, I could imagine people coming up to Michelangelo and saying, “Stop playing with that stone. I mean, the Medicis are causing a lot of trouble. Come on down and protest on the steps of the church.” And yet we need Michelangelo and what he contributed and I think I’ve gotten a richer appreciation of the complexity of what that mix of humanity and divinity is about. He certainly speaks to us about our divinity.
I think that any kind of myth you have about what you think is happening is too small and heady for what really is. What really is, is that this is the manifestation of God. And it’s all just fine. It’s horrible but fine. I mean fine with all of its horror. I read all the stuff I get from Amnesty International and I’ve certainly supported them. Save the Children. Oxfam. I really care about my fellow human beings and I don’t want them to suffer. But I don’t judge God. It feels OK and, at the same moment, let’s make it as good as we can. This is what maturity is to me. It’s being able to embrace all these different parts.