Issue 58 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


When I first began noticing the name of Ram Dass in your magazine, I imagined a “Saturday Night Live” character who did slightly dated spoofs on the trendiness of Eastern philosophy. The fact that he staged a benefit for THE SUN reinforced this hunch: surely a lecture wouldn’t make money. But now that I’ve read your interview with Ram Dass, I’m fairly sure he is not a comedian and I wonder if the magazine of (non-partisan) ideas is actively promoting one heavily signatured philosophical system. Since I was attracted to your magazine as a source of mixed viewpoints, this concerns me. So I’m responding to the Ram Dass interview out of intellectual passion and to promote diversity.

It’s not that I’m against self-improvement but I have trouble making sense out of Ram Dass and other contributors to THE SUN who are similarly inclined. They pay such deafening attention to themselves; it’s as if they can’t cope with the idea of being infinitesimal, common, mere.

I suppose it’s pretty harmless as long as others aren’t involved. But Ram Dass’ description of his relationship with his lover suggests the potential for harm. He insists that he loves his lover but is prepared to drop him should he fail to direct Ram Dass to God. This is pretty abstract stuff. It reminds me of stories from parochial school of the apostles dumping their wives and children to follow Jesus, a higher calling. Even in the early Christian church, there were stories of married people deserting their families to found religious orders. Divorce was strictly taboo, but something like it was all right if you were high-minded enough.

When we were children we found this all puzzling and far-fetched. We had visions of Dad walking out on us to form a band of monks and that didn’t seem any more high-minded, any less selfish, any less unethical than if he were to leave for the blonde up in Accounting. High- or godly-mindedness as opposed to low-mindedness is as much of a verbal construct as anything. Movement toward God is good: that’s a truism, and like all truisms it has no relationship with any other subject or predicate. It exists in a vacuum.

Perhaps I find the Ram Dass way a bit too male. It’s curious that he links his potential for corruption to a woman and her bad teachings. Like poor klutzy Adam, he assigns her that power and he also makes the Adam-like value judgment that of all the apple trees in the garden, one is forbidden, one school of thought is tantalizing yet poisonous, the one espoused by a woman. And so, like religious men before him, he gravitates toward other men as if to screen out the debilitating (and concretizing) effects of woman. Sexual clannishness, the priesthood, is the safe haven for meditation.

As a woman I resent it. And perhaps it’s because I’m a woman — or from Lancashire, or of Irish parents, or a writer, or a Pisces — that I find myself wondering what the point is. I’ve never had any real doubts about my identity. I’ve never gone looking for it elsewhere. It’s right here. Through the jolting circumstance of immigration, I became self-aware at an early age. I watch myself. I learn new things (but not everything) about myself from experiences with others and the experiences change me: I’m different at 31 than I was at 21 or at 12. But I’ve never had basic difficulties with it being me who’s doing the changing, watching, learning.

I believe it was David Riesman in a book called The Lonely Crowd who advanced the notion of inner-directed and other-directed people. In a basic way, those who are in search of self are other-directed. They seek self-definition through others: mentors, groups, ideologies, as if life were a nouny state with all of us identities sitting around getting honed and whittled to perfection by agencies outside us. And their idea of self is other: other than this entire human entity right here.

I met a woman recently who had long believed herself to be unselfish. She followed causes she believed were right, conscientious to a fault, generous with her time and energies. She has just realized, through the inevitable grittiness of marriage, that she wants things for herself. It surprises and shocks her into questioning her identity. She can’t accept herself. How can the person who was so eager to help others not be willing to help the person she loves most? She panics and asks a virtual stranger, an other, me, for a response. I tell her it’s harder to cope with the demands of one person, especially a lover, than with the demands of humanity in general. I tell her marriages are like that. I tell her I’m constantly hassling over the same thing. I tell her maybe you need to be free to be generous. I tell her lots of clumsy, unprofound things like this and she thanks me for the insight. But it’s not really insight she got from me. What she got was a sense that things like that happen in life. That’s all — but it’s the key. It’s not that problems are insignificant, but when we look to them for conclusive evidence of the workings of the inner self (whatever that means), they can’t provide that. They can provide hints, texture, tone, but not the works. And as soon as we identify something as a problem we’ve lost perspective, thus become prone to delusions. The flavor of the problem is all around us.

We don’t like that. We want perspective at all costs. We’ve become convinced as an aware, educated, exposed generation that awareness, education, and exposure should free us from the constraints of being human — the “clinginess,” as Ram Dass calls it. And it frustrates us when we guess that won’t happen. Out of the frustration comes a sad little solution: the humanity checklist. A true person is this, doesn’t do that, etc. The other-directed finally have an external and simplistic way to assess themselves, a brave new ethos. And relief.

I don’t discredit Ram Dass’ philosophy. (In fact, we’re not miles apart.) Nor do I doubt his integrity. And I’m not challenging the mystical life he finds so nourishing. Where I differ from him is in methodology. Mine is inductive: begin with the specific, explore it, then generalize if and only if the evidence warrants it. Ram Dass’, and that of many human potentialists, is deductive: begin with the general, then look at the specific. Professor Alpert becomes Ram Dass because the specific, muddled stuff of his life is too difficult to assess. He removes himself from it and flies around the world for something more general. Armed with a set of generalizations, he re-embraces the specific muddle which he now attempts to match to his philosophy.

This process is curiously occidental and it seems to produce substantial anxiety in him. When asked about his TV preferences, he wants to say he likes “Barney Miller” but he doesn’t. He backs off and says he likes that show that’s in the precinct (as if to illustrate detachment), “Barney Miller.” Then (as if troubled by admitting a fondness for a network sitcom), quick jump to Cavett and the relative high-mindedness of PBS and its interesting guests. And specials. Then (as if bothered still by the subject of TV), a leap to the idea of random channel-hopping for “stimulus.” Then a declaration about not being hooked on TV. It’s interesting rhetorical behavior, not because it suggests affectation, but because the struggle to make statements in terms of a prevailing philosophical system is so apparent. The guy can’t bear the specific. It shames him when he can’t wedge it into his system. It’s too concrete. He can’t control it.

And he also buys the contemporary definition of honesty. Honesty is no longer not telling lies, telling the truth when asked, behaving in a truthful way. It is now the revelation of every opinion you hold as soon as you become aware of holding it. Those into such honesty have an overblown sense of the importance of their own opinions. They confuse them with truth. When Ram Dass tells an audience he doesn’t want to be there, it’s just for the money, he’s glad he said it. It’s honest. He even tries to make it seem as if he’s shared something meaningful with his audience, something they can relate to; as if his audience is so hungry for candor, they’ll grab at it.

I ask why? A simple statement of opinion is neither here nor there. Its importance is assigned to it by those listening. And Ram Dass is banking on an audience that sees things the way he does. No one will say “Who cares?” No one will ask for his money back. No one will wish this jerk would get on with it. What Ram Dass wishes for is a world where specific human behavior has no consequences and if it seems to, one can meditate himself away from them, because there is an implicit — and comforting — gap between one’s actions and some higher realm of existence.

This rejection of responsibility, this refusal to come to terms with the demands of specific realities, this departure from the world of good and evil, is frightening to me. Hitler was following his deepest convictions, his own elaborate set of generalizations, when he tried to destroy the world and remake it in his own image and likeness. He did what was consistent with his own values and the consequences were philosophically beside the point. All right, so Hitler was monstrous and Ram Dass is benign. Yes, but there is no guarantee of benignity in a system that disavows the good-evil continuum. Good and evil are social, clingy matters, hence irrelevant. That’s something to think about.

Ram Dass’ audiences in the thin cultural air of college towns, California, and the now-hallowed Santa Fe find him to be someone aswim in the muddle of reality, probably because he talks about it so much. I don’t find that in your interview. I find instead a man whose only way out of guilt and responsibility is to invent a world of heady abstractions: meditative spaces and unions and living truths, making sure that his inner self stays far removed from his life. This is the pop legacy of Freud: “He may behave like an ass but way deep down he’s a nice guy.” But what and where way deep down is is never made clear. Is it one’s intentions? “I intend to be this way but my decisions get in the way?” I’m not sure.

The idea of a philosophy of man based on something other than one’s whole humanity is too reductionist, too facile for me. I’ll stick with humanism. Our humanity and our world is what we’ve got; if you will, what God gave us. It may not be conclusive but it’s an abundance. Here and now and among these things is our only plane of existence; the rest is sheer speculation and speculation is just one source of knowledge.

Personal integration — all our rattly parts somehow hanging together — gives us whatever dignity we can have. Disintegration — into levels or states, highs and lows, inner and outer — leaves us nothing. We can’t be God and to forfeit being human to identify with God forfeits one’s only basis for self and for divine relationship. As a fellow I once knew, Ben McFall, put it: you do what you can and you must do what you can, but you know that you (and your opinions, actions and words) are infinitesimal. That’s probably as spiritually arousing a proposition as any.

Jean Kearns Brown Tulsa, Oklahoma
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